Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan’s Three Solo Forms

This article was first published in the Vol.30, No. 6 issue of TAI CHI magazine.
Click here to see Mr. Liu demonstrate.

I have been studying Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan from my father Gin Soon Chu since I was a boy. My father is one of the disciples of Grandmaster Yeung Sau Chung, the oldest son of Yang Cheng Fu. My father always encouraged me to explore for new knowledge and information about Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan and to test my skills. Over the past twenty years, I have traveled to Hong Kong to visit my father’s teacher, Yeung Sau Chung, and also Ip Tai Tak, my father’s classmate; in China I have met such people as Yang Zhen Du, Yang Zhen Ji, Yang Zhen Guo, Fu Zhon Wen, Fang Ning, Tang Shan Fu, She Ming, Ma Yueh Liang, Wu Ying Hua, Feng Zhi Qiang, Wang Le Ming, and Ou Wen Wei; I have journeyed to Wu Dang Mountain, the original birthplace of Tai Chi Chuan, to the famous Shaolin Monastery, and to the White Cloud Temple in Beijing City, the headquarters of the China Taoist Society.

On my most recent trip to China in May 2006, I visited Mr. Liu Xi Wen in Nanning City, Guangxi Province. Mr. Liu is a fifth-generation lineage practitioner of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan. He is well read and knowledgeable about the history and development of the Yang Style. In our conversations he covered many topics. I was very pleased to learn that he is one of the few contemporary practitioners who has inherited Yang Shao Hou's transmission. With his permission, I would like to share what he told me about the three stages of training and the three solo forms that his teacher Zhang Fu Chen taught him.

Today, when people talk about Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, they are generally referring to the lineage transmission from Yang Cheng Fu. His brother, Yang Shao Hou, was very skillful but he had only a few students and not many people truly received his transmission. Therefore, any technique transmitted from Yang Shao Hou is considered these days to be a rarity. Mr. Liu said that his teacher learned from Yang Cheng Fu, Yang Shao Hou, and Xu Yi Sheng. These three people were all third- generation lineage practitioners of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan and they all contributed a great deal to the advancement of the art of Tai Chi Chuan.

Liu Xi Wen: My teacher Zhang Hu Chen taught me three Tai Chi Chuan Solo Forms. [Thus began my conversations with Mr. Liu.] The first solo form has an emphasis on simplicity and health; it is called Tai Chi Zheng Lu (correct path) Solo Form among its practitioners. The second solo form emphasizes the development of martial-arts fundamentals; it is called Tai Chi Jia Shou (family style) Solo Form among its practitioners. The third solo form emphasizes martial-arts techniques; it is called Tai Chi Xiao She (small hands) Solo Form among its practitioners. Although these three solo forms are very distinctive in practice and characteristics, they are the same solo form. The name for each movement, the movements themselves, and the sequence of the movements are the same as in the solo form taught by Yang Cheng Fu, which people today call the traditional solo form of the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan. However, due to the difference in objectives, one executes each movement differently. The major difference lies within the transitional movements, power, speed, and other requirements. My teacher said that among the three solo forms, the Jia Shou Solo Form is the foundational or original solo form; the Zheng Lu solo form is the simplified variation of the Jia Shou solo form; the Xiao She Solo Form is the application variation of the Jia Shou solo form. The development of the three solo forms, according to my teacher, reflects the following information.

Regarding martial arts, especially the development and popularity of Tai Chi Chuan, one should not neglect the effort of Mr. Xu Yi Sheng. Mr. Xu studied Chinese martial arts when he was a young man and mastered several Chinese martial-arts systems. He studied Tai Chi Chuan from Yang Chien Hou and ba gua palm from Dong Hai Chuan’s disciple Liu Feng Chuan. His reputation was very high in the Chinese martial-arts community during his time in Beijing, when he was working as an administrator in the city’s Department of Education. He had a good educational background and enjoyed a high social standing. Due to Xu's humble, sincere, and generous personality, during the chaotic period of the martial-arts community in Beijing, he maintained a high reputation for honesty and integrity. This was very helpful to him in promoting martial arts——especially true with Tai Chi Chuan in Beijing.

