Happy Father’s Day! (UK version )
To celebrate Father’s Day I’ve got my oldest son in this episode, providing a bit of feedback for me to work with. This week we look at the role of the mind in directing forces to your feet (the ground) and sending them back out
I was giving the Tao Te Ching the cursory glance I occasionally give it recently. I’ve got the copy shown above. I usually flick to a random chapter, read it three times and ponder it deeply. Well, as deeply as I am able to. I landed on chapter 61, and the next day I landed on chapter 8. These two seemed to be linked in theme, so I thought I’d say something about them.
Incidentally, I really like the Stephen Mitchell translation. I’ve no idea how accurate it is compared to the Chinese, but all translation seems to involve some interpretation, and I like the way he’s done it.
Here’s chapter 61:
When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.
A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.
If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.
and chapter 8:
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
So, firstly let’s look at the imagery of water, one of the classic symbols of the Yin side of the Taiji diagram. Both chapters use water as a metaphor for the correct way of acting or being in the world. It’s a theme that repeats through the Tao Te Ching, and also throughout the history of Asian martial arts, even in modern times. I’m thinking of Bruce Lee in the infamous interview where he says “Be water, my friend!”
I was reading another article about Wing Chun today by Ben Judkins, which also expanded upon this idea of softness overcoming strength, and how this idea has permeated Asian martial arts:
Early reformers in martial arts like Taijiquan (Wile 1996) and Jujitsu sought to shore up their own national identities by asserting that they brought a unique form of power to the table. Rather than relying on strength, they would find victory through flexibility, technique, and cunning (all yin traits), just as the Chinese and Japanese nations would ultimately prevail through these same characteristics. It is no accident that so much of the early Asian martial arts material featured images of women, or small Asian men, overcoming much larger Western opponents with the aid of mysterious “oriental” arts. These gendered characterizations of hand combat systems were fundamentally tied to larger narratives of national competition and resistance (see Wendy Rouse’s 2015 article “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam”.
but as the author notes, the situation is often muddied
Shidachi appears to have had little actual familiarity with Western wrestling. It is clear that his discussion was driven by nationalist considerations rather than detailed ethnographic observation. And there is something else that is a bit odd about all of this. While technical skill is certainly an aspect of Western wrestling, gaining physical strength and endurance is also a critical component of Judo training. Shidachi attempted to define all of this as notbeing a part of Judo. Yet a visit to the local university Judo team will reveal a group of very strong, well developed, athletes. Nor is that a recent development. I was recently looking at some photos of Judo players in the Japanese Navy at the start of WWII and any one those guys could have passed as a modern weight lifter. One suspects that the Japanese Navy noticed this as well.
But while the idea of the soft overcoming the hard has already fallen to the level of a cliché, especially when it comes to martial arts, and mixed with political ideas, should we ignore it as a way of being in the world? I’d say not. It does point to a truth.
Anyone with any familiarity in martial arts is aware of the feeling of having to ‘muscle’ a technique to make it work, as opposed to executing a clean technique based on good leverage. This points towards what I think these chapters of the Tao Te Ching are talking about.
When it comes to Tai Chi one of the hardest things to grasp about the techniques exemplified in the forms is that they shouldn’t necessarily feel powerful to you as you do them. My teacher often uses this phrase: “…if you feel it then they don’t – you want them to feel it, not you“.
If you can give up the need to control and struggle with a situation, then you can relax and access your own inner power. See what acliché that statement sounds like already? It sounds like one to me as I wrote it, but I guess all cliches were probably based on something real, otherwise, they wouldn’t be a cliché.
In Chinese martial arts that sweet spot between doing and not doing (to bastardize some more Taoist terminology) is called Jin. I’ve written a bit about that before:
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.
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.
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?
As well as this blog, I also run bjjnotebook.com where I live a second life as a BJJ practitioner who has never heard of Tai Chi 🙂
I got featured in a video podcast called Lockdown with Sid recently, so while it’s not exactly “Tai Chi” I thought you might like to see what I get up to when I’m wearing Japanese pyjamas…
This video is a blast from the past (for me, at least). It was filmed in 2003 and I’m in it!
It’s the film of a demonstration the Yongquan Chinese Martial Arts group did in London. There are lots of the arts I was training at the time shown off here – Choy Lee Fut, Northern Shaolin, Tai Chi, Push Hands, then some breaking demonstrations. I’m doing a broadsword form in the demo that I can’t even remember anymore! There’s some Iron palm (a granite pebble broken with a chop) from Donald and a kerb stone gets broken over Doug’s head with a sledge hammer!
Since I was actually in this demo I know that none of these materials are faked – they’re all the genuine article. Real bricks, etc..
