Thirteen basic skills in Taiji

By Zhang Yun

“Taiji Quan, the other name is Chang Quan (Long Fist), also named Shi San Shi (Thirteen Postures). It is Chang Quan because it likes a long river and an ocean flowing forever wave by wave. Shi San Shi is Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao, Jin, Tui, Gu, Pan, Ding. Peng, Lu, Ji, An, that is Kuan, Li, Zhen, Dui, are the four straight directions. Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kuo, that is Qian, Kun, Gen, Xun, are the four diagonal directions. This is Bagua (Eight Trigrams). Jinbu, Tuibu, Zuogu, Youpan, Zhongding, that is metal, wood, water, fire, earth, is Wuxing (Five Elements). To combine these together is Shi San Shi.”

— The Explanation of the Name of Taiji Quan

“The Explanation of Name of Taiji Quan” is one of the earliest Taiji Quan classics written by Wang Zongyue. According to the explanation, Taiji Quan is often called Taiji Shi San Shi (Taiji Thirteen Postures) or just Shi San Shi. Thirteen is the special number in Taiji Quan. Behind this number is the complete principle of Taiji Quan. This principle is respected and followed by all generations of Taiji groups for more than two hundred years. It is the foundation of Taiji Quan. Thus, to learn this principle is really important for Taiji Quan practice. Without understanding it well, one cannot reach high level Taiji Quan skills.

1. Shi San Shi

Shi San Shi – Thirteen Postures does not mean thirteen different postures or movements. Actually it means thirteen basic skills; and moreover, it means thirteen basic attributes for advance study. They are the foundation of all Taiji Quan skills. It is said all other skills come from the different variation and combination of these skills.

As mentioned in Wang’s article above, there are thirteen characters for these thirteen skills. They are Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao, Jin, Tui, Gu, Pan, and Ding. The first eight are about Shoufa – hand skills; and the last five are about Bufa – footwork skills. The Taoist philosophical concept of Bagua (Eight Trigrams) is the basic principle of the eight hand skills. The other philosophical concept of Wuxing (Five Elements) is the basic principle of the five footwork skills. Usually the eight hand skills are always called Bafa (Eight Methods). They are put in order according to Bamen (Eight Gates) – the eight positions of Bagua. The five footwork skills are always called Wubu (Five Steps). Thus, the other common name of Thirteen Postures is Bamen Wubu – Eight Gates and Five Steps.

2. Bafa

Ba means eight. Fa means method. Bafa are eight hand skill methods. But with closer examination, it also means eight kinds of basic Jin – trained force. It offers eight features of skills. It expresses eight basic skill attributes. The hand skills of Taiji Quan follow the principle of Bagua. It is said there are eight basic attributes and everything is generated from them and all changes are based on their combination. All skills and techniques are generated from Bafa. Thus, Bafa is the basic skill of Taiji Quan.

According to the positions of the eight gates in Xiantian (Pre-birth) Bagua, the eight skills of Bafa are as listed in the following table.

Table of elements tai chi

Here Peng, Lu, Ji, and An are in four straight (eg principal compass) directions. They are called Sizheng. Si means four. Zheng means straight, upright, pure, middle, normal, main and positive. It also means fixed or unchanging which means it is not influenced by the others. Thus, Sizheng skills are the main things in hand skills. Cai, Lie, Zhou, and Kou are the four diagonal directions. They are called Siyu. Yu means diagonal or sideway. They can be changed. They assist or supplement the hand skills of Sizheng.

There are eight typical methods for Bafa practice. For beginners learning them is very important because it is the way to understand Bafa. To study correct movements is the first step of the practice. Then one should understand how to apply the mind in practice because in advance study movements should always follow the mind. Bafa should be practiced very carefully and for a long time. Pay great attention to every detail. For advance study, the physical movements are not important. Internal details should be focused upon. To master the correct use of the mind and to learn how to use the mind to control qi and jin (trained force) are the basic skills. Here understanding acupoints and channels is very important. For example, the key acupoint for Peng is the Mingmen point and the key channel is Shenjin (Kidney Channel). By focusing the mind on the Mingmen point, Peng will be generated automatically. Thus, from the high level view, the eight methods are eight main ideas in push hands and are applied by the mind. It is usually called “use mind, do not use force”. Here Peng just means to automatically generate barely enough force by using the mind to push forward and up; this can keep the key points from being locked or controlled by the opponent. Lu just means to follow the opponent’s force and movement to move him with a slight change of direction: it is like unloading his force from your body. Ji just means to charge straight forward. An just means to empty the chest and push diagonally downward. Cai just means to control and drop some heavy object down. Lie just means to split suddenly. Zhou just means a short strike within the reach of the elbow (or elbow circle skills). Kao just means a body strike within the reach of the shoulder (or shoulder circle skills).

