Archive for July 24th, 2009


One, Two, Three…Everything

In Taiji Quan Classics, the phrase “Dao begets the one, one begets two, two beget three, three beget ten thousand things” (道生一,一生二,二生三,三生万物) appears frequently. It’s a famous line by Laozi. And this is a classic example of literal translation being the wrong translation.

Whenever we translate something, we need to know the conventions of usage in addition to the meaning of individual words. Here one refers to Taiji – one entity with 2 opposite but complementary elements within. Two refers to Liang Yi – two separate entities, each possessing of just one pure quality (Taiji splits into pure yin and pure yang), and those two can produce the third entity (child), so on so forth. In Chinese 10,000, being a very large number, refers to everything.

So when Laozi said three leads to ten thousand, he doesn’t mean these three entities combine to produce 10,000 the same way the first two combined to make three. It’s actually an abbreviated way to say “so on and on…”, similar to what we do today in math to denote a series of numbers, for example Positive Integers [1,2,3…N]. Yin and Yang are general qualities thta can produce any number of offsprings (the first offspring created this way being entity no. 3).

This is a very common convention in Classical Chinese, but if we’re not careful it can lead to a lot of confusion.

Wang Xizhi, Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion, in which the author marveled at the sheer number and variety of nature’s creations.


Reality of weapons fighting

The History Channel has a lot of documentaries on the realities of gun fighting in the Wild West.  One thing the viewer quickly get is how much of what we think we know about the subject were embellished by writers of the time to sell newspapers, magazines, and books.   If we think about it, in China or the West, from the days of epic poems to modern media, when it comes to martial art, it has always been exaggerated.

One area where this gives people the wrong idea is what weapons fighting is like, specifically, what does it take to incapacitate/kill an opponent.  In movies, sword fights tend to end in a sensational, gory fest of decapitation and dismemberment…


In Chinese, chop (劈pi or 砍kan) means a big powerful cutting/splitting motion. You can do that with a jian (straight double-edged sword), but in reality jian fighting is more like (small) knife fighting. You don’t need to split someone in half to kill or disable them. If you got a one inch deep cut on the opponent’s thumb, back of the hand, wrist, inside of arm or leg, on the neck, face, front of the torso… , it would be very serious.

This is true even for heavy dao or katana.  In terms of practicality, anyone who has spent time in the kitchen can appreciate how difficult it is to separate a joint in one clean stroke when you’re preparing meat for dinner, especially when it’s not frozen.  Now imagine doing that when that body is sweating, moving, and resisting. In real life that’s very hard to do. Fortunately in weapons fighting even the smallest cut will do the job. That’s one major difference between empty hand fighting and weapons fighting right – the margin of error.

Giuseppe Castiglione, Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor in ceremonial armor

In terms of body armor, there has always been an inevitable tradeoff between protection and mobility.  You can never make it as strong as you want – complete protection.  Because that would mean it has to be so thick and heavy, that you’ll be barely able to move.  Remember that European knights in full armor had to be mechanically lowered onto their horses.  And if they ever fall off…

For these reasons, the real value of the armor then is probably not in offering complete protection against the most powerful direct hits from all weapons, but to save us from those smaller glancing blows that would otherwise incapacitate us.

July 2009
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