Eight Enigmas of T'ai Chi Ch'uan - second half

25/10/2009 01:39

By Robert Amacker


The practice of discharge is probably the most misunderstood and incorrectly executed of any in the art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. I mentioned that the one thing that we never do in the actual complete manifestation of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is push anyone. People’s simple inability to accept this fact, and the seductive similarity between this and T’ai Chi Ch’uan’s signature technique, makes for one of the most pernicious stumbling blocks in the entire art.

From the foregoing a few things should be obvious. First and foremost, discharge is not any sort of refinement of the ordinary act of pushing, no matter how refined you may imagine this to be. Secondly, the phenomenon of discharge requires certain actions on the part of both parties to be legitimately considered as such. These actions may be deliberate or accidental (as we shall see, they are in a profound way always accidental, even for the person executing the discharge), but it is always a mutual occurrence. Much confusion is derived from the fact that for a person to be discharged requires on the one hand a high degree of skill and a rare and proper condition, but that the required situation can also be unwittingly duplicated by certain forms of aggressive behavior. This means that instances of spectacular discharge can be found in situations where the victim is entirely ignorant of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, but this possibility of ignorance does not mean that this technique can be arbitrarily applied. The target may not have known what he was doing to facilitate it, but he still had to do it.

I have gone at great length into the actual analysis of discharge in my article Discharge: Its Use and Abuse, and I will not repeat all of this here. Most important for this discussion is not primarily how to do it or even exactly what it is, but where it fits into the T’ai Chi Ch’uan curriculum. As I have said, the last thing that it is is a weapon that can be arbitrarily turned upon one’s opponent. Its true place in the study of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is to facilitate and allow the practice of fa-jing without injury to one’s partner. The fact that this is simultaneously training one’s partner to receive jing without injury is of not inconsiderable importance, as well. This mutual training, when done correctly, produces a result that is extremely confusing to observers.

When watching two people practicing discharge, or when observing the incidence of discharge in an otherwise unremarkable t’ui-shou “contest,” it is natural and probably inevitable that one would make the unconscious assumption that we are seeing the exhibition of a certain power or technique by one party, and an attempt to help the development and refinement of this technique by resisting it as strenuously and cleverly as possible. In fact, if discharge were simply a refinement of pushing people, that is what we would be seeing, and it would be a proper and logical practice.

Instead, we are witness to an embarrassing display of apparent cooperation by the target, in which he seems to be actually adding to the power of the technique by his own efforts, rather than resisting it. It is entirely natural that we should react to this by labeling it a disingenuous and phony display that could only fool a child, or, if we are of a more trusting nature, thinking that it represents some mysterious element of the technique that forces our opponent to act this way. The last statement is closer to the mark, but only in the sense that we are forcing our opponent to act in a way that requires years of training, without which no amount of skill on our part could produce. Even when, as I stated before, the effect is manifested in an opponent who has no T’ai Chi Ch’uan training, it is only likely if he has had some sort of training, at least. A completely passive opponent cannot be discharged, period. “Even the greatest master cannot discharge a statue.” –Cheng, Man-ch’ing

In other words, the ability to be discharged, while it may manifest as a result of superior skill on the part of one’s opponent, represents an enormous amount of skill on the part of one’s self. Not to oversimplify, because the whole discharge phenomenon is in a way a test of a large number of skills in combination, there is the simple matter of elasticity. If one completely neutralizes an incoming force, there is no need to store energy because no energy is received. But if the neutralization is less than perfect, a certain amount of energy from the incoming force will be absorbed. Something that can distribute this absorption process over a finite period of time and then release it in the same way is said to be elastic. This creates the effect of delaying external response (movement through space) until the completion of an internal change. Most things are elastic due to their substance and/or shape, a ball being the most ideal example of the shape, leaving its composition to determine just how elastic it is. Human beings do not actually have either the shape or the internal consistency to lay claim to either of these properties, but they can be trained to duplicate their effect, as perceived by one’s opponent.

The key to this is relaxation, but relaxation, even of the most profound nature, is not enough. Whether discharging or even being advantageously discharged we must relax in the midst of the execution of an intricate skill, a skill that, by definition, must be over and done with before we even realize it is happening. Discharge is not the climax of a zero sum game in which one person is trying to do T’ai Chi Ch’uan and the other is trying to stop him, but the result of both parties trying to do exactly the same thing, only one of them gets there first. Let’s see what this means.

First of all, the perception that the person being discharged is adding to the power of the technique through his own efforts is entirely correct. To assume that discharge represents the power of one person to throw a seventy-five kilogram dead weight into the air with no more apparent effort than it takes to toss a beach ball would imply quite a radioactive cabbage, indeed. No, as Chu, Chu-fang said, in a moment of considerable enlightenment for me, “Discharge means make him jump.” But this must be amended slightly. He is not just jumping. If he is practicing the proper technique, he is absorbing the energy of the opponent’s strike through an elastic response of his body (this delays the external effect of the force until an internal change has been completed). All elastic objects have their limit, imposed normally by their internal consistency; at this point the absorbed energy begins to be released as the object tries to return to its original shape. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan this limit is imposed by rules of form, painstakingly internalized. There is nothing to prevent the body from simply collapsing completely under the influence of force (either this or forceful resistance are the only two untrained responses), nothing, that is, except our training. In slow practice, some energy is exchanged, but very little. Because of the slow speed, our abilities to neutralize are increased, our range of movement greater, greatly obviating the need for elastic response. But when the speed of the incoming force becomes great enough, its entire energy is passed through the body with almost no external change at all, in the form of a short wave pulse, a series of muscular changes that, when reflected back through the body from the root, manifest as a jump. The subjective experience of doing this is like having your legs suddenly pumped full of some sort of hydraulic form of adrenalin. If you relax and let it happen, you feel like Superman.

