When I began learning Tai-Chi from Master T.T. Liang, he mentioned his 5 Keys to Mastering Tai-Chi. The 5 keys are:
1. The Posture/Movement
5. Left/Other Side
After 36 years of learning, practicing, and teaching, I was able to expand that list from covering a single movement or posture. Gradually I was able to apply the 5 Keys to help me refine a whole form, and finally, to complete systems or styles.
I'd like to share with you the various ideas behind the names and how they can help you on your journey to mastery. The following are some categories that names can fall into.
1. External Movement. These names a clear cut and describe either an offensive or defensive martial art movement. Parry and Punch, Kick Upward, and Chop With Fist. etc. simply say what the technique is that you are doing.
2. Internal Feeling. These name describe inner feelings, either in mind, body, or spirit. Retreat to Ride the Tiger gives the idea of the stability of your stance, you feel balanced enough to ride a tiger. Of course, if you were to ride a tiger in real life in your "cat stance" it would be a short ride to dinner!
3.Partial Phrase. Just as in English, if we say a partial phrase, most of us can finish it. For instance, I say "a penny saved," you'd say "is a penny earned." Embrace the Moon is finished with "to Your Heart." "Swallow Holds Mud," continues with "in it's Mouth" and ends with "To Build it's House."
4. Humor, Puns Etc. Some of the names or humorous, Like Diagonal Flying, also called Slant Flying. You are not flying at an angle, the opponent goes flying off to the corner when you step behind their leg and turn your waist to push them with your forearm!
“Names and attributes must be accommodated to the essence of things, and not the essence to the names, since things come first and names afterwards.”
5. Colors. Color can correspond to direction, or the emotion/ spirit, behind a particular organ.
For instance blue can mean East, white is West, red is South, black is North, and yellow is Center. White corresponds to the Lung and can mean you are feeling brave. White Snake Spits Out It's Tongue is a technique where you strike with your elbow, chopping fist, then fingers of the same arm. You follow up with a palm with the other hand. With four weapons at your disposal, you can feel brave using this technique.
6. Animals. Animals can either be real or mythical. You can either copy the external appearance or movement of an animal, or try to capture its inner feeling. Animals also correspond to direction, Dragon is East, Tiger is West, Tortoise is North, Phoenix is South and the Unicorn is Center. Animals also refer to parts of the body such as tiger is blood, Dragon is Ch'i, Crane is Breath, etc.
7. History. Some names come from Chinese history, either events or from characters and their deeds and techniques. Strike Tiger is short for "Wu Song Strikes the Tiger." The complete story of how and why Wu Song struck a tiger is in the novel Outlaws of the Marsh. You will find many names of techniques from a variety of styles in this challenging read.
"If you do not know the names of things the knowledge of them is lost, too."
8. Hidden Coaching. Some names were from styles that kept the names secret so the teachers could call out techniques during competitions.
9. Taoist Meditation and Chinese Medicine. Some of the name reflect the meditative or healing qualities that were added to Tai-Chi when it was purely a martial art. Needle at Sea Bottom and Fan Through the Back are two movements that encourage circulation of energy in the "Small Heavenly Circle." Sea Bottom is another name for tan-t'ien, the major energy center just below the navel in the front of your body. The word for Fan and Lightening sounds the same, Shan. Fan could be Lightning through your back. These two postures, practiced together can send ch'i down to your "sea bottom," then send it up your "back like lightening," completing your inner circuits.
10. Martial Arts Slang. Some words are slang that only martial artists use. Or a particular style may have coined a word or phrase. Lu, translated as Roll-Back, is used in Tai-Chi to describe a particular defensive technique.s a name.
11. Helpful Hints. Some names give a hint or idea to help make a technique work. Needle at Sea Bottom tells you where to direct your wrist lock, down towards the opponent's navel or sea bottom. This take the slack out of their wrist and applies pressure to the nerve between the hand and forearm, causing great pain.
12. Religion. Some names borrow from Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucism, to give an idea of inner feeling. Raise the Curtain can mean getting a glimpse of reality, from the teachings of both Lao-Tse and Buddha.
“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.”
There are other ideas and meaning behind the names. Check the names of the postures in your form and see if you can put them into any of the categories I listed. Some may fit in multiple categories, and some may not fit anywhere. Here are some book suggestions to help you in your research;
How To Grasp The Sparrow's Tail ,If You Don't Know How To Speak Chinese by Jane Schorre
On Tai Chi Chuan by T. Y. Pang
Fundamentals of Tai-Chi Chuan by Wen-shan Huang
"Names have power. This is the fundamental principle of magic everywhere. Call out the name of a supernatural being, and you will have its instant and undivided attention in the same way that your lost toddler will have yours the second it calls out your name."
Let me end with one of my FAVORITE name studies....