Tai Chi Moves and
Chinese Swordfighting


This article summarises the tai chi moves for basic San Shou strikes and Chinese swordfighting skills Scott Rodell taught the Australian students in January 2008. It was written by Richard White, a student of Sifu Jason King's Traditional Chinese Martial Arts school, in Brisbane, Australia. The Brisbane school often joins with the Blue Mountains GRTC branch for seminars with Rodell Laoshi.

tai chi moves for sword


by Richard White

This January, 2008, Brisbane was visited by Scott Rodell, director of the Great River Taoist Center based in Washington DC. With over twenty years experience in Taijiquan Mr. Rodell is a disciple student of Master Wang Yen-nian in Yang Michuan (Secret Teaching) Taijiquan. He came to teach us tai chi moves for empty hand and sword.
Ready stance.
Alt Text--tai chi moves ready
Over the past two years Mr. Rodell has visited Australia four times to teach Yang Michuan Taijiquan and Historical Chinese Swordsmanship. Known as Laoshi (teacher) to his students,

Mr. Rodell taught two seminars over four days. The first was the Taijiquan Martial Applications, focusing on the eight tai chi moves Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Cai, Lieh, Zhou, Kao. Translated: Ward-off, Roll-back, Press, Push, Pull-down, Splitting, Elbow, Shoulder.

The second seminar was Yang Michuan Taiji Jian or straight sword. This seminar was also focused on practical application involving mainly two person exercises and sparring techniques. Thursday the 10th saw a motley bunch of Taiji enthusiasts gather at the Actors Workshop in Woolloongabba, ready for some Martial Tai Chi moves instruction. With Taiji students and enthusiasts, a Kung Fu Sifu, a Zen Du Kai instructor and a self confessed martial arts 'grazer' we had quite a cross section of experience amongst the group.

Alt Text--tai chi moves peng
Before we began the eight tai chi moves, Laoshi Rodell started us with some basic exercises. The posture in Yang Michuan Taiji has 80% weight in the rear leg leaving 20% in the front leg with the heel raised slightly off the ground. The spine is straightened by dropping the coccyx and rolling the hips forward slightly. This 'rooting into the ground' of the spine creates a dynamic foundation which can be sprung out of to fa jin or release energy and yielded into to dispel incoming force.

Our first exercise was Willow Bends a partnered exercise where one student is in stance while their opposite (the other partner) pushes on them. The student yields to the force of the push either dropping into their rooted rear leg or rising out of it while turning their hips, spine and shoulders away from the push. The root is where the dynamic foundation of Tai chi moves lies, in aligning the posture correctly with what is essentially the path of least resistance within the body. Our muscles can begin to relax as the structure itself holds our bodies up and our movement (eventually) becomes fluid. Willow Bends teaches the basic (and essential) skill of yielding to our opposite's force. In a real scuffle, yielding leaves an attacker without a target, wherever they punch, kick or press there is a void.

Rollback or Lu.
Alt Text--tai chi moves rollback
What at first seemed like an easy exercise quickly became a lesson in "move your waist" and the waist is the commander. Laoshi explained that in Taiji the hips and pelvis are considered a part of the spine which must always be aligned, with shoulders and hips connected on the same vertical line. The waist is what turns the body with the spine staying straight and aligned for solid tai chi moves, essentially always in the 'root'. If the spine is not aligned our structure is broken and we can be easily overbalanced, which I can personally attest to.

Once we'd gained an understanding of yielding and turning the waist we were introduced to the tai chi move Lu, Roll-back. Roll-back uses yielding to the opposite's force while using our arms to lead their force off target. Unlike public Yang Taiji, in Michuan Taiji the student uses their elbow to catch the opposite's incoming strike, also at the elbow. In partners we took turns pushing and rolling back our opposite's force. Flowing between Push and Roll-Back, turning our waists and yielding, this tai chi move is a partnered version of Brush Knee and Twist Step.

