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PostPosted: Mon Sep 03, 2001 1:09 am
by Louis Swaim

I’m beginning a new thread here that I hope will get some discussion going about unique metaphors in taiji theory. I have a particular interest in the study of metaphor. In recent years, I’ve been influenced in my thinking about metaphor by the work of the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, and his associate, philosopher Mark Johnson. Together, they wrote the fascinating little book, _Metaphors We Live By_ (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), and the more wide-ranging study, _Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought_ (1999, Basic Books). In the latter book, the two authors advance the following three notions: 1) The mind is inherently embodied. 2) Thought is mostly unconscious. And, 3) Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical. It would be difficult to attempt to summarize the import of the research these two scholars offer, but essentially the authors demonstrate that metaphor plays a much greater role in our daily lives than we tend to consciously acknowledge; metaphor in this sense is not mere literary device, but is a fundamental way that we perceive and interact with life. Mental processes are fundamentally rooted in bodily reality, in the very “neural modeling” of our physiology. Many metaphors are grounded in body experience—in sensorimotor systems and spatial-relations concepts. When we think of time, for example, we tend to do so in spatial terms: the future is in front of us while the past is behind us. Positive emotions are “up” while negative emotions are “down.” Well, you get the picture.

Taijiquan has its own array of metaphors, in the received names of the postures, in the captured oral tradition, and in the written taiji classics. Dong Yingjie is quoted to have said, “To learn something good you have to use your mind a little.” (Wile, T’ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions, p. 147) So, I’d like to invite folks to use their minds a little with regard to the meaning of taiji metaphors. Can we better appreciate and understand this art if we explore the cultural entailments of the metaphors unique to the tradition? How do these metaphors work?

To begin, there is a particular metaphor I’d like to discuss: the familiar “four ounces deflect one thousand pounds” (si liang bo qian jin). Some time ago, I discovered an interesting four-character phrase in my CD-ROM version of the massive Chinese dictionary, _Hanyu Da Cidian_, that may be something of a “building block,” or primary metaphor for this idea. The phrase is: “si liang hong rou,” which means literally “four ounces [of] red flesh.” It is defined as referring to “the mind/heart,” or as one’s “conscience.” Get it? The four ounces of flesh is the human heart, which in traditional thinking was the locus of thought and emotion. So, the “four ounces deflect one thousand pounds” phrase in taiji theory kind of resonates with this little trope if one keeps in mind the “yong yi bu yong li” (use mind/intent, not strength) idea.

I also found in my trusty Far East Chinese-English Dictionary a phrase I’d managed to overlook before: “si liang bo qian jin.” It is the exact phrase as the one appearing in the Da Shou Ge (Song of Pushing Hands) and the Taijiquan Treatise, except that the “jin” here is the character “gold” instead of “pound.” The definition is “to accomplish a great task with little effort by clever maneuvers.” The “gold” jin, of course, can refer to money and wealth, and liang, besides being a unit of weight, was a small silver denomination—tael. This gives the aphorism a sort of “buy low, sell high” entailment that might have been used among the merchant class of traditional China. Interestingly, I’ve seen this variant of the phrase with the “gold” jin character in some taiji documents. In any case, it makes one wonder if the phrase existed in general usage before it became a part of taijiquan theory, or if it migrated into general usage *from* taijiquan theory.

Well, that’s my rambling beginning. Does anyone have any thoughts on this or other metaphors in taijiquan?

Take care,

PS, Here's a link to Lakoff's Conceptual Metaphor page at UC Berkeley, for those interested:

PostPosted: Mon Sep 03, 2001 3:42 am
by DavidJ
Hi Louis,

I like your idea, and I guess I get to start it off.

Could expressions similar to "moving as though you are drawing silk from a cocoon" implying, perhaps, something similar to the English metaphor "emerging from a cocoon" meaning developing beautifully?

Metaphors be with you.