To learn Bafa well, one should understand the relationship of Bagua and Dizhi. Dizhi are twelve characters which are used to record and calculate time and years in the traditional way. In Taiji Quan practice, people use these characters to express twelve key acupoints on the body. The main idea is that from the changing, usually called Chong (conflict) and He (harmony), of these parts of the body the basic jin is generated automatically. Character Zhi is the Mingmen point at the center of the lower back. Character Wu is the Xuanguan point in between the two eyebrows. Character Mao is the Jiaji point at the center of the back. Character You is the Tanzhong point at the center of the chest. Their locations can never be changed. Peng, Lu, Ji, and An come from these fixed points. Thus, they are called Sizheng – four straight directions. The other eight points are on the arms and legs. They are located according to the side of the body that has the weight. When the weight is shifted, these points are changed. Cai, Lie, Zhou and Kou come from these changeable points. Thus, they are called Siyu (four diagonal directions). For example, character Zhi expresses the Mingmen point. Character Chou expresses Huantiao point on the hip which one holds the main part of the weight. When these two points (Mingmen and Huantiao) harmonize, Peng will be generated automatically. In this way, finally the eight methods just become application of the mind. This is the meaning of “use mind, do not use force.” This is what Taiji skills should be.

The basic Taiji skills Zhan, Nian, Lian, and Sui are the foundation of Bafa. They should be included in every Bafa application. Zhan means to adhere to something; this means you can make your opponent move and follow you just as if he is adhered to your body. Nian means to stick; this means you can follow your opponent, like sticking on his body, giving him some trouble. Lian means to link and connect; this means you can follow your opponent and never let him leave your touch. Sui means to follow or comply with; this means you can follow your opponent’s attacking technique keeping contact with him but without his controlling you.

When Bafa are applied, all the processes of Ting, Hua, Yin, Na, and Fa should also be included. Ting is listen. It means to feel your opponent, to know what he wants to do. Hua is dissolve. It means to dissolve your opponent’s force and not letting him get you. Yin is seduce. It means to lure your opponent into trouble. Na is hold. It means to control him and keep him in trouble. Fa is launch. It means release force to throw the opponent away or hit him hard. Although they are different skills, in fact they are combined together and are always used together.

3. Wubu

Wubu are the five footwork skills. Wu means five. Bu means step. In fact it is more about Shenfa – body movement skills because footwork and body movement have a very tight relationship. They should be combined together. It is said “the body follows steps to move and steps follow the body to changed”, “Body movement and footwork skills cannot be forgotten. If any of these is omitted, one does not need to waste his time practicing any more.” The body movement skills and footwork skills are about how to move the body in fighting. Only when the body can move to the right position (distance and angle), can the hand skills work well. Thus, it is said Wubu is the foundation of Bafa. Wubu offers five basic skills which follow the idea of Wuxing. The five footwork skills are discussed below.

Five Footwork table

Jin (or Jinbu – step forward) means to go forward; this really means to close in to the opponent directly. The main idea is how to charge forward. It is water which is like a flood, soft but powerful. It belongs to Shenjin (Kidney Channel). When the key point Huiyin is focused on, the qi will automatically push the body forward.

Tui (or Tuibu – step backward) means to withdraw the body; this really means to open a distance from the opponent directly. The main idea is how to move away. It is fire which means hard outside and soft or empty inside. It belongs to Xinjin ( Heart Channel). When the key point Zhuqiao is focused on, the qi will automatically push the body backward.

Gu (or Zuogu – left look around) means to go forward sideways; that really means to close up to the opponent indirectly. Here Zuo (left) means sideway; Gu (look around) means look after or being careful. Usually in martial arts this term means defensiveness within attacking skills. So the main idea of Zuogu is how to rotate and advance forward from sideway with some defense skills. It is usually called rotate attack. It is wood which means straight and grow up continually. It belongs to Ganjin (Liver Channel). When the key point Jiaji is focused on, the qi will automatically urge the body to rotate and advance forward.

Pan (or Youpan – right look forward to) means to withdraw your body sideways; this really means to open a distance from the opponent indirectly. Here You (right) means sideway; Pan (look forward) in martial arts terms means defensive ideas in withdrawing skills. So the main idea is how to rotate and withdraw sideway with some defense skills. It is usually called rotate withdraw. It is metal which means springy and tenacious. It belongs to Feijin (Lung Channel). When the key point Tanzhong is focused on, the qi will automatically push the body to rotate backward.

