Let’s Ban the Vibrating Palm

On the practice of issuing power…

There is a Tai Chi story about a cousin of the Vibrating Palm called the Sucking Palm. Supposedly, Yang Lu Chan’s successor was too young to inherit the mantle of leadership. For a number of years it fell to Wu Quan You to head the burgeoning Tai Chi clan. But finally the day of ascension arrived and Wu graciously passed his power to the Yang successor. But he was unable to resist a bit of a jibe. “Here,” he is reputed to have said, “Sit  where your father sat.” With that he pressed his palm to the seat and carried the chair with his palm open and extended, then set it down before the new head of the clan and retired into the shadows.

This is the Sucking Palm often demonstrated on large glass bottles with a showy flourish and the aid of basic physics.

Its more aggressive cousin is known as the Vibrating Palm. Its reputation is devastating, but probably just a bit exaggerated. Jerry Alan Johnson in his less than masterful Bagua Masters Manual goes on at great length about the VP as though he himself went around shattering skulls as Rosencrantz might have cracked walnut shells.

A little silly hyperbole by a teacher who should know better isn’t my theme. It’s about a lot of exaggeration, not a little. There are valid ideas behind the Vibrating Palm and that’s the problem. Impact hits can be delivered in many ways and it’s difficult to describe the feeling, even if you can take a punch, that some of these dive bombers can produce. I have had top notch fighters share hits on me that simultaneously make you feel, “I’m hurt; I don’t feel hurt but I can tell I’m going to; how can I hurt? and, that didn’t look like it should have hurt me at all.” An instant later the retching begins.

This pain often has a physical mirror in the visible shaking that might occur just after the expulsion of power. Anyone can see it but not anyone can interpret. The problem is that everyone and his classmate is imitating the manifestation without the actual power. Hands are shaking like leaves in a palsied wind. People are dressing themselves with an eye toward eye-catching shimmies. Especially in the so-called Internal styles we see so much blurry motion we wish the practitioners would take the title “Internal” more to heart and spare us their showy forcelessness,

There are, of course, real models and mentors. When you see a Chen Xiao Wong, George Xu, or He Jin Bao issue power you must recognize that as real regardless of other critical points you may have. But there are so many pretenders. Furthermore, the physical necessities to create the neat quivering affect (like a ten year old karate-ka staring with disdain at his imaginary downed opponent during forms competition: mouth open, eyes grim, fist vibrating with recently consummated energy) are often the opposite features of what, if pursued purposefully, can generate the power and the effect.

That’s not to mention, as the old English joke goes, that faked tension will also be rude to you, causing headaches, twisted muscles and tight necks.

I’ve told this story once or twice but I feel it a beautiful example. Attending the Internationals in Wen County for five days, tired of all the so-so performances, I see a young man performing his Tai Chi with–shall we say–an over-exuberant display. Every move was a stomp, every strike vibrated like singing steel. Somewhere in his twenties it wasn’t hard to see the affectation there and indeed some laughter was coming from the stands. Nonetheless he won a place and a trophy.

The last day finished, Debbie and I are leaving the concrete competition hall and are caught by a woman we had met on the first day, a member of the Chen family itself. She’s brought her softik 15 year old niece and wants us to go back and see the girl perform. Tired but trying to be polite we agree. The main hall is closed by now so we go to an octagonal side building. The young woman starts her set and I am immediately in heaven. Lots of twisting, timing precise as a clock, limber and powerful, she has it all despite her aunt’s constant verbal lashing reminding her how inept she is. Then she starts dropping her power and the hardwood floor begins to reverberate with her drops and stomps.  Just then, as the contestants file out, I notice our young friend, trophy and all, stop in the back of the building and watch the Chen girl’s performance. She stomps. He stares. Then he glances from her to his trophy and I know that he knows. And then he leaves.

Fa Jing of this kind is like the hundredth push up: there’s no way to skip to it without performing the first 99 and many times at that.