Now there is a situation in which all of the preceding takes place, except one does not jump. The energy manifests as a jump because, as it returns, the body’s geometry with respect to the opponent and the floor causes it to reflect off the opponent’s contact point in a way that throws it backwards. If this geometry is changed, and if the speed of his response is sufficient, the energy will be reflected back into the opponent and make him jump.

This discharge process must not be confused with shrinking and stretching, or making the postures smaller or larger, though doing so is part of the proper training and preparation for it. The wave with a high enough frequency to be called jing is also too fast for any kind of general change of shape. Instead it travels back and forth through the body in the midst of such changes. To repeat, discharge must not be confused with quickly shrinking and then stretching, but can occur in the midst of either action. This shrinking and stretching practice will, however, insure that one can adequately conduct this wave in any position.

In other words, the ideal practice is not one in which one person tries to express power and the other tries to stop him, but one in which energy is passed relatively harmlessly between the players, and the geometry of their contact determines who is the discharger and who the discharged.

There is another point that produces much confusion. One tacit assumption that is made either consciously or unconsciously by most people confronting this practice is that “winning” is always connected to discharging the opponent and “losing” is always connected to being discharged. Two things are important to note here. One is that this assumes that discharges are always “perfect,” in the sense that one player is directly ejected and the other remains perfectly in place. Actually, this is not true, and T’ai Chi Ch’uan would be quite a bit more boring if it were. The other is that most students think of being discharged and being double weighted in the same breath, as though they were unbreakably connected. This is not true, either, and I will address this question first.

One reason for the appearance of this connection is that the condition of double-weightedness in the legs usually means that the player will be very poor at neutralizing, making it quite likely that he will have to absorb a good deal of the opponent’s energy. The other is that when this energy is reflected back it will cause a simultaneous reaction in both legs, preserving his position so that no changes occur in the air. In reality, being discharged is kind of like eating cholesterol. There is good and bad cholesterol, and there are advantageous and disadvantageous discharges. Being discharged while double weighted is always disadvantageous, even if your opponent doesn’t know how to make use of it or is otherwise disadvantageous himself. Not being double-weighted means, by our more sophisticated definition, that one’s body experiences a change of substantial and insubstantial that conducts the opponent’s force through it in a wave. Remember that one of the most important characteristics of this separation of substantial and insubstantial is the time delay that it introduces in the action of the pieces involved. In this case, this means that the jump that is induced by the discharge does not come from both feet simultaneously, but serially, as one’s weight passes between them. This change is reflected in a similar serial change in the arms, so that instead of seeming like a figure frozen in time and in one position, like a chess piece being moved from one square to the next, the person being discharged may exhibit extremely elegant and relaxed movements while in the air, and land almost soundlessly, on one foot at a time.

In fact, this double-weighted condition is endemic to many Oriental styles of boxing, a deliberate attempt to create the most stable platform possible from which to launch an attack. In other words, their training makes them especially susceptible to this rather sophisticated technique. In contrast to this, boxers trained in the classic western style, particularly that influenced by Mohammed Ali, do not make such ideal targets for discharge.

The two most likely situations in which discharge can occur, therefore, are when the opponent for one reason or another (by training or by accident) is double-weighted in the classic sense of the legs, or when he is highly skilled and trying to discharge you. In most other cases, the result of properly targeted fa-jing by one of the players will be simply injury or worse. I feel that students are severely handicapped by the mostly unconscious expectation that, when fighting, each instance of contact with the opponent will, or worse, should be characterized by either complete neutralization or perfect discharge. These are actually two extremes of one consistent technique that produces, in most circumstances, a result that is some proportional blend of those two idealized effects. In other words, in the great majority of encounters (between experts, that is), some of the incoming force is neutralized and some is absorbed, producing steps, changes of position, and even jumps (partial and advantageous discharges). Fantasies about T’ai Chi Ch’uan run easily to Zen-like motionlessness, which opponents bounce harmlessly off of as though encountering an invisible force-field. It may even be a reasonable extrapolation of the technique to an unreasonable degree, but even so, trying to imitate it is not the way to achieve it, and, more importantly in my book, it’s not where the fun is.

The Sanshou exercise, a kind of model for high level T’ai Chi Ch’uan behavior, makes use of this mechanism and effect to motivate and guide virtually every change in its sequence. In fact, I have generally and somewhat spontaneously classified every move in the exercise into one of three groups. One group consists of the movements that, though they may represent an exchange of jing, can never logically result in discharge. The second group contains moves that at high speeds result in discharge, but which can be performed realistically at speeds at which no discharge occurs. The last group are moves that must contain a discharge, that is, an advantageous “jump” by one of the players, to be at all realistic, or performed without appearing obviously clumsy and ineffective. An intelligent and logical approach to the development of the necessary skills is contained in the Ta-lu exercise. One reason that the elementary form of the exercise, based upon the postures of Pull and Shoulder, is so often seen, and the advanced form, utilizing the postures of Elbow and Split, almost never, is that the elementary form falls into my second category, and the advanced form, my third.

Another pernicious problem in learning to actually discharge one’s opponent with the correct technique is the absolute necessity to master the skill of being discharged first. The psychology of the average student is a huge problem here. He thinks of being “discharged” (which, in most schools, just means getting pushed backwards) as nothing more than his failure to neutralize, something that he should have as his highest priority. Since neutralizing, for most students, only includes the concept of yielding, but little understanding of adherence, this priority necessitates giving up the rules of form to be accomplished. This is a huge mistake, and given false support by the easily misinterpreted statement that T’ai Chi Ch’uan is, at its highest level, formless. By breaking the rules of form, we may delay being “discharged,” whether it is actually that or merely a threatening push, for some finite amount of time, but guarantee that when the event finally occurs, it will, from our perspective, always be disadvantageous.