Ding (or Zhongding – central equilibrium) means to keep balanced and stable; this really means to keep the central axis of your body stable. The main idea is how to keep the balance so that your body is ready to do anything. The common explanation of Zhongding is to keep Zhongqi – central qi quiet and stable. It refers to the internal component not physical movement. It is earth which means everything is generated from it. If the balance cannot be kept well, any other skill cannot be done well. It belongs to Pijin (Spleen Channel). When the Dantian is focused on, the qi will automatically adjust the balance.

To understand Wubu, first of all one should understand the relationship of Wuxing and Tian Gan. Wuxing means five elements which express five basic attributes or features of the universe. There is a generation – destruction cycle relationship between the elements. Tian Guan are ten characters which are used to record years and directions. Wuxing and Tian Guan have a mapping relationship. Jia and Yi are in the east and their attribute is wood. Geng and Xin are in the west and their attribute is metal. Ren and Gui are in the north and their attribute is water. Bing and Ding are in the south and their attribute is fire. Wu and Ji are in the center and their attribute is earth.

To practice Wubu, some ideas should be always included. They are Teng, Shan, Chou, Nian, Shuo, Qi, Zuan, Wen, Huo, Kong and etc. Although they are used in many other styles as common martial arts terms, in Taiji Quan some of them have different meaning. Usually in Taiji Quan, to focus on qi and the mind when these are practiced is more than on physical movements. Teng (or Tengnuo) means up and down moving. Most of the time, in their practice people just think qi should be sink down. In this way they can develop their stability well but usually are not nimble enough. Thus, their steps will be slow. The Teng idea can help people to get nimbleness from the stable steps. Use this word to raise up the qi and make the qi balanced. It is said: “Qi in the body must be Teng always.” Shan (or Shanzhan) means side to side dodging. It also means internal qi’s moving but not only physical movement. Chou means withdraw. It is about how one can get away from the opponent’s control. Nian means stick to. It is about how one can keep the advantage when he has a good position. Shuo means lock and control. It is about how to lock the opponent’s step and get control of him. Qi (or Qishen) means to close to. Because fighting in close is much better for Taiji skills, how to get close to the opponent is important. Zuan (or Zuanhuan) means Yin and Yang exchanging. It is about how to change steps (footwork) smoothly, quickly, nimbly and stably. Wen means stable or rooted. It is said “stable like a mountain” or “root like a big tree”. How to keep stable when stepping is important. Huo means lively and nimble. It is said “moving like a river”. One should always feel excited inside the body and mind. Kong means empty. In Taiji empty does not mean suddenly leave (as done in most other styles). It is done by the mind not by physical body. It is said “let your opponent see and feel that something is there but cannot really get control of you there.” Although the ten words are separate words, there is some overlap in meaning among them. In fact they cannot be explained in complete separation from each other. They all should be applied together in Taji Quan practice.

It is said “the origin of Bagua is Wuxing”, that is Wuxing is the foundation of Bagua. In the very beginning, Bagua and Wuxing were two separate philosophical systems, and then they were combined together in Taoism and were developed to a complete system. Taiji Quan skills were designed under this Taoist principle. Footwork or body movement skills are the foundation of hand skills. To understand this is the key point of application. People always say “hands like a door, fighting depends on footwork”, “thirty percent in hands and seventy percent in step”. It is a very common situation for many people, that maybe they can do fixed step push hands well but they cannot transfer their skills to real fighting. The most important reason is they cannot do footwork and body movement well.

4. Taiji, Bagua, Wuxing in Taiji Quan Practice

“Carry Taiji on the head, hold Bagua in the arms, and step Wuxing under the feet” is the basic guideline of Taiji Quan practice. It offers the main idea of Taiji Quan and even for many other high level styles. Here Taiji is the main idea. All skills of Taiji Quan must follow it. From Taiji principles, the idea of exchange, generate, and transfer of Yin and Yang are applied. Any skill which does not follow these principles cannot be considered a Taiji skill (this does not mean the skill cannot be used). Based on Taiji, hand skills must follow the Bagua idea. Here the changeable principle of Bagua is applied. The original source of Bagua comes from Wuxing. So all hand skills are based on body movement skills and footwork skills.

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As a high level traditional martial arts, Taiji Quan was designed based on a complete traditional philosophical system. Under this philosophical system, the principle of skills was developed completely, deeply, in detail and clearly generation by generation. This is a big reason why there are much more high level classics in Taiji Quan than in other styles. Without the high level principles, the skills can never be developed to a really high level. To understand complete philosophical concepts will be very helpful in our practice. Remember we are learning the skills which are based on these principles.


The document is from Internet sources