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The Importance of the Classics

PostPosted: Tue Dec 09, 2008 5:54 pm
by Yin Peixiong
Chang Yijin in Authentic Principles of Taijiquan includes an essay titled Related Thoughts on "New Ideas". Undoubtedly he addresses conditions in China that are different from ours. But this board has also encountered posters who may not be convinced of the importance of the Classics. I am posting a translation of his essay.
Correspondences from quite a few of the readers comment on how my “discussions on the principles of Taijiquan differ from those discussed by others, containing many new ideas”, etc. These comments not only cause me some embarrassment but also surprise. After recovering from my surprise, I reflected on the words “new ideas”.

The Position of the Classics

A common approach in Taijiquan books is to devote the vast majority of a book to introducing the frame. After the frame’s introduction, the author’s “work” is completed. The Classics which are the heart and soul of Taijiquan are attached as “Appendix” at the end of the book. As Appendix, they are intended only as reference, not essential to the book.

The Classics are the essence of Taijiquan; they are the soul of Taijiquan. To not recognize their importance to guide our practice, to not respect their authoritative stature, to casually make decisions on our own, our Taijiquan would inevitably veer and go down a wrong path.

As the Classics have become “Appendix”, such a reversal of a book’s presentation order reflects many peoples’ slighting of the Classics; they have not delved into the relationship between the Classics and the frame. Since this represents an author’s viewpoint, the readers (mainly practitioners) mostly view Taijiquan merely as another barehand form and do not examine directly the differences between Taijiquan and other forms. They suppose that with daily practice their skills will be developed. However, after a long period of practice, they do not possess even a shadow of Taijiquan skills; they have not developed the ability to use softness to conquer hardness but have themselves become warriors as hard as steel. They now turn around to say that “using softness to conquer hardness” is but exaggerated Taijiquan propaganda propagated by the literati; it may sound good, but as for real martial arts skills, how would it be possible without great strength?

This is quite a common situation in today’s world of Taijiquan. Many have forgotten the existence of the Classics, or they misinterpret the Classics. They would either not look directly at or altogether avoid the special Taijiquan characteristics expounded in the Classics such as “whenever one moves, the entire body must be light and lively”, “…in all of these cases, it is yi, and are not from externalities”, “a feather cannot be added; a fly cannot alight”, “issuing jin requires being sunken and thoroughly loosened”. They would say that beginners only need to pay attention to loosened and soft for a year or two! Is this really sufficient to just pay attention to loosened and soft for one or two years? Would that lead to “thoroughly loosened”? Can the skill of listening jin then reach the level of “a feather cannot be added; a fly cannot alight”? Isn’t this directly contradicting the teachings of the Classics and is merely some willful subjective substitution?

To revitalize Taijiquan and to restore Taijiquan to its original form, we must change the current mode of not practicing according to the Classics; we must change our situation of bending the interpretation of the Classics at will. First we must place the Classics in their rightful position. Therefore in my work I deviate from the common practice and place the Classics at the beginning of my book in order to convey to practitioners their importance, to clearly state that they are not only for use as reference, that they can only be placed as “Appendix”, but that we must use them to guide our practice. Whether it be practicing the frame or push hands, we must respect their authoritative stature. They are the summation of numerous generations’ forerunners’ practical experience; they are the congelation of wisdom; they are the theoretical basis for calling Taijiquan Taijiquan; they hold the wonderment of Taijiquan. Without them, we would not have Taijiquan.

The ancients used the accumulation of uncountable generations’ experiences to raise them to the high level of theory and wrote the Classics so as to show those who come afterwards the essential path. Only by following the Classics to practice the frame can one practice real Taijiquan. And it is only by following the Classics in practice can one reach the acme of Taijiquan skills, to obtain its special applications results. If the Classics have no relevance to our practice, why would the ancients bother with their creation?

Due to the terrible causes of the past few decades, we are tasting in full the bad fruits. In every walk of life few are dedicated to their work and at the same time serious work lack continuity. Shallow and mediocre cads are everywhere and capable, educated, thoughtful people are few. The world of Taijiquan is not exempt. Many people do not follow the Classics. Instead they substitute their own feelings for the Classics. To borrow a popular phrase, this is “ruled by man” and not “ruled by law (of Classics)”.

The Classics in Our Heart

For practitioners of Taijiquan, the attitude toward the Classics can best be likened to the faithful and their scripture: To read them daily. Not only should one be thoroughly familiar with them, one should frequently study them in depth, at all times link up with practice to become enlightened of their principles. One must attain a certain degree of understanding of the Classics in order for practice to rise to a given level. With a shallow appreciation of theory or with insufficient grasp of theory, skills cannot be developed.

Without the Classics in one’s heart, with low level skills, or having distorted Taijiquan to other barehand forms gives rise to the strange phenomenon of people opposing “using softness to conquer hardness”. What kind of Taijiquan is it without using softness to conquer hardness!

As proven in practice, softness and lightness with liveliness cannot be achieved in one or two years. Many pursue a lifetime and yet do not obtain the fruits of softness and lightness with liveliness. Yet only with a high degree of softness and lightness with liveliness can one’s sensitivity in listening jin reach the state of “the other does not know me; I alone know the other”. The Classics also say “the prowess of the hero has no equal. Does it not all come from this?” One sees that softness and lightness with liveliness must not be neglected by Taijiquan practitioners; they are the goals of lifelong struggle.

