Musings on “Silk Reeling” and Buddhism in Chen style Tai Chi Chuan

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Spiralling or coiling movements coordinated from and together with the (lower) dantian is called silk reeling (chansijin, 纏絲精) in Chen style Tai Chi Chuan. This method of body coordination though might not be as unique as some people claim.

But is the term even something specific to Chen style, was it coined the first time in the Chen village? And then there’s another, following question: Why the name of reeling silk? Why not naming this body movement after something much more obvious and common, as the dragon or the snake? How did someone get the idea to name it after collecting a thin thread from a little bug?

Well, I suppose that you have heard about that silk is something they make in China. But shouldn’t there be some kind of connection between silk and Tai Chi, or maybe some connection between making silk or silk clothes and the Chen family? You might be surprised that there’s something tangible here. There’s a certain relationship. If you are interested in Chinese culture and history, I suggest you should keep on reading. As a hint, I will tell you that there might be an Indian Boddhisattva called Aśvaghoṣa that could the very reason for the name of silk reeling. Are you surprised?

On silk reeling in Chen style Tai Chi Chuan

But let us start from the beginning and try to create a consensus on what silk reeling means in Chen Tai Chi Chuan. There’s no other Tai Chi style than Chen style that makes such emphasise on the coiling quality of body movements or defines it as detailed as Chen style. Today silk reeling energy, or chansijin, is mostly known as a set of exercises that will teach especially beginners how to coordinate the dantian and limbs through whole-body spiralling movements. Those drills, well known by those who practice the Chen village, was originally created by Chen village head Chen Xiaowang on the request of the government as they wanted to standardise Chen Tai Chi by using Chen village Tai Chi teachers. Other teachers developed their own sets and variations.

This Chen style term, Chansijin, was introduced to the larger Tai Chi community by Chen Xin in his book Illustrated Explanations of Chen Family Taijiquan, which was the first book on Chen Style, which was a book based on small frame Chen style. However, the book was edited and published posthumously. Chen Xin had in fact not at all intended to write a book specifically about Chen Tai Chi or small frame Chen tai chi. Instead, he wanted to write a general book about Chinese thought and cosmology in Tai Chi Chuan and related arts from a general philosophical perspective.

What Chen Xin described is not a specific movement. Originally, I would presume that Chen Xi described a more general principle. What he wrote is that “Silk reeling is all over the body”. (Maybe it would be appropriate to compare silk reeling with Baguazhang’s whole body spiraling and coiling, though Chen style does not do it as explicit and extreme as in much Bagua.)

So to understand what the original meaning of silk-reeling actually was, we should not associate this term too much with a specific single hand or double hand exercises in the Chen style practice of today, but a more general body movement, a coiling, spiralling movement of, and coordinated by, the whole body. Or as Chen Chenglei put it:

“”What is Chen Style Silk Reeling Energy? The requirement of the entire routine is that there is no flat surface, there is no straight line, no broken links or points [in the energy line], the whole body is round [and] it moves in arcs and spi­rals.” Whether it is the hand, the leg, the waist, the body, whatever, it moves in spirals, […] So, the whole body is a spiral.”

On the Chen village and trading silk

So now the real question is: From where does this name come from? The analogy of silk reeling is very clear and precise. In silk production, the silk threads are pulled out from the cocoon and wrapped in a circular manner around a rack. When you hear the description, or watch someone actually do this, the analogy becomes apparent. But still, why does someone come to think about reeling silk from a silk cocoon? In other styles, the movements of the spine especially is often compared to the dragon’s body. How did someone even come to think about silk? 

To answer this question we need some background. First, many people believe that Chenjiagou village is the birthplace of Taijiquan. Even if there is maybe an equal amount of evidence to suggest otherwise, Chenjiagou and the Chen family certainly is still a very important place for the development of what today is called Tai Chi Chuan or Taijiquan. The actual geographical location and local culture has something to do with how Tai Chi, and especially Chen style of Tai Chi Chuan, took shape and how it is perceived today.

The distances in China are great. Some people would say that the Chen village lies in the middle of nowhere though it’s said that it lies close to the Shaolin temple. In fact, it takes more than eight hours to drive between those two places. The fastest way is by fast train which takes about five hours. So it’s still a bit of distance. Close or long are both relative and subjective terms. 

What we need to know, is that the Chenjiagou village lies close (and as said above, it depends on what you mean by close)  to the classical Silk Road. Silk was was a hard currency in the old days, something both sold and bought, as well as traded with. Luoyang is a city that was very well well known for its production of silk and silk trading is a great part of its history.  The Chen Village is located between the cities of Luoyang and Zhengzhou, which was two of the biggest and most important trading cities, though the silk road never reached Zhengzhou. Chenjiagou lies east of Luoyang, near a place where the silk road split into two directions: One to Beijing and one to Shanghai. Compared to the distance to Louyang, the Chen village lies even closer to Zhengzhou, very close actually, and to the east of Chenjiagou. 

Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan where the Shaolin Temple is located, was also an important trading center and lies close to the road that leads the silk road from Xi’an towards Shanghai. Though the silk road itself never crossed Zhengzhou, in the latest few years, China has developed a new silk road, with this very city of Zhengzhou, a city also known as the cradle of civilisation, as the very center of the new silk trade.

