Tai Ji Quan

The Wu/Cheng Hand Form

Exploring the Variations (2)

As well as differences in the actual shape of postures, there may be differences in the sequencing of movements and differences in the naming of movements. Although these differences are probably less significant than differences in the actual shape of postures, they nonetheless give insight into the evolution of the form.

I shall take the 108 move sequence listed in [2] as the initial reference (let's call this the Wu form). As two points of comparison, I shall consider: firstly, the 106 move sequence listed in [3] (for convenience, let's call this the Ma variation, although the clearest photo set of the sequence in the book actually shows Wu Ying Hua); and secondly, the 119 move sequence listed in [4] (let's call this the Cheng variation). These should all be, more or less, the same form, but the sequence for each is listed slightly differently.

The Beginning of the Form

Firstly, they obviously differ in the number of moves they list for the sequence, but exactly how much they really differ is hard to tell at the outset. Consider the opening of the form, only up to the first Single Whip posture. The following tables shows the moves listed for each variant:


1. Beginning of Tai Chi Chuan
2. Raise Hands
3. Play Guitar
4. Grasp Bird's Tail
5. Single Whip

1. The Preparation Form
2. The Beginning Style
3. Grasping the Bird's Tail
4. Single Whip

1. The Ready Style
2. The Tai Chi Beginning Style
3. The Seven Stars Style
4. Grasping the Bird's Tail
5. The Single Whip

All three variations agree that Grasp the Bird's Tail is followed by Single Whip, but the names of the moves up to that point are all quite different. Having watched all three variations on a number of occasions, I believe that these are all more or less the same sequence of movements, and that the difference is only in the naming.

Here is my understanding of the differences in the naming. Cheng's Ready Stance is a preparatory posture before the actual starting of the form, and neither of the other two styles name this separately. Then, what Wu calls Beginning of Tai Chi Chuan, Ma calls The Preparation Form; and what Wu calls Raise Hands, Ma calls The Beginning Style. Cheng's movement The Tai Chi Beginning Style includes both of these two moves under a single name. Finally, what Wu calls Play Guitar is called The Seven Stars Style by Cheng; this move is integrated into Grasping the Bird's Tail in Ma's list.

The following restructuring of the table clarifies these relationships.

1     The Ready Stance
2a Beginning of Tai Chi Chuan The Preparation Form The Tai Chi Beginning Style
2b Raise Hands The Beginning Style
3a Play Guitar Grasping the Bird's Tail The Seven Stars Style
3b Grasp Bird's Tail Grasping the Birds Tail
4 Single Whip Single Whip The Single Whip

Even the most dedicated reader will probably be glad to hear that I do not propose to go through the entire sequence in this level of detail. However, a few more examples will be useful.

Strum the Lute?

Notice that what Wu calls Play Guitar, Cheng calls The Seven Stars Style. This move occurs several times again in both the Wu and Cheng sequences, for example at the end of the first Brush Knee Twist Step sequence. On that occurrence, and only that occurrence, Ma lists the move as Hands Strum the Lute. Cheng also lists a move at this point, following the repetition of The Seven Stars Style, which he names as Stroke the Lute.


  9. Brush Knee, Push
10. Play Guitar

10. Brush Knee Twist Step
11. Hands Strum the Lute

11. Brush Knee Twist Step
12. The Seven Stars Style
13. Stroke the Lute

PipaNow, clearly the difference between a guitar and a lute is merely one of translation - the actual Chinese instrument referred to is the Pi Pa 琵琶 (shown on the right) - but there are some deeper differences here. Most noticeably, whilst I had early suggested that Cheng's Seven Stars Style was the same as Wu's Play Guitar, this now looks problematical.

The application of The Seven Stars Style in Cheng's Taiji is generally taken to be a ready stance for self-defence, and in the hand form it works as a transition posture to link different moves together. In the square form it is very stylized, but in the round form it is more open, similar to the way the posture Splitting Fist is done in some styles of Xingyi (see the picture called San Ti here). This role as a transition is emphasized by the fact that although the posture clearly appears in the photos of Wu Ying Hua doing the Ma sequence, it is not separately named, but blended into the following posture.

The picture of Wu Kung Yi doing the Wu posture Play Guitar is essentially the same as Cheng's square form Seven Stars. However, Stroke the Lute in the Cheng style is a very specific technique that only occurs at the one place in the form where Ma also has Strum the Lute. This suggests that Strum the Lute is a specific technique in these two forms, rather than a transition posture, whilst Play Guitar in the Wu sequence is being used both as the name for a transition posture and a specific technique.

Now, in the middle of the kick sequence, just before the move Step Back to Strike the Tiger, which all three versions of the form have, with minor variations in translation, Cheng has the move Step Back into the Seven Stars Style. Given the results of our earlier examinations we might expect the Wu sequence to list something similar involving Play Guitar here, and the Ma sequence to omit any reference to the transition. Whilst the sequence of the Ma form meets these expectations, in the Wu sequence we get a move called Step Back to Seven Stars. Now, the name of this Wu posture is reminiscent of the move Step Up to Seven Stars, that all three variants of this form have, albeit with minor translation differences again.

Thus, whilst the name Play Guitar does ambiguous double duty in the Wu form, the name Seven Stars does ambiguous double duty in the Cheng form. By avoiding naming this transition posture, the Ma sequence thereby avoids the problem of ambiguous naming. However, I suggest that there are good structural and pedagogical reasons for wanting to explicitly identify transition points in a form. To identify the posture, but to avoid ambiguous overlap with the names of other techniques, I refer to this posture by the name San Ti.

Counting Repetitions

The final aspect of variation that I wish to consider is the way repetitions are counted in the lists. For example, when the Wu form lists Brush Knee Twist Step, it lists it as a single move, with a note saying it is to be done four times, but when the Ma form lists this move, they list it four separate times. The Cheng form lists it twice, the first time is a single move, followed by The Seven Stars Style, followed by a single listing covering the next three repetitions.

Even within a given form, things are sometimes not consistent. The first time that the Ma form lists Cloud Hands it gives three separate moves, one for each repetition; but the subsequent times the move is encountered, it is only listed once, with a note to repeat it three times.

So, whether we are trying to compare the names of postures, or considering the counts of the number of moves within the sequence, it seems that the published accounts do not typically serve as a useful point of reference without a great deal of additional research and analysis.