Hi Louis, David, and others:
You all have provided a lot of interesting material. Since we have gone quite far down this road on this thread, I think I will forego starting a new one on Zhang Yun’s article and simply continue here.
Louis, thanks for the explanation of the various interpretations and origins of the “bian” character. I do indeed find such discussions fascinating. From what you describe, I think your view of what was originally intended by the text seems the most plausible. The concept of remaining sufficiently filled to have appropriate sticking power (“nian jin”) seems an interesting corollary to Yang Zhen Duo’s ceaseless urgings to be full and extended, apparently even during push hands. In any case, it is amazing how a little misplaced squiggle here or there can wreak havoc on a text. As far as a translation goes, I do not think I can improve on your thoughts, but perhaps something like “deflated” focuses on the correct points.
David, thank you for your comments about the four skills. I will respond to your ideas below, but first I wanted to propose some ideas about why physical contact may be so important in T’ai Chi tactics.
One thing I got out of Zhang Yun’s article was an increased appreciation for the physical subtlety of T’ai Chi. My theory of the week about the essence of T’ai Chi as a combat or relationship art is that it puts a premium on the ebb and flow of Yin and Yang energy between you and the opponent. I do not mean by this merely that Yin/Yang theory can be applied to analyze T’ai Chi, since that is true of all activities, but rather that T’ai Chi focuses on sensing, manipulating, and controlling the Yin/Yang energy flow itself.
While there is always a Yin/Yang relationship between you and the opponent in any endeavor, this relationship is not necessarily very strong or dynamic. As you read these words, even separated in space and time, you may be able to follow the thread of energy back to me and get into my head somewhat. But the dog barks, the baby cries, the cupcakes in the fridge call, and the connection is easily broken. You read the words, but can no longer hear them with my mind. The Yin/Yang relationship is tenuous.
To strengthen the thread of energy between you and the opponent, I think T’ai Chi stresses maintaining physical contact and using the whole body as a sensor. Not only do you want the various joints of your body to operate like “one qi” (energy unit), but I think we are also urged to bring the opponent within the ambit of this one qi. Since we train to sense, manipulate, and control this type of “qi,” such a strategy gives us an advantage. If you and your opponent have only one root and flow of energy between you and you control that root and flow, you come out ahead.
By “one qi” I do not mean merely coordination--for instance, like the various parts of a windup toy. Nor do I mean the various sections of a whip, where energy often moves too slowly and only in response to a specific stimulus. Instead, I mean a unit of movement energy like a spider web or a tennis net under light tension. David, I like the sentiment that may have led you to use the phrase kinesthetic energy in this context. This is what I think of as one of the qualities of being “song,” or “relaxed” in the Yangs’ methods. Disturb one part, and the impulse of the disturbance is almost instantly transmitted to the other parts. The opponent pushes your ward-off arm, and the energy is instantly and liquidly transmitted into and through each of the major joints (the nine bends of the pearl?), which bend at different angles and with different levels of tension to sense, absorb, and redirect the energy. Since the path of the energy is so circuitous, the opponent cannot easily follow it with his or her awareness and “know you.” Stiffen up at any joint, and you hand your opponent a potential point of leverage that he or she can feel if sufficiently skilled.
The opponent who is ignorant of these methods will tend to move as a stiff block or by actively using or being aware of only a few joints at a time. If we appropriately use the various joints of our body as one liquid “qi”/energy antenna, we can readily sense the source, length, and strength of any energy the opponent uses against us. We thus listen (“ting”) to the opponent’s flow of energy (“jin”) as the interplay of movement unfolds.
David, you ask whether I think touch is required for listening energy (“ting jin”). I must confess that I cannot recall ever reading an unambiguous and unimpeachable reference to working T’ai Chi skills without simultaneous contact with the opponent. On the other hand, there are countless references to maintaining contact with the opponent and preventing the opponent from disengaging. However, since I am reluctant to abide completely by this conclusion and accept seeming limitations to T’ai Chi theories, I happily extrapolate.
When contact is not yet possible, I think about using my eyes and ears to assess the energy flow in my opponent’s body (tense?, loose?), where their intent is directing that energy (to beat me to the punch?, to trick me?, to bowl me over?), and the quality of character they display at the moment (bent on conquest?, trying to teach me a lesson?, open to anything?). Even here however, I think that there must be a continuous back and forth, rather than a momentary assessment of strengths and vulnerabilities and that you want to be able to physically engage the opponent’s energy as quickly as possible.
