Martial sets

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Taijiquan is an 'internal' style of Chinese martial art.
How you train the form, and what you do with it is defined by this fact.
The internal arts are circular and rely extensively upon spirals, curves, softness and gravity.
This must be evident in your form training and your applications.


In order to fully understand the ramifications of the form movements, it can be quite useful to apply the form.
When a taijiquan person possesses a poor sense of application, this tends to reflect their overall limited understanding of the art.
The form was designed with combat in mind.
If you lack the ability to use the form, what are you practicing?
What mistakes might you make?


Students often find form application to be exceedingly difficult because they lack the martial background and spatial awareness to see the possibilities within the form.
People sometimes import ideas from other martial arts, but these do not sit well with the form and lead to a singularly non-Chinese approach emerging.
A useful way to get a sense of potential form application is to train 2 person sets or drills.


Our syllabus explores these 2 person combat sets:

  1. San sau
    - 2 person unarmed set
    - street attacks versus taijiquan
    - designed to encourage economy of movement


  2. Silk arms
    - 2 person unarmed series of drills
    - punches and grapples, follow-up strikes
    - designed to encourage ribbon-like flowing striking movements, and to expect immediate follow-ups

  3. Penetrating defences
    - 2 person unarmed series of drills
    - punches and grapples
    - the aim is to interrupt the attack before it becomes fully manifest, to avoid taking turns
    - entry method

  4. Da lu
    - 2 person unarmed set
    - taijiquan versus taijiquan
    - a form of pushing hands
    - designed to teach rollback, bump and evasive footwork

  5. Cane
    - 2 person armed set
    - taijiquan versus taijiquan
    - teaches the student to be versatile and adaptive
    - introduces the possibilities suggested by the cane


  6. Small stick
    - 2 person armed series of drills
    - taijiquan versus taijiquan
    - designed to encourage stickiness, reflex and timing
    - excellent test of nerve under pressure
    - only the miniscule, economical movements are fast enough to work

  7. 5 pre-emptive methods
    - 2 person unarmed series of drills
    - trains close quarters barrage attack
    - simple movements delivered with speed

Not combat

Sets are not fighting.
They are fixed pattern, and serve to train accuracy, positioning, timing and movement.
The skills they teach can be taken into combat if they manifest under pressure without contrivance.


In practice, the sets are about habit.
They encourage a certain way of moving, a habitual approach to attack.
This is what you take into combat.

Melee combat

Sets can only take you so far... The preference is to focus upon form application, partnered drills and unrehearsed freeform combat featuring multiple opponents.

Taijiquan versus taijiquan

A number of the 2 person sets teach the student how to employ taijiquan against taijiquan.
This is a daunting prospect since your opponent possesses exactly the same knowledge and skills as you do.

Any of the san sau applications - performed correctly - have the potential to finish-off the attacker.


Lower grades

A students' response to attack is random, sloppy and untrained.
The individual is usually poorly coordinated, with little sense of balance, rhythm and timing.
What you bring with you into a taijiquan
class is worthless: physical tension, bad postural habits, aggression, fear, clumsiness...
Skills from other martial arts tend to be an impediment.


You must unlearn.
Our aim is help you to become responsive, spontaneous, adaptive. Capable of changing instantly in accordance with circumstance.

The way and its power

Tao Te Ching teaches us many important lessons.
In terms of combat we recognise that the 'power' can only be used if the student adheres strictly to the 'Way' of the event.
Blocking the incoming force, struggling, resisting, postural instability... these bad habits prevent the student from having any power.
Instead, it is necessary to harmonise, accord, blend with the attack.
Neutralise, and counter-attack by borrowing power from the opponent and adding it to our own.
This is harder than it sounds, for the student must set aside their own pride and ego, and follow the parameters of the art exactly. 


The fundamental qigong exercises were designed to build-up the strength and coordination required to practice form.
Instead of moving in a tense, sloppy, disconnected way, students learn how to move slowly and smoothly.
In time, the entire body moves as one unit.
When the form is practiced correctly, it is quite demanding.


The form itself teaches the body how to move in an internal way.
Ideally, this is how your body should move in combat.
Form literally means 'shape'; and the aim is to re-shape your movements and structure into something martially viable.
The complexity of form means that a student has countless layers of skill to add to their form, and it will take decades to understand it deeply.
This learning process is what training an internal art is all about.


The partnered exercises in the syllabus are about using the form.
Many of the skills acquired from pushing hands (and the associated exercises) are quite subtle and require significant on-going practice.
Sensitivity, awareness, stickiness and peng are cultivated patiently.
Such drills are not directly martial.
You could not apply the drills in combat, but you would use the skills taught by the drills.


Sets are derived from the form.
They use movements from the form against an attacker.
Therefore, they also serve to test your skill with form. If your form is imprecise and sloppy, your application will not work.
A combat set provides an opportunity for a student to really tidy-up their form and gain insight into how the form can be used.
Errors that may seem unimportant in solo practice may prove disastrous in partner work.

Gaps and deficiencies

It can be quite a shock for a student to find out that their form is actually a mess.
The form may look aesthetically pleasing, yet under pressure it falls apart.
Taoism advocates eating the fruit, not the flower.
The form must be functional, effective and comfortable.
If your structure and movements fail in combat, what exactly are you training when you practice your form?

Taijiquan skills

Combat sets require the student to apply taijiquan skills effectively.
You cannot simply use force and expect success.
The sets are ruthless in their ability to expose faults in your practice.
Only by adhering to their lessons and requirements can the student apply taijiquan correctly in combat.

How do you know if you are doing it correctly?

It works.
It feels easy.
It is very effective.
The attacker should be incapable of mounting an effective counter-attack.


These tips will significantly improve your martial sets:

  1. Move the body first, the hands second

  2. Use all 3 types of yielding
    - weight shift & waist turn
    - stepping
    - bend at hip kwa

  3. Slow down


Every combat set contains countless chin na, shuai jiao and variations on a movement.
A skilled student can easily recognise viable follow-ups and explore these.
At this stage, the combat set pervades the student's consciousness and can be used readily in combat.

Dismantling the sets

High level instructors learn to take the sets apart and gain a comprehensive understanding of the biomechanics involved.
They can also make connections and associations between patterns, themes and form movements.
Hidden applications become apparent.

Beyond sets

Most of your combat training in our school will not involve sets.
We prefer our students to experience a wide range of spontaneous attacks from solo and multiple attackers, armed and unarmed.
Sets are a learning tool and can be very useful, but they are not random enough for actual combat.
Melee combat tests the individual's ability to respond under pressure.

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Page created 6 October 2003
Last updated 12 February 2020