◦ thirteens

Here, is the article written to accompany the teaching of the Thirteen Element Short Form which took place over the five days of a residential retreat, hidden away in the hills near Lucca, Italy in the April of 2024, arranged and facilitated in co-ordination with Tuscany Arts & Healing.


To make a Short Form in the Yang family’s Tai Chi tradition is principally a means of returning to the classical – one might say returning to the Mountain – an exercise in concision with the aim of experiencing and examining more nearly, more thoroughly and in the moment, a set of Tai Chi postural archetypes, seceding these from the historically more recent one hundred and eight element Long Form, from the silken maze of its many repetitions, howsoever beautiful they are.

So a Short Form is never a mere précis, or edit, but something complete, whole, having its own origin tradition, disclosing through brevity a self-sustaining continuity, drawn from a reel whose thread does not easily break by being over-extended. That the flow and thread of a Long Form does at times break is almost always because fatigue comes in – which might be physical, emotional, of memory, of the spirit – and with fatigue comes approximation: the Form loses form.
It must be a truth that having not the plenitude of time to immerse in the Tao 道 of continuous practice needed to produce the skills of Long Form mastery, we might find joy in a shorter setting – to “give up that and choose this”, as says Lao Tzu – to be content, to be at rest there.


The classical Chinese world has a particular regard and fondness for certain kinds of pattern, characteristically finding a playfulness in their complexity. Favoured patterns are those that repeat and/or replicate not only by being placed side by side, but, and more typically, by being placed on top of and below each other, and with an understood dimensional transparency too. One might describe them as Layer Patterns.

As the ways of Tai Chi spring very much from this long-ago world it stands to reason that they also are informed with this kind of layer pattern making. And it would therefore follow that upon a pattern, say, of down-to-earth practical skills – being primarily of the physical world and human actions – a pattern of what might be called natural mysticism could be layered – being primarily of the subtle world, that which is hidden and out of reach. That these layers are not separate but interpenetrating would also hold true.

From the scant early writings known collectively as the Tai Chi Chuan Ching 太极拳谱, a number-pattern of THIRTEEN emerges in various arrangements, offering instruction. That it is almost certainly the case, according to this guidance, that the first Tai Chi Forms, the Wudang Forms, were of just thirteen postures also, further underlines it as a number of significance common to the times.

Note: Tai Chi Chuan Ching 太极拳谱 where Chuan means Fist, referencing the martial arts, and Ching, meaning Treatise or Record.

Other than our Short Form’s thirteen postures and their sequence, three more thirteen patterns will directly concern us in the making of the SHI SAN SHI 十三式

The first is in Abiding Principles, being a teaching pattern or grammar that underpins all that we practise. The second is of Practical Skills, and the third of Natural Mysticism, these two in each case being divided into eight and five to arrive at thirteen.

Note: Shi San 十三 is thirteen, the third character Shi 式 means component-type or form; for us it means a posture, here given the word Element. Additionally, and in this context, it bears the sense of implying that Element’s within-dwelling power, or Virtue Té 德.


Here the thirteen takes the form of instructions that would traditionally have been given orally; exhortations to be learned and declaimed by rote in in the form of a unison chant, no doubt accompanied by the bok-bok beat of a wood-fish drum.
Our contemporary approach, being more sympathetic, makes a list of them, commencing:

  • First in the Mind then in the Body
  • Awareness in the belly centre / fu dantien 腹丹田
  • Golden Thread released and vital
  • Head at the crown / baihui 百会 touches Heaven
  • Shoulders and elbows low, relax / song
  • Chest settled, back broad: as lying-down standing-up
  • Waist and hips entirely loose
  • Know where is fullness / yang , where emptiness / yin
  • From the ground to the head, stability through balance, all as one
  • Force nothing, work from in and with softness
  • Breath is even, knowing movement, knowing stillness, both
  • Continuity in practice
  • When in the Body then in the Mind again

In being steadfast, we should endeavour that these principles be always present in our practice. In other words, there being nothing of Tai Chi that falls outside them, these thirteen must, given constancy and time, become fully embodied.

: comprises the Eight Directions and Five Steps.

The Eight Directions are those of our universal compass:

The cardinals North N / East E / South S / West W
The ordinals Northeast NE / Southeast SE / Southwest SW / Northwest NW

Note: In the historical Chinese world – that is to say the imperial world – South is almost always placed at the top of the compass, a fact that may confound us. Explanation is to be found in diligently sifting the overlay of both Practical and Mystical patterns.

The Five Steps are:
Step Forward (f) / Step Back (b) / Step Right (r)
Step Left (l) / Step Centre (c)

Note: The Five Steps can also mean the movement, turn or shift of body weight between the f b r l + c without an actual footstep being made. And stepping Centre may mean stepping/moving into central equilibrium as well as stepping to a single-weighted posture, centrally balanced on one foot, further designated as + rc or + lc.

