The Ten Essentials of Tai Chi Chuan, Part 1

Orally transmitted by Yang Chengfu,

Recorded by Chen Weiming,

Translated by Jerry Karin

1. Empty, lively, pushing up and energetic *

‘Pushing up and energetic’ means the posture of the head is upright and straight and the spirit is infused into its apex. You may not use strength. To do so makes the back of the neck stiff, whereupon the chi and blood cannot circulate freely. You must have an intention which is empty, lively (or free) and natural. Without an intention which is empty, lively, pushing up and energetic, you won’t be able to raise your spirit.

2. Hold in the chest and slightly round the back

The phrase ‘hold in the chest’ means the chest is slightly reserved inward, which causes the chi to sink to the cinnabar field (dan1 tian2). The chest must not be puffed out. If you do so then the chi is blocked in the chest region, the upper body becomes heavy and lower body light, and it will become easy for the heels to float upward. Rounding the back makes the chi stick to the back. If you are able to hold in the chest then you will naturally be able to round the back. If you can round the back, then you will be able to emit a strength from the spine which others cannot oppose.

3. Relax the waist

The waist is the commander of the whole body. Only after you are able to relax the waist will the two legs have strength and the lower body be stable. The alternation of empty and full all derive from the turning of the waist. Hence the saying: ‘The wellspring of destiny lies in the tiny interstice of the waist.’ ** Whenever there is a lack of strength in your form, you must look for it in in the waist and legs.

4. Separate empty and full

In the art of Tai Chi Chuan, separating full and empty is the number one rule. If the whole body sits on the right leg, then the right leg is deemed ‘full’ and the left leg ‘empty’. If the whole body sits on the left leg, then the left leg is deemed ‘full’ and the right leg ‘empty’. Only after you are able to distinguish full and empty will turning movements be light, nimble and almost without effort; if you can’t distinguish them then your steps will be heavy and sluggish, you won’t be able to stand stably, and it will be easy for an opponent to control you.

5. Sink the shoulders and droop the elbows

Sinking the shoulders means the shoulders relax open and hang downward. If you can’t relax them downward, the shoulders pop up and then the chi follows and goes upward, causing the whole body to lack strength. Drooping the elbows means the elbows are relaxed downward. If the elbows are elevated then the shoulders are unable to sink. When you use this to push someone they won’t go far. It’s like the ‘cut off’ energy of external martial arts. ***


Translator’s Note:

[*] This four-character phrase is probably the most difficult one in all of tai chi literature to translate. I have chosen to regard each of the four words as filling the function of a predicate or verb-phrase. Another fairly obvious approach would be to take the first two as adverbial and the last two as subject-predicate: “Empty and lively, the apex is energetic.” Many other interpretations are possible.

[**] In Chinese thought the waist tends to be regarded as the space between two vertebrae, rather than a circle girdling the middle of the body.

[***] External martial arts such as Shaolin are thought to use energy from parts or sections of the body, as opposed to the ‘whole-body’ energy of tai chi.

 

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