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§ Ten Essentials Part 1
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Empty and Full

We have been having an interesting discussion on the discussion forum regarding the meaning of the fourth of Yang Chengfu's Ten Essentials: distinguish full and empty. To shed more light on this subject, we publish here a translation of the first half of the Empty and Full section of the first chapter of Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan, a seminal 1963 work by Shen Jiazhen and Gu Liuxin (this part was written by Shen Jiazhen). Second half coming soon. This translation is still a work in progress. I would enjoy hearing your comments and corrections.

I used the text contained in Renmin tiyu chubanshe, Taijiquan Quan Shu, 1988, which is a reprint of the original, 1963 edition plates. I was able to get a slightly better scan of the pictures from a Taiwan edition put out in 2002 by Da Zhan Chubanshe, reset in traditional characters, so I have reproduced the figures from that edition (this reset edition unfortunately has introduced some typographical errors into the text).

The majority of this material is identical to what the Yang family teaches, though I cannot recall ever hearing or reading any discussion from them regarding empty and full in the arms. The bow posture shown in figure 8 differs slightly from Yang Chengfu in that his torso leans forward slightly more than shown here, in my opinion.


The Fourth Characteristic: An Exercise of Empty and Full in which the Body Stands Centered and Upper and Lower Body are Coordinated

Boxing manuals dictate:

  1. "Intent and Qi must change nimbly, only then can there be free change of direction; that is what is meant by 'you must apply intent when changing full and empty'."
  2. "Full and empty should be clearly distinguished, each place has its full and empty, all places always have this part-empty part-full quality."
  3. "The body must stand centered and stable to handle all eight directions"; If upper and lower coordinate others will have difficulty invading."
  4. "Coccyx centered and spirit infused in the apex"; "From top to bottom a single line."

As the above four rules explain, in all movement in taijiquan one must distinguish full and empty. If in movements you can distinguish full and empty while changing and transitioning, you can have long-lasting endurance without getting tired, making this the most economical form of kinetic activity. For this reason, when you practice taijiquan the two arms must have empty and full, the two legs must have empty and full. Especially important, the left leg together with left arm, right leg together with right arm, must have empty and full which coordinates upper and lower, that is to say if the left arm is empty the left leg should be full, if the right arm is full the right leg should be empty. This tunes internal energy and causes it to maintain a centered, central linkage. In addition when from the starting point of 'within the empty there is fullness and within the full there is emptiness' we add that in every place there is always this part-empty part-full quality, it causes internal energy to acquire a centered quality which is not biased toward one way or another. Beginners can use large-scale emptiness and fullness in their movements, gradually training towards small-scale emptyness and fullness, and finally arriving at the realm wherein internally there is empty and full but externally there doesn't appear to be any emptiness or fullness, which is the greatest level of skill for regulating full and empty.

The key to nimbly changing full and empty depends on nimbly changing intent and qi, while at the same time 'staying in the center and not departing from the proper position'1 and keeping the internal energy centered. For this reason when you practice you must regulate full and empty with 'coccyx centered', 'stable to handle all eight directions', 'gently leading the energy of the apex upward' (trans note: xu ling ding jing, which I have translated somewhat differently here according to Shen Jiazhens gloss of the term on page 12 of his book), 'from top to bottom a single line'. Therefore 'regulating full and empty with body standing centered, upper and lower coordinated' becomes the fourth characteristic of taijiquan.

I. The relative proportions of full and empty

Figure 8. Center of Gravity Offset

According to the principles of taijiquan, within all movements we must clearly distinguish full and empty, and so when we practice we must attend to making our movements such that in all places we have this part-empty part-full quality. In order to achieve this regulation of full and empty we must first recognize the true meaning of full and empty. 'Empty' does not mean totally devoid of strength; 'full' in turn does not mean totally occupied. In the case of the legs, for example, empty does not mean this leg bears no weight at all, nor does full mean this leg bears all the weight (positions where one is lifting the foot, standing on one leg, or getting out of entrapment [chinna] excepted), but rather empty is merely bearing slightly less weight than full. The origin of this full/empty terminology, from the point of view of mechanics, is owing to the fact that the center of gravity of a human body generally is more toward one side or the other. When the center of gravity is tending slightly more toward the right side, this makes the right leg full and the left empty; when it tends slightly more to the left side, then the left leg is full and the right empty (as in figure 8) As we have said above the movement energy of taijiquan is generated from the switching of the center of gravity from one side to the other. If there is no differential between the two, in other words if the center of gravity is placed precisely in the midline of the body, that would create 'doubling' (shuang chong) 2, losing movement energy and creating the defect of stagnant doubling. If however at this point if you lightly ward off with both arms, it can become the effective arms of 'double sinking' 3 ,causing the movement to once again achieve the movement energy to change.

