Greetings Louis and Jerry (and all),
Louis, thanks again for the further thoughts. I think my problem with the moving boat is the image of slipping and gliding. In partner practice, I have been taught to stick, rather than slip, so that slipping imagery feels strange. When contemplating Peng, I think of water as being infinitely moldable, yet at the same time resistant to compression. As a result, the still metaphor works better for me. As for motion, I think of my partner and me as moving together in a mesh, like two gears operating against each other. Slippage is the last thing I want, because it implies a loss of energy and interconnection. Although the water upholds the moving boat, it does nothing to obstruct or alter its path, nor does it derive any perceptible benefit from the movement. It is interesting that such metaphors can connote such different things to different people.
Jerry, I agree with your point that Chinese is not an inherently vague language. Authors writing in Chinese have been able through the ages to debate logic, write about mathematical formulae, compose chemical process, and develop nuclear physics. I would insist, however, that Chinese syntax is sufficiently different from English syntax that much of the simple grammar is not compatible with English modes of expressions. I recently read a good rendering in Portuguese of the Ten Essentials and also noted that the translators were forced to make choices and specify things that do not exist in the equivalent English and Chinese renderings.
Again, I think that all these considerations pale before the importance of live oral instruction, which can resolve all doubts or give perfect specificity to what might otherwise seem like vague injunctions. Nevertheless, for those who derive a significant amount of their Taijiquan from written sources, I think these issues become important.
You also mention “fen” in your recent posts. I actually am fairly close to your interpretation, but by a different mechanism. First let me deal with why I am close, but not all the way there.
At one of the Yang seminars, I was instructed at several times to empty an arm, but was corrected for not “emptying the arm enough.” At other times, I was told to wait for the moment when the opponent would be making part of his body full and then to make it “fuller.” Here I was corrected for not always choosing the appropriate moment, and thus not succeeding in “overfilling” my opponent’s side. All this instruction was in English, so I do not know how it would have been said in Chinese.
I think it is reasonable to say that I was not accurately “distinguishing” between full and empty and leaving too much of one in the other, but I would find it hard to conceptualize that by falling short, I was converting full into empty or vice versa. For me, the simplest thing is to view “full” and “empty” as sliding scales.
Where I come close to your position is that I believe that translating “xu” and “shi” as “empty” and “full” betrays an important grammatical distinction between English and Chinese. I believe that in the default case “empty” and “full” are absolute terms in English, but “xu” and “shi,” like all graded terms in Chinese, are comparative ones.
“Ta gao” does not mean “he is tall,” but rather “he is comparatively tall” or “he is the tall one.” To translate “he is tall,” one must say “ta hen gao.” Likewise, whether something is “xu” or “shi” does not, in my opinion, depend on the absolute amount of emptiness or fullness in something, but on how it compares to something else or some other state. This is why one can instantly change from empty to full and why these terms have binary qualities. “Emptier” and “fuller” are inherently binary.
While I am pushing with my hand against pressure, it is full. While I withdraw it in the face of pressure, it is empty. I can begin to change direction and my intent instantaneously. Even as I decrease pressure, but continue to push to some extent, my hand becomes instantly 100% “xu” compared with my previous intent. Even so, it may not be empty or “xu” enough to sustain the application I intend.
Because of all these concerns, I happen to like both “distinguish” and “distribute” as equivalents of “fen.” For me, they imply the same thing. I “distinguish” in order to calibrate. I can “distribute” only once I have distinguished.