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 Dé
Another passage in the Daodejing reads:
“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 Dé, 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.