The Thirteen Postures of Taijiquan


NOTE:  The examples of the postures given in this article will be from the Wu Family Taijiquan Long Form, as taught in conjunction with the systems of won hop loong chuan and pyong hwa do.  Where applicable, the corresponding postures from the more commonly known Yang Taijiquan Long Form will also be given for reference.  However, not every movement has a counterpart in the Yang form.  It is also worth mentioning that the Wu form has many postures with names that are similar to postures in the Yang form.  Aside from a few exceptions, though, these do not usually refer to same motions.  For example, both forms have a posture called “Repulse the Monkey”, but they are each referring to a completely different set of movements.

Introduction

 The basis for taijiquan, regardless of style, are the thirteen postures.  In fact, the thirteen postures are what defines a martial art as being taijiquan or not.  If an art contains all thirteen postures, no matter how different from traditional taijiquan it may seem, it can be considered true taijiquan.  On the other, an art can not be considered taijiquan if it is missing any one of the thirteen postures, even if it seems very similar to taijiquan on the surface.  Therefore, it is important for all serious practitioners of taijiquan to understand the meanings of the thirteen postures.  As it is said in the Song of the Thirteen Postures, If you don't diligently search for the meaning, you will only waste your effort and sigh."

The creation of the thirteen postures is traditionally credited to Zhang Sanfeng (Chang San-feng) (see Figure 1), who lived sometime during the Jin (1115-1234) or Yuan (1279-1368) dynasties.  History concerning Zhang Sanfeng is very sketchy and difficult to separate from legend and myth.  Usually his date of birth is given as being around 1247, but the creation of the thirteen postures did not happen until 1360.  It is unknown whether Zhang Sanfeng actually lived this long, or if the traditionally accepted dates are incorrect.
The first thing one must understand about the thirteen postures is that they are not really “postures” in the sense of poses one might see in a taijiquan form.  It is more useful to think of them in terms of “thirteen principles” of which examples of each can be found in multiple moves, and each “pose” in a taijiquan form contains several of the principles.  This point is commonly misunderstood because many books list actual moves from the form for the thirteen postures, rather than explaining the concepts of the thirteen different principles.
The essence of the thirteen postures is the Bagua (“Eight Trigrams”).  There is a vast wealth of knowledge encoded in this deceptively simple diagram (see Figure 2).  In a trigram (the symbols surrounding the circle), a solid line represents yang, while a broken line represents yin.



Figure 2Bagua (Eight Trigrams)

NOTE:  In ancient Chinese culture, it was customary to draw maps such that North was on the bottom, and South was on top, the opposite of the standard in the West.  This is the reason the Bagua diagram is drawn the way it is.

Eight of the thirteen postures correspond to the eight trigrams found in the bagua symbol, four for the cardinal directions and four for the diagonal directions.  The actual trigram is important.  For example, the posture corresponding to the direction South is represented by the trigram that is pure yang.  This implies that the concept embodied by that posture is also pure yang.  Similarly, the other trigrams how much relative yin or yang there is in a particular posture.
Those familiar with the concept of yin and yang may be curious as to which aspect of the posture this refers to (i.e., “this move is yang relative to what?”).  They are always being compared relative to the other postures, but the meanings can vary.  For example, it can refer to the physical motions of a movement (a pure yin move only absorbs, and doesn’t strike).  However, it can also refer to the concepts themselves rather than physical movements, in which case it is quite possible for a purely yin posture to strike.  The concept applies to the feet and hands as well.  For example, in taijiquan the weight should never be distributed evenly between both feet.  One foot always has more weight (the yang foot) than the other foot (the yin  foot).  For the hands, the yang  hand is usually the one that is striking, and the yin  hand is the one that is yielding or “receiving” (but not always; as mentioned before, it is possible to do pure yin strikes).  A slightly more complex example of the relationship of yin and yang to taijiquan can be seen in the move “Single Whip” (tan pien).  In this move, one hand has the wrist bent back as if doing a palm strike.  This causes the underside of the forearm (the yin side) to be “stretched” (not in terms of muscles, but in terms of the meridians that carry qi).  The other hand has the wrist bent forward into a “crane’s beak” position.  This causes the top of the forearm (the yang side) to be “stretched”.  The leg that has the most weight on it (the yang leg) is the one under the palm strike (the yin hand), while the other leg (the yin leg) is under the crane’s beak (the yang hand).  The creates a balanced posture for the body.  However, this example can quickly get very complicated when one takes into account the back (connection between the yin and yang hands, and how one changes into the other one), the fact that you should be in motion the entire time, and the fact that the “yin hand” is actually the one striking while the “yang hand” is actually the one receiving.  The complete relationship of taijiquan to the concepts of yin and yang is a complex one and is too involved for the scope of this article.
The eight postures based on the bagua also have other meanings.  They are referred to as ba jing (“eight strengths” or “eight skills”).  Jings are specific skills that are developed through various types of martial arts practice.  In reality, there are many more jings (approximately 80), but these eight are the primary ones used in taijiquan, and the main ones that proper taijiquan practice will develop in the student.
The eight trigrams are used in a similar way in the other internal Daoist arts, such as baguazhang (“Eight Trigram Palms”) and xing yi quan (“Mind-Body Boxing”).  However, some other Daoist styles that are not purely “internal”, such as won hop loong chuan, also make use of the eight trigrams.  In won hop loong chuan, the four cardinal directions (South, North, East, and West) are referred to as the Angles of Defense, while the four diagonal directions (Southeast, Southwest, Northeast, and Northwest) are referred to as the Angles of Attack.  The combination of all eight directions is referred to as the “Eight Faces of Death”, or shi ho ha po (si xiang xia ba, in pinyin, “The Eight Grand Faces/Directions of Death”).

