Dug out an old copy of Robert W. Smith’s Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods – an interesting book of stories from his late 50’s studies in Chinese martial arts in Taiwan and reread this very interesting section on differences in William Chen’s and his teacher, Zhengmanqing’s approaches to push hands and taijiquan postures [I’ve changed all Romanization to pinyin]:

Chen’s pushing technique differed markedly from Zheng Manqing’s… Chen also stressed the self-defense aspects of the art more… Zheng’s approach was quite different: you learned the the combative aspects after you had mastered the therapeutic discipline. And Zheng did not teach the function of the postures per se; he believed that if the Taiji body is developed, any attack could be neutralized and countered without recourse to a specific riposte… Chen told me a story of the famed Yang Luchan that illustrates their difference on the use of the postures. Once Yang visited a small village…the town’s best battler was brought in, and he told Yang to prepare. Without taking a stance, Yang replied that he was ready. The man attacked and was killed on the spot by a hand (from the Beginning posture) that no one saw. Chen said the story was told him by Zheng. But the master disavowed authorship; in fact, he said that this posture is not really meant for use in this way. The hands are raised to circulate the qi, nothing more. Probably neither is wrong. The posture may be used in this way, but one should not train as if this were the goal. If one does, the qi is subverted and we end with a mere mechanical counter.

This passage is interesting in that the debate is really false, much like the useless sport vs. art debate, yet instructive nonetheless. Both sides are of course telling part of the whole truth. The last few sentences pretty much sum everything up, but one should go back and read more of Smith’s reflections from back in the day. Various postures can have various “applications” but that is not necessarily the way to train since one can get mentally locked in and lose reaction speed and flow. Looking back, I think the training I had in this style was quite similar to “modern” approaches in some of the yiquan material I’ve been reading lately. However, like most people, I was looking for “apps”. One needs all of it, I think: “internal power” training, apps, tui shou, sparring, and so on, but ultimately one needs to “forget” apps for spontaneity and not locking into the mind just one “app” for one posture, or trying to remember way too many things – in this situation do that, etc. Now that I’ve learned some apps, which is certainly satisfying, I’ve come full circle and am, in some sense, starting all over. I’ve always like the Zen idea of, but probably haven’t had the actual patience for “the beginner’s mind”.