Much of the literature available in English about the topic of silk reeling is of the puff piece sort, leaving one with the impression that silk reeling is important but failing to provide much in the way of concrete, down-to-earth information. I came across an excellent and important article in Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan, a 1963 book by Shen Jiazhen and Gu Liuxin. What follows is a translation of the silk reeling section of the first chapter of that book (this part was written by Shen Jiazhen). I think that practitioners of all styles will find this quite interesting. This translation is something of a work in progress. I would enjoy hearing your comments and corrections.
Silk reeling is a subject rarely talked about in Yang family taiji. Though you don't hear much discussion of the topic under this name, actually Yang style also does contain most of the same elements elaborated as silk reeling in other styles (though the shape of the hands in Yang Chengfu style - fingers slightly curved, palms slightly extended - is different from that shown in figure 1 below).
Boxing manuals dictate:
Moving energy (yun4 jing4) is like pulling silk
Moving energy is like unwinding silk (silk reeling)
As you open and extend as well as draw in, you must never depart from the taiji [symbol shape]
Once the most subtle hand begins to traverse a taiji [circle], the traces of it are completely transformed into nothingness.
From the 4 rules listed above we can see, Tai Chi Chuan movements must be in a shape like pulling silk. Pulling silk [from a cocoon] is done by a circular motion, and because it combines pulling straight and circling, naturally it forms a spiraling shape, which is the unification of the opposites of straight and curved. Silk reeling energy or pulling silk energy both refer to this idea. Because in the process of unreeling, extending out and pulling back the four limbs likewise produce a sort of spiraling shape, therefore the boxing manuals say that whether in large, extended movements or compact, small movements, one must absolutely never depart from this type of Tai Chi energy which unites opposites. Once one has trained in this thoroughly, this silk reeling circle tends to become smaller the more one practices, until one gets to the realm where there is a circle but no circle is apparent, at which point it is known only by intent. 1 This is why the third characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan is that it is an exercise which unifies opposites with silk reeling, both forward and backward.
When we say in Tai Chi Chuan the movements must be like unreeling silk, or like pulling silk, these two images both mean that the shape of the movements is like a spiral. At the same time that this spiraling must go in a curve - much like the way a bullet follows the spiral rifling in a gun barrel so that as it moves through space it has an inherent turning in a spiral shape - it also has a trajectory along another line like that of the bullet hitting a target. Silk reeling energy in Tai Chi Chuan has this same kind of quality.
As we have already explained, movements must be like silk reeling, but how in our actual movements are we to realize this theory? In fact it's quite ordinary and simple: within the requirements for the entire movement, as you move, the palms rotate from facing inward to outward or from facing outward to inward, 2 causing them to form a shape like the Tai Chi symbol (see figure 1). At the same time, owing to the rotation of the palms inward and outward, there is manifest in the upper body a turning of the wrists and upper arms and in the lower body a turning of the ankles and legs 3, and in the torso this is manifested as turning of the waist and backbone. Combining the three, this forms a curving line turning in space with its "root in the feet, commanded by the waist, and manifested in the fingers". This is a requirement which we must achieve in Tai Chi Chuan. Because of this the boxing manuals particularly point out that whether in broadly extending out or in shrinking and drawing in, we can never for a moment depart from the Tai Chi energy of rotating the palms and turning the wrists and upper arms. This is precisely like the way the earth turns on its own axis at the same time it moves in a curve around the sun. That is why Tai Chi energy is not circling in a plane but rather spiraling upward in three dimensions.
Figure 1. Forward and Backward Silk Reeling
Figure 1 Explanation:
1. The solid line is shun (forward) silk reeling and the dotted line is ni (backward) silk reeling
2. The numbered points on the chart are the places where the shun and ni silk reeling alternate
A. Left hand silk reeling B. Right hand silk reeling
Figure 3. Spiraling Pulling Silk Movement
Figure 2. Simple Curve Movement
If as you practice Tai Chi the hands just extend out straight and retract straight without rotating the palms and the legs bow forward and sit backward without an accompanying left and right turning, this will produce the defect of directly resisting force with force. (see figure 2). In order to correct this defect, we must use spiraling energy. Because a spiraling curve leading a radius is transforming; if any pressure pushes against this spiraling pole it can easily lead the pressure into emptiness and so transform it. This is a scientific way to transform energy. From figure 3 you can see the function of it.
