Hi Louis and everyone else,
This is an interesting idea for a post. Before addressing more esoteric issues, I just wanted to address one mundane aspect of imagery, which I view as linked with metaphors. From my teachers and my experience, I have become more and more of the belief that I, along with others, have incorrect mental images of how some of our joints operate, and therefore limit the progress we can make with the form.
The hip/”kua,” waist, and shoulder especially seem problematic. The word “hip” draws attention to love handles, while “kua” is, as I understand it, more concerned with the hip socket near the groin. “Waist” conjures up inappropriate images of “waistline,” “hips,” or “shoulders,” rather then the central core of our bodies. As for the shoulder, I have found that I pay more attention to the parts that they can see easily, than to how the shoulder attaches to the mid back.
Seeing how incorrect images of such mundane things can wreak havoc with my form, I have always tried to pay close attention to what I internalize from the various T’ai Chi metaphors that are used.
As for your four-ounce metaphore, I was unsure of one of the characters used and so searched through my books for a Chinese version. I found one in Yang Jwing-Ming's Tai Chi Theory & Martial Power. He translates it as "Four ounces repel one thousand pounds."
To my surprise, however, the character Yang Jwing-Ming uses for "pounds" is the "gold" character you refer to in the monetary equivalent of the metaphor. This seems to strengthen your idea that these two metaphors are quite closely linked.
By the way, in the monetary metaphor, do you know what exactly the "four taels/ounces (of silver)" are doing to the "thousand pieces of gold"? My modest dictionaries list a core meaning of "set in motion" under the word "bo," but the meanings "allocate" and "transfer" in connection with money or funds. Is the meaning something like "Four taels mobilize a thousand pieces of gold"?
By the way, in addition to "a thousand pounds/catties," one of my dictionaries lists "hoisting jack" as a meaning of "qian jin." Is this in your CD Rom dictionary? (Speaking of which, is that dictionary publicly available for purchase?) Assuming this meaning is the correct one, the metaphor might be interpreted as: "Four ounces [suffice to] move a hoisting jack."
I have always had difficulty with this metaphor in my practice, being unsure how far to take it. Clearly the meaning is that small actions can have big effects, but the implications for practice are less clear to me. I have been most comfortable taking it to mean that whatever techniques I use must yield results that are much greater than the effort used. Others, however, seem to favor that the metaphor means that techniques should be limited to those requiring little effort. Stated otherwise, is a given amount of "force" too much because the corresponding results are too meager, or because that level of "force" is never appropriate?
I seem to recall reading somewhere in the secondary literature that this metaphor referred to the "power of the lever." This seems consistent with the "hoisting jack" interpretation and would suggest that my preferred view is more useful.
I also seem to recall, however, perhaps from the same source, that this metaphor was likened to controlling a powerful bull by leading him around by a nose ring. This would seem to suggest that one should always look for techniques requiring minimal force. I believe this analogy was also linked with the idea that T'ai Chi techniques speak to relationships between living beings and are ineffective against inanimate objects. This is a view which again would suggest that mere leverage, which is certainly useful in the inanimate word, is not what the metaphor is getting at. One offshoot of this view might be an emphasis on learning pressure points, vital strikes, and locks (dim mak)/dian mai).
Changing metaphors, I want to add a little bit to the discussion about "drawing silk," include a little bit of what I understand to be the Chinese view of water, and talk about bow metaphors.
As Louis has stated, silk threads drawn from cocoons are apparently easy to break if one uses a jerky motion. However, entwined with other threads and woven into fabric, they are very strong. I understand this to be the traditional Yang Style view of "jin." "Jin" is apparently associated with a subtle whole-body feeling that is easily lost with incorrect posture or mental attention. However, if used to integrate the movements of the whole body (i.e., entwining and linking up the "jin" in the various limbs), one produces quite extensive power.
Chen Style apparently emphasizes silk reeling/twining as opposed to the drawing of the silk. Although I have understood “silk reeling” to refer to the spiral motion that results from how the silk fiber is drawn from the cocoon, I think it would also work to think about how the fibers are probably entwined together to make thread. Traditional Yang Style, however, seems to emphasize the necessity for continuity and smoothness.
These differing views might explain why Chen Style has no problem with form practice that has great variations in speed. For Chen practitioners, what must be maintained is the spiral feeling in the limbs; whereas for traditional Yang practitioners, variations in speed can lead to disruption of the subtle feeling of “jin” and over-reliance on crude force.
In my opinion, this view of "jin" is related to, but quite distinct from, the view of "jin" as arising from simple relaxation. For example, coming out of a jacuzzi, one can feel quite limber, relaxed, and ready for action, but not necessarily full of "jin." Only after one focuses the mind to feel extension in the limbs and thread the feeling through the “nine bends in the pearl,” can one integrate the limbs into a powerful whole.
The seeming contradiction of weakness producing strength is also exemplified by water. Water is weak, but utterly relentless. The same pool water that we can push our palm through we have difficulty slapping our way through. The weak pressure and surface tension exerted by individual water molecules cannot resist the thrust of a feather, but is sufficient to float a battleship.
Water yielding in one place implies equally increased water pressure in another place, since water resists compression. It is this quality of water, combined with its structural weakness that can focus the energy of a tidal wave up an inlet to devastating effect.
In European thought, fire is the element seen as synonymous with devastation; whereas in China, I believe water has this “honor.” As I understand it, water is associated with “kan,” the ba gua/pa kua symbol (a solid horizontal line between two horizontal lines broken in the middle) that is also, I believe, associated with crisis, cataclysm, and the abyss. Although “kan” can mean “pit,” I note that with some imagination, the ba gua symbol can look like a dike with water pouring out of the sides.
