Using Circles in Taijiquan
In Taijiquan, utilization of circles is a very important idea. From the moment the thought forms in the mind to when
it is translated into movements of the body, everything must be performed in a circular manner. In fighting
applications, all skills are combinations of many different circles: making a circle with the hand, rotating the arm,
moving the body like a ball, etc. It is said “there can be no martial skill in absence of circles”.
To express the concept of circular movement/force, several common words are used in traditional Taijiquan
practice: huan (环) – ring, quan (圈) – circle, chan (缠) – winding, gun (滚) – rolling, qiu (球) – sphere, xuanzhuan (旋
转) – rotation, luoxuan (螺旋) – spiral, and chansi (缠丝) – silk reeling and so on. Different schools may emphasize
some of these ideas more than others but they carry the same or similar meanings.
We can make several observations from these examples:
1. Strictly speaking, a circle is a special type of ellipse in the same way that square is a special type of rectangle.
‘Circle’ is just a common or general term used in everyday practice. Actually it may be referring to the broader
category of ellipse or oval.
2. In actual usage, we often do not employ the entire circle, but part of it. Again, just like when we say “square” we
mean linear, when we say “circular” we mean arc or curve. In other words, the circle does not necessarily have to be
3. Since the body is three-dimensional, when we do circling movements, forming elliptical shapes with our bodies,
we are behaving in three-dimensional space, so we should actually think of our "circles" as being spherical. This idea
is what is meant when Taijiquan practitioners refer to “moving the body like a ball”.
For the remainder of this article, we will continue to use the traditional, generic word ‘circle’ to refer to all these
varieties of ellipses, ovals, arcs, spheres, and ball.
4. All movements used in Taijiquan skills are combined with many kinds of circles. Although their size, direction or
speed may differ, they must be coordinated and integrated. For example: in the movement “Brush Knee and Push
Forward”, where the right hand pushes forward with the left leg in bow stance, your left hand should make a vertical
circle and your right hand in a horizontal circle. At the same time, your left forearm should rotate inward and your
right forearm rotates outward, and your body should roll like a ball slightly. Although each is moving in its own type of
motion, all those motions are coordinated and integrated to serve one unified purpose – like various parts of an
5. In real world application we often do not just use one circle, but many circles of various shapes, sizes, and
directions all at the same time. There are no set rules on how many are used and how they are to be combined. In
traditional practice, this concept is called luanhuan (乱环) – random circles. Here luan means random or disorder,
and huan means circle or ring. The meaning implies that there is no any pre-design routine or strategy, everything is
just happening and depends upon the real-time circumstances.
The reason circles are so important in high-level martial arts is in the circles’ inherent properties – the change in
force from one moment to the next is minimal. This has many important implications in fighting, especially in the area
1. For ourselves: The transition from one movement to the next is more even, smooth. Because of the momentum,
usually it requires more energy to change the direction of a high speed linear movement. But changing an arcing
movement is much easier and energy loss during transitions is minimal. Since the waste of energy is minimal, it is
much easier for us to stay relaxed. So we can also say this is the most efficient way to make changes in the direction
2. For the opponent: In a fight one must always respond appropriately to any change the opponent is making.
This requires being aware of changes in the first place. When we move in a circular manner, changes are
minimized. So we make the job of detecting changes that much more difficult for our opponent.
Compare moving in a linear direction and circle direction, moving in a linear direction, the changes are drastic and
obvious. Moving in a circular fashion, we eliminate hard changing corners, all changing motions can be smoothly and
continually connected as if they are one. Again, this makes changes in movements more difficult to detect.
3. In any real fighting circumstance, there is a constant need to change direction. For example If we are already
moving in a straight line and need to change to the left, it is much slower to attempt to change to a new angle of
attack using purely straight lines, than it will be to "round the corner" into the new vector of attack. Additionally, with
skillfully executed circular movements the job of detecting change on the part of the opponent is made even harder.
Because the motion is traveling in a circular path, we can cover the distance much faster than if we had introduced
the time lag caused by a sharp angle in the movement. Circular motion means we do not need to wait for a straight-
line motion to finish before starting a new direction.