The silk road
(Take look at the place to the East or right, after Xi’an where the road divides. The Chen village is located close to this point. )

On the Buddhist influence in Chen Tai Chi Chuan

The silk road, with all of its merchants trading from and to India and the Middle East, also means that a lot of Buddhists came into China by travelling the same roads. Luoyang for instance had a very early meeting with Buddhism and was an important place for the development of Chinese Buddhism. Here in Luoyang, you’ll find things as the famous Buddhist Longmen caves. And all around these roads there are a lot of Buddhist temples.

Many believe that Chenjiagou always has been a very poor village. But this is far from the truth. Before the cultural revolution, throughout centuries, the Chen village had a lot of big mansions and was inhabited by very wealthy land owners. And also, there were many buddhist temples around this area. But most of this, both the mansions and the temples, was destroyed in the cultural revolution and the land owners were replaced with common peasants. 

To conclude the geographical information so we can start looking into the interesting part of the equation: in this large area where the Chen village is located, we have two very prevalent things: Buddhism and silk. But I will tell you this: there’s a fundamental problem with this picture, combining Buddhism and silk.

Do you see where the problem lies? There’s a problem because Buddhism teaches that you should not kill. But producing silk means killing silkworms. If you already didn’t know this, boiling water is poured over the silkworms, so that the fine silk threads can be pulled gently out from the cocoons.

Solving the ethical problem with silk production

So how do you actually solve this problem? In an area where buddhism had a great influence on the local population, how can you produce and trade with silk? Well, it’s here where the Boddhisattva I mentioned in the beginning of the texts come into the picture, Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa, or Maming Pusa (馬鳴菩薩傳), in Chinese. 

Already a long time before Buddhism in ancient times, rites and ceremonies were prevalent to to keep the worms in good health and produce silk of high quality. Daoism and local folk religion, was mixed into silk production.

The earliest written evidence of sericulture in China includes invocations of a certain ‘‘silkworm deity’’ (canshen 蠶神), as seen in oracle bone records dating to the Shang 商 period (c. 1600–1100 BCE).6 Over the centuries this canshen would be associated with various semi-mythic figures, patron saints of sorts, who were seen to have played important roles in the development of sericulture. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) the ‘‘silkworm deity’’ was identified with a legendary ‘‘first sericulturist’’ (xiancan 先蠶), also known as either Lady Yuanyu 菀窳 or Princess Yu 寓, and imperial sacrifices were made in her honor before the first ceremonial feeding of the imperial silkworms.

Source: “An Indian Silkworm God in China

As Buddhism came to China, the very process of killing silkworms became an ethical problem. Therefore, much of earlier Daoist mythology was gradually replaced by Buddhist rituals and sacrifices to Boddhisatvas. The Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa was not only known as a sericulture deity in both China and Japan, but in China Aśvaghoṣa became known as the Silk God, the most important diety for anyone who handled and traded with silk.

The ethical aspects of silk making became more in focus than ever before as Buddhism entered China. People prayed to the Silk God and performed rituals to get his permission to produce silk. How to nurture the worms, and to keep them healthy became more important as ever, as well as making sure that they produced as much silk as possible. In production of silk-ware and clothes, wasting silk was looked upon as a sin and everyone tried to make sure that no silk should be wasted. Not even one silk worm should be unnecessarily killed.

Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa Longmen caves Luoyang

The famous Longmen caves in Luoyang. Here you can see Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa, known as the Silkworm God.

Tracing the name “silk-reeling”

Now, I don’t believe that the name of “silk reeling”, or “silk-reeling energy” was something invented by any Tai Chi specialist or that it was originally a Chen style Tai Chi concept. Rather it should have been adapted from a  Shaolin Changquan art, a Long-fist style. As the Chen family practice several Shaolin Chanquan arts as well as Tongbeiquan, Chen Tai Chi has a lot of influence from these arts. And again, this is another thing that suggests the Buddhist influence of the area of the Chen village, or what is today called Chenjiagou. Because some Shaolin styles have taken names from Buddhist practice and was practiced mostly by Buddhists. And again, some of these traditions were exact what was practiced by the Chen family.

To trace the name “Silk-reeling” in Chen family boxing, we need to trace the whole exercise as well. What I got to know quite recently, is something that makes the puzzle fit all together, namely that exact movements of what is taught today in Chen Tai Chi as silk-reeling exercises is identical to what is taught as Chanyuangong 禅圆功 in Shaolin arts. Mostly, this exercise is connected to “softer” or more internal Shaolin arts, as Rouquan (Soft fist/boxing). Sal Canzonieri, who has studied the links between Shaolin arts and Chen Tai Chi Chuan kindly showed me the simple movements, or drills, of Chanyuangong. All of them are remarkable close to Tai Chi Chuan movements and Chen silk reeling drills. In my own opinion, it’s absolutely clear that these much earlier developed drills have a very strong connection to both silk-reeling exercises and Tai Chi practice in general. (For more information about the relationships between Shaolin arts and Tai Chi Chuan, read Mr. Canzonieri’s articles or take a look at his book: The Hidden History of the Chinese Internal Martial Arts )

