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Nearly all books on Tai Chi Chuan mention about the eight basic methods of practice: Peng (ward-off), Lu (rollback), Ji (push), An (press), Cai (grab), Lieh (Break), Zhou (elbow strike), and Khou (shoulder strike). However few has systematically discussed the theories and principles of these methods. I suggest that the eight basic methods and the five elements are the pillars and foundations of Tai Chi Chuan; similar to the strokes of calligraphy. Only by detailed analysis of the eight basic methods and the five elements will the students understand the concepts of this martial art. Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao, famous Chinese philosophers from my clan, once said “ Learn enough to be able to practice, practice enough to understand, understanding results in improvement.” Once the concept of the eight basic methods is mastered, the skill will come with practice.
No matter whether it is Xiao Jia (small frame), Lao Jia (old frame) or Xin Jia (new frame); and no matter how the action varies, every moves of Chen style Tai Chi Chuan are derived from these eight basic methods. In order to learn the technique properly a thorough understanding of these methods is critical.
Peng (ward-off) is the first of the eight basic methods. It is a form of direct force. Peng is one of the frequently employed methods of Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan. 14th generation Grandmaster Chen Chang Xing once said: “Release, extricate, stretch, fold are hard to detect because I rely on spiraling. Twisting upwards and lifting from below, no other forms can compete.” This rhyme explained the function of Peng. People from Chen village used to say, “ Keep spiraling and never let go.” Others would say, “Keep Peng and don’t let go”. So Peng is the same as spiraling. The range of other basic methods can only be properly expressed with the force of Peng. Quoting from Confucian Scholar Meng “ If principles are not followed, success will not be achieved.” The power of Peng is the principle in Chen style Tai Chi Chuan.
Chen Fake, a 17th generation grandmaster once said “ There are three steps to learn Tai Chi Chuan: first to learn the correct moves, then to practice often, and finally understand the details”. I think a bit more explanation will help to understand the essence of Peng better. The power of Peng involves two implications and has three different associations. The first implication is its relationship to breathing.
People ask exactly how intense should the breathing be with Peng? What is the definition of deep and shallow breathing? Chen Gan, a 16th generation grandmaster once remarked “ Breathing is indispensable with Tai Chi practice; without it there will have no energy in the movement.” I completely agree with this comment. In practicing Tai Chi, breathing (qi) is critical throughout. The flow of qi is also known as Peng breathing or Peng force. It must be sustained during the entire set. This flow is compared to the torrential current of the Yangtze River, as the energy is sustained.
To maintain the flow of Peng force throughout the form is a skill that can only be achieved with years of practice. The student has to pay special attention to appreciate this phenomenon. As to how deep the breathing and how large the force should be used during a practice to achieve the Peng force, I can suggest a simple criterion. Just as a person bends forward to lift an object from the floor, the power generated by this intentional and yet subconscious act is roughly equivalent to the force of the Peng. Once the person straightens up his body the force is not the same as Peng. So one can say the force either stronger or weaker than that of bending forward to lift is not Peng. If a student can sustain the right amount of force, his qi will not be lost. The alertness helps to detect the strength (listening energy) of his opponent.
In his book “ Chen style Tai Chi Chuan from the Chen Village” Zhu Tin Cai, a 19th generation grandmaster, described Peng as holding things with both hands. It is an upward movement; so it is the opposite of An, which is a downward press. It should be realized that Peng is not simply a force. The textbook of Chen style Tai Chi Chuan mentioned Peng should be present in every part of the body. Whether the opponent tries to grab, hold, punch, press, or push, the Peng force generated by breathing through Tan t’ien will neutralize his strength and begin an effective repulsion. Peng can also be used to close down the opponent. So it carries both defensive as well as offensive purposes and must be carefully studied.
It is easy to understand and comprehend the application of Peng force by the hands, but its generation in the body may be a bit difficult to comprehend. Peng is built on elasticity of the body. Upon repeated practice of Tai Chi Chuan, the flexibility of the muscles in our body allows themselves to merge with the bones and ligaments that can generate a formidable Peng force. My article on “The Stretch in Tai Chi Chuan” discussed the importance of generating recoil. In order to generate Peng force, it only can be done by continually stretches and contracts the body to increase the elasticity of the body. Thus, the power of Peng. We should remember that Peng is the foundation of Tai Chi Chuan and is the prime force of this martial art. The other seven methods of Chen style Tai Chi Chuan all include some Peng force. They are forever linked with one another, and the Peng force should never be ignored.
The second implication of Peng is about its external disposition, the actual movement itself. So how exactly is the move of Peng should be like? In the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, any force that is directed forward or upward, irrespective the position of the body or arms is generating Peng force. It should be pointed out that during the practice of other basic methods of Tai Chi Chuan, including Cai (pull down), Lieh (rollback), Zhou (elbow strike), and Khou (shoulder strike), grab, na (qin na), throw, or drop, Peng force is involved. The presence of Peng helps to neutralize the opponent’s strength and facilitates a counterattack. It helps to build up confidence, promote calmness and concentration. Peng also enhances flexibility so that its power can be instilled into any other moves, making them more effective.
