Archive for the 'Principle 拳理' Category


Biaoju 镖局- security companies

In the previous post we talked about masters who taught princes and nobles. In terms of status and prestige, that is definitely the highest level a professional martial artist could aspire to.

In general, career options for martial artists – those whose focus purely on weapons and empty hand skills (vs broader studies involved in military arts), are few in traditional society. There were basically four:

1) The best, most ideal situation is one where the master has his own school. Here the students come to you.  This requires the highest level of skill, as you have a known, fixed location, and anyone can come and challenge you. If you lose, by custom you have to leave and cede the school to the challenger.

2) The next level is being a teacher, but you don’t have your own school, you have to go to where the students are – you work for someone, or you teach in the military.

3) The third level is one where you have to risk your own life for protect the life or properties of private clients/masters. Examples are security company jobs, and bodyguard services. In the later scenario, normally you would be live at the household you are protecting. Here the head of security can be a prestigious position, but the rank and file are basically servants of the house. In general there is a huge fall-off in prestige between the second and third level, as people think only the desperate would risk their lives like that.

4) The lowest level is in entertainment. Whatever people say about those who risk their lives for private clients, they must have a certain level of fighting skill to make a viable living doing that. The requirement for fighting skill in performance and entertainment is much lower or non-existent.

As with the case of teachers living and teaching at houses of nobles having the highest level of prestige than others with their own school, there is a notable exception for level 3 mentioned above.

In 2006 China’s central television company (CCTV) had a really interesting documentary on development of modern banking in Shanxi province.  In mid to late Qing Dynasty there was great posterity, and the population of the country doubled within a century. Commerce flourished; suddenly there were many types of people needing to securely transport currency and other valuables over long distances. The interesting part is how all of this drove the development of Xinyi/Xingyi in Shanxi.

Before the invention of modern banking, if you had a lot of money, they were stored in the form of gold or silver. When you move you would have to transport all that bulky metal, becoming a big, slow, conspicuous target.

It was in Shanxi where the depositor’s note system and interstate banking was first developed some two hundred years ago. These large banks have between 5 – 10 millions ounces of silver in circulation at any one time. They had branch location in all the major cities along important trade routes. You can take their note to any one of their branch locations and convert it to hard currency.

Now there are large silos of gold and silver where these banks branches are, hence the need for large number of high level martial artists to guard the bank and the wealthy bankers. Since this is Shanxi, it meant Xinyi/Xingyi masters.  Because of the great market demand, high level Xingyi masters were paid like today’s professional athletes. No surprisingly the ranks of elite Xingyi masters and the art itself grew by leaps and bounds during that time.

In Shanxi the number one location for these banks is Taigu. There one such wealthy banking family the Chao’s (曹) employed over 500 security guards for his household alone. The martial instructors working for him included such luminaries as Li Laonong (李老农) and Che Yizhai (车毅斋).

This is also where the first government-approved private security company – Biaoju (镖局), was founded. The martial art master who founded the first Biaoju is known as Zhang Heiwu (张黑五). He was the fifth (wu 五) son of his family and had dark complexion (hei 黑). Today we don’t know exactly what martial art he studied, we just know that he was from Shangxi. According to legend he was martial art instructor to Emperor Qianlong. That it was with the emperor’s suggestion/approval that he opened the first of the “Big Ten” Biaoju’s of Qing Dynasty. He actually opened the Beijing branch first. This makes sense as most banks have locations in the capitol, and at year-end they usually ship large quantities of gold/silver home to headquarters in Shanxi.

Before the age of motion pictures, television, cable, satellite, internet, and recorded medias, everywhere people in sports and entertainment in general occupied the lowest rung in societies. But with the power of media comes astronomical increase in the earning potential, and with that the elevated status. So it is true that great masters who would otherwise have their own school or teach powerful/wealthy clients would choose the pursue the most dangerous, but now incredibly lucrative private security business.

Before the arrival of modern ships, trains, and automobiles, long distance travel was one of the mundane but highly hazardous endeavors in life.  It is for this major reason these security companies exist. These security companies have 6 main lines of business: 1) mail courier service for the government (xin biao 信鏢)、2) transport of bank notes (piao biao 票鏢), 3) transport of gold/silver (yin biao 銀鏢), transport of grain as tax revenue for central government (liang biao 糧鏢), transport of goods (wu biao 物鏢), transport/safeguarding of people (ren shen biao 人身鏢).

