Philosophy & Principles of Taijiquan

A philosophy subsumes principles. In taijiquan there are abundant principles to fill many inch-thick books published. All these principles tie-in with the philosophy of taiji. Taiji is the draw-string of a net of principles. To talk about principles without touching on philosophy makes for diverse beliefs and different schools; to discuss philosophy alone leaves one no concrete footing. Both subjects should be broached. A common Chinese saying: [On certain tenuous subjects] "One can only grasp its meaning but not by words". However, we must rely on words and merge toward the word/meta-lingua zone.

Taiji is the dyad of changing yin/yang. Everything material and immaterial can be dichotomized: dark/light, soft/hard, cold/hot, still/move, black/white, female/male, moon/sunand these must have the change factor to be regarded as yin/yang in taiji: dark changing to light, soft changing to hard, cold changing to hot, still changing to move and vice versa. Among prominent concepts in taiji include integral, cyclic, binary subdivision, meaning, respectively, that taiji is the integral (synthesis) of yin/yang, that yin/yang interact cyclically [as the taiji symbol suggests], that within yin/yang each may also have binary yin/yang, ad infinitum. [Yi Jing, the Book of Changes, is the resource on yin/yang.]

Highfalutin as this may sound, taijiquan constitutes taiji in its "quan" [boxing, pugilism]. Taijiquan (TQ) concerns with the changing yin/yang of soft/hard, firm/light, still/move, combine/divide, defence/offence. For instance, with left guard, thrust right. A one sided maneuver, a lapse, of course, falls short of taiji. Beware: what goes around comes around.

Practitioners in their modus operandi embrace taiji mentally and physically. Some adherents consider themselves devotees and live taijiquan. (For devotees, taiji=taijiquan for short when there is no confusion). When one is in that realm, he or she becomes a taijiquaner, a philosopher. A practitioner, philosopher or not, who takes in disciples can become a master, an honorific title conferred, never self-styled.

With a philosophy of taiji in mind, incomplete though it may be, the learner can proceed to begin taijiquan, knowing one's knowledge on the subject will accrue. Right from the opening stance you are a taiji microcosm: sink from the hip to your feet, that's yin; with erect spine and neck lift your spirit to the top of your head, that's yang. This model shall apply throughout the exercise. In transition or change one hand acts yin, the other yang, vice versa. Do this habitually and the details will fall into place.

A thumbnail sketch: taijiquan, its form some call it, or the routine exercise, goes thru the same bound moves each time, the moves put in a logical, interesting sequence. The sequence consists of 37 basic moves that are repeatedly exercisedthe important repeated more often than the lesser linked in between by moving sideways/forwards/backwards.

You start with [Yang's style] Grasp Swallow's Tail, the most important, always exercised at the right end of the itinerary. You go back and forth 4 times, call them subsets.

At the left end, you conclude the first two subsets with Cross Arms. The third with Golden Cock on Foot; the fourth with Reach High for Bridle. Within these subsets you do pushes, punches and kicks, etc., repeat moves and add fresh onesall executed slowly and serenely, loosely and saggedly. (In practical terms, compare hitting with a stick or a blackjack, weighing the same; the sagged blackjack can deliver a harder blow. How? Maximizing momentum (mv), does it, resulting from the greater velocity (v), of the blackjack by its loose swing). Finally, you perform some spectacular moves to finish.

To do taiji for what purpose? For maintaining health and martial arts and interest. Other disciplines being equal for the first two, but from the interest angle of reinforced learning and muscle-memory training, with the ultimate effect of increased bone density and loose body mass in martial art application, taiji fills the bill.

What can you surmise from seeing someone going thru taiji paces? The steps are wide, narrow, tiptoe, heel... quite unlike walking. In fact taiji paces are opposite to walking. Ah, the first distinction!

If you've ever watched the Japanese movie The Seven Samurai an arresting scene shows a samurai swaggering thru a doorway felled by a hidden club-wielding man. The next samurai and the next also fail the setup to pick the best samurai. Finally, this star samurai steps in, the club strikes, but he wrenches it away and reverses the attack. So, how did he do it? No explanation in the movie. But any martial artist should be able to tell you that martial stride is an unusual 'walk.' Pertaining to our topic call it a taiji-pace.

No mystery, a tq-pace is an uncommitted step at touchdown: land gingerly, then slide if necessary to a firm footing. In the process is avoided a chuckhole, a stumbling block, an opponent's swipe by foot or club, for your weight has not yet shifted forward and you can beat a fast retreat.

Besides being nimble, being stable is a must. Our horse's stance, trapezoidal, allows the widest base for mobile stability. When shifting from one leg to the other, while you push on one, bend the other. This way you always have energy reserve from leg-springs.

The human body has 5 springs. Five? Most people admit to only 4 from limbs, and that's how many they use. Observe the NBA player making a free throw, no doubt: 4 springs. Many a taijiquaner has merely 4 springs. Only those in the know use their spine as the 5th spring.

Make your tailbone (the sacrum) vertical by directing the coccyx forward; doing so requires you to sink your hip by bulging slightly the small of your back. Voil, your 5th spring! Stand on your left leg, sink your left hip; the right side likewise. By sinking your hip, besides setting your spinal spring, also helps you stable.

Now you do the tq routine with ease. That's exactly right, with ease. Even if you go thru the entire routine and sweat rolls down your brow, you won't feel exerted. (If you want to exert you can by lowering the stance). Mind you, the criterion: exercise relaxed. When you're relaxed isn't that with ease?

Certain aspects of taiji don't seem easy to understand. Esoteric teachings may still exist and remain with some inner circles as long as people at large don't accept taiji, even ridicule it. For a flavor of such teachings, a heuristic piece coaxes you: 'To move body & spirit as one; to push out a hand like pushing a door so gently, nary a creak; to stand or to step out like treading cotton carefully, lest it compact. By and by, as occasion demands, you can throw a punch like lightning, step so solidly and crack a lain brick.'

A proverb handed down by the most celebrated Master Wang Zongyue to disciple Jiang Fa (b. 1574):

"Loosen your muscles and joints;
Pervade your fighting spirit to skin and hair.
Articulate all members, move in unison;
Light, lubricous moves derive from centering.

A classic excerpt from Zhuangzi, tr. by JYZ:

To-and-fro on a ring, tend toward its centre;
Whereby you manage myriad changes."

From a book by Master Liu Rui (b.1939), a dictum, "Maintain the three verticals":

(i) Pull in the chin for the head vertical;
(ii) suck in the belly to lessen spinal curvature for the trunk vertical;
(iii) to take a step make the lower leg vertical, favorable for balance, for centering.

Comments: Master Liu Rui's dictum complements the proverb and excerpt above. For you want to move freely with balance, dynamic stability. The three verticals precondition you to rotate without wobbling or upsetting. Imagine yourself performing tq on a ring, a waist-cord, like the mountaineer's, tenuously tied to ring-center. (Each stance defines a ring, its radius perpendicular to your ventral surface; a one foot stand implies an infinite radius). About a 130 degree sector, arm to arm, gives you range for maneuver. Either corner of this sector is tipsy and untoward. Rather, tend toward this ring-center.

© Qi Journal, Summer 2004