Rollback in Grasp Sparrow's tail.
Alt Text--tai chi moves rollback 2
I found my partners and I building speed very quickly as we flowed back and forth. It was a lot of fun and eventually all the good structure and timing was out the window. A few adjustments here and there and we were back on track!

The other tai chi move we focused on for the morning was Peng or Ward Off. Laoshi Rodell described the energy of Ward -off like a wave building or an air bag inflating, it bounces incoming energy off with forward and upward force. With correct alignment in spine, shoulders and arms Ward-off can resist great incoming force such as a boxer's hook, which was our next application. The opposite attacked with a hook while the student deflected it with Ward-off and transitioned into the tai chi move Fair Lady Works Shuttles.

After a well deserved break for lunch we came back for An, Taijiquan's pushing technique. This is where the Fa Jin of Taijiquan becomes apparent. The root we had been yielding into now became the springboard to launch out of. Before long students were being pushed back and forth across the Actors Workshop, one or two of us were knocked right off our feet. Laoshi also demonstrated some of the advanced pushing tai chi moves by lengthening the joints and circulating Qi. The difference was quite stark with Sifu Jason being launched across the hall seemingly effortlessly.

One handed push (An).
Alt Text--tai chi moves An
Ji - Press, our final tai chi move for the day was for me very challenging. Combining the energies of Roll-back and Push to create a short burst of force in the palms Press collapses any hollows or flaws in your posture. After being Pressed by Laoshi Rodell several times I can say that Push and Press feel very different. While a Taiji push can move you a long or short distance it is a continuous pressure. Press is like a punch inside your chest, a shockwave that knocked the wind right out of me and broke my posture easily. We paired up and practiced on each others shoulders for safety, nonetheless I was feeling pretty sore by the end of the day. All in all a great session!

The morning session on Day 2 focused on Cai Pull-down and Lieh Splitting. Like Roll-back, Pulldown leads the opposites force into a void. However with Pull-down we add our force to our opposite's to pull them off their feet. Even in Push Hands if any pressure is applied to your arm or you're being 'leaned' upon it can be used for a Pull-down. While a small Pull-down may not drop the opposite it can break their posture making them vulnerable to other techniques.

Lieh, Splitting, was a surprise to me. Having practiced it as a joint lock the Yang Michuan technique was different and somewhat less dangerous. Laoshi Rodell spoke of Splitting like spinning a disk between your hands to send it flying forwards. Instead of using a disk we partnered up and caught our opposite's incoming push, pulling it towards us and pushing at their centre at the same moment. When executed correctly (happily I did manage this once or twice) Splitting spins the opposite back off their root. The energy of Splitting can be found in Repulse Monkey and Palm Thrust to Heart.

A lock.
Alt Text--tai chi moves lock
We broke for lunch and a rest before continuing with the final two basic movements of Yang Michuan Taijiquan. My two favourite tai chi moves, Zhou, Elbow and Kao, Shoulder. Elbow is more than its name suggests. Elbow is used if pushing at your opposite and they deflect your arm inwards too far. You can simply fold your arm in, join your hands to add structure to your now pointed elbow, shift your weight forward, add a little fa jin and your opposite will be facing a fast moving Elbow toward their centre. Elbow can be deflected, if so it can fold down into a Shoulder strike or if the opposite moves back unfold into a back-fist. Versatile and deceptive! I enjoyed this technique a lot and also received some nice bruises too.

Kao, the tai chi move of shoulder strike is also a personal favourite of mine. As previously mentioned it can arrive from an Elbow. If the opposite deflects inwards simply drop a little more weight forward and Shoulder their chest. Laoshi Rodell called this a sledge hammer to the heart, so we also practiced Shoulder with padding. Shoulder is also a great response to a Pull-down tai chi move. When your opposite pulls your attacking push, perhaps too close to them, go with the pull's momentum and drop the Shoulder into their chest. I was a little too free with this technique in Push Hands, my opposites learned to Pull-down away from their bodies and I ended up on the floor... a couple of times.

