By Peter Lim Tian Tek
Yang Tai Chi Chuan first became well known through the prowess of its founder Yang Lu Chan. So skilled was Yang Lu Chan that he gained the prestigeous title "Yang The Invincible". The art that Yang Lu Chan taught and was practiced by his sons and students is quite different from the Chen style of Tai Chi Chuan as popularised by Chen Fa Ke.
The art Yang practiced was supposed to have been the modified Chen form of Chen Chang Xin who studied under Jiang Fa. According to Wu Tu Nan, one of the most respected masters of the art, in his conversations with Chen Xin, learnt that Jiang Fa had taught Chen Chang Xin resulting in a modified art. It was because of that that Chen Chang Xin was forbidden to teach the family art of Pao Chui which the Chen family was famous for several generations, gaining the name "Pao Chui Chen Family". This could explain why Chen Chang Xin taught his classes in the back courtyard and only at night. The very place where Yang Lu Chan spied on his lessons and began to learn the art.
The old Yang form as taught by Yang Lu Chan and his sons in Yung Nien, before he left for the capital to teach at the imperial court still exists and it is quite similar to the modern Yang form and is quite distinct from the Chen style of Tai Chi Chuan. So the art taught by Yang Lu Chan was not Chen style Tai Chi Chuan, even from the very beginning. It retains the characteristics of the modern form and even though it retains the strength explosions (fa-chin), it is still quite different posturally from the modern Chen style of Tai Chi Chuan.
Yang Pan Hou also earned the name "Yang the Invincible" and his skill was second only to his father, Yang Lu Chan. He did not have many disciples because he was bellicose by nature. His brother's son, Yang Shao Hou, was given to him as a foster son and gained both his uncle's skill and his nature. Of the third generation of the Yang family, we are only certain that Yang Shao Hou had seen and probably was also personally taught by his grandfather, Yang Lu Chan. His skill was superior but because he spared no one, not even his students and attacked viciously during training, he had very few students. He shared the same prestige as his more well known younger brother Yang Cheng Fu and was well known to be very combat capable. Like his younger brother he was also never known to have been defeated.
Yang Shao Hou's Art
When Yang Shao Hou first taught the art publicly, his form was the same as that of his younger brother Yang Chen Fu. That is to say he taught the large frame. Later in his life, he taught only advanced students who had already become accomplished in the large form. To these he taught a 'small frame' which was done very quickly but without losing the qualities of the large frame such as relaxation, sinking, calmness and continuity. The 200 over movements in the form was done very quickly, aiming to do the whole form in 2 or 3 minutes.
It was known as the 'small frame' because of its compact movements and should be distinguished from the 'small frame' taught by Yang Lu Chan and Yang Pan Hou in the Imperial Court. That form comes down to us today in the Wu Chien Chuan lineage. But there are common elements in both small frames. Yang Shao Hou's small frame is essentially a combination of the elements of the large frame and the small frame and done at speed. According to Wu Tu Nan, Yang Shao Hou's small frame was also known as the 'usage frame'. The form was supposed to have been created by Yang Lu Chan by distilling the essence of Tai Chi Chuan into this advanced combat set.
This set can only be learnt after attaining a high enough level in the large frame and is not the large frame done fast. It is also quite different from the Tai Chi Long Boxing taught by Yang Cheng Fu though again there are similar elements and common training theories.
Yang Shao Hou's Tai Chi Chuan exhibited the little known advanced level skills that an extention of the basic combat skills of sensitivity, control of centre and positional advantage to overcome a stronger force. These skills included attacking accupoints, bone locking, bone hitting, sinew splitting, blocking and controlling pressure points relating to blood flow, spectacular fa-chin at great speed and continuous motion with one technique flowing into another so that there were no breaks for counters. Without first gaining the basic skills, the advanced skills cannot be properly learnt and applied.
When he did his form, his eyes led the way, blazing and looking in all directions, he often had a grim smile on his face and would shout and roar to distract during a bout. Though his movements were relaxed, sunk and continuous, his form was so swift that he appeared to be darting all over the place. Those who saw him do his form were in awe of him and many aspired to gain his skill but few could take his harsh training.
Though he had only a few students, we are fortunate that the form still exists today though it is known and practiced only by a very limited number of exponents. It is in danger of becoming extinct. The advanced skills are present in the form but proper understanding of it is required before they can be gained. Just learning the form by rote without this understanding gains only the shell and not the marrow of the art. In doing so one does not gain the art at all.
