WHAT'S GOOD ABOUT GRABBING
By Robert Amacker
In my article The Trouble With T’ui-shou I mentioned that one of the great stumbling blocks on the road to correct and productive t’ui-shou is the obsessive desire to duplicate the phenomenon of discharge, in reality a cooperative affair that takes decades to master, by simply perfecting the fine art of shoving people as hard and as suddenly as possible, and attempting a stab at this perfection just about as soon and as often as the possibility is perceived. Besides representing a complete misunderstanding of what a discharge actually is (not a crime in itself – it’s supposed to take a long time to understand) and simply delaying indefinitely the acquisition of this skill, this obsessive mentality also has the side effect of marginalizing and neglecting other components of T’ai Chi Ch’uan that seem, from its perspective, irrelevant to the more lofty goal of idealized discharge. The two great victims of this neglect are attacks to the head, and the use of grabs. Not merely neglected, these forms of attack are simply summarily banned by more than a few teachers. Their support for these prohibitions, they feel, is called for not only because of the relative irrelevance of these pursuits, but also on grounds of needless danger to the players.
Let me just try to dispense with this as directly as I can. The logic for this reasoning all starts from the mistaken identification of discharge as some kind of refinement of the act of simply pushing people. It is a refinement, all right, and of something that does visually look like pushing people, or at least trying to, but this is not what it is. In fact, the true discharge is extremely tied to efforts of the opponent to avoid injuries and threats of a conventional nature. You cannot walk up to people on the street and simply discharge them, no matter how great a master you are. You first have to get them to do something, and if they refuse, such an event is impossible. (“Not even the greatest master can discharge a statue.” – Cheng, Man-ch’ing) You can, of course, push them so hard that their dentures fall out, but this is not what we should be learning to do here. The whole phenomenon of discharge exists entirely within the context of the martial arts, and when separated from it, becomes a parody of itself. It is based on danger, and efforts to avoid it. By eliminating danger, we eliminate the logic of fighting itself, and substitute for it a dangerous (to ourselves) desire to execute this signature technique of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, as though we were not allowed to win fights any other way. The most dangerous thing one can do in a fight is to preconceive how one is going to win it. I always tell my students, “You may decide how to attack, but only the opponent can decide how he is to be defeated.” The ability to be discharged, in the true sense of the term, represents considerable skill and remarkable condition on the part of one’s opponent. If he is not up to the task, there is nothing you can do about it.
All of the foregoing applies both to attacks to the head and grabs. But in the latter case, there is considerably more to be said. I feel that T’ai Chi Ch’uan occupies a unique position in the martial arts, for a variety of reasons, and the concept of grabbing is fundamental to one of them.
Possibly the greatest natural division in the martial arts is that concerning what is generally called boxing, and what is relegated to the various forms of wrestling or grappling. That this is a significant division, with an expectable attendant rivalry, is evidenced by the current wave of “ultimate” fighting venues, in which the only apparent conclusion would seem to be that, when everything gets really down and dirty, wrestling trumps boxing. At least, far more of these fights end on the ground in the missionary position than any other way. Joe Lewis, who can certainly not be accused of being unacquainted with boxing power, reportedly came to this same conclusion after retiring from boxing and becoming a wrestler. The legendary non-fight between Antonio Inoki and Mohammed Ali showed clearly that neither skill translates easily to the other, and that no matter how hard you try, you always end up doing one or the other, or, as on that particular occasion, neither. Personally, my motivation for the practice of the martial arts is not paranoia, nor do I think that the most accurate representation of the “real” world is a featureless eight-sided cage, so I feel free to leave the hair-splitting decisions about which art is more “ultimate” to others. I like moving around on my feet better than crawling around on the ground, and being loose and relaxed better than spending extended periods of time in tense encounters of strength and leverage. But this is a matter of taste. The somewhat yin-yang standoff between these two methods is a time-honored one, and I will recapitulate some of its reasoning here.
Essentially, it starts with the pragmatic assumption that it is impossible to do both at the same time. This assumes, of course, that we are talking about boxing at its highest level, in which the entire energy of the body is mobilized through the mechanism of correct rooting and ch’an-su-jing, not simply using one’s over-developed arm muscles to pound on opponents while we squat on them in the missionary position. The logic of this is based on the necessity for relaxation and looseness in delivering the most powerful blow, and the contradiction inherent in attempting this while simultaneously trying to control the opponent’s movements with strength.
