Review: The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary (Angelika Fritz, 2017)

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It’s impossible to study Taijiquan or Qigong without butting up against a barrier of confusing Chinese terms like Yi, Jin and Qi. Frustratingly, they seem impossible to do without because they often don’t have a direct English translation, or because people simply like to keep a connection to the Chinese origins. This can make anybody’s initial attempts to read up on the new Taijiquan class they’ve just started a bit of a struggle. Of course, you can look these things up on the Internet in a matter of seconds, but The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary by Angelika Fritz is (as the name suggests) is a printed collection of all those terms, pulled together in one publication, so you have easy access to them without the need to be online.

“Even though I can search and find anything online these days”, says Angelika in the introduction, “I like to have a real book in my hands”.

That’s the essence of The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary. It’s a slim volume at 132 pages, and quite small at 140x210mm (it’s P5 size, which is a Canadian paper size similar to A5 in the UK ), which makes it handy to put in a bag to carry with you.

You’ll find it contains names of Taijiquan moves in both English and Chinese, like “Hidden Thrust Punch/Yan Shou Gong Quan”, names of famous practitioners of the art, like Fu Zhongwen and parts of the body mentioned in connection to QiGong, like the Gallbladder, which don’t have a medical description, just  “Yang organ associated with the element wood”.

The definitions are straightforward and to the point, but perhaps too straightforward at times. For instance, the aforementioned Fu Zhongwen is described simply as “one of the creators of the Taijiquan 24 form”, which is true, but he was more famously a disciple of Yang Cheng-Fu. Perhaps the brevity cuts down on the possibility for conjecture to creep in though, as it’s hard for anybody to agree on anything in the Taijiquan world.

I’ve found The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary really useful to have next to my computer when writing blog posts and I need to double-check the spelling of a Chinese word. Fuller explanations of the terms would have been welcome, but as a quick reference, it’s hard to beat.

You can buy The Taijiquan & Qigong Dictionary on Amazon. (I earn no money from the link).

Angelika runs the Qialance blog.

 

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Mike Sigman on basic Jin

When you see videos of Chinese martial arts masters bouncing people back a fair distance with a very light touch (YouTube is full of them) then unless the opponent is just taking a dive (as usually found in Aikido) what you are seeing is usually an example of ‘Jin’. Jin is not unique to internal Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi Chuan – all Chinese martial arts use Jin to greater or lesser extent. Or perhaps they had it at one time, and it was lost over time. Inevitably, things get lost over time.

It’s got to the stage now that if somebody shows Jin skills then it’s assumed they have been added in as a new “internal” version of said martial art by a special master. When you see somebody who is now doing an ‘internal’ version of martial art X (Wing Chun seems a popular choice at the moment) what the master usually shows is basic Jin done with very little explanation.

So, what is basic Jin? This and other questions like it will be answered by Mike Sigman in this handy video.

Jin in Chinese martial arts (and tennis)

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Looking at Chinese martial arts from our stand point in today’s modern world is very confusing. There are so many styles – so many different approaches and so many different theories of its evolution. In fact, it’s bewildering!

Human beings like patterns. It’s our nature to see patterns in things. So, naturally, we start to classify these myriad arts in different ways – Northern or Southern is a popular way to do it since you can generalise some characteristics about each branch. Internal and External is another way to do it. So is ‘long range’ and ‘short range’. And so on.

Without exception, however, all these classifications ultimately break down. They’re good for talking in the general sense, but once you dig down into individual cases it soon becomes a little murkier. For instance, you’ll find a style that is known as a ‘kicking style’ has a few punches in one of its forms. A style that is ‘long range’ actually contains quite a few short range techniques in one of its obscure forms, and so on.

But perhaps there is one all encompassing thing we can say about the subject. All Chinese martial arts make use of Jin ‘refined strength’ to great or lesser extent. Now, as always, language is a problem. It would be foolish to suppose that what a professional boxer is doing isn’t a highly refined method of punching. Of course, it is. In fact, under boxing rules, it’s obviously the best way to punch. Secondly, which ‘Jin’ are we talking about? A lot of Chinese martial arts have a long list of ‘Jins’ that they contain and practice, so which one do I mean? Also, a lot of them also don’t even use the word at all.

