# Five Bows of Taijiquan

by on 2013/02/24

Taijiquan practice requires that the body must possess five bows in order to have power. There are different versions of what the five bows are. In the Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method system the five bows are defined as:

1. Hand to Hand.
2. Foot to foot.
3. Hand to foot (set one).
4. Foot to hand (set two).
5. Torso.

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

andrewlong February 25, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Master Chen, can you please define 3-5?

Also what are the two points or tips of the torso bow?

Thanks!

Calvin Chow February 26, 2013 at 9:09 am

My observation is that we can find these bows in circle exercise. These bows are in 3D spiral form not a 2D traditional bow shape. The stretch in between the tips is the power of the bow which comes from Yin and Yang separation. The energy alignment forms an invisible string or pole in between the tips. It is empty between the tips.

Calvin Chow February 27, 2013 at 6:41 am

Observing from the pushing wall exercise, I think torso bow is head to foot. Hope that Master Chen may correct me if I am wrong.

Andrew Long March 2, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Thanks Calvin, Master Chen demonstrates this often with one person placing their fingers on the two “tips” of the bow, he then rotates the center towards the energy line between the two points thus creating the bow.

cshum00 February 26, 2013 at 3:22 pm

The bows referred on internal arts are ancient analogies of leaf springs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaf_spring. Leaf springs is one of the mechanical ways to store kinetic energy. One of the most relevant ancient weapon to show such quality is the bow; and so we have the analogy.

The simplest form one can create with our own body is the finger flick. Where bending finger will be the bow and the finger holding your flick is your opponent. But different arts define different bows of their body. Wu Hao TaiChiQuan defines them as:
1) Left arm
2) Right Arm
3) Left leg
4) Right leg
5) Torso (top of the head to coccyx)

But at more advanced levels, one can draw leaf spring like qualities from any points of the body. I believe that in practical method are:
3) Hand to foot (set one): front hand to rear foot.
4) Foot to hand (set two): front foot to rear hand.
Or vice-versa. It is not much difference than Wu Hao TaiChiQuan bows except that practical method prefers longer bows for better leverage.

If you can understand Chinese (Mandarin), here is a clip of an old BaquaZhang master explaining hand to hand bow/spring structure:

Andrew Long March 2, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Leaf springs are a great analogy for the bows of the body. I also really like the finger flick, very simple and easy for anyone to understand. Thanks!

bruce.schaub February 28, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Having made a few bows, over the years I’ve done a fair amount of research on bow making technology. One interesting correlation, is a bow consists of the same fundamental characteristics as a rotation (push, pull, and neutral axis). The “back” of a bow, the part that faces a target, is stretched or pulled away from itself so woods with good tensile strength are necessary for a good “back”. The “belly” of a bow, facing the person shooting it, is pushed together, so woods with good compressive strength are chosen for this inner part of the bow. Not to forget the ever important neutral axis, this runs longways through the bow from tip to tip, it has the job of keeping tension and compression separated. When a bow is unstrung, it is basically like a stick, it has yin and yang in it, but they are not seperated until it is strung. When you put it under tension, by restricting the two ends, it is in a dynamic separated state. If it is well made, the forces of tension and compression will be balanced, and therefore power is maximised. Some of the best bow technology that exists has been around for 2500 years, and consists of not wood, but horn and sinew of various animals (not unlike the tendons and bones of our body)……the potential energy that can be stored in such a combination is impressive……

Chen Zhonghua February 28, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Thanks a lot, Bruce. That will help a lot of people including me.

bruce.schaub February 28, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Nothing would make me happier!

Andrew Long March 2, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Very interesting, I never knew of bows made of horns and sinew existed. It’s beyond me to be able to separate the front and the back of the bow to create another yin and yang separation in the body. Seems very advanced.

The neutral axis sounds like the combination of an equal revolution and a rotation that creates the taiji power Master Chen talks about. Just a thought.

Thanks Bruce, very insightful.

bruce.schaub March 3, 2013 at 10:03 am

Hi Andrew, the horn bows were originally developed by nomadic horse tribes in eurasia, mainly out of the need to be able to hunt and fight from horseback. Typical wooden bows were roughly 5 feet long and very unwieldy to move and aim while riding a horse. Horn bows gave them a much more compact and powerful weapon that ended up giving them a major tactical advantage as they perfected the technology and became progressively warlike and territorial. The Great Wall of China was built in part due to repeated invasions from the north over the centuries by these nomadic horse people armed with these devastating weapons. By the time Genghis Khan and his Mongolian Horde invaded China, bringing an end to the Song Dynasty, 6 out of 10 of his soldiers were horse archers armed with Mongolian horn bows, so they actually ended up playing a somewhat pivotal role in Chinese history.

None of that is really particularly relevant to what we are learning, but interesting none the less. I think the important realization for me is that everything in practical method is an attempt to work towards achieving a principle action. Rotation. Rotation requires separation of yin and yang. Separation of yin and yang requires a neutral axis or pivot. When I happend to be watching a video of a bow-maker gluing tendons to the back of a horn bow, and he said “the real job of a Master Bowyer is to perfectly balance the forces of tension and compression to bring out the perfected neutral axis” it was definitely, an “ahah” moment….. “sounds like Master Chen!” i thought to myself….Realizing that a bow consists of the same fundamental characteristics as a rotation, it made me think that the stretched peng energy we try to achieve is a form of rotation. That was very meaningful for me, and of course I never would have made that connection were it not for all of Master Chen’s efforts to teach us, we are always trying to rotate.

