The Similarities Among the Various Styles of Taijiquan (revised to include images!)

This is an excerpt from Andrew Townsend’s The Art of Taijiquan: An Examination of Five Family Styles. You can find this and several other books from Andrew on the Principles and Practice of Taijiquan by clicking the book image. Plum represents 6 of his fine volumes on Taijiquan, Martial power and Applications, Pushing Hands and Auxiliary Training.





The Similarities Among the Various Styles of Taijiquan

As the various family styles of taijiquan evolved and diverged from one another, each family style developed its own distinctive defining characteristics. While some postures, such as Single Whip (dan bian) or Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane (ye ma fen zhong), retained their original names, the postures themselves began to change in appearance. These differences can appear, at least superficially, to be quite distinct, as the photographs of the posture of Single Whip from three of the five family styles shown below illustrate.

Single Whip Postures from the Chen, Yang, and Wu Styles

Despite the apparent differences in these three versions of the Single Whip posture, if you were to ask a representative of each of these family styles to explain the shape and function of this posture, their answers would likely be somewhat similar. Indeed, we can turn to the written record provided by past and present family representatives for just such an explanation.

Yang Chengfu explained the transition to the completed Single Whip posture as follows:

Collect the five fingers of the right hand, dropping them down and making a hook hand…With the right foot in its original position, turn the body, rotating to the left. The left foot lifts up, stepping out to the left side. Bend the knee and sit solidly on the left leg as the right leg extends straight. The waist turns concurrently. The left hand draws in to the center, passing one’s face, extending out as a palm toward the left. The heart of the palm faces out.[1]

Chen Zhenglei, a contemporary representative of the Chen family, described the final movements that result in the posture of Single Whip in a similar fashion:

Change the right hand to a hook by holding the right-hand fingers and thumb together… Lift the right hand up to shoulder height in a curve with a closing rotation… Shift the weight to the left to form a left bow stance. Pierce the left palm to the right front of the chest with a closing rotation, gradually flipping the palm to face outward… Turn left slightly. Wave the left palm to the left front over the left knee with a closing rotation. Loosen the left hand and sink the waist. The eyes follow the left hand then look to the front when the posture settles.[2]

From these two excerpts, it is clear that one of the major functions of the Single Whip posture, that of using the left hand to clear the area in front of the face, is retained in both the Chen and the Yang styles. This function is also present in the Wu, Hao styles. Other features of the Single Whip posture, such as the application of the hook hand, also remain essentially the same in the Chen, Yang and Wu styles portrayed above.

It is interesting to note that the hook hand feature is absent from both the Hao and Sun style Single Whip, which is why the photographs displayed above are not representative of the Single Whip postures from these two styles. The photograph shown below depicts the posture of Single Whip from the Sun Style. The Hao version of Single Whip is similar, although the weight is on the forward leg rather than on the rear leg, as in the Sun style version represented in the drawing.


Single Whip Posture from the Sun Style

The details of the individual features of the Single Whip posture from each of the five family styles will be explored in greater depth in chapter twelve. One key feature that is included in all five versions of Single Whip is the requirement that the shoulders be sunk and the elbows dropped. Another requirement in each of the five styles is that the waist be relaxed. Sun Lutang specifically addressed these requirements in his “A Study of the Single Whip,” included below:

The right leg straightens sideways. The left knee is in vertical alignment with the left heel. The angle formed by the insides of the legs must be round and full; the legs must not be held at “dead” angles. The body remains upright. The shoulders relax and open. The root of the legs must also relax and open, with a withdrawing energy. When the roots of the shoulders and legs relax and open, the belly is able to relax and open.[3]

The requirement that the shoulders, arms, waist, legs, and torso be relaxed is one of the key characteristics that distinguishes the martial art of taijiquan from most other martial arts. Although the word “relaxed” is often employed by translators of original Chinese texts, the proper term to describe the desired state of the shoulders, arms, waist, legs, and torso is “song.” It is not easy to define the Chinese term, song, which is why translators most often utilize the word “relaxed” when referring to this state. A better, albeit lengthier, translation is “relaxed, open, sunk, and full.”

It may well be said that the requirement that the condition of song be maintained throughout the entire body is the defining characteristic of all styles of taijiquan. Without the quality of song, the body will be in a state of tension, which in turn will restrict the free circulation of qi into the bones and out to the extremities. Continuing with his description of the posture of Single Whip excerpted above, Sun Lutang wrote:

In this (relaxed) state, the qi will penetrate and gather in the bones. The spirit is at ease and the body is quiet… Slowly lead the qi into the dantien. The Tao Te Jing states, “alive and in eternal motion.” The meaning is the same.[4]

Collecting the qi in the lower dantien (qi shun dantien) is another characteristic feature of all styles of taijiquan. The lower dantien serves as a “battery” for storing and maintaining the qi. From this centralized location, the qi can be mobilized, or circulated, in order to “penetrate and gather in the bones” and also to reach the extremities, including the fingers. It is the storage and subsequent circulation of the qi that provides the distinctive internal power, or jin, for which masters of the art of taijiquan are deservedly famous in martial arts circles.