David J

PostPosted: Mon Sep 03, 2001 3:23 pm
by tai1chi
Hi Louis,

fascinating topic. In the 70s and 80s, literary theorists were interested in something the called "deconstruction." Essentially, the idea centered around the conception of what "language" is in relation to the individual hearer/writer. The metaphor that was commonly used was that of a brick wall. When we look at it, we consider it to be solid, when it's really made up of bricks and mortar. Moreover, we often think of the bricks as the "solid" part, and almost equivalent to "the wall." However, a stack of bricks is not a wall. In terms of language, individual words can be likened to the bricks we mistake for being walls. In reality, what holds the bricks together is the mortar. Anyway, their point was that we tend to assume we understand a sentence or language, in general, if we understand the words, the bricks. However, the words are meaningless, or "not meaningful" without an understanding of the mortar that connects them. I.e., we must read between the lines and the words in order to understand a statement or idea. Distressingly, the "mortar" varies from individual to individual until tradition or convention cements their associations. "Softness," for example, in the tjq paradigm, is seemingly contradictory to Western ideas of combat: So, too, with "4 ounces xxx a thousand pounds." Some might argue that it can "only" be understood as a metaphor, even in Chinese, beause "language" is metaphor, and no word refers to any meaning outside of context. However, context can be shared. Anyway, I don't think that Westerners can understand tjq concepts in Chinese terms or that Chinese understand them the same way consistently with each other. The big "P" in tjq is understood differently in the various schools and styles of tjq. Anyways, words are only pointers --very much like that something people call the Tao. No?

Steve James

PostPosted: Mon Sep 03, 2001 10:13 pm
by Louis Swaim
Greetings David,

You wrote:
“Could expressions similar to "moving as though you are drawing silk from a cocoon" implying, perhaps, something similar to the English metaphor "emerging from a cocoon" meaning developing beautifully?”

Well, I think this may be a good example of how we can’t expect metaphors to hold up in a cross-cultural situation—I don’t think the intended meaning is similar at all. The Western “emerging from a cocoon” metaphor is an example of a literary metaphor. The taiji “mobilize jin as though drawing silk” metaphor (yun jin ru chousi), however, is a very good example of a conceptual metaphor. This kind of metaphor is different from a figure of speech, or a poetic way of expressing something for esthetic reasons. The conceptual metaphor actually has to do with thought and action, and is based on experience. It is a way of understanding one kind of experience in terms of another kind of experience. In this case, it is based upon something that was part of the cultural landscape of traditional China that many people in rural settings were exposed to from early childhood—sericulture, raising silkworms for production of raw silk. Sericulture in China goes back millennia, and was prescribed in detailed ritual. Because of the value of silk domestically and for export, the processes of production were closely-guarded.

From what I understand, each silkworm produced its cocoon in one continuous strand—a very fine fiber. Silk production required removal of the intact individual fibers from cocoons and winding these into thread that was then woven into fabric. The drawing, or pulling of silk (chousi) from the cocoons was a very delicate proceedure. If done incorrectly—with too much force, or with stops and starts—the fiber would break. So, it is this imagery that taiji theory draws upon to better understand the interaction of body-mechanics and mental intent required for movement that is integrated, constant, sensitive, and smooth.

The phrase chousi is a common metaphor not limited to taijiquan. It is often used to describe doing something slowly and meticulously. There are related expressions that shed light on the metaphor. One of them is “bojian chousi,” which is something like “peel cocoon draw silk.” This is used to describe a detailed inqiry into a specific sequence of events, as in a criminal investigation or a scientific experiment. It implies deep and detailed observation, similar perhaps to our metaphors of “leaving no stone unturned,” or “going over something with a fine-toothed comb.” Another expression is “dujian chousi,” roughly “single cocoon draw silk,” which is used as a metaphor describing literary work that is well-organized and clear, a thread of thought or sequence of ideas that successfully cohere. Equivalent metaphors we may use in English might be those like a “train of thought,” or following the “thread” or “line” of an argument.

The taijiquan use of the metaphor involves tactile sensitivity as well as mental awareness and concentration. To my mind, it’s a powerful metaphor.

Take care,

PostPosted: Tue Sep 04, 2001 2:08 am
by Charla Quinn
Thank you for this thread. You've made some of the "common" tcc metaphors clearer for me. A question for you: one of my early teachers used to say that one of the words/characters for martial arts, or wushu (I'm not sure), was two people fighting, but what it actually meant was your own self fighting your own "dark side" . Do you know anything of that? Thanks again. CQ

[This message has been edited by Charla Quinn (edited 09-03-2001).]

