Elevated Hook: The origins of Bow Sim Mark's "Controversial" Tai Chi Chuan Hook Hand

My entire career in Tai Chi Chuan in America I've been told that my Sifu does hook hand "wrong." Pretty much every random teacher from China reflexively says the same thing.

Many consider her Northern Internal Mantis was peerless, and none have students they can compare to her most famous student did with that training. Mark, herself a Southern boxer, held Brendan Lai in highest esteem, and it's easy to see why she pushed herself as hard as she did to do equal credit to the Northern style.

At CWRI we were all expected to learn tanglang, so I've always said her hetrodoxical hook hand "Comes from Mantis, and we like Mantis," because it's a great boxing style for all levels, and prepares the wrist tendons for advanced Wudang sword.

But when I decided to teach Baguazhang, which is always taught with Xingyiquan, I needed to research the history, which included reading my teacher's teacher's book The Skill of Xingyiquan to see what he taught:

Excerpt from Li Tianji's The Skill of Xingyiquan. Translated by Andrea Falk. 2000, 2021.

With the hsingyi/mantis hook, we have at least 5 basic applications: pull, trap, lock, wrist strike, finger strike.

These are all things it is nice to have on hand, and why she taught never to push wrist-to-wrist.¹

It makes sense that she would import a technique from one of the 3 core internal styles to another that had a deficiency, in that Fu style is famous not just for Dragon Palm, but for Liangyi Chuan, a taiji/bagua fusion form. She explained that strikes in taiji are a technically "hsingyi" because the method of using fajin is the same. But most taiji practitioners I meet don't seem to understand the distinction between an external strike and a true internal strike, where focus comes only after point of contact. This is a reason tanglang is only considered "half-internal"—in Mantis we do make strikes from the outside. The power of hsingyi strikes comes from rooting and emptying directly into the opponent's body. Here we mean into the center of their balance and weight from a position of superior leverage. Hsingyi fighters can box without regard to what the opponent is doing because a true internal strike uproots, breaking the power of the opponent's strike by breaking their connection to the ground. Any damage is corollary to that function because it sets up the next strike. Even the backfist, compacting into the collarbone after point of contact, causes the victim to rebound, a moment of "no root" which the striker is set up to exploit. The hook hand is not used in this way, even where it appears in hsingyi, except when used to break, but the wrist strike, always exhibited in Fu style liangyiquan single whip, is a "silk reeling" movement. Silk reeling (纏絲) is a foundation of Northern Internal Mantis, a strong support for roots in Chen of the internal variant, even were tanglang to predate Chen. Chen is the first taijiquan style, the root of all tajiquan styles, and first taiji style Fu Zhensong learned, before learning Yang from Chengfu, which he exchanged for bagua zhang. Taiji and bagua have been linked ever since, but the connection of hsingyi and taiji is even more fundamental, and chuan or quan is always part of the formal name of the complete art. Both are forms of "Chinese Boxing".

1. Evaluate the traditional taiji hook with the mantis hook and you'll be able to determine which is more empty and has stronger structure.

2. Compare "whole body connection" by which we mean the feeling in the connective tissue from the fingertips to feet. This is your "frame".

3. Compare the extension you can get on a pull or strike with the hook hand without breaking the connection and losing internal power.

‣ The proper way to form the diāo gōu ("elevated hook") is to fold the fingers, one by one, starting with the pinky, until it forms a shape roughly analogous to the picture above, with roughly equal spread (distance) between the fingertips.

Maximum wrist flex is recommended if training the wrist for wudang fencing. It's best to start this training as early as possible, as it takes years to develop the muscles, similar to playing guitar. Northern Mantis is suitable for about ages 8 and up.

‣ The "movement" of the fingers is driven by the emptying of the palm, in conjunction with sinking of the wrist, elbow, shoulder, hip, knee, etc.

