Basic Principles and Features of Taiji Quan
By Lu Shengli English translation by Zhang Yun
The central principle of Taiji Quan derives from one of the most fundamental concepts in traditional Chinese culture. The concept first appeared in Yi Jing (I Ching), the book written about 1000 BC that delineates the laws of universal change; the yi in the title means “changing”. A famous line in Yi Jing asserts, “There is Taiji in yi, the laws of change, and liangyi is generated from it. Liangyi, in turn, generates sixiang and sixiang generates Bagua.” Also stated is the principle that “one yin and one yang united comprise Dao.” Here the term Dao is synonymous with Taiji.
Yi Jing played a central role in the development of Chinese philosophy. Its profound ideas were seized upon by such renowned thinkers as Kongzi (Confucius) who formulated Confucianism, and Laozi, who originated the tenets of Daoism. The influence of Yi Jing has permeated every aspect of traditional Chinese culture.
Laozi, for example, said that wuji, meaning the “state of nothingness or non-being,” is the beginning state of the universe; and that you or Taiji, which means “having” or “being”, is the mother of all things. He posited that everything in the universe is generated from you, and that you is generated from wu. “I do not know the name for the mother of all things,” he said, “so I just call it Dao.” “All things,” he declared, “convey yin and hold yang.”
In the millennium that followed the founding of Daoism by Laozi, the Taiji principle was further refined, eventually reaching maturity with the contributions of Chen Tuan and successive generations of his students. Chen Tuan (?-989), a famous scholar and Daoist priest, devoted his life to the study and research of Yi Jing, the philosophies of Laozi, and the health practices of qigong. His thinking may also have pre-figured the martial arts, and the followers of some styles claim him as their founder. The diagram of Taiji has been purported either to have been invented by him or to have been passed down by him. Many of his writings had a profound influence on Chinese culture. His article “Xian Tian Tu” or “The Pre-birth Diagram” included a depiction of the basic qigong practice principle.
In accordance with Chen’s central ideas, the famous scholar Zhou Dunyi, Chen’s third-generation disciple, wrote a famous article called “Taiji Tu Shuo” or “The Explanation of the Taiji Diagram,” in which the Taiji principle as we know it today is described systematically and completely. This work includes the Taiji diagram first presented by Chen Tuan but explicates the illustration differently. Later, the famous Song Dynasty philosopher Zhu Xi provided annotations and explanations for Zhou’s article. Together these writings elucidated the standard definition of the Taiji principle and formed the foundation of the Daoist worldview.
Taiji Quan is based on the taiji principle that expresses the traditional Chinese view of the origin of the universe. Tai means “immense” or “great”; ji means “extreme” or “limit.” The term “Taiji” thus describes a great principle that applies to everything. In traditional Chinese culture, Taiji is the same as Dao; both refer to the basic, all-encompassing natural law of the universe. All things must be in harmony with Dao in order to prosper or function well. The taiji principle is expressed in all aspects of traditional Chinese culture.
According to the taiji concept, the world started from wuji, a state of nothingness or non-being, or a homogeneous mixture of all things sometimes likened to a cloud. Wuji describes the universe in its most primal form, before there was any differentiation of matter. When the universe began to emerge from the wuji state, yin qi (yin energy) and yang qi (yang energy) were created and became differentiated. The yang qi, which was light in weight, rose up to form the sky; and the yin qi, which was heavy, sank down to form the earth. With the differentiation of yin and yang, the life of the universe started from this new state called taiji. Taiji state is source of all things, so sometimes people like to say taiji is the mother of all things. The taiji principle became the most important concept in ancient Chinese cosmology.
In the taiji state, yin and yang do not exist as separate entities. Although they can be conceptually distinguished, each contains the other and cannot be considered alone. In the next emergent state called liangyi or the “two appearances,” yin and yang become distinct and separate entities. Each can be independently considered in terms of its unique qualities. Liangyi gives rise to the state of sixiang or the “four shapes”; and sixiang, in turn, generates Bagua or the “eight trigrams.” The eight trigrams can be combined to form sixty-four gua or hexagrams, and in this manner the universe evolves from the simplest beginning to a complex of myriad forms. Everything is created from the emergence and changing energies of yin and yang. This is the key principle of taiji.
In traditional Chinese philosophy, yin and yang describe opposing qualities or concepts, but these qualities also support each other. Each exists because the other exists; the existence of one necessarily implies the existence of the other. Yin and yang complement each other, and each is capable of changing its state and emerging as the other. Although used as abstract concepts, yin and yang can also be applied to the description of concrete objects. The usual attributes of yin include soft, quiet, passive, obedient, receptive, restorative, substantial, internal, and beneath. In the physical world, yin is associated with the earth, moon, darkness, cold, and femaleness. The usual attributes of yang include hard, moving, initiating, guiding, giving, releasing, insubstantial, external, and above. In the physical world, yang is associated with the sky, sun, heat, light, and maleness.
