Single Whip (單鞭 Dān Biān): the biggest mistake in Taijiquan history?

The Single Whip (單鞭 Dān Biān) is a very popular and known Taijiquan move.

Yang-single (restoration).jpgIt is so common and there are so many pictures and drawings of it that I even created a Pinterest board just for the Single Whip!

BUT in this post I want to write about the name. Because really, why is that move called “Single Whip”? I always found it hard to see a whip in this posture. Where would be the end, where would be the tip?

Then I stumbled across the Single Whip Wikipedia entry. UPDATE: the text I am about to quote was taken away from Wikipedia. Because it was wrong. But I would like to share the whole story and the reason why it is wrong with you:

The paragraph was like this:

“Single Whip is historically a mis-transcription of the posture’s original name, which is “Carry Baskets” (擔扁 Dān Biăn).
The mis-transcription most likely came about when Yang Chengfu’s (楊澄甫) senior student Chen Weiming (陳微明) was writing the names of the moves down (as Yang Chengfu was illiterate, not a disgrace in China at that time as typically only scholars and government officials were literate. Chen Weiming had the Chinese equivalent of a master’s degree). As Yang Chengfu pronounced “Dān Biăn” meaning “Carry Baskets,” Chen Weiming probably heard and then wrote down “Dān Biān” meaning “Single Whip.” When Chen Weiming read back “Dān Biān” meaning “Single Whip,” Yang Chengfu probably heard “Dān Biăn” meaning “Carry Baskets” and then approved the mis-transcription. The pronunciation of Dān Biān and Dān Biăn are so close that such a mistake can easily be made.”
(Source: Wikipedia “Single Whip” (someone deleted the text after this blog post))

I thought WHAT? The move is called Single Whip because Chen Weiming did not understand the different Chinese tones??? I mean, this move is so important (I actually counted the moves in the long Yang form and Single Whip is the third common!). And through all the years of training Chen Weiming did not get that is was Dān Biăn instead of Dān Biān?

Especially as the name “Carry Baskets” really makes sense when you think of people carrying baskets on those long sticks.

This just looks much more like the Taijiquan move: women_are_carrying_basket_of_fruitone hand on the front end of the stick, the other at the back.

It even makes sense that the posture is different depending on how far you keep the stick to the front or to the side. (You can discover the different variations of the Single Whip in different styles and times here or here.)

However, I still cannot believe this story. I mean, that would be probably the biggest mistranscription in Taijiquan history, right?

Taijiquan (Tai Chi) move Single Whip: Dan Bian mistranscriptionSo I started researching. Unfortunately there is no reference given on this piece of information at Wikipedia.

But: this blog post was read by many people. And I really recommend you read the many interesting comments below.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that the story on Wikipedia was wrong. Because the Chen’s name for the move is Single Whip. And they called it Single Wip (Dān Biān) long before Yang Chengfu.

In the Facebook Group “Tai Chi Martial Artists”, where I posted this story, someone was so kind to show a picture of Chen Xin’s manual, in which it says “Single Whip” already. Chen Xin lived 1849-1919. Yang Chengfu lived 1883-1936, grandson of Yang Luchan who learned form the Chen. So I really think that the original name is and stays “Single Whip” (單鞭 Dān Biān)!

Thank you for all the comments here and in Facebook. As the story is deleted, Wikipedia is a more correct place again!

Angelika

Merken

Merken

37 thoughts on “Single Whip (單鞭 Dān Biān): the biggest mistake in Taijiquan history?

    1. Angelika Fritz Post author

      Thank you for bringing that to my attention.

      I basically understand that he follows the idea of “Carry Baskets” only that the stick is not meant for carrying baskets but it’s like a stick-whip. It’s like merging the two ideas of “Carry Baskets” and “Single Whip” into “Carry Whip”?

      Reply
  1. Scott P Phillips

    Ah, but the meaning fits. The movement is clearly a demonstration of the most important taiji principle: a counter balance.

    Reply
  2. Beng

    There are hundreds of dialects in China and most cannot understand each other. For example, Mandarin cannot speak to Cantonese folks. Then add human nuances like lisps and maybe not speaking clearly and not being educated, and it is very easy to have a miscommunication.

