THE FOUR SKILLS OF TAI CHI CHUAN
By Howard Choy
Having trouble with your tai chi?
Are you frustrated over the lack of improvement?
Then this article may be the perfect medicine for your internal ailments.
"How can I improve my Tai Chi Chuan?" - a question often asked by my students. It is also a question
I have grappled with as long as I can remember. I remember I posed the same question to my
teacher once, the late grandmaster Yang Sau-Chung, and he tersely replied, "By practicing the form
correctly!" "But how ?", you may ask. A good teacher helps, but he can't be there correcting you all
Wu tu-Nan, a well-known tai chi master from China, proposed that there are four kinds of Tai Chi
skills (kung). If one practices the form (or push hands or weapons, for that matter) with these skills in
mind, then the form will be correctly performed and you will gradually improve your understanding of
Tai Chi Chuan.
The skill of function
Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art. Each movement has a practical function. For example, when one
executes the movement "step up, deflect downward, parry and punch", do we understand how these
moves could be used in a self-defense situation? How to step forward, how to deflect downward, how
to parry, how to punch? Not only do we need to visualize our movement, but also the distance and
the posture of the opponent when performing the form. Understanding the practical use of a move will
help you correctly execute that move. The direction of the body, the coordination of the limbs, the
breathing and the chi flow are related to the use. The more you practice visualizing the actual use
and imaging yourself boxing with an invisible opponent, the better you will be in executing the form.
The function corrects the move because it has a job to do; you will gradually remove all superfluous
and useless "bad habits" and reach the stage of proper Tai Chi.
In the series of photos below I have demonstrated the movement "step up, deflect down, parry and
punch" as a san sou set with a partner to help you visualize the form.
The skill of relaxation
A distinction must be made here between being relaxed and being floppy and sluggish. A relaxed
body is one without friction in the joints or tension in the muscles. The mind is alert and the body sunk
(with a low center of gravity). A floppy body is in negative tension. It is equally as detrimental to your
progress as a tensed body. Being floppy or being tense makes you sluggish. It blocks the flow of the
vital energy (Chi or Qi) and we lose the resilient, springy, sensitive quality associated with soft and
Correct posture also helps relaxation. The body is held vertical at all times while performing the form.
The muscles designed to keep our body upright are functioning properly.
Practicing the standing posture before the form often will help you relax your body and let go of the
tension in your mind. You can also practice holding various postures of the form as a mean to
achieve a truly relaxed and correct posture. When you are doing the posture incorrectly, the pain in
your body will tell you where your chi is blocked and where your posture is out of alignment. The
photos below showed the standing posture and the brush knee and palm posture.
The skill of Jin
What is jin? Although the source of jin lies in strength, it is not the same as strength. Strength is a
static force, jin is dynamic. When the body is relaxed and sunk, the jin is gathered and concentrated
by the mind and can be released at will in various forms to a particular part of the body. Jin can be
fast or slow, hard or soft, tight or loose, stiff or springy, delayed or explosive. The powerhouse of jin
lies in the dan tien, released through the waist. Its energy is permeated throughout the body by the
free flow of the chi. Hence the jin is intimately related to the breath and chi flow. As a dynamic force,
the laws of Newtonian physics govern jin. Take the equation "F = md/t", for example. Jin as a
dynamic force can be increased by a corresponding increase in the mass, distance and the speed of
delivery. Although the weight of your body is finite, the mass can be concentrated by lowering the
center of gravity at the point of execution. Distance can be increased without pulling back by
executing your movement in a circular and/or screw action. Also, speed can be increased by proper
means of breathing and muscle relation and tension at the appropriate time with correct posture.
Tai Chi Chuan is composed of eight basic movements: peng (ward off), lu (roll back), ji (press), an
(push), cai (grab), lei (break or control elbow), zhou (elbow) and kao (shoulder). Each move has a
particular jin associated with it. Chen style tai chi has special emphasis on "screw action" jin and
"cannon" jin. Along with push hands, four main jins are also involved. They are "listening jin",
"understanding jin", "neutralizing jin" and "expressing (explosive) jin.
This series of photos shows the use of cai (grab) and lei (break or control elbow) jin in dealing with a
right fist attack to the head.