Questions have come up about the meaning of “substantial and insubstantial” or “empty and full” in taiji theory. I’ve tried below to gather some thoughts and findings on some of the historical meanings of the terms that I hope will be interesting and helpful to folks in their own investigations and practice. The Chinese terms in question are “xu” and “shi.” These words have ranges of meaning that depend upon the context in which they are being used. Xu can mean "empty," "tenuous," "intangible," "insubstantial," "false," etc. Shi can mean “solid,” "full," "substantial," "real," “coming to fruition,” etc. Although I’ve used the English words “substantial and insubstantial” in the past to translate “xu and shi,” I’ve come to feel that “empty and full” are better renderings, and sometimes the gerund forms “emptying and filling” better still, because they better capture conceptually what in taiji is essentially processional rather than static.
More pertinant to taiji theory than the individual terms, however, are their combined use as a correlative pair: xu/shi. Significantly, perhaps the earliest occurance of xu/shi in this correlative pairing is in the Sunzi (The Art of Warfare, c. 400 B.C.E.). In the fifth chapter of that book, “Stategic Advantage” (Shi), the correlative pairing xu/shi is found in the following sentence: “If wherever the army attacks it is like a whetstone thrown against an egg, it is due to the vacuous and substantial [xu shi].” (Ralph Sawyer, trans., in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, p. 164) In Roger Ames’ excellent translation of Sunzi, he translates xu shi in this sentence as “weak points” and “strong points.” (Ames, Sun-tzu: The Art of Warfare, pp. 118-118) Although these meanings can apply, I find them limiting, and prefer Sawyer’s wording in this instance. Non-deployment of strength, after all, is not synonomous with weakness, and I don’t think Sunzi would have thought it so either. The importance of this point should not be lost on taijiquan practitioners.
The following chapter (six) of the Sunzi is in fact titled “Empty and Full” (Xu Shi). Here we find insights such as the following: “To attack with the confidence of taking one’s objective is because one attacks what the enemy does not defend. To defend with the confidence of keeping one’s charge secure is because one defends where the enemy will not attack.” (Ames, p. 123) The closing lines of this chapter, I think, have great bearing on the meaning of the correlative pairing xu/shi in taijiquan theory:
“Now the army’s disposition of force [xing] is like water. Water’s configuration [xing] avoids heights and races downward. The army’s disposition of force [xing] avoids the substantial [shi] and strikes the vacuous [xu]. Water configures [xing] its flow in accord with the terrain; the army controls its victory in accord with the enemy. Thus the army does not maintain any constant strategic configuration of power [shi]; water has no constant shape [xing]. One who is able to change and transform in accord with the enemy and wrest victory is termed spiritual! Thus [none of] the five phases constantly dominates; the four seasons do not have constant positions; the sun shines for longer and shorter periods; and the moon wanes and waxes.”
—Sawyer, p. 168
So the summary lines of Sunzi’s chapter on Empty and Full emphasize this waxing and waning quality, the futility of fixed configurations, and the efficacy of fluid adaptation to changing circumstances. All of these qualities, I think, apply to empty and full in taiji theory.
The “waxing and waning” sense of xu/shi, probably appropriated from military theory, is also found in traditional Chinese medical theory. There shi refers to “energy abundance” or what Manfred Porkert terms “repletio,” and xu refers to “energy exhaustion” or “inanitas.” (Porkert’s Chinese Medicine, p. 71, cited in John Minford’s newly published Sunzi translation, The Art of War: The essential translation of the classic book of life, Viking, 2002, p. 177).
I believe that in taijiquan xu/shi seems to apply both in a strategic sense of interacting with a partner or adversary (responding and according to empty and full), and in an individual sense of monitoring and managing the ebb and flow of jin in one’s own movements. So both the military and medical models may have influenced the development of taiji theory. But there is an additional way that xu/shi comes into play: one of psychology. Here is where the entailments of “false” and “real” for xu and shi come into play. In the famous sixteenth century Chinese novel, San guo yan yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), there is a good deal of discussion of the tactical use of xu and shi. One general would try to anticipate the moves of another, and to entice his adversary with a show of emptiness, only to trap him with ambushes. One of the characters, Zhuge Liang, explicitly talks of using dissimulation (man), and of anticipating precisely what his adversary was anticipating HE was anticipating. He said to Guan Yu, “Have you not heard of the method of warfare of ‘[attacking] the empty with the empty and the solid with the solid [xu xu shi shi]’?” (quoted in Lisa Raphals, Knowing Words: Wisdom and Cunning in the Classial Traditions of China and Greece, p. 142) Eventually, the phrase “xu xu shi shi” became a set phrase for “feints and ambushes.” This same phrase appears in the taiji text thought to have been transmitted by Yang Banhou, the “Xu Shi Jue” (translated by Douglas Wile in T’ai-chi Touchstones, p. 76, as “The Secret of Full and Empty.” I’ve tried my hand at translating it here:
Xu Shi Jue
Using empty-empty full-full, the spirit gathers within.