4. Using circular motion, not only can the overall motion be executed faster, we are also more agile. The definition
of agility is the ability to make changes quickly. Using circles we can make changes in direction much easier because
it uses minimal energy and quicker.
5. Circles provide better control. If we have no control speed is meaningless, in fact dangerous. By rounding out
the corners and creating a gentler path, we give ourselves more control over direction, speed.
6. Circles me no wasted time executing a hard and unnatural corner in our movements. The storing and release
of energy can be completed within just one circle.
Throughout all of Chinese Martial Arts skills, there is an underlying idea: gongfu. Although in the west, this term
has come to be synonymous with martial art, actually, it really means "long practice" - in other words, it has to do with
the practice of basic or foundation skills - the skills upon which the more advanced abilities are based. All pursuits of
merit have "gongfu," whether it is mathematics, music, art, or horsemanship - each one has its body of gong fu
practices. Circular motion is one aspect of the gong fu of Taijiquan. The most basic part of making circles is whether
you can make circles with your body. At first, these physical circles are the most important area to concentrate in
learning Taijiquan circular movements.
In order for us to say that we are practicing Taijiquan, Taiji principles must always be applied using Taijiquan skills.
This may seem like an obvious point, however, over time, what is or is not Taijiquan has become fuzzier as the great
masters have passed away, and the general public has been taught practices called "Taijiquan" which in truth bear
little resemblance to the original Taijiquan body of knowledge. Circles are at the heart of Taijiquan principles, and
therefore one can only be applying the principles of Taijiquan when both the body and mind are well integrated in the
execution of circles. It is said one circle is one Taiji. Just as with the actual physical movements, Taiji mind circles
should be random as well and practiced in no particular order. Once physical circles are mastered, more and more,
the mind circle becomes key, more important than physical. The physical circle is the basis for developing the higher
level ability in the mind however. In training you should use the practice of the physical circle to develop the mind
circle. Then in application the mind circle leads all circular movement naturally.
Random circles are dynamic, not static. Circles should be kept rolling and changing smoothly and naturally, never
ending. An individual’s Taiji skill level can be judged by the random circles performance. The more circles are
involved and the more changing can be done, the higher the skill level.
Classic of Circle Practice
There are many writings about circle practice in Taijiquan classics. The most famous of which is the Random
Circles Formula (乱环诀Luanhuan Jue) passed down from Wu Mengxia (吴孟侠). Wu was a famous internal martial
arts master. He learned Xingyi Quan and Bagua Zhang from Han Muxia (韩慕侠) and Gao Yisheng (高义盛), and
Taijiquan from Niu Lianyuan (牛连元).
It is said that Niu Lianyuan received Yang family’s secret Taijiquan Classics poems from his master Yang Banhou
(杨班侯). There are a total of nine poems called Jiu Jue (九诀) or Nine Key Formulas. Niu in turn passed those
formulas to Wu Mengxia in the 1920s. Wu kept them secret for long time. Then in 1940, Wu passed three of them to
Wu Zhiqing (吴志清). Wu Zhiqing was very happy because he found these formulas to be very useful. In 1943, Wu
Zhiqing published the three formulas in his book “Orthodox Taijiquan” (太极拳正宗 Taijiquan Zheng Zong). It was the
first time outsiders knew about these classics. In the book, Wu stated “every word of these poems is very useful”.
In 1957 Wu Mengxia published his own book “Annotation of Nine Key Formulas and Eighty-one Postures of
Taijiquan” (太极拳九诀八十一势注解 Taijiquan Jiu Jue Ba Shi Yi Shi Zhu Jie). In that book, Wu made public all nine
secret formulas and offered some simple explanations. Each poem has a subtitle. The Random Circles Formula is
one of them.
Today many still doubt that these formulas were passed down from Yang Banhou because no other Yang family
descendents have these formulas, and the style of these poems is slightly different from that of Yang Banhou’s time,
but resembles a style from later times. Some scholars think that perhaps the basic ideas came from Yang Banhou
himself, but it was Niu who wrote them down. Although the question of authorship remains, just about everyone
agrees that these writings are an excellent clue as to the true nature of Taijiquan practice.