This is connected strongly with the also easily misinterpreted idea that in t’ui-shou, whoever steps first is automatically the loser. This is generally true, but only at a high level of sophistication in both parties. It is beyond me why a martial art that is completely based on yielding should produce an assumption that any retreat, in the sense of a backward step, is a mistake. In fact, the attacks of ninety percent of any assailants that one might encounter, on the street or in the dojo, call for exactly such a step as the absolutely correct solution. Enforcing this as a “rule” of t’ui-shou contests, one that constitutes a loss when broken, makes the assumption that both players are guaranteed not to make any mistakes of a more critical nature, and ensures that making certain of those mistakes will result in “victory.” Talk about inculcating bad habits! This is why I forbid (or, I should say, strongly recommend against, since I don’t, by nature, usually forbid things) my students to participate in t’ui-shou tournaments. The idiotic idea that these shoving contests are somehow “realistic,” simply because they allow people to express crude force, is amply belied by the resultant behavior, behavior which, as any savvy martial arts observer might comment, and many have, is GOING TO GET YOU KILLED.

This whole mindset makes it highly unlikely that the student will get even close to the idea of being discharged advantageously, despite the fact that, logically, it is simply an extension of the mechanism, repeated over and over in T’ai Chi Ch’uan training, by which an apparent “loss” is converted into an eventual advantage. I will go into this much more when discussing “learning through loss.”

This losing process, however, is critical to every phase of development, and can never be skipped, because it is always one half of the eventual solution. The phenomenon of discharge is a perfect example of this. The first half of one’s action in discharging an opponent is exactly the same action that occurs when being discharged. It is a different kind of logic (actually indicative of non-Aristotelian thought). One might assume that one key to discharging the opponent is, of course, not letting him discharge you. This is essentially what everyone is practicing in most schools. But here the process through which the “positive” solution is reached must include the “negative” result as one of its ingredients. Not just the possibility of that result, but the result itself, right up to the moment that one would one’s self be discharged. In fact, there is no way of predicting even right up to that moment what the result will be. Fortunately, the possibility of being advantageously discharged means that the correct attitude of the player should be that, in terms of this one absolute, who is the discharger and whom the discharged, he couldn’t care less.

I have one student at least who simply cannot grasp this logic. He is a good student and has faithfully trusted me in countless other ways that actually constitute integrating the practice of loss into the mastery of some technique, but this one is somehow too blatant for him. Here you are not just doing things that might make you lose, and then cleverly using them to keep it from happening, but this, to him, seems like the end, the climax, the final bell. You can’t allow yourself to practice that, surely. He is afraid that practicing being discharged will make it an unconscious habit that he can’t break. It is even more confusing when I tell him that that is exactly what I want to happen.

This is why the occasional films of real experts at this art look so weird and phony to observers. It looks like the students are practicing being discharged. Why, this is no challenge to the teacher; even I could “discharge” these obviously willing stooges. A perfectly understandable reaction, but based upon a complete misunderstanding of what is being actually attempted. In fact, it serves to produce the peculiar impression that the bone fide exponents of the art are a bunch of phonies, while the countless “masters” filling the YouTube archives, with their frequent “let’s get practical here” attitude, look like they are doing “real stuff.” I am frequently noted and occasionally criticized for my devotion to the martial development of T’ai Chi Ch’uan as being its most critically defining aspect, but I assure you that this practicality in no way involves any sort of retreat from its esoteric reputation to some more “practical” level. All of this apparently paradoxical practice, this chimera-like vision of jing, the crazy back-asswards logic of Taoism – this is the real stuff.

There is a great temptation in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and many other fields as well probably, to define technique by its result. This problem pollutes the whole study of rooting, and I will bring it up again in that discussion, but here it creates the temptation to define anyone good at knocking people down and out of rings drawn in the dirt as a master of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Discharge is a clearly defined technique, producing an event that, as I hope I have hinted at, leads to far more complex and interesting situations than the simple, albeit impressive extreme of making people fly through the air. One should think of the development of the technique in three stages. First, developing the condition and skill that it takes to be discharged at all, and not merely injured. Second, learning to differentiate substantial and insubstantial clearly enough that one can be advantageously discharged. Third, refining this process until it naturally evolves into the ability to discharge others. It should be remembered that even when this final ability is acquired, it does not mean that this will always be the result, and that this does not by any means constitute a failure or create a disadvantageous situation, martially. One must allow the geometry of the situation to determine the exact outcome, and trust that one’s faithful adherence to preserving this geometry, by the principle of T’ai Chi, will make that outcome a desirable one.

In other words, one cannot afford the luxury that I have suggested, of simply passing energy freely without fretting about the outcome, unless one’s physical relationship with the opponent is organized in a way that will accommodate this. This is truly the defining skill of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, as other martial arts also practice the cultivation of jing. It is incorporated even into the name of the art, for the principle around which this relationship is organized is the t’ai chi principle. Despite its importance, it is rare to find a teacher who can even clearly define it, except by its result, which almost always indicates a concealment of ignorance. As such, it more than qualifies for enigma status. This is adherence.    


I mentioned that defining techniques by their result is frequently both disingenuous and misleading. One of the major reasons that adherence is so little understood is that, in the Classics, it is defined in exactly that way. It is vital for the student to understand that the requirements for this technique are not simply any which fit this definition. “When the opponent feels backed up, it is called adherence.” This is not only defining by a result, but defining by someone else’s perception of a result. But in defense of the Classics, it must be understood that, although this statement by itself gives no hint as to exactly how this result is to be achieved, it is so central to our overall technique, and so complex to understand, that this explanatory function can only be accomplished by the entire remaining body of the Classics, if then.