This logic, at least on the surface, is essentially correct. In mobilizing the entire energy of the body for a correct strike, tension, or more properly speaking, li, in any part of the body, even those parts apparently not directly involved in striking, will effectively kill this process. You cannot forcefully control the opponent’s movement and still remain loose enough to correctly fa-jing. Grabbing is easily assumed to suggest this very motivation, and many of the movements of T’ai Chi Ch’uan look, at least in slow motion, as though they are in fact grappling maneuvers, Roll Back being the most obvious example. Given this assumption, it would seem that these movements contradict the basic rule of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, which is following the opponent. How can one control him and follow at the same time?
Well, the answer is, you can’t. Grabbing is always associated with the posture of Pull, and to assume that this suggests forcefully pulling the opponent is as misguided as assuming that the posture of Push suggests forcefully pushing him. In fact, the most difficult and critical factor in grabbing, and the one that I must correct my students about the most often, is that when grabbing one must be careful not to alter or impede in any way the activity of the part being grabbed (usually the wrist). The fact that you have grabbed the wrist in no way contradicts the notion that you should still follow its motion.
So, the next logical question is, why adopt the posture of Pull if we don’t intend to do so? First, recall that exactly the same question could be asked concerning the posture of Push. Why adopt it, if we don’t intend to actually push anyone? The answer is the same in both cases. We are not preparing to push or pull, we are preparing to fa-jing, and, if the opponent is skillful enough to avoid injury, discharge him. More details about the phenomenon of discharge can be found in my article, Discharge – Its Use and Abuse, but the most important thing to understand is that when used at the highest level, it is an anomaly to the process of neutralization, literally a breakdown of this process, but ideally at such an advanced stage that one’s position is still advantageous. It is really the fruit of an attempted process that is bound to fail. We are trying to follow an opponent’s movements, even those of his hands, so perfectly that, when he is approaching, no pressure occurs, and when retreating, no separation. One would easily assume from this formulation that the greatest T’ai Chi Master is the one who can accomplish this feat no matter how fast his opponent moves. This is fuzzy thinking on several levels. In the first place, if it were true, how could discharge ever take place? But more importantly, it is impossible. No one can do this.
Now at this point I can imagine the reaction of certain readers. I would like to remove from reality a technique simply because I can’t do it, and I can’t imagine anyone doing it. Although I must plead guilty to the last two assertions, I am not simply covering my own ass. Further, the pursuit of such idealized behavior without understanding its true purpose (which, in this case, is not idealized success) leads to a kind of cargo cult mentality that smells too much like religious devotion, and not enough like artistic pursuit. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is much more difficult than simply following. It means following in the right somatic condition, and with the right postural changes, so that, when following breaks down, one is in the advantageous position and correctly prepared internally for a discharge to take place. If following were the highest priority, one could do so up to a very high speed. But accomplishing this would entail using progressively more and more amounts of li in order to hold the body together. In this case, the breakdown, when it finally occurred, would be disastrous. (I try to demonstrate this excessive effort at following at the expense of proper relaxation in the VIDEO section under the title Rollback and Pull, Sanshou Application.)
Not that the occurrence of perfect neutralization is undesirable. When it is sufficient to end an altercation, it aspires to the highest goal of any martial encounter, which may be grasped from the old saying, “It is easier to kill than to maim; easier to maim than to injure; easier to injure than to control; easier to control than to enlighten.” More than once I have been attacked in some way on the street and, after successfully neutralizing a few blows without inflicting any injury myself, seen the assailant suddenly lose any desire to continue. This, for me at least, represents a kind of ultimate boxing pleasure. I have invariably felt as bad emotionally after the fights that I have won as I have physically after the fights that I have lost. Hurting someone is never a source of satisfaction. For me, even controlling others is distasteful, physically or otherwise. But being the source of this particular type of enlightenment is wonderful. Some people, however, stubbornly refuse to be enlightened, and some people are a lot faster than others. If T’ai Chi Ch’uan did not address this ultimate situation, it would not be the truly pragmatic and practical martial art that it is.
