Tuishou (pushing hands)

Tuishou or pushing hands is a two-person training routine practiced in Tai Chi Chuan as well as in other internal Chinese Martial arts like Baguazhang and Xingyiquan.

Pushing hands is said to be the gateway for students to experientially understand the martial aspects of Tai Chi Chuan: leverage (i.e. yielding or sticking), reflex, sensitivity, timing, coordination and positioning. Pushing hands works to undo a person’s natural instinct to resist force with force, teaching the body to yield to force and redirect it.

Pushing hands (tuishou) allows students to learn how to respond to an opponent by using the Tai Chi Chuan postures and techniques. Training with a partner allows a student to develop ting jing (listening power), the sensitivity to feel the direction and strength of a partner’s intention. That way tuishou teaches students to train in the defensive and offensive movement principles: learning to generate, coordinate and deliver force to another and also how to effectively neutralize incoming forces in a safe environment.

In Tai Chi Chuan, tuishou uses the principles of what are known as the “Eight Gates and Five Steps” and what we earlier described as the thirteen postures of Tai Chi Chuan also known as the “13 Original movements of Tai Chi Chuan”. Training and pushing hands competitions generally involve contact but no striking. The next step then is to advance to sanshou where these principles can be elaborated on in a free sparring match where striking is allowed.

The three primary principles of movement cultivated by pushing hands practice are:[2]

  • Rooting – Stability of stance, a highly trained sense of balance in the face of force.
  • Yielding and sticking – The ability to flow with forces, meaning to yield/deflect or stick/adhere to an incoming or retracting force from any angle. The practitioner moves with the attacker’s movement fluidly without compromising their own balance.
  • Release of energy or power (fa jin) – The application of power or release of energy to an opponent. Even while applying force in push hands one maintains the principles of yielding, sticking and rooting at all times.

Traditional internal teachers say that just training solo forms isn’t enough to learn a martial art; that without tuishou, reflex and sensitivity to another’s movements and intent are lost. Each component is seen as equally necessary for realizing the health, meditative and self-defence applications. 

Pushing hands trains technical principles in ever increasing complexity of patterns. At first students work basic patterns, then patterns with moving steps coordinated in different directions, patterns at differing heights (high, middle, low and combinations) and then finally different styles of “freestyle” push hands, which lead into sanshou or sparring that combines closing and distancing strategies with long, medium and short range techniques. These exchanges are characterized as “question and answer” sessions between training partners; the person pushing is asking a question, the person receiving the push answers with their response. The answers should be “soft,” without resistance or stiffness. The students hope to learn to not fight back when pushed nor retreat before anticipated force, but rather to allow the strength and direction of the push to determine their answer. The intent thereby is for the students to condition themselves and their reflexes to the point that they can meet an incoming force in softness, move with it until they determine its intent and then allow it to exhaust itself or redirect it into a harmless direction. The degree to which students maintain their balance while observing these requirements determines the appropriateness of their “answers.” The expression used in some tai chi schools to describe this is “Give up oneself to follow another.” The eventual goal for self-defence purposes is to achieve meeting the force, determining its direction and effectively redirecting it in as short a time as possible, with examples provided of seemingly instantaneous redirections at the highest levels of Kung Fu by traditional teachers.

Pushing hands also teaches students safety habits in regard to their own vital areas, especially acupressure points, as well as introducing them to the principles of chin na chin na and some aspects of the manipulative therapy or tui na related to TCM. At a certain point, pushing hands begins to take on aspects of Qi Gong, as the students learn to coordinate their movements in attack and defense with their breathing.

Below is a video of Chen Xiaowang, the 19th generation lineage holder of Chen-style Tai Chi, who explains pushing hands or tuishou perfectly in a broadcast for the Chinese National Television (CCTV):