By Robert Amacker
The original meaning of curriculum referred to every experience in life that causes a child to grow into a functioning adult. This has since been somewhat contracted to apply usually to a specific course of study, the goal of which is to achieve “maturity” in the realm of one specific subject, or a set of subjects required for association with the alumni of a given institution. For example, the undergraduate curriculum of a university may be focused around certain specific majors, but include other, unrelated subjects as a requirement for graduation. There is in fact now a major American university that awards a Ph. D in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the product, I would maintain, of unbelievable hubris on the part of someone, I am not sure exactly who. It would certainly never occur to me to attempt to found or construct such a program, but if the job of directing it were offered out of the blue I must admit it would be hard to resist the temptation to accept. As wonderful, however, as it would be to have such an endless source of highly motivated students, it would ultimately collide with my firm belief that T’ai Chi Ch’uan must be treated as an art, and not a science, this despite my documented efforts to bring to it a mathematical and scientific explanation. Such scientific rigor and artistic sensibility are far from contradictory, as revealed by present day Chaos Theory and the long documented mathematical concordances to music. But if T’ai Chi Ch’uan can be said to be truly an art, as I firmly believe, and in a very technical sense, not as simply an honorific form of occupational political correctness, then it must be afforded that same freedom from regimented orthodoxy that rises so naturally to stifle all the arts, in the form or “Boards of Approval,” or “Certification Committees.” The art will advance on the strength of individual creativity, rather than universal uniformity. I resent deeply the instances (and there have been a few) in which I have been threatened, effectively, with the consequences of not accepting the authority of this or that self-appointed master, or group of masters, and I would hate to do anything that would give the impression that there is an “official,” or even “most widely accepted” version of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, or how to teach it. There are so many aspects to its study that it is easy to have a completely different focus of practice between schools, such that each one seems to the other to be completely off the track, when actually their sins may be only ones of emphasis and omission, all aspects being equally valuable.
Different established styles diminish this freedom somewhat by giving definite parameters that teachers must conform to if they are to claim to represent that style. These may be in the form of stylistic commandments (for an obvious example, the animal mimicry of Shaolin), or established curriculum. The Yang Style of T’ai Chi Ch’uan has solo forms derived from Shaolin forms, but these come with no obligation to imitate their origins exactly, so as a stylistic factor its influence is variable. But there are five well thought out and researched practices that came to maturity in the Yang family, and I would maintain that these represent the “Curriculum” of Yang Style T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
These are, in their popular if somewhat linguistically ambiguous nomenclature, Solo Form, T’ui-shou (Push-hands), Three Step T’ui-shou, Ta Lu (Big Roll Back), and Sanshou. All supposed T’ai Chi Ch’uan schools teach the solo form. Most teach some form of t’ui-shou. Ta Lu is a commonly accepted item of the curriculum, but seldom taught with any authority, with frequently painfully dance-like renditions only done by the “most advanced” students of their school. Sanshou has a certain popular panache these days, but it requires decades of previous study to legitimately approach, and, though its martial meanings are somewhat obvious, the T’ai Chi Ch’uan aspects of those meanings are not. I would hesitate to say that it is being passed on in any meaningful sense except in a handful of schools. Three-step T’ui-shou, though not as demanding or elaborate as Sanshou, is nevertheless even more obscure as an item in the curriculum of most schools. My personal theory about this lack of exposure is that, for one thing, its fundamental purpose contradicts what many believe to be correct T’ai Chi Ch’uan technique, but more because there is no exercise that I know of that combines looking so idiotically easy to do with being so diabolically and frustratingly difficult. There is no way that this exercise could ever impress anyone but an expert, and a million ways that it can make you look like an utter fool. But for whatever reason, it is almost never seen or practiced.