You'll notice when you use the pull, which is driven by the fingers contracting into the empty palm, you're using the mantis technique naturally. What makes this dangerous in pushing is that with fajin, it becomes a trap that pulls the opponent into a strike. This can be done with either hand, as pulling with the hook cocks that arm for a strike, and the strike is executed maintaining contact with (and controlling) the defender's arm. In the instant of imbalance or correction, the defender cannot strike or block, because they must first re-establish their root. But the strike, which comes "like a spring uncoling", has been already been executed. Mantis strikes are typically made in a guard position, per the natural trapping, such that the striker is never open, and can repeat the strike or transition to another technique in a combo, punch, kick, push, break or throw, or counter a counter strike, including with another trapping movement. Some of the striking combos are similar to Wing Chun, though with more extreme leans and oblique angles, as demonstrated in the Ip films. Leaning is a fundamental requirement of Wudang and Fu style, and hsingyi and Northern Mantis, with their low stances and springy leg technique, specialize in closing distance and sticking.

‣ It is executed exactly as the hook in all major taiji styles, no more than a little above shoulder level in Single Whip; "elevated" refers to the rising of the wrist as the palm empties. This feeling is connoted in the transition from Shaolin "hook hand" to Yang "suspended hand".

This is the quality of the soft taiji pull, lifting the partner's arm lightly, pulling them ever so slightly off-balance, then stepping in as they correct to execute desired application. Major applications of Single Whip are push, throw, strike, break and dislocate. As with any respectable taiji movevement, there are multiple expressions.

The classical crane hook is one of the most fundamental techniques in Chinese Boxing, and shows up everywhere, including Fu style Yang Palm bagua, optimized there for the upward wrist strike or the lift, which opens the opponent's frame. Crane hook can be highly internal when used in a strictly vertical manner, somewhat internal when used in a strictly linear horizontal strike. In the latter case, because the frame is weaker, it requires more muscle tension, which inhibits fajin. The taiji single whip is circular and oblique, and cannot be effected with this form of hook without putting tension into the arm and fingers. Forming the hook in the mantis manner, the emptying is initiated by the tendons in the forearm. This is why it feels more powerful and can effect the pull even with a single finger in many cases, without brute force, if there is sufficient leverage. In Bagua the hands will always have some tension, similar to the fingers of the empty hand in most Chinese straightsword. The perpetuated use of crane hook in taiji, where there should never be tension in the arms except at the moment of fajin, is analogous the old style "tile hands"—both are expressions of hard-style Shaolin.


Top Tai Chi Master Yang Chengfu with Top Bagua Master Fu Zhensong, and their principle students Fo Zhongwen and Fu Wingfay
Yang Chengfu (center), Fu Zhensong (to Yang's left)
Fu Zhongwen (to Yang's right), Fu Wingfay (behind Yang's left shoulder.)


Evolution of the Chinese Hook Hand

The evolution from the Shaolin guo shou ("hook hand") to diao shou ("suspended hand") was initiated by Yang Chengfu, considered the top authority in taijiquan in that generation. Bow Sim Mark, considered the top authority in Combined Tai Chi Chuan in the 5th generation, had Yang from several impeccable sources, directly transmitted in the 2nd and 3rd generation. One of her two formal teachers from the 4th generation, Li Tianji, was considered the top authority on combined taijiquan in his generation. All Mark did was complete the evolution in the 5th generation by formally adopting diao gou ("suspended hook"). It's possible that Yang, like Fu, both of whom were exchanging for xingyi with Sun Lutang, initiated this change after learning the xingyi uses.²

勾手 (gōu shǒu) "Hook Hand" → 刁手 (diāo shǒu) "Elevated Hand" → 刁勾 (diāo gōu) "Elevated Hook"

Note that Sun Lutang himself, the most prominent scholar of that circle, who provided the first formalized definition of internal method, eliminated the hook entirely from his taiji.

