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Practicing Tai Chi Must Understanding The Principles – Ma Hong

In 1999, it was the 151st birth anniversary (1849-1929) of Grandmaster Chen Xin, the first-generation successor of Chen-style Tai Chi. Chen Xin was an outstanding Tai Chi theorist who comprehensively summarized and systematically expounded the principles and techniques of Chen-style Tai Chi, accumulated over nearly five centuries. His monumental work, “Illustrated Explanation of Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan,” is the first and most comprehensive masterpiece of Tai Chi Chuan in China’s history, shining with brilliance to this day. It still holds immense value in promoting and developing Tai Chi Chuan, particularly in terms of theory.

Chen Xin once said, “To learn Tai Chi Chuan, one must first study books. By understanding the principles, learning the forms becomes natural. A diligent learner must prioritize the principles.” He also cautioned against disregarding the study of theoretical principles, warning against falling into arrogance or eccentricity. These words are highly pertinent. Throughout Chinese traditional culture, the sages in various fields have placed great emphasis on the study of theory and its guiding role in practice. Ming Dynasty writer Feng Menglong stated, “At any given time, strength lies in physical power, while victory or defeat throughout the ages lies in theory.”

However, the theoretical study of Tai Chi Chuan remains a weak link in the overall development of the art. An article published in the People’s Daily once stated, “The theoretical research of Tai Chi Chuan in our country is facing challenges. Although the study of Tai Chi Chuan theory has been progressing slowly in our country, it remains scattered and lacks scientific qualitative and quantitative research in areas such as mechanical analysis, fitness value, and physiological mechanisms of Tai Chi Chuan. In terms of theory and research methods, we are far behind countries like Japan.” These words are highly realistic. Japanese martial artist Matsuda Takashi once asked a Tai Chi Chuan practitioner in our country, “What is the appropriate degree of inward rotation for the rear foot in the Single Whip stance? Mr. Chen Fake performs it at a 45-degree angle, while Mr. Chen Zhaokui performs it at a 60-degree angle.” This demonstrates the meticulousness of Japan’s theoretical research.

We, the practitioners of Tai Chi Chuan, face an important task of strengthening our theoretical learning and research, so as to achieve a new leap in the development of Tai Chi Chuan theory!

On the basis of diligent practice, I personally have two immature insights and perspectives on how to strengthen the study of the principles.

  1. Start by grasping the traditional Chinese philosophical principles and understanding the theoretical basis of Tai Chi Chuan.

In reviewing the “Illustrated Explanation of Tai Chi Chuan,” we can see that there are four major theoretical pillars in the creation of Tai Chi Chuan: the Tai Chi Yin-Yang theory from the Book of Changes (Yi Jing), the Taoist health preservation methods, the theory of meridians in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and traditional military studies such as “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu and “New Book of Effective Tactics” by Qi Jiguang. Only by understanding these classical theoretical foundations can we grasp the thinking process and principles behind the creation of Tai Chi Chuan.

Among the four major theoretical pillars, Chen Xin primarily used the study of the Book of Changes as the guiding ideology and the Tai Chi Yin-Yang theory as the overall thinking framework of Tai Chi Chuan. The Book of Changes holds the highest position among the Chinese classics, and philosophy has always been the commander-in-chief of various disciplines. Almost every traditional Chinese cultural field has an “essence of the Book of Changes” system. The martial art known as “Tai Chi Chuan” is no exception. The Tai Chi Yin-Yang theory derived from the Book of Changes is a key that opens the door to Tai Chi Chuan.

The Book of Changes consists of 64 hexagrams, and almost all of them discuss the relationship of Yin and Yang. Hexagrams with reasonable combinations of Yin and Yang or hexagrams where Yin and Yang interact harmoniously (whether it’s between the upper and lower trigrams, the inner and outer trigrams, or the six lines) are mostly auspicious hexagrams, while the opposite tends to be inauspicious. The same applies to Tai Chi Chuan. When it comes to forms, movements, and even pushing hands and sparring, if the various Yin-Yang change patterns can be applied reasonably, creating a harmonious combination of Yin and Yang that feels smooth and comfortable, the movements will appear beautiful. When engaging in pushing hands and sparring, being adept at the combination of Yin and Yang oneself while causing the opponent’s Yin and Yang to separate will make it easier to gain an advantage and achieve victory.

