Eight Enigmas of T'ai Chi Ch'uan - first half
By Robert Amacker
In the study of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, there are numerous concepts that fall considerably outside the realm of normal experience. The fact that, for the great majority of students of the art, the real meaning behind most of them will retain the status of enigmas is testimony to the great poverty of knowledge rampant in today’s transmission of the skills of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and to the danger that many of these concepts, and with them many of these skills, will come to be commonly defined in an entirely new and different way, either much more easily achievable, or as patent fantasies that have no real expectation of ever being fulfilled. Each one is capable of justifying an entire book to explain it, and I have gone into great and redundant detail about them in many articles. Here I would like rather to discuss the misconceptions concerning them, without feeling it necessary to approach each one as a topic that presumes total ignorance on the part of the reader, who is assumed to be a student of T’ai Chi Ch’uan with some experience in both form and t’ui-shou. Such a reader will be familiar with the terms and concepts, and with the vague feeling of dissatisfaction generated by most attempts to explain them. This is generally because, as I have stated, these explanations are usually either oversimplifications or metaphoric fantasies entirely incapable of achievement.
Listed in no particular order, they are:
2) Separation of Substantial and Insubstantial
8) Learning Through Loss
These are certainly not the only difficult concepts in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, but they are ones that I have found over the years to create terrific stumbling blocks for the average student, and which he is most likely to mistakenly feel that he has mastered. Teachers of T’ai Chi Ch’uan are caught in a particularly difficult dilemma. If everyone waited until they completely understood this art before trying to teach it, no honest person would hang up his signboard before they were very old indeed, if then. This means that one cannot have a history as a teacher without having taught some stuff that turns out to be incomplete, misleading, vague, or just plain wrong. I certainly have, and I freely admit it, despite the fact that, to the beginner, this may seem an embarrassing confession. I remember my virtual astonishment when, in the first few weeks of my classes from Cheng, Man-ch’ing, he calmly announced one day that he was changing his instruction concerning a certain form, and that he had taught it incorrectly for twenty years. Over the years, this astonishment has evolved into admiration for the only attitude that can avoid a teaching disaster. The egos and insecurities of most younger teachers are such that they are very reluctant to reveal their own continuing status as a student, in the mistaken impression that this negates their status as a “master.” This produces a dangerous trap, furthering the distortion of real concepts and, worse, their substitution by ones that obscure and divert attention from those of real importance.
Just the other day I was introduced to a student from another city, who was quite anxious to meet me. There were several important questions on his mind, he said, but first there was one of the greatest importance. Had I experienced the moment of “golden awakening.” This, he explained to me, was when one experienced a kind of enlightenment, following which one understood everything about T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and without which one could not possibly understand it. His master had told him that this was the primary prerequisite for a teacher. Please! I think I am going to scream. This cargo cult mentality, with its odorous overtones of religion, leads exactly to the devolution that religion represents, from a real method of transformation to an imposition of behavioral or conceptual precepts that will someday be rewarded, by the graces of either God or one’s golden awakening.
Another student told me that he was moving to China because he had heard that there was a T’ai Chi teacher there who could shoot blue flames out of his fingers. “I don’t care,” I told him, “if he can shoot blue flames out of his ass. It doesn’t mean he knows anything about T’ai Chi Ch’uan.” And then there is always Empty Force, or the ability to knock people down without touching them. Don’t even get me started on that one.
Another teacher I know instructs his students that the real purpose of t’ui-shou is to get rid of one’s ego. All attention should be directed to that end. Aside from the fact that devoting all of one’s attention to getting rid of one’s ego is quite likely to have the opposite effect, it is not technique. The real mysteries of T’ai Chi Ch’uan are profound, but they are technical, not mystical.
The point is, Empty Force, Golden Awakening, getting rid of one’s ego, even shooting blue flames out of one’s ass, may by some definition or other be products of the pursuit of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (though I might dispute this point), but they are not its real mysteries. The true charm of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is not to be found, as many seem to be convinced, in its mystical comparisons with religion, but in its artistic process, and, charm notwithstanding, this is the only process through which real development can occur.
Because of their disconnection from ordinary experience, and their amazingly counter-intuitive nature, the technical concepts of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, particularly the eight that I have chosen to examine here, lend themselves in their understanding to a feeling of revelation that is indeed describable as some kind of enlightenment. They are of such an esoteric nature that it is virtually impossible that any beginning student would quickly understand them, regardless of their intelligence or prior training. As a result, the apprehension of each one sends inevitable repercussions through the entirety of one’s practice. If one is a teacher, it will send repercussions through the entirety of his teaching. In light of this, it would be foolish of me to attempt any explanation pretending to enlighten all readers. But I can point out the problems, and identify at least a few of the simplistic and misleading explanations that the student may encounter.
This is for most students the very first technical term that they hear. They should be warned that, despite the urgency with which this fault is prohibited, it is a fault that can persist for years, even decades, without correction. “If you practice for a long time, and are still controlled by the opponent, your fault is most likely double weight” –Classics. Despite the legendary lengths of time required for the perfection of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, this alone does not explain this persistent problem. Usually, the difficulty is caused by the fact that the student has a false or simplistic idea of just what it is he is trying to correct.
Let us look at the most obvious interpretation, the literal one. Double weight is when your weight is equally distributed on both legs. Now the first thing one must remember is the danger of assuming the literal meaning of technical terms, especially if those terms are being translated from a foreign language. In this case, the farthest one can go in terms of such a literal interpretation is to say that someone is double weighted if they behave as though their weight were so equally distributed. This is also misleading, because it still implies that if their weight were literally so distributed, they would be unable to behave any other way. In fact, just as one can be double weighted without such a perfect division, one can also not be double weighted when such a condition actually obtains.
