Technique-based mentality

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What would you do if...

A common question asked by beginners is "What would you do if..." They suggest a variety of scenarios in which you are attacked and expected to counter. How do you counter a kick? What about this hold? Can you deal with a headbutt? Will it work if the attacker has a knife?

What can you (the student) do?

On one level, the student is seeking to gauge the instructor's ability. At the same time, they are wanting a fixed answer. Herein lies the problem. Combat is anything but fixed. There are no guarantees.
No security. What the
instructor can do is a secondary concern. What matters more is what the student would do...

A very important principle to remember is that there are no pre-designed skills in tai chi. It is always necessary to follow your opponent and the changes he or she makes and to combine this awareness with your own sensitivity and ability to remain relaxed so that you can determine when to change your skills in a timely manner.

(Zhang Yun)  

Technique-based mentality

A technique-based mentality is one where the person asks: "How do you counter a kick?" The question indicates the desire for a definite answer. What you do
depends entirely upon you.
Everyone is different. Every situation is different. There are so many variables.

Tai chi fighting method


  1. Where are you positioned relative to the opponent?

  2. Are you calm and composed?

  3. Is your body soft or tense?

  4. How skilled are you?

  5. What is your opponent doing to you?

  6. Has your body been compromised?

  7. Do you have freedom of movement?

  8. Are you dealing with one or more attackers?

  9. Is it your intention to warn or incapacitate your assailant?

  10. Can you take the initiative?

  11. Does your opponent have any gaps and deficiencies?

  12. In moving, what will you expose?

  13. Will your counter oppose the flow?

  14. How will you follow up?

  15. What can/will your opponent do to you when you move?

The only constant is change

You could ask many more questions, but the thing to realise is that combat is not static. Just as you are moving, so is your assailant.
For every action you take, your attacker is perfectly free to respond/counter in any manner they choose.
Yes, some responses may be more likely or more predictable than others, but The Art of War counsels against making assumptions. Combat is innately unknowable. You cannot see the future.
You can only deal with what is.

Internal or external attitude?

An external martial artist forces an opening and counters the attacker. The internal person waits. They allow the opportunity to occur by itself in the natural unfolding of events.
This is a fundamental difference in attitude. A tai chi person cannot plan a response or use a technique because they do not know what will happen or when it will occur.
They can only move with the changes and make the best of the situation. Listening and
sensitivity skills are paramount. If you are not alert, soft and present, you cannot respond spontaneously and freely.

Move with what is happening

Rather than have a fixed plan in your head, respond to the here and now. Your opponent should be the centre of your universe. Everything they do is an opportunity to respond.
Remember, that the best response may well be to do nothing at all. There is nothing to be gained by anticipating a certain kind of attack. What if the assailant does something else?
Anticipation stems from fear.

Follow your instincts

When attacked, you can do whatever you like, providing:

  1. It is performed in a tai chi way

  2. It works

  3. It is appropriate

  4. You do not damage your own body

  5. You do not leave yourself unduly vulnerable

You must learn how to respond without adhering to a fixed technique. A technique is a step-by-step model for dealing with a known, set attack. 
In the confused melee of combat you are constantly shifting, constantly changing. There is no time for thought. You must simply follow the flow and see what occurs.

Tai chi movements are really very simple but students insist upon making tai chi difficult by adding extra moves.

Tai chi is not complicated; people are complicated.

 (John Lash) 

The role of technique

Techniques do have their place in the process of learning. But they must be seen in perspective. It is quite alright to employ a step-by-step model when dealing with a known, set attack.
This is how students learn to use the art during their training. Freed of the unpredictability of combat, they can focus on acquiring a methodical attitude.
Each step of the counter can be tried and tested in order to understand its role in the overall technique. Any gaps and deficiencies should be highlighted and remedied.

Techniques in combat

In combat you will not be faced with known, set attacks. A technique needs to become so ingrained that the student employs it without thinking, without deliberately, consciously choosing.
This requires untold hours of concentration, repetition; starting with slow 'marking time' training, building gradually up to the non-cooperative attacker who attacks at full speed.

Applications are not techniques

An application is different to a technique. A technique takes a scenario and suggests a step-by-step method to overcome that attack.
An application takes a movement from a form and explores a variety of ways in which that movement (and the principles it contains) can be used.

Figure it out yourself

Techniques are usually taught by the instructor whereas applications should always be figured out/devised by the student.
Everyone is different and the student must employ the art in the manner that best suits their body and their own predilections.
The role of the instructor is to poke holes in the student's applications so that the student can improve/upgrade them for combat use.

The principle

The focus of an application is the principle it contains. Once the principle is understood, multiple variations can be devised by the student using that principle.

Beyond technique

The student must discover the underlying physics. They can then apply what they have learned in countless ways; thus transcending the limitations and fixity of technique. 


A later stage of learning is concerned with countering a technique. The student must allow a technique (or application) to be used on them, then find as many ways out of it as they can...
Some counters may work better during the early stages of a technique whilst other counters are more effective just before the technique reaches conclusion.
Just as there is not just one fixed application, there is not just one fixed counter.

Are you strong enough to wield the instructor's art?

The lessons taught by countering are vital. For example: if a cocky student tries to use the instructor's own weapons against him, they will find themselves thwarted quite easily.
Only a fool of an instructor teaches material that will work on himself. The student learns a lesson taught by Lao Tzu: to wield the tools of the master is to invite injury upon oneself.

Improving your responses

partner work and form all serve to teach a variety of fighting skills that improve your capacity to cope with an attack. Freeform combat is essential in this regard.
Once you move past a fixed attack/fixed response mentality you can learn how to apply an increasingly technical repertoire of responses. These are not techniques.

Feel the opportunity

Our training methods were designed to improve your understanding of the
human body. Understanding joint movement, physical flexibility and areas of vulnerability is crucial.
You can immediately feel what possibilities are open to you, and respond spontaneously. The first chin na skill is to seize. Later, you learn how to:

  1. Misplace the bones

  2. Cavity press

  3. Divide the muscle

  4. Seal the breath

None of these are techniques. Everything is applied with the flow.


The internal arts offer a vast number of drills, most of which explore the interplay of kinetic energy. If you treat 'pushing hands' as simply a drill, then that is all it will ever be.
A receptive student will take the underlying principles of pushing hands and use them in combat. Unless you use what you are training, what is the point of studying it?
When faced with a genuine attack, beginners start blocking the kinetic energy flow. There are no blocks in tai chi.

No blocking

Every moment of joining is soft and sticky. Every movement is rounded. We connect, become sticky/listening/sensitive (this is essentially 'grappling'), and then we strike or employ chin na.
Usually this all happens in an instant. The evade-contact-counter is one integrated flow.
Exercises such as 'yielding/chin na' offer a way of exploring the moment of contact, and how to use that opportunity to counter using jing.
When we use the term 'grappling' we do not mean ju jitsu or wrestling. Struggling is not involved. Tai chi is not fighting. It is about incapacitation. There is a distinct difference.


The more skilled you are, the greater your capacity to determine range, speed and spatial relationship. You understand the limitations of the human body.
Angles, variables, possibilities, options, choices - these are at your disposal. You move instinctively, feeling your way through the attack, compromising and incapacitating the assailant.
Your intention is to feel for opportunities and take the initiative. You also want to limit your opponent's capacity to reciprocate. This is not the outcome of technique. It is a question of experience.
presence. The more experienced you are, the more appropriate your response will be.
A skilled student can utilise the three dimensions economically, with a minor movement creating a significant outcome.

Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023