To understand the true function of grabbing, one must consider the idea that discharge, in the sense of an opponent being projected rather harmlessly through space, may not constitute the final step in the boxing process. Chu, Ch’u-fang used to laugh about the concept of discharging the opponent a great distance as a means of winning a fight. The significant thing about a discharge is not the distance that the opponent is thrown but the effect that it has upon timing. To discharge an opponent even a few inches is a little bit like being able to stop time. It perfectly sets up the opponent for the final blow. Actually, the greater distance the opponent is discharged the more challenging and difficult it is to take advantage of this effect. Amazingly, it works even if several steps are required to close with the opponent once more, but past a certain point, the opponent will have entirely recovered by the time you get there.
This is not something that you exactly do on purpose. You try to follow the opponent as closely as possible, whether you have grabbed him or not, but at some time his movement will be so sudden a change of direction and speed that it sends a shock wave through your body, a wave that, if you are not completely relaxed and also well positioned, will injure you. If, however, you are properly prepared, this wave will travel to the root and back, with two very important results. One is the possible discharge of the opponent (related to this is the possible advantageous discharge of oneself, which is too much to go into here), and the other is the energetic activation of the opposite arm, or in some cases, the opposite leg. This simply means that when one has properly differentiated substantial and insubstantial in the body, and this differentiation is connected with a stable center, a sudden jerk on one arm will produce an equally powerful reaction in the other. It is possible to use the muscles of the arm in such a relaxed way that this energy can be expressed through a variety of shapes, without being impeded.
An examination of the form’s real applications will show that a great many of the movements, regardless of their various eight trigram techniques, also employ the posture of Pull as an integral element in their execution. This pull always, when the movement is executed at speed, precedes its companion technique. For example, in Single Whip, this relationship is expressed two times. The initial posture is Pull, ideally discharging the opponent a split second before the next posture, Shoulder, occurs. This means that the opponent literally hops onto your shoulder. In the final portion of the movement, the right hand has used the bird’s beak to grab the opponent’s wrist. The sudden reaction to this pulling posture sends a wave through the body that manifests as a strike by the left hand. In this case, the discharging effect of the right hand grab is more likely to create a stumble, usually setting the opponent up almost as perfectly as a discharge. Almost all of the movements assume either a stumble or a discharge to be decisive. The various attacks seen in the Sanshou exercise have their potential potency disguised, and evoke a dance-like impression, by the fact that the opponent never stumbles or is disadvantageously discharged. Among other movements that clearly evoke this two-stage possibility are Cloudy Hands, Ward Off Left, Separate Foot, and, of course, Roll Back in Grasp Sparrows Tail. Although Pull is seldom named as the primary posture, its actual incidence of occurrence is the most frequent in the solo form.
You will remember that the basic assumption in comparing grappling and boxing was that one cannot do both at the same time. It has been suggested that one of the intriguing possibilities driving the development of T’ai Chi Ch’uan was a conscious desire to somehow resolve this dichotomy. Whether consciously done or not, the technique of T’ai Chi Ch’uan does achieve this resolution. Moreover, it does so without actually negating the basic logic that would seem to prohibit it. First of all, I have tried to show that even though the active technique of grabbing does not imply forceful control, and such is never actually attempted by the player when conscientiously following the principle, the frequent resultant phenomenon of discharge, though also not deliberately caused by the player, accomplishes effectively the same purpose. The critical difference here is that control implies some continuous influence over the opponent’s movement, influence that must be suspended before one can effectively strike. Discharge, on the other hand, is an effectively instantaneous influence over his movement, an influence that disappears one split second, or as I like to say, one beat (in the musical sense) before the manifestation of the strike. How is this different from just grabbing the opponent, and then releasing him a split second before hitting him?
Well, the primary difference is that the latter strategy simply doesn’t work. If you let him go, he will evade or block your strike, no matter how fast it is delivered. The reason that this does not apply to correct technique is that, when fa-jing occurs in this sophisticated way (technically, through the application of ni-ch’an-su- jing, or “receiving” jing), the resultant release of energy is perfectly timed to take advantage of the momentary break in the opponent’s continuity of movement. This is what I meant earlier by “stopping time.” What really happens is a lightning quick change of substantial and insubstantial, one that transfers all of the energy from one side of the body to the other. The “grappling” and the “boxing” still do actually take place at different moments, but moments that are so connected and over a time period so short that they seem effectively simultaneous. By separating substantial and insubstantial, we are, in a way, allowing ourselves to be two people at the same time, people who can alternate their functions with telepathic quickness.