Kao - shoulder strike.
Alt Text--tai chi moves Kao
We ended the Yang Michuan Taijiquan applications seminar with a little Push Hands. Push Hands is Taijiquan's bridge between basic applications, forms and free sparring. It unifies turning of the waist, yielding into and springing out of the root and basic tai chi moves into a whole. Essentially Push Hands involves trying to hide your root or centre from your opposite and trying to find theirs and knock them off it. Though we only played a little Push Hands, Laoshi Rodell impressed upon us three principles which make up the heart of Push Hands and Taijiquan's partnered practice: Ting Jin, Dong Jin and Hua Jin. Translated these mean:
  • Listening energy
  • Understanding energy
  • Deflecting energy

Listening energy is reading the opposite's body movements and attitude through sensation. When your hands are connected in Push Hands you listen or sense what your opposite is doing, looking for their centre. It is an awareness of what the opposite's body is doing. Partnered with this is Understanding energy. Being able to interpret what your opposite's body movements mean and respond to them. Listening energy is like reading words on a page, Understanding energy is knowing their meaning. Once the meaning behind your opposite's movements is understood you need to deflect them. Deflecting energy uses the yielding I've spoken about above, leading your opposite's force into a void or bouncing it back at them with Ward-off. As your opposite attempts a tai chi move you Listen to them, Understand their intent and Deflect it appropriately.

It all sounds very easy. As we found during the seminar gaining that sort of sensitivity takes lots of practice, lots of Push Hands.

Having Pushed, Pressed, Warded, Rolled, Pulled, Split, Elbowed, Shouldered, Rooted, Yielded and Bruised our way through the seminar it was time to retire for the evening and have a nice Thai dinner and rest up for the Sword training to follow... Not everyone returned for Sword practice the following day, but I met some great Martial Artists and learned a lot about Yang style Taijiquan.


Day 3 of Scott Rodell's visit to Brisbane was a reunion of Yang Michuan Swordsmen and Swordswomen. Sifu Jason, Aggie, Fflur and I have all trained with Laoshi Rodell in Historical Chinese Swordsmanship learning tai chi moves for real swordsmanship. We were joined by Laoshi's students Linda Heenan and 'Yowie Steve' and also, Sword fighting training for the first time, Ben and Sifu Richard.
Richard and Jason
training in jian.
Alt Text--tai chi moves sword students
With many experienced students we launched into two person drills very quickly. Starting with familiar drills, high and low thrusts and deflections, I found it easy to build up a rhythm. As always as soon as I was in a groove I started to lose technique and constantly had to be mindful of using my waist. It became a mantra "Waist is the commander" with Laoshi reminding us consistently. It does work well though. When I found my opposite thrusting quickly and I had my waist turning they 'simply' missed. I guess those Taijiquan masters knew what they were talking about!

It was really hot at the Actors Workshop. We had to keep stopping and drinking loads of water. Practicing tai chi moves and swordsmanship in the heat takes its toll. Linda was ahead of the game, she brought an Ice Vest. It looked like body armour with ice packs instead of padding. Although by the end of the course we were using the ice on bruises not for coolness...

Sifu Richard and Ben started with the basic cuts and drills while the rest of us did a little limited Free Sparring. The repetitions of basic cuts are great for learning good form, which is very important in free sparring. 'Yowie Steve' and I paired up; we'd done sword fighting training and emptyhand tai chi move training together at Laoshi Rodell's first seminar in Oz so it was great to catch up. Before long Steve had reintroduced me to his lazy leg Liao cut, slipping round my guard and taking out my left leg. After taking a few lumps I figured out the counter and on we went. It's moments like that are a good test of Taiji Classic quotes like Invest in loss - assuming an attitude that losing or being hit, are not failures, but learning tools. Your opposite has shown you a hole in your guard or technique, congratulations, here is a chance to observe and see why it isn't working.

