The Hand Forms Yang Cheng-fu Taught

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There are 58 unique Fixed Posture photographs, taken shortly before Yang Cheng-fu died, that he said are the way the postures are to be performed. Those photographs are the standard and final authority on Yang Cheng-fu's ultimate teachings and are reproduced in the Sets as the benchmark for Yang Cheng-fu Tai Chi Chuan. Regardless of what is taught as Yang Cheng-fu's style, if a posture does not conform with those depicted in these photographs, the style has been modified, and one should not claim to be teaching Yang Cheng-fu Tai Chi Chuan. The Fixed Postures cannot teach a student how the moves are performed, but they do show the position one should be in at a given, frozen, point in each posture.
The modern great iconoclast of classic Kung Fu related the following well known Chinese story to me, which is apropos to Yang Cheng-fu's style of Tai Chi: "There was a master artist who painted a beautiful picture of a shake. The painting was so perfect that when you studied it, the snake came to life. Then another artist came along and painted legs on the snake."

The intent of this web site is to present the Yang Cheng-fu Postures and Hand Forms as a snake without legs.

I acknowledge the fact that Yang Cheng-fu modified his style several times between 1917 and 1934, and his early students learned the Postures differently from his ultimate Postures. But those early students either developed styles of their own, or they did not record the Postures or the transitions between the Postures while Yang Cheng-fu was alive. Therefore, there is no way of knowing if what any of the followers of Yang Cheng-fu's students continued what Yang Cheng-fu actually taught. The notable exception was Fu Zhongwen, who in his excellent book, Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan by Fu Zhongwen (1999, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California) translated by Louis Swaim gives the best details of those transitions, but they are not without flaw. I therefore draw also upon the teachings of Dr. Young (Yeung), who trained with Yang Cheng-fu from 1927 to 1935 and was my first Tai Chi Chuan instructor; Master Yee who studied under Yang Jain-hou alongside Yang Cheng-fu, and Master Yee's son, who studied under Yang Cheng-fu from 1926 until the master's death. Both Dr. Young and the two Masters were well versed in the final Yang Cheng-fu style and related much the information presented here. These masters are given credence over others because both could demonstrate Tai Chi the same way Yang Jain-hou and Yang Cheng-fu did by holding a bird in their open hand (perched on the masters index finger with the hand held vertically). The bird could not fly away because to lift off its feet must push against the hand, but the force of the push was neutralized by Chi. Further, both masters stated that one could come closer to learning the essence of Tai Chi by practicing Yang Cheng-fu's Postures than by training under a hundred Tai Chi teachers who did not adhere to those Postures.
Yang Cheng-fu's Tai Chi is rooted in three Chi principles. But read these carefully. They do not say what many want to believe they say:

(1) There is an unseen inner force, or strength, called Chi;

(2) Chi can be developed through proper training; and

(3) Practicing the From as taught by Yang Cheng-fu, Chi can be directed to any area of Intention.

Yang Cheng-fu's Forms consist of three Sets, typically numbered

First Set,
Second Set and
Third Set.

Each Set is progressive both in length, and advancement of technique and posture. However, it should be noted that the term Set is often used to mean the complete Form, as the Chinese generally do not use the tern Form, but rather Chuan (hand or fist). Thus Tai Chi Chuan would not only mean Tai Chi Fist, but also the Tai Chi Set. In other words, the Form is often called a Set, and the three Sets within the Chuan are also called Sets.

Body, Mind and Spirit Forms

Yang Cheng-fu taught the Tai Chi Form three different ways, which I call Body, Mind and Spirit. Many Tai Chi instructors assume the form must be practiced the same way three times, once for the body, once for the mind and once for the spirit. While any repetition of the form is useful, that is not the way Yang Cheng-fu taught the three Sets (Forms). The three Forms (Body, Mind and Spirit) are distinct and completely different Forms; and any observant Tai Chi student would readily see the glaring differences. Because the three Forms were taught to all of Yang Cheng-fu's advanced students, for those who want to know the differences, I'll leave it up to the Tai Chi instructors to explain - if he knows.