The Four Cardinal Directions (The Four Main Methods)


The Four Cardinal Directions, also known as the Four Main Methods, are primarily defensive concepts.  This does not mean that they cannot be used to attack, only that their primary purpose is to open up the opponent.  As a matter of fact, all four of them can make very devastating attacks, but they work best as predecessors to other attacks.  The postures corresponding to the Four Cardinal Directions are Peng, Lu, An, and Ji (corresponding to South, North, East, and West, respectively).  There are two commonly used names in Chinese for each of the postures that correspond to the Four Cardinal Directions.  The earliest references, found in texts attributed to Zhan Sanfeng himself, use the names of the actual trigrams (taken from the I Ching).  Later works, such as the taijiquan classics by the Chen and Yang families, use different names for the postures.  These names try to more accurately capture the meaning of the concepts, and sometimes correspond to names of actual moves in the Chen Family and Yang Family forms directly.



Yang/Chen
Texts
Zhang Sanfeng’s
Texts (Trigrams)
Direction
Peng (Ward Off)
Chien (Heaven)
S
Lu (Roll Back)
Kun (Earth)
N
An (Push, Press)
Li (Fire)
E
Ji (Press, Squeeze)
Kan (Water, Rain)
W
Table 1:  The Four Cardinal Directions

The first of the Eight Cardinal Directions is peng.  Peng is most commonly translated as “ward off”, and corresponds to the trigram chien (“creative”, “heaven”).  It is pure yang in nature.  It is generally accepted that if one can master only one of the thirteen postures, or only one jing, then this one should be it.  Peng is the jing of “moving qi”, and therefore is fundamental to all other jings and postures.  Although it is present in almost every move in taijiquan, it is most prevalent in moves that are “opening” or “expanding”.  Peng is closely connected to correct posture.  It is the connection from the ground to the expanding motion or strike.  As a result, it involves the use of the entire body, from legs, to hip, to waist (dan tien), to the back, and out to the arms.  This is referred to as the “peng path”, “peng vector”, or “ground vector”.  But peng is more than just correct posture and mechanical alignment.  The difference lies in what the taijiquan classics refer to as the “Six Harmonies” (liu ho).  The six harmonies each have their yang (“external”, see Table 2) and yin (“internal”, see Table 3) aspects.  Correct posture and mechanics can be achieved solely by the use of the external harmonies.  Proper peng requires both the internal and external harmonies to be present.

External Harmonies
Description
Shoulder and Hip
These two root joints (where motion is initiated from) are always coordinated together.
Elbow and Knee
The elbow and knee move together in a coordinated fashion.
Wrist and Ankle
The hand and foot move together in a coordinated fashion.
Torso
Movement progresses from the lower back, to the upper back, and then to the neck.
Arm Joints
Movement progresses from the shoulder, to the elbow, to the wrist, and then to the hand.
Leg Joints
Movement progresses from the hip, to the knee, to the ankle, and then to the foot.
Table 2:  Wei Liu Ho:  The Six External Harmonies

Internal Harmonies
Description
Body and Heart
Motion with confidence and proper attitude; in most styles (such as baguazhang and xing yi quan), this is usually developed through the use of animal forms.
Mind and Heart
When the mind commands, the body must follow; the mental confidence that you can do what you want to do.
Mind and Qi
Being able to move qi naturally, without hesitation.
Qi and Spirit
A high level of relaxed alertness.
Spirit and Movement
Motion is tied to the senses directly;  when you hear, see, or sense anything in your opponent, your body automatically reacts.
Movement and Emptiness
Following your opponent with an empty mind without focusing on them, but only reacting preemptively.
Table 3:  Nei Liu Ho:  The Six Internal Harmonies

Peng can be categorized into two types:  opening and closing.  Opening energy is when you are expanding, such as when doing a strike.  This is when you direct the energy from the ground, up the peng path, into the target.  Closing is when you are receiving energy.  It is when someone pushes against you, and you redirect the forward energy coming into you down the peng path and into the ground.  This help you “hold your ground” without being pushed back, very similar to the idea of “rooting” (proper rooting actually requires more than just peng;  this will discussed later).  At higher levels, the energy that was received and redirected into the ground can then be sent back up the peng path and into the person who pushed you.  Done properly, it should seem as if the person attempted to push you and simply bounced off.
Peng strength should only be solid in one direction, and empty in all others.  For instance, a simple example of opening peng is “unbendable arm”.  In this case, someone pushing against the length of the arm should not be able to bend it (or the practitioner pushing against something using “unbendable arm” shouldn’t cause the arm to bend).  However, if someone tries to swing the arm upward, downward, sideways, etc., it should move easily.  That’s because the peng strength is void in all directions except one.
An example of closing peng is the posture known by the same name, peng (“ward off”) in the Yang form (“transfer change” in the Wu Family Form).  In this posture the arm on top should have a solid, yet soft, curve to it (the classics describe it as a “hose full of water” – pliable yet firm).  When in this position, one should be able to resist an opponent pushing against the arm on top without resorting to muscular strength.

