By Koh Ah Tee and Nigel Sutton
The whole of Taiji can be reduced to one word, song (alert relaxation). That is the essence, the root, everything. Relaxation is the most important thing, for without having achieved this gongfu then you cannot acquire jing (Taiji’s whole body power). Without jing you cannot reach a high standard in Taiji. Taijiquan is without shape, without form. It is on the inside, not the outside.
If you look at external martial arts they seem to be easier to use, easier to apply. Taiji, on the other hand, appears more obscure. This is because it is concerned with the internal. If you’re not clear on this then you will be unable to see to the heart of how Taiji may be applied. In Taiji the outside is soft, the inside is hard. If you look at the exterior it looks like it can’t really be used but if you look deeper you will see the real usefulness of Taiji. So to answer the question of how to acquire Taiji’s fighting skills, this is a matter of continuous, diligent practice of the form and pushing hands. No special training, just Taiji training.
Neigong is very important. This is the skill that Chen Zi Chen (Better known in the West as William CC Chen) helped Grandmaster (Cheng Man Ching) with. That was when Chen Zi Chen was young. There is no doubt that this method of neigong comes from Grandmaster Cheng. If you really want to reach the highest levels of Taiji skill and make practical use of its techniques, then you must train neigong.
This skill is essential for protecting the body. Exactly where Grandmaster learned it from I could not say because he learned from so many teachers.
Whether it came from the Yang family or the Zuo system, I don’t know. Yang Lu Chan was known as “Yang the invincible,” so he must have had this skill. That is certain, but when Grandmaster grew older he changed many of the methods he had learned. His system of neigong is not the same as the “iron shirt” of other martial arts. “Iron shirt” is hard but Taiji’s neigong is springlike. Taiji’s neigong is the “needle in the cotton,” the hard in the soft.
Our neigong is relaxed, it’s not muscular effort. You can hit me while we’re talking, it doesn’t matter. It’s relaxed and natural. You don’t need to prepare. The highest level of Taiji skill is easy to talk about but very hard to do and it is simply this: when the opponent touches you he flies off, one touch and he’s gone. As soon as he raises his fist his fate is assured. This is very difficult to do; no fixed method, no fixed form. Ultimately no si zheng tui, no da lu, nothing, just your opponent defeated.
Jie jing is what we’re trying to train for. Correct Taijiquan is not dependent on the length of form that you practice but rather depends on how closely your art matches the principles laid down in the classics. Being an expert in Taiji is not the result of studying several different styles; it is a question of whether your method is correct, whether you do it right. It doesn’t depend on who learned from the Shifu first, or who spent the longest time with him. Rather it depends on whether your movements are smooth, continuous, without interruption and correct according to Taiji theory. If you feel the 108-posture form to be in some way superior because of its length then do the 37-posture form three times, but you’ve missed the point. Some people interpret the fact that Taiji was originally called “long boxing” to mean that the form must contain a lot of movements, but that is not the case. It refers rather to the quality of the jing, the applied power. If your movements contain a smooth, continuous, uninterrupted power then this is long boxing.
In Taijiquan every movement, it doesn’t matter what style you train in, if it deviates from the 13 aspects (peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lieh, zhou, kao, forward, backward, left, right, central equilibrium) it is not real Taiji. Their importance lies in the fact that they are the “root” of Taijiquan; the foundation upon which the art is based. You cannot separate the art from the root. It doesn’t matter which movement, they are all based on one of the 13 aspects or a combination of them. If, as an example, you take external martial arts and do them slowly, are they Taiji? No they are not because they do not contain the 13 aspects. It doesn’t matter which style of Taiji you practice or which movement you are doing it must contain something of the 13 aspects. This is essential.
No matter who the teacher is or what the style, if the teaching is based on Taiji principles then it must be correct. In order to check whether you are doing Taiji correctly you must constantly check that every movement reflects the thirteen aspects. In this way you can determine for yourself whether you are on the right track.
Some people say that to become competent in Taijiquan takes a long time but I think that if you are diligent then in about two years you should have acquired the basic skills. Constant improvement is possible if you just continue training. If, however, you are intent on finding the Dao of Taijiquan then it is not a simple thing. We are not talking about a few years’ work, we are talking about a lifetime and even then it is not guaranteed. Unless you have the right method and the right approach, the right character even you will find it very hard to walk this Dao.
One of the most important things that makes Cheng Man Ching’s style unique is the “Fair Lady’s Hand.” No other style stresses this unique hand formation, as far as I know. What is important about the “Fair Lady’s Hand” is that when you have got it right it leads to greatly improved ting jing. You will have acquired Taiji’s light touch. This is an important specialty.
In Malaysian Taiji there is sometimes to be found an insistence that students should use sandbags to condition their hands. Most of this originates with Lu Tong Bao. When I trained with Shifu Lau we used to practice these methods but now I think that this kind of training is not only unimportant but also has a bad effect on your ting jing. Fair ladies seldom hit bags if they wish their hands to stay fair. You look around my house, I don’t have any of this kind of equipment. Taijiquan relies on relaxation, timing and borrowing the opponent’s force, not on hand conditioning.