It is interesting to note that the basic fault referred to is also identified in western boxing as the fault of being “flat-footed.” When one is caught “flat-footed,” he finds it very difficult to evade his opponent’s punches, and is easily knocked out. In this case, however, there is no problem of a confusing literal interpretation. No one examines the bottoms of a fighter’s feet after a knockout. The most literal interpretation is the idea that one should fight balanced on the balls of one’s feet, and if one’s heels touch the ground, he is in a sense literally flat-footed at that instant, and cannot move evasively (this, by the way, is not necessarily true). But again, those who use the term do not look for its literal reality, but to the clumsy behavior that it signifies.
No one, I think, should be embarrassed at making such naïve assumptions in the case of double weight; at least, I hope not, because I myself did. Not only that, but it produced an affectation of movement that was fortunately big enough for an observer to detect, and I was corrected. I reasoned that, during t’ui-shou, as one shifted his weight back and forth during the exercise, it was impossible to avoid a moment in the middle of such movement when the weight was so evenly distributed. Opponents, I figured, could wait for that moment and then pounce. I, in my naïve attempt to counter this problem (it was forty years ago), decided that I should move extra fast when in this dangerous middle area, in order to minimize the time that my opponent had to take advantage of it. Now, I will not enumerate the numerous flaws of logic that this reasoning represents, but I can mention that the result was of course to make me more vulnerable to attack, not less. Fortunately, William Chen was looking on one day when I was demonstrating this remarkable solution, and interrupted, saying “What the hell are you doing?”
One big problem here is that our first references to double weight are all about the legs. The problem of double weight can be characterized in a much more general and abstract way, as a lack of separation of substantial and insubstantial, and I will go into it in more detail when discussing this separation. When the term is used in discussing the legs the reference is actually far more specific and not, as we shall see, being used in this general way. Additionally, it has almost nothing to do with weight, except as a description of the behavior of the legs. One leg gives the impression of fullness, in the sense that if one were standing with his weight entirely on one leg, that leg would be full of this weight. The other leg’s impression is one of emptiness, as would be the perceived condition of the non-weighted leg in the previous image. This differentiation is intended to be maintained, however, even when the weight distribution is other than one hundred per cent, and even when it is fifty-fifty. What it means in practice is that one leg, and only one leg, assumes control of the body, while the other remains free. This is, by the way, highly counter-intuitive, and not the way anyone naturally behaves. In terms of training, it may be also a technique found in skiing or ice-skating; at least, my students who have tried these sports say that it seems to be a valuable bit of skill.
It is the maintenance of this differentiation of control that is critical in addressing double weight of the legs. Its boxing necessity may be easily grasped through just one example. In boxing, sudden movements of the opponent may require, at a moment’s notice, the taking of a step. It is vital that, during the duration of this stepping process, one be able to still manipulate the body in the service of neutralization of the opponent’s possible attack. It is even more likely that such neutralization will be ongoing at the moment that the step is required. Let us suppose that the boxer’s habit (as with all normal people) is to use both legs to manipulate the torso. This means that when the step commences and one foot leaves contact with the ground, some percentage of the previous control is suddenly lost, and with it the ongoing neutralization. In practice, one tries to habituate passing this control to the leg with the most weight on it, although it should be noted that, if both feet are still on the ground, there is nothing to prevent the player from using the non-weighted leg for control. In certain circumstances, as when the player has lost the root of the weighted leg by putting his weight entirely on his heel or forward on the toes (this will become clearer when we discuss root), this is indeed the case, and several moves in the form incorporate this variation (twist steps, Pi-shan-ch’uei, etc.). But the critical factor is that, whether weighted or not, one and only one of the legs has control; the switch is always one hundred percent, even if the weight change is not. One sign, I feel, of the general lack of understanding of this technique is the likewise general neglect of the Three-step T’ui-shou exercise, which actively develops and tests it. In my own school I have found it an invaluable tool to facilitate this learning process.
If it is not already clear, one outstanding misconception that must be eradicated is the impression that by standing with the weight distributed on both feet one is double weighted, and that standing on one leg is somehow a cure for this. In practice, the distribution of the weight is entirely subject to the control of the opponent. Even if one were more or less double weighted depending on this distribution, a much higher priority obtains, that of following the center of the opponent with one’s own. The fact that this misconception can appear even at the most advanced level was evidenced by Wong’s famous fight in the sixties, in which, in the opening round, he advances as though he is afraid of stepping on land mines. That he prevailed rather easily in this fight is evidence only of the great effectiveness of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, not that this particular affectation was correct. In fact, any visible affectation is more or less automatically suspect. Lack of such obvious remnants of special training is in fact characteristic of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and one of the reasons that it is characterized as “natural movement.”
The term double weight is also historically linked to attempts to describe the difference between T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Shaolin (and certain other styles). The attitude of Shaolin boxers when engaging in combat has long been described as looking like a man sitting on a low stool. This squatting posture is anathema to T’ai Chi Ch’uan technique, its main virtue being to create a low and stable base from which to project force, exactly the kind of force that is never used in T’ai Chi Ch’uan. The T’ai Chi adept rather slides around the opponent’s force by sinking to one side, neutralizing rather than opposing it. A comparison of these reactions gives rise to the Classic, “Sinking to one side is responsive, being double weighted is stagnant.” (Author’s italics) Here double weight assumes its most literal interpretation. One can almost see a person with weights attached to each hip, pulling them symmetrically down into the crouched position of gung-fu, while the T’ai Chi adept has only one weight, making him “heavy” on one side and “light” on the other. I put these words in quotation marks because of course they have nothing to do with actual weight, but only with what may be inferred from the responsive movement. It is my contention that this also implies a willingness to deviate from a perfectly vertical position, however slight this angle and however fast the recovery might be. I feel that the overly literal interpretation of “uprightness” robs T’ai Chi Ch’uan of one of its most subtle and necessary elements, and is besides quite flawed from a strictly logical point of view. But this is also something that I have gone into at great length elsewhere, and will resist doing so again here. Those who would dispute my interpretation insist that “sinking to one side” means moving one’s whole body sideways, while I interpret it as a reference to angular movement around one’s center, in this case in three dimensions.
