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A Look at Tan Tui: What You Need to Know

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A LOOK AT TAN TUI: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

By: Matthew Lee

Written April 13th, 2015

“Bai remembers the end of the ’70s when traditional training was still essential…No one trains tantui for competitive wushu anymore.  Bai feels that the coaches don’t care anymore.  They want quick results.  To Bai, a stronger foundation means a longer competitive career.  He knew Zhao could last over a decade in the competitive circles because of his traditional building blocks.” —Gene Ching, Kung Fu Magazine “Making the Grade”

Abstract: This is the third edition of a segment of write-ups entitled “What You Need to Know.”  This series is dedicated to the promotion of better general understanding of traditional Wushu styles, by sharing information about specific styles I gain knowledge about, preferably after I have some degree of training in them.  Sections of each edition will be divided into background history, training, weapons, and a list of branches of the style.  The look at “traditional Wushu” in this series is not to be confused with the standardized competition and performance routines performed in modern Wushu Taolu, which are also called “traditional” in modern Wushu circles; rather, this is specifically about the actual traditional Chinese martial arts styles themselves, and is meant to share some accurate knowledge about the traditional Chinese martial arts needed to make educated observations about these styles.  This specific edition will look at Tan Tui.

As I may have pointed out before in my previously written write-ups, I am still in my “offseason” from competitive Wushu training.  But also, as I have also pointed out previously, when I’m not training competitively, I focus on other areas of Wushu, namely Sanshou, Taiji, and traditional Wushu.  It is important to note that when I say “Wushu”, I am not just referring to modern Wushu, a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport; modern Wushu is consists solely of two competition categories, Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), the practice of performance, and Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu), the practice of freestyle, full-contact fighting, sparring and scientific martial applications.  However, Wushu, in its most inclusive sense, is an umbrella term for all Chinese martial arts, and thus includes all styles of Chinese martial arts, as it semantically should.  But whereas modern Wushu practice and training of Wushu for sport and competition, traditional Wushu refers to the practice of all traditional styles of Chinese martial arts that were developed and practiced throughout Chinese history.  And in my training experience with traditional Wushu, I have had the opportunity to learn Tan Tui (弹腿; tántuǐ, Springing Leg), which brings us to the focus and topic of this write-up.

Ever since my awareness of traditional Wushu first began, I have always been interested in Tan Tui.  But perhaps my primary source of awareness of Tan Tui, was through the example of my Wushu idol, Zhao Changjun.  A Wushu legend and Taolu champion, Zhao Changjun was also traditionally trained in the traditional Wushu styles of Tan Tui and Chaquan (查拳; cháquán), and was an example of both a modern Wushu athlete and legitimate Chinese martial artist.  This knowledge of traditional Wushu was something that I valued as a practitioner of modern Wushu, and also wished to learn as a martial artist, and Tan Tui was one of the primary examples of my interest in traditional Wushu.  However, I would not get the chance to formally learn Tan Tui until very recently.

Here, I will attempt to shed some light on the traditional Wushu style of Tan Tui, by sharing general knowledge about the style needed to get a basic understanding of it, to the best of my ability.  This will be the next edition of “What You Need to Know”, as in what you need to know about traditional styles of Wushu.  This is a look at Tan Tui.

Before I begin, I feel it is appropriate that I point out my personal experience with this style, in order to establish where my perspective is coming from.  As I detailed in a previous write-up, “A Look at Bajiquan: What You Need to Know”, the collegiate Wushu club at my university had begun to acquire a unique asset we never had before, Mr. Eric “Yixin” Geng (who I will simply refer to as Mr. Geng out of respect), who began to teach traditional Wushu for us.  Though his most favorite, and therefore primary style that he instructed and was clearly Bajiquan (八极拳; bājíquán, Eight Extremes Fist), Mr. Geng had also learned many other forms of traditional Chinese martial arts, including “Ten Roads” Tan Tui (十路弹腿; shílùtántuǐ), as I would later find out.  He was later kind enough to offer me personal instruction in this set, and as of now, I have completed learning Ten Roads Tan Tui, and even though I am far from mastering it and achieving a proficient level of practice, it has added quite a bit to my knowledge of traditional Wushu.

Now that I’ve gotten my personal history with Tan Tui out of the way, it’s time to actually start talking about Tan Tui itself.  Because this is all general knowledge, the majority of the information here will not be new, but rather knowledge that is quite easy to research on your own, if you know where to look.  I should also point out that given my personal experience, most of my knowledge will come from Ten Roads Tan Tui.

