Shenlong Day Address, 2021: An Advanced Path to Learn Taijiquan

Chun Chao Wang, re-written in English by Steve Frost

Chinese version

Introduction

The annual 2021 conference of the Chinese Dragon Taiji Society was postponed due to the Covid19 pandemic.  However, the conference journal was completed in the gaps between the pandemic with the papers published in virtual format on the Shenlong Taiji website.  In past years, when the conference was held live, I used the occasion to summarize my knowledge of Taijiquan and make suggestions for future learning.  The theme is the same every year, however, the content is different because I am also learning and making progress.  The past is just like letting the water flow; there is no longer any attachment to the water that has flowed by.

In my role as a teacher of Taijiquan, I’m often asked questions that I believe are not appropriate, or helpful, for students to be asking.  I say this because the questions being asked are far ahead of their current Taijiquan experience.  Teacher Wu Kuo Chung said that we should not ask university questions while still in primary school.  In Chinese we have a saying “the eyes are high, but the hands are low”.  I acknowledge that this is common in all areas of learning and skills development.  In some ways, it’s normal to have high eyes and low hands, however, the problem is when the eye height negatively coerces, or forces, the low hand to keep up when it is not readyIn other words, it forces the student to skip ahead in their development, before they have consolidated what they have been taught.  It is also a problem because it deludes them into believing they are further ahead than they actually are.  They falsely imagine that they can actually accomplish these higher learnings without first consolidating previous lessons.  This is what is called ‘leapfrogging to fight monsters’ i.e., they do not know how to proceed step-by-step.

Teacher Wu would often say to us, “treat one day as if it were three”.  At other times he said, “take it easy, don’t be in a hurry”, or “proceed step-by-step”.  He was very eager to teach his students, but patiently waited for the students to correct their mistakes – sometimes even several months.  Many of us, myself included, were often conflicted because we found it difficult to know when we should be pushing ahead and when we should stay put and consolidate what we were learning.  This often resulted in us forging ahead in the learning process with things that were not critical or, conversely, we didn’t move on to those areas that we should have made a priority.

With this in mind, I propose that there are three learning processes representing three levels of advancement in Taijiquan.  These levels can be used as a reference, to assist those beginning their Taijiquan journey and to help clarify concepts and practices.  I will refer to them as: the foundation level, the intermediate and the advanced level.  The foundation level  is centered on the process of the Yongquan (i.e., balance-center of the foot).  The intermediate level process is centered on the fascial system.  And the advanced level process is centered on the Yi Jing (i.e., Book of Changes) principle of seeking good fortune and avoiding evil.  This is the core concept of Taijiquan.  A brief description follows. 

Foundation level: Yongquan

At this level, students are in the process of acquiring correct habits.  The main aim is to transform the body into one that is optimized for the practice of Taijiquan.  This involves understanding and acquiring the most efficient body structure in order to release both the conscious and unconscious tension that is normally present everywhere in the body.  This has to be achieved by releasing tension in the muscles, around the structure (i.e., the skeleton), without collapsing the structure.  The aim is to release tension in the muscles so that the body’s mass falls, uninterrupted, to the Yongquan region of the feet in such a manner that it also protects the body from damage (primarily the hip, knee and ankle joints) and supports the connective tissues and tendons.  This release of the body’s mass has to be done in such a way that force is not put into the joints of the hips and the legs.  The release of the body’s mass has to fall to the Yongquan through the tissues and fascia – not by dropping the mass of the body into the joints.  If this is not done correctly, then the strength (i.e., Jin) released from the feet will not be able to reach the hands.

At this foundation level, whether one is practicing Zuo’s (Zuo Jia/family) exercises, the forms of Taijiquan, or even Push Hands, it is essential to maintain the body’s structure, in all the various shapes and positions, in a way that maintains a kind of equilibrium without any excess or deficiency, or protuberances and hollows.  The internal and external must coordinate so that the mass of the body can pass through the Yongquan to the ground.  The feeling at the Yongquan is often the criterion used to establish if this principle is being applied in the correct manner.  The question is often asked “Have you received to the Yongquan?”.

