Tai Ji Quan

The Wu/Cheng Hand Form

The Role of the Hand Form

The hand form has a prominent position in the syllabus of traditional Taiji Quan and, as such, it deserves detailed attention. Historically it is said that Taiji Quan originally consisted of only 13 movements and it is probable that these were initially practiced as individual movements rather than as a linked form. The development of the complex sequence of the now traditional hand form is therefore to be seen in the context of the cultural evolution of the art over the generations. As we will see below, this evolution continues into the present day.

In general, the hand form serves a number of purposes. Primarily it is a library of movements and techniques. Just as it is easier to remember a list of words if they form meaningful sentences, so it is easier to remember movements if they have some structured sequence. Every movement has one or more self-defence applications, and the hand form provides a way to organize those techniques. Also, because the movements of the hand form embody the correct body mechanics, the practitioner is also training their body to move correctly, developing relaxed, efficient use of their energy. Further, the form provides good physical exercise. Through repetition of the sequence, the practitioner gradually accumulates the much publicized benefits of practicing Taiji.

As already mentioned, the Wu/Cheng syllabus has two hand forms. However, unlike some styles, which may have a short form and a long form, both of the Wu/Cheng forms are the same length, which is to say - long.

The Square Form

The segmented form was developed and popularized by Wu Kung Yi in the 1950s. In the Wu/Cheng syllabus it is usually called the Square Form, and is used almost exclusively as a teaching form. It divides the transitions between the postures into discrete movements, usually with the instructor counting the pattern as it is performed. In this form the individual postures retain their shapes, but the co-ordination of the movements linking one posture to another is greatly simplified. For example, at the opening of the form, in the first Raise Hands, each limb is moved separately and sequentially into the correct position, whilst in the Round Form everything moves together.

In learning the sequence this way, the student can concentrate on the structural aspects of the body, making sure that each posture is correct. At the conclusion of learning the Square Form, the student should have a good understanding of the physical structure of the basic postures and a solid grasp of the sequence of the form.

Also, this segmentation of the otherwise flowing nature of the movements makes it possible for very detailed descriptions of the movements to be put together. For example, Cheng's book [4] and, more recently, Cameron's book [5] both give precise descriptions, with a still image for each segment of each transition. In Cameron's book, this runs to 544 images detailing 119 postures. Of course, it is not possible to learn the form from a book, not even one as detailed as this. However, the presentation is an excellent document of the basic structure of the sequence.

Because the Square Form is counted, it typically takes slightly longer to perform than the Round Form, usually up to 20 minutes.

The Round Form

The second form, called the Round Form, takes the sequence of postures learnt in the Square Form and makes the performance flowing and continuous. The discrete counts are removed and the co-ordination required to link the postures together is considerably more complex. Ian Cameron explains the relationship between the Square and Round forms with the following analogy: when you are first taught to write, you learn the shapes of the individual letters, and the style of writing is akin to printing. Only once that has been mastered, do you move on to "joined-up" writing. Like hand writing, the Round Form admits a little more personal variation than the Square Form.

The increase in the complexity of the transitions shifts the emphasis of the form away from the postures and into the movements that connect them. This in turn allows aspects of the body mechanics which are not apparent in the simpler transitions to become manifest.

Another of the challenges in performing the Round Form is finding a balance between the continuous flow and maintaining the appearance of the individual postures. If too much emphasis is given to flow, then the individual postures can disappear completely into undefined amorphous movement. On the other hand, if too much emphasis is given to the postures themselves, then the form reverts back to the staccato nature of the square form.

There is no set rate to perform the Round Form, and I encourage students to experiment with different speeds. The longest I have ever taken for a single performance is 40 minutes; moving very slowly requires more strength and demands more concentration to keep the movements continuous. At the other end of the spectrum, I can do the complete form in about 6 minutes; moving this quickly, the challenge is to maintain the co-ordination and individual expression of each posture.

The Mirror Form

If I am honest, I have to say that the hand form is not well-balanced for left and right. For example, the movement Snake Creeps Down is only every done starting to the left, the various punches are only ever done with the right hand, Slap the Face is only every done with the left hand. Because of this, it is vital that the serious practitioner also works on the mirror version of the form. In this, left and right are swapped. In the regular form, the first Raise Hands and Step Up is done stepping forward with the left foot, followed by a turn to the right; so, in the mirror version, it is done stepping forward with the right foot, followed by a turn to the left. Starting this way, every movement in the form is mirrored.

I consider the development of the mirror form to be fundamental to the process of training. Not only is it necessary to properly balance all of the movements and postures through the body, but it is an essential prerequisite for more advanced methods of working with the sequence. Students should eventually be as physically fluent with the mirror form as they are with the regular form.

Short Forms?

Over the years, a great variety of shortened and simplified versions of the hand form have been developed. This has come about for various reasons. Perhaps the earliest appearance of this trend was from Cheng Man-Ch'ing 鄭曼青 (1902-1975). Self-confessedly lazy, he sought to simply the form, to reduce its repetitions and thereby shorten the length of time required to perform the sequence [7]. In fact, part of his motivation was to create a form that was easier for busy people to learn, and short enough that they might actually practice it regularly.

Other teachers have invented shortened forms for teaching to the elderly, removing the more physically demanding postures and focusing on health aspects of the art. Other simplifications have come about for performance in competition; a 15-20 minute form is not practical when there are a lot of competitors, so a standardized four minute sequence is typically performed.

All of these reasons, and the resulting forms, have their place in the art of Taiji Quan. However, there are great benefits from practicing a traditional long form that are unavoidably lost in the abbreviated versions. Specifically, the additional concentration required to complete a long sequence with full attention gives great mental exercise to the practitioner. Similarly, on the physical level, the long forms are more demanding, gently building stamina.

Although the Wu/Cheng syllabus does not include a short form, I sometimes use abbreviated versions of the form. This is the case when I am teaching where space is an issue, where the students might not manage a long form, or when I am teaching a short self-contained course for a specific purpose. However, the traditional long form remains the touch stone for any abbreviated sequence that I may introduce.

Single Movement Drills

The logical conclusion of the simplification of the hand form is to eliminate the sequence completely and practice individual movements as repetitive drills. As noted above, this is the likely origin of the practice of Taiji Quan. In fact, this is how I start every new student and to where I keep returning, even with very experienced students.

The major advantage of this style of practice is that it does not require the student to remember a sequence at all. In practicing a single movement, the next movement is the movement you have just done. This means that mental effort does not need to be expended remembering what comes next and, instead, the beginning student can concentrate completely on the details of the movement they are currently doing. Of course, what I present here as an advantage of single movement drills eventually becomes a disadvantage, and the student needs to progress on to the learning of a sequence in order to gain additional physical and mental benefits.