An Overview of Sun-Style Tai Ji Quan
All of the five major styles of Tai Ji Quan (including the Chen, Yang, Yu Xiang, Wu Jian Quan, and Sun styles) are founded upon similar principles, and are related to one another historically as well as technically. Variations among the styles are primarily due to the differing backgrounds, experiences, and personalities of the founders, as well as the demands of the particular environment in which each style was created. Sun-style Tai Ji Quan is no exception. The uniqueness of the Sun style lies in the genius and background of its founder, Sun Lu Tang (born Sun Fu Quan). The harsh conditions of Sun’s youth, coupled with his intelligence and overriding desire to master the martial arts, created the conditions for a superior synthesis of martial arts knowledge and experience. Sun’s lifetime study of the martial arts (he first mastered both Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang) combined with his study of Wu Yu Xiang Tai Ji Quan under Hao Wei Zhen resulted in an extremely sophisticated yet practical synthesis: Sun-style Tai Ji Quan.
Recognizing the principles of Xing Yi Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, and Tai Ji Quan as fundamentally the same, Sun Lu Tang was one of the first masters to begin referring to these arts as being of “one family” Sun’s influence and the fact that he was the first person to author public works on these styles are the primary reasons why Xing Yi Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, and Tai Ji Quan are customarily referred to as “internal” styles to this day. Sun’s Tai Ji Quan is the result of combining the individual strong points of these three styles into one coherent system of martial art.
Before his meeting with Hao Wei Zhen, Sun Lu Tang was already a famous figure in the Chinese martial arts world. A top disciple of two of the most famous masters of the nineteenth century, Guo Yun Shen (Xing Yi Quan) and Chen Ting Hua (Ba Gua Zhang), Sun had studied with the best. Already in his fifties, Sun must have been suitably impressed when he observed the Tai Ji Quan of Hao Wei Zhen. Recognizing the value of Taijiquan practice, Sun took the time to immerse himself in its study and then devoted considerable time after learning the Wu style to developing and modifying the form based upon his mastery of Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang. The result of Sun Lu Tang’s intense study and research was the crowning achievement of his martial arts career, an art that combined the essence of Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang within the framework of Tai Ji Quan. The three styles Sun Lu Tang recognized as of one family were now, truly, one art.
Characteristics of the Style
While remaining true to the principles and format of Tai Ji Quan in general, Sun’s form is unique in several respects. First and perhaps most significantly, the form is practiced exactly as it is to be applied in a fight.
Speaking simplistically, there are two major schools of thought in regards to Tai Ji Quan training. One school of thought adheres to the idea that forms are designed to train physical attributes primarily. Forms in these styles are often done in very low and extended stances, with the goal of improving leg strength, endurance, and flexibility, precluding the use of more practical alignments useful in fighting situations. Fighting techniques are trained separately from the primary form, in supplemental drills and exercises. The other school of thought views martial ability as a result of integrated movement under conscious control. Exceptional physicality is not a prerequisite for fighting ability. The emphasis is on practicing only and exactly those movements you will use in a real martial encounter; form follows the dictates of strategy and technique. Being relatively small and light, Sun Lu Tang was an advocate of the latter school of thought. Sun’s Tai Ji Quan emphasizes the importance of skill, sensitivity, and technique over the development of exceptional strength or speed.
Another unique feature of Sun-style Tai Ji Quan is that in Sun’s day there was not yet the idea that Tai Ji Quan was a “health” art. It was viewed as a martial art, and was practiced as such. In reading the following text, it is interesting to note that Sun recognizes the health-building benefits of practicing Tai Ji Quan. Sun makes the connection between the development of “internal” power through natural exercise and its benefits for the individual’s health. This line of thinking foreshadows the later Communist government’s campaign to promote Tai Ji Quan as a method of keeping fit.