In 1912 Mr. Xu established the Beiping Tiyu Yanjiu She (Beijing Sports Research Center); later, in 1916, he founded the Beiping Tiyu Jiang Xi Suo (Beijing Sports Teaching Institute) and the Beiping Heng Jian Hui (Beijing Health Association). He published his book Explanation and illustration of Tai Chi Chuan in 1921 and was chief editor of a monthly magazine called "Tiyu" (“Gymnastics”). As the vice president of the Beiping Guo Shu Guan (Beijing National Arts School), founded in 1929, Mr. Xu combined theory and experience in his teaching style. He emphasized educating young people——as well as all people. The Beiping Tiyu Yanjiu She invited famous martial artists to demonstrate and exchange skills, and it researched martial-arts theories and histories. The Beiping Tiyu Jiang Xi Suo trained instructors for local schools, and the Beiping Heng Jian Hui sponsored martial-arts training for anyone who might be interested. The "Tiyu" magazine published articles and information to promote Chinese martial arts.

At this time, Xu invited Yang Shao Hou and Yang Cheng Fu to teach at the Beiping Tiyu Jiang Xi Suo and at the Beiping Heng Jian Hui. The two brothers' curricula were very different——different in style, information, methods, and results. Yang Shao Hou studied from his uncle Yang Ban Hou. He even possessed a personality and temperament similar to his uncle. At this time, Yang Shao Hou was already over fifty years old and his temperament was very strong and “up front.” Therefore, one can conclude that his “people skills” were very poor. The Tai Chi Chuan he taught was very difficult. He often made the he and ha sounds in his push-hands fa jing (discharge power). When he engaged in the push-hands exercise with students, he struck with fa jing as soon as there was contact. The students did not know what to do or how to react to his push hand. Students loved his art but were respectful and fearful at the same time. Many students maintained a distance from him and his teaching. This was perhaps the reason that Yang Shao Hou did not have many students.

At this time, Yang Cheng Fu was just over thirty years old. He had the personality and temperament of his father: warm, humble, friendly. He had good “people skills.” He learned from his brother's experience. In his teaching, he did not follow his brother's motto, "I teach what I studied." Yang Cheng Fu simplified or deleted some of the difficult movements from his family’s Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form for the benefit of prospective students coming from all classes of society, with different age and health conditions. Due to this proper method of teaching, people were gladly willing to study Tai Chi Chuan with him. According to my teacher, there were many people who studied Tai Chi Chuan from Yang Cheng Fu at the Beiping Heng Jian Hui, which was located at the Zhong Shan Park’s “Peace Gateway” of today. Tai Chi Chuan was very popular at the time. It was considered fashionable. This might be the reason that Yang Cheng Fu's Tai Chi Chuan style is so popular today and that so many people claimed to have studied under him.

Both brothers were grandmasters of Tai Chi Chuan in their generation. Yang Shao Hou was considered a martial artist and a fighter. In addition to these two labels, Yang Cheng Fu was also crowned as an educator and reformer. Throughout his life, Yang Cheng Fu was always thinking about how to reform his family’s Tai Chi Chuan in order to incorporate it into modern society's athletic activities. One can see, following the marketing trend was to his advantage in establishing his reputation in Chinese martial-arts and Tai Chi Chuan communities.

