There are two important concepts in the Internal Chinese Martial Arts that has one character in common. This character is the “He“,合, in the concepts of “kai he” (open-close) and “Liuhe” (Six Correlations, or Six Harmonies). The first concept is very much essential for Tai Chi practice, and the other one was first used in Xingyiquan and only later adopted by Tai Chi Masters.
Kai-He (开合) is usually translated to “open close” in Tai Chi, but if you have a good understand of this concept, you would probably have a hard time to understand where “harmony” fits into the picture.
The character 合 Hé looks like a building and has in fact something to do with a house. This character concists of two characters. The one for “Mouth” (口, kou) is below and the character for “assemble” or “gather together” (亼 / 亽, Ji) is above. 合 Hé means to perfectly fit something together, like the upper and lower jaws making the mouth shut, two parts designed to match together. So why does the character looks like a house? A coincidence? No, not really. But you have to know something about the Chinese pagodas to understand. This Chinese architecture genius construction is built without any kind of nails or screws. The wooden parts are stacked together by incisions in the wood that fits perfectly together. This is to “he” or connect something together. This construction has helped many centuries old pagodas to withstand many storms and earthquakes. As other modern buildings are destroyed in earthquakes, A pagoda just shakes and falls into place again.
The character “He” in Kai-he and Liuhe is usually translated as “connect”, “fit together” or to “correlate”. In some ways a better translation of Kai-he would be “disconnect-connect” or “loosen up to stabilize”. “Kai” means open as in open a door or to start a new business. In the more philosophical explanation, here in the concept of Kai-he, the movement of Kai means to open up the body so the qi can flow. This can be compared to turning on a hose, letting the water flow. And after opening the flow, then the movement of “He” acts like connecting this hose to a system, like letting the water have a constant flow and circulation. In this sense “He” means connecting the structure so that you can circulate the qi through the limbs. So Kai and He together means to “Open the flow and connecting it”. First you need to “Kai Qi”, to open up for the qi to flow. Then we connect the structure or the qi, or He qi. This is why we also can use the term “Heqi” instead of just “he”, two characters together which is translated to Japanese as the concept as “Aiki”. So “harmony” has really nothing to do with the term Aiki, and instead it means to physically structure the body to let the qi flow, or in an Aikido sense to connect your qi with the opponent’s. In a more modern way of describing this relationship between opening and closing without using the more philosophical word “qi” is to view Kai as an internal stretching of tissues, a physical stretching motion from the core of the body, which is structurally stabilized by the opposite contracting movement of ”he”. There is a certain sensation when you do it right. If you call this sensation Qi or something else doesn’t matter, But what you do in a practical sense does.
The other concept, the concept of Liuhe, mostly translated to The Six Harmonies, is something rather common in the Chinese culture and has been adapted to the internal martial arts. First and foremost by Xingyiquan that uses the name liuhe to summarize the Xingyi principles of internal and external connection. In Xingyi, it consists of three internal correlations and three external correlations (neisanhe and waisanhe). The internal three correlations are: 1) mind (xin) connects to intent (Yi), 2) intent is connected with energy (qi), 3) energy is connected with power(Li). And the external three correlations are: 1) hand unites with foot, 2) elbow unites with knee, and 3) shoulder unites with hips.
The term or name liuhe 六合 is a general name used in Chinese culture and historia, for instance in names as the “Six Harmony Bridge”, “Six Harmony Pagoda”, “Six Harmony Spear”, etc. The term consists of the character liu which means six and he that stands for “connection” or “correlation”.
Why many calls the ”he” in Kai-He and Liuhe “harmony” instead of connect might originate from a translation mistake as there is another character with the same pronunciation, he, written 和, that actually means “harmony” in Chinese. But probably, as translating this character to “harmony” is common in literature, this might have to do with literary qualities. A name as Six Harmony Bridge sounds more beautiful than “Six Correlations Bridge”. After all, in literature it’s only a name and doesn’t need any explanation. But if a certain level of meaning is necessary for understanding, then wrong associations due to translation might be a problem.