In short, grabbing is too integral to the whole technique of T’ai Chi Ch’uan to be proscribed without seriously distorting the very foundations of its real application. This means that one must have the opportunity to practice correct grabbing, and likewise the opportunities arising when the opponent’s grabs are not so correct. Remember that in t’ui-shou if both parties insist upon perfection, nothing happens, so it is incumbent upon those practicing to alternate in making the “mistake” of initiating some form of aggression. (Once Cheng, Man-ch’ing scolded his top American student, Tam Gibbs, for always losing his classroom t’ui-shou encounters. “You are too selfish,” he said. “Always losing. How will others be able to practice?”) Just as this aggression can take on the form of a probe or push, it can also manifest as a tentative pull. There is nothing wrong with this practice, as long as both parties realize that one of them is purposely being foolish and undisciplined in order to facilitate the other’s development. Just as a strike, when executed with deliberate slowness, and in the large frame that such slowness dictates, is indistinguishable from long force or simple pushing, so a pull, whose actual manifestation is an unexpected and almost instantaneous jerk, mimics its long force counterpart when executed under the same conditions.
In hopes that the relevance of grabbing to the totality of one’s technique has been established, I will go briefly into a few of the technical points concerning its execution. The basic rule for grabbing the wrist parallels exactly the way one holds a sword, as opposed to the proper grip for a saber. The saber grip is a firm one, with the little finger of the hand making full contact with the hilt to exert a kind of leverage during the strike. Suffice to say that its intention is to forcefully control the blade, making it effectively an extension of the arm. With the sword, however, the primary focus is upon allowing the blade to freely respond to the influence of the opponent’s sword. In other words, the grip is as loose as the saber grip is firm. Allowed to move freely, the sword can express the Principle (That is, the T’ai Chi principle) in a way that can be followed by the player, directing his movements and steps. This gives rise to two traditional images. One is the idea of “following the sword.” The refers to fact that one is following one’s own sword by listening to its movements in the same way that one follows the actions of the opponent in unarmed confrontation. Instead of being an extension of oneself, as in the saber, the sword is more properly seen as an extension of the opponent. Accordingly, the grip is formed by creating a kind of ring using the thumb and middle finger. The thumb overlaps the finger slightly, sometimes covering a part of the ring finger, as well. This traps the hilt but leaves it free to express the t’ai chi of the sword. The kind of movement facilitated by this sort of responsiveness is sometimes compared to holding onto the flickering tail of a running horse without the horse knowing that you are there. Another helpful image is that of the “flying sword.” The sword ideally must appear to be flying by itself, with the swordsman merely a kind of insubstantial ghost in attendance.
The grab of the wrist uses the same logic. Only the thumb and middle finger are actively used, the other fingers perhaps touching the wrist of the opponent, but in a very relaxed condition that does not resist subtle alterations. The placement is just above the protrusion of the wrist bone. If the contact is initially to the forearm, the grip is allowed to slip down to this position, but one must not grab below the bone of the wrist, a position that is too insecure to support a discharge, and that will simply injure your fellow students in practice with accidental ch’in-na applications. I mentioned that one must be extremely careful when grabbing not to influence the movement of the grabbed wrist in any way. This means not only avoiding introducing translational movement, but also the avoidance of any angular or rotational influence, as allowing the other fingers to grip would produce. In other words, though the grip may be quite tenacious with regard to the integrity of this thumb and middle finger connection, it is also extremely delicate.