When Grandmaster Cheng was younger he trained in one method which involved hitting bean curd with a bamboo stick. In doing so, he had to use a very precise measure of strength to avoid destroying the bean curd. This was a part of his training for dian xue (vital point striking), because you have to use just the right measure of force. He trained this way for three years but eventually came to the conclusion that Taijiquan was all that he needed.
Grandmaster was a very strange old man. He was secretive about his training history and was supposed to have had over 20 teachers. One of his teachers told him that if he met a monk he was to bow his head and treat him as his Shifu and this he did right into his old age. Some people called him crazy because of his eccentric habits.
The first and foremost reason for practicing the solo form is to relax the sinews. From relaxation of the sinews comes relaxation of the muscles and so of the whole body. The form connects mind, heart, qi and body. Use the mind to control the heart. The heart controls the qi and the qi finally moves the body. Taijiquan is not a question of moving the hand or foot on its own. Instead it is the qi that is the motivating force. The qi moves the limbs. Secondly, whether the lower body controls the upper body is determined by whether your form practice is correct or not. That is the power must be derived from the yong quan (“kidney 1”) acupuncture points.
“The power is rooted in the feet, directed by the legs, controlled by the waist and expressed through the arms.”
The form may be regarded as a compendium of the techniques, strategy and tactics of the art. Let’s look at two specific movements: Step Forward, Move, Parry and Punch and the second one, Brush Knee and Twist Step. In the first movement, when punching, we punch at the center of the body, the soft parts. In the second movement we use the open hand to the face or chest, both hard parts. We are using yin against yang and yang against yin. But also if we look at the body mechanics and the laws of physics involved, we can see that to punch high is unnatural in the sense that it requires tension in the shoulders and the upper body. A high open-hand strike, on the other hand, is both relaxed and natural. This is the reason for the difference and this same reasoning, in terms of application, may be applied to every movement in the form.
Taiji is a form of qigong. You could say that it is qigong boxing; but you cannot call other qigong methods Taijiquan. There are thousands of types of qigong but even if you are an expert at one of these types it doesn’t make you an expert on Taijiquan. If, on the other hand, you are an expert at Taijiquan then you can talk with some authority about qigong. If you want to learn supplementary forms of qigong then you must be careful that you choose a soft method as a hard one will not benefit your Taiji. In fact it might even harm you.
Form practice naturally circulates the qi. The connection this has with a person’s health is very simple. When your sinews are loose and relaxed the joints open and the qi flows naturally. When the circulation is natural and unobstructed many illnesses are prevented from ever happening. Also when we do the form all our internal organs move. This is as if we are giving the internal organs a shower, making them clean so that the body’s health is naturally restored and protected.
I think that intent is of greater importance in Taiji than qi. The mind should be on the spirit not the qi. The intent motivates the qi. If a person has no spirit (vitality or awareness) then what sort of qi does he have? A person who sleeps all the time, what kind of qi does he have? He might say that his qi is very good. That is patently untrue; that’s my opinion. Qi embraces many different factors: the nutrients in our food; our own level of self cultivation; all these are in qi. If we get to the heart of the matter then it is intent that is important. Intent motivates qi.
More amazing insights into Cheng Man Ching’s Taiji are found in the historical interviews conducted by Sifu Nigel Sutton in his book, Wisdom of Taiji Masters.
“Sutton’s book works not just on a technical level, but also an emotional level.” –Ben Judkins, Chinese Martial Arts Studies
“Nigel Sutton has done us a great favor in compiling this book… heartily recommended.” –Bernard Kwan, Be Not Defeated by the Rain
“Sutton’s interviews with these masters offer broad and deep insights into the multi-faceted art of Tài Jí Quán.” –Nick Scrima, Journal of Chinese Martial Arts
“From the first interview I was completely gripped… There’s plenty of food for reflection in this book.” –Paul Brad, Ancient to Future
“The book… explores the meaning of, and extreme dedication to taijiquan for these men’s lives, with many insights into practice…” —Taijiquan Journal
About the Author
Nigel Sutton is a martial artist with more than forty years of experience who has spent the last two decades living, training and teaching in Southeast Asia. The author of a number of books on the Asian martial traditions and a lineaged initiate in many of these systems, Nigel continues to research, through practice and participant observation, the martial traditions of the region. Working from his foundational knowledge and experience of the taijiquan of Cheng Man Ching Nigel has broadened the scope of his studies to include other Chinese martial arts, multiple styles of silat, traditional Filipino Eskrima (Eskrima De Campo JDC-IO) and Thailand’s Krabi Krabong. Nigel holds instructor rankings, many of them at a senior grade in Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, Liangshi Wushu, five styles of Silat, Eskrima DeCampo JDC-IO and Krabi Krabong. His current research is focused on the core elements common to all martial arts which constitute effective martial movement.