Q & A: Single Move, Same Way?

Dear Plum,

I have been thinking a lot about repeated moves in Tai Chi Chuan sets. In Chen style, for example, Single Whip is done in Eighteen Movements, 7 times in Lao Jia (Old Frame), 7 times in Xin Jia (New Frame), once in Lao Jia 2 (Cannon Fist) and one in Xin Jia 2. Plus it is done in Xiao Jia (Small frame), and if someone wanted to argue that some weapons moves are really Single Whip, I’d not disagree.

So, if you are teaching would you prefer a student did Single Whip the same way seventeen times in the various sets? Or would you prefer that the student show off seven or seventeen ways to do Single Whip? I could understand if the choreography was set up to go from seven different position to Single Whip or maybe from Single Whip to seven different positions. But that’s not the case. Likewise, if you wanted to teach how to get from Wave Hands like Clouds or Repulse the Monkey on the left seide and then on the right side you need three reps – but five?

Tai Chi MovesI have heard lame excuses like rectifying the position in space. 20 generations of grandmasters could not find any other step? Someone who shall remain nameless suggested it was to do with meridian qi flow? So I asked “If the qi was not right on the first three Wave Hands what will change on the 4th and 5th?”

A puzzlement.


Dear P,

For all practical purposes, the repetitions are not the same, even though they might seem so. First, a joke: The sifu teaches a certain move to a student and then starts walking away. The student hails him back and, confused, asks “Do you mean you want me to practice the same move over and over in exactly the same way?” The teacher, a little confused himself, replies, “How would you be able to do that?”

It’s the same thing here—each single whip differs from all the others. They will vary, for instance, in the entrance stroke or in the exit movement. These are all different. Even with something simple—if you were to do 50 pushups, none of them would be the same, if for no other reason than your muscles, engaged differently each time, rally and fatigue.

And you are right about three movements, not because they represent forces of nature, but because they are mathematically coherent. For instance, you want to practice the two major steps possible, these being right-then-left or left-then-right. But this isn’t the most compressed example. That would be right-left-right which encompasses both major steps in only three moves. Five moves, in my opinion, is more a sign of insecurity than anything else. The only reason for the five movement version that I have seen is to get you nearer to your starting “X.”

I remember a funny way we got caught by this one. We had a tape by Dr Yang where he performed his long set and said that he always ended on the same spot as he began. I watched the tape along with my entire Tai Chi class. We tracked every movement, commenting on his sequence. Then, even up to the final movements we wondered how he would be able to accomplish this amazing feat. Then, just as he was closing his hands, he did a kind of reverse wobble and walked himself back to his starting position.

People should spend more time mastering footwork than counting it.


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2 Responses to “Q & A: Single Move, Same Way?”

  1. Michael Babin says:

    Nicely put. The only thing I would add that might seem to contradict what you say is that, as an instructor, I have often found that students are only beginning to understand any posture when they can do it or simple applications of it consistently time-after-time. This relative uniformity isn’t necessarily a long-term goal but it does seem to accompany a certain stage of understanding.

    As to more realistic applications [much less sparring]; the proof of understanding a solo movement is in being able to adapt it to whatever is being thrown your way within the limits of whatever that particular technique is good for dealing with in terms of lines of direction and intensity.

    And, if I may be a little cheeky, in the end being really good at applications is really only useful for defeating those with much less ability and/or practical experience at sparring and/or fighting.

  2. Jeff Crook says:

    Many forms follow the left-right-left formula. The number 3 seems to be a universal human constant of learning. It speaks to us at the deepest level and appears in storytelling, music, all over the place. When a mythical or fable character needs to learn a lesson, he is usually taught it three times before the lesson takes hold.

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