COMBAT PHILOSOPHY ON RETREAT AND YIELDING
Sifu Zhang Wuji
Instructor, Shaolin Wahnam Singapore
I found Sifu Stier's comments about how some Taijiquan players in order to “yield” or to “follow the enemy” tend to move backwards, very interesting. I found Antonius' posts about the The Tactical Retreat of Shaolin even more illuminating.
Before that post, I wondered why the basic combat sequences for a defender from Sequences 1-8 always began with a step backwards. I had thought it was because of the “safety first” principle — that one does not rush blindly to counter-attack. It never occurred to me that there were so many hidden meanings in a simple retreat.
Having heard both points of view, I think while apparently conflicting, Shaolinquan and Taijiquan combat philosophy are grounded in a very practical understanding of real combat. Yielding or moving backwards cannot be interpreted literally and in a simplistic manner, and should never be as a passive reaction against an attack. If a Shaolinquan expert retreats, he is not running away helplessly but rather as part of a tactic or strategy.
From my limited understanding of the classics, I think “yielding” means to be able to follow the enemy's thoughts and intentions and then be ahead of him (“If the enemy does not move, I do not move. If he moves, I move firs.t”). The enemy's movements need not be physical movements but an intention to attack. 
Nevertheless, there are some differences between Shaolinquan and Taijiquan combat philosophy. Generally Shaolinquan is forceful whereas Taijiquan is flowing. Here is an example.
When an opponent attacks with a right thrust punch, for example, because of the forcefulness of Shaolinquan a response is to lean a right “Tiger Claw” on the punch and simultaneously strike the opponent's face with the “Tiger Claw”. This pattern is called “Fierce Tiger Descends Mountain”.
A typical Taijiquan response is characteristically different. A Taijiquan opponent would deflect the punch with his left palm, and simultaneously strike the opponent's right ribs below with his right fist. This pattern is called “Punch Below Sleeves”.
Notice the direction of the defensive movements. Suppose the opponent's punch move from north to south. The Shaolinquan “Tiger Claw” moves from south-south-west to north-north-east, whereas the Taijiquan “Slap-Hand” moves from west-north-west to east-south-east.
The body-movements, without moving the feet, are also different. The Shaolinquan exponent moves in an elongated figure-of-eight in anti-clockwise direction from south to north. The Taijiquan exponent also moves from south to north but in an elongated figure-of-eight in clockwise direction.
These different movements reflect the forcefulness of Shaolinquan on one hand and the fluidity of Taijiquan on the other. Because of forcefulness, the Shaolinquan counter-attack goes into the opponent. On the other hand, making use of fluidity the Taijiquan counter-attack first follows the opponent's attacking momentum, then redirect it against him.
Please note that these aspects of forcefulness and fluidity in Shaolinquan and Taijiquan are relative. In other words Shaolinquan can also be flowing and Taijiquan forceful. Moreover even when a Shaolinquan exponent goes forcefully into an opponent, he does not do so with brutal strength, he also uses the opponent's strength against himself. Similarly when a Taijiquan exponent maneuvers the opponent's momentum against himself, he does not depend only on flowing movement, he also uses internal force.
I would like to quote Sifu Stier;s comments from the forum.
“Since Tai-Chi Chuan, regardless of style, is generally viewed as a form of Internal/Soft Kung-Fu, there is a tendency among many practitioners to think of 'Defensive Yielding' as always retreating or withdrawing, both in Push Hands (Tui-shou) and in actual fighting applications. This couldn't be farther from the truth!“
“Thus, the Sets clearly demonstrate that 'Defensive Yin' and 'Offensive Yang' are to be most often performed simultaneously while moving forward, not backward.”
“Too many Tai-chi players spend too much time shifting back onto their rear leg in an effort to 'yield', but then have no place to move to when pressed or pushed aggressively by their partner.” — Sifu Stier
I am not sure if I have understood Sifu Stier clearly, but it seems that he believes the concept of “yielding” in Taijiquan does not involve in moving back. Further, he seems to say that in yielding one moves forward, not backward.
Our philosophy as well as methodology are different from those of Sifu Stier. To us, “yielding” means letting go, not going against the movement or intention of the opponent but following him. Hence, to use yielding is usually, if not always, retreating or withdrawing.
But we do not merely yield. Yielding is just the start of our technique or tactic. After following the opponent's momentum or intention, we redirect it, often without the opponent's awareness, and turn it back against him.
In Pushing Hands, for example, when an opponent pushes forward, we do not go against him by pushing forward too. Instead we yield, i.e. we retreat or withdraw our hand that is in contact with his to let him push a short distance forward. Then, continuing from his momentum without a break, we deflect his forward movement circularly to a side and push it back to him.
The whole process — retreating, deflecting and pushing back — is in one smooth movement, not in three. When performed skillfully, the force in pushing back comes from the opponent's initial momentum. To achieve this purpose, the initial retreating or withdrawing is necessary, otherwise it would be a contest of force rather than using the opponent's force.
