Pushing hands is a direct translation of the Chinese term Tui Shou. This is a misleading and unhelpful name for a wide variety of training drills which we use in Tai Chi Chuan. Pushing hands is a stupid name because most of these drills involve considerably more than pushing and the techniques used are not always restricted to hand movements. But until someone thinks of a better name, we're stuck with this one. Or are we?
When I first met Doc Fai-wong at the Chung Hwa Cup International Pushing Hands Championships in Taiwan in 1990, he told me that the method of pushing hands competition which I had introduced to Britain was not pushing hands, as it permitted throwing and grappling techniques. I encountered other strange ideas on the purpose of pushing hands and pushing hands competition in America which I recounted in this organ some time ago.
So what is the purpose of pushing hands ? What is the purpose of pushing hands competitions apart from making vast sums of money for unscrupulous promoters like me ?
Let's go back to the name. Many authorities including Ma You-ching and Wu Tu-nan state that Tui Shou was originally called Ka Shou or Da Shou. Ka means to scrape or grate, so we would have scraping or grating hands; while Da means to strike or to hit so Da Shou is striking hands, but a striking hand also, in Chinese, alludes to a fighter. Indeed, one of the Tai Chi Chuan Classics, the Da Shou Ge is often translated as the "Song of Pushing Hands"; it should more accurately be translated as the Song of Striking Hands" or the "Fighter's Song". So why the name change from Da/Ka to Tui Shou.?
I believe that the exercises which we now refer to as pushing hands were developed after the fighting applications to enhance skills that would be useful in fighting. Subsequently, as is the case today, some people learned only the pushing hand drills and not how to apply the skills thus acquired. The drills became an end in themselves, a kind of pointless, unscripted, partnered ballet.
Many people practiced pushing hands, while few did the San Shou, literally "Scattering Hands" which is the term used to refer to self defence techniques. So gradually many practitioners came to perceive Tui Shou as a separate entity, which, coupled with knowledge of the form, would give them a self defence capability. Not so.
I first heard of pushing hands competitions around 1977. Free pushing hands where one tries to push or pull the opponent off balance has long been considered by Tai Chi exponents as a genuine test of skill as it involves grappling skills, the ability to redirect the opponent's force and the ability to Fa Jing - to use force at close quarters.
The major problem with free pushing hands is the rules. First of all, are we going to do fixed step or moving step ? In fixed step the first to step out of his stance is the loser. Moving step is generally done in an area such as a large circle and the first to fall in the area or to be pushed out of the area is the loser. Then we have restricted step, where, under certain conditions, the competitors can take a sliding step forward or back.
What techniques are we going to allow ? Many of my Tai Chi colleagues will say in reply : - "Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao combined with Step forward, Step Back, Step Left, Step Right and Central Equilibrium". Not me, not this soldier.
Are we really to believe that Chang San-feng awoke one morning with the brilliant idea of creating a martial art from eight techniques based on the Ba Gua - the Eight Trigrams and five types of footwork based on the Five Elements? My own theory is that Tai Chi Chuan is the Yin Yang theory made martial and that these eight methods of using force were a subsequent development. I believe that they were distilled from an analysis of the already existing Tai Chi self defence techniques.
Looking at the self defence techniques we can see that many of them do not fit neatly into any of the eight afore-mentioned categories nor is the distinction between these eight categories always entirely clear. The value of these eight techniques is that they do help us to understand and train in methods of using force and such training is largely done in pushing hands drills.
I ask again, what is to be allowed. Kicks to the testicles are out Although this did not stop a fat kickboxer trying said technique at a pushing hands tournaments in Aylesbury some years ago, thus earning for himself the distinction of being the first competitor to be disqualified from a pushing hands tournament in this country.
Are we going to allow pulling ? If not, why not? As a number of Tai Chi self defence techniques incorporate pulling, it seems strange not to permit it. The more restrictions there are, the more difficult the task of the officials, the more frustrating the competition for competitors as they are always being pulled up by the referee, the more boring the competition for the spectators, the less of a real test of martial skills.
Some people complain that pushing hands competitions are no way to test martial ability. In the case of certain types of competition this is true but the basic purpose of freestyle or competition pushing hands should be to get the opponent off balance. This is a crucial close quarters fighting skill which sets up situations for throws, locks and strikes. It is a skill which many practitioners of primarily striking arts such as Karate or Taekwondo do not possess. It is a major factor behind many of these practitioners taking up arts like Tai Chi Chuan which do train this type of skill.
I found these skills most useful as a police officer in Hong Kong and I am at present imparting them to security guard trainees. Once you understand the key concepts of "listening" for, redirecting and discharging force, it becomes much easier to control an arrested person, without necessarily having to whack him, although that remains an option.
Some Tai Chi practitioners are competent in pushing hands, but are still not martial artists. For the last couple of years members of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain have attended the "rencontres Jasnieres" Tai Chi camp as instructors (in the case of Nigel Sutton and myself) or as students. In the afternoons three hours are devoted to free pushing hands. You can push with anyone for up to ten minutes before changing partners or taking a break.
On the final day of the camp in 1991, I was asked to push hands with one of the top French instructors. After a bit I asked him why he kept withdrawing one of his hands. He told me that this was so that he could suddenly use it to shove or pull. I replied that pushing hands was about training listening ability, that if he didn't have contact he couldn't listen, that he also couldn't control my free hand which I would therefore use to strike him.
His rejoinder was that he was a soccer player not a martial artist and that his teacher in Taiwan had told him that pushing hands training alone was enough for him to defend himself. In fairness I have to admit that he was pretty good at pushing hands, though not as good as he thought.
There is a degree of etiquette involved in pushing hands, so that if wrestling or striking techniques are to be allowed, this should be agreed beforehand. Unfortunately some people get a bit too enthusiastic at times.
In my second year at Rencontres Jasnieres, a large English gentleman from the Cheng Man-ching school asked to push hands with me. I agreed. We made contact and he immediately grabbed my legs to try to take me down. Not wishing to dirty my expensive clothes, I hit him in in the face with my forearm, breaking his glasses. After drawing this fact to my attention, he continued to push with me with great enthusiasm, but little success until I patted him on the shoulder, thanked him and walked away.
The same gentleman tried the same method against one of the American instructors the next day and they ended up rolling around the grass until the American eventually managed to pin my friend.
In one of my first Tai Chi classes, a young lady who'd been brought along by one of my students was doing free pushing hands, but was having problems with it. After I'd explained how to do it end why we did it, she said, "what if he does this?" and simultaneously kicked at my groin. Fortunately, I caught her leg and threw her fairly gently. I was later told that she felt she really needed to be thrown and that she was undergoing psychotherapy.
The bottom line is don't expect that the nice gentleman or lady with whom you are pushing hands is going to push hands your way; expect the unexpected. This is what pushing hands and listening are about. If people take or attempt to take liberties, they should have pain inflicted upon them, just enough to let them know.
I don't want to have students of mine to be surprised or to be hurt; that is why I teach pushing hands as part of an integrated system and link it from the beginning to the self defence and grappling applications. Finally Tai Chi pushing hands has almost nothing to do with "Chi", save that we all need to breathe. PS I also have videos available on pushing hands theory and drills.