Postby Michael » Sun May 20, 2001 1:31 pm

In the Push Hands thread Mario mentioned taiji not being soft.

We are all familier with the story of Yang Lu Chan admonishing Ban Hou for using too much force after seeing his sleeve ripped after a match. But what kind of "force" was he talking about? Many questions arise for me from this statement.

It is said that one should use never use force against force, that you do not use muscle only "soft" yielding.

Others say that one should use only the amount of force as is necessary.

These statements are at the core of what most of us have been taught. But masters also talk about the use of hardness also. Kuo Lien Ying (to mention just one) speaks about this in the Tai Chi Boxing Chronicles. It has to exist in some form in our art as how can there be yin without yang.

Is a palm strike delivered by a "loose" upper body and propelled and driven by the tensioning of the largest muscle groups of the body--the legs, be considered "soft"?

Can what is called "softness" often be more of a matter of timing than actually the non use of muscle?

Can "hardness" be something different than than arm wrestling?

I have heard a number of ideas describing what is described by "iron (or steel) wrapped in cotton."

It is said that an art like Shaolin becomes "soft" as the practioner reaches the advanced stages and that the taiji practioner becomes "harder".

Now are "softness" and "hardness" concepts that have different meanings depending on how they are applied and when (offense, defense etc)? Is the act of breaking an arm considered a "soft" technique or a "hard" one? Some would say that it is not muscle that accomplishes the act but velocity and angles coupled with....

Just like in the discussion of "song" is the term better described as "loose" than relaxed? What is "hardness" and "softness"? When does one become the other? I think these terms can be looked at from different angles and still be entirely in agreement as stated by the principles.

These are just a few questions. I am certain more will surface. I look forward to your ideas.
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Postby Audi » Sun May 27, 2001 1:32 am

Hi Michael,

Great post. You have articulated a lot of the issues I have struggled with and I will be anxious to hear what general comments you receive from others.

One item I would like to add to your list of questions, or at least to disentangle from other questions, is whether an essential component of good T'ai Chi technique is physical effortlessness. On the push hands thread, Mario commented that a little "struggling" is okay. Even though a a phrase like "a little" can conceal much, do most people agree with that idea?

I personally have no problem with using the amount of physical force a healthy and fit eighty-year old can generate (which is considerable), but would oppose any movements that are initiated without regard to the yin-yang balance inherent in a situation. In my view, wrestling and karate have no problem with such movements, whereas I feel it is forbidden in T'ai Chi.

For whatever it is worth, my take on these issues has come to the point where I think directly focusing on being "soft" is actually bad for my development. I find it fairly easy to soften techniques, but hard to do so while retaining or, better yet, increasing the potential power.

I also find that being mushy soft and being "song" in the fashion required by the Yangs are somewhat opposite feelings. For me, being "song" requires a physical feeling of resilience and even some tension in the tendons (not in the joints and not like a knot, but like a bow or the strands of a tennis net) that I end up sacrificing if I strive for "mushy softness."

I have come to the opinion that a certain type and degree of softness is a "characteristic" of good T'ai chi. But more is not necessarily better, and "characteristics" are not necessarily good training guides. Swimming is a soft sport, but who would become an Olympic swimmer by primarily focusing on making his or her strokes "softer"?

On the push hands thread, I mentioned some of the differences I have been told or read between the Chinese word "ruan3" (mushy and soft) and "rou2" (supple and soft). To summarize, my understanding is that T'ai Chi is supposed to be "rou," but not "ruan."

Let me add to what I said by saying that mere knowledge of Chinese does not resolve these issues. Words, unfortunately, are too slippery to be neatly categorized or completely defined. They merely provide hints of meaning and possibilities. For example, my understanding is that the terms "rou" and "ruan" can happily be combined as "rouruan." I am even less sure of the meaning of the combined term, but I think it can express the concepts "soft" or "limber," or maybe both.

Moving back to the term "rou" as a possible indication of what T'ai Chi softness should be, "rou" also can express the concepts of "gentle" and "yielding." While these are certainly wonderful T'ai Chi concepts, we must consider the fact that the character for "rou" is the same character that expresses in Japanese the "Ju" of "Judo" ("Gentle/Soft Way," or "the Dao of Gentleness/Softness")(rou2 dao4 in Mandarin). As I understand it, the father of Judo wanted to distinguish the "gentleness" and softness of his teachings from traditional jujitsu.