I think that this method differs from other martial approaches that stress long- or medium-distance techniques. From some Karate practitioners, I have heard stress on looking into the opponent’s eyes. (See, e.g., Karate Kid, Part 1: “Always look eye.”) My understanding is that such a strategy can have two objectives. One is to engage in combat with the opponent at the level of the spirit (which is alleged to be expressed in the eyes). For instance, can you intimidate or unnerve the opponent? Another objective is to look for telltales in the opponent’s eye movements that will betray his or her intentions. Here the objective is to gauge how quickly the opponent can initiate an effective technique or react to one. How the opponent is rooting and how his or her energy is flowing is, in my opinion, only of minor concern with that sort of focus.
Although I believe these methods can be blended with T’ai Chi approaches (for instance, as the opponent approaches), I do not think they work well for close-in techniques, where the eye is frankly too slow. No Karate practitioner I encountered was willing to stay in close and engage in prolonged exchanges. You close, engage in a flurry, and then back out to regroup and assess.
More importantly, I do not believe such methods reliably contribute to making a physical connection with the opponent’s movement energy. For instance, the method I trained for Karate sparring was to look only at the center of my opponent’s body, to deny him or her an easy opportunity to manipulate me with his or her eye movements. By contrast, an opponent cannot reliably deny you the opportunity to make contact with his or her body if his or her intent is to strike or grapple with you. T’ai Chi as a health art also makes more sense, in my inexpert opinion, if one focuses on this interchange of energy primarily through physical contact and interaction.
Changing focus specifically to Zhang Yun’s article, what I understood about “zhan” was that this seemed to be a method of manipulating the opponent into “pasting” or “sticking” him or herself to you, and thus strengthening the “qi” connection that we train to manipulate and gaining more control of it. Elsewhere in the Yang Forty (or perhaps elsewhere in the Classics) is a reference to “zhan” as being the same as “yielding”. I understand this as meaning that strategic use of physical yielding makes the opponent stick to your movements and thus cede a measure of control.
An example from the form might be the transition between Roll Back and Press (“Ji”). If we execute the Roll Back using the friction of the back of our left arm and hand and our right forearm to “drag” the opponent’s left punching arm to our side and rear, we can encourage the opponent to react by attempting to withdraw his or her arm and to generate counter pressure into our arms that can make him or her more vulnerable to a following Press. Blocking or sharply deflecting the opponent’s punch, on the other hand, breaks the energy connection and spurs the opponent to avoid contact with our arms. This is what I guess would be an instance of what Zhang Yun called the defect of “butting” (“ding”) or going counter to the opponent’s energy in a way that discourages the opponent from “pasting” him or herself to your movements.
David, I like what you say about “provoking” the opponent, but am not as comfortable with language that focuses on “tricking” or “deceiving” the opponent. While deception is certainly part of the T’ai Chi repertoire, I think one of the beauties of T’ai Chi tactics and strategy is that they can work despite the opponent’s knowledge of what is going on and on occasion even because of that knowledge. I think what is important about a skill like “zhan” is that it exploits the natural physical reactions of the opponent in a way that his or her conscious mind can override only with difficulty or with specific training. The opponent pastes him or herself to you because his or her body is screaming that this is the only safe thing to do at the moment, even if it is a losing strategy in the long term. Some authorities talk about putting the opponent into a funnel. He or she sees the walls of the funnel, but feels compelled to proceed to the small end because that is the only direction in which salvation appears to lie.
At a break during one of the T’ai Chi Farm Festivals, one of the seminar teachers (John Painter?) showed an escape from a wrist grab that involved exploiting the grabber’s natural tendencies. He contrasted an opponent’s normal reactions to relaxation, tension, pressure against the fingers, and pressure against the palm. One surprising aspect of the technique was that it often had success even when the grabber knew the exact details of the skill being attempted. If there is interest, I can attempt to describe it in detail for people to experiment with.
Zhang Yun’s description of “nian” (sticking/being sticky) seems to portray a way of constantly adding or subtracting an element to the opponent’s movements that will give him or her trouble (gum up his or her movements) without severing the energy connection. (“Just stay relaxed and touch [the opponent] with a little bit of change.”) Using Roll Back as an example, friction between your rolling left arm and hand and the opponent’s left punching arm not only deflects the punch, but subtly adds more energy to it than the opponent intends and can either uproot him or her or allow you to “seize” (“na”) his or her “energy” (“jin”). Here, if one does not make maximum use of the curving contact between one’s arm and the opponent’s, one has only “tangential” contact that may change the direction of the opponent’s energy, but does not interfere with its length or strength. From what you, Louis and David, have said earlier, perhaps this is what is meant by being “deflated,” “flat,” or “insufficiently rounded” (“bian”). Rather than merely collapsing to avoid “resisting,” you actually have to act like “water bubbling up to fill the crevices.” (Not like flat champagne?) An element of this may be to experience sticking as a fully three-dimensional activity rather than as a flat two-dimensional one that involves only moving toward or away from the opponent’s skin or clothing.