But this is not all, according to Mr. Canzonieri who has made extensive research into these arts, noticed that in some dialects, Chanyuangong is pronounced exactly as Chansigong. The “Chan” in Chanyuangong is the same character as Chan in Chan Buddhism, or “Zen” in japanese, and today the character is pronounced exactly as the Chan that means twisting or coiling. In Mandarin or Putonghua it’s even pronounced with the exact same tone. But also the two first characters in Chanyuangong, Chanyuan, 禅圆 is the exact same pronunciation as 纏圆, which means coiling circularity, or circular coiling, as in spiralling. So somehow, the name of the exercise Chanyuangong was understood as “coiling gong”, or “coiling exercises”. This might has been transferred to Chen family martial arts and changed to Chansi gong by a dialectal influence. If this change happened before the exercise was brought to the Chenjiagou or afterwards is a question that needs more study. 

The direct influence from both Shaolin arts and Buddhism in Chen Tai Chi should not be hard to understand as the Chen village lies close to the highly Buddhist city of Zhengzhou where the Shaolin temple is located. Local Buddhist rites and exercises could be traced in Shaolin arts residing there. Chen style’s strong connections to this city and local Shaolin arts can not be disputed. As an example we can mention a Shaolin art called Xiequan which you find in Zhengzhou and has a history of at least 400 years. This art does not only follow the same sequence of movements found in Chen style Tai Chi, but it also has “the missing pieces”, the exact movements that are missing in the other four big Tai Chi styles. (Source: Calzoniere, see links above. Or take a look at a list of Xiequan movements in this forum thread created by the same person. )  

There might be many different connections between Shaolin exercises and Buddhist rituals. But in this case, body coiling exercises does have some connection with the rituals for worshipping the Silk God, Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa.

But there is more that connects these rituals to not only silk-reeling exercises, but to Tai Chi Chuan in general. There’s a very strong symbolism in the Buddhist Silk God rituals that is occurrent in Tai Chi Chuan as well. If you examine the names of the Tai Chi movements, whether they come directly from earlier Shaolin arts or developed later, at least many of them have a relationship to the symbolism of the silk rituals. Especially horses was something that has always been associated with silkworms. Even the Chinese name of the Silk God, Maming, has the character of horse in the name.

The compiler of the Record of the Search for the Supernormal attempts to explain this association through a number of astro-, cosmo-, and ontological links between the silkworm and horse, offering rather opaquely that ‘‘chen is the horse star’’ 辰為馬星 constellation and that when the moon is in ‘‘great fire’’ 大火 silkworms must be culled and graded.

Source: For a Compassionate Killing: Chinese Buddhism, Sericulture, and the Silkworm God

The Horse Star, also known as the “heavenly team of four horses.’’ refers to a constellation of stars the farmers looked after. It represents the time in the year when the sericulture season began. And the season usually started by culling and grading of newly hatched silkworm larvae. Throughout history, the association between horses and silkworms resulted in many stories and  myths. One of many results is a mythological figure, the Horse-head maiden that is worshipped even now today, in the present day China in its silk producing regions. 

To give you a more direct example of this connection to silkworms analogies in Tai Chi Chuan: Maybe you have asked yourself why the Tai Chi movement of “Yema fen zong” or “Parting the wild horse’s mane” looks nothing as combing a mane (which you hardly do one a wild horse) or a wild horse shaking its mane? One of my teachers thought that the name had gone through some changes, and that the original meaning of the name was: pulling two horses apart by using their manes. This explain the physical action much better. But if you look at silk production, you will notice that this physical action of this very Tai Chi movement is practically identical to the movement you use to pull the silk threads out of the cocoon. So the name of the Tai Chi movement “Yema fen zong” might in fact have started out as an analogy used in silk production. 

The art of Xiequan mentioned above also has the movement with the same name: Yema fen zong or “parting the wild horses mane”. But here, it is really performed much more as the same way you would pull two horses apart. The Chen style version is much closer to the movement in Xiequan than to the Yang Tai Chi variation. The Yang style movement should have been taken from Hongquan, a Shaolin Long Fist art that Yang style founder Yang Luchan was very well versed in even before he started studying Chen family boxing. 

Painting lines as pulling silk

However, the correlation between actual silk reeling as in the production of silk and Shaolin might be still more complex. There should be an influence from Buddhist rites via older Shaolin traditions, which some things indeed point at. Still, there could be a another, a direct influence, into Tai Chi Chuan coming from elsewhere, as silk analogies are to be found everywhere in Chinese culture. They are in fact quite common. In Yang style Tai Chi Chuan, the expression silk reeling or “Chansijin” is not used, but there is another related term, “pulling silk” , or Chousi, which is used to describe a perfectly even movement performed at the same pace without interruption.

But the same expression is used in Chinese calligraphy and painting as well. “Pulling silk” is indeed a very good description of how you need to handle your brush, as well as your own body, when you make a brush stroke using Chinese ink on rice paper. (Or on silk, which was actually used to paint on even before rice paper was invented.) Chinese calligraphy needs an incredible amount of control and sensitivity, which is something you need to experience yourself and can hardly be believed watching those calligraphy masters.