Much more important than the mechanics of proper grabbing are those of one’s proper reaction to it. Let us take the simplest but, in many ways, the most difficult example. This is when a grab occurs without any external movement of the grabbing hand. There is ample opportunity for this in the formal p’eng-lu-chi-an t’ui-shou exercise, in which half the exercise studies the relationship of Ward Off and Push. In this case, one of the hands of the party using the posture of Push is lying on the wrist of the opponent for a relatively extended period, plenty of time to, in the course of this relationship, simply grab the wrist, with no other adjustment. One very natural mistake to make here is to assume that, since the person grabbing is exhibiting no external movement, we must simply submit passively to this sudden change. No matter how fast it is accomplished, grabbing means closing the hand around the opponent’s wrist. This takes a finite amount of time, and during that time, pressure is increasing all around the wrist except for the opening in the tiger’s mouth, or space between the thumb and middle finger. Yielding to this means that one can legitimately escape through this opening while the grab is forming. The trick here is to not overreact and jerk the hand away from the grab, allowing the opponent to follow and adhere. One can avoid the closure of the grabbing hand and still remain in contact with it. In fact, the dynamic of the situation frequently encourages a reversal of one’s grab in the other’s favor. Another mistake is to think that your reaction must conform to the general speed of your encounter, or violate the Classical admonition to not escalate or retard the opponent’s speed. The application of a grab, because it is such a quick movement, is the equivalent of a sudden escalation of speed. One must move with whatever speed is necessary to prevent pressure, and this may turn out to be very high indeed. Moreover, it may translate uncontrollably into one’s reaction, creating considerable danger for one’s opponent. Cheng, Man-ch’ing was once asked by a new t’ui-shou opponent if the current protocol would permit him the use of grabs. “You may grab me if you like,” said Cheng, “but you may be killed.”
What about when it is too late, where the grab has already been completed? Well, technically, it is too late in one sense. Paramount in TCC is the requirement that pressure be kept to a minimum, and if a grab has already been put in place, this is already far too much pressure to meet the standard. If the person grabbing is a master of Ch’in-na, and knows how to apply force to the grab without disturbing the fulcrum or what is frequently called the “central earth” of the connection, you are in a lot of trouble.
However, most people grabbing you do not simply leave it at that. There is an immediate attempt to influence your movement, an influence that you must give up almost every consideration to follow. Remember, if the opponent is sensitive enough to follow you, this will be impossible. If, however, he introduces further movement that is possible to follow, you can still escape. Not to oversimplify things too much, but generally the grab’s influence will be directed either towards you, or back towards the opponent. In truth, people are very bad at pulling. Even when they think they are pulling, sometimes they are not. When executing Roll Back, for example, even though their body might be retreating, both hands frequently exert an unconscious forward pressure, actually pushing you but simply with one side using the elbow rather than the hand. In this case, even though both bodies may be moving in the direction of the opponent, the unconscious pressure in your direction can be neutralized by turning the waist in whichever direction it is strongest. This will invariably be on the side on which the grab occurs, pulling the grabbed arm across your body. The temptation here is to use the opposite free hand to break the grip, by slipping it in between your arm and your opponent’s and forcefully pushing outward with the palm. This must be conscientiously resisted. Your free hand does insert itself in the same position, but in the posture of ward off rather than that of push, that is, with your palm facing your own arm and the contact with the opponent’s arm being with the back of the hand. Further, it must not push or exert any pressure upon the arm of the opponent, but stick to your own arm completely passively. The grip is broken, not by force, but by the application of the principle of the wedge. By holding your free hand wedged between your respective arms, turning the waist forces the angle of the grab farther and farther out, until its increasing pressure against the wedge hand breaks its hold on your wrist. This is a simple mechanical solution to this situation and works quite well when applied, but even the most talented students frequently fall prey to the apparently irresistible urge to still push out at the last moment. This can be easily utilized by the opponent. The student normally has the impression that the technique does not work, because their application of force is so subconscious, and must be painstakingly trained to keep the wedge hand passive until the grip is broken, at which time it reverses, usually resulting in a reversal of the grip in your favor. There are many more details that are necessary to make this work, but this is essentially the technique.