There is No Chi in Tai Chi

The three Chi principles are deceptive, as they are almost universally read to imply that “Chi can be developed through.... Practicing the From as taught by Yang Cheng-fu.” But “pay attention to trifles.”

Chi is developed through proper training. But that training is not found in the Tai Chi Sets.

Chi is first developed when the body and mind are silent; when Xu ling ding Jin 虚灵顶劲, is controlled, and united with Jingshin 精神 at hai feng mun 係风门. Only then can one enter the Void with both spirits in concert as Chi. Only then can Chi sink to dantian, from which it can flow and be directed.

It is only then that “Chi can be directed to any area of Intention,” and “Practicing the From as taught by Yang Cheng-fu,” can be used to learn how to direct Chi to the culmination of a posture.

But this was taught by Yang Jain Hau, and is not found in Yang Cheng Fu’s Sets. It is, therefore, not included on this site. While Xe Chi A Path to Chi gives more detail

Three Form Heights

Yang Cheng-fu taught three different Form Heights, High, Medium and Low to fit the individual's ability and physical structure. Thus his style was not "one size fits all".

High Form

High Posture has a narrow horse stance with the feet at shoulder's width, and all three Forms commence from High Posture Wu Chi. This position is never more narrow than the outside of the feet being at shoulder width, except for extremely physical debilitated students, and it can be as wide as to where the instep of the feet are at armpit width (as found in Right Cloud Hand). However, because Yang Cheng-fu always commenced all three Forms from the narrow Wu Chi position, that is the beginning position which should be practiced.
In training the width of the horse stance is found by placing both feet at shoulder width then turning left on the toes of both feet and dropping the right knee to the floor. In High Posture, the right knee should be approximately even with the toes of the left foot.
The Eight Figure (Bow and Arrow) stance is also narrow, so that if you raise the heel of the rear leg (turning on the ball of the foot) and the knee is dropped to the floor beside the leading foot, the knee will also be approximately even with the heel (an imaginary Ten Line between heel and knee).

Medium Height Form

Medium Height Form (not to be confused with Medium Frame Yang Style) has a wider and therefore lower stance. The Yang Cheng-fu photographs are Medium Height Posture, and Medium Height Posture is the style Yang Cheng-fu wanted all but his beginning students to practice. Medium Height Posture is, however, virtually impossible for beginning students who have had no martial arts training, and it was for this reason beginners were (and should be) taught High Posture. The proper distance for the Medium High Horse Stance is, however, slightly wider to where the inside of both feet is at armpit width (as found in Left Cloud Hands and can be as wide as shoulder width. In this stance, when one turns to the left, and drops the right knee to the floor, it will be on line with the back of the left heel.

Medium Height can also be measured from the Eight Figure (Bow) stance. When the rear knee is dropped to the floor, there will be a hand span (fingers spread) distance between the forward heel and the knee.
      In all Postures for the Eight Level (Bow) Stance (facing Right) creates an imaginary line between the heel of the rear foot and the inside of the forward foot. In High Posture when the right knee is dropped to the floor, it should be on line with the back of the left heel and up to one hand span wider. (From the Four Level - Horse Stance the knee would be even with the toes) The photograph of Yang Cheng-fu in Ward Off Right indicates that if the left knee were to be dropped, (the body shift forward to the left toe) the left knee would also move forward to be approximately on line with the left hip, and the left knee would be one and a half (1½ hand spans behind the right heel. This is approaching Low Frame Posture which would be two hand spans distance.
Any stance where the knee rests less than a palm's width (not length) it High Posture. If an instructor only teaches High Posture, it can reasonably be assumed that he or the person from whom he learned the Form was only a beginning Yang Cheng-fu student.

