Tan Tui is one of the most famous Chinese martial arts styles that most people have never heard of. Especially popular in China’s Muslim community and immortalized as part of the curriculum of Jing Mo, it has been incorporated into many different systems and has numerous variations. Generally taught to beginners, it consists of eight to twelve rows of single person techniques and eight to twelve rows of two person techniques. Each move has a variety of applications, some more obvious than others.
There are several reasons Tan Tui has proliferated to such a large degree. Unlike many systems, Tan Tui is a series of linear forms or techniques, often called roads. This allows a large number of people to learn them at the same time. When combined with the large number of repetitions of each technique, it makes memorizing them easier than a form with fifty different moves. Even the order of the lines is purposeful; lines that are similar are never practiced back to back to ensure one of the lines isn’t accidentally lost. Despite the varied applications that can be derived from the system, the actual number of gross movements is fairly limited. For example, Tan Tui has only five stances: Horse, Bow, Resting, Empty, and Crouch. These five stances, but primarily Horse and Bow, support all the hand techniques of the system.
There is no wasted space in Tan Tui. Each technique has a variety of applications. Enough of them are obvious that a beginner has a body of techniques they can practice without becoming bored, but as the practitioner invests more sweat equity and spends more time thinking about each move, it pays dividends in new applications. A number of the lines are variations on ones that came before, automatically forcing the practitioner to think about recombining the moves, if for no other reason than to practice the lines correctly.
The two person lines build on the skills learned in the single person lines, while adding in things like timing and spacing. Of particular note though, is the frequency with which forearm conditioning is evinced. The forearm is a major striking point within the system, as it can cause greater damage when used in lieu of a hand chop or similar technique. The large, sweeping movements of many of the forearm conditioning techniques also teach the practitioner to connect the upper and lower body and generate a crushing blow. The two person lines also enhance the practitioner’s understanding of the system by elucidating particular applications from the single person form or presenting the techniques with a new twist.
The fundamental skills included in Tan Tui are universally applicable to all Chinese martial arts and mindful time invested in it is never wasted. Each technique has numerous applications that can be discovered through training, giving it value even for the experienced practitioner. While the system lacks some of the advanced techniques, or even stances, of other martial arts, it is a gateway system that is used to give students a strong set of fundamentals. Training Tan Tui, especially for the beginner, may not seem that glamorous, much in the same way that doing fundamentals drills in sports is generally considered boring. Just as those drills improve your overall game in sports though, Tan Tui improves your overall martial arts skill.