At the end of the demonstration there are some clips of us practicing for the demo. These are more enjoyable for me to watch as they bring back some good memories of training with my teacher and the rest of the guys back in the day.
What I like most in the video is the very last clip, where Doug is practising the Press (Ji) technique from Tai Chi on a line of people. Done right it’s meant to be very minimal physical effort with a big results (using Jin not Li) – the power should penetrate through the line of people so that the people at the back of the line fly away first. He does a ‘not very good’ version of it (too much Li – physical force) so it all looks very physical. Donald comes over to tell him off and show him how it should be done, and without any set up does a perfect Ji – really minimal effort and the guy at the end of the line flies off – then Doug has another go and gets it right. I’m glad that got captured on video.
A video clip has been doing the rounds on the Internet recently about a “Tai Chi master” called Lei Gong who accepted the challenge of a Chinese MMA fighter/coach called Xu Xiaodong to an actual fight. Here’s what happened:
As you can see the Tai Chi master had his bell rung very quickly and very convincingly. The whole video lasts 47 seconds. It’s clear from the first few seconds of the actual fight that Lei Gong is way out of his depth and shouldn’t be in there with Xu. He had no idea how to deal with an opponent who was actually attacking him, not just dancing around making strange shapes in the air, like his student presumably do for him.
(The stoppage by the ref was a bit late for me, and Lei Gong ended up taking more punishment than he should have. The effects of head trauma are all too real, but it seems that this is the price he had to pay to be woken from his dream of magic fighting ability).
Generally, I think that this fight was a good thing for Tai Chi as a whole. Let me explain.
The challenge arose after Lei Gong appeared on a Chinese Television programme called “Experiencing Real Kung Fu” claiming to have sparring and fighting ability with Tai Chi. He spared one of the hosts of the show in the programme. See below at 9.30:
Xu’s beef with the show was that people claiming these sorts of abilities better be able to back it up.
The sad truth is that most things in China are fake, including their TV shows! I’ve seen so many of these types of shows now where Tai Chi masters go up against Muay Thai or Karate people, or wrestlers. They’re all fake. Does that mean Tai Chi is fake too? I don’t think so, but I think it exposes the complete lack of realism that is prevalent in the Tai Chi culture. It’s not rocket science: if you want to be able to actually fight with any art, then you have to practice actually fighting with it.
Xu seems to have a particular problem with the big dogs of Chen village who charge a lot of money for people to become disciples to learn their special skills. I can see where he’s coming from – if you look at what you learn in a typical seminar from a big name in the Chen style, then none of this is going to prepare you for an encounter like the one Lei Gong was in.
Xu’s argument, which I think is logically valid, is that if you’re going to charge all that money for something you better be able to prove it works. He’s now challenged the son of Wang Xi’an, one of the “4 tigers of Chen village”, but Wang’s son will only send his student, who has also been trained in SanDa (Chinese kickboxing with throws as well) to fight Xu. Xu, understandably says this will not do, because he wants to test Chen style Tai Chi. This will probably rumble on a bit and lead nowhere.
I was chatting with a friend about the whole thing and he said something like “I think that all martial arts, once they actually spar end up looking like some version of MMA”.
I think he’s probably right. I’ve written before about the delusion of grace under pressure and how so many people’s idea of what Tai Chi should look like in a fight is so way off.
MMA is what martial arts look like when stripped down to pure functionality. When all the cultural trappings have been removed. Chinese Martial Arts does contain its own bad-ass martial artists, but still, those arts contain things that are not purely about fighting. And for a good reason – they perform a useful social function. MMA also performs a useful social function, but more in the same way that Western boxing does, not in the way that Chinese Martial Art does.
Perhaps we’re all missing something. There are special skills you can only get from Tai Chi, and I think people have a right to teach these things without having to fight MMA to prove it works. I also don’t believe that all the people who are paying lots of money to become indoor disciples of Chen style masters think they are being given a kind of ‘master-key’ to martial arts that will mean they will be able to fight 21-year old athletes without ever having to spar first. It’s more like they are buying into a tradition. Once they buy in they’ll (hopefully) get the skills the tradition is famous for*, and be able to set themselves up as teachers. The problem comes when they get delusional and start to see themselves as bad-ass fighters when they don’t have a right to. This situation is made worse by the acceptance of fakeness, or cheating, in Chinese culture and TV shows.
It’s a messy situation, but it is what it is. Welcome to the world of Tai Chi. What matters is you and your training. Use your own reasoning to asses what you’re doing and what skills it is actually giving you, and don’t start to claim you can do things you can’t, otherwise you might suffer a painful wake-up call, like Lei Gong did.
*Of course, whether somebody who is not Chinese and not even from Chen village would ever really be taught the real skills of the family is open for debate anyway.