The desired effect, in fact, is one recognized and pursued by many martial arts (those devoted to flying forms being perhaps one exception). In Western Boxing, it is called jamming. It simply means that one’s opponent feels that he is working in too cramped a space, and seeks to relieve this by some sort of retreat, or by using force to expand his freedom of movement. Either reaction can be utilized very effectively by someone trained to do so, and is the frequent preliminary to a decisive finish. What we must realize is that in order to accomplish our technique, we must realize this end without violating any of the other precepts that define our art.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan, at first glance, has only three techniques that separate it from other martial arts, yielding, adherence, and discharge. But closer examination reveals that the real mechanism of discharge is fa-jing, however cleverly it is applied, and several martial arts actively cultivate this skill. Not only that, but even the phenomenon of discharge can be said to be a direct consequence of yielding and adherence. In fact, yielding is also not the exclusive property of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, but taught and actively employed in many martial arts, Judo, for example. It is in the special method by which T’ai Chi Ch’uan produces the effect of adherence that distinguishes it from other arts, and as such its understanding is critical to any understanding of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. The complete method by which this is accomplished is outlined in my book, The Theoretical Basis of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, but I will present at least the bare bones of the theory here.

The symbol for T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the t’ai chi symbol surrounded by the eight trigrams, means that the eight martial techniques associated with the trigrams are each formed according to the t’ai chi principle, and change in ways that conform to that principle. To understand this, one must examine exactly how that principle applies to the physical world of bodies and movement.

In some ways, T’ai Chi Ch’uan can be seen as the answer to the question: is there a way in which we can offer no resistance to force, and yet not retreat? On the surface, this would seem a paradox. We solve it through a neat, partially semantic mechanism; whatever directly receives the force does in fact retreat, yielding completely in every way, but we make this part of a larger system, which by its complementary action and in reference to its own center, does not. The simplest image of this action is a floating bar. If you push on the bar, it will retreat – but, no. Actually, this only happens if we push on the exact center of the bar. If we push the bar closer to the end, the point that is pushed will retreat, but the bar will rotate and stay in the same place. Well, that’s not quite true, either. Due to the inertia of the bar, some resistance will be offered to the push, not absorbed by the rotation of the bar. Because of this, the bar itself will exhibit some total movement, or translation through space. But suppose we could overcome that inertia in some way? Suppose the bar had some sort of delicate sensor that could detect the slightest pressure, and also some sort of mechanism by which it could induce its own motion? In this case the bar could move itself at the slightest touch, inducing a rotation that exactly followed the path of the incoming force, and thereby absorb, for all practical purposes, none of the incoming force, but stay exactly in the same place, with reference to its center. This is exactly what we train our bodies to do in the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

Now the first thing that might occur to you is, how are we going to do this if we are not a bunch of floating bars? Well, in fact, we do have a part of the body that is sort of like a floating bar, and that is the forearm. In the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it is almost always in contact with one point of the opponent, and frequently with two (in p’eng-lu-chi-an this is always the case with one player or the other), and it frequently duplicates exactly the idealized reaction, facilitating what is called the change of folding. In fact, if these folding changes are not produced by this means and according to this principle they will fail. This is beautifully illustrated in the second move of side A in the Sanshou exercise, and the more accurate its execution, the more effective the following blow.

What does this mean, accurate execution? If you will recall, the critical point in satisfying the solution to our little paradox was the idea that the total object in question does not retreat, and this can only be defined by stability of the center. The process we have been discussing is one I call making a t’ai chi. It requires three elements. One is a retreat from an incoming force. One is a returning motion that exactly duplicates it in the opposite direction. And the most critical one is a reference point for those motions that, in relation to the two opponents, does not move. It is critical because, for one thing, the instantaneous motion of any two moving objects can be defined as making a t’ai chi around some point or other in space, so the definition would have virtually no meaning, but more importantly, it wouldn’t work. The only martial art that comes as close to the literal creation of t’ai chi “objects” as T’ai Chi Ch’uan is Aikido (though they do not use them to facilitate adherence), and they have adages that closely resemble those of T’ai Chi Ch’uan in this regard. They go usually like this: “The circle of retreat is easy; the circle of advance is more difficult; but most difficult of all is the maintenance of the Central Earth.”

But we do not need this literal bar to create this. The system actually consists of only three points, retreat, advance, and center. Anytime we can make contact with two points of the opponent, we can theoretically, by “weighing” them like a balance scale around some central point, which can be in empty space as easily as anywhere, create a t’ai chi. Mr. Chu used to say, “to do T’ai Chi Ch’uan I need two points.”

What happens, however, when our point of return is resisted, when the system cannot be rotated? We should realize that we have been thinking in two dimensions. If we think in this way, then it is true that resistance on both ends will trap our rotation, and we cannot make a t’ai chi. But wait, we can do something. We can at least balance these two resistances so that they either rotate out of control (in which case we are not trapped after all), or stabilize around a clearly defined central point. Because we exist not in two dimensions but in three, we can now regard that stabilized point as the new point of retreat, and use it to create a new t’ai chi.

It is hard to continue without getting enormously technical here, but alert readers will see that, unless we stick out a leg (as actually happens in certain kicks, several in the Sanshou exercise), there is no place for this returning motion to go except into the floor. Since the floor does not move, and there are no more dimensions available to us, we are effectively trapped. In fact, it is through all of our clever maneuvering that we have succeeded in getting ourselves trapped. What we have also done, however, is to force this trap to be one in perfect balance, a balance that effectively makes the opponent’s force feel like it is going straight through the bottoms of your feet into the ground, with absolutely no horizontal component.

This cannot be a stable position, because the t’ai chi objects that we are forming do not even exist without movement, and moreover, people who are fighting do not tend to stand still. It should be readily apparent, however, that by such an abstract definition these objects can be formed by any points of contact, and so if there is no loss of contact, it can be a continuous relationship. When maintained in this way, it has two primary effects. It feels to one’s opponent that they are encountering the surface of a ball, or several interconnected ones. Again, this illusion only exists through the perception of motion, so things have got to keep changing. One effect of this ball-like activity is that it will roll easily into any cavities, flat spots, or other defects in the opponent’s “ball.” This is what creates the feeling of being “backed up,” and if the opponent has no “ball” in the first place it works even better. Truth is, when you’re fighting them, most people feel like a bunch of sticks, not balls.

