In Tai Chi Chuan, and in all of the arts that are traditionally associated with the name “Neijiaquan”, or the Chinese “Internal Family of Boxing Schools,” have many things in common. Not only does Neigong and Martial practice blend together and become impossible to separate. Power in these arts is generated by the use of whole body coordinated movement that connects with the ground in specific ways. In Tai Chi Chuan the body must be balanced and well rooted. The foot is coordinated directly with the hand without delay and without any sequential order of connection. This coordination is an aspect of the “six harmony” principle in the internal arts.
Lately, there has been some misconceptions spread about using ground path in the Internal arts. There are a quite few people in the Wing Chun world who claim that they do something different from other internal arts and say things like that they don’t need to use ground path, that they “don’t need to use the ground”, and some of them try to demonstrate this in different ways. A couple of these people are enthusiastic and share what they know generously. I like what they do, so I have nothing against them personally. Still, I believe that it’s a pity that they spread mistakes and misconceptions about what they call internal arts. They keep repeating “I don’t need to use the ground” and “We do it differently” as mantras.
I won’t mention names but I will still bring up a few examples. And it’s quite easy to search videos and Facebook groups to find out what I am speaking about. One person intentionally awkwardly tries to demonstrate that using the ground takes time and needs a big wind up movement, which obviously is as wrong as it gets from a Tai Chi perspective. In his videos I hear him say things like “I don’t need to use the ground”, and that using ground force is “Intermediate”. He says that “the problem is the time-length.” But still he doesn’t need to “load” by sinking physically or bring strength from the ground by sinking his waist physically.
The meaning of “We don’t need to use the ground” is obviously a statement that what they do is more advanced, and maybe even “better”, than other Internal Arts. When throwing a student into a wall, he says: “It’s not from the floor.” What you can see though, something that is highly evident, is that he leans his whole body against the student. Because his student is unbalanced using and use a square parallel stance, this leaning itself is well enough to disrupt the student’s balance. And then he can easily push the student away with arm movement only. As this teacher is using a square stance himself and leans his body against the student, he is also unbalanced and would be very easy to pull off balance. Leaning the whole body as he does is obviously a big no-no in Tai Chi Chuan.
In Tai Chi, Jin (Intrinsic strength/power) is an expression of the internal conditions. For establishing a Jin ground path, this means that you need to know how to relax your whole strength down to your feet. But there is no time-delay. In Tai Chi Chuan you don’t suddenly drop your posture or “sink the Qi” in order to do something. Instead, you are always kept sunk. In Tai Chi Chuan, when doing something with the hand, as reaching out with the palm in “brush knee”, the press when pushing the foot down into the ground, must be felt directly in the hand. This feeling is something you should practice in your form, a feeling of an instant, direct connection between hand and foot. Some people speak about establishing a Jin (intrinsic strength/power) path to the ground, others call it just Ground Path, or use both of the terms. The power comes out directly without no delay, no draw back, no preparation or wind-up. As William Chen expresses it in a classic way, he says that in Tai Chi you establish “something from nothing and nothing from something”. If there is an evident load, sinking, a preparation, then we as well would consider this intermediate.
One Wing Chun video that I really like and enjoy though, a video that focus on the internal aspects of the arts, is the Martial Man’s interview with John Kaufman who studied with Chu Shong Tin. Chu was a student of Ip Man and learned Ip Man’s “Internal” Wing Chun. I won’t put a link to the YouTube Video, but it’s easy to search it up if you are interested to watch it. Anyway, Kaufman explains that he does not need to “use” any particular part of the body, and instead what is done is all about just “being”. So it’s not about “doing”. Why? Because if you focus on doing something with any special part of your body, you will lose the whole body generated movement, using that part instead of using all of the body equally. He explains it very well. He takes a few examples of what he does not need to do. But he is very specific with that he still uses these parts of the body and that he still uses the whole body. He does not take the legs out of this equation and he does not really take ground force out of the equation. But he says that it’s important to not try to do anything specifically, or to re-phrase it with my own words, instead just letting it be there naturally as a part of a whole.
What Kaufman is talking about is where I believe that some of the Wing Chun protagonists are confusing things up. When they speak about what they do compared to what they are not doing, they have already lost that important part of doing everything together, using the whole body together, as a natural part of being. They are doing things individually, isolated from the rest of the body. We know this just because of the fact that their minds are focusing on isolated matters when demonstrating what they’re doing.
And obviously you’ll never get away from the us of the foundation, the base, legs or roots, regardless of what you call it. The gravity is always involved, and how you deal with the connection to the Earth is always something you need to take into the equation. There’s a reason why most of Chinese Martial Arts are concerned by building a strong base in the beginning of the the individual’s journey. Traditionally this type of Chinese practice starts off with countless of hours training stances, together with endless corrections of posture and structure. Today most of teachers are not extreme in their teaching method, but the importance of building a strong root and a good foundation is just as important as before. Claiming that using ground force is not important and an immediate skill is ludicrous. It does not make anyone a service, not Wing Chun stylists, not Tai Chi Chuan practitioners and certainly not the world of Internal Martial Arts in general. What many of the “internal” oriented Wing Chun teachers are claiming is not what Kaufman meant by “not doing” this or that. Why they do claim that they don’t use the ground, something that is just not true, not even according to what they demonstrate themselves, is not something I would try to give a definitive answer on. But maybe they just don’t know enough about what they are talking about.
However, as I said, I do like what Kaufman says and it resonates well with what I myself do in my Tai Chi Chuan. Many years ago, I needed to practice different parts of my body individually in order to learn how to coordinate different parts of my body properly by isolating different ways to coordinate foot, kua, centreline, waist, spine movement, etc with the limbs. But when you understand how to coordinate your body in different ways, it’s important to learn how to move naturally and spontaneously without thinking about the mechanics of your movements. When I practice my Tai Chi, especially against something or someone, as dealing with different punching methods or push hands, I don’t think about what part of my body leads the movement. I don’t care if I initiate my movement from the feet, kua or the dantian. I rather use all of the body together as a whole and let my body naturally adjust to what is happening. When you learn something it’s all about “doing”. Later, when you understand how to do something and it has become a natural habit, “doing” should be a spontaneous aspect of “being”.
Here somewhere, where “doing” becomes a natural expression of “being”, our arts, regardless if they focus more or less on internal aspects, might have a chance to meet and understand each other. However, individuals who constantly try to put what they do an a pedestal and look down on others, will never be able to breach the gap between “we and them”, and will never come to a greater understanding of the principles that we all share in common. I don’t condemn anyone. But I do think that it’s a pity that students especially, and also others listening, might adapt to a teacher’s catch phrases just because they are dazzled by a demonstration. Anyone who focuses on narrow and superficial things, as differences of approaches and external expressions of techniques, will never be able to reach down below the surface and understand the core of how the principles really work on a fundamental level, which is essential for reaching an advanced understanding of the internal aspects of martial arts.