Many martial arts, or maybe the very most of them, tend to organise punches into different types. There are many ways to arrange and define methods. This is common by using names as “lead”, “jab”, “cross”, “uppercut”, “hook”, “haymaker”, “standing fist”, “lying fist”, etc. Different styles have their own ways to organise what they do and they tend to use different names.

The problem with all of these names and definitions, is that it’s all too easy to associate any of these labels with punches from other specific styles and martial arts systems, as from Karate or from Western boxing, and with their ways to generate power. However, to understand what punching means is in Tai Chi Chuan, you really need to get rid of all of the different kinds of associations and knowledge about “how other styles do it”. So in order to understand what a punch is in Tai Chi, it is better to first ask: what is punching in Tai Chi?“.

Yes I know, I should probably demonstrate what I speak about – show and tell – instead of just writing about it. Hopefully I can accomplish this in the near future. But for now on, let me try to explain some important points using words.

This is the first part of a 3 part series about Punching in Tai Chi Chuan, so let’s go on and get serious.

There’s no standard of defining or organising punches in Tai Chi

The interesting thing with Tai Chi is that there is no real standard of organising, or naming, punches in Tai Chi, as what you can find in most other martial arts. Most Chinese styles have names for different punches. But in some Chinese styles, especially in the Northern styles, the fist, or the method of punching, is incorporated in a movement or a stance, which means that the name is for not only the punch, but for the whole body’s movement and structure as well. Thus, the name and posture, or movement, becomes a symbol or general idea that expresses more than only the fist strike. (If you understand how Chinese characters work in the Chinese language, you can compare with how postures can express many different things at the same time.)

In Tai Chi forms, we only see a few movements or postures using a closed fist. Does that mean that the fist is one of the least popular weapons in Tai Chi? And are the punches really that limited? Some Yang Style teachers speak about the Five Fists of Yang Style Tai Chi. This has become a concept in certain schools. Many of those teachers might assume that those 5 explicit fists that are shown in their Tai Chi form are the only fist methods in Tai Chi Chuan. And most people don’t go outside their form to look for punches, as they believe that the form should contain everything necessary in their art.

But however you name or count the different fists, it’s still a simplification and generalisation that is mostly useful only to briefly satisfy asking students. The truth is a bit different. In no classical Chinese text, there is a concept of “five fists”. And in no classical Tai Chi manual you can see a specification of a limited set of fists or anything that comes close to trying to set a standard. All of the other styles have the same problem. They might name a few punches by the names of the movements in their forms, but still, this doesn’t really represent the nature of a “punch” in Tai Chi Chuan.

So what is punching in Tai Chi and how many ways of punching can you actually find in the art? If we start naming different punches with common names people would start to associate “punching” with other arts. And it doesn’t help that some people try to explain the punches in a Tai Chi manner, because most people believe that all punching need to have the same kind of prerequisites. But this is really not the truth about Tai Chi and punching in most other styles does not really reflect what punching mean in Tai Chi.

The Hundred Fists of Tai Chi Chuan

In my own Tai Chi practice, which is mainly Yang based, in the exercises and the methods I myself practice, I have counted and arranged the methods I have learned into ten basic fists. I can also take out one of them, and create many different variations on the same fist according to the use of different body mechanics behind the strike. But still, this is is my own way to organise different striking methods. However you would label different punches and variations, this kind of system would still not reflect the essence of what a Tai Chi punch really is.

Therefore, I would rather use the Chinese term “hundred” and speak about “The Hundred Fists of Tai Chi Chuan”. Wow, that seems a lot, doesn’t it? Can you really punch and strike in so many ways? Well, maybe not if you translate it literary. In Chinese tradition, “hundred” can surely mean literary “one hundred”, but it is also used to express the word “many”. Compare with “the hundred schools of thought” which was a common phrase in a period of China a long time ago. Here it doesn’t mean literary as many as one hundred schools, it just means “many schools of thought”.

There’s no need trying to be specific. “Many” is enough. You need to realise, that in Tai Chi Chuan, as I have already mentioned before, there is no standard across different schools or lineages. All of them have their own ideas. So why is it hard do exactly define a strike or organising methods? Well, let’s head back to the question: what is a strike or a punch in Tai Chi?

Getting closer to the nature of “Chuan”

The Chuan in Tai Chi Chuan means “fist” and suggests that Tai Chi is a school of boxing, a martial art. Or “Quan” if you prefer writing “Taijiquan” as it is spelled using Pinyin. Just by the name, anyone should understand that punching is a natural part of the art. But how?