The foregoing should at the very least alert the reader that double weight is not a simple problem with a straightforward solution. Its effective elimination requires a skill that takes years to perfect and, strangely, what it is exactly that you are trying to get rid of only becomes clear as you perfect the skill of doing so. This is the separation of substantial and insubstantial.
SEPARATION OF SUBSTANTIAL AND INSUBSTANTIAL
If there is one concept in T’ai Chi Ch’uan that could claim to be the most primary in importance, it is this one, frequently referred to as separating yin and yang, and also with the terms full and empty. Its necessity is repeated over and over in the literature, without any handy definition or explanation of how to do it, because how to do it is in a very real sense exactly what everything else you learn is all about. It alternates easily with prohibitions against being double weighted, because these two terms are the positive and negative versions of the same skill. However, as I mentioned previously, separating yin and yang is the more general term, and has an abstract aspect that can be applied to many varied situations, all of which may make use of the term double weight, but double weight is also commonly used in the even more technical and esoteric sense in reference to the legs, where the actual abstract definition does not strictly apply.
Differentiation of yin and yang, first of all, does not refer to one’s ability to differentiate between things, to say, for instance, this one is white, and the other black, this one heavy and the other light, this one yang and the other yin. It references instead the tendency of any physical body to naturally differentiate in this way under the influence of movement. (“In motion, there in separation; in stillness, fusion.” Classics) Now, there are for the purposes of our analysis two kinds of force, force which acts upon every atom of an object simultaneously, like gravity or magnetism, and force whose influence could be duplicated by its application at a single point. Objects under the influence of forces like gravity alone will undergo no differentiation except of a very special kind. The side of the object that is pointed in the direction of motion can be said to be substantial, while the opposite side is insubstantial. This might be called the obvious or trivial example, but it will be useful for comparison. It should be noted that in this example, there is no change of substantial and insubstantial, in that there is no change of yin-yang identity between the various “pieces” of the object. Every piece is yin on one side and yang on the other. Because of this lack of change, force can be said to be influencing it, but not passing through it.
Objects under the influence of a point location force, however, exhibit two kinds of motion. One is translation through space, duplicating the influence of a gravitational type force; the other is rotation about its own center of mass. The total energy of the incoming force is divided proportionally between these two effects, the exact proportion varying with the distance of the incoming force’s point of impact from the center of the target. If the force were to act upon the theoretical exact center, the rotational component would be zero, and the object would behave as though moved by gravity. If the force were at the theoretical extreme edge, in right angle to the radius drawn from that point, there would be no translational element and the object would just rotate. In allowing the proper proportion of this rotation to occur, the object exhibits a natural differentiation of substantial and insubstantial. Every point of the object, whether on the surface or in the interior, has a corresponding point, symmetric to it with respect to the center, that is going in the opposite direction.
What we have just described is the natural response and movement of an ordinary inanimate object. This, in my opinion, is the primary meaning that should be attached to the traditional assertion that T’ai Chi Ch’uan is “natural” movement. The term double weight is also used in this more general sense, as well as in reference to the functioning of the legs. It identifies objects that are not exhibiting this natural movement. If I were to push the object just described with two forces of identical magnitude at two different points, the object could still respond naturally (differentiate substantial and insubstantial) in one dimension, but along the axis connecting the two points it would be trapped. If I were to add a third force, the object would be completely trapped. (Think of trying to push a floating ball down into the water. If you use just one finger, the ball will escape in any direction. If you use two, its escape will become predictable, but just as certain. If you use three, the ball is trapped and can be submerged.) But suppose I were to push the object at just one point (other than towards the exact center) and it behaved as though there were one or more additional forces present. Then the object could be said to be double weighted, or having exhibited a double weighted response. It should be obvious that no simple inanimate object can be double weighted in this sense, but people, of course, can.
If we now imagine a more complex object that is composed of several parts, all with enough freedom of movement to exhibit the change of yin and yang, but connected enough to influence each other, our point force produces a series of internal changes in which each part transmits its energy to the next in a wave function. (“When one part has a change of substantial and insubstantial, every part has a change of substantial and insubstantial.” –Classics) This wave takes a finite amount of time to propagate, resulting in a progressive deformation of the object, causing a time delay or temporal differentiation between the reactions of its parts. This time delay is best characterized by the action of a whip, in which every part of the whip goes first in one direction, and then in the other, in succession. This leads to an extremely important consideration concerning form.
Just as proper technique requires accurate differentiation in the legs, so does it as well in the arms. But its application to the arms stems much more from its general meaning, and particularly from its temporal aspect. Most of the movements of the form involve simultaneous action of the arms. When movement is speeded up, these differentiate in time, meaning simply that they are no longer simultaneous. This is not something that one learns to do, exactly, because it is a natural effect of the result of increased speed. What one must learn to do is to keep from preventing it from happening, by avoiding the occurrence of li. This is another commonly misunderstood term, and I will deal with it separately. Here it need only be understood that in a relaxed state, increased speed will decrease the total time for the movement to take place, but increase the degree of separation between the actions of the two arms (in time).