    Reply
    1. Angelika Fritz Post author

      Yes, it could really be a miscommunication. I just assume that when the two spent so much time together practicing Taijiquan they somehow could have been able to get his important move right.

      Another reason though might be conscious misguiding. Like changing that name so that outsiders or foreigners would not get its meaning (and application) immediately.

      Reply
  3. Beng

    One other possibility is that Chen Weiming may have tried to be use the pun of the words. Apparently in ancient China, the highly literate would often communicate in writing via poem-like writing where they would play with words and do things like substitute the real word for another that sounded the same but had different meaning, like a pun in today’s terminology. So maybe he was just being extra creative that day in his writing. The truth is, we may never know why the different words for the move. This may be one that is lost in history.

    Reply
    1. Justin

      Yes you can know right now … Because yang luchans teacher Chen changxing called it single whip long before Chen weiming was born. So you don’t have to guess anymore 😉

      Reply
  4. Dave Pickens

    Well interesting, but can you explain how you use the technique in application? That could very well hold the key to the name.

    Reply
    1. Angelika Fritz Post author

      I am not sure if the application would change if the name changed. I think the name is more a way to memorize the posture — and not to give away the application.

      Reply
    2. Justin

      It is very straight forward the hook is chin na technique to off balance opponent then you slide from one side to the other chopping with wrist. Their is a very clear whip action from the back leg into the front wrist. It is often performed in the set in two stages… However with some experimentation against people who don’t like to be hit in face or neck you will find that if it all flows in one smooth whipping action and the persons head jerks toward your striking wrist, the same technique can also be used to follow through with a Takedown.

      Reply
  5. Scott M

    Thanks Angelika, nice discussion. Basically Mr/Ms Beng here in the comments is correct. Not only are there thousands of dialects with incompatible tones, but also the Chinese scholars love to play punning word games with homonyms and character substitutions that respect the pronunciations but may vary in tone.

    Another Tai Chi-ish example is ‘Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain’. bao4 hu3 gui1 shan1 (包虎歸山) so bao4 can be ‘hug/embrace’ but also totally separately means ‘leopard’ thus giving us ‘leopard and tiger return to mountain’. 豹虎歸山. Which frankly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either, but some people argue for it, and of course a ‘Just So’ story can be written around virtually any substitution and interpretation. Going further, others have argued that if we just flip the bao4 to be fang4 it becomes 放虎歸山 meaning release the tiger to go home to the mountain… maybe safer than embracing him. Anyway once you begin to play it’s just ‘game on’ with this stuff. It’s very popular to play this way with historical phrases tweaked to refer indirectly to contemporary political goings-on.

    I once asked Ben Lo about all this and though a scholar of Tai Chi himself he just said ‘The names don’t matter.’ But thank you for such an interesting “catch”.

    Reply
    1. Angelika Fritz Post author

      Yes, it really all come back to “names don’t matter”.

      I just think that it is an really interesting way of finding out all the different ways how the name of this move but also all over moves could have been developed or changed over the years. Everything flows.

      Reply
  6. Scott M

    Another interesting thing is that if it’s merely a 1920’s transcription error by one guy, that the much older, “great and powerful” Chen Village people would have rushed to copy that same “error”, as they use Dan Bian ‘Single Whip’ naming in their own Old Frame Routine.

    Another ‘Just So Story’ around this pose is that it’s a homonym for 丹變 (dan bian) meaning “Change your Dantian” (abdominal energy center). The term Dan Bian as ‘SIngle Whip’ for this basic pose goes way back beyond Chen Weiming, even to much older Shaolin traditions.

    Reply
    1. Angelika Fritz Post author

      Yes, I also think the reason that it is called Single Whip in Chen style is a big contra to this story. I just wonder who came up with it and why?

      Reply
  7. Woo Jee

    This “mistranslation” is unlikely, if you look at the history of taijiquan and the Single Whip posture beyond just Yang Chengfu.