In the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, it is necessary to implement the following principles of Yin and Yang change (or various modes of thinking derived from the Book of Changes):

  1. Correspondence of Yin and Yang: Yin and Yang are symmetrical and correspond to each other, from which we can understand the principles of “when encountering left, there must be right,” “when encountering up, there must be down; when encountering front, there must be back,” and “left issues, right sinks.” For example, in the posture of Left and Right Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg, the supporting hand must have an upward and downward balance, and the waist and hips must be relaxed and sinking, with both upward and downward forces. Another example is Lazily Tying the Coat, where the right hand issues a downward and sinking force, and the left hip must be relaxed and sinking. These principles reflect the requirements of dynamic balance and other boxing theories in the application of force.
  2. Mutual inclusion (mutual generation) of Yin and Yang: From this, one can understand the Tai Chi Chuan principles of combining hardness and softness, opening and closing, lightness and heaviness, transformation within strikes and strikes within transformations. Master Chen Zhaokui used vivid language when explaining the movement White Crane Spreads Its Wings, saying, “Let the left hand and right hand’s tiger’s mouth interact. In the Single Whip posture, both arms are rounded, and the palm roots of the left and right hands are also interactive. There should be harmony in openness, and compactness should be present within gathering, and there should be a sense of gathering within extension. These are all principles guiding the movements under this theory.”
  1. Yin-Yang mutual rooting. For example, the principles of “interchanging emptiness and fullness” and “everywhere there is always one emptiness and one fullness” in boxing theory are based on this philosophy. Imagine the guidance of “stepping like a cat.” The left leg moves agilely like a cat’s leg, while at the same time, the right leg must feel more effortful because it is rooted.
  2. Yin-Yang holography (or wholeness). From this, one can further understand concepts such as “the whole body is a family,” “when one part moves, all parts move,” and “the waist remains still, the hands do not issue force.” The waist serves as the core, integrating the entire body, and within this wholeness, all parts and organs are interconnected. This also helps us understand that all things are interconnected, and every individual thing consists of Yin and Yang, which come together as Tai Chi. Therefore, when practicing Tai Chi Chuan, it is crucial to grasp its wholeness. For instance, when exerting force, the points of force application, force paths, pivotal points, and force-emitting points (points of emphasis) must be consistently interconnected.
  3. The orderly nature of Yin-Yang transformation. Under normal circumstances, Yin-Yang changes prompt the development of things, and these changes occur in an orderly manner. In Tai Chi Chuan, this is expressed as “folding back and forth.” If you want to go left, you must first go right; if you want to go up, you must first go down.
  4. The gradual nature of Yin-Yang transformation. Yin-Yang changes include gradual changes, abrupt changes, quantitative changes, and qualitative changes. When practicing martial arts from a health perspective, the goal is to seek gradual changes in life, as Chen Xin described as “coiling and intertwining along the path, calmly and without haste.” This involves achieving aerobic metabolism and emphasizing a steady and slow approach to punching, enhancing endurance. However, it is also important to practice generating force, combining speed and slowness, integrating cultivation and nurturing, and achieving a harmonious integration of form and spirit, as this is more beneficial for health.
  5. The spiral form of Yin-Yang transformation. Yin-Yang changes always occur in a spiral, wave-like fashion, without direct lines. “Dialectics of Nature” tells us that “contradictions lead to development, in the form of a spiral.” The Tai Chi Diagram (Yi Diagram) also indicates to us: firstly, it is a circular entity; secondly, it contains the opposing internal elements of Yin and Yang; thirdly, there is an S-shaped (spiral) transformation between Yin and Yang. Especially in Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan, there is a focus on spiral movements and intertwining, as Chen Xin explained, “Tai Chi Chuan is all about coiling methods.” The three circles in punching and the three circles in pushing hands embody this requirement. Once the laws of Yin-Yang changes in Yi Jing are understood, it enables the entire set of forms, each form, and each movement to be performed in a reasonable and compliant manner with the principles of Yin and Yang. Understanding one principle leads to understanding many principles, just as Chen Xin taught us, “A good learner must prioritize understanding the principles” and “When the principles are understood, learning martial arts becomes natural and easy.”Secondly, through rigorous and diligent practice, make every movement in traditional routines reasonable and legitimate.

