The Secret of Chi

I’ve been reading some of the concepts in blogland such as Formosa Neijia’s “Taiji without the Qi” and “100% Qi Free” , which is a Weakness with a Twist comment on Joanna’s Martial Tai Chi site. Finally, Martial Developmen’t take on the issue is also interesting to me to complete the wide range of views we’re seeing here. I didn’t want to be left out of the party so I felt I should share my two yuan with the world on this.

First. Let me preface this post with the pretentious comment that I am one of the few westerners who has ever felt his chi. I realize this is a hangup for some, for example it may cause Joanna to laugh at me for being a fraud (I get that a lot on rec.martial-arts from the Judo and MMA guys too 😉 ). But think of it this way- it’s unlikely anyone else will tell you what I will tell you now. So you had better sit down, shut up, and listen to these words.

And I’m not talking about heat in the palms or some vague new-agey “tingling”. I’m talking about chi flow.

Now, I’m not going to get all preachy and stuff and say that you need to have qigong to be good at taiji’s martial side. That just isn’t true. It is possible to learn to apply taiji techniques without chi. In fact Joanna excells at this style of practice. Everyone can see that. Dojorat makes the astute observation that Joanna’s techniques are practical, and they are!

What I am going to say however is something that only someone who has felt chi flow could tell you. Taijiquan and in fact really most of the Chinese Martial Arts (external AND internal) are designed to contain many levels of knowledge. They are like fingers pointing to the moon. If you are a beginner they give you a certain benefit. If you are more advanced you get a different benefit. There are levels within levels and it is probably impossible to reach the top. So obviously, focusing on combat applications is a very real and important thing to do if you want to be a fighter. But it is also obviously wrong to say that the visible martial applications are the entirety of taijiquan. I think even Joanna would agree with me on this.

Example? Take a look at this video of a guy doing bajiquan in a park in Taiwan. Take a look time 3:08 to 4:08 or so, where Mike is hitting the tree with his shoulder. If the tree wasn’t there, you would think it was just a low punch. So there is something in the form which isn’t neccessarily on the visible side. This might come through as a different intention which an outside observer would not be able to pick up on. So yes, on one level the combat applications are in fact very important.

But why isn’t, for example, a wing chun straight blast present in Tai Chi? Or a hung gar hammer fist? Well, these are certainly viable techniques. So I am making the point that just because it is a viable martial arts technique, doesn’t mean it is a part of tai chi. In fact we may say that taijiquan is a very restrictive art in this regard. The question is why. After all, There is much good combat application which is not in taijiquan. There is much to learn from many other martial arts which can be done in a tai-chi-like manner. So if practicality is what we want, then Tai Chi isn’t necessarily something you should restrict yourself to. Right? I mean why restrict yourself to what’s in Tai Chi when you can throw in some preying mantis “tai chi 108”? Or some liuhebafa? I hope I have explained this point very clearly.. there is in fact something about taijiquan which implies that combat applications by themselves are only a very small part of what is going on.

To understand the answer please again consider the “finger pointing at the moon” analogy I mentioned above. Taiji is a form of qigong because it incorporates silk reeling into every move. So when done properly, with adjustments given by a qualified teacher, the student will begin to experience taijiquan’s unique qi flow. This is the end-goal of the taiji form. Taiji’s movement principle. When you experience this flow, it will probably come first by doing drills. Something like “mo wan jung” (polishing the mirror) from liu he ba fa. Maybe something like wave hands like clouds silk reeling from chen style. Maybe you’ll get it one day when you’re doing the form. I don’t know, but then it will suddenly dawn on you that the correct way to do the movements is the way which encourages chi flow. Yes, it is possible to do the movements without Chi. Yes, they will be effective. But you are somehow off-target slightly. Definately not really using silk reeling, definitely aren’t expressing central equilbrium, and you are by defenition double heavy if you do not have this level of achievement. After all, it’s one thing to try and follow the rules astutely and quite another to embody them in your physical body. What seems funny to me as someone who has experienced this level of skill first-hand, is how easy it is to attain yet how so very, very few people put the effort into getting it. It’s something of an open secret. I think the reason why people get stuck and think they have found the answer is because they have ceased to have an open mind. They have “found the answer” so they stop looking.

