Alchemy of Tuishou

T'ai Chi [Supreme Ultimate] comes from Wu Chi [Formless Void]
and is the mother of yin and yang.
In motion T'ai Chi separates;
in stillness yin and yang fuse and return to Wu Chi.

Wang Zongyue
The Treatise on Taiji Quan

The internal basis of martial arts

More and more people realize that martial arts are not about random fighting but are above all discipline, strategy and tactics, in other words martial arts are related to inner work. Tui shou (Chinese for ‘pushing hands’), initially known as jie shou or da shou, is a practice developed to the highest degree by the Chinese art of Taiji quan. However Tui shou is essentially much deeper and broader than a simple set of exercises or techniques for applying taiji quan, as it is sometimes perceived. Tui shou combines the external fighting techniques of martial arts with the internal laws of Taoist alchemy. People who practice Tui shou work primarily on their own vital energy qi – in this type of work the internal, the alchemical basis of the practice is especially important. The tui shou system helps transform the energy qi, it teaches one to interact effectively with the external energy and to have control over one’s emotional states, it promotes the development of the muscle-tendon and the bone bodily systems and teaches people about the biomechanics and principles of constructing motion. All these skills, in turn, are manifested to a certain degree not only in tui shou or taiji quan but also in many other martial arts of the Chinese and Eastern tradition (Okinawa karate, aikido Japanese, Korean sonmudo, etc.).

Taiji quan (literally ‘Supreme Ultimate Fist’ from Chinese) is the internal art of nurturing power, which was formed as an independent knowledge system in the era of Neo-Confucianism in the 12th and 13th centuries. Prior to this period it was part of Taost alchemical knowledge. Zhang Sanfeng, 1247-1464 (?), is considered creator of Taiji quan, although the origin of this art to the whole system would be more accurately attributed to Taoist knowledge. Taiji quan, along with Bagua Zhang (‘"eight trigram palm’) and Xingyi quan (‘will boxing’) are the internal martial arts aimed primarily at self-development. This is what sets Taiji apart from the martial arts that are preoccupied with external conditions and do not allow for internal fulfillment. In Taiji quan what is mastered is the very principle of warfare and not the technical training.

The energy qi (meaning ‘substance’ in Chinese) is a key force determining the physical resources of the person, his physiological capabilities, as well as his abiliy for internal transformation.

Rhythm as the basis of Tui shou

We can say that martial arts are essentially rhythmic. Therefore the art of ‘pushing hands’ is primarily driven by the concept of rhythm. Without awareness of the rhythm, one cannot learn the right breathing, cannot achieve concentration, cannot build one’s body and ‘develop one’s power’. The sense of rhythm in the movements is of paramount importance for the art of tui shou. The Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) wrote in his treatise Gorin-no syo: ‘Rhythm is the basis of a warrior’s life; it defines his successes and failures. It teaches man to develop properly and determines the strong and the weak points of the warrior. Rhythm helps man to find the nearest path to himself and to keep his distance from all that surrounds him. Rhythm defines the tactics and strategies of the warrior, without it he cannot develop his power and lacks confidence in times of danger.’

On the three centers Dantian and achieving balance

Every good practitioner of tui shou can achieve such a high level of sensitivity and awareness of his internal world, that everything outside his limits simply becomes an extension of his inner reality. This is achieved by actions that are in accord with the external situation, yet without losing the internal balance and through the ability to consciously and flexibly respond to each specific situation. That is why the practice of pushing hands is an important tool on the path of internal development. And in this sense tui shou, being a practice aimed at achieving awareness, can be called the internal culture of all martial arts.

Achieving balance of the bodily energy is related to the transformation of the energy of the three energy centers usually called ‘Dantian’. If you have just started practicing internal martial arts you should spend more time concentrating in the lower part of your abdomen where the ‘ocean of qi’ or lower dantian is located. In time all practitioners develop the ability to control, gather and direct their energy through the three centers Dantian. Initially, the physical alignment of the body is the condition for structuring energy, i.e. for the optimization of the energy movement in the body and the filling of the energy centers. To maintain the physical structure, the whole body must be filled with energy. However the ‘basis’ or the structural integrity of the body can be developed only after the energy vessels of the body are filled and a proper circulation among them has been established. As a result, the body is integrated, holistic; it’s ‘connected’ both physically and energetically.