How can we explain the energy of ward-off?
It is like water which supports a moving boat.
First make the chi in the tan-tien substantial,
Then hold the head as if suspended from above.
The whole body has the power of a spring.
Opening and closing should be clearly defined.
Even if the opponent uses a thousand pounds of force,
We will float lightly and without difficulty.
Song of the Eight Ways, Tan Meng-hsien

Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Transfer Change
Ward Off
Arm on top can resist incoming force.
Silk Sheets
N/A
Arms can resist incoming force.
Grasping the Bird’s Tail
Press
Front arm can resist incoming force.
Monk Reads Scroll
Grasp the Bird’s Tail
Front arm should be solid.
most other moves
most other moves
Used in rooting and power generation.
Table 4:  Examples of Peng

Lu is most commonly translated as “roll back”.  It corresponds to the trigram kun (“receptive” and “earth”) and is pure yin in nature.  Lu is the jing of “collecting qi”.  This concept can be used to throw an opponent who has over-extended himself, or as a controlling motion to create an opening for your next attack.  The next attack is the key, as that is the “roll back”.  The symbolism here is that of a wheel.  When one pushes a specific point on a wheel, it moves away from them, but eventually the wheel rolls back around, and the point that was pushed away returns again.  It is very important that one does not “roll back” into oneself.  This motion is with the torso, more specifically from the lower dan tien.  Once the hands make contact with the opponent, the rest of the motion is with the entire body, centered around the dan tien.  When both of your hands make contact with the opponent, one of your hands will always be the yang hand (palm downward) and one will always be the yin hand (palm upward).  The strike following the “roll back” is always done with the hand that previously was the yin hand.

How can we explain the energy of roll-back?
We draw the opponent towards us by allowing him to advance,
While we follow his incoming force.
Continuing to draw him in until he overextends,
We remain light and comfortable, without losing our vertical posture.
When his force is spent he will naturally be empty,
While we maintain our center of gravity,
And can never be bested by the opponent.
Song of the Eight Ways, Tan Meng-hsien

Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Stroke the Wild Horse’s Mane
Roll Back
Guiding a punch that was over-extended, followed by a strike.
Snake Creeps Down
Downward Posture
Guide a punch back and cause the opponent to over-extend it, without using force.
Grasping the Bird’s Tail
Press
Deflecting and guiding a punch from either direction.
Single Whip
Single Whip
The right hand guides and draws in a punch.
Present Spear
Playing the Lute
Hands can guide and deflect a punch.
Monk Reads Scroll
Grasp the Bird’s Tail
Hands guide a punch off the left side.
Archer Draws Bow
Fan Through Back
The hand that draws back can guide a punch and cause it to be over-extended.
Table 5:  Examples of Lu

An is translated is “push” or “press” and it corresponds to the trigram li (“fire”).  It is primarily a yang posture.  The main purpose of an is to uproot an opponent.  An is the jing of “striking qi”.  The motion is like a wave in the ocean.  It recedes and sinks, and then with increased energy, strikes forward and lifts.  It is done with the entire body, not just the hands.  This posture is an example of a yin strike that changes into a yang strike.  Both hands hit with slightly different timings, which causes a strike very similar to one using fa jing (sudden, short-distance explosive strike).

How can we explain the energy of push?
When applied, it’s like water in motion
But within it’s softness there is a great strength.
When the flow is swift, the force cannot be withstood.
Meeting high places the waves break over them,
And encountering low places they dive deep.
The waves rise and fall,
And finding a hole they will surely surge in.
Song of the Eight Ways, Tan Meng-hsien

Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Putting on the Pearl Necklace
Push
Second part of strike hits opponent on the chest with an upward angle.
Grasping the Bird’s Tail
Press
The second part of the motion can be  a “pushing” strike.
Single Whip
Single Whip
The left palm is a “pushing” strike.
Swallows Go Down
Step Back and Repulse the Monkey
The final counter-attack against a punch can use “pushing” power.
Archer Draws Bow
Fan Through Back
The hand extended forward can be a “pushing” strike.
Table 6:  Examples of An

Ji is translated is “press” or “squeeze” and it corresponds to the trigram kan (“water”, as in rain).  It is primarily a yin posture.  Ji is the jing of “receiving qi”.  This jing is essential to developing the famous “one-inch punch”.  This strike can be used either to compression or as a method to uproot an opponent.  The striking energy should come all the way from the ground and up the leg (peng jing).  The body is arranged like a triangle for this posture (the two hands together form one point, while each of the feet forms the other two points).  At the beginning of the motion, one hand is yin while the other is yang.  However, they each transform into the other during the progression of the strike.

