Ways of Looking at Power

In Tai Chi we talk a lot about power. Sometimes we conflate it with energy, so that the four primary “powers” of Grasp Bird’s Tail are also the four “energies”. Thus the jin’s, or refined methods, can be numbered at anything from eight to 25 “powers” or “energies” and so on, the Eight Powers or Eight Gates (Ba-men) being Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Chou, Kao, Lieh and Tsai.

But seldom do we consider what “power” really means.

“Power” can be defined as:

  1. the ability to do or act; the capability of accomplishing something, or

2. the ability to exert an infuence upon something, or

3. the possession of control or command over other beings, authority, ascendancy, power over the minds of others, or

4. influence over natural phenomena.

In the martial arts, it is helpful to consider three different ways of thinking about power. We can call these three ways: analog, digital and binary.

Analog means that something is like something else. In various styles of martial arts we may try to move or exert power by acting like something else. So we balance like a crane, leap like a tiger, jump up like a cockerel, or strike like a snake.

The connection between animal movement patterns and health in China goes back at least to Hua To’s Five Animal Frolics of the 2nd. Century CE and may extend long before that into prehistory. Various East Asian martial arts transmit skills which are modelled upon the movements of animals, both mythical and real.

In China, there are at least two different (but overlapping) five-animals traditions in Shaolinquan, a twelve-animal method in Xingyiquan, and a four-animal system in Bagwazhang. The appeal to an animal essence is shamanic in origin and is intended to raise the spirit, strengthen the sinews, and shape martial intent and ferocity.

While overtly animalistic movements are not emphasised in most styles of Taijiquan, many postures / movements evoke them by name: Snake Creeps Down, Stork Cools Wings, Retreat to Ride Tiger, Hit and Hold Tiger, Shoot Tiger with Bow, Roc (or Phoenix) Spreads Wings, Ride Unicorn and Look Back, Blue Dragon Comes Out of the Water, Green Dragon Spreads its Claws, Yellow Dragon Goes to the Cave, Black Dragon Coils Around the Pillar, Horse Jumps Over the Ravine, Carp Jumps the Dragon Gate, etc. etc.

As far as I am aware, the only Tai Chi tradition today which is strongly oriented toward this material in training terms is that of the Yang Zong Laojia, the Old Yang Middle Frame, which I learned from Dr. Shen Zaiwen. The rendition at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NarXssNqbic&t=82s combines various animal forms. However at a higher level the entire sequence can be performed in one animal style or another.

In general: the Dragon circles, claws, lashes out, and fluidly changes up and down from one zone to another. The Phoenix rises up and sinks, opens and closes, overwhelms and obliquely controls the space around the opponent. The Crane is focused and patient; it waits and then strikes with powerful beating wings and legs. The Serpent coils, yields, grasps and locks the opponent up before striking with great speed. All of these also represent strategic methods….

Digital is when we impute specific values or powers to certain things in order to fine-tune our ability to understand force or suggestion. At some point someone in the Arab world decided that a horizontal line ( _ ) and an oblique line ( / ) when joined together ( 7 ) could be used to represent 1+1+1+1+1+1+1.

This approach, in my personal experience, relates in Tai Chi to interpreting certain movements in terms of the Wu Xing or Five Elements: Metal, Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth. Each of these is selectively interpreted in terms of specific imputed qualities. For instance, Metal could be interpreted in various ways; it could evoke a quality of brightness like gold or softness like lead. It could be used to invoke perhaps round shapes like a bowl. But for martial arts purposes metal represents the imputed qualities of hardness and sharpness, rising and falling like an axe or like a tiger’s claws.

The Five Elements were used by the late Master Jou Tsung Hwa when he was teaching us the Chen Cannon Fist or Pao Chui. A single technique could be shaped in different ways so as to be empowered by these elemental energies. Thus a punch might be spiralling (water), explosively shooting straight out (fire), or sinking and heavy (wood). In addition, a technique shaped in this way was accompanied by certain sounds or shouts designed to assist in the meditative intensity of the striking moment.

Sifu Jack Yan, a disciple of Chen Village grandmaster Chen Zhenlei, has told me that he is unaware of this method in the Chen Village tradition, so it is possible that Master Jou was importing it from some other system such as Xingyiquan. In any case, for me it has significantly enriched my practice!

Binary consists of applying to expressions of power a model consisting of combinations of two values: ones and zeros, positives and negatives, Yin and Yang.

This approach is encoded in the Tai Chi tradition of the Yang and Wu families as Early-Heaven and Later-Heaven boxing. The first is the subject of the Taijiquan classic attributed to the Daoist immortal of Wu-dang Mountain, Chen San-feng; it survives to this day and I learned it from Master Jou. The latter is the subject of the 1st of the Forty Documents of the Wu and Yang families and appears to now be extinct.

In the Early-Heaven binary method, each of the 8 Powers or Gates is interpreted according to one of the Eight Trigrams or Ba Gwa. For example, An is represented as a broken line between two solid lines; this is the trigram for the fire element. Interpreted in physical terms, the idea is that An commences with a downward pressure (Yang) which is released (Yin) and then reasserted (Yang again). It thus has a pulsing or pressing quality. “Push”, the conventional interpretation for An, is thus revealed as a rather misleading and inadequate translation.

This topic is covered in one chapter of Master Jou’s The Dao of Taijiquan. Master Da Liu in his book Tai ChI Ch’uan and I Ching went farther and associated each of the various postures of Yang style Tai Chi with a six-line hexagram from the 64 characters of the Book of Changes, but I find his analysis overly elaborate and unconvincing.

It will be appreciated that the progression from analog, through digital to binary is one of increasing abstraction. Analog can be based upon imitation or physical correspondence. Digital focuses this by taking the correspondence idea and associating it with imputed values. Binary applies a mathematical model.

In conclusion, this may be considered an introduction to some of the deeper waters of Taijiquan. For most Tai Chi enthusiasts, dabbling in this material will have no appeal. But for the few, examination of these cognitive and cultural patterns can unlock hidden riches and greater power!

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