Biao Che

Cart use by Biaoju

One of the most common types of customers for security agencies is retired government officials or officials at the end of a term transferring to another post.  If you passed the imperial civil service exams, the government would post you wherever people are needed. So you may be thousands of miles from home town. In China there’s this very common attitude of “a leaf falls to its root” – when you retire you’re supposed to stage a triumphant return to your home town. You left town a ‘wearing plain cloth’, you return ‘wearing silk/satin’. Showing how successful you are, how you brought glory not only to your ancestors but the home town.

Of course, just like the current situation in modern China, corruption was built into the bureaucratic system.  In modern program management parlance, China historically chose a ‘people-centric’ system versus a ‘process-centric’ system, believing no amount of written laws can cover all situations, that ultimately it’s up to the judgement of officials in charge.  Also, there’s this idea that punishment must always be balanced by humanity (eg. when sentencing people who are stealing food because they are starving).  The drawback of course of placing this much power in the hands of individuals is that this leads to ample opportunity for abuse/corruption.

Even a mid-level official would be extremely wealthy by the time his tenure ended. This is where one of the most common attempts at highway robbery took place. The local people would think “you made all your ill-gotten gains off us here, that money should rightfully stay here”. The capitol, more than anywhere else, is where these clients were.

Chun Dian Manual

Manual of Underworld Slangs as recorded by Pingyao Biaoju

There’s actually a lot of interesting things written about the security agency/bandit relationship. Like modern virus-protection software companies, it’s at the same time an antagonistic and symbiotic relationship. Lots of time it’s not even real outlaws as local powers. For example, something like a dock, or waterway, it’s ruled by some kind of gang. If you want passage, you have to go through them. There’s a Chinese saying “even a strong dragon cannot bully the local snake”. Imagine you’re going to a land that is completely new to you, you don’t speak their dialect, you don’t know anyone, you don’t know their unique regional culture, you don’t know the terrain. If they really wanted to, they can set a trap and get you fairly easily.

The local snakes were smart, they wouldn’t just rob every traveler, as that would just make people avoid their area all together. That’s where the semi-antagonistic element come in. You go to a new place, you need to pay respect to the local powers. If you’re new, you have to fight them. If you beat them, they’ll know having a full scale fight with your company is not a good business proposition. They’ll respect you, and let you pass through their territory. Of course you have to shower them generously with gifts each time. If you’re weak, and a nobody, then they’ll just take everything from you.

So security company doesn’t operate by trying to beat everyone who’s in their way every time. But they have to beat everyone at least one time. Diplomacy by itself is useless against uncivilized people if not backed by very real force. As the saying from the Warring States era goes “a small/weak country has no diplomacy” (they just do what strong countries tell them).

Where high level martial art is most needed is when you’re opening a route for the very first time. After that comes diplomacy, but you still need to maintain a great fighting reputation, so people won’t stop respecting you. The biggest companies, like the one operated by San Huang Paochui group, are the ones that had opened safe passages to many important areas of the country. Sort of like you’re an airline and you dominate the New York – Los Angeles route. That’s how your potential customer will know you and select you.

In Chinese the saying is “when at home[town] you rely on family, when traveling outside you rely on friends”. Obviously in the later case the more friends the better. Life on the road is unpredictable, you may run into all kinds of unforeseen problems. In the old days everything is based on relationship, so it helps to have a large network of such powerful “friends”.

The best example of successful agency is that of San Huang Pao Chui group. Song Mailun was originally a high ranking member of Shen Ji Ying (Capitol Garrison – Modern Firearm Division). The prince in charge of Shen Ji Yin was so impressed by him that Song was promoted to Class Five government official (out of 9 classes). But seeing how fruitless it is to serve the corrupt and declining government, he went private and formed Hui You (meet friends) Security Company, the largest in the capitol.

Hui You Biaoju

Hui You Biaoju

From his government work he became well connected politically with the political and economic elites, giving him unparalleled access to his potential client base. As a top level martial artist – a peer of, and good friends of Dong Haichuan, Liu Zhijun, and Yang Luchan, he was well connected to the martial art scene, giving him access to the talent talent needed to run his company.

His work at the security company made him intimately familiar with every type of person, profession, and associations (religions, professional guilds, gangs, outlaws, etc) in society, from the highest to the lowest. All of this gave him great knowledge and wisdom. In today’s parlance we’d call him someone who really knew how the entire system works, who can solve very difficult problems under seemingly impossible deadlines. So he was highly sought after by all kinds of people.

