The Question of Uprightness
By Robert Amacker
I approach this subject with feelings of great trepidation. I consider it to be the most important question in T'ai Chi Ch'uan today, because confusion concerning it, and wrong conclusions drawn as a result of this confusion, create a stumbling block to a deep understanding of the technique, and prevent entrance into its more advanced levels. But before I discuss the matter directly, I would like to comment upon my feelings, because they relate to another kind of misconception, and one that all students of T'ai Chi Ch'uan should be wary of. By this I refer to a tendency towards dogmatic absolutism, the kind that is most associated with religion.
There is a mystery that lurks within T'ai Chi Ch'uan, perhaps never stated in so many words, but a kind of gradual realization that comes to almost everyone who studies it. At first the student assumes this mystery to be the simple result of his failure to understand; at some point he may decide that it is perhaps his teacher’s failure to understand. But even if he has ample evidence that his teacher is a real one, and making every effort to disclose every secret, his efforts at comprehension meet with a strange unsatisfying elusiveness, a little bit like looking at one of those “hidden picture” books, the kind that seem at first glance like fractal Jackson Pollack paintings, and not being able to see the picture, even after you’ve been told what it is. In reading recently the writings of a long time Chinese practitioner of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, writings that had the feel and, if you will allow me, the smell of real understanding, I was struck by one comment in particular. He noted that the really most troubling aspect of studying T'ai Chi Ch'uan was his (and his fellow students’) seeming inability to grasp what exactly the hell it was that he was actually learning to do. This is a signatory and in fact almost obligatory evidence of T'ai Chi Ch'uan’s “internal” nature. It is a complex and subtle skill matched with an invisible and difficult to achieve somatic condition, neither of which by themselves is sufficient to produce the true technique. The essence of this condition is conveyed by the word relaxation, but because of its easy and pernicious confusion with the condition known as stagnancy, it must be refined and perfected by the necessities of technique. This means, effectively, that, as the Classics say, “You cannot suddenly understand it.”
It is perhaps this inherent mysteriousness that evokes T'ai Chi Ch'uan’s unfortunate tendency to foster a kind of religious dogmatism. It is undoubtedly true that, because of the reasons just stated, the study of T'ai Chi Ch'uan requires a certain act of faith, and acts of faith tend to produce deeper commitments than any directed by reason. Since faith by definition is only present where reason alone will not suffice, it is effectively inoculated against it. This is highly unfortunate, because while it may require faith to study T'ai Chi Ch'uan, it takes reason to understand it. Reason may be the enemy of religion (a fact succinctly stated by many religious figures), but it is not the enemy of T'ai Chi Ch'uan. Religion requires faith in something that, by definition, you can never understand; T'ai Chi Ch'uan requires the faith that you will in fact someday understand it. Success in religion means clinging to your faith beyond all other things; success in T'ai Chi Ch'uan means getting to the point where you don’t need any. Faith coupled with organized teaching produces dogmatism, resulting, usually, in xenophobic bureaucracies. Mystery is the perfect handmaiden of dogmatism, because it provides the perfect excuse for not understanding what you are talking about. In religion, faithful dogmatism always trumps intelligent inquiry because attempts to dispel ignorance about something of which mystery is a permanent attribute are doomed from the start. It is my assertion that because of its “mysterious” nature and its complex and invisible technique, T'ai Chi Ch'uan frequently fosters the unwitting development of this kind of religious psychology in its students, and it is a psychology that must be conscientiously rejected.
This psychology is potential in a multitude of technical points, any one of which can be compared to the sometimes hairsplitting arguments of rival religions, but nowhere does it seem as reflexive, stubborn, and thoroughly intransigent as with the question of uprightness. When my position on this point becomes at least apparently clear, I am frequently faced with a body language, expression, and attitude that would suggest I was questioning the divinity of Christ. It does no good for me to protest that a full understanding of my position will show it to illuminate, rather than contradict, the concept of uprightness. This dogma is absolute, not subject to seductive qualification. The slightest deviation from its most simple interpretation is anathema, and some are reluctant to even experiment for a moment with such heresy. Sex with small dogs might be an easier sell.
So what is its most simple interpretation? Well, from my extensive experience, it would seem to be this: uprightness means maintaining a perfect alignment of the torso with gravity, or, alternatively, a ninety degree angle between one’s torso and the floor. Further, the doctrine of uprightness dictates that even the slightest deviation from this alignment constitutes error, and produces by implication the corollary that had this deviation been reduced, one’s advantageousness with respect to the opponent, presumably both in position and timing, would be improved. The strange thing is, and we will return to this point later, that this statement is actually entirely correct, but only in the sense that higher and higher levels of practice and technique produce greater and greater degrees of uprightness, not that greater degrees of uprightness produce higher levels of technique. The advantageousness obtained with respect to the opponent is the result of skill that also has the result of creating greater uprightness. In other words, uprightness is the result of high technique, not the cause of it. Ironically, in the end it is the one who gives up rigid adherence to this position most easily and immediately who succeeds in maintaining it to the greatest degree, as I hope to make clear.
First I should mention the numerous aspects of T'ai Chi Ch'uan that would apparently imply and support this kind of absolutism. While there are many examples of bona fide masters of the past executing their movements with a decided forward tilt, the most conventional wisdom concerning the execution of the form is that it be done in an upright position, as was previously defined, and there are virtually no examples of any form ever being done with a backward tilt, or even one to the side. Also, there is a subtle, but, I think, almost universal tendency to interpret the first action of the form, that of sinking both hips uniformly to a lower position (thereby maintaining complete uprightness), as an indication of one’s preferred response to an opponent’s offense, in other words, a proper behavioral habit. Then there is the old saying, “the greatest boxers are always upright,” that I have absolutely no wish to contradict here. And even Yang’s Ten Important Points includes the admonition to “not let the body lean in any direction.” Finally, there is the clear physiological evidence that the upright position promotes the greatest degree of relaxation, and this is also correct, even when in reference to the most sophisticated kind of relaxation.