Background History

          As with most of the well-known traditional Chinese martial arts styles, there are multiple beliefs and theories pertaining to the history and development of Tan Tui, making its exact origin uncertain.  It should be noted that the Chinese name of Tan Tui is also denoted as 潭腿, with the first character of 潭 (tán) meaning “pond” or “lake”, thus giving the Chinese meaning of the name Tan Tui to literally mean “pond” or “lake leg.”  The most established theory as to this namesake can be traced back to one of its supposed places of origin, the Longtan Temple located in Shandong province, China, where the word潭 in 潭腿 comes from the潭 in “lóngtán” (龙潭; dragon pond/lake).  The other established belief is that Tan Tui comes from the Hui ethnic group (回族; Huízú) in China, who are Muslim, and also have their own family of traditional Chinese martial arts within their culture.  However, the other Chinese name of Tan Tui, 弹腿 (as noted previously), means “springing leg”, which is also the name of one of the style’s signature kicking techniques, and evokes the nature of style’s fighting nature.

Throughout the many different styles of Chinese martial arts, Tan Tui is established and valued as a basic and fundamental style to begin training in.  Indeed, many various styles and curriculums of Chinese martial arts, including Chaquan and Tanglangquan (螳螂拳; tánglángquán, Praying Mantis Fist) employ Tan Tui as part of the complete training in their styles.  For many schools and curriculums, Tan Tui is included as a prerequisite before learning anything else, due to its simplistic nature, and the obvious training and building of a basic foundation in Chinese martial arts.

Training

          In classifying Tan Tui among the various categorizations and groupings of Chinese martial arts, there is first the classification of Tan Tui as either a “northern” or “southern” style of Chinese martial arts, where “northern”, or Changquan (长拳; chángquán, Long Fist), refers to styles historically originating from the northern territories of China that are characterized by long, extended movements and techniques and “southern” refers to those styles developed in the southern territories of China and are characterized by more compact movements.  In this sense, Tan Tui is very much categorized as a “northern” style of Chinese martial arts, and, as previously established, is included as part of the complete training of other aforementioned “northern” and Changquan styles.  Tan Tui itself is characterized by long, extended movements and techniques.

Then there is the classification of as an “external” (外家; wàijiā, literally “external family”) or “internal” (内家; nèijiā, literally “internal family”) style of Chinese martial arts, where “external” refers to the training focused on purely physical techniques, and “internal” refers to the training of qi (气; qì, vital energy), intent, spirituality, internal health.  Formally, Tan Tui is categorized as an “external” style of Chinese martial arts, due to its obvious emphasis on the training of physical technique.  However, this is to not say that Tan Tui, or any other “external” style of Chinese martial arts for that matter, does not, and cannot have “internal” elements.  Ultimately, “external” and “internal” are ideas of practice, and at the highest level of skill in Chinese martial arts, any “external” style can become “internal”, and any “internal” style can become “external.”    However, due to my extremely limited experience, having only learned the forms of Ten Roads Tan Tui, I lack insight or knowledge of this aspect of training in Tan Tui.

Many Chinese martial artists, including practitioners of Tan Tui themselves, see Tan Tui as a set of Taolu.  The forms that make up the Taolu of Tan Tui are primarily linear for the most part; each form, or line, is termed as a “road”, translated from the Chinese character of 路 (lù), each numbered respectively, and consist of that repeated throughout the “road.”  It is interesting to note that the term Taolu itself is made up of the two Chinese characters 套; tào, literally “set”, and 路, literally “road” or “path”, which reveal the meaning of the word Taolu to mean a set of choreographed movements, forms or routines.  As we have established, Tan Tui is usually practiced to train and build up a basic foundation in Chinese martial arts, and it is through its Taolu that it is trained as such.  Even in modern Wushu, the Taolu of Tan Tui has been used for the training of modern Wushu Taolu athletes, especially before and during the ’70s, the first decade of the recognized “old school” time period of Wushu, when modern Wushu athletes had the chance to learn traditional Wushu as well.  Zhao Changjun is perhaps the best known example of this, as mentioned before.  The Kung Fu Magazine article “Making the Grade” by Gene Ching, and featuring Grandmaster Bai Wenxiang, coach of Zhao Changjun, relates, “Bai remembers the end of the ’70s when traditional training was still essential…No one trains tantui for competitive wushu anymore.  Bai feels that the coaches don’t care anymore.  They want quick results.  To Bai, a stronger foundation means a longer competitive career.  He knew Zhao could last over a decade in the competitive circles because of his traditional building blocks.”

