The origins of Tui Shou as an independent art form is rooted deeply in Chinese history. During the periods of extensive warfare for many centuries it was not amount of brute force that won the battles but the strategic planning, discipline and martial skill. As application of firearms at the time was rather limited (if existent at all) the reliance was placed on mastery of one’s skill with weapons.
Weapons are fought using hands but since the movement of hands is never separated from the movement of body overall – no matter how sharp the sword or long the spear without proper coordination of movements, perfect integration of principles and force, as well as clarify of mind and intention – there is no hope for survival in the battle let alone the victory.
An extension of skill of ‘pushing hands’ – such as disabling opponent through grappling and capture of his force without the use of powerful kicks or a dangerous weapon – is even higher grade of skill, often attributed to great military leaders or legendary martial artists. Many such individuals have gained their renowned status thanks to their great victories or exclusive fighting skills; focus on their external achievements indeed overshadows the true extent and origin of their greatness.
It is not a coincidence that tui shou (and, arguably, other forms of martial arts both internal and external) has originated from tradition of warfare. Art of War above all is governed by a strict discipline and rhythm – the same tenets that define the strength of the Way for a diligent practitioner. Rhythm is not simply the pace of performing exercises or doing something – it is a framework that includes the multitude of actions that defines the life and development of an individual. Without rhythm it is impossible to develop concentration, regulate internal breathing, construct the body or develop true force.
The main victory that any master or military commander had to fight was the victory over oneself. The struggle to control and hence master the inner self was the foundation of any serious martial arts teaching; no gongfu makes sense if it is aimed at someone else more so than towards oneself. Ability to control oneself and as a result control the opponent is the vital skill that determines the level of proficiency of any martial arts and is valid not only for Chinese but indeed almost all Eastern martial arts.
The wide variety of modern martial arts, such as aikido, for example have traditionally sourced their main principles from techniques and methods that involved tui shou applications. Short of paying specific attention to development of physical mass by pumping muscles all genuine martial arts determine set of conditions for the practitioner to harmoniously develop both their external might and internal power – which is what tui shou aims to do.
Although the term ‘tui shou’ may have not been used for a very long while the principles of the art that is now called tui shou have existed and have been evolving over fairly long period of time. There is no direct lineage of ‘masters of tui shou’ in the manner how other martial art forms have carried their knowledge from ancestors. But there are many famous individuals such as Taiji Quan Master Chen Wangting or Commander General Gan Bao whose teachings have demonstrated their innate application of tui shou principles.
While the practical side of tui shou may have been demonstrated mostly through fighting (both in the battlefield and in folk style wrestling friendly competitions in villages across China) the philosophical foundation can unmistakably be traced back to Daoism and Daoist monks. This is also the case with such martial arts as Taiji Quan, Bagua Zhang or Xing Yi Quan which, being embraced with practical purpose of self-defense or for its fighting applications, has existed in parallel as an internal discipline. It is almost as if the knowledge of the ancient has ‘transformed’ itself, releasing its external capacity to masses while reserving internal potential to those few who went beyond limited notions of martial arts’ applications. The new philosophy of personal development which took into account the reality of frequent battles and social instability may have been casually introduced by Daoist monks who under different circumstances shared their knowledge with those they saw were fit to understand it. (This theory is somewhat supported by example of Shaolin Monastery whose monks – Buddhist and supposedly non-combative – took up study of martial arts in order to defend themselves and then the surrounding areas from bandit attacks). Marrying of Daoist internal principles and energetical aspects with martial applications is likely to have occurred around Wudang Mountains – area where currently most active internal alchemical tradition still survives. The most historically credible and relatively recent story that took place in that region is associated with General Zhang Sanfeng who has exiled himself for study of Daoism and through intensive and lengthy period of internal alchemical cultivation has mastered the secrets of the Great Ultimate (Tai Ji).
Tui shou in its modern form is widely credited to Chen Wangting – a remarkable individual who is known to have been a high ranking official of Ming Dinasty and a martial arts master of great skill and dignity. It is said that he has helped locals of Henan and Shandong provinces to ward off frequent attacks by gangs thus attaining popular respect and praise and attracting many followers to his teaching of Taiji Quan. Chen Wangting is believed to have developed Taiji forms with Broadsword (Dao sword) and Spear. Chen family in Chenjiagou (Henan) has since carried the tradition of Taiji Quan and Tui Shou as its inalienable part and is currently one of the most widespread schools of Taiji around the world. Wudang has likewise retained its deep alchemical roots, though there is currently very little on public offer that adequately represents this profound tradition.
In summary the principles underpinning tui shou have evolved through many centuries of warfare in parallel with independent development within realm of Daoist teachings. It has later been embraced by martial arts schools as a component of their syllabus and despite somewhat losing its internal content continues to exert a strong influence upon enhancing psychophysical abilities of practitioner. Today the basics of Tui Shou are most visibly integrated into Taiji Quan, Bagua Zhan, Xing Yi Quan, Wing Chun, Shaolin Kungfu and Japanese Aikido.
Tui Shou is therefore an elaborate art which combines the external/martial aspects aimed at combating opponent and internal principles derived from Daoist Alchemy teachings. Here is the key difference between Tui Shou and other major Daoist techniques: in developing one’s energy Tui Shou teaches practitioner to position one’s practice against one’s own self through the use of partner. Most other techniques effectively deprive practitioner of such possibility by simply providing a set of principles and rules and leaving one to work with them freely without any chance to check one’s progress or authenticity of one’s achievements. Without proper supervision by a skillful and experienced master practitioner may fall into a trap of self-deception misinterpreting sensations and feelings for changes and genuine achievements. On the extreme side practitioner will even lose great share of the acquired energy being unable to neither assimilate it not see mistakes in practice which lead to such loss.