All of the aforementioned facts would seem to indicate that being upright is not only correct, but indeed some sort of important key to the whole technique, a real “secret.” If anything could qualify as unquestionable dogma, this would seem to be it. The questionable utility of any unquestionable dogma aside, it is my assertion that there is no contradiction whatsoever between these facts and the practices that I and my students have found so productive, and that so many other teachers and students have found so horrifyingly apostate.
And exactly what are those horrifying practices? Before detailing these, I would like to address some of the previously mentioned facts, and to offer some qualification to their apparently absolute implications. First, I think there is some misconception concerning the very meaning of upright, a word that, like many others, acquires a specialized interpretation when applied narrowly to boxing. It must be remembered that many terms and images in T'ai Chi Ch'uan are used in direct contrast to the practices of so-called “hard” boxing styles, and specifically those of the Shaolin school. In my instruction, which was, of course, personal, oral, and entirely unrecorded, it seemed obvious that this image of uprightness was intended to be descriptive, rather than proscriptive, and used to contrast the obvious and athletically challenging contortions found in many external styles with the elegance, ease, and general uprightness of T'ai Chi Ch'uan positions and techniques. Although, as I have said, greater uprightness does indicate greater skill, I do not think it was ever intended to be a simple short cut to high technique, or to be enforced with the inquisitional fervor with which it is today.
The proper flavor to its interpretation must be influenced by a consideration of a certain property of the Chinese language, one which has bearing upon a number of other extremely important technical points as well. This is the underlying descriptive nature of its construction; it most frequently refers to what things look like, rather than what they do. The old saying that great boxers are always upright also clearly has its origins in a descriptive context, and would arise with complete consistency from any observation of someone trained in what I consider to be correct technique, for the following reason. Although I staunchly assert that some deviations from the mathematically upright position do occur, and occur not as simply an accepted sloppiness, but as an important element of technique that must be exact and measured, their magnitude is entirely speed sensitive, and in inverse proportion. That is, as the speed of movement increases, the angles of deviation become progressively smaller. At any reasonable speed at which T'ai Chi Ch'uan could be demonstrated (demonstrated, I am careful to say, not practiced), and certainly at any speed associated with fighting, these angles become so small as to be indistinguishable from upright, and would be consistently described as such.
At this point it would be reasonable to object that anything so small as to be unobservable must also be so small as to be unimportant, and further, even if it was important, that such minute adjustments are an unrealistic assumption in the heat of real fighting. Well, T'ai Chi Ch'uan is full of small and relatively unobservable things that are of great importance, and there is no reason to assume that this is not one of them. As to its capability at high speeds and adrenalin filled situations, it would be of course impossible if it were attempted consciously. But this statement would be equally obvious if applied to a thousand different athletic situations, ones that are executed regularly millions of times a day. The actual physics required to compute the correct speed, angle, and timing of a basketball jump shot is of course beyond the split second ability of even the greatest idiot savant, and yet the brain can perform this operation subconsciously with enough consistency to create million dollar paychecks. The exact angles of deviation of which we speak are of course the solutions to massively complex physics problems, but the only difference between these and those solved by the basketball star is the nature of the incoming information being processed; it is primarily somatic, rather than visual.
As far as the practice of uprightness (and here I do mean the literal, mathematical variety) in the execution of the form, it is in my opinion of the highest importance, and enforced vigorously in my own practice and in that of my students. It is only in t’ui-shou and the more advanced practices of T'ai Chi Ch'uan that these deviations occur, and specifically, the one most offensive to many, that of tilting backward. Let me again rhetorically object, is this not inconsistent practice? If we are going to do these things when dealing with opponents or partners, why not practice them when alone? Because the method of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is itself behaviorally inconsistent. A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of the present effort, but suffice to say that the different practices of T'ai Chi Ch'uan (specifically, Form, T’ui-shou, Three-step t’ui-shou, Ta lu, and San shou) each require different behavior, behavior that is frequently mutually contradictory. This is true in certain obviously superficial ways, and is consistent with all martial arts. For example, one exercise may be for kicking, one for punching. This is different behavior, but not contradictory in the sense that any basic principles of posture, breathing, or movement are altered or violated. T'ai Chi Ch'uan, however, takes behavioral inconsistency to the point of possibly disastrous confusion and this, in my opinion, constitutes one of the primary hurdles of student (and teacher) understanding, and one of the reasons that the Classics state: “The teacher must be careful to chose only intelligent students, to avoid wasting his time.”
My own personal understanding was in two stages. First was the realization that the behavioral inconsistency apparent in the exercises was of a real and deliberate nature, and that regardless of how contradictory and confusing it might seem, it must be followed. It soon became apparent that giving in completely to these alterations produced extremely classical results, results of such authenticity and elegance that I felt this practice to be entirely confirmed. This experimental confirmation, however, still left me deeply unsatisfied. Such inconsistency, I felt, must be connected in some deeper, underlying way, for the following reason.
