Posts Tagged ‘traditional beliefs


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.


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.


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.

Liuhe and Baji

One of the earliest references to the term liuhe (六合) appears in the book Huai Nan Zi (淮南子).  Written in early Western Han Dynasty (~2,000 years ago).  The book was mostly Daoist in essence, mixing in some Confucian and Legalist ideas.  It contains a collection of Chinese creation myths, what early Chinese thought about the structure and geography of the universe (heaven, earth, underworld).

As the book  explains, liuhe means the 4 cardinal directions in the earthly realm, plus above and below.  Baji are the outermost boundaries of earthly realm in the eight directions (4 cardinal + 4 corners).  You can tell from these designations that back then people thought earth was flat, and had no understanding of the implications of a three dimensional universe (where there would not be any absolute ‘up’ and ‘downs’).

So in every day usage, liuhe is synonymous with ‘universe’ – everything within all directions.  Since they all refer to directions, six and eight can both mean all directions.  A lot of times we use them interchangeably to avoid word repetition in a sentence, as in the popular phrase “eyes observing 6 directions, ears listening in eight directions” (be alert, take in everything, have complete awareness).

Naming a martial art after such terms serves as least two purposes.  Firstly you want something that conveys power and grandeur.  There’s a popular phrase that describes a great man’s largeness of spirit, that his “qi covers all of liuhe”.  In the case of Baji Quan, you’re saying so great are your powers, they extend to all the way to the very boundaries of our world.

The second purpose has to do with key principle of the art.  In martial art liuhe has special meanings not found at all in everyday usage.  Here the key is the word ‘he’.  The English word “harmony” is not a perfect one-to-one match for the word He.  The literal translation is closing, as in two halves of a box connected by a hinge closing toward each other.  The broader meaning is integration.  Because each part should not act independently, separately of the other, their effort should be combined harmoniously to serve a unified purpose (snapping the box shut).  So the word he also implies coordination.

I’m not qualified to discuss the many levels of liuhe practice in the various arts.  Here’s an article written by one of my elder gongfu brothers on practicing for 3 external integrations in Taiji Quan.

February 2019
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