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Strategy and tactics


Tai Chi Chuan - The Art of Overcoming Hardness with Softness

by Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty

a) The Problem

The theory of Yin and Yang has taught us that hardness can overcome softness and that softness can overcome hardness. Let us now see how this theory works in practice when applied to Chinese martial arts.

A common occurrence in martial arts would be where A attacks B with all his strength and B uses all his strength to block the attack. Here the parties are engaged in a battle of force and the stronger side will win.

In another typical situation let us suppose that two men, one weak, the other strong, go to the same martial arts school and learn the same techniques for an equal length of time. In a fight between the two, the stronger will still defeat the weaker.

Wang Chung Yueh, a Tai Chi Chuan master, who lived during the Ming Dynasty, studied this type of situation. After many years of observing various hard styles of the Chinese martial arts, he came to the conclusion that, stylistic differences aside, when used in combat the end result was always the same; victory would go to the swiftest and strongest, and not necessarily to those who had made an intensive study of their art.

Chang San Feng had studied the same situation, even before Wang did. Driven by a belief that victory need not inevitably go to the strong, but that brain could defeat brawn, he used his knowledge of Taoism to create a martial art based on the principles of Tai Chi -- the changes of Yin and Yang. He called it Tai Chi Chuan, the `Chuan' meaning `Fist' and thus implying martial art.

Correct application of Tai Chi Chuan techniques in combat will result in the situation where a slight application of force is sufficient to deflect, divert, or otherwise render harmless a force which is many times greater in magnitude. Thus the soft overcomes the hard and the weak need not fear to do battle with the strong. For the purposes of Tai Chi Chuan in combat, softness is the child of wisdom, and is not merely a weak force which can somehow magically defeat a stronger one.

The two major principles of Tai Chi Chuan self-defence strategy are using stillness to defeat motion, and using softness to defeat hardness.

b) The Solution Part One: Stillness defeats Motion

The practice of this principle requires a clear mind. We should wait for our opponent to begin making the first move then `pre-empt' him by reacting decisively before he can complete it. We do this because, when facing our opponent, we do not know his intentions, and so we do not know which part of our body he will attack. It is better, then, to wait until he commits himself to an attack so that we can divert it before it reaches its conclusion, and then we in turn can counter-attack by striking his weak points. We must avoid taking this principle to the absurd conclusion of waiting for our opponent to hit us without moving a muscle in response. That is why in a classical text on the Thirteen Tactics it is written, `If the enemy does not move, we do not move, but as soon as he begins to move we move at once.'

In using this principle, our mind must remain clear to enable us to detect our opponent's slightest movements and to counteract any intended attack. The key to this principle is that once our opponent has committed himself to an attack it is already too late for him to react to our counteraction. In the words of the military strategist Sun Tzu, `We must know ourselves and our opponent.' We can only do this by remaining calm and collected until we clearly detect an impending attack to which we then immediately respond.

c) The Solution Part Two: Softness overcomes Hardness

In the practice of this principle we must consciously avoid using brute force in attempting to counteract the attacks of our opponent. Mind and body must work in harmony in the correct application of the techniques of defence and counter-attack.

The idea is to divert the attacks of our opponent in such a way as to turn his own force against him. This requires the use of one or more of the Eight Powers of Tai Chi Chuan, which are discussed below. Thus, if our opponent tries to punch us in the chest, the us of `Li', a slight diversion to the side, will be enough to divert even his strongest attack and pave the way for our counter-attack. In the Song of Tai Chi Pushing Hands it is written, `A force of four ounces can overcome a force of a thousand pounds.'

Constant practice with a partner over a number of years is necessary to develop the ability to apply this sophisticated concept of self-defence. Even then we still require tuition from a competent instructor. To put this in simple terms, most of us are aware that an ox can be led with a length of string. Let us take the string to represent the four ounces and the ox to represent a thousand pounds. If the string is tied to a ring on the end of the ox's nose it can be easily led, but if it is tied to its hind leg a different result can be anticipated. The value then of a competent instructor is to teach the correct application of softness, or slight force.