Dantian (Chinese for ‘cinnabar or elixir field’,) is the human energy center. The lower danitan ‘Ocean of qi’ is considered the energy source. The primary qi – input by nature – ‘flows’ to it. If one’s lower dantian is not functioning, the person is fully dependent on natural forces qi and external energy qi. In this case the person cannot control his inner energy processes and is not in the process of internal development. The middle dantian is located in the solar plexus. This is the center of the energy, which has been converted from the energy of the lower dantian. The upper (top) dantian where the energy converted by the middle and lower danitan is stored is located in the center of the head and is related to the notion of spirit (shen energy).

When and how to start

One should first of all understand when and how best to begin the practice of tui shou. Each teacher, of course, has his own opinion on this matter. And if you look at the whole system of Taoist alchemical techniques, you’ll find a deep system of knowledge. The laws of Taoist philosophy, based on the principle of "naturalness", indicate that there is no certain suitable time to start practicing. Everyone knows that fields should not be sown in early winter, one would better wait for the warm spring days. In other words, sometimes one’s efforts do not yield any results, while at other times all we do, comes into place. In this case, we feel the harmony and order, part of which we ourselves are. To get a good harvest, you need to prepare the soil before sowing. The practice of tui shou is an unrivalled form of internal martial arts. Realizing this is the first step that guarantees you’ll start on time.

The art of listening and working with a partner

If you're new to tui shou, it would be best if you spend some time practicing without a partner. This will help you develop your listening skills. The purpose of listening is to develop awareness. Listening is the foundation of all your skills, especially if we're talking about a practice, based on working with your body, energy and consciousness. Working alone, listening to yourself, you learn to be aware of yourself. Working with a partner, listening to yourself and your partner, you learn to recognize both your own and the common movement of the pair. With the development of awareness, the skill increases so much that you gain the ability to perceive and interact with the energy even at a distance.

Just like motor techiniques developed from meditation and alchemical practices for managing and transforming energy, pair work was formed within motor techniques, and the use of a partner become a valuable tool for transforming one’s own energy. That's why when properly understood by the practitioner tui shou is a holistic alchemical system for cultivating and using energy.

Much of the practice of tui shou is associated with working in sensitive physical contact with the partner. While doing all the movements, you should not lose control over the movements of your opponent. This principle helps develop your listening skills, and they increase your sensitivity to the finest movements of your partner, as well as your ability to anticipate his intentions.

Pair work is done in accordance with the principle of wu chi (‘non-existence’ or ‘preserving the natural’). It starts with single work in the "emptiness" and ends again with "emptiness" when the practitioner gains the ability to regulate any situation without direct physical intervention. Practitioners should first of all improve their physical and energetic capabilities through single work (working alone), then they should learn to construct themselves within the limits defined by their interaction with the partner. While strengthening the body and the energy, the practitioners develop also their intuition and learn to interact harmoniously with all that surrounds them.

We are defeated not by the enemy, but by ourselves. The main opponent of the master is the master himself. Overcoming oneself is what lies at the heart of all serious training. It is important to understand that the purpose of this martial art is to achieve inner peace, and not lust for blood.

The wu ji principle (wu ji means vacuum, emptiness, infinite) is the basic principle of Taoist philosophy and refers to the original non-being, the state of equilibrium of all the energies of the universe. The world appears as a result of the violation of this equilibrium. All vital energies come from it and that’s where all of them should return.

History of Tui shou

If we take as a basis the principle that the ability for self-control and consequently control of the opponent is what determines the true skill of a master, we can claim that the ‘pushing hands’ or ‘listening hands’ practice has been developed to a certain degree in all martial arts and moreover forms their foundation. The principles underlying Tui shou are relevant and indispensable for the most popular practices today (one example is Aikido, which originated from the Daito-ryu aikijutsu style and came into being in one of the Buddhist sects).

The story of tui shou’s origin goes back to the reign of Emperor Yu Di. It is believed that the principles that later formed the basis of Tui shou were formed during his rule. Historical records show that during the reign of Emperor Yu Di a wrestling called shuai-jiao (Chinese for ‘joint throwing’ or simply ‘wrestling’) was popular – this was the first tradition, which embodied the basic principles of pushing hands. The concept of this wrestling was to get the enemy in a dead-lock without the use of strikes. The shuai-jiao tradition also makes mention of the military leader and writer Bao Gan (III cent.), who introduced to the system the art of working with one’s inner energies.