Yang Cheng Fu left two sets of Tai Chi Chuan photographs. The photographs of the younger Yang Cheng Fu were included in Chen Wei Ming's book The Art of Tai Chi Chuan, published in 1921, and the photographs of the later Yang Cheng Fu appeared in his own two books, Tai Chi Chuan Sheyong Fa (The Application of Tai Chi Chuan) and Tai Chi Chuan Tiyong Quan Suo (The Essence and Application of Tai Chi Chuan), published in 1931. Actually, these two books were written by Tung Ying Jie and Zheng Man Qian [Cheng Man Ching]. These two sets of photographs presented wonderful postures. The difference between these two sets of photographs properly illustrates the Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan solo form's evolution under Yang Cheng Fu: from complexity to simplicity, from a concentration on martial-arts discipline to a concentration on health discipline, a change from difficult movements to easier movements, and a change from an art that was limited to a few people to one accessed by millions.

Fu Zhong Wen in Shanghai City, Cui Yi Shi(Tsau Li Shu)in Beijing City, and Yeung Sau Chung and Tung Ying Jie in Hong Kong transmitted the older Yang Cheng Fu's Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form. Today, people call this variation of the Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form the Yang Family Large-Frame Solo Form; Yeung Sau Chung called it the Medium-Frame Solo Form; and Tung's descendents called it Tung Style Tai Chi Chuan. My teacher Zhang Fu Chen in Beijing City transmitted the younger Yang Cheng Fu's Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form. He called this variation the Zheng Lu Solo Form. Although there are some variations in executing the movements, the name of each movement and the sequence of the form are the same. All the form variations transmitted from Yang Cheng Fu are today called the Yang Style traditional Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form. They are practiced and enjoyed by millions of people.

Yang Cheng Fu left behind only one solo form with several variations, which many people today call the Yang Style traditional solo form or Yang Family Large-Frame Solo Form. This traditional solo form was not the original Yang Family Solo Form. It was only the solo form Yang Cheng Fu simplified from the original solo form that my teacher called the Jia Shou solo form. This traditional solo form was created to make it easier for students to learn and to improve their health.

One may ask, "What is the original Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form and what happened to it?" Yang Cheng Fu did not transmit the original family solo form to his students. We have to search elsewhere for it——his brother, Yang Shao Hou. Although Yang Shao Hou did not have many students, there were a few who survived his difficult training. I believe he had the following students: Tian Shao Lin, Yu Zhi Xue, Ma Run Zhi, Wu Tu Nan, and Dong Run Fang. According to my teacher, Xu Yi Sheng inherited more of Yang Shao Hou's skill than any of the above students. Chen Wei Ming confirmed this in his book The Art of Tai Chi Chuan; he wrote that Xu Yi Sheng studied under Yang Shao Hou as well—— for Xu was Yang Jian Hou's student. He was in the same generation as Yang Shao Hou and Yang Cheng Fu. Later, Xu found out that Yang Shao Hou had extraordinary skill and knowledge, and he became his student to learn them. One can see from Xu's action what kind of a person he was.

My teacher's Jia Shou solo form was first learned from Xu Yi Sheng and later corrected by Yang Shao Hou. The Jia Shou Solo Form is the foundational or original Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan. Anyone who has studied any traditional Tai Chi Chuan Form finds that simplified forms, such as the 24 and 48 movement forms, are too simple and that there is no need to spend time to learn them. It is also true that anyone who has studied the Jia Shou solo form would feel that the Yang Style traditional solo form simplified by Yang Cheng Fu is too simple. It is equivalent to learning Chinese characters: the complex form of Chinese characters evolved into the simplified form in use today. In the Jia Shou Solo Form, when one removes the three-rings technique of the ward-off movement and the circling-the-moon technique in the pull-down movement——they become the movement called “grasp the bird’s tail” in the Yang Family Traditional Solo Form. In the Jia Shou's solo form lift-hands movement, if one removes the look-to-the-left-and-gaze-to-the-right and keeps the center-equilibrium movement, it becomes the movement called "lift hands" in the Yang Family Traditional Solo Form. And so forth. When one compares the individual movements in the Jia Shou solo form with the Yang Style Traditional Solo Form, one can see all the changes that Yang Cheng Fu made. My teacher said that the Yang Style traditional solo form is the simplified solo form for the beginning student. As a matter of fact, the Jia Shou Solo Form is the foundational solo form for all the variations of the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan forms today.

