Although Chinese martial arts are divided into numerous factions, it is important to know that they all contain techniques that are based on philosophical principles. Those of our forefathers who exhausted their whole life’s energies, yet were still unable to fathom its mysteries, can be seen throughout time. If students expend a day’s efforts, they will obtain a day’s results. As the days and months accumulate, success will come.
Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) is the art of softness containing hardness, of a needle concealed in cotton. Its technique, physiology, and mechanics are imbued with considerable philosophical principles. Therefore, those who would study this method must go through definite stages and appropriate duration of time. Although the guidance of an excellent master and diligent training with friends must not be underemphasized, most important is individual daily practice. Otherwise, one can discuss it till the end of time, or think longingly for an entire year, but once you are engaged in a fight, there is a total absence of substance, and you remain a novice without a day’s accomplishment (gongfu). The ancients said: “You can think all day with no outcome—it is not as good as study.”(*) If you are able to practice and refine morning and night as soon as you are motivated, no matter if you are old or young, male or female, you will succeed.
Recently those studying Taijiquan have been spreading from the North to the South, and enthusiasts are increasing daily—this cannot help but improve the prospects of the martial arts. So, amongst enthusiasts, those students who are devoted and sincere will have a future without limits. We are definitely not lacking for students. However, it is generally impossible to avoid two routes: in the first instance are those already possessing talent, who are young and strong, can draw inferences easily, and are clever beyond the average— what a pity that they barely accomplish anything, yet are satisfied and will suddenly stop studying, unable to endure a great undertaking. In the second instance are those who impatiently seek quick results, yet who are careless in their development. Before a whole year has passed they have already studied the hand, sword, broadsword, and spear forms. Although able to imitate in rote fashion, they in fact never master the secrets. As soon as one checks their directions and movements, upper, lower, inner, and outer, all come up short. If you want to make corrections, then you must amend each and every posture. Moreover, corrections made in the morning have already been forgotten by nightfall. This is why one often hears the saying, “To study boxing is easy; to correct boxing is difficult.” This saying comes from the seeking of quick results.
If this present generation by means of mistakes transmits mistakes, they will certainly extend their own mistakes to others—most distressing for the future of the martial arts.
When initially learning Taijiquan, one must first study the form. Studying the form means to learn each of the postures named within the syllabus, each posture as taught by a master. The student must, with resolute mind, memorize and ponder, and practice accordingly.
This is called studying the form. At this time the student should concentrate on the inner, outer, upper, and lower [aspects]. Regarding the internal then, this is what is called using the consciousness rather than strength. Below, one must sink the qi (chi) to the dantian.
Above, one must experience a light and insubstantial energy at the top of the head. Regarding the exterior, the entire body is light and agile, “the joints are threaded together,” from the feet to the legs to the waist. Sink the shoulders, bend the elbows, and so forth. When you begin to study Taijiquan, ponder these few sentences morning and night, memorize them until you intuitively understand them.
Each posture and gesture must always be carefully analyzed; one’s deportment in practice must seek what is correct. When you’ve completed one form completely, then work on the next. Then gradually you will reach completion in your practice. If you proceed in this manner, making corrections, with the passing of time, there will be no changes in the essential principles.
When practicing the movements, all the joints of the entire body must be relaxed, open, and natural. First, one must not inhibit the qi in the mouth or abdomen; second, do not allow force to gather up in the limbs, the waist, or the legs. These two ideas are expressed by various practitioners of nei quan (internal martial arts). However, once they commence movement, with one turn of the body or kick of the legs or swing of the waist, they gasp for air, and their bodies become agitated. These flaws come from holding the breath and adding force to the movements.
1. When practicing, the head must not incline, slant, or bend. This is what is called “The top of the head is suspended,” or the idea of carrying an object on the top of one’s head. Guard against rigid straightness—this is the meaning of “being suspended.” Although the gaze is extended forward evenly, there are times when following the body’s changes of position that the line of sight, while directed to emptiness, plays a crucial role in the transformations and supplements the insufficiencies of body and hand techniques. The mouth seems open yet not open, closed yet not closed. Breathe in and out through the nose in a natural way. If saliva is produced beneath the tongue, just swallow it, do not spit it out.
2. The body should be centered and upwardly aligned, not leaning. The spine with the weilu (coccyx) hangs straight down without inclining. However, when encountering the changes of opening and closing, the activities of containing the chest and pulling up the back, sinking the shoulders and turning the waist, beginning students must pay attention. Otherwise, after a period of time corrections will be difficult and one will tend toward stiffness. Even if one has put in a great deal of effort, it will be difficult to attain any benefit or use.
3. The joints in the two arms must be loosened (song) and open. The shoulders must hang down, the elbows must bend down, and the palms must slightly extend, with the fingertips slightly bent. Use consciousness to move the arms, use the qi to thread to the fingers. With the accumulation of days and months, the internal energy will be penetrating and refined; its subtlety will arise on its own.
4. You must distinguish insubstantial and substantial in the two legs, lifting and lowering them like the movements of a cat. When the body’s weight shifts to the left, then the left is substantial, and the right leg is called empty. When shifted to the right, then the right leg is substantial and the left leg is called empty. What is here called empty is not void, for its power is not yet disconnected, but reserved and retained in the intention of the changes of expansion and contraction. What is called substantial is simply that it is sound and real—without excessive use of energy, which would mean use of fierce strength. Therefore, the legs bend according to the standard of vertical alignment [of the front leg’s knee with the toes]. To exceed this is called excessive force, and in striking forward the body then loses its central equilibrium.
5. With regard to the feet, one must distinguish between the kicking methods of Left and Right Separate Feet, and Kick with Heel. In the former, concentrate on the toes. In the latter, concentrate on the entire sole. Where the intention reaches, the qi reaches; where the qi reaches, the jin will certainly follow. However, the joints of the legs must also be relaxed (song), open, and smooth and stable in issuing energy. At these times, it is most easy to allow a build-up of stiff energy, for the body to twist and turn in an unstable way, and the leg’s kick will have no power. The Taijiquan curriculum begins with practicing the Taiji hand set, followed by single-hand pushing circuit, fixed-step push hands, active-step push hands, dalu, and sanshou, then comes implements training, such as Taiji sword (jian), broadsword (dao), spear (qiang), and so forth.
Regarding practice time, each day practice twice upon getting up from bed. If there is not time in the morning, then practice twice before retiring. Within the course of a day, one should practice seven to eight times, but at least one time per day. However, avoid practicing after drinking alcohol or immediately after a meal. As for the place of practice, a garden courtyard or large hall with good air circulation and plenty of light is suitable. Avoid direct drafts of strong wind and places that are cold, damp, and musty.
Since the breathing deepens as the body undergoes exercise, strong drafts and damp air may penetrate the body to the internal organs, and one will easily fall ill. As for practice clothing, most appropriate are roomy, simply-cut clothes and broad-toed cloth shoes. If, after practice, you have been perspiring, avoid removing your clothing and exposing your skin, or washing with cold water. Otherwise you may fall ill.
—Dictated by Yang Chengfu, recorded by Zhang Hongkui
(*) *Translator’s Note: This is an allusion to a phrase in the Confucian Analects, and a similar phrase in the Xunxi.
Translation: Louis Swaim (Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan, by Fu Zhongwen, p.11-15)