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The Hands of Cheng Man-Ching

I've been studying Cheng Man-Ching's 37-Movement Short Form for 20 years, and feel like I've only scratched the surface. This was made painfully clear to me recently when I watched a YouTube video of him doing the form. I've watched him dozens of times over the past two decades, and only now do I realize there's something happening with his hands that are not happening in mine.

Cheng Man-Ching is known for having very soft hands — the so-called "Fair Maiden's Hand." But it's more than just keeping the wrists straight and the fingers relaxed. To an outside observer, they might even describe his hands as dead, lifeless, disconnected, disengaged. Of course, I don't think he's doing that. There's plenty of qi at his disposal when he needs it for Push Hands or martial combat. But when watching him do the form, I tried to come up with positive words to describe what I was seeing (instead of "dead," "lifeless," etc.), and I came up with the phrase, "He's doing tai chi from the wrists on up."

When I practice the form and mimic the level of softness Cheng Man-Ching exhibits in his hands, I'm astonished by how much qi I feel in them, without adding any intention, shape, or active relaxation. One way of describing it is like the difference between a dinner plate and a cereal bowl. I can actively open my fingers a little bit to create a dinner plate, which has a larger diameter, but shallow volume. Whereas if I completely relax my fingers, I now have a cereal bowl — smaller diameter, but deeper volume. It's amazing how much qi I can feel in my hands without any additional encouragement.

Another analogy that springs to mind is a garden hose. You can put a sprayer nozzle on the end of it, or not — either way, the water makes its way there. If wanted or needed, I have the option to deliver and shape the expression of my qi by squeezing the handle of the nozzle. But keeping my hands fully relaxed — the equivalent of not having the nozzle at all — feels like the most pure, unobstructed flow of qi.

That's not to say one can't practice the form with intention in the hands. There are all sorts of hand shapes and varying levels of intention you can add. Heck, a few years ago even I veered to the other end of the spectrum. I was tired of the super-relaxed "Fair Maiden" idea, and practiced the form with spread fingers, bent wrists, and rounded-out elbows. And it felt great! But I now realize that should only be a variation on a theme. The most fundamental, baseline state should be hands relaxed as much as possible, the deepest possible Yin that feeds and powers all the myriad of Yang possibilities. Just like a sine wave, the deeper the trough, the higher the peak; the deeper the Yin, the greater the Yang.

This is the true power of tai chi, what makes it different from all other martial arts and Western notions of muscular strength and power.

BONUS: And now to go beyond the hands! The softer my hands, the more softness it seems to trigger in my entire body. This can be explained neurologically: in our motor and sensory cortex regions of the brain, the hands are disproportionally, hugely represented. Our hands are very richly innervated! So it makes sense that what we do with our hands has a huge influence on how we perceive and feel the rest of our body.

I have never seen or felt a tai chi style/form that is more Yin than the Cheng Man-Ching form. He was really on to something, and there is an astounding level of tai chi to explore and develop by going deep, by going further Yin (pun intended).

Try it yourself! No matter what style of tai chi you practice, play around with doing your form(s) "from the wrists on up" and let me know how it feels in the comments below!

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