T'ai Chi Ch'uan is a martial art, and the greatest enemy in fighting is thought. Fighting must be reflexive and instantaneous, and thought, any thought, interrupts this process. Nothing gives rise to thinking more than decisions. A successful martial art simply cannot include the necessity to chose between various types of behavior. It is actually the reason that experienced street fighters suffer from a diminution of their ability when attempting the study of some martial art; they are forced to chose between their old reflexes and their new training, which will frequently be contradictory. This produces a hesitancy that, although measured in microseconds, is enough to be fatal. In a certain deep sense, a good boxer, like any good artist, is always doing the same thing. This is in the sense that he must never need to choose between things. Some might object here and say that artists do in fact make many choices in the midst of their creative act. This is true, but in a free flowing artistic process, this is not between what is right and what is wrong, but rather between several equally appealing alternatives. This is not a need to chose, but a freedom to chose. This is just the kind of freedom felt in great boxing, and evokes Sun, Lu-t’ang’s famous remark, “Having a fight is like taking a walk in the park.” This thing they are doing, which, by definition, subjects all possible decisions to the same unifying consciousness, will be the more effective the simpler that it is. This evokes the eternal martial arts argument over whether one should acquire as many techniques, or even as many martial arts, as possible, or devote all of his time to the perfection of only a few techniques (or even only one), the simplest and most powerful. As one karate teacher of my acquaintance said, “Front punch, front kick; if those don’t work, the other stuff won’t help.” The animal styles of Shaolin owe some of their effectiveness simply to an attempt to imitate an animal consciousness; it is simpler than being a human being. In my opinion, T'ai Chi Ch'uan, through its multiplication of the T’ai Chi principle, a principle of truly astounding simplicity, eventually achieves the simplest and fastest thought process (or perhaps we should say, non-thought process) that can direct complex body movements and reactions.
This opinion was only finally arrived at, however, after resolving the problem of behavioral inconsistency, namely, that the different patterns of behavior found in the exercises seemed to imply the need to make decisions. The answer lies in the fact that T'ai Chi Ch'uan training is directed towards the acquisition of internal habits, rather than external ones. By contrast, the forms of other martial arts are intended to be rehearsed because they are exactly the positions that one will take when fighting. They are constructed to be structurally capable of overpowering the forms of the opponent. The forms of T'ai Chi Ch'uan are designed to change and adapt completely to the position of the opponent. Literally, the chances that one will be called upon to correctly execute exactly the form as practiced in the solo exercise against an actual opponent are just about zero. By the definition of its technique, T'ai Chi Ch'uan cannot utilize pre-rehearsed forms, so …. why the hell rehearse them?
In fact, T'ai Chi Ch'uan forces us to memorize positions, but only to learn the exercise, not, as might be assumed, so that those exact positions can be later summoned up as weapons in fighting. Misunderstanding of this point leads to the frequent question of beginners, “why don’t we practice all the moves on both sides? Why is Single Whip repeated over and over throughout the form, but always on the same side?” Some teachers, apparently mystified as to why they should be the only ones in the history of T'ai Chi Ch'uan to notice something so obvious, have taken it upon themselves to “improve” the form by adding repetitions of every movement on both sides, so that their students will be “just as good” on one side as the other. “Just as good,” in this case, means ready with an equally rehearsed movement on both sides. Let me state it clearly: the form is intended to force the acquisition of internal habits of movement, not the acquisition of external habits of form. In point of fact, movements of truly skillful students that appear spontaneously on the side not rehearsed in the form are almost always executed with more accuracy, simply because there is no confusion with an exactly rehearsed external position.
A clue to what links these formal inconsistencies together into a smooth continuum is found in the fact that when they change from their solo form version to their “real” application they almost invariably become smaller. The sometimes large circles made with the hands in the form may become so reduced in size that they are barely a twitch, but, as it turns out, a very important twitch. What is the other factor that is invariably associated with “real” situations? Increased speed is the answer. In fact, these two properties, size and speed, are themselves linked by a consistency in the relaxation of the player. In other words, both the speed and exact shape and size of the forms may change radically in different modes of practice, but the somatic condition of the player, specifically his degree of relaxation, does not. In fact, a high degree of consistency in the relaxation exhibited by any player will produce automatically the proper changes in shape and size necessary to correctly reflect the variations in speed associated with the different exercises, up to and including their final and most economical form, associated with actual combat.
I consider the implications of this to be a point of critical understanding for any student of T'ai Chi Ch'uan. The reasoning that it implies is by no means natural or obvious, because it subtly contradicts a certain natural assumption that is made unconsciously by almost everyone. It is an assumption that is true in almost every other athletic example in which it might come up, and so it is habitual as well. This is the automatic assumption that when we learn a certain physical form or movement, we are intended to execute it exactly the same way no matter at what speed it is performed. Usually this is trivially true because the movement is one that is intended from the start to be done at high speed, so the form that one is taught is in fact correct at that speed, by whatever criteria is important to the individual discipline. This would seem at first glance to be especially applicable to T'ai Chi Ch'uan because it is obvious that we are practicing something that presumes an artificial slowness. But the mistake is in assuming that the constant in the equation that correctly describes the transformation is the form itself, when, in the case of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, it is the somatic condition that remains constant, which produces automatic alterations of form.
I mentioned before the daunting problem of recognizing the difference between relaxation and stagnancy. A correct understanding of the solution to our current problem will go considerably to the effect of defining that difference. Just what is the somatic condition that, if practiced consistently, will produce smooth transformations of the forms practiced in the solo exercise to their correct versions when done at higher and higher speeds? In order to answer this we must examine the negative form of the familiar imperative to relax. This is the commandment to use no li.
I am fairly certain that my own understanding of this term went through transformations similar to everyone else’s. Since the word in Chinese is a reference to “ordinary” strength, and since when doing the solo form there would seem to be no external barriers to relaxing at least as much as we can, it is natural to feel the need to police this particular transgression most when doing t’ui-shou, in the sense of “using strength” against one’s opponents. (I use the word opponents here, despite the fact that I consider this to be a bad characterization of one’s partner in the exercise, because it is in thinking of them in this way that the whole question of strength arises.) Although it is quite correct that one should not use such “ordinary” strength against anyone, including real opponents, this reference conceals the much more subtle meaning and application of the word.