The Jia Shou solo form is the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan's martial-arts fundamental training form. In our society, there are many people and media outlets that believe that Tai Chi Chuan practice is for old and sick people. This belief is a misunderstanding and is misleading. In Chinese martial arts, there is a reference to the “tai chi waist." This expression means that compared to other Chinese martial-arts systems, Tai Chi Chuan highly emphasizes waist training. Therefore, Tai Chi Chuan developed distinctive waist and leg exercise-training methods. There is also a saying among people that goes, "Before a person gets old, the legs and waist get old first." In traditional Chinese medicine, there is a saying, "The kidneys lie within the waist. The liver is related to the ligaments. The kidneys store the essence. The important component is the bone. This is important for the male. The liver stores the blood. The important component is the ligaments. This is important for the female. The liver and kidney organs are localized at the ming men meridian." When one trains the waist and legs, enhancing the waist and legs, this has the function of reinforcing the liver and kidneys and strengthening the ligaments and bones. It is a method of cultivating our body to delay the aging process. When one is viewing from this prospective and comparing Tai Chi Chuan to other systems of Chinese martial arts, Tai Chi Chuan is superior and better suited for people with weaker bodies to improve their health.

Tai Chi Chuan, however, is a system of Chinese martial arts, even the Yang Style traditional solo form. If one practices it by following Yang Cheng Fu's "Ten Points," the result is great. Therefore, Tai Chi Chuan is not solely for old and sick people. The question is how to practice it. This brings in the adaptability of the Yang Style Traditional Solo Form. This function is more difficult with the Jia Shou solo form. My teacher required his students to take twenty-five to thirty minutes to do the Zheng Lu solo form, fifty to sixty minutes for the Jia Shou solo form, and five to ten minutes for the Xiao She solo form. One can see, it takes great effort with a strong foundation to complete the Jia Shou Solo Form. Due to its length and its consumption of energy, the Jia Shou Solo Form cannot become the popular solo form like the Yang Style traditional solo form. It remains as a special solo form for enthusiastic Tai Chi Chuan practitioners who want to engage in in-depth Tai Chi Chuan training.

When one practices the Jia Shou Solo Form's movements, the movements are soft and relaxed. The power is hidden but still the postures look powerful. One of the characteristics of the Xiao She Solo Form is that it has many circular movements. With each movement, such as grasp the bird’s tail or single whip, it is the same: there are many transitional circular movements that connect to each circular movement. There are waist circles, leg circles, shoulder circles, hand circles, big/small circles, top/bottom circles, vertical/horizontal circles. All these circular movements are connected to and interlinked with each other. The practitioners call these circular movements the tai chi ball. The tai chi ball is composed of all kinds of circular motions that go in all directions. It is difficult for the eyes to see them clearly. My teacher once said that this is the "art of rings" taught by Yang Ban Hou and Yang Shao Hou. It was developed from corkscrew jing and spiraling jing.

There are many contemporary writers who ask in their writings: "Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan has corkscrew jing and spiraling jing. Are these jings available in other families’ styles of Tai Chi Chuan?" I believe that this question is not logical. Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan evolved from Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan. Some clues and evidence of this must have been left behind. Think about this for a minute. Yang Lo Sim [Yang Lu Chan] made three trips to Chen Village and spent more than ten years studying and finally became Chen Chang Hsin's senior student. If corkscrew jing and spiraling jing were some of the important characteristics of Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan, how could Yang have missed them in his studies? How could he not have transmitted them to his sons and grandsons?

