It was during one of those conversations that pepper a good workout that Robert Nakashima, Eddie Fong and I found ourselves agreeing that there were all sorts of problems to Taiji’s famous Push Hands, especially regarding the clarity—or lack of it—to students of Taiji. People get very puffy about this and a lot of otherwise enthusiastic Taiji players would walk a mile to avoid the pushy part of the training. That’s not even mentioning those uncomplaining stalwarts who try to stick it out pushing, grunting and toppling; wondering all the while what the point is.
While I thought on this I realized that it wasn’t a problem restricted to Taiji. It was endemic to Kung Fu practice and it might at least be discussed from a more positive point of view, learning a lot from the trials of Push Hands. Maybe, I thought, we could see the tangles not in Push Hands itself but in the understanding of how this type of practice dovetails with the core of the art ; remembering all the time that every style, not just Taiji and Wing Chun, has a form of Pushing, Rolling, Sticking Hands practice: whether or not the practitioners of that style have ever even heard of it.
In the effort to relieve Push Hands of some of its problems people try to rename it. Some people call it Sensing Hands. Some call it Rolling Hands. But that implies that the hands are the center and that’s wrong. Others just go ahead and call it Push Hands and that’s worse because pushing makes the whole thing a linear contest of trying to shove your partner off the dais. The missing part is that, if nothing else, Push Hands is always a whole-body-and-spirit exercise, an immersion in the Taiji world long enough to appreciate its special landscape. The most discouraging thing is to see the kind of mock movement where everyone circles softly and gracefully and then breaks out into a sort of stifled Sumo. Is this not the very essence of passive-aggressive? (I need only remind you that, being a Californian, I’m am a de facto expert on passive-aggressive). It is obvious from this immediate, though sneaky, return to tugging and leaning that few people actually believe that one of the main points in Push Hands is to really relax the body and rid it of tension. Of course people feel this is very difficult indeed compared to the relatively relaxed and graceful execution of the wonderful “form”.
But, in truth, there are all sorts of hidden tensions in the form, too. Take it from me, the ones who think of themselves as the most graceful are often tightened like two-bit springs. Sometimes dancers are the worst. Everything is gesture and therefore a pose. (If you think from my occasional pieces that I don’t like dancers you are far wrong. But dance is dance is dance, rosy as it may be.) Being one of those obsessively patient instructors I nonetheless find myself gritting my teeth at how long a supposedly graceful, 100 pound woman with aspirations of Taiji perfection can resist the subtle promptings of minute correction and return, like a race horse hearing the bell, to her same hidden, albeit charming, tensions, the moment you step back from her little world of self-proclaimed relaxation.
So along comes Push Hands to set you into a realm of contradictions. The first problem arises from the sad fact that you have to work with a partner who, obviously, has not a tenth part of your skill and is therefore the true culprit of the sketch, the one making YOU tense. (Don’t disparage this line of thinking. It does allow you, at least, a scapegoat and a modicum of self congratulation.) Simultaneously you must try to disassociate yourself from the evil that men do by relaxing with the corporeal equivalent of a sick smile whenever you are pushed hither or thither demonstrating physically your moral if not technical superiority.
Such forbearance is the stuff of heroes, though silent ones. However all this abnegation is essentially misplaced. The problem with Push Hands isn’t that it’s impossible to stop a forceful push with a yielding spirit, it’s that this is the wrong goal in the first place. It makes Push Hands into a game with rounds and scores. But Push Hands is much closer to an environment than a pastime; much more like Disneyland than any particular ride IN Disneyland. In other words Push Hands is for the express purpose of dealing with problems like pushing, yes, but while not forgetting for an instant that you are visiting the land of Taiji. In Push Hands you try to stay in the Taiji world continually just to feel what it’s like to speak such a foreign (body) language. Push Hands is not, therefore, a dodge or a stratagem about winning through deception. It is as much an experience as swimming and as little responsive to tension.
What are some of the attributes, the characteristics of this language? You may well ask rhetorically if not linguistically. The list is not long, just profound: roundness, reeling, absolute and constant concentration, deception, folding, integrated movement and more of those words which have become platitudes in the Taiji community.
But these are just the ingredients of Taiji’s idiosyncratic approach to the martial requirements. Is Push Hands really about fighting? Well, sort of…
What Push Hands is really about is an intersection of a number of tasks (I am constantly reminded that, in this age of multitasking, very few people can physically multitask any more. Perhaps this is the point behind the ascension of the one-trick hero who can dedicate his entire life to one activity, become a celebrity and still have time for socially obnoxious behavior AND product endorsements.) You are required to maintain the SHAPE of the body, to attempt to RELAX the body, to INTERPRET your partners movements and, most difficult of all, to remain continually ALERT during this relatively slow moving exercise. This is, to be honest, a formula for frustration, especially if—deep down—the only reason you would every even CONSIDER yielding to someone else is for the short, sweet victory it might bestow.
Here, consider the picture. Taiji has a number of components that makes it Taiji just as opera has singing, acting, music and dance. Yes, you could eliminate the dance and drop the acting but I believe that is just called singing. By the same token adding rock and roll stage effects doesn’t make it MORE like Opera. There’s a balance to this menu, confusion cuisine it is not. In the land of Taiji (a part of the Kung Fu Confederation) you must have stationary practice, Qigong, Form work, Partner practices such as Push Hands, fighting applications, games and equipment practice. Your relaxation must hide a tempered alertness just as you physical calm must buzz with the power of a Giacometti piece, frozen but restless with potential. This is Taiji, not the dozed and dozing renditions of floaty ladies dressed in pink and hoping planes to demonstrate Taiji Fan to distracted crowds in Beijing.
Push Hands plays a difficult part in all this. It is a jam session where, if you are lucky, you might just be able to keep up. But, as in the music, the solo is not necessarily required. Momentary victory or defeat is absolutely without meaning just as a wrote note is no tragedy during a compelling rift. What IS a tragedy is dropping the feel of being completely immersed in the actions, of turning every corner with the energy, of responding to a touch with the effortless amiability of a balloon which cares not a jot in which direction it is blown. The goal of Push Hands is to remain “in character” not for a round of big applause. In Taiji we try not to milk the death scene. Instead it’s the thread of sustained effort and attention which fascinates. Don’t worry about pushing and don’t worry about deflecting. Try to stay in the Taiji mode as long as possible. I guarantee there is nothing like it, an exciting and simultaneously exonerating experience.
All of Kung Fu is stuck in the thick of this problem at the moment. There is too much entertainment, too much high fiveing, too much momentary celebrity for knocking out the guy who—along with you— will be forgotten next week. In short there is too much dissection of tasks that were once multi. Each and every system of Kung Fu WAS complete at one time. Each one had a Push Hands to call its own or at least a method that tested and tempered by demanding completely spontaneous reactions within a completely defined space of actions. In Taiji we have Push Hands, in Long Fist we have Coiling Hands, in Wing Chun we have Sticky Hands, in Mantis we have Rolling Arms, In Shuai Jiao we have basic wrestling, in writing it’s called sustaining a voice, in acting keeping to the part, in math it’s called elegance. It’s the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. In life it’s called authenticity.
The owner and chief consultant on this site, Ted Mancuso has been involved with CMA for more than 40 years.