However, it is a shame that many practitioners of Chinese martial arts ultimately only see Tan Tui as a simple, basic training tool to train and build up a basic foundation in Chinese martial arts, and not much else.  But while Tan Tui undoubtedly has this utility, it is important to understand that Tan Tui is also a style all on its own.

In terms of specific techniques, all real Chinese martial arts styles train four specific elements of fighting: kicking (踢; tī), punching (打; dǎ), takedowns (摔; shuāi), and grappling (拿; ná).  Given its obvious namesake, Tan Tui has many kicking techniques, including its abovementioned eponymous technique of tantui (弹腿; tántuǐ, snap kick), also known as tanti (弹踢; tántī), which consists of a hinging extension of the knee joint with the toes of the foot pointed, where the focus of the strike is traditionally in the instep of the foot; this technique is almost everywhere in the forms of Tan Tui, and is in fact one of the main kicking and leg techniques of modern Wushu, and compulsory movement in modern Wushu Changquan.  The style of Tan Tui also has other kicking techniques, such as heel kicks and sidekicks, which are obvious in the forms of Tan Tui.  However, the style of Tan Tui also clearly has the practice of round kicks and hook kicks (yes, Chinese martial arts has round kicks and hook kicks too.  If other Asian martial arts styles can come up with and develop round kicks and hook kicks, it should come as no surprise that Chinese martial arts has these kicks as well).  Tan Tui also has elbow techniques, obviously seen in the first “road” of Tan Tui’s Taolu.  Fist techniques in Tan Tui range from straight punches, to downwards chopping and downwards back fist strikes, which can also be seen as a primary downwards blocking technique, also obviously prominent in the forms of Tan Tui.  Other blocks in Tan Tui include high blocks and blocks pressing downwards.  Tan Tui also contains openhanded techniques, such as palm strikes, pushes, and finger jabs.  As with all other styles of Chinese martial arts, throws and takedowns also exist, which are hidden in the stances, and movements into stances within forms.  Grappling, or qinna (擒拿; qínná, grappling) techniques are also hidden in the hand movements of Tan Tui.  When looking at Tan Tui’s effectiveness in fighting, as a northern style of Chinese martial arts, it is clear that Tan Tui, as with all Changquan styles, emphasizes long range fighting skills, namely strikes, given its prevalence in kicking and leg techniques.

Branches

As with many styles of Chinese martial arts, there are subsets, also called “branches” or “lineages.”  Though all branches of a specific style are conceptually the same style, it is important to understand that there are inherent differences that only become apparent when observing or studying in-depth the unique aspects of each specific style.  Of course, there are more styles other than those that are listed here, but the styles mentioned in this write-up are perhaps the most recognized and well-known.

  • Ten Roads Tan Tui

Perhaps the most original style of Tan Tui as we know it today.  As the name suggests, this style of Tan Tui consists of ten “roads” of Taolu.  Styles of Ten Roads Tan Tui include the practice of Tan Tui in Chaquan, Tan Tui from the Nanjing Central Guoshu Institute (南京中央国术馆;Nánjīngzhōngyāngguóshùguǎn), and Ma Style Tongbei (马氏通备; Mǎshìtōngbèi, not to be confused with the traditional Wushu style 通背拳; tōngbèiquán, literally “through-the-back” fist) Tan Tui.

  • Twelve Roads Tan Tui

The other, most popular style of Tan Tui practiced today.  It is believed that Shaolin (少林;Shàolín) added two additional “roads” to the original Ten Roads Tan Tui, to make Twelve Roads Tan Tui.  Styles of Twelve Roads Tan Tui include Shaolin Tan Tui, and Tan Tui of the famous Chin Woo (精武; jīngwǔ, Jing Wu) Athletic Association.

If you are interested in learning this style, you are encouraged to seek out ant take the opportunities to do so!  In the spirit of sharing knowledge, I have decided to share some education links at the end of this write-up, for those that are interested in learning more about the style.  I hope you have gained some knowledgeable insight into this traditional style of Wushu, or at least know enough to adequately understand it from an intellectual standpoint! J

Go Around China (走遍中国; zǒubiànzhōngguó, literally “Walk Everywhere China”) Tan Tui Documentary:

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Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.