One of the most important movements in Taijiquan is to Grasp the Bird’s Tail. Actually it is a series of very basic moves: Peng, Lü, Ji and An.
It is not only called Grasp the Bird’s Tail, some call it “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail” and the Chinese name is Lǎn Qùe Wěi (揽雀尾 or simplified 拦雀尾).
Grasp the Bird’s Tail is a movement you will learn quite early in many forms, e.g. the 24 form or Yang long form (108). These moves are just so important that there are shorter Taijiquan forms which basically consist of only Grasping the Bird’s Tail!
That is why I wanted to find out what that name means. I do not speak Chinese, but on my quest for an answer I found this really interesting book:
The author Jane Schorre practices Taijiquan for more than 30 years. She is also not a Chinese native speaker, but she started to get interested in the names of the Taijiquan movements.
Talking to a Chinese friend, she found out about all the different aspects that are within the Chinese names and characters. To improve her understanding of Taijiquan, she wanted to get even deeper into it.
So she started researching all kinds of meanings and stories. However, she wanted to stay playfully and not become too academic in her explanations. I think that makes the book really a pleasurable read.
In the book you will find a calligraphy on the left and an explanation of all the Chinese characters on the right. Sometimes Jane Schorre added some complementary notes and thoughts. This for example is the page of “Grasp the Bird’s Tail”:
So now let’s get deeper into these Chinese characters:
- Lǎn 揽 (or simplified 拦) means grasping. It actually consists of two characters: one for “hand” and one for “examining carefully”
- Qùe 雀 is a sparrow. It also consists of two characters: “small” and “bird”
- Wěi 尾 means tail. The character can be divided in “body” and “hair”
So the short direct translation of Lan Que Wei (揽雀尾) could be “Grasp Bird Tail”. But you could also say “Hand examine carefully small bird’s body hair”!
As I said, Jane Schorre adds comments to most of the moves and Chinese characters. And I think that is really valuable. They are often ideas for practicing Taijiquan. So she writes about Grasp the Bird’s Tail:
“Read this way, the characters seem to suggest we begin by taking in hand what is probably the least significant part of a rather insignificant little bird in order to pay close attention to it. We pay attention to the smallest details. Every time this movement occurs in the form it can be a reminder of the kind of awareness – the being totally present Taiji requires.” (page 17*)
Wow! I have to admit that I am some kind of detail freak in the Taijiquan form. So I find it magnificent that there is what I would call a “mind the details-reminder” implemented in the form!
And of course I think this would be a good time for you to get up and practice this: mind the details in Peng, Lü, Ji, An: Grasp the Bird’s Tail!
P.S.: Unfortunately How to Grasp the Bird’s Tail if You Don’t Speak Chinese* is out of print. If you ever find it somewhere I highly recommend you buy it! The book is truly inspiring no matter which Taijiquan style you practice.