My sixth grade teacher used to say: "Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread." Not being one to always heed good advice, I would like to rush in and make a few comments about "song," "fangsong," "relaxation," and "jin."
I like Mike's definition of song, but I think it can be incomplete as a guide to practice. I used a similar working definition for many years and reached a level of frustration trying to find the right balance between "limpness" and "tension" in an effort to achieve true "relaxation."
At my first of two seminars with the Yangs, I was frankly shocked to hear that what I had always understood as "relaxation" was translated as "fangsong." My understanding of this term has always been very different from the common connotations of "relaxation." (Let me clarify that I know a fair amount of Chinese vocabulary, grammar, and linguistic theory, but my fluency and practical knowledge is almost nill.) To my understanding, although "fangsong" can indeed be translated "relaxation," its core meaning is "looseness," whereas the core meaning of "relaxation" in English has become "minimal exertion."
Watching Yang Zhen Duo at the seminar demonstrate what he meant by "fangsong" further made me feel that I had fundamentally misjudged much of what I had read in the T'ai Chi literature in English about "relaxation." Whenever I now encounter references to "relaxation," I mentally substitute words like "loosening up." For linguistic reasons, I also pay close attention as to whether the term might have an implied object and what the object is, since I believe that fangsong could also be fairly translated as "loosen it or them up." Furthermore, I think that loosening (or relaxing) muscles is not necessarily the same thing as loosening (or relaxing) joints and sinews.
I believe that my confusion was deepened by the fact that "relaxation" in the English sense of the word (and one of the possible meanings of "fangsong") is a central characteristic of Cheng Manching's teachings, which is the foundation of much of the literature available in English in the U.S. Before I receive any hate mail, I do not mean to imply that this understanding of "relaxation" is an incorrect interpretation of T'ai Chi principles, merely that it is only one of several possible interpretations of the term "fangsong."
I do not believe that I am completely "out there" on this issue, for I note that Louis Swaim talks about translating "fangsong" as "loosened" or "loose," rather than as "relaxed," in his introduction to Fu Zhongwen's book.
Another important aspect of this nuance is that in my opinion, Yang Zhen Duo talks a lot about the effort and intention required to "fangsong," which implies doing something active and does not have any of the connotations of minimal exertion that "relaxation" implies.
Somewhere on this site (where exactly eludes me at this moment) I recall reading a description of palm technique that I found particulary illustrative of this issue in two aspects. First, Yang Zhen Duo warns against insufficiently seating the wrist, rather than against overdoing it. Second, Jerry comments on the value and simplicity of the action. Though much can be said about this, I believe the description is very different from an injunction to cultivate minimal exertion or to spend years learning how to begin to relax. Again, I do not say that the latter is wrong, only that it is not the only interpretation of what it means to "fangsong."
I apologize for belaboring this issue, but I feel this discovery had a major effect on my practice. In trying to improve my performance of Yang Zhen Duo's form, I have basically abandoned thoughts of "relaxation," embraced thoughts of loosening and extension, and feel I have discovered an entire world of T'ai Chi that used to be inaccessable to me. I recall with sympathy statements I heard from Jou Tsung Hwa about wasting decades trying to improve his practice merely be "relaxing" more.
As for the discussion of "jin," I have two thoughts. First, why not consider translating some of the usages as "power"? This is certainly the word English speaking martial artists often use when talking about storing, generating, cultivating, and emitting force. In these contexts, it is certainly distinct from innate muscular strength and implies the application of skill and experience, while not excluding a connection with physical strength. The term "power" might be awkward in phrases like "listening power" or "understanding power," but seems okay to me in other contexts.
By the way, one interpretation of the right side of the traditional character for "jin"/"jing" that I have read is a loom showing the lengthwise (warp) threads, rather than a picture of underground stream. The apparent interpretation of the elements of the character might then be "the intergrated strength shown by well woven cloth." I like this image, because it meshes with the image of the resilient strength imparted by the looseness of a tennis net.
Another point I would like to make for those unfamiliar with Chinese is that although much of the T'ai Chi vocabulary can indeed have specialized meanings, its origin is simultaneously very basic, often using terms whose core meanings would be familiar to five-year olds. Translating "jin" as "instrinsic strength," for example, obscures the essential simplicity of the term. Similarly, I would think that Chinese children learn the term "qi" (tianqi?, sheng qi?)long before English-speaking children learn the word "energy."
I have greatly enjoyed this discussion of "jin" and am wondering whether others would be interested in exploring the linguisting meanings and origins of other T'ai Chi terms, including "qi," "hua," "na," "an," "ji," and "Taiji." I have repeatedly read translations or discussions of these terms that I have found very misleading on linguistic or cultural grounds. Any thoughts?
On a similar note, I would be interested in exploring (as a questioner and contributer) the origin of many of the posture names from the hand and weapons forms. I have seen some references to mistranslations or dialect confusions on this site, but my Chinese is too weak to follow the linguistic references without tones or more details. I also think that, although we all owe a debt to the initial pioneers in translating Chinese into English, settling for linguistic monstrosities such as "Apparent Closure" is a crime against nature at this late date of T'ai Chi development in the English-speaking world. I also found such names singularly unhelpful in acquiring the flavor of such postures, until I explored the Chinese behind the translations.
If there are any takers, I would be happy to start off a new thread, since I have questions or heard stories about most of the postures from the hand form that might be of general interest.
[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 02-28-2001).]