Random Circles—The Synergy of Taiji Quan

by Jason Tsou and Art Schonfeld

By necessity, there are many levels of martial arts training. A person must develop foundational work before he can go on to more advanced work.

One essential training method often overlooked today is that of Random Circle training. While this is not the highest level of training, it provides the necessary underpinnings to reach the higher levels of skill. Random Circles teaches strategy, teaches us how to use Ting Jin (listening energy to sense your opponent), Hwa Jin to divert and avoid your opponent’s sensing, and it allows you to collect and connect the techniques contained in forms in order to get a taste of usage in those techniques. Random Circle Exercises is one step beyond the Tui Shou (Push Hands) exercises most people practice. Often, we see Tui Shou limited to the movements of Grasping Bird’s Tail. While it is important to understand Peng Lu Ji An, being able to use all of the other moves in the push hands process is also crucial. In addition, Random Circles Exercises introduces combat footwork and begins to train the student in how to use momentum when issuing Fa Jin.

The term “Random Circles” traces back to Yang Ban Hou, the uncle of Yang Chen Fu. In a poem attributed to him, the phrase “trap your opponent within the Random Circle and four ounces of energy will move a thousand pounds of force” appears. Much of the same idea can also be found in writings attributed to Wang Zhong Yue, who also talks about the four ounces of energy moving a thousand pounds of force. The Random Circle allows one to find the point at which the four ounces can be applied. Random Circles can be easily incorporated into the framework of the Taiji Quan forms and can be used as Da Fa (combat training). In fact, it is hard to find a set of exercises better suited for this first level training than the Random Circle Exercises. Mastering the Random Circle Exercises will increase the skill level of wrestlers and Judo practitioners as well as Jiu Jitsu, Qin Na and Shuai Jiao enthusiasts. The insight it provides into the underlying principles at play in all of these activities is especially useful.    

Such basic principles and structural training deepens our understanding and elevates our martial arts level. The person who knows a thousand techniques will be beaten by the man who knows a thousand and one techniques, but the person who understands the basic principles of martial arts will be able to develop his own techniques and will be better able to handle incoming force.

Thus, a good martial artist can take many external forces, bring them into his body and mold them into one force, the most efficient force available, and then release that force in a controlled manner. The Dantian and the waist can be a trap for the unwary. In fact, waist movements are less important than Kua (hip) movements. We need to train with the intention of developing the capacity that consciously absorbs energy and then channels that energy in a way that allows us to effectively use it. Regardless of style, the Dantian must be connected with the ground and the skeletal system must be fed energy (reaction force) with an efficient system of distribution. Thus the Kua must be used to control motion. By control, we mean a motion must be large enough to be effective but not so big as to become excessive. Excessive motion becomes inefficient motion, making it as important for the Kua movement to limit such motion as it is for the Kua movement to enable proper distribution of energy throughout the body.

Part of efficient training and efficient use of energy involves taking energy into the body, compressing it and twisting it into the ropelike hardness we refer to as Chan Si Jin (Reeling Silk Energy). It is this energy that can then be harnessed into Fajin. While some people prefer to confine body movements to horizontal ones, it must be understood that reeling silk energy is a three dimensional energy. In other words, Reeling Silk is XYZ. If X is horizontal and Y is vertical, then Z refers to the depth or cubic quality. When movement is added, Chan Si Jin, which is never stationary, appears. Chan Si Jin is never isolated to only one part of the body, and it holistically encompasses all aspects of a move including footwork. Chan Si Jin is not confined to any single move but also constitutes the linkage between moves.

Each move in the Taiji form can be understood as a random circle. When we practice the form we focus in part on not interrupting the flow from one circle to the next. The method we employ in making these transitions is Chan Si Jin. The woman standing over the pot of boiling water containing the silk worms keeps her sticks moving the entire time and if we trace the movements of these sticks we will see that they always arc and they always turn and the movement remains continuous until the reeling has stopped.