I can explain this best by means of a simple experiment. Put one arm out in front of you at full extension, and slowly wave it back and forth, very slowly. If you are going slowly enough, the only strength that you will need to use is that required to fight gravity, and to move the muscles in your shoulder enough to satisfy the exercise. Now begin to move the arm back and forth faster, but over the same distance and with the same motion, and keeping the same extension. There are two joints in the arm, the elbow and wrist. You will notice that as you move the arm faster and faster, it will try to break into pieces defined by those joints. You will also discover that if allowed to break into these pieces, the hand will execute its movement over a smaller total distance for the same amount of angular influence from the shoulder. Instead of moving smoothly back and forth over the same distance with increasing speed, it begins to “flop around” at the end of your arm, a movement made awkward looking by the asymmetrical freedom of movement offered by the various joints involved. This is assuming that you remained in the same somatic condition as before, exerting no influence in the joints except that needed to fight gravity. Now attempt to make the same increase in speed, over the same distance, but keeping your arm in the same shape. You will discover that you must use a specific kind of tension in the joints to prevent the “flopping around” effect, and the faster you move the arm back and forth, the greater this tension must become to preserve the shape, and, remember, the size of the eventual external movement as well. This is li. Cheng, Man-ch’ing put it beautifully when he defined li as “using the muscles to bind the bones into a rigid framework.” I had heard this definition, but missed its true meaning because I assumed its application was referencing the tendency to stiffen the body and ram it into the opponent in t’ui-shou “contests.” I think that many if not all students are misled by the fact that the term is thrown at them, with the attached urgency apparently indicative of an immediate and approachable problem, at the earliest stages of their practice, when the speed of any of their practices is actually below that which would require this exact kind of policing. Yes of course they should not use li in the form, and many students, unless individually enlightened as to their mistake, will perform even the slowest exercise with unnecessary tension of exactly this kind. But accomplishing this relaxation in this relatively unchallenging situation (the slow movements of the solo form) does not prepare them for the discipline necessary to prevent it from reappearing in later practices. They think of it as applying primarily to the form and unconsciously revert to the priority of maintaining shape and size when accelerating their movements.
Two movements that illustrate this perfectly, and go together besides, are the attack of the tiger and the defense of the monkey. The tiger attack is not actually contained within the solo form, but its detail is assumed in the monkey defense, which is. In slow solo practice both forms take large steps and use extended circular movements of the arms. In their real applications the movements of the hands are reduced to very small circles that sometimes seem to disappear entirely, and the long steps to a kind of mambo-like shuffling that seems completely unrelated visually to their solo forms. But this is the key. They may not be obviously visually related, but they are completely somatically related. That is to say, they not only are only obtained when the body maintains the same somatic state of relaxation practiced in the form (use no li), but they feel recognizably familiar to the person doing them. The form is designed to completely master the correct use of the muscles associated with certain movements. The degree and proportion of that use is designed to vary with the attack of the opponent, but the relationship is still recognizable. The correct experience when actually using T'ai Chi Ch'uan in fighting is one of recognizing the movements only after they have been executed, as new and different forms of this or that, and not before, as in hard styles of boxing. The defensive and offensive movements made are done so from the application of the T’ai Chi principle, and bear only an internal relationship to the exact forms actually practiced. If one maintains the proper somatic condition, the transformations needed will be automatic, the result a little like watching a movie, but a remake, not the original, with little changes showing up that you didn’t expect, and the changes are in you.
Failure to understand this point will produce unconscious conflicts between what is thought to be proper execution and proper relaxation. The tendency to try to preserve the outer parameters of the form is so strong that the student, faced with this conflict, will opt to define or redefine his concept of relaxation to something that will allow this exact instance of li to be somehow consistent with it. This is a great promoter of stagnancy, for a kind of stagnant relaxation seems like a possible solution to making large movements at high speed while “not using any strength.” Actually, if one is intending to do just that, that is, make large movements at high speed, a correct application of li is exactly what is called for. Ballet dancers use very specific applications of li (using the muscles to bind the bones into a rigid framework) in order to maintain consistent external shapes while moving through space. The principle by which ballet is seen to facilitate external movement and T'ai Chi Ch'uan is seen to facilitate internal change (without extensive external movement) is the same for both systems; it produces, however, a relationship of inverse proportion, with the proper somatic condition changing to suit one’s purpose, and a scale with T'ai Chi Ch'uan at one end and ballet at the other. One condition facilitates internal movement, and the other, external movement. They are essentially mutually exclusive techniques, if complete somatic consistency is assumed.
And complete somatic consistency in every phase of T'ai Chi Ch'uan training is the absolute key to success. As one progresses through the higher levels of T'ai Chi Ch'uan training, it becomes clear that the myriad of “rules” that one is forced to follow are not only illusively speed sensitive, but that they are priority sensitive as well, that is, some rules trump other rules, or must be measured out proportionally to balance other seemingly contradictory ones. The rules, it would seem, are made to be broken. Not only are they made to be broken, but it is my observation that the various exercises of T'ai Chi Ch'uan are frequently specifically designed to force one to break a “rule” followed in a different exercise. This is the behavioral inconsistency of which I spoke earlier. Thankfully, this is a process whose final result is the effective elimination and ultimate total disregard for any of these rules (of which, incidentally, mathematical adherence to the upright would be one), all of which are replaced by an application of the T’ai Chi principle on many levels. As it says in the classics, from this one principle come a myriad of forms, but this in no way contradicts the feeling that one is always doing the same thing, that no decisions are necessary, that, as when walking in the park, one must chose one path or another, but it doesn’t really matter that much which one.
