Saturday, June 25, 2011

The 13 Elemental Postures of Tai Chi

Bamen Wubu – Eight Gates (Hand Skills) and Five Steps (Footwork Skills)
Shi San Shi – Thirteen Basic Skills

The 13 elemental postures of tai chi are often considered the fundamental practices of tai chi. They really aren’t postures. They consist of eight expressions of energy (forces) and five directions of movement (steps). The first four energies, peng, liu, ji, and an, are considered the primary forces. They can be considered as four ways to enhance your internal energy. The second four energies, cai, lie, zhou, kao are considered the corner forces. They are important, but less common. The five directions are

A teacher can provide guidance, but a student needs to do the work. In this case, a student should work and focus to develop a deep understanding of every tai chi form. Each form can be analyzed in terms of the 13 postures and then the correct posture can be learned and the proper application of force can be used. The related acupuncture point is a place to focus when applying the force. It leads your energy in the correct directions.

The 8 Energies (Forces) of Tai Chi
1. Peng – Ward Off
Peng can be thought of as a projection of force that places a curved barrier, or buffer zone, between you and an opponent. Peng is usually directed up and out. Ward off is the initial movement of Stroking Bird’s Tail in Yang-style tai chi. Your body is placed in such a way as to repel any incoming force and to ward it off. This is like pushing on a large beach ball. The word “listening” is often used to describe peng energy in the sense that you use peng to feel, or listen to, your opponent’s force.

There are 6 bows in the body that can be used in ward off: both arms, both legs, and the spine bow and the chest bow. Peng force is present in many tai chi forms. With the proper posture, a person using peng force is nearly immovable. It is a rising, or expansive, yang energy. The acupuncture point to focus on is Ming Men.

2. Liu (or Lu) – Roll Back Liu can be thought of any type of turning movement that diverts (redirects) the opponent’s force away from center to the side. It neutralizes (absorbs) the opponent’s force and causes him to lose balance. In the tai chi classics, liu means to “lead the opponent’s force into emptiness”, or “attract into emptiness” by diverting it to the side. Your body motion yields to your opponent’s incoming force to sense what it is like. You then use your waist to divert it to the side and pull him off balance. Roll back is the second motion of Stroking Bird's Tail in Tang-style tai chi.

Another application is with Cloud Hands where your circular hand movements divert any force. Liu is usually used to direct the opponent’s energy backward toward oneself. Liu is also part of some forms of Leisurely Tying Coat in Sun-style tai chi, where your movement is backward along your center line.

The tactic is to present a false target for the opponent to attack. During the attack, the defender allows the attacker’s momentum move past the point where he expects to go and he becomes unbalanced. It is the opposite of Peng. It is a yielding, or contracting yin energy. The acupuncture point to focus on is Xuan Guan.

3. Ji – Press Ji can be thought of the action of squeezing your force into a small area of your opponent. It is your extension of force toward your opponent. It always requires both hands or arms working together. Press is the third part of Stroking Bird’s Tail in Yang-style tai chi. It consists on one arm being curved horizontally with the palm facing in or up and the other hand pushing against it.

Press often involves bringing forces together from two directions and forcing the opponent away. It can be used to squeeze your opponent’s elbows together to dissipate his power. Ji is usually directed forward toward the opponent. Be sure to maintain an upright posture. Tuck in your tailbone to be able to direct the force. The acupuncture point to focus on is Jia Ji.

4. An – Push An can be thought of gathering (receiving) power and then redirecting the power outward or back at your opponent. Push is the fourth part of Stroking Bird’s Tail in Yang-style tai chi and of and Push the Mountain in Sun-style tai chi. The incoming force is absorbed and then directed out and up to lift and drive the opponent away. The push can be done at any angle, but the actual power comes from the earth through the legs. Use your intention to direct your force. The acupuncture point to focus on is Tan Zhong.

