Peng, Lu, Ji, An: Grasping the bird’s tail

Teaching using Trigrams

Yesterday I taught the ‘Grasp Bird’s Tail’ sequence in the form. I don’t know why, but I drifted into talking about trigrams as I was teaching it. Trigrams are the series of three broken or unbroken lines that make up the Bagua and are usually associated with the ancient book of Chinese wisdom, the I-Ching, or “classic of changes”, which contains 64 hexagrams (two trigrams on top of each other).

This diversion into ancient philosophy is somewhat unusual for me, but not unheard of, as I usually don’t like to get sidetracked into theoretical discussions too much when I teach. I think theory has its place, but I’ve seen too many Tai Chi teachers who seem to need a whiteboard and marker pen to teach you how to throw a punch. The thing is, the trigrams aren’t purely theoretical to me, and they do have relevance to teaching and practical application, as I will explain.

The four fundamental forces used in Tai Chi are Pung, Lu, Ji and An, (usually translated as Ward off, Rollback, Press and Push) and are most clearly expressed in Yang style-derived Tai Chi forms in the section known as Grasp Bird’s Tail. Each of the energies has a trigram related to it for a specific reason.

Peng is three unbroken, or yang, lines: “heaven”
Lu is three broken, or yin, lines: “earth”
Ji is one solid, yang, line surrounded by two yin lines: “water”
An is “fire”, a yin line surrounded by Yang lines.”fire”

Heaven, earth, water and fire – four fundamental elemental forces.

Because of their symbolic makeup, the trigrams can help you understand what’s ‘inside’ the postures, and what makes them different to each other – what makes a Peng a Peng, for instance, and not a Lu? And how is that different again to a Ji? And how is An different again?

It’s about the feel of each movement.

For example: Peng is represented by three yang lines – this is maximum yang at its fullness. In this posture you should feel internally inflated – a positive, outward expression of energy at its maximum. That doesn’t mean it is “hard” – it is actually more like a large rubber ball – a springy kind of energy on contact.

Lu is represented by three yin lines. This is the most empty a posture can be, but again, it’s not lacking or depleted, it’s just empty. There’s still a structure, like the way a vase is empty in the middle. You are guiding force past you, without adding in your own force, but also without losing your own stability.

Then you get Ji and An, which mix both yin and yang lines. Ji is a solid yang line between two broken yin lines – the needle in the cotton. This is how the energy should be expressed in Ji – soft, but with a hard centre. Push is the opposite – it appears to be hard, but is open and empty inside, giving the push a warmer fire-like feel.

Again, we are talking about how each posture feels here, so words will always be inadequate, which is why the trigrams can be a useful visual symbol to represent the feeling of each energy and help you distinguish them.

The use of trigrams is not limited to Grasp Bird’s Tail. (There are another four in use in Tai Chi, which are further mixtures of yin and yang balances, but I often feel like the theory is being shoehorned slightly into Tai Chi to accomodate them into a nice neat number 8, as there’s no real reason to go as far as 8, and you could also go further.).

Once you can understand the feeling of the four energies in Grasp Bird’s Tail you can see how it applies in other areas of the form. For example – what energy do you want to express at the very end of Brush Knee Twist Step? Is it a Ji or an An with the projecting hand?

Well, the interesting thing is, you could do it either way, so long as you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Addendum: One of the joys of symbols is that you can interpret them in different ways. If what I’ve written goes directly against what your teacher has told you, then that’s fine – you can interpret these things in different ways. This is just the way I do it.