A wide Bow (Bow and Arrow) stance is easy in Kenpo where the forward toe is turned in and the rear foot pointed directly forward, and for Hung Gar and other Kung Fu styles (and even Yang Jain Hao Style) where the moves are made quickly; but it is virtually impossible for a beginning Tai Chi student to move the foot slowly and smoothly to this distance.
My brother, Al Tracy, and I were first taught High Form, then when we were about twelve years old, we learned Medium Form; and I practiced both Form heights from that time on. The Postures of the two Forms are slightly different, but to the untrained eye they appear to be the same; and, this is especially true for those who never learned Yang Cheng-fu Form in the first place.
I had no difficulty with Medium Height until I had a back injury just before my sixty-second birthday, when I was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. After an operation that fused my lower back, the paralysis was gone, but I was in and still live with excruciating pain. It took nearly four years to be able to overcome the pain and be able to do the Form properly. However, I found myself only doing High Form Postures, and I was doing it in about 25 minutes. Recognizing this problem, I consciously avoided the "easy" and only practiced Medium Form to where I took just over 30 minutes to complete. Ten years ago the Form took me over 45 minutes.
Prior to my accident I was also practicing Low Form, which took about 15 minutes with 20 minutes being the longest it should take because it it a completely different form. I had noticed that Medium Height Posture is usually done in less than 20 minutes by the few people who know it; and the reason for the faster pace was so they can extend the step longer with a quicker step. That, of course, is bad form, as the Postures should be performed with the feet in constant control; that is, the foot moves slowly with Intention.
My personal disability has also led me to recognize that while my High Form was approaching Medium Height (there being approximately a palm width between the heel and knee) I had no problem going to Medium Height with the Left Leg forward but I was restricted to Medium From that was closer to High Form with my right leg forward. This led me to begin strengthening my left leg to support the slow, smooth, controlled movement required to advance the right leg. It also opened my eyes (and mind) to the problems of the disabled.
There was one other change in the Form I noticed. My neck was also injured in the accident, and while I thought my head was being held in proper form, I noticed that it was not held as upright as the Postures demand. My injury, however, makes the form painful with the head held high, and created a block in the Ming Mun, which extend to the Trapeziums; and I remember Tung Ying Chieh having difficulty doing Repulse Monkey on his left side, and thought at the time (1956) that he might have an arm or shoulder injury. I realize now that the reason Master Tung kept his head lower than Yang Cheng-fu Posture may well have been due to a neck injury.
That bring up an important point. It is not important what an instructor can do, but what he teaches. I therefore have never faulted those in their 80's and 90's who trained under Yang Cheng-fu for not adhering to the correct Postures in their form, so long as they taught the Postures the way they were taught. I turn seventy this year, and with constant attention to correct Posture positions I should be able to perform Medium or at least Wide High Posture Form for the rest of my life.

Low Form

Low Form has a very wide Horse Stance with the feet being at least one hand span wider than each shoulder and the Eight Figure stance (bow) extended more than two hand spans. The movements are done much faster than High Form, and Low Form is seldom practiced except as the Body Set.

The Postures of three Form Frames are to put it in cryptic Chinese fashion, "The same, but not the same, identical, but not identical," though to the untrained eye they would appear to be the same form done in a lower stance.

Some Differences in High and the Medium Height Forms

The level of training of a Tai Chi practitioner can be judged by the height and correctness of his/her posture (or at least how he teaches them). Those who only know High Frame never went beyond what Yang Cheng-fu taught beginners. The same applies to the posture transitions. Those who do not know the martial applications of the postures, or who do not know the so-called hidden moves, never went beyond what Yang Cheng-fu taught beginners. There were no actual "hidden moves" in the Tai Chi Forms Yang Cheng-fu originally taught. The moves were not hidden until after Cheng-fu opened Tai Chi to the masses. Thus, there were no hidden moves in the Forms taught by my instructors who had trained directly under Yang Cheng-fu. And I only made the Elbow Stroke hidden in the Form because Tung Ying Chieh told me never to show it except in hidden form. This proved to be good advice because I found that the Tai Chi instructors who knew the Elbow Stroke recognized it when I demonstrated the Form for them, and they all accepted me as a fellow; while those who did not know the move were equally unknowledgeable about the rest of the Tai Chi Form.
I would like to emphasize that Tai Chi was a great door opener for me. There were few non Chinese who knew Tai Chi back in the 50's, 60's and 70's and Tai Chi was never a threat to any of the Kung Fu masters I met and learned from. They were all willing, and even insistent on teaching me their styles.

