I wanted to understand taijiquan as a martial art. I was, therefore, first amused and then interested in the teacher's demonstration of what certainly looked like holding a ball in some postures before carrying out the obvious strike. Its true martial meaning seemed to me to be quite easy to determine and is discussed in detail below.

However, my interest became piqued as I wondered why there were not more "holding the ball" postures as I was assured that taijiquan was a formidable fighting art. I started to experiment with the form I was learning at the time – Yang 24-step – and tried "hold the ball" for all sorts of postures that did not overtly show that shape. I was excited but not too surprised to find that it worked for, not all, but most of the postures. Importantly, it was not about a set "Hold Ball" shape but rather the martial concept underlying the idea of "Hold Ball". This article is emphatically not about frozen shape.

My next discovery – and I can hardly contain my excitement in the telling – was… hmmm… I seem to be getting ahead of myself. Perhaps we should start at the beginning. 

Taiji Origins

If modern taiji is different in some way to "original" taijiquan, what is the "real" taijiquan and when did it come into beginning? Not 200 years ago when the name "taijiquan" was first used. Not 300 years ago when Chen Wang Ting was associated with Chen style. Not 800 years ago when Zhang San Feng by legend created the art. Not even 2,000 years ago when Yueh Nu explained the secret of her swordsmanship to the King of Yueh in just the same terms as taiji classics do for empty hand combat. (Taiji's Ancestors, Douglas Wile, p3.)  But in the furthest recesses of time when the tribal shaman understood energetic and spiritual forces which aided his tribe's survival. Note – this knowledge, in many different forms, was available to and used by all human populations around the world but, in the "West" at least, was all but lost due to the narrow focus on "scientific" endeavour.

Almost certainly the internal knowledge was not formally incorporated in open hand martial arts at that early time. The earliest weapons were crafted and used against wild animals and territorial invaders. It was very likely incorporated in general health (tribal dances/celebrations) and spirituality (blessings for the hunt) and probably incorporated into sport and play between young men and women. But we don't know when. However, it is certain that at some time in its long history the art we now call taijiquan was a martial one. No way were the spiritual and health origins forgotten, but its end purpose was definitely martial.

Cultural "Black Holes"

Another important influence was that various dynasties - not the Communist regime alone – would generally prefer the peasantry to be working in the fields. Unless, that is, there is an external threat as for King Yueh or the Boxer Rebellion in more recent times. Therefore secrecy and lineage was held through the family. Accordingly much tradition and recorded literature was lost in clamp downs and perhaps battle. But, paradoxically, this naturally led to a huge variety of martial art styles.

This plethora of martial systems was much later determined to be of two different styles namely "internal" or "external". In reality this arbitrary distinction was far from clear. The so-called external also had their internal aspects, at least at the highest levels. There can be no doubt that the internal had a lot of external in it too - the steel inside cotton wool? All is yin and yang after all. 

Principles of Function and Form

Form and function are inter-related in that each relies on the other. Hence the importance of correct forms according to the purpose and vice versa. Whether coming from the internal or external, from Eastern or Western culture and from "scientific" or "esoteric", underlying principles can span all martial arts.

A setsquare is but a shape easily replicated and only functional when given appropriate purpose and correctly made and used. A plumb bob and a level refer to the source – invisible and insubstantial gravity – and, separately or together, become the more versatile and flexible medium to perform functions. Occasionally that function will be the same as that achievable by the setsquare but not constrained by the shape (form). Herein lies the danger in relying on form to somehow… eventually… perhaps never, to create an inappropriate function or, for that matter, the internal. (After Douglas Wile).

A posture in the form is rarely equivalent to only one application. Similarly, any transitional moves cannot be divorced from the potential application. The apparent belief of many taiji teachers that any posture has only one application – the one they teach – is clearly nonsense. For martial purposes adaptability is pre-eminent.

Across all of taiji's styles there must be some common underlying principles. They are obviously the most important ones and are found in all styles to varying degrees. Such a panorama of styles, without the principles changing, is proof of a long history of observation, innovation, experimentation and teaching – scientific method indeed!