Fighting’s mechanical aspects can really be reduced to two things, what you do and what you are. If this sounds a bit mystical, it is only because most sports and other activities pretty much accept the body’s natural condition, as it may apply to their particular use. What we “are” is people, and we act like people. T'ai Chi Ch'uan asks for a little more than that. The statement “T'ai Chi Ch'uan is natural movement” is true, but highly misleading. It can give the apparent impression that T'ai Chi Ch'uan is something very natural for people to do, and the occasional assumption that something like the right meditative state will produce instant high technique. In a way this is partially true, if by meditation we include the ability to induce the previously defined state of relaxation. But in this sense, T'ai Chi Ch'uan is highly un-natural, both in what you do and what you are. It is called natural movement because the body mimics the look of very simple natural objects, inanimate ones in fact, when under the influence of force.
Finally, all of the “rules” of T'ai Chi Ch'uan are reduced to two, the one governing what you do being the T’ai Chi principle, and the one about what you are being the maintenance of this particular type of relaxation. The commandment to follow the principle is a positive one, and so is difficult to characterize as a simple rule, it referring to a complex technique, but maintaining the proper state of relaxation is defined by a negative, to use no li. This is the one rule that trumps all others, that all others must be modified in the service of, that effectively warps everything else, like the speed of light in modern physics. You must, in the beginning, take it on faith that this condition will never be found to conflict with the application of the principle, that our only two remaining “rules” will never be in contradiction, but experience will prove this to be true.
To understand how all of this applies to our discussion of uprightness, one must observe that this condition creates a spectrum of speed sensitive behavior, in which we allow many forms of behavior that are absolutely absent or invisible in what one might call the final product. In what I hope will be not too great a digression, I will give one example here.
In the practice of the form, we take what is called “empty” steps. That is, we only allow the stepping foot to make contact with the floor while the weight is still one hundred percent on the standing leg. This is so that the stepping leg can be as “empty,” or non-influential upon the rest of the body, as possible, a condition to be maintained, in fact, until the weight is transferred to a fifty-fifty point. Imagine my surprise when one day, after being asked to demonstrate “empty” steps, my teacher leaped into the air and landed lightly on one foot, softly and soundlessly distributing the impact over the longest period of time, “receiving” the floor with the same delicacy as when touching the most dangerous opponent. “How,” I asked, “can that be an empty step, and what we practice in the form be also?” “Because,” my teacher patiently answered, “in both cases your leg is empty.” The simple geometry and behavior of “correct” stepping in the form is simply wrong, if one wants to judge it in terms of its outward similarity to the final technique. The final technique is internal. Its whole purpose is to survive variations in external behavior, including the behavior that trained it. Another meaning of the “natural” appellation of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is the fact that one’s movement, in the final result, not in training, looks natural, and this includes the steps. The universal misunderstanding of this fact was apparent in the very first “stepping” t’ui-shou tournament, which took place in Dallas decades ago. Every single contestant showed the same misconception as to correct stepping, by trying conscientiously to mimic the “empty” steps of the form, even though moving at high speed. The result was a Mr. Natural look-a-like contest of ludicrous proportions. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from the Japanese swordsman Musashi. “There are many different kinds of steps in sword fighting. The chicken step, the snake step, the deer step, ……” He goes on to make a long list of stepping techniques, then adds, “In my case, I never use any of these; when I fight I always walk as I do in the street.”
I would simply ask the reader to accept for the moment the possibility that uprightness is a “rule” that falls into this category, that a sophisticated understanding of it is far more complex than simple dogmatism would imply. A major source of confusion is perhaps the fact that uprightness is referred to in two distinct situations, one being the very first and most elementary practice, where it is a literal commandment, and the other belonging to the highest level of technique, where I maintain its usage is primarily descriptive. Despite the difference in usage, it is easy to see some logic in the idea that if it applies at the beginning and the end of training, it must be equally applicable at all points in between. I will endeavor to show that this is decidedly not true.
One thing that must be considered carefully is the result of this particular condition of relaxation, not just upon final behavior, but a sort of side effect that could easily be promoted to the level of highest purpose. This is the ability of the body to conduct waves. When I described the “flopping around” of the hand, the result of not using li to hold the parts of the arm together, this movement is the result of the conversion, by virtue of the separation of the arm into several parts, of what was a stiff connection between the shoulder and hand into a jointed, or “softer” one, and the production of an alternation of motion that traveled down the length of the arm, manifesting in a smaller, but faster movement of the hand. This is technically a wave, and the multiplication of power afforded by the introduction of even one joint is clear to see (as in nunchakus), but if the body were simple jointed parts, like a puppet, the kind of jing, or internal force, that is attributed to T'ai Chi Ch'uan would not be obtainable. This is only possible through the use of ch’an-su-jing, or so-called “silk reeling force,” that makes use of the winding property of the muscles to send waves of muscular change through the body that have far more “pieces” and can transmit with far higher frequency and continuity. As a description of internal power, jing is not an absolute, but a term only used when the wavelength traveling through the body is reduced in size sufficient to carry a very high velocity, high frequency wave (about one inch or less in length), capable of producing injury to one’s opponent. Actually it is just a wave and not qualitatively different from larger waves. Accordingly, it can be trained, and is in fact best trained, by practicing just these larger waves. Larger waves are the natural result of slower speeds, and are evidenced by exaggerated movements, movements that are reduced in every aspect of size when speeds increase, that is, both distance and angular displacement. The place where these larger waves are practiced is t’ui-shou.
