Tai ChiYang style Tai Chi: The needle in the cotton

Yang style Tai Chi: The needle in the cotton

My recent podcast with Chen stylist Ken Gullette has led to me thinking a lot about the differences between Yang style and Chen style Tai Chi Chuan. I know the official view is that these two arts are both the same art – “there is only one Tai Chi” – but I’m not really sure I believe that entirely.

Single whip posture by Li Xianwu, 1933.

The issue is confusing because a lot of highly partisan Tai Chi practitioners tend to view one of the arts as being a more ‘watered down’ or ‘less internal’ version of the other – if they’re on the Chen side of the argument then they view Yang style as a “watered down for the masses” version of Chen style, and if they’re on team Yang style then they view Chen style as a more “external and Shaolin” aberration of Tai Chi.

I’ve never been interested in either of those two arguments myself as they betray a kind of small-minded “my style is THE BEST” attitude that seeks to simply put down the other style for no good reason beyond “I don’t like it”. It reminds me of the worst aspects of jingoism that seeks to war with other countries simply because they are not us.

When I say I think Yang style and Chen style are really different beasts I mean it in a positive sense – they’re both good, and share a lot of similarities, and both exist under the banner of “Tai Chi”. But the emphasis is quite different between the two. I find Chen style seems to be more concerned with the body mechanics like silk reeling and opening and closing in different parts of the body, and going from being soft to sudden explosive movements (hard) then back to soft again.

Of course, opening and closing is there in Yang style too, but I don’t really know of any Yang stylists that put as much emphasis on it as Chen stylists do, especially the Chen Yu branch of the art, which goes really deep on it (to my eye at least). And as for silk reeling, that seems to be absent in Yang style.

Yang style, in contrast, has its main emphasis on a kind of “needle in cotton” feel throughout. It’s soft on the outside and hard on the inside and all done at the same speed – drawing silk, rather than reeling silk, like a long river flowing. That’s not to say that Chen style can’t be like that too, but the emphasis on that way of being is greater in Yang style.

Of course, the official view from the Chinese government (and Yang and Chen families) is that Chen style is the ancestor of Yang style. End of story. But like most things in China, I suspect it’s more about political expediency than historical accuracy. For example, there’s a complete lack of evidence that Yang Luchan ever visited Chen village, let alone trained there for years and years. (If you want to get picky, there’s hardly any evidence available anywhere that Yang Luchan actually existed at all!) And the Chen family didn’t get in on the Tai Chi teaching business until 1928, which is very, very late in the day compared to Yang style, since Yang Luchan was reputedly teaching Tai Chi in the Forbidden City from the 1860s onwards. There are a lot of holes in the official story. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that the official story can’t be true, but there are enough holes in it to make me the journalist in me question it.

But anyway, In Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points, we find number 6 – use the mind not force. Cheng-Fu goes on to explain that, “In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”

I’m willing to bet that this piece of writing is responsible for leading more than a few Tai Chi practitioners down the wrong path, towards wet-noodle Tai Chi. The attitude of being a needle in cotton is the antithesis of this. If you’re going to make the outside soft then the inside of the body has to be hard, otherwise you are just a wet noodle, which sadly a lot of Tai Chi practitioners are. That’s how the Yin/Yang balance is maintained in Yang style.

Importantly, Yang Cheng-Fu goes on to say: “The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “when you are extremely soft, you become extremely hard and strong.” Someone who has extremely good T’ai Chi Ch’uan kung fu has arms like iron wrapped with cotton and the weight is very heavy.”

There it is – the needle in the cotton.

If you can imagine a needle (or an iron bar) wrapped in cotton, then just brushing your hand over the cotton we feel like everything was soft. But if you squeezed the cotton you’d feel that hardness at its centre. That is how the whole body should be when practicing Yang style. It’s a kind of presence that can only be acquired by long practice of Tai Chi Chuan, learning to move while relaxing the muscles and letting the flesh hang from the bones, while keeping the skeletal stricture strong. Both light and heavy at the same time.

I also think it’s very hard to get this feel by only practicing Tai Chi Chuan, and that’s one of the reasons that standing practice and Yi Quan has become so popular amongst Tai Chi practitioners. I think standing practice (Zhan Zhuang) provides a kind of shortcut to the kind of power required to be a needle in the cotton, but that’s a story for another day.

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