The use of hard force has certain clear-cut disadvantages, even for the mighty among us. It requires a greater expenditure of energy, whether used in defence or attack. This affects our breathing and increases our heartbeat which in turn puts a strain in our central nervous system, thus indirectly slowing our actions and reflexes. All this is of course very much to the advantage of our opponent. The use of softness on the other hand requires the expenditure of very little energy; our muscles remain relaxed and supple making our actions swift and sure. It also serves to develop clarity of thought and sensitivity, and to reduce stress.

The net result is that when using this softness in combat against a `hard' opponent, whether in hand or body contact with him, our body acts as a radar system, feeding us information about our opponent's intentions, which his own hardness or tension allows our softness and sensitivity to detect.

The other disadvantage in relying on strength alone is that there is always someone stronger. It should be recognised that even the strong get old some day.

To further ram home theory and practice we only have to look at Western history for our vindication. Perhaps the best example of its use was in the war between Greece and Troy, where for years the Greeks laid siege to Troy and thousands of lives were lost on both sides in a bitter war of attrition. Finally, at the suggestion of Odysseus, the most cunning of their leaders, the Greeks pretended to sail away, leaving behind the gift of a huge wooden horse. The Trojans hauled this into their city as a triumph, believing the war to be over. Late at night, a party of Greeks, who had hidden inside the horse, broke out, killed the guards and opened the gates for their comrades who had returned and were lying in wait. The Trojans, unprepared and unarmed after a night of celebration, were no match for the Greeks and Troy was put to the sword. This illustrates that the real meaning of softness lies in the use of intelligence rather than brute force.

Strategy of the Five Step Path

Before being able to apply the tactics of Tai Chi Chuan in combat, we must first understand the strategy which governs their use. In the Song of Tai Chi Pushing Hands it is written 'a force of only four ounces can overcome a force of one thousand pounds'. This approach means we must rely on skill and intellect rather than brute force; it also requires us to follow a set path of five principles:-

We must maintain contact with our opponent, remaining sensitive to his every action. Thus we are able to detect his attacks and sense his weak points.
Our reactions to any attack should follow the principle that as soon as our opponent moves (attacks) we move (counter) before he can complete his movement. Defence and counter-attack are a series of smooth, unbroken movements.
When applying the principle of adherence, we should maintain only a soft or relaxed contact with our opponent. The sensitivity thus developed enables us to detect any changes in our opponents intentions. It is an early warning system. Our softness also makes it difficult for our opponent to detect our own intentions.
Once we have detected the direction of our opponent's force we must go with it, not against it. This is the key to the Tai Chi tactic of using `four ounces of force' to divert even the fiercest attack into the void. While our opponent is using all his energy to attack us we are able to conserve ours.
Rejection of Brute Force
Arm contact with our opponent must be both soft and continuous. We must neither withdraw the arm nor let it become tense. This constant soft contact enables us to detect change and to make spontaneous response without unnecessarily wasting energy.

By adopting the strategy of the Five Step Path we are able to achieve the ideal of using the minimum amount of force necessary to produce the maximum effect.

To sum up, we must intercept any attack in a relaxed manner, adhering to it while we use only a minimum force necessary to guide it gently away from its original target, and to the void. By doing this we can detect any changes that may occur in the attack and respond to them accordingly. This would be impossible if we used brute force to block the attack. Our actions must be harmonious and continuous.

One of the special characteristics of Tai Chi Chuan is the emphasis placed on diverting attacks and using our opponent's own force against him. This is why we adhere to the strategy of the Five Step Path.

Adherence is useless without softness as we can only be sensitive to our opponent's changes if we are relaxed.

Yielding is useless without adherence as we can only monitor our opponent's movements and know when to counter-attack if we keep in contact with him.

Brute Force used against our opponent's force will prevent us from detecting his weaknesses and this runs against Tai Chi Chuan principles which demand that we know the opponent as well as we know ourselves.

This then is the strategy we must follow when applying the Tai Chi Chuan combat tactics. These tactics are practiced when we do the `Pushing Hands Exercise' which is the first step towards developing our ability to apply in a practical way the fighting tactics of Tai Chi Chuan.