Depending on various factors, the distance covered by the initial retreating may be short or long. In Pushing Hands, for example, it may range from just an inch to about three feet. When the initial retreating is short range — within a foot — it is not necessary to move the body or the feet. When it is medium range — about two feet — it may be necessary to move the body by sinking back the stance, but it is not necessary to move the feet. When the retreating is long range — about three feet — it is necessary to move both the body and the feet, by moving the front leg back near the back leg or by moving it back to become the back leg.
One must pay attention to the external harmonies of body, hands and feet. Sifu Stier's comment about shifting too much onto the rear leg leaving no place to move, is an example of a disharmony between body and feet.
Suppose you are at a right Bow-Arrow Stance. If your opponent presses in to medium range, you may shift your body backward without moving your feet to yield, deflect and strike back — all in one smooth movement. At the most you should shift from a weight distribution of 50-50 to 30-70 on your front-rear legs, with your dan tian moving from about a third in front within your stance to about a third behind. In this way you still maintain good poise and balance, giving your opponent no chance to catch you in an awkward position. And this is only momentary; the utmost point of your opponent's reach is where you have just deflected his momentum and begin your press back.
What should you do if your opponent presses beyond this reach? You should not shift your body backward any further, doing so would result in the disadvantageous position Sifu Stier mentioned. What should you do then? Depending on your intention, you can bring your right front leg backward near to your left back leg into a T-Stance, or past your left leg into a left False-Leg Stance, or further back into a left Bow-Arrow Stance.
This bringing back of your front leg is part of the initial yielding movement, performing with harmony of your body, hands and feet. It should not be performed as a separate movement, in which case your smooth flow would be affected. This process of yielding (including the retreat of the front leg if needed), deflecting and counter-attacking is performed in one smooth movement, not in three or four movements.
The retreating of the front leg is not necessarily due to an opponent's pressing attack. It may be your initiative to create a technical advantage, such as to lead the opponent forward so that you can counter-strike him when he least expects it as in “Repulse Monkey”, or using his forward momentum to fell him face-forward as in “Golden Snake on Ground”.
These are not advanced skills and techniques in Wahnam Taijiquan. They are basic, taught right at the start of our Pushing Hands programme. Please see Series 1 and 2 of our 18-series Pushing and Striking Hands.
“The most common and basic way of push hands is to use the postures known as 'P'eng', 'Lu', 'Chee' and 'Arn'. We both get into a very low and stable stance to begin with. Why on earth do people think that this ridiculous stance is strong and good for self-defence! You can't fight in this stance! You can't move in this stance and it gives one a false sense of security. You have not the time to get into this stance when attacked.” -- Erle Montaigue
Sifu Montaigue's opinion on a low and stable stance in Pushing Hands, presumably the Bow-Arrow Stance, really surprises me! It is insulting to all the past kungfu masters who have bequeathed Taijiquan and other styles of kungfu to us, to call this stance ridiculous.
Those who used the Bow-Arrow Stance or any other stance, and thought it strong and good for fighting, including good self-defence, were not ordinary people. They were literally millions of kungfu practitioners, including thousands of masters, throughout kungfu history who had found the stance effective for fighting, who could move agilely in the stance and who found it give them a real sense of security — otherwise they would not have used the stance for centuries where their lives often depended on its combat effectiveness.
One did not get into the stance only when attacked. Kungfu combatants in the past were already in their stances even before the combat proper began. But if they were suddenly attacked, they could easily and speedily get into their stance. We in Shaolin Wahnam have found out these facts from our daily practice as well as from actual fighting experiences. You can find ample evidence from our numerous video clips or photographs which were often taken impromptu during free sparring. If one cannot effectively fight in the stance, cannot move speedily or feel confidence in it, the problem lies not with the stance but with his lack of proper training.
“So just to show what this normal push hands is all about I will, in a nutshell show all. He pushes my right arm with both of his palms so I ward off to my left and take my left palm under his right elbow. I am already beginning to move backwards. This in itself goes against the Taiji classics, one never moves back when attacked but forward. So, now it's my turn, I take my left palm onto the back of his right elbow and grabbing his right wrist I use 'Lu' or rollback as his left palm come across to protect (Chee).. I have now sat right back and am in the most vulnerable position ever. Now, it's my turn to push. I place my both palms onto his left forearm and push him. He now does exactly the opposite and we continue in this way trying to push or pull each other over.” — Erle Montaigue.
From the above description it is clear that Sifu Montaigue's philosophy and purpose of practicing Pushing Hands and ours are vastly different. It seems that to Sifu Montaigue there is nothing more to Pushing Hands than techniques. But to us, Pushing Hands is an ingenious methodology to develop skills that are very useful for combat as well as for our daily living.
Four fundamental skills we develop from Pushing Hands are the abilities to relax even under demanding conditions, to generate an energy flow, to sense an opponent's momentum as well as intention, to flow with the opponent and then turn his momentum against himself. It also develops good footwork and bodywork. At more advanced levels, it provides us with practice to plan tactics and strategies, and to exploit or create advantages to overcome an opponent.