I feel that all five of these exercises are vital, for many reasons, but one in particular. In most martial arts, early behavior is simply reinforced. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, all external behavior is connected with specific exercises; the only consistent factor is internal behavior. In fact, the only real proof that the internal lesson has been learned is if its effects are present even when the external behavior associated with it is completely contradicted. For this reason, different items of the T’ai Chi Ch’uan curriculum require behavior that is deliberately contradictory to that found in previous exercises. These different items are valuable not only for what new skills they cultivate, but for their capacity to purge previous external behavioral habits. I will endeavor in this article to be specific in citing examples of this. Very few (actually none that I can think of) martial arts, or sports of any kind, have advanced exercises that force you to stop doing something that you were previously elaborately schooled in and policed about.
The truth is, it would be impossible to do more than scratch the surface of any of these practices without becoming more and more enmeshed in trying to explain in a few words what it takes years to understand, so I will just try to give an assumed audience of total T’ai Chi Ch’uan neophytes what I think is a good impression of the separate elements.
The first association anyone has with T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the solo form, remarkable for its slow speed of execution. Though based outwardly upon the movements of Shaolin Boxing, these movements have been subtly modified to facilitate the cultivation of various hidden skills. They are not, as most would assume, simply copies of high-speed techniques done in slow motion. The form is of tremendous importance, not only because it provides a physical foundation for T’ai Chi Ch’uan, but more because it remains the fundamental arena for the continued refinement of technique for the lifetime of the practitioner. And, no matter how talented one may be, in fact especially if one is greatly talented, such refinements continue to emerge, regardless of how many years one has already put in. This is partly because of the previously mentioned progressive nature of the five basic exercises. Each one demands a new or renewed pursuit of some elements of technique that were previously neglected, perhaps not in name or intention, but in terms of a lack of enlightened understanding concerning their real use and meaning. This process never ends. The Sanshou Exercise may be the end of the formal curriculum, but it is not the end of the learning process. The goal of every martial art is to bring its practitioners to the point of learning completely through the mechanism of sparring, and T’ai Chi Ch’uan is no exception. The Sanshou Exercise is simply a doorway to the real meaning of the word sanshou, which is simply free sparring. It is not an elaborate choreography to be memorized, perfected, and performed, but more like a deck of cards that can be endlessly scrambled and dealt out in any order. I always say that one has not mastered Sanshou (the exercise) until they have forgotten it.
At this level (and in fact on all levels) one finds flaws in one’s technique. Skilled analysis, either one’s own, or that of a teacher, can identify what internal habit should be acquired, or eliminated, to facilitate a reform of one’s total technique. The best process is to keep reducing the complexity and difficulty of the situation until one reaches the simplest circumstance that will produce it. At this level it is much easier to determine the fundamental problem. When such a determination is made, the solo form is invariably the ultimate setting for correcting it.
As an example, take a difficult exchange from the Sanshou Exercise, say one in which a pull from one player causes a second player to respond with steps that lead to a new and advantageous position. Only now the second player is ending up in the wrong place, and in an awkward position. At a slower speed, he still cannot correct the problem. With the distraction of the threat of the martial techniques removed, he still ends up in the wrong place. With the steps removed, and now asked only to attempt a neutralization of the pull, the flaw is finally revealed. Without steps, his changes are much larger, and it is easy to see that his back is not straight. But even when the pull is slowed down, he cannot maintain a straight back. He must make this his primary concern now when doing the solo form. There is no other opportunity for him to actually correct it. Just to make this reductionism clearer, if he could correct the loss of spinal discipline at slow speeds, then t’ui-shou would be the correct forum for his attempted reeducation. One must return to the most advanced practice in which the problem both appears and is correctable.
This was a deliberately obvious and simple example, but realizations concerning the way one does the solo form continue to occur throughout one’s life with the impact of incredible enlightenment, and some of them involve very esoteric and subtle skills. From the earliest days, one hears of the importance of many things, for example, centering, rooting, suspended head top, differentiation of substantial and insubstantial, “empty” steps, proper breathing, elimination of li (a prohibited form of strength), ch’an-su-chin (winding movements of the arms and legs), sinking your “qi,” cross-substantiality, etc. In the beginning, only a superficial understanding of these things is possible. Deeper understanding can only be gained through experience and progress through the other items in the curriculum. These subjects must be continually readdressed in one’s practice. I tell my students, “Do not ‘perfect’ the form.” It is not a performance to be perfected, but a workshop to which one constantly returns.
