Reading Xiang Karen's "A Study On Push Hands" for some insight into opening and closing (I remembered he had a lot to say on the subject but not exactly what and I've been working on opening and closing quite a bit lately). As I read the first part of his treatise, I at first thought:
"Ah, I think I may be beginning to understand this at least a little bit now"...
But then I got to these paragraphs and, just as Xiang Karen states at the end, "I felt like crying".
Does anyone have any thoughts or theories on how to make better sense of this?
I'm hoping maybe the translation leaves something to be desired, but I am afeard it is instead my understanding that is not up to the challenge.
In 1934 I was in Changsha pushing hands with a classmate. Wang Ruen was watching from the side. Suddenly he said, “How is it that there is no opening or closing in your push-hands?” I quickly stopped and asked, “When you taught me push-hands you never spoke of opening and closing. Teach us, where should we look for this opening and closing?” He said, “Don’t the Boxing Treatises say that if you can open and close, then you can breathe, and if you can breathe then you will be spirited and lively? You should have discovered this principle yourself.” I said, “A long time ago I suspected that I didn’t really comprehend those two words. What is the meaning of “if you can open and close, then you can breathe”? Being unable to breathe, isn’t that the same as being dead?”
Master Wang laughingly replied, “I am afraid you really don’t understand! Everybody breathes. This is the breath of the natural person, but it is not the breath of an artist. If an artist cannot synchronize his breathing, then he feels like he cannot breathe at all. This is extremely important. When you read books praising demonstrations by martial artists, there are always two expressions used, ‘The face does not change color and ‘The breath is not panting.’ Just now as you were practicing push-hands, you were panting. This is because you were not paying attention to the breath.” I said, “Xu Yusheng once told me that there must be opening and closing coordinated with the breath. At that time I disregarded his teaching. Nor did I pursue him to ask how to find that coordination. Furthermore, I was not aware that push-hands also has opening and closing which must be similarly coordinated with the breath.”
Master Wang continued, “When you first began to study, I couldn’t speak of this kind of movement, because it is too complicated. It is not easy to feel and comprehend. But at this stage in your training, you must devote your effort to synchronizing opening and closing with the breath.” He then proceeded to point out some examples from the form. For instance, ward-off and press are “opening”. Roll-back and push are “closing”.
From that time on, I began to search for opening and closing movements whenever I practiced the form. After several days I thought I had gotten it. I practiced “Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail” while Master Wang observed. Master Wang said with a laugh, “No need to continue. Your opening is not opening; your closing is not closing.” At that time, he had a folding fan in his hand. As he waved the fan, flicking it open and closed, he asked, “How is this opening and closing produced?” I said, “It is produced by the motion of your hand.” He shook his head and pointed to the button that held the ribs of the fan together, saying, “Only if you have this thing is it possible to open and close.” Then he pointed to the door of the house, saying, “It is just like this door–which must have a hinge in order to open and close. You haven’t yet discovered this pivot, so naturally your opening is not opening, your closing is not closing.” I asked, “Where is the pivot?” He replied, “This is something you yourself must find. If I tell you, it would be of no use.”
Because of this “pivot” I immersed myself in study and practice for more than a month. I thoroughly familiarized myself with the theories concerning Taijiquan. The result was a sudden insight–I realized that the pivot is in the waist. Thereupon I began again to search for “opening” and “closing”. In order to bring the form more in harmony with my realization, I changed many of the linkage points between the postures. Later I felt that within each movement there are several openings and closings, all of which must coordinate with the breathing. I spent more and more time refining the movements.
At this time, since Master Wang was teaching at Hunan University, it was not easy to meet. After half a year I chanced upon him and excitedly began to demonstrate for him. He smiled and nodded his head, saying, “Although you are not at the heart of it, you are not far! You only know that the control is in the waist, but you have overlooked the word ‘between’ in the saying, ‘The meaning and source of life is between the kidneys [here, kidneys means waist],’ and you have skipped over the word ‘middle’ in the saying, ‘You must at all times keep the mind in the middle of the waist.’ You must understand that these two words show the location of the ‘life meridian’ of Taijiquan. From these two sayings we can also see from whence comes the name ‘Taijiquan’. If you are unable to find this, then you will not find ‘central equilibrium’ among the Thirteen Postures. Moreover, how will you understand the principle of ‘When you move, everything moves. When you are still, everything is still.’? It is true that this theory is quite abstruse and not easy to grasp. And it is even more difficult to actually experience in the body. If one speaks of this to beginners, it is not only of no benefit, but, to the contrary, it would cause them to be skeptical and disparaging. Therefore the ancients did not lightly or easily pass on their knowledge. It is not that they were scared of people knowing, but that they were scared of people not knowing.” When I heard this profound instruction, I was so grateful that I felt like crying.