I find that having some theory of T’ai Chi engagement is very important to my practice. How one intends to engage an opponent has implications for the intent behind almost every movement, since variations in speed, timing, sensitivity, power, and angle of attack achieve different aims (probing, enticing, inflicting pain, sticking, deflecting, etc.). For me, this also has implications for how to extend T’ai Chi principles beyond the physical aspects of self-defense. In considering a ward-off arm, am I seeking health through the strength of a block, the relaxation of muscles, the delicacy of a deflection, the flow of a circle, the twisting of joint tendons, the sensitivity of the skin and nerves, the extension of energy through an arm, or the mere focusing of the mind?
A few times on this board, I have gotten impressions that some hold views of what I am here calling T’ai Chi “engagement” (for want of a better word and a lack of imagination) that differ from my understanding. I would like to explore those differences with those who are willing, or at least to test my understanding. In doing so, I am trying to strike a balance between the two extremes of asserting that there is only one correct interpretation of traditional T’ai Chi and of accepting any martial theory that has an element of yin/yang opposition, softness, or borrowing of energy as emblematic of T’ai Chi.
My understanding of how one is supposed to engage an opponent using T’ai Chi principles stems mostly from the Intrinsic Energies of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Chen Kung Series II). I have lent out my copy and so am quoting the title from memory and apologize in advance for the inevitable inaccuracies.
I believe the primary material in the book was translated and annotated by Stuart Alve Olson, a student of T.T. Liang, and is described as setting forth Yang family writings transmitted by Chen Kung, a student of Yang Cheng Fu. If someone could elaborate on the origin and transmission of the writings, as well as their authority and level of general acceptance, I would be grateful. I was unable to understand fully the description of these matters offered in the text.
As a preliminary matter, let me state that Stuart Olson’s experience in T’ai Chi and Chinese far surpass mine and that I have found the insights in his book tremendously enlightening; however, I cannot help but differ with some of the translations and Chinese character interpretations he offers in his notes. Some of these translations and interpretations go to the heart of how one practices T’ai Chi (for example, what the origin is of the characters used to write the names of the postures of Grasp Sparrow’s Tail and how much softness or delicacy is inherent in these characters).
The material in Olson’s book describes various T’ai Chi “energies,” or at least various activities one performs to the opponent’s or one’s own energy (jin). (The question of whether all these are correctly termed “jins” I leave to resolution of what was raised on the thread entitled “Tackling,” where it was suggested that the term “jin” should not be used to categorize some or all of these activities.) Five of these activities—ting (listening), dong (understanding), hua (neutralize), na (seizing), and fa (issuing)—seemed to be described as a cluster of activities that described a majority of T’ai Chi cycles of defense and offense. Did I leave anything out?
In other words, if an opponent attempted to strike you with his or her fist, you would connect with the opponent’s arm to listen (ting) for his or her power (jin), seek to understand (dong) the intent and qualities of the power (jin) being applied against you, neutralize (hua) the power, seize (na) it, and then issue (fa) your own power to defeat him or her. Although this can closely resemble blocking, deflecting, or leading away the opponent’s technique, as is done in other arts, I believe this to be different in intent and in the subtle details of the movements. Does anyone want to offer contrary views?
As I understand it, although these activities are described as having a hierarchy of dependence, there is not necessarily a clear physical or sequential separation between them. Also, although one’s mind (yi) directs all of these activities, my understanding of the everyday meaning and the T’ai Chi meaning of the Chinese word “yi” is that it refers to where and why one’s mental activities are focused (i.e., one’s will, intent, and purpose) and not to the deliberative process of thinking itself.
My understanding of this cycle of activities is that it would apply to every posture in the form, and even to some of the intermediate transitions. I have seen some evidence that these concepts are directed only at pushing hands and not true sparring or self-defense, but have not been comfortable with this view. Any thoughts?
Let me describe my understanding of how a movement from the form would fit in this scheme. When one is attempting to apply the roll back to the opponent represented in Grasp Sparrow’s Tail, one would be “listening” with one’s body for the opponent’s reaction. If one felt that the power of the roll back was being effectively defeated or resisted, one would seek to “understand” the power and direction of the opponent’s attempted counter or transformation. Typically this would be that the opponent was beginning to defeat the lock on his or her left elbow and was starting to turn to face you, perhaps with a strike.