Much the same can be said for t’ui-shou, or “hand-pushing” exercise. While the form, though it does have an “imaginary opponent,” is primarily concerned with internal self-discipline in the form of posture and habits of movement, t’ui-shou is about one’s relationship to the opponent. In terms of this aspect, t’ui-shou is an attempt to reduce problems and skill acquisition to their simplest and most obvious manifestations. This is done primarily through the prohibition against stepping. In normal encounters, fundamental flaws in response can be easily covered up by simply retreating or evading through steps. The practice of so-called “fixed step” t’ui-shou eliminates this possibility and forces one to solve the problem through more sophisticated response. It is not intended to imply that any recourse to stepping is some sort of minor failure, but only to pinpoint those circumstances in which this is the case. I once encountered someone who told me that it was not necessary for him to practice or perfect the more advanced exercises of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, because these all involved stepping, and his mastery of t’ui-shou was so thorough that he had no need for such measures. Make no mistake; not only is stepping integral to correct T’ai Chi Ch’uan, but T’ai Chi Ch’uan is in my opinion the only martial art that has a real method for producing that skill.
But one point should be emphasized. Although keeping the feet from moving allows for the examination of and concentration upon a variety of vital techniques and responses, complete relaxation is the absolute requirement, meaning the elimination of li, meaning allowing the forms to change as they increase in speed, meaning never struggling to keep the feet in place when the speed of the body’s movements tries to destabilize their fixed position. This means that there is an upper limit upon the speed of the action between two persons engaged in t’ui-shou. If they allow their speed to increase beyond that limit, and still try to keep their feet fixed, they are not becoming better at t’ui-shou, they are practicing a fundamental error on an internal level.
So there is a range of movement speed (lower) in which it is an error to move one’s feet, and another range (upper) in which it is an error not to. The neutralization practice of fixed t’ui-shou creates a foundation that naturally carries over into stepping. This process, when done correctly, is so elegant and effective that any teacher or curriculum that does not demonstrate it should be considered to have failed to provide one of the most important fruits of the art.
The neutralization process teaches one how to manipulate the torso with one leg. This enables one to avoid the thrusts of the opponent without losing the body’s overall integrity, something like the way a ball or egg-shape floating in water would mindlessly avoid being pushed under. This physical integrity creates a channel through which the leg may empower arm movements, and movements of the other (insubstantial) leg as well. These natural transfers of energy become increasingly significant at higher speeds. Steps are a natural manifestation of this increased energy, and the remaining three items of the curriculum examine what happens to T’ai Chi Ch’uan when it is going that fast. To those who might say that they have no interest in actually fighting, understand that just as the previous exercises have prepared you for later ones, the later ones must exert a reforming effect upon the earlier ones. These are the tests, if you will, of whether or not your previous practice was fully enlightened in its intent, tests, the failure of which will enlighten you as to how to refine your earlier practices.
This is why T’ai Chi Ch’uan is said to go on and on, and that everyone is a beginner, etc. Greater understanding of purpose gives rise to greater understanding of, and therefor refinement of method. With refinement of method comes increasing skill. From increasing skill comes greater understanding of purpose. It is a never-ending process. But it is a process that never occurs unless one navigates through that curriculum that separates t’ui-shou from Sanshou. Without this T’ai Chi Ch’uan becomes simply doctrinaire. Enlightened practice becomes rote performance. The only indicator of one’s real understanding is its consistent application to the more advanced exercises. Any “technique” that contributes to some imagined victory at one level of practice should be judged only by its contribution to one’s ability to perform at a higher level of skill, which corresponds almost exactly with a higher level of speed.
