What is Silk-Reeling in T’ai Chi Ch’uan? As you know if you have followed this blog, I have some very strong opinions about T’ai Chi related issues. Here I try to verbalise my idea on what Silk Reeling really is in T’ai Chi in a more general sense and I will certainly try to come up with some good arguments for my case.
Chansi, isn’t that a Chen thing?
First of all Silk-reeling, chansi (纏絲) or chansijin/chansijing (纏絲精), is mostly known as a Chen style specific term. It’s something that Chen style focus very much on and has a huge impact on basic training, both jibengong (foundation practice) form and application. Silk-reeling movement is a twisting or spiralling body movement that has its center in the Dantian, is supported by the gua and legs and spreads out through the limbs, right out to the fingertips. The most common basic exercise is the one arm movement where the practitioner stands in a broad horse stance. One hand rests at the waist and the other one makes a big wide circle with the whole arm while coordinating the movement from the gua and dantian.
Charles Tauber presents his ideas on Chen style silk reeling in very well thought out instruction videos
Chen style has a certain expression, but is it silk reeling that gives Chen style a certain expression, or is it the Chen style specific expression that makes silk-reeling what it is? Some Chen stylists claim the silk-reeling is what separates Chen style from other T’ai Chi styles. So do other styles have the same?
Mike Sigman presents Silk Reeling from a more general Tai chi perspective
Chousi, similar but not the same.
Now, there is another, related concept in Yang and other styles, namely Chousi, or pulling silk. What is meant is not the same as twisting silk reeling or chansijin. Pulling silk is the way of performing a movement with perfectly even, smooth movements. When pulling the very fine silk thread out from the silk cocoon, the slightest break or jerk would break it. So you need to move with awareness throughout your movement, move very carefully, perfectly even, just like a surgeon operating with a scalpel. Moving like this takes a lot of focus and attention, but this is the way a Yang style form always should be practiced.
As Wu Tunan commented the issue:
‘If you pull the silk abruptly it will break, when you pull it improperly, the silk won’t come out. This is a metaphor for training the energy (jin) of taijiquan. It cannot be excessively forceful, nor excessively fragile; it has to be just right. These kinds of metaphors are numerous, such as: “mobilize jin that is like well-tempered steel,” “as though drawing a bow,” and “issue jin as though releasing an arrow.” There are some people, then, who have illogically contrived to make the words chou si be regarded as a designation for a kind of jin, even mistakenly giving explanations of some sort of “chousijin.”
So chansijing is something different than chousi as Chansi focuses on a continuous twisting and winding movement? Maybe the focus on twisting and spiralling is what is different. At least twisting and winding does not need to have the focus on exact speed and even, smooth movements? So maybe it’s Chansi that lacks something and not Chousi? But still, can’t you combine chousi and chansi together so that they overlap or at least have the same qualities?
So what about Yang style and Chansijin? Is it a good match or what?
Yang zhenduo, has at several different occasions answered on the question if Yang Style has silk-reeling. A couple of his answers are:
(From an Interview with Yang Zhenduo in 1990):
“T’AI CHI: Is there chan ssu jing (silk reeling energy)in the Yang style?
Yang Zhenduo: The Yang style does not have such a word as chan ssu jing. Chen style is unique to have that. But in the Yang style what we have is twisting and continuous motion. It has the chan ssu jing element, but we do not call it chan ssu jing.”
(1995, Yang Zhenduo on Yang Style’s Growing Potentials):
“Chan Si jing (silk coiling energy) in the Yang style involves changing of the hand positions, Yang said. He cited the example of the movement Wave Hands Like Clouds where there is emphasis on the rotation of the arms and hands.
“In the Yang style, it (chan Si jing) is not as apparent as in the Chen style. But that content is incorporated in the Yang style,” he said. “It is done subtly in the change of the hand position.
“In the Yang style,” he said,” most energy has the nature of peng jing (ward off) energy. In T’ai Chi’s development, each style has its own characteristics and specialties, and in the Yang style peng jing is No. 1. Everything is based on peng jing and compared to chan Si jing it is totally different. If emphasis was all on chan Si jing, then Yang style would be the same as the Chen style.”
(Source: Yang Family Tai Chi Discussion Board)
Interesting, but would Yang style style be the same if the focus was on silk reeling? I don’t agree. There are other things in Chen style that stands out and make the movements feel different. Chen style often work with changing tempo, sometimes it’s fast, sometimes slow. When it’s slow it mostly don’t become “Yang slow”. It has jumps and it has movements that are different from other Tai Chi styles. The stances are mostly lower and wider and the limbs can move freely from a stationary stance without the transition of weight. Chen style is not afraid to lose connection or suddenly burst out in fajin. So if all of these ingredients remained the same, Chen style would still look different. Yang style would not be the same.
So what is Chansijin really? I mean from a general Tai chi perspective.
I would rather express silk reeling and its place in Tai Chi a bit different than Zhenduo. Look again at how silk reeling is usually defined, or how I defined it above: Silk reeling is a “twisting or spiralling body movement that has its center in the Dantian, is supported by the gua and legs and spreads out through the limbs, right out to the fingertips.” Think about it. Doesn’t Yang connect the movements to the Dantian? Yes of course it does. Doesn’t Yang have spiralling, circular movements? You often see very little spiralling movement in Yang style performances.
But does it have to be non-present, or even less present than in Chen style? In my opinion. this is more a question about how you as a Tai chi practitioner (regardless style) work active on “kai-he” / “open-close” movements using the whole spine and trunk. If you do that, I am sure that you will agree with me that your arms will automatically attain a natural sort of spiralling movements. Just do this very simple exercis: Stand straight and put out your arms in a “tree holding posture“. Now experiment with trunk and spine and eventually also scapula movements. If you tuck in and untuck your hips and focus on pressing together and release your dantian at the same time as you have this posture, you will see that your elbows will automatically sink and raise slightly. If you coordinate your movements in your form with spine, scapula and breath, this should have the same natural effect and result in a spiralling movement. So why do so many Yang stylists don’t show a circular, spiralling movement? This might depend on primarily two things: The first is that they can hide their body mechanics, or making it less pronounced. And the second is that they still haven’t practiced Tai chi for a very long time, so they focus more on relaxing and keeping their shoulders dropped. In Yang and some other styles, a more active use of spine and scapula movements is often not introduced until the person has practiced Tai Chi for a couple of years, sometimes several years. And sometimes, at least for some players, the body method stays at a rudimentary beginners level. It could be that they focus on health aspect or enjoy a very relaxed way of doing the form. I would not say that this is wrong, not even on more advanced levels, as everyone practice for different reasons.
But my point is that what is described with the concept of chansi is not only something styles specific or Chen related. In fact, what Chen style describes with the term Chansijin is just good, solid Tai Chi body mechanics. If you work with whole body movement that works around keeping zhongding, is rooted in the feet, is controlled by the Dantian and use open/close movements from the spine and scapula, well, then you will have exactly what is described with chansi. You don’t need to accentuate the spiralling movement, just coordinate the kai/he movement with your overall coordination and it will be there. Add the concept of chousi as well and regardless the style you are practicing and you’ll now have a great kind of body mechanics for your Tai Chi movements. This is in my own opinion the essence of the concept Chansi and chansijin.