Zhan, Nian, Lian, Sui: Four Key Skills for Pushing Hands and Fighting

By Zhang Yun

PART I of II

There are four basic Taiji Quan push hands and fighting skills – Zhan, Nian, Lian, and Sui. They are also called four basic Nei Jin – internal trained force. Without use these skills, one is not doing Taiji Quan. So that people usually say that these four skills are the foundation of all Taiji Quan techniques. They should be included in everywhere. They are the most important characteristics of Taiji Quan. They show the biggest difference between Taiji Quan and other martial arts style. It is why people always use them to express Taiji Quan. They are used as the brief definition of Taiji Quan.

知己知敌
Zhi Ji Zhi Bi – “know yourself and your opponent”
To understand these four skills is the first step to reach high level Taiji Quan skills. Pushing hands practice is only way to learn these skills. Sensitivity is the basis of these skills because all of them requires people to know their opponent’s reaction and from the reaction to decide the right way of their response. This idea is sometime started as Zhi Ji Zhi Bi – “know yourself and your opponent”. Without this, one cannot do Taiji Quan correctly. These four skills embody some basic Taiji Quan principles, typically refereed to as Jie Li Da Li – “borrow force from your opponent and use his force to beat him back”; Yi Jing Zhi Dong – “using still to control motion”; Hou Fa Xian Zhi – “launching later but reaching first”; and She Ji Cong Ren – “forget yourself and obey (follow, yield) your opponent”.

1. Zhan 粘
The original meaning of Zhan is to adhere or stick something up. In Taiji Quan practice it means to get your opponent to follow you a while under your control. It looks as if your opponent is struck to your hand (or the other part of your body). The technical term of this is “stick a person up” (It does not mean to grip or hold him up!). If you can do this well continually, your opponent appears to follow you and jump as if you have bounced him. This works because you have shaken and moved his root and cause him to lose his balance and he will try to use you to regain it. When the opponent has lost his balance and tries to use you to keep his balance, he must follow you to move. While most of the time Zhan is used to get your opponent to follow you in an upward direction, it can be in any direction. When using Zhan, you do
not use your force to move your opponent, instead of he is moved by his own force but by your control. So it is called “borrow force from your opponent and use his force to beat him back”. To do Zhan well, you must have really good basic kungfu, like sensitivity and integration, and also understand the basic principles very well. Thus the level of your Taiji Quan skill always can be judged from this skill.

借力打力
Jie Li Da Li – “borrow force from your opponent and use his force to beat him back”
The key point of making Zhan well is to make your opponent lose his balance. Basically there are two kind of methods for doing Zhan. With the first method, you can use some skill to lead or seduce your opponent to loss his balance. It is called “lead coming in to fall down into a empty place”. It will cause that he wants to use something to maintain his balance. At this time, give the part of your body (most time just use the touching point between you and the opponent) to him and then he will be controlled by you. The more balance he lose, the more force he will be use for keeping balance, so the more available force you can borrow from him and the easier you can do Zhan. Most time, it is difficult to seduce the opponent to lose his balance directly, so that the second method is used more often. With this method the first thing you need to do is to unsettle your opponent, sometimes called giving him some trouble first. This means that you should use some skills to make him feel uncomfortable, as if lose his balance, and must adjust his body. When he feels in the trouble or off-balanced, his reaction offers you a chance to do Zhan.
Choosing the right time and direction is important to do Zhan well. For example, if you can make your opponent feel compressed down really, you will probably have a good chance to use Zhan on him. Pay attention to his reaction, if you feel his legs push his body up, just raise up your hand and you can make him jump up by his own force. When he jumps, you can use some other technique to beat him. This will save a lot of energy and is thus real Taiji Quan skill. For timing, if your hands raise too early, there is no enough reaction force from the opponent; if your hands raise too late, the opponent just get time to regain his balance and you lose your chance. In both cases your Zhan will not work. The best time to use Zhan is when his reaction force almost at its maximum and the next change has not happened yet. This is the time when it is most difficult for him to make a change. For direction, you should follow the direction of the opponent’s reaction force. Although it is the best direction, it may be too difficult. For additional safety, you can use the technique of changing his direction slightly. For example move your hand in an arc. A little bit of change can confuse your opponent and thus be very helpful. The other important technique is to keep a little bit force in the reverse direction of the opponent’s reaction. It is called “Yin and Yang supplement each other”. In above example, when you raise your hand up, at the same time keep a little bit force to push down, it will make the opponent feel your downward push still there so that he will keep his reaction to against you. If your opponent’s reaction force is not enough, you can use one hand to Zhan him and your other hand to help, that is push him according to the direction of his reaction. But this help should be light, smooth, soft, and coordinate with the other hand. It is a common technique which require a good integration of your body. If your opponent does not really know Taiji Quan, that is if his sensitivity is slow and his changes are clear and straight, Zhan can be done easy and you can have incredible results. But if your opponent has Taiji Quan skills, using Zhan will be difficult. The interesting thing is that usually the result is not good if you use your mind too much to do this skill. You should keep in natural way and do it naturally. In fact, most times Zhan is not used big and clearly. It is always mixed with or included in some other skills.

2. Nian
The original meaning of Nian is stick, adhere or paste to. In Taiji Quan practice it means to keep contact your opponent, and through this contact to make him feel uncomfortable. Keep this contact and never let him go away, like something adheres on his body. Be careful, it does not mean to use big force to hold your opponent. It should be light touching. When you use this skill, you should try to use the minimum force. We always say to unsettle your opponent a little bit each time but continually, until the opponent is in big trouble. Do not let him feel too much is important.
In pushing hands, when you touch your opponent, you should unsettle him. Do not use too much force, just let him feel that he must do something to solve the problem. Then he will give you a reaction. From his reaction, you can determine how you should respond. If you cannot make a chance, keep doing Nian, that means follow him, keep touching and giving him a little bit more trouble, and wait for him to give you more reaction. So Nian is also used to sound the opponent out. That means to give him questions and await his answers. The questions should hit his weakness point continually. If you have question for him one by one and he cannot give you the right answer on time, you are controlling him. The important things are to never let the opponent get away and to sense the right time and direction to make your next move. Be careful, do not use extra force, because if you use too much force, you will be difficult to relax, and it will cause your sensitivity to be sluggish. Then you will be slow to change, and even maybe fall into your opponent’s trap. So do not worry how big movement your opponent does, just to keep relax and touch him with a little bit change. Do not worry how fast movement he does, the interesting thing is just keep quite, relax, and touch him, and then you can get your chance. This basic Taiji Quan idea is called “using still to control motion”.

以静制动
Yi Jing Zhi Dong – “using still to control motion”

3. Lian 连
The original meaning of Lian is continue or link. There are two meanings of Lian in Taiji Quan practice. They are continually follow and change. The first one means that you maintain continually contact by following your opponent and never let him leaving. Most time when people say Lian, they mean this. Basically Taiji Quan skills
depend on your sensitivity. If you lose contact with your opponent (not just means physical, but mind and Shen), you cannot feel him any more, so that you cannot apply your Taiji Quan skills.

With Lian you just maintain continually contact with your opponent while waiting for a chance to use other skills. Lian is always included in other skills. It is also used to link changes, that means it like a transfer skill. If you can keep Lian, that means you can feel your opponent all time so that you can know him always. It is why sometimes we think it is first thing you should do in pushing hands or fighting. The basic Taiji Quan idea, “launching later but reaching (or getting control) first”, is based on Lian skill. Also if you do some skills but failed, you can use Lian to get other chance. For example, when you use Nian to your opponent but he gets away. At that time you should use Lian to keep contact him and to try another chance. If your opponent gives you some trouble, Lian can also help you to adjust your position and go back safe and comfortable situation. For example, when your opponent uses Zhan to destroy your balance, you should use Lian to follow him and adjust yourself, then wait a chance to beat him back. This is most common way to use Lian.

后 发先至
Hou Fa Xian Zhi – “launching later but reaching (or getting control) first”
The other way of Lian means continually change as you are following, that means each of your techniques are joined together like the links in a chain, never breaking your mind and movements, and never giving your opponent any chance to change. Link all changes one by one continually, smoothly, and never stop. The most common change of movement during Lian is to change the direction of your force and the most common way to change your force is to make your movements circular which keeps their direction continuously changing smoothly.

4. Sui 随
The original meaning of Sui is follow or obey. In Taiji Quan practice that means to follow your opponent’s movement or mind. According to Taiji Quan principle, you should avoid to against the opponent by your force directly. You should make the opponent feel that he can get you but do not really let him get you. You should make him use some techniques that cannot really work on your body. If you can keep relax, you can do Sui well and from Sui you can feel and know your opponent well.
Sui requires that you really relax your body. Follow the direction and timing of your opponent’ s force, whatever he does, do not let his force work on your body. It does not mean to use your force against his force. It means he cannot find a point to use his force on your body. Sui also does not mean leave and just run away. It means to keep touch with your opponent, never lose touch points. You should let your opponent feel he will have a chance to get you so that he will keep doing something.

舍己从人
She Ji Cong Ren – “forget yourself and obey (follow, yield) your opponent”
There is a famous sentence about Sui. It said: “forget yourself and obey (follow, yield) your opponent”. It is a basic Taiji Quan idea. People always say if you cannot do this, you cannot do real Taiji Quan skills. But many misunderstanding also come from this point. The most common misunderstanding is to think Sui just means following or obey the opponent. To do Sui in this way will cause you become weak finally because anyone’s movements have a limit, just do to follow in this way, finally you will in a very bad situation. This wrong way even causes some other misunderstanding or wrong impression, for example Taiji is too soft and cannot be used to fight, or Sui is wrong idea that means real Taiji Quan skills can never do it. In fact a real Sui skill should follow your opponent first, maybe just in very short time, that means whatever he wants to do, just follow him and never against him. From this following you can get time to feel your opponent and then you should try to find a chance to make change, be careful for this change the smaller the better, usually to lead and seduce him to wrong way. It just like another classical sentence said: “to follow your opponent is for finally let him to follow you”. A real Sui skill must include this idea. In fact Sui should be used in the beginning of almost every Taiji Quan skill, especially to defense some hard attacks, but cannot be used too much, that means never use it in all of the way, else Sui is going to weak. How much you should to do is really depend on the situation. The key point of Sui is how to transfer it to other skill. Unfortunately, many people overlook this point.

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