Even at the level of techniques, there are many other ways to handle the combat situation given as an example by Sifu Montaigue. Even using just the one defence technique of “peng”, we can ward off to the right, deflect his attack to the top, pull his attack to the bottom, move horizontally to his left or right, move diagonally to any side, move to his back, or move right into him.
Sifu Montaigue's statement that Taijiquan classics dictate that “one never moves back when attacked but forward” is totally untrue. In fact the reserve is almost always the case, as dictated by the Taijiquan principle, “before moving forward, move back; before moving to the right, move to the left; and vice versa”, in order to attain the objectives of avoiding an opponent's full force head-on, and of exploiting the opponent's force against himself.
For example, if an opponent pushes me, according to standard Taijiquan philosophy, I do not push back immediately, but yield and allow him to push some distance, which could be short, medium or long range depending on various factors. Following his pushing momentum, I deflect his push in an arc, close his hands to prevent possible counter attacks, and push him back directly, from a suitable angle or even from his back.
Retreating your body without moving your legs to sit back is an important aspect of body-movement in Taijiquan, giving the Taijiquan exponent, amongst other benefits, an excellent technique to avoid an opponent's full force, and to turn his force back against himself. It is also an excellent technique to implement the two famous Taijiquan tactics of “lian xiao dai da” (defence-cum-attack), and of “hou fa xian ji” (start later arrive earlier). For example, if an opponent executes a side kick at me, instead of bouncing away, I sit back on my stance and simultaneously grip his kicking foot with a pattern called "Double Dragons Play with Pearl" (or the “lu” technique of “Grasping Sparrow's Tail”) and dislocate his ankle with a twist.
One places himself at a vulnerable position only if he performs the technique wrongly, such as moving his body too far back that he has lost balance, or keeping his front leg straight with the possibility that his knee can be dislocated or leg fractured when his opponent falls on it. This vulnerable position is more likely to happen if he points his front foot forward (instead of hooking it inward) in his Bow-Arrow Stance, as this restricts the agile movement of his front leg. All these weaknesses can be readily avoided or rectified if he understand the three external harmonies of body, hands and legs.
Sifu, in response to the comment by Mr Montaigue above, I hazard to suggest that in Pushing Hands, we must begin with a big movement first to acquire the skills of sensing, and only later after having acquired such skills, do we move to smaller circles? Sifu had mentioned this in the explanation to the video clip of the Dragon Strength combat sequence by Michael and Emiko. Also, this was said in the classics “First seek the broad movements, then seek the compressed/small” This step by step process is vital, for if we charge into small circle movements at once, the foundation can never be laid.
In the first place I disagree with Sifu Montaigue's comment, so the subsequent suggestion becomes irrelevant. Nevertheless, if we take your suggestion to stand on its own, while it is methodical to progress from big movements to small movements in training, including training sensing skills, it is not a must to begin training of sensing skills with big movements. In fact, in our Wahnam Taijiquan methodology, students are first introduced to sensing skills right at the start of Pushing Hands (in Level 1) where relatively small movements are used.
Two persons, A and B, stand at the right Bow-Arrow Stance with their right arms in contact in the “peng” position. A moves his right hand forward to touch B's right shoulder. Visibly, B does nothing else but yields. In other words B allows A to move his hand forward to touch his right shoulder without responding and without resisting. Invisibly, B “listens” to A's movement all the way.
When B has developed some sensing skills, without having to look at A's moving hand but sensing its speed and distance covered, B makes a small ”peng” movement to deflect A's attack to his right side following A's momentum. This is done without moving the body and without moving the stance.
Later when B is more skilful, he purposely allows A's attack to move close to him. In this new position, by merely moving the hand, it would be inadequate to safely deflect A's attack. So B sinks back his stance, which gives him more space from A, and simultaneously deflects A's attack with a “peng” movement following A's momentum. This sinking back is only monentary; B has to move back to his Bow-Arrow Stance instantly. This “peng” movement, executed not from his shoulder but by turning his waist and moving his stance but not moving his feet, is considerably bigger than the one made earlier when he remained motionlessly in body and stance.
You are correct about your observation regarding Emiko and Michael in the Dragon Form (which is different from Dragon Strength) combat sequence. This tenet is also known as “From big movements in training to small movements in application”.
- 1. The Evolution of Taijiquan from Shaolinquan
- 2. General Practice and Training, and Sparring Methodology
- 3. Combat Philosophy on Retreat and Yielding
- 4. Difference in Stances
- 5. The Use of Internal Force
- 6. Fa-jing and Qin-na
- 7. Academic Questions and Direct Experience
- 8. Yin-Yang, God and Health
- 9. Spirituality and Over-Training
- 10. Questions on Sinew Metamorphosis
- 11. Questions on Breathing Methods and Control
- 12. Taoist Philosophy and Concept of Open and Close