What I mean is using the ground as a path to power, rather than your physical structure or power derived primarily from your local muscle use. This is my definition of “basic jin”.

Obviously we need to use our muscles to stand up at all, but in the case of punching, for example, most punches originate from the shoulder. In contrast, I’m talking about using the power from the ground and bypassing the shoulder as a generator of power completely when punching. Instead, the shoulder switches function to a transmitter. for the power coming up from the ground.

So, how do you do this?

Well, let’s start in the most sensible place – Tennis. 🙂

It should be no surprise that if this method of using force exists and can be done by humans, then its use isn’t limited to martial arts. I’ve noticed recently that sports coaches are starting to catch on to these Tai Chi, or Chinese Martial Arts, concepts these days. Watch the following video:

Now, while he doesn’t explain what’s happening much, he’s getting across the concept of pushing down into the ground to increase the upward force that bounces back. If your body is relaxed (‘Song’) then this is upward rebound of force can be utilised as power.

From www.feeltennis.net/ground-force-for-power/

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By “sending the force” downward – which you can see on the weighing scale – you can generate more upward force.

This is the basic mechanics for the Tai Chi “Push” you see demonstrated so often. Instead of pushing into the person you first push ‘down’ from the dantien into the ground and use the rebound force as the power generation.

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It requires a relaxed frame – which is the “Song Jin” of Tai Chi Chuan. The more you can push ‘down’ from the dantien, the more force you can exert back up. Try it!

To return to my subject about Jin in Chinese martial arts. The Tai Chi example above is what I’d call a very ‘pure’ example of using the ground force. Tai Chi specialises in this very relaxed ‘song’ way of doing it. Other Chinese martial arts use different postures and different methods and can augment the pure ground force with specific trained muscle use in various ways – which is one of the reasons you see the characteristic rounded back in Southern Chinese marital arts. You could called these a type of ‘muscle jin’.

I found a video recently that I thought really showed this ground force being very nicely used in Wing Chun. It’s by a master called Chu Song Tin, who is now sadly deceased. I posted it on a discussion forum and it got me in some very hot water, as I’ll explain below.

 

In the video he says the following:

“now let my force go to the ground,…. don’t fight me by pulling up.”

“now it’s going down to his feet(i.e the ground)”

“if i use strength to push on him and he use strength to fight me.”

“now pull up, and can you feel it in your shoulder? and this way the force can’t go down to his feet.”

Now, it turns out that CST didn’t ever use the word “Jin” to describe what he was doing – he created his own term “nim tao”, and if you suggest that what he was doing was Jin… then people in his lineage will get really upset with you because you don’t have the necessary lineage to comment and it is disrespectful if you do. It becomes a lineage and politics game and there’s no way to really get anywhere once that happens, better to just yield.

According to the next video, CST never felt he could adequately describe what he was doing, which I find really interesting. His students have kept the lineage alive and if the following video is to be believed are still trying to work out exactly how he did it.

I’m happy that they’re continuing the research, and I don’t really have any desire to get involved in the politics of lineage, but my question would be, if it isn’t ground force, then what is it?

“The rotation of the waist/pelvic region is like the turning of a wheel on an axle”

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I ran (ha!) across this article by Sam Wuest, thanks to the Steve Morris Facebook page. It’s a really interesting look at how Usain Bolt is the fastest man alive despite not conforming to accepted wisdom on running mechanics.

It turns out Mr Bolt makes clever use of waist rotation when he runs, in contrast to the normal admonitions to reduce rotational movement and increase forward and back movement you’ll get from a lot of running coaches.  By turning his waist in coordination with the running motion Mr Bolt is creating a longer lever to the floor, and everybody knows that longer levers create more power than shorter levers over the same distance.