To say that T'ai Chi Ch'uan uses jing as its weapon is synonymous with saying that it eschews the use of what is called long force, that is, the application of force through anything but a very small distance. The practice of t’ui-shou would seem to completely defy this. In its most elementary form, the participants take turns advancing and extending their arms in what appears to be nothing so much as a long and almost theatrically exaggerated push. It is even called hand pushing. How can this practice be consistent with a technique in which this kind of pushing is completely absent? The answer lies in the fact that the only necessary difference between this long push (or, I should say, the long cycle of pushing) and jing is its size. We are training our muscles with very large movements to receive and return the force of the opponent through waves of change that pass through us to the floor and back, waves which, in order not to be artificial but the natural result of our relaxed condition, must be appropriately slow to correspond to their large size. This is why aggressive, high speed t’ui-shou is, or should be considered, an oxymoron. Lunging through big distances while still trying to keep the feet fixed, and the large, high speed movements necessary to neutralize these lunges under similar restrictions, do not qualify as the practice of T'ai Chi Ch'uan on any level. This is primarily true because movements of this speed would, if the body were in the correct condition, naturally destabilize the feet and start to produce steps, and the effort required to prevent them from moving is a violation of what I described as the one unbreakable rule.
The critical point is that here is another example of the conscientious practice of something that, at least in terms of appearance, under “real” conditions, we would never do. I say appearance, because, in perhaps some very small but still finite measure, we may still be doing it. The only way the body can be trained to do something very intricate is by practicing it very slowly, like playing the piano, and the differentiation of “pieces” in the body to facilitate a wave is by definition extremely intricate. The training may seem on the surface to be contradictory to the eventual result, but it is the only way to train it. The skill of using these waves is acquired gradually, along with the condition necessary to conduct them.
Angular deviations from the upright represent a very similar situation. Their necessity is fundamental to a complete realization of the potential of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, but it is precisely in this complete realization that they become so small as to go unnoticed. The complete reasoning behind this necessity is found in my book, The Theoretical Basis of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and I will give only the barest outline and conclusions here.
Everyone accepts that turning the waist is the signature movement of the process of neutralizing the opponent’s attack. This defines a central axis of rotation that runs from the top of the head through the center of the torso, around which the great majority of angular motion occurs. Those advocates of total uprightness would, by the logical implications of their stance, suggest that this angular response occurs only in one dimension, which means that in the other two dimensions force is either supported (meaning at least partially resisted) or neutralized by linear movements (linear and angular movements are the only kinds available). I am simply saying that this is not logical, and it is also not true. It is much more reasonable to assume that whatever technique is being employed in one dimension, whether it be characterized by neutralization or resistance, will be employed as well in the other two. Practically speaking, this means that we must imagine not one but three axes of rotation, running at right angles to each other through the player’s body, and intersecting in the exact center of movement, which should be at the tan tien. Response to any incoming force should show a rotation around all three of these axes. In theory, a force could be imagined that would produce any desired proportion of rotation between them; in practice, the geometric relationship of the center to points on the body most frequently attacked dictates that the greatest proportion of rotation by far is almost invariably found in the central vertical axis. At high speeds, this proportion reduces the changes in the other axes to miniscule size, easily small enough to be described as upright. But these deviations, although miniscule, are critical, because they allow a complete release of pressure in the direction of these other dimensions while the more major rotation of the waist is taking place. It is an extremely fine adjustment, done at very high speed (speed of response, not necessarily movement), and absolutely cannot be grasped, except perhaps by geniuses, under the conditions in which it is to be employed. It must be slowed down, made larger, and effectively exaggerated in order to be learned. In these exaggerations, the angular tilt of the body, due to response around three axes of rotation instead of only one, is exaggerated as well, in exact proportion to the slowness and exaggeration of the “push.”
It is this spectacle that is witnessed at my t’ui-shou classes, and which elicits such shock and dismay from observers. In my opinion the torso should exhibit the same quality of motion as that of a bottle floating in the water, itself partially filled. It responds without hesitation to any influence with three dimensional motion around all three axes of rotation, but is equally unhesitating in its tendency to return to the upright position as the influence diminishes. I think that this is the kind of motion that Cheng, Man-Ch’ing had in mind when he said, in answer to a question about uprightness, that we should “cling” to the upright.
This motion is most clearly illustrated in Ta-lu. While neutralizing the attacking shoulder, one player responds with the “lightning palm,” a straight line attack to the head. The response to this lightning palm is a retreat that rolls around its (the lightning palm’s) trajectory, finally returning to the upright in the posture of pull. The exact angle of deviation from the upright is completely regulated by the speed of the lightning palm. The slower the speed, the greater the deviation. For those who would wish to follow this logic farther, I might add that this greater rotational deviation around one axis is accompanied by similar increases along the other two axes, resulting in greater rotation along the vertical axis as well. This turns the body more and causes the resulting step to be more circular. At the extreme it will cause the player responding to the lightning palm to step almost behind his opponent. But the lighting palm is so named because when actually used, it is applied with great speed. As the speed increases, everything becomes smaller, including the rotation around all axes, and the resultant buildup of force is neutralized by separation. (The difference between a disciplined separation and simple retreat is too much of a diversion to go into here.) This means that as the speed increases the player receiving the lightning palm will move less and less behind his opponent and more directly away from him. At the extreme of the technique, he is actually discharged by the palm, and retains the rotations caused by the attack even while in the air. In every one of these cases, including the last, correct neutralization will dictate and implement the perfect step ( in this last case actually a jump), which is simply the result of the step following the changes of the torso, which is itself trying to take the most economical path towards evading the force. “Force is released through the back, and the steps follow the bodily changes” - Classics.