So perhaps the real criticism of Bow Sim Mark is that she taught and practiced Tai Chi Chuan in a way that is most optimal for internal art and real internal boxing, even when it broke with tradition, like Yang Chengfu and others.³

Li Tianji's The Skill of Xingyiquan: 20th Anniversary Hard Cover Edition. Translated by Andrea Falk. 2000, 2021
20th Anniversary Edition on Amazon

Who was Li Tianji?

• Styled "Flying Dragon Sword", considered 1st Sword in China in his generaton by his peers, who were all the top teachers in that generation.⁴

• Considered by many to be the top single authority on taijiquan in his generation.⁵

• The teacher most credited with preserving the art through the Cultural Revolution.⁶

• A guy who dressed either in a tracksuit like Bruce Lee, or like Mr. Rogers before he takes off his tie, even when he was fencing with swords.

• One of the two primary teachers of Bow Sim Mark, who gave the martial foundation to Yen Ji Dan.

• Devoted his life to preserving and promoting Chinese internal martial arts and the sport of Wushu.

"Work together, study hard, and bring wushu to the world."

Li Tianji to Andrea Mary Falk, 1988, Hangzhou

With love and respect.



¹ Research any master who advanced any art in any generation, and see if they were bound to convention. Kimura was considered somewhat heretical because he also trained in karate. A basic Confucian notion is understanding the difference between virtues and conventions. The sage is not afraid to abandon rituals that have become empty. Bow Sim Mark was one one of the most flexible martial artists of all-time, but on this she was inflexible.

Pushing with the forearms is the correct method, unless the player intends to lock. Many skilled taiji masters are experts at Chin Na. Pushing wrist-to-wrist with such masters is non-viable in a real martial context unless your skill at joint locking exceeds theirs. If your response to evade a trap is spastic as opposed to controlled, they will exploit that. Northern Internal Mantis is useful against wrtistlocks because the internal practitioner is "already moving" into strike, which breaks the trap before it can evolve.

² This is similar to Mark's rejection of the old-school "tile hands" in taiji, for which she was also initially criticized. Another famous master in the prior generation, Professor Cheng, had rejected this technique, which appeared not just in Yang, but was surely dominant in general, integrated even in Sun and Fu initially, where the internal art was still bound to the "external" arts, but not always in the right ways. The Professor even called the new method "Fair Lady's Hand" to connote the relaxed form.† Mark was definitely influenced by his philosophy, and perhaps encouraged by his having arrived at the same conclusion, she further explicated that the hands must be relaxed to have sufficient "feeling" necessary in application of taiji in combat. Taijiquan sparring requires awareness of the opponent's frame, inertia and center to establish leverage for push, throw or strike. These techniques always come after the grapple, always from inside the opponent's guard, such that the requirement for "feeling" is preeminent. It wasn't until she had rejected the tile hands technique that it began to disappear from mainland practice, which had enforced the prior standard through competition scoring requirements. Today it's rare to see "tile hands" in taiji application or practice. Such was her stature.‡

³ We push with our forearms and reserve what's below the wrists for more suitable applications. As anyone who has ever pushed against an opponent with significantly greater mass knows, it's far better to push with the hip or the shoulder, forearm or foot, than the weakest joints on the body. Even pushing with the fist is better than pushing with the palm, because it's a stronger structure, not just handshape, but wrist tendons, and you can put in something extra if you need to, through a single knuckle if necessary. Palms are great for striking, though. Palm strikes are the fundamental strike of bagua and the gentle arts of Shaolin. The Shaolin palm is surely the reason we used tile hands in taiji to begin with. There are techniques common to both arts, such as form of single whip. The hook hand is present across the Shaolin arts, Northern, Southern and Western. Chen before the 17th century would probably look like a style of Shaolin by modern standards.