There’s a famous line in the Tai Chi Classics that goes “The waist is like the axle and the ch’i is like the wheel“.  At one point in the article, Sam Wuest says

“The rotation of the waist/pelvic region is like the turning of a wheel on an axle. The hip joints are rotating around the imaginary centerline of your body parallel to your spine at about the elevation of the sacrum. It is not a perfect rotation, as the free leg hip will come through higher than the support leg’s hip if the lateral chain is firing correctly.  Perhaps it would be better described as a rolling rotation. Which brings us to reason #2 of why this piece of technique is important.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Reason #2 is interesting too:

Reason #2: Better Muscle Sequencing/Activation

Often, those that rotate better whilst sprinting will look smooth and relaxed. Their strides won’t just look longer, they’ll look more relaxed.  Think of Carl Lewis’ famously effortless stride.  This is how we are designed to move – the center moves first, then the extremities follow, much like a whip.

The muscles around the pelvis have high muscle-to-tendon ratios (force producers) while the extremities have relatively much more tendon and elastic structures (force amplifiers). In a correctly aligned body, a small movement of the waist can produce large amounts of force elsewhere in the body.

This sounds awfully close to the Tai Chi idea of the dantien as a nexus of muscular and tendon power in the body.

As somebody interested in muscle tendon channels and their effect on movement and silk reeling exercises from Tai Chi I can see the correlation here. Tai Chi uses the same principle of movement coming from the centre (the dantien) and that controlling the movement of the extremities through elastic tissue. We usually think of this sort of movement as having to be learned, rather than occurring naturally, however it appears to be exhibited in high-level athletes, as we see in the article linked to above. Are they just naturally doing it? Have they tapped into the way the body is designed to move? Have they stumbled upon it, or have they had to learn to move this way on purpose?

Thoughts on Push Hands, by Mike Sigman

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Mike posted his thoughts on push hands recently on the 6H forum. I really liked what he wrote, so I’ve received permission from him to post it here as a guest blog post. Enjoy!

Thoughts on Push Hands
-M. Sigman.

Push Hands is designed as a way to practice using jin with and against a partner. The four jin directions are Up, Toward the Body, Away from the Body, and Down …. or Peng, Lu, Ji, An, respectively. You first learn to use jin in your own movements by learning forms, traditionally in Chen Village, before you begin learning to use that jin with a partner. Since most people claiming to do Taijiquan can’t really use jin skills while simply moving themselves, it is obvious that most “push hands” is usually more about some vague competition than it is about continuous jin skills. The closest most people get to jin skills is usually a sudden, impulsive tossing away of their opponent.

Beginning push hands involves the persistent use of push-hands patterns so that people can practice long periods of attempting to move while maintaining jin in the four directions of Peng, Lu, Ji, An. That’s why it’s such an eye-roller to hear some tournament rowdy say something like, “Oh, I don’t do patterns … I just do free-style”.

So basically, push hands is about Peng, Lu, Ji, An more than anything. It’s about practicing jin and imbuing jin in your body’s movements at all times. Arm/hand techniques, dramatic uprootings, etc., are nice, but they miss the point of what push-hands is really about.

I asked a teacher of mine (a student of Feng Zhiqiang’s) once “what is the philosophy of Taijiquan as a martial-art?”. Stupid question, but I asked it anyway. He responded to me: “The philosophy of Taijiquan is to crash through to the opponent’s center and kill him”. Of course he meant that half in jest, but it’s still true and it’s also the general philosophy of almost any martial-art. In much of the push-hands we see there is a lot of maneuvering at arms’ distance from the opponent, looking for a way to effect a technique or push on the opponent … you seldom see someone simply slip through the arms and apply a massive Kao to the opponent. That’s considered a “no-no” by many people, but since I see so many people do so many “no-no’s” already, I just get confused. If my partner is not doing good push-hands, adhering to the technical aspects, why should I waste time accommodating his not-so-good push hands? I think more people should think more about “what is push hands really about?”.

There are many things you can focus on while doing push hands: throws, joint-locks, “winning”, and so on. I tend to focus foremost on jin and using jin through all of my movements. I am not fully successful yet, but I keep working on it.

If you are moving your arms, you want to look for areas where you slipped into muscle and try and correct that area back toward good jin. You want to check your movement in terms of Open and Close and whether you are using the dantian to move or whether you suddenly went into an arms-only mode for a second. Moving with the dantian is what reeling-silk is about and that’s why reeling-silk movement is the core/basic of Taijiquan.