However, this can become problematic because Taiji attaches great importance to the theory, which means that all exercises should be based on the principles and the methods.  For example, Grandmaster Zheng Manqing said, “distinguishing the solid from the empty is the first priority and the weight of the whole body is only allowed on one foot”.  However, when we were still studying at the foundation level and focusing on the Yongquan, we impulsively added this requirement to also distinguish the solid from the empty, before we had properly consolidated the requirement for the Yongquan.  At the time, we had not adequately understood the principle of distinguishing between solid and empty.  We believed that all that was required was to have no weight on the empty leg and the full weight of the body on the solid leg.  In other words, we sacrificed the other principles and methods to artificially achieve this physical separation and be able to lift the empty leg from the ground at any time.  This resulted in what Teacher Wu called “trampling Yongquan to death”.  In whatever we were practicing: the forms, fajin or receiving jin, we always took all the mass of our own body, and the weight of our partner’s body, down into the Yongquan.  The problem was that, even if we managed to achieve that 100 percent, the result was a dead-end because we were not able to use it in application.  This was because it was two actions – Taiji in application is one, not two.  It was too slow and a dead method with the added danger and potential to cause injury to the body.

The principle of distinguishing the solid and emptyis a legitimate principle in TaijiquanHowever, for those at the foundation level, the priority should be to focus on consolidating the principle of how to release the mass of the body correctly to the Yongquan.  This involves establishing the correct body structure and then releasing the muscles around the bones without putting force into the joints.  Adding the principle of distinguishing the solid and empty with the principle of how to release the mass of the body to the Yongquan was a mistake.  It was too early in our progress because we didn’t understand what empty and solid really meant.  We simplistically replaced the real meaning of the principle with a simple division, whereby empty meant light and solid meant heavy.  This was an incorrect interpretation of the Taiji theory.  The problem was also compounded, because we believed that we were correctly following the principle and once a bad habit is created, it becomes hard to undo – especially, if it is not recognized as a problem. 

Teacher Wu realized that we were making this mistake a long time ago.  He knew that we had misunderstood the real meaning of empty and solid.  Therefore, at the 2014 Shenlong Conference, he wrote a special article called Traditional Taoist Taijiquan Characteristics (must be practiced until they become a habit).  He addressed this problem specifically in Point 6 of the article, which stated Distinguish between the empty (virtual) and solid (real): (55, 46, 37, 28, 19 …).  During the conference, he spoke to all his senior students (I recall that the conversation was in the coffee shop) and the teacher said, “from now on, whenever you all practice the Taiji Form, start at 55 percent separation, then slowly move to 46, 37, 28, 19 … etc.”.  At the time, I didn’t understand why he said this to the senior students as most of them had been learning for more than 10 years, so they were not beginners.  So, why did he ask everyone to do this?  In the last few years, I have gradually understood why and what he meant by it.  When we were still focusing on the Yongquan and releasing our own mass (as well as the mass of our partner) into the Yongquan, we were at the level of the acquired habit of focusing on strength.  If we are still focusing on strength, then the Taiji theory and method cannot be applied correctly in regard to distinguishing the empty and the solid.  Focusing on strength is still in the foundational level.  The theory is correct, but the timing is wrong.  Those who understand how to distinguish between the solid and the empty, in accordance with the Taiji theory, use Qi and the opening and closing of the fascial system.  This is the central focus of the intermediate level, not the foundation level.

Intermediate level

The intermediate level involves establishing and using innate habits, where it is required to pay attention to the principle of Mind commands, Qi moves, Body follows.  The movement of the body depends on the extension and retraction of the fascial system.  This movement of the fascial system corresponds with the opening and closing theory of Taijiquan.  At the macrocosmic scale, it represents the natural way and movement of heaven and earth.  And it is only when these conditions are met that it can be said that we enter the stage of Qi.  To enter this higher level of Qi, it is critical to break away from the elementary thinking centered on releasing the mass of the body to the Yongquan.  This is achieved by gradually removing the body’s mass and allowing the earth’s Qi to rise and the heaven’s Qi to drop to the head-top (the head-top also includes the area called Heaven’s Gate, or Tianmen). 

Until this is achieved, it is still the foundation level where using the body’s strength and receiving the opponent’s power to the Yongquan is still the practice principle.  This is not wrong at the foundation level where it is permitted to rely on the strength of Yongquan’s rebound force.  However, it is important to recognize that this cannot yet be regarded as entering the gate of Taijiquan.  Teacher Wu defines how advanced a student is, not by how many years they have been learning but the level at which they stop developing further.  In other words, if one stays at the foundational level, in a sense, they are still at that beginning level.  I remember that Teacher Wu once said to be me “Taijiquan, you are not yet familiar with it”.  At the time he said this to me, I had been his disciple for more than 10 years!

Advanced level

The central focus of the High Level Taijiquan’s concepts is the principle of seeking good fortune and avoiding ill fortune.  The key skill in this principle is to understand the nature of change, to recognize change before it happens and take action to gain the advantage and avoid misfortune.  You can operate on change, before change can operate on you. 