The Small Frame-Usage Frame Form
Yang Shao Hou's small frame consisted of 73 postures making up a total of over 200 movements. In postural arrangement it follows the large frame and retains some postures from the old Yang form like 'Turn Body Double Lift Legs'. The postures are a mix of the large frame and the Yang Small Frame as taught by Yang Lu Chan and Yang Pan Hou in the Imperial Court. In the early days before the art was taught publicly, only a few learnt the large form, those in the Imperial Court only learnt the small frame which was more suited for combat in the long Imperial Robes. It thus has some postures more similar to the Yang Small Frame as handed down by Quan Yu to his son Wu Chien Chuan. The 'Fist Under Elbow', 'Repulse Monkey' and the first 'Downward Posture' all resemble the Wu Chien Chuan form.
When the postures are first learnt, they are practiced in a low, tiring manner at a speed that is faster than the large frame though not quite at the full speed of the form yet. The form is learnt one posture at a time and in short sequences until the student's endurance and power attainment allows him to link up all the short sequences together and form the whole form. In teaching the form, Yang Shao Hou would often make his students practice under a kind of high table to ensure that they took a low tiring stance.
The form makes frequent use of the Single Empty Stance which has the legs together and the knees bent with the weight and root only on one leg. It is frequently used as a quick closing of distance from a Bow Step or Empty Step. The entire form is performed in an agile rooted manner and the upper body should not weave and bob back and forth. The power behind each technique is the power of the whole body working in coordination.
The Yang Style Combat Skills
The forms of Yang Tai Chi Chuan are the vehicles in which the combat skills are carried. All the Yang forms have the advanced skills inate in them but each of the different forms and the way that they are done imparts different yet significant aspects to these skills.
The basic combat requirements are stability, efficiency, unity of mind and body, sensitivity, controlling the centre, positional advantage and agility. It is from these that the advanced skills develop. Controlling the centre is the most important aspect of Yang Tai Chi combat, once you control your opponent's centre you control his whole body. Contrary to what most people think, uprooting - that causing both your opponent's feet to leave the ground as you bounce him out, is not the only technique used in Tai Chi combat though it is used quite often when there is no intent to cause harm or serious injury.
For opponents that require more serious discouragement the advanced level skills come in very handy. These skills all stem from the sensitivity and control of centre to efficiently defeat the opponent. There are several type of advanced skills employed. All of which can only be properly learnt directly from a competant teacher.
One of the most esoteric of these skills, which should not actually be considered esoteric since it is simply the attacking of the body's vital points is accupoint striking or 'Dian Xue'. Accupoint striking involves striking or grasping accupoints to cause injury, incapacitation or death. Unlike external accupoint striking, the opponent's own momentum and body mass is utilised to contribute to the power of the strike with minimum exertion from the exponent.
Bone Locking is also found in external martial arts. The idea is to restrain the opponent with joint locks. In Yang Tai Chi Bone Locking the opponent's body mass and momentum are the major motive forces, once so restrained, the opponent can be dealt with in an appropriate manner.
Bone Hitting is a quite different, this involves actually breaking of the bones. No matter how soft and supple a person is, the bones will always be hard and substantial. Bone Hitting utilises knowledge of the range of motion of the joints, the connection between the different bones in the body to break them and so incapacitate the opponent. Once again the opponent's mass and momentum are used to get them into the appropriate position where this skill can then be applied.
Sinew Splitting is akin to causing sprains and muscle tears deliberately. The mass and and momentum of the opponent again being the main motive forces. The musculature is specifically targeted and a good knowledge of the musculature, origins and insertions of muscles and tendons is necessary to apply this skill effectively.
Blocking and controlling blood flow pressure points can cause incapacitation by causing the opponent to faint or loose the use of one of his limbs due to inadequate blood flow. This is different from accupoint striking. Here the junctures of major and important blood vessels are targeted. As in typical fashion, the opponent's own mass and momentum are the primary motive forces causing him to be his own undoing.
Psychological attacks are also an advanced skills, playing on the emotions and psyche of the opponent. Both Yang Pan Hou and Yang Shao Hou were recorded to have changes in facial expression and emotion when doing the form as well as shouting and roaring at the appropriate moments. These serve to cause fear, shock and indecision in the opponent.
The Yang Shao Hou Small Frame Today
Unfortunately, because Yang Shao Hou only taught this form to a handful of disciples. There are very few people who know this form and practice it. Like Yang Tai Chi Long Boxing, this form was an advanced form taught only after the large form was learnt. And due to the rapid spreading of the art, only the closed door disciples and early students got to learn these advanced forms. This was due primarily to the lack of time on the part of the Yang masters since their travelling tours only permitted them a short time in each city.
This form represents a facet of Yang Tai Chi Chuan that few know about and realise exists. Though the Yang Shao Hou Small Frame is done differently from the large frame, its principles and theories remain the same. It is a clear representation of Yang Tai Chi Chuan at its finest: a deadly combat art and a wonderful health art. Providing long life by both preserving it in combat and building up fitness and efficiency of the body.
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