One further aspect of this adherence is what happens if the opponent stages a violent resistance. As I said, he can also chose to step back or otherwise retreat (or worse, exhibit the kind of extreme deformation endemic to T’ai Chi Ch’uan hand-pushing tournaments), but if he resists, it will take one of three forms. If he pushes out from a rootless position, he will simply knock himself backwards before he can even to begin to exert any kind of real pressure. As I said, this can be taken advantage of very easily. If he leans, that is, if he throws his weight forward at you so that you must resist it in order for him to keep from falling or taking a step (exactly what is done one hundred percent of the time in hand-pushing tournaments), you must abandon your position and completely follow him, taking a step if it is appropriate. You must not look at this occurrence as a negation of your previous efforts or carefully wrought position, but as one of several possible ideal outcomes, as there is no opponent easier to defeat than one who stumbles into a double weighted position. You must not try to use your position to resist the force of a leaning opponent, and this also is exactly what is practiced one hundred percent of the time in hand-pushing tournaments. Get in the habit of doing this and I guarantee you that the first time you face off with someone who doesn’t care who steps first and knows what he is doing he will beat the shit out of you.

But, what of the third alternative, that the opponent projects force at you from a rooted position and does not lean? This, of course, is the most dangerous opponent, and it is against exactly this opponent that T’ai Chi Ch’uan’s highest technique, discharge, is designed to work. I mentioned in the section on discharge that in order for it to take place, the geometry between the two players had to be correct. This is the very geometry of which I was speaking, the geometry of adherence. When the opponent is properly adhered, and he projects force from, as I said, a rooted position, without leaning, the result is a discharge. A figment of this geometry is that the discharge may occur in either direction, to be determined by certain factors, but, because of adherence, the balance is perfect and so is the discharge. The adherence process is, however, ongoing, and so it is possible that the discharge takes place before the process is complete and the balance is perfect. In this case it produces what I call an oblique or partial discharge, which, although not in itself decisive, frequently results in one party or the other having an advantageous position (not necessarily the one discharging).

In forging some sort of work ethic concerning T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it should be obvious that we should be spending our time on the intricacies of adherence, rather than in trying constantly to “discharge” each other, or even in indulging in endless form-distorting “neutralizations.” As the Classics themselves state, yielding is useless without adherence (because it creates no t’ai chi objects by itself), and adherence impossible without yielding (because a t’ai chi object must contain a circle of retreat). The body control necessary to create and maintain these t’ai chi objects, and at the same time maintain the proper rules of form in one’s own physical structure, is enormous. The changes of one’s position must not be the result of any external force, neither that of the opponent, nor of gravity. Like the bar envisioned in the beginning of this section, we must be completely under our own power, and our own control. We must even banish momentum from our movements, and make every action directly connected to some point of positive control, so that it is capable at any moment of exactly reversing itself. This can only be accomplished through the establishment of some fixed point of control. This is called rooting.  


Of all the enigmas of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, rooting seems to excite the highest level of fantasy. Books are replete with admonitions to “be like a tree; imagine roots growing down from your feet,” or “become one with the Earth, an immovable stone,” etc. It is also perhaps the most susceptible to the error of defining techniques by their result, by which lights one could declare many a grammar school bully, barroom brawler, or just big fat guy a master of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

There are a great many misconceptions concerning rooting, but the majority of them are the result of assuming that its primary function is to somehow enable one to not move under the influence of, that is, resist, force. It is considering this as its defining factor that allows so many completely false ideas concerning it to flourish. When its actual primary function is perceived, it is clear that most of the methods by which it is presumably achieved are patently false, as they do nothing to satisfy this requirement.

Before going into exactly what this requirement is, however, let us look at and identify some of these false concepts, even as they apply to this idea of resistance. For one thing, rooting must never be confused with weight. One frequent misconception, easily fostered because of T’ai Chi Ch’uan’s admonition to “sink your ch’i,” and “relax completely,” is that rooting means becoming a kind of dead weight that is of course much more difficult for your opponent to move, or its more arcane version, that through our mysterious powers of Oriental meditation we can physically increase our weight, something that many students of the martial arts profess to actually believe, and which, I assure you, is not true. But even if it were, it would not be what we call root. (This and the belief that one can move material objects without touching them seem the most firmly entrenched of all martial arts fantasies, despite the fact that no one can convincingly demonstrate either one.)

One question I give students to see if they understand root, is: two people are doing t’ui-shou in the dirt, and afterwards we examine their footprints. One has deep imprints in the dirt, the other almost none. Who is more rooted? Many students will assume that the deep imprints are a sign of root, when actually the reverse is true.

Another serious red herring in the rooting department is the idea that the better your root is, the more it will work on slippery surfaces, like ice. People try to walk on ice, assuming that skill acquired in this will transfer to rooting power. In reality, the reverse is true. Walking on ice is a test of balance, not root. If this were not true, every babushka in Moscow would be winning tough-man contests. One good test to see if your concept of rooting is correct is to try it on ice, and if it works, it’s wrong. Trying to move entirely through the mechanism of root, as we should in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, will, if applied on ice, make you fall down instantly. This is not a weird power, it is a technical skill. It’s not supposed to work on ice. It doesn’t work very well in sand, either. As we shall see, the surface upon which root is applied must offer frictional resistance in the horizontal direction to be usable.

As far as the image of roots going into the earth goes, there is good reason for this. First, however, we should realize that the image did not come first, as some sort of idealized fantasy that was then accomplished by visualizing it every day, but only as a description of a skill that is highly technical, narrowly defined, and created through pragmatic necessity. When we see exactly what this skill is, we will easily see how this image came to be applied.

The primary function of root is to facilitate movement, not to resist it. In order to make the delicate adjustments necessary to satisfy the requirements of adherence, we must have a permanent point the will resist our internal change and reflect it back to us in the form of movement. It is frequently mistakenly thought of as the source of internal power or of fa-jing, but this is in error. The source of internal change and power is the qua, and that of discharge the opponent, both of which reflect off of the root to create action. Think of pushing yourself away from shore in a boat with a pole, or pulling yourself back to it with a rope. Where the pole is placed, or where the rope is attached, is the root. These points generate absolutely no power themselves, only a desired result of that power.