This spiral style of silk reeling is where "Tai Chi" gets its name. This type of spiraling exercise is uniquely Chinese and seldom found elsewhere in the world. From the viewpoint of physical training, this can help one make "all the joints link up" as you move and push 4 and from there advance to the realm of 'matching inner and outer' and 'if one part moves all parts move'. This also has the function of creating a kind of massage for the internal organs. At the same time it stimulates the spirit manifested externally, strengthens the cerebral cortex, as well as strengthening the entire body structure and organs.
In addition silk reeling energy has important functioning for martial applications. The core of Tai Chi Chuan martial applications is the understanding energy referred to in 'know yourself and know your opponent' and 'know opportunities and advantages'. Understanding energy can be divided into two categories: (1) understanding with regard to your own energy, which is to say understanding the energies of your own movements, to be obtained from form practice; (2) understanding with regard to the energy of others, which is to say understanding the energy of the other person, to be obtained from push hands. If you want to know others you must first know yourself; this is the process by which we gain understanding. If you want to make the self-knowledge gained from form practice advance to the realm of high levels of development, then you must learn the skill of practicing whole-body movement. The skill of whole-body movement is learned from making inner and outer match up and making all the joints connect up together, and these two are produced from spiral style silk reeling movements. Thus for martial applications, silk reeling energy is extremely important.
Shun Silk Reeling <---- Basic Silk Reeling ----> Ni Silk Reeling | Positional Silk Reeling | ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ left-right up-down in-out big-small advance-retreat
Figure 4. Twelve types of silk reeling
According to qualities and capabilities, Tai Chi Chuan silk reeling energy can be divided into two basic types. The first is 'forward' (shun) silk reeling where the palms rotate from facing inward to facing outward. Within this group almost all consist of Peng (ward off) energy (see the solid lines in figure 1). The second type is 'backward' (ni) silk reeling where the palms rotate from facing outward to facing inward. Within this second group the bulk consists of Lü (rollback) energies (see the dotted lines in figure 1). These two categories of silk reeling exist throughout the process of each Tai Chi Chuan movement, and are infused in it from beginning to end. As a result, within all moves is contained the alternation between the two energies: peng and lü; they are the basic contrasts within all movements and at the same time they transform into each other within a unified context. Because of differences in position and transformation, these two kinds of silk reeling can be further sub-divided by positioning into 5 types (see figure 4). Left-right and up-down positioned silk reeling together form a whole circle. Then if you add in in-out it makes the two-dimensional circle in a plane change to a three-dimensional circle, and that is precisely the quality that Tai Chi style spiral movement must have. Next, in order to have left and right returning to the beginning, connecting and following the opponent, all joints connected so the whole body works together as a unit, we add the two pairs big-small and advance-retreat, in order to satisfy special fitness and application needs. Therefore, in every movement of Tai Chi Chuan, above and beyond the basic 'forward' and 'backward' types of silk reeling, we have at least three pairs of positional silk reeling combined together. If you can only grasp this rule, as you circle in your movements you have a definite source of support for both learning and correction, making it all much easier. Whenever in your practice you feel that a move seems wrong or lacks energy, you can adjust the waist or legs to correct the spot where silk reeling is not appropriate, then you can correct the move. So getting a good grasp of the silk reeling can provide a tool for self correction. Let's take a few examples to illustrate this.
(1) "Cloud hands" -- This move, among the thirteen powers is the only one to include both doubled 'forward' changing into doubled 'backward' left and right large silk reeling. When you perform this move, the basic silk reeling of the two hands is 'forward' palms going from facing inward to outward, changing into 'backward' palms going from facing outward to inward. The positional silk reeling of cloud hands is left-right, up-down and a slight amount of in-out. Left-right and up-down make a circle in two dimension. If you then make the circling include a slight in-out, you can turn it into a three dimensional circle in space, enabling the qi to stick to the backbone.
(2) "White Crane Spreads Wings" -- The basic silk reeling is one 'forward' one 'backward', which is a relatively common pattern in the form. The positional silk reeling is left-right, up-down, and in-out. Because it has one 'forward' one 'backward', as the left hand performs 'backward' silk reeling going in and down and the right hand performs 'forward' silk reeling going out and up, the combination of the two, according to the requirements for the connection between the two arms 5, results in right going up and left going down, a right 'forward' left 'backward' separate and ward off circle.
