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Coordination in Taijiquan

By Yun-choi Yeung


"Sinks the breath, relaxes the waist, clears the abdomen, swallows the chest, lengthens the back, sinks the elbow, declines the shoulder, stretches every joint; moving, quietness, weightlessness, heaviness, inhaling, exhaling, opening, closing, hardness, softness, slowness, rapidity, the combination of these forces is called Gu-Dang" (Wu, Gong Zao (1935/1985) "Tai Ji Quna Jiang Yi (Lecture Notes on Taijiquan)", originally published in 1935 and reprinted by Shanghai Book Shop in 1985).


The Chinese word Gu means a drum but as a verb it means "bulge or swell [like a drum]". The Chinese word Dang means "swing". The combination of these two words is a technical terminology exclusively used by Internal Martial Artists because it embraces the meaning of stretching out and swinging to all sides to generate fighting power.


Gu-Dang elaborates the concept of "issuing power with the spine" and the domination of the torso in the movements of Taijiquan. The swinging motion of the torso is capable of pushing the arm forward as well as pulling it backward, and the same is also with the stance. The graceful movements produced by the torso will be the swinging motions of turning, backward, forward, up and down. This is not the same as the waving of arms and legs gracefully; it might look the same to an untrained person but the difference is vast. Without the power generated by the torso, it is no longer a martial art but a kind of graceful dance.


Gu-Dang involves the mechanics of every joint in the body. This is not the same as the use of a total force of the body as advocated by other martial arts. The concentration of a single force is dangerous because it will leave you defenceless if the opponent is capable of deflecting it or simply moves away in time, etc. It is also difficult to visualise a unidirectional force in Taijiquan with every joint moving differently.


Taijiquan is a system employing bodily mechanics to manipulate forces whether in neutralisation, issuing or withdrawal of forces. It is like transporting forces from one part of the body to another, to intensify the tension of the body and release it like an explosion and to absorb the incoming force almost like without any resistance, etc. It is a very different fighting strategy altogether. Therefore particular attention is given to the co-ordination of every joint of the body.


The illustration of  the bow and arrow is often used to describe the mechanics of Taijiquan. The bow is made out of very flexible material in order to shoot an arrow, and the arrow is referred to as a force or a strike. Traditionally, the body is referred to as having five bows, the spine, two arms and two legs. The spine has three curves, which are the three major movements of the neck, chest and hip. The arm consists of three major movements of the wrist, elbow and shoulder. The leg consists of three major movements of the ankle, knee and hip joint.


If the body is viewed as one large bow then it consists of nine joints as in one side of the body. Some writers of Taijiquan refer to the three bows of the body rather than one or five. They consider that the arms are one bow and the legs as another bow. Perhaps the unity of both arms and both legs together with the torso is very important. Both arms are connected, both legs are connected, and the arms and legs are connected via the torso.


All the movements in Taijiquan are using both arms despite the independence of each arm; they are connected via the stretching out of the back and shoulder muscles to give them extra power. This is one way to overcome the problem of "loosing contact or overextending" of the arm during contact. Without the proper tension on the arm it is very easy to be pushed away by the opponent and lose contact. Pushing back with the arm will overextended it and will be easily deflected by the opponent. When both arms are stretched out there will be a tension that can resist an incoming force to a certain degree.


This tension can vary between very soft to very hard, and the requirement upon contact is just right not too soft and not too hard. In a way, there should be sufficient tension to maintain a certain position if the opponent tries to move in closer, that is to reduce the distance of one's arm to one's torso. One should try to maintain that distance in defence. To maintain this distance is to let the force transfer to the body and allow the incoming force to shift the body to reduce the force and back to a harmonised situation. This shift is not easy because it requires the rest of the body to be soft and light otherwise the arm will be trapped between one's own body weight and the incoming force. The result will be either the arm is forced out of position or became very stiff and overextended when deflected.


This tension enables the arm to be springy enough to maintain contact with the opponent when being pressed down and springs back to the original position when released. In most cases, the motion of pressing down with the body weight is too powerful to resist even by increasing the tension on the arm. Therefore, sufficient tension in the arm for the maintenance of springiness will be the correct intensity. 


The rotation of the shoulder and forearm allows the arm to deflect smaller forces as well during contact. This rotation increases the tension on the arm because it is sort of twisting the muscle fibres to extra length. In a forward pushing movement, with the elbows pointing downward and palms up will give extra tension on the arms. Arms do not push forward alone but are connected to the shoulder, back and legs to push forward together. This is simply done by stretching the arms forward, bending the back stretching the back muscles to the full to move forward, and at the same time stretching open the legs with the thigh muscles to move forward.


The action of the back is like a bow bending to give maximum tension and spring back when that tension is released. Due to the flexibility of the spine it is possible to bend in any directions to generate forces using different muscle groups. To produce maximum force with the back, the spine must be bent totally with the head and hip moving slightly forward and spring back after the issuing of force. Please note that it is the momentum of bending that produces the force and not when it is bent. The ability to spring back to the erect position of the spine is very important because the maximum tension exerted on the back will also yield maximum stiffness in a static position.


This is why the analogy of explosive force is used in Taijiquan to denote the kind of force is deployed. It is expansion to the extreme and blow up, and immediately return to normal. This is to avoid lingering in stiffness or extremely hard position after the issuing of force. This is an example of "controlling all directions" with multiple forces that acted on movements. This is also an example of "force is broken but not the intention". The force that is stretching the spine erect is broken when bending but the intention is still there as it is capable of stretching the spine erect again after the force that bends the spine has gone.


The bow that is formed by the two legs is also emphasizes  flexibility when it is distorted from a balanced position. In a situation of being pushed, the body weight shifts to the rear leg, the thighs are closer together and spring back when the force is released. In a pushing situation, the spine tilts the hip forward and pushes the front leg forward and thighs open wider shifting the centre of the body forward and spring back when the force is released. There are also techniques to step forward, backward, and to the sides to release tension and improve power during contact.


The tension that connecting the joints by stretching out is a very important development in martial arts. It develops the springiness of the body to apply the techniques of neutralization and retaliation in fighting. The aim of practicing Taijiquan is seeking to do the following:


1.  Contact with the opponent.

2.  Allowing the incoming force to penetrate.

3.  Attaching to the opponent.

4.  Following the movement of the incoming force.

5.  Leading the incoming force into a circular path via the mechanics of the body.

6.  Deviating the direction of the incoming force by the circular path to neutralize.

7.  Generating momentum via the circular path to retaliate.


The practice of pushing-hands in Taijiquan is a simulation of the above events repeatedly to develop the skills necessary for fighting. Therefore, study diligently the coordination of every joint and test it in pushing-hand exercises.