David, you ask about my reference to emotional bonds. I defer to Louis’s interpretation that these words have physical references. Perhaps, they cover territory similar to the English phrase “being attached to someone,” which can be taken to mean either physically or emotionally attached. Perhaps, the author was making a subtle punning allusion, implying something like: “You must remain (lovingly) attached to your opponent and not let him part from you.” By the way, I also like what you say about dealing with what you are presented with and not falling for the opponent’s deceptions, although perhaps this is more the flavor of “lian.”
Zhang Yun describes “lian” (connecting, being continuous, linking up) as referring to two different activities. One is maintaining contact with the opponent. He says that T’ai Chi depends on sensitivity and being able to feel the opponent not only physically, but also with the mind and spirit. This again sounds like making sure to maintain awareness of the writhing snake of energy that threads from the root in your feet, through the major joints, through the point of contact, and toward the opponent’s center. The major defect he describes is losing (“diu”) the contact point, which seems pretty self-explanatory. I would propose adding to this, the defects of being too limp, so that there is not enough solidity for the energy sensations to travel across all the joints, or being too stiff, so that the energy cannot register its presence through changing the dynamic tension and angles of the joints.
Zhang Yun also describes “lian” as referring to the injunction to “[l]ink all changes, one by one continually, smoothly, and never stop.” This is one of the characteristics that I think clearly differentiates T’ai Chi from boxing or Karate. While one might remain in continuous motion during these other activities, the actual techniques are, in my opinion, not thought of as continuous. David, you mentioned “combinations” with disfavor, as lacking “strategy.” The very idea of boxing or Karate “combinations” implies a bunching up of certain techniques and separation of others that I do not think is compatible with the idea of truly “linking” everything up. Is this a similar idea to what you mean by “lacking strategy”?
Zhang Yun links the concept of “sui” (comply) to two sayings: “Forget yourself and obey (follow, yield) your opponent” and “To follow your opponent is intended to finally let him to follow you.” I cannot help but link these ideas to some formulations of the philosophy of non-violent protest movements, which say that one should not directly “resist” evil, since that spurs evil to “resist” good. Violence tends to beget violence, but non-violence ultimately is supposed to beget non-violence.
T’ai Chi seems to have a similar view, where “resisting” the opponent is thought only to encourage stronger and more effective attack. One critical difference is that T’ai Chi does have the concept of “issuing energy” (“fa jin”); however, if my memory of “The Intrinsic Energies of T’ai Chi (?) is correct, “issuing energy” is said to be generally appropriate only when you have “seized”/”held” (“na”) the opponent’s energy and he or she is temporary helpless and under control. In such circumstances, provoking a stronger more effective attack by the opponent is no longer an issue.
David, you mentioned some difficulty with “comply” as an equivalent for “sui,” raising similar points to Zhang Yun about not carrying too far one’s obedience to the opponent’s wishes. Perhaps, the idea of “obliging” the opponent is closer to this sense of letting the opponent have 90% of what he or she wants, while reserving the most critical 10%. An even more accurate translation might be to “go along” with the opponent, which adds an idea of adaptation, while often suggesting some measure of reservation. This also fits better with Louis’s interpretation of “bi zou ci ying,” which I now might translate as: “As one moves, the other responds in accord.”
The idea of going along with the opponent might also fit better with viewing “resisting” (“kang”) as the major defect to avoid in this skill. Rather than resisting the opponent’s movements, you go along with them first, in order to work T’ai Chi magic on them later. You give the opponent nothing to work with, but simply use the energy offered. Such an idea also matches what many masters say about not assuming a specific fighting stance.
When I get time, I may start a post to set the framework for a discussion of listening (“ting”), understanding (“dong”), transforming/neutralizing (“hua”), taking/seizing (“na”), and issuing (“fa”) energies. By the way, I apologize for all the Chinese for those who are not so inclined. I slip it in where I am referring to what I understand to be accepted concepts, but where there may be confusion at my translations. Besides, the less understanding I have, the more I must show off what little knowledge I do have. J On what is hopefully a more serious note, it also more easily allows knowledgeable folk like Louis to see and point out any translation errors I make.
[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 07-24-2001).]