    If you keep in mind that Yang Chengfu was practicing the art of Yang Lu Chan (his grandfather);
    … and his grandfather learned taiji from Chen Chang-Xing (14th generation Chen family, 6th generation Chen taijiquan);
    … and that Chen taijiquan (as formulated by Ming general Chen Wangting – 8th generation Chen family, founder Chen Taijiquan) most probably is taiji and Daoyin body theory (internal) applied to the unarmed fighting tactics (external) described by the Ming general Qi Jiguang in his book “Jixiao Xinshu”;
    … and in “Jixiao Xinshu,: the characters for the “dan bian” posture (basically the same as all more modern taiji versions, internal aspects nonwithstanding) are unequivocally 單鞭, “single whip.” So its been “single whip” since at least 1560, when “Jixiao Xinshu” was first published.

    Also keep in mind that “bian” 鞭, while translated into English as “whip” does not exclusively mean the long, flexible weapon. It also refers to clubs, truncheons, and other stiff impact weapons; you could conceivably translate “dan bian” as “single club.”

    It is still a nice thought, since the “yoke” and “counter balance” concepts play nicely with taiji principles. Which goes to show that a lot of these flowery, descriptive, ornate posture names are just that – flowery, descriptive, ornate. And still just names.

    Reply
    1. Angelika Fritz Post author

      Oh, thank you for that valuable information, that it is Single Whip already since 1560 in Chen style!

      I guess now the only question is why did someone write such a mistranscription thing in Wikipedia?

      (and only if one wants to be really conspiratorially one could assume that the name could have been changed. I mean, is the paper from 1560 still existing? Or did someone change it to Single Whip to misguide strangers?? Well that would be really a conspiracy and worth a movie — maybe “Bourne’s Single Whip” or James Bond: The Dan Bian files ;))

      Reply
      1. Yunshui

        I haven’t edited Wikipedia for a long time, but I felt it was worth re-activating my account and going back to fix this – the information was added a weeks or two back by a user who has never edited anything else on the encyclopedia, ever, and as Woo Jee points out above, this unsourced story seems unlikely in the extreme. You might want to note on your post that the statement isn’t on Wikipedia any more, to avoid confusion for your readers.

        Reply
        1. Angelika Fritz Post author

          Hi, actually this information was available more than a few weeks ago. I remember reading that months ago, only now I thought about it again and wrote this blog post about it.

          Still, it would be interesting to find out who wrote that and why? just a troll or something?

          Reply
          1. Yunshui

            Whoops, you’re right – it’s actually been there for just over a year (I misread the date stamp). Here’s a link to the article history: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Single_whip&action=history

            You can see that all of the “mistranslation” text was added by user Taiji218 on 11th September 2015 (not 2016, as I originally thought) in two edits – they were this user’s only contributions to Wikipedia, so there’s no way to know their RL identity, I’m afraid.

          2. Angelika Fritz Post author

            Thanks for having such a detailed look at it! I only use Wikipedia and haven’t contributed yet, so it’s good to at least see when and how things are changed. I thought about that a lot because I wondered what else (not only in the Taijqiuan community but by other companies etc) is changed without people noticing?

            Glad you made Wikipedia correct again!

  8. Angelika Fritz Post author

    There was another comment in a Facebook group I would like to share with you. I asked Alfie to post it here. (If you want to know who Alfie is check out her homepage at http://www.chenstil.com/)

    It is very probably no mistake. In chenstyle erlu, there is another movement with whip (bian) in it`s name- I think in english it is called wrapping fire crackers…… this movement offers less possibility to carry baskets, but clearly shows several whip movements. Short whips, often with horsetail-hair, were quite popular among some martial artists. Also in Dan Bian (Master Chen Bing once explained us) the whip often was used as weapon for certain distances- less than sword, but more than close/ellbow. So in Dan Bian the left hand could easily have grapped a whip and used it against an opponent on the left…. Now the names given to the movements were often created to misguide foreigners, so hearing the name with a movement they could not immediately figure out which application was meant. It is possible that master Yang intentionally pronounced it like carrying baskets to confuse people he did not want to tell the essence of his art.