As suggested above, while the XYZ cube is stationary, Random Circles are Cubic in quality but they are in dynamic mode. Movement introduces the need to consider the time factor in the process of moving from point A to point B. Most beginning level Taiji is called framework. This is true for both Yang Style (Large Frame) and Chen Style (Old Frame and New Frame). Framework is designed to help us understand the Taiji Cycle of energies often called Ting (listen) Hwa (divert) Na (control) Fa (issue). That is the process of detecting, absorbing, bringing the power through the body to control your opponent and then the issuance of power to defeat your opponent. While some footwork appears in at this point in Taiji training, this level does not emphasize the use of combat footwork.

The martial art applications we see with the “Frame” level of Taiji are mostly takedowns, throws and Qin Na. In all such cases the opponent, real or imaginary, is in a close range fighting mode. But, anyone who has tried to use Taiji movements in kick boxing or San Da will tell you that a good opponent won’t let you get in close. In order for Taiji to be a complete martial art, kicks and punches or long range techniques must also be taught and trained. We see this training in the oldest style, Chen Taiji. We look at its Cannon Fist and the use of momentum to generate explosive power.  

The Frame level is normally practiced slowly. This allows the opportunity to both experience the whole process as well as intellectually analyze the process as you are doing it. Arguably, with Chen Taiji there is the opportunity to better experience the whole of Reeling Silk power, but by and large the purpose of the frames are consistent. In other words, Yang Taiji also has Reeling Silk but it employs a larger arc while Chen Taiji employs a smaller arc. Practitioners of other styles can look at the arcs employed in their forms and make their own determinations.

As suggested above, Taiji Quan is not a complete martial art if we confine ourselves exclusively to the framework. To make it become a true martial art, you need more advanced training such as the combat footwork learned in Chen’s Canon Fist In order to learn how to function in a combat situation you must have momentum. Momentum is generated through footwork. While it is true that one can stay stationary and issue Fajin, that Fajin is limited to clenches and some grappling. Learning to combine Chan Si Jin into your footwork; how to use footwork to listen, absorb or divert an attack; how to control an opponent as well as issue power through the momentum generated by your footwork; this becomes the ultimate goal of those wishing to understand Taiji Quan as a martial art.    

Random CircleWe believe that Chinese Martial arts can be broken down into three components: Da Fa (combat techniques), Gong Fa (Strength Training), and Yan Fa (form training). To understand their relationship, we like to describe them as a Russian Troika, a sled drawn by three horses. The center horse in the Troika faces forward, while the two side horses face outward and form an equilateral triangle with their connecting point on the sled. When properly matched and aligned they pull efficiently in the forward direction. We do not agree with those people who would place Yan Fa or Gong Fa in the center of this Troika. We believe that the lead horse must be combat (Da Fa) and the horses at the base, supporting our combat training are: are strength training (Gong Fa) and forms (Yan Fa).

One of the mistakes made too often in today’s world is harnessing Yan Fa or forms as the lead horse. This results in a student learning form after form without really learning and fully understanding any one form. Any movement without the context that comes from experience—using the move and having it done to you—is ultimately too superficial. Yan Fa is usually practiced solo. Without an imaginary enemy to practice with you, what you’ll learn from a form is limited. Taking that thought one step further, if you lack combat experience, and you use an imaginary enemy, that enemy will also lack combat experience, thereby stunting your growth.

Gong Fa (strength training) is also a poor candidate for the lead horse. Benefits derived from strength training are valuable. They can be compared to hard earned money. Through such training we learn to refine our power into an efficient force. But without combat experience, we won’t know much about what needs to be refined and we won’t understand how and when to use this hard earned power. A lot of strength training involves precursors. By precursors we mean the training creates the physical conditioning necessary to effectively engage in combat. Low stances, Bagua Mud Walking steps and a myriad of other exercises, develop the ability to fight but in many cases, they are not directly employed in combat.