"Hold the Ball" is Form… and Function!

"Hold the Ball" is a relatively recent mnemonic used to help beginners remember those few modern forms where such shape is obvious. Its original function was as part of taiji's principle of offence and defence options in all moves – part of a flexible and resilient art which some call "soft"! Some modern form postures which incorporate a relatively clear "Hold the Ball" are Part Mane, Works at Shuttles and White Crane. However, even for these, different styles - and different teachers within a style - will change the shape according to their artistic preference or martial application. For example, the palm may be faced up as in "Part Mane", where the arm lifts to uproot the opponent, or face down as in "Brush Knee" where the stronger outer edge of forearm is a more sensible counter to a kick or low punch. 

Briefly put, the intention inherent behind "Hold the ball" is to cover a high and low position for each hand – or even foot - either of which can convert to an attacking or defensive move. It is part of the cycling of "close/open", "coil/uncoil" – however you want to describe it – that is inherently taijiquan's flowing style.

It should be now apparent that the "Hold Ball" idea is not tied to a fixed shape as in the modern forms. A notable description of the same idea is what is commonly called the "Jack Benny" stance – "Attack Proof", John Perkins et al, page 16. If you are too young to remember Jack, take a look at the accompanying photo – no, it's me, not Jack Benny! Whether called "Hold Ball", "Jack Benny" or any number of other variations, most martial systems incorporate the idea of arms in a ready and adaptable stance. Aikido may be an exception with its so-called natural stance though, even in its own camp, this "hands held low" stance is contentious.

With reference to taiji specifically, I suspect that the more rigid "Hold Ball" shape of current taiji form is a modern tool to teach the student the concept of coordinated circular and spiral movement. There may well be an older reason involving qi that is not discussed in detail in this article.

In dropping "Hold the Ball" and its martial intent to favour attractive or elegant form, modern taiji has lost the inherent flexibility possible in the martial form. This function accordingly will have changed from martial efficiency based on internal awareness to an external elegance to show a performance. Unhappily, this may show no relevance to internal sensitivity much less to authentic martial origins. The often made justification for shape within a posture is now made for whether a meridian or energy gate is activated. It is self-evidently not the reason for a posture which is martial in origin.

Sadly the health aspects, which are what attracts most adherents, are also compromised. The taijiquan that has become no more than a graceful callisthenic is not in itself bad. However, a requirement to achieve "elegance", extreme flexibility, balance and competence in a form which reflects current fashion for a competitive sport before learning proficiency in breathing, qi sensitivity and other internal aspects is an outrageous perversion of Chinese culture expressed in taijiquan. Regrettably, this compromise seems to me to be driven from within China itself!

An Analysis of the 24 Form Postures

I will refer to the hugely popular "24 Form" of 1956 which epitomises modern Yang style taiji. I have applied my idea of "Hold the Ball" to those postures which I believe carry an underlying "Hold the Ball" principle without always showing that shape. This is because the modern standardised forms have stylised shapes which do not reflect the original martial intent.

Formatting a table with all the information in can be awkward for the editorial style of the magazine so I have very succinctly encapsulated my findings thus. Nothing is fixed and I encourage you to explore the possibilities for yourself. Surprisingly, all postures can incorporate the "Hold Ball" idea in transition – which is how it works best – except these six postures: 1 – Commencement; 6 – Repulse Monkey; 14 – Strike Ears; 22 – Apparent Close Up; 23 – Cross Hands; 24 – Closing.

With very few exceptions the moves incorporate at least the potential for both defence and attack. The six moves that are not the "ball" principle because there is no high/low configuration still mostly carry both defence and attack potential, the two exceptions being 6 and 24. Note that even the kicks fall in line. Unlike the modern predilection for impressively high kicks, the kicks – or sweeps – in real life martial situations are generally low and the hands high.