PostPosted: Tue Sep 04, 2001 4:44 am
by Louis Swaim
<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Charla Quinn:
Thank you for this thread. You've made some of the "common" tcc metaphors clearer for me. A question for you: one of my early teachers used to say that one of the words/characters for martial arts, or wushu (I'm not sure), was two people fighting, but what it actually meant was your own self fighting your own "dark side" . Do you know anything of that? Thanks again. CQ

[This message has been edited by Charla Quinn (edited 09-03-2001).]</B></font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

Greetings Charla,

There are lots of “folk etymologies” of Chinese characters, and the explanation you were given may be an example of one of those. I remember long before I learned how to investigate the etymologies of Chinese characters, my first sifu told me that wushu meant "the art (or technique) of stopping violence." And indeed, there it is in the structure of "wu"—an element meaning "stop" conjoined with an incoming lance. Here’s a link showing the character wu3, and if you scroll down that page, you’ll find wushu:

As for “fighting your own ‘dark side’,” my feeling is that the endeavor to resolve violence always begins with oneself, so whatever the origin of that idea, I’m for it!

Take care,

PostPosted: Wed Sep 05, 2001 5:59 pm
by Louis Swaim
Greetings Steve,

I appreciate your deconstruction of deconstruction, and it occurs to me that, like the building materials to which you refer, deconstruction itself is a metaphor.

I’ll confess that reading Derrida either left me dazed and confused or with a headache, but there’s something to be said for a process that undermines our assumptions and habits of thought. In any case, I agree with your statement that “context can be shared,” and in fact I think it must be shared—the more the better. That’s why I want to try to explore the context and entailments of the core metaphors of taijiquan.

The early daoist thinker Zhuangzi may have been a deconstructivist himself, and he was very metaphor-conscious, as for example when he stated, "To use a horse to show that a horse is not a horse is not as good as using a non-horse to show that a horse is not a horse." (Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, p. 40)

Take care,

PostPosted: Thu Sep 06, 2001 12:22 am
by DavidJ
Greetings Louis,

Thank you very much for your informative reply.

You wrote:
' There are related expressions that shed light on the metaphor. One of them is “bojian chousi,” which is something like “peel cocoon draw silk.” This is used to describe a detailed inqiry into a specific sequence of events, as in a criminal investigation or a scientific experiment. It implies deep and detailed observation, similar perhaps to our metaphors of “leaving no stone unturned,” or “going over something with a fine-toothed comb.”'

The phrase "like peeling an onion, one layer at a time," comes to mind.

There's an story I heard about translation that you might like :

In the late '50's after the "final" touches were put on a English-Russian translator it was given a trial run. The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" was translated into Russian and then traslated back into English. The programming team was somewhat dismayed with the result: "invisible idiot."

Thanks again,

David J

PostPosted: Sat Sep 22, 2001 5:32 pm
by Audi
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 link on

“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.”

Happy practicing,

PostPosted: Sun Sep 23, 2001 9:15 pm
by Louis Swaim
Greetings Audi,

Thank you for your great post, filled with interesting insights. I’m going to have to respond piecemeal, since there’s so much to chew on here. I’d like to begin with some thoughts on the character “bo.” You wrote:

‘. . . 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"?’

The character bo evidently has a wide array of meanings, some of which are “to govern, control,” “to rectify,” “to separate out,” “to disperse,” “to provoke, tease,” “to poke or prod,” “to distribute,” “to spread,” and as you mention, “to transfer (money).” It appears in some interesting compounds in Mathews’, including bogong (to draw a bow); boluo (to ward off); bosong (to dispatch), and in a great metaphorical chengyu: bo yun jian ri (to scatter the clouds and see the sun—to dissipate error, or redress grievances). Another gloss of bo in my Hanyu Da Cidian* is “to win over.” I’m inclined to think that this is the sense of it in the monetary metaphor that Liang Shiqiu translated as “to accomplish a great task with little effort by clever maneuvers.” Actually, I’m thinking of a word Jerry once used in a different context: “trump”—“four taels trumps a thousand pieces of gold.” That is, one can finesse one’s way to a more advantageous position even if one’s raw materials—monetary or otherwise—are limited.

