The Concept of Power in Chinese Martial Arts

It is often justifiably said that to understand deeply the Chinese martial arts, one has to research to an extent the Chinese language as well. One of the least understood ideas in Chinese martial arts happens to be the use of Power, and that misunderstanding stems from differences of culture and language.

In English terminology, using power in the context of martial arts is pretty simple and straightforward. You may use power, more power, or perhaps 'explosive power'. So there's power, and there is 'bigger power', and also that 'explosive power', which is just 'power moved at greater speed'… whatever that may mean. But for the Chinese, power is expressed in two different ways, with a clear distinction between them.

One type of Power, the simple type is called "Li", and written like this: 力

That character is basically a drawing of an iron plough. So in effect, "Li" is that type of thing which plows strongly through the earth, pushing against much resistance.

Another type of Power is "Jin", and is written like this: 勁

Unlike "Li", which is just this one drawing, "Jin" is made of four drawings put together. The one on the right side is the same as "Li" 力. We therefore learn that "Jin" 勁 is something that already contains "Li" 力 within it, but also features additional components. 

The character on the left within "Jin" 勁, is "Jing":  巠

The character "Jing" is made up of three drawings itself:

一 "Yi— One, or 'whole'.

巛 Chuan— A river.

工 Gong— Work, or something being in the works. 

So quite literally, "Jing" 巠 hints at: "something working-flowing beneath the whole", and means either "an underground river" or "to pass through something". Therefore:

"Jin" 勁 = "Jing" 巠 + "Li" 力 = 

A power that passes through (And does so similarly to the power of an underground river)

But in reality, it is even more than that. Consider that the drawing for 工 "Gong" is actually a carpenter's ruler, and that the concept of the character 工 "Gong" is used in China to symbolize that "some work was done here". As in 功夫 "Gong Fu" (Kung Fu)—skill acquired through continuous effort. So the inclusion of the component 工 "Gong" within the larger drawing of "Jin" 勁 tells us that "Jin" is more than just a 'power that passes through'—it is also a power that required some previous 'work' to make happen. This brings us to the real and full definition of "Jin" in the Chinese martial arts: A power that passes through and requires skill to manifest.

Therefore, we end up with two types of power

  • "Li" 力, or 'dumb power', which is brute force. The type of power anyone can use. Lifting something off the floor. Putting a book on a shelf. Breaking a stick. Opening a jar. Pulling a rope. Tractor digging a hole. These are all "Li" 力—a natural power.
  • "Jin" 勁, or 'skilled power', which is a power that manifests a skill or technique that required lots of work to become proficient at. A well-honed power. Like an Olympic weightlifter doing his thing. A vault-jumper propelling himself to the air. A master issuing a punch from zero distance. A bullet leaving a rifle. These are all "Jin" 勁—a trained power.

Thus in the traditional Chinese martial arts we talk less of 'power', 'more power' and 'explosive power'. What interested the people who carried on these traditions throughout the centuries were the actual qualities contained within the different powers, and what these qualities meant. "Li" 力 is 'dumb', and is therefore limited. But "Jin" 勁 may express as a concept some very advances notions of transferring energy. Hence, the use of "Jin" 勁 for martial purposes is called "Fa Jin" 發勁. Often wrongly translated as 'explosive power', but actually meaning 'to emit Jin'. This issuing outwards of "Jin" from one's body to another can then take many shapes and forms. It can be "Cun Jin" 寸勁 (Inch Power)—a very short and fast explosive power issued from close range. It may express outwards as "Dou Jin" 抖勁 (Shaking Power)—a longer "Jin" that contains tremors and affects the opponent differently. Another is "Langtou Jin" 浪头劲 (Wave Power)—a mechanism that uses a waving pattern of the body, especially the spine, to generate momentum for martial applications. There could even be countless combinations of all of the above, and many more.  

Imagine then how intricate and rich the traditional Chinese martial arts truly are, if mere two words as such, "Li" and "Jin", can contain so much within them, and require a whole article to be understood. Think of this minor example and remember, that the traditional martial arts are beyond the technical—they are a complete cultural heritage, and ought to be understood in that fashion.

Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2017-18 Qi Journal

The author of this article, Jonathan Bluestein, can be contacted directly at:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Shifu Bluestein is a practitioner and teacher of Xing Yi Quan, Pigua Zhang and Jook Lum Southern Mantis. These arts are taught by him at his academy in Israel, and also in seminars abroad. Shifu Bluestein is also a best-selling author on the martial arts. Be sure to check out his popular books:  Research of Martial Arts and The Martial Arts Teacher at Amazon.