In Tai Chi there’s the saying: “the whole body is a fist.” Now, this is obviously a more a philosophical way of saying, that you can strike with any part of your body, and in any way you want. But even if we only speak about actually using the clenched fist to punch with, it is still hard to name and count the different methods, because Tai Chi is such a flexible styles with countless of possibilities.

So the real answer is that: you can use a punch in any way you want. There is not one or ten or one hundred different punches. There are as many as you yourself find useful. If you don’t like closed fist punches, throw them all away if you like. And your own Tai Chi has none. Tai Chi is all about you and how you can personalise and internalise the Tai Chi principles in whatever you do.

Nei Jin – the most natural expression of your body

So, in Tai Chi, you can strike from any position, from any angle, from any kind of distance, and use a fist in any way you want. Also, anywhere you want in your form, you can add or turn a movement into a strike. There are no rules about how you should strike in Tai Chi or how you are allowed to use punches in Tai Chi. This is because there is no standard way or any “the best way” to generate power.

There is only one real rule and that is that you must use basic Tai Chi principles when you strike, so that you strike with “Tai Chi Jin”. By Tai Chi Jin, we mean “Tai Chi developed strength” or “Tai Chi Neijin”, which is usually translated into “Tai Chi internal power”.

Tai Chi Neijin is actually not as mystical or magic that people want to make it sound. Jin means a developed skill, a trained and consciously delivered type of strength. Tai Chi Jin is actually more or less just the natural expression of correct use of Tai Chi principles. So if you do things right, your punch will express Tai Chi Jin.

It’s just as simple as that. If your body has internalised Tai Chi principles so that your movements express them, then you don’t need to think about jin, and instead your body will naturally express Jin. But still, when it boils down to more specific ways to use your body, as in punching, the question is still about “how” to do things in a most practical sense.

Punching without the mind-set of actually punching

So how do you technically use, or express, jin, or internal power? Well, here comes the tricky part: Yes, we do use punching in Tai Chi. And as I said, there are not only many punches, but countless of variations and possibilities. But when you strike or punch, however you punch, you should not actually punch. Or rather, you cannot “try to punch.”

Now you are probably asking yourself: But must you not be hard, tense up and be aggressive to punch with power? The answer is: No. Actually no. But from this perspective, for most people Tai Chi must seem completely counter-intuitive to the very most of martial arts systems and styles. So how do you understand this contradiction in a practical way and how do you actually handle this problem?

The problem is that when people think about punching, most of them will automatically think about exerting hard, external strength. They associate punching with a way to tensing the arm and hand, as well as tensing body, breath and mind. So when they try to punch, they will always tense their mind, breath and body. Everyone will do this. Tensing up when we try to exert force is the way we are taught from childhood. And we are also taught that we cannot achieve any strength if we don’t try to exert force.

Merely thinking about exerting hard power, or “trying to punch hard ” is wrong in Tai Chi. Why? Because merely the thought of “putting power” behind your punch and “strike hard” will make you tense, it will trigger a reaction and response in your own body that is wrong in Tai Chi. A natural reaction and respons of tensing up your body, which is detrimental to using or emitting “jin”.

But in Tai Chi this is all wrong. Everything you have ever learned about strength and emitting power growing up is wrong in Tai Chi. Every way you have taught and train your own body in this respect, all the way from early childhood is wrong.

So the first thing you need to realise is that there is another way to use your mind and body that you haven’t been taught before. And it’s really hard for everyone to get understand this, because if you are not already used to the Tai Chi way of thinking, this kind of using your mind and body will be something completely new.

Most people who don’t do Tai Chi would think we do some things a bit extreme, or too extreme. Especially when it comes to relaxation. In Tai Chi, we relax and don’t tense the muscles at all as we punch. So how do you move the arm without using deliberate tension of the muscles? The best answer is that we just relax. Yes, we relax a lot when we strike, in fact the whole body. But still, relaxation is not enough. In fact, there should be just as much structural integrity and physical balance involved as relaxation. But in Tai Chi it’s wrong to use “Li”, or clumsy force, or tensing up, to control your structure. This is wrong when you punch, when someone tries to grab you or throw you. In Tai Chi, using Jin is the good and smart thing to do.

