This is the shortest of the works that make up the Taijiquan (Taichi) classics and one of my favourites. Its message is concise and clear, the poem describes how to perform Push Hands well. The author is unknown.
‘Ward-off, Roll-back, Press and Push’ (Pang Lu Ji An) are the four fundamental energies (四正手 Si Zheng Shou) used in Taijiquan. The are part of the original 13 postures that constitute all schools of Taijiquan. They are also the main movements employed in pushing hands – ‘Ward-off’ is an outward pressure, ‘Roll-back’ deflects toward the rear, ‘Push’ strikes forward and ‘Press’ is contact applied to another part of the body. Each of them encompasses far more detail than these few words but this is the general idea.
‘The upper and lower following each other’ is the whole body united and moving as one. A key concept in the application of power in Taijiquan. The feet and legs form the root, the waist the pivot and the arms execute the actions, but they all work together in harmony to create strength.
‘A four ounce pull I dispel his thousand pounds’ the original text uses traditional Chinese weights and measures – a Liang (variously 3 or 15g at different times in China’s history) and a Jin (250 or 600g). The exact measurements are unimportant though and it could even be read ‘thousands of pounds’ (Chinese has no plural for this words). The concept is of using minimal force to produce maximal results, another important principle in Taijiquan styles.
‘Falls into emptiness’ is the basic method of defense in Taijiquan. Continuing from the last line, this suggest that minimal force is used to redirect the opponent’s offence away from the practitioner and into nothing. In practice this often involves moving out of the direct line of the assault and deflecting past your body. Such as the action of moving the weight to the back leg and turning the waist to the side in push hands.
‘I unite with him and immediately issue.’ This instructs that as soon as the opponent’s force has been neutralised (lead into emptiness with minimal effort) we should change direction and apply our own attack. Such as the action of moving the weight to the front leg and turning the waist again to face forward in push hands.
‘Adhere, connect, stick, and follow’ respectively Zhan, Lian, Nian and Sui these four rules apply to the grappling aspects of Taijiquan. Whenever making contact with an opponent (which is the goal in Taijiquan, close quarters combat) these four points must be followed to ensure successful outcome. This is the purpose of push hands, to train these and gain ability in their application. Zhan ‘Adhere’ is to make contact the opponent (usually a limb), Lian ‘Connect’ is to engage that contact, to start to feel what is happening on the other end (in Chinese philosophy we would say to connect the Shen ‘spirit’ or consciousness), Nian ‘Stick’ solidify that contact, be applying another hand or using part of the body to grab the opponent, and Sui ‘Follow’ to move with their energy, not against it and use it against them.
Whilst there’s a lot more that could be said about the Da Shou Ge I think this is a simple and useful understanding of it, without reading too much metaphor or mysticism into something that was meant to be practical.