The Tai Chi Classics: the Role of Qi

A member of Cold Mountain Internal Arts since Jan. 2002, Tanya Korovkin has studied the Traditional Yang and Old Yang (middle frame) styles of Tai Chi with Steve Higgins, earning a silver medal for her Old Yang performance at the 2009 Canadian Open Taijiquan Championships in Toronto. She has also studied Wu Dang Tai Chi with Ron Williamson at the Atado School of Defensive Arts and served on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Taijiquan Federation. Tanya is certified as a CMIA associate instructor.

The notion of qi is widely used both in the present-day taiji classes and in the classical writings on taijiquan. Qi is usually defined as internal or intrinsic vital energy. In the Chinese tradition, qi is seen as permeating the entire universe. In the human body it is stored in the lower dantian, an area below the navel. It was proposed by the old taiji masters that what makes taiji (along with xinyi and bagua) stand out among the Chinese martial arts is its reliance on the use of qi. Instead of employing physical force (li), skillful taiji practitioners can transform their qi into internal power, or internal strength (jin).[i] Both qi and jin are repeatedly mentioned in The Taiji Classics, a collection of foundational texts describing the principles of taijiquan. Here are some lines that underscore the importance of these concepts...

The xin (mind)

mobilizes the qi...

The qi mobilizes the body. [ii]

These lines come from Wu Yuxiang’s classical text on the thirteen postures. “The xin is the commander, the qi the flag,” he reiterates later, to emphasize the role of the mind in generating qi. [iii]

Babara Davis compares this emphasis on the role of mind to a method traditionally used in Chinese calligraphy and painting. An artist would develop a complete and precise idea of what he or she is going to put on paper, and only after that would start writing or drawing. Whatever was put on paper in ink, could not be erased, so that the artist had to have a superb mental clarity, a quality also needed in taiji practice. [iv]

Yang Jwing-Ming points out, however, that xin is a broad and inclusive term. It refers to all human thoughts and emotions, which means that much of the time xin would behave like an unruly monkey. The part (or state) of xin that accounts for clear, serene, and peaceful thinking is known as yi. It is associated with wisdom, and it is often translated as intent. If xin may act as a monkey, yi has affinity with a horse: once trained, it becomes steady and calm. [v]

In motion...

The qi should be excited... [vi]

I must admit that I was often puzzled by the word “excited” in this stanza. In modern English, this is probably one of the most widely used and abused words. We get “excited” when we discover a new party dish recipe. We feel “excited” about our career prospects.... And now we are also invited to have the qi excited during our taiji practice? Shall we jump and yell with joy at the beginning of each class?

Interestingly, not all translators and commentators use this word. Jou Tsung Hwa, for example, opts for the term “stirred.” [vii] T.T.Liang uses the word “stimulated.” In his commentary on this stanza, Liang compares the stimulation of qi to a conversion of water into vapor, the vapor that would work a steam engine. This comparison fits the visual meaning of the Chinese character for qi. It depicts a cooking pot with the rice boiling and steam rising: a down-to-earth representation of the lofty Daoist ideas of inner alchemy, with the lower dantian as a the source of transformation.

Barbara Davis, however, along many other authors, prefers the term “excited.” She mentions that the Chinese character translated here as excited, stirred, or stimulated is, in pinyin, gudang. Gu means to drum, rouse, vibrate, stir up, expand, or swell. Dang means rocking or swinging in response to outside force. Taken together, gu and dang create an image of a drum skin vibrating in response to the beat of a drum stick. [viii]

Using the same images, Waysun Liao offers some practical advice in this regard. “You should drive your internal energy outward" – he says -- "from the centre of the dantian, and extend it with sufficient pressure (not too much and not too little) so that the tension of its surface is like on the head of a drum. This qi will then vibrate like the beat of a drum when set in motion.” It is this vibrating internal energy that, in his view, becomes transformed into jin, generating the flow of taiji movements. [ix]


Is like a great river... [x]

These lines, like the previous ones, come from the text attributed Zhang Sanfeng. Indeed, the comparison of taiji to a river is a recurrent theme in the classical texts. But where does this river start?

As we could see, both T.T. Liang and Waysun Liao point to the importance of the lower dantian in stimulating or exciting qi in the human body. Zhan Sanfeng, however, directs our attention to the feet! “The motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested through the fingers,” he says in the same text. [xi]

Barbara Davis points out in her comment on this last stanza that in the original Chinese text, it has no clear subject, so that it may refer equally to motion, movement, jin, or qi. [xii] And, of course. the most important qi gates in human body – the gates that let qi in and out – are located exactly in the soles of the feet. These are the so-called bubbling well cavities. [xiii] In fact, Li I-Yu offers a detailed description of how qi arises in the bubbling wells, travels up the spine to the center of the brain, and then moves on to the arms, hands and fingers. [xiv]

Waysun Liao, on the other hand, believes that the qi flow in the human body originates in the lower dantien. He does not ignore the role of the feet, though. From the lower dantian, he suggests the qi should be directed to the soles of the feet and further into the ground, from where it bounces back with greater force to spine, arms and hands. [xv]

Which of the above mentioned interpretations seem to be more plausible? Which ones suit better our individual practice? We may answer these questions differently, but on thing is clear: if we are to believe The Taiji Classics, without qi -- there is no taiji.

[i] Douglas Wile, Lost T’ai Chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty, State University Press, 1996, p.79.

[ii] Wu Yuxiang, “Exposition of Insights Into the Practice of the Thirteen Postures,” in Benjamin Lo, et al., The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, North Atlantic Books, 1979. p.43.

[iii] Wu Yuxiang in Lo, Op. Cit., p. 44.

[iv] Barbara Davis, The Taijiquan Classics, Blue Snakes Books, 2004, p.123.

[v] Yang, Jwing-Ming, The Root Of Chinese Qigong, YMAA Publication Center, 1997, pp. 31, 149.

[vi] Zhang Sanfeng, “T’ai Chi Ch’uan Ching,” in Lo, Op.Cit., p.19.

[vii] Jou Tsung Hwa, The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan, Tai Chi Foundation, 1991, p.175.

[viii] Barbara Davis, Op.Cit, p.90.

[ix] Waysun Liao, T’ai Chi Classics, Shambhala Publications, 1990, p.88.

[x] Zhang Sanfeng, in Lo, Op.Cit., p.25.

[xi] Zhang Sanfeng, in Lo, Op.Cit., p.21..

[xii] Barbara Davis, Op.Cit., p.93.

[xiii] Yang Jwing-Ming, Op. Cit., 118.

[xiv] Cited in Douglas Wile, Op. Cit., p.48.

[xv] Waysun Liao, Op.Cit., pp.61-62.

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