Because they fight in the real world all the time and employed so many martial artist, the Pao Chui group left perhaps the largest curriculum of any martial art group. Empty hand routines alone comprise of 108 sets. On top of that every type of weapon imaginable… They had a great reputation because of the constant feedback from their daily work, any weak members would’ve been weeded out very naturally, quickly.

Just as their rise was rapid and impressive, with the arrival of trains, ship, automobile, and better roads, the decline was also swift. The last of the “Big Ten” Biaoju closed its doors in 1920.

Martial art, like any human pursuit, is an organic product of its environment. When there are economic, military, social incentives, it develops and flourishes. When those needs go away or changes, the arts either decline, disappear or adapt to meet the new need. So it is that we can say the overall state of art for Xinyi/Xingyi (and most traditional Chinese martial arts) was definitely higher in year 1800 than year 1700, and better in 1900 then 1800, but in 2000 it’s definitely lower than 1900.


Simple, boring, painful, time-consuming 耗

There is a Chinese expression that “Gongfu comes out of Hao (功夫是耗出来的)”.

Hao (耗): expend, consumed, dawdle, waste, exhaust, wear out.

In martial art practice Hao means holding a particular pose, and just stay there for long periods of time. Martial art is art of movement, so why do people place such emphasis on static training?

This addresses a common problem in martial art training. That people by nature find certain things more exciting, interesting to practice. Everyone loves practicing skill, technique, whereas holding a hamstring stretch for 30 minutes at a time is a lot less appealing. However, most basic training such as flexibility and post standing requires Hao type of training. Basics are important because they are the foundation. The strength of the foundation puts a limit on how high a building could be.

Hao Tui

In everyday usage, when people say hao shijian (耗时间), it means wasting time doing meaningless activity. But that’s not the case with training. Beyond basics, there are many aspects of martial art training that looks simple, boring, and repetitive, but that’s exactly where we develop our gongfu. Hence the expression “Practicing skill without practicing gongfu, in the end we have nothing (练武不练功,到头一场空).”

Another aspect of Hao that discourages people is that it’s often painful. So this is when we get questions like “can we listen to music when we practice?” Here what we’re really asking is “can I at least mentally disengage from this activity, and get some short-term gratification?” Actually pain is a teacher, it tells us a lot about the strength and weaknesses of our body. We should instead go deeper into the practice, and investigate it: where is the pain (in the muscle I want to stretch, or in the tendons and ligaments), what kind of pain is it (soreness or sharp/wrong kind of pain), is it caused by something else (if it’s in a joint, is it because weakness in muscles, so this part is overcompensating), etc.

In martial art practice as in life, results are determined by what we focus our attentions to, what we spend our time on. We naturally prefer certain types of things, and neglect, belittle the importance of things that seems easy to understand, boring, painful, and takes a very long time. But often it is those seemingly simple things that are of key importance, deserving of our full attention.


Reverence and Fear 敬畏

PBS did a good documentary on the making of Samurai swords. The program weaves together footage of craftsman making the sword in the traditional manner along with lucid scientific explanations of the process in modern language by professors of metallurgy and religious studies from a prestigious engineering school.

One of the comments that caught my teacher’s attention was how by treating the process as a sacred religious ritual, it in fact has the effect of quality control. The Japanese people really believed all things in nature are imbued with spirits. And a finely made sword was the spirit of Samurai. Therefore every step of the forging process must be taken seriously, as if it’s a religious ritual. During a ritual, every tiny detail must be attended to carefully, as you feel you are in the presence of god, and any mistake would bring severe punishment. This mentality is called Jing Wei (敬畏) – reverence and fear.

For my teacher, who teaches western students internal martial art and Qigong, this represents an everyday challenge in which tradition clashes with modernity.

The human mind has a very deeply-seated need for the world to make sense, for things to happen for a good reason. From earliest days of civilization, we have been creating explanations for phenomenons we crave to understand. In the case of Chinese culture, the early theories we came up with for how nature works involves Taiji, Wuxing, and Bagua. For disciplines like internal martial art and Qigong, many of the terminologies and explanations for various practices have these mythological/philosophical origins.

Since that time we have come to know a great deal more about how nature works, theories that makes the ancient ones seems naive and childish by comparison. The challenge then is when teaching modern day students, do we still use the old languages and terminologies? That is actually very hard. Here’s a practical example: one of the foundation building (zhu ji 筑基)exercises in Qigong is called Cai Qi – gathering of Qi. The exercises involves breathing exercises done at dawn and full moon, using arm motions that look like the practitioner is literally reaching out to gather the sun/moon with his arms, then bringing it down into the dantian – like a mythical creature swallowing the sun/moon.