Liuhe in a general sense refers to the six directions: above, below, east, south, west, and north. It can mean something that stretches in all directions or just mean vast or something that covers a very large area. In the Suwen 5 (The Great Treatise on the Responsive Manifestations of Yin and Yang 陰陽應象大論) The Liu Hé refers to the channels in the body with the six foot and hand pairs. As a chinese comment to the book explains:
“足太陽與足少陰為一合。足少陽與足厥陰為二合。足陽明與足太陰為三合。手太陽與手少陰為四合。手少陽與手厥陰為五合。手陽明與手太陰為六合 (Foot taiyang and foot shaoyin form the first coordinate; foot shaoyang and foot jueyin form the second coordinate; foot yangming and foot taiyin form the third coordinate. Hand taiyang and hand shaoyin form the fourth coordinate; hand shaoyang and hand jueyin form the fifth coordinate; hand yangming and hand taiyin form the sixth coordinate)” (Source)
The Liuhe can be used as the concept of10,000 things, or everything under heaven – Tianxia” as here in the Zhuangzi: “六合之外，聖人存而不論；六合之内，聖人論而不議。” Or: “Outside the Six Coordinates, the sage is present yet does not discuss. Within the Six Coordinates, the sage discusses but does not dispute.”
So what does the Liuhe in the internal arts really mean? In Xingyi, it means how the internal connects with the outside, how the internal and the external should be coordinated together as one whole. In this art it is also said that when one part moves, everything moves, when one part stops (or is still) everything is put to a stop. Many regard this as something concerning the body only, but as nei and wai, the internal and external correlates which each other, moving and being still is controlled by mind and intent just as much as by the external body. Everything, every aspect of nei and wai moves together, directly without delay, without any sequential order or by this first and that later. Practicing in this way means that you will develop a very fast, sudden, explosive power. There is no need for mental or physical preparation, and instead everything happens directly, suddenly and together. The art of Xingyiquan is well known for its suddenness and explosive action.
Today many use the concept of Liuhe for Tai Chi, calling the art a “six harmony” art. Maybe it was Sun Lutang who first adapted this term to Taijiquan. He mentions the term in his book on Sun Shi Taijiquan. But he does change the concept a bit, or to be more precise, he changes the third internal connection. Instead of “qi connects with power”, he says: “Qi connects with Mind”, making the three internal correlations a full circle. This makes sense from a Tai Chi perspective. Xingyi and Bagua both speak about power, Li, and about connection between mind, qi and Li. They rather use the term “Fali”, issuing power, rather than Fajin or to issue “energy”. But Tai Chi doesn’t speak about Li. Instead, in T’ai Chi Ch’uan it is said: “Don’t use Li, use Jin.” Jin is not the same as Li. Tai Chi Jin is a refined type of strength that is the consequence of internal conditions, it is the external expression of an internal state.
This is also the reason why I personally don’t use the term “Liuhe” for Tai Chi. The concept of Liuhe was not created for the Tai Chi process of creating and expressing jin, which makes the “six harmony” hype in Tai Chi a bit peculiar. In other Internal arts, the external is coordinated from the outside with the internal conditions to express power. In Tai Chi the progress goes steadily more towards the internal until the internal is completely in charge of the external. The outside is not longer coordinated from the outside. And instead, everything on the outside becomes an expression of the inside. The external movements are no longer important, only the internal movements are. In Tai Chi, the body moves as a whole, coordinated together as a unit. But the movements are arranged from the inside, from the center of the body. There’s a difference here between the Liuhe philosophy in Xingyi and how we look at the relationship between internal-external in Tai Chi. This difference might be hard to understand if you haven’t practiced both of these arts, or maybe it can still be difficult if you have. Respect for differences and keeping things clearly separated though can be a good thing if you want to be able to understand distinctive aspects of different arts.