Our Taijiquan has already been twisted and has become deformed. I wish to defend the true and authoritative stature of the Classics, to return Taijiquan to its original form. In actuality, what I discuss and narrate simply emphasizes immutable principles in the Classics such as “reach the utmost in softness, then reach the utmost in hardness”, “spirit should be focused within in stillness”, “ponder and silently comprehend”. I am hardly introducing “new ideas”; what I discuss are existing ideas and old ideas from the Classics, adding only my understandings from practice.

We should awaken to this situation in our Taijiquan world. Many do not follow the Classics and blindly plow ahead in their practice; their Taijiquan is no longer Taijiquan – this has already become a serious problem and has been in existence for some time.

The Classics As Criteria for Right and Wrong

It is common to consider that Taijiquan has five schools. Actually the number is greater. Some are real Taijiquan, he school of Xi’an is a clear example, but few people know about it. In publications new schools often pop up. Mostly these are offsprings of Yang and Wu schools where the leaders are eager to establish their own schools. The skills of many of these leaders are not high enough to really establish new schools. But all kinds of theories float around to support their claims. Many readers complain that it’s difficult to distinguish between who practices real Taijiquan. I can boldly advise the readers to simply observe whether their practice is consistent with the Classics. If they are not, even if the practitioner has a great deal of fame, there are good reasons for suspicion.

As for my “discussions on the principles of Taijiquan differ from those discussed by others”, the differences may be real. However, since I do not violate the principles of the Classics, I am not the one who is distorting Taijiquan. Being different from others cannot be helped and is a good thing!

PostPosted: Tue Dec 09, 2008 10:46 pm
by Jamie
Hi YP,

I totally agree with you on the importance of the classics! There are some problems, however. You need the guidance of a good teacher. If a beginner reads the classics they will misunderstand alot of the content. Even many masters write full books with commentaries on the classics and many have different interpretations of them. That's another problem - so many books devoted to the classics with opinions of what they mean.

I say it is best to get just a simple translation of the classics with little or no commentary and study them while at the same time training with a high level teacher.

Also, teachers themselves often talk in class about the classics and give their opinions on the meanings. That's fine if they know what they are talking about but it takes alot of training, study and time to really understand.

With a long time in training and study people can start to understand the meanings of the poems - but this changes as the student's skill level changes. So much like taiji - always changing - always partially incomplete.

Rereading the classics frequently is a good idea. Every few weeks or months as one's skill changes then the classics have new meaning.


PostPosted: Wed Dec 10, 2008 6:32 am
by Louis Swaim
Greetings Arthur,

Thank you for sharing your translation of this essay. Since I endeavor always to be a critical thinker, I would probably not go so far as to say: “For practitioners of Taijiquan, the attitude toward the Classics can best be likened to the faithful and their scripture. . . .” That is to say, I’m not a fundamentalist in my regard for the classics, but I certainly agree that it can be very rewarding to investigate the intended meanings of the authoritative masters who documented their taiji experience and understanding in these early writings. It’s important not only to study the classics as texts, but to test them in one’s own practice.

Take care,

PostPosted: Wed Dec 10, 2008 10:52 pm
by Jamie
Hi Guys,

While we're on the subject of the classics, Louis I'd like to say that your translations are among the very best! There are few translations that I trust, even some of the contemporary masters, but your work is excellent. It seems you can offer a scientific approach to translations, rendering an impartial work for the reader to learn from for themselves. I really appreciate your scholarly ethic. I recommend the books you've worked on for my students to read. Keep up the good work!


PostPosted: Thu Dec 11, 2008 12:14 pm
by mlot
<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Yin Peixiong:
Chang Yijin in Authentic Principles of Taijiquan includes an essay titled Related Thoughts on "New Ideas". Undoubtedly he addresses conditions in China that are different from ours. But this board has also encountered posters who may not be convinced of the importance of the Classics. I am posting a translation of his essay.</font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

Please correct me if I am wrong, but I have always been lead to believe that the art of Taijiquan is ever growing, advancing, and changing. I was under the impression that the classics provided a solid foundation for essential priciples, but not an absolute authority for the practice of Taijiquan. I thought that even within the classics those we considered past masters built upon and added to the classics of their own past masters.

So is it not advisable, is it so dangerous, to practice Taijiquan beyond the level of the classics without more modern understanding or individual experiences? Is Taijiquan a fixated art not open to any type of change? Were there only past masters and no present masters to add to or continue the classics for future generations?

PostPosted: Mon Dec 15, 2008 5:05 pm
by Yin Peixiong
Hi mlot,

I know I will never be able to exhaust the principles in the Classics in my own practice.

The Classics certainly need not be ossified. Chang's book includes Yang Chengfu's On Practice in its section on the Classics, which is an expansion of the traditional Taijiquan canon.

Re: The Importance of the Classics

PostPosted: Fri Dec 11, 2015 8:57 pm
by martin2
Here an article form Ma Hailong about this topic: ... om-ma.html