The Four Tangibles: Tai Chi Self Defence!

(CMIA Blog entry #19)

In a previous entry (The Four Intangibles: Nov. 5, 2016) we explored the psychological pieces which should be in place as prerequisites for effective self-defence. We have also looked at the issue of Self Defence Before the Fight (July 13, 2016) - how to reduce or manage the necessity for defensive action. However, once this has become unavoidable there are Four Tangible qualities which contribute to a successful conclusion to the encounter. We call these the Four Tangibles because they focus on the ability to exert tangible physical control what is happening.

Four Tangibles

1. Central Ground: You must be grounded and centred. Around you is a zone of control. This is the area that is within your easy reach. Within it you can with minimal effort touch your opponent. If you have to strain or reach, you are in error and are leaving that centered zone. When you move, your zone moves with you. In a way it is like the spotlight that illuminates an actor moving across the stage. You move and it moves with you. Within it you are powerful, at ease and in control. It is your personal space. When someone moves into this space you are instantly aware.

Your ability to inhabit your space is dependent upon your structure. When your structure is poor, your connection to that space is compromised. Correct structure has to do with relaxed power, rooting and groundedness. All the classic elements of Tai Chi apply: central equilibrium, relaxation, vitality, being "ready for anything from any of the Eight Directions".

In external terms, when you are 'on guard' there are certain physical adjustments to be made. Your tailbone drops and the crown of your head (the bump behind the fontanelle) is raised. It is as if your entire spine is straightened like a string, sensitive to your intent.

A fundamental teaching in the Yang / Wu tradition holds that the body can be divided into three parts: arms, torso and back, and legs. Each of these three units is also subdivided in terms of joints which work to distribute or deliver power.

Arms: wrists, elbows, shoulders.

Back: coccyx, ming-men, upper.

Legs: ankles, knees, hips.

All these parts together constitute a system of correspondences for purposes of flexing and whole-body power. Wrists, coccyx and ankles act in harmony; elbows, ming-men and knees act together as do shoulders, upper back and hips.

In stance and movement all these parts work together. This is not simply a defensive measure, but potentially aggressive as well. It is a matter of both receiving energy and delivering power. If you close the distance with an attacking opponent in order to preemptively intercept his action, within that space he is overthrown if these adjustments are correctly made and maintained.

2. Proximity: Proximity in martial arts terms is usually explored in terms of range and angle. But in Tai Chi, proximity is not just about range and angle, but also nearness. One advances. One never avoids an energetic connection.

Aikido is usually considered to be an internal art akin to Tai Chi. While they do have many elements in common, there is one major difference between Aikido and Tai Chi which has to do with this issue. That is, that one of the Aikido fundamentals is evasion. Evasion or avoidance have little or no place in Tai Chi. Instead it is necessary to make contact in order to exert control. The one technique which is an exception to this rule is that of "empty force" or ling kong jin - a Tai Chi method in which the opponent throws himself without physical contact having been established. But even here there is an element of connection, though not physical. When an opponent moves to the attack, there are various movement options that are presented. Retreat and/or evasion can involve movement to the rear, movement to the left or right rear angles, or moving laterally to either left or right. In each case one is avoiding contact and must change direction or move back in to end the matter.

Typical Tai Chi responses are to preemptively move straight up the centreline or at a closing angle to left or right. The issue is to bridge the intervening distance to the opponent, not to preserve or defend it. This enables movement to place the opponent with striking range with no secondary movement being necessary.

Tai Chi is pre-eminently a method of in-fighting.

3. Connection: Based upon Proximity, one establishes contact with the opponent and retains it until the interaction is brought to a successful conclusion. One connects with his or her energy, understands it, and turns it to one’s own advantage.

In most applications this means that from initial contact you have a sense of his centre. To touch his hand is to touch his spine and control it. If you control the opponent's central equilibrium, how can he prevail? You can sense his move before it has been made. As is said in The Taijiquan Classics, "The opponent moves, but I get there first!"

This implies speed. The kind of speed you seek is the product of every point we have looked at so far in our study. It is the outcome of awareness, will, relaxation, resolve and structure. To achieve this, and to manifest this in an easy and spontaneous way is why you study and practice the art.

4. Turning: You must cultivate and practice the ability to turn while maintaining the connection and exerting control over your opponent. This involves the entire body moving together in a unified fashion in response to the point of contact. No part moves independent of the whole. No part rotates on its own.

This is what is known as chan-si-jin or "silk reeling". Silk reeling is primarily associated with the Chen family's Tai Chi tradition. However, it is a fundamental value in all Tai Chi styles. Not all display it openly, but it is a fundamental aspect of Tai Chi movement and gives Tai Chi its distinctive quality.


In Tai Chi there are "four do's" and "four don'ts".

The four do's are to:

1. stick,

2. adhere,

3. connect and

4. follow the opponent's movement.

These are the objectives of silk-reeling which allow one to neutralize, control and overthrow the opponent .

The four don'ts are to:

1. not reach beyond the zone,

2. not distort one's structure,

3. not disconnect from the opponent, or

4. not resist force with force.

Together these integrate the Four Tangibles described above and, when properly understood and internalized, contribute to an effective self-defence.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square