Thanks to Full Contact Way for mentioning The Tai Chi Notebook in its Top 40 Blogs to help you with your martial training. There are plenty of good reads there if you’re looking for inspiration.
Here I want to discuss what a natural posture means in Tai Chi Chuan. I was working on the posture we call ‘Fist under elbow’ with a student today. The posture looks like this:
The word translated as ‘fist’ could also mean ‘punch’, so you could equally call the posture, ‘Punch under elbow’. It looks a bit like the Judo Chop I talked about recently, but it’s not done like that at all in application. Instead of a chopping, downward, movement it’s a forward and outwards, palm strike done with the left hand. You can see this immediately when you see it done in motion. Here’s Yang Jun, the grandson of Yang Cheng-Fu who is pictured above, teaching the movement in his family’s style of Tai Chi.
You might ask why your other hand is punching under the elbow. I was always taught this was a hidden technique, where you’d turn the left hand into a deflection of the opponent’s attack and punch them with your right, but in the Tai Chi form it wasn’t show explicitly, and the punch was hidden away under the elbow… In application, it looked a lot like a little bit of Wing Chun Kung Fu.
I always have doubts about the validity of these sorts of explanations though. Firstly, I don’t know why you’d want to hide a technique like this? Who are you hiding it from, and why? And it’s not an especially deadly technique, so it’s not like it is dangerous for people to see it. There are much more dangerous techniques shown openly in the form. And secondly, if you don’t actually practice it then you’ll never actually be able to do it under pressure, so hiding things away is not an ideal practice method.
I think it’s much more likely that the posture itself has special cultural significance (as say, part of a religious ritual, or maybe it relates to Chinese cosmology), so was included in the Tai Chi form sequence, or perhaps it’s something of a signature move that was handed down over the generations from an older martial art, and has lost its original meaning, but remained as a kind of nod of respect to the forefathers.
Either way, it’s in the Tai Chi form now, and shows no sign of being removed, so we might as well get on with learning it properly.
My point in writing this article was that I find students generally don’t perform this posture particularly well. Perhaps it’s something to do with the arm position being slightly uncomfortable unless you can relax sufficiently, but it seems particularly suited to making mistakes. Maybe it’s because it looks a bit like an “on guard!” posture, but if you ask a student to take up this posture they will invariably hunch the shoulders, or make their leading arm too stiff and aggressive, or get the angle of the hand and fingers all wrong.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Look at how tense this guy’s arms are:
He’s holding up his right elbow instead of letting it drop. His left arm is almost locked straight and both arms are too high: Instead of ‘sinking the chi’ he’s letting it rise up, which makes him unsteady.
In Tai Chi the shoulders should naturally round and the elbows should drop – this makes your posture softer and more relaxed – ‘sung‘, as we say in Tai Chi.
If I was to walk up to the person above practicing on the beach and at the moment they formed their Fist Under Elbow I was to slap their arm away at the elbow then the chances are that I’d severely compromise their structure and balance, possibly knocking them over, giving me ample room to attack.
In comparison, if you look at the picture of Yang Cheng-Fu above again, then you can see he is much more relaxed and comfortable in his stance. You get the feeling that if you tried to slap his arm away he’d be able to just let his arm go with your motion, and let it swing back around and slap you in the face! (This was exactly what happened to me the first time I got hands-on with my Tai Chi teacher, so I can talk from experience!)
Yang Cheng-Fu’s more natural posture means that his centre of gravity is within himself in the area of the dantien. And because mind and body are linked, it’s more likely that his mind is focussed and aware of what’s happening. Once your physical centre of gravity starts to shift out of your base, so too does your mental focus. And equally, if your mind is all over the place when you’re doing your Tai Chi form then, more than likely, your physical balance will suffer for it.
In an ‘internal’ martial art we try to harmonise what’s happening between the external and the internal parts of the body. That’s what I’m trying to do in each posture of the Tai Chi form – become more centred,both mentally and physically. I want to have a more natural body that is free from artificial posturing. Postures that look ‘held up’, as if from invisible wires from the ceiling, are not as useful for combat as natural, rooted, aware postures that can meet the demands of the moment.
(A quick tip for getting a more natural posture is to take up a posture from the Tai Chi form, put your arms in what you think is the correct position, then take a big breath in, all the way up to your shoulders then let it all out in one big gasp. Let your arms settle to where they need to be, rather than holding them up. That relaxed, sunk, posture you now have is what you should be looking for in Tai Chi Chuan.)
As it says in the Tai Chi Classics:
“The postures should be without defect,
without hollows or projections from the proper alignment;”
“Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and
move like a turning wheel.”
“The upright body must be stable and comfortable
to be able to sustain an attack from any of the eight directions.”
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.