At this point it is necessary to say in the strongest terms that, in moving the body, the muscular changes involved are never exerted in a vertical direction. There is enough force applied to resist the pull of gravity, but any movement exerts an entirely horizontal force on the ground. Nor do we allow ourselves to move or shift weight simply by giving in to the force of gravity, another common misconception. Every movement must be positively and horizontally controlled. This lack of any vertical component is the major reason that the form is done primarily on one level. Even positions that, in the most sophisticated version of the form, do change level (the change from Searching for the Moon at the Sea Bottom and Stork Dries its Wings, old names for the single movement now called White Crane Spreads its Wings, is the most dramatic example), should be learned first on one level, to make sure that there is no unconscious vertical element contributing to their execution. We cannot accomplish this by simply pushing with our feet horizontally, because, at the very least, this will change the balance in our feet to press much more on one side, and this is a no-no. The feet must be kept flat on the ground. One reason that rooting is so little understood is that it is impossible to meet these requirements without the active implementation of ch’an-su-jing.

It is only through the winding changes of ch’an-su-jing that the force exerted on the bottoms of the feet manifests as an attempted rotation of the foot about its center, reflecting this back as a returning winding change, and maintaining its balance around its own center, thus remaining flat on the ground. A full explanation of these winding changes would demand at the very least a complete book in itself, but a few things concerning them are pertinent here.

One is that, as previously stated, the actual original impulse or source of all movement comes from the qua, or joint connecting the pelvis with the upper part of the leg. One reason that lower stances are powerful is that the lower the stance, the greater the efficiency of this mechanism. All one’s muscles can do is open or close this joint; for this to be controllable it must utilize the root. In terms of rotation, the leg and arm have only two parts, separated at the knee and elbow. These parts can rotate in the same direction, or in opposite directions, a description of which is, again, beyond the scope of this work. It is through these rotations, however, that the force generated by the qua reaches the root, and because of them that it reaches the root in the particular form of an attempted rotation. The floor’s resistance to that rotation is reflected back in a similar manner, finally resulting in a positively rooted action of the waist, which can in turn be translated into a winding action of the arms.

There is an old Classic, easily misinterpreted, that should be examined here. It says “Motion is rooted in the feet, transmitted by the legs, directed by the waist, and manifested in the fingers.” It is only natural that this reference to being rooted in the feet, especially as it is the first thing mentioned, should make us assume that the feet are the source of the motion, as in the “roots” of tradition. As we can see, the feet are quite passive in this regard, merely being an anchor point for our movement. They act, not like the roots of tradition, or even the roots of a tree in the sense that they are its source, but like the roots of a tree when being pulled. One important aspect of the old style “long discharge” was a twisting effect upon the opponent’s feet, “breaking” his root in exactly the same way that one twists a plant when trying to “break” its root.

It should be clear from the previous discussions that this function of the root, when combined with the skill of adherence, produces an effect that more than satisfies the common ideas about its power to resist force. The skill of adherence, remember, affords the result of channeling all of the opponent’s force straight down into the bottoms of one’s feet. We have all seen demonstrations of someone resisting the combined push of ten or more people, all lined in a row, each pushing the one in front of him. I myself have done this demonstration countless times. Strange to say, it is easier to demonstrate the power of rooting under these circumstances than when trying to do the same thing with one person. The reason for this is simple. Remember that I said that all of one’s attempts at three dimensional adherence must be abandoned if the opponent leans. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is not weight lifting, and the root is designed to be effective against a horizontal or rooted projection of force, not something falling on you. In other words, it’s very hard to demonstrate if the opponent falls on you. But when you have a string of people pushing, each one instinctively reacts to the force against his back by trying not to fall, but transmit the force directly forward, and the result is that the final force reaching you is extremely horizontal, especially if the first person in line is your cohort and does not just fall on you himself. This is a requirement because he must also make sure that the final force, the magnitude of which he of course cannot control, is aimed directly forward, in which case it is quite easily resisted with the proper technique.

Armed with all of this information, we can now analyze another easily misunderstood martial arts staple, one connected with rooting, and that is walking on rice paper without tearing it. This is always presented to students as a rather incredible feat, even indicative of mastery. The fact that it is associated with rooting makes for the obvious conclusion that if one can do it, he has great root. Wrong. The proper formulation is: if you use absolutely correct rooting techniques, and then you don’t tear the paper, you are a master, but only then. In fact, you can successfully walk on rice paper by walking exactly the same way you walk on ice, making sure that you exert no horizontal torsion on the surface. The very method of proper rooting is to exert horizontal torsion. When the rice paper doesn’t tear, it means that the reflection of this torsion moves your body with no resistance offered to that movement, resistance that would be automatic if you had the slightest additional force or control coming from the other leg. It is a guarantee that your movement is both rooted and not double-weighted. If properly observed, it is a valid test indeed, but the mere ability to do it, with no other restrictions, proves nothing.

If all that has been said up to this point is understood and accepted by the reader, he should be taken by now with at least the suspicion that T’ai Chi Ch’uan appears to be almost deliberately designed to fool and misdirect him. The longest tradition of T’ai Chi Ch’uan was a secret one, many of the things that I have mentioned being essential to those secrets. When the teachings became available to the general public, mostly through the efforts of the Yang family, this actually proved the most effective way possible to insure that the real T’ai Chi Ch’uan would remain forever hidden. Demonstrating publicly the form, even conscientiously correcting students to a perfect imitation, does not in itself give any clue as to its actual execution, nor does paying lip service to the “secrets” that I have exposed here. Without a more subtle understanding, T’ai Chi Ch’uan is free to devolve into Shaolin Boxing, morph itself into some kind of Sumo Wrestling, or become just another vehicle for New Age nonsense, all of which, to my observation, it has busily been doing for the past fifty years. If one understood T’ai Chi Ch’uan perfectly, he could teach for decades, constantly speaking of jing, double-weight, separating substantial and insubstantial, etc., demonstrating perfect and correct neutralization and fa-jing, overwhelming his students with endless difficult and apparently productive exercises, and actually never teach them anything.