We will now address the relationship of Peng with other basic components of Tai Chi, namely the dong (the inner side of both thigh, knee, and lower leg), the point of force exertion, and combat application. A strong dong is vital in the development of the Peng move. This can be seen in the first move of the first act of Lao Jia. When both arms are raised it is the posture to generate Peng. At this point if the dong is not bent and the pelvis (qua) is not lowered properly, equilibrium is not established and the stability force cannot be maintained.
Another example is found during the transition into the start of Buddha Stump. Here both arms are raised and the right leg steps forward in a Peng move. If at this point the right dong is not bent, the kick by the left leg will not generate any force and therefore lacks power. For fairy pointing the way in Tai Chi Sword the right leg plants on the ground and the left leg is raised in a Peng posture. The left dong should be bent otherwise the power of the move cannot be generated. Therefore Peng is involved in many moves of Tai Chi Chuan and weapon sets.
Whenever a Peng move is made, the dong must be bent and the qua must be lowered, otherwise the body will be rigid like a rod. The sequence of Tai Chi moves will be disjoined and their flow discontinuous. As a result the power of Peng is not developed properly and the opponent gains the upper hand. When the dong is bent and qua is sunken, the body is stable like an arc of the bridge and is able to withstand large amount of external force. A stable lower body helps the delivery of Peng force. The proper technique to execute the dong and qua movement is critical.
If the dong is bent too low, the chest will overextend and the lower body cannot build up Peng strength correctly. The energy generated is collapsed and the ability to withstand external pressure is markedly reduced. Alternatively, if the dong is exaggerated upwards the central stability is not secured and the coordination with the rest of the body is lacking. It will be hard to produce the desired effect of the Peng force. So the student of Tai Chi Chuan must pay special attention to the association between Peng, dong, and gua.
The relationship between Peng and the focal point of force is important. If this is not clearly understood, one is prone to the commit the mistake of drooping and rigidity. When the body is not relaxed it is hard to learn the moves well. One of my students showed an impressive posture during practice. However when I touched his upper arm with my fingers, his body felt stiff like a rod. This student had learned other kinds of kung fu previously and he did not understand the essence of building Peng force from the right focal point of force. He took quite some time before this bad habit was corrected. It is vital to realize that there is only a single focal point in the moves of Tai Chi Chuan.
If it is centered in the finger, then the force from other parts of the body cannot be stronger than that of the finger. Instead these parts should relax and the leading force is to come from the finger. The same principle also applies to the wrist, elbow, or any other part of the body that is used as the focal point of force. Furthermore there can be one and only one focal point on either side of the midline. If there is more than one point the body will be stiff, the power generated will be diffused and the energy will be loose. Therefore a general principle in Tai Chi Chuan is to ensure the harmony between Peng and the focal point of force. When this rule is mastered and perfected, all the moves will be accurate and precise. The student will be able to achieve the desired effect and mobility during actual combat.
How best to bring out the Peng force during combat? In general its primary function is to neutralize and redirect the power of an opponent. Additionally Peng integrates with the other classifications of force such as Cai, Lieh, Zhou, Khou, Lu, Ji, An, Zon (relax), Woe (lively), Tian (elasticity), shake, grab, Na, throw, and drop. In other word, Peng will be used with other basic methods of Tai Chi. For example, Peng can be used together with Cai, with Lieh, and with Zhou and Khou. In these situations Peng has a vital significance. If Peng is not executed properly, it is impossible to bring out the potency of the other basic methods.
So there is a saying in Tai Chi that Peng is like bone while the other methods are like flesh. Without Peng, there is no structure in the form. Also, Peng is like water while other basic methods are like fishes. Without water the fishes cannot survive. Peng is the foundation of Tai Chi. One can determine the practitioner’s skill by observing his performance of the Peng form. In a picture illustration in my first book a row of people joined forces to push me off balance. They failed. This was a demonstration of the power of Peng. By collapsing the chest, loosening the waist, lowering the qua, and bending the dong, my feet were secured like a tree. My body could withstand a tremendous amount of external force. It showed the exceptional strength of Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan.
Lu (rollback) is another basic method of Tai Chi. It is also one of the four direct forces. Lu is frequently used in the Chen Style combat. The power point of Lu is on both wrists. When applied together with rotation of the waist Lu redirects the momentum of the opponent, leading him astride. The saying of “four teals of force can move thousand pounds” about Tai Chi actually is a reference to Lu. During the move the body has to be coordinated: the energy point has to be precise, the shoulders and elbows are lowered, and the qi flows down the spine. The neck and the tailbone form a vertical line and the posture of the body is kept straight. The spine becomes the central axis and the waist rotating around it like a wheel. When the waist and spine turn together smoothly, the force of the opponent is diverted to either side of the body. The more the hands and the waist coordinate, the stronger the power of the Lu. At the point of contact the move should be light, precise, quick, and continuous. With the rotation of the waist the forward momentum of the opponent is unchanged, nonstop, and unbroken. His speed is suddenly exaggerated, and a lack of compensation invariably results in a loss of balance.
Lu can be performed with one or both hands. The one-handed move is used during the transition from Twist Step (Ao Bu) to Hidden Hand Punch. In this sequence, the right hand diverts the charging opponent by an upward and backward action. Simultaneously the right footsteps forward and a punch are delivered at a close range. The two-handed Lu is seen in a number of sequences, such as the Oblique Form, and Green Dragon rising out of Water converting into Both Hand Push. The force of Lu cannot be dissociated from that of Peng (ward-off). Otherwise its energy will crumble. As that happens, the rotational force of the waist cannot be fully expressed and the Lu generates much less power, leading to a substandard effect. This point deserves special attention.
Ji (push) is also one of the eighth basic methods. It belongs to the direct forces and is frequently applied in the Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan. When used in a close range Ji can cause an opponent to lose balance. It is also an extension of Peng, aiming to compromise the attacker. Ji can be delivered in a number of ways: using one-hand, both-hands, the elbow, the shoulder, the chest, the back, the hip, or the thigh. The move can be adjusted at anytime. It can assault the opponent if he is holding back. When he moves forward, Ji can displace his momentum to miss the target. Ji is a technique used in close range, so the body must be stable. This provides flexible mobility and maximal adaptability during combat.
When employing Ji in close range, the practitioner must have acquired a solid foundation in Tai Chi otherwise it cannot be fully deployed. Therefore how well is Ji force delivered is a reflection on the student’s skill level. Grandmaster Chen Gan once said, “ When perfected, Tai Chi Chuan cannot be tracked or predicted. It is like the movement of a magical dragon: natural, flexible, and yet unpredictable.” Frequent practice results in “a sharp reflex to tactile sensation of the surrounding, opening the door to the wonder of Tai Chi.” (Quoted in Wang Xian’s “Chen Style Tai Chi Push Hand Manuel page 3.”)

An (press) is one of the eight basic methods and is another of the direct forces. It is a common technique in Tai Chi Chuan. An means to close and to shut down. Its focal point of force is transmitted from the center or the root of the palm, while the center revolves around the waist. The energy (qi) is accumulated in the tan t’ien. An can be delivered with one or both hands. The proper posture of An dictates that the shoulders be sunken and elbows submerged. With folding the chest and loosening the waist, the body is kept erect while the qi descends to the tan t’ien. The turning of the waist brings the whole torso into motion, coordinating the upper and lower body into a single compact system. Grandmaster Chen Gan said, “Both hands have to sink downwards, otherwise the shoulders would be elevated, rending the form useless.” Therefore it is critical to make sure the shoulders and elbows are sunken in order to express the power of An.
In the book “The complete verse of Tai Chi Chuan” Pioneer Chen Wang-ting said, “ Practice Peng, Lu, Ji, and An seriously. When fluent it is very difficult to challenge. Even if the opponent charges with tremendous power, I can apply four teals of force to redirect and neutralize a thousand pounds.” To illustrate this principle let’s imagine the opponent attacks with a straight fist punch or a two-hand push. The first move is to lead his force astray. This alters the direction of the charge, deflecting the opponent’s forward momentum sideways and towards the floor. Then apply An force to his forearm, arm, or chest to prevent him from adjusting. Remember to shift the weight on the leading leg, together with shoulders and elbows sunken, hold the qi in the tan t’ien, and concentrate the strength around the qua. This move often causes him to fumble forward or backward. When An energy is exerted from the middle or the root of the palms, the flow of energy is continuous, and an optimal effect is produced.
Whether delivered with one or both hands, An is very practical during push hand drill and self-defense. Through frequent practice the power of An can be effectively expressed. Remember the upper and lower body moves in synchronization, the whole torso follow in unison, and this basic method is executed with ease.
Cai (grab) is another of the eight basic methods. It is one of four indirect forces. In Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan, Cai is basically meant grab and hold (qin na). There are many ways to deliver Cai, including single Cai, double Cai, elbow Cai, and chest Cai. Almost any part of the body can be integrated into a Cai move. To understand and execute Cai in Tai Chi, the practitioner must first acquire the skills of detecting, neutralizing, and applying force. These skills are essential to perform this basic method of Chen Style Tai Chi. In Cai the movement of the body and the footsteps merge beautifully, creating agility and variations. Whether it is grab or counter grab, hold or reverse-hold, this basic method is very practical. When Cai is used, concrete and fathom forces are often alternated and intermingled, making it hard for the opponent to anticipate. The essence of Cai is to maintain a sharp eye and a quick hand, targeting the muscles and the joints of the opponent. The goal is to strike the bones and grab the ligaments, rendering him defenseless. These are the basics of grab and the essences of hold (Cai).
The Cai in Chen’s Style Tai Chi is different from the grab and hold in other styles of martial art. Elsewhere the first reaction to an oncoming strike is to block and parry, interrupting the force of the opponent. Capturing and twisting the joint of the attacker follow this. In the Chen’s Style basic method of Cai, the initial move is to follow the flow of the approaching force of the opponent without interruption and diverting it sideways into emptiness. This redirection exposes the opponent’s arm and his meridian point to capture and clobber.


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