"Sung" word in taijiquan practice

Postby Audi » Sun Dec 19, 2004 11:19 pm

Hi all:

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Yuri said: Louis, thank you for the clarification. You reminded me that correct translation plays crucial role in the understanding of masters' words. The task of translating taiji quan language/terms was always quite difficult but it was especially hard in the beginning of the Tai Chi history in the West.</font>

I recall that we have discussed the translation of “song” before. (By the way, “sung” represents a type of transliteration that is no longer very popular. I have generally used Pinyin in my posts, which requires that this same word be written as “song.” If you pronounce this word as if the “o” or “u” has the same sound as the “u” of the English word “put,” you will not be far off.) I hope that I will not repeat myself, but wanted to follow up on this comment.

According to my understanding, “song” or “fangsong” can indeed be translated as “relax”; but like many other words, these words are not the direct equivalents of any particular English words. Here is a Chinese sentence from one of my dictionaries that might surprise those who understand “fangsong” as meaning only “to relax”:

“Wo3 bi4xu1 yun4dong4 yi2xia4 fang4song4 fang4song4 ji1rou4. ‘I must take some exercise and loosen up my muscles.’”

In this sentence, one cannot use “to relax” as an equivalent of “fangsong.”

Here is another even more pertinent entry from the same dictionary: fang4song4 huo2dong4 (“‘relaxation exercise’; ‘limbering-up exercise’”). The Chinese expression covers what in English can only be expressed as two very distinct meanings. In English, a “relaxation” exercise has a completely different range of use from a “limbering up” exercise. Apparently, this distinction is not clearly made in this Chinese expression.

I have experienced at least three different versions of what it means to “relax” for the purposes of Taijiquan. In my view, each of the three leads to different ways of doing form. At least at a beginner and intermediate level, I also believe these versions involve different training methods. I think there is extensive overlap in terminology between the three. I also think that there is some physical and theoretical overlap. However, I think it is important for beginning and intermediate students to understand what perspective their teacher or teachers have, because this has important consequences for how one must understand the theory, interpret the classic admonitions, and understand the practice of others.

In one version, “relaxation” is given the meaning it has in most forms of exercise and in other martial arts. It is mostly an attitude one adopts toward moving one’s limbs. The emphasis is on having ease of movement and eliminating the tension that constricts motion. Under this view, Taijiquan differs from other arts and other forms of exercise only to the degree it emphasizes relaxation and subtlety. The idea of Mind Intent (“Yi”) often seems interpreted under this view as “focus” or “concentration.” Sometimes, Mind Intent is interpreted as modeling or rehearsing movement in the mind before executing it physically. I think that this is the easiest view of relaxation to relate to and that draws the least on any unique traditional Chinese view of reality. Practitioners who espouse this view also seem to have the least interest in “esoteric” discussions of theory, perhaps because “relaxation” plays no special role. I also think this is the view of relaxation that is least represented in the Taiji community.

In a second version, there is emphasis on surrender to gravity and minimal physical exertion. “Relaxation” is a state one strives to cultivate and be able to reproduce at will. The idea is to do as little as possible. I have read that certain practitioners who are notable in the U.S. advocate doing form in almost a sleepy state in order thoroughly to relax and eliminate any tension in the mind and body. I think that some advocates of this view also see this vision of relaxation as unique to Taijiquan and different from all other martial arts. This principle of relaxation tends to be used as the basis for explaining all other principles, for instance “relaxation” is sometimes said to be what makes one “sunken.” Since relaxation seems to emphasize “absence,” this is the version that seems to emphasize “emptiness” the most. In my view, practitioners of this method seem to focus most on the seeming contradiction between Taiji “relaxation” and Taiji “power” and seem most interested in theories that relate “jing” (This is the character that means “essence,” not the character that means “power” or “strength.”), “qi,” and “power.” In this method, structure is sometimes seen as a limitation on “relaxation.” In other words, one should not relax so much that one becomes a mere structure-less puddle of flesh lying on the floor.

