One of my teachers once told us that in the Cheng Man-ching form, the Single Whip posture was the most important for health. Its worth was measured by the number of repetitions it was accorded in the form, i.e. five, and its position near the beginning - the most important ideas, generally, coming first. Next in importance, also close to the beginning of the form and repeated four times, there comes a group of postures known collectively as 'Grasp the Sparrow's Tail.' Better known by their individual names: Ward Off, Roll Back, Press and Push or their Chinese equivalents: Peng, Lu, Chi and An, these postures are considered to be the most important for self-defence.
Unfortunately, for those seeking the martial in Tai Chi, they can appear something of a disappointment, the rest of the form being only marginally more ferocious looking. The name itself has little to recommend it, not having the fighting spirit of a Golden Rooster, or the resilience of a Phoenix, or the majesty of the mighty Roc. Whoever heard of a martial Sparrow?
As fighting movements, Grasp the Sparrow's Tail sequence looks pretty lightweight and seems to bear out the opinions of those who dismiss Tai Chi as a serious martial art. I myself had serious misgivings about the efficacy of the art in my first year of study which my first teacher did little to allay. Recognising, however, that his primary motivation was Tai Chi for health and meditation, I persevered hoping that I would find someone whose approach gelled more closely with my own expectations, someone who could show me something deeper of the martial side.
It took a while, but a subsequent teacher opened my eyes to the possibility that the four postures of The Sparrow's Tail were not techniques but concepts, or in the parlance of the time, energies. The postures of the form, especially the four in Grasp the Sparrow's Tail, were not to be seen as fighting techniques, practiced to the point of instinctual response in the event of attack, as in a hard martial arts like karate, but rather as illustrations of Tai Chi principles in action. The importance of Peng, Lu, Chi and An was that they distilled these principles into a physical vehicle for study with a partner.
Cheng Man-ching tells us that Push Hands using the Sparrow's Tail postures 'develops a sensitivity for interpreting energy ..... and high levels of awareness.' He also tells us, 'The Push Hands players arms are compared to a sparrow's tail which the opponent tries to grasp.'
There is, then, something martial in the humble Sparrow's Tail sequence after all. The image of trying to catch a sparrow's tail suggests a fluid, dynamic and responsive, skill avoiding the attacks of the opponent and leaving them clutching at thin air. The Treatise of Wang Chung Yueh, one of the Tai Chi Classics, equally springs to mind. 'When he attacks, he cannot reach me. When he retreats, he cannot get away.'
Not everybody shares this point of view, however, as the use of the Peng, Lu, Chi, An method of Pushing is becoming less prevalent, even among students of Cheng Man-ching's approach to Tai Chi. On one occasion during a stay in New York, I attended a practice session with some serious Push Hands players at the class of the late Stanley Israel, one of Cheng Man-ching's most senior and dedicated students. They practised the more whole-hearted style, usually called Free Pushing, which does not involve the use of any particular postures. Not being particularly good at the pushing they were doing, I tried to explain what we did back home. One of the guys, who came along with his teacher from Upstate New York, was a little dismissive until his teacher told him that the Peng Lu Chi An method was 'the real Push Hands.' His student's response was edifying: 'Then why have you never taught it to me?' His teacher, a very decent-hearted person gave no answer.
Clearly I cannot answer for the teacher, but the milieu in which they practiced was a good deal more direct and relentlessly competitive. The softly competitive version which the Peng Lu Chi An method evokes is seen as little more than a beginners' exercise while they pursue the more 'full-blooded' method which has led to their success against fellow enthusiasts. Rather than avoiding the bracing of one student against another (as would the Peng Lu Chi An player) they celebrate it as a useful training method. Another of their number told me in his marvellous New York accent, 'You gotta think of the other guy as a movin' Nautilus machine. Stan always says never use weights as they only develop some of the muscles. Push Hands develops them all.' I was not so much taken with the content of his advice; rather with his inimitable way of delivering it.
Looking back I remember them as good honest guys who were looking for the 'real deal' - just like me. They had a pragmatic approach, eschewing wishful thinking and demanding efficacy in the face of the real world. While admiring their dedication and forthrightness, I see things a little differently.
The need to win at Push Hands is not the overriding issue for me. I am unsure whether this is my innate preference, or a legacy of years immersed in Aikido's overwhelmingly non-competitive approach. Aikido's founder, the legendary O Sensei Ueshiba, was against turning Aikido into a competitive art. He clearly did not see competition as necessary to teaching a martial art. Each student took turns to throw and be thrown. There is as much to learn in Aikido when being thrown, as when throwing - the sentiments are the same for Tai Chi.
What makes Push Hands worth studying is the belief that hard force and aggression can be met without responding in kind, and spiralling ever deeper into the realm of these tyrants. Why then do so few people manage to achieve it? Cheng Man-ching's answer was 'lack of faith.'
I guess this brings us to the crux of the matter. Do we have faith that the humble Sparrow has something martial to teach? Could it be that the martial has been hidden by those inscrutables of long ago whose mischievous nature could not resist the temptation to hide the immensely powerful in so flimsy a costume? Or, is it only by becoming like the humble Sparrow that the mysterious is revealed?
Perhaps Cheng Man-ching has already revealed the answer by suggesting that we 'invest in loss.' The bigger the loss now, the bigger the gain later. We give up our habitual ways of doing and thinking in order to go deeper. The Sparrow's Tail method in Push Hands provides a framework to accommodate that goal: It is free enough not to let us become lost in meaningless ritual, yet rigid enough to stop descent into a nonsensical free for all. When Cheng Man-ching said, 'Study the form, it has meaning.' Perhaps he knew what he was talking about .