Now, here’s a discovery I made just this morning that I think may shed light on the word bo as it is used in the taiji metaphor—four ounces deflect a thousand pounds—appearing in various taiji documents. My Ci Hai glossed a meaning of to “uproot” or “to sever” (jue), and cited such a usage in the Shi Jing (Book of Songs: Da Ya, Tang) from Chinese antiquity. Here’s a stanza from the cited poem:

King Wen said, ‘Alas!
Alas! you [sovereign of] Yin-shang,
People have a saying,
“When a tree falls utterly,
While its branches and leaves are yet uninjured,
It must first have been uprooted [ben shi xian bo].”
The beacon [jian: mirror?] of Yin is not far–distant;—
It is in the age of the [last] sovereign of Xia’
—James Legge, trans., pp. 509-–510

Here, King Wen of the Zhou dynasty quoted a metaphor of the Shang people—a metaphor that they had evidently used to explain the fall of the previous (Xia) dynasty. He applied it in turn to explain the Zhou’s overthrow of the Shang, implying that the source of the downfall of Shang was in its own roots. Could this be the “root metaphor” from which the taiji usage of “bo” grew?

To me, the stanza certainly brings to mind the phrase in the Taijiquan Classic: “Thus, its root will be severed, and it will be collapsed quickly and decisively.” The language is different, but the imagery is similar.

The character bo figures prominently in chapter 13, section 12 of Zheng Manqing’s (Cheng Man-ch’ing) Thirteen Treatises. (This is also where the metaphor of leading an ox by her nose is used.) Last winter I translated that section for my own reference. I had always found that particular section fascinating, but noted differences and inconsistencies between the Lo/Inn version and Wile’s version. In particular, I found problematic the use of the word “push” to render “bo,” and the word “pull” to render “qian.” If there’s an interest, I could post my translation for comparison with the other versions.

*(By the way, Audi, you asked about the CD-ROM Hanyu Da Cidian. It’s a completely Chinese dictionary. Endymion Wilkinson says it’s “the leading dictionary of the Chinese language.” It was compiled by a large assembly of scholars in China in the 1980s. The print version is in 13 large volumes. The CD-ROM contains 29,920 different characters, 34,600 word entries, and 23,250 chengyu, for a total of 511,000 entries. The CD has the advantage of being able to cross reference—allowing one to look up unfamiliar words within definitions. You can enter wild cards into searches if you are uncertain or curious about compounds. You can look up using pinyin, radical, stroke count, etc. It’s published by Commercial Press in HK. The one supplier I know of is Cheng and Tsui in Boston. They have a website, so you can order it online, or you can phone them for a catalogue. It’s expensive, over $180.00 with shipping, but I have felt no buyer’s remorse—I love it! All of the installation and user instructions are in Chinese, so patience is a plus. As you no doubt know, no one dictionary is ideal. I often find the Ci Hai is more robust and detailed, with more historical and classical information.)

Take care,

[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 09-23-2001).]

[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 09-24-2001).]

PostPosted: Fri Sep 28, 2001 7:40 am
by Louis Swaim
Greetings Audi,

You wrote:

‘. . .in addition to "a thousand pounds/catties," one of my dictionaries lists "hoisting jack" as a meaning of "qian jin." . . .Assuming this meaning is the correct one, the metaphor might be interpreted as: "Four ounces [suffice to] move a hoisting jack."’

Yes, qianjin is a name for a hoist or jack, also called a qianjinding, or a dingzhongqi—mechanical devices for lifting up heavy objects. I don’t know how old these terms are; they are often described as working on the principles of hydraulics, gears, or screws, etc. The technology sounds modern, but the principles have long been known in China. (An interesting side note: the character for jin (catty) is rooted in a character for “axe.” Axe heads were evidently fairly standard in size in early China, and were used as a standard weight unit.) As for “the power of a lever,” there is a document that explicitly references the principle of the lever in conjunction with the four ounce/thousand pounds formula. This is the “Song of Cai Jin” (pull down energy). Here’s my translation:

How do we unravel the meaning of cai jin?
It is like the measuring beam of a steelyard.
No matter [his] strength be great or small,
After weighing it, we know its lightness and heaviness.
Transmitting through only four ounces,
Even a thousand pounds can be regulated.
If one asks wherein lies the principle,
It is in the application of the lever (gang4 gan3 zhi zuo4 yong4).

