Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category


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.


A great curvature resembles a straight line

According to the principle, everything we do in Taiji Quan are made up of circles, even apparently straight line movements. How can that be?

The answer can be found in Laozi’s famous saying “a big curvature resembles a straight line” 大曲若直. People used to think the earth is flat. It is curved, but the curvature takes place over such a long distance, relative to the physical dimension of man, that it looks flat to us with unaided vision.


In terms of martial art, this is linked to one of the most important concepts in Taiji Quan. That is, when fighting against someone, always project your movement so that you create a larger circle which envelopes the other person. Li Yiyu – Sun Lutang’s grandmaster in Taiji Quan, wrote a very famous article detailing what Taiji Qyan fighting at the higher levels should be like, where he talked about covering, blanketing, swallowing … the opponent’s qi. If we don’t use the word qi, and just look at externally what happens, we can say a big part of that is about using a larger circle to control smaller circle(s).

And of course in real fighting we don’t always physically complete a circle. So a punch that is a part of a very large circle can look like just a straight punch.


Cultivate both the mind and the body

Daoists are famous for advocating xing ming shuang xiu (性命雙修). Xing here means soul, mind; ming refers to the physical body. Xing Ming Shuang Xiu means to develop/cultivate both the mind and the body. Amongst Chinese philosophies/religions, this is a distinctively Daoist approach.

To us humans, what is the worst thing, the one thing we all like to avoid – Death. The killer app of all religions is eternal life. For most religions, the approach is as follows:

  • Make clear distinction between mind and body.
  • The essence of our existence is not the body, but this intangible thing called soul. The workings of our mind, which we’re conscious of, is used as evidence for existence of that intangible entity called soul.
  • We can all see the flesh is weak.
  • The soul is eternal, while the body temporary and corruptible.
  • That which does not persist, that are temporary, are but illusion.
  • Therefore we should focus on the permanent, the incorruptible.
  • It doesn’t matter when the body dies, because life = life of the soul, you are not your body.

So the body is but temporary vessel for the soul. Or as the Buddhists call it, the ‘dirty skin bag”. The implication for practice then is very clear, we should only concentrate on the soul, it’s the only thing that matters.


Daoists, who I like to think are the naughty rascals of world religion, have a completely different view. Their point is, your body is you too. So we need to cultivate it to prevent decay. Hence all the attempts at alchemy, elixirs, and more helpfully, qi gong (aka internal elixir) and other health practices. In other religions you don’t care if your body dies. Daoists don’t want the body to die to start with.

January 2020
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