How can we explain the energy of press?
Sometimes we use two sides to directly receive a single intention.
Meeting and combining in one movement,
We indirectly receive the force of the reaction.
This is like a ball bouncing off a wall,
Or a coin dropping on a drum,
Which bounces up with a metallic sound.
Song of the Eight Ways, Tan Meng-hsien

Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Grasping the Bird’s Tail
Press
Compression of a forearm (holding elbow and wrist).
Jade Girl at the Shutter
Jade Girl Works at Shuttle
Compression between the two hands.
Monk Reads Scroll
Grasp the Bird’s Tail
Hands catch something and compress it on your left side.
Swallows Go Down
Step Back and Repulse the Monkey
After the initial defense against a punch, the counter-attack involves “squeezing” the arm (among other things).
N/A
Embrace the World
The arms (especially the elbows) squeeze together to generate the internal power necessary for this movement to work.
Table 7:  Examples of Ji



The Four Diagonal Directions (The Four Corner Methods)


The Four Diagonal Directions, also known as the Four Corner Methods, are primarily offensive concepts.  The postures corresponding to the Four Diagonal Directions are Cai, Lieh, Jou, and Kao (corresponding to Northwest, Southeast, Northeast, and Southwest, respectively).  As with the Four Cardinal Directions, there are two commonly used names in Chinese for each of the postures that correspond to the Four Diagonal Directions (see Table 8 for a summary of the Four Diagonal Directions).
The Four Diagonal Directions can be thought of as combinations of the Four Cardinal Directions.  For example, the posture cai (Northwest) is achieved through a combination of lu (North) and ji (West).  But it is also important to remember that cai is more than just the sum of lu and ji.  It uses lu and ji as its essences, but adds more on top of it.

Yang/Chen
Texts
Zhang Sanfeng’s
Texts (Trigrams)
Direction
Cai (Pluck, Pull Down)
Sun (Sun, Wind, Wood)
NW
Lieh (Rend, Separate, Split, Twist)
Chen (Lightning)
SE
Jou (Elbow Strike)
Tui (Water, Lake, Marsh)
NE
Kao (Shoulder Strike)
Ken (Mountain)
SW
Table 8:  The Four Diagonal Directions

Cai is usually translated as “pluck” or “pull down”, and corresponds to the trigram sun (“sun”, “wind”, or “wood”).  It is used to lead an opponent and then to throw them.  When pulling or leading, the power must come from the dan tien, or center of the body, and not just from the arms and hands.  In terms of energy usage, this jing can be thought of as a lever.  The opponent should feel very little to no force when cai is done properly.  They should feel like they were moved by an “unseen energy”, much like that from the sun or the wind (as symbolized in the trigram for this posture).

How can we explain the energy of pull-down?
Like weighing something on a balance scale,
We give free play to the opponent’s force whether great or small.
After weighing it we know its lightness or heaviness.
Turning on only four ounces,
We can weigh a thousand pounds.
If we ask what is the principle behind this,
We discover it is the function of the lever.
Song of the Eight Ways, Tan Meng-hsien

Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Swallows Go Down
Step Back and Repulse the Monkey
The initial defense against a punch is drawing downward motion.
Monk Reads Scroll
Grasp the Bird’s Tail
Left hand pulls a punch downward to the left side.
Needle to the Bottom of the Sea
Needle to the Sea Bottom
Against a wrist grab, this motion can be used as a release.
Wrists in Manacles
Strike the Ears with Double Fists
As the fists come together, they also draw downward.
some kicks
some kicks
On kicks where the hands rise above the head, spread out, and come down, downward energy can be used to catch punches or release from wrist grabs.
Table 9:  Examples of Cai

Lieh is translated as “split”, “rend”,  “separate”, or “twist”, and corresponds to the trigram chen (“lightning”).  The principle behind this jing is to split the force (yours, not the opponents) into two components, usually in opposite directions.  This makes the force harder to deal with for your opponent, both mentally and physically.  Note that the force can also be split by pulling/pushing and twisting at the same time.  Lieh can be very effective against both a moving or a stationary opponent, and is also a good follow-up after an unsuccessful attempt at using Lu (“Rollback”).  This is also a good example of taking a defensive posture (one of the Four Cardinal Directions) and using it to set up an offensive posture (one of the Four Diagonal Directions).  The trigram for this posture, meaning “lightning”, symbolizes not only the fact that this technique can be devastating, but also unpredictable.