Once this is “understood,” one would “neutralize” the opponent’s use of force (hua jin) with some combination of other T’ai Chi skills (e.g., yielding, adhering (zhan), etc.) and turn (hua) the opponent’s power (jin) to his or her disadvantage. In the form, the technique we use is Press/Squeeze (ji), where we join the power of our left arm to that of our right arm, which remains in contact with the opponent. The goal of our neutralization is to escape the attack and “seize” the opponent’s power (na jin) so that he or she can no longer change the situation. As executed in the form, this would most likely be because the opponent could not deal with power our combined arms would be adding to his or her waist turn into us. If we are successful, we temporarily abandon most of the more subtle T’ai Chi skills and issue our power (fa jin) into the opponent, by extending our posture.
To be clearer, let me give some detail to each of the five activities, so that those who are interested can add, subtract, or correct what they think appropriate.
“Ting jin” refers either to “listening to [the opponent’s] power/strength” or to the “power/skill of listening.” (Which interpretation is more correct, I leave to resolution of the issue described on the Tackling thread). As I understand it, T’ai Chi disdains preset reactions to aggression (e.g., there are no generally accepted fighting stances) and counsels waiting until the opponent attempts to close with you. Some authors talk about the possibility of launching unpowered strikes at an opponent to force him or her to make contact, if remaining purely reactive or passive is deemed inadvisable. Does anyone disagree with either point? Does anyone know of any examples in the T’ai Chi literature of “listening” without contact with the opponent or of a traditional Yang Style application that does not presuppose physical contact with the opponent?
Once the opponent attempts to extend his or her power/energy to you, you connect with his or her limbs, body, or clothing, in order to sense the “jin” that is opposing you. As far as I know, the Chinese word “ting” has more or less the same relevant meanings and connotations as the English words “listen” and “hear.” As a technical matter, I think one is supposed to be “listening” to the opponent’s “jin” with one’s “qi” as directed by one’s “mind/intent” (yi) and controlled by one’s “spirit” (shen). As a practical matter, I have interpreted this as sensing with the tendons, sinews, and the skin at the point of contact with the opponent and with the floor, aided by one’s eyesight and hearing and controlled by one’s overall intent and spirit. Does anyone see this differently?
Once you sense the opponent’s jin, I believe you try to understand (dong) its configuration. Is the opponent attempting to use his or her power to strike you, push you, pull you, kick you, twist you, etc.? Where is the power directed and how fast? Where is the power coming from? Once these things are understood, one will know the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the technique being used, what is solid (shi) and what is empty (xu), and what is yin and what is yang. Again, I think the Chinese word “dong” has pretty much the same meanings and connotations as the English word “understand.”
Once the configuration of the opponent’s jin is understood, you can then exploit its inherent weaknesses to transform (hua) it to your advantage. As far as I understand it, the core meaning of the Chinese word “hua” is to “transform” and a derived meaning is to “dissolve or melt.” However, this word seems to have been usually translated as “neutralize” in T’ai Chi contexts. I have always wondered whether the connotations of “neutralize” or even “dissolve” are accurate, since to me these words connote merely defeating the opponent’s technique and preclude a sense of using the opponent’s technique to your advantage. A word like “transform” leaves open what result is envisioned. Can anyone add to this, because here I am at or slightly beyond my linguistic level of competence.
I have also wondered about emphasizing “not being there” or “letting the opponent exhaust his strength.” I have no problem with these as general martial theories, but have trouble emphasizing them from a T’ai Chi context. To me, avoiding the yang part of the opponent’s attack requires pressuring the yin part of his or her defense. In other words, the point is not merely to dodge the opponent’s attack, but have the attack expose a weakness that is exploited by your defense. “Not being there” and “letting the opponent exhaust his strength” would then be only half of the equation. Is what a matador does to a bull really a good image for traditional Yang Style T’ai Chi?
I read a criticism of the T’ai Chi descended from Yang Cheng Fu which described it as deficient in not addressing evasive techniques (Complete Tai Chi Chuan by Dan Docherty, p. 55). Does anyone have any opinions about this? I found this book quite insightful in many ways, but found this comment a little strange, given my own biases.