Figure 8 Explanation:
The dotted line (near center line of body) shows the center of gravity of the entire body
The dotted line to the left of that and just under the back leg shows the center between the two feet.
Vertical text on left: 'bears slightly less weight'
Vertical text on right: 'bears slightly more weight'
Character in parens on lower left: 'empty'
Character in parens on right: 'full'

Full and empty are not fixed, they change following the transformations of the moves of the form. Beginners should use relatively gross full and gross empty postures, such as 20/80 (20/80 represents the ratio of weight distribution, so if the entire body weighs 100 pounds, one foot would bear 20 pounds and the other 80). As you become more accomplished, you should change to relatively lesser full and lesser empty postures, such as 40/60 etc. After having gone through this process of training toward the more compact, owing to the slighter degree of movement, you can cause the alternation of full and empty to be even more nimble. The inner source of changing freely lies in freely changing intent and qi, and owing to that one can attain to not being stuck in one direction or one spot: for example when in some move one ought to place ones attention on the left hand, then one is able to effortlessly and immediately switch to the left hand. 4 This can cause one to have a kind of ambidextrous feeling in practicing taiji, generating a sensation of freely rotating like a ball rolling on a plate. From the point of view of taiji postures, this means that in no transition is one caused to have ones 'center departing from its proper position'; only by not departing from the proper position can one switch toward left, right, backward or forward without restriction. If the body is inclined toward one side as you change direction, you must undergo some adjustment before you can make the change. This amounts to a gap in your movement, and moreover because you have added in an additional operation, it slows down your movement, possibly missing some opportunity. In taiji technical terms, this is known as shiji 'missing an opportunity'. Missing an opportunity and losing position are major defects in taiji, so in switching full and empty, it is only under conditions where the body stands centered that one can attain to the requirement for changing nimbly. This is an important key which one must grasp thoroughly.

II. Three basic types of full and empty

(1) Full and empty in the legs

The division of full and empty in the legs is simply that one leg supports more weight, and one leg supports less. According to the principles of mechanics, if the center of gravity of the body is placed in the inmost one-third of the area between the two legs, this causes both of the legs to have a purchase, and this is called 'half-light half-heavy'. 5 (as in figure 9) If the center of gravity goes beyond the range of the inmost one-third, then the empty foot, because it is too empty, will undergo a phenomenon of floating up, causing a defect called excessively light and excessively heavy (pian qing pian zhong). 6 (as in figure 10)

In addition, when you are moving or emitting energy (fajing), the movement must be such that you retain some slight reserve. Even after you have released energy, the four limbs still should not be 100% extended straight. Because once you have straightened them, when you then go to switch full and empty, you would have to first change the straight to bent and only then reverse the extended and retracted. But if your arms and legs retain some slight reserve, then you can just rotate naturally, without wasting time reversing and this gives you the basis to make the moves capable of being automatic.

In summary, the requirement for taijiquan in regard to the legs is, at all times and places, to be able to reverse this part-full part-empty state, and in particular you must gradually make the differentiation smaller, so that the switch can become quicker. If you cannot change empty and full in the legs quickly, you won't be able to respond to the changes in the arms, causing it to be impossible to coordinate upper and lower, so that you've become divided into two separate parts, destroying the required unity of the entire body in movement.

Figure 9. Half Light Half Heavy

Figure 10. Excessively Light Excessively Heavy


The dotted line (near center line of body) shows the center of gravity of the entire body

Character in parens on lower left: 'empty'

Character in parens on lower right: 'full' Figure 10. Excessively Light Excessively Heavy


The dotted line (near center line of body) shows the center of gravity of the entire body

Characters in parens on lower left: 'too empty'

Characters in parens on right: ' too full'

(2) Full and empty in the arms

Whenever energy circulates to an arm to ward off, this arm is empty. When it circulates such that the arm sinks downward then this arm is full. The movements of the two arms in taijiquan, like those of the legs, must also be divided into full and empty, so for example when both arms push simultaneously, as in the 'six sealings and four closings' (liu feng si bi) move, you should also divide them up by 40/60. But the proportions used for full and empty in the arms are slightly different from the legs: after you have achieved some skill (gongfu), except for a few individual moves, the proportion is still in the 30/70 to 40/60 range; the division is still relatively gross. This is because in order to achieve a sunken, extended calmness, you concentrate on one side, such that the rule is to make one side primary and the other side secondary. It is particularly important for not only the limbs to switch nimbly, but the intent and qi to switch nimbly, so that the intent and qi are not stuck on one side, especially the right arm.