As the two examples above show, although the various movements of Tai Chi Chuan seem to have an awful lot of different shapes and different ways of transition, when analyzed from the point of view of their basic silk reeling, they are actually extremely simple. All the Tai Chi moves fall into one of three categories of silk reeling: "doubled 'forward'", "doubled 'backward'" and "one 'forward' one 'backward'". If you use this method to analyse and work on the form you frequently practice, and put it into a chart format, this can become a good source of support for your practice. And with this kind of aid, you can become clear about the different kinds of energies, and achieve 'inner and outer match up' as well as 'all the joints link together' and thus on the basis of improving flexibility, attain to the proper requirements for correct postures.
Silk reeling, this third characteristic, is where Tai Chi gets its name, and functions as detailed above. That is why our predecessors, in order to help learners properly perform movements as though reeling silk, included a section in "Discussion of Tai Chi Chuan [Tai Chi Chuan Lun] devoted to this very subject as a practical summary of how to move energy. The first section discusses silk reeling energy. In order to get control of this third characteristic of Tai Chi, you just need to compare [your moves] to this portion as you practice and use it regularly as a standard when practicing the form, and then you can obtain correct postures and movements. Below we will summarize and explain this portion.
(1) Grasping the Third Characteristic Via Essential Spirit
A. "In each an every motion, the entire body must be light and nimble". If you can raise your spirit, then you are able to avoid having dull and heavy thought processes; this is the way to achieve lightness. If your intent is able to change nimbly, then your intent will not get hung up on one point only; that is the way to achieve nimbleness. The first step to grasping silk reeling energy is for the entire body to be light and nimble during the process of movement. Only then can you set up favorable conditions to support silk reeling movements.
B. "In movement you must link all the joints together as a whole." In moving like reeling silk, if you want to be light and nimble, it is particularly necessary to link together. This is an important environment for movement and must not be overlooked as you practice. For detailed analysis of this, please consult the section on the 5th characteristic of Tai Chi of the present chapter of this book.
C. "The spirit should be roused and the qi should be kept within." 6 If the conscious mind cannot be concentrated on the movements and you think of other things then this will result in confused thought and clumsy spirit, and so the spirit will be difficult to rouse. At the same time you will also be unable to keep the qi within so as to follow the mind, and the result will be your qi and postures will be scattered, energy won't be collected within, and the torso will move chaotically. Therefore, you must first and foremost anchor your thoughts to continuous and uninterrupted movement, and that way the spirit will naturally be roused. Next, you must make the breathing of the lungs coordinate with the movements. Because the spirit is roused, the qi is naturally kept within and doesn't get scattered. When the qi isn't scattered the spirit guides the head and inspires movement.
Summarizing the three requirements noted above, "In moving energy be light, nimble and linked together, with spirit roused and qi collected within" are mandatory essentials which must be grasped in order to grasp silk reeling energy.
(2) Grasping the Third Characteristic Via Energy Distinctions
A. "Don't allow slippage." When you utilize silk reeling energy, whether 'going forward' or 'going backward', endeavor to cause the 8 energies (ba men jing [translators note: earlier in the book identified as peng lü, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou, kan]) to move along the back of the spiraling curve. This is to say the spiraling contact surface must not be sometimes on the back of the curve, sometimes within the curve. This is the easiest defect to encounter in silk reeling. The moment you slip into the inside of the curve, not only do you weaken the peng energy, but you also lose the touch or contact quality of silk reeling. As a result, the moment you allow slippage, the energy cannot get to the contact surface of the spiral and you lose the silk reeling function of leading the opponent. (see figure 5).
Figure 5 Silk Reeling Slippage (text: "Slippage")
Figure 6 Silk Reeling Indenting and Protrusion (left text: "Indenting" right text: "Protrusion")
B. "Don't allow indenting or protruding spots." During the entire process, the route in which you employ silk reeling energy must be a smooth curve, forming smooth and even postures. At the same time, it is also required to be soft and rich in flexibility, and that is one way of getting rid of indenting or protruding spots. Even when you emit energy, you still must swing out like a supple whip. This way, because the body and hands are extended, the body and limbs are like an inflated tire, and in their contact with things have the ability to follow contours and stick against them. The moment you have indenting and protruding spots in moving energy, it creates corners or angles, producing defects of resisting force with force, and thus causes the movement of energy to lose its spiraling, turning function. (see figure 6).
