This past Saturday I held an afternoon workshop on three of the four basic animals in our Old Yang Tai Chi system. Leaving the Serpent for another day, we reviewed the Phoenix and the Crane series, and then explored the Dragon in some detail.
Briefly, to illustrate one of the movements of the animal system (which may be unfamiliar to Yang stylists, although familiar to those who study in the Chen tradition) here is a photograph of Dragon Chases Pearl. This is a movement in which the inverted hand rotates and claws out to the front or side. The shape is that of an arm extended in rotation, so that the palm faces thumb-down to the outside and the little-finger edge is to the ceiling as the arm reaches out to claw or seize. Each finger claws separately so that all the muscle strands of the forearm are individually worked. This movement is seen:
in multiple contexts in the Old Yang middle-frame such as the high Snakes, the clawing to left and front after Shoot Tiger with Bow, in the twist Step which precedes Needle at Sea-bottom and Sit with Arm Break / Dragon Pulls Down
In the traditional Yang-style Snake Creeps Down from the 1930's it is often seen in the entry to the posture.
It is also found in Chen style’s Repulse Monkey (in the Tian Xiuchen lineage of Beijing style).
The connection between animal movement patterns and health in China goes back at least to Hua To’s Five Animal Frolics of the 2nd. Century CE and may extend long before that into prehistory. Various East Asian martial arts transmit skills which are modelled upon the movements of animals, both mythical and real. In China, there are at least two different (but overlapping) five-animals traditions in Shaolinquan, a twelve-animal method in Xingyiquan, and a four-animal system in Bagwazhang which was Beijing based.
While overtly animalistic movements are generally missing from most styles of Tai Chi, many postures / movements evoke them by name: Snake Creeps Down, Stork Cools Wings, Retreat to Ride Tiger, Hit and Hold Tiger, Shoot Tiger with Bow, Roc (or Phoenix) Spreads Wings, Ride Unicorn and Look Back, Blue Dragon Comes Out of the Water, Green Dragon Spreads its Claws, Black Dragon Coils Around the Pillar, Horse Jumps Over the Ravine, Carp Jumps the Dragon Gate, etc. etc. As far as I am aware, the only Tai Chi tradition today which is strongly oriented toward this material is that of the Yang Zong Laojia, the Old Yang Middle Frame.
When my Old Yang teacher Dr. Shen Zaiwen was teaching in Toronto and Guelph Ontario in the early 1990's, an important part of his curriculum was training us in animal energies which combined internal alchemy with martial applications. The system provided advanced training in physical coordination, fighting methods and energy cultivation. It emphasized how combative utility co-exists with beauty. It also constituted a library of qigong methods that could be drawn upon for therapeutic purposes.
Dr. Shen stressed to me that this material was innate to his tradition of Old Yang Tai Chi Chuan, that it was not just an import. It manifests much more fully in the old form than in the large frame traditional long form developed by Yang Cheng Fu in the 1920’s. In retrospect it seems to me that the 108 is almost a shorthand or cleaned-up version of the older long form.
For just one example, in the old form one not only Hold(s) the Tiger, but then Hit(s) Tiger with an advancing back fist similar to the Tiger fist of Shaolinquan. Whenever Grasp Bird’s Tail to left or right is performed, it concludes with a double palm strike as in the Tiger movement of Xingyi. In the later Yang Cheng Fu form, this has been transformed into a two-hand push, but the Tiger strike legacy is very clear in the older form.
There are many other examples. Carry Tiger to Mountain in the Old Yang involves a left Leopard Paw or forearm strike followed by a right Tiger palm and then a two-hand short-jin Tiger-style push. Bearing this in mind, it is interesting that this movement is referred to as Leopard and Tiger Push Mountain in Wu Kung Cho’s canonical text, Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan, first published in the 1930’s and republished recently by my friend Jonathan Krehm in an English-language translation by Douglas Woolidge: www.wustyle.com/site/index.php/shop/books/wu-style-tai-chi-chuan-gold-book-english-edition .
The Yang family old middle-frame Tai Chi form was perfected by Yang Cheng Fu’s father, Yang Chien Hou. I believe it represents an earlier stratum of Yang family development than the Yang long form of today. That the Shen lineage version is a faithful rendering of the tradition can now be confirmed by comparing it to clips posted on Youtube by students of the Tian family of Shanghai. Dr. Shen Zaiwen’s father and uncle learned the form from Tian Xiaolin, a senior student of Yang Chien Hou. While some may assume that the elements which are also found in Xingyi and Bagwa are later elaborations, it is equally reasonable to hold, as Sun Lu Tang maintained, that there is such a thing as an Internal System in the Chinese martial tradition and that these elements are shared by its component arts. They are also displayed today in Shanghai by students of some of the other lineages deriving from Tian Xiaolin.
Some years back I was approached by a club in the Ottawa area for a day-long workshop on a subject of my choosing. When I suggested an exploration of Tai Chi animal energies they abruptly lost interest. I was told that they considered such a topic to be "self indulgent". In such ways do we protect ourselves from training that challenges our fixed preconceptions! ;-)