Yu Di (The Bellicose, 147-80 BC) was the Emperor of the Western Han Dynasty who put an end to the prolonged military confrontation between the aristocracy and the emperors of China and united the state under a strong imperial power. The time of his rule is marked by the flourishing of the Chinese arts and sciences. Under Yu Di Confucianism became the official state ideology. Legend tells that the emperor commanded that a ‘Golden pole with a cup’ be erected in the center of the capital so as to collect the Heavenly dew or the essence of the heavenly river. Yu Di used to drink from this cup and he was granted power, health and longevity. Taoist tradition believes that Yu Di possessed the elixir of immortality, which puts him on par with the great Taoist masters.

In the early Middle Ages the priorities for developing martial arts in China changed. All arts were placed in the service of the state and this paved the way for the separation fo the martial arts into internal (‘neijia’ – Chinese for ‘internal famliy’) and external (‘waijia’, meaning ‘external family’). This separation lead to changes in the overall way of life, because Man’s interests towards internal development were gradually mixed with the interests of the public and the state.

During the reign of the Ming Dynasty (14-17 c.) the division between internal and external martial arts persisted. The basic reason for this division was the general dominance of the ‘internal’ over the ‘external’ in Chinese culture. A similar distinction is observed in Chinese art, calligraphy and literature. The second reason for this distinction lies in the fact that in the 17-th c. many philosophical categories (yin – yang, movement – rest, the five elements, etc.) found their expression in certain technical actions. Until then no major treatise on martial arts paid attention to the internal principles of energy movement. Another factor that contributed to the formation of different schools and styles were the folk festivals organized during the 14th and 15th centuries, which gathered representatives of various martial arts trends.

Around the 13th and 14th centuries within the walls of the Shaolin Monastery a new style called Shaolin quan was developed, which played an important role in the development of many martial arts. There have been a lot of speculations around this style in our time; however its modern form differs significantly from its original version.

Shaolin Temple was built in 495. In the year 527 a monk named Bodhidharma lived in the Temple. This monk is considered the founder of the Shaolin Quan sect, which was based on Buddhist philosophy and the alchemical practices of inner transformation. The techniques developed by Bodhidharma included some special breathing practices, and developed both the body and the mind. The Shaolin monks continually expanded these techniques, incorporating also the traditional Chinese knowledge.

In the period between 16-th and 19-th centuries – the period of active formation of the internal styles – Buddhism and Taoism increased the awareness of the importance of internal development, which lead to the need for a relevant military philosophy. Internal styles were formed on the basis of the already existing external techniques, masters and Taoist monks created a new philosophy based on the convergence of the dominant techniques for external and internal development. This lead to the creation of a number of trends such as Taiji quan, Baguazhang and xingyiquan. This historical period is usually called the Wudang period and is the originating era of all the styles that have survived, in one form or another, till today. The most outstanding representative of the Wudang school is Zhang Sanfeng.

Zhang Sanfen is a semi-legendary master. Various traditions provide contradictory information about the time of his life and his accomplishments. It is believed that he was the Taoist alchemist, who produced the pill of immortality. We know that Zhang Sanfen was born in 1247 in the era of the Song Dynasty. According to one source, he died in 1464, having lived more than 200 years; others point to a much longer life (for example, the scholar Wang Yanlin mentions meeting him in 1723, when Zhang Sanfeng should be 476 years old!). In his youth he was an officer and served a district constable. Visiting the monasteries, he gradually became interested in Taoism and later on settled in the mountains with his students. The rulers of the 14th and 15th centuries tried to meet the sage who lived such a long life, but few received this honor. Giving consent to the invitation of the ruler of the kingdom of Wei, Zhang Sanfeng set off, but the roads proved impassable due to the local gangs. Legend tells that the same night, in his sleep, he received a revelation from a Taoist deity who sent him the knowledge of Taiji quan.