How can we explain the energy of split?
Revolving like a flywheel,
If something is thrown against it,
It will be cast off at a great distance.
Whirlpools appear in swift flowing streams,
And the curling waves are like spirals.
If a falling leaf lands on their surface,
In no time it will sink from sight.
Song of the Eight Ways, Tan Meng-hsien

Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Swallows Go Down
Repulse Monkey
One hand strikes to the front while the other moves back;  also, one hand is moving forward while the body moves backward
Side Flying
Diagonal Flying
Arm are striking/applying force in opposite directions.
Putting on the Pearl Necklace
Push
A very subtle application of lieh;  during the final double push the two hands not only strike at slightly different times, but also using slightly different angles.  This is an example of lieh that does not split the force into two directly opposite directions.
Stroke the Wild Horse’s Mane and Swallows Go Down*
Roll Back and Repulse the Monkey*
An example of turning an unsuccessful Lu into a Lieh:  guide the opponent’s punch using Lu (Roll Back, or Stroke the Wild Horse’s Mane).  If it fails (because the opponent didn’t extend the punch fully, for example), rotate the hands into a Lieh (Repulse the Monkey, or Swallows Go Down) and complete the defense.
Present Spear
Play the Lute
Hands can catch a punch and twist it as you draw it down.
* This sequence is not in either form in this order, but is presented as an example of how one posture can change into another.
Table 10:  Examples of Lieh

Jou is translated as “elbow strike” and corresponds to the trigram tui (“water”, as in a lake or a marsh).  This is the concept of not only using the elbow to strike, but also using the elbow to control the opponent.  This jing is hidden in most taijiquan forms;  there are no postures or movements that are outwardly obvious as elbow strikes.  However, there are many elbow strikes hidden throughout most forms.  The trigram representation of this posture is symbolic of its nature.  Like water, the elbow strikes in taijiquan usually “flow in” to fill a gap created by a previous technique.

How can we explain the energy of elbow-strike?
Our method must be reckoned by the five elements.
Yin and yang are divided above and below,
And full and empty should be clearly distinguished.
The opponent cannot keep up with our continuous movement,
And our explosive pounding is even fiercer.
When the six energies have been thoroughly mastered,
Then the application will be infinite.
Song of the Eight Ways, Tan Meng-hsien

Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Punch
Punch
A punch can “fold” after the initial impact to do a follow-up strike with the elbow as well.
Punch and Grasp the Bird’s Tail
Punch and Press
After a right punch, when the hands draw back to the left side of the body to prepare for Press or Grasp the Bird’s Tail, the right elbow can deliver a strike.
Fold Hands/Fold the Moon
similar to Turn Body, Parry, Punch
Can be used to release from a wrist grab and bring your elbow over the opponents arm, thus clearing a path for your hand, as it unfolds, to strike at the throat or eyes.  This is an example of using the elbow for controlling rather than striking.
Table 11:  Examples of Jou

Kao is translated as “shoulder strike” and corresponds to the trigram ken (“mountain”).  This is the concept of moving into your opponent to strike them with your shoulder, although in reality the strike is done with the entire body.   This is common as a response to your opponent pulling you towards him.  In order for this posture to be successful, you must be able to root properly.  The trigram for this posture is symbolic of the fact that the opponent should feel like they ran into an immovable force, much like a mountain.

How can we explain the energy of shoulder-strike?
The method is divided between shoulder and back.
The posture ‘diagonal flying’ uses the shoulder,
But between the shoulders there is also the back.
When suddenly an opportunity presents itself,
Then it crashes like a pounding pestle.
Yet we must be careful to maintain our center of gravity,
For losing it we will surely fail.
Song of the Eight Ways, Tan Meng-hsien

Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Side Flying
Diagonal Flying
The rising arm can go under the opponent’s armpit, thus using your shoulder for the “strike” (throw).
Cloudy Hands
N/A (but similar to Diagonal Flying)
The portion of the posture that is like Side Flying is an almost 180° turn that can be used as a shoulder “strike” or throw.
most turns
most turns
The turns can be done into your opponent’s center, so that when you hit a solid stance, you are striking the opponent with your entire body, using the shoulder only as a point of contact.
Table 12:  Examples of Kao

The Five Steps (The Five Elements)


The Eight Methods discussed above are considered by the classics as “static”.  Although they all involve full body motion, they do not usually involve stepping or changing from one position to another.  The dynamic aspect of the thirteen postures is provided by the Five Steps, which directly corresponds to the Daoist Five Elements (see Table 13 for the correlation of the Five Steps to the Five Elements).

Yang/Chen
Texts
Element
English
Teng
Metal
Advance, Step Forward
Shan
Wood
Withdraw, Retreat
Zhe
Water
Gaze Left
Kong
Fire
Look Right
Huo
Earth
Central Equilibrium, Balanced, Centered
Table 13:  The Five Steps

Teng means to “advance” or “to step forward”.  It corresponds the metal element.  Teng is the concept of stepping forward and advancing into the opponent.  The key here is to not force the opening, but to “flow in” and fill existing openings.  The advance should be done without hesitation, and into the center of the opponent.  This is symbolic of the metal element.  Metal, in the form of a sword or an axe, strikes swiftly and without hesitation.  Metal, in liquid form, also flows to fill openings that are presented.

