Rick Barrett, in ‘Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate’ (2006) describes his meeting with tai chi master Waysun Liao, and what happened when he asked Liao for a demonstration:
‘He asked me to stand and relax about three feet in front of a wall. He lightly placed his fingertips on my chest. With no movement of his body, I was suddenly slammed into the wall behind me and fell to the floor. More remarkable, I had no sense of time having elapsed. There was just a simultaneous “touch-wall-floor.” My subjective experience was of time having been compressed into a single moment’ (p.19).
Liao asked Barrett if he wanted to see Roll Back:
‘I expected him to gracefully neutralize a simulated attack. Instead, he just placed his fingertips on my forearm, and, again, without movement by him, I was instantly on the floor. There had only been the slightest touch on my arm. My subjective experience was that the floor sucked me down in a single moment. Resistance was not just futile; it was incomprehensible. Space and time had collapsed. Something dramatically beyond my normal experience had just happened’ (p.20).
Bruce Kumar Frantzis, a New Yorker with black belts in several Japanese martial arts, in ‘Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body’ (1993), gives an account of his search for internal martial arts practitioners in Taiwan, Japan and China. In Taiwan the young Frantzis met Wang Shu-jin, an internal martial arts master in his seventies. An argument over the efficacy of karate, in which Frantzis had a black belt, led to a friendly match. Frantzis describes how he just ended up hurting his hands hitting, Wang, and that Wang disconcertingly ended up behind him several times, tapping him on the shoulder, then:
‘…Wang walked slowly toward him, eyes half-shut. Kumar relates that he actually began to fear for his life. He backed up against a wall, braced himself, and heel-kicked Wang as forcefully as he could in the solar plexus. The kick simply woke Wang up and made him mad. He tapped Kumar on the head. Kumar felt a bolt of electricity jolt through his body and the next thing he knew, he was suddenly, and to his complete surprise, on the floor’ (p.xxi).
Because I like such stories, let me give you one more account, this time a description by William C. Phillips of being pushed by Professor Cheng Man-ching:
‘I sensed him settle in, and I felt a sense of electricity, a charge at the point where my arm was being lightly touched, where it was in physical contact with his hands. And I just took off. It appeared to me that I was moving in slow motion. My ears worked, but sound had that distant echoing quality, like I was under water. He took my wrist in his hand as my arm straightened slowly, like a slack rope held firmly on one end, playing out slowly as I rose. When I got to the end of the flexibility in my arm, the rope taught, I stopped perceiving that I was moving in slow motion. I suddenly noticed that I was moving at what seemed like 60 miles an hour at an up angle of about 45 degrees. I shook violently as my arm, once the slack had played out, took the shock of the push. Then my hearing came back’ (2019, ‘In the Presence of Cheng Man-ching,’ pp.85-90).
There are more such accounts that I have come across, but those are enough to make the point. There is a quality of force or energy that can be developed by the soft ‘internal’ Chinese martial arts such as tai chi, which seems to transcend normal experience.
The forces manifested by a master of tai chi chuan are generally referred to as ‘jin’. A form of ‘jin’ called ‘peng’, or ‘peng jin’, is particularly important. Rick Barrettt defines ‘jin’ and ‘peng jin’:
‘Strength (gross muscular force) in taijiquan is called li. Internal power is jin. Jin means energy or strength that results from the integrated use of body and consciousness. Li comes from activating the muscles. Jin comes primarily from using the connective tissue’ (2006, p.157).
And peng jin:
‘Peng jin is a form of internal power that flows up and out and has an expansive, “lifting” quality. Peng is usually considered the most important jin because it knits the body together into a tough, expansive, tensile unit. It forms the foundation for other types of jin’ (2006, p.157).
Scott Meredith (2014, ‘Tai Chi Peng: Root Power Rising’) quotes from a tai chi classic text, called ‘The Song of Peng’. This is part of an oral tradition passed down by tai chi teachers to their students, and later written down. The Song of Peng goes like this:
‘How can peng energy be explained? It’s like the swelling water that lifts a boat. First fill the dantian with qi, then, hold the head in light suspension. A tensile, elastic power suffuses the entire body, oscillating at a fixed frequency. Even a thousand pounds of force will be easily repelled’ (pp.10-11).