My sense of this is that the four ounce/thousand pound metaphor references no specific mechanism per se, but the principle that allows leverage to work.

Take care,

PostPosted: Sun Sep 30, 2001 4:56 pm
by Audi
Greetings Louis,

Thanks for the information on the dictionary and on additional meanins of "bo."

I would also indeed be interested in your interpretations of the Thirteen Treatises. As you may have been able to tell, I tend to begin as a literalist in my understanding of T'ai Chi terminology. I am still struggling to unlearn some of my early understandings, where I had little context to judge my understanding or properly interpret what authors were hinting at. Any insight you can provide on variant translations or interpretations would be most welcome.

Take care,

PostPosted: Sun Sep 30, 2001 9:24 pm
by Louis Swaim

Here is my translation of Zheng Manqing’s Thirteen Chapters, Chapter 13, Section 12, which he presented as coming from Yang Chengfu’s oral instructions. Existing translations are those of Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo (Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, pp. 93-94), and Douglas Wile (Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, pp. 78-80) I translated this as a personal exercise, and post it here, not as a criticism of received translations, but for the sake of comparison. The writing is finely nuanced. Since Zheng’s “Note” emphasizes the need to carefully understand the two words “qian” and “bo,” I endeavored to track these very closely using the respective verbs “lead,” and “deflect.”

13 Chapters, Chapter 13, #12:

“Four ounces deflect one thousand pounds.” How can four ounces deflect one thousand pounds? People all disbelieve this. What is called “Lead his movement, using four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds” [means that it is] only necessary to use four ounces of energy (jin) to lead (qian) the movement of one thousand pounds, and then deflect (bo) it. This “lead” (qian) and “deflect” (bo) are two [separate] matters. It is not a case of actually using “four ounces to deflect one thousand pounds.”

Note to this section: Separately analyzing these two words lead (qian) and deflect (bo) will enable [us to] see their subtle effects (miao yong). As for the method of leading (qian), supposing we pierce the nose of a thousand pound ox, [using] a cord of no more than 4 oz. [strength]. Using a cord of four ounces, [one can] lead (qian) a thousand pound ox to the left or right as one wishes. She may want to flee, but she cannot succeed. Now in leading, [one must] lead precisely [by] the nose. If one leads by her horn or her leg, it won’t do (or, ‘she won’t move’: bu xing ye). This leading is done in accordance with its method (yi qi dao) and in accordance with its location (yi qi chu). Hence, the ox can be lead with a four ounce cord. If it were a thousand pound stone horse, could one still lead it using an old rotten four ounce rope? Impossible! This is a difference in effect between the animate and the inanimate. Humans have a natural intelligence (ling xing). When one wants to use one thousand pounds of strength to attack another person, his advance has directionality, for example coming straight on. I then use four ounces of energy (jin) to lead the end of his hand, going along with his tendency (shun qi shi), then setting it off obliquely (xie chu zhi). This is what we call leading (qian). Therefore, after leading the movement (qian dong zhi hou), and the other’s strength has already fallen on emptiness (luo kong), then at this time I use energy to deflect him (yi jin bo zhi). He will certainly be thrown out a great distance. Nevertheless, the energy [used] to lead him (qian zhi zhi jin) need only be four ounces to be sufficient! The energy [used] to deflect him (bo zhi zhi jin) is entirely up to my consideration. However, the energy used to lead him must not be excessive. [If it is] heavy the other will know it, and will be able to transform to withdrawing. Or perhaps [he] will avail himself of the energy of [my] leading, changing his directionality to get in a surprise attack. Otherwise, the other may know I’m leading him, then reserve his strength (xu qi li) and not advance. Reserving his strength, his position has already become a retreat. I quickly accord with his retreat, then abandon the energy used to lead him (she qian zhi zhi jin) and reverse to issue (er fan wei fa fang). Then the opponent falls down without a hitch. This is counter-deflecting (ci fan bo ye).