The Yellow River (Huang He) in China gets its name because it carries so much mud and silt that over time the bed and banks of the river can rise higher than the surrounding countryside. (By the way, I have read that “Huang He” would have been better translated as the “Brown River,” since the term “huang” applied traditionally both to what we would call “yellow” and to what we would call “brown” (huang niu for brown cow, Huang Di for Yellow Emperor).) If the banks are breached during high rains, the resulting flood is not merely the result of the excess water, but of the entire flow of the river leaving its bed, pouring over the land, and finding a new course. With these images, making one’s T’ai Chi techniques “flow like a river” can have a different resonance that what one might at first think.
The softness of water is also quite distinct from the softness of something like whipped cream. Whipped cream is really not soft, but brittle. It “yields” by stiffly resisting the pressure of a thumb and failing to maintain its structure, and so retains a thumbprint. Water, on the other hand, yields not by collapsing its structure, but by flowing around the thumb and maintaining unrelenting counter pressure. When the thumb is withdrawn, the water presses back in and leaves no trace of the thumb.
In trying to maintain an arm in ward off position, water is one of the images I believe one should have for traditional Yang Style: constant yielding to pressure that produces a corresponding seeping counter pressure against areas of relative weakness. The “strength” or “softness” of the ward off arm is not as relevant as its ability to be resilient and channel away the incoming energy in a smooth flowing way to areas of relative weakness.
Another metaphor I feel is linked to the constancy and delicacy of drawing silk is the way that a bow accumulates energy in a smooth continuous fashion. This is also true during the release of the arrow, although the speed of the movement obscures the fact.
The body bows are my favorite metaphor for T’ai Chi because it allows me to focus on many requirements simultaneously. “Sinking the shoulders and drooping the elbows” allows me to focus on the bow going from the middle of the back to the tips of the fingers. “Containing the chest and plucking up the back” allows me to focus on the bow leading from the fingers of one hand to the fingers of the other hand. “Rounding the crotch” is another bow-like image.
For me, maintaining continuity is more about smoothly feeling, drawing, and releasing the bows than about maintaining constant, but potentially jerky postural motion. Matching the internal with the external means that having a bow shape is not sufficient if I feel no resilience in the tendons. Coordinating upper and lower means that the bow in my arms must be connected to the bow in my legs through the bow in the spine.
The bow image is also helpful because it implies anchoring both ends. For the whole body bow, this means “suspending the top of the head” at the same time one is rooting into the feet. For the bow between the feet, this means that having both feet rooted is also important. I must “distinguish” full from empty, by feeling which leg is absorbing energy and which is yielding it up. For the bow in the arms, it means that how I extend or bend one arm will affect the other.
Yet another way in which I find the bow image helpful is in shifting emphasis away from thinking about isolated strikes, blocks, or other movements and onto thinking about the energy exchange with the opponent. Since his or her movements are what cause me to draw and release my bows, I cannot divorce the theory of my own body’s movement from that of my opponent’s.
The bending of a bow does not merely react to the energy of the arm drawing it, it is another manifestation of it. The movement of the bow and the string do not just closely match the force imparted to the arrow, the two are really the same. One’s ward off and roll back arm does not merely react cleverly and nimbly to the opponent’s push, the movement is one continuous thread of energy back and forth from the bottom of one’s feet through one’s body into one’s arm into the opponent’s body all the way to his or her center.
One last way I find the bow image useful is in making me concentrate on the joints, tendons, and sinews. The strength of a bow is dependent upon two things, one of which is the amount of resiliency in its component parts, i.e., how the parts resist compression and how they spring back. (Think of a compound bow.) I theorize that the resilience of the body bow is provided by proper use of opposing muscle groups as mediated by focusing on the tendons and sinews. The idea would be not to put the muscles to sleep or to stiffen them, but to wake all of them up so that coordination of the opposing muscle groups nears perfection, and sensitivity to the joint angles in response to external force is magnified. (“No fly can alight” without setting the whole structure into adjusting motion.)
The other main determinant of a bow’s strength is its length. (Imagine an English longbow.) The corollary in the body would be to link up as many joints as possible, so that the angle of one joint becomes interdependent with as many other joints as possible. For instance, compressive pressure on a ward off arm should perhaps translate into compression in the small of the back and in the kuas and into extension in the other arm. This is different from other styles where one is free to use the muscles to maximize strength in a more limited set of joints for a more limited length of time.
For instance, in Karate, one can throw virtually the same types of strikes and blocks from any stance and with either hand; whereas reversing the hands in many T’ai Chi stances and postures is not possible without radical adjustment. Imagine standing in a bow stance with the left foot forward and doing a right-handed Fan Through the Back, a right-handed Parting Wild Horses Mane, or a Single Whip with a left-handed hook hand. For me, this contrast between modularity and integrated movement is captured within the bow metaphor.
All these thoughts may, of course, be completely off base; nevertheless, I marvel at an art that can inspire so much from such simple metaphors as “Four ounces deflect/move/repel a thousand pounds,” “Move like a river,” or “Accumulate ‘jin’ like drawing a bow.”
Let me close with two excerpts from the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) (Chapters 77 and 78) that partially inspired these thoughts, courtesy of the www.human.toyogakuen-u.ac.jp/~acmuller/contao/laotzu.htm
link on www.zhongwen.com.
“Nothing in the world is softer than water,
Yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.
This is because nothing can alter it.
”That the soft overcomes the hard
And the gentle overcomes the aggressive
Is something that everybody knows
But none can do themselves.”…
“The Way of Heaven
Is like stretching a bow.
The top is pulled down,
The bottom is pulled up.
Excess string is removed
Where more is needed, it is added.
”It is the Way of Heaven
To remove where there is excess
And add where there is lack.
The way of people is different:
They take away where there is need
And add where there is surplus.”