Re: “. . . what is the Chinese for “vital spirit” and what do you think this actually means in the context of Taijiquan? I have been all over the map in my understanding of this phrase. I also am not sure I correctly understand what the possible range of connotations of the term “jing1 shen2/0.” I think I know enough Chinese to be wary of many of the exclusive interpretations that some seem to associate with terms such as “energy,” “mind,” and “spirit”; however, I am not sure I have many of these right.”
The Chinese for what I translated as “vital spirit” in the Hao Yueru quote is indeed “jingshen,” as you deduced. You are astute to be wary of such convenient translations, for words like spirit tend to carry connotative baggage in Western thinking of metaphysics—non-material, paranormal, or non-human phenomena. I really don’t think it carries those meanings in the context of taijiquan, nor in most uses in Chinese thinking. The compound jingshen has been around a long time, so the map you refer to is rather large. It can be found in chapter 11 of the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), for example, the chapter that mentions “daoyin,” one of the earliest terms for physiologically based self-cultivation practices. It’s part of a recurrent cluster of terms, “shen,” “jingshen,” and “shenming” that we often find grouped together in very early texts on self-cultivation as well as in taijiquan texts. Sinologist Harold Roth says of “shen”: “It is another concept that bridges our accustomed notions of mind and body in a way analogous to that in which the term ch’i [qi] bridges our ideas of energy and matter. The Chinese concept includes parts of the ranges of meanings of the English terms commonly used to translate it—spirit, soul, psych, daemon—but none of these fully captures its range of meanings in Chinese.” (Roth, _Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism_, Columbia Univ. Press, 1999, p.43.) Roth notes that the term “jingshen,” as it appears in early texts like the Neiye and the Huainanzi, implies a “physiological substrate.” (ibid.) In my opinion, the uses of these terms in taijiquan probably share the physiological connotations with earlier self-cultivation traditions.
The term jingshen remains in modern speech. The nineteenth century political reformer, Liang Qichao, was probably influenced by his readings of Western thinkers such as Samual Smiles when he contemplated how his countrymen should engage “modernity.” He asserted that modernity had both “form” (xingzhi)—institutions, laws, tools, infrastructure, and “spirit” (jingshen)—the creative dispositions of the people, what he also called the “yuanqi,” a term often found in daoist writings, which he used in a sense of an ingenious or inventive initiative. While Samual Smiles may have subscribed to a notion of Divine Providence as the source of human initiative, I doubt that Liang Qichao did so.
A few years ago, I attended a push hands seminar by Master Sam Tam, and these terms came up in a discussion. Master Tam referred to shen as the highest stage of development in taijiquan, and he explained it as the engaging of a full range of awareness. Intrigued by some of his statements, I asked him if shen included unconscious as well as conscious awareness, he answered without hesitation, “Yes.” He explained “jingshen” as referring to the spirit of a warrior or artist, which manifests as will or determination in one’s actions, and in one’s demeanor, expression of the eyes, etc. Jingshen can also refer to the distinctive imprint in a work of art, which unmistakably identifies it with the artist. This term appears twice in Wu Yuxiang’s “Mental Elucidation of the Thirteen Postures”: “If the spirit of vitality (jingshen) can be raised, then there will be no apprehension of dullness or heaviness. This is what is meant by suspending the crown of the head.” And: “Throughout the whole body, the intent (yi) is on the spirit of vitality (jingshen), not on the qi. If it is on the qi, then there will be stagnation.” Finally, the term “shenming” refers to profound understanding and insight. This term appears in Wang Zongyue’s “Taijiquan Treatise,” in a context that reveals it as a the highest stage of taijiquan development: “From careful investigation and experience, one may gradually realize how to comprehend energy (dongjin). From comprehending energy, you will attain by degrees spiritual illumination (shenming).”
In number eight of his Ten Essentials (one that I find especially interesting in light of recent discussion on this board), Yang Chengfu mentioned jingshen, and he also said, “What one trains in Taijiquan is the spirit (shen), therefore it is said, ‘The spirit is the leader, the body follows its order.’” Here again, I think this reflects what I’ve mentioned before about taijiquan’s appropriation of Sunzi’s notion of military organization into the individual practice of a martial art, the goal being an integration and consolidation of consciousness and body.
I doubt I’ve answered your question. This is a pretty complicated topic, and what “spirit” means depends ultimately on subjective experience more than objective descriptions. I hope, though, that I may have clarified what it is not. I certainly welcome alternative views on the topic.
[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 09-21-2003).]