Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow

Students performing the set, "Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow"


Whenever I practice Cloud Hands (in any set), I feel that if one masters just that, he could be able to encounter any attack. Could that be possible? If so, what would make Cloud Hands so effective? Would you kindly explain where are they coming from (History & Background) and why did they evolve the way they did?



You are right in your feeling. If one masters just Cloud Hands, he is able to counter any attack.

It was recorded that Yang Lu Chan practiced Grasping Sparrow's Tail thousands of times every day. When he fought with other masters in his travels over China and defeated all of them, thus earning the enviable title "Yang the Invincible", he only used Grasping Sparrow's Tail.

I believe "Grasping Sparrow's Tail" used by Yang Lu Chan was Clouds Hands. It is a metachronism, i.e. misplaced term due to time difference. The term "Grasping Sparrow's Tail" did not exist during Yang Lu Chan's time. It was coined later by his grandson, Yang Deng Fu, for a set of techniques comprising "peng", "lu", "li" and "an", or "ward off", "roll back", "press forward" and "in contact".

These four techniques correspond to the patterns "Immortal Waves Sleeves", "Double Dragon Plays with Pearl", "Push Boat According to Flow", and "Open Window to Look at Moon" in our Wahnam Taijiquan. We also have "Black Bear Sinks Hips" in Grasping Sparrow's Tail, which corresponds to the "cheng" technique in Yang Style Taijiquan and is found in the set in Yang Style Taijiquan but this technique is not identified.

In other words, in Grasping Sparrow's Tail practiced in Yang Style Taijiquan there are five techniques, like what we practice in Wahnam Taijiquan, but the fifth technique, "cheng", is not named. Normally only four techniques -- "peng", "lu", "li" and "an" -- are named.

It is recorded that "Grasping Sparrow's Tail" evolved from "Lazy to Roll up Sleeves" in Chen Style Taijiquan, which in turn evolved from Cloud Hands. I believe that what Yang Lu Chan practiced thousands of times every day was Cloud Hands with emphasis on "Lazy to Roll up Sleeves". It is worthy of note that what Yang Lu Chan practiced and used in defeating all challengers was not Yang Style Taijiquan but Chen Style Taijiquan.

I had a similar experience a few years ago when I was teaching chi kung in Lisboa, Portugal. I can't remember how the conversation led to the topic but I was telling the class that if one had mastered Grasping Sparrow's Tail, he could handle any attack, like what Yang Lu Chan did.

Someone in the class asked , "Sifu, can you show us?"

As usual, I answered, "Yes, of course. Is there anyone who would like to attack me?"

In unison, as if by prior arrangement, everyone pointed at one particular person, whom I later learned was called Manuel.

"You can attack me in any way you like," I told Manuel.

He charged at me with a punch. I casually brushed him away.

"Try again," I said.

Manuel attacked me a few times, and each time I brushed him away quite effortlessly using patterns from Grasping Sparrow's Tail, focusing on rotation of my waist.

Later Riccardo Salvatore told me that Manuel said to him, "I don't know what happened, but Sifu was like an axis. Each time I moved in to attack, I was spiraled away."

Honestly I though Manuel was a martial art beginner, though on reflection his movements were good. I was quite surprised to learn from Riccardo Salvatore that Manuel was the top Taekwondo master in the country, was an international sparring champion himself, and also had trained Taekwondo champions. I should have suspected something special when everyone pointed at him as I asked for volunteer to attack me. I was naive and did not pay attention at that time.

What I used to ward off Manuel's attacks was actually Cloud Hands applied spontaneously, though at the time I tried to use patterns from Grasping Sparrow's Tail.

Why was I so effective in using Cloud Hands to encounter Manuel's attacks? The following were the reasons:

1. I had much experience in sparring and actual fighting, and therefore was perfectly relaxed when facing an opponent.

2. I had good stances, effective waist rotation, good timing and spacing, and good judgment.

3. I had high-level skills, much internal force, and wide understanding of combat application.

4. I understood the combat applications of Cloud Hands and could apply them effectively in actual combat.

With this background, we can answer with some insight what make Cloud Hands so effective in encountering any attack. There are two main reasons as follows.