Principles of the Thirteen Tactics

The ancient name for Tai Chi Chuan was the Thirteen Tactics. This referred to the Five Directions and the Eight Powers. Traditionally the Five Directions have been associated with the Five Elements while the Eight Powers have been associated with the Pa Kua or Eight Trigrams.

a) The Five Directions and the Five Elements

The Five Directions have traditionally been explained by way of the Five Elements. In Tai Chi theory before there was Tai Chi there was Wu Chi (literally `No Chi'). Wu Chi gave rise to Tai Chi which in turn gave rise to Yin and Yang. In Chinese philosophy the interaction and continuous changes of Yin and Yang, as well as producing the Eight Trigrams of the Pa Kua and the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching, also produced the Five Elements of Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth, which in their turn were considered responsible for the formation of all matter in the world.

The Five Elements were held to interact thus:

  • Metal gives birth to Water
  • Water gives birth to Wood
  • Wood gives birth to Fire
  • Fire gives birth to Earth
  • Earth gives birth to Metal
  • Metal destroys Wood
  • Wood destroys Earth
  • Earth destroys Water
  • Water destroys Fire
  • Fire destroys Metal

Each element is stronger than the element which gave birth to it. Thus, as Metal gives birth to Water, Water is stronger than Metal. When any element is opposed by another quantity of the same element, the stronger quantity will win. To sum up, any element is stronger than two of the other four elements, and weaker than the remaining two. The interaction between the elements is eternal and continuous. Each element also has Yin and Yang characteristics. Thus Metal could be sharp and shiny or rusty and dull, while Water could be a roaring waterfall or a muddy pool. Let us take each one of the elements to represent one of the Five Directions:

  • Metal represents Forward
  • Wood represents Back
  • Water represents Left
  • Fire represents Right
  • Earth represents Centre

If our opponent uses Metal (moves Forward) our response must follow the theory of the Five Elements. In other words we must use Water (move Left) or Fire (move Right) to destroy his Metal. If instead we use Metal (move Forward) also, then the stronger Metal will win, but this is contrary to Tai Chi Chuan principles. If we remain rooted to the Earth (Centre) Element we will be overcome by the advancing Metal. If we make use of Wood (move Back) the Metal will thrust forward in pursuit and cut us down when there is no more room to run.

The Five Elements teach us which are the most advantageous and least advantageous of the Five Directions in any given situation. We do not actually need to step forward, back or to the side when moving from the centre, a slight shift of weight in the appropriate direction will normally suffice. These directions refer to the direction in which our body is moving at any one time and we apply the Eight Powers in conjunction with such movements. This gives us a wide variety of possible actions and responses.

b) The Eight Powers and the Eight Trigrams

All genuine martial arts contain some method of applying force. This method may be hard or soft in nature and may be applied in attack and defence. It is called `technique'.

Because of the intrinsic relationship between Tai Chi Chuan and Taoist theory the student of Tai Chi Chuan must not only train technique, but, before he can apply technique properly, he must also understand the underlying theory which governs its use. The Tai Chi Chuan method of applying force is called Pa Peng which can roughly be translated as Eight Powers.

Just as from the Pa Kua (Eight Trigrams) we are able to derive the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching, so from the basic Eight Powers, by applying them in different ways, in different directions, we can produce all the fighting techniques of Tai Chi Chuan. Furthermore, just as the sixty-four hexagrams can, by mathematical process, produce further diagrams, so our Eight Powers, if used imaginatively, can produce an indefinite number of fighting techniques.

In effect, each of us is a three-dimensional Tai Chi, containing both Yin and Yang, which for present purposes we will take to mean defence and attack. From Yin and Yang, the theory tells us, come Sei Jeung, which are Old Yin, Young Yang, Young Yin and Old Yang. These tell us that although there can be both pure attack and pure defence, attack can also contain elements of defence and likewise defence can also contain elements of attack. When we attack or defend we use a method of applying power called technique. When this technique is one governed by Tai Chi theory we are using one or more of the Pa Keng or Eight Powers.