In addition to the requirement to be song throughout the body and the requirement to store and mobilize the qi in the lower dantien in order to support the movements of the various postures, there are a number of other distinguishing characteristics that are present in all styles of taijiquan. These include the requirement to maintain central equilibrium (zhong ding), the continuous interplay of yin and yang energies, the requirement to clearly distinguish between substantial and insubstantial in the arms and legs, the coordination of the upper body with the lower body, the application of soft, round energy to neutralize hard, straight energy, and the essential requirement to seek stillness in movement. These and other defining characteristics and requirements of all styles of taijiquan, which are often referred to as “the taijiquan principles,” will be addressed at length in chapter four.


The Benefits of Practicing Multiple Styles of Taijiquan

There are a number of distinct benefits to be obtained from practicing multiple family styles of taijiquan. One particular benefit is that practicing multiple forms in a single session increases the duration of your workout. Chen Xiaowang, who is an 11th generation direct descendant of Chen Wangting and the present head of the Chen family style of taijiquan, advocates practicing the Chen Old Frame first routine (laojia yi lu) ten times consecutively each day. When performed at a reasonably fast pace, this training will take approximately two hours to complete. Two hours daily is the minimum time a serious practitioner should devote to the practice of taijiquan in order to make any significant progress in the art.

As Grandmaster Jesse Tsao, a 12th generation lineage-holder in Chen style taijiquan, points out, it is easy to become stale when practicing the same form for multiple repetitions. If, on the other hand, your daily workout consists of a single set of the Chen style Old Frame first and second routines (yi lu and er lu), followed by the Yang family traditional long form and the Wu family long form, this would constitute approximately one hour of training. Add in the Chen style sword, saber, and spear routines followed by the Yang and Wu family sword and saber routines plus shaking the long pole for five or ten minutes, and you would add a second hour of training to your workout. You will be much more likely to spend two hours daily when your workout routine is varied and broken up into sets consisting of different styles of taijiquan empty hand forms and weapons routines.

Another advantage to practicing multiple family styles of taijiquan is that your understanding and appreciation of the art will deepen as you incorporate the insights and energetics specific to each family style. For example, Chen style taijiquan emphasizes coiling energy (chansijin) – see the illustration below. This style also incorporates the alteration of slow and fast movements and the sudden release of stored energy (fa jin). Practicing this style of taijiquan is both invigorating and also imbues the practitioner with a distinctive martial spirit.


Depiction of Coiling Energy in Chen Style

Yang style taijiquan, on the other hand, is more even in tempo and emphasizes the four energies of Ward-Off, Rollback, Press, and Push (peng, lu, ji, and an) that are incorporated into the sequence of Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail, which is the characteristic postural sequence of this style. Refer to the photograph below for an example of the Yang style Rollback posture that is incorporated into the postural sequence of Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail. Practicing both the Chen and Yang family styles of taijiquan on a regular basis will help to incorporate these various energies into your practice and will make you a well-rounded martial artist.


Rollback Posture from Yang Style

Yet another benefit from practicing multiple family styles of taijiquan is the overall depth of understanding of the art that is gained from recognizing the differences among the various family styles while also acknowledging their unifying characteristics. An example of this broadened understanding is the insight attained when you realize that the sequence of Lazily Tying the Robe, which is present in the Chen, Hao, and Sun family styles, is analogous to the sequence of Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail, which occurs in both the Yang and Wu family styles.

In many ways, these two sequences contain the characteristic postures of each of the family styles. For example, although the named sequence of Lazily Tying the Robe is the same in each of the Chen, Hao, and Sun styles, the execution of this sequence is quite different in each style. However, it is possible to see the evolution from the Chen style to the Sun style via the intermediary Hao style when examining this sequence in each of the three styles. In a similar fashion, although the execution of Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail appears to be somewhat different in both the Yang and Wu styles, it is possible to discern the individual energies of Ward-Off, Rollback, Press, and Push within both the Yang and Wu styles. With a bit more investigation, the similarities between the two distinct sequences of Lazily Tying the Robe and Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail are readily apparent.

Similar insights and revelations can be had when comparing other postures from the various family styles. Learning and practicing the five major family styles of taijiquan for a number of years is a significant lifetime achievement and one for which the practitioner can be justifiably proud. Beyond mere pride of accomplishment, however, the taijiquan enthusiast who attains this level of attainment will have achieved the equivalent of discovering the elusive unified field theory in physics. This overarching level of understanding is almost transcendent in nature and truly elevates the practitioner who attains it to the highest level of the art.

As a final thought, consider the words of Zhu Guofu, who wrote one of the prefaces to Chen Ziming’s The Inherited Chen Family Taiji Boxing Art, which was published in 1932:

I once said that the distinctions between styles are an over-emphasis on how they look, and that having a strong bias toward one style over others will only deteriorate the concepts within it. Therefore, it is not distinctions between martial arts systems that causes harm, but is instead sectarian prejudice that obstructs the progress of martial arts. Although I specialize in Xingyi, I nevertheless see the strong points of other systems, always staying open-minded to them in case they can show me how to fix my weak points.[5]


[1] Yang Chengfu, The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan, translated by Louis Swaim, page 27
[2] Chen Zhenglei, Chen’s Taichi for Health and Wellness, page 65
[3] Sun Lutang, A Study of Taijiquan, translated by Tim Cartmell, page 83
[4] ibid