Friday, 28 July 2017

Taijiquan's "Potential Strength"

Taijiquan's potential by Mary Johnston
Taijiquan teachers often use the expression - “be strong in eight directions”.  But what does this actually mean in practice? Fundamental to understanding how the Chinese understand dynamic processes is coming to terms with the character shi which can be loosely translated as the “configuration of energy”, or we could say latent energy. In texts from as far back as the Warring States and Qin period the term shi can often be found paired with the character xing, “external shape”. For example, a boulder has a shape. If it is balanced at the edge of a cliff it is said to have shi. The term is used widely in the Chinese tradition to describe the manifestation of energy from potential. China’s most revered military strategist Sunzi described the potential of a rock perched on the edge of a cliff and the devastating power that could be released from this quiet and harmless state. The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of him not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable. Similarly, Taijiquan appears quiet on the surface, but a highly trained practitioner seeks to be in a place of balance where they can instantly react to a force coming from any direction. 

Sunzi would have seen the potential of this
 rock perched high above the Grand Canyon
John Hay (1994) in his introduction to Boundaries in China describing shi wrote: “Its boundaries are therefore in time as well as space; they are never geometrically precise. Instead of exterior planes, they have a changeable envelope of textured energy”. Little wonder then that western Taijiquan players often misunderstand their Chinese teachers. During one training camp in Chenjiagou a student asked whether a particular movement was peng or lu. The answer he received was, “It could be peng and it could be lu”. That is, it had the potential to be either depending upon the intention at that moment. The student walked away confused and disappointed that they had not received a “straight answer”.

Friday, 7 July 2017

On push hands competitions...

A common phenomenon at competitions is the sight of those on the sidelines shaking their heads and criticising the competitors.  These armchair experts quote Taijiquan ideals such as “using four ounces to uproot a thousand pounds” and “using softness to overcome hardness“, to pour scorn on the contestants, none of whom measure up to their standards of what Taijiquan should be.  The criticism is often unfair.  Firstly, most of the critics have never put themselves into the competitive arena and experienced for themselves the performance-sapping effects of nerves and pressure. 

 Secondly, the sayings represent a perfect model that all Taijiquan exponents aspire to.  For example, “giving up yourself to follow others” requires an individual to remain circular within their postural framework, sticking and following an opponent without losing contact.  At the same time maintaining agility and sensitivity throughout with the ability to assess the opponent’s attacks and determine the distance, direction, speed and power of any threat.  All the while maintaining the ability to assess and respond to minute changes.  Following the opponent’s posture and borrowing his strength rather than resisting reaching a stage of being able to react according to the situation.  To reach a stage where you can do this is no easy task, so perhaps it is a bit unfair to criticise the average competitor for not living up to these ultimate standards.  After all, no one would expect a club runner to keep up with Usain Bolt, so one should not be too surprised when an average competitor does not live up to the standard of the great masters.

 It is important to make the distinction between modern push hands competitions and the hitting or connecting hands of the past.  Before techniques such as throwing, seizing and striking were used, not dissimilar from today’s sanda and sanshou.  Much of what Taijiquan uses for self defence is prohibited in tournament style competition, and whenever a fighter’s arsenal of techniques are restricted, inevitably what they can do is weakened and diluted.  For this reason competitions are viewed as sport rather than real combat.

 Competitions are best viewed as a testing ground to see what does and does not work for an individual and then, with this feedback, to adjust their training accordingly.  If the competitors have trained hard and developed some degree of rooting, balance and neutralising skill then they should not be too worried about being taken or thrown by an opponent.  Without ever being tested many practitioners continue to walk around with a false sense of their true level of martial skill. That said, you shouldn’t put too much importance on sporting competition. At the end of the day push hands competitions take place in an arena with rules and referees and is not the same as real combat, and techniques that win a point may be less effective in the unforgiving real world.  
 1997 British Open Chinese Martial Arts Championships: -80Kgs Final