The Tai Chi form of Yang Shau-Hou

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Yang Shou-Hou

Below is a video, shot in 1977, of the Tai Chi form of Xiong Yangho who was a student of Yang Shau-Hou, the (much) older brother of Yang Cheng Fu. Born in 1862 he was effectively of a different generation than his brother Yang Cheng-Fu who was born in 1883, which is 21 years later.

You can see that the form follows the same pattern as the Yang Cheng-Fu version but has a few unique characteristics. Again, this hints that there were different ways of doing the form before Yang Cheng-Fu standardised it into “Yang style”.

These different interpretations are a bit like the Gnostic Christian gospels – they’ve been rejected from the main orthodox canon, but they have just as much validity as any ‘official’ version of the form.

The description reads:

“Taiji Grand Master Xiong Yang He (1889-1981) The Interpretation of Taiji Quan The Teaching Frame of Hundred & Eleven Styles in Taiji Quan Video & voice edited by Li Ri Xing 28th September 1977”

 

 

What’s particularly interesting is the second video, at 7.51 onwards, after the form has finished, he does what looks like a couple of silk reeling exercises in which he traces a Yin Yang symbol in a manner described in Shen Jiazhen’s book.

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In the video Xiong Yangho then does some fast moves that look a lot like Southern Kung Fu – Pake Mei or Wing Chun, that sort of thing:

Edit: A comment on this post from Bai Yiming reveals that these are from another martial art called “Xiyangzhang”

“What Xiong Yanghe shows in the later vids has nothing to do with TJQ; those “5 little hands”, as they are called, originate form Xiyangzhang, another style. Xiong has cross-trained a lot and taught a huge curriculum. There is no Taiji symbol traced, it is purely an application. I know as I’m training in the Xiongmen, the Xiong system, do the Xiyangzhang and also those hand moves!”

Here’s a video of Xinog Yanghe doing some more Xiyangzhang:

 

Here’s another video of Xiong Yangho doing Tai Chi:

 

Originally from the mainland, Xiong Yangho was a military man who escaped to Taiwan with the nationalists once the Communists took over in China. There’s a short biography of him here.

 

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Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form

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I don’t know if this is a famous quote from a master of old, or if it’s just something that Wayne Hansen thought of himself, but he uses it in his signature, and I was musing on this phase recently:

Don’t put power into the form let it naturally arise from the form

It’s such a great quote, because it’s absolutely true!

I was reviewing somebody’s form recently and the big thing I noticed was that they were trying to put power into the movements, rather than just accepting that the movements on their own are powerful, and don’t need anything extra to make them work. In fact, when you try and make Tai Chi movements powerful, it just messes them up, because you inevitably revert to tense, isolated muscle use, instead of a smooth flow of connected power, like a river.

(I think I should mention here that I’m not talking about the explosive bursts of power you typically see in Chen style forms. These are different. Instead, I’m talking about the general movements found in Tai Chi, typified by Yang style and it’s variations, which opt for a smooth form with an even pace throughout).

What that quote doesn’t do however is explain how it’s done. Tai Chi is full of these mysterious sayings, with very little explanation, so let’s break this one down and see where we get.

Fang song

Firstly, in Tai Chi we are frequently admonished to Fang Song or “relax” as we would say in English. We all instinctively know that a relaxed body can be a powerful body.  Think of how heavy a small child can make themselves if they don’t want to be picked up by going all floppy. Similarly, a baby’s grip is surprisingly powerful, but not tense.

Being too tense results in a kind of rigid and brittle strength. It’s strong, but it’s not deep. It tends to lie on the surface, like ice on a lake, but break through the surface and it’s nothing but water underneath. Relaxation can be more like thick sea ice all the way down.

But to be powerful a relaxed body needs to be a coordinated body. On a purely mechanical level that means moving so that the coordinated power of the body arrives at the right place at the right time. There’s no point punching with just the arm, but if you can coordinate your body so the legs, hips, torso, and arm are all working – arriving – together it creates a kind whole body power that doesn’t rely much on tension at all. But that’s still not the whole story.

That sinking feeling

This sort of whole body power on its own is not enough. The next stage is to get used to sinking into the movements. This sinking – dropping the weight of the body down into the ground through relaxing – paradoxically, enables power from the ground to come up into the hands. It generally moves in an upward and outwards manner, which is the Peng Jin that Tai Chi is famous for. All the movements of Tai Chi need to contain this Peng Jin.

I often read people who critique this method, thinking that “pushing from the legs” will just be too slow, but frankly, they just don’t know what they’re talking about 🙂

True, the legs are very much involved, but when you effectively sink – drop the weight down – it’s not a physical movement. It’s an internal movement. And the power of the ground arrives in your hands instantaneously, so there’s no delay. It’s not too slow to use.

