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In tai chi circles outside of China, push hands competitions are noticeably more restrictive in their rules and format:

  • Many competitions use "fixed-step" rules (for example, this British event and this Canadian event). In these events, such as in this clip, points are scored for merely getting the opponent "off balance".
  • As documented in "Pushing the Issue", several American events have rules against "charging" or clashing, using any substantial grip, and even "throwing" or simply using force.

Not all European and American events have these restrictive rules, but it seems very common.

In contrast, Chinese events seem to be much more free-form, as a rule. There are no such restrictions on stepping, far fewer on grips, clashes are only separated in the case of stalling or lack of action, and throws and force are absolutely encouraged.

For example, this Chen village push-hands tournament clip shows participants fighting for grips and throwing with vigor. This tournament in China showcases many big throws and multiple instances of force. The same is true of this tournament, and seems to be true in everyday practice in the park in addition to competitive events. Points are scored for knocking an opponent down, throwing them to the ground, and pushing them out of the competition area, not for merely getting someone "off balance". We see that Chinese tournaments seem much closer to vigorous wrestling than a calm drill.

Why the distinction? When and how did these two paths diverge?

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I wonder how much of this is influenced by insurance companies. In a regional TKD tournament that has gone on for over 4 decades, what constitutes legal contact and protective gear has gotten steadily more restrictive--even for upper belts. This is due largely to placating the insurance companies who have no concept of martial arts or whether the measures they require lesson or increase the risk of injury. –  Berin Loritsch May 24 '12 at 12:36
    
@BerinLoritsch That's undeniably true in karate as well, but judo and wrestling have been able to keep their rules as-is. Also, judging from the Pushing the Issue documentary, I doubt that many organizers of light-contact events would prefer to run Chinese-style, hard-wrestling ones. –  Dave Liepmann May 24 '12 at 12:53
    
This isn't an answer because it doesn't cover the historical angle, but this post on Bullshido makes the excellent point that it is futile to turn (some kinds) of tuishou into competition. Like point karate tournaments, it takes away from the full breadth of the art. (In taiji's case, striking.) –  Dave Liepmann Jul 2 '12 at 2:54
    
The British event you show is "fixed step" as opposed to moving step. The moving step events in the UK comps are often criticized as being too rough. I've had a chest muscle snap doing push hands and my students at these events always took spare Tshirts as they'd be soaked in sweat. –  Wudang Aug 15 '13 at 1:05
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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

First off, the Chen village invented push hands, so what you see there is the way it is supposed to be played. I've pushed with some guys from Chen village, and real push hands is a lot closer to a combination of judo and sumo. Why do people have such a hard time accepting this? I suspect because its actually hard, and its a lot easier to spend your life playing softly and cooperatively without developing any real technical skill, all while avoiding hard physical trining. Taijiquan is heavily influenced by shuai jiao, and this shows in Asian push hands tournaments. Many tui shou players cross train in shui jiao and vice versa. Don't forget taijiquan is a martial art first and foremost. The shuai jiao skills are mostly absent in America, most likely due to the influence of cheng man Ching who's style of tai chi and push hands was unusually soft. And if you expect some old man to be controlling people with one finger, sending them hopping around the room, then you probably will be disappointed when you see what it looks like without all the bs...it's just grappling.

When I look at these push hands players from Chen village I am impressed not appalled. To me it shows real skill and technique to be able to handle an uncooperative opponent. When I hear someone criticize this it always makes me question if they really train taijiquan as a martial art, instead of just theoretical and hypothetical practice against a cooperative opponent. In my opinion, if you are not training how the founders intended the art to be trainined, or how they currently practice it at its origin, you are doing something other than taijiquan.

Ying and yang...hard and soft. Taijiquan is not yin. It's not all soft. That gets you plowed. Sometimes you are forceful to bait someone to resist you, sometimes you are soft. You must maintain peng to keep the structure. This is taijiquan 101. If you don't see this in the Chen village matches you simply don't know what you are looking at, probably because you have never trained that way.

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After watching a few Chen village comps I was pretty disappointed in their view of push. IMO the point of push isn't to overpower or butt heads but to bring about unbalancing through subtlety.

I'm guessing, but I'd attribute it to wanting to be a competition of graceful mechanics rather than outright grappling. Is subtlety important in grappling? Of course, but I think in a different way.

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I thought Chen village was some sort of taiji/tuishou mecca, or birthplace. Is that wrong, or do you assert that they've somehow lost or changed something? –  Dave Liepmann May 18 '12 at 15:49
    
@DaveLiepmann Of course it is; it's where Chen-style tai chi comes from. I assert what I asserted--I don't have much appreciation for what they're calling push. I don't know if the video is any of the ones I've seen, but one of the most discouraging things I saw was a young-ish American rolling with an elder Chen, and before any flow could even be entered, elder Chen would just disengage, and it turned into what was essentially Sumo. I have nothing against grappling; I grapple. But when I'm pushing, I want to build/test soft sensitivity. Just my opinion. –  Dave Newton May 18 '12 at 15:52
    
Sorry if I sounded like I was attacking you. I'm not trying to disagree, I'm just trying to get a historical perspective. Literally, "how things got this way" instead of advocating one method or the other. –  Dave Liepmann May 18 '12 at 15:54
    
@DaveLiepmann Nope, not at all. You'd probably have better luck writing directly to people involved in the US push/taiji community. I remember the first time I saw a Chen village comp I was literally agape with surprise. I also view Chen style as a bit harder than other styles--it might be interesting to track down a non-US/European comp to see what style(s) are used there. –  Dave Newton May 18 '12 at 15:57
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Well, let me preface everything I am about to say with "this is just my personal opinion" - I have only been practicing taijiquan for past 10 years and although this is enough to give me some insight to the art, it is certainly not enough to have any claim of accuracy on the more general history that has brought us where we are now.

First of all, let me start out by claiming that big part of the more restrictive set of rules and adherence to these restrictions is largely motivated by a wish to make competitions safer for participants and by extension to the organizers who do not have to worry that much about any potential of serious injuries.

Another reason is the difference of focus and motivation of the push hands practice. The Chinese in the videos were not all that bad (well, with the exception of the guys pushing in the park).

While for the Europeans I've pushed with, the exercise of push-hands is one of sensitivity and skill in listening and following and of duifang's energy, for the Chinese in these videos, the focus is on the goal of actually defeating the opponent. The skill is still there, if you know what to look for, but the execution of the techniques is fast and precise and executed with perfect timing (well, not in the video that was made in the park).

I would claim tat the approach of Chinese is much more martial than that of the Westerners, who are more of the "academic" in their pursuit of idealistic perfection - that in their practice as well as in the way the competitions are ruled.

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