But, rotations in the body are very complex, and don’t really fit simple models and are often spiral shaped rather than “bow shaped”. As Hugo pointed out they are the reverse of what might normally think. Such as the concave circle, where the tension and stretch is on the inside of the arm, where most Taiji styles talk about the arm bow as an outward bow. The concave circle is a very advanced piece of technology in and of itself. I still can very clearly remember the feeling of touching Master Chen’s arm and it feeling like there were two arms in one. All the power from my push on the outside of his arm immediately came back to me on the inside. It truly felt physically separated, like it was rotating linearly in isolation, but as two connected peices. I’ve never felt anything like that from other Masters. Miraculous. So the bottom line is we just have to follow the rules and keep practicing, but it’s always nice when something that seems to be a contradiction resolves itself……

Hugo Ramiro March 3, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Hi Bruce – I can concur with the description you made of Master Chen’s arm. It is from him that I learned about what I will, for now, call ‘complex splitting’, something that he may have called ‘segmentation’ in the past. I also feel two definite forces when I focus on one of his arms at a time. Without getting muddled up in further written description, I will say that the following diagram is the closest thing I have seen that captures what I *believe* I am feeling in Master’s Chen’s arm, as a cross-section (roughly, of course, my perception of this is blurred and smoky at best):

http://spiritualorchid.org/files/images/iching1_0.jpg

bruce.schaub March 4, 2013 at 8:01 am

Thanks Hugo, I know it’s tempting to just want to trust our subjective experience and begin to think we are understanding whats going on. I’m glad to know someone who has had a lot more direct experience with Master Chen had a similar experience. The diagram definitely makes sense…..

Hugo Ramiro March 4, 2013 at 8:37 am

I do, of course, say it cautiously. When he moves slowly and I have the opportunity to listen (ting) carefully, I definitely experience a fine segmentation, more than one force, what feel like a lot of small splits, and, I verified the last time I saw him, my inability to feel his feet. Every Master I’ve touched with I could feel at least their back foot. Master Chen is able to direct my power / peng so that his base is concealed from me.
Very interesting.

Hugo Ramiro March 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Great information Bruce. As I understand it, the difference between the bow and the human body is that the bow can’t exchange its outside with its inside. I.e. we are not locked into having only a tensile strength on the outside of the arm, or a compressive strength on the inside of the arm; these can switch.
I’ll leave Master Chen to correct me now.
Thanks again for the great description!
Hugo

Chen Zhonghua March 1, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Sure.

Andre March 2, 2013 at 11:05 am

Hand to foot (set one).
Foot to hand (set two).

Master Chen one quick question,
My understanding is that these 2 mean ‘from front hand to rear foot'(and vice-versa), -and- ‘from front hand to front foot'(and vice-versa), possibly also ‘from front foot to rear hand’, etc.. is that correct? or is it being specific, as in referring to only one of these sets.

I need to know so i can translate it accurately.

Thanks.

Chen Zhonghua March 2, 2013 at 12:18 pm

from one hand to the opposite foot and from the other hand to its opposite foot.

Andre March 2, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Thanks again master Chen, that cleared it up.

Bill Pippel March 4, 2013 at 12:30 am

Here’s my take on the bows: When you string a traditional wooden bow, you put one end on the ground and press your weight down on the other end that is in your hands. This bends the bow and allows you to get the bowstring up and into the notches on the upper end of the bow. You probably have had that experience and know how it feels to compress a bow.

When you use the leg bow(s) it’s the same feeling. You let your body weight press or bounce down into the leg (in which you have created the condition of bounciness or springiness). Each leg acts just like the wooden bow does when you string it. Or, if you wish, you can use the analogy of a leaf spring on end or a pogo stick. They are all metaphors to lead you to the same feeling. You drop your bodyweight down into your leg(s) and catch the gravity-powered momentum in your foot against the floor. You let your leg (knee) briefly collapse (flex), but then quickly catch your dropping body with it. You push or hit or kick in a coordinated way that allows the energy of the gravity-powered drop into the bow-like leg to rebound up through the relaxed body and out the part (hand, foot, knee, shoulder, hip, etc) that is in contact with the opponent.

The timing is this: As you are dropping your weight into your foot, your fist (in the case of a punch) travels toward the target. At the exact moment you weight “hits bottom” in your foot, your fist “hits bottom” in the opponent’s body. You hit on the down, not on the up.

Some people generate leg power by extending one leg or another and lifting and driving the rest of the body *up* into the target. The method I am describing is not that. It is a much less effortful approach that lets the body drop *down* into the foot and derives its power from gravity’s pull not muscular power. It is relaxed, loose, and *internal*, not tense, muscular, and *external*.