In the other case, where the pull is legitimate, the classic defense is reversal of the grip, the most frequently cited instance of this being the Cloudy Hands defense against Ward Off Left. The beautiful collection of application photos taken in the thirties of Yang, Cheng-fu contains an outstanding example. But there is one important thing that must be understood before this reversal can possibly work. Like many sophisticated techniques, it is dependent upon a savvy and skillful opponent to ever manifest. I mentioned before that only one’s opponent can decide how he is to be defeated. If he insists upon being beaten by something crude and obvious, or at least by a technique not as elegant and masterful as you would like to demonstrate, there is nothing you can do about it. The Sanshou exercise is filled with techniques that, when directly applied, seem hopelessly incapable of working. When explained, they seem to require a huge cooperation on the part of the opponent, a cooperation that it would seem unrealistic to expect. In fact, every one of these seemingly cooperative measures is necessary to keep from being beaten in an even more decisive way than by the final technique. I call these inner threats. When teaching Sanshou the most frequent question I hear is: “What if I just don’t let him do that?” In order to teach Sanshou effectively I have to be able to answer every one of these questions with: “Then you’ll be sorry, because then he will do this.” I must know and be able to apply the inner threat. It is a situation that every chess player will instantly understand. It is always the novice’s reaction to the notion of standard openings. Why, he always wants to know, should he cooperate?
In our current example, one player (we’ll call him A) seizes the right wrist of the opponent (B) with his own right hand, pulls it towards himself, and strikes B in the ribs with his left ward off. The classical defense of B is to follow the pull without resistance, reverse the grip, and then reverse the direction of the pull into a giant overhead arc. It is an extremely elegant move, and one that, when attempted, is clearly impossible to make work. When pulled by the average person, you will find your attempts to reverse the grip not only clumsy and awkward looking, but entirely unsuccessful. Not only that, but even if the opponent lets you reverse the grip, you will find it impossible to reverse the direction of the pull, even if facing off with your grandmother.
No, this technique won’t work against your granny; but it will work against a tough and experienced opponent. Why? Because he knows the inner threat and his own technique makes provisions for it, provisions that are actually vital to the more sophisticated and classical technique’s success. In this case, the threat is one of the oldest in boxing, one of, in fact, the so-called Three Old Changes, and one that might be found in any barroom brawl on the planet, the elbow. The pull of the average person is in a straight line towards and past his own body. This makes him extremely vulnerable to a folding change and the application of elbow to the chest or head. The major reason for the control of the wrist is in fact to keep this folding change from taking place, by stretching out the arm. If, however, the person being pulled does not resist (resistance to the pull would facilitate the straightening effect and prevent the elbow), but moves freely in, the only way to control the elbow is to pull the wrist away from one’s own body, which, combined with the ongoing forward motion, takes it out in a little arc. One might note that in most modern TCC form classes, the position of the right hand is very close to the body, even touching it, showing no consciousness of this detail. On the other hand, older, Chinese exponents of a more classical tradition may show an exaggerated affectation, holding the right hand noticeably far from the chest. They may not understand the reason for this nuance, but somebody, somewhere along the line, did.
This threat, and the only way to control it, are both easily verified by personal experimentation. Just have a friend pull on your wrist, and when he does, try to hit him with the elbow of the same arm. You will find that his instinctive and in fact correct reaction is to pull your arm out away from himself, controlling the elbow. You will also find that now, if you are flexible enough to make the appropriate following move with your body, it is extremely easy to reverse the grip, and to reverse the pull. You have in effect tricked the person into starting all the movement in the right direction. (I can’t resist pointing out that this is also a perfect example of the Classic about how if how want to go left, “entertain” the idea of going right.)
Grabs to the elbow are defended in much the same way. Correct placement in this case utilizes the same thumb and middle finger, but since they are too short to encircle the elbow, they are inserted into the cavities just above the elbow joint. This is too insecure a contact with which to successfully pull the opponent directly forward, but is ample for lifting the elbow, allowing exposure of the ribs, the most usual motivation for elbow control. By the way, this placement is consistent with the standard defense against elbow attacks, which is to slap the elbow down, rather than to directly oppose it with one’s hand (a good way to inure the hand). From this slapping position the fingers naturally fall into the aforementioned cavities above the elbow.
There are many other nuances to the whole subject of grabs, for instance, the punishment for trying to remove the grab by pushing outward with the opposite hand, but they are subtle and definitely require “hands-on” personal instruction to be understood. My principle purpose here has been to attempt to legitimize this area of study, by showing it to be inseparably integral to both practical considerations, and as well those pertaining to the most signatory and revered hallmarks of the art. I have also tried to give a taste of the technical considerations arising from its inclusion, because I frankly find them to be fascinating and enlightening to the study as a whole. I would hope that my readers will be induced to feel the same.