Internal arts and pushing

I have previously highlighted my disdain for "mystical" interpretations of the internal martial arts. In my view all martial arts function within the bounds of known physics; there is simply nothing metaphysical - nothing that is left wanting for a "paranormal" explanation.

However there are still many people out there who adhere to the opposite view. To quote a correspondent on an internet forum:
    "My view of internal martial arts is when the strike's power is so refined and seemingly defies physical laws. Where there is a transfer of energy enough to lift someone off their feet yet have very little to no body momentum to justify the result of the strike."
And there's the rub: "lifting someone off their feet"...

What I want to know is, why do so many people who see themselves as "internal artists" think that pushing is a good measure of martial skill - or applied force, for that matter?

Typically, these internal artists will point to videos which show someone being pushed a considerable distance, but with seemingly little effort. Here is just one example:

A fairly typical "pushing" demonstration intended to evidence the "power" of the internal arts - but do you really want to push anyone?

My experience with the internal arts is that pushing does not really feature in the "xing" (forms). It is used in taiji push hands contests, but it really about as indicative of true taiji skill as board/brick breaking in karate; once you know a few basic things about balance and grounding, you can do pushing without any other knowledge. And being good at taiji push hands doesn't necessarily equate to a good performance of the taiji forms.

I am reasonably good at pushing (if I could be bothered doing it) - but I have yet to meet someone who can push me like in the above video if I actively resist. The best they manage is to upset my balance in the context of push hands - and the latter is about timing, not "qi". If I have ever been sent sprawling, it was because my partner used my own push against me, catching me at just the right moment. Again, this is timing. Timing is not an issue in the above video.

Videos such as the one above are evidence only of very agreeable, non-resistant students.

And most of the time pushing is really the opposite of what you want to do to your opponent anyway. As I discuss in my article "Hitting harder: physics made easy", when you hit someone you want to apply as much force to him or her as you can. To do this you need to transfer the momentum behind your blow as quickly as possible. This is because of the formula:
    force = impulse / time
Impulse is, as I explain, the momentum you transfer. When you push (rather than hit), you might transfer the same momentum as you would if you had hit, but you do so by applying a smaller force over a longer time. In my article "Visible force vs. applied force" I discuss how a pushing blow might look more spectacular than a "shocking" (ie. forceful) blow simply because you see a bigger "result" in terms of the displacement of your target - but the former is necessarily less effective in terms of destructive force applied. Quite simply you have applied less force. Less force = not hitting as hard.

It follows that when you hit, you want to apply a force that drops your opponent on the spot. You don't want to push him or her across the room. This is true in every discipline - including boxing (where there is greater emphasis on "push" than in ungloved fighting systems - see my article "Karate punches vs boxing punches"). Consider for a moment the following knockout of Glen Kelly by boxing champion Roy Jones Jnr:

Boxing champion Roy Jones Jnr in action against Glen Kelly. Note how Kelly drops on the spot - he doesn't get "pushed" by the knockout blow.

It was the (colourful and controversial) taijiquan teacher Earl Montaigue who told me at a seminar back in 1989 words to the following effect:
    "I once saw a taiji practitioner who was very good at push hands beaten up. He managed to push this guy quite far, but the guy just came back and hit him."
You will note from my article "Understanding the internal arts" that I believe the internal arts specialise not in pushing, but in hydrostatic blows that cause minimal displacement. In other words, pushing is the exact opposite of what the internal arts are mostly about.

Indeed, "pushing" demonstrations bear little resemblance to the rich tapestry of applications in the internal arts forms. Such applications include deflections and counters, locking, throwing... but they very rarely involve pushing your opponent.

So why are there so many Youtube videos of "taiji pushing"?

It has been argued to me that they are an "example" or "test" of internal arts skill. As I've foreshadowed, I can't see how this could be the case.

Rather, I believe that such pushing demonstrations appeal to the Western "mystical" concept of what the internal arts are/should be. In my experience this doesn't match the Chinese day to day practice of the internal arts - at least in places like Taiwan (where pragmatic schools like Hong Yi Xiang's Tang Shao Dao put their arts to the test in full contact tournaments). Instead, push hands demonstrations are typically dragged out only occasionally as crowd-pleasers: like spears in the throat and standing on eggs and breaking things, they are used to entertain, not train. The real fighting methods of the internal arts (and their related skills such as "silk-reeling" in bagua or the relaxed, almost resistance-free, movement in taiji) don't have any connection to these "crowd-pleasers".

So if these "pushing tests" don't evidence or exemplify "internal" skill, what does? What differentiates an internal Chinese martial art from an external one?

I touch on this in my article "Understanding the internal arts", however to recap:

The internal arts are a label properly applied to a particular school of Chinese martial arts that share a similar pedagogic and technical base. These arts (neijiaquan or the Wudang school) include taijiquan, baguazhang, xingyiquan and related arts such as liu he ba fa and yi quan. The other Chinese arts are confusingly lumped under the umbrella "external" (waijiaquan). Arguably the label "external" can also be applied to arts like karate and taekwondo since they are either directly descended from, or have been greatly influenced by, the Chinese external arts.