Arm bows work similarly: When your arm makes contact with the opponent’s body, the elbow does not straighten; it actually relaxes and bends for a split second, creating a springy “catching” feeling in the arm, just like the “catching” feeling in the leg when your weight “hits bottom” against the earth.

The fifth bow (in some systems) is the spinal bow. During a punch, it does the same springy “catching” that the leg and arm bow do.

You coordinate all these bows simultaneously. It’s a loose and relaxed thing. It takes way less effort to produce power. You can make it produce long, short, or cold power by experimenting with stiffnesses of the various bows. You can make big movements with very loose bows to create long jin, or you can tighten them up and make short, sudden movements to create short jin.

I discovered all this a few years ago by experimenting with hitting the heavy bag. It definitely increased by hitting power. Once I got the feel of it and got better at it, I noticed on YouTube that some internal teachers also do it, but some do not. Wang Xiangzhai, founder of Yichuan, probably did it because three of his students do it on their videos. They are Yao Zongxun (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOjct-3pFm8), Cui Rubin, and Bo Jiacong (begins at 4:20 in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34TCAXfUrEE). Watch them, and you’ll see what I am describing. Yao’s two sons either don’t show it or don’t have it. there was a Chen guy I saw doing it, but i can’t remember his name.

There are other components to power generation, of course, and other completely different methods. Among them are the weight shift from one foot to the other, turning horizontally on the femur/pelvis joint (kua), rotating horizontally or vertically with the waist (yao), and so forth. But basically though, I think the most power is generated by using the leg bows. The rest of the body, including the arms, are better used as relaxed, springy, passive channels to deliver to the target the gravity-power generated by the legs.

Calvin Chow March 4, 2013 at 5:58 pm

The power generation you mentioned is based on gravity-powered momentum forming a springy force. This belongs to another system such as Yichuan as well other internal martial art style. However, I see Practical Method mainly concentrates on rotation. The five bows combination is to create axis (torso bow) for rotation of lever (hand/leg bow) using body structural force. It looks like five bow concept can have various applications.

Bill Pippel March 4, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Calvin,

It would be interesting to see the gravity-powered aspect combined with the Practical Method axial rotation. Would that produce more power?

Bill

Bill Pippel March 4, 2013 at 11:43 pm

Here’s a Chen guy using more or less what I am talking about:

http://videos.tn-cash.com/video/Hf6cyY0ZZvc/

His first technique, “Dashing Hand” shows it pretty well. Keep your attention on his lower body (pelvis and legs). You don’t really need the stamping, and he could use the springy-ness of his leg bow better. Maybe he should watch those Yichuan videos. 🙂

He is not the Chen guy I talked about in my original post.

cshum00 March 4, 2013 at 9:43 pm

I think it is a little to fast to judge other the possibility of other people’s inability. Most internal arts are hard to judge until you have the first hand experience with the practitioner. Also for many styles, their basic required training (基本功) are often very external at the beginning. But from there, when the practitioners understand the concept do the proper adjustments; the art becomes internal. And these adjustments are not usually visible to people who doesn’t train their style. Some practitioners even do basic external training in their advanced levels. Not to mention that the internal arts are not constrained to just the Taiji bows. There are far more internal abilities/methods that we are not aware of. That is why you see so many variations of Jin.

It is like how some non-Practical Method TaiChiQuan practitioners judge that Practical Method is not internal because it looks double weighted. The reason is because most non-Practical Method TaiChiQuan actually shift their weight by displacing their Dantien closer and above to their single leg. But what they don’t understand is that in Practical Method shift the weights of their legs by simply rotating their entire leg around their thigh and kua. Which in my opinion it is a lot of faster than displacing your Dantien from one leg to the other.

Here is a very interesting contradiction. What seems to be weak to the external practitioner, internal arts are very solid in producing force. What seems to be very rigid and external to the internal practitioner, the art might actually be very internal.

Bill Pippel March 4, 2013 at 10:54 pm

I don’t understand “in Practical Method shift the weights of their legs by simply rotating their entire leg around their thigh and kua.” Can you explain that a little more? I can’t visualize what you are describing. What does “rotating their entire leg around their thigh and kua” mean?

Thank you

cshum00 March 4, 2013 at 11:54 pm

This is how Practical Method does it:
http://practicalmethod.com/2012/02/how-to-rotate/

Radically different from other Chen Styles. Not that either one is wrong just that either has their own way of doing things. But personally, I think Practical Method’s is the most efficient.

Bill Pippel March 6, 2013 at 9:58 pm

Thanks for posting this video. I see what you mean by rotating the leg. Pretty cool.

pingwei March 5, 2013 at 7:22 am

Just remember when a bow is strung and in use, its tension is FULL. Nothing is loose. In another way we can say it’s stiff (with the tension). This should be our guidance in practicing yilu.
Enjoyed reading all above interesting discussions.

Chen Zhonghua March 5, 2013 at 8:55 am

This is a good, interesting and useful discussion. I thank everyone involved for that. Just like to point out that the crucial element is how we “believe” we can replicate what we see with our own body. We normally treat the physical world with fairly scientific approach and our own body with a very basic personal assumption. The success in imitating nature is highly dependent on how we take a new look at our body, not at nature.