This is an extremely important point. Failure to understand its influence will make it almost impossible for one to grasp the application of the movements. There is a natural tendency to unconsciously try to preserve both the size and the exact timing of the movements as practiced in the form when they are actually used, and this renders them almost totally ineffective. When executed at high speed, these twin effects (size reduction and separation of the arm movements) will cause the final form of the movement to be all but unrecognizable, visually, but it will be recognized by the one executing it, somatically.
One day, when I was studying the Sanshou exercise in San Francisco with Chu, Ch’u-fang in the nineteen seventies, my old friend and partner Martin Inn and I were sparring in the back of our school, and Mr. Chu was doing something at the front desk. A mild looking Chinese man came in and engaged Mr. Chu in conversation. Marty and I paid little attention as they stepped out onto the empty exercise floor, then both gaped in astonishment as the visitor suddenly lashed out with a full-blown attack, the two of them swiftly crossing the floor in a flurry of arm movements. Before we could even react, the action ceased. The visitor proceeded to gather himself into a formal bow, saying “Thank you. I have never met anyone who could ward off my attack before.” Then he left. Mr. Chu walked swiftly over to us and said, “What technique did I use for my defense?”
We were both completely mystified. We were even more mystified when he identified his defense as Monkey Steps Back. What we had seen had no apparent relation to the form we practiced every day. It was only years later that I became skilled enough to realize that this final form was indeed internally exactly what I had been practicing, once I became relaxed enough under the pressure of speed and aggression to allow it to happen.
When the Classics admonish us to carefully separate substantial and insubstantial, it has special meaning in reference to the solo form. The natural separation of yin and yang is a result that balances two factors, one being the speed of the movement and the other being the moving body’s stiffness or natural resistance to separation. If the speed is high enough, even the most tightly bound object will begin to separate, sometimes literally tearing itself apart. But the lower the speed, the less is the energy of separation, and the less stiffness necessary to prevent it. In the solo form, the movements are done so slowly that even the slightest tension is enough to keep yin and yang from separating. In other words, only through increased relaxation will we detect the tendency for separation. Most people would assume that since this separation is harped upon as being so important, every aspect of the exercise must therefore be especially adapted to promote it. This is incorrect reasoning. Firstly, exercises are frequently constructed precisely to make the object of our learning more difficult, not less. Running with lead shoes on is a perfect example. Our aim is to make the feet move fast, but here we deliberately employ a device that slows them down. Also, if something were so promoted by the exercise itself, there would perhaps be not so much reason to scream about it all the time.
But in trying to relax enough to allow this effect to happen at such a slow speed, it is helpful if we also know the result in advance, that is, which arm moves first. In the posture of Roll Back, for example, which is composed of Pull and Split, the slow speed of the solo form dictates that the hands will move virtually simultaneously. This is congruent with its large movement, fully retreating to the back leg and turning the waist as much as possible. When executed at high or fighting speed, the total size of the movement is smaller, and the pull precedes the split by a factor exactly determined by this speed. Remember that the total time for the movement is decreased, so that, even though they may become clearly separated, the actions of both hands still occur in a shorter time interval, the pull in this case jerking the arm into a straight position before the split is applied.
Indeed, the great majority of movements also include the posture of pull, and when yin and yang separate, the pull always comes first. To cite some other examples: the opening movements of Separate Foot. The two hands move in simultaneous circles, like we are making little mud pies. But in application the hand pulling in with the upturned palm strongly precedes the chop with the side of the opposite hand. Single Whip. Here in the final position the left hand strikes in exact unison with the extension of the bird’s beak. But in application, this extension, which is a pull, precedes the final strike. Cloudy Hands. Again, the upper hand here is a pull, while the lower hand palms the kidneys. In the solo form these hands are vertically aligned through the entire transition of weight, but in application the pull precedes the palm, which lags behind and “catches up” with the pull to complete the strike. I feel that I must mention here the fact that the technical use of the word pull, just as with the term push, does not imply the application of long force. It is a description of the apparent relationship between the two players, and only produces a result resembling its forceful counterpart when the speed of the movement exceeds one’s ability to follow and neutralize, in which case, it produces a discharge of jing. This effect will also be discussed shortly.
It should be noted that only with such separation can any jing appear. The time delay that occurs between the actions of the hands reflects the finite amount of time required for a wave to be transmitted through the body. If one were to try to employ the forms of the solo exercise exactly as they are practiced, that is, with the same large size and simultaneous movements of the hands, but at high speed, they would simply reproduce a semblance of bad Karate or Shaolin, in other words, not a wave, but stiff force. The softness required for T’ai Chi Ch’uan is what makes possible this wave, and is therefore the critical factor in the emergence of jing. The major factor inhibiting this softness is li.
T’ai Chi teachers are known for admonishing their students to “stop using strength.” In fact, these admonishments are against the use of li, which is strength of a very specific kind. But, as it translates into English, the word is much more evocative of the kind of strength that is associated with active aggression or forceful behavior. The fact that such behavior is also forbidden can lead the student to assume that it is simply this that is being referred to. This would seem to apply mainly to t’ui-shou, but the student realizes that it also refers to the form. Here, however, he encounters a problem of simple logic. He assumes that strength in this case means the strength needed to stand up and move around, or in other words any use of the muscles at all. Realizing that of course one needs a certain amount of strength just to stand up, he assumes further that the admonition to use no strength must be simply an exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis, and the real meaning must be “use as little strength as possible.” I know for a fact that there are literally millions of students under this exact impression, and it creates an almost insurmountable block to further progress. They can hardly be blamed for this assumption, because in fact the Chinese habit is to exaggerate the extent of an instruction (sometimes to the point, as would be in this case, of impossibility) as a metaphoric encouragement to be as conscientious as possible in that direction.