I cannot resist a story that perfectly illustrates this, that did not happen to me, but to my old friend and partner Martin Inn, which I tell now with, hopefully, his kind permission. When he was studying with the famous Chinese teacher Nan, Wai-gen, he noticed that there was a group of students who seemed to stand out from the others. They affected a distinctive style of dress, appeared to communicate exclusively among themselves, and exhibited a haughty attitude towards their classmates. Upon inquiring, he was told that these students were singled out for secret and advanced training, a special, elite group. But after closer observation, Martin could find nothing that seemed to qualify them particularly for this honor. In a private conversation with Nan he asked about them, and was startled by the answer.

“Oh,” said Nan, “they’re idiots. Everything I’ve taught them is wrong. I tell them they are learning secrets so they will not corrupt the other students.” Martin was a bit shocked at this open admission of false teaching, and asked for the reason. It was, he was told, because they were bad people. If they learned the real stuff they could be dangerous. Then why, asked Martin, do you teach them at all? Because, answered Nan, if he didn’t someone else would, and they might actually teach them something real.

It should be obvious that if something will so easily accommodate the cynical and deliberate teaching of bullshit, it will be even more hospitable when that bullshit is accidental and sincere. The proliferation of the teaching of the T’ai Chi Ch’uan solo form, now a world-wide phenomenon, a kind of exponential radiation of ignorance, has insured that whatever T’ai Chi Ch’uan started out to be, it must now compete with a million imperfect versions of itself. If anything ever fit the definition of hiding in plain sight, it is T’ai Chi Ch’uan. When I first heard of it, I had to travel three thousand miles to find it. Now one would have to travel at least that distance just to get away from it. Just the fact that students seriously consider the question of whether one teaches the “short form” or the “long form” to be in itself significant indicates how obscure the real teachings are. Cheng, Man-ch’ing has clearly stated, and in my presence, that changing the sequence of the form and making it shorter (or longer, for that matter) are changes of absolutely no significance, and was a common practice in the Yang school. I cannot deny that Cheng has become identified with a new “style,” and that this may be the real question concerning “short” or “long” forms, but I am certain this was not Cheng’s intention, and that this new “style” is just the result of his own personal emphasis, as could be said of almost any teacher.

But of all of the enigmatic directives and concepts of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, none is more obscure and paradoxical than the most basic paradigm of its practice, learning through loss.  


This is something that, like double-weight, one hears about almost from the moment they begin the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Certainly, from at least an American’s point of view, its vague and openly counter-intuitive nature inspires one to understand it from any direction that one can manage, and this is frequently one with distinctly moral overtones. It is easily perceived as primarily a correction of one’s attitude, and with equal ease promptly elevated to a simple attack upon one’s desire to compete, to be combative, to win, in other words, upon one’s ego. This cannot be said to be an unworthy goal, at least in terms of most concepts of personal development, and it is even possible that T’ai Chi Ch’uan ultimately promotes such a loss of ego (though frankly I have seen little evidence to support this claim), but I would prefer to say that it cultivates a behavior that suggests such a loss of ego, whether one has actually lost it or not.

What I would like to do at this time is direct the reader to the fact that regardless of the possibility of such transformational results and such philosophical and moral overtones, learning through loss is, like many other things in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, far more technical a concept. It identifies a pattern that repeats over and over in the learning of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, in which, in various instances of entirely different character, something is practiced that is patently identifiable as losing, in some conventional sense. But more important is the way in which this method is integrated into the final technique. The most obvious interpretation would suggest that in suffering this loss, in resisting the urge to prevent the whole situation from happening, that is, in resisting the urge to resist, we are allowing ourselves to examine our own mistakes, eventually correct them, and finally prevail in the same situation that before would have resulted in loss. This is in a way true, but it allows for a certain misinterpretation. It suggests that our solution to the problem of losing will be to identify and eliminate the behavior that causes it, a kind of negative learning process. But in T’ai Chi Ch’uan the method is a much more powerful and, in my opinion, elegant process. The problem of loss is solved, not by eliminating the loss, but by adding something to it that does not contradict it in any way, and, although retaining the loss, makes the problem disappear.

This is a critical difference, and critical to understand. It means that one’s practice of loss is not simply for the purpose of identification and correction, but for the express purpose of practice itself, to get really good at doing it. In other words, one is actually practicing desired behavior. It is easily seen in the abstract, or, say, using electrical charges. Suppose there is an incoming electrical charge, plus or minus, say minus, that will in some way be destructive and you wish to stop. You have two alternatives. One is to somehow physically stop or divert the charge, the other is to add a positive charge to it before it reaches you, thus reducing the charge to zero.

I mentioned before that the behavior practiced in virtually every phase of T’ai Chi Ch’uan training is in some way violated or discarded in the next level of practice. Of all the possible variations of behavior, it would seem that losing would be the aspect most worthy of discard, but the reverse is true. The losing aspect of our behavior is the only aspect that consistently survives the following stage, usually because it is a behavior that is key to its successful execution.

Let us look again at an abstract example, in this case, the floating bar from our previous studies. By letting the incoming force be completely expressed in an unimpeded way, we are effectively “losing” to it. By effecting the sensitive rotation necessary to stabilize the center, we have converted this losing process into being one half of a successful technique. We have used it to create a t’ai chi “object,” while satisfying every previous condition defined as “losing.”