In the third version, the Chinese word “song” (which is one of the components of “fangsong”) has a definite component of “looseness” that may or may not retain the meaning of “relaxation.” “Loose” in this context has an idea of “unknotting,” “pulling out,” “lengthening,” or “extension.” It is an activity one must consciously pursue rather than an attitude to adopt or a state to achieve. The activity of loosening up is what creates structure, rather than being constrained by it or independent of it. Under this view, “sinking” is more often a separate concept from “loosening up/relaxing,” since it tends to apply more to certain parts of the body than to others. For instance, the chest must sink, but the back must not. “Loosening up” is the means by which the body becomes unified, as the tendons are able to form one flexible unit of “tension.” The level of exertion and the level of “looseness” are not directly correlated. One can be just as loose thrusting a heavy 12-foot staff as in thrusting the palm forward in Brush Knee and Twist Step. The idea of Mind Intent is what defines which of an infinite numbers of equilibriums will be brought into existence. The Mind Intent allows for this equilibrium to appear, but it does not design, sustain, magnify, or modify the equilibrium in any way.

Another way to see the difference between the three versions is to see different ways to do the Preparation Posture.

In version 1, the Preparation Posture is truly a preparation for something to come. One prepares the body for all possibilities from a baseline of relaxation.

In version 2, the Preparation Posture requires intense cultivation of muscular relaxation, letting gravity have access to all the muscles and trying to minimize any other muscular exertion. Beyond standing upright with a straight spine, there is little emphasis on body structure. For instance, the structure of tendons controlling the wrist and elbows is not very important. After achieving this state as best as possible, one tries to maintain this throughout the more demanding postures to come.

In version 3, the Preparation Posture requires extending and loosening up the joints along particular paths dictated by how the tendons interconnect and the relative strength of the muscles. The body is not neutral and undifferentiated. The arms do not hang limply, and the fingers are not allowed to curl up. The limbs are as structured in this posture as they are in any other.

In my view, version 3 is more characteristic of Yang Zhenduo’s and Yang Jun’s Taijiquan than the other versions. There are, of course, many other practitioners that I believe show the same or similar characteristics. There are also others who seem much closer to version 2, but still seem close enough in feel to version 3 that the same principles seem to apply.

Recently, I was at a Push Hands seminar of someone who is not a student of Yang Zhenduo or Yang Jun. He was trying to explain how the Eight Gates physically relate to each other by having the attendees simply seat the wrist in different ways to produce six of the eight gates and to begin to suggest Elbow and Shoulder Stroke. (By “seat,” I mean physically flexing the palm backward, not how this is sometimes explained in connection with “Beautiful Ladies Wrist”.) By doing this as described, most attendees were able to generate spontaneous movement from the waist upward that was a very graphic illustration of how “one palm can represent the entire body.” In my view, such spontaneous movement is not possible under version 1 or an extreme view of version 2, because the body is not subconsciously unified in the same way.

As was previously posted, some authorities talk about having the body “song,” but not “song.” In my view, this seeming contradiction is resolved differently among the three versions.

In version 1, “‘song’, but not ‘song’” seems to mean that although the body is generally relaxed, one retains an ability to exert strong muscular force when appropriate. In version 2, this admonition seems to be that one must relax, but not to the point of limply losing all structure. In both versions 2 and 3, one often hears the comment that one must retain a mental “presence” in a joint so that it is not completely limp.

In version 3, one must “loosen” the boundaries between muscles and between tendons in the sense that they must become automatically unified and connected, like the interlocking strands of a tennis net. One must not “loosen” the connection between them in the sense that are completely separated and can flop around or act independently. The issue is not really the “degree” of “looseness,” but the quality and purpose of it.

Take care,
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Postby JerryKarin » Sun Dec 19, 2004 11:32 pm

Actually the vowel of song1 does not sound like the u of 'put'. It has more of an 'o' sound, but without the usual 'ou' dipthong that o gets in English.
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Postby Audi » Tue Dec 28, 2004 10:23 pm

Hi all,

Jerry, I agree with your description; however, I think few untrained people are able to analyze the diphthong. Even if they can, I think they will tend to pronounce the “o” as a long vowel, whereas the Mandarin sound is usually short in duration and clipped. Although I do not think the vowel quality of this sound is like the “u” in “put, I think they are acoustically quite similar.

Jerry and Louis, I also would like to comment on your discussion about the proper way to analyze Chinese characters. I think you both chose your words quite carefully and have addressed slightly different issues. Rather than comment directly on your views, let me try to add something additional to the discussion.