Let us now attempt to explain these Eight Powers:-

  1. Pang is the use of force in an upward direction such as when our opponent thrusts forward and diagonally upward and we respond by tracing the direction of his attack, and using our hands in a smooth and circular movement to divert it even further upward and forward, causing him to lose his balance.
  2. Li is the use of force in a sideways direction, such as where we intercept and move with a forward directed attack, simultaneously diverting it slightly to one side and thus to the void. The greater the force of his attack, the greater the resulting loss of balance on the part of our opponent.
  3. Tsai is a forward directed thrust such as a well-directed push when our opponent is off balance.
  4. On is where we direct force downwards such as pressing down on our opponent with our hands as he loses balance in a forward direction.
  5. Tsoi is where our opponent loses control of his centre of gravity, and we use a technique to disrupt his balance to such an extent that he is uprooted completely from his position. It is something like a strategically placed lever lifting a heavy rock.
  6. Lit is where we use force in the form of a circular diversion which, as it passes the half-way point starts to move back in the direction of our opponent, spiralling the force of his own attack back against him.
  7. Tsou is the use of the elbow or knee joint to divert our opponent's attack and make him lose his balance or to strike his weak points.
  8. Kou is the use of the torso to divert our opponent's attack or to strike him when at close quarters, such as when he attempts to divert our punch into the void, and in reply we continue our forward momentum using the shoulder to strike him.

These powers when applied should result in a circular application of defence and counter-attack. They also contain elements of one another. Pang contains Li which in turn can contain either Pang or Tsai. Lit contains Tsoi and On. These powers must be applied flexibly depending on the circumstances that arise. Other so-called `powers' are in fact derived from these Eight Powers. Though the Pa Keng are normally thought of as hand and arm techniques, their use can equally be adapted to foot and leg techniques.

There is much confusion and misunderstanding about the traditional connection between the Pa Keng and the Pa Kua. First of all there are two major ways of setting out the Eight Trigrams octagonally. These are reproduced below:-

Fu Hsi's Pa Kua were said to represent the world in its pre-natal stage while King Wen's were said to represent the state of affairs after the birth of the world.

King Wen's Pa Kua were included in the Chinese Almanac where compass points were assigned to each of the individual trigrams. However, Western cartographers represent the direction North as `Up' and the direction South as `Down' while traditional Chinese cartographers looked at maps `upside down', thus making South `Up' and North `Down'. Thus, in the Chinese Almanac, the Pa Kua were represented as:-

It was when various authorities tried to explain the Pa Kua to Westerners in terms of compass points that confusion arose. Some simply turned the compass points inside Fig. 3 around 180 degrees, others turned both the compass points and the trigrams around 180 degrees, while others still used Fu Hsi's or other octagonal arrangement to represent the trigrams around the compass points.

Relating the Pa Kua at Fig. 3 to the use of the Pa Keng, we can imagine ourselves standing at the centre of a circle made by the trigrams. When our opponent launches an attack from the direction of any one trigram, we use one of the Pa Keng to divert its force in the direction of another trigram.

c) Conclusion

For interest's sake we list below the Eight Powers and their related trigrams, as well as the Five Directions and their related elements. Together they make up the Thirteen Tactics:

Eight Powers
Tactic Trigram Natural Phenomenon   Directions Elements
Pang Chien Heaven   Forward Metal
Li Kun Earth   Back Wood
Tsai K'an Water (as in rain)   Left Water
On Li Fire   Right Fire
Tsoi Sun Wind, wood   Centre Earth
Lit Chen Lightning      
Tsou Tui Water (as in lake or marsh)      
Kou Ken Mountain      
Five directions
Directions Elements
Forward Metal
Back Wood
Left Water
Right Fire
Centre Earth

Those who have studied Chinese philosophy may care to consider why and how each particular tactic is related to the relevant trigram, or element, but this question is largely irrelevant for our purposes. Suffice it to say that Wang Chung Yueh set out the above relationship, but we have no record of how he arrived at it.

Just as from North we derive North East and North West, so from North West we derive North North West and West North West. Thus, just as compass points are not limited to the eight points shown at Fig. 3 so directions of applying Pa Keng (Eight Powers) are likewise without limit, as we may use the Pa Keng in combination with the theory of the Five Directions and the Five Elements.

In order to be able to use these Thirteen Tactics effective knowledge of the theory is insufficient. Constant practice of the Pushing Hands is essential before we can freely and fluently apply them.