We can recognise some of Cheng Man-ching’s injunctions for practising the tai chi form in the above passage, notably sinking the chi (qi) to the dantian, and suspending the head top.
One of the characteristics of ‘peng jin’ is that, once developed, it is always present. Scott Meredith (2014, p.5) quotes Chen Wei-ming, who, studied under Yang Cheng-fu:
‘When you’re loose and relaxed, even when not alert, the energy is still there and it spreads everywhere. Thus you cannot be injured’ (1985, ‘Tai Chi Ch’uan Ta Wen: Questions and Answers on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Chen Wei-ming, Benjamin Lo, Robert W. Smith, trans.).
Some of this sound familiar? George Lucas, writer of Star Wars, was influenced by ideas about chi. No doubt many of us have encountered ‘the force’ in the dark of a cinema, in ‘a galaxy far, far away’. The mystical energy field that that gives the Jedi their power, is explained by Obi –Wan Kenobi:
‘It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together’ (Star Wars: A New Hope).
Meanwhile, here on Earth, our thoughts might turn to methods for developing our chi and our ‘peng jin’.
Chen Wei-ming (1985, ‘Tai Chi Ch’uan Ta Wen’, Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, and Robert Smith, trans.) gives an account of the advice given by his teacher Yang Cheng-fu, on how to develop peng jin energy. And Yang Cheng-fu was Professor Cheng’s illustrious teacher. Yang Cheng-fu cautions us not to use hard, muscular force:
‘Taichi strength arises internally and is based on suppleness and relaxation. The more you practice the supple, the more quickly you will gain internal strength. If you still have tension someplace it will prevent the accumulation of internal strength… Those people who say you must use force usually have excess strength or practice with a hard style and won’t give it up. They can’t believe that at the limit of suppleness lies a different quality of strength. Such people never obtain the essence of Taichi’ (pp.17-18).
And, speaking of push hands (sensing hands) the tai chi partner exercise, Yang Cheng-fu emphasises:
‘If you forego force and practice push-hands for several years you will produce a natural energy (p’eng chin) which will stop an opponent’s force without strain. If a beginner practices relaxation for several years with no tension anywhere or practices push-hands with WARDOFF he can get this energy’ (p.25).
The ‘secret’ then, is to relax, let go of tension and hard force, to be soft, as Wolfe Lowenthal continually reminds us. The problem, Professor Cheng maintains is that we lack faith in softness. It seems counter intuitive.
Looking further afield, outside of our tradition, Peter Ralston made a parallel discovery. He is famous for becoming (in 1978) the first non-Asian ever to win the World Championship full-contact martial arts tournament held in China. Peter Ralston tells of how he discovered ‘effortless power’. He was studying a ‘hard style’ of Chinese martial art, in a San Francisco basement:
‘…when I tossed all convention aside and started to flop around like a wet noodle, I became the object of a good deal of scorn… In the arts of interaction, I demanded of myself not to use any strength at all to strike, throw, or uproot my partner. I would toss my relaxed body at opponents to see what would happen. Needless to say, it was very ineffective’ (2006, ‘Zen Body Being’ Peter Ralston, pp.118-119).
Not discouraged, Peter Ralston persisted in trying to find ‘effortless power’:
‘For a year I continued in this way, mostly without success. Eventually, however, sometimes my opponent would suddenly be moved, although I had no idea why. As this occurred with a bit more frequency, I began to notice the feeling-states I was in that were associated with success… Eventually I learned to produce these effortless results intentionally, mostly through the generation of particular mind-states and feeling-states’ (2006, p.119).
Eventually, Ralston recounts, the other students noticed his success, abandoned their graceful art, and began ‘flopping around’ just as he had! The point to take away here is the effortless nature of the force acquired, not the ‘floppiness’. At this juncture in his life Peter Ralston was practising boxing arts for seven or more hours a day. It can be assumed that he had correct ‘structure’. Wolfe Lowenthal notes that we need relaxation, but within a correct tai chi structure. And, correct structure cannot be attained without relaxation, settling and opening of the body and mind.