You want to not provide any resistance for your partner to push against, if possible … but that’s not always possible, so while I focus on that avoidance of resistance, I also enjoy practicing letting my partner push me. As I’ve said in the past, I often/usually will maintain a peng-jin direction that is upward and in a direction that will off-balance my partner if he pushes me. I don’t necessarily do the up-jin thing all the time, but I do it enough that it is an easily-accessed tool that is sort of second-nature.

Most of all I enjoy a casual interplay (win-some, lose-some is best for everyone, I think) where I make it a game to see if I can apply an effective jin response against any push my partner can manage to slip in. I don’t care if I lose some … the idea is to get better and better, so I “invest in loss”.

It’s a fun game to allow an opponent to push you and see if your jin skills are good enough to turn the tables simply by making his own push defeat himself. I would recommend and suggest that this strategy will get people away from always trying to win while at the same time giving them a true skill-set of actual Taijiquan.

I remember a comment from a Chinese friend of mine who was challenged in a nasty way to do some push hands. He looked at the guy and said, “No, let’s fight. Push-hands is just for exercise”.

 

If you liked this post you might also like:

Internal Judo

In Tai Chi you have to go down to go up

The basics of Tai Chi movement

Defining Tai Chi Chuan

My story – to BJJ from Tai Chi

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Rick Matz of Cook Ding’s Kitchen blog asked me to write a little thing about my story and how my Tai Chi and BJJ fit together, so I did! Unfortunately, it turned out to be quite a big thing. In fact, it’s a bit of an essay.

You can read the whole article here.

Have I summed up all the ways that Tai Chi and BJJ fit together? Not at all. There’s still much more to tell, but I hoped I’ve shined a light on to a part of it for you.

Here’s a quote:

“Learning Tai Chi is a constant process of having your mistakes pointed out to you, trying to correct them, then moving on to the next thing. The key to getting good at BJJ is similar – you don’t want to focus on winning, since you end up muscling things instead of being technical and correct. But just like in Tai Chi, it’s learning from your mistakes that matters.”

You might also like my previous article on Tai Chi, BJJ and Rickson Gracie.

Review: Possible Origins, Scott Park Phillips – Part 1

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I’ve been meaning to review Scott Phillips’ book on the origins of Chinese Martial Arts for some time now, but there always seemed to be something else for me  to read, or to do… Ok, I admit it, I’m just a terribly slow reader. However, the recent uproar over the fight between Tai Chi “Master” Wei Lei and MMA coach Xu Xiaodong that has dominated the Chinese Martial Arts scene has made me pick up Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion, and give it the attention it deserves.

A bit of background to the current situation: Xu (who had to go into hiding after the fight once the government got involved) had started to make a name for himself as the debunker of Kung Fu masters who he claimed lacked the skills required for actually fighting while charging students large sums of money to learn these (nonexistent) skills. He wasn’t particularly respectful in his debunking either – in fact, his profanity filled rants were uncomfortable to watch and hard to follow, but his point was simple.

Wei, the subject of a documentary on Chinese television about his Tai Chi powers,  took umbrage to the implied insult and challenged Xu in an effort to defend the honour of traditional martial arts. It sounds like the plot of every kung fu movie, but it actually happened. Anybody who has seen the fight (which lasts about 10 seconds ending with Wei’s face being ruthlessly pummeled on the ground by Xu) will have realised that Wei was utterly delusional about his fighting abilities. Even after his beating, in his post fight interview, Wei still seemed to be delusional about his fighting ability, proclaiming that he was only hit after he “tripped’ and fell”. In reality he was knocked to the ground by a punch which revealed him to be a bumbling amateur in the realms of pugilism.

You can easily make the argument that Wei was never a proper Tai Chi Master anyway, so his poor performance is irrelevant, but a lot of people obviously did think he was a legit martial artists. What’s interesting to me is how we got here.  How did we end up with a generation of Kung Fu (especially Tai Chi) masters who think they can fight, but can’t? If you went to a boxing coach in Glasgow to learn how to box, he’d teach you how to box, and regardless of how good or bad you were, you’ll at least end up with some fighting skills. But if you go to a Tai Chi master in Taiwan, asking to learn to fight, he’ll teach you a lot of fancy arm-waving stuff, mystical qigong and forms, but after several years you might actually be no different from an untrained person in your fighting ability. In fact, you’ll probably be worse.