Do I believe this process actually brings in yang/yin energy into my body as it is described, I am deeply skeptical. But what I am not skeptical is the actual results of Qigong exercise, of doing breathing exercises, of getting up early, regularly to exercise. But here lies the problem: if I am skeptical of the process, then I will not get the full benefit of it. Why would that be the case, because as we say in Chinese: 心理影响生理 – psychology affects physiology.

It’s common sense that one’s mental state has a huge effect not just on performance of physical tasks, but the body itself. Anyone who has been under prolonged mental distress can attest to that. So how does this affect Qigong practice? Well, if you don’t believe the power of the sun, that you think it’s just a tool to get you perform a bigger movement, you can then do that exercise in a cramped apartment, just imagine the big sun with your mind. But for a beginner at least, it is much more beneficial if he were actually at a mountain top, at crack of dawn, being able to actually gaze up at the huge sun directly without fear of eye damage, bathed in fresh morning air, and do this exercise. The feeling, and the effect, will be dramatically different. To be in the presence of something big can bring that correct feeling out directly, easily. It’s like meditating in a quiet place versus in the middle of Time Square.  Yes, ultimately we should be able to put our minds in a calm state anywhere, anytime, but to learn that skill, to experience that deep calmness in the first place, it helps if we are in a more remote, isolated setting.  If we only practice in less idea settings, we may never know what our goal (real, deep calmness) is like.

Yin Qi

So here is the dilemma: in the old days not only do people believe in these theories and explanations, but the teacher student relationship was different. When the teacher says do something, the student obeys without questioning. People believed this is the only way the teacher student relationship can work, the same way people still believe unquestioned obedience to all orders is the only way military can work. However, modern students often demand full explanation before they carry out the practice. But once you start explaining the reason you’re asking them to go out at night on the 15th, 16th, and 17th of the month is because that is when Yin Qi of the moon is at its strongest, they will most likely reject that explanation and not do the exercise the way traditionally prescribed, and risk not mastering the skill. So here’s a very interesting example of being rational and thoughtful actually impeding our training.

In traditional Chinese culture the number one criteria for success in any practice is called Cheng 诚. Cheng means honesty, sincerity, loyalty. In terms of practice, it means believing 100% in what you’re trying to achieve, and the prescribed method for reaching those goals. That you trust your teachers, who obviously reached those goals by those means, that you just need to persevere and work hard until you succeed. Much emphasis has been placed on not having “impure thoughts (杂念)”. Here impure means miscellaneous elements that keeps a thought/belief (“swallow the moon”) from being 100% pure. So these could be doubts, or other random thoughts that arise naturally that could distract from our practice.

So my own thoughts about this is the same as I have for acupuncture and other traditional medicine – it’s obviously a technology/methodology with demonstrable results. To get the result, I will follow the steps faithfully, and ignore for the time-being traditional theories that explains why it works. After I get the feeling, I can maybe make modifications (just imagine the sun and the moon, no matter what time of day and where I am) or improvements.


Balanced Force – sinking vs heavy

In normal usage, the words chen (沉) and zhong (重) are often used interchangeably to mean heavy. In Taiji Quan, we make clear distinctions between them. The key difference is zhong is just one direction – a big force going downwards. Chen should feel like a object sinking in water – there is also an upward force.

This has very practical impacts in martial art. Because how we think, how we feel affect our postures and quality of movement right? If you think “I want to be an immovable object, like a big rock or tree”, you will subconsciously try to go as low into the ground as possible, and be as resistant to change as possible. While that may make you more stable, it sacrifices mobility and quickness. The term “Taiji” means having two opposite qualities within the same entity at the same time. So real Taiji skill means here we need to also supply an upward force. However Taiji does not dictate that those two opposite forces must be equal. Otherwise it makes it hard to move right?

So even when we’re standing still, putting all our weight on one leg, we don’t just sink into the ground, we use mental imagery like “there’s a light, pure, upward lifting energy (definition of yang) shooting to the top of the head”, or “think pushing your body out of ground instead of sinking into it”. Having forces in the opposite direction, or at least the mental preparation to exert that force at any time, helps us not just be more agile (the ability to make change quickly), but also more stable. More stable because the overall force is more balanced. That’s why we say elements of yin yang, or wu xing, are opposite but complementary forces. Complementary because they help each other, serving some bigger goal together.