There are other people who say, "In the Yang Style traditional Tai Chi Chuan system, besides the 'thirteen- principles' solo form, there is available a second form called 'tai chi chung chuan'. This form was practiced by a handful of Yang Cheng Fu's disciples." I feel this was not transmitted from Yang Cheng Fu directly. The thirteen-principles solo form was also known as "tai chi chung chuan" previously. In order to distance it from the Shaolin chung chuan, the words "chung chuan" were later deleted. What remains is the eight gates plus five steps, equal to the thirteen principles. Although all the people who practiced this form were Yang Cheng Fu's students, they were all practicing this chung chuan differently in the sequence of the movements and the execution of each individual movement. This suggests that this chung chuan form is a recent creation, that it is not yet the final product and is still being refined. This is different from the Jia Shou solo form and the Xiao She solo form my teacher taught me, which are directly transmitted from Yang Shao Hou. They are traditional and have heritage.

The third solo form my teacher taught me is called the Xiao She solo form. He learned this form first from Xu Yi Sheng and later had it corrected by Yang Shao Hou. This Xiao She solo form is the application variation of the Jia Shou solo form. It is the combat solo form of the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan system.

When one is practicing this Xiao She solo form, the rhythm is fast, the movements are executed with swift and compact motions. When involving fa-jing execution, it is fast, powerful, and crystal clear. In this Xiao She solo form, all the beautiful movements, names of the movements, and the sequence are basically the same as in the Jia Shou solo form. What is different is that when one practices, if one makes an advancing step with the front foot, the second foot must follow, stepping up. If one makes a retreating step backward, the second foot must step backward as well. One can see, opening and closing motions are always there as well as advancing or retreating stepping. This is similar to the characteristic one finds in Sun Style Tai Chi Chuan. What is different, however, from Sun Style Tai Chi Chuan is that every movement has fa jing. When one is completing the movement, one must stamp the floor, bend the wrists, relax the shoulders, arms snapping, and make the he and ha sounds in discharging power.

It usually takes fifty to sixty minutes to complete the Jia Shou solo form. However, the same solo form takes only five to ten minutes under the Xiao She Solo Form discipline. One can see, it is a very difficult solo form, with its concentration on speed, yet it also has some slower-paced components. When one practices this Xiao She solo form, the pace and rhythm are equivalent to moving clouds and running water——which, sometimes, become a rainstorm. All the movements are executed lightly and agilely, like a preying cat: fast like an arrow discharged from a bow. My teacher said that this was what Yang Ban Hou and Yang Shao Hou were referring to when they said, "When the opponent moves fast, I follow with fast movements. When the opponent moves slow, I react with slow movements." The strategy is: "To hide happiness, show genuine anger, so that when you are reacting, everyone is afraid." Therefore, the Xiao She Solo Form is a very effective Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan application form for combat.

Although the three forms my teacher taught me have differences in their transitional movements, power, speed, and other requirements, all three forms follow the same sequence as the traditional Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan solo form. They strictly follow Yang Shao Hou’s and Yang Cheng Fu’s teaching. Now I will demonstrate for you the first fifteen movements of the three forms so that you will have a better understanding of the differences among them.

In the Tai Chi Zheng Lo solo form, following are the names of the first fifteen movements.

  1. Beginning Tai Chi Chuan
  2. Grasp Sparrow's Tail
  3. Single Whip
  4. Lift Hands
  5. White Crane Spreads Wing
  6. Brush Knee, Twist Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  7. Play Guitar
  8. Brush Knee, Twist Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  9. Brush Knee, Twist Step and Push Left Palm Forward
  10. Brush Knee, Twist Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  11. Play Guitar
  12. Brush Knee, Twist Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  13. Step Forward, Parry, Intercept and Punch
  14. Seal Tightly
  15. Cross Hands

In this Zheng Lo Solo Form, the naming and sequence follow the traditional Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form. Each movement and each transitional movement are similar to the traditional Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form.

In the second solo form, Tai Chi Jia Shou, following are the names of the first fifteen movements.