When it is time to advance, advance without hesitation.
If you meet no obstacle, continue to advance.
Failing to advance when the time is right is a lost opportunity.
Seizing the opportunity to advance, you will surely be the victor.
Song of the Five Steps, Tan Meng-hsien



Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Repulse the Monkey
Brush Knee, Twist, and Step
Stepping forward, so the foot rolls from the heel down to the toes.
Grasp the Bird’s Tail
Press
Some of these postures involve stepping forward with the motion.
Table 13:  Examples of Teng

Shan corresponds to the element of wood.  Although shan is translated as “retreat” or “withdraw”, it is really an attack.  It purpose is to make the opponent over extend himself, and to lead him into “emptiness”.  It is an attack disguised as a withdrawal.  As one of the taijiquan classics states, “Advancing is advancing; retreating is also advancing”.  The primary purpose of moving backward is to create an opening for a subsequent attack.  Every move in taijiquan that uses the concept of shan will be done so at least one arm is extending forward while the body is moving backward.  This is a hint to the practitioner that this is really an attack, and not a true retreat.  This is much like a tree (wood element), in that the trunk and top of the tree is visible, but the true strength of the tree lies where one cannot see, underground.

If our steps follow the changes of our body, then our techniques will be perfect.
We must avoid fullness and emphasize emptiness so that our opponent lands on nothing.
To fail to retreat when retreat is called for is neither wise nor courageous.
A retreat is really an advance if we can turn it to a counter-attack.
Song of the Five Steps, Tan Meng-hsien

Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Repulse the Monkey (stepping back)
N/A
Stepping back, so the foot rolls from the toes back down to the heel.
Swallows Go Down
Step Back and Repulse the Monkey
Stepping back, so the foot rolls from the toes back down to the heel.
Monk Reads Scroll and Close Taiji
N/A
Stepping up to the closing posture from Monk Reads Scroll.
Cloudy Hands
N/A
The first part of this posture (similar to Monk Reads Scroll) is a deceptive retreat.
Table 14:  Examples of Shan

Zhe corresponds to the element of water, while kong corresponds to fire.  These two form the concept of fighting from angles.  When the opponent’s momentum is directed forward (toward you), his weakest points are from the sides.  The angular footwork taught by these two concepts allow a practitioner to take advantage of those weaknesses.  Just like how water or fire can spread quickly and unpredictably, the practitioner must be able to instantly move in either direction.

To the left, to the right, yin and yang change according to the situation.
We evade to the left and strike from the right with strong sure steps.
The hands and feet work together and likewise knees, elbows and waist.
Our opponent cannot fathom our movements and has no defense against us.

Feigning to the left, we attack to the right with perfect steps.
Striking left and attacking right, we follow the opportunities.
We avoid the frontal and advance from the side, seizing changing conditions.
Left and right, full and empty, our technique must be faultless.  
Song of the Five Steps, Tan Meng-hsien


Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Side Flying
Diagonal Flying
Step and shift to the left.
Jade Girl at the Shutter (Left)
Jade Girl Works at Shuttle
Turn and shift to the left.
Table 15:  Examples of Zhe




Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Swing Back Right
N/A
Turn and shift to the right.
Tiger Draws Bow
Curve Bow, Shoot Tiger*
Pull back and shift to the right.
Jade Girl at the Shutter (Right)
Jade Girl Works at Shuttle
Turn and shift to the right.
* Sometimes in the Yang form, this posture is done with the weight in the other direction, in which case it would be an example of zhe instead of kong.
Table 16:  Examples of Kong

Huo corresponds to the element of earth and means “centered” or “central equilibrium”.  While the previous four steps encourage movement, evasion, and angular attacks, this one encourages stability and structure.  It is all about a solid foundation (the earth).  However, this does not mean one should simply stand there while an opponent attacks.  On the contrary, one should first lead with one of the other four steps, and then become solid.  Like the taijiquan classics say, “If the opponent does not move, you do not move.  If he begins to move, you move first”.

We are centered, stable and still as a mountain.
Our chi sinks to the tan-tien and we are as if suspended from above.
Our spirit is concentrated within and our outward manner perfectly composed.
Receiving and issuing energy are both the work of an instant.  
Song of the Five Steps, Tan Meng-hsien

Wu Family Style
Posture
Yang Style
Posture
Description
Golden Cock Stands on One Leg
Golden Cock Stands on One Leg
You must be solid and stable, even on a single leg.
Single Whip
N/A*
Even though the weight is not centered, this posture is considered “centered” relative to other ones.  It should be stable.
Needle to the Bottom of the Sea
Needle at the Sea Bottom
This is another example of being centered and stable with almost all the weight on a single leg.
Stork Spreads Wings
N/A
The weight is stable and centered, even though it is constantly shifting.
Carry the Tiger to the Mountain
N/A
The weight is stable, ready to shift in any direction with equal ease.
N/A**
(Archer Draws Bow)
Fan Through Back
Even though the weight is not centered, this posture is considered “centered” relative to other ones.  It should be stable.
*  The Yang Style “Single Whip” is always done in a long stance, rather than a horse stance.  Therefore, it does not use the concept of Huo.
** In the Wu Family Form, this move is done not in a horse stance, but with the weight shifted to the rear leg.  Therefore, it cannot be considered an example of huo for that form.
Table 17:  Examples of Huo