This, however, is not one of those cases. The type of strength referred to is quite specific and can indeed be completely eliminated without precipitating any sudden collapse. It absolutely does not refer to the effort necessary to stand and to manipulate the body, which frequently requires a great deal of strength, indeed. This manipulation is, however, strength of a dynamic nature, and by virtue of this is automatically absolved from any association with li. Misunderstanding of this can lead to an effort on the part of the student to isolate only those muscles that he thinks are vital to the movement and leave all of the others in a slackened or passive condition. One should understand that although such passivity may be sufficient for relaxation (as, say, when one is lying in bed), it is not necessary. In fact, to do the movements correctly requires by definition the dynamic activity of all muscles of the body (sometimes referred to in the Classics as “whole body movement”). Failure to so totally employ all muscles is called stagnancy, and it is endemic to almost all of the T’ai Chi Ch’uan being practiced today.
Now, in case anyone thought that my reference to dynamic activity of the muscles was a redundancy, I would remind you that the muscles are also capable of another kind of activity, and this is simply being activated to hold a fixed position. It is exactly this activity that is referred to as li. In other words, the kind of muscular activity that is so anathema to T’ai Chi Ch’uan is not that which produces movement, but that which resists it. In particular, it resists a particular consequence of movement, which is the natural separation of substantial and insubstantial. Such resistance is manifested by fixed positions of the joints, fusing what were two pieces into one. Cheng, Man-ch’ing defined it very well as “using the muscles to bind the bones into a rigid framework.”
It is vital to understand that it is the rigidity of this framework that is the problem, and li is simply the most frequent cause. Anything that promotes such rigidity is equally acrimonious, and this is exactly the case with stagnancy. The complete slackness of various muscles results in just as much resistance to internal change as an equivalent use of li. Now it is simply the resistance of dead weight. Even if an internal change does occur, simply because of an altered position, the intermittent slackness of various muscles in the chain means that there is no continuity of ch’an-su-jing, no connection linking the root positively with the final manifestation of the wave, and, ultimately, no power. The whole course of the solo form is designed to produce these links and practice their serial continuity. This misguided effort to “stop using strength” simply interrupts the chain, and with it, all progress.
The great danger here is amply demonstrated by giving a simple exercise to almost any class of students. The fault revealed is so unconscious and natural an occurrence that it invariably manifests in my own students, even though they are more than familiar with all that I have been saying here. Pick a movement that can be done with steps and made to continuously repeat, like Monkey Steps Back, and have them do the movement as they would do it in the form, at the same speed, but just repeated across the floor. After doing this a couple of times, tell them to speed up a little. After a few repetitions of this, tell them to go faster. And after a few more repetitions, faster still. Keep speeding them up until they are struggling hard to keep up, and observe what happens all along the way. They will invariably make an unconscious effort to preserve both the size and exact timing of the solo form, regardless of how fast they are going. This effort invariably causes heavy breathing and eventual exhaustion, because as the speed increases, the effort required to prevent the separation of substantial and insubstantial increases as well, along with that needed to preserve the movement’s original size. This is in spite of the fact that they are constantly being told that relaxation is the most important consideration in their practice.
Yes, of course we should not be shoving our t’ui-shou partners around like wrestlers, yes of course we should not be using more strength than is necessary to do anything, but these are trivial examples. There is not a sport in the world that tells its exponents to use more strength than is necessary. But the main thing, the most important thing that we should be doing is not letting anything inhibit the natural differentiation of substantial and insubstantial, including, in this case, any unconscious tendency to maintain the forms in their originally learned, slow motion version. The only tool that we have to fulfill this disastrous tendency is li. This is why the prohibition against it is so strong, and why it is absolute, not simply a matter of degree. If we could just banish it in some magical way, it would be impossible for us to do anything else other than let the forms naturally change as the speed of execution varies.
Experience, however, leads me to believe that people cannot just blindly impose such disciplines upon themselves without some sort of clue as to their logic and final result. In the case of li and its elimination, I would hope that the preceding has offered at least a taste of the logic. As to results, the one that is most direct is the very gradual but ultimately inevitable emergence of jing.
“From an understanding of jing, the steps extend to wisdom.” -Classics
In my book The Theoretical Basis of Ta’i Chi Ch’uan I made up a little story to illustrate the basic problem concerning jing. It is probably worth repeating here.
In the time of wooden sailing ships and, as the saying goes, iron men, a ship happens upon a south sea island where two tribes of natives are engaged in genocidal war with each other, armed only with primitive clubs and spears. After determining that one side is, by European standards, more moral, they decide to help them out by arming them with guns. However, they are near the end of their voyage, and their stores of ammunition are empty due to an encounter with pirates. So they leave a few guns, along with instructions for practice in cocking, aiming, and firing, and a promise to return in a few months with ammunition. This ammunition, they explain, will enable the guns to issue great power that will cause their enemies to just fall down and not get up. Excited by this prospect, the natives begin to conscientiously practice, even adding power by thrusting forward with the guns when firing. After all, how could a little extra power hurt? They develop different styles of this thrusting, and, anxious to develop the highest technique possible, initiate “gun-pushing” contests to see which is better. Eventually they discover that even more power is offered by holding the gun by the barrel and swinging it in violent arcs at the opponent. They are pleased with their progress and assume that their new discoveries, showing such radical improvement in power, have probably surpassed that of the promised ammunition. Convinced of the magical power of the weapon, they manufacture facsimiles out of wood and bamboo and arm their entire tribe. A few months later, the sailors return with ammunition for their students, only to find that the other tribe has killed them easily with their spears.