In the world of martial arts, allowing one’s opponent to make unrestricted actions is usually the very definition of losing. Conventional thinking demands that one stop his activity and replace it with overpowering activity of one’s own, which our opponent can not stop. Thus the first, almost trivial example of this principle (learning through loss) that is presented to us is the concept of yielding, which, even if they accept the idea that it is a desirable skill, most boxers from other traditions find extremely hard to do.

But this is only the beginning of a much repeated process, of which this first example, the conversion of yielding into adherence, is almost a simple metaphor. Because our existence is multi-dimensional, this process must be repeated on a larger scale, with the fulcrum of our first t’ai chi now acting as the yin or yielding element in the next one. What is significant here is that as each element is integrated into the following technique, its original “losing” nature is never altered or discarded. We don’t lose for a while, and then use the solution to that problem, implying the avoidance of loss, in our next exercise in losing; no, we keep on losing. Every reflex connected to our original “losing” behavior is retained, but simply augmented by complimentary behavior. This complimentary behavior is, in concept, simultaneous, but in practice, slightly delayed due to the separation of substantial and insubstantial. It is this separation that generates the power expressed in the resulting technique.

This is more than evident in another example of learning through loss, found in exploring the practical applications of the movements. These always assume an aggressive opponent who applies force directly in an attempt to control one’s movement. In every case, the key to the counter is to let your opponent do, with at least those parts of you that he is directly touching, anything he wants, without resistance. Whatever one eventually does in response, that will always be the first half of it. It must be understood that it is this attempt to neutralize that creates the conditions for victory, even when, or perhaps I should say especially when, those attempts are not quite successful. If we return to our image of the bar, this effect can be duplicated by making the bar elastic. Now, if our internal sensor and our rotating motor are a little less efficient than we would like them to be, our neutralization will be slightly incomplete, and some of the energy of the force will be absorbed. However, with the stiff bar this was converted into translation through space; in the case of our new elastic bar, it is converted into a deformation of the bar, a deformation that stores the energy and then releases it a moment later, as the bar returns to its original condition.

In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, an analogous process allows us to position ourselves more and more perfectly to an incoming force (the mechanism of adherence) even as we absorb and reflect the energy of that force. When the neutralization process is sufficiently fast, that is, has proceeded far enough before the energy being stored is released, a perfect discharge is the result, that is, a discharge that exhibits an apparent transfer of one hundred percent of the energy generated into one player, who flies through the air, while the other remains motionless. If this process is not so complete, what I refer to as a partial or more properly an oblique discharge, affecting both players, will result. This, in full-blown action, is the more common occurrence.

In fact, looking at this analysis, one might wonder how a perfect discharge ever occurs in a real fight. The first touch of the opponent in this case is usually so powerful that it would seem unrealistic for anyone to be capable of the kind of total body repositioning that defines neutralization before a great deal of energy is absorbed. In fact, the total adjustment necessary may be much less than one would expect, for the following reason. Given the method of training in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, involving continuous contact between players, one might worry that, if attacked, he is required to do nothing until the assailant’s strike actually touches his body, or at least that anything he might do would not be T’ai Chi Ch’uan. This is not the case. The method of T’ai Chi Ch’uan actually involves the training of the cerebellum, and this structure is directly linked to the eyes, which are actually just very sensitive pieces of skin. Extensive training automatically transfers to the eyes, so that as soon as we see our opponent’s movement we can begin the process of neutralization, completing or at least nearly completing it before we are even touched. Cheng, Man-ch’ing remarked that if it was not for this, T’ai Chi Ch’uan would not be a martial art, but only an exercise for health.

In the case of a leaning opponent, the acting out of “losing” is even more literal. In this case, I indicated that one must properly give up one’s previous attack, no matter how elegant or carefully wrought, and allow the opponent to stumble into whatever double-weighted position he would like (because if he stumbles, his next position will automatically be completely double weighted). In other words, one must instantly and unregretfully lose whatever minor battle this might represent, giving up whatever advantageous position one might have imagined himself to have had, in confidence that continued disciplined following of the principle will see the situation evolve to one of even greater advantage for him. It is a simple refinement of the reflex of yielding.

That this is a critical skill at the highest level of all boxing art was hinted at by a recent scientific study of the films of great fighters of different disciplines. According to the report, the most successful boxers, especially those adept at winning fights by a knockout or other completely decisive action, all had one thing in common. This was the apparent practice of trapping one’s opponent and then letting him escape. Inferior boxers, it was noted, took advantage of superior positions by trying to maintain them forcefully, but the great masters always showed the technique of releasing their opponents, and dispatching them only in the moment after they completed their recovery. It reminds me of a remark made one day in class by my old karate teacher, Peter Urban. “Never hit a man while he’s down,” said Urban, looking for a brief moment under the influence of higher moral considerations. “Always,” he continued, his expression changing to one of devilish enlightenment, “wait until he’s just getting up!”

It is only fitting that discharge, considered the highest expression of T’ai Chi Ch’uan technique, should also be the most extreme example of its losing paradigm. As previously stated, the somatic condition required for discharging is exactly the same condition required for properly accepting a discharge. It is a good watchdog for one’s attempts to discharge others. If your condition while doing so is not exactly that which would enable him to discharge you, what you are doing is incorrect. Not only that, if what you are doing is not exactly the same thing that you feel your body doing when being discharged, for the entire first half of the process, it is incorrect. The only logical conclusion from these facts is that the best training for discharging is being discharged, the exact opposite of what you are supposedly training to do. It is losing, not your ego, not your unenlightened attitude, not your childish reflexes of resistance, etc., etc., but a literal practice with a completely technical purpose. The backasswards logic of Taoism, like I said, is the real stuff.

These are certainly not the only alien concepts to be found in T’ai Chiu Ch’uan, but they are among the most counter-intuitive in nature and should serve as a warning that the face it shows most readily is not only frequently the wrong face, but one that is one hundred and eighty degrees wrong. It is what makes T’ai Chiu Ch’uan so difficult, and also what makes it so profound, and so much fun.