So how do you practically start to learn how to maintain relaxation and still not collapse? – Again, this starts in your mind. If you “try to punch”, you will automatically use Li. This can be hard to undertand if you haven’t tried what I speak about. But it is what your body is programmed to do. Not tensing up when you try to punch hard is, for your natural reaction, something very counter-intuitive.

Maintaining relaxed and calm, while trying to punch hard, is like the “exercise” for actors that Lee Strasberg, the famous director of the Actors Studio, proposed. If I remember correctly, he told his students something like this : “Stand in a corner and don’t think about a polar-bear for 15 seconds.”

I guess you might be able to achieve this by completely emptying your mind and forgetting everything about why you stand there. But it would need some amount of meditation type of practice of emptying the mind. Because it’s something counter-intuitive it would require practice. Punching the way we do it would also require practice. Not only technical practice, but it requires “mind-practice” in order to control the body in such a way so it can relax properly.

When you start studying punching, the main focus of “punch training” in Tai Chi should have the goal of getting rid of this tendency to tense up mind, breath and body, and learn how to relax, control your degree of relaxation and keep relaxing. You need to learn this in order to really be able to control your body. It all starts in the mind, understanding how to “think” and about how to empty your mind.

It’s about learning to do something while not stressing up, by not worrying about doing something wrong. You really need to learn how to punch without the common mind-set of punching. In Tai Chi, this is in fact the first thing you need to learn in order to really understand how to “use jin instead of li”.

Tip: Also see my post about “xin”, the heart-mind, or the emotional mind in Chinese thought.

How to really understand to use Jin instead of Li

Let’s take a closer look at how the Chinese martial arts define Li and Jin. In the Chinese Martial arts in general, it is said that Li (dumb/common strength or “stupid force”) comes from the muscles, but Jin (developed/intrinsic strength) comes from the tendons. So what does this mean in a practical sense?

Well, it means that if you tense your muscles, trying to use them deliberately, then you are using Li. That should be obvious. But to use Jin, of course you still need to use the muscles to move the limb, but you cannot tense it. In the traditional Chinese way of thinking, when you strike while relaxing and stretching the limb, the sinews plays a large role as stabilisators while the movement of the strike transmits the movement in to the opponent while the shape of limb keeps its structural integrity.

For a westerner, it might be better to think about the movement of an arm while punching in terms of kinetic energy. If you tense up the arm while striking, you will stop or slow down the the kinetic energy. Actually, the body will fight itself if you tense up. The tension will mean a counter-force and act counter-productive to the outward, stretching movement of the limb. Or simply said: You can not stretch the arm forward and outwards and at the same time tense the biceps.

In a straight punch, using Jin instead of Li, is like using the pure forward movement, moving without tensing up. It is about helping the body to work in the direction of the kinetic energy, but without disrupting it, or without fighting yourself, without fighting against your own movement. So in this sense, using Jin, is the opposite of using strength in a clumsy way. Instead of isolated movement and tensing up different body parts, we use the whole body in a way to help your body to stay relaxed thought the whole movement.

So “using jin”, in a Tai Chi punch, means that you not only help your body to continue the initiated punch until it meets the target, but instead, you will use your body in such a way so that it can continue to relax even when it meets resistance. Penetrating a target while still maintain a relaxed body and using the arm in a relaxed way, while continue to moving through resistance is not possibly without the use of jin.

I will go into detail later, exactly how to align your body and how to train this whole body support, so that you don’t work against your body in a counter-productive way. For now, we can summarise the vital points as that in Tai Chi, Jin works as the bridge between maintaining Tai Chi principles, and the pure functionality and efficiency of body movement. But first we must learn to punch and to meet the target will still remaining calm in mind, body and breath. Otherwise, we have not even a chance to start to understand what is meant by “using jin instead of li”. (Don’t confuse this with “Use Yi instead of Li” which is different.)

What’s next?

Does it all sound abstract and confusing so far? Don’t worry, the next post in this series will be more specific and deal with practical aspects of training punches, as if it’s advisable to punch bags and similar in Tai Chi Chuan, and more about what to think about. The third part will deal with specific body methods of different types of punches. Those three posts together will not only give you a good idea what punching really means in Tai Chi, but also actual methods to practice and study different types of punches.

I will probably publish the next part within one or two weeks from the publishing date of this post. This is at least what I plan to do for the moment. Originally, I only wanted to write one post and briefly share my thoughts. But now when I am writing three different posts, two more posts parallel top this one, you can see how well that idea about just sharing some thoughts turned out…

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