Sunday, February 28, 2010

What Is The "On Guard" Position In Tai Chi Chuan?

Something dawned on me a week ago that really caused me to think about martial styles; is there consensus about an "On Guard" position in Tai Chi Chuan?
I began training in the martial arts around 1980, and wrestled before that. In Tae Kwon Do and Karate, there were various "hands up" on-guard positions. In Western Boxing Your fists are up. In Aikido we used the Hanmi (swordsman) stance with hands in a relaxed medium extended position. In Bagua there is the Fan Jang-type extended guard. In Xingyi there is the San Ti or Pi Chuan guard with one arm relaxed and extended and the other at the Dantien as a low guard.
With these arts as background, I had never concerned myself with wondering about whether I need to have a guard up, it was always there.
With Tai Chi Chuan however (I have practiced Yang-style since 1996), I realized that most partner interaction begins by mutually raising and linking arms in push hands. Even in the complex two-person San Shou form, the defender has no raised guard pre-attack. Instead, the positions are reactive to what the attacker presents.
Now, this wasn't too much of a problem for me. I've had my share of sparring matches, Tournament fights and streetfights. But when I look at students which have only been exposed to Tai Chi Chuan, it seemed like they would just stand with their hands down and wait for a push or other attack. That split second it takes to get your guard up may be too late. If you wait to react as your opponent has initiated an attack you are just playing catch-up. An extended guard allows you time to blend, and only makes sense.
With this in mind, I contacted various Tai Chi Chuan instructors and asked Their opinion on the issue of an "On Guard" position in Tai Chi Chuan:

Seattle Instructor Andrew Dale:
My teacher, TT Tchoung always used raise hands and a “come try me” posture."

Jake Burroughs, Mike Martello, and Me
Here's what My Xingyi instructor Jake Burroughs said:
I am learning Zhao Bao, and know the Sun. In Sun Taiji we have an on guard position no different then any other art.
Taiji is not like Aikido. Do not wait for your opponent to swing on you. Remember the first to get hit is usually the first to lose!
(D.R.) -A little vague, but indicates a "hands up" position.

My Yang-Style instructor, Michael Gilman:
"The position right before the releasing phase of
ward off would be my choice. The strong side is back as you sit on
the strong side leg, the strong side arm is raised to protect the
chest and upper body, while the weak side toe touches and the weak
side arm is lower to cover the lower body. It is so similar to a
boxing on guard."
(D.R.)-Hmm. This was the first reply to mention ward-off. But it sounds like a transition phase of the posture. I am going to visit Michael soon, so I will get more details then.

Wim Deemeere, Combat SanShou:
I can’t comment on other tai chi styles as I don’t practice them so
this may not be universally applicable. But in the style I study, the
on guard position is “Seven stars”. You can see an example of it at 55
sec. here:

The problem is that you don’t see it in the round form if you don’t
know it’s there. Because it flows into the next movement right away.
When you look at the square form, you’ll see it very clearly though.
In the example above, it’s plainly visible because I step back into
it. In other instances, it’s done right before “grasping bird’s tail”
and you can hardly see it anymore. Of course, the way the practitioner
does it can bring it out more or hide it. As always, there’s lots of
Seven stars has SD applications too of course; it’s not “just” the on
guard position.
There are also Daoist references involved and I know other styles
refer to it as “Strum the lute” but it’s essentially the same
Another thing: in the form, it’s usually done as a high guard. But
that isn’t necessarily how you use it. I often use it in the low
position for a variety of reasons. You can see this here:

Again, this is how I learned it. Other styles will probably do it
differently (or perhaps not at all, I don’t know) but I’m not
qualified to comment on them.
(D.R.)- So we see Wim using what his system calls "Seven Stars" as the same as "Play The Guitar" or "Raise Hands" in the Yang system