Sun’s form is often referred to as “live step” Tai Ji Quan. As stated above, the form is designed to be practiced as it is to be used. Consequently, the footwork follows the dictates of practicality, with the feet advancing and retreating with the shuffling rhythm common to all combat arts (including Western fencing, boxing, and wrestling). This basic footwork pattern makes it relatively simple for the practitioner to establish the correct whole-body rhythm that is the signature of all Tai Ji Quan styles. Rather than hiding the method in abnormally wide and deep stances and impractical posturing, Sun Style Tai Ji Quan’s basis in natural movement and rhythm provides a method of developing whole-body power almost immediately upon beginning practice.
Benefits of Practice
For practitioners primarily concerned with the exercise value and health aspects of Tai Ji Quan, the style offers many benefits without the risks of many other Tai Ji Quan styles. As explained above, the demands of martial practicality necessitated the inclusion of the basic advance and retreat footwork that dominates the form. This stepping method not only quickly builds whole-body power, it is also much safer and less stressful on the joints of the hip and leg than the low stances and extended steps found in other styles. Most movements in the form include a complete weight shift from one leg to the other in a cyclical rhythm. This complete exchange of weight exercises the legs without causing undue fatigue (much like the natural weight shifts that occur while walking). The movements in the form are done “three-dimensionally,” meaning that the joints are opened and closed alternately in a natural rhythm, improving their condition and flexibility without the need to force the movements. The upright and natural stance improves balance and the ability to turn and shift the weight without undue effort. The addition of the toe-in and toe-out steps from the Ba Gua Zhang arts has the potential to greatly improve the flexibility of the hips, an area that normally receives little exercise. The form can be done considerably faster than most slow Tai Ji Quan forms, without losing the proper rhythm, creating the potential for efficient cardiovascular training. Each section of the form ends with an opening/closing movement that serves to centre the practitioner and correct the posture during the form. The twisting and bending movements in the form are excellent for restoring and maintaining the normal range of motion in the torso and legs, without the use of force. The natural rhythm of the form makes it easy to coordinate the breath with the movements. The form requires no special equipment or costume, and it can be practiced in a relatively small space. Finally, the practice of Sun-style Tai Ji Quan can be adjusted for those of differing physical capabilities; it can be practiced with great benefit by the out-of-shape beginner as well as the advanced adept.
On the technical (martial) side, the Sun style is equally impressive. With the addition of the strategies and techniques of Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang, the technique base is larger than most other styles of Tai Ji Quan. As an example of some of the techniques included, the Sun form contains evasive footwork, over-the-back throws, chin na joint-locking techniques, head-butting techniques, and special techniques designed to counter wrestling take-downs. The strategies of attack and defence are clearly delineated in the pattern of the form. The emphasis on the upright and aligned posture permits free movement in all directions, and contains the potential to apply a wide range of techniques. The movement patterns trained in the form are based on evasive footwork and a flexible body method. This provides a method by which the smaller and lighter individual can successfully defend him- or herself against the larger and stronger opponent. The strategies, methods, and techniques included in the style were the result of Sun Lu Tang’s lifelong experiences in the martial arts. Sun was the victor of many challenge matches and fights, almost all with larger and stronger opponents (including high-level Chinese fighters and Japanese Judo experts). Unlike many creators of modern “modified” forms, most with little or no actual fighting experience, Sun Lu Tang’s training with master fighters and his own hands-on combat experience made him uniquely qualified to create and develop his own style of Tai Ji Quan. It can be said truthfully that no other creator of any other style of Tai Ji Quan had the benefit of such an extensive martial arts background as Sun Lu Tang.
Looking at the form itself, one sees that not only are the individual techniques contained within the patterns of the form but the strategy of application as well. Many other styles of Tai Ji Quan have the various methods of training divided into separate practices (large and small frame sets, fast and slow sets, supplementary drills and exercises). Sun’s form is all-inclusive. That is to say, power training, technical training, and the strategy of application are all combined in one coherent form. As far as solo training is concerned, the Sun-style Tai Ji Quan traditional long form is complete in and of itself.
Translator’s Foreword from A Study of Taijiquan by Sun Lutang, translated by Tim Cartmell, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2003 by Tim Cartmell. Reprinted by permission of publisher.