Using empty-full full-empty, hands trade merits.
If in training quan you’re not versed in the principles of empty and full,
It will be a waste of gongfu with no end result.
Abiding in the empty, issuing the full; the knack is in the palm.
If the center remains full, with no release, refinement will be elusive.
Knowing that empty and full themselves contain empty and full,
In applying empty-empty full-full, your attacks will not be in vain.
—transmitted by Yang Banhou
It’s a difficult text, but my sense of it is that the strategic, the internal energy, and the psychological applications of “empty and full” are all being addressed.
I also took a look in my Jingxuan Taijiquan Cidian (Dictionary of Essential Taijiquan Terms), and found an entry for the phrase, “xu shi fen ming” that seems to bear on recent discussions we’ve had. Here’s my rough translation of the entry:
Empty and Full are Clearly Differentiated (xu shi fen ming):
A taijiquan training essential. Sometimes expressed “empty and full are clearly distinguished” (xu shi fen qing), or “distinguish empty and full” (fen xu shi). The problem of empty and full exists within every movement of taijiquan. That an empty part (chu4: place, point) contains fullness implies the impending transition to “full.” The full part must not be fixed (si3: rigid, lifeless), but still contains the pivotal condition of transformation. “Empty and Full are Clearly Differentiated” does not mean a cut and dried “separated” (fen kai).
—Jingxuan Taijiquan Cidian, pp. 225-226
The last sentence addresses the concept that differentiating empty and full is a matter of understanding correlative relationship, where, as Wang Zongyue’s “Taijiquan Treatise” states: “Yang does not leave yin; yin does not leave yang. The mutual cooperation of yin and yang is precisely what makes up the understanding of energy.” The Chinese word “fen” can mean “to separate, to cut apart,” but it also can mean to differentiate or distinguish. The above entry makes it explicit that the notion expressed in the “Taijiquan Classic” as “Empty and full must be clearly distinguished” does not mean to separate empty and full. The very next line in the classic is in my opinion one of the most profound: “Each point has its point of empty/full. Everywhere there is always this one empty/full.”
Here’s my translation of the Jingxuan Taijiquan Cidian entry for that phrase:
Each point has its point of empty/full. Everywhere there is always this one empty/full.
A famous taijiquan saying, coming from Wu Yuxiang’s “Taijiquan Classic.” Each point in taijiquan contains a contradictory pair of empty and full. When practicing quan, the hands and legs have empty and full; the skillfull deployment of opening and closing have empty and full; in fighting techniques, the opponent and myself entail empty and full; when issuing energy (fajin), the reserving and releasing entail empty and full. Hence some martial artists emphasize that taijiquan is in fact “empty/full boxing” (xu shi quan). Yet the many faceted transformations of empty and full converge under the greater principle [i.e., taiji] of empty/full, what is called “always this one empty/full.” This principle encompasses “within empty there is full, within full there is empty,” “empty and full mutually arise,” “empty and full mutually reflect,” “empty and full rely on one another,” “empty and full distinguish one another,” and so forth.
—Jingxuan Taijiquan Cidian
I’ll just observe that the wording “contradictory pair” is what I would call an amusing artifact of modern Chinese sociopolitical discourse. The word for contradiction, “maodun,” is quite old, from a story in the Han Feizi about a seller of spears and shields. But the word became an obligatory expression in Maoist China having Hegelian and Marxist overtones having to do with antagonistic dialectical relationships. In my opinion, the taiji relationship of xu/shi is correlative, but not essentially antagonistic.
In Li Yiyu’s “Five Key Words,” he stated: “Empty does not mean completely devoid of strength (li), and full does not mean to completely stand firm (zhan sha).” This understanding is echoed in Yang Chengfu’s discussion of empty and full in the legs in his “Discussion of Taijiquan Practice,” where he said, “What is here called empty is not void, for its power is not yet disconnected, but reserved and retained in the intention of the changes of expansion and contraction. What is called full is simply that it is sound and real—without excessive use of energy, which would mean use of fierce strength.”
All of the above indicates to me that the taiji theory of empty and full has clearly identifiable antecedents in early military concepts, traditional medicine and philosophy, and that it has strategic, internal energy, and psychological applications.
I look forward to comments, criticism, and reflections of personal experience.
[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 06-25-2003).]
[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 06-25-2003).]