Jian against miaodao.
Alt Text--tai chi moves jian against miaodao
Once we were revised and back in the swing of things Laoshi moved us into some more advanced techniques. After sparring for a while we were starting to get a flow moving, a dangerous prospect in a Sword fight. Flow is good in regards to motion, but not rhythm. Rhythm creates anticipation; the attack will come on the next 'beat'. Breaking this rhythm with multiple attacks or mistimed attacks will throw any rhythm out and leave the unwary player in trouble.

So we practiced multiple attacks, flowing from a thrust to another thrust or a chop. We drilled the same cut three times while improvising three different counters. We practiced extended thrusts using new footwork. The footwork was new or at least unfamiliar to me but very cool. It is useful in both empty-hand tai chi moves and Sword. Double stepping, moving forward and backward to either press your advantage or maintain distance from an aggressive opponent. After doing solo runs we paired up and brought our Swords to bear, once again the solo side was easy but not so easy when avoiding your opposite's thrusts. Good footwork, the mark of an advanced player!

On day two we had a lot more free play. One of my favourite parts of the sword fighting training seminar was Laoshi's lessons in tactics against the different 'types' of swordsmen we may one day face. There is "The Ram", "The Monkey" or "Sniper Monkey" and two handed sword tactics. This was great stuff, Laoshi emphasized the key is not to play their game, instead mix yours up.

More jian and miaodao moves.
Alt Text--tai chi moves jian against miaodao 2
The Ram is an aggressive player who comes in fast with powerful cuts and bullies you into submission. Laoshi emphasized fast footwork and avoiding their heavy swings while cutting at their vulnerable points, like the hands. Two handed swordsmen can be struck while changing their blades direction. Once they've struck they need to change angle of attack, this opens up a momentary pause, perfect for a little sword cut to the hand or arm.

The Monkey jumps around and doesn't let you get near them. They keep a strong guard and only counter with quick practiced cuts to your hands, potentially the easiest and most exposed target. I've found this tactic to be very frustrating to face. You keep getting hit on the hand and can't start an exchange of blows. Great if you're in a duel, not so great if you're learning. Laoshi recommended pressing them persistently, into a corner if possible. Strike multiple times, every deflection opens a vulnerable spot, take advantage of them. Also don't fall into their trap and use the same tactic, they practice it, you'll end up with sore hands. There was a drill we learned to counter an upward cut to the underside of your hand, a favourite trick of some "Sniper Monkeys". I found this technique worked exceptionally well.

Throughout the two days we'd played plenty of free sparring and I was feeling pretty confident at this stage, I was responding to my partners quickly and hadn't received too many bruises. People say pride comes before a fall and they aren't wrong... I finally got a chance to spar with Laoshi Rodell. I always find this particularly rewarding as he has such variety of techniques and experience that the combat keeps me on my toes and gives me a chance to practice with a Master Swordsman. Oh and learn where all the glaring holes in my techniques are... Which naturally comes with bruises. On this occasion I got hit three times in under a minute, all in the same spot. I took a moment to gather my wits and try to figure out what I was doing wrong, and got hit again.

I paused and asked Laoshi what my mistake was. It was not surprising yet hard for me to spot, I was freezing up when unsure what to do rather than paying attention. With my mind elsewhere I wasn't seeing the sword do a lazy arc (much like Steve's lazy Liao) and hit me in the leg. Also I could have been attacking with several cuts to press my advantage. Basically applying all we'd learned so far. It was an eye opening moment. I saw my mistakes and also saw the culmination of our training thus far. It was a small glimpse into a higher level of swordplay. I took a leaf out of the "Invest in loss" classic and on we went.

For the last day we finished up with a BBQ to celebrate our sword fighting training skills and emptyhand tai chi moves, new and improved, and to rest after a hard four days training. I always find I'm invigorated after training hard for several days at a time; we all get our limits pushed and learn a lot faster. All in all a fantastic pair of seminars, if Laoshi Rodell comes to Brisbane in 2009 I would heartily recommend any student interested in the martial side of Taijiquan to attend. I'm looking forward to next year's seminars, wherever they may be held. And don't forget the catch cry of all tai chi moves, sord and empty hand....


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