Tui Shou by requiring practitioner to work with a partner creates a mechanism whereby practitioner can test whether what he or she has achieved is a genuine result or is a mere farce. It can help reveal flaws both in body construction and energy flow; test emotional response and adequacy of practitioner’s state in pair work situation. The construction of technique allows each stage to be reiterated and refined in concert with other stages rather than individually thus rendering balanced and gradual improvement.
Work with a partner follows the wu-ji principle – it starts from nothingness (solo work) and ends in same nothingness. First practitioner individually builds up physical and energetical resources required for interaction, then learns to construct oneself around interaction with a partner, then reinforces one’s energy and body with help of this interaction and finally relieves oneself from need of partner altogether by being able to interact with environment as a whole and direct or control effort beyond limitations of physical application.
As we are concerned with the internal aspect before the external application the more correct name for this practice is ‘Alchemy of Tui Shou’. Alchemy is the Art of self-transformation – and that is the ultimate goal of Tui Shou practice from Daoist perspective.
As a multifaceted system of practice Tui Shou can be subdivided into 8 levels.
Eight Levels of Tui Shou
Level 1. Single hand Tui Shou (dan tui shou) Includes:
Preparation of the body
Tui Shou meditation – aimed at understanding of 5 directions (jin (front), tui (back), zuo-gu (left), you-pan (right) & zhong-ding (center) through 3 connections (san he)
Study of physical properties of the body and effect of Tui shou practice upon them (muscles, bones, skin, blood, tendons)
Eight types of concentration
Sphere of the Self
Rhythm and sequence
Balancing Yin and Yang
Preparation of body using short energy (duan jin zhunbei). Eight exercises for body development through short energy
Preparation of body using long energy (chang jing zhunbei). Eight exercises for body development through long energy
Forces Li and An
Art of Gathering
Eight Forces (Ba jin)
Foundation of Fajin
Level 2. Double Hand Tui Shou (shuang tui shou) Includes
Five required skills in tui shou
listening to three centers (Yin, Yang and void)
understanding of effort transformation in work with a partner
coping with growing force
managing twisting force
involving whole body into practice (quan shen zhi fa)
Learning the founding double hand principles:
Five directions of the movement (preparation for free push hands)
fixed step with one or two hands. Aimed at ‘sticking’ or connecting through the use of vertical axis (zhan le), listening and embracing through the use of horizontal axis (nian sui), maintaining connection (bu tui), no-resistance (bu ding)
fixed step with two hands
single changing weight, stepping with two hands
downwards pressing movement, double hands
free movement with two hands
Foundations alchemical connection in movement
Wuan hua – hands movement in 3 directions for opening the waist, relaxing the chest and creating connections (using shun chan & ni chan)
Ding bu – study of fixed steps and mastering An and Ji forces. Formation of palm for qinna grappling
Huang bu – changing steps
Da lu – Large Rollback – connecting the body, the hands and the legs in movement, developing balance. Practice in three position levels.
Luang cai hua – free movement with emphasis on legs; study of neutralizing, listening and applying Eight forces.
Work with the basic principles of developing fajin through free pushing (san tui), neutralizing (zhouhua), and finding emptiness (yin jin luo hong).
Level 3. Strengthening the foundations Having learned the foundations of application it is important to enhance one’s energy.
strengthening Dan tian
controlling the environment (practice with shifted center of gravity)
strengthening the internal effort (work with tree, wall and other fixed objects)
development of Five Skills:
Ting (listening) – feeling and responding to opponent’s attack)
Zou (leading) – guiding opponent’s moves
Nian (sticking) – listening to retreating movement of the opponent
Hua (transformation) – connecting Zou with Nian
Fa (expulsion) – attacking movement.
Level 4. Taiji Qinna Qinna is a technique for working with the opponent’s tendons used in number of martial arts in China. From alchemical perspective practice at this level is aimed at development of spiritual might (lingjin) for cultivation of internal and external dignity (nei wai jian xiu). Work with Taiji Qinna requires advanced understanding of the body dynamics.
Taiji Qinna includes:
Tui – pushing
You – hitting
Na – grappling
Shui – throwing
5-level matrix of 108 (108 movements (‘formulas’) divided into 5 groups)
Fen Jin – separating muscles from tendons
Cuo Gu – finding vital centers
Bi Qi – blocking breathing
Dian Mai – blocking arteries and veins
Dian Xue – pressing sensitive centers on meridians (na xue)
application of 8 jin
An – listening energy
Ji – piercing energy
Peng – ward-off energy
Lu – streaming, rolling energy
Le – rotating energy
Cai – pulling energy
Kao – forming energy
Zhou – maintaining energy
Level 5. San Shou
This level includes reiteration of skills enhancement and is focused on application of force (fanshengshu) using hands, legs and whole body.
All movements are based upon combination of 5 qualities: Gang (roughness), Rou (softness), Qing (lightness), Zhong (stability), Kuai (swiftness) and Man (slowness).
Level 6. Developing rooting efforts
Rooting effort is applied through the heels. Development of heels takes place though 18 enhancements through horizontal efforts:
strengthening lower dantian
strengthening grappling in feet
strengthening energy gathering in knees
developing control over the body through hips
enhancing control of environment by the legs
enhancing application of qi energy
strengthening middle dantian
developing grappling quality in palms
developing control over the body through shoulders