T’ai-Chi Push-Hands Demos: Real or Fake
©Copyright 2020 by Robert Chuckrow

In studying with top martial-arts teachers, I have seen numerous instances where newcomers mistake for fakery a teacher’s ease in controlling students’ attacks and think that students are making the teacher look good. Bear in mind the rules of push-hands: no grabbing, pulling, joint locks, tripping, throwing, kicking, punching, or sudden movements.

The following factors should be considered in deciding questions of alleged fakery:

1. If your skill level is below that of the teacher, it is hard to assess his/her skill level. That is, when the mountain peak is covered in clouds, you don’t know how high it is until you climb it.

2. If you test a skilled teacher, concern for your safety may cause his/her response to appear to be inadequate. If, for example, you use a high degree of rooting or stiffness when you should be neutralizing or moving away at the right instant, the teacher will naturally suppress his/her appropriate response, which in a self-defense situation might be to strike with large force and cause injury. of course, a teacher of extremely high skill level may be able to safely deal with whatever you do.

3. When demonstrating a self-defense scenario, a teacher will naturally pick a student for whom his/her response will work. If not, he/she will have to do something else, thereby forsaking what was intended to be shown. That failure would certainly not be appropriate for a use in a publicly shown video. In my Ninjutsu class, my teacher would demonstrate an amazing defense for an attack by one student. Naturally, other students would want to experience that defense. However, the teacher would not use a particular student on whom that defense would not work, saying, “No, it won’t work on you; I’d need to do something else.”

4. Whereas it might appear that students are trying to make the teacher look good, their training may be such that they know that if the scenario were real, they would be injured if they were to move in a manner that doesn’t respond to the teacher’s actions. Depending on the situation, it is sometimes appropriate to test the teacher by thwarting him/her. But allowing the scenario to play out naturally by “losing” when appropriate enables that student and others to learn something that cannot be otherwise learned.

What to Look For

“Bulldozing.” At a certain point, the teacher will lunge forward toward the student and use full body weight and momentum to push a student. This is a low level of push-hands skill.

Inflicting Pain. Some teachers will use painful joint locks to cause a student to lose balance and then be easily controlled. Also, just the threat of inflicting pain will cause the student to become weakened and easily pushed. Continual use of such tools is a sign that the teacher is masking a lack of ability in the subject at hand, namely, push-hands.

Using Techniques. Some teachers will contrive the student into a series of movements that are susceptible to a specific technique that will work on those of relatively lower skill level. T’ai Chi is not based on use of techniques but on utilizing the current unique situation to advantage though use of the principles.

Using Brute Strength. Some teachers will use large amounts of muscular strength to control the student. This way works until the teacher is confronted with a student of even greater muscular strength. T’ai Chi push-hands is not based on using muscular strength to overpower a partner.

Using Sudden Acceleration. Sudden acceleration is antithetical to practice because in a real fighting situation there is a limit to how fast movement can occur or increase. So in push-hands practice, in which movement is slowed to an optimal speed for learning the T’ai Chi principles, the emergence of a sudden increase in a teacher’s speed to gain advantage implies a lack of skill in the art. However, if the student accelerates, it may be appropriate for the teacher to do so correspondingly.

Students “Jumping.” When you are pushed, there is an involuntary response to jump backwards to prevent falling on your back. Even then, your backward momentum may require jumping several times before regaining balance. This response is not necessarily done to make the teacher look good. Also, some students are scared of being pushed and jump away when a push is imminent. That reaction can be a sign of an overly competitive training atmosphere, which can be counterproductive to the learning process.

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