This cautionary tale’s connection with T’ai Chi Ch’uan should not need an excess of explanation. The problem with the natives was not lack of faith or dedication, but that they were trying to pursue something of which they had no understanding. It is inevitable that such a pursuit will come to redefine its goals in terms of ones that can be understood. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan student is in the awkward position of working to develop a force of which he has no experience, while practicing forms and movements that for the most part (at least for a matter of years) do not actually duplicate what he will eventually do in finally releasing it. In addition, these same forms and movements seem to resemble very closely those appropriate to a kind of force with which he is very familiar indeed. This is a recipe for confusion, certainly.
The genesis of this peculiar course of instruction has a dual source. In the first place, the student is incapable of practicing the actual form that his eventual movements will take because he has not developed the intricate system of small muscles to do so, and the eventual form of his movement is to small and too subtle for him to locate and train them, not to mention being too fast. In order to bring them into action the movements must be big enough for distortions of posture to reveal their function, by using them to make subtle corrections that would be invisible in a smaller frame, even if they occurred. (This, by the way, is one of the meanings of the somewhat extravagant claim of T’ai Chi Ch’uan to be “invisible.”) The habit of this use is internalized, and when the movements become smaller and more lively afford a grace and elegance that is achievable by no other means. “First practice stretching, then shrinking; in this way, your movements become fine and delicate. “ –Classics
As we have discussed previously, the necessity for this method of practice produces two major problems. One is that at such a slow speed even very small amounts of li will prevent the separation of substantial and insubstantial, something that, even if its effects are not noticeable at such a slow speed, can still be detected and thus practiced by the student, if he is relaxed enough. It is undeniable that this is made more difficult by the slow speed, but, since the solution is greater concentration and relaxation, it is actually anything but counterproductive. The other problem is stagnancy, caused by improper relaxation. The deliberate effort to slacken all “unnecessary” muscles invariably picks on exactly those small muscles that we are actually attempting to activate and train, and the result is awkward and clumsy. We are told constantly that our clumsiness is due to tension, and that greater relaxation is the cure, while our every sincere effort in that direction simply makes things worse. As I mentioned earlier, this awkwardness is due to li, and while the usual cause of li is tension, the slow speed of the form and the corresponding lack of energy facilitating the separation of yin and yang allow stagnancy to effectively substitute for it.
I mentioned that there are two reasons for the solo forms’ tendency to confuse the student in the question of their eventual use. One is the large slow frame, just discussed. The other is historical, involving the relationship of the Yang Style with the Shaolin style of Yang, Lu-shan. The Yang Style may be seen as a subtle reform of the original Shaolin movements, adapting them to the use of jing rather than conventional “long” force. The problem here is that the original forms are very efficient in the production of such (for us, undesirable) force, and this is a kind of force that the student will instinctively understand. The changes that facilitate the use of jing have the unfortunate side effect of degrading the application of this cruder force. This, coupled with the student’s complete unfamiliarity with jing, creates an unconscious and almost irresistible propensity to “correct” the forms, threatening constantly to devolve Yang Style T’ai Chi back into its original Shaolin form.
My favorite, and I think perhaps the most obvious example of this confusion is the form of Double Push from the P’eng, Lu, Chi, An sequence of Grasp Sparrow’s Tail. To the casual observer, it may resemble the original Shaolin form, but to the eye of the Shaolin boxer it would be a form riddled with inexplicable errors. The reader may even be a bit mystified by my comparison here, if the form that they practice has already been “corrected” by either their teachers or themselves to reflect the logic of this more conventional kind of force. Firstly and foremost, there is something bizarrely peculiar about the shift of weight and the direction of the movement of the hands. The Arrow Stance of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is consistently altered from its Shaolin origin in two distinct and visible ways. In the Shaolin Form, the feet are lined up to facilitate a shift of weight that is entirely in the direction of the opponent. In the T’ai Chi Ch’uan form, they are more angled, in order to allow a greater turn of the waist in the direction of the forward leg. However, since the center must always move along a line that is directly above the line connecting the two feet, this means that the center shifts slightly sideways in relation to the forward push of the arms. No normal person, not even an idiot child, would try to actually push something this way, but would instinctively align their feet more directly at their target. This skewed position of the feet is highly traditional in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, however, and not lightly violated, necessitating more arcane and consistently illogical attempts to overcome its implications. One teacher that I know of doggedly insists that regardless of the position of the feet, the center nevertheless does shift exclusively straight back and forth, crossing and recrossing this line connecting the feet without ever actually following it. He insists that, by some mystical means unknown to me, this never constitutes a loss of balance, while in my opinion, it defines a loss of balance.
The second obvious difference in the execution of the arrow stance is the attitude of the rear leg. In Shaolin, it is completely straightened, adding its thrusting power to the form, but in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the knee is slightly bent and dropped vertically to an ideal position of ninety degrees, producing what is called the “dragon body.” In this position it is clearly incapable of pushing efficiently but, again, allows for a greater turn of the waist while maintaining straightness of the lower back.