In Taiji Quan practice, the concepts of yin and yang are used ubiquitously in the description of techniques. The back of the body, for example, is yin and the front is yang; the lower part of the body is yin and the upper part is yang. When a palm faces the body, it is called a yin palm; when it faces away from the body, it is called a yang palm. The leg that supports the weight of the body is called yin; the unweighted leg is called yang. Soft movement is yin and hard movement is yang. Defense is yin and offense is yang. It is commonly said that Taiji Quan is about yin and yang.
Taiji Quan was clearly derived from the taiji principle in traditional philosophy. In the most famous and important Taiji Quan classic, the first sentences state: “Taiji, born of wuji, is the potential for either dong (movement) or jing (stillness), the potential for a state of being that is either dynamic or static. It is the mother or the source of yin and yang.” This passage describes the basic concept of taiji and signals that a martial art bearing its name must follow its principles. It also defines the principle of Taiji Quan. It is very important to keep the taiji principle in mind at all times while training and to apply it devotedly in practice. If an action does not obey the taiji principle, then it is not a Taiji Quan skill.
The main ideas encompassed by the taiji principle and explained in Zhou Dunyi’s article, “Explanation of the Taiji Diagram,” are:
Wuji becomes taiji. This is called Dao, the fundamental, universal law of nature. Dao is invisible and controls every aspect of the universe.
The two basic attributes in Dao are dong (movement) and jing (stillness). Dong’s attribute is yang and jing’s attribute is yin. Yin and yang, as carriers of Dao called qi, make Dao manifest. This is expressed in the classics as “one yin and one yang together are Dao.” Yin and yang must be attached to qi before Dao can be made visible and applied.
In liangyi, yin and yang separate. Movement generates yang; but when movement reaches its limit, stillness arises. Stillness generates yin. When stillness reaches its limit, movement is reborn. Movement, thus, is the root of stillness and stillness the root of movement. This does not mean, however, that movement and stillness are the beginning or the end of each other. There is no beginning and end. The life of the universe proceeds in never-ending cycles.
In taiji, yin exists because yang exists, and yang exists because yin exists. Yin and yang support each other and can transmute into each other. Yang qi generates maleness, and yin qi generates femaleness. These two basic qi are expressions of the law of nature and create all things.
Yang contains some yin, and yin contains some yang.
Everything is generated from yin and yang. They give birth to endless change and development. All change follows the basic principle of Dao and Taiji.
Taiji or Dao is the fundamental principle. It encompasses the whole universe yet is small enough to reside in the tiniest fragments of matter. It dwells in everything and extends everywhere. The starting point for this principle is the concept of “wu zhong sheng you,” which holds that “being” or “having” comes from “non-being” or “not having”.
As taiji is born from wuji and is the source of yin and yang, there should be no intention or movement as you begin your Taiji Quan practice. This condition reflects the original wuji state. When an attack comes and you start to react, you enter the taiji state in which yin and yang are generated according to your opponent’s movements. Because all skills follow the yin-yang principle, it is sometimes said that Taiji Quan is the practice of yin and yang skills. Because everything in Taiji Quan derives from the change, conversion, and development of yin and yang, an understanding of the principle and practice of yin and yang is clearly vital to your training.
The most important thing to understand in your training is the relationship between dynamic and static states, between movement and stillness. Change is a permanent state, but stillness must always be maintained internally. Stillness is a temporary state, but the tendency for change must always be kept alive within. The existence of each state always implies the existence of the other. This is a very difficult point to understand and distinguishes Taiji Quan from all other martial art styles. Other styles apply yin and yang as separate concepts and express the liangyi state. It is intuitively easier to understand dynamic and static states as separate and distinct than it is to conceive of them together as a single potential for both movement and stillness.
The integration of yin and yang is often called “keeping the center.” The usual term for this in Taiji Quan is zhong ji or central limit. It is also referred to as xuan, which means “mystery” or “darkness.” Xuan is described in a famous passage as “the mystery that can be either yin or yang or neither yin nor yang. Mystery upon mystery, it is the doorway leading to the refined understanding of all concepts.”
Since Taiji Quan is founded on the principle of taiji, this principle must infuse your practice at all times. All discussions and expressions of taiji should include an understanding of yin and yang. In Taiji Quan practice, yin is expressed in responses that are soft, substantial, still, passive, and that yield to the opponent; yang is expressed in responses that are hard, insubstantial, moving, active, and that lead or direct the opponent. Defense skills are usually characterized as yin because they are receptive or passive; offensive skills are usually characterized as yang because they initiate action. It is important to remember that in Taiji Quan all action and reaction must be consistent with the yin-yang principle as expressed in the Taiji circle. Inside this circle, yin and yang are in a state of continuous change and mutual support.
You must always be aware of the opportunity or potential for either movement or stillness. This requires that you avoid all pre-conceived notions or plans for what to do next. Every action must be based solely on your feeling at the moment. In push hands, for example, when you touch your opponent you should maintain wuji by not planning your response. When you receive information from touching your opponent, you enter taiji by either attacking (which expresses movement) or defending (which expresses stillness). Your choice should depend only on your feeling. Keep in mind that your attack also encompasses your defense; and your defense contains within it your next attack.