But before we proceed to these later exercises, let us look just a little more at the t’ui-shou exercise. While the situation and basic rules of engagement allow for an infinite range of ideas, martially speaking, T’ai Chi Ch’uan is further formalized through a concentration upon eight principle techniques. Symbolized by the eight trigrams, these are not definite forms, but more like physical concepts, usually translated as postures, a misleading term that is related to Chinese linguistics. Four in particular are ideally studied in t’ui-shou, Push, Press, Ward Off, and Roll Back. Besides developing skills of sensitivity and neutralization of an opponent’s attack, ample time should be devoted to the formal exercise that pairs the players so that each is repeating the cycle of four postures exactly one hundred and eighty degrees out of phase with the other, while they compliment each other as attack and counter-attack. This formal exchange is important enough to be included as a necessary item of the Yang Style curriculum. It is usually referred to by stringing together the four syllables that designate the four postures in Chinese, peng-lu-chi-an, pronounced as one word.
Each item of the curriculum is designed for practice strictly within a certain range of speed. Violation of these restrictions of speed results in improper practice and development. The formal solo movements occupy the slowest level. The so-called “long” form of the Yang family takes about twenty minutes at average speed, but can conceivably be executed in as little as ten or as much as thirty minutes. When doing the solo form one may be concentrating upon any one of a variety of aspects, and these various disciplines naturally produce slightly different speeds of execution. For example, a concentration upon the martial ideas usually produces a rather speedy pace, while thinking about ch’an-su-jin (internal winding movements) a very slow one. Trying to go slower than recommended produces stagnancy; going faster produces li.
T’ui-shou can be done at a faster speed than the form, but not too much faster. One reason for this is that past a certain level of speed, the feet tend to destabilize naturally, even if they don’t actually go anywhere. I remember one enlightening instruction from my early Sanshou study was to allow the feet to pick up and replace, even if it was in the same spot. It is simply a natural figment of the increased speed.
The first formal study of this comes with Three-step T’ui-shou. Here the peng-lu-chi-an exercise is the basis for a continuing interaction as the partners move three steps back and forth. Although it can be studied for learning purposes at a slow speed, it has no utility and actually makes no sense except when done at a relatively high speed, high enough to justify a natural tendency for movement of the feet. Although it seems a very one-dimensional exercise, and does indeed have very little variation or apparent martial significance, I have found it to teach certain highly valuable lessons with great effectiveness. For example, it forces one to completely break any behavioral habit that might be acquired through the practice of so-called “empty” steps in the solo form. It also breaks an apparently universal compulsion to associate one technique with one shift of weight or movement of the feet, by forcing the student to change techniques in the middle of each step.
It should be noted that correct footwork is considered to be the ultimate mark of the true boxer, and not something to ever be taken for granted. In other words, this is not simply an exercise in which one is expected to step, but a carefully chosen form designed to teach someone to step, by extending his earlier training to make a natural transition. Other sports and martial arts have set stepping patterns, but none have a foundational practice designed specifically to prepare them for those patterns. To neglect Three-step is to fail to make use of a very valuable and sophisticated tool of instruction.
While Three-step has probably the narrowest range of practice speeds, Ta Lu (Big Roll Back) has the broadest. This is just one of the many reasons that Ta Lu is generally considered to be the most “important” exercise in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, if such a word has any meaning in this context. As I have stated, T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a very “speed sensitive” study. The rule of relaxation causes forms to change radically when done at varying speeds. A formal exercise that can be legitimately done at a wide range of speeds allows one to see just how certain forms change under this influence. Indeed, the final touch of the Ta Lu discipline, the ability to convert the opponent’s split into a jump that reverses one’s position and direction and reapplies the roll back that starts the cycle all over again, cannot be performed at low speed without great artificiality, but everything leading up to it can. It is a rather elegant way of saying that, since certain moves of Sanshou also cannot be performed except at this level of power and intensity, one cannot actually complete the Ta Lu phase of the curriculum without going to this level in at least one technique.