Nothing ushers in a period of self reflection like a catastrophic failure, so it’s at this point that we should turn to Possible Origins to see how we got here.

Scott’s book at least proposes some answers to this curious situation that Chinese Martial Arts finds itself in – which is to embrace it. His basic premise is that once upon a time in China, martial arts, theatre and religion were all one thing. Over time, and due to various political and cultural shifts they became separated out, but never truly lost their connection to each other, even if the arts lived on as a pale reflection. The book examines how that process happened, why it happened and what we can do about it. In a way it’s a call to arms for the reader to embrace parts of their practice that have hitherto remained untapped and to restore these connections.

I know plenty of people amongst the martial arts that I know who just laugh at Scott’s theories. (“Oh, no, not that guy…”)*. They tend to be practical people who are more interested in how something works than why it is the way it is in the first place. That’s fine, and there’s no reason to go ‘backwards’ in martial arts. I think it’s equally valid to not worry about any of this, and just focus on what you can do with what we’ve had handed down to us. But the book does open a door to a fascinating world of demons, spirits and ancestors that we’ve left behind. You’d also be surprised by how much evidence there is for his interpretations. He can’t be conclusive about anything (hence the title) but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t present a wealth of information to support his case.

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Martial arts originated so long ago that almost everything about that time is lost to us, and survives only in fragments. I think the strongest ‘evidence’ Scott has for his theories is the Boxer Rebellion of 1899, which happened relatively recently, and was a kind of a last gasp of the old world where martial arts, religion, theatre and ritual were all tied up together. There are documented cases in the Boxer Rebellion of martial arts practitioners combining martial arts techniques with spirit possession and mediumship to help overthrow foreign powers. Unfortunately it turns out that invoking the spirits of demons to give you fighting ability doesn’t, in fact, stop bullets and the Boxers were wiped out, and many of the ‘old ways’ and knowledge with them. Further cultural, political, and repressive regimes buried them deeper and deeper until today we’ve lost all concept of why we do what we do in Chinese Martial Arts.

Besides all this, Possible Origins is a damn good read, and an entertaining, book in its own right. It’s not an academic tomb, it’s an easy to devour. I’m halfway through and loving it. Even if you don’t agree with Scott’s theories, you’ll learn a lot about things you never even knew existed from Possible Origins.

Everybody who practices a Chinese Martial Art should read it.  I’ll post a ‘part 2’ follow up when I’m finished.
Links: Scott’s blog. Scott’s video

* In case you were wondering, Scott’s martial arts lineage is actually legit, and explained in the book.

How meridians relate to Tai Chi

I think that somebody doing some background research into “Tai Chi” inevitably ends up looking at a picture of the “acupuncture meridians” and starts to wonder how they relate to Tai Chi Chuan.

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The meridians are used in traditional Chinese medicine practices like acupuncture, massage and pulse diagnosis.

It’s very easy to jump to the conclusion that specific moves in Tai Chi Chuan must affect specific meridians (since, you know, they’re both Chinese…), and indeed a lot of Tai Chi literature will tell you things like this – for example, you’ll see it written that Wave Hands Like Clouds works on the belt meridian or Needle At Sea Bottom works on the bladder meridian.

Do they really? Who knows.

I remember asking my Tai Chi teacher about this and he just brushed it off as unimportant. He was right, too. The thing is, when you do an opening outwards movement, Qi (if there is such a thing, and if there is, then it’s probably not what you think it is) is moving through all the meridians equally in an outward direction, and when you do a closing movement it moves equally through them all in an inward direction. This sequence of opening moves turning into closing moves, which turn again into opening moves, and so on, is repeated throughout all Tai Chi Chuan forms, and is therefore the key feature of the art, and where it gets its name – you continually move from Yin to Yang to Yin to Yang, etc…

You don’t need to worry about the acupuncture meridians for practical considerations. The meridians are not exactly the same as the muscle tendon sinew channels (Jing Jin) first described in the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing) that Chinese experts will talk about. The meridians are more modern, and roughly drawn over the top of the old channels (so are useful for illustrating a general concept, like their same sidedness, for example) but they’re more detailed/fiddly, and not as useful for practical work because of that. You need broader brush strokes.

