Every posture of tai chi chuan has at least one of the eight gates (or, bamen) dominating the movement. This is how tai chi was originally constructed, as stated in the Tai Chi Classics. Each of the 8 gates has a certain martial “energy.” Each of these martial application basics are constructed from varying degrees of yin and yang. For example, the gate of “elbow” is very yang. It is apparent and aggressive. The gate of “roll back” is very elusive, or yin. Though nicknamed “gates,” they are more like characteristics or special movement patterns for a particular goal. For example, some of the 8 gates advance, some retreat. Some are sudden and seemingly appear out of nowhere, and others are more deliberate. Some are applied at a far range, and others, like “shoulder,” are applied very close up.
The 8 gates are each symbolized by one of the 8 trigrams of the Yijing (or I-Ching) the famous Chinese “Book of Changes.” These symbols form the geometry that is at the heart of Taoist philosophy. Trigrams are each composed of 3 layers of lines. The lines are either solid, or dashed (broken in two). Yang is traditionally symbolized by a solid line, and yin, by a dashed line. Here are the eight trigrams:
The first of the 8 gates is the most yang. It is symbolized by 3 solid yang lines. This means that the nature of this movement is expansive. It seeks to occupy space and bounce off obstacles. This gate is named “ward off,” or peng, in Chinese. To some degree, peng is present in 6 of the other gates. If you apply it in a punch, kick, or other strike, it penetrates deeply into the opponent. Mentally and spiritually, it is an all-out confident presence and assertiveness – a “go for it” attitude. It is abundance and vitality shining brightly.
The opposite energy of the peng gate is “roll back,” or luo. This gate is symbolized by three dashed lines, which indicates that the character of the movement is contracting or yielding. It creates a vacuum or an absence. It can draw the opponent in, or with very little effort, parry, yield and disappear from the opponent’s attack. As in a famous quote attributed to kung fu master Bruce Lee, “Best way to deal with an opponent’s attack is to not be there.” That is the essence of the luo gate. It dissipates an opponent’s energy or simply lets it burn itself out with no effect on you. Psychologically and spiritually, it is total yielding, but with the intent to survive. It is the power of peace, silence and space.
“Press,” or ji is a gate symbolized by a solid yang line sandwiched between two dashed yin lines. It is best used close in, as a way to gain some space from an opponent who is smothering you. It is also used to change a joint lock on your arm into a comfortable and advantageous position to clear an opponent’s energy off of you. It is subtle, as evidenced by the majority of yin lines, but it has a decisive and expansive energy hidden within. Mentally and spiritually, it teaches you how to take a bad situation and cleverly turn it into your favor with a final positive result. It also teaches that we can turn a situation from lack and pain to abundance, if we learn to change our perspective or positioning within the situation.
“Push,” or an is symbolized by a broken yin line situated between two solid yang lines. The yin is hidden in the core, and executed for just a moment. “Push” grants you more physical space than press, often resulting in your opponent hurtling out of your space while losing his or her footing. It teases the opponent in by executing peng energy in order to build up an excess of resistance, then for a moment lets go of it (yin) to make it kinetic, and then finishes off with expansion to repel the opponent. Energetically, it teaches you about timing and positioning yourself in proper response to the energy of what is happening to you and around you. It also reminds you to yield in the midst of tension, so that you can neutralize negative energy and turn it around for your betterment.
“Pull-Down,” or cai is symbolized by one yin line on the bottom, covered by two yang lines on top. In this trigram, the oppression of yang’s expansiveness gives way to the yin foundation line, which yields. The martial application of this gate is applied in two ways. One way is to pluck the opponent’s force downwards. The second way is to grasp the opponent’s arm and forcefully pluck it downwards to your side. It utilizes the element of speed and surprise. It is aggressive, but must avoid hesitation to work properly, lest you leave yourself open for counterattack. Mentally and spiritually, it is a swift energy that teaches us that impulsiveness can be useful, but must be balanced with reinstating a sound foundation, or having a good back-up plan.
“Split,” or lie is pull-down’s complementary pairing. It is symbolized by a solid yang line capped by two yin lines. The yin lines cannot contain yang’s expansiveness or assertiveness, so the yang energy bursts up and out when the condition is ripe. This martial energy is used to whirl an opponent off of you – usually by way of your leg – in a throwing or tripping movement. It lifts the opponent by way of the principle of levers and fulcrums, and allows the opponent’s mass to tumble down with the force of gravity. It mentally teaches us that we can turn a bad situation to a good one by way of proper leverage. It also reminds us that what goes around comes around, so be pure in your energy (non-physical) and structure (physical)!
“Elbow,” or zhou can be the most destructive of the gates. It gives you strength in a situation wherein the opponent is trying to suffocate your power by closing in. The elbow gate is represented by two yang lines on the bottom and one yin line on top. The yin line represents that you can reduce the length of your arm by bending it at the elbow and still have a lot of martial power. The yin line also teaches us when to conceal information – as the elbow gate can be easily thwarted if the opponent notices you preparing to use it.
The last of the eight gates is “shoulder,” or kao. It is the energetic pair of the “elbow” gate, as it is symbolized by two yin lines on the bottom and one yang line on top. It is used for the tightest of spaces, when you have no room to chamber for a hand strike or kick. The trigram teaches that although the two yin lines on the bottom indicate that your space allowed the opponent in, the yang line on top shows that you can still apply expansive peng energy. Though this gate is named “shoulder,” the hip plays a critical role too, and the gate can be used as an entire body-bump if you position yourself correctly. Mentally, it teaches you that no matter how close the threat comes, you can still free yourself from a negative situation, even if you mistakenly co-created the problem.
These eight gates are best learned in-person at a workshop in a tai chi event in which master-level tai chi instructors assist you, or in a traditional tai chi school, or in private lessons with a master. But if you first study the patterns on your own, more than 50% of your learning will have already been accomplished.
If you are not interested in tai chi combat applications, you should still study the 8 gates because of the mental and spiritual lessons they impart to you. This will improve your intuition and add to your life’s wisdom. Any kind, respectful and experienced master can show you how to practice these 8 gates with others in a safe and easygoing manner so that you can feel their energies and uncover their mysteries.