Four Key Methods: Putting it all together!

(with thanks to Cold Mountain Associate Instructors Randall Templeton and Tanya Korovkin for their assistance; photos by Doug Haas and the one of me and Tanya by Peter Reist)

The following four methods are the inner keys to many combative applications. They are not THE 4 FUNDAMENTAL METHODS. They just constitute one set of options among many others. They are concerned, not so much with disposing of the opponent, as with setting him up. They place him at a huge disadvantage in which circumstance an application can come into play decisively.

1. Open / Close:

Open Move

The opponent has a shape which he / she feels appropriate to the task of overcoming you. If you change that shape their whole tactic is disturbed - so that is what you do! You can open them up and maximize their exposed surface area or you can compress them so they are confined and unable to express their aggression and are smothered. In either case you will prevail. One aspect of this may be to move in and off-line so as to offer an oblique orientation to the opponent; this really upsets their apple cart!

The raising of the hands in Commencement is a typical opening movement; the lowering of the hands is a closing. Play Pi-pa and Raise Hands Step Up can be either. Single Whip and Fan Through Back are great openings; Deflect and Parry is a great closing. EVERY movement in the Tai Chi forms has this kind of energy.

Here’s some Closing, …and here is a nice study of Randall using Closing on me!

Closing Move

2. Cross Hands:

Needle at Sea-bottom

The issue is to neutralize a sudden movement of the opponent by the part of your body that is closest to them. For example, if they are facing you and attempt to grab you with their left hand, then the quickest response is usually to intercept inwards with your right. This is optimized if you simultaneously turn slightly to your left. If you then place your left hand under your right to stabilize and control them, you are in charge of the situation. This is the essence of Cross Hands and it is to be found throughout the various Taijiquan forms. Combine this with some method like the ‘Falling Step’ and your movement can be a finisher!

Typical examples are the transitions into Warding movements, such as the preliminary to Grasp Sparrow's Tail, Partition of Horse's Mane and Slant Flying. Joint locks such as Needle at Sea-bottom usually have this energy.

3. Rotary:

In the Four Tangibles we looked at Turning. Turning is a way to accommodate, modify, and control the opponent’s movement. Rotary is a bit different in that it is designed not just to accommodate and control the opponent’s movement but to hurl him / her down. Turning is essentially receptive and controlling. Rotary is about putting energy out!

Secure in your grounded central equilibrium, you apply force to the opponent and turn. Best executed with all the weight on one leg, you might tilt the opponent’s head back with a bit of a twist and corkscrew the opponent off their feet.

Classic example: Crane Flashes Wings (at right), or Brush Knee! Another family of rotary methods can be found under Fan Through Back.

4. Wedging:

This method can proceed out of Closing, Cross Hands, or Rotary. In essence, the posture supports a powerful wedge shape that is directed into the opponent’s centre to achieve his / her overthrow.

Examples: Ji (at left), Present Flowers, Needle at Sea-bottom, Raise Hands and Step Up….

What recommends these four methods is that they are not dependent upon striking. Hitting effectively requires accuracy, some degree of power, and often some conditioning. Hit the wrong way and you can injure yourself. Meanwhile, the opponent isn’t making it easy for you by staying still or posing while you get lined up! Further, these methods are not ornate but relatively simple applications of physical skills such as balance and turning. The above methods are well-suited to the concept of the weak overthrowing the strong. They rely on movement and…well…yes, you can follow up by hitting or kicking the attacker in the worst way when he is maximally disadvantaged (if you really feel you must!).

Practise the 12 above components and you will be equipped to engage in effective psychic or physical self-defence.


At this point we are concluding, not only this article, but an entire series on principles of practical self-defence. Together they constitute an effective system which covers most situations.

The reason this is necessary is because so many Tai Chi students and teachers have difficulty in relating the calming movements of Tai Chi to practical self-defence. The fact is that the forms themselves have been modified over the years so that many of the principles and methods explained above have been deliberated obscured. In a sense, the art has become de-natured as a result of ‘going public’ (I concede that this may be a somewhat controversial view.). Transition into the Modern period of its history has required that, for social reasons, Tai Chi be developed as a method of exercise rather than pure combat. This process continues as Tai Chi becomes ever more popular as a competitive art form like figure-skating or an agonistic sport like Boxing or Judo.

In addressing this point I have referenced the traditional Yang family form since, particularly in its modern incarnation, it is better known than any other. It is therefore necessary to point out that, to one degree or another, this criticism applies to all styles. The Grasp Sparrow’s Tail in the modern Yang form emphasizes various ways of sending an attacker off discomfited; the Old Yang version presents three ways of killing him. The modern form retains its defensive effectiveness without being as lethal as the older form.

All Tai Chi styles share the sequence of the “Long Boxing”. In Chen family Tai Chi, for example, the sequence from Too Lazy to Tie Coat through to the end of Sealing All Openings is the same as the Yang’s Grasp Sparrow’s Tail. In all styles, the following analysis applies to this compound form but few practitioners understand it. I outline it here in the Modern Yang variant so that we can see the interrelationship between elements of the Four Intangibles and the Four Key Methods.

The opponent punches with his R hand (or kicks).

  1. You step in (achieving Proximity) while parrying inwards with your own L hand, thus Closing his structure.

  2. You continue your advance into his structure by stepping in with your R foot and circling your R arm under your L, thus Crossing Hands.

  3. You then launch him away with JI, applying the wedge principle.

  4. Or alternatively you pluck his R arm with your R hand and turn to your right to fling him away with Rotary method. This is also effecting in responding to a L hand punch.

A good punch can move faster than the eye can see. Is this kind of response realistic? Yes! Because, thanks to massed repetition of the form and relaxation, balanced ground, etc., your hands should be capable of doing this faster than the eye can see.

In the Yang style this sequence occurs four times before the completion of Cross Hands at the end of the first section (usually counted as nineteen moves). Do you know where they are? Think about it.

The structure implied in these articles can be a key to understanding the inner physical logic of the different treatments of the Tai Chi form. They apply equally to Yang and Chen style and to all styles. They allow one to distinguish what is functional (and true) from what is purely ornamental (and false). The distinction between technique and application blurs after a while. It is, after all, a pedagogical distinction intended more to differentiate between instructional methods than polished martial result.

These articles present an effective approach to self-defence based upon essentials. The techniques within the various forms go far beyond this. They embody methods of call and response of great sophistication which can constitute subject for deeper study. But without a coherent framework such as that presented here these methods are of questionable worth. With a foundation such as this, such methods can be devastating.

In drawing a close to this argument, I urge all practitioners who are interested in understanding the physical defensive function of Tai Chi to review these articles and consider applying them to your own art. Modify them as you will. Feel free to take a different approach. But seek the physical truth that unlocks the defensive logic of mastering Tai Chi as a form of practical self-defence!

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