The Tai Chi Classic [Part 1]
Attributed to Chang Sanfeng (est. 1279 -1386),
interpretation and commentary by Graham Barlow.
1. “In motion, the whole body should be light and agile,
with all parts linked as if threaded together.”
[Here the Classic is connecting together the ideas of being ‘light and agile’ with ‘threading the body together’. It is referring to being relaxed and without stiffness or excess local muscle tension in your movement. If you can be relaxed then your movement can flow and be connected together via the muscle-tendon channels. Any stiffness you possess will prevent you from moving in this unique way, which is key to Taijiquan. Particular problem areas to look out for that can prevent your body being ‘threaded together’ are the shoulders and lower back where we tend to store tension. If we are tense in our shoulders then the movements of the body cannot reach the hands, and if we are tense in our lower back then we cannot connect the upper and lower parts of the body. Everything in Taijiquan needs to be driven by the legs, waist and dantien area.]
2. “The chi should be activated,
The mind should be internally gathered.”
[In the first line I’ve chosen the word ‘activated’ when referring to the chi, rather than the usual ‘aroused’ or ‘excited’. This is to give more of a sense that you are switching to dantien-driven movement, using the muscle-tendon channels, rather than using normal movement, which is unconnected to the waist.
The second line originally says Shen, which refers to the spirit, rather than mind, but I think that this line is really referring to ‘paying attention to what you’re doing’ in a calm yet focused way, rather than letting the mind wander or become distracted.
Taken together these two lines are a way of saying, ‘in Taijiquan we move the body in an internal way, and to do that we need to use the mind and keep it on what we are doing, rather than letting it wander’.]
3. “The postures should be rounded and without defect,
without deviations from the proper alignment;
in motion, your form should be continuous, without stops and starts.”
[These lines start by addressing the physical posture considerations of Taijiquan. I’ve added ‘rounded’ here, because you need to physically round your posture to make it properly relaxed. That means no awkwardness or straight lines in the physical posture, just nice smooth curves.
The second part talks about the movement itself. Developing the skill of being able to move without ‘stops and starts’ takes a while and is one of the fundamental reasons for practicing the Tai Chi form every day. Of course, we are talking about moving from the dantien without stops and starts here, not just normal movement.
The phrase ‘drawing silk’ is often used to describe this quality of continuous movement you find in Taijiquan. If you were drawing silk from a cocoon then you need to do it at a constant rate – if you speed up and you risk the thread breaking. If you slow down you risk it collapsing. Just keep it at a constant rate and it should go well.
By linking these two ideas in the same section the author is drawing a parallel here between having no breaks in the physical posture (keeping it rounded) and having no breaks in the actual movement either (keeping it continuous).]
4. “The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
expressed through the fingers.”
[These are the lines most often used to describe how power should be expressed in Taijiquan. So, when issuing a punch, or a push, you should be going through this sequence, which starts at the ground and goes up to the fingertips. Taijiquan uses the ground force (jin), so the first part of the body mentioned is that which is closest to the ground – the feet. Next it links together the legs and waist as the parts of the body most associated with delivering that force to the hands – or fingers as it says here.
Obviously, this part is not talking about kicking. Notice that the palms are not mentioned, either. In Tai Chi your hand technique is usually a punch or a push. Occasionally a back fist or hammer fist is used, but it’s mainly pushing or punching to the torso or head, both of which use the fingers to make contact with the opponent.
When you push (to the chest) in Tai Chi you shouldn’t use your palm. Instead, you push with your fingertips. If you try pushing hard on a heavy bag with your palm you’ll soon discover why – pushing hard with your palm risks serious injury to your wrist. Of course, pushing on an arm, as we do in push hands is different, and you can use your palm without risk.
Taijiquan goes beyond simply using the raw power of your legs to augment the power of punches and kicks – it’s not talking about just doing this physically and externally. Instead, it’s talking about making use of the power of the ground through a relaxed body that is used as a coordinated whole. This passage also makes it clear that the ground force and the force of the legs are the only power inputs required to create jin, so, don’t try and punch or push from the shoulder.]
5. “The feet, legs, and waist should act together
as an integrated whole,
so that while advancing or withdrawing
one can take the opportunity for favorable timing
and good position.
If correct timing and position are not achieved,
the body will become disordered
and will not move as an integrated whole;
the correction for this defect
must be sought in the legs and waist.
The principle of adjusting the legs and waist
applies for moving in all directions;
upward or downward,
advancing or withdrawing,
left or right.”
[I’ve grouped these lines together as I think they are all talking about the same subject. Following on from the previous point about the role of the feet, legs and waist in producing power from the ground, the Classic now makes it explicitly clear that these three need to act together even when moving. This emphasises the supreme importance of the trinity of the feet, legs and waist (dantien area) in powering movement. If you can power your movement like this then you can produce Jin (power from the ground). Once you break this trinity, say by using local muscle in your shoulder, then your power has become disordered, and lacks the connection to the ground which is required by Taijiquan.]
Part 2 is now available.
8 thoughts on “The Tai Chi Classic [Part 1] – a new interpretation”
I have never been part of a tai chi community. Tai chi in my community is underappreciated and essentially ignored. I live in a very trendy, “of the moment” community.
Over decades of practice and study, I’ve rarely come across any contemporary commentary or insights like yours. Your posts are truly inspired, and have both supported and contributed to my daily practice. Thank you.
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Tom – the best one I’ve seen if Luis Swaim, because he explains why he’s chosen the words (in Mastering Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan) but really there are two things here – the commentary and the classic. I’d have exactly the same commentary on any translation of the classic. The nuance of individual words is not that important, at least to me.
I understand that it’s your own interpretation based on your own reading and particularly your own practice. But did you rely on or can you recommend any specific published English translations you have found helpful in developing your own interpretation? There can be considerable variation from what I’ve seen (e.g., Amacker/Lo/Inn from the Yang/ZMQ line, Zhang/Ho/Capell from the Beijing Wu/Wang Peisheng line, Mark Chen’s more recent exploration from the Chen fsmilt line, etc.).
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Thanks. It’s my own version – I’ve changed a few words here and there, simplified it a bit and removed archaic language, like the barbarian I am 🙂
Nice commentary . . . definitely some things to practice and ponder. This sounds like it might be the start of a book. 😉
Just out of curiosity, what translation of the Taiji Classic are you using?
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