Ta Lu also rounds out the study of the eight trigram postures. T’ui-shou formally addresses Ward Off, Roll Back, Press, and Push, while Ta Lu studies Pull, Shoulder, Elbow, and Split. It has two levels, or two formal movement loops, one of which repeats Pull and Shoulder, the other focusing on Elbow and Split. There is also a variant that reverts to the T’ui-shou exercise, creating a nice segue connecting Ta Lu and Three Step T’ui-shou. One feature of the exercise is the “Lightning Palm,” a close-range palm to the face that may be done, as the name indicates, as fast as possible. This would indicate that the upper limit of Ta Lu speed is well into the range of actual combat. When two students can speed up to that level, and slow down to t’ui-shou speed, showing all variants in between, it makes for very elegant practice, and only the Ta Lu exercise can comfortably accommodate this range.
Sanshou, the final item in the formal curriculum, is intended to be an enlightening study of close to a hundred fairly classical fighting techniques. In these encounters, both players are presumed to be practicing a high level of what is called the civil aspect of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. This refers to attempting to construct counter-attacks based upon a very abstract and decidedly non-martial method, which produces, as a kind of magical byproduct, very martially savvy responses. This entirely literal use of the t’ai chi (yin-yang) principle is intended to produce the so-called Eight Trigram postures (Ward Off, Roll Back, etc.), generating martial threat and stimulating energy for the changes. The symbol for this is the t’ai chi (yin-yang) symbol, standing for the Civil aspect, surrounded by the eight trigrams, standing for the Martial aspect.
As I mentioned earlier, Sanshou should not be regarded as a performance. Doing so creates set responses to perceived techniques. This kind of training (set responses) works very well when one’s opponents are skilled and disciplined; attacks and defenses are likely to be skilled and, by that same token, predictable. T’ai Chi Ch’uan actually more or less ignores the martial intention of the opponent, and reacts to what he actually does. This is the civil concept, something that reliably motivates and guides one’s movement and response to an opponent’s attack without the need to comprehend its martial meaning. Sanshou demonstrates how this is a reliable guide to a wide variety of techniques, and produces results that are notably classical and elegant by anyone’s standard. It demonstrates how in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, as in any true art, an elaborate discipline that amounts to the simultaneous adherence to a huge number of rules leads finally to a feeling of complete freedom within that structure. It is summed up in the Classical aphorism, “Certainly do not use strength for a very long time; then, do what you like.”
When doing Sanshou, it is common for the players to accidentally exchange roles, create internal loops that accidentally repeat whole sections, cut out whole sections, screw up all the standard directions, etc. These accidents always produce a reflexive annoyance, but they are really part of a greater process, in which responses become more and more free, as a musician can go to a deeper and deeper well of musical possibility. When one has actually learned the lessons of Sanshou, slight variations in the intended techniques of one’s partner will force the sensitive player to abandon the set response and modify it to accommodate those variations, whether this means adjusting the resultant angle of counter-attack by a few degrees or changing the entire response altogether. I always joke that the better you are at Sanshou the fewer moves you can do without making a mistake. By this I mean that no partner is going to be giving you the perfect attack that will generate the exact called-for response. The less sensitive you are, the more you will simply do the rote response; the more sensitive you are, the more you will be inclined to modify it, however slightly. This means that if you follow your best response you will technically make a “mistake” in the Sanshou form, but if you follow the form you will be making a mistake in your technique. The more skillful you become, the more technique trumps memory and assumption, and the formal sequence of the Sanshou exercise becomes less and less important. At this point, one can call himself a T’ai Chi Boxer.
These, then, are the five principle items of the curriculum. To neglect any one is, I feel, to seriously threaten one’s correct understanding of the others. When I encounter another adept at T’ai Chi Ch’uan, I evaluate his skill by his mastery of the complete curriculum, not by whether or not he can beat the hell out of me. There are probably many on this planet that can beat the hell out of me, most of whom know nothing about T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Association with men like these is as boring as a lecture on the chemistry of constipation. Beat me, kick me, but please don’t bore me to death.