High and Medium Height Form

Cheng-Fu called the First Set of the Form, "San Shang" (Three Star) because it opened in three directions - South (North always being to the back when the Form opens, no matter what direction you actually face) West and East. There are no 45° body angles (except in transition) in the First Set of High Form because it is the Set for beginners.
Medium Form differences become evident in the opening where the arms are raised directly forward or slightly outward - that is when the arms are fully raised to shoulder height, the thumbs are on a line with the armpit or at most one palm width greater (though some of the early students raise the arms at about 45° relative to the body).
In High Form the hands are raised slightly inward so that the index finger is approximately on line with the hip; and some have made this movement so the little fingers are in line with the hips. The raising and lowering of the arms was not originally part of the Tai Chi form, but was taken fron Chi Gong (Qigong) and added as a preparation to the form; as the form actually commences from the Wuji position which is attained after the raising and lowering of arms. Thus, the readying moves differ somewhat with each Form (Body, Mind, Spirit - High, Medium and Low). The movement of the feet to commence the Form was not part of Original Yang Style either. One started with the feet together, made the salutation (which varied with the instructor) and ended with the feet placed for going into Wu Chi. I was taught the preparation as part of breathing, where the left foot moves to the left as you inhale and toe of the left foot begins to become substantial as you continue to inhale, and you exhale as the heel lowers. You then inhale as the right foot moves to the right (so both feet are at shoulder width) setting the toe first and exhaling as the heel lowers to double weightedness. The hand positioning of the Sun Fist, Left Hand and Bow depend on the instructor.
The Wuji position in Medium Form follows the Preparation (raising and lowering arms) and is the "Beginning" (giving birth to the Form). However, the body sinks into a horse stance as the elbows drop and the arms lower in Medium Height. In High Frame the Wuji position is reached after the arms lower to the waist and before the body sinks into a horse stance. All the Medium Height moves are lower, and the stances wider than High Form.
Raise Hands and Step Up Posture is always done the same way in High Form, whereas in Medium Form the transition to White Crane Spreads its Wings the right foot steps directly South in the First Set, South-South East (160-65°) in the Second Set and South East (135°) in the Third Set (with South being 180°). It's important to understand that the transition from Raise Hands to White Crane is the continuation of Raise Hands, and not the beginning of White Crane. This transition is a Shoulder Stroke which in the First Set is directly South. The arms then begin to raise (trap) due South and as the waist rotates to the East (your left), the hands follow so you move into White Crane facing East. Yang Cheng-fu often taught beginners to go from Raise Hands to Shoulder Stroke then turn east for White Crane leaving the more complex (south facing) hand trapping for when the student was more accomplished. This move is a good indication of the skill, or beginning/advanced status of a Yang Cheng-fu student. Some instructors eliminate the Shoulder Stroke completely and make this movement the beginning of White Crane, but this was not as Yang Cheng-fu taught.
Fu Zhongwen describes this Shoulder Stroke on page 50 Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan by Fu Zhongwen (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California) translated by Louis Swaim. This book is strongly recommended for anyone practicing Yang Style Tai Chi.
Another recommended book is Yang Zhenduo's Yang Style Taijiquan, Morning Glory Publishers, Beijing 1988-1996. Zhenduo is Yang Cheng-fu's third son who was only 10 years old when his father died. Some of his Postures show how Yang Cheng-fu taught the very young and beginners, however the book presents the Yang Family Style before it was later changed it in the 1990's. Page 52 Points to Remember (3) describes the above move similarly to that of Fu Zhongwen. This movement has been changed by Yang Zhenduo's grandson, Yang Jun, to eliminate the Shoulder Stroke and make the hand movements of trappings as the beginning of White Crane, and not the end of Raise Hands.
It is, therefore "Yang Family Style" but not Yang Cheng-fu Style.
Different Cheng-Fu students did this differently. When I first met Tung Ying Chieh in 1956, I demonstrated what I had learned from my instructor and Tung admonished me to never change the Form I had learned, because the Postures were very close to what Yang Cheng-Fu taught towards the end of his life. He then showed me the modifications he had made. When he stepped off on a 160-65° angle at the ending of Raise Hands in the First Set, I asked why it was done there instead of in the Second Set. He told me that if I had not known the difference, I would never have asked. He went on to explain that he had simplified the form to make the transition the same in all three Sets. When I met with him again a few weeks later, I noticed that his son, Tung Hu Ling, was doing the move at a 135° angle in the Second Set, whereas he had been doing it due south before. Yeung Shou Chung on the other hand stepped off on a 135° angle in all three Sets, and told me that was how Li Ya Hsuan, also did the form.

