Tui Shou. Literally translated as push hands
I first met Master Li Guichang in 1995 and at the same time I met his disciple Song Zhiyong. Master Li was famous in Shanxi province as a great master of Xingyi, Taijie and Bagua as well as South Shaolin Five Elements Soft Art. He, among other things, was president of the Shanxi Tui Shou Association. His Tui Shou was of the highest level and he was rightly famous for his skill. Song Zhiyong, of all of Master Li's disciples, has achieved the most with his Tui Shou.
Tui Shou is most often associated with Taijie but other systems, such as Xingyi, Bagua and Yiquan have their own versions. It is a two person practice and has many variations. The internal development necessary for developing skill at Tui Shou is all outlined on this page.
I first began to study Tui Shou many years ago while studying Tang Shou Tao Xingyi and Bagua. The first style of push hands I practiced was from Bagua and I learned that from Vince Black. Vince was very skilled at push hands and very few people he encountered in China or here could match him. I also learned Taijie push hands from him. His style was quite firm like most of the push hands I encountered in Beijing. Before that I had studied Filipino and Indonesian martial arts for many years and they also have their own two person exercises that are similar to push hands. Everything I studied had to do with the puzzle of contact between two individuals and how to control that situation.
There are many approaches to Tui Shou. Some are more like a game played by sick cats and some are little more than shoving contests. Some are very formalized and pretty, almost dance like and others are just about the enjoyment of moving with another person. Some people deride the practice as useless because they see it as just pushing the other person away or unbalancing them in some useless fashion from which they can easily recover. "Why not just hit them" they say. Sometimes they have a valid point.
Part of the problem is in how we interpret the "push" in push hands. When I first learned Master Li's Tui Shou my school brother Song Zhiyong told my friend Tom Bisio and I there was "no pushing in push hands". In other words if I seize the advantage and place my hands on you and uproot you and feel resistance and you feel me pushing you then even if I succeed and push you out I have failed. If however, when I throw you out, I have caught you on a single balance point so that you are essentially weightless and you feel no pressure because you are unable to resist then I have some skill. At that point I can Fa Li and send you forcefully into the wall or ground. (I know of one case where the person was thrown out so violently that they broke both forearms when they hit the ground).
Of the many skills that are important in Tui Shou the most important is Ting Jing or "listening skill". This means, at its higher development, that as soon as you touch the other person you can feel all of their mistakes in the same sense that a scout discovers all of the mistakes of the opposing army. You can feel your partner's obstructions and tensions and at a higher level his unconscious intent among many other things. This is very difficult to do and cannot be achieved just by practicing with a partner. First you have to know yourself and through increasing awareness cultivate the interior as well as the exterior of your own body. If you only develop the outside movement but the inside is empty you will always rely on too much force or you will develop a sort of noodle like softness that is like a sick cat.
Another thing that often happens in Tui Shou is that people think only of uprooting their partner. Maybe in the beginning this is okay but if you are in contact with someone and cannot prevent them from hitting you with the seven stars then what you are practicing will just develop bad habits. There have been a number of times when I have done something in push hands and heard the other person say "that's not push hands" which means in his or her training they have not developed enough instinctive awareness to deal with the unexpected. If I am really connected to the other person they should not be able to do anything without my being aware of it.
Master Li's Tui Shou combines principles of Taijie and Xingyi (many styles of Xingyi have their own versions of push hands) principally "stick, connect, adhere and follow" from Taijie and "rise, drill, overturn, fall" from Xingyi. How the five elements are manifested is made clear. Ward Off and Pi Quan are equally important. Master Li's Xingyi is supple on the exterior and elastic and springy on the interior. This means that if the opponent tries to use sudden force or some trick, your body responds like a spring. It is the same effect as if you took a hammer and hit a large truck spring. The force goes back into the hammer and throws it back violently. Master Li's is not, by any means, the only style to use this principle. It is long established in Chinese martial arts but takes a great deal of effort to develop.
In Tui Shou there should be no "tricks" like speeding up to get the other person. This is commonly seen in competition push hands where the two opponents might begin from a set contact position and as soon as the referee gives the signal they go very fast with one of the opponents being quickly unbalanced. This falls into the category of tricks like tripping etc. Song Zhiyong once said in praise of Master Li that he did not use tricks. If he was in contact he did not need to speed up to lightly throw out even a much larger person. This is what I also witnessed watching Master Li demonstrate Tui Shou. Having to speed up etc is a sign of a lack of skill. In that case I might as well just hit you.
Tui Shou is a very important part of internal training which at it's best helps to gain real skill. In places like Shanxi it is often used to determine a person's skill without getting into a full on fight and even so people do get injured. Unfortunately if not developed correctly it can develop extremely bad habits.