Sun is also famous for eliminating the sword fingers in jian forms, a radical departure from a widely embraced convention. We never did it that way at our school, but whenever it was mentioned, Bow Sim Mark got a huge smile on her face. We have use for the sword fingers, but she appreciated the freer quality of those relaxed palm forms

If there is an inheritor of Jinglin's sword, it's him. Jinglin taught thousands in a public way, as did Tianji. But we reject that the notion of "inheritors" in a strictly Confucian sense because it fosters stagnation and decline. As an example, formal claims in family lineages will always reset to blood relations because there is an economic component, and this represents a meaningful legacy of parent to child. Further, the blood relations are entrusted with preserving the legacy, where preserving the memory of ancestors is a fundamental requirement In a Confucian society. However, the notion of controlling a system or style becomes meaningless in modern civil society when nothing can actually be enforced. And if masters keep forms hidden, no one can evaluate the utility. The martial environment changes in every generation as all martial arts either continue to evolve or disappear, and for this reason it's better to go the way of Modern Martial Arts and share openly. Let those with the greatest interest and lifelong dedication be the authorities, and those with the greatest accomplishments be the exemplars. The success and prestige of Judo, in my opinion never greater, is a function of open sharing of information in the context of a sport.

Like the very small number of people who were his peers, he was a master of every major style of Taijiquan, and of Baguazhang, Xingngyiquan, Shaolin and many other other styles. This was not uncommon in his generation. The work of the Guoshu Institute in the Old Republic at Nanjing meant everyone had access to the complete internal and external art from childhood. Many many many great masters were produced in that generation, which is the generation that brought these arts to the world.

Here I mean pretty much the only teacher people are even willing to mention in relation to those dark times. People from China often still get angry when I mention this history, because for most, traditional martial practice was entirely suppressed, whether public or private. There was clearly no one with the stature to stop someone like him, and clearly no way they could have enforced it, because there will always be a class of professional soldiers, even during rule by mob, The jianghu is "above politics" for many reasons, some inherent,Ψ and martial bonds can be stronger than the familial. To put it another way, the heads of the French kings may have rolled, but they still needed competent generals, and nobody burned the Mona Lisa.


"Fair Lady Hand" has precedent in Opera. It was demonstrated in Drunken Boxing (1978).§ In that form it's more stylized, and the hand shapes are typically mudra influenced, similar to South Asian Dance. It's undeniable this relaxed "lady hands" form of boxing was a part of the Opera repertoire before the notion made it's way into the taiji arts in the late 20th century. The concept of neijin ("internal tehnique" 內勁) is ingrained in the "Lady Boxing" styles because in staged renditions it would have always been used by a smaller, weaker player (a delicate woman) against a bigger, stronger opponent (a fierce man). For the smaller, weaker player to contend, they must have greater skill, and the skill must be internal. One of the key characteristics of "lady hands" styles, whether, Opera, internal or external, is the concept of emptying into strikes/blocks by sinking the joints and rooting, a method of taiji. As with taiji and hsingyi and wudang sword especially, every strike can also be a "block" or counter, and every "block" or counter can also be a strike. Drunken boxing may well be the earliest true form of neijia in that people have fought drunk since beer was invented, not to mention wine and liquor, and mere imitation of a drunkard's movements are a natural expression of softness and inertia. Drunken is typified by sudden, unpredictable direction changes in three dimensions and the practitioner even sometimes chooses to break their root or go off balance, like bagua. Sometimes they don't actually lose their balance, no matter how extreme the position. This and other aspects of deception are the key strategic characteristic of drunken and bagua, which is meant to be confusing, and fundamental to Tai Chi Chuan and Neijia styles, which hide their deeper applications in general. The core waist turning techniques of Drunken boxing are circular, and more than any other style, Drunken must be powered by the waist.α The practical quality that set all of Master Yu Jim-yuen's students apart was "real waist" technique; nobody else in their generation had it. That's why his daughter and first disciple, So-chow, was the undisputed queen of nuxia. Both "lady hands boxing" and drunken boxing use silk reeling to generate power.

