To lean or not to lean?
When I was first introduced to Taijiquan in 1992, I was told that the style I was learning was named the Yang style simplified form (or Yang short form). I have also heard of a full title by some of the senior students in our lineage---Yang style Taijiquan as taught by Professor Cheng Man-ching. It was through the generations of teaching that more and more of the Chinese followers started to realize the evident gap between Cheng’s interpretation of the Taiji principles versus Yang’s style. This brought about the formal introduction of this distinctive style as Cheng Man-ching style Taijiquan.
It is a fact that Cheng Man-ching learned Taijiquan from Yang Cheng-fu, and was treated as one of the indoor disciples in Yang’s later years. Like many of Yang’s senior students, Cheng comprehended the essence of Taijiquan, but insisted in staying with the principles described in Taijiquan classics. This brought about some physical interpretations that were different from his teacher’s, such as keeping an upright torso, utilizing clear weight transferring in stepping, and performing with a relaxed wrest.
I personally think it is somewhat unfair to compare the postures of the 135-pound Cheng Man-ching with that of the 285-pound Yang Cheng-fu. I would rather use an image of a coiled spring versus a giant piston for both qualities, respectively. However, I've learned that the reason why most Yang stylists lean their torsos in a large front stance is simply because the braced back leg is pushing the hip upwards thus causing the spine to tilt. If the back knee is however relaxed and slightly bent, the torso will be placed upright.
Explanations for the various utilities of the Yang postures were given by Yang Zhen-duo (Yang’s third son). He states that when the two arms are in front of the body with forward momentum, the spine will "naturally" lean forward, as seen in a push or punch posture. If the arms are opened in opposite directions, the torso will be upright with balanced energy, as seen in the Single Whip posture. When asked why Yang leaned in the Diagonal Flying posture (both arms are opened), Yang Zhen-duo answered that it was due to the "flying" momentum used for martial purpose.
I found it interesting that if we take any of Yang's leaning posture, and we reduce by 30% the extension of the arm, the braced back leg, and the large stance, we will end up with something looking very similar to Cheng’s compact version. A similar experiment can be applied to the bent wrist; the introduction of it in the entire sequence completes the transformation.
Despite Yang's leaning postures, there were several of Yang's senior students who showed uprightness in their postures, as seen with Li Ya-shuan, Tien Zou-ling, Wu Zi-ching, and Yang Zhen-ji (Yang’s second son). In contrast, Yang Zhen-ji's postures are more similar to Cheng’s than any of the others. In his book <Yang Cheng-fu Style Taijiquan> (1993, Guang-Xi Publishing, China), he stated: "The body should be upright, not leaning forward and not leaning backward, it should be performed naturally, especially the back muscle, if one part gets tensed, the whole body is tense." (p. 247)
I’ve also identified that many Yang style experts in China have different interpretations of "differentiating weights." To most Cheng Man-ching practitioners, it would have to be either zero or a hundred percent in our weight shifting in order to clearly make a "clean" step. In contrast, to many Yang stylists, the definition of "clearly" dose not refer to the numbers because the entire routine is a non-stop movement of differentiating weights (from the point of 49%/51%). When I questioned them about the difficulty of picking up their insubstantial foot in a large stance, they showed me it was possible, however it was with a much leaning torso in order to "drag" the foot back, as well as "throw" the foot for the distance.
I slowly came to realize that since Yang Cheng-fu did not leave visual evidence of the transitional moves to us, that many Yang stylists simply ended up "posing" themselves in order to "match" Yang’s still photographs. This undoubtedly brought on a lack of understanding of the transition details. However, I must say that I have seen many younger and well-trained Yang style practitioners at competitions that could use large stances with perfectly held upright torsos, as well as demonstrate the ability to slowly and cleanly separate weights with each step and high kicks. This ability reminds me about one master in Taiwan who could demonstrate the Cheng Man-ching style form with a glass of water on top of his head, and with his "Beautiful Lady" hands being as flat as a pair of Pin-pong paddles.
Over all, it is always easy to judge another's posture with our own standards. I remember Mr. Ed Young's famous quote: "If you think like a hammer, everyone else would be a nail to you." Likewise, if we think our style as the only standard, all other styles would look ridiculous to us. Maybe that is what others are thinking of us!