Once you get used to doing this sinking you can feel it. It requires practice, probably daily practice to get it. But that’s why you do the form every day. Every day you are practicing movements where you drop the weight and put the power of the ground in your hands.

Remember, the movements themselves are powerful – you don’t need to add power in. Instead you need to learn to relax, coordinate and sink your ‘energy’.

Just look at that picture of Yang Cheng Fu above.

He’s got it.

 

 

 

Using the waist in Tai Chi Chuan

You know how it is when you can tell a section of your form has gone to seed, but you can’t put your finger on exactly why? While doing the form this morning I was having major problems with one particular move. Which one is of no consequence, all that’s important is that it just didn’t feel right whatever way I did it. My form felt week and uncoordinated in that one particular spot. So, what is a student to do when they get stuck like this?

Luckily, I have a video of my teacher doing the form, so after failing to find the fault myself I simply popped open my laptop to watch how he approached that move. Immediately I saw my problem. He does the move with a lot more waist turning than I do. In fact, he does a lot more waist turning on all the moves compared to me, not just this one. The waist and legs are of utmost importance in TCC. In fact, it should have been the first place I looked for the solution to my problem rather than turning to a video, since the Tai Chi Classics already tell you that this is where you should be looking first to correct errors in your form. The Tai Chi Chuan Treaste (attributed to Chang Sang Feng) says it quite clearly:

If correct timing and position are not achieved,
the body will become disordered
and will not move as an integrated whole;
the correction for this defect
must be sought in the legs and waist.

That seems pretty clear – if your movement feels uncoordinated or generally wrong to you then first look to the legs and waist for a solution to your problem. The emphasis on the waist echoes on through out the rest of the Classics. In the “Song of the Thirteen Postures” (Unknown Author) the first two lines are: “The Thirteen Postures should not be taken lightly; the source of the postures is in the waist.” And later: “Pay attention to the waist at all times; completely relax the abdomen”. From the Five Character Secret by Li I-Yu it says: “The ch’i is like a wheel, and the whole body must mutually coordinate. If there is any uncoordinated place, the body becomes disordered and weak. The defect is to be found in the waist and legs”, and also Yang Cheng-Fu recaps the whole matter neatly in his 10 Important Points:

“3.) Sung [Relax] the waist. The waist is the commander of the whole body. If you can sung the waist, then the two legs will have power and the lower part will be firm and stable. Substantial and insubstantial change, and this is based on the turning of the waist. It is said “the source of the postures lies in the waist. If you cannot get power, seek the defect in the legs and waist.””

On a purely physical level it’s the turning actions of the waist that generate Sung Jin (Relaxed force) in Tai Chi Chuan. For example, regardless of which style of Yang you do, after raising then lowering the hands most Yang forms start with a turn to the right accompanied by a ‘Ward Off’ movement with your right arm. For that movement to actually ward something off it needs to have power in it, rather than just being as soft as a noodle. But it needs the right type of power to avoid using just brute force. It’s the turning action of the body to the right that initiates the arm movement and puts the correct type of power (Sung Jin) in the arm. Rather than it being a separate movement powered only the arm muscles independantly, the movement is done by the whole body forming a unified shape. Still with me? Good. If not then read that again, and maybe watch a video of somebody who is good doing Yang style, like this guy.

The rotation of the waist is usually done in the horizontal vector and is most evident on the transitional movements between postures in the form*, but the waist is also the commander in forward and backwards motions which don’t involve rotations to the left or right, like the Push posture.

Integral to the idea of moving from the waist is the idea of empty and solid. If you consider the waist to be a like a wheel, which is what the Classics advise, then when you turn it to the left the upper body also turns to the left, and when you turn it to the right then the upper body also turns to the right. In Push Hands if you feel force applied to one side of your body you need to turn the waist, taking that side away from the force, effectively ‘emptying’ it, but at the same time ‘filling’ the other side. It is crucial that you fill the other side of your body at the same time as you are emptying the side that’s being pushed, otherwise your movement will be disordered and you will be pushed over. This can be trained in the form practice too, even without a partner to push you, using a simple mental awareness that whenever you turn the waist you are effectively emptying one side of the upper body as you fill the other. Imagine a fluid being transferred smoothly around your body if that helps. The principle of empty and solid is much further reaching than just this simple example, but it can really help you understand why the Classics stress that “the source of the postures is in the waist”, and later admonish you to “Pay attention to the waist at all times”.

If you’re looking to correct your form, then that’s the place to start.

* In effect, there are no fixed postures in any TCC form, but if you’re teaching it to beginners you have to stop somewhere. Once you’ve learned the form it needs to be smoothed out, so these fixed positions all dissolve into one flowing movement. That’s easier said than done though, since the process of smoothing out your form to a good enough standard to start incorporating other principles can easily take over a year.