One more thing I’d like to point out—since this thread deals with metaphors—is that the metaphor of leading an ox is from a very old literary tradition. The earliest occurrence I’m aware of is in the early Han compendium, the Huainanzi. One of the prevaling themes of the book is a critique of the reliance upon strongarm tactics in government and in warfare, and a promotion instead of understanding and exploiting the disposition/strategic advantage/political ‘purchase’ (shi) of one’s circumstances. Here is a quotation from Roger T. Ames’ translation of chapter nine:

“Now, even if Wu Huo or Chieh Fan [famous strong guys] were to attempt to lead an ox by the tail from behind, they would pull the tail off without budging the ox because they are acting contrary to the way of things. But if one were to pierce the ox’s nose with a sprig of mulberry, even a half-grown boy could lead it around the country because he is following the way of things [shun ye].”
—Roger T. Ames, _The Art of Rulership: A Study of Ancient Chinese Political Thought_, (SUNY, 1994, p. 197.)

Comments and questions welcome.

Take care,

"reserve his strength" transliteration corrected from "gai qi li" to "xu qi li"
(Thanks, Audi!)
[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 09-30-2001).]

[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 10-13-2001).]

PostPosted: Sat Oct 13, 2001 4:17 am
by Audi
Hi Louis,

Although I have read translations of the passage before, I cannot seem to find them at the moment to compare them closely with yours. Nevertheless, what you have done seems clearer than what I recall.

One place I do have a doubt is where the text mentions that when the opponent reserves his/her strength, this becomes a retreat. At first blush, it seems that this was something to avoid, but then it seems that this is actually a good thing. Do you understand my confusion, and if so, can you dispel it?

Also, where you show "gai qi li," is that the same "gai" that means "revise"?

By the way, I did a little more hunting about the meanings of "bo" on some of the Internet dictionaries linked to It occurred to me that the core meaning of this word might be "to move or poke something aside." From this meaning, would come both the sense of "deflecting" an incoming object and also "setting aside" money for other use.

The meaning of "uproot" might come via a sense of "physically move aside or disturb." In other words, once the roots of a tree have been disturbed and their hold is loosened, the tree can fall even before the leaves show any injury.

Because of all this, I expecially like your choice of rendering "bo" as "deflect," rather than "repel," which has very different connotations for me.

Take care,

PostPosted: Sat Oct 13, 2001 6:03 pm
by Louis Swaim
Greetings Audi,

You wrote: ‘. . . where you show "gai qi li," is that the same "gai" that means "revise"?’

Good catch! I mis-represented the pronunciation of the character “xu” (store, reserve, collect) as “gai” (cover) which it visually resembles. So it should be “xu qi li.” I did read the meaning correctly as “reserve,” however. This xu character appears, for example, in a line in the “Mental Elucidation of the Thirteen Postures”: “Store energy (xu jin) as though drawing a bow.” I’ll fix it above.

As for your confusion about what is happening when “the other may know I’m leading him, then reserve his strength (xu qi li) and not advance. Reserving his strength, his position has already become a retreat”—I’m not sure what it is that’s not clear. Reserving one’s strength in itself is not something to avoid; it’s the timing that’s the determining factor. In this case the opponent has retreated at a moment of disadvantage, and Zheng, “according” (yin) with his retreat, issues (fa fang).

In fact, though, this is one of the places where I think there’s a problem in the Lo/Inn translation (Wile, on the other hand, gets it right.). Lo/Inn confuse the implied pronouns, beginning the sequence with “On occasion I can use. . . .” Here, they’ve completely lost the subject of the sentence, who can be found if one follows the thread back to the previous sentence. As I read it, Zheng is still expounding on the pitfalls of using excessive energy in leading, and is talking about what the opponent may do in that case. She has the option of availing herself of (or “rely on”: jie4) “my” exessive leading force, changing her directionality (presumably still towards “my” center) for a surprise attack. Or, she can reserve her strength for a strategic retreat. Zheng’s word “already” (yi) in his remark that her “position has already become a retreat” suggests that the retreat was premature, allowing him to catch her off balance.

Hope this clarifies, and thank you for catching *me* off balance.

Take care,