If you have been practicing tai chi (which translates to “supreme ultimate”) or tai chi chuan (which translates to “supreme ultimate fist”) for even a short period of time you have heard the postures or movements in the forms called, “white crane spreads its wings”, and “repulse the monkey”. But what do they mean?
The creator of the art of tai chi (chuan), which originated in China, is unknown. The time when tai chi (chuan) began is also unknown. What we do know is that before the term tai chi (chuan) came about the art was often referred to as Nei Chiaand other such names. Either way the art is based on the principles of Yin and Yang. Each style, and each variation of that style, was developed in a particular way for a particular reason and The Way Tai Chi System© is no different. The philosophy of tai chi chuan is that, if one uses hardness to resist violent force, then both sides are certainly to be injured at least to some degree. Such injury, according to tai chi chuan theory, is a natural consequence of meeting brute force with brute force. Instead, students are taught not to directly fight or resist an incoming force, but to meet it in softness and follow its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely redirected, meeting yang with yin. When done correctly, this yin/yang or yang/yin balance in combat, or in a broader philosophical sense, is a primary goal of tai chi chuan training. Lao Tzu provided the archetype for this in the Tao Te Ching when he wrote, "The soft and the pliable will defeat the hard and strong."
But how did the terms we use for the postures come about; and what do they mean? And though, truly, no one really knows I will share what I have been told:
Chinese martial styles had such colorful terms in their training, such as "parting the horse's mane", etc. because in a "peasant" country where there was little formal education, and so they described things that they did every day to explain the motions of their arts. With that said here are some examples of some posture names and their symbolic meanings….
Grasp Sparrows Tail- The left hand is held at chin level as though grasping the head of the bird, the right hand placed to the side of the hip as though smoothing the bird's tail. The bird is a symbol of consciousness, air, spirit and breath.
Press Forward- The hands, when pressed forward; represent the new moon waxing to the full. gut in the flow of nature, when the moon is full it begins to wane. Therefore, you separate the hands and rest backward (withdraw) -indicating the waning moon.
Push Forward- With the hands parallel to each other in front of the body, it is a symbol of strength outside and emptiness within. The act of pushing forward recalls the arc of the sun as it goes forward across the heavens.
Single Whip- Heaven and earth bring about revolution, and the cycle of the four seasons is complete. The body turns, with the arms still parallel, in a gentle flowing motion as a light wind. The fingers are pinched together to form the bird's beak.
Play the Lute- It is a joyous activity to strum the ancient Chinese lute - an oval-shaped wooden stringed instrument called a pilpa. The posture requires a firm stance as the foot is aroused, lightly touching the floor and ready to kick. Strumming the lute means to be without worldly desire and ambition, i.e. to enjoy nature. It signifies the use of the legs, arms, hands and fingers.
Crane Spreads Wings- Signifies grace and beauty in movement; it symbolizes dualism and yin must be accommodated with yang. Picture a white wild water-bird flying on the outskirts of a forest lake, with one wing high (placed above the eye) and one wing low. It also symbolizes longevity, communication with divinity, and the concept of freedom to search for the "Tao".
Brush Knee Push-Means to work on what has spoiled and to remove the source of decay. Picture a person stepping forward and gently pushing (like the wind blowing through a willow tree) against a mountain.
Step Back and Repulse Monkey- Monkey King, in Chinese mythology, represents human nature that is basically good, but easily yields to temptation. The monkey mind jumps about everywhere, uncontrolled and unfocused. The posture implies the gentle application of energy. Success lies in retreating because you refuse to use strength against strength. Retreat and then wait for the right time to counter-attack.
Wave Hands Like Clouds-The hands pass across the belly, moving (waving) peacefully like clouds, floating by in the sky. There is no beginning, no ending. The image of difficulty at the beginning brings order out of the confusion. The position of the legs suggest a person mounted on a horse.
Parting Wild Horses Mane- Represents trying to get near to a wild horse.
Snake Creeps Down- The posture suggests a snake creeping on the earth or in water. When you perform the movement your body is lowered so that the belly is close to the knees. In the face of a superior enemy, with whom it would be hopeless to engage in battle, an orderly retreat is the only correct procedure, because it will save the army from defeat and disintegration. It is by no means a sign of courage or strength to insist upon engaging in a hopeless struggle regardless of circumstances. The purpose of this retreat is to be able to advance later with more success.
Golden Cock Stands On One Leg- The knowledge and learning snake represents It is also the symbol of perpetual renewal. During the posture "Snake Creeps Down" into the water you must let go of knowledge and learning. From the depths of water the "Golden Cock,' is born. This is an offensive movement. one leg is raised to strike with the knee and the other is planted firmly on the ground like a mountain. The hands are held above the leg.