Taijiquan: a Western Boxing Perspective

Robert Amacker

In Structural Fundamentals of Taijiquan, I posited eight areas of study and practice that I deem to be fundamental to a mastery of the art, namely: posture, chansijing, differentiating substantial and insubstantial, making taijis (civil aspect), martial techniques (eight trigram postures), taking steps (five element postures), discharge, and continuous or so-called “long” boxing. The mastery and understanding of each one of these fundamentals could be considered as a goal in itself, and one that is of course necessarily subjugated to the more immediate goals associated with the day-to-day legwork necessary to its pursuit. All constructive practice of this kind proceeds from small achievements to larger ones. From this point of view, even these eight fundamental requirements are themselves only in the service of goals that, while somewhat esoteric, are also easily embraced by any boxing expert. In the case of Taijiquan, all eight of these fundamentals serve the attainment of two principal goals: the perfection of footwork, and the development of jing

While I accept the fact that the linkages outlined in Structural Fundamentals are challenging to comprehend, I think that the logic supporting Taijiquan is far more easily understood if viewed from the point of view of these two basic boxing goals. They do of course support each other, but I will save that connection for later. First I would like to simply chart a course of study, with the reader granting that certain assumptions about necessary skills be accepted without explanation, starting with footwork.

It should be noted that the term footwork is frequently linked with the word timing, for one important reason: in boxing, there is no such thing as the right step unless it is taken at the right time. Great footwork does not depend upon taking steps that are physically challenging, but upon taking steps that are appropriate to the moment. This will require two things: a method of taking the steps, and a way to decide which steps to make, and when. The first requirement, the method, is most succinctly framed by the following Classic: “Force is released through the back; and the steps follow the changes of the body.” 

This release means that the spine and torso experience neither strain (physical distortion) nor stress (accumulation of tension) when contacted by a forceful opponent. This opponent must feel no resistance, but a complete passing of his aggressive force into one’s legs. In the ideal, this means that he feels nothing at all. The “changes of the body” refers to resultant action of the torso as it directs the chansijing originating in the substantial leg into the rest of the body. The method used by Taijiquan to develop this skill is supremely logical. One cannot follow the changes of the body without familiarity with what those changes are. Until this familiarity is established, there is no possibility of taking a principled step. Fortunately, these “bodily changes” may be learned in a context that does not require steps, and to this end the tuishou exercise has been developed. The critical thing to remember when approaching tuishou is that this is the goal of the practice, that is, to cultivate bodily changes that will later facilitate correct steps. Correct technique in this regard is sometimes in direct contradiction to technique that may presume a different goal for the same situation, namely, the pursuit of a skill more appropriate to Sumo Wrestling. 

This misleading goal has been produced by the mistaken idea that there is some inherent virtue in the elimination of steps, that the sign of martial superiority lies in their absence. After all, why would we devote so much time to preserving a certain condition, if that condition were not in itself advantageous? Given this assumption, and the somewhat natural tendency to turn anything associated with the martial arts into a contest, it would seem perfectly predictable that the tuishou exercise would deteriorate into a simple contest over who will take the first step. When trapped by this apparent logic, it is easy to overlook the simple fact that in most real situations, the boxer taking the first step is usually the winner, not the loser. In high speed circumstances, the slightest aggression from the opponent can and frequently should initiate an immediate reaction of the torso to neutralize its effect. In a trained fighter, this reaction reverberates throughout the entire body, and its extension to the limbs may easily result in a replacement of the insubstantial foot, in other words, in a step. 

There is a classic situation, however, that does support the logic now being questioned. In a poorly trained boxer, the aggression suggested above may result in a simple retreat, in other words, in a movement that does indeed “neutralize” the attack, in that it evades or avoids its power by simply getting out of the way, but does not do so in a way that follows the taiji principle, and it is in the acting out of that principle that the foundation for correct steps is laid. In commonly practiced “western” boxing, the jab is considered an invaluable weapon, and boxers are frequently criticized heavily if their skills are lacking in its utilization. But it is rare indeed to see anyone ever knocked out by the jab, or even seriously affected by it on a physical level. Why, then, is it considered so de rigueur as an element of boxing skill? It is because its use can produce exactly the effect described above, causing the opponent to make a simple retreat, a backward step that is completely predictable in its timing and placement. Observing this, the skillful jabber may then make a pursuing step that is perfectly timed and placed so as to give him a clear advantage. 