5. Cai – Pluck or Pull Cai can be thought of as using your hands or fingers to pluck, or pull. Cai may also be called “Large Roll Back”. It usually consists of an up and down motion where you use ward off to lead your opponent upward and away to move the opponent off balance. It can be followed by a pull. The pulling is against some part of your opponent’s body. It is not a grab. It typically uses your thumb and one or more fingers to press on pressure points. A common use is to grasp your opponent’s wrist. One hand may be placed at the other wrist to help with the quick movement. An example of cai force is Needle at Sea Bottom. The acupuncture point to focus on is Xing Gong.

6. Lie – Split Lie can be thought of as a force that causes your energy to split into two directions. It may come from pulling with one arm and pushing with the other, such as an arm break maneuver or with Parting Wild Horse’s Mane. It may be used to break your opponent’s hold on you. Split requires two hands. Lie may be combined with Ward Off to provide power. It may include a lifting action as in Fair Lady Works the Shuttles or White Crane Spreads its Wings. It is the opposite of Cai. The acupuncture point to focus on is Dan Tien.

7. Zhou – Elbow Zhou can be thought of as using your elbow to strike an opponent or to create a twisting force. You can use the elbow strike to bump your opponent off balance or to prevent your opponent from controlling your elbows. Zhou is sometimes also known as “turn and chop with fist”, as displayed in Deflect Down, Parry, and Punch and in Fan Back forms. The acupuncture point to focus on is Jian Jing.

8. Kao – Bumping, or Shoulder Kao can be thought of as using your shoulder with your full body weight behind it against an opponent. If the shoulder force is insufficient or blocked, then your back or any other body part can be used to provide force. Kao is sometimes called Lean Forward. It is usually used to bump your opponent off balance to set up some kind of attack. An example of Kao is Diagonal Flying. It is the opposite of Zhou. The acupuncture point to focus on is Yu Zhen.

The 5 Steps of Tai Chi Rooting is an important concept in stepping and movement in tai chi. I’ll write more about that some time. Rooting helps build your awareness of weight shifts and delivering force. With this awareness, you can apply the footwork of the 5 steps. Standing meditation is a good starting practice for rooting.

1. Jin Bu – Advancing Forward Jin Bu can be thought of as momentum forward. Place your heel down, shift your weight forward, and place the rest of your foot down. The rear foot controls the waist. Jin is used in any form that steps forward, like peng, ji, and an, and Brush Knee. The acupuncture point to focus on is Hui Yin.

2. Tui Bu – Retreating Backward Tui Bu can be thought of a creating a space for your opponent to fall into while overextending. Step back and place the ball of your foot down, shift your weight back. This is used in Roll Back, Ready (Playing Lute), and Repulse Monkey. The acupuncture point to focus on is Zhu Qiao.

3. Zuo Ku (or Zuo Gu) – Stepping to the Left Zuo Kou is a step to the left, like with Parting Wild Horse’s Mane, Brush Knee, Wave Hands Like Clouds and Single Whip. It also includes all kicks to the left. It is sometimes called rotate attack where you advance to the left to indirectly close with an opponent. The acupuncture point to focus on is Jia Ji.

4. You Pan – Stepping to the Right You Pan is a step to the right, like Parting Wild Horse’s Mane and Brush Knee. It represents the idea of avoiding and dissipating incoming force while gaining positional advantage. It also includes all kicks to the right. It is sometimes called rotate withdraw where you increase the distance between you and your opponent. The acupuncture point to focus on is Tan Zhong.

5. Zhong Ding – Central Equilibrium Zhong Ding can be thought of as maintaining your center position. “Be still as a mountain, move like a great river” – The Tai Chi Classics. Zhong Ding is the key direction of the 5 steps and represents the balance of yin and yang around the center. Zhong Ding is the primary direction in wu ji and standing post. Forms that include it include White Crane Spreads its Wings, Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg, and Needle at Sea Bottom. The acupuncture point to focus on is Dan Tien.

© 2011 Eric Borreson


  1. This is just what I need just started to learn the 13 postures, good explanation thank you.

    Tai Chi student

  2. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Kimberly, thanks for the comment. I am happy you enjoyed reading the article.

  4. What is the location of Xing Gong?