The title of this formula is luan huan Jue. Here luan means something holds together but without order. Huan
means a circle or ring. Jue means formula. So luan huan means that there may be many circles, big or small, full or
partial, rolling in different directions, moving at different speeds, appearing in different positions, and in different parts
of the practitioner’s body and mind. The idea is that these circles are generated randomly and routine, order, or any
particular rule is indiscernible among the circles.
The following is the original text from Niu with our translation and annotations:
Random Circles Formula (eight seven-character sentences)
The method of random circles is the most difficult skill to understand and master. When you can integrate them
fully with your whole body movement and follow your opponent well, you will find endlessly ingenious uses for them.
The methods of random circles are difficult to understand and master because there are no fixed routines for this.
This does not mean that you can create whatever circles you want. You must create circles at any time according to
the circumstances of fighting. This means that you must follow your opponent’s movements. In order to follow your
opponents movements, you must know your opponent well, and this relies on well-developed sensitivity. You must
also keep your movements smooth and integrated well when you perform random circles. All of your mind and qi
circles and external or physical circles must be well coordinated. To do all of these well is not an easy job. All of the
ingenious skills of Taijiquan are based on this idea.
If you can entrap the enemy deep within these random circles, then you can successfully use four ounces of force
to move a thousand pound force.
To “use a four ounce force to move a thousand pound force” is the one of main concepts of Taijiquan. This
phrase is symbolic and means to emphasize the idea of using a small force to defeat a larger one. It does not mean
that you can literally use four ounces to move a thousand pounds. Taijiquan practice is about constantly and
systematically minimizing the amount of force required to deal with your opponent in a conflict or challenge. It is
necessary to understand that the minimum force may in fact be a lot of force, but if the force is not the minimum
amount possible to achieve the desired result, this means there is room for improvement.
One basic Taijiquan idea is that as you meet the incoming force, on the “touch point” you need to make a ball or
circle, and use a small amount of force to roll this ball. This will cause the opponent’s force to slip to the side, missing
its focus into the core of your body. This is circling skill. The size, amount, and the rolling direction of your circles all
depend on the particulars of your opponent’s attack. The more circles you can generate randomly, the easier you
can defeat your opponent’s force. If you can make circles at any time or place that your opponent attacks, his force
will be dissolved upon contact with your random circles. In this manner the concept of of using a small force to defeat
a big force can be realized always.
Hands and feet arriving at the same time, probing in every direction, your random circles will not fail to ensnarl the
This passage describes the integration and coordination of hands and feet. No circle is confined to just one part
of your body. Every circle is connected with the whole body, even the tiniest ones in the tip of your fingers. All parts of
the body are coordinated and integrated at all times. The most difficult parts to integrate are the hands and feet,
hence the added emphasis in the text here. Only when you can do this will the random circle idea work well. One
needs also to remember that the circles are not only physical movements but also in your spirit, mind and qi.
If you want to know the key to success with random circles, it is about finding the correct point to - release your
force and the correct place to do so - in order to throw your opponent down.
In accordance with Taiji principles, when you dissolve the opponent’s attack, you must attack at the same time.
Defense and attack are part of the same circle, forming the Taiji. Another reason why circling skills are very important
is that random circles must be considered as being one-in-the-same defense and attack. If there is no attack, the
circles are not complete.
In attacking, the key point is to get two points correct. One is called fa or fadian – the point your force will release
to, including timing, direction, and your position relative to the opponent’s position. The other is called luo or luodian
– the place you will throw the opponent down. This means that it is essential to know your opponent’s weak point and
how to control him. If you cannot find these two points correctly, you cannot make the best attack. The most important
thing in this regard is to situate yourself in an advantageous position, control the opponent’s balance, and release
the force from a comfortable position, throwing the opponent to the best place, using the optimal timing and direction.
All these aspects are towards obtaining the best effect with the minimum force.
Yin Cheng Gong Fa Association North American Headquarters
Copyright © 2000 YCGF_NAH. All rights reserved.
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