In most martial arts, whether simple or complex, the techniques used in practice and fighting are the same. The purpose of practice is to be able to apply these techniques directly in fighting. Taiji Quan practice is different in that it focuses on the expression of the taiji principle. The skills practiced are designed to illustrate this principle and to help students develop responses that apply the principle correctly. There is no training of preset sequences of movement that can be repeated directly in fighting situations. Rather, the skills are applied solely in response to the student’s immediate feelings during a fight. This is a specialized ability developed only in Taiji Quan training, which is said to have no techniques; movement itself is the method.
Another distinction between Taiji Quan and When the taiji principle and its related concepts are applied to fighting situations, the basic fighting principle the other martial arts is that in the latter, offensive and defensive skills are practiced and applied separately. Even if they are performed simultaneously, they are experienced internally as separate. This method expresses the liangyi state, and the skills developed are liangyi skills. In Taiji Quan skills, yin and yang are inextricably bound together, with each one generating the other.
In Taiji Quan practice, internal training is emphasized much more than external training. All physical movement should occur naturally without conscious intent or a sense of restriction. It should start from a state of nothingness or insubstantiality that nevertheless has limitless potential. This method proceeds from wuji to taiji. In Taiji Quan practice, the mind and heart should be quiet, reflecting stillness, but this stillness is not synonymous with an absence of movement. There is movement inside stillness and it can be initiated by the slightest touch.
Although Taiji Quan practice involves constant change expressed as movement, this movement does not imply the absence of stillness. There is stillness inside movement so that an inner sense of calm and quiet can be maintained even during the most vigorous activity. This is referred to as bao yuan shou yi or maintaining the original shen, yi, and qi and keeping the focus on Dao. The key to Taiji Quan is the interacting potential of movement and stillness.
Given that yin and yang skills contain each other and can be transformed seamlessly from one to the other, it is always the case that during an attack, whenever the defense component becomes greater than the offense component, the movement is changed from an attack to a defense. A defensive movement can be changed to an attack in a similar manner. This gradual exchange of attack and defense is called zhuan hua, and it should occur as a smooth and slow dissolution of one into the other. Zhuan hua also occurs when yin converts to yang and yang converts to yin.
In taiji, yin and yang are always in balance. It is not possible to shift abruptly from one to the other like a digital switch. Such a dichotomous change is called cha yi, and it illustrates the way yin and yang are usually understood and applied in martial arts other than Taiji Quan. When yin and yang are applied in Taiji Quan, zhuan hua is the more descriptive concept and one of most important to understand. The contrast between zhuan hua and cha yi is another key difference between Taiji Quan and other martial arts.
When the taiji principle and its related concepts are applied to fighting situations, the basic fighting principle of Taiji Quan emerges. This principle holds that one must use the most efficient way to win a fight. It shapes the training method of Taiji Quan and differentiates Taiji Quan from other martial arts.
Although the physical movements of Taiji Quan are similar to those used in other martial arts, they arise from internal events rather than from observable events. In most martial arts, the goal is to increase power; in Taiji Quan you should constantly be asking yourself how to reduce your force and still win. The goal is to achieve maximum efficiency and the appearance of “small force.” If the goal is reached, a less physically powerful person can defeat a more powerful opponent. To attain this result, a specific method of practice is needed.
Taiji Quan strategies for achieving the highest efficiency in fighting include: borrowing force from your opponent and turning the force back against him; luring your opponent to move in for an attack and then pulling back into emptiness; and using four ounces to defend against a thousand pounds. The basic skills used are: zhan which means “to stick to and bounce up”; nian which means “to adhere to”; lian which means “to link”; and sui which means “to follow.” All the techniques of Taiji Quan are based on these four skills, and sensitivity is a prerequisite for developing each of them. Sensitivity allows you to apprehend your opponent’s plans and capacities as well as to understand your own.
The highest level of achievement in Taiji Quan training is the ability to “use four ounces to beat a thousand pounds.” As this adage suggests, if you are exerting 100 units of force to beat 200 units, you are already in the right mode of practice and further practice will improve your skill. To become more efficient, you must borrow force from your opponent. This, in turn, requires that you induce him to commit himself to an attack and then follow his movement until you sense a vulnerability in his offense. You must, in other words, “lure him into emptiness” by yielding and following. To do this, you need a well-developed sense of timing and direction. This in turn depends on your ability to identify and locate yin and yang and to understand jin or internal force. All of this is possible only if you develop your sensitivity so that you are able to know yourself and your opponent. ☯
(From Combat Techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua by Lu Shengli, English translation by Zhang Yun, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2006 by Lu Shengli. Pgs.64 -73 Reprinted by permission of publisher.)
Reprinted from Journal 25, Tenth Anniversary Issue, Summer 2009