Two early artists from the Tang dynasty (618-906) Gu Kaizi and Wu Daozi, developed two very different styles of making lines. Their way of using lines were completely opposite to each other. The first used “very fine but tough lines that seem to float without breaking, called “floating silk-thread lines” and the other using strong “iron wire lines” to impart a sense of muscle mass and energy to his figures.” (source: Brushstrokes: Styles and Techniques of Chinese Painting )

If the second description rings a bell, you have probably heard it before. Iron wire, or maybe Iron “thread” would be an even better translation, is the exact same expression found in the Southern Kung Fu style of Hung Gar uses as a name for the most important form, the original Hung Gar Form, the Iron Wire set or Tit Sin Kuen. It is most likely that both of these two old and throughout history very well known expressions, describing famous line styles in painting, were adapted into Shaolin arts to describe two different types of body movement. And later, at least one of these names, followed the spread of Chinese Martial Arts and was integrated into so called Hakka styles of martial arts and Hung Gar Kuen.

Ink lines or a semi-God – What had most influence?

What has had the most influence on Chen style Tai Chi Chuan: Buddhist rites or Calligraphy? This a matter of what social class you believe that the art was born in. If we speak in terms of Buddhism, we should consider the influence of Buddhism in Shaolin rather than in Tai Chi. But if we speak of other arts, as Calligraphy or painting, there might be a more direct influence.

Merely by examining the names and analogies that are common in Shaolin and Chen family martial arts, we can rule out that a lower, illiterate class could have anything to do with the development of Tai Chi Chuan. Therefore we can also exclude that it was created through performance and theatre traditions, which is a quite common belief and theory of today. It is much more likely that the development started in higher and middle classes through a mix of religious traditions, martial arts and exercises that was common in literati classes. 

But the silk trade itself is also something interesting to take into the equation of the development of Tai Chi Chuan, as several Chen Masters, including Yang style creator Yang Luchan‘s teacher Chen Changxing in fact worked as body guards. The geographical location of Chenjiagou, not very far to the point were the silk road splits into the roads to Beijing and Shanghai, was an ideal place for body guards and security personnel. They protected the roads and the merchants and were of utmost importance to maintain safety on those roads.

In my own opinion there is no reliable source that suggests that the Chen family had anything to do with the original invention of Tai Chi Chuan. However If  Tai Chi Chuan started to develop much earlier in history than the years of Chen Wangting, it is still likely that the martial art system was fully developed through a higher class family or in an upper middle class, and that it was something kept there as a family style for a long time. Regardless where it originated and when it started, the development in a higher class should be the very reason why the art of Tai Chi Chuan started to become publicly known and practiced very late, and first in the early 20th century. (Please also keep in mind that the name itself, Tai Chi Chuan, is a modern, 20th century name.) I would also suggest that influence of Buddhism and Shaolin happened several times. But if a direct Buddhist influence occurred after Tai Chi Chuan already had taken shape as a Martal Art system, this should have happened quite late in history.

I won’t offer any absolute conclusions, which might leave you with a feeling of not being perfectly satisfied. Most people want to find out an inventor or who started the art of Tai Chi. The most truthful answer is a dissatisfactory one. Tai Chi Chuan is too complex, it could not possibly have been developed by one or even a few people. Instead it developed gradually throughout the centuries, through very complex events and it is an art that represents a fusion of many different traditions.

However, if you want to believe that Taijiquan was solely created by the Chen family in the village of Chenjiagou, which lies in a Buddhist area of China, then you might need to accept that Tai Chi Chuan is likely a much more Buddhist art than a Daoist one. And when you practice your Chen Tai Chi and silk reeling exercises (or a form, which integrates the silk reeling movements), you should be aware that you are in fact, performing a spiritual ritual meant to worship the silk God, Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa.
(F.Y.I, if you didn’t get it, that last thing was meant a joke.)

Amituofo

©David Roth-Lindberg 2020

Long Forms vs Short Forms – What Should You Start to Learn?

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Should you learn a shorter or a longer Tai Chi form? What is best to start with? Longer forms can be 88, 108 or 120 movements or even longer, depending on how you count the individual movements. Cheng Man Ching’s form is 37 movements long and the modern short Yang or “Beijing form” is merely 24 movements long.  

So what is best to start with? A long Tai Chi form or a shorter one? Some schools have a strict curriculum on how things should be taught and in what order. Some schools only teach one form. To make a statement on this topic might be viewed as dismissing some schools. But I think it’s more about what you want to learn, what kind of focus you have in your practice. But on the other hand, if you ask this question or is interested in my answer, you might not yet know what you should, or even can, focus on.

Whatever you can find is better might be a proper answer. Or maybe it’s just better to find a good teacher regardless what you are taught. However, in my own classes and as a teacher, I have struggled to find a good way to teach Tai Chi. All of my teachers taught in very different ways, and I know yet others who teaches Tai Chi differently. There’s no simple answer to this question.

I’ve tested different ways. The first times I taught a class, I started with the long Yang (Yang Cheng Fu) Tai Chi Form. Years later when I started a new class I tested teaching a short yang form first, and then moved on to teaching the long Sun style Tai Chi form.  I know that many teachers prefer to teach a short form first. For Yang style, it’s either the 24 or 10 movements forms. Then later they go on teaching a long form, so I thought that I should try this myself.