It is possible that a few characters may have been specially designed for Taijiquan, but the vast majority of the terms of art are simply ordinary words used extensively in Chinese for all sorts of both lofty and mundane things. Even those two or three characters may have resulted simply from literate scribes trying spontaneously to invent ways to write words they were unfamiliar with, rather than from any careful application of philosophy.

Outside of Taijiquan, Chinese characters show complex graphic evolution that mostly shows a quite obvious interplay between what is easy to remember or interpret and what is easy to write. Any philosophical content in the character elements themselves seems almost wholly lacking. Some aspects of Chinese culture do show through in the graphs, but this is almost always an adjunct to their mnemonic value, rather than any deliberate intent to make a philosophical statement.

I happen to like analyzing characters to understand their origins; however, I think this must always be understood through the meanings of the spoken words they represent and never as stand-alone symbols. As I understand current scholarly consensus, the characters have always stood for spoken words during historic times and have never had meanings apart from their use to represent spoken words used at some stage in the history of Mandarin. (In making this statement, I am deliberately ignoring ancient isolated graphs not used in running text, whether or not they subsequently gave birth to characters used in later writing.).

In analyzing a character like the one used for “song,” I think it is fair and useful to speculate that a picture of a person with hair hanging loose is meant to suggest a word (i.e., “song”) that means “loose” and “unknotted” in this sense and that this sense has some relevance to Taijiquan. I do not think it is fair or useful to speculate that masters of Taijiquan chose this character to represent this aspect of Taijiquan based merely on the elements of the character. Even less do I think it useful to suggest that the limbs are meant to hang loosely in imitation of limp strands of hair, merely because this is an element represented in the corresponding character. Characters have all sorts of fantastic and even indelicate elements that may have been mnemonically helpful at one time, but that may have little to do with the contexts in which they are most commonly applied.

I also have had some additional thoughts about the phrase “‘song,’ but not ‘song’” (i.e., “relaxed,’ but not relaxed” or “loose, but not loose”). “Relaxation” is sometimes defined as a lack of “tension”; however, the word “tension” has rather wide application. Most commonly in talking about the limbs, this word refers to “obstructive stiffness”; but it can also refer to the smooth linkage between opposing, yet complementary energy states.

“Stiffness” is generally bad, whereas “smooth linkage” is generally good. In my view, the difference between these states as we do form is not in their direct physical manifestation in our limbs, but in the purpose (“Yi”) we give our limbs. If we stiffen them to prevent movement, it is wrong. If we are extending an energy state across them, this is good. The difference between the two usually results in a different quality of movement that is visible, since the movements tend to be calibrated differently and the relative movement of the joints will be different.

In one of the earlier posts, the difference between rou2 and ruan3 was brought up. Both words are often translated as “soft,” but they have somewhat different meanings in Chinese and different implications for Taijiquan. Only “rou2” seems to be used in connection with Taijiquan. For instance, “rou” is used in the phrase: rou2 zhong1 you3 gang1 (“firm, but gentle” or “in softness, there is firmness”) that is often quoted in Taiji literature.

Another meaning of “rou” is “tender.” Tender pasta yields to the tooth without being mushy. The [ten] of “tender,” “extend,” “tendon,” “tenacious,” “tenuous,” and “tension” are all etymologically related. The underlying meaning has to do with “extending,” “holding on,” “holding in place,” “stretching,” “yielding to touch” and “thinning out.” The interplay between these ideas is complex and mirrors the complexity in such simple English words like “loose” and simple Chinese words like “song.”

In my view, “‘relaxed’/‘loose,’ but not ‘relaxed’/‘loose’” is not meant to describe a careful calibration between two extremes, but rather a simple state that is hard to describe only because of the imprecision of language. It is both looseness and “tenseness.” “Wiry” is one word that I think suggests some of the intended meaning.

Playing on the derived meanings of [ten], you can say that you “ex[ten]d” your “[ten]dons” so that they can yield to the touch and make your body sensitive (or “[ten]der”). By consciously calibrating your “[ten]dons” in this way, your limbs “[ten]d” to move by themselves in accordance with their natural function and gain a “[ten]acious” and “[ten]sile” strength that your opponent can only “[ten]uously” perceive.

