The Fighting 'Peng'

The Combative Nature of Tai Chi's First Principle

Peng - Ward-Off
Ward-Off is a fascinating example of human anatomy in action. Our bodies are comprised of muscles, tendons, and ligaments, that together, assist us in moving where the brain wants us to go. In addition, because of our anatomical design, there are inherent strengths, and weaknesses that can be capitalized upon.

Peng (pronounced - pung), translated as 'Ward-Off' in English, is the first 'character' listed in Tai Chi's (Tai Ji Quan) 13 principles. It is often discussed in texts/classes, and demonstrated in various ways, but how does it translate to fighting? Surprisingly it is not unique to Tai Chi, and is found in various other fighting arts, but Tai Ji Quan highlights it as an important method.


Standard Ward-Off demonstration
In Tai Chi practice, to include Tui Shou (Push Hands), the Ward-Off principle is often demonstrated as the arm being somewhat rounded; used for connecting with our opponent, or pushing arm to arm. Those concepts are more closely defined with the principle An (Push), and a sub-principle known as 'Join' (Zhan - to connect or join), in Tai Ji Quan, and 'Contact' (Zhan -- same character) in Tang Lang Quan. While this is an adequate demonstration of the proper shape and structure of the arm, the true value goes far deeper.

Ward-Off is more accurately referring to the arms proper structure, and use. Originating as a stand-up grappling art (strikes, kicks, throws, trips), Tai Ji Quan is heavily dependent upon arm position and structure for defense and control. There are subtleties that have to do with pressure, spacing, timing that many styles also share, and are crucial to proper execution of technique.

The structure of Ward-Off

Arm collapsing

  • Wrist in front of elbow - once the wrist passes below the 90 degree bend in the arm, the arm becomes weaker and will collapse. 
  • Elbow below wrist - placing the wrist at or below the height of the elbow, reduces the structural strength of the arm.
  • Hand relaxed - tension in the hand will reduce muscle strength in other parts of the arm, leading to collapse. 
  • Shoulder relaxed - raised or tightened shoulder muscles also reduce the ability for the arm muscles to maintain structural integrity of the position. 
  • Head upright - tilting the head slightly in either direction, weakens the capabilities of the arm.

What makes Ward-Off important, significant, and how can it be applied in combat? 


Striking 


Note position of lead arm on right
Difficult to remove the arm
Vulnerable to the follow-up actions
In striking, a good fighting position has the fighter's arms up in a ready position to defend shots to the face/head. If the wrist passes behind the elbow, or becomes completely vertical, the arm loses the 'ward-off' component and has entered a weakened state.

An opponent pressing on the wrists can collapse our arms back, negating our ability to defend or control, and manipulating us into a bad position.

When tightening up the guard position for closer range (guard shown on the right versus the left), bring the elbows tighter to your ribs instead of bringing the wrists behind the elbow. If you maintain this angle, you'll have a much stronger guard and increase your ability to maneuver the arm(s) under pressing attacks such as pushes, grabs, controls.

Grappling

Arm shown too far back.
Arm supporting pressure.
The same holds true when grappling (stand-up). If the arm is allowed to collapse back into the body due to a weak posture, the limb can be pinned against the body and become immobile and useless.

This can allow the opponent to advance to a body clinch, underhooks, or to apply a push with arms or shoulder to upset our balance and position, or facilitate a throw.

Using pressure to maintain position can allow us to manipulate our opponent by releasing the pressure at the right time, dumping them into a hole...or, "lead your opponent into emptiness" as the Tai Chi saying goes.

This handling of pressure and timing is a refined skill and requires using the opponent against themselves. Keeping the angle of the arm out, allows us time to rotate the arm and circle back to a strong position if it collapses. This is commonly seen when battling for underhook positions. The wrist stays ahead of the elbow, and the hand leads the arm like the head of a snake.


Ground


BJJ concept called 'framing'. Arm and neck here.
In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu this 'Ward-Off' concept is often referred to as 'framing', as in the frame holding your house up. Placing the arms, legs, in a position to block the opponents pass, or keep them from gaining side control.

Ground fighting allows for an expansion of this principle to the use of the legs as weapons in the battle for pressure and space. Typically blocking the hip, knee, and the neck are good places to frame (Ward-Off).

 Once the knee, arm, or a foot is in place, it can be used to apply pressure at the right time to not only keep our opponent from passing, or gaining a superior position, but to create space allowing us to move to a better position, or escape.

Arm structure - wrist before elbow
Again, pressure used at the right time, can cause the opponent that is determined to advance, to over commit their position. Releasing the pressure can cause them to make a larger move than anticipated, or cause them to fall forward once that pressure is released. Using this advantage can create the opportunity needed to escape, sweep, or gain a position for the submission.

Summary


Ward-Off in Tai Chi texts is often understated, it seems innocuous or perhaps insignificant even, but it can be a powerful principle when it becomes part of our arsenal.  It was given position number one in a short list of thirteen characters defining the principles of the style; with good reason.


Photos courtesy of Max Kotchouro

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