At the same time, if Da Fa is the only horse harnessed to the Troika, he will soon be exhausted. Da Fa needs the synergy gained from other horses pulling in conjunction with him. Remember, Gong Fa trains us both externally and internally, thereby giving us the endurance and Constant Heart necessary to prevail in a tough struggle. Yan Fa is an encyclopedic library of earlier martial art thought and experience. This library is full of goodies and the more experience one has with combat the deeper ones appreciation of the thinking and training processes involved in Yan Fa. Without the understanding provided by Yan Fa, a martial artist risks hitting a ceiling in growth, ultimately losing interest without ever seeing the panoramic picture.

It is a common misconception that combat training must wait until a student has developed many years of strength and form training. The synergy needs to begin quickly, since this synergy in and of itself will deepen and improve the quality of both form and strength training. It makes no sense to teach a form and withhold the meaning of the movements if you want a student to improve rapidly. Kung Fu takes time and effort, and needs a while for all three horses to learn to work together. But you need to begin this process as quickly as possible and not create artificial barriers to a student’s development. We realize that this teaching methodology breaks with tradition. But we live in a different world today. Teachers are less worried about a student misusing the martial arts. Cold weapons have been replaced by guns and other deadly devices and the people who are prone to violence will more likely be attracted to an AK 47 than to a sword. So old-time thinking no longer applies. People living in traditional agrarian societies had more time, where martial arts was a daily activity and fewer distractions existed. In our modern age our time is limited and efficient training is more important to us. Remember, we are the “now generation.” 

In conclusion, practicing Random Circle exercises is rewarding because it begins the process of developing synergy between the three martial art components, while at the same time delivering insight into the four energies of the Taiji Circle. Random Circles give a clearer understanding of Reeling Silk and why this energy has the properties of glue, elasticity and hardness as it functions in Taiji Quan.  


See some video excerpts from Shifu Jason Tsou’s excellent 2 hour DVD on the Random Circle Exercises.

To purchase this DVD, click HERE.


Jason Tsou (鄒家驤) has wide experience in CMA, having studied Taiji, Bagua, Mei Hua, Baji, Xingyi, Pigua, and more. Master Tsou won the Singles championship title at the 1971 National kung fu tournament held in Taipei. He also served as the chief martial arts instructor for the Taiwan Air Force, Fourth Division. He is the co-founder as well as a guest instructor of the Harvard , MIT, UMass and UCLA Kung-fu clubs. He is currently teaching Martial Arts both privately and as a Lecturer at UCLA and Cal- State Long Beach. He was recently elected President of the Traditional Chinese Martial Art Federation-Southern California.

Art Schonfeld is a retired attorney who has studied with Grand Master Jason Tsou since 1978. He has co-authored a number of books and DVDs with Grand Master Tsou, teaches a Taiji class of his own, and volunteers his time at UCLA functioning as a teaching assistant for Grand Master Tsou’s Taiji class. He has also participated as a Judge at many martial arts competitions.


3 Responses to “Random Circles—The Synergy of Taiji Quan”

  1. Stan says:

    This is a great article! The link to the YouTube videos are a huge bonus. It is great to see a glimpse of the concepts in that format.

    I know the video advertised is Tai Chi. How does the Random Circle of Tai Chi compare to, or relate to, the 18 Circles by George Xu and the Martial Rotation by Joanna Zorya? Are they overlapping exercises? Are they different but complimentary?

    It is interesting to see more focus on the circle skills.

  2. Plum Staff says:

    To my mind Tsou’s circles are about creating the correct “shape” and also introducing the pathway into the opponent. George’s circles, for me at least, are primarily a method to “open” the body and also to teach the student new ways to generate force easily. Zorya’s rotational work concentrates on the delivery of rotational energy to the point of striking. They all work surprisingly well together.

  3. Stan says:

    Thank you for the insights into each of these contributions! I knew if they didn’t overlap they would compliment, but didn’t know how they would integrate. Again, thanks!

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