But this classic situation must not be extended into justifying the idea that any aggression that results in causing one’s opponent to take the first step is automatically advantageous. The classic jab is technically a feint, even if it packs tremendous force, because its major characteristic is that it leaves its user in an uncommitted condition, that is, retaining his ability to react coherently to any answer by the opponent. Any boxer whose attack lacks this important qualification cannot reasonably assert that an opponent’s reaction is automatically disadvantageous, even if that reaction is itself manifestly clumsy and unprincipled. If this is indeed the case, all we can say is that we have two bad boxers here, instead of only one. However, if the attack is not a feint, but commits its owner to a movement that cannot be aborted, even if he has carefully avoided stepping, and the step of the opponent is principled and skillful, we have a situation of unambiguous advantage, now clearly held by the one who stepped first. 

Such a deterioration of proper purpose in the practice of tuishou is quite understandable if one considers the modern evolution of Taijiquan. In the past, its development was exclusively the province of trained fighters, who had no trouble finding consensus about what was a disadvantageous outcome and what was not. Yang Chengfu was probably the first to offer Taijiquan to students who had no previous martial history, and sometimes no interest in the pursuit of Taijiquan from a martial perspective. At the present time, I think it is safe to say that the great majority of Taijiquan practitioners could be described in that way. Since Taijiquan is quite different from most martial arts, which typically feature literal pantomime of fighting scenarios, the complete beginner is extremely handicapped in trying to grasp what exactly he is learning and how it is actually applied. He does not have the same familiarity with what works in fighting and what doesn’t. He is accordingly easily seduced into the idea that he is learning something to which the normal rules and standards of boxing do not apply, that he is being equipped somehow with some sort of special power that will obviate the need for skills normally associated with fighting. 

The solo form itself has several hints as to this rather cavalier assumption. For instance, the movement Jin Bu Ban Lan Chui (Step Forward, Deflect, Parry and Punch) combines these three separate boxing ideas in a way that easily obscures their real application. This is particularly true of Ban Chui. This punch is only hinted at in the movement, and then aborted almost immediately. And yet a knowledge of how Ban Chui is actually applied is vital to an understanding of this composite form. In all of my personal experience with Taijiquan, the only people whom I have ever found able to legitimately apply this technique were those who learned it while pursuing another art. In other words, the typical “traditional” Taijiquan instruction proceeds with the apparent unspoken assumption that students have come to it, as have many in the past, after pursuing other martial arts, sometimes into an advanced age. I myself studied Judo, Karate and Aikido for ten years before discovering Taijiquan at the age of twenty-one, and while the technique of Taijiquan is far more sophisticated, my previous experience gave me a useful background against which to evaluate the real meaning of Taijiquan techniques, and to assess the danger inherent in any given situation. 

From this perspective, there are some current Taijiquan practices that frankly, as commonly pursued, simply do not pass the smell test. Tuishou is perhaps the major offender in this regard. Please do not misunderstand me. I consider tuishou to be among the most brilliant technical innovations of the art, perhaps the most brilliant of all. It is of unparalleled importance and usefulness, but not when practiced with the clueless simplicity with which it is normally pursued. Such misunderstanding leads not only to the assumption that all steps are indicative of error and lack of skill, but that the stepping exercises of Taijiquan, and particularly those of the Yang Family, are valueless additions, designed only to commercialize and attract, and serve to obscure the more “profound” aspects of the art. When an American visitor to my Moscow school saw the practices of some of my more advanced students, he favored me with a patronizing gentleness when he told me that he himself had long ago transcended this kind of “silly jumping around,” and instead chose to devote himself to the cultivation of his “inner strength,” and the development and perfection of his “push.” My students, when asked later about their reaction to his technique, said that he was of course extremely clumsy and easily dealt with, since it was obvious to them that he was a complete beginner. They were extremely shocked and surprised to learn that he was a dedicated student of over thirty years training. Understand, this is not a judgement based on a projection of who would be the last man standing in a fight to the death, though its conclusions might be in accordance. It is a simple and honest evaluation based on what seems an obvious fact. 

