THE TROUBLE WITH T'UI-SHOU
By Robert Amacker
I am rather known for my categorical condemnation of t’ui-shou tournaments, and to the whole notion of competitive t’ui-shou in the first place. Just to cast aside any aspersions that this be merely a case of sour grapes on my part, or that my concept of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is simply so unrealistic as to be in need of hiding its head, let me say that for over twenty years a rather middle level of my students, against my instructions and sincere advice (which my best students actually follow), have with regularity entered these tournaments and won first place (almost never any other), in America, China, and Russia. I am not saying that proper training in T’ai Chi Ch’uan does not increase one’s ability in competitive t’ui-shou. T’ai Chi Ch’uan increases one’s ability in a lot of things – skiing, for example. But skiing does not increase one’s ability in T’ai Chi Ch’uan. T’ai Chi Ch’uan will increase one’s skill in weightlifting, in fact, but weightlifting, as it is normally practiced, is downright bad for T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
It is my contention that modern t’ui-shou, either in its tournament setting or in the unconscious mimicry of that setting as it filters down to the everyday practice of T’ai Chi students, is not merely unproductive, or even counter-productive, but perhaps the most absolutely back-asswards and thoroughly destructive model conceivable. It has inspired a kind of reverse logic that is diabolical in its perversity, whereby the more advanced exercises and indeed all of the fighting aspects of T’ai Chi Ch’uan come to be seen as crude expressions of force, or mere trickery, while the morally superior “fundamental” practice of two guys ramming into each other like rutting stags in the forest, developing their “push,” as I hear it frequently spoken of today, has taken the spiritual high ground as a process of “ch’i development,” and “centering.” One would think that the Classics, a written body of incredible astuteness the likes of which few other martial arts can boast, and which is violated over and over again by these tournament practices, simply did not exist. I am dumbfounded when asked to defend my position, which seems to me amply defended by the entire history of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
But I’ll do it anyway.
First let me give you a completely pragmatic response. The most obvious and incontrovertible fact concerning these tournaments is that, in all my many years of experience, whenever my students enter them, they get worse. They always get worse. It takes me months to straighten them out, and their addiction to the macho aspects of this kind of sumo wrestling keeps them in a condition that absolutely prohibits advancement beyond a certain level. I sometimes get the response that it is a cheap shot for me to criticize the crudeness of this activity, because, “we’re all too hard,” implying that someday this crude behavior will be replaced by magical effortlessness that none of us, of course, in our gushing displays of humility, could presume to presently possess. It never seems to occur to people that the simplest and most effective way to end crude behavior is to stop doing it.
Now, in all fairness, the reason that most schools cannot stop this kind of practice is that, if they did so, they would have nothing else to do. The practice of t’ui-shou is an incredibly deep study, if pursued as one, rather than as a contest, but the only guidance in this study is its relationship to the more advanced practices, and the neglect of these has destroyed the only lighthouse that can keep T’ai Chi Ch’uan from sailing endlessly in circles. Only by knowing what one will later be asked to do is it possible to give proper emphasis and correct nuance to the training one is undertaking for it now. The training of externals can be done with robots, but internal habits can only be trained if one can consciously direct one’s attention to the proper aspect of an external exercise. For this reason the fundamental exercises will always occupy the greatest part of any practitioner’s time, even after fifty years of study. The advanced exercises will reveal the flaw, but they will not correct it.
Let me make it clear that I am in no way saying that t’ui-shou, properly practiced, is a flawed exercise. It is without doubt the single most brilliant and unique of all of T’ai Chi Ch’uan’s unique methods of martial development. The problem is that it resembles in its external form that of Greco-Roman and Sumo wrestling, and rather easily degenerates to these modalities. People have been knocking each other over and out of rings drawn in the dirt for thousands of years, and the simple imposition of some sort of philosophy or high-minded intention upon this situation and definition of victory does not make it T’ai Chi practice. If it were only a harmless application of some of the cruder skills acquired in basic T’ai Chi training, and clearly identified as such, I would not make such a fuss about it. But it is neither. People who do it think that they are practicing and actually improving their T’ai Chi skills, rather than recklessly squandering and destroying them.
It is also a clear example of a frequently exercised opportunity to play a kind of low-level mind game that is all too familiar to anyone who has practiced martial arts. This is the practice of reconfiguring the rules of engagement in such a way that they define victory in favor of the skills of one of the opponents. When this “victory” is a developmental goal and the skill involved is a subtle one that must otherwise “lose” to cruder and more dead-ended techniques, but if nevertheless practiced will eventually result in the defeat of those cruder techniques, this is actually definitive of Martial Art itself. However, when the reverse is true, and the more difficult skill is suppressed by a definition of victory that favors the cruder technique, we have martial art in reverse, and an effective devolution of the entire system.
There is just such a subtlety underlying the insidious effects of competitive hand pushing on T’ai Chi Ch’uan. It starts from one of the definitive requirements of t’ui-shou, that the feet remain fixed throughout the exercise. Since this is a requirement, it would seem reasonable to say that violating it automatically constitutes a “defeat,” and therefore a “victory” for the opposing player. There are a lot of things wrong with this formulation. Without even touching upon the technicalities, it incorporates an underlying premise that is wrong at its very core, namely, that t’ui-shou is a zero-sum game. What this means, basically, is that in pursuing it there will always be a winner and a loser, and that, therefore, by not being the loser one can automatically declare himself to be the winner. This gives rise to the deadly presumption that destroying one’s opponent’s ability to do T’ai Chi constitutes doing it correctly oneself.
Now, t’ui-shou, as it was meant to be practiced, is a cooperative game, in which the two players are trying to learn highly difficult skills, skills which at the beginning are impossible to do unless both players cooperate. One, and only one, among these many skills involves the recognition that if one can induce the opponent to take a step, an advantage can be gained. This advantage is only real if one is doing everything else right. There are many, many situations in which taking the first step is exactly the correct and principled thing to do, most of which, but not all, indicating a mistake on the part of the opponent. The rules of competitive t’ui-shou contain the implicit assumption that every contestant is exhibiting flawless technique, in fact, that they are masters of the art, and that this single step is the only indicator of a superior or inferior position. The result of this insanity is that the contestants are “trained” to do anything, no matter how idiotic it might be in a real fight, rather than move their feet. This is mistakenly dignified with the term “learning to neutralize.”
The aggressive skill that the opponents are supposedly exhibiting is one of “discharge,” or fa-jing. This skill only manifests after years and years of correct training, the usual number estimated at twenty. The skill that precedes it, and which must itself be practiced for years, is that of being discharged. It is actually the most sophisticated expression of the process that begins with simple yielding, called learning through loss. The players of competitive t’ui-shou are not learning through loss, they are not learning how to be discharged, because nobody is discharging them. At no time in all of the t’ui-shou contests that I have seen have I ever seen anyone come even remotely close to anything resembling a real discharge. Dignifying the outcomes of these absurd wrestling matches by that term is the height of childish fantasy.
As I explain to my students, the condition that one must be in to discharge an opponent is exactly the same condition that allows one to be discharged by him. Trying simply to negate his ability to do T’ai Chi Ch’uan does nothing more than make it also impossible to do it oneself. What one must be training is the instinct never to allow or sustain pressure. One must not only not resist being discharged, one must train a condition in which it may occur at the slightest touch. Only from the perfection of this condition and of one’s technique will this finally result in the opponent being discharged at our slightest touch. And this applies only to the most skillful opponent. Normal people are not discharged by a release of jing; they are killed. Discharge is an expression of mutual skill, not one of super power.
Contestants of competitive t’ui-shou are sustaining huge amounts of pressure for large amounts of time in order to keep from doing exactly what they should be training themselves to do. The assumption that any of the contestants are past that training necessity is so laughable as to be absurd.
And therein lies the reason that these tournaments exist in their present form. Only by dignifying a crude kind of wrestling that many a barfly is master of can they find enough contestants to create a commercial enterprise. It should be lost on no one that the first tournaments were regularly won by people who had never taken a class in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, until form requirements were inserted, forcing Judo, Greco-Roman, and sumo wrestlers to spend at least a couple of months learning it before they entered and won again. Making money is the only goal of these tournaments, either directly or through the promotion of endless streams of “masters,” and “champions” who will soon enough be self-anointed “masters” themselves. Only by superimposing some kind of Oriental mysticism and panache on this patently ancient macho behavior can they create a fare that will not compete directly with established sport, riding a crest of new age fashion. It is identity theft on a grand scale.
And finally to the most absurd concept of all. This says that competitive t’ui-shou need not answer to any requirements of eventual fighting skill or high level technique, and any deficiencies that it might have in that direction may be excused, because it serves a much higher purpose, that of getting rid of one’s ego. The fact that it resembles behavior associated for perhaps millions of years with considerable ego involvement is of no consequence. This is the whole point. Only within such normally ego producing circumstances can one’s highly advanced techniques of spiritual evolution be really tested. And, of course, being “pushed” repeatedly is undoubtedly quite ego destroying, if one means by this feeling repressed for a long time. Then, of course, one gets to practice not getting one’s ego back, when he gets to “push” others.
Fundamentally, the question revolves around an understanding of what martial art exactly is. It starts from an abstraction of fighting, by introducing rules of engagement. From these rules of engagement, effectively an agreement that the “fight” that is practiced will proceed along certain lines and exclude others, formal practice develops, emphasizing forms congruent with those accepted lines. With virtually all martial arts other than T’ai Chi Ch’uan, these forms are used forcefully, exactly as they are rehearsed. The transition from solo practice to sparring with an opponent is logical and obvious.