It is in the evaluation of these steps that the most convincing evidence is found. If a student is actually good enough to perform Ta-lu without a plethora of errors, he can determine for himself the relative results of either allowing free rotation on all axes, or trying to maintain complete uprightness (effectively prohibiting rotation on two of them). He will discover that the steps produced by free rotation are far more advantageous than when remaining rigidly upright, especially at slower speeds, and also that as the power and speed of the attack increases he automatically becomes more and more upright, but with just enough subtle deviation to make a critical difference in the step. When the power reaches the level that begins to produce a discharge (meaning that for some finite amount of time the player is entirely without contact with the ground), even the rotation around the vertical axis is reduced to almost imperceptible levels, and the angle of the discharged player with the ground is indistinguishable from upright.
In advanced Ta-lu (elbow and split), the elbowing player is forced to make extremely similar, but more physically challenging responses to the split, his angular deviation now influenced not only by speed but by the exact angle of the opponent’s split, and by the degree of circularity in its application. This increases the range of his responses, meaning that now, even at high speeds, he can end up actually behind his opponent, with his own direction reversed by one hundred eighty degrees, or thrown directly forward, with almost no rotation around the vertical axis. (In this case the angular tilt, reflecting rotation around the transverse axes, is actually greater than that around the vertical one). These variations are explored beautifully in the San-shou exercise, the last producing an elegant application of Fair Lady Works the Shuttles. It also might be mentioned here that while elementary Ta-lu (pull and shoulder) can be performed at levels of power below those creating an actual discharge, advanced Ta-lu (elbow and split) cannot.
All of the formal exercises of T'ai Chi Ch'uan are speed sensitive, and each is designed to be performed within a certain range. This relates to exactly how much each differs from the others in terms of apparent observable behavior. I make the point again that the internal behavior and condition does not change.
I have explained how the size of the movements varies with respect to this speed, but there is another phenomenon, one that further alters the execution in appearance, and of equal or even greater importance. This is the separation of substantial and insubstantial. When something is indivisible, that is, consisting of only one part, motion, no matter how extreme, will never produce any change in its internal structure. It actually has no “internal structure” to change. But when it is separated into even two parts, those parts have some sort of relationship to each other, and that relationship can at least theoretically be changed. This alteration is what is meant by the most general interpretation of internal change. (I should add here that in the writings relating to T'ai Chi Ch'uan, this term internal is used more technically, always in reference to ch’an-su-jing, and usually to the result of ch’an-su-jing, internal power.)
It should be obvious that if a force acts upon all of the parts of an object at once (like gravity), it produces no internal change, but if it influences only one part, which in turn influences another, etc., these serial influences produce a time delay between each succeeding part of the chain, which becomes greater the more parts are present. This time delay means that by the time an impulse has reached the end of the chain, the parts closer to the origin of the impulse may be moving in another direction or have even stopped. If the impulse is cyclic, that is, alternating back and forth within a given space, the alternations produce regular repetitions of contrasting movement, where one part is moving in one direction and one part in another, this movement always being definitive of a wave.
A useful illustration of this idea can be found by taking a short length of rope or any flexible material, and holding it by one end, letting the other dangle to the floor, but not touching it. Now move the suspended end very slowly straight in any direction. You will see that there is almost no “internal change” in the rope; it hangs straight down as though it were a stiff object (if it doesn’t, go slower). Now move your hand very fast through a short distance. You will see that definite “internal” change takes place in the rope. It is no longer straight, but exhibits changing curvature. You will also notice a short time delay between your original movement and the movement of the other end of the rope, at which point it “kicks up” in the opposite direction of your movement and then reverses to “kick up” in the same direction, but now an instant after your hand stops. This is the physical principle exploited in the correct execution of the Heel Kick. The two ends of the rope represent the differentiation of substantial and insubstantial, and their activity shows the natural alternation of those qualities. The slow movements of the form mimic the lack of separation of substantial and insubstantial that is seen in the slow movement of the rope. The movements of San-shou and in the correct applications of the form mimic the separation seen when the hand is given a quick jerk.
Misunderstanding of this fact causes the student to use even more li than in his efforts to keep the movements large. Now, in an effort to make the movement identical to its formal counterpart, he unconsciously resists the natural separation of substantial and insubstantial. He is even quite likely to mistakenly assume that the movements of the form in fact represent such a separation. After all, aren’t we always being told to separate substantial and insubstantial? In fact, that this is all important to do? If it is so important to do it, why are we supposed to learn it through an exercise that makes it deliberately difficult? Well, actually, that’s the way most exercises work. You are told constantly to do it because the slowness of the exercise, which is also important for other reasons, makes its natural manifestation disappear, even if one is relaxed. However, the deeper one’s state of correct relaxation, not stagnancy, the slower will be the speed at which one can just slightly manifest and just barely detect the subjective sensation of it. It is this that the classics refer to when they say, “Put your mind on the movement and not on the ch’i.” The large size of the movements in the form, together with their precision, force the development of very small muscles that would remain stagnant if the moves were done in too small a frame. Note that the only moves of the form that exhibit clear separations of substantial and insubstantial in their classical ideal are the lotus kicks, which are also the only forms done at a relatively high speed.