Advanced Concepts


The Thirteen Postures lay the foundations of taijiquan but, by no means, do they complete the form or the training.  Out of the Thirteen Postures comes the more advanced concepts of taijiquan such as power generation, rooting, healing, and push hands.
Most power generation in taijiquan is in the form of fa jing (“transferring power”).  Fa jing can generate a tremendous amount of power using almost no muscular strength in a very short distance.  The concept was popularized in the 1970’s by Bruce Lee and his famous “one-inch” punch.  Although that punch is a simple example of fa jing, the reality goes much, much deeper than what Bruce Lee was doing.  Visually, fa jing looks like a sudden, explosive motion that comes out of nowhere.  The body looks like it shakes or quivers violently.  But once the strike is delivered, everything goes back to a soft, relaxed state (actually, everything is relaxed throughout the strike as well, although it may not always seem like it).  Fa jing is present in several styles of taijiquan, the most famous one being the Chen style.  It is done with the entire body, not just the striking surface (usually the hand).  For example, when a punch is delivered using fa jing, it is the entire body that is punching;  the hand is merely the point of contact.  There are four basic types of fa jing (see Table 18).



Fa Jing Type
Description
Closed
A strike where the body ends in a “closed” position (like a forward punch).
Closed Upward
Same as “Closed”, but the energy spirals upward through the body as well.
Open
A strike where the body ends in an “open” position (like “Single Whip”).
Open Downward
Same as “Open”, but the energy spirals downward through the body as well.
Table 18:  Type of Fa Jing

However, not all taijiquan forms seem to have fa jing motions in them, at least not in outward appearance.  The truth is that all taijiquan styles do have fa jing, but not in the same way.  Some (like the Chen style, and the old Yang style developed by Yang Lu Ch’an) use the “external” fa jing (do not misunderstand the use of the word “external” as meaning there is no internal power;  it is only used in the sense that the fa jing is visible from the outside).  Other forms of tajiquan, however, use “internal” fa jing.  This type of power is more subtle in appearance, and is usually done with a much less obvious, “softer” shake at the very end of a motion, or slight twists and turns of wrists, hands, fingers, etc. throughout motions.  There are also many “shakes” done internally in the body using one’s qi.
So what exactly is the relationship between fa jing and the Thirteen Postures?  It is a circular relationship where one depends on the other.  The Eight Methods (the Thirteen Postures without the Five Steps) should all incorporate some sort of fa jing to be done properly.  At the same time, the jings taught by those methods are how one develops fa jing in the first place.  For example, almost all fa jing strikes follow the “peng path” when done correctly.
Another important concept that comes out of the Thirteen Postures is rooting.  Rooting is the ability to sink one’s qi into the ground to become solid and firm.  It can also lend a tremendous amount of power to your strikes.  Proper rooting is a combination of one of the Eight Methods with one of the Five Steps.  At the beginning stages, when one is just learning about rooting, all that is really necessary is huo (“central equilibrium”, one of the Five Steps).  At later stages, when one is using to rooting during strikes, it is imperative to add the method of peng (“ward off”).  This will ensure that the arm delivering the strike does not collapse upon impact, and will also lend power to the strike by channeling energy from the ground up into the strike itself.
The Thirteen Postures come into play when dealing with health and healing from the Chinese medicine perspective, as well.  The postures are interwoven with the meridian system of the body.  Although it might be nice if each posture uniquely corresponded to a specific meridian, the reality is not so simple.  In fact, every posture in taijiquan has an effect on every meridian.  Each posture, however, emphasizes certain meridians more than others (usually in pairs).  One of the goals of the traditional long forms is to cycle the body’s qi through the complete cycle once per section (usually done naturally once every 24 hours).  Since almost all long forms are in three sections (traditionally divided by the posture “Single Whip”), the qi would cycle a total of three times during the practice of a long form.  The relationship of the meridians to the Thirteen Postures is more of an indirect one – the meridians are more closely related to the Six Harmonies than anything else, although even that is not exact (see Table 19).  However, they are mentioned here because for the proper meridian flows to happen, the Thirteen Postures must be practiced correctly.
             
Position
Primary
Meridians Affected
Example of a Wu
Family Style Posture
Example of a
Yang Style Posture
Hands and Feet Aligned
Spleen (SP)
Stomach (ST)
Repulse the Monkey
Brush Knee, Twist, and Step
Elbows and Knees Aligned
Urinary Bladder (BL)
Kidney (KI)
Single Whip
Single Whip
Shoulders and Hips Aligned
Lung (LU)
Large Intestine (LI)
Swallows Go Down
Step Back and Repulse the Monkey
Three dan tien aligned
Triple Warmer (TW)
Pericardium (PC)
most postures
most postures
Coccyx and GB-19 aligned
Small Intestine (SI)
Heart (HT)
Needle to the Bottom of the Sea
Needle at the Sea Bottom
Hips (Buttocks) and Armpits aligned
Spleen (SP)
Gallbladder (GB)
most postures
most postures
Table 19:  Relationship of Meridians to Postures

