Why Do The Form Lower And The Frame Smaller?

As we have seen in the previous article, traditionally in modern Yang style the form is taught at three heights – high, known as the “Stork” or “Crane” form; medium height, known as the “Tiger” form, and low, known as the “Snake” form. It also taught as a larger, medium and small circle frame. Why is this?

Master Chu King hung once said to me “to do the form lower and lower is good for training, but when you fight stand up.” At the time and to this day that made sense to me. If you go lower and lower in form training you are, as it were, building up the torque in the internal infrastructure the form training is designed to embody in you. You are twisting the muscles, ligaments, connective tissue and joints over a lower and longer framework. You are building up your qi.

To this end the standing qigong training is also done lower and lower as you progress in training. You don’t go lower than knee over the toe initially, because for beginners this is safe; it will not strain the knee as going too low will. In the knee-over-the-toe position your feet take the weight of your body, if you go past the toe with your knee, your knee takes the weight and this can cause strain. However, once your knees are stronger you do go lower and lower. The general rule is that once a certain height feels too easy go lower. One also does the stances single weighted in more advanced training. This is also good for your health as it greatly increases the qi circulation especially the return flow from the feet.

But of course, in real combat you do not maintain low stances; instead as Master Chu said you stand up so as to be more agile. When you stand up your body has available within it the potential (and coiled) energy derived from the more strenuous, lower stances, for the fighting.

A very well known author and teacher of Tai Chi Paul Crompton made a comment not long ago in one of his books that he was disappointed to see Yang Zhen duo, the brother of Yang Sau Chung, doing the form in long and low extended stances[1] . He was disappointed, he said, because Japanese Karate styles like Shotokan had found that their long, low, extended stances did not work in competitions against other Japanese Karate that had adopted the high stances of Western boxing and kick boxing, which made them more agile.

This represents a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of form training in traditional Tai Chi, from within the Tai Chi world itself, and from a prominent Tai Chi figure. One can only conclude he has not received the classical training. As pointed out, traditionally you use the low stances in form training when using the form as a tool to build the ‘internal’ infrastructure into the body, when fighting of course you stand in higher stances as Master Chu said. Crompton’s observation also implies the Japanese don’t fully understand the purpose of their Kata training if they bring these low stances into combat[2] .

Guarding the Front Garden

Regarding the large circle to small circle frames this is mainly related to combat. There is a saying in Chinese martial arts that small circle is better than large circle and no circle is best of all. This is a similar principle to blocking and counter-attacking. In any good kung fu the lowest level is considered to be to block first and then counter attack; the next level is to simultaneously block and counter; the highest level is not to block but just counter as attacked. Tai Chi favours the latter two.

The small circle enhances the ability to do the two latter types of counter attack. The large circle is safest as it allows the practitioner to meet the attack with a movement like peng (ward off) while it is still a fair way away from the defender. Master Chu stressed this for beginners and called it “guarding the front garden”. So a large circle position was stressed in standing qigong (zhan zhuang) and also pushing hands (tui shou) at the beginning of our training. Yang Cheng Fu suggested that one should at first be open and stretched in one’s training (to improve one’s health) in form training and then later use compact movements for self defense[3] .

Later in one’s training, medium and small circle frames are introduced into the form training, standing qigong and push hands. These are more dangerous because they let the attack come right in on you but have the advantage of making the attacker more vulnerable to your counter-attack. This is because the attacker fully commits themselves to their attack because they feel no resistance. Because they are so fully committed, and often over extended and off balance, they are unable to counter your counter attack, which they are if you block early. You block the attack very close to your body or even let it ‘graze’ it. To block with large circle movements we were taught to use a yang (open) wrist structure which is strong; whereas with the smaller circle block one uses a weaker, yin wrist structure because you are really just ‘slipping’ the blow.



[1]  Paul Crompton, 1990, T’ai Chi Combat. London: Paul H. Crompton Ltd

[2] It has long been suspected that the Chinese did not fully transmit their arts to the Japanese, which is why in recent decades a lot have gone back to the arts in China that their styles originated from. However, one of the top Shotokan Masters, Shihan (Grandmaster) Kanazawa, trains in Yang tai chi and gets his black belts to do so as well, and considers Tai Chi “reaches a higher level” in self-defence than Karate. See interview in TCAH, 1:5, 20-23. He was friends with and visited Master Chu King hung when I was training with him.

[3] Vincent Chu, The Inner Meaning of Large Frame, http://www.geocities.com/RodeoDrive/4687/large.html

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