So in Taiji Quan, we want Chen, not Zhong, as by definition zhong is not a taiji quality. An untrained person does not have root, so the first thing we tend to emphasize is to ‘sink qi to dan tian’. But if we only do that, we will be too slow. This is self-evident when doing moving push hand/sparring, but not so much in static push hand. This is why we see people who primary do static push hand do poorly in real fights. They give their opponents their dream target – a slow, solid object that takes in the full impact of attacks.

The overall concept of balancing forces is a very common one in Chinese martial art. In Baji Quan for example, the saying is “head butting against the sky, foot planted in the river of underworld” (头顶苍天, 脚踏黄泉). In Xing Yi Quan this is called six directional force, in Taiji Quan, Baji Quan, it’s called eight directional force.

And when you’re both balanced and agile, not only can you exert a greater force, but that force is also less subject to outside influences.


Shi – 式, 勢, 氏

In Chinese martial art the word ‘shi’ comes up a lot.   Chinese being a language with a large number of homonyms, here we’re actually dealing with several different words.

Whether we are talking about overall martial art style or individual posture, the correct word to use is 式. Because in this context, 式 is abbreviation for 样式 (yang4 shi4) – model, pattern, form, type, style.

Historically, we’ve also seen the other shi 勢 used. In linguistics, we call this phenomenon yi ti zi (异体字: yi – different, ti – body, zi – character) – two words with similar meanings, sounds similar or identical, so used interchangeably, but often shouldn’t be. The other shi 勢 can have many meanings, but one common word combination it appears in is jia shi (架勢, jia means frame), which can also be written with the other shi (架式). Jia shi, or zhao shi (招式) means individual skill/posture.

In everyday usage, 勢 can never be used to refer to an overall model, pattern, form, type, or style. Its usage in martial art then probably started off as an error (teacher transmitted it orally, student wrote it down this way), then perpetuated through tradition. This is very common in traditional culture, given the methods of transmission for manual crafts.

Here those two words are sometimes used interchangeably, and there are no meaningful differences.

The other shi 氏, means family name, surname. This word is often used when a given teacher had many outstanding students, each displaying prominent stylistic difference while the essence remains the same. Instead of saying Sun Lutang style, people abbreviate it as Sun Shi 氏. They can also abbreBagua and Taiji groups were very large, and when people meet, they ask what type of practice the other person do, instead of saying “I study with Sun Lutang (or Sun Lutang’s daughter), or I study Sun Lutang type of practice, people abbreviate that as Sun shi (氏). Of course here people also use the other shi 孙式太极拳. Here 式 sounds more formal. However, when people have to use two shi’s in the same sentence, they use different ones, just because it looks more natural that way: so Wu Style 37 Posture (wu shi san shi qi shi) would be 吴氏三十七式.


Center of circle and control

Generally in martial art, we like to be the center of a circle, and make our opponent move in a circle outside of us. That’s a very crucial advantage, as tiny movement on our part ( θ in the diagram below) requires a much bigger movement from our opponent ( L in diagram below) in response. For example if someone grabs your wrist with one hand, twist it, and apply pressure on the back of your elbow with other hand, turning your arm into the radius r of the circle. If you want to maintain the same relative position, you on the outside of the circle needs to move a far greater distance. When you do θ fast, it’s not always possible to do L. That’s the principle behind throwing skills right?


Conversely, if the opponent try to do L, we just need to do θ. So how can Bagua work then, if we extend L and try to circle all the way behind the opponent, he can defeat that using a much smaller (semi-)circle on the inside:


What makes it works then is the key skill emphasized in internal martial art – control. If you cannot achieve control, to off-balance or at the very least distract the opponent, prevent him from reacting to what you do next, you will not be able to circle around him.

So how do we achieve control? We use various type of jin (trained force: ex. top spinning force in pool is a type of jin) that are great for controlling opponents (vs striking). And if we classify them, we can see a lot of them are circular type of forces. The definition of a circle is a line where every point on the line is equal distance from a central point. What does that mean? It means evenness, smoothness. If I do something to you using a circular force, it’s harder for you to detect and respond. Of course here circular here means oval, ellipse, etc, it doesn’t have to be a perfect circle. It’s a more complex force than linear forces, which, anyone who played the balance game (two people stand facing each other, put palms together, and try to push each other off balance) can tell are very ‘pure’ and easy to detect and counter. If you break apart the circles you practice in the palm changes, you can tell they are individual skills for using a circular force to deal with strikes from various angles and achieving control in the process.


What fighting at highest level should feel like

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
要: should
打: hit, play, do
得: like
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.

January 2020
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