Push hands (tui shou) is applied taijiquan.  The concepts taught by the Thirteen Postures plays an integral part in the practice of push hands.  Although all thirteen are essential, the classics single out four of the postures as being of extreme importance.  These are Four Cardinal Directions, or Four Main Methods, of peng (ward-off), lu (roll-back), an (push), and ji (squeeze/press).  In the Wu family style of push hands, these are usually embodied in the techniques of Repulse the Monkey, Putting on the Pearl Necklace, Stroke the Wild Horse’s Mane, and Punch.  In general, use opposites (according to the bagua) in push hands.  For example, South (peng) can best be defeated by North (lu).  This is concept of balancing yang (South) and yin (North), thus avoiding meeting force with force.
The method of developing good push hands skills for beginners suggested by the classics is to stick to the Four Cardinal Directions, and revert to one of the Four Diagonal Directions when something you try fails.  Eventually, at an advanced level, all of them will blend together seamlessly.
The Five Steps also play an important role in push hands.  To understand this relationship completely, one must understand the two primary relationships between the Five Elements.  Both are circular in nature.  The first is called the Creative Cycle:
1.     Fire creates Earth
2.     Earth creates Metal
3.     Metal creates Water
4.     Water creates Wood
5.     Wood creates Fire

The second relationship is the Destructive Cycle:
1.     Fire destroys Metal
2.     Metal destroys Wood
3.     Wood destroys Earth
4.     Earth destroys Water
5.     Water destroys Fire

Since each of the elements corresponds to a method of stepping, we can use the above two relationships to determine how to step.  For example, if an opponent steps forward toward you (Metal), the proper response is to either use step left (Water, because by creating Water, Metal loses strength;  this is using the Creative Cycle) or to step right (Fire, because Fire destroys Metal;  this is using the Destructive Cycle).  The other options will not work.  Stepping forward (Metal versus Metal) will only win if you are stronger, which contrary to all the principles of taijiquan.  Stepping back (Wood) will gain you nothing, as they will eventually catch you if you persist with the same tactic (Metal destroys Wood).  Similarly, standing your ground (Earth) is not a wise idea when an opponent is advancing toward you.
The correct response, however, does not need to be an actual “step”.  Although one can physically step out of the way, in can also be a turn, a shift, a lean, or any combination of those.  It is important to realize that any motion has strengths and weaknesses.  The purpose of the Five Elements theory, in this case, is to teach which are the strongest and which are the weakest in a given situation.

Clearly, the Thirteen Postures play an integral role in the study of taijiquan, from the most basic levels to the most advanced levels.  It is important to never be limited by the theory itself, though.  For example, just as the concept of Southwest is a blend of South and West, we could just as well create a South-Southwest, as well.  There are an infinite number of permutations that can be explored.  The Thirteen Postures are merely guideposts along an almost infinite path.

NOTE:  For more information involving the meridian pairs in taijiquan and how they can be used for healing, as well as more detailed information on fa jing and how it is developed and used, refer to Erle Montaigue’s Taiji World Website at http://www.taichiworld.com

References


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Chang San-feng, Tai Chi Chuan Lun (T’ai Chi Ch’uan Treatise), ca. 1360.

Cheng Tin-Hung, Docherty, Dan, “Principles of the Thirteen Tactics”, Practical Tai Chi Chuan International Online, http://www.taichichuan.co.uk/index.html.

Chinese Kung-Fu Association, http://www.nwsign.com/ckfa/taijiquan/classics.htm, Tai Chi Classics, July 15, 1999.

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Montaigue, Erle, “The Five Stepping Methods of Taijiquan”, Erle Montaigue’s Taiji World, http://www.taichiworld.com, November 19, 1999.

Montaigue, Erle, “Fa Jing:  The Power”, Erle Montaigue’s Taiji World, http://www.taichiworld.com, July 9, 1992.

Montaigue, Erle, “The Six Balanced Pairs in Taijiquan and Baguazhang”, Erle Montaigue’s Taiji World, http://www.taichiworld.com, June 27, 1999.

Montaigue, Erle, “The Subtle Energy Release System Of The Yang Cheng-Fu Style, Erle Montaigue’s Taiji World, http://www.taichiworld.com, March 29, 1989.

Montaigue, Erle, “The Thirteen Postures of Taijiquan”, Erle Montaigue’s Taiji World, http://www.taichiworld.com, March 11, 1998.

Murray, Dave, dlmurray@micro-net.com, Dave’s Martial Arts Web Page, http://www2.micro-net.net/~dlmurray/stuff.html, “Tai Chi 13 Postures”, September 19, 1999.

Peters, Mark, Bwad_Bwoy@hotmail.com, Kai Ming Martial Arts Association,  http://www.soft.net.uk/pure/kmmaa/articles/13.htm, “Fundamentals of Tai Chi Chuan:  Practical Application of the Thirteen Postures”, February 5, 1999.

“Song of the Thirteen Postures”, ATDale/Internal Wushu Arts, http://www.wuji.com/thirteen.htm, November 18, 1999.

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Wu Ying-hua and Ma Yueh-liang, Wu Style Taichichuan:  Forms, Concepts and Application of the Original Style, Shanghai Book Co., Ltd., Hong Kong, 1993.


Xiang Kai Zhang, http://home1.inet.tele.dk/atm/push1.htm, “A Study of T’ai Chi Push-Hands”.