With T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the situation is more complex. Free sparring is absolutely fundamental to the entire concept of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, but when it occurs, it closely resembles classical gung-fu. It is entirely mistaken to think that the developmental process of T’ai Chi Ch’uan concludes with a technique that is so “internal” and esoteric that it cannot be allowed to resemble any familiar form of movement, and especially to assume that it removes the need for any sort of movement at all. Also, to actually be T’ai Chi Ch’uan and not simply the Shaolin that it might resemble, the players must be extremely developed, far beyond the point where they might be the slightest bit interested in having spectators, and light years beyond the slightest possibility that there could be enough of them to stable a “tournament” system.
Quite naturally, what has caught the public’s eye as definitive of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is the t’ui-shou exercise. It is natural to assume that this is the T’ai Chi Ch’uan version of “sparring,” and equally natural, I suppose, that those engaged in it have responded to that presumption by turning it into exactly that. But T’ui-shou was designed to perform a unique function, necessitated by the equally unique external disconnection between the forms of T’ai Chi Ch’uan and their eventual use. That function is to provide a situation for the development of internal habits that are too complex to be learned at the speed and small size at which they must be eventually performed. It is a kind of intermediate stage before actual sparring occurs. When those habits can actually carry through to a freer situation (actual sparring, called, generically, Sanshou) without degenerating into normal forceful behavior, the opponents can righteously say that they are indulging in legitimate practice. But if not, then whatever else their encounter might settle, it would not improve their T’ai Chi Ch’uan. In other words, even correct practice of t’ui-shou is no guarantee that, in a free sparring match, T’ai Chi principles will be observed. It will all depend upon how deeply ingrained are the internal habits of the players. Unforunately, the behavior of competitive t’ui-shou is exactly designed to destroy those very habits at the outset.
In other words, the “rules” of t’ui-shou, real t’ui-shou, are rules of engagement, but far, far abstracted from ordinary concepts of competition. Any boxing master will tell you that fights are won by footwork and timing (which is intimately related to footwork). The familiar practices of T’ai Chi Ch’uan would lead one to believe that in this art, we contradict this. Students of t’ui-shou frequently practice with the unconscious assumption that they are learning a skill that will remove the necessity for them to ever move their feet. They do not realize that the exercise culminates in the ability to take correct steps, from which flows an understanding of timing. The great esoteric secret of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is that it is, as far as I have found, the only martial art that actually has a method for teaching this very sublime skill. Paradoxically, this method is t’ui-shou, in which the feet are not allowed to move, so that the correct precondition for their movement can be established, that is, the change of substantial and insubstantial. The correct step is by definition an expression of complete and correct change of substantial and insubstantial in the body extending to the legs, the speed of which is directly connected to our neutralization of the opponent, which leads in turn to correct timing.
And so t’ui-shou must not be mistaken for some sort of end in itself. It must be recognized at all times that it exists for the development of a skill that, in the entirety of its practice, never manifests. A contest is by definition a test of a certain skill. How can we be pretending to test a skill for which no provisions of judgment exist, and which, whenever any version of it appears, the player exhibiting it has automatically lost?
In fighting, T’ai Chi Ch’uan works the best when one’s opponent has never heard of it and has no desire to cooperate with you in any way. But in terms of its practice, it is a cooperative skill. The players are trying to restrict the parameters of their practice to confine it to the development of particular skills. Creating a simple minded definition of victory that involves making sure your opponent’s T’ai Chi Ch’uan is “neutralized” while doing everything one can to make him break any of an elaborate set of artificial and undercooked “rules of engagement” is the opposite of what one is supposed to be doing here, that is, helping your opponent to do T’ai Chi Ch’uan and trying to keep him from breaking any of the “rules.” This is not simply a mindset of practice, to be discarded when really fighting, but is, in the case of T’ai Chi Ch’uan more than any other, one’s attitude in actual combat. One reflexively “helps” one’s opponent to do T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and then, when he can’t, he gets hurt.
I always tell my students to follow the “rule of lawyers.” That is, never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. Yang, Cheng-fu called it “putting out a meaningless hand.” When a technique has a counter, that means it will perfectly neutralize a perfect technique. It is useful to think of oneself as actually “helping” the opponent to make the perfect counter. This means, logically, that one must do the technique perfectly. This attitude is far more professional than trying to make one’s technique “work” by actually distorting it in some way. If there is a flaw in the opponent’s counter, you will be able to utilize it in some way; if there is not, you will, by not overreaching in some way, be able to match the opponent’s counter with one of your own. The mindset developed from this is one of watching the fight develop, rather than trying to hurry its conclusion. I remember one very fine boxer, as he knocked me flat on the floor, saying, “Oh shit!” and then, as he gave me a hand up, “Damn. I was really having fun there.” One is reminded of Sun, Lu-tang’s remark, “Having a fight is like taking a walk in the park.”
In conclusion, let me just say that T’ai Chi Ch’uan is something that either works very, very well, or it doesn’t work at all. It cannot be redefined out of existence by simply changing the rules of engagement to what amounts to a monumental oversimplification and attaching the name of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. I am afraid, however, that that is exactly what is happening.