Square and circle

In traditional Chinese culture, the words fang (方 – rectangular/square) and yuan (圓 – circular) appear together very often.

In the case of Taiji Quan, the rectangular/square refers to the four main skills of Taiji Quan (peng, lu, ji, an) and the four supplementary skills (cai, lie, zhou, kao). In ancient times, before we have the understanding of the natural world we have today, Chinese people though “heaven is round while the earth is square (rectangular)”. Heaven is thought to be round because it envelops the earth, and seemingly without boundaries and seams. Earth was thought to be square in that you can readily assign the four cardinal directions and four diagonal directions, delineate it in a grid-like manner (“earth is like a go board”).

In Chinese culture people believed Dao (Tao), the universal principle, can explain every thing in this world. So even people in what was considered “low-level” pursuits try to explain and elevate what they do by mapping it to those high-level philosophical principles. In this way the 5 main skills of Xingyi where mapped to 5 elements, the 8 palms of Bagua Zhang mapped to 8 trigrams, and the 4 main skills and 4 supplementary skills of Taiji mapped to coordinates of earth in Chinese cosmology. If you have the earth (4 cardinal + 4 corner skills) and the heaven (circles), then you have everything right?

Today it’s hard to say how we got internal martial art skills: did people think “this is way Dao works, the soft can overcome the hard, how do we apply it to martial art?”, or did martial art skill get to a point of high efficiency where people start to connect the dots: “hey, through clever timing and direction and manipulation of other aspects of force (not just speed and power, but also angle, direction, duration, etc), in this case we successfully dealt with a large force of this type using a smaller force of this type, this is soft overcoming the hard! Let’s investigate it further, because according to Dao we should be able to deal with all types of forces in a similar manner…” My guess is it’s probably the later.

The abstract principles of Daoism does a great job of explaining how and why internal martial art skills work on a physical level. However we need to be aware of the cultural tendency mentioned above, and be careful of its inherent pitfalls in trying to find one-to-one correspondence between martial art and philosophy/religion:

  • Traditionally people say there are 36 (one of those magic numbers) main types of jin (trained force) in Taiji Quan. In reality there are more than 36 basic types. So her we need to be careful not to miss something important.
  • On the other hand, in the overall scheme of things, historical martial art is a small dao (xiao dao). Meaning what we’re trying to do is simple – try to kill another person with bare hands and some simple tools. It’s not solving the world financial crisis. It is but a tiny subset (very partial one at that, not a perfect microcosm) of our overall experience of life, universe, and everything. So it’s futile to map 64 palms of our form to the all-encompassing, rich, dense layers of meanings that are embedded in Yi Jing’s 64 trigrams.

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