The Three Hands of Taijiquan
by Adam Mizner
Within my training and teaching of Tàijíquán, I emphasize two primary areas that must be developed and balanced. On the one side we have technical skills or ‘Quan’ – born from ting, timing and having trained the correct responses to different situations. The other side of the coin is power or the development of Gong Li. In practical application, these two aspects must not only be balanced but also be simultaneous and in harmony. Some of my teachers have emphasized skillful application of technique and while others have focused more on the development of Gong Li.
With regards to the technical skills, in ones personal development, we must pass through 3 specific stages to achieve a high level of in Tàijíquán:
1. Stupid hands
2. Smart hands
3. Mysterious hands
We all start out with ‘Stupid hands’ and its a sad truth that most of the taiji world never graduate beyond this level. One of the famous sayings of Cheng Man Ching is “Don’t resist, Don’t insist” – stupid hands are characterized by insisting and resisting. When one insists on what they want to do and resists what their partner is doing, it is impossible to develop the skills of stick, adhere, join and follow, which after all, is the primary purpose of training in pushing hands.
Knowing that we all start out and are often stuck on the level of stupid hands does not help us – we need a method to transcend this level and move onto the level of ‘Smart hands’. The transition from stupid hands to smart hands is mainly accomplished by training drills to familiarize yourself with the ‘eight gates’, and learning how and when to apply them in a pushing hands situation. The eight gates are the four orthodox hands of Peng/ward off, Lu/roll back, Ji/squeeze and An/press down, and the four corner hands of Tsai/pluck, Lieh/split, Zhou/elbow and Kao/shoulder.
I remember when I first met one of my teachers, Sifu King, I had already developed some good root and fajin, as well as what I thought was a good arsenal of techniques. When we met and began to push, I quickly found myself insisting and resisting, as I simply could not answer all the questions he was throwing at me. Compared to my Sifu, I had very stupid hands and at that moment I knew that just having good ting and gong li was not enough – I needed to develop smart hands.
In every movement our partner makes, it is as though they have asked us a question – the essence of smart hands is in having the correct answer. We must learn to use different combinations of the 8 gates to answer our partners tactical questions. In this way, an accomplished push hands player is like a skilled debater. He or she can ask a skillful question, knowing the answer the opponent will give – and they can then respond in a way that makes the opponent vulnerable. It is a game of tactics and subtlety governed by Ting jin / listening.
In the video below, when I talk about smart hands, I respond to my partner’s push with Lieh/split and Tsao/pluck. There are many different answers depending on the question your partner feeds to you. We train these different drills in the Discover Taiji online course. It is my wish that more of the taiji world can develop smart hands and lift the level of Tàijíquán throughout the world.
When one is accomplished in the level of smart hands, he or she can respond smoothly to any technique or force applied from the partner/opponent and can easily avoid the crude errors of insisting and resisting. Achieving this is one primary goal in the development of pushing hands skills – it takes much time and guidance from someone expert in the use of the 8 gates and with well developed ting jin.
Beyond smart hands we have the final level known as ‘Mysterious hands’. This occurs when the use of the 8 gates is so subtle that it seems that they are not being used at all. Neutralization, seizing and fajin all happen instantly on the point of contact. This level can only be reached by the long road through smart hands – any attempt to develop it without working through the stage of smart hands will only lead to a counterfeit achievement. Gong li and use of the 8 gates must be highly developed as well as ones listening and comprehending jin. This is the achievement that made Tàijíquán famous and can be developed until ones death. As the saying goes, the internal path is an inch wide and a mile deep.
If one has access to an authentic method, it is only a matter of persistence to achieve success and get everything you desire from your taiji training. Practice regularly with humility and sincerity – invest in loss and it will pay off, I guarantee.