C. "Don't allow ending and resuming spots." In the process of silk reeling, whether 'forward' or 'backward', always endeavor to reel to the end. When we say 'to the end' we mean not only arriving to the point where this move deploys its energy against its target but also to the place where it connects to the next move. Arriving at this point, via a folding transition 7, connect to the next silk reeling, taking the energy and connecting it to the next move. Since the energy does not end, there is no need for resumption. If you reel to halfway and the energy is cut off, and then resume it again - that is just wrong. Because once silk reeling has ending and resuming, this is a crack or opening. This crack or opening not only loses the function of leading the opponent, but also allows an opportunity and an advantage for the opponent. That is why we say this is not permitted in moving energy and silk reeling. (see figure 7). Beyond this, even when you emit energy, although there is a cutting off and resuming, you still must have the requirement: "the energy ends but the intent doesn't, the intent ends but the spirit can connect." This is what is known as [seemingly] cutting off but connecting back up again.
Figure 7 Silk Reeling Must Not Have Ending and Resuming (upper and lower text: "This section must not have ending or resuming) (Left and right text: " Transitional folding area) (left and right sides encircled word: "Slow") (Upper middle: Slow --->speeding up energy ---> Fast) (Lower middle: Fast <--- speeding up energy <--- Slow)
In summary the three entries above explain how in the process of silk reeling, which is also the process of moving energy, you must not have the defects of slippage, indenting or protruding, or ending and resuming. If even one of these three defects is present, you will be unable to deploy the proper functions of silk reeling energy. This is a problem which you must not ignore in your practice.
In order to facilitate grasping this topic, I will now summarize the requirements:
(1) Silk reeling energy is the source of the name 'Tai Chi Chuan'. Without silk reeling energy we would not be able to make the energy circle round the body and limbs so all tend to rise upward, attaining to completion in one qi.
(2) We need to understand the requirement to 'link everything together'. Not only does moving energy require going through all the joints, it also needs to be sent through the muscles and sinews above and below the joints. This is the function of spiraling silk reeling.
(3) Tai Chi Chuan has a pair of basic silk reeling categories as well as five pairs of positional types of silk reeling which make up one of the best tools for learning and teaching Tai Chi.
(4) 'Move energy like reeling silk' can only be accomplished under the conditions of lightness and nimbleness and linking everything together. At the same time, the spirit must be roused and qi kept within.
(5) In the use of silk reeling energy, you must avoid the three defects of slippage, indenting and protruding, and ending and resuming.
[author's footnotes from original Chinese]
 In the unique small-frame Tai Chi of Yang Shaohou in his later years, one could only observe the emitting of energy and not the moving of it. This was because the circle of movement for energy was so small that you could not see it; one could only observe the emitting of it. That is the fullest development of circles so compact they were invisible.
 When we refer to rotating the palms from facing inward to facing outward or from facing outward to facing inward, we are using the index finger as the standard. For example in figure 1, when the hand goes from point 1 to point 2, the index finger rotates from inside to outside, so that is called shun (going forward). When the hand goes from point 2 to point 3, the index finger rotates from outside to inside so it is deemed ni (going backward).
 When we refer to the trajectory of the legs in silk reeling, we are using the the turning direction of the knee as the standard. So when the knee circles diagonally from close in to the crotch forward and turning outward and down, or starting from out away from the crotch circles diagonally backward turning inward and going upward, this is deemed shun (forward). When the knee circles diagonally from out away from the crotch forward turning in and up, or when the knee circles diagonally from in close to the crotch backward turning outward and down, this is deemed ni (backward).
 "All the joints link together" is the fifth characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan.
 The connection between the two arms means as you move, it is as though there is a string connecting the two arms, and when one arm moves, the other arm also moves under the condition that it is able to keep the string tight with peng energy. That is to say we need to always keep a peng energy between the two arms which makes them tend to pull apart.
 Spirit and qi can both be roused, and both can be kept within. That is why 'Discussion of Tai Chi Chuan' says: "If you want the spirit and qi to be roused, first raise the spirit, then the spirit does not get dispersed." For the meaning of folding, see the 6th characteristic of Tai Chi Chuan. [maybe in a subsequent column we can look at this]
Thanks to Rocky Yang for providing a cleaned-up version of figure 1.
Translation Copyright © 2002 Gerald N. Karin. All rights reserved.
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