1. Cloud Hands is very versatile, and can be adjusted to defend against or counter any attack.

2. Waist rotation is an integral aspect of Cloud Hands, and with waist rotation an exponent can deflect an opponent's force.

Although the two reasons are true, and are expressed clearly, most people will still not understand why Cloud Hands are so effective in encountering any attack. They do not understand because they do not know how to adjust Cloud Hands for the purpose of defending or countering. They do not know because they lack a wide understanding of combat application.

On the other hand, even when they have a wide understanding of combat application, if a technique is not versatile, they will be unable to use the technique to meet any attack. For example, as a Mirror Hand is not versatile they will be unable to use it to defend against a kick, a throw or a chin-na attack.

However, understanding and practice are different. Even if an exponent has a wide understanding of combat application, and Cloud Hands is versatile, he may not be able to use it against any attack if he lacks skills and internal force. In other words, he may theoretically know the applications of Cloud Hands against any attack, but he lacks the skills and force to use them effectively in practice.

Hence, having high-level skills, much internal force, and wide understanding of combat application, which is the third reason mentioned above in my experience with Manuel, is a requirement to use Cloud Hands effectively against any attack. Another requirement is to understand the application of Cloud Hands and to use them effectively in actual combat, which was the fourth reason.

The third and the fourth reasons are complementary. One may have a wide understanding of other combat applications, but if he does not understand the combat applications of Cloud Hands he may not be able to use it effectively against any attack. On the other hand, he may know the combat applications of Cloud Hands, but does not have a wide understanding of other combat applications, he may be unable to adjust Cloud Hands to encounter attacks that are outside the norm.

An exponent may have internal force, but if an opponent's force is more powerful, the exponent may not succeed in applying his defence or counter. Cloud Hands has a built-in mechanism to offset this setback, namely waist rotation. By rotating his waist the exponent can deflect a stronger force of the opponent. Indeed, in my encounter with Manuel, I used waist rotation extensively, not because I did not have sufficient force but because it was an integral aspect of Cloud Hands and very effective in deflecting an opponent's force.

Nevertheless, the two requirements alone as stated in the third and fourth reasons above may not be sufficient. The exponent must also have good stances, effective waist rotation, good timing and spacing, and good judgment, as stated in the second reason above.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, looking back at my many sparring sessions and actual fights, I believe a main reason why I could remain undefeated was because of my good stances. Those of you who have seen me demonstrating combat application would have noticed the importance of good stances. I could fell opponents bigger than me, for example, because I had good stances. I could keep Boxers at bay despite their fast jabs because of my good stances.

Waist rotation is innate in Cloud Hands but you must be able to implement it efficiently. Good timing and spacing, and good judgment are of course crucial. You may know the combat applications of Cloud Hands against any attack very well, but if your timing or spacing is poor, or your judgment wrong, you will still be defeated.

Cloud Hands

A pattern from the set, "Cloud Hands"

Perhaps the most important factor, which is also the factor that many people overlook, is the presence of mind. You may know the combat applications of Cloud Hands against any attack, and actually have practiced them well with your cooperating classmates, but if you become nervous or panicky when an opponent attacks you, you will throw all your knowledge and training to the winds and fight frantically like an untrained person.

This is a major weakness of most kungfu practitioners. It is not without good reasons for the saying that the highest kingfu is at the level of mind, and being relaxed when facing a fearsome opponent is one of its many aspects.

An effective way to have presence of mind in combat is to earn it through years of rough sparring with other martial artists or through actual fighting. A more civilized way is to train sparring with your classmates with a lot of threat.

So far the explanation of how Cloud Hands can be effective against any attack is academic. It would be useful to examine some practical aspects of how Cloud Hands can be used against various attacks.

Attacks can come in countless ways, but all of them can be classified into four categories: striking, kicking, felling and chin-na. We shall choose a typical example for each category.

