Why We Cross Hands The Way We Do

Posted by Stuart Herbert on April 5th, 2008 in Technique.

Do you keep a training diary?

I haven’t, until today. That’s over eight years of experience with no reliable record – only the neurones of my brain as an unreliable witness. How much have I learned and forgotten, and how many questions have I come across that I no longer recall?

In my experience, practising Tai Chi is a series of personal revelations. No progress is made, sometimes for months, and then WHAM – the pieces fall into place and my understanding takes a tiny step forward. The progress comes not through answers, but by finding the questions. When you find the right questions, the answers don’t provide the information – they simply show you what you’ve already come to understand.

For example, take one of the most basic hand movements in Tai Chi – cross hands. For the first eight years of my training, all the questions (from myself, and from fellow students) were about “what is it for?” or “how does it work?” They’re important questions; the student needs to know that cross hands is used to block kicks and punches, and they need to know how the timing and distancing works. If the student is more interested in health than martial, then the answers need to be couched in those terms instead.

But I no longer think that they’re the right questions, not with the outlook on the question as progress. The right question is “why is it that so-and-so arm is on the outside?” The answer to that ensures that form and function falls into place as a result.

In our form (Ng Family Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan), it is always the arm attached to the leading shoulder that sits on the outside of cross hands. We move left, and it is the left arm on the outside. We move right, and it is the right arm on the outside. Every time. Without fail. We’re always looking to move into a block, and we’re always looking to snag an arm or a leg and take it with us.

We’re always in continuous motion (one of the ten important principles from Yang Chen’fu), and cross hands appears deliberately designed to ensure that the move maximises the benefits of being in motion.

It also gives me new questions (well, new to me anyway!) about the old saying of the needle in the cotton, which I’ll look at next time.


  1. Loretta M. Donnelly says:
    April 24th, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Sooooo true. I am so glad I “took notes” in the 8 years I studied with my teacher before he died. It really does let you see the progress you made, and how your patterns of though changed. I still journal on tai chi. Also lets you know how you conceptualize things – that’s NEVER salient unless you can see it recorded. And I agree, it’s good to look for those patterns in the form – like what you mentioned about how/why the leading shoulder hand is always on the outside in your form. I think I drive a lot of the presenters nuts at the tai chi convention – the Zhang San Feng Festival – that I help run. I always ask: why does your style do this, why does your style always do that??? etc. etc.!

    Anyway, it’s a great journey!
    -Loretta Donnelly

  2. Mark Eagan says:
    April 24th, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    I agree completely about keeping a journal. It’s an invaluable tool and the biggest challenge is consistency.

    Where I disagree is in the explanation about cross hands. There really are no (or perhaps should not be) blocks, rather counters and/or opportunities to counter. Every action is an opportunity to strike, particularly when you know what to strike with the appropriate angle and direction. Every point of contact has a strategic counter-part to it. The term block is used a lot in martial arts and perhaps the interpretation means different things to different people at this point. However, unless you’re involved in sport, a block is a wasted move.

    A lot of schools that teach blocking fail to consider the dangers and weaknesses that come from it. Students learn to expose areas of their bodies to may be open to a weapon or result in bone on bone contact that can result in breaks and further damage. Most students don’t possess the skills to do it effectively in the first place and even many senior level instructors who were taught the same thing never learned to protect themselves effectively.

    A parry on the other hand might be construed as a form of blocking, but again the definition of parry and block are not the same and so I would argue that schools that teach blocking have a responsibility to really understand what they are teaching their students. In doing so they give them the benefit of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of those teachings so they can make educated choices before they find themselves in a difficult situation or injure themselves or someone else for that matter.

  3. Stuart Herbert says:
    May 1st, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    @Loretta – many thanks for your kind words and encouragement! Maybe one year I’ll be able to afford to come over to your convention, and get to ask lots of folks why as well 🙂

    @Mark – many thanks too! Over here in the UK, the term ‘parry’ tends to be restricted more to armed combat such as fencing in my (limited) experience. In our form, there isn’t a single cross hands move that is static, which surely automatically makes every cross hands a form of warding off (which is the origin of the word parry).

    If you come over to the UK at any time, I’d love the opportunity to meet up and learn more from you about this.

  4. supreme1 says:
    May 22nd, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    Unforutnately, I have not kept a journal and feel remiss as I read the comments of Mark and Loretta. I will begin the journal process right away.
    @Stuart, thank you for this post it reminds me to be more award of what I am doing and where I have come from in the art. I have learned as well that I have practiced and practiced and one day like a bolt of lighting like a shot of light it hits me and I have reached a new consciousness concerning a certain posture or movement.

    @Mark and Stuart, I understand both of you clearly as I was taught never to block, but to parry. And Stuart I fully understand how words can contain different meanings or have different places of use in different cultures. How would either of you feel about the use of the word “dissolve” rather than parry or block? Understanding, that I concur with Stuart’s rendering of the word parry from wardoff.

  5. Stuart Herbert says:
    May 22nd, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    @supreme1: Do you find that the ‘bolt of lightning’ comes after longer periods of work, or after breaks from that work?

    About blocking vs parrying once more 🙂 … I agree with the sentiment in the choice of the word dissolve. I need to look at everywhere we parry again. There’s a couple of places where I haven’t figured out how the move can be anything other than a hard block (I’m thinking of the low blocks against kicks that we have just after Golden Pheasant).

    But, to everyone … please chip in with your comments. Whether you agree with me or not, or whether I agree with you or not, this sort of debate helps me learn, and is exactly why I decided to blog about Tai Chi since becoming a teacher of the art. Your comments, insights and experiences are most welcome!

  6. supreme1 says:
    May 23rd, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Thanks Stuart, I think I actually agree. I find the more I practice the more I cannot say one way is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Keep working and I will certainly come back and keep reading.