Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Studying Multiple Versions of The Form

There are five traditional forms of Tai Chi (Taijiquan): Chen, Yang, W’u, Wu and Sun. It is estimated that there are approximately 150 variations of these styles. The Tai Chi Snob is concerned with all these variations because he finds himself in the study of multiple forms. It is seductive to wonder which is the best, the most correct, the most authentic. It is also very difficult to move from one form to another without compounding bad habits. So it is a good thing to be examining why there are differences and what the consequences may be for the beginner or novice who is changing or adding styles. How Tai Chi came from 4th century BC Chinese origins to your local YMCA is beyond the scope of this discussion, but makes for fascinating reading (I’m peppering this piece with lots of names and dates for you to google.) Here is a quick summary of the five traditional forms to put them into historical perspective.

Chen Style (passed down within the Chen family until the 14th generation) was taught to two Chen family members, Chen Chang-Xing (1771-1853) and Chen You-Ben. Their styles were called Old Frame and New Frame respectively. From the Old Frame, Yang Lu-chan (1799-1872) developed what is now called Yang Style , while the New Frame evolved into W’u Style created by W’u Yi-Yu (1812-1880). Another form called Wu Style is derived not from W’u but from a Yang form called Small Frame Yang. It was developed by Wu Jian-Quan (1870-1942). The form called Sun Style was created by Sun Lu-Tang (1861-1932) and is a combination of W’u Style, and Ba Gua Zhang and Xing Yi Quan (two other martial arts.) 

In the 1950s a simplified version of Yang Style was developed called the 24 Postures. In the 1970s this was expanded into the 48 postures. The health aspects of Tai Chi were promoted by the Cultural Revolution in China. In the United States, the various styles of Yang are the most popular and a number of Chinese Masters came to teach here, resulting in more variations.

If you move around the country or just change Tai Chi schools you will most likely be exposed to different versions of the form. There are a couple of other people in my Short Form class who have studied another version of the form. Usually, as in my case, this is the Long Form. “Long Form” refers to a more or less standardized version of Yang style Tai Chi in the tradition of Yang Chenfu (1883-1936) while the “Short Form” refers to a modification of this form by Chen Man-ch’ing (1902-1975) in which many of the repetitions were dropped, the choreography was somewhat reorganized and the style itself was more contained.  Those who are interested in the specific differences may wish to look up an article by J. Justin Meehan entitled, “A Comparative Study between Traditional Yang Style Tai Chi of Yang Cheng Fu and Cheng Man Ching's Yang Style,” in a recent issues of The Journal of Qigong & Taiji Culture.

Fu Zhongwen Single Whip

The problem for those of us who studied an alternate version of the form with another teacher might be likened to trying to learn a second, and then a third language.  Some forms are so similar they might be considered dialects. As Jody (teacher #3) would say, Tai Chi is a living art form; each teacher in the lineage has modified it according to their own interests. Thus no one form is more correct then any other form. However, having studied and practiced one “dialect” for many years presents obstacles to learning a new one. Movements begin to be “hard wired” so that it seems unnatural to do them any other way. Something within you screams, “Wrong! Wrong!” You have to focus to overcome the fear that you will lose what you spent years trying to achieve. You feel you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  How different is different?

The beginning posture for both the Long and Short forms is essentially the same except that the Short Form starts with the feet together, heels touching and toes pointing out in a 90 degree angle “V” shape while the Long Form starts with the feet apart, slightly under shoulder width, with the toes pointing straight out. I’ve always found the “V” stance to be a bit awkward, but if you bend your knees and sink a little, you can be more relaxed in this position. The Short Form includes a step to the left and a turning to front of the right foot, ending in more or less the same stance as the Long Form.

In all the forms I’ve seen, the next movement is to allow the arms to move from the sides upward, extended (but relaxed), to about shoulder height. It is interesting to note that in one of the earliest descriptions we have of the Yang Form by Yang Chengfu, there is no mention of raising the hands. It is thought that this may have been added later. Both Short and Long bring the arms up and then pull the hands back toward the chest, bending the elbows. In the Long form, there is a sinking as this happens. In the Short Form there is also a sinking, but then a slight rising as the hands bend up at the wrists. The Short Form continues then to lower the arms back to the sides with another slight sinking of the body while in the Long Form, they remain at chest level. The application for this movement is to deflect an opponent who is pushing toward your chest.  Bringing the arms back down is a downward push against your opponent.

Ward off, roll back, press and push have subtle differences but it is single whip that I had the most difficulty with in moving from the Long to the Short Form. The right hand forms a “hook” in both forms and the left swings out into a chop. The Short Form holds the right hook low while the Long Form holds it high. Turning the body and stepping while chopping is common to both, but the Long Form barely turns 180 degrees while the Short Form uses a left step to the rear in order to turn about 270 degrees.

 Yang Chenfu Single Whip

You can look at the lineages of the two Yang styles I am studying and see that they come from the same source. (Lineage is important because the early practitioners of Tai Chi kept their teaching strictly within their own families. Tai Chi only began to be taught openly about the time of Yang Lu-chan.)

My Lineage for Yang Short Form:
Yang Lu-chan (1799-1872) founder of Yang Style
Yang Chien-hou (1839-1917) youngest son of Luchan
Yang Cheng-fu (1883-1936) the son of Chien-hou, brother of Yang Shaohou
Chen Man-ch’ing (1902-1975)
W. C. C. Chen (b. 1935)
Jody Curley

My Lineage for Yang Long Form:
Yang Lu-chan (1799-1872) founder of Yang Style
Yang Jianhou (Chien-Hou) (1839-1917) 3rd son of Luchan
Yang Shaohou (1862-1930) 1st son of Jianhou
Hu Puan (1878~1947)
Xiong Yangho (1886-1984)
Yang Qingyu (1915-2002)
Michael DeMarco

Yang Lu-chan Single Whip

You would say that THE FORM is the style practiced and handed down by Yang Lu-chan. Even though we have written explanations by people like Yang Chenfu and Fu Zhongwen, it was through personal contact with the teacher that the form is passed down. Many things have affected subtle changes in the styles; desiring to practice in a shorter time or a smaller space may even have helped to modify the form. Contrasting views of the applications of each movement may have served to “tweek” the postures.

In actual combat, how you apply the form to meeting your opponent’s advances will vary with the circumstances. Height and weight, distance and direction, speed and angle of attack will all change your response. In Tai Chi you follow your opponent, using their energy to defeat them. The form is studied by imitating the movements of the teacher, who may be shorter, taller, heavier, lighter or more flexible than you. Studying multiple versions of the form is a good way to learn how to adapt the Tai Chi essentials to any situation.

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