Very nice post with some interesting information about various types of partner practice.
My experience with these things is limited, but I want to present a slightly different nuance.
For me, Tai Chi is quite like other Chinese martial arts in having the same or similar strikes, kicks, punches, take downs, and locks. It is unlike them, however, in its training, core strategy, and preferred techniques.
I have been taught that Push Hands is different from sparring, but gradually turns into it as you allow greater freedom of separation, movement, and technique. What we learn in Push Hands is not just sensitivity or even a set of techniques, but the nature of energy (Jin
) in as many variations of possible.
Within the simplest of the two-hand circles lie important lessons about dealing with strikes. Within the simple applications of the Eight Gates lie very nasty variations. The difference between what is nasty and what is not is not so much in whether it is a strike, push, pull, kick, take down, or joint lock, but rather in how the energy is applied. I think this snippet
shows, for instance, a few variations of what the transition (a Ward Off Left) into our Ward Off Right could lead to besides Ward Off Right.
As you learn more about energy, the greater the range you have in how you apply techniques and in how you can defend against them. The core principles, however, are the same in all. Even though the core principles are the same, you cannot say that you have a full understanding of energy if all you learn to do is "push" or "pull."
I would also say that pushing cooperatively, pushing semi-cooperatively, pushing freely to test skills, and pushing for competition are all also different. If you have experience only in one area, it does not necessarily completely transfer into others.