Learning martial arts, understanding the principles is crucial. However, merely understanding the principles without practical application is empty talk. Tai Chi Chuan is a practical discipline, and it is only through a thorough understanding of the principles and diligent practice that one can better grasp the science of Tai Chi Chuan.

Regarding “perseverance in difficulty,” it means that the more challenging the movement is to practice, the more diligently one should adhere to the requirements of the boxing manual and the teachings of the instructor. For example, practicing with a low stance is undoubtedly challenging. Performing low stances, exchanging emptiness and fullness, and executing groin walking arcs make it even more difficult. As an example, I can still execute a groin walking arc in the Sparrow Hawk technique, even with a low stance (demonstration). Some young people are unwilling to fall during practice, but I am 72 years old this year, and I never hesitate to fall during each training session!

Regarding “strictness” and “thoroughness,” it means that one must not be careless with small movements, and the essence of each move and posture must be clearly understood. The purpose is not achieved until it is fully comprehended.

For instance, in order to understand the force path, force points, and variations of each movement in the 600+ movements of the First and Second Roads of the form, one must clarify the presence of several force points within each movement, the size variations of these force points, their directional positions, and their origins and conclusions.

Master Chen emphasizes the concept of the “three joints in coordination,” as stated in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” “Striking the head responds to striking the tail, striking the tail responds to striking the head, striking the middle corresponds to striking both ends.” There is particular emphasis on the use of the “heavy weapon” (the middle joint), achieving the coordination of three joints, interchanging between each joint, and ensuring a consistent flow of force throughout. For example, the “Golden Pounding Mortar” movement also exhibits three joint variations. The application of the right elbow in “Single Whip” is often overlooked. When lifting the leg, the utilization of the knee is sometimes forgotten. In the “Lazily Tying the Robe” movement, some neglect the activation of the shoulder joint, and so on. All these instances can be categorized as a loss of force.

Regarding the methods of deflecting and redirecting force, some people widen their arms too much. Master Chen asks, “Are people’s arms made of rubber bands?” Similarly, during deflection, some people fail to understand the concepts of elbow joining and dropping the elbow. The teacher asks, “Do you still want to protect your ribs with your front and back hands?” When dropping the elbow, they forget about maintaining tension.

Regarding the three-dimensional spiral, the sinking of the hips, the foot’s arched path in the “Six Seals and Four Closures” technique, and the reliance on the hip movement are important aspects. Additionally, the “Three Circles in Punching” and the “Three Spheres in Push Hands” discussed by Master Chen are refined and fascinating boxing techniques. Only through meticulous study and practice can one grasp these concepts. Moreover, these principles are embodied in the movements of the form, one by one.

When writing poetry, it is said that “poetry lies beyond poetry.” Similarly, in martial arts, the practice is not limited to the external aspects but also encompasses the internal aspects.

The essence of Tai Chi Chuan lies in diligently and earnestly practicing with difficulty, strictness, and thoroughness. This ensures that each form and movement conforms to the principles and techniques of Tai Chi Chuan. Therefore, I believe that after passing the stage of

understanding the principles, it is necessary to combine theory with practice, serve practice, guide practice, validate practice, and develop practice. As practitioners, inheritors, and disseminators of Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan, we should always be like students. Being a teacher is temporary, but being a student is perpetual. We need to put in the effort, earnestly study the principles, master them, understand the theoretical basis and combat implications of each form and movement, constantly enrich their essence, and make every movement in the routine “reasonable, legitimate, and scientific.” Each form and movement should withstand the scrutiny of principles, scientific knowledge, and sparring. We should strive for continuous improvement, making the traditional Chen-style form more enriched and scientifically grounded, leading to a new leap in the theory of Tai Chi Chuan. Let it develop towards a higher level of technology and knowledge. Furthermore, let Tai Chi Chuan reach a higher level in terms of spiritual and character cultivation.

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