Tai Chi fighting basic knows Four Characters Secret

Li Yishe (1832–1892) wrote the “Tai Chi Quan Pu” in the seventh year of the Guangxu era (1881), which contains the “Secret Techniques of Four Characters of Tai Chi Quan by Yu Xiang’s Uncle” (referred to as “Four Characters Secret”). The “Four Characters,” namely “Spread, Cover, Confront, and Swallow,” are secrets used in Tai Chi push hands, free sparring, and power issuing.

Wu Yuxiang (1812–1880) wrote in the postscript of the “Four Characters Secret”: “These four characters are formless and silent. Only those who understand the energy and have trained to an extremely refined level can fully comprehend them. It’s about cultivating Qi directly in a harmless way, then it can be applied to the whole body, which speaks for itself.”

The postscript explains that to understand the Four Characters Secret, one must first understand the energy; without this understanding and reaching a highly refined level of practice, it’s impossible to fully grasp it. This might sound mysterious, but practicing push hands involves a process of ‘gradually understanding the energy from familiarity and progressing to a divine level of understanding.’ Only after passing the initial stage can one gradually understand the “Four Characters Secret.” Of course, due to individual differences in insight, even with the same effort, comprehension can vary in timing.

The postscript notes “It’s about Qi, cultivating it directly and harmlessly.” Cultivating Qi refers to breathing naturally and smoothly, as natural and smooth breathing causes no harm. As Wu Yuxiang mentioned “It’s about Qi,” I’ve seen many push hands practitioners floating their hands on others, barely touching the skin and calling it the application of Wu’s Four Characters Secret, claiming it’s purely about moving Qi! They also say, “Once refined, one can issue force from mid-air.”

Let’s talk about “mid-air force.” The concept of mid-air force in push hands appears in Chen Yanlin’s “Tai Chi Quan, Dao, Jian, Gan, Free Hands Compilation” (published by Shanghai Guoguang Bookstore in 1943) in volume two, “On Energy,” where he also stated, “Mid-air force… is really just a mental effect.” This is quite different from Wu’s “It’s about Qi.” In fact, push hands should involve close contact, without connection there can be no striking, and most of the time one must stick to the opponent’s body like glue, embodying the principle “externally firm but internally soft, like glue and lacquer,” and “to conquer the enemy, the skill lies in sticking.” Therefore, the notion that one does not need to stick but uses Qi to control the opponent and considers it the basis for practicing “mid-air force” is utterly mistaken.

In Tai Chi, the integration of mind, Qi, and strength is emphasized as “using the mind to guide Qi” and “using Qi to move the body” (as seen in Wu Yuxiang’s “Thirteen Postures Functionality Explained”), along with “where the mind goes, Qi follows, and where Qi goes, strength naturally follows.” Push hands primarily relies on mental control over actions, where mind, Qi, and strength are unified. Of course, sufficient “Qi” is needed to generate enough “strength,” hence the emphasis on “cultivating Qi.” But if Qi cultivation is not natural and smooth, it can lead to stagnation of Qi and blockage of strength, thus Wu repeatedly emphasized the need to “directly cultivate Qi.” Only when Qi is directly cultivated can it penetrate the whole body, allowing one to spontaneously transform and issue strength, otherwise the body would feel numb and incapable of transformation or issuing force.

First, let’s clarify the postscript, and then explain “Spread, Cover, Confront, and Swallow” one by one, which will make understanding much more effective; otherwise, differing concepts just lead to wasted effort.

**Original text 1:** Spread is to move Qi over one’s own body and spread it over the opponent’s energy to immobilize them.