Suppose you face your opponent using the pattern, "Playing the Lute", with your right hand and right leg in front. Your opponent rushes in with a "Black Tiger Steals Heart", using a left Bow-Arrow and a right punch.

As his punch nears, move your right leg backward to an appropriate space and simultaneously ward off his right punch with your right arm, rotating your waist in a clockwise direction, and push him away with your left hand to your right side or to your back. You may, if you like, strike him instead of pushing him away.

You face your opponent using the same "Playing the Lute". He moves in with a right side kick.

Shift your body slightly backward to avoid the kick, and simultaneously sweep your right hand in an anti-clockwise direction downward with your open palm facing your right, then quickly turn your hand upward with your open palm now facing your left so that you hold his leg, cover his two hands with your left hand, and swiftly move your right foot to place it behind his left foot, and fell him backward with a forward push of your hands.

Now your opponent moves forward and attempts to fell you using "Carry Tiger back to Mountain", or "Fell Tree with Roots" in Shaolin Kungfu.

Move your left leg slightly backward in a small arc to reverse his leverage advantage, simultaneously hold his right wrist with your left hand, and hold his left upper arm near his shoulder with your right hand to prevent him from striking you, move your right hip in contact with his right hip to act as an anchor, and rotate your waist in an anti-clockwise direction while pushing his left shoulder backward with your right hand to fell him backward.

Your opponent moves in to grip your right wrist with his right hand, and your right elbow with his left hand in an attempt to apply a chin-na grip on your right arm using the pattern "Old Eagle Catches Snake".

Relax your right arm, make a small anti-clockwise circle and move it like a snake so that your right arm presses his two hands against his own body, and simultaneously move your right leg forward behind his right leg, place your right hip against his body as an anchor, rotate your waist in an antic-clockwise direction, and fell him backward with your right hand using the pattern "Carry Tiger Back to Mountain".

All these counters use the movements of Cloud Hands.

Does this mean that if one wishes to encounter any attack, he needs to learn only Cloud Hands and no other techniques?

As explained above, it is not just the technique of Cloud Hands that enables a master to encounter any attack. He needs combat skills, internal force, wide understanding of combat applications, good stances, effective waist rotation, good timing and spacing, good judgment, and being perfectly relaxed when facing opponents. He acquires these requirements gradually through practicing combat applications of many techniques.

Hence, if a student just learns the combat applications of Cloud Hands against any attack, even if he knows them, he will not be able to apply them effectively in combat because he lacks the other requirements.

Cloud Hands came from the great Zhang San Feng himself. He was honored not just as the first patriarch of Taijiquan but also as the first patriarch of internal kungfu.

Zhang San Feng was a great Shaolin master, a fact not many people realize. Before him, Shaolin practitioners first practiced the physical form of Shaolin Kungfu. Those who had proven themselves to be worthy, were taught nei kung, or internal art, which is now more commonly called chi kung, or energy art. When a few of them had become advanced, they were taught meditation, or a training of mind.

After graduating from the Shaolin Temple in Henan, Zhang San Feng retired on the Wudang Mountain in Hebei to continue his training to attain Enlightenment, which he did. As he was a very advanced Shaolin practitioner, he performed his Shaolin Kungfu in chi flow and a meditative state of mind.

After completing a set, he remained at standing meditation when he would sway gently and blissfully, known as "Flowing Breeze Swaying Willows", and sometimes going into graceful movements in chi flow, poetically described as "Flowing Water Floating Clouds", which was later shortened to Cloud Hands.

Zhang San Feng had a few students, but they were not at his high level. They could not perform kungfu movements in chi flow. So Zhang San Feng stylized these originally spontaneous movements of Cloud Hands into definite forms so that his students could practice them with uniformity and continuity as a set. In other words, instead of performing spontaneous chi flow movements of Cloud Hands which varied from time to time which Zhang San Feng did but which his students initially could not do, he taught his students definite forms derived from the spontaneous movements, arranged in a routine so that the students could learn them systematically.