The Brush Knee pushing hand in Medium Form comes from head high (palm up) and moves forward to where the wrist is at shoulder height - in High Form the hand pushes from shoulder height forward. Brush Knee is seldom done correctly in the Yang sytles I have seen practiced. The most common way Brush Knee is done is not Yang Cheng-fu style and has the Left Hand brought to the right hip (or slightly higher) Palm Down and the right hand is brought to shoulder height Palm Down
The Correct Yang Cheng-fu Way is for the left and right hands to concurrently move from left to right (after White Crane) with the Left Hand Turning Upward where it is held at Chest (arm pit) Height ; and the Right Hand makes a hooking motion slightly downward Palm Turning Upward and then back to a Hook Palm behind the Right Ear. (This is not Hook Hand, but Hook Palm - Elegant Lady's hand - so the fingers are not brought together, but more resembles a cobra moving back to strike.
Yang Cheng-fu describes this in Louis Swaim translation of The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California (2005) as follows: "The left hand concurrently turns up, arriving at the right front of the chest, then down to the left outside brushing aside the hand or foot of the opponent. The right hand at once forms an upward facing palm (yang shou xin) then downward-hanging (chui xia), turning now straight to the right rear and up to a point beside th ear. Extend the palm, with the heart of the palm facing forward...."
For those who cannot follow written directions, it simply means that the left brushing hand begins from palm up at the chest (near arm pit height) and turns smoothly as it sweeps across your body to the left to palm down as it reaches a point in front of the left thigh. It does not start with the left palm down, (and certainly not at hip height) and sweep palm down across the body. Palm down is not only wrong, it is bad form. Tung Ying Chieh told me he used palm down at the chest to hide the true move. This may be why others also used palm down, but I did not then, and still do not today see why there should be anything hidden in the form - except to keep those who claim they know the Form from actually knowing the Form. And on this line, after the left hand (Brush Knee Left) is in front of the left thigh it reverts to Iron Palm as one moves into Twist Step.
There is an additional Medium Form move in Left Brush Knee after Play Pipa, and this Brush Knee, drops slightly from Palm Up to Palm down before commencing the leftward sweep. This move is also in the Second Set leading to Left Brush Knee which follows Left Separation Kick (zuo fen jiao) and Turn Body and Left Heel Kick (zhuan shen zuo deng jiao). However, this Brush Knee (in the Second Set) requires both hands to move as they do in the First Set Left Brush Knee while standing on the right leg; and, it should be noted that this Brush Knee is done with the right hand coming from head heigh in High, Medium and Low Form/Postures and both hands face up when the left hand is at chest level, and the right hand is at temple level (or higher in lower forms). This means that the left hand must go from palm up to palm down before sweeping to Brush Knee, but this has been eliminated by most Tai Chi instructors, either because they do not know how the form was originally taught, or it is easier to have the left hand faced down at chest level, or waist level as some do it. Additionally, standing on the right leg as this move begins in the Second Set is not easy for the beginner.
In all Medium Form Sets - moving from Apparent Close as In Seal (Wipe Off) to Cross Hands the right hand moves wide (west) to Trace Eyebrows - left leg substantial, and both hands then move down low close towards the ground before coming to Cross Hands. Some instructors have both hands moving in a circle from over the head to the ground in this movement, but that is only done the Low Form, because the horse stance in this position is very low.
The direction in Medium Height Form, Second Set's first Turn and Throw Fist (zhuan shen pie shen chui) is the same as High Frame (facing West); but, the second Turn and Throw Fist which faces East in High Frame, faces South East in Medium Height Form Step Forward Deflect Parry and Punch (jin bu ban lan chui) is then done to the East