In an article in his on-line Daoist magazine ‘The Scholar Sage’, Damo Mitchell discusses the Chinese terms ‘Qing’ and ‘Lin’, meaning: ‘light’ and ‘agile’. Mitchell believes authentic tai chi chuan should display Qing and Lin even in a combat situation:
‘In order to be light and agile there must first be a high degree of Sung… applying Sung to your Taiji movements means incrementally relaxing the large muscle groups and then connecting together your fascia ‘Jing Jin’ lines into one united whole. This alone can take many years of dedicated practice with a heavy focus upon analyzing your internal structure and making increasingly minute adjustments’ (p.3)
The result of this work, Mitchell explains, is that the relaxation of the muscles allows your bones to shift back into their most efficient position. Your joints will open, your fascia will lengthen and your body mass can be distributed down into the ground.
‘When the energy has a free path through your body it will begin to move into your tissues and melt them. The interaction between your physical body and your energetic matrix results in pulsing waves of Qi moving through your body… If you reach a high level in this stage you will feel a fine vibration running through your body from the floor to the ends of your finger tips whenever you extend your intention into the distance. If you touch hands with somebody who has reached this stage you will feel a high frequency buzz within their body just below the level of their skin all over their body whenever they move into the Yang/opening part of each posture’ (ibid., pp.3-4).
Mitchell goes on to explain that with further progress you begin to feel like some sort of helium balloon as the energy inflates the joints. The process of learning to use Qing and Lin in combat involves learning to maintain this state of being, through progressively challenging levels of training – from pushing hands to sparring.
‘The next stage in your practice is learning how to maintain the principle of relaxed extension whilst making contact with a pressuring force given to you by a partner’ (ibid.,p.4).
Damo Mitchell cautions:
‘To learn how to use Qing and Lin we must adhere to the saying famously attributed to Zhen Manqing – “invest in loss”. This is because for several years at least you will not be able to apply Qing and Lin in combat. Instead you will basically weaken yourself and lose every single partner exercise! Not only a real bummer but it can be quite a blow to your ego’ (ibid., p.4).
The danger, as Mitchell observes, is that many practitioners of tai chi are not prepared to go through this stage of ‘investing in loss’ and so ‘hit a glass ceiling’ in their progress. What is required is faith in the classical principles of tai chi. It is a long process of continual development.
Finally, in this delve into the ‘how to’ of acquiring tai chi’s relaxed ‘jin’, or soft force, Chen style practitioner Wang Hai-jun explains the process from his perspective. I was introduced to Wang Hai-jun’s 18 posture short form by my teacher William Aarvo Tucker about 20 years ago, after Aarvo met and studied with Wang in Manchester. Previously Aarvo had studied Cheng Man-ching style tai chi intensively with Liu Hsi-heng for 15 years in Taiwan, which was why I chose him as a teacher.
Although outside the Cheng Man-ching tradition, Wang Hai-jun gives an interesting account of the stages of development in tai chi chuan from a Chen family style perspective. He names five basic skills that the practitioner needs to develop:
Fang Song – loosen the body by relaxing the joints;
Peng Jin – an outward supportive strength, the basic skill of tai chi;
Ding Jin – upright and straight;
Chen – rooted;
Chan Si Jin – reeling silk skill.
Here we will look at the first four skills, as reeling silk skill is a method particular to Chen style tai chi.
Wang notes that these skills are complimentary to each other and are acquired slowly with persistence and a lot of practice.
1) Fang Song: this term is sometimes abbreviated to song or sung which is often translated as ‘relax’. It involves loosening the joints. The quality of sung is not limp, neither is it stiff.:
‘When a joint is loosened, it is free to rotate or turn without hindrance or resistance. It is this ability that is required in taijiquan. The taijiquan classics talk of even the smallest pressure of a feather or a fly causing movement, like a finely balanced and oiled ball-bearing, where even the slightest touch causes it to rotate’ (Wang Hai-jun, trans. Nick Gudge, www.taiji-forum.com).
