For me, the answer is “both.” You are writing about your experiences, so it is necessarily a subjective matter, and I cannot be sure I understand the processes you are describing. Some of what you say, however, brings me back to the issue much debated here in the past about whether it is more proper to speak in terms of “separation” or in terms of “clearly distinguishing.” I think that if one concentrates on full *to the exclusion of* empty or vice-versa, then the separation becomes artificial. Think of the classical injunction to “stand like a balance scale.” If the model is a platform scale, the waist would be analogous to the center that supports the free-moving pivot of the beam that holds a pan at either end. When one end is weighed down, the other end rises proportionally. It is not possible for the one action to take place to the exclusion of the other. Or, perhaps the intended model was meant to be a steelyard, a kind of weighing instrument that was ubiquitous in Chinese marketplaces when taijiquan evolved, and well before. With that kind of balance scale, an object to be weighed is suspended from the shorter end of a beam that is in turn held aloft at a fulcrum by a string or wire. The beam on the other side of the fulcrum is a graduated rod along which a counterweight can be slid until the beam is level -- indicating the weight of the object on the other end. This model works even better for the taiji practitioner, I think, as it captures the waist (the steelyard’s fulcrum) as well as the all-important postural requirement of lifting the crown of the head (xu ling ding jin). Again, for the steelyard, the action of the counterweight cannot take place in a vacuum, as it counterbalances “something” on the other side of the fulcrum. Recall that in the Taijiquan Classic it says, “Empty and full must be clearly distinguished.” Then, it goes on to say, “Each point has its point of empty/full. Everywhere there is always this one empty/full.” So “clearly distinguished” here would seem to indicate fine-grained increments of emptying and filling, rather than large-scale buckets, separated into one empty and one full.
Here’s my translation of a short text by Li Yiyu (1832-1892) that is evidently the locus classicus of the taiji slogans, “within full there is empty,” and “within empty there is full.” The original text accompanied a drawing, a schematic of a human body, with annotations identifying the top of the head, the neck, chest, back, fingers, feet, etc. This text appears in the 1991 collection, _Taijiquanpu_, and was first published publically, I believe, in Gu Liuxin’s and Tang Hao’s 1963 _Taijiquan Yanjiu_ (Researches into Taijiquan). I’m not aware of any published English translations of this particular Li Yiyu text.
Illustrated Chart of Empty and Full
Full does not mean to completely stand firm; within full there is empty. Empty does not mean completely without strength; within empty there is full. The above chart speaks in reference to the whole body, and although it addresses emptiness and fullness in its broad dimensions, when we delve more minutely into the entire body, there isn’t a spot without empty and full, nor can one depart from this empty and full. One must keep them constantly conjoined, using the mind intent to employ the qi, and using the qi to mobilize movement. One must not let the body shift chaotically, nor let the hands and feet exchange in confusion. Emptying and filling, then, are just like opening and closing, so that in going through the form, or playing hands with a partner, you must engage your mind/heart in each and every movement. With more practice there will be greater refinement. The longer your efforts accumulate, the more your skills will be esteemed.
[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 05-10-2007).]