Christopher Dow
Christopher Dow is author of "The Wellspring", one of the best books on the cutting-edge of explaining how Chi works:
I practice a version of Northern Wu Style, a sibling to Traditional Wu (Wu Chien Chuan, et al), but I originally learned Traditional Wu. The change-over was simply a practical concern, not because of "quality."
Both have the on-guard position, variously called Play Guitar, Strum the Lute, Play the Pipa, Patting Horse, Three-Point Concentration, Seven Stars, and Big Dipper. The latter two are so called because the shape of the arms resembles the constellation the Big Dipper, which is made up of seven stars. The other names probably are self-explanatory.
In the Traditional Wu form I learned, the position is done with the weight in a sitting stance with the arm of the forward foot extended, hand about face high, palm facing naturally to the side, and fingers pointed up and out. The other arm is retracted slightly, with the palm facing the forearm of the fully extended arm. This is the typical on-guard position, and can be simply a neutral, waiting position, but it often is reached by using a sit-back, and can be used actively—for example, to trap an in-coming arm between the palms and breaking it at the elbow.
The Northern Wu form I now practice calls it Seven Stars, and it's done a bit differently—in a way that does not readily lend itself to being an on-guard posture in the sense of being a neutral, waiting position. The stance is the same as in Traditional Wu, and so is the basic arm shape, but the hand positions are what make it different: the palm of the forward hand is turned to the face, and the palm of the slightly retracted hand is positioned with its palm facing the forearm of the forward hand and its back facing the practitioner's neck—essentially between the extended forearm and the body. Basically, it's like the Traditional Wu position but with the forearms twisted in unison to alter the directions the palms face. It is done sitting back, stepping forward, stepping left, stepping right, and from central equilibrium.
In all directions, the forearm that is to be the extended one rises vertically in front of its own shoulder, about eighteen inches out, and at the same time, the rear arm and hand move into position behind it. Then the practitioner twists his waist toward the opposite side, causing the vertical forearm to sweep across the front of the body and end with the elbow directly over the opposite knee. It is important to think of the elbow leading, not the forearm, wrist, or hand. Thinking of the forearm, wrist, or hand will cause the movement to use upper body and arm strength instead of whole body strength and will cause the practitioner to float rather than sink. If the movement is done incorrectly, the results will be ineffective. Leading with the elbow not only allows full body strength and sinking, but also gives the forearm a whipping motion that usually is imperceptible to someone watching the form but that should be felt by the practitioner.
As with the movement's usage in Traditional Wu, the Northern Wu version can be used to trap an incoming arm and break it (though the rear forearm has to turn farther, bringing its palm to face the user, too, to do this). But the movement has additional functions. One is to snare an incoming forearm with the rear hand as you sit back, and then use the forward forearm to armbar the snared arm, either simply jolting the aggressor to the side, wrenching or breaking his elbow, or following through more completely for a take-down. Another possibility is that this Seven Stars position readily turns into a sideways block with the extended forearm that is then followed very naturally by a press, with the extended arm rotating around the palm of the rear arm as the extended elbow rises. The rear palm, now pressing against the inside of the extended arm's wrist, then propels the press for any of the press's three uses. (Or rather, the three that I know of. There likely are others.) And a third very potent usage is that, if the hand of the whipping forearm is balled into a fist, it makes a dandy and very quick hammer fist to the side of your opponent's head (temple, jaw, neck), arm (especially elbow), or other body parts. So, in the form I practice, Seven Stars is rarely neutral, often deflective (sometimes more aggressively so), and potentially damaging.
If I were to use a simple on-guard position, I wouldn't use the Seven Stars that I now use because it's not geared for that. Instead, I'd use the very standard version from the Traditional Wu style I learned, but probably more relaxed, with the hands at chest level instead of face-and-neck high.

So there we have it; the consensus is some version of "Raise Hands"

That being said, perhaps the problem lies in getting Tai Chi Chuan students used to using a similar pre-engagement posture. Most partner interaction relies on mutually accepted engagement such as push-hands.
For real-world self-defense application, the student must have a game plan for an attacker throwing punches, and an extended guard is the best way to train for that.


daniele.perkele said...

Excellent post: I have always been afraid of people asking me "what is the 'on guard' position in tai chi?" (which, one can argue, is a quite silly, movie-inspired first question about a martial art). Now I know what to answer!

Martial Development said...

Very interesting question, DR.

You should ask the survey respondents if they are personally willing to stand still in their respective postures, while you launch a vicious attack. :D

The answer will be no; and doesn't that tell us everything we need to know about the utility of on-guard postures?

Zacky Chan said...

First off, a question for Martial Development: Are you saying the there is no perfect "on guard" stance, but the movement is what's most important?
Second: When I was learning Hawaiian Kenpo Karate I always had my lead hand extended about eye level and my strong hand back a little lower to guard my ribs. But after reading a book called, "The Straight Lead" by Teri Tom about Jeet Kune Do, I was convinced to have my rear hand by my chin and forward hand a little lower, but pointed right at the opponents jaw. This stance worked much better in a myriad of the best boxing drills I've ever been through for striking.

wolring said...

Nice post! I like how everyone shared their viewpoints on this. I'd love to see more input from Wu/Hao (WuYuXiang) Taijiquan practitioners - as I view it as a link to the more internalized yiquan practice.

I also think that the "wedge" structure of the arms is important to maintain - both to deflect (defense) and to penetrate in and open the opponent (offense). Dr. Painter uses this a lot in bagua and xingyi to an incredibly effective degree. I see it that the on-guard and 7-stars postures could contain this wedge concept as well.

Anyway, cool.

-Loretta Wollering
Dir., Tai Chi Gala (

Dojo Rat said...

Martial D.:
For what it's worth, standing in your stance while your partner launches a vicious attack at you is exactly how one-step sparring in Karate is done.
-I assume you suggest we introduce motion to help neutralize the attack, and I am in complete agreement with that.

Thanks for checking in, the Tai Chi Gala festival looks great!

Sean C. Ledig said...

Excellent post, DR. But where's the Hippy Chick of the Month for March?

Dojo Rat said...

Comin'right up!

Ben said...

We usually view the Play Guitar (Strum the Lute, Play the Pipa, Patting Horse, Three-Point Concentration, Seven Stars, and Big Dipper) position as something you end up in after deflecting an attack.

For an "On Guard" position we look at the beginning of the forms.

Either I'm standing there with my arms down minding my own business when some one attacks me out of the blue.

Or if I know someone is an attacker or a potential threat then my arms are raised at the top of the first movement in the forms. (Opening the Form, Rise and Fall, Place hands on Jade Table or whatever else you like to call that movement.)

Here's a photo with a better explanation of this position.

Or maybe I talk with my hands. In which case I could be fighting from any position in the set when I'm attacked.

Anonymous said...

It was Bruce lee who stated in his book the On Guard Position is the best position to have, words from the legend.

HoosierDaddy said...

There's no such thing. For training purposes (i.e. for doing repetitions) the Beginning Posture (Ch'i Shih) can be used.