Just to be specific, the separation of which I speak (or lack of it) is most clearly manifested by the tendency of the arms to move more in unison the slower the movement and to “separate” in their movements as speed is increased. For example, the classic roll back of Grasp Sparrow’s Tail, done at the (correct for the form) slow speed, shows the pull and the split to be virtually simultaneous, whereas in full action and done at high speed the pull is always previous to the split by a clear margin (this may not be the case, and one may still be doing correct T'ai Chi Ch'uan, but we simply would not call it roll back). Pull is in fact by far the most repeated posture in the form, it being an ingredient of the majority of striking moves that are otherwise named, and almost always, when yin and yang (substantial and insubstantial) separate, the first employed in the movement. A large number of movements, for example, Single Whip, Cloudy Hands, Separate Foot, Ward Off Left, and others, are simply different names for slight variations of holding the wrist of the opponent’s crossing arm (as in your right hand and his right wrist) while transmuting his reaction to your pull into a strike with your opposite hand. Always, as the level of activity rises, the separation between the action of the hands increases, not the absolute separation in time, because the whole event is happening faster, but the separation between the completion of the respective actions. This separation becomes so acute at high speeds that it is common for observers to not realize the amount of torso rotation that is actually powering a punch, because the rotation has actually stopped before the punch is thrown. With T'ai Chi Ch'uan the connection is even more concealed, because the punch is linked to a neutralizing movement of the waist that seems to have its own raison d’etre, and not be necessarily connected with the punch that follows. The movements of the form, designed to be the correct reflection of proper somatic attitude (relaxation) at such a slow speed, would lead one to believe that the correct execution of the movement in “real” situations employs simultaneous actions of the arms. Trying to preserve this simultaneity, when yin and yang are trying to separate, leads to rushing the action of the striking hand, actually getting ahead of the wave and so completely destroying its power. This is a very difficult fault for students to overcome, as I have witnessed, and I try to give them the idea by saying that the feeling, even at high speed, or maybe even especially at high speed, can only be described as lazy. One is feeling waves of force go though his body, and his contact with the floor and the opponent is completely directed by these waves; there is simply no point in trying to hurry them, and all of their potential force is tied to allowing them to dictate their own timing, a timing that is, in correct technique, completely tied to the movements of the opponent.
All of this should convince the reader that my assertions concerning the apparent contradictions between my practice and “correct” T'ai Chi Ch'uan, as regarding uprightness, are in good company with similar assertions that could be made about a number, indeed a dominant number of practices that are absolutely correct and could be easily attacked on the same grounds. It is endemic of T'ai Chi Ch'uan that it manifests these kinds of brain twisting puzzles. If one chooses to simply look at what a “T’ai Chi Master” does at full throttle, and then copy those movements into some kind of kata, in hopes of being more “realistic,” what one is really being is more naïve. The genius of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is that it contains a system for attaining these skills, but it is a system that contains in turn a number of enigmatic stumbling blocks, a great many of which are linked to what has been discussed here.
I would like to offer one more image, one that shows a ready comparison with our considerations of uprightness, and this is the image of the gyroscope. As everyone knows, the speed of a gyroscope’s rotation greatly affects the type of response it gives to force. When rotating slowly, it is easily tipped off of its vertical axis, although it smoothly returns to the vertical as soon as possible. As the speed of rotation increases, it shows less and less angular tilt, and returns to the upright with less and less delay. It exhibits a little more resistance to one’s push with every increase in speed, until finally, at high speed, it seems to push back and refuse to give up its upright position or its place in space. This is useful to think of when considering the classic, “First be like the river; then become like the mountain.” In our comparison, the speed of the activity mirrors the speed of rotation of the gyroscope; the time between its reaction and its return is shortening. But despite the apparent difference between the “river” and the “mountain,” it must be observed that the gyroscope is always doing the same thing. It is only doing it at different speeds. The exaggerated angular tilts of the students under my direction are only the result of the speed sensitivity of correct movement. Even at the highest speed, the gyroscope is still making some finite and measurable deviation from the upright when pushed, but it is just getting very small, and similarly, I contend that the correct T'ai Chi Ch'uan technique demands just such a small but big enough to be wrong or right adjustment, and, additionally, that its ultimate appearance is in most cases apparently as upright as that of the high speed gyroscope, and would always be described as such.
Like the gyroscope, the T'ai Chi Ch'uan player is always doing the same thing. There is no need for him to ever actually make a choice between the different types of behavior that he is apparently practicing, because internally, he is actually always practicing the same behavior. This consistency removes the last barrier to T'ai Chi Ch'uan’s complexity in both analysis and learning process being an obstacle in real fighting. The monstrous complexity of the grammar of certain languages does not prevent native speakers of even subnormal intelligence from rambling on at high speed, because they are not actually using any knowledge of it to talk. When this kind of natural association with the right condition is habituated in the student, the exact degree of his uprightness is determined by sensitivity and skill, not by simple adherence to a rigid rule. Similarly, the “decision” about whether to take a step or not becomes less and less a decision, and more just an automatic result of following the principle. Instead of t’ui-shou being an exercise where you try as hard as you can not to take a step, and “moving” hand-pushing one where everyone runs compulsively about, they both become simply manifestations of whatever speed is obtaining at the moment. If we want to do “fixed” hand pushing, instead of “agreeing” to stop moving our feet, we just slow down to the point where they no longer move. Conversely, if we want to take steps, we accelerate our changes until the feet become naturally destabilized. Upright or less than upright, step or don’t, stop being the kind of choices that we need to make, and we become free to make more artistic ones.
I hope that all of the above has served to convince the reader that my use of the angular tilt of the body (as opposed to actual leaning, in which the person would fall if not supported, or is in the act of falling) is not a belligerent or heretical position with respect to conventional wisdom, but an attempt to plumb its actual source, and arrive at a deeper understanding of its meaning. Far from being a heretic, I have concluded after years of study that the traditional methods of T’ai Chi Ch’uan are genius, and feel that virtually every part of my instruction conforms to classical technique and process. It is with the greatest humility that I offer my attempt to rationally dissect its mysteries, and not with any expectation or desire to add anything actually new.