As mentioned earlier many contemporary martial arts practically originated from the roots of what we today call tui shou – Taiji quan, Bagua Zhang, Xingyi quan, Wing chun, Shaolin Kung fu, Aikido, etc. In its current form the tui shou practice is based upon the tradition of the Chen family, and its creation is attributed to the great master Chen Wanting.

Chen Wangting is the second name of Chen Zouting (1600–1680), a Chinese officer and a celebrated master of martial arts who lived during the Ming Dynasty. He is credited with creating the style of Chen Fist, the practice with a broad sword (dao sword) and the techniques for working with a spear. In the provinces of Henan and Shandong, Chen Wanting was known as a fighter against bandits and robbers who plagued the trade caravans. Legend tells that during the day he honed his combat skills while at night he immersed himself in the study of Chinese literature.

In order to understand the intricacies of Taiji quan one should certainly understand the importance of the Chen family style, which is the oldest of the existing styles of Taiji quan. All moderns styles originate from the Chen style, and particularly the Yang style, created by Yang Lushan (1779-1872), disciple of Chen Changxing (1771-1853) – a fifth generation descendant of Chen Wanting. Yang Lushan taught the internal force and its combat applications in the court of the last Chinese monarch – Empress Ci Xi (1835-1908).

Tui shou in Russia: Master Victor Vassilievich Kuznetsov

The popularity of Tui shou in our country grows with each year – new groups are open, seminars are being held, Chinese masters come over. However, only few of the practitioners, and even fewer of the beginners, realize how important tui shou is for the overall understanding of taiji quan. Only few can be masters in this tradition because tui shou is a way of life that requires dedication, great concentration and a deep absorption.

Many people believe that interest towards internal martial arts originated at the end of 1980s and was in part related to the popularity of wushu. However groups studying taijiquan were present in Moscow at the very beginning of the Perestroika. The story about the origin and development of Taiji quan in Russia is linked to Victor Vassilievich Kuznetsov who is known to a wide range of people as a master of internal martial arts, however before devoting himself to taiji Vassilich – the respectful name by which his disciples call him – traveled a long way, starting as a street fighter and then gaining fame as a karate teacher.

As a child, my parents and I moved from the center of Moscow to Kuzminki, which was then a suburban village. There people on the street were half sitting, half ready for action, and if you didn’t know how to fight you could never survive. When I was sent to buy bread, for example, there was always the chance that when I went out on the street, they would beat me up and take everything from me, and then when I went home my father would beat me some more. So we fought street against street, me and the boys from our group, we had to defend our honour, this is the armosphere in which I grew up and it taught me a great deal. Fellowship is still very important to me.

I was introduced to the spirit of martial arts by a friend of my father’s, Yura Artamonov, a war veteran who knew jiu jitsu. He saw me reading a book called ‘Self-defence without weapons’ for the workers of NKDV, which I had borrowed from a friend, so he called me out to the yard, he handed me a knife and said: ‘Fight me, kid’. He slapped my face and I went mad… I woke up when my mom poured some water on my face. He told me that following a book or fighting with friends is just theory, and when you’re up against the enemy, your behavior changes completely, he talked to me and taught me how to fight… This was my first lesson, my introduction to martial arts. Then it all started – like with many others – with karate.

In the 1970s Victor Vassilievich was one of the founders of the karate school in Russia. In the beginning of the 1980s, until it was officially banned, karate gained massive popularity, and Victor Vassilievich became a respected master of the school. He remembers that the people who studied karate in those years did it with no special equipment; they even had to sew their own clothes. Yet during classes they fought hard.

In 1982 karate was banned in USSR. There were three death cases during competitions and after one of his classes the nephew of the Grishin, the secretary of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party, was beaten up on the street. So the government made an official decision to ban karate. And we continued practicing in secret, we went into the woods, and sometimes disguised ourselves as basketball players, the moment there was a knock on the gym door, we grabbed the ball and acted all innocent: ‘we are simply playing basketball’. If something happened, we jumped out the windows, or hid in the basements...

Then the problems with my health began – my vision deteriorated severely, and during one session my opponent hit me so hard that I bit my tongue and lost a lot of blood. So, I thought, what's next – either I kill someone or someone kills me, that’s not good. Although I was upset, and thought: ‘What a life!’, I began searching for something good that would develop both the body and the spirit. I thought that mankind must have invented something ... Then one of the karate practitioners brought me a treatise on taiji quan. We studied it with my friend, and realized that this is exactly what we needed.