The idea is that the student could find it somewhat rewarding to actually finish something within the first six few months instead of spending two or three years learning one single form. But I wasn’t satisfied with this method. Not at all. I found it repetitive and a waste of time. If you want to teach a form, start with the long form first. This is my own recommendation.

But the issue is not if a form should be short or long. Length has nothing to do with the qualities learned in Tai Chi Chuan. Over the years, I haven’t been very satisfied over the way I taught and not how I structured a curriculum. But it hasn’t much to do with what form to teach or when. The main idea to focus on as a teacher should not be about teaching your students to remember movements. It should be about body method. How to teach body method and body movement, is the really tricky part.

In later years, even though I hardly teach nowadays, I have stopped teaching forms, longer and shorter. Maybe when a student has gained some level of understanding of body movement I might teach one. My own method focuses on Jibengong, or foundation exercises, as well as single movements and short drills. And then there are plenty of partner work as applications and push hands.

So to answer about what is best to start with, a longer or shorter form? I guess that my point is that it doesn’t matter very much. It’s your own understanding of how to move and how to understand basic principles that matter. You see, a Tai Chi shenfa, or  Tai Chi body method, isn’t something that comes naturally by learning movements. You need a teacher that can teach you body movement, and teach you how you practice a certain quality of body movement. Building up a body method, or shenfa, takes a whole lot of time. Focusing on the right things and not wasting time on superficial things is important. Form is not superficial, that is not what I mean. Form practice is important and helps you to deepen your understanding. But in my own opinion you need that basic understanding first and you need to practice in a way so that you build up your body method in a certain way.

Another thing about form practice, and Tai Chi in general, is that I don’t always agree with how principles are usually taught and understood. I do believe that rules are mostly taught too dogmatic in Tai Chi, too strict, and often the teacher misses the point about what is important or not. Forms often becomes very strict and the students learns rules, and to prohibit the body from “wrong” type of movement, instead of nurturing a type of body that has freedom, and with freedom of movement.

With my own methods, focusing on what I do and teaching my Tai Chi body method, I can focus my exercises on body awareness and teach a student how to feel and understand what the body wants. I want the practitioner understand a certain precision of movement, but at the some time nurture freedom of movement, spontaneity and creativity. This is what I consider the “correct” way to teach and learn Tai Chi, regardless if a practitioner trains through stances, drills or forms. Mindless repetition of movements is the very last thing I would want my students to spend their time on.

The Anti-Taoist Tai Chi Movement of the 21st Century

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Maybe I should name this post “The Anti-Taoist Tai Chi Movement of the 21st Century – And why there is in fact Daoism in Tai Chi Chuan.” That would sum up the content better in this article, but maybe a bit too long, for several reasons. I will discuss some mistakes done by a lot of people the latest decades. In general, I believe that there is in fact a Daoist influence in Tai Chi Chuan, but maybe not in the same way as people who denies any Daoist influence would suggest. Also, I do believe that it’s more reasonable to speak about an indirect or general influence than the direct development through specific inventions of so called “Daoists”.

In recent years, a movement, or fraction of Tai Chi Chuan / Taijiquan practitioners, has taken shape to sort of re-claiming Tai Chi as a martial art. These people believe that Tai Chi was developed purely as a martial art and that Daoism, as Daoist thoughts and terminology, was mixed into the pot very late in history.

Some people believe that it was Sun Lutang who invented the whole idea with Daoism and Neijiaquan and others say that he re-invented an old term. There might be something at least partially true to the latter, but still Sun Lutang’s teachers, and the Wudang group he himself was a part of, used the name of Neijiaquan before him.

Sun Lutang himself writes in one of his books that he believed in the dichotomy of Nei and Wai in his earlier days, but later found out that it was a false dichotomy. Some people say that he tried to promote this name of Neijiaquan in society. What I know, he only used the name as a term for the arts that he and his friends studied together in what they called the Wudang Group. We also know that Sun Lutang or his friends were not the first people who promoted the idea of Daoism and Taijiquan.

Some people believe that it was Wu Yuxiang, Yang Luchan’s student and Wu (Hao) style founder who invented the Daoist connection. After all, he was the one who compiled the so called Tai Chi classics. However, in the older manuscripts, there are nothing mentioned about any specific Daoist origin and there’s nothing about Zhang Sanfeng there. Also, one need to be clear about that Wu Yuxiang only had a couple of students. It would be very hard to find any historically valid that would suggested that he had any interest to promote Tai Chi in any kind of way. He never did promote himself or did anything to actually spread Tai Chi. Remember that in that time, Tai Chi was still practiced only by a few. Yang Luchan did not teach it publicly, but just to some people in the court, some literati and people with military ranks.

It was probably Wu style Taijiquan founder Wu Jianquan who was the first person to promote Zhang Sanfeng publicly as the inventor of Tai Chi Chuan. Wu Jianquan, together with Yang Chengfu and Sun Lutang were the people who spread Tai Chi to the masses and were the reason for the gaining popularity of Tai Chi. They were the promotors and the first teachers to teach large groups of people. In this time, Tai Chi Chuan was promoted by this name.

However, this still doesn’t mean that the connection to Daoism should be something new. Some people today, ironically enough, have almost a religious faith in martial arts for the sake of martial arts. It seems like they believe that Tai Chi Chuan began in a vacuum, without any influence except than other martial arts, and without any kind of influence from a school of thought or philosophy.