By extending your tendons purposively, you actually loosen up the mental knots that constrict them and unify their inherent tension and springiness. By tensing them with an isolated purpose or with no purpose, you actually loosen the connections between them and lose the unity of internally generated power. In short, you must loosen up what restricts your joints so that they will not respond in a loose and unconnected way, be “loose, yet not loose.”

Behind this word play is something I believe to be a quite simple reality and not mysterious. The mystery and the principal subtlety are in the implications of carrying this principle to its ultimate conclusion and in understanding and applying it everywhere. This is not so easy. How one trains to incorporate such skill is also not such a simple matter. This difficulty means that there will be wide variation in practice approaches even when the same goal is held in mind.

Take care,
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Postby Gu Rou Chen » Wed Dec 29, 2004 7:42 am

In Standard Mandarin, syllables represented by "song" in Pinyin have a vowel that is represented by the IPA symbol [u]; high, back, rounded. This is what it is in Beijing. It is the same vowel as in "Su" of "Suzhou". Speakers from other regions do not necessarily have this vowel in this syllable.
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Postby Louis Swaim » Wed Dec 29, 2004 8:25 pm

Greetings Audi,

Great post! I especially like your remark: ‘In my view, “‘relaxed’/‘loose,’ but not ‘relaxed’/‘loose’” is not meant to describe a careful calibration between two extremes, but rather a simple state that is hard to describe only because of the imprecision of language. It is both looseness and “tenseness.”’

I think that captures it. This “si x, fei x” pattern is often found in Chinese. Fu Zhongwen used it to good effect when describing ending postures (dingdian) of the form: “It seems to stop, it does not stop.” That example makes me think about the apex in the arc of a swinging pendulm (which, by the way, is sometimes termed “dingdian.”) It is, as you say, ‘a simple state that is hard to describe,’ but “seems to stop, does not stop” expresses it rather well.

I also like your ruminations on the common ‘tendere’ root of “tension, tendency, tenacious,” etc. I tend to get a big kick out of that sort of thinking, but it’s not for the tenderhearted!

Take care,

[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 12-29-2004).]
Louis Swaim
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Postby Gu Rou Chen » Thu Dec 30, 2004 3:00 am

Here is a citation that relates to to point both Louis and Audi made.

In contrast to external martial arts, a defining feature of Taijiquan is that it is a –combination- of movement and stillness. (dòngjìng jiéhé)

Daodejing, “Making This Life Significant,” A Philosophical Translation.
translated by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall.

The notion of jìng, stillness, tranquillity, that is so often used to characterize this posture, far from being simple passivity, is an ongoing, dynamic achievement of equilibrium that requires constant monitoring and adjustment. It is important to remember that all correlative pairs entail their opposites in the sense that jìng is “tranquility-becoming-agitated.” Thus, tranquillity (jìng) stands in a dominant relationship in its partnership with agitation (dòng); it does not negate or exclude its opposite. The same qualification has to be brought to bear on the familiar pairs that might otherwise mislead us: for example, emptiness (xū Image and fullness (shí), and clarity (qīng) and turbidity (zhuó).

Gu Rou Chen
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Postby Louis Swaim » Thu Dec 30, 2004 4:43 am

Greetings Jeff,

That's a great quote, and very applicable to song in taijiquan: "an ongoing, dynamic achievement of equilibrium that requires constant monitoring and adjustment." I have a great deal of admiration for Roger Ames' work.

Louis Swaim
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Postby Kalamondin » Thu Jan 06, 2005 12:25 am

Hi Audi,

I really enjoyed your last two posts--delving into the possibilities of meaning for [ten] (fun!) and your summary of three versions of relaxation. Previously, when reading about different ways of thinking of relaxation, I'd recognized differences, but never categorized them into three differing (but somewhat overlapping) points of view. Your explanation was really useful for me in understanding where other people/schools are coming from.

It was also useful in my personal practice, particularly the part about "unknotting" or "unravelling." [Later: whoops, looking back, I don't know where I got that, whether it was you or someone else.] I've been giving it a try and it seems like areas of excess tension really are like snarls of tangled chi and that the mere intention of picking loose one strand allows the rest of the snarl to unfurl.


[This message has been edited by Kalamondin (edited 01-05-2005).]
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