(3) Full and empty in arm and leg

The division of full and empty which requires the most work is the type of division of full and empty occurring between an arm and a leg. Also from a health maintenance and martial point of view the most effective type is this division between arm and leg, upper and lower. This is the essence of how to cause stepping to be smooth and connected. The requirement and method is: if the right hand sinks down and is full, the right leg must be empty. Then when the right hand changes to warding off upward and becomes empty, the right leg follows the hand above and changes to full. Proceeding in this way is termed 'distinguishing full and empty in coordinating upper and lower body'. In the taijiquan classic "Song of Pushing Hands" (da shou ge) it says: "You must be diligent about ward off, rollback, press, and push, if upper and lower coordinate others will have difficulty invading," so you can imagine how important this is. Therefore when you practice taiji you must thoroughly inspect each move to see if it accords with this requirement to coordinate upper and lower. If we look at the performance of one round of taiji, there are so many different types of postures and so many different kinds of transitions between postures. In order to achieve this coordination of upper and lower you must naturally expend a good deal of effort to really grasp this and become proficient at it. In this type of switching, aside from the case of stepping, where hand follows foot in switching full and empty, the majority of instances are all those where foot follows hand in switching full and empty. Overall, if you can achieve this hand and foot, upper and lower type of full and empty then the position of the center of gravity will not leave the inmost one-third of the range between the two legs, causing both legs to maintain a purchase, so that internal energy can stay centered; only when internal energy is centered can one handle all eight directions. This type of full and empty, rendered via positioning of the feet on the floor, is to have full within empty and empty within full. By preparing this full and empty integrated with upper and lower coordination the footwork can become nimble and not stagnant, advancing and retreating become natural, and only then can you connect to and follow an opponent without letting go or opposing force with force. Likewise, when you have become proficient at push hands, you need only attend to the arm in contact with the opponent, and you won't need to be distracted about the other arm and the legs, because of this habit you have gained of upper and lower coordinating. Having achieved this automatic coordination is the key to seeking quiescence in movement and actually obtaining it.

Getting a Grasp on Empty and Full

[under construction]

Light and Heavy, Floating and Sinking in Regard to Empty and Full

[under construction]


[author's footnotes from original Chinese]

[1] 'Staying in the center and not departing from the proper position' (zhong tu bu li wei)refers to the body's center of gravity not leaving the inmost one-third of the area between the two legs, see figure 9.

[2] Doubling is when the two legs are not separated into full and empty, making double full; when the two arms are not separated into full and empty, that is also regarded as doubled full. For this reason they become doubled, to the point where we have filled them solid and stuck fast, so that one cannot change nimbly, so this is a defect.

[3] Double sinking is when although the two legs are not yet distinguished into full and empty, or only very faintly distinguished, they become double full, but both arms are completely empty or only very faintly distinguished into full and empty. This way they have become 'leaping empty', as in the cross hands move, becoming coordinated upper and lower double full and double empty. This is called double sinking. At this time although the arms are both empty and the legs both full, internally there is still the distinction of base and point, so it is not a defect.

[4] "This refers to the fact that most people are accustomed to using the right hand, but when at times they ought to attend to the left hand they are still paying attention to the right hand.

[5] 'Half' is when the center of gravity of the body is placed in the inmost one-third of the area between the two legs so that both legs are pressing against the ground, but one more heavily than the other, therefore this is called half footing (ban you zhuoluo), or half light half heavy (ban qing ban zhong). This is the correct posture.

[6] 'Excessive' is when the center of gravity goes beyond the range of the inmost one-third, causing one foot to be especially heavy so that the other foot floats on the ground, forming too much weight on one side and so of course the other side is too light, in other words inclined so much that it has no purchase, sometimes called 'excessively light and excessively heavy (pian qing pian zhong), which is a defect.

Translation Copyright © 2004 Gerald N. Karin. All rights reserved.
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