During one of the karate championships in Tallinn Victor Vassilievich saw the imposing performance of a Swedish athlete, the European karate vice champion, who demonstrated the forms of the Yang style Taiji quan. His movements impressed Victor Vassilievich, so after the competition he went to meet the Swede who suddenly told him “You’ll still practice Taiji quan.’

The thing is that taiji quan is something you can do till your deathbed, continuously practicing, perfecting and reassessing your knowledge. Karate… Well, I don’t know. You probably have to be Japanese and live in Japan. In the serious trends of karate all achievements are clearly linked to the internal skill and the internal energy, that’s why these people there hold on for so long and practice so much.

After a couple of years a student brought Viktor Vasilyevich a video recording of the famous Taiji quan master of the Chen tradition, the nineteenth generation heir, Chen Xiaowang, demonstrating the Chen style. What he saw on that tape fascinated Victor Vassilievich so much, that he decided to devote himself to the knowledge of Taiji quan.

I found out that taiji could become a very important part of life, like food or the air. And Zhang Sanfeng, who invented it all, he can’t be human. Maybe Taiji was passed on to him from some other civilization, it’s so deep and sacred. Yet, unfortunately, this knowledge is gradually getting lost today…

So along with the karate classes, I began teaching Taiji quan and Tui shou, simultaneously seeking out information, learning from all the Chinese who came over. One such Chinese, Sasha, even stayed at my home. There was little he could teach me, yet I was still grateful to him. Soon I learned everything that Sasha could teach me, and one day he told me: "I'm not a master. You need a good teacher. " A true master is hard to find even in China. This is when the perestroika began, so I had the opportunity to travel abroad.

The lack of information and communication with the living bearers of the culture limited the development of the practitioners. Many students succumbed to the impatience and gave up after years of practice, going back to the more familiar karate and sambo, whose constant repetition and simplicity of actions were more accessible and habitual for their consciousness.

Victor Vassilievich travelled around the world a lot and grew convinced that Taiji quan and pushing hands were not simply a type of wushu but rather a way of life, a culture. The years of practicing Taiji quan allowed him to fully reveal all its aspects: healing, psychological, military ... The current popularity of Taiji quan can be explained through its ability to disclose the inner human potential.

Over the past few years Victor Vassilievich teaches Tui shou at INBI. His teaching is based on the "old" traditional methods. He takes personal responsibility for his classes and pays attention to the individual peculiarities of all the practitioners. Victor Vassilievich believes that a good coach constantly monitors his student, supports him whenever necessary so as not to be harmed by excessive energy, because many people start practicing pushing hands with a stereotypical perception of martial arts, developed over years of studying external techniques.

If you practice constantly and consciously, if you work hard and grow, then understanding and opening will naturally come, even if you can not study under a great master. And if you train twice a week, even in a group, your efforts will be useless. You need to work every day, better in the mornings. Ten minutes training in the morning is equal to half an hour in the afternoon. Sleeping late is for the lazy.

Victor Vassilievich is always ready to experiment and learn something from his students, if they have something to share. To the new students of tui shou his method does not seem soft -they get the impression that with every movement they are fighting against themselves. And the old students of Vasilych – those who have studied under him for more than a decade – say that all his movements are not just tui shou techniques or a constant development of one’s understanding of the essence of martial arts, but rather Kuznetsov’s philosophy of life.

I have so many friends who are former boxers and karate practitioners yet they are all ‘former’. Let’s take box for example. Who can do boxing after he’s turned 50? No such a man exists. In order to practice earnestly tui shou you must be able to do ‘pole standing’ for at least an hour, and this requires constant work, you must learn to listen and be aware of yourself. I have long passed my 60-th year and I believe that one should "study, study and study again!", as one famous communist used to say.

The discussion of the philosophy of Taiji quan and Tui shou can go on forever, yet here’s the one important thing worth remembering: the basic principle of pushing hands is to always be a student, which means that you should respects the acquired knowledge and not waste time in acquiring new knowledge, if you have not understood the already acquired one. These qualities will help each student to understand that he should always be ready to overcome first of all himself.


29 april 2009

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