These apparently illogical alterations are compounded by an apparently equally weird detail in the movements of the arms themselves. It is entirely instinctive and also scientifically provable that the most effective push is to be achieved by aligning the forearms as soon as possible at right angles to the object to be pushed, so that the force exerted on the elbows by the rest of the body can travel in a straight line to, in this case, the opponent. In the proper T’ai Chi Ch’uan execution, however, the elbows do not immediately assume this position, but gradually sink as the arms are extended, only pointing straight down at the final point of extension. This detail is much more susceptible to being corrupted, and has been, quite thoroughly. The apparent simplicity of the logic involved has inspired some teachers to commit to print their certainty that the elbows must be immediately dropped at the very beginning of the forward movement. The size of the movement necessitates a clear extension of the arms forward, even as the legs add their own nominally forward motion. The final position certainly looks like someone who has just pushed something. I mean, if it walks like a duck …… And it’s even called push, for Christ’s sake. Surely anything that we can do in the service of that end must be commendable, eh?
Well, actually, no. This is just the mistake that the South Sea savages made. The truth is, the pursuit of more efficient pushing technique is misguided because, in the actual application of T’ai Chi Ch’uan at the highest training level, and that of fighting, the one thing that we most certainly never, ever do, is push anybody. Pushing, by definition, is the textbook example of long force. We don’t do that. Ever. No no no no no! Excuse my momentary hysteria. But this point must be understood. We don’t actually pull anybody, either, in the conventional meaning of that word (also textbook long force). What we do do is take continually evolving positions that follow the opponent, exerting no force on him, but taking the appearance of pushing or pulling. The only force ever applied to the opponent, and when it is, it is of a very high magnitude, must take place within a space of one inch, and must be over almost as soon as it begins. This is jing.
But wait …… What about hand pushing? It’s called pushing, isn’t it? It sure looks like pushing. It doesn’t just look like the practice of long force, it looks like force that is as long as possible. In fact, it looks a lot like one of those ducks. Well, it isn’t, and the explanation is partly the same as for the single solo form, and partly other considerations. As in the solo form, there are a number of practice goals that are simply impossible to achieve without making the movements big and slow. It is not intended to be a rehearsal of future behavior, except in, as with the form, a strictly internal sense.
To understand this, there is one very important thing about jing that must be realized, and it is easily overlooked. It is all a matter of degree. What I mean by this is that jing is not, as many beginners would imagine and indeed probably prefer it to be, a new and heretofore unknown kind of force that is somehow grown (the word used is usually cultivated, a misleadingly agricultural reference) inside the body like some kind of radioactive cabbage that, after years of slouching towards Bethlehem, finally gets born. It is rather a completely comprehensible and actually fairly familiar process, reduced in size and increased in speed until it becomes destructive to the human organism. This process is the production and transmission of waves.
A wave is a process through which energy may be transmitted by a chain of similar events, each event producing as its effect a similar event in the next member of the chain. By this definition, any self replicating event, by whatever means, qualifies. Chains of falling dominoes. The twenty car fender benders that happen on the freeway. “The Wave,” as practiced by fans at football games. The course of flu epidemics. Gossip. But in the world of physics, there are for all practical purposes two kinds of waves, compression waves, where the actual physical movement is in the direction of the transmission of force, and transverse waves, where it is at right angles. Sound is a compression wave. The waves we see in the ocean are transverse waves. T’ai Chi Ch’uan actually makes use of both types of waves. P’eng jing is a compression wave; t’ing jing is a transverse wave. Ch’an-su-jing is a complex combination of both.
Waves have two principle qualities, magnitude and frequency. Magnitude is the degree to which any part of the chain of events actually moves; frequency is how often that happens. A single wave sends a short pulse of change through whatever medium it is using; a vibration sends a series of such pulses at a given frequency. This frequency is in inverse proportion to the wavelength. Frequency measures the time interval between pulses; wavelength measures distance each pulse travels from a given point before the next one arrives. Obviously, the more often the pulse occurs, the shorter will be the distance between the pulses. The destructive power of a wave depends upon the relationship of its wavelength to the size of the target, and of its frequency to the internal movement of that target.
For an obvious example, look at ships at sea. In the case of most ships, the waves they encounter are quite a bit smaller than the size of the ship, which means that the ship cannot possibly become part of this vibratory chain. When the ship is much smaller than the wave, it likewise cannot become a separate piece of the chain, because it has become part of a much larger piece. In one case the energy of the wave is simply harmlessly absorbed by the much heavier body; in the other, the energy passes through the body without any discontinuity between the object and its immediate environment. But when the wavelength begins to approximate the size of the target, that target must for one moment deal with the entire energy of the wave, expressing it as some kind of movement. I grew up in Hawaii, and knew many sailors over the years. From their experience, I realized that for any size ship, there is a wave perfectly sized to destroy it. Clearly, smaller ships are statistically more likely to meet such a wave, but for even the largest, it theoretically exists.
To see the destructive power of frequency one need only compare the relative danger of electrocution in Europe as opposed to America. In Europe the frequency of the alternating current that is standard in cities is quite high, but it America it is disastrously close to the frequency of the human heartbeat, sixty cycles per second. The energy that passes through the heart relatively harmlessly in Europe can, in America, be easily just enough out of phase with the normal cycle of the pulse to cause a heart attack.
Another thing that should be noted is that the finer the medium of transmission, the higher is the possible frequency of the wave. This is dependent upon two things, the size of the pieces, and the firmness of their connection. Think of the action of a whip. It should be obvious that, all other things being equal, a thinner whip will carry a higher frequency wave, but so will one that is simply more flexible, a measure of the connectedness of the pieces. A firmer connection acts to fuse any two pieces, for at least part of their action, into one, making them effectively into larger pieces. The energy carried by a moving object is proportional to the mass of the object, but also to the square of the speed of the object. The more completely each piece of the chain has changed before transmitting its energy to the next piece, the higher is its speed in influencing the next piece, and so the greater its transmission of energy.
