Famous Yiquan founder Wang Xiang Zhai’s had a very famous quote: “拳要打得逸” – martial art [at its highest level] should be yi.
拳: fist, boxing, martial art
打: hit, play, do
逸: leisurely, comfortable, cool, detached, graceful, elegant.
Yi is a one of those very Chinese concepts (like xuan) that is, although very well-known, used all the time, very difficult to explain:
You may hear Chinese-speaking people use the words “high level” a lot. This whole rating thing is very deeply ingrained in the culture. Traditionally, there are 9 levels (品 pin). Level 1-3 of course are high level, 4-6 middle, and 7-9 low.
In Chinese calligraphy and painting, we use the terms 能(neng), 妙(miao), 神(shen) in rating art. They map to lower, middle, and high. Neng means capable, technically proficient. Miao means excellent, clever, ingenious, subtle. Shen mean divine. We say “craft at its highest stage approaches art, art at its highest stage approach Dao.” Neng is the craft stage. Most of the calligraphy you see on restaurant signs, they are neng. Miao is the art stage. Shen is the dao stage – art at a level where it is spiritual. Then there’s an extra-level on top of the usual 9 – 逸 Yi . Together we call these Si Ge(格) – 4 levels.
Yi is this stage above the 9 levels we normally use to rate man-made objects. It is by definition very rare, for example everyone agrees, no calligraphy produced after Jin Dynasty (the one before Tang) can be called Yi.
So what is yi then?
Yi is a very Daoist concept, opposite of Confucian ideas. In Confucian thought they don’t talk about freedom, they talk about institution. Confucius lived in a time of prolonged warfare, he thought the problem with the world can be summarized with people not behaving like the father, son, brother, and husbands. Everyone in the society has a place in the grand hierarchy, with emperor on top, and everyone must fulfill the duties that comes with that position. The Daoists have different ideas: we are part of nature. Nature is good, our essential problem is we got away from that. We think we’re so clever, but it’s all very petty, and we willingly become slaves of our unnatural desires (e.g. the desire to make enough money so we can drive around in luxury automobiles does not come from the spiritual part of us).
So yi is a way of thinking, a way of living, above the mundane, often vulgar aspect of live. It’s being free. Being in touch with our highest aspiration as spiritual beings. Being true to our original nature. Being one with the universe (how could it be otherwise). Being simple, plain, genuine; of classical elegance and noble austerity. Yi is free, beautiful, artistic. Only when you’re really free can you find real comfort, ease. With comfort and ease come a sense of lightness.
People often use “dragon in the sky”, “fish in water” as examples of 遊逸 you yi. 遊 is often mistranslated as swimming when people say swimming dragon. You is leisurely cruising. In Chinese mythology, the dragon is said to be “able to expand or shrink to any size, adapt itself to any situation comfortably.” It can fly, even though it has no wings (why be so literal when it’s magical), so it’s the ultimate symbol of freedom. It is divine, magical, beyond our normal, limited levels of existence. So you can say dragon represent state of yi.
A classic example of this freedom is that, most of the calligraphy people regard as yi, those were actual drafts of articles, not the final version. When these great calligraphers were making the drafts, their mind is on what they want to write, not how well they write those characters. They are completely natural at that moment. In Chinese we call this ‘xin shou liang wang’ – the mind and the hands forget about each other. Many of them, upon finishing the draft, realized the result, and try to replicate but couldn’t. Because they were then thinking “write well, don’t make mistakes, make this part feel more free…”.
Like any art, martial art has rules and conventions. We need those guidelines to become good in the first place. But after that, can we be free of them? Yi is the stage that is beyond conventions. Free from convention doesn’t mean you can do anything. When Pavarotti sings “Nessun Dorma”, when he totally loses himself in the music, when we the audience loses ourselves in that performance, forgetting we’re even in a theater, it’s art at its highest, most natural level, what we would like to call Yi. But Pavarotti still have to sing the exact words and notes in Nessun Dorma. It’s one of those paradoxes (how many positive numbers are there – infinite), finite and infinite at the same time.
An obvious limit for fighting is you’re trying to survive. So at a fundamental level your actions are limited by that that intent. But with yi, you are basically free, so it’s this xuan stage where you care but you also don’t really care. This is where a lot of people misunderstand when talking about “ling kong jin”. Are there times when a master can throw someone without actual touching? Definitely yes. But it’s not like other skills in that you can consciously duplicate. Because you were acting naturally to the unique circumstance at the moment (which is impossible to replicate), you didn’t mean to throw the person without touching, just like you didn’t mean to create world’s greatest example of calligraphy when you’re drafting. But that was the result. You have all the capabilities to produce such moments, when everything outside is just right. But it’s not really a technique you can mechanically reproduce or practice for.
Another common expression is “when great sculptor create a statue, he leaves no tool marks”. The product is like a work of nature, with no traces of human hand.
So that’s what fighting should be like at highest level. Your responses may not look like any movement in the form, but it is 100% correct, 100% appropriate, as if it is the most natural thing for you to do. You do it with style, ease, grace, and playfulness. There is a popular physical activity outside of China where people are seeking this same state of mind, same ideal level of skill – surfing.