Personally, I believe that I’m floating and sinking somewhere in the intermediate level and I can only imagine what the high-level looks like.  However, with my current ability and experience, I’m being curiously led to explore and contemplate the Five Elements (i.e., Wuxing) and Eight Trigrams (i.e., Bagua), because I dare to assume that the advanced level of Taijiquan is related to this.

To ensure that I’m on the right path, I always go back to what I was taught by teacher Wu, the theory of Taijiquan and the classic writings.  What I often ponder, is that several of the Taiji Classics mention the Thirteen Powers/Postures[i] (i.e., Shi San Shi), which is the combination of the Five Elements and the Eight Trigrams.  Taijiquan is the combined study of the body (i.e., the health) and the function (i.e., the applications).  However, what is the relationship between the Five Elements’ principles of mutual creative and controlling cycles and the Eight Trigrams’ (i.e., Bagua) phases of friction and movement?  Further, how did the patriarch Zhang Sanfeng relate the Eight Gates of Peng, Lü, Ji, An and Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao (i.e., Ward-off, Roll-back, Press, Push and Pull-down, Split, Elbow, Shoulder) with the Eight Trigrams?  How did he relate advancing, retreating, look right, gaze left and stabilizing the centre with the Five Elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth? 

The Thirteen Shi Songs and the Thirteen Shi Xing Gong Xin Jie, are two Classics that use the Thirteen Shi in their titles to show an association with the Thirteen Powers, even though their content does not contain anything related to the Thirteen Shi.  However, having the Thirteen Shi in the titles was clearly considered important enough for them to be there.

The complete Song for Body and Function: Taijiquan, Thirteen Shi, by Grandmaster Zheng Manqing, states, “the beauty lies in the two Qi separating into Yin and Yang …Peng, Lü, Ji, An and Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao ”.

All the above Classics describe Taijiquan from the perspective of the Thirteen Shi in relation to the Five Elements and Eight Trigrams, so I believe that the advanced level of Taijiquan should begin with the Book of Changes (i.e., the Yijing).

Conclusion

In the 18 years since I have been studying with Teacher Wu, I found that he really wanted to shorten the process for everyone in the foundation level, even to the point of skipping it entirely.  This is because in his mind the foundation level is not the real Taijiquan.  However, this was not successful because his students had, over a long period of time, become so accustomed and invested in these foundational level skills that when he tried to teach the intermediate level skills, they were still stuck in the foundational level, trying to apply and follow foundation level rules.  The students were not able or willing to let go and make the transition to developing the core practice principles and skills that were required at the intermediate level.  In other words, they were trying to practice intermediate skills with a foundational level understanding, which confused everything.

When my teacher taught me Fajin in his later years, he directly asked me to fight hard (i.e., use strength) and to use my best strength.  He did this to force me to return to the foundational level to correct my body again.  For example, we speak of the back-kua keeping up (when in motion).  When we gradually develop the kind of Taiji body required for the foundation level, combined with the correct understanding and proper training of the fascial system of the intermediate level, then our Taijiquan will gradually become correct in a natural way.

Footnote

I would like to add this footnote to my progress over the past few years.  I believe that I have mastered the process of Taijiquan and walked through every step honestly and faithfully without leapfrogging.


[i] The Thirteen Powers/Postures comprise what is often called the 8 Gates and 5 Steps.  They are also translated as the Thirteen Powers (i.e., Shi San Shi), or even the Thirteen Energies.  Many of the Taiji classic writings contain references to them. 

The first of the Eight Gates (i.e., Bagua) can be divided into the Four Directions (i.e., Ward Off, Roll Back, Press and Push) and the Four Corners (i.e., Pull Down, Split, Elbow and Shoulder).  The Eight Gates are frequently identified with the eight primary trigrams used in the Book of Changes (i.e., the Yijing). Ward Off is associated with the trigram Heaven; Pull Down with Wind; Roll Back with Water; Shoulder Stroke with Mountain; Push with Earth; Split with Thunder; Press with Fire; Elbow Stroke with Lake.

In the Taiji context, all the Thirteen Powers/Postures, contain movement.  However, the last Five Powers (i.e., the Wuxing) are co-related with larger stepping movements of Advancing, Retreating, Look (step) to the Right, Gaze (step) to the Left and stabilize the center (i.e., Jin; Tui; Ku; Pan; Ding).  They are associated with the Five Elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) that have both creative and controlling cycles. 

刊登於 2022 年《原幾》雜誌第六期

Shenlong Day Address, 2021: An Advanced Path to Learn Taijiquan” 有 1 則迴響

  1. 引用通告: 2021 年大會演講:學習太極拳的進階之路 | 中華神龍太極學會

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