Wang explains that a beginner will have stiff joints but, as this is habitual, they will not realise they are stiff. As the shoulders loosen, the arms begin to feel heavier, and loosening the hips makes the legs work harder. So these are good indicators of progress in loosening these joints. Professor Cheng speaks about the same process as opening the nine gates – wrists, elbows, shoulders; then hips, knees and ankles; finally the sacrum, jade pillow point (at the base of the skull), and the ba hui point (towards the rear of the crown of the head).
As the joints loosen, particularly the hips and shoulders, they sink down. The tai chi form is used to relax and open the joints, hence the emphasis on softening and relaxing, and extending the mind into the body.
2) Peng Jin: sometimes called simply ‘peng’ is the core skill of tai chi. It comes from loosening the body (fang song) and can be translated as ‘outward supportive strength’.
‘The fundamental skill peng describes when the limbs and body stretch or extend while maintaining looseness or fang song. Without looseness (fang song) the body is stiff and peng is lost. If the body is too loose or limp then peng is also lost. Without stretching the body is not properly connected and peng is lost. If the limbs and body are over extended then they become rigid and peng is lost’ (Wang Hai-jun).
Peng is trained in the tai chi form. When peng is present, any pressure on the outside of the body is transferred to the ground without any added effort. Pressure to any part of the body is transferred across the whole of its structure. Wang Hai-jun notes that it is the quality of peng that allows one to feel the structural weakness in another person. This is a useful skill in tai chi’s partner work – sensing hands. This listening skill (ting jin) occurs through peng jin. Peng is also used in leading and neutralising an incoming force.
‘So, using peng, a skilled practitioner not only can detect what an opponent is doing, they can neutralize it, detect the direction of vulnerability and attack through it… So beginning with loosening the body, then adding stretching without becoming rigid, the skill that is peng jin becomes manifest in the body. Initially at the start and end of each posture, then continuously in the process of motion’ (Wang Hai-jun).
3) Ding:’ upright and straight’ is important because it is only when the body is upright, as if the top of the head is suspended from heaven, that it becomes possible to loosen the spine, waist and hips.
‘So to summarise, ding can be considered the principle that dictates stretching the spine upward to understand and maintain balance, reduce stiffness and to understand and increase both peng and fang song. This basic skill is frequently first grasped in standing exercises like zhan zhuang’ (Wang Hai-jun).
4) Chen: rooted – ‘Chen has two meanings in Taijiquan. The first meaning relates to how the body must “sink”to connect to the ground. The second meaning relates to how the qi must be trained to be always sunk down’ (Wang Hai-jun).
Sinking the chi (qi) involves sinking the mind to the area of the dantian and to the feet. The ability to sink and root (chen) produces a skill whereby a large, strong person is unable to push over a smaller, weaker person. An incoming force is directed through the body, into the ground. This can then lead to a counter force rising through the body. So we can see that sinking a force to the ground, is dependent upon the development of peng.
‘The body acts like a highly specialised and controlled spring. When it is compressed, the pressure goes to the ground and when it is released it pushes from the ground. A good root is essential to neutralize and release strength effectively using the internal method of Chen style taijiquan’ (Wang Hai-jun).
Summary Let’s sum up the process of developing Peng Jin as variously outlined above.
There is a similarity in the process described by the various teachers mentioned in this text. Diligent tai chi practice develops a particular kind of force, or ‘jin’ of which the most important is peng jin. Peng jin is distinguished from hard, muscular force or ‘li’. Jin comes from extending consciousness throughout the body, and from the connective tissue. It is something that arises from the qi and the connective tissues (Rick Barrett).
Peng jin is a force that has an expansive upward and outward quality. It depends upon a relaxed and integrated body. The Tai Chi Classic – The Song of Peng – characterises Peng energy as being like the ‘swelling water that lifts a boat’. It arises from filling the dantian with qi, and suspending the head top. It suffuses the entire body and has a protective quality (Scott Meredith).
Yang Cheng-fu, consummate martial artist of the early twentieth century and teacher of Cheng Man-ching, emphasised the importance of softness and giving up tension and muscular strength in tai chi form and partner work. Only in this way can you develop another kind of force ‘a natural energy (p’eng chin) which will stop an opponent’s force without strain’. Peter Ralston, too, discovered the martial value of giving up strength to develop ‘effortless power’, which he could find through ‘the generation of particular mind-states and feeling-states’.