In internal martial arts you want to develop the connections in the muscle sinew channels so you can actually feel them. You’re starting point for developing these connections would be to use open and close movements. So (generally) the channels that go up the outside of the legs and up the back of the body are used for ‘opening’ and the ones on the front of the body are for ‘closing’ movements.

Using reverse breathing you try and feel a slight tension on the surface of the body and turn that into an opening outward, or a pulling inward, sensation, matched with the movement. (E.g. I breathe in and try and feel a pull along the ‘close’ channels of my arm, and let that lead my movement). You need to let this connection become the driver of the movement, taking over from the local muscles. Your shoulders are usually a source of problems, as is relaxing the lower back sufficiently. Remember to drive power (Jin) from the lower body (closest to the ground). Connections start gossamer thin and build up over time.

Any Tai Chi form movement would work for this, so find one you are familiar with and open up the back and close down the front. However, if I were to pick a movement to start with then a single arm silk reel would make most sense. Like this:

After months of this work you should develop a sense of how the Dantien naturally controls things.

I believe this is the basic path.

Alternatively (using the way most of us Westerners get taught) people learn lots of forms, techniques and exercises that make them feel like they know a lot, but then in 20 years they might meet an expert and realise that they didn’t start with the basics…

Doing Tai Chi right -the road less travelled

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A Tai Chi Chuan performer dong a form, as viewed by an observer, is not in a binary right/wrong state. If it were then everyone would be ‘wrong’ because Tai Chi is that point of perfection that everybody is striving towards. I’m not talking about superficial things that form competitions are judged on, like the wrong height for an arm, or the wrong length of stance. I’m talking about maintaining a perfect state of equilibrium (yin/yang balance) throughout the movement. Constantly going from open to close in perfect harmony. Even the best experts are making little errors constantly as they perform a Tai Chi Chuan form, they’re just so much better than the average person that we can’t see or appreciate them.

But equally, all roads to not lead to Rome. Not everyone doing Tai Chi is on the right track. There are so many side roads you can wander off on, especially with so many other tempting martial arts available on the high street that are a bit like it, but not the thing itself.

There’s one particular side road I want to discuss here that is so close to Tai Chi, but also, so far from it, that you’ll never get there if you go too far down it.

“a hair’s breath and heaven and earth are set apart.”

 

One thing you’ll find a lot of people, particularly instructors who are into the martial side of Tai Chi, doing is putting their weight into things, rather than moving from the dantien.

So what do I mean? Well, think of it like this: if somebody is doing a Tai Chi form and each time they lift and arm they keep their body relaxed and let their body weight fall into the arm they can generate a significant amount of power, while appearing to remain relaxed – all the things Tai Chi is supposed to be.

It’s impressive, and will convince a lot of people of your awesome martial prowess, but it’s not really how Tai Chi is supposed to work. If you’re committing your weight into a technique then you get a lot of power, but you also get a lot of commitment. As an analogy, it’s rather like swinging a lead pipe to hit somebody. If you make contact then fine, you’ll do a lot of damage, but if you swing and miss then you can’t change and adapt quickly enough to deal with the opponent’s counter.

In contrast Tai Chi is supposed to work like a sharp knife – you can generate power without committing your weight into the technique, so you can change and adapt, just as if you were switching cuts with a blade. The knife is so sharp it doesn’t need a lot of weight behind it.

To get this curious mix of non-committed movement and power you need to move from the dantien. This requires a co-ordinated, relaxed body, that’s driven from the central point. This type of movement really does involve re-learning how to move and is developed in things like silk reeling exercises and form practice.

Learning to put your body weight into techniques is comparatively much easier to grasp, and may even be a useful first step, but it should never become the goal of your practice. It’s only when you come up against somebody well trained in dantien usage that you realise the inferiority of other methods.