So let’s take a look at Joanna’s video again and yes, now it’s time to get preachy. Joanna’s video, according to the comment, employs silk reeling. It very clearly does not do so. Silk reeling can be clearly defined in a number of ways. One way is to say it is having one center with shun and ni in every part of the body, “like reeling silk”, there are no sudden breaks in motion. No sudden stops and starts along the vectors of shun and ni. Looking at the video however, there are very many of those deficiencies in Joanna’s applied form. Please understand, this is not a criticism of Joanna. I am complimenting her for focusing on silk reeling and martial arts applications. She is clearly miles ahead of many. I am merely pointing out that Joanna’s denial of qi has in this case introduced the deficiency of double heavy.

This is a real concern and one enjoyed with sadness by many practitioners even two hundred years ago in China – long before Taijiquan was promoted for “health purposes”. We must not forget that the problems of yesteryear are still with us today, and the concept of double heavy remains perhaps the most important of all deficiencies we need to focus on as students of Martial Taijiquan.

One final comment. On the formosa neijia article I mentioned earlier, I saw this comment:

Casey says:
July 25th, 2007 at 1:52 pm

<…>JKZorya has gotten on my case about using such terms as qi, dantian, jin and so on, saying that I could use a more intelligible western equivalent–but of course, there are no words that equate precisely to these concepts.

Frankly, I don’t think there is a western equivalent we can use. It’s “chi” or nothing. I’m basing this on my experience as a veteran of the usenet and mailing list “groundpath” and “structure” wars of the mid-late ninties. And for the record I took a 3rd option BTW. I was wrong, I should have sided with groundpath but I didn’t understand that it was likely the only western equivalent of the basics that anyone has ever come up with. I would put forth that Martial Artist Mike Sigman (who runs the QiJin forum of fame) is well known for his ground-path analogy and teacher test. After extensive research and many conversations I have had with mike, I am convinced that groundpath is chen jing (sinking energy) and not peng jing, of which chan su jing is a precursor. A minor point of contention, and not worth discussing further since the outcome of such a discussion is irrelevant but – this is an excellent first step which Mike Sigman has taken at “westernising” the Chinese concepts. However it is by no means a complete defenition, and a complete defenition is required. Based on my personal experience, I’d have to say that the best and only way of doing things that we know right now, is to go with the original Chinese body of knowledge on the subject. If you don’t understand it, then I advise doing some more research.


6 Responses

  1. We have a completely different understanding of the concept of double heavy.

    Ted Mancuso’s review of my Martial Rotation DVD is here:

    Ted has been practicing for 40 years and studies with Adam Hsu. I think you’ll agree that his review is pretty unequivocal. Some have disregarded such reviews as pure marketing, but if you look at their entire range of VCDs and DVDs, you’ll see that not all of their reviews are so positive. Furthermore, Ted does do qigong so I’m sure if my movements were defficient he’d have told me to stop rejecting qi by now. My Chen style teacher, a great advocate of qi, had nothing but glowing comments for my practice of form and reeling silk.

    As is martially prudent, I eneage and disengage from whole body connectivity as a situation arises. This has nothing to do with double heaviness or double lighness.

    Anyway, thanks for your positive comments. I hope you understand I can’t get into another debate on qi – it already occupies a massive amount of my time. There are obviously far more qi believers than disbelievers in the “internal arts” and I can’t spend my life arguing with them all.

    You might find my latest post on this blog interesting (when it appears…)

  2. Having re-read your comments I can only add that there is no consistent definition of reeling silk that everyone agrees on; no consistent definition of shun and ni that everyone agrees on; no consistent definition of double heavy that everyone agrees on; no consistent definition of jin that everyone agrees on; no consistent definition of qi that everyone agrees on; no consistent definition of double heavy that everyone agrees on etc. etc.

