Posts Tagged ‘high level


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.


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.

What is Kungfu/Gongfu?

“I know Kungfu.”   – Neo from The Matrix

Most people in the West thinks the word “kungfu” means martial art in Chinese.  Actually kungfu is the Cantonese pronunciation of the word gongfu (功夫).  Perhaps the usage is different in the south, but for rest of China, gongfu doesn’t really mean martial art.  In modern Chinese, the term for martial art is wushuWu (武) means martial, and shu (术) means skill, technique, method, tactic.

So what does kungfu/gongfu mean?  Amazingly, there does not seem to be a perfect one-to-one match in English.  Gongfu in Chinese means level of execution.  Since level of execution is directly related to amount of effort spent practicing it, it also means effort.  As a generic term, you can talk about gongfu in anything, it’s not exclusive to martial art.

The important distinction here is that gongfu is a separate concept from skill. You can have high level execution of a low level skill, just as you can have high level execution of a high level skill.

For example, say there is a need to move a 500 pound weight. Person A decides to approach it using the most direct way possible – he tries to move it with his bare hands.  At first he couldn’t do it. So he practiced and practiced, until he become so strong that he can move that stone by his own muscle alone.

Person B decides to study principle of movement in nature.  And after years of studying, he figure out a way to use levers, pulleys, and wheels to move the same object, albeit with much less physical exertion.

In Chinese we say Person A used a low level skill, but its execution is very high level.  Whereas Person B exemplifies the usage of a high(er) level skill.  Here we cannot say what the first person did was not difficult. It was.   But compared to what the second person did, the principles involved are much simpler, lower level.  For Person B, after achieving the necessary awareness, understandings, and implementing that knowledge and understanding in the form of a machine, the physical work the second person has to do to operate the machine to move the same stone is easy. But the nature of the work, the operating principles of this approach, the effort involved to arrive at this state, are said to be complex.

Another important reason we say the first approach, one that anyone can readily understand and instinctively gravitate to, is low level, is that there is a very low upper limit on what can be accomplished using that approach. You can never go to the moon that way; whereas with the second approach, the upper limit of things you can achieve with that is much higher.

In terms of martial art, if the effectiveness (“can I win?”) of our art relies mostly on speed and strength, that even a tiny drop-off means we will lose to all our peers (eg. see Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. in boxing), then the limit of our art is we cannot beat anyone stronger, faster (younger) than us.  On the other hand, if the effectiveness of the skill does not depend as much on pure conditioning, but rather on things like sensitivity and clever manipulation of force, then we can beat someone who is stronger (within same order of magnitude).

If our art is all about unleashing the maximum amount of force possible to destroy any obstacle in the way (we don’t care what they are), then the limit is we may not last very long on the real battlefield. However, if one of the central tenants of our art is to avoiding any unnecessary expenditure of energy, then we can last longer, perhaps survive encounters with multiple opponents.

It is important to point out that in martial art at least, “high level” deosn’t mean our training is not physical.  In the end the design goal of every martial art is to make a person the best fighter he can be.  In some arts the approach is to make his movement as strong as possible.  In more advanced arts more emphasis is put on using the high level skill possible.

Ideally we want both:  physically we want our body to come as close to their theoretical limitations as possible; and in usage, be able to accomplish as much as possible utilizing its resources in the most skillful manner possible.

Here skill is the force multiplier: if you designed optimal lever-pulley-wheel mechanism for the specific task at hand, and you built you developed your body to its limit, now that same 500 pound push can move a 5,000 pound object. This is the ideal state we all want to achieve – high level execution of high level skill.

In real life applications, we cannot really separate skill from gongfu.  They are combined to form what we can call ability. In Chinese, when we talk about someone’s overall martial ability/prowese, we use the term wugong (武功).  So ability is a product of skill and gonfu.

This then means even if you’re studying a high level skill, if your gongfu is not good enough, you can be less effective than someone studying a lower level skill, but has very good gongfu in it.  For example, if Person P’s art is pistol shooting, but he’s a lousy shot, out of shape, and can’t even hit the target well in stationary situations, and Person K is the world’s fastest, best knife thrower, and a hardened combat veteran.  In this case Person P can easily lose to Person K in real life situations.

Another example is:  if Team A devotes much of time to advanced ball control skills, but neglect conditioning, and it meets up with Team B, though not as skilled, but can run faster and longer.  So that Team B can always get the ball before Team A.  Team A cannot win because it never gets a chance to apply its skills in the first place.

In today’s traditional martial art community at least, we have two common problems: on one hand people who practice higher level type skills don’t practice enough, and therefore don’t do well in real fights.  And on the other hand there are groups of people who train really hard, the type of skill they practice are very simple, but they can win in real competitions.

Most people, unless they are students of martial art, and used to think critically about it, will not realize what they are seeing is high level execution of low level skill beating low level execution of high level skill. This can cause them to doubt if high level skills ever worked (“can you really fight with Taiji?”), or confusing high level gongfu in low level skill with high level execution of high level skill (“I want to study internal martial art because it has the most powerful fa jins”).

We need to care about these distinctions because to reach our goal, we need to know what we’re doing:

If our goal is to get to Los Angeles from New York by car, we have to know where LA is, where we are, know how to read a map, know how the road system works, how to drive, etc.  Any lack of clarity on these things can prevent us from reaching the destination.   We cannot think “if I just put my foot on gas as long and hard as I can, I will automatically get there”.

Internal martial art training is very complex, there’s a lot to understand. If we’re not clear on what we’re doing, the harder we step on the gas (“bigger fajin, bigger than any opponent”), the further we may end up from our real goal (“how to use the least amount of necessary force to do everything”). We need to understanding what that high level execution of high level skill should be like, what type of skill and gongfu are involved in that, the training methods for acquiring those, and finally, “putting down a lot of gongfu” (effort), both physical and mental.

October 2018
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