Tai Chi’s Long Bow

Addressing its reputed character, we get the impression that every earnest instructor tries a different approach to proclaim Tai Chi as a martial art.

Considering those instructors who do try and make the point feasible, the spectrum of possible arguments is endless. For instance, one common example has the instructor picking a bystander on whom to demonstrate sample mayhem: Single Whip throws the student back ten feet; Fist under Elbow twists his arm, coupled with a surreptitious punch; Snake Creeps Down leaves the recipient on the ground, hammered to the roots, so to speak.

My problem with this approach is that students are shown that Tai Chi is a martial art, but are not taught how Tai Chi is a martial art. I often wonder—even for those believing in the efficacy of Tai Chi—how they believe they can reap the art’s benefits without actually attempting some level of execution, even without a partner?

Another teacher, using the partnered approach, encourages students to play PUSH HANDS, but offers only a modicum of the instruction needed to ensure an understandable process. This brand of teacher thinks hindsight is empowering, and corrects after the fact, “Johnny, you shouldn’t let him trip you like that!”

And of course there are those teachers who give off the vibe that endless—and often mindless— repetitions result in ever-increasing skill. 10,000 times may work for those who are present, but can’t help those who just “phone it in.”

I’ve seen these varying examples of belief, but sadly few convincing explanations. The polite students stand in a semi-circle, nod their heads then go back to their familiar mistakes without being better for the knowing.

This lack does not just produce sadness; it also does a disservice to any person pursuing Tai Chi, because without truly grokking its martial underpinnings, you cannot get good at Tai Chi.

My approach attempts to capture the spirit as well as the mechanics of the art. The tool I find most helpful for this analogy turns out to be, of all things: the bow and arrow. To understand this weapon’s power and intent I have accompanied selections from ancient archery texts with a few evocative paragraphs of my own. And it follows…

Step 1: Intent

“People do not realize that concentrating on the target is secondary to the issues of concentrating on how you are going to hit it.”

To hit the target we must see the target and allow all the space between target and arrow tip be connected as though stuck together by a single spider’s web. From many hours of practice the intention of the intention (I feel myself aiming) reduces just to pure, simple-minded intention, the strand of  thought.

Step 2: Drawing

“At the point of reaching full draw you are stretched fully, arms and legs no longer tensed.”

Drawing the bow, you put energy into the system only to call it back when dispatching the arrow. Before the Draw you are in silence. Drawing, everything is alive. Pulling the string stores until the Draw stops, complete. When releasing, everything will be alive. Issuing is only a moment, but drawing can seem a lifetime. You are frozen, watching a wolf from cover, remaining un-moving while the wolf settles his perimeter.

Step 3: Issue the energy (Fa Jin)

“Before releasing an arrow you need to have control of your conscious mind.”

Intent aligns your actions for the release of the weapon. The arrow springs to life like a rousted cat. You hold the position you have chosen. At this point intent transforms itself to action. 

Step 4: Retract or release the energy (Xu Jin)

“After the arrow is released there is no reason for it to wobble, for the arrow to miss the target.”

 After you shoot the arrow you must bring back the energy, shape and intent of a moment ago. This drinking partner will not let you sit down and abstain. He wants to go from one bawdy song to another without  interruption.

Step 5: Recover

“When you pull the bowstring back and then release, your body will not tremble.”

Releasing is a whole-body act. The vessel that holds your arrows is known as a “quiver,” that word almost echoing the feeling of what happens to you when the arrow shaft is released. This is that crucial moment when the runner bends over,  hands on knees,  just waiting until he recovers.

To my mind, every individual movement in Tai Chi unfolds in this manner. The most intriguing aspect from a martial standpoint is Drawing, where you create potential energy that will allow release. This is the same path for Tai Chi. The work is done in the Draw; the release—the punch, for instance—is effortless.  A surprisingly modern approach to exercise, this is perfect because the teaching of the internal and external skills fits each person like a tailored coat. When performed correctly, every move is a perfect reflection of the person practicing.

Releasing the string you hear a muffled twang of the string, a slapping slice along the left arm. Sometimes, without looking, you know if you have hit the target or not. How can Tai Chi or any martial practice not benefit from this careful observation?


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2 Responses to “Tai Chi’s Long Bow”

  1. Michael Babin says:

    RE: Tai Chi’s Longbow article
    Well-said indeed and the only thing I would add, from my experience both learning and teaching taiji, is the tendency for some teachers to think “bow” and to conceptualize it as a long, smooth, English longbow as opposed to a relatively short and recurved, composite as you would find in Chinese bows and crossbow.

    It does make a difference when discussing and demonstrating abstract concepts as those who aren’t familiar with the culture [of the history of bows, for that matter] tend to think in terms of straight lines when spreading their arms out to the sides to illustrate their talk on making a bow with the arms and upper body. The Chinese bow was bent whether strung or unstrung whereas the western bow was [until recent decades] a sophisticated stick until it was strung and became a curve.

    If your teacher tells you that “making a bow” with your arms is like storing energy in a bow and your arms are too straight; you haven’t quite got the original idea in taiji terms.

    Not that there aren’t many ways to string a bow and shoot an arrow… 🙂

  2. Ted says:

    Absolutely. And this brings in things like ‘re-curve’ and some of the incredible distances racked up by Turkish bows. You saw this a little differently and added some dimension to the idea.