**Explanation:** Let’s first read Li Yishe’s “Explanation of Spread”; “Spread, as it says ‘to cover in one word.’ Those who hear of this technique without practice speak carelessly of it. At first, they do not understand, but upon contemplation, they realize ‘Spread’ encompasses all around, ‘others do not know me, I alone know others.’ Although the Qi is still within one’s bones, the intention is already on the opponent’s skin, beyond the flesh, what is called ‘the intention swallows before the Qi arrives.’ Exquisite! Exquisite!” What is described here as “encompassing all around” is like a doctor gently wrapping a bandaged arm. ‘Encompassing’ means to surround completely. If not in close contact, it cannot be considered “Spread,” much less “encompassing all around.” “Spread” certainly also

implies “agility,” but agility does not equate to floating; lightly touching the opponent definitely will not stick, thus the subsequent “Cover, Confront, Swallow” cannot occur. Once the opponent moves or reaches out, I will react too slowly; if I move, the opponent will feel it sharply, because from “floating to solid,” there will be an obvious sensation. Therefore, “spreading over the opponent’s energy” should “encompass all around” and should not float, nor should my energy have interruptions, defects, unevenness, or fail to connect or follow the opponent. Otherwise, we can’t talk about sticking and following.

The whole sentence means: Spread is to guide Qi with the mind on one’s own limbs and, through the connection with the opponent, spread my Qi over the opponent’s energy like applying medicine, preventing them from initiating an attack.

Here, “moving Qi in one’s own body” refers to guiding the natural movement of Qi with the intention, as in “moving Qi like a nine-curvature pearl, reaching everywhere.” The movement of Qi, to some extent, needs to adapt to defensive needs but must also form a natural reflex. The “move” at the end refers to “initiating an attack,” like the “move” in “if the opponent does not move, I do not move.” This shouldn’t be interpreted as immobilizing, otherwise “making them unable to move” would become rigid binding, which would be “off by a bit, wrong by a mile!” It should be interpreted as sticking to the opponent, making them unable to escape; or “making the opponent unable to issue or transform,” as well.

**Original text 2:** Cover is to cover the opponent’s approaching force with Qi.

**Explanation:** Not only spreading but also covering the opponent’s impending force. Spreading has a general nature, as the opponent’s force has not yet emerged; the word “cover” has a specificity, specifically to “cover the coming place.” Coming, that is, the incoming force. If the opponent has force coming, I envelop it, making it move with me. The outward form of Tai Chi push hands is passive, emphasizing “letting oneself follow the opponent”; but in essence, it is active, warning people not to “abandon what is near for what is far.”

**Original text 3:** Confront: Confront is to direct Qi towards the opponent’s coming place, aiming precisely and striking.

After covering, you need to aim precisely. Boxing adages say: “Receiving hands is like fitting a dowel: first aim precisely, second grip firmly, third apply solidly.” Aiming means directing my Qi to where the opponent’s force is coming. Aiming precisely, that is aiming and gripping firmly; then applying solidly, striking out, then nothing can go wrong.

**Original text 4:** Swallow: Swallow is to completely swallow with Qi and enter into transformation.

**Explanation:** The third character talks about issuing, the fourth about transforming. Transforming the opponent, like a fish swallowing its prey, gently completely swallowing and digesting it. When the opponent issues force or presses, I completely swallow and dissolve it with Qi. Here I’ll explain again: Tai Chi emphasizes the unity of mind, Qi, and strength with the mind as the leader. Didn’t Li Yishe’s “Explanation of Spread” also mention it? “Although the Qi is still in my bones, the intention is right between their skin and membrane, what is called ‘the intention swallows before the Qi arrives.'” It shows that the intention must lead by a step, also known as “the heart commands, the Qi signals,” “using the heart to guide Qi,” not the other way around.

Additionally, “Spread, Cover, Confront, Swallow” are a whole. Exploring this secret, it’s best to understand it together with “stick, connect, adhere, follow,” and refer to the boxing adage “receiving hands is like fitting a dowel: first aim precisely, second grip firmly, third apply solidly,” and also refer to the principle “where the mind goes, Qi follows, and where Qi goes, strength naturally follows.” Then combine with one’s own level of gradually understanding energy through push hands practice, slowly and carefully appreciate it, and surely understanding this “Four Characters Secret” won’t be difficult or feel mysterious. Of course, to truly achieve this in push hands and free sparring takes at least a decade of hard work. The “Four Characters Secret” is a push hands technique not to be overlooked and is worth our serious study and discussion.

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