I find this belief a bit peculiar. There is nothing in history that suggests that Tai Chi started as a folk art or that it started by and remained practiced by uneducated peasants. Those Daoist deniers, for some kind of reason, believe that Daoism in Tai Chi was a modern invention. I would suggest that they clearly don’t understand general Chinese culture and history. Anything developed in a certain time is something from its own time. Everything is born in its own time. If Tai Chi was created in the 17th century (as many believe), it was created by people who lived in the 17th century and thought as 17th century Chinese people. If it was created earlier, it was created by people who had an even older Chinese mind set from their own time. You need to understand that every literate person back in those centuries studied the Chinese classics and Chinese thought.

To generalise a bit, we could say that Chinese martial arts were mostly developed directly, or indirectly, as a by-product of Military practice. We know that most of the well-known systems today were practiced and developed by literate people, mostly by people of some military rank. We know this because we do have actual historical records proving this.

In a well written article, Chinese Martial Arts: The Real History, the author writes about this specific topic:

“Traditionally, Chinese martial arts were military training, used in hand-to-hand combat among the large infantry forces pitted against each other. The idea that Buddhist monks, Shaolin or otherwise, and Daoist immortals, Wutang or otherwise, had any major role in the development of Chinese martial arts has no basis in reality.”

This is very much true and I don’t have much to argue about the general  facts in the article. But still, even if Daoist priests or Buddhist monks did not invent martial arts, it still doesn’t mean that there is no Daoist or Buddhist influence. I would suggest that most people who write about this subject probably are unaware about the historical status of Daoist and Buddhist exercises through the centuries and how Daoists and Buddhists socialised with court people and the literati, and how they taught their exercises and meditation. This is not common knowledge, so believing that Daoism and Buddhism were isolated practices only known in small religious groups is a mistake that is easily done. And in fact this is something most people do. But Daoist exercises, as Neidan, were very common and much practiced in China, in some centuries throughout all of the society. In some centuries the literate upper class did not only practice, but also read the Daoist Neidan classics. (I wrote more about this subject in a post about Daoism and Tai Chi.)

To say that what those military people and inventors of the Chinese Martial Arts styles and exercises, studied and learned, as well as the cultural traditions of their time, had no influence on what they created and taught would be a mistake. Believing that Tai Chi was created in a vacuum without the historicity of earlier martial traditions would also be wrong.

However, how much Daoism or Buddhism that actually influenced the Chinese martial arts in what time should be hard to figure out exactly. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Buddhism and Daoism existed together “in a big pool of ideas”, throughout Chinese history, where the ideas from one tradition can not be easily separated from another.

Chinese martial arts and the early Shaolin arts existed earlier than the Shaolin temple. And in fact, they were more developed from Daoist exercises than from Buddhist. Already from the beginning, Chinese Martial Arts was something mixed. And as something mixed, they have remained so throughout history. Thus, as Daoism, Buddhism and of course Confucianism, penetrates the whole history of China and Chinese though, the notion that Daoism was something added late into Tai Chi is something anyone with a bit of knowledge of Chinese culture and history can easily dismiss. Yes, Daoism is there and it has always been there. But probably more through an indirect than a direct influence, which is another way of influence, than what most non-Chinese people believe.

Why Rewiring your Brain is Necessary for Tai Chi Chuan

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I like this idiom, or saying, “rewiring the brain.” Ok, I know, in a strict physiopsychological meaning, we are rewiring our brains all of the time. I do it now when I am writing this, you do it now when you are reading this.

From an article in Psychology Today:

“What does it mean to rewire your brain? In one sense, it’s trivial: it means that connections between neurons in your brain are changing. Everything we learn is stored in the brain, and the brain can’t store information if it doesn’t physically change in some (usually routine) way. In this sense, your brain is constantly being rewired, even right now.”

But I like this quote better from Quora, it’s more about what we are dealing with here:

“What this means is that the ultimate criterion for significant ‘rewiring’ is success in achieving the desired behavioral, cognitive or emotional goal.
….
How long this takes really depends on the field, in addition to your own motivation, skill set, training time, and so on. But in general becoming an expert requires years.”

So in general, you rewire your brain constantly. But you need to rewire your brain a lot to become an expert on something. When it comes to something more difficult, many years.

But wait a minute, how come people have such a hard time to get what Tai Chi is all about? Now I am not talking about becoming an expert, but juts to get a general understanding about the art. You don’t need to become an expert to understand how Tai Chi Chuan works, but still it seems like it takes five, ten or fifteen years for many people to even reach a basic understanding of how Tai Chi works.

And even if they understand what Tai Chi is and how it works, they still struggle to make it work. Is Tai Chi Chuan really that difficult?

I read what people write as comments after they have watched videos. In videos, I see how practitioners participate on seminars and summer camps and how they react on the demonstrations. Practitioners still act, behave and seem to think like beginners. Have they really not rewired their brains? Not even a little? How come so many students stay, as one of my teachers expressed it, as perpetual beginners?