The truth is, the fixed step restriction of tuishou is, among other things, the ideal situation wherein clumsiness may be concealed, for it is in taking steps that clumsiness becomes immediately apparent, even to untrained observers. One may squat low to the ground and contort oneself into impressively difficult positions, or reject the opponent’s intentions by simply overpowering him, but neither of these reactions provide the instant perception of clumsiness or grace that is afforded by the observation of a single step. Unfortunately, it is the very sophistication of the Taijiquan method of stepping that prevents observers from identifying it as something impressive and a legitimate proprietary goal, even when they witness it. If the steps were elaborate and remarkable, the more advanced exercises would be immediately assumed to have legitimacy. But instead, steps that naturally arise from the changes of the body look so easy and natural that they seem entirely unremarkable, and direct our attention to the martial techniques as the focus of the exercises. Of course, with this as our focus, Sanshou can indeed be now dismissed as just goofing around with gung-fu choreography. The irony here is that the steps themselves are in fact easy and obvious, but only because all the hard and skillful work has been done by the torso, usually under the direct control of the standing leg. This characteristic of its actual skills being easily overlooked is responsible for the characterization of Taijiquan as “invisible.” 

So logic compels us to accept the idea that grace in stepping is directly connected to proper movements of the torso.  These proper movements are most effectively acquired through the practice of tuishou, where they are schooled through the mechanism of large, slow changes that may be most easily learned, perfected, and habituated in that format. This ability to improve one’s neutralizing potential, and extend it to include an ever-expanding repertoire of martial techniques, does not diminish through the years. But tuishou’s primacy in terms of practice does not qualify it to substitute its format for the goal of the art, ironically, for the goal of that very practice. Competitive tuishou completely negates its contribution to that goal, and is directly productive of that much-warned-against fault, double-weight. However, strict adherence to the proper goals of tuishou, principally the continued maintenance of physical taiji relations with the opponent, finally results in instinctive neutralizing movements of the torso that guide the stepping process in terms of both placement and timing, fulfilling in a most unique and elegant way what I identified at the beginning as one of the most cherished goals of all martial arts. 

The second specified goal, the development of jing, is simply the Taijiquan version of all boxers’ search for a source of power that will be decisive when dealing with the opponent. Perfectly timed footwork is required to be able to hit the opponent; power is required to make that hit worth administering. All of Taijiquan training is based around the assumption that the student will eventually be able to deliver the kind of short-range, vibratory strike that is sometimes referred to as the “one-inch punch.” The ability to create such an attack is the result of relaxation, correct posture, and years of cultivation of chansijing or so-called “silk-reeling” power. While several martial arts can rightfully say that their practices result in such a cultivation, Taijiquan is unique in its skill at doing the one further thing that is critical to making such an attack actually work. You can be as powerful at the kind of “shaking” execution characteristic of internal power (jing) as you want, but in fact the force generated by the “one-inch punch” only is effective if your opponent is standing something around one inch from it. He cannot be standing too close to it any more than too far away. By this I mean that contact that is forceful will dampen and kill the vibratory wave in the same way that contact can stop the ringing of a bell. This means that when encountering the opponent, the lightest touch must be maintained, and yet that light touch must strive to constantly maintain contact, hence the well-known characterization of Taijiquan as “sticking” to the opponent. 

“From familiarity with the correct touch, one gradually comprehends jing.” – Classics 

The entire range of Taijiquan trainingbehavior includes no instances where anything other than the lightest touch is advisable, period. Fortunately, the effective utilization of that touch is not limited only to the power to fajing, or release jing, potentially injuring all but the most skillful opponents, but can effectively uproot opponents who are not leaning in their application of force, as well as greatly enhance one’s quickness in making taijis and reacting to the opponent’s changes in general. These satisfying abilities only appear, however, after considerable study, and until then the student must simply refrain from tolerating pressure or using force, a discipline that seems apparently quite difficult to maintain, perhaps because it demands a tolerance for consistently “losing” any and all encounters, and for long time. “Surely one must give up using strength for a long, long time; then, do what you like.” – Classics

Both vital ingredients to the cultivation of jing, lightness of touch and chansijing, take quite a long time to bear fruit. However, even before they yield their promise of “internal” striking power, they figure critically in the development of other Taijiquan skills, specifically stepping. Proper steps reward this connection by constantly positioning the adept in a place where lightness can be maintained, and where chansijing can be utilized in its most sophisticated form, so-called “broken” jing. In this way these two goals, proper footwork and timing, and development of jing, support each other. 

Where the cliche view of skillful footwork, usually identifying one as a “boxer,” suggests in the minds of most “experts” in the fight game that one is perhaps deficient in some way in terms of power, that, realistically speaking, this is a binary choice, Taijiquan links them unbreakably in terms of both training and execution. There is no better image of the hoped-for result than that suggested by Angelo Dundee’s colorful evocation of the boxing of Muhammed Ali: “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee.