As a prefatory remark, I would like to make a personal recollection about my first sifu’s approach to the taijiquan posture names. He barely mentioned them. For all I knew, the forms were all named “Do this.” He did tell us that he thought it was much more important to know the explicit details of the movements than to know the traditional names. In hindsight, I believe his rationale for this approach was entirely pragmatic. He didn’t want to clutter the interface with a lot of imagery from a remote culture in presenting the art to his American students. However, as I grew older, and as I learned and gained competence in Chinese, I grew curious about the names and terminology. I think that knowing something about the imagery and language of the art can enhance one’s understanding and appreciation of the whole.
With that in mind, I’ll try to share a little of what I’ve found on some of the questions you’ve raised. First, I’m of the opinion that “yubei shi” (preperatory position) is a relatively modern naming convention. It only appears sporadically as a form name in most early taiji books I’ve seen. Perhaps its earliest occurance is in Xu Yusheng’s 1921 _Taijiquan Shi Tujie_ (Illustrated Explications of the Taijiquan Forms). It also appears in Wu Gongzao’s form instructions accompanying the photos of Wu Jianquan’s form in the book first published as _Taijiquan Jiangyi_ (Principles of Taijiquan). The phrase is a convention for setting up the circumstances of the crucial “standing in stillness” that must precede the initiation of the form movements. Most early Yang style manuals I’ve seen begin with “taijiquan qi shi,” “taiji qishi,” or just “qishi,” but include language about the requisite preparatory dispositions under the heading of “qishi.” Yang Chengfu’s _Taijiquan Tiyong Quanshu_, for example, begins with “Taijiquan qishi” (beginning of taijiquan), but his narrative states, “This is the Taijiquan posture for preparing (yubei) to move.” He continues with very detailed elucidation of the requirements for stillness and calm that precede the initiation of the form.
You’re right that some traditions name this preparatory standing “wuji.” Sun Lutang’s version of taijiquan includes some of his own innovations in the naming conventions. His book, _Taijiquan Xue_ (Study of Taijiquan), is unique in that each form name ends with the character “xue,” (study, learn). Sun’s first form is therefore “wuji xue” (study of wuji). This is followed by “taiji xue” (study of taiji), and then by “lan zha yi xue” (study of lazily fasten cloak—Sun retains the older name), and so on.
As for the name “qishi” itself, this qi has a degree of polysemy, so it connotes initiation, a beginning, an origin, and rising up. As you imply, there are indeed cosmological overtones in this, rooted in wuji-taiji language of Wang Zongyue’s “Taijiquan Treatise,” which in turn is rooted in the nearly identical cosmological imagery of the Song neo-Confucian philosopher Zhou Dunyi’s essay, “Taijitu Shuo” (Explanation of the Taiji Diagram). That in turn draws upon the “Xici zhuan” (Appended Phrases) commentary on the Yijing (Classic of Changes). This commentary dates from somewhere in the late Zhou or early Han dynasties, and is the most likely locus classicus of the term and concept: taiji.
Here are some interesting thoughts from Dong Yingjie’s student, T.Y. Pang:
“Originally there was no name for the preparatory time in the set, and none for the ending time. But now to make the names complete the beginning is called ‘Origin of Tai Chi,’ and the ending is called ‘Back to Tai Chi.’ ‘Origin of Tai Chi,’ and ‘Back to Tai Chi,’ refer to Ultimate Origin, Non-Origin, a highly symbolic way of indicating that all is complete and new. But do not be trapped by all these words. A name is merely a name. Forget language, practice and understand.” (T.Y. Pang, _On Tai Chi Chuan_, 1987, Azalea Press)
In the Yang tradition, Lan Que Wei (Grasp Sparrow’s Tail) refers collectively to peng, lu, ji, and an. Yang Chengfu’s narrative (my rough trans.) on Lan Que Wei begins, “Grasp Sparrow’s Tail is the chief hand [method] of Taijiquan’s essence and application—that is, the so-called adhere, connect, stick, and follow (nian, lian, tie, sui) of push hands—to go back and forth without separating or severing (buli buduan). Hence the figure of speech “Sparrow’s Tail” refers to the hand and arm. Therefore we have the general term “Grasping the Sparrow’s Tail.” Yang’s narrative then continues with a detailed section on each of the four methods: “Lanquewei, pengfa;” “Lanquewei, lufa;” “Lanquewei, jifa,” and “Lanquewei, anfa.” So, each of the methods (fa) is conceived as a subset of Grasp Bird’s Tail.
As for the four methods: Peng (ward off); Lu (roll back); Ji (press); and An (push), it’s difficult to know how these specialized terms became a part of the taijiquan corpus. It’s equally difficult to justify the conventional translations. I think I posted some thoughts on the old board (archived somewhere here) on Lu. I think translating An as ‘push’ is particularly problematic, and it also points up one of the weaknesses of referring to movement subsets as “postures.” After all, An includes the motions of shifting the weight back prior to shifting forward with both arms and palms extending forward. How can we call this sequence a “posture,” and how can we call it “push?”
You’re probaby familiar with the “Songs of the Eight Hands” (ba shou ge), translated in Wile’s Touchstones book. The songs on peng, lu, ji, and an appear on pages 28-31. These are possibly very old formulae, and may comprise the first written record of oral tradition explaining these methods. I heard somewhere, for example, that these have been part of the Wu Jianquan lineage since the time when Quan Yu and Yang Luchan were martial arts tutors for the Imperial Guard in Beijing. So, I think these are important documents to be familiar with.
On danbian (single whip), my understanding is that this is a descriptive name, and that it refers to the action of the left arm/wrist/palm. As the forearm rotates in conjuction with the turning of the waist and the shift of the weight toward the left leg, the hand form changes from peng to an, and the expression of jin in the palm at the end of the ulna (from the feet, issued by the legs, governed by the waist, etc.), is rather like the action of a cracking whip. There is a variant of the name danbian which means “energy transformation” (dan as in ‘dantian’). T.Y. Pang notes this in his _On Tai Chi Chuan_ book, as well as a number of other movement name variants. He makes no pretense of knowledge about one being the source of the other, nor does he make reference to alleged “errors” of pronunciation being the source of these variants. He merely notes them as variants. Variations in names of places and things is actually a very common phenomenon in Chinese culture. I will note that the “single whip” name is found in early martial arts that likely preceded taijiquan.
That’s all for now,