From the Intrinsic Energies of T’ai Chi, I also understand that the concept of transformation (hua) is distinct from the concept of “borrowing energy” (jie jin), which is a separate technique. Some styles of T’ai Chi disdain the generation of great force; however, I do not believe this is the case with what the Yang family teaches. The only limitation appears to be that great force is not to be directed at the opponent’s strengths. Accordingly, borrowing the opponent’s force (jin) is a good technique, but not a necessary one in all cases. Does anyone disagree with this view, as applied to Yang Styles other than what was taught by Cheng Manching?
Transforming the opponent’s jin seems to have two goals: saving oneself from harm and also putting the opponent in an untenable situation. The latter is what I understand by the term “seizing energy” (na jin). The core meaning of the Chinese word “na” is to manipulate with the hand, and it is the normal word used in Chinese expressions that can be translated into English as “take,” “hold,” “carry,” and “bring.” It is the second word in the expression “qin na,” (seize [and] hold) which refers to techniques of grasping and immobilizing the opponent’s joints. Although “seiz[ing]” seems to be the customary T’ai Chi translation, perhaps “hold[ing]” or “control[ling]” might have more accurate connotations.
From the Intrinsic Energies of T’ai Chi, I understand “seizing the opponent’s energy” (na jin) to refer to the moment when the opponent can no longer transform (hua) your energy to escape. At one point, the book describes merely making the opponent apprehensive as the equivalent of “seiz[ing]” his or her energy. I have taken this as a reference to a “deer-in-the-headlights” moment, when the opponent’s spirit is immobilized.
Once the opponent’s energy is “seized” or “controlled,” one then issues energy (fa jin) to defeat him or her. Intrinsic Energies of T’ai Chi explicitly links the concept of “fa jin” with the concept of “seizing energy.” If memory serves, there is a phrase like “What would be the point of issuing energy if one has not first seized the opponent’s energy.” I have never been sure what to make of this, since other arts seem to have no problem issuing strikes and kicks without even being in contact with the opponent, let alone controlling him or her in any way. Does anyone have any good insights to share about this?
The two speculations I have had are as follows. If one attempts to push an opponent who can still retain some room to yield or maintain softness, the push often ends up with wimpy results. If on the other hand, the opponent freezes up or attempts to pull away, it is very easy to issue a dramatic push. The reference to “making the opponent apprehensive” would seem to make sense in this context.
My other speculation is that if T’ai Chi normally requires following the opponent, the one moment where one would be permitted to cease following and attack is when the opponent’s power is controlled and he or she is no longer able to “lead.” One could argue that failure to adopt these strategies would lead to a mindset that seeks to win through greater speed and power, which I do not believe to be characteristic of traditional T’ai Chi. Such strategies would have a stop-and-go feel that dares the opponent to be quick enough to block or to attack, rather than daring the opponent to be able constantly to change the flow of energy.
As an aside, let me say that my understanding of fixed push hands sets is that one must always have the intent of doing ting, dong, and hua up to the point of seizing. If you can seize, you then issue. If you cannot seize, you must flow into the following technique in the sequence to avoid becoming the object of seize. In other words, the question before you is not whether to attack, since you are constantly doing that, but whether to press an attack home. I also understand this to be part of the logic T’ai Chi uses to avoid competing with the opponent in terms of speed of technique. Does anyone have any contrary views?
If memory serves, the Intrinsic Energies of T’ai Chi says that these five techniques are generally fundamental to any interchange using T’ai Chi techniques, but describes a few techniques where one or more of the five can be dispensed with. I think I recall one of these techniques being “intercepting energy” or perhaps “borrowing energy.” Is anyone familiar with this?
I have never really understood the difference between freezing energy/cooling strength (leng jin) and intercepting energy, but I think intercepting energy involves interrupting the opponent’s movement at a point where his or her qi has not yet risen to match his or her attacking intent (yi) and thus cannot react to a new offensive threat. An example of this might be pushing on someone’s pressing arm at the instant he or she has mentally committed to initiating a press attack, but before his or her muscles have begun to carry out the mental command. Can anyone confirm or correct this?
Beyond imbuing the form with the proper intent, I have felt that applying these concepts to many transitional movements seems to make more sense of some of the more subtle motions. For instance, the spiraling of the upper arm in White Crane and during the strikes of Fair Lady Works the Shuttles seems simultaneously to open up the opponent while promoting sticking in a way that a simple block or deflection would not. Similarly, the arm rotations in Cloud Hands seem more than an augmentation of power, but a subtle way of enticing the opponent into a position where his or her power can be "seized."
I look forward to any comments, corrections, or additions anyone may want to offer.