Damo Mitchell outlines a similar methodology, of ‘incrementally relaxing large muscle groups’ and connecting up the fascia. With relaxation the joints open, the body mass sinks towards the ground, and ‘when the energy has a free path through the body it will begin to move into your tissues and melt them’. This leads to the development of a high frequency energetic buzz throughout the body, which manifests in the expansive phase of each tai chi posture. Mitchell explains the need to ‘invest in loss’, not using customary muscular strength to ‘win’ in the partner work. He explains that this is a blow to the ego, and that the whole process takes a lot of time and practice.
Wang Hai-jun similary emphasises a process of loosening and opening the joints. He adds the idea of a kind of stretching without stiffness, to connect up the body and develop peng. He notes that peng gives rise to the ability, through touch, to ‘listen’ to another person’s body and identify where they are structurally weak. Being upright and straight enables the loosening of spine, waist and hips. And the qualities of relaxing and loosening, with the head held as if suspended from heaven, also leads to the ability to sink as if rooted to the ground, ‘chen’. ‘Chen’ enables the tai chi practitioner to channel an incoming force into the ground, which leads to a counter force rising through the practitioner’s body –peng.
Spirit The deeper meaning of our tai chi, however, is not just approached as a kind of physiological exercise taking place under the guidance of the intellect. Wolfe Lowenthal notes:
‘…that the deeper ideas don’t respond very well to intellectual analysis. For instance, do I hear the chi of the opponent? Do I hear it in myself? Do I know what it means to listen?’ (Tai Chi Thoughts, Jan 2020).
In discussing the importance of listening or feeling, rather than thinking, in approaching chi, Wolfe muses on the Chinese character for ‘Listen/hearing’. This character contains the Heart radical:
‘It certainly has to do with feeling, most basically that we FEEL the chi. Going deeper into the chi requires progress into its holistic nature. I can’t feel the chi in another unless I can feel it in myself. Feeling another’s chi also deepens my sense of my own. That the heart is associated with compassion also has relevance to the whole process. And speaking of the way that the heart listens and understands, we must be mindful that we are not speaking of the intellect.’
In the process of decades of regular practice our tai chi can gradually move us toward alignment with the flow of all life, with the Will of Heaven. Our study is of balance, relaxation, letting go, and tuning in to the present moment. As Bruce Frantzis’s old teacher in Beijing told him: ‘What you practice you become’.
And, as Wolfe hints, at the heart of our practice is a kind of listening. Listening to our experience of moving through the form; listening to our chi and listening to our partner’s chi. And chi is not something outside of us. It is perhaps more like the relationship a fish has to water. It’s the medium in which we live and breathe and have our being. Wolfe again:
‘So to extrapolate – didn’t I say this was not intellectual? – Listening has us going forth, with kindness and receptivity,into a universe whose very nature is a reflection of that process’ (Tai Chi Thoughts January 2020).
So, not through the intellect, but through the heart, through ‘listening’ to our chi, and the chi of the other, we approach spirit.
Rick Barrett too, maintains that taijiquan must be felt, it must be experienced. He compares the tai chi form to a wordless book, a channel for the transmission of wisdom:
‘The story of taijiquan is the story of the Dao, the “Way” things are. Forms and patterns change constantly, but there are universal truths that pervade all. Those truths must be lived, not just thought about. Taijiquan permits access to this understanding by physically repatterning the student. It is like a book that can be opened again and again, each time transforming the reader, who dances through its pages’ (Barrett, R., 2006,pp.28-29)
In a recent blog Wolfe discusses the importance, in the posture of Snake Creeps Down, of shifting the weight 100% into the right foot before sinking down. We see how a physical principle can open, through listening, into an opportunity to connect to the ‘eternal centre’.
‘Yeah, it’s almost a ghost thing. A whiff of something down there. A spirit. I can connect to the eternal center through that place. But it isn’t just out there, like a hill I have to climb. I’m not separate from it. An energy we both have to connect to. It’s a spiritual thing.’