I first met the Tan Tui around 1968. In that prehistoric period we were still calling our style “Chinese” Kenpo. Tan Tui was one of the last requirements for black belt. It did seem odd to me, even as a teenager, that this authentic but basic Kung Fu form was also one of the most advanced in the Kenpo curriculum.
The Tan Tui we learned was a 12 road Southern version. It had relatively low kicks, strong punches, crispy actions. My teacher at the time, Tom Bersik, was a strong, definitive stylist (so definitive that we called his version Tom Tui in an early manifestation of what is now known as “Kenpo humor”). Tom was a patient and precise teacher and we tended to do the form in a straight forward manner without much insight. Tom’s interpretation was interesting. He saw Tan Tui as being not just about power, but power generated in a very short space: in other words Cun Jing or one-inch energy. Tom taught with a fine concern for physical principles, dissected movement and correct positioning. He was the quintessential forms teacher showing a love of detailed instruction. Tan Tui was one of his favorite forms and it caught me, too.
A while later I started Tan Tui with Rob Lew of Tai Mantis/Fu Jow stock. The movements gained fluidity and meaning coming from his classical Kung Fu approach. The school was small and next to the barber shop owned by his father. A the time Ron was studying with Paul Eng. As we practiced his version many Kung Fu personalities would visit the kwoon. For instance, Al Dacascos would drop by. I think that’s where I first met him.
A few years later I began Northern Shaolin and, once again, an early requirement was Tan Tui. This 10 road version required a distinct type of body control, a little more challenging than the previous versions I had learned. This Shaolin style approach was very clear and simple. When I see what are considered older, purer forms of the 10 Road, I am often delighted to note how similar they are to mine. Han Ching Tan’s interpretation, for example, shares many fine points of comparison. From a purely structural angle, I believe the Shaolin to be one of the more pristine examples of the form.
But there are so many to chose from because Tan Tui is extremely versatile and has many faces. In addition to the studies above I have played with the Wu Tan, Ching Wu and Northern Mantis versions. The extensive range of the form is incredible.
Tan Tui can also at first be a convention of problems. The extended positions, low stances, stretched kicks and highly coordinated actions make you feel as though you were wearing a clown suit to practice. The postures of Tan Tui stretch your body and strain your legs. The immediate flipping of side to side dramatically uncovers any little asymmetries in your body. Another challenge lies in that fact that, at first blush, the moves just don’t make sense. Why extend the arm that far? What about these huge blocking actions? What’s with the strange lift-kicks?
But oddly, the more you do Tan Tui the more it makes sense. The running up and down the rows becomes hypnotic and, after a while, each rows’ distinctive requirements become like characters in a story which you delight in encountering again and again.
Tan Tui makes us see what it is to reach our physical extremes and still be able to move. The set starts with a forward momentum that is unstoppable. But, as you practice, more and more a greater range of variations is allowed. For instance the original Tan Tui is said to have had 28 letters representing the Arabic alphabet. Arabic poetry often utilizes a convention based on Arab word roots which are three-letter words. An inspired poet might construct a beautiful poem where the three-letter root is rearranged into other three letter combinations and threaded throughout the poem. Tan Tui was meant to be played in a similar manner. Its different roads, once learned, could be recombined, thrown together in almost any combination until the seemingly rigid set actually evolved into a bracelet of baubles. You don’t even have to finish one road. In the middle of any number you can switch to any other. Test yourself. It literally explodes the meaning of the set.
A colleague of mine, John Ottenberg, with a distinctly pragmatic and practical approach to self defense, breaks Tan Tui down and uses it as structural training. He finds the open, stretched positions a perfect way to introduce practical ideas in a conceptual manner. Many people have heard that when China’s first, Kung Fu and Athletics campus—the famous ChinWoo (Qing Wu) school—was created they encountered a problem completely new for Chinese martial society. If you have different styles, all offered under one roof fopr the first time, how the heck does someone who has just walked in the door decide which style to take? The answer came with a breakthrough for traditional martial arts: all the teachers agreed on a first year curriculum general enough that a student who finished this primary training could literally pick any style there to continue. The Tan Tui was one of the key factors to this universal approach and used as the introductory set for the entire training. When Kung Fu was very hot in the seventies in San Francisco and all the young students were bopping from teacher to teacher and “shopping” around in their rush to become second generation Bruce Lees a few teachers, notably Mantis master Brendan Lai, got together and decided that they would teach the same agreed-upon first form to all these faceless, nervous students. In that case they decided on what might be called the “other” Tan Tui, namely Gong Li Quan (Chinwoo’s #2 routine). Similar to Tan Tui, this basic set was also proof that there could be a “universal” yet traditional approach to basic Kung Fu training.
Tan Tui always shows its adaptability. The ChinWoo developed a two-person version of the set. Other people generalize the idea with Tan Tui like road forms for weapons. They might teach a ten road Tan Tui for saber and another for staff before going into the forms training. (This is actually an excellent idea which I often adopt. The movements in the forms cannot match the basic road practice for engraining the correct habits and details.)
Some forms get under your skin. Sometimes it's because you put so much sweat into them. Sometimes it's just because they are so darned stubborn or, conversely, so commodious to your particular talents. Tan Tui is, I think, one of those memorable ones because even though its simple it is different. For many of us it was so, well, different we felt as though we were doing something new and that something new was probably called Kung Fu or at least was beginning the journey toward Kung Fu.
One pretty much universally agree on aspect of Tan Tui is that it is merciless. In that sense it is a perfect "teacher's form". Among its origin stories is the one that goes it was invented by a Mr. Tan whose family name was altered by some illiterate Sifu into another writing of Tan. True or not, few people get through the training without cursing Tan’s name at least once. The moves are a cruel combination of precise and unnatural. This is nothing new to Kung Fu in general but, when you are struggling through a foundational form like this, you don’t know that. You just think it’s torturous. And rigid. And awkward. And it is. But when you reach the first level, not of grace but of a glimpse of possible competence, a halting continuity; you feel like you’ve done something.
Tan Tui is a master form. That doesn’t mean you will necessarily do it for the rest of your life. But it does mean that you could. And in the world of martial values that’s pretty much as gold as it gets.
Tan Tui DVD