When you're #1 sword, people just have to st## and deal with their feelings. The respect that comes with that knowledge is natural. This is the probably the reason Wang Zi-Ping and Li Jing-Lin were tapped to head the Shaolin and Wudang departments for the Guoshu Institute in the Old Republic at Nanjing. Presumably they were the only two who could enforce order. They say that when it became time to decide who was better by evaluating descendents, after one or two generations of training, the decision was split between between Wang Ju-Rong, túdi of her father, and Bow Sim Mark, Jinglin's túsūn because no one in the jianghu was willing to say one teacher was better than the other. Bloodshed would surely have ensued. At the time, it must have stung for both of these competitors, so it was probably lost on everyone that no men were even being considered. This was a significant milestone for women in Chinese history, even where jian has been understood as the "weapon of women" since the Tang. As a teacher I can tell you girls in general have higher natural aptitude for jian and have greater flexibility (extension). In fencing, balance, flexibility, timing and quickness are far more important than strength, speed and agression. More mass is a disadvantage in pointfighting especially, and everyone who really knows cold weapons knows that point is king. The top fencers in US history are Mariel Zaginis and Lee Kiefer, and they rank among the best in fencing history. This has led to a flowering in US fencing, just as the achievement of Mark and Wang, both in Chinese boxing and in sword, led to a flourishing of participation of women in Chinese martial arts.

Ψ All interactions between any organization or group and any individual ultimately reduce to the interaction of individuals. Social codes, by contrast are abstract constructs.Ξ This is a central theme of the iconoic Western "Shane", and holds true for any martial culture. Every spasm of irrational violence and mob rule is a reminder, whether in the US, China or elsewhere. From the persepctive of the true master, the preservation of the art is paramount, such that the temporary concerns of politicians or political groups are not considered, except in the strategic context of an environment or "action space". Neither is the sage deterred by the consequences of non-conformity; warriors and *true philosophers* in the sense of Socrates, who also participated in warfare, are reconciled to the prospect of sacrifice for a higher purpose. In the Chinese system we even have sayings such as "If you want gongfu, you have to eat bitter." and "If you want to make money, don't teach martial arts."

§ One of Master Yuen's early classics with Cheng Long. Master Cheng, along with with Hung Kam-bo, is a top student of Yu Jim Yuen, one of the "Big 4" teachers in the late 20th century. Master Yu's daughter, Yu So-chow, was the most famous for sword dance. She was the senior martial sibling to Master Cheng, Master Hung, Master Yuen, and the other celebrated students of Master Yu, not only because of blood and birth, but because she was the best at sword. So-chow at sixteen was widely reported to have fought off a pack of gangsters attempting to harass her in the street using only her belt. I've taught teenage girls--with a weapon, trust me, it's possible. Based on the amount of time the average gangster trains vs. the ten+ hours daily she was made to put in, with no mercy, the reports are highly credible. Flexible weapon is a specialty of wudang. She knew chain whip and rope dart, horsewhip, and many other styles that migrated from martial to performance art. "Lady hands" boxing has elbow strikes not present in other styles, all of which take place from body to body.Ω Just as Yu So-chow was the phenom in the generation before Lee Xiaolong, her little martial brothers were the phenoms in the generation after Xiaolong, when Cheng Long became the second boxer in Chinese history with a global reputation. Master Hung went on to make SPL (2005) with Yen Chi-tan, still considered the gold standard for MMA in that medium, and is today one of the most well-known and respected martial artists in the world.

α Fu style in general has strong characteristics of Drunken Boxing, and the main Fu taiji waist turning exercise taught by Master Fu Shenglong and Master Mark Bow Sim derives from Drunken Fist; that of "holding the barrel". This fundamental Drunken posture can be said to form the basis for the basic Tai Chi Chuan stance "embracing the ball"--in the first two dimensions, barrels are circular.

Ξ Master Ip commented that a group of people is reduced to a series of individuals from the practical standpoint of engagement. In applied math we might call this a time series.

These elbow strikes are characteristic in Bow Sim Mark's Combined Tai Chi Chuan. One is a main elbow strike of Dragon Palm Bagua, Liangyi Chuan and Fu Hsingyi Chuan.

Revised 3.23.2023