Analysis of some postures

I will start with perhaps the most obvious "Hold the Ball" posture namely "Fair Lady Works at Shuttles". I will describe it somewhat differently to that which seems to be its currently popular expression. This is to retain martial sense and align to a taijiquan "essential" which says to keep the elbow down – both to keep the shoulder relaxed and provide better protection of the body (a bit like Western boxing really). I will also match it with what must surely be a posture most bereft of "Hold the Ball" namely "Cloud Hands".

Assuming a "Shuttles Left" you will "Hold Ball" at the right preparing to step somewhat left of forward with the left foot and with most weight on the right foot. Imagine your adversary aiming a high strike with his left hand and perhaps even holding a cudgel or staff. As his hand/weapon comes toward your head, your left and lower hand lifts and rotates to deflect the high attack. The elbow stays down as explained above. The deflection is powered by your hips rotating in sync with your hand as you sink weight into your right leg. This is definitely a deflection because there are no blocks in taijiquan. Your hand and/or arm would be broken if he is wielding a cudgel and you attempt a block. The slight movement to the right when transferring weight – get out of the way of your opponent's force – combine with the deflection. This obeys the taijiquan principle of not being double-weighted. This is sometimes translated as double-force which nicely explains why there are no blocks in taijiquan.

Because you managed to stay on the outside of the incoming strike, your deflecting left arm together with turning hips will tend to move your opponent to his right and possibly unbalanced too. It is why your imminent step forward is somewhat to the left – it doesn't have to be exactly 45 degrees as in the form. This is when your right and upper hand, also joining with the turning hips/waist, can strike to most effect. At the moment of contact with the right hand, sink into the left leg. Both the strike and deflection illustrate the taijiquan classic quote that 4oz moves a zillion pounds or even a 200lb quarter-back. All of the above works well with a high kick attack as well.

Now let's try the less obvious "Hold Ball" posture "Cloud Hands". Start with weight on the right foot and arms somewhat extended to the right with right hand on top and left hand below. This is "Hold Ball" but a bit further out from the body than you may be accustomed to. Also the body should be somewhat turned to the right in preparation for stepping somewhat backward but aligned with the sideways passage that is the posture's signature.

In this phase of the posture you are positioned ready to continue with "Cloud Hands", waiting for an opening, or to first capture your opponent's attacking arm by closing the "Ball". If it is the opponent's left arm, it makes sense to trap the elbow and then turn at the hips/waist to break his arm or uproot him. If, however, it is his right arm, the leverage against the elbow joint is not there and you will have to extend a little to the armpit and unbalance him with "Part Mane".

Now, what if he throws a high shot? I knew you'd get it! Just use "Shuttles Left". It will soon flow for you between these three postures which you can mix and match as you imagine your opponent's moves. This happens naturally with very little practice because the starting point is always the same – "Hold Ball". There is no need to create a new linking sequence and your lightning fast intent will produce the appropriate answer to the attack. Seen this way, Cloud Hands becomes a linking sequence able to convert to almost any other posture provided you start and finish with a hold ball idea. You can see this kind of Cloud Hands in many push hands styles.

Possible "free-form" set

My challenge to you now is to not stop at the three postures described in this article. Use the 24-form analysis above to apply "Hold the Ball" for all postures and even other sets. My suggestions are just that and no more. You will have to discover it all for yourself. I think you will have a lot of fun trying and end up with a whole new sense of flow and movement which is typically taijiquan in a martial way. Don't try these moves if you are planning to compete in form competition!

I have not been able to develop these ideas beyond a solo practice—of course I always defeat my imagined opponent! Those of you who do pursue the contact side of taijiquan may find it less useful than I posit. However, I can see this kind of training, even as a solo pursuit, becoming another layer between push hands and sanshou. If you do become a superhero please let me know of your successes! 

Rob Talbot became a student of David Wong (Yang Style Tai Chi, Auckland, New Zealand) over 13 years ago. Though now retired, Rob is kept busy gardening, lobbying NZ MPs on health matters and writing the occasional magazine article. ©Rob Talbot 2014

Reprinted from Qi Journal, Spring 2016