In an earlier post I write about learning by doing. But just doing seems to be not enough. I believe that you need to be actually aware about that you need to rewire your brain to be able to do it. You need to take responsibility for your own progress and actively want to change yourself, want to change your thinking, want to change how you experience yourself and the world around you.

This “want” is in my own experience a very important key. You cannot change yourself if you don’t want to. And if you don’t want to practice on how change yourself, and learn how to get better to change yourself, you just won’t progress.

So if this is true, where should you start? One way to start to gain a better understanding, I believe, is to study to be critical about what you learn, search and research. First you need to have a very clear picture about what you want to achieve. Then, when you take responsibility for what you want to achieve, you will have a direction to walk and a goal to aim at.

The second part is about how to practice. One clue I believe is in what the classics and what Tai Chi teachers speak about all of the time, but something few really understand what it means. I am thinking about “xin” or “Mind” in Tai Chi, about practicing by using “Xin”.

As I wrote in the linked post above, the character “Xin”, or 心, means “heart”. Xin often translates into “heart-mind”. It’s often characterised as the motional mind. What “use mind” to practice Tai Chi means that you need to practice with awareness and focus. You cannot practice Tai chi as routine, only going through movements every day as a routine. Your mind and heart must be there, you need to practice with all of you, including yourself, your own “I”, being constantly aware about what you do. And this is just as important when you practice push hands, applications or study the weapons.

You need to practice with all of you and not only your body. You need to practice with your awareness, thinking, thoughts, emotional focus, with everything of you. And at the same time, you need to keep your goal and direction of your practice alive and fresh in your mind as an idea of your purpose with your Tai Chi and what you want to achieve.

Passion is another good word. You need to have passion about your art, your practice, and practice with passion. If you practiced half-committed with your mind wandering and don’t care about your practice, you just won’t get any big rewards or benefits from your practice. If you don’t want to practice your art and experience what you do with the whole of your own being, maybe Tai Chi Chuan is not for you. Maybe you would be happier if you found something else, something you love. Again, if you don’t love your arts and practice your art with passion, you won’t achieve very much.

Tai Chi is a very complicated art, especially if we speak about rewiring the brain. You need to use your whole body and your whole mind to practice. It’s not like learning how to eat with chopsticks, you don’t need to do big changes in the nervous patterns in your brain to achieve this little skill. Even if you compare Tai Chi with a more complex hobby than playing the piano or learning how to ride a unicycle, tai chi is much more complex. Tai Chi is about whole body balance, about integrating breath and mind in physical movement. Unifying everything together, both in movement and in stillness.

The Symbolism of Water in Daoism and Tai Chi Chuan

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I know about no other symbol, and metaphor, than Water that is more important for Tai Chi Chuan. Well, maybe the Tai Chi diagram itself is more important as a symbol, but the metaphor of water was there even before the art was known by the name of Tai Chi Chuan.

Water seems to be the ideal in Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art. When an opponent attacks, the Tai Chi practitioner respond with softness. The strength of the assailant is not met with strength and he should find nothing to attach his own strength on.

Tai Chi – Long River Boxing

In the old Tai Chi classics, the so called Taijiquan Jing, the name of this art is not Tai Chi Chuan, but instead it’s Chang Chuan (or Changquan with Pinyin). People mistake the meaning of this name for Longfist. The character Chang, 长 (長 traditional) means “long” and you can find the same character for instance in the name of the Great Wall, Changcheng, 长城. Many people use to explain the name “Chang Chuan” by referring to the big, “long”, stretched out movements of the common Large Frame Tai Chi practice. They do this probably just because they don’t recognise any other type of “frame”.

But the meaning of the name Chang Chuan is actually not longfist. Instead it should be translated as Pugilism, or Boxing, of the Yangtse River. Our common name of the river, Yangtze, is actually only of the beginning of the river by the shore, or the estuary, Yangzijiang in Chinese. The actual Chinese name of the river is Changjiang (, or Chiang Kiang with an older common type of romanisation).

In the Tai Chi Classics you can read: 長拳者,如長江大海滔滔不絕也 or “Changquan is like The Yangtze river and the Great ocean, moving unceasingly.”. Mostly this passage is translated to: “Changquan (or Chang Chuan) is like a long river…” Despite the name of the river, 長江 or Changjiang, is there in front of their eyes, translators continue to not see it. You can look at the most “masters” books, homepages or blogs. Not even people who brand themselves as scholars get this! (look at what Yang Jing-Ming writes for example.) Most of the people writing about these things probably just repeat what other people already have said without doing much thinking for themselves.

Cotton means continuous

An even older name, probably what Yang Luchan used, was Mian Chuan (Mianquan), or “cotton boxing”. But a meaning of the character “mian”, is “continuous”, because when you have a big lump of cotton, it’s just a big lump sticking together. When you pull it, it continue to stick together, so you can’t see the beginning or end of the individual cotton parts. So the meaning of this name, Mian Chuan, bears a similar meaning as in the name Long River Boxing. When we practice our forms, we practice one long continuous movement without interruption, without breaks or visible seams.

A deeper meaning of Water (no pun intended)

So why water, why is it important to be like and act like water? Well, water has great importance for Daoism. If the idea in Tai Chi comes directly from Daoism or as an influence maybe via Neo-Confucianism I have no idea about. But I would presume that the person or the people who laid the theoretical foundation of Tai Chi should have  some knowledge about Daoism and maybe was a practitioner of Daoist exercises.

