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Reflections on Tai Chi Chuan: Four Years On 

by Kym Ching

Four years since the first day I stepped into class to learn Cheng Man Ching Style 37-steps Tai Chi Chuen, it dawned on me that the more I learn, the more I realized, the less I know. I am now able to practice all 37 steps but it was only the recent months when I progressed to join the senior class where Shi-fu frequently refined our poses and movements that I realized there were so much more subtleties to perfect.

Here are some oral instructions to understanding and appreciating the Classics of Tai Chi Chuan (郑子太极拳十三篇) in guiding us to the right practices [1]:

Use the mind to mobilize the chi ( 气), use the chi to mobilize the body. When the body is mobilized, then there is movement Relax the inner abdomen, then the whole body is light and agile

Relax (sung 松 ) means to soften the tendons and blood vessels of the whole body. Not even a little tension is permitted. This is known as "a soft waist that can fold a hundred times as if it had no bones." If you had no bones and only ligaments, the ligaments could then relax and open up.

Sink (ch'en 沉 ) means not floating. Once you relax completely, then this is also ch'en. If the ligaments and blood vessels relax, then the whole body sinks down. Basically, ch'en and sung e the same.

Sinking chi into the tan tien ( 丹田 ) can give each internal organ its own exercise.

Storage of the chi refers to accumulation in the tan tien. The tan tien is located 1.3 inches below the navel. To accumulate the chi hai ( 气海 ), one has to learn the movements of Tai Chi Chuen. When you make greater progress, the air you feel against your palm will not only feel heavier than water, it will fell like iron.

Make your spine upright. Tuck in the sacrum such that the whole spinal column is straight and upright.

Separate Insubstantial and Substantial. The right arm and left leg are one stream of strength. The same for left arm and right leg. If one stream is substantial, then the other is not and vice versa. The weight is transferred from one leg to another. During the weight transfer, the sacrum and the upper back must be kept upright and straight, then you will not lose your equilibrium. The key point in the transference of strength from the left leg to the right is in the sacrum, and the key point of the transfer of strength from the right hand to the left hand is in the upper back.

Raise the strength to the top of the head means the energy at the erect top of the head is light and agile. It's as if a string is attached to the top of the head and the body hangs down and suspend from the string. The head can neither bend back, forward nor lean to either side. When you practice the occipital bone [A1] should be upright. Then the shen ( 神 ) and the chi reach the top of the head.

Rotation and turning of the body is driven from the kwa ( 胯 ), not the waist.

Push-hands (tui shou 推手 ) sequence of WardOff (p'eng 棚 ), RollBack (lu ), Press (ji 挤 ) and Push (an 按 ) involves force and counter-force. Pushing hands in Tai Chi Chuan has two meanings: 1. To give up oneself and follow the opponent's tendency. By doing so, you learn neutralization (hua chin 化 劲 ) and yielding (tsou chin 收 劲). 2. If others move slightly, I move first. When the opponent uses force to push me, I obviate his attack by pulling back first. If the opponent uses pull, I preclude this by pushing first. The principle of using the saw applies very well here.

Tai Chi Chuen seeks relaxation and agility and avoids stagnation. Stagnation is like dead meat hanging on a meat rack.

Being like the Roly-poly toy (pu dao wong 不倒翁 ). The whole body is light and agile. The root is in the foot. Relaxing and sinking your weight to tan tien and yong chuen (涌 泉 ) stabilizes you. "Sinking to one side is responsive; being double-weighted is sluggish". Thus use force only from one foot at each time. The rest of the body is kept relaxed and light as a feather. If you master this, you cannot be pushed down.

Being able to discharge strength (fa chin 发 劲 ). Chin (strength 劲 ) and li (force 力) are different. Chin comes from the ligaments and li comes from the bones. Therefore, chin is soft, lively and flexible while li is hard, dead and stiff.

Fa chin is like shooting an arrow. Shooting an arrow depends on the spring force of the bow and string. The force of the bow and string is soft, lively and flexible.

Technique of fa chin is to "seize the moment and opportunity". "The feet, legs and waist must act together simultaneously".

Body should be level and upright, and the movements should be consistent.

The upright body must be stable and yet comfortable to absorb force from different directions. "Stand like a balance' and "Mobilise the chin like pulling silk from a cocoon"

Use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.

