Pushing hands, (推手, tuī shǒu), is a name for two-person training routines practised in internal Chinese martial arts such as baguazhang, Xingyiquan, Taijiquan and Yiquan.
Tuishou is the gateway to the martial aspects of taijiquan. It teaches students the methods and strategies for neutralising an attack without resorting to brute force. Pushing hands counters the normal tendency to react to force with fear and aggression, and allows one instead to respond with natural instinct, softness, and emptiness.
“Health oriented” schools that avoid the martial context of taijiquan still teach tuishou for several reasons. Tuishou is not only used to teach combat skills, but to help students to understand the internal principles of the solo form. It also gives very clear feedback as to the alignment, precision, and relaxation in the student’s posture. The tiniest error in posture can be measured in the pressure or tension that builds up between players or within a person’s own body.
This is why tuishou practice, while often very vigourous, can also be relaxing, calming, and invigorating.
Training with a partner allows a student to develop “tingjing” (listening power), the sensitivity to feel the direction and strength of a partner’s attack and redirect it. Tuishou provides a safe environment in which to develop high level martial skills that normal sparring practice seldom allows
Many students are intimidated by the thought of tuishou. But with the right partners and a good teacher, anyone can find a way to enjoy and benefit from it. Tuishou practice refines form and technique in limitless detail, beginning with basic movement patterns and progressing to profound details in the ways that thought, emotion and postures interact.
The practice of tuishou becomes like a dance the increases in speed and complexity while simultaneously deepening relaxation and awareness.
The students learn to defeat the opponent without using force. Instead of force one develops a profound understanding of the power of softness and emptiness. At a basic level one neutralises the opponent’s force by applying minimal force at right angles to the direction of the opponents attack. At a deeper level, one defeats the opponent by “becoming one with the Universe“ or finding the part of the opponent’s mind that wants to be defeated and allowing that to happen.
The expression used in some taiji schools to describe this is “Give up oneself to follow another.”
Pushing hands also teaches students safety habits in regard to their own vital areas, acupuncture points, principles of qinna aspects of massage. At a certain point, pushing hands begins to take on aspects of qigong, as the students learn to co-ordinate their movements in attack and defence with their breathing.
Pushing hands is said by Taiji’s Chen family to have been created by Chen Wangting (1600-1680) the founder of the Chen style Tai Chi Chuan and was originally known as hitting hands (da shou) or crossing hands (ke shou). Chen was said to have devised pushing hands methods for both empty hands and armed with spears. Other Taiji schools attribute the invention of pushing hands to Zhang Sanfeng.
In recent history push hands has become a part of modern martial arts tournaments, especially those devoted to internal arts. Within this context, pushing hands is not an exercise to develop skill but a competitive sport.
Training pushing hands
In taijiquan, pushing hands is used to acquaint students with the principles of what are known as the “Eight Gates and Five Steps,” eight different leverage applications in the arms accompanied by footwork in a range of motion which proponents say will eventually allow students to defend themselves calmly and competently if attacked. Also known as the “13 original movements of tai chi”, a posture expressing each one of these aspects is found in all tai chi styles. Training and push hands competitions generally involve contact but no strikes.
The Eight Gates (八門 bā mén)
- Peng (掤) – An upward expansive energy, forward or backward, yielding or offsetting usually with the arms, often translated as “Ward Off.” Peng is also described more subtly as an energetic quality that should be present in every taiji movement as a part of the concept of “song” or relaxation, providing the strength to maintain structure when pressed and still avoid tension.
- Lü (履) – A sideways, circular yielding movement, often translated as “Roll Back.”
- Jǐ (擠) – A pressing or squeezing offset in a direction away from the body, usually done with the back of the hand or outside edge of the forearm. Ji is often translated as “press” or “squeeze.”
- àn(按) – To offset with the hand, usually a slight lift up with the fingers then a push down with the palm, which can appear as a strike if done quickly. Often translated as “push” or “press.”
- Cǎi (採) – To pluck or pick downwards with the hand, especially with the fingertips or palm. The word cai is part of the compound that means to gather, collect or pluck a tea leaf from a branch. Often translated “Pluck.”
- Lieh (挒, liè) – Lieh means to separate, to twist or to offset with a spiral motion, often while making immobile another part of the body (such as a hand or leg) to split an opponent’s body thereby destroying posture and balance. Lieh is often translated as “Split.”
- Zhǒu (肘) – To strike or push with the elbow. Usually translated as “Elbow Strike” or “Elbow Stroke” or just plain “Elbow.” Zhou can include techniques with the knee.
- Kào (靠) – To strike or push with the shoulder or upper back. The word k’ao implies leaning or inclining. Usually translated “Shoulder Strike,” or “Shoulder.”
The Five Steps (五步 wǔ bù):
- jìn bù (進步) – Advance.
- tùi bù (退步) – Retreat.
- zǔo gù (左顧) – Look Left.
- yòu pàn (右盼) – Gaze Right.
- zhōng dìng (中定) – The central position, balance, equilibrium. Not just the physical centre, but a condition which is expected to be present at all times in the first four steps as well, associated with the concept of rooting (the ability to align the body and mind so that any force, whether internal or external is channelled directly into the ground through a relaxed body and a calm mind.
The Eight Gates correspond to the eight trigrams (Bagua 八卦) described in the Yijing (a classic of the Daoist Cannon.) The Five Steps correspond to the Wuxing 五行 (five elements) (metal, water, wood, fire, and earth.) Collectively they constitute what is referred to as the “Thirteen Postures” and form the essence of taijiquan. The late Master Jou Tsung Hwa presented the 13 postures as the “Master Key” of taijiquan, believing as many do that they defined the art. Following this train of thought, if anyone can embody the 13 postures in their art, whatever that art may be, they could be said to be practising taijiquan.