Features that distinguish the internal arts school from the external include optimal use of weight transfer to ensure efficient transfer of momentum - something which is not emphasised to the same extent in the external arts - except perhaps in long fist (taizu) which is said by some (I think quite persuasively) to be the progenitor of taiji.

Other features include an emphasis on moving with as little muscular resistance as possible and, of course, an emphasis on generating hydrostatic shock via efficient application of force (a quick transfer of momentum) rather than through the simple measure of increasing power...

There are many more distinguishing features, but I'm afraid none of what I say is likely to accord with the "mystical" viewpoint. The traditional theories/paradigms/jargon commonly referred to by the "mystical" internal artists ("qi", "jin", "6 harmonies" etc.) are, to my mind, a mere obfuscation: They obscure a more profound and intricate insight into how internal martial arts techniques can be applied against resistant partners (not willing students, eager to please their teacher), replacing real insight with amorphous, esoteric labels that promise "deeper knowledge" through seemingly profound, paradoxical statements, but which ultimately disappear in vague fog of unscientific dogma.

Just ask prominent internal artists (who also happen to be full contact champions) like Tim Cartmell, Luo De Xiu or Su Dong Chen (all of whom were champions in 'no rules' contests in Taiwan - Tim is also a BJJ champion in his class).

Tim spent more than a decade in Taiwan training with some of the most notable masters. He still credits his internal arts as his major source of skill. But, as he will tell you, you can practice internal arts without once mentioning "qi". Indeed, in all my long hours with Chen Shifu, he has never mentioned "qi" once.

I think that the best way to distinguish external arts from internal is to compare the "floorplan" of how an external art (I'll use karate, which was influenced if not descended from southern Chinese external arts like ngo cho ku / wu zu quan and yong chun white crane) would have to be modified to be "internal". Here are 2 examples:

Karate using xingyiquan momentum transfer principles - note the momentum behind every technique.

Karate using taijiquan momentum transfer principles.

[For more on the subject of the differences between karate and taiji, see my article "Can karate become taiji".]

Neither of the above videos highlights "pushing". Indeed, neither is especially "impressive". That's because the demonstrations aren't meant to be "crowd pleasers" - they are demonstrations of pedagogic and technical difference.

And just because you take the internal arts out of the realm of mysticism, doesn't mean that they can't fill you with wonder. To my mind, the subtle use of efficient body mechanics can be just as wonderful as any purported magic. Maybe even more so.

The shifts in timing and the use of the "dragon body" (the ability to move the body in a weaving, pliable, ribbon-like way) in some internal arts practitioners I've met have filled me with great awe and respect. I saw such a demonstration from a Chen taiji master when I was in Taiwan earlier this year. My own teacher Chen Yun Ching Shifu, while understated and modest, never ceases to fill me with admiration. But the "magic" is in the detailed knowledge and the complete awareness of the body and the environment. It has nothing to do with the paranormal (which is a very unsatisfactory label that just proclaims something to be unanswerable rather than give you greater understanding).


Recent feedback (see the comments) have made me aware that I've been too harsh in relation to pushing. As Angelo and Ignatius point out, the ability to tranfer momentum efficiently in a push is an important part of taiji or any art. It's just that I feel it is a small part (which contrasts with the fact that it is often touted as a true "test" of taiji skill).

Yes, the ability to "push" is important; you have to know how to transfer momentum from your body into your opponent efficiently. However a pushing exercise is just the start of the process of learning efficient momentum transfer. The better you are at "pushing" (ie. the less brute force you have to use) the more you will be able to apply this principle in sparring.

Accordingly I see taiji pushing as essentially an exercise in isolation; learning basic principles of efficient momentum transfer. In this regard it is like the exercise "kokyu ho" in aikido. While aikidoka will practice such exercises, it is important to note that they are only the beginning of learning to throw/project/unbalance; in aikido the principles inherent in kokyu ho are applied in throws like irimi nage. It is the technique (eg. irimi nage) - not the isolation exercise (kokyu ho) - that is normally used as a measure of aikido skill.

Similarly, taiji pushing is not a good test of taiji skill. It is an basic, isolation exercise that pertains to throws/projections. And in any event, it is my view that throws/projections are not the primary focus of the internal arts. They contain grappling moves, but they are, like karate, counter-striking arts in the main (see my article "Is karate a striking art?").

Accordingly I do not resile from the view that the importance of "pushing" is overstated in videos such as the one at start of this article. Moreover, the "receivers" in such videos are being overly compliant. I say this based on my own experience in the internal arts and in having resistant training partners. I think it is dangerous to imply that taiji can give you (what appear to be) skills inexplicable by science. Against a resistant partner these "abilities" quickly evaporate and practitioners in schools where this kind of thing is practised need to be aware that what works in the guan/kwoon/dojo doesn't work the same in the real world...

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic