Principles of Yang-style Tai Chi

Thanks to Cold Mountain Associate-instructor Peter Reist for unearthing this interview with GM Yang Zhenduo, with whom I was able to train in the summer of 2006 when he visited Canada. Most of these principles were briefly addressed in an earlier blog article I published back in 2016.

I'm not sure, but I believe this was an interview conducted by the late Marvin Smalheiser, editor of Tai Chi Magazine, in 1990 on the occasion of the Grandmaster's first visit to North America. On that occasion he was the guest in Winchester Virginia of Pat Rice at her annual 'A Taste of China' event.

In 1990 the Grandmaster was intent on correcting what he saw as common misconceptions about Yang family Tai Chi. He was also at pains to stress the integrity of the Yang family transmission and that it was fundamentally different from the Modern / Xin 'Yang-style' of the Chinese government as well as different from the style which had been promoted in the U. S. by G.M. Chen Man-ching who had been a student of his father, Yang Cheng-fu (at left), the originator of the Yang large-frame form.

Grandmaster YZD hit a nerve when he did this, and it is common even today to read attacks upon his skill from certain North American practitioners.

When I met him in 2006 I learned the 16-form from him. At the time the fundamentals he taught us were as explained in this article. We practice the 16 today as the large-frame I learned from him, as well as the traditional middle-frame which I was taught by Master Sam Masich. In either case the internal principles are consistent with the values enunciated in this interview, naturally so since the Grandmaster was also one of Sam's teachers! They apply to all traditional variations of the Yang-style.

One potential confusion is his use of the term wushu. His allusion is to 'traditional martial arts', not to modern gymnastic martial arts.

- Steve Higgins

Chief Instructor, Cold Mountain Internal Arts.



I. Relaxation

It is easy to understand the literal meaning of "relaxation". The word here has two implications: (1) The relaxation of the mind, that is, the elimination of all other thoughts and the concentration of the mind on practising taijiquan (2) The relaxation of the whole body and the elimination of the stiff strength inside it. The second implication has indeed caused some misunderstanding among many learners. They take it for granted that relaxation means not using any strength and that they should display physical softness. The fact that the "Ten essentials of Taijiquan" emphasizes the employment of the mind instead of the use of strength gives rise to another misunderstanding that taijiquan should be all softness.

Some people, of course, have doubts on this point, since there is the saying that "the needle is hidden in the cotton" or "vigour is concealed in gentleness." Where exactly does vigour lie? Some people have probed into this question with experiments and they have discovered that the conscious employment of even a little strength results in a stiff feeling, while relaxation indeed brings a feeling of softness. It is therefore natural that the beginner finds himself in a dilemma.

II. What is Real Relaxation?

I would like to give some of my personal views on this question. Though relaxation means the conscious relaxation of the mind, more importantly, it means the relaxation of the whole body.

Relaxation of the whole body means the conscious relaxation of all the joints, and this organically links up all parts of the body in a better way. This does not mean softness. It requires a lot of practice in order to understand this point thoroughly. Relaxation also means the "stretching" of the limbs, which gives you a feeling of heaviness. (This feeling of heaviness or stiffness is a concrete reflection of strength.) This feeling is neither a feeling of softness ñor of stiffness, but somewhere in between. It should not be confined to a specific part, but involves the whole body. It is like molten iron under high temperature. So relaxation "dissolves" stiff strength in very much the same way. Stiff strength, also called "clumsy strength", undergoes a qualitative change after thousands of times of "dissolution" exercises. Just like iron which can be turned steel, so "clumsy strength" can be turned into force, and relaxation is a means of gradually converting it into force. Our ancestors put it well: "Conscious relaxation will unconsciously produce force." There is truth in this statement.

III. The Difference Between Strength and Force

Strength can be compared to unheated and unmelted pig iron. It is inborn and is distributed over all parts of the body. When a baby is born, it cries and moves its limbs with its natural strength. When we say we should not use strength in taijiquan, we refer to this natural strength (clumsy strength). We should instead use force, which is also called "internal force", or taijiquan force,

Though force is not natural strength, it is difficult to separate the two. In other words, despite their difference, there is no clear-cut demarcation line between them. Force derives from strength, which serves as its basis. Iron becomes steel through heating and tempering, so steel derives from iron. If we do not have a proper understanding of this fact, we will counterpose one against the other and fail to have a correct understanding of the relationship between the two. Consequently, we will not be able to achieve what has been described as "The needle is hidden in the cotton" or "vigour is concealed in gentleness." Gentleness here suggests a degree of tenacity. Only when we have acquired such an understanding can we achieve what is summarized as "Relaxation gives rise to gentleness, which in turn gives rise to vigour, and gentleness and vigour supplement each other."

IV. How Should We Understand "employment of the Mind Instead of the Use of Strength"?

This is easy to understand when we know the difference between strength and force.

Now let us return to the topic of strength which, as has been said, is inborn and is distributed over all parts of the body. When we start doing exercises every day, we should first of all 'relax' in the conscious search of strength. Then, we gather the strength, organize it under our command before we put it into exercise. Gradually the scattered strength becomes á totality in itself. This is like a well-trained army which moves in unisón according to the order issued by its commander. In this way, the army can achieve its goal. Our forerunners said: "Whither the mind goes, force follows." That is to say, when the learner has attained a certain level after persistent training and is able to combine force with skill, then force will emerge of itself and follow the mind. This is a point I wish to drive home.

A strong man who has never learnt wushu may be able to defeat his opponent. This of course depends on who his opponent is. However, given the same physical conditions, a wushu expert is sure to defeat an opponent who has not practised wushu. A man of strong build will of course become stronger if he takes up wushu and persists in training.


These key points are summarized in 'the Twenty-Word Wheel' given to us by Grandmaster Yang Zhenduo in 2006:

Stretch the elbow Empty the armpit; Elbow leads the shoulder Stretch includes wrist and hand. This empties the chest and stretches the back; This relaxes waist and loosens hips. Then all joints are loose together, Coordinated and filled with power. Go slow and savour it!

(In a later session Grandmaster YZD stressed that while the Twenty-Word Wheel (“Twenty Words” is simply a traditional formula to emphasize importance, he said) is primarily focused on the upper body, it applies to the whole.)

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