People who have not studied these things might not realise how strong the idea of water is in traditional Chinese thought, and in Daoism in particular. There’s a passage in the Daodejing that reads:

Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water.
Yet, to attack the hard and strong,

Nothing surpasses it.
Nothing can take its place.

The weak overcomes the strong.
The soft overcomes the hard.

Everybody in the world knows this,
Still nobody makes use of it.

Well, on one point there was something that Laozi didn’t foresee, and that was Tai Chi Chuan. We do make use of this metaphor in practical practice and in application. At least we try to, and we practice on how to do it. One of the very goals in Tai Chi Chuan is to be able to act just like water.

Some people say that this search, “become like water”, is a metaphor for the search of the Dao itself, to achieve the ultimate goal of Daoism. Now we are starting to go down into some really troublesomely deep water. But it’s not as far-fetched as one might believe. Continue to follow me and I will explain why.

The even deeper Pool of

Another passage in the Daodejing reads:

道沖而用之有弗盈也,淵呵似萬物之宗,湛呵似或存

“Dao being empty, the use of it cannot be filled up.
So deep, it seems the predecessor of everything that is happening.
So deep, it only seems to persist.

(transl. by Lu Yanying)

Take a look at the character 淵, deep. The translator of the passage above writes:

The character 淵 yuan “deep”, according to the oldest Chinese character dictionary, 說文解字 Shuo wen jie zi, is formed pictographically. This character is pictographic because of the component on the right, which is com- prised of an image of water with two shores on each side. When used as an adjective, it describes the depth of a pool of water. Alternatively, it can be used as a noun to signify a pool of water characterized by its depth.

it can be said that dao [why not D capitalised?] can also be metaphorically conceptualized as 淵 yuan “deep pool”. 淵 yuan “deep pool”, which can be image-schematically conceived as a container with a structure characterized by its vacant middle part that can hold water.

We could say that “the container”, or the emptiness of the deep well or the pool, is the Dao. The author of the essay above acknowledges that water is a metaphor of the , the creative power of the Dao. But still, she misses one important, vital clue.

Taiyi Gives Birth to Water

So what did she miss? The clue is not in the Daodejing itself, but in a text that was discovered together with the Guodian manuscripts of the Daodejing written on bamboo slits in 1993. This text is called “Taiyi Sheng Shui“, or “Taiyi Gives Birth to Water”.

Taiyi is translated as the “Great One”. In Chinese cosmology, especially in interpretations of the Yijing, The Taiyi is represented by one single solid line or as a round circle. This original unity is then divided into one broken and one unbroken line, representing Yin and Yang.

However, in the Taiyi Sheng Shui, Taiyi is identical in meaning to the Dao, and the Water is the metaphor of, or the same meaning as, the De or the active, creative power of the Dao. The first lines read:

The Taiyi gives Birth to Water.
Water returns and assists Taiyi to give birth to the Heaven.
Water returns together with Heaven and assists Taiyi to give birth to the Earth.

This is a creation story of the Universe. But the meaning is still deeper. You see, Taiyi was originally a name for the highest god in old Chinese mythology, the North Star. Many texts Han dynasty, texts states this directly and indirectly, but as found in the Weishu jicheng (纬书集成 ), this as explicitly stated:

“The ‘Great One’ is the name of the deity of the North Star.”

So the Taiyi Sheng Shui could be said to be a philosophical interpretation of a Taoist creation myth. Jia Jianhua, one of the authors who has written about this topic meant that originally, even the Dao was also a another name, or a symbol for, the North Star. These texts, the Daodejing and Taiyi Sheng Shui, represents a new area where the personification of the gods and deities is taken away and the meaning of the texts are most philosophical. So in a sense, the common position that the philosophical Daoism was first and the religious came later is wrong. The philosophical school of Daoism was based on old folk religion.

Man – a small Heaven

The Chinese looked on the Human as a Universe in small scale. The Daoists who created the theory around Neidan and the exercises used the way people described the Universe to describe human body and psychophysical conditions that was important for Neidan practice. They surely understood all of the old symbolism and metaphors and used these for their thoughts and writings.

Water was taken from the picture of the creative, active force of the Dao or Taiyi. In our own bodies, the Daoist scholars of old thought that we had this potential to make use of the Water in ourselves. Water became synonymous to Essence or Jing. The three Dantian places resembled a stove. The idea was to use the mind to let the heart flame sink down below the water of the lower dantian to produce steam, which is the Qi. When essence is brought up to the middle dantian it returns again to the lower dantian. (If you want to read more about Neidan, please have a look at this article about the Three Gates.)

There’s a continuous circulation, exchange and assisting of the Qi and Jing through the three Dantians to further refine the essence. The text of the Taiyi Sheng Shui comes to my mind when I read the old Neidan classics. It’s the same idea as the continuous movement of the water. From both of these Daoist deep pools of ideas I get the picture of waves rocking back and forth, going away and returning back to hit the shore.

The movements in Taijiquan and the exercises and meditation of Neidan, the external movement becomes a mirror of the internal world. External and internal, both harmonising each other through the idea of the water, the long river and the great ocean, moving unceasingly.