Separate "offset" and "push".

Follow the tendency of your opponent's force and shift him to a diagonal direction. This is leading. After his force dissipates, push him. There will be no one who will not be thrown. The power of the leading force should not be excessive or else the opponent will intuit it and be able to mobilize and escape.

On occasion, you can use the leading force to change his direction and attack him. If he detects you lead, he will store up his force and not advance. When he stores up his force his tendency is to withdraw. Follow his withdrawal, give up the leading force and discharge him. Then there will be no one who will not fall down. That is the countermove.

To speed up the learning process, I have quadrupled my practice classes from one to four times a week. Mondays and Saturdays are for learning and refining. Thursdays and Sundays are for my instructor apprenticeship. The general belief that as you teach, the more you'll learn holds true. To explain to my "students", I had to focus on each minute steps and reflect my own learning. Sometimes I had questions which I never thought of myself. So learning for me is not just from Shi-fu alone but also from my peers and the newcomers.

Tai Chi Chuen holds no age barrier. Shi-fu's classes are made up of students from all walks of life. From students to housewives to professionals and retirees, there's a whole kaleidoscope of background. Some brought with them knowledge of taekwondo, Chinese Dance and other forms of Tai Chi Chuen and Martial Arts, but most like myself, are really new to the martial arts form. The class is run like an egalitarian micro system. Everyone comes in as equals. Ultimately, it is really up to the individual's personal capacity to do well. If you are diligent or has some natural talent and affinity to martial art movements, chances are you'll progress faster. There's no pressure to pleasing others but oneself.

My journey in learning Tai Chi Chuen, like any journeys, is never smooth. Heavy with my professional responsibilities and travels, it took me four years to learn the 37-step Cheng Tze style Tai Chi Chuen. So what's next apart from the repetitive practices to further movement refinements? My first trip with my Shi-fu and Tai Chi Chuen friends opened up new frontiers on opportunities. The Tai Chi Chuen competition in DaQingShan in Shandong showcased Pushing Hands Competition and so many schools of Tai Chi Chuen. I'm inspired by the Dalian vs Canadian Lady's Pushing Hands Competition. It reminded me of Cheng Man-Ching's advice in his books to "invest in losing". Pushing Hands is not about using brutal force to fall your opponent. It is about the emptiness and nothingness one feels in response to his opponent wrath. Zheng Zhong Hwa said it's like seeing the trees in the forest and not the tree itself. It's about focusing internally on your own mind and feeling nothingness to your surroundings. No fear, no anger. Just emptiness. When the opponent comes for you, you simply neutralize him by using his force on you against him. The trick is to cause the weight of the opponent's center of gravity to be off balance. That's why it's call using "four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds".

The Tai Chi Chuen steps we learn incorporate all these neutralizing movements. So far, we've memorized these steps in sequences but to apply them calls for a different set of skills and knowledge.

To harness the health benefits from Tai Chi Chuen, one not only has to practice frequently but also practice right. The breathing, the roundedness of arms, flow and sequence of movement in coordination, the power that must come from the "kwa" (not quite the waist but the groin [A1] as I found out only recently!) altogether in synchonity will steer me to better health. To get all these right simultaneously involves painstaking efforts and most of all, dogged persistence. Practicing Tai Chi Chuen will be a life-time investment for me.

Tending to our health is like gardening. We need a good balance of Sleep, Exercise and Right Food to maintain a good healthy body. Simple as it may seem, it is difficult to practice daily due to our busy lifestyles. Likewise, Tai Chi Chuen is a simple philosophy of yin and yang balance. To be able to achieve this balance, one needs a massive amount of conscious effort. The Traditional Chinese Medicine has basis on the yin and yang philosophy and complements Tai Chi Chuen very well in managing strong and healthy bodily functions.

The very fact that both Tai Chi Chuen and Traditional Chinese Medicine transpired across 3000 years and reached beyond geographical borders to the whole world, is in itself a testament of their true intrinsic value. Tai Chi Chuen teaches self-cultivation. It shows us how to harness the chi to maintain one's good health. The philosophy of balance makes one treasure how thin a line is between falling ill and keeping good health. On this account, Tai Chi Chuen is indeed a great art and science of health management.


[1] Cheng Man Ching, Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treaties on Tai Chi Chuan. Translated by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and Martin Inn

June 2013


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