Here’s my translation of Wu Tunan’s remarks about “lingkong” (airborne) skills, from his book, Taijiquan zhi yanjiu (Research on taijiquan), co-written by Ma Youqing. The edition I have was published in Hong Kong by Shangwu yinshuguan, 2003. I think the original was pub’d. in 1983. In this passage, Wu responds to a question about how one makes contact with the hands in taijiquan application, and what sort of role lingkong plays. Wu was trained in scientific method, and seems to make a point here of using terms like “matter,” and speaks of the skill in terms of accute sensitivity of ordinary sense organs (in distinction to imagining or pretending, or extra-sensory phenomena). He also uses more traditional terms such as jing, qi, and shen, as well as ying-yang theory, quoting a line from the Xice commentary to the Book of Changes. I kind of like Wu’s take on this, but even still some of it strikes me as hyperbolic. On the other hand, it kind of reminds me of a little lecture Art Blakey gave when I went to hear his band many years ago, when he described the kind of turn-on-a-dime displays of spontaneous mastery that is possible among highly trained, sensitive musicians. It may seem like magic or E.S.P., but it really comes from a lot of very hard work.
When applying taijiquan, on the whole there are two ways of making contact. One is where the two hands and two arms come in contact with the opponent—this is the same as in most sparring. If two people have not yet come into [physical] contact, yet one is able to prevail over the other, this belongs to a different category. This is the so-called higher level, or lingkong.
The first step in lingkong is to train skill (lian gong)—it is a product of training. A person’s jing and qi are two kinds of matter; the combining of the two produces shen, which is the most crystallized [product of training]. It is incredibly subtle—“where the yin and yang cannot be fathomed, it is called shen” (‘yin yang buce wei zhi shen,’ a quote from the Xice). You say it is yin; it is not yin. You say it is yang; it is not yang. Since it can be either yin or yang, it therefore transforms into yin-yang. So this matter that is produced by the conjoining of these two things, yin and yang, is shen. When speaking of the level of joining hands, how is shen used? If the hands or arms of two people are in contact, this is enabled by close-distance sensing. Because you are making contact, you are using the sense of touch. When we speak of lingkong, we are addressing far-distance sensing. In general, far-distance sensing can be broken down into the senses of sight, smell, and hearing. Taijiquan beginners frequently talk about tingjin (listening jin). For most, having talked about it, they’re indifferent to it. In reality, they talk of “listening,” but they haven’t truly listened. Perhaps they’ve worked at it for half the day, but they have not “heard,” and they’ve listened in vain. This is because they haven’t actually used their senses of hearing, smell, or sight in endeavoring to “listen.”
We should be listening before our hands and arms have made contact with the opponent. At that instant the eyes are looking, the nose is smelling, the ears are listening—everywhere enlisting these far-distant senses. In this way, you will be able to guage the opponent in his entirety, from his internal organs to his external appeareance. His pulse rate, blood pressure, length of breaths, the churning of his stomach, even his bladder and small and large intestines—we perceive all in its totality. Once we’ve penetrated (toukong) the entire body in this way, we are then able to understand the situation at a glance (yi mu liao ran). In such a situation, when we set out to engage the opponent, there is no place with which we cannot engage. Far-distant sensing can also be called remote control. Using shen, we can control the other from a comparatively distant position. This kind of transformation is to become one with nature. Therefore there is no need for shape or form; in the midst of shapelessness and formlessness you are already united as one body.
As for this penetrating (toukong) of the entire body with regard to oneself, it means that no object can be added to the surface of my body [without triggering my awareness]. In this way, when you engage in some back-and-forth with a partner, then you will be able to respond to things spontaneously (yingwu ziran). To talk about it at a deeper level, it means that when you are about to connect hands with another, it is as though your own vital organs are exerting overwhelming effort (fanjiang daohai—‘overturn the rivers and upset the seas’), and this enables you to prepare for each and every possibility. Although on the surface one may only see arms moving and legs moving, the reality on the inside is the marshalling of the function from the brain up into the vital organs, directly to the blood circulation, to the breathing, etc. Therefore, taijiquan entails the integrative function of the body. One could also say it is taking the original taiji principles of the Zhouli (Book of Changes) and applying them in our bodies. That is taijiquan.
So, at a distance, before he has issued, you know he is about to issue. At just that spot where he wants to move, you know he is about to move. Another way of putting it—at the point where you haven’t touched the opponent, almost to the extent that you haven’t yet employed your far-distant senses, you already know him like the palm of your own hand. So you advance upon him as you please, and it is like entering an undefended territory. I once explained it with this sentence: “The enemy wants to change, but does not get to change; wants to attack, but doesn’t get a chance; wants to evade, but has no escape.” To put it more simply, it is the highest stage of gongfu. If it’s just a matter of carelessly striking and randomly improvising (manda manpin), that’s not taijiquan. Although one might call it taijiquan, in fact it is not.
[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 09-29-2006).]