. In the Third Set White Snake Spits Venom (zhuan shen bai she tu xin) faces North West instead of West as in High Form. This move (White Snake) continues with Lady White Snake Receives Message; which replaces Step Forward Deflect Parry and Punch as the move is similar and ends up facing West; and it should be noted that in all three Forms, (Body, Mind, Spirit) White Snake Spits Venom is followed by a Left Standing Palm, which then turns palm up (Lady White Snake Receives Message), (and not the Left Cutting Palm position of Turn and Throw Fist in the Second Set). Some in Dong Style eliminate the Standing Palm and have what they call Snake Delivers Message as a Finger Thrust - palm up, but that is not Cheng-fu style, nor was it the way Tung Ying Chieh did his Slow Set.)
Medium Form performs Cloud Hands, Repulse Monkey and Part Wild Horse Mane either five or seven times. Never just three times as in High Form. This can be done in High Frame also, but it is not required as it is in Medium Form. It's interesting that Yang Cheng-fu considered Cloud Hands and Repulse Monkey to be the most important Postures for training, yet instead of increasing the repetitions as he did, most instructors have reduced them to a single incident.
Throughout the Form, Medium Form turning movements go into a high Twist Stance. This is particularly evident in the transition from Right Heel Kick to Left Strike Tiger (zuo da hu shi), where the right foot goes behind the left foot into a twist stance, instead of sinking to the right of the left foot as in High Frame. This is done to compensate for the directions in the Form so you end exactly where you began the Form.
Low Form is almost always done as the Body Set, when the Tai Chi Form is practiced three times, "once for the body, once for the mind and once for the spirit," whereas the Spirit Set is the From most seen in the west as the Tai Chi Form. Low Frame is physically challenging, and even more so when done as the Body Set, which may be why few instructors even know the Low Frame Set, let alone teach it.
While there are other significant differences between High Form and Medium Form, the foregoing might explain why different instructors do the Form differently. They may well be doing the Form the way Yang Cheng-Fu taught it and wanted it to be taught after his death, but often the differences between High, Medium and Low Form are confused and put in a form where it should not be. Thus, the transitions in High, Medium or Low Frame are sometimes moved from Medium to High Frame. However, to be done the way Yang Cheng-fu taught the forms, other than the height of the posture all Postures should conforms to those established by Yang Cheng-Fu in his 1934 photographs.
While the transitions from posture to posture were not fully described by Yang Cheng-Fu in his books, it is clear that what he did write and show in photographs, is often ignored by many students in favor of what they consider "classic Tai Chi"; and, more often they don't understand how to make the transition smoothly. However, what I see as a major flaw in the way some students practice the Form is the failure to understand that each Set is progressively more advanced. That is, the way moves are done in the First Set are not necessarily how they are done in the Second Set. This is best seen with Brush Knee where the pushing hand moves from the temple to shoulder height in the First Set, but pushes from head high (heel of palm at the temple) in the Second Set. Most students practice Brush Knee the same throughout. This is also evident in Grasp Sparrow's Tail where Ward Off Left should be done differently as the From progresses. The same is true of Roll Back which is not done the same way in Carry Tiger to the Mountain; and, Roll Back in Carry Tiger in the Third Set is not done as it is in the Second Set, but is followed by Split, instead of Push (although Yang Cheng-fu taught both Split and Push for this Posture.


©2006, 2007, 2015 Law Offices of Michael Tracy. No portion may be reproduced for any purpose without written permission.