From the foregoing what we are attempting in T’ai Chi Ch’uan should be at least theoretically clear. We must train the body to a condition in which it is internally differentiated into as many “pieces” as possible (water being the ideal example), while also retaining enough structure to avoid dissipating the energy transmitted through this medium in all directions, but direct it in a controlled way. In other words, we cannot afford the luxury of simply releasing all control and therefore all possibility of using li. In fact, certain parts of the body are prevented from separation, or have their separation controlled, so that this simplistic solution, while perhaps appropriate to the beginning stages of hand-pushing, is one we cannot ultimately afford.
The majority of this control takes place in the torso. For the general purpose of Form and (when done at the proper speed) t’ui-shou, the entire torso is fused into one piece, one of the body’s “thirteen parts,” the others being the twelve separate bone structures that comprise the arms and legs. Fortunately, this fusing process can be almost entirely accomplished through the correct technique of “plucking up the back,” an activation of spinal muscles that allows for complete relaxation of the abdominal muscles and intercostals. This fusion, however, is an example of several instances in T’ai Chi Ch’uan in which we practice conscientiously something which, in order for it to work, we must actually fail to completely succeed in doing. This leads to my frequent observation that the greatest thing about T’ai Chi Ch’uan is that “it works when it fails.”
The fusion of the torso must obtain to some degree to avoid energy that would be transmitted to the opponent (or similar energy coming from the opponent) being dissipated in a way that will potentially injure oneself. This is why the “rag doll” kind of t’ui-shou attitude is appropriate for one’s initial apprehension of the yielding process, but must be subject to later discipline. However, were this fusion to be entirely successful, it would greatly diminish the amount of jing that could be transmitted from the legs to the arms. In particular, the admonition in the form to maintain vertical alignment of hips and shoulders loses its authority when the body is moving at a higher speed. Now the natural separation of substantial and insubstantial will cause a separation of this alignment, a separation that could only be prevented by the use of li. If the integrity of the torso is completely relaxed, that is, if the spine is allowed to deviate too much from its condition of straightness (not necessarily the same as uprightness, it should be noted), this separation will induce a wave through the spine that will almost certainly be injurious to oneself.
The degree to which this separation is allowed, and that to which it is acted out in practice, makes for an interesting comparison of the Chen and Yang styles, and between T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Pa-kua. An examination of Chen and Yang styles yields the immediate observation that, from the perspective that we have just been taking, the Chen style allows for much more flexibility and ongoing distortion than does the Yang. I consider this to be the major defining characteristic distinguishing the Chen and Yang styles, because I believe that it is the central factor that encourages and allows for all of the other major differences. It is interesting to note that this defining factor was not introduced by Yang but by his Chen teacher, who was in fact nicknamed for it, usually translated as “Straight-jacket Chen.” It is critical to the more obvious defining difference, the tendency to create a vertical discharge, rather than the more traditional “long discharge.” Straight-jacket Chen was also known for this.
In comparing these styles, we must bow to the logic that justifies the Chen practitioners’ frequent assertion that their style is the most martial, dangerous, powerful, “realistic,” or whatever name you might put to it. We have said that the inhibition of flexibility in the torso, implied by the emphasis of the Yang style, must inevitably decrease the transmission of jing, and we are stuck with the logical implications of that emphasis. But remember that this relaxation of structural integrity is not an infinitely productive process, but must stop somewhere in order to avoid total loss of control. I believe this to be another example of the congruity which all boxing styles exhibit at their highest level. Though the Yang Style may approach from the direction of most efficient utilization of power, and the Chen from that of greatest production of power, their final result, the balance of those considerations in execution, if not in training, must inevitably be much the same.
Similarly, Pa-kua integrates into its technique the absolute reversal of the notion of shoulder-hip alignment, actively twisting the body into full rotations as often as possible. In doing so, however, they are simply applying the logic of T’ai Chi Ch’uan practice in a slightly different way. Just as we rehearse the movements of the “thirteen-part” T’ai Chi Ch’uan body in a large frame, and then reduce it, they rehearse the eventual separation of the “thirteenth part,” the torso, in its largest frame, and then reduce it. We depend upon relaxation completely to create the eventual correct response, which is why it is so harped upon in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, while in Pa-kua they experiment more actively, and arrive at the relaxation as a result of greater skill. One method may be more efficient than another, but they must both aspire to a similar ultimate conclusion.
It should be clear that the major “secret” about T’ai Chi Ch’uan is that it is completely designed around and, in the Yang Style case, modified to accommodate the use of jing. It should be equally clear that the activation of both long force and rigid tension (li) completely prevents this power from manifesting, which accounts for the complete exclusivity with which T’ai Chi Ch’uan must be practiced, an exclusivity that is quite galling to the legions of eclectic “Masters” of every martial art under the sun, who would like to add (and do) T’ai Chi Ch’uan to their CV and signboard. Even with such exclusive practice, the average time projected for the cultivation of jing is twenty years. That’s an awfully long time to practice with an unloaded gun. You’d better not have any spear-toting savages on the horizon, for sure.
But most dangerous and seductive, perhaps, is to attempt to imitate what is the final and most technically sophisticated manifestation of jing, the so-called discharge of one’s opponent harmlessly through space. It is seductive because, while real jing is not easy to imitate, the result of the sophisticated occurrence of jing (or at least a semblance of it) between two players is, by simply pushing people as violently as possible. This stumbling block to the acquisition of true jing must be avoided, and this requires an understanding of discharge.