Unlike its sister arts of PaKua Chang, which moves upon and around a rim of circles, or Hsing-I which, in eschewing circles, takes a direct straight line from here to another here, Tai Chi places itself exactly at the centre of its own compass, being inherently aware of the eight universal directions. As a consequence, where making a turn or directional step, our centre and compass, while maintaining its bearings, is not fixed but moves with us as the Form moves. This is just one of several ways of knowing stillness within movement.
Add in time and spatial dimension, and the patterns of Practical Skills and Natural Mysticism must begin to elide.

: comprises the Eight Trigrams and Five Elements.

Where past is passed, future comes presently.

Here the Eight Trigrams of the I Ching 易經 – the symbols of China’s truly ancient record of divination – are layered upon its equally ancient
Pa-kua 八卦, its geomantic compass. As there is more than one arrangement and a multiplicity of possibilities to be considered in this ancestral wisdom tradition, coordinate directions have been omitted here.

The Eight Trigrams Pa-kua 八卦 are:
Heaven / Earth / Lake / Fire
Thunder / Wind / Water / Mountain


The Five Elements Wu-hsing 五行 are:
Earth E / Metal M / Water W / Wood W / Fire F

Being of the subtle realm the Five Elements are composed not only of their existent physical matter but of their Virtuous properties and actions also, mutually arising and being, mutually falling away and departing. They further correlate with the five principal organs in the body, being understood in terms of vitality Chi , also of healing and medical intervention, making an additional layer, where:

Spleen is E / Lung is M / Kidney is W / Liver is W / Heart is F

Note: At the threshold of natural mysticism, through movement and/or in meditation, it may be that we experience currents, or awareness, or influences gathering round us to which we are unused. In short, we may feel bewildered. This is of the natural part of mysticism – in the sense that we have it in common to feel this way – and intellect alone will not nor cannot source or resolve these currents.
Another way must be found, which is to be guided at the heart wu hsin 無心 and with absolute sincerity. To enter upon unknowing, to be gentle of ourselves, to make still, to let in time: to accept love.
The Oxherd Meditations, at its opening, famously delineates this situation, then proceeds, offering a progress that may, in allowing ourselves compassion, flow directly from it.
A contemporary account begins:

In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside tall grasses in search of the OX.
Following rivers of no name, lost in a daze of crossing paths on far-off mountains,
My strength giving out and my vitality exhausted,
I cannot find the OX.
At rest, un-resting,
I hear only locusts chittering and chirring through the forest at night.


108: a number of Eminence.
As so much else that reaches us from the East, we cannot fully know its origins in being revered, in being implicated with wisdom. That 108 is a number of record in the ancient ways, becoming ways of ritual, particularly in Hinduism then Buddhism, and especially in terms of repetition – of chants, of mantra, of striking bells, of pilgrim footsteps, of fingering mala beads – is plain, and clearly so; even today it is a number to sit down beside in faith.
You might say that 108 is a temple number, a sacred number, a monastery number too, and as we know that the physical practices of Tao, its martial and oracular arts, Tai Chi Chuan and I Ching, were most likely systemised and codified within monastic precincts, or under their influence – most notably of Wudang Mountain – it is perhaps reasonable to see why 108 might be designated and appropriated to its Forms.
That it also points to stages in overcoming hindrances on a journey toward spiritual completion, must make it a number of profound significance for some.

Note: The mountains of Wudang, rising in the province of Hubei of modern-day China, became, during the Tang and Ming dynasties, a geographical centre of Tao and Buddha activity, drawing many disciples. Temples and monasteries multiplied; palaces of devotion and ritual to be sure, but also akin to universities in their breadth of teaching and learning.
It is here that Taoist Immortals sported in the clouds, visiting deities such as Shou Lao, to sip celestial teas and play poetry games under the watchful eye of the divinity, Zhen Wu: the Perfected Warrior, Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven, guardian patron of martial artists. It is in Wudang too that the practice of Tai Chi Chuan began to be set down and disseminated, arriving with us these many centuries later, bringing stability, solace, and a Way.

If you would like to obtain a comprehensive copy of these Notes, to include a Table outlining the Thirteen Element Short Form together with its attributes – and/or – If you would like to have a complete illustrated edition of my contemporary account of The Oxherd Meditations in Ten Pictures, including a Foreword and Guide To Use, they are each, or the two together available where a consideration is made, in the form of a donation, in reflection of their value, as Treasure, and for the commitment of time given over in their preparation.

Please request your copies using the email treasure@timstudio.co.uk
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©April 2024