    The firecrackers with baskets would result in empty baskets 😉 Finally, we have the spelling… I am not a specialist for Chinese, but I guess basket has a different spelling than whip- and my Chinese teachers from Chen family or Chen family schools all know the movements, names and spellings very well and all of them only spoke about whips….

    about the whip- grapping whip (fixed on the back) with left hand and using it against an enemy on the left. As far as I know, movement names were already given i chenstyle bfore master yang learned from the Chens and spread his Yangstyle (correct me if I`m mistaken), so we probably have to search for the origin of the names in Chenjiagou area and Wudang/Shaolin/warfare which were friends/background of the chenstyle founders

    Reply
    1. Angelika Fritz Post author

      and my answer was this:
      hm, let me think about it
      1) is the Bian in the wrapping fire crackers really a whip-Bian? And I think that even if it is the whip-bian that doesnt mean that Dan Bian has to be a whip, too. Just like “golden rooster” and “white crane” could be translated simply as “bird” so it would still mean different things.I hope that makes sense. So I still think that Dan Bian could be Carrying Baskets.
      2) I totally understand that if you translate Dan Bian as Single Whip there needs to be a reasoning afterwards (!) why that would make sense. Yes, I agree that one could use a whip in that position.
      3) Yes, misguiding foreigners (and even your own students) could be another reason for this confusion.

      Reply
      1. Hui

        1. Bian here is bot whip, it is 鞭,a weapon. I can send you the pic of it. The posture making your arms straight like a Bian shape. Same idea like “Golden Roost” and “White Crane” if you see the real rooster and crane standing in nature style. Have no idea why you insist carrying baskets, it is two different things in life which it is Bian(扁) Dan(担) , a tool , popular using in China.
        2. Dan Bian can not translate into Single Whip. Bian here is not the soft weapon, it is a metal one, used as single or double. Nobody using is now for real weapons as well.
        3. Nobody means to misguiding. There is always a reason behind.

        Reply
        1. Hui

          1 I need correct one word, “Bian here is NOT whip “,

          Reply
        2. Angelika Fritz Post author

          Thank you for your clarificaton!

          I do not insist on “carry baskets”, I just found this story and wondered if it was true. Through all the different comments I think it is pretty clear now that most likely the story was wrong. But I think it is really interesting to get into all the different ways how the moves names could have been created, what the chinese characters mean etc.

          Reply
  9. Alfie Schuetz

    So, meanwhile I checked the spelling of “bian” in the different chenstyle forms (both yilus and cannonfist forms) and it is always 鞭 (whip).
    The chance that Chen family ancestors, in former times exercising a lot more martial applications than we do nowadays (even former chenstyle forms were more martial than today), messed up the names of their own movements and their meaning/background, is quite small. The village is very little and even though most of them were farmers, there were also some well educated people who clearly could differ the different spellings.
    The movements show quite clearly the use of a short horsetail-whip and considering the jumped, low movements of chenstyle erlu forms, it makes absolutley no sense to consider baskets.
    Considering that one of general Chen Wangtig`s (the founder of chenstyle) closer friends came from Wudang, where the use of whips is very popular in their forms, as well in fight whips sometimes were used, even in combination with other weapons, it is much more likely that they thought of whips when creating their movements (probably these people never carried baskets themselves before this way).
    In later years, taiji was changed, simpyfied for health and governments tried to eliminate martial essence and use…. As well, China is big and not every Chinese knows Chenjiagou and is well informed about the origins of the forms.
    I was several times taught by chen family masters about Bian as whip and I have certain confidence that they knew qute well what they were talking about, showing the use of the whip and how the “bian” movements got their names….
    So it is possible, that carrying baskets is a simple misunderstanding which habbened during taiji`s long way….

    Reply
  10. Numan Pekgoz

    The issue is this particular movement is also called `Single Whip` by the Chen Tai Chi Chuan, which is the oldest Tai Chi style. The best way to learn the idea behind it is understanding the applications of the movement. Not the form.