Judo and T'ai Chi share a few viewpoints (e.g., the possibility of using an opponent's force against him or her), but in my view these arts are quite different on most levels. Therefore, any view of "softness" or "gentleness" as being emblematic of T'ai Chi should account for how these qualities differ in Judo.

In Yang Zhen Duo's book, he describes a desired quality of his T'ai Chi by using the phrase "rou2 zhong1 you3 gang1." From my dictionaries, I gather that this is a common phrase that can be translated, depending on how literal you want to be, as: "In (the) softness, there is firmness," "Firm, yet gentle," or "In the velvet glove, there is an iron hand." Taking this expression together with the famous references to T'ai Chi has having the quality of "iron wrapped in cotton," I notice that the emphasis is actually not on "softness" per se, but rather on a particular type of hardness and firmness that has "soft or yielding" qualities. T'ai Chi then is perhaps best not thought of as "soft," but rather as "yieldingly hard."

On a practical level, the quality I have felt in good push hands practitioners that has most impressed me is not softness, but resilience. By resilience, I mean that I can feel them suck in my force and not just move out of its way. When they push me, I feel more power coming out than would be predicted by their feel. I feel the push or pull come and react to it, only to feel the real power come out when I can no longer change effectively.

With "soft" pushers, I am never certain whether they are merely relying on good timing and speed to avoid or take advantage of my techniques. While these are commendable qualities, they are not unique to T'ai Chi; and speed, as a major goal at least, is too dependent on age and physical condition for my T'ai Chi taste.

One last comment on softness is that I think those who preach it as a guiding principle should distinguish precisely what about softness is good. Whipped cream is thought of as soft, and so is water.

In my view, whipped cream is a bad image for T'ai Chi, because it has no resilience. Rather than exhibiting real resilience or yielding qualities, it is simply weak, stiff, and brittle. If you stick your finger in it, it leaves a mark.

Water, on the other hand, is completely yielding in one sense, but extremely resistent to compression. If you stick your finger in it, no mark will remain, only the ripples of the energy exchange. If you throw dynamite into it, the explosion will crush everything in the water, but fail to compress the water itself much.

Each little droplet pushes back only weakly on the bottom of the ocean liner, but together their force is very strong and the surface tension very powerful. Water coming out of a firehose or over a waterfall is powerful, but still "soft," yielding, and conformable. Individually, the droplets do not insist. Collectively, they are relentless.

With respect to the story of the torn sleeve, I find some of the discussions I have read problematic. Given the wide waste of time between Yang Lu Chan and ourselves and the changes in culture in China and beyond, how can we draw too physical a lesson from this story? We cannot be sure of the precise form Yang Lu Chan practiced. How can we say very much about how techniques should affect the sleeve or about one snapshot of the intimate interactions between a father and son who constantly trained together?

The "Ten Essential" that addresses this is "Use mind/intent and not (raw) strength" (yong yi bu yong li). Many people use force as a translation of the Chinese term "li" in this and other expressions. While I think this can call attention to some good T'ai Chi principles, it can be a bad term to use if you are trying to parse Chinese phrases too closely.

I would be glad to be corrected by real Chinese speakers, but my understanding is that the term "li" ("(raw)strength") has absolutely no connotation of compulsion or "going against the grain." Thus, when we are admonished not to use or rely on "li," the issue of "forcing matters" is not directly addressed. What is addressed is use of something that is considered crude and lacking refinement. Often the term "zhuo li" (clumsy/awkward strength) is used, rather than just "li".

The picture I gather from the sleeve story is one of a father seeing a son in torn and bedraggled clothing bragging of his martial skills. The father then says in effect: "I am glad you are unharmed, but if your skill were really impressive, your clothes would not be ripped to shreds. What is more, T'ai Chi stresses controlling your opponent through refined and subtle techniques. Getting your sleeve torn indicates neither control nor refinement, but suggests you may have been flailing away without much regard to these principles." "Soft," but crude techniques can rip a sleeve as easily as "hard" ones.

