By Martin Boedicker
The eight gates (bamen) are peng, lü, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou and kao. Dealing with them in theory and practice quickly brings up the following question:
Are they techniques to overcome an opponent, or are they general principles of movement?
These two views seem contradictory, but they can be blended to one, as the two sides of a coin. The eight gates are part of the thirteen basic movements (shisanshi) of Tai Chi Chuan. The Chinese word for basic movement shi has two main different meanings:
On the one hand, it has the meaning of (hand-) movement.
On the other hand, it has the meaning of strategic advantage, power or powerful position.
In merging these two meanings into one, the contradiction between principle of movement and technique can be resolved.
The eight gates as principles of movement
If one understands the eight gates as a principle of movement, they tell you, how to deal with an evolving attack of the other. One uses the eight gates to understand the situation and the opponent (dongjin). By gently intervene in the situation one starts to develop a change to ones own benefit, but at the same time keeps all options open. The key is therefore to explore with minimal intervention. In practice this can, e.g., look like this:
Peng: I take a little of the force of the other and try to determine if I can absorb the full force.
Lü: I lead the force of the other a little bit into the emptiness and try to feel, if the other goes further on with his force, or if he retreats.
Ji: I press the other a little bit and try to feel if he collapses under the pressure, or if he pushes back.
An: I push a little into the emptiness of the other to determine whether he will collapse or if he is trying to change.
Cai: I pluck the other a little: does he stiffen up, or does he yield?
Lie: I'm trying to pull the other into a spiral: does it work or does the other block it?
Zhou: I come with my elbow from the side against the attacking power of the other. Is he trying to hold against it, or does he try to get away?
Kao: I lean toward the others' centre of gravity or line of force. Does he resists or is he surprised?
In all cases, the eight gates are used to understand the force of the other (intensity, overall direction of the force, components of the forces, etc.) by feeling (tingjin). When I succeed, I have gained a strategic advantage. I now know beforehand, what the other intends to do and I can adjust my actions accordingly.
The eight gates as techniques
After the initial use of the eight gates the next decision is how is to proceed with the attack finally. If the other does not react to my probing and goes on with his original attack, the principle of movement changes into a concrete technique, such as:
Peng: I'll take the force of the other completely and bounce him back with it in a way, that the he loses his balance.
Lü: I let the incoming force fully fall into the emptiness and strike back immediately.
Ji: Since my strength is superior to the other, I press on strongly and throw the other.
An: The other can not change and so I press harder on the empty point of the other until he collapses completely.
Cai: The other stiffens and I pluck harder, until he falls.
Lie: The other can not escape my spiral, he gets completely twisted and loses his balance.
Zhou: The other holds against my strength and gets full. With zhou I find his emptiness and push here or even hit with the elbow.
Kao: The other is surprised by my kao and practically defenseless. A short bump with the torso and the fight is over.
The fusion of principle of movement and technique
All the elegance of the eight gates is found in the word shi. With shi the eight gates are at the same time a movement or strategy principle and a technique which can be used. This shows the extreme subtlety of Tai Chi Chuan and simultaneously explains why it works so amazingly well. With this concept, Tai Chi Chuan is also in accordance with the Chinese strategic thinking:
One has no concrete plan. One tries rather to determine what is possible - what potential the situation of being attacked offers - and which way reveals its self naturally. Then the strategy and technique, which should be employed is almost obvious.
In Tai Chi Chuan, principle and technique are merged into one word. Who, for example, says peng, thinks of the principle, but sees also the technique in his mind's eye. A small peng to explore - a big peng to uproot. One word - two meanings. One word - two sides of a coin.
The linking of the eight gates
If the other responds to my probing and changes, or e.g. my peng is not able to uproot him completely, I can quickly change to a different one of the eight gates, because I have knowledge of the position and the intensity of the force used by the other. Then the process of feeling and applying begins anew. Change the application of the eight gates between principle of movement and technique, between one gate and the other, back and forth until the other is defeated. As it is said in Yang Banhous Nine Secret Tai Chi Classics:
Change between stillness and movement - why worry.
The two methods of creation and destruction follow each.