  1. Beginning Tai Chi Chuan
  2. Grasp Sparrow's Tail
  3. Single Whip
  4. Lift Hands
  5. White Crane Spreads Wing
  6. Brush Knee, Twist Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  7. Play Guitar
  8. Brush Knee, Twist Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  9. Brush Knee, Twist Step and Push Left Palm Forward
  10. Brush Knee, Twist Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  11. Play Guitar
  12. Brush Knee, Twist Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  13. Step Forward, Parry, Intercept and Punch
  14. Seal Tightly
  15. Cross Hands

In the third solo form, Tai Chi Xiao She, following are the names of the first fifteen movements.

  1. Beginning Tai Chi Chuan
  2. Grasp Sparrow's Tail
  3. Single Whip
  4. Lift Hands
  5. White Crane Spreads Wing
  6. Brush Knee, Twisted Step And Push Right Palm Forward
  7. Play Guitar
  8. Brush Knee, Twisted Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  9. Brush Knee, Twisted Step and Push Left Palm Forward
  10. Brush Knee, Twisted Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  11. Play Guitar
  12. Brush Knee, Twisted Step and Push Right Palm Forward
  13. Step Forward, Parry, Intercept and Punch
  14. Seal Tightly
  15. Cross Hands

From the above demonstration and illustration of the first fifteen movements of each form, you can conclude the following.

  1. Regarding the complexity of the three forms: the Zheng Lu solo form is the simplest to perform, the Jia Shou solo form is a very complicated form to perform, and the Xiao She Solo Form is the most difficult form to perform.
  2. In the Jia Shou Solo Form, if you removed the techniques in the parentheses, it is the Zhen Lo Solo Form. Therefore, you can see that the Zhen Lo Solo Form is the simplified version of the Jia Shou solo form. The Zheng Lo Solo Form is equivalent to the traditional Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form. In the preceding paragraphs, I compared each movement separately to find all the clues and evidence that Yang Cheng Fu deleted movements from the Jia Shou solo form to choreograph his traditional Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Solo Form. The Jia Shou solo form’s movements have many variations and many circular motions that make it difficult to perform.
  3. When the opening and closing stepping technique and the circular hand technique are added to the Jia Shou solo form, it will become the Xiao She solo form. The opening and closing stepping technique is the feature of the Shao Shou Solo Form’s speed. The circular hand technique is the feature of the Xiao She Solo Form’s application technique. Therefore, the Xiao She Solo Form is the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan’s combat form or application form.

The Zheng Lu Solo Form, the Jia Shou Solo Form, and the Xiao She Solo Form are equivalent to elementary school, middle school, and high school in our educational system. They are very distinctive, have very specific functions and objectives. A student must study with progression for success. The better one has studied the Zheng Lu Solo Form, the easier for one to study the Jia Shou and Xiao She solo forms. If a student ignores the Zheng Lu Solo Form and goes directly to study the Jia Shou and Xiao She solo forms, it is very difficult to achieve any success, and Yang Shao Hou’s teaching already proved this. If one ignores the Zheng Lu Solo Form and the Jia Shou Solo Form and begins with the Xiao She Solo Form, it is almost impossible to achieve any success. On the other hand, after many years of practicing the Jia Shou Solo Form and Xiao She Solo Form, one should review the Zheng Lu solo form. One can feel and see the progress of the Tai Chi Chuan skill. The execution of each movement is powerful, so that each smaller movement is filled with power. The feeling of the energy inside the body cannot be described in words.

Today, Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan is very popular and there are many people who practice it. However, the Jia Shou Solo Form and the Xiao She Solo Form are known by very few people. In my forty-seven years of studying and teaching Tai Chi Chuan, besides being mentioned by Cui Yi Shi in Beijing, I have never heard anyone else mention the Jia Shou Solo Form and the Xiao She Solo Form. My teacher said it repeatedly: "The Jia Shou Solo Form and the Xiao She solo form were transmitted from Yang Shao Hou. There were very few people who inherited them. They are the Tai Chi Chuan system's endangered arts."


Copyright © V. Chu. All rights reserved.