In this way the students could learn a kungfu set of patterns which contributed to their health, vitality, longevity and spiritual cultivation as well as for combat. This original set was called Thirty Seven Pattern Long Fist. It was so called because there were 37 patterns, and all the patterns were performed in a continuous flow as if they were one long pattern. "Fist" here means a kungfu set.

This was Shaolin Kungfu, and to differentiate it from the Shaolin Kungfu practiced at the Shaolin Temple on Song Shan or Song Mountain in Henan, which was later called Songshan Shaolin Kungfu or Henan Shaolin Kungfu, the Shaolin Kungfu practiced on Wudang Mountain was called Wudang Shaolin Kungfu, later shortened to Wudang Kungfu. Centuries later it evolved into Taijiquan, and to differentiate it from other styles of Taijiquan, this original Taijiquan practiced on Wudang Mountain is now called Wudang Taijiquan.

Hence, Wudang Taijiquan evolved from Cloud Hands, i.e. the spontaneous movements in chi flow poetically described as "Flowing Water floating Clouds". The series of movements which later formalized into Grasping Sparrow's Tail was also called Cloud Hands.

Grasping Sparrow's Tails consisted of a few patterns, but gradually this collection of patterns was expanded to more patterns which formed various kungfu sets. The set in Chen Style Taijiquan, which formed the base of our Wahnam Taijiquan set called "Flowing Water Floating Clouds", and the 108-Pattern in Yang Style Taijiquan also contain patterns called "Cloud Hands".

Hence, the term "Cloud Hands" may refer to a pattern, a sequence similar to Grasping Sparrow's Tail, or a set like Flowing Water Floating Clouds. In the same way, in Shaolin Kungfu the term "Black Tiger Steals Heart" may refer to a pattern, a sequence like the first of the 16 combat sequences, or a set like the first combat sequence set.

In the 1970s China promoted kungfu, called "wushu" in Mandarin Chinese, not as a martial art but as a sport. A committee of Taijiquan masters composed a set, which was mainly based on Yang Style Taijiquan, for competition purposes. This set was called the 24-Pattern Simplified Taijiquan Set.

Although it was named "Simplified", it is a beautiful set comprising all important Taijiquan patterns. "Cloud Hands" is a significant pattern performed many times to form a sequence in this set. However, in modern wushu tradition, internal force, combat application and spiritual cultivation are not taught in this set. Wushu championships are accessed by solo demonstration of the set.

When I first taught Taijiquan in our school, I used this 24-Pattern Simplified Set. But, of course, in our Shaolin Wahnam tradition, we pay much importance to internal force, combat application and spiritual cultivation. While teaching this set at the St Petersburg Taijiquan Festival on 2nd November 2012, I suggested that we found a more poetic name for this set. Kevin posted my suggestion on our Shaolin Wahnam Discussion forum. Christina suggested "Grasping Sparrow with Hands Like Clouds". I modified it to "Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow". Zhang Wuji provided the Chinese character for the complete name of the set to be "Wahnam Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow Tai Chi Chuan Set".

This is a brief historical background of where Cloud Hands came from and how it evolved into a set in our school. The pattern "Cloud Hands" can be used to encounter any attack if the exponent also has other requirements like skills and judgment. The sequence "Cloud Hands", represented in Grasping Sparrow's Tail, form the basics of all Taijiquan techniques. The set "Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow" embodies all the important benefits that practicing Taijiquan will bring, namely good health, combat efficiency and spiritual cultivation.

Cloud Hands

The pattern "Cloud Hands" in the 108-Pattern Yang Style Taijiquan set


The questions and answers are reproduced from the thread Wahnam Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow Set: 10 Questions to Grandmaster Wong in the Shaolin Wahnam Discussion Forum.

The Cloud Hands Grasp Sparrow Set will be taught in Bern on 26th August 2013. Please see here for details, and contact Sifu Roland Mastel or call 0041/79 469 53 60 for registration.