    Battles can rage between entirely different notions of what constitutes unbroken reeling silk and whether or not it is acceptable to change from slow to fast or from soft to hard. To a Chen style eye, Yang style does not reel silk, Sun style does not reel silk. Many Yang stylists conclude that Chen style does not reel silk and is some kind of half-way house between a “soft, internal” style and a “hard, external” one.

    It is apparent that many Chen stylists and Yang stylists do not see eye to eye. Some Chen stylists promote overt differentiation including sudden changes of tempo and hardness:

    “Light as scattered flowers, solid as tempered steel. Competing with the Tiger for ferocity, challenging the Eagle for speed. In movement like a flowing river, in stillness like a solid mountain. The spirit gathered at the brink before release.” – Chen Zhongsheng

    From my understanding of Taijiquan, the art contains not just softness but hardness, not just smoothness but explosiveness, not just stickiness but also slipperiness and even breaking contact as is martially expedient; not just convergence but also breaking from convergence.

    Tim Cartmell points out:
    “It’s like anything based on theory and principle, it’s open to interpretation to a certain extent. I can say that one thing is correct body use, but somebody else who does Tai Ji might say, “No, that’s incorrect.” There’s no ultimate authority that’s going to come out and say that one or the other is right. Even the famous masters had different ideas.”

    So it is wrong of you to state or imply that there is a single perfect definition of these concepts that only you know. Regardless of who you are or what you know, there will ALWAYS be people who disagree.

    With my students and on my DVDs I always explain the principles as I understand them. If a student comes to my school with a different viewpoint on something, we test the different methodologies side by side. I think those who claim that Taiji concepts can not be explained in clear English terms and instead must be felt and deduced through some kind of internal revelation are employing deception and sophistry. It is a trick akin to the Emperor’s New Clothes.

  3. “So it is wrong of you to state or imply that there is a single perfect definition of these concepts that only you know. Regardless of who you are or what you know, there will ALWAYS be people who disagree.”

    I know there will be people who disagree. I’m one of them 😉

    I think you will admit that it is possible to reach a high level even if you do believe in qi and do qigong – as you seem to state, your own sifu is living proof of this. Let’s try to focus on the similarities rather than the differences. For example, I assume we both do a long form, and we both do push hands, etc – thats a great starting point and one day I would absolutely love to push hands with you, in a sharing-learning environment. I think it’s much more important for there to be unity in the Taijiquan world these days. Too much division only hurts the art.

    In a certain sense, it is not important for us to agree on qi or not. Your indoor students follow your method, mine follow mine. If there was any crossover there might be an issue, but that’s incredibly unlikely. Good luck with the school and stuff.

    One last thing. You implied you lived in China for a while. Where, and for how long, etc etc? ty

  4. Hi – no I never lived in China – I’m not sure where that was implied.

    We don’t focus on linked form training, preferring shorter sequences and more free-form practice. We also do a lot of movement quality exercises such as reeling silk style training, but only to develop body mechanics, structure and alignment.

    We don’t focus much on push hands either – we divide training into solo work (including shadow boxing, martial rotation (reeling silk), simple exercises including undulation work, dan lian (single repetitive techniques); partnered applications; sticky hands, hitting hands and push hands plus sparring later on.

    We have no inner door (or outer door) students, everyone learns combat from day one, whether they want to or not and without exceptions.

    Sadly, I can’t agree with your comment on division damaging the art. I am purposely distancing myself from mainstream Tai Chi because I do not like what the words have come to mean or the kinds of people the art generally attracts.

  5. About the china thing, you said something like you lived in a culture where (chi and mysticism) was practiced. Maybe I misinterpreted. Anyways, thx for sharing. I find your position fresh and interesting and I’ll be checking back from time to time to see how you’re doing. To be honest I love the videos – some brilliant ideas inside ^^

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