Despite what I have said above, I do believe there are styles of practicing T'ai Chi that do require extreme softness. I simply do not believe that these are the only or even the essential ways of doing T'ai Chi. The same can be said of Karate.

I also believe that cultivating softness can be an antidote to the desire to "improve" one's T'ai Chi by using raw power, speed, or stiffness to make techniques "effective." The opposite is, however, not true. Simply being soft does not result in effective T'ai Chi. Nor does simply introducing weakness into techniques.

At high levels of achievement, I think that being soft or doing more with less becomes more and more characteristic and more and more necessary. However, focusing on this too early in one's training just weakens understanding of fundamental principles. One can refine only what one already has, not what one is trying to acquire.

I would welcome contrary views and hope I have not given offense or anything that will mislead anyone in their practice.

Respectfully submitted,
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Postby DavidJ » Thu May 31, 2001 9:39 pm

Hi Michael, Audi, et al,

Good posts.

In regard to the subject of soft/hard I wish to express a few thoughts.

Most of our muscles come in flexor/extensor pairs. When one muscle is used the other muscle comes into play for control. If you push your hand away from you and pull it back you would be using the tricep, the extensor, on the back of the upper arm, and the bicep, the flexor, on the front of the upper arm.
The movement of one may be resisted by the other, and to varying degrees. I believe that part of the key to "softness" is in how much we resist our own movement.

Marshall Ho'o told me to imagine that my upper body is underwater. This, for me, is a good picture. He said that later, after I had a handle on that, to imagine my upper body filled with water.
Similarly, I have read where Cheng Man Ching said, for 'Push,' it's like pushing a small boat through water. This way you get to think of your push hands opponent as being a little dinghy. Image

I think that resilience and flexibility should be part of what we think of as "soft."

By utilising a modicum of resistance in all of our movements, in all three dimensions, we exercise both muscles in each pair thoroughly, we increase the blood flow, and we establish overall coordination, strength and endurance without strain.

In applications the term yielding comes into play. I wish to note that in the I Ching the Yielding is often associated with the Receptive. Softness, to some degree, I think is like shock absorbers (dampers) and springs.
As you can change the amount of rebound in a shock absorber, you can apply Peng energy to varying degrees.

In terms of the hard and the soft together, our bodies contain both hard and soft tissue. The hardness, "firmness," of our bones is a major aspect of the use of our muscles. I think that the preeminence of the idea of soft over hard in Tai Chi Chuan is appropriate, in part, because it is the "soft" muscle tissue that primarily enables our movement, while the "hard" bone tissue plays a secondary role of support to the muscles (while giving the muscles something to move.)
I read nothing in this that implies that the "hard' should be overlooked in Tai Chi, and I note that Yang Chen Fu didn't teach Fa Jing to a student until after the student had mastered the smooth even flow to a certain degree. I believe that developing "softness" FIRST is emblematic of Tai Chi.

Audi, I think that defining Tai Chi as necessarily different from other martial arts may be taking it too far, and in the case of developing speed I think I disagree with you. We have strength and speed muscles as well as endurance muscles, and if Tai Chi is in fact a global exercise then no muscles should be overlooked.
Also an important tenet is matching the speed of an opponent.
Yes, an older person defeating a younger (and presumably faster) opponent is something that is part and parcel of the thinking behind Tai Chi, but speed retained as one grows older is, too.

Michael's questions regarding where the line is drawn between hard and soft, again, I can only offer opinions.
I think that "hardness" in a push or a strike begins with tissue damage to the person being pushed or struck. It takes control to defeat another without damaging them, and this, I think, can only grow out of properly developing the muscle pairs. This is because each one of the pair controls the movement of the other.

Effortlessness, to some degree, is a product of training and structural alignment.
Training: a well-trained muscle uses less effort to do the same work as an untrained muscle, and in training our coordination increases.
Structural aligniment: I found where I should focus my weight on my feet while standing on a bus that was rapidly coming to a stop. Before I found that spot I was straining to remain upright on the bus, and afterwards it was effortless.
In application effortlessness is a product of timing and leverage.

I hope these ideas are useful to you. As always, comments and questions are welcome.


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