    Reply
  11. stanton alleyne

    This is a common occurence in taijiquan history! Tonal qualitiies of ideograms, accents and levels of literacy and understanding have changed the words, their meaning and the utility of the descriptive. Wu Yuxian and some of his recent disciples wrote a similar expose of this but due to traditions dying hard, it was difficulty to change the original translations so they stayed as they did. I recall an article in Tai Chi magazine (US) that described this problem in a general way.
    It is a common problem with pre1940s writings on yangshenggong and taijiquan. Even in some styles, one can see the same style using varying descriptives that changes the direction and scope and meaning utility of postures.

    Reply
  12. Rick

    Nice article, with some fun questions to ponder!

    If this move refers to an actual ‘whip’, then why ‘single whip’? Did some martial artists fight with ‘double whip’ or ‘multiple whip’? -Just wondering out loud.

    ‘Carry Baskets’ is attractive because the movement would seem to mimic a basket being carried on a pole.

    It’s funny to think these moves might have been misunderstood all these years just over a translation error!

    Reply
    1. Angelika Fritz Post author

      Yes, I also find this very interesting. And there are others who wonder why it is a “Single Whip”.

      Still, from what I learned from the comments it seems that the story is wrong. Or at least the Chens have called it Single Whip for centuries already.

      Reply
  13. Scott M

    Also meant to point out that the Qi Ji Guang Classic of some 500 years ago cites basically the same pose as ‘Single Whip’ (verse 24) Verse 24:

    “The Single Whip–level and straight–open it out and strike”

    Reply
  14. Hui

    Actually, they are two different names。 One is Bian Dan, which is a tool used to carry something on the shoulders, balance and easy to switch from one side to another side of shoulders. Mostly made from Bamboos, woods, or metals. Carry basket is not the exactly right name, When I was younger, I used to carry two buckles of water easily by using Bian Dan. Bian (扁) here means flat and long, It is adjective. Dan(担) is carrying something using your shoulders. if we say, you Dan (担 )something means you need use your shouders to carry. That pic shows all the meanings when you use the tool named Bian Dan. Another name is Dan Bian, which is a special name used for a posture in Taiji. Dan(单) here means Singlar or one and Bian (鞭)is the name of a weapon, used in ancient China. Bian here is a Noun. Google the name of Chinese weapon Bian(鞭), you will get an idea what is looking like.

    Reply
  15. Chenfist

    The story is unlikely as other styles also call the movement single whip and even General Qi Jiguang mentioned it well before Yang Chengfu was born.

    Reply
  16. James

    I see no issue with the movement being called single whip.

    The “whip” is in the transition into this posture from the previous posture. One way of executing it is to simultaneous parry a punch to the head with the elbow and transition into a loose back knuckle strike to the side of the head followed by a palm strike to the neck or chin with a lot of penetration based on hip movement – all in one continuous motion with the same arm. The parry itself causes the attacker to be drawn in closer. The back knuckle strike is a double strike that actually hits first with the wrist joint and then the knuckles. The palm heel at the completion of the posture extends through where the attacker’s head is by up to 2 feet. It’s an amazing technique, particularly with fajing.

    Reply
  17. Doug Nettleton

    Guys:

    Google is your friend. Search for “Chinese tax law under a single whip”. Long before google and the internet, I was given the following explanation of the name Single Whip: in medieval china there were a lot of taxes that were owed, An amount of rice for this tax, a couple of chickens for that tax etc. When they went on a silver standard, a lot of these taxes were “brought together under a single whip”. It was further explained that the name refers to how the fingers and thumb of the right hand come together.

    I’m sure someone will jump in with the observation that “Diagonal Single Whip” has evolved in some lineages to the point that the right hand does not do this.

    I’m sure others will jump in to observe that there are two Chinese characters( 一條) representing “Single” in the name of the law (一條鞭法) which google translate renders as “a whip method”, but on two occasions – years ago – I asked Chinese speaking and educated tai chi students, if I were to suggest that there was some Chinese tax law that brought a bunch of earlier tax laws together under a single whip (單鞭) would you know to what I was referring. One said simply yes. The other turned to her husband and said: “I know what he means.” and then they proceeded to have a conversation in Chinese.

    Reply

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