13 Fundamental Techniques of Tai Chi

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

It’s been too long since I’ve written anything for my website, but I have a good excuse! I’ve been having such a good time reading, learning, creating, practising, workshopping, tweaking and just getting absorbed into one very big tai chi topic. I’m talking about the 13 Fundamental Techniques or Postures of Tai Chi Chuan. I’ve learnt bits and pieces over the years at class, at instructor training, at philosophy lessons and at workshops. Then two years ago I went to China and it all fell a bit more into place. Since then I’ve been determined to work all the ‘bits and pieces’ of information into a cohesive whole that makes sense to me.

The 13 Fundamental Movements of Tai Chi Chuan include 8 hand forms and 5 foot forms. Breaking that down one more step, we have the four primary hands and four corner hands (which are actually whole body movements) and the five strategic steps or directions. This is where tai chi starts to get a bit academic, but it’s fascinating for the tai chi enthusiast to explore.

Rather than focus on the theory alone, I’ve been working on how the theory can inform our movements in a practical way. Reading and thinking about this is great, but can we apply it to our own tai chi practise? Yes, absolutely!

I’ve been working on a project for more than nine months and the result is the posters above and below. If you Google the 13 Movements/Techniques/Postures of Tai Chi Chuan and then click on images, you get an amazing array of infographics, and the more you look, the more confusing it all gets. I figured I’d make my own as a lockdown project and I’ve learnt such a lot in the process.

How best to know how well you understand a topic? You teach it of course! I jumped in at the deep end and taught the 13 techniques last term on Jade Lady Zoom. That was the biggest teaching challenge I’ve undertaken and it was fabulous. Each week I was challenged by astute questions from students that lead to more research and a greater understanding of the concepts and the vastness of this topic.

What I particularly enjoy is translating the movements into theory and then feeling the difference. This is where your ‘intent’ becomes tangible and not just a concept. As an example, take ‘ward off’, or Péng. Looking at the Bāguà, the 8 trigrams, we see that Péng relates to heaven and it has three solid lines (yang). Put these clues together and we can interpret that when we ward off, we do so in an expansive and overt manner that can meet an oncoming attack without collapsing. It is fully yang, bright, open and obvious. The most common example of Péng is the ward off, but it can also be the blocks of white crane spreads wings, or the blocks of jade ladies weaving the shuttles. There are many more examples of Péng throughout your average tai chi form.

The opposite of Péng is Lǚ, or roll back. Lǚ is represented by three broken lines (yin), and relates to earth. After warding off, you might choose to roll back, a movement that is yielding, neutralising and redirecting. It is very yin; you don’t need much of your own strength to roll back. You ‘borrow’ the strength of your opponent and just redirect it a little so they keep on going past you.

The challenge is working out what technique applies to which tai chi movement. I don’t think the current scholars are game to put too much of this into books, to get too specific, and I think I understand why. You just need to look at a range of instructors and masters performing the same form to see that they all interpret the forms in their own ways. One person might express a move as Căi or pull, and another might express the same move as Jĭ or Press. One person might do a block as Péng, and the next alters the same move slightly and turns it into Zhŏu, elbow strike. It really depends on who you learnt your forms from. So I have applied my own learnings and research to work out what I think are the techniques of the Yang-style tai chi I have learnt. And I'm happy to be challenged about this!

When you have some understanding of these techniques, your expression of your blocks and roll backs and all of the other techniques becomes more meaningful and focussed. Tai chi, as a martial art, has layers and layers of nuance and history, and is not just a choreographed routine. An appreciation of the techniques allows you to move past the routine and focus more on your expression and your intent.

Remember that we are using intent, not strength, to paraphrase one of Yang Chengfu’s 10 Important Points. So even though a ward off is a fully yang move, we don’t muscle our way through it, we are still relaxed. But our stance will be such that if someone were to come and try to push us over, we are not moving anywhere. That means that we are in a

balanced bow stance, we are grounded (or rooted), our posture is upright without leaning, our upper arm frame is rounded with the palm facing inwards, the elbow is just below the line of the shoulder, not drooping down to the earth. The other arm is also rounded with the fingers pointing forwards and is close to the line of the front knee. All of these little adjustments make us solid, balanced and able to express our tai chi movements in a manner that is true to the form, true to the original intent of the move. These techniques also allow us to move smoothly, gracefully and in a relaxed manner so that the chi can flow.

To put the theory into practise, we used Tai Chi 10-Form and the new Ba Fa Wu Bu, 8 Methods, 5 Steps. 10-Form contains modified versions of many movements, but still can illustrate the techniques. The Ba Fa Wu Bu, is a form created specifically to illustrate these techniques. A quick look on YouTube and you’ll see that the form has its critics, but it’s great to use as a tool to explain the theory behind the techniques. My plan was to use the Ba Fa Wu Bu to introduce the techniques, but the more we practised it, the more we all really enjoyed it in its own right. There’s a lot of freedom to express the moves how you would like when you understand the forces. The Ba Fa Wu Bu is not physically strenuous, and is great for lockdown times because it fits into your lounge room. It is also excellent exercise for the brain.

I wanted to share this because it’s time I made my posters public and I’m actually pretty proud of them. A huge amount of research went into them (which I loved) and along with that, I created every bit of these posters aside from the yin/yang symbol. My graphic design skills were clunky at best, but now are a good bit better! I have to thank my sister and daughter for that. I tried to persuade both of them to draw the figures for me (being amazing artists) and they both refused. So I had to skill up and have a go myself. My first attempts were…. erm… let’s just say woeful. But I’m glad I persisted. 😁

While developing the posters I sent them to fellow instructors for peer review. Their feedback was incredibly helpful, even if it was just ‘love it!’ Special mention goes to Senior Instructor Snezana Dabic for her incredibly insightful, thoughtful and considered feedback. She really pushed me to think about exactly why I was doing this and encouraged me to focus my thoughts considerably. Special mention also goes to Master Tara Brayshaw who has inspired me for years, cheered me on, and led the trip to China where I learnt so much! Thank you Snezana and Tara 🙏🏼

For those wanting to learn more about the 13 techniques, I’ll be making the set of my classes available for purchase to stream at your leisure. The classes were recorded in high definition, have been edited to remove the ums, ahs and nose blows, and have had music added. Also included are comprehensive written notes along with the full-sized posters shown above. Make sure you are on my mailing list and you’ll be notified as to when this is available. Alternatively you can purchase the posters for the very affordable price of $5.00 each here.

References worthy of reading:

  • Practical Tai Chi Training: A 9-Stage Method for Mastery — Jesse Tsao, Jason Weil

  • Tai Chi Chuan—Classical Yang Style: The Complete Long Form and Qigong — Yang Jwing-Ming

  • The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan: A Comprehensive Guide to the Principles and Practice — Wong Kiew Kit

  • Tai Chi The Supreme Ultimate — Lawrence Galante

  • Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on Tai Chi Chuan — Cheng Man Ching, translated by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and Martin Inn

  • The Living I Ching: Using Ancient Chinese Wisdom to Shape Your Life — Deng Ming-Dao