by Wang Hai Jun, translated by Nick Gudge, edited by Mark Bernhard
The five most important skills for a beginning student in taijiquan are:
- Fang Song– Loosen the body by relaxing the joints
- Peng Jin– an outward supportive strength, the basic skill of taiji
- DingJin– upright and straight
- Chen– rooted
- Chan Si Jin– Reeling Silk Skill
These are not skills that lead themselves to be grasped intuitively, yet all taijiquan is based around them. They are also not learned sequentially. It is not a “Step One leading to Step Two” type process. Rather it is a process of immersion that leads to understanding. The student does not completely understand fang song before starting to understand peng jing. Rather they are collective, with progress in each skill acting as an aid to progress in the others. A little bit more skill gained here and a little bit more there. Persistence in practice provides the opportunity for progress. The more your practice utilizes these skills the more progress you will make.
The first of these skills is fang song, sometimes abbreviated to song (pronounced “soong”). Song is frequently translated as “relax.” While this is true, it does not really describe the process. The joints must relax, but as a consequence other parts of the body must work hard, particularly the legs. Loosening the joints is perhaps a better translation. The result should not be a body like a cooked bowl of noodles: rather it should be like a solid piece of rubber, strong but not stiff. The term fang has two meanings. The first is about something remaining under control, connected to both the mind and the body (in this case, not going limp). The second is to put something down, away from you. The combination of these two meanings provides the understanding needed. Stiffness is difficult to recognize, but the effects of stiffness are easier to see. As the joints stiffen, they rise up. As they are loosened, the body, particularly the hips and shoulders, sinks down. Once the joints are loosened, they will be free to rotate properly and to transmit rotation to and from other parts of the body. This is a fundamental requirement of taijiquan.
The phrase peng jin has been the source of some confusion. The two characters (peng and jin) have several meanings in Chinese, and specific meaning within the context of taijiquan. Jin is itself is not easy to translate into English. It is translated variously as skill, strength and energy and the term incorporates all of these meanings. Peng is even more difficult to translate. It has been frequently translated as “ward off energy”. I prefer the phrase ‘outward supportive strength’ as a translation. Peng (pronounced “pong”) is not a natural or instinctive skill. It comes from a long period of correct practice. Without a good understanding of peng and then considerable training to transform this understanding into this skill in every part of the body, it will not arise. Peng will not be gained by accident. It is systematically trained into the body over time. When I was exploring writing this piece I considered making peng jin the first most important skill of taijiquan. However, while peng should be considered the most important skill, it is dependent on loosening the body (fang song.) It is an effective argument that Taijiquan is peng jin chuan because without peng there is no taijiquan. It is taijiquan’s essential skill. Peng is always used when moving, neutralizing, striking, coiling etc,. Through peng all other taijiquan skills are utilized.
Chen Fake taught that there are two types of peng jin. The first is the fundamental skill or strength of taijiquan. The second is one of the eight commonly recognized taijiquan jins (peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lieh, zhou & kao.) The first type of peng is the core element that is the foundation of these eight commonly recognized skills. It is perhaps best considered in English as a separate term from the peng that is listed as one of these eight skills. Peng is the fundamental basis of all eight jins. From the outside peng has different appearances so it is sometimes called the eight gates (after the eight directions,) but the heart of all eight is always peng. It is the fundamental skill. A student cannot simply demonstrate and use peng just because they will it, however. It requires external posture training combined with internal training to be able to correctly express it.
The fundamental skill peng describes when the limbs and body stretch or extend while maintaining looseness or fang song. Without looseness (fang song) the body is stiff and peng is lost. If the body is too loose or limp then peng is also lost. Without stretching the body is not properly connected and peng is lost. If the limbs and body are over extended, they become rigid and peng is lost. So it is fairly easy to see that a “balance” must be maintained to retain peng. If any part of the body does not have peng, it is an error and must be remedied appropriately. Many form corrections are about regaining peng to various parts of the body, most commonly the knees and elbows. Typically peng is lost or lessened because the body has stiffened or not been loosened sufficiently, most commonly the hips and shoulders. For those who do not comprehend peng, it can be barely discerned in the surface of the forms. For those who do comprehend peng, its absence is clearly visible. In many respects the basic hand forms of taijiquan specifically works as a peng jin training arena.
Peng jin is not an “on / off” skill. While it is easy not to have it, once it is understood its quality can be improved. Like any form of understanding e.g. learning a new language, it is quite possible not to understand anything in the beginning. While learning there are many degrees of improvement or quality that can be sought and reached. From this understanding it is quite easy to see not only the importance of looseness (fang song) as an integral pre-requisite for peng – this fundamental skill of taijiquan – but also, that improving the appropriate looseness of the body will improve the quality or degree of peng skill. From inside the body, when peng is present any pressure is transferred to the ground (rooted). The stretching process connects the body in such a way that this happens without additional effort. It could be called a flexible structure inside the body. It is not rigid, but loose and flexible where pressure to any part is easily transferred across its whole structure.
When touching someone else, peng can been described as an audible (“listening”) skill because, not only does it allow the detection of fine motions of an opponent (as if through the sense of hearing,) it also allows determination of their structural weaknesses. When touching a person with peng it become possible to know the best direction to attack them as well as being able to comprehend what the other person is doing and even intending to do. Listening skill (ting jin) occurs through peng jin.
In taijiquan push hands (tui shou) the emphasis of peng is on leading and neutralizing an incoming force. When peng jin is present there is the potential for rotation. With loose joints the body becomes mobile and by stretching it becomes connected. So any pressure on the body causes rotation or motion. Peng is at the heart of silk reeling as we will see later. It is also the skill that allows for a rapid response for a rapid attack and a slow response for a slow offensive. In push hands practice, the student is said to have crossed the threshold only when they have learned the meaning and skill of peng jin. Beginners often take years to accomplish this. While practicing, not only the hands and arms but also any part of the body that comes into contact with the other taiji player, should make use of this outward supportive or warding force.
So, using peng, a skilled practitioner not only can detect what an opponent is doing, they can neutralize it, detect the direction of vulnerability and attack through it. When this understanding is reached it is easy to see why it is considered the core skill of taijiquan.
The meaning and understanding of ding is not difficult to grasp, though the practice of it takes much more time. Ding means upright or straight and ding jin means upwards pressing skill, strength or power. When beginning to learn taijiquan, loosening the body includes loosening the spine. If the body is not held upright then there will be excess muscular activity leading to stiffness. Most people do not know what it is to stand up straight. They have the habit of locking their knees, causing a tilt in the pelvis, which in turn causes their body to lean backwards. This creates significant stiffness around the spine and across the lower and mid-torso and hips.
When the body is upright (ding) then it becomes possible to loosen the spine and the waist and then the hips. If ding is not present then most likely none of these can be achieved. When the student understands and maintains ding and consistently stretches without stiffening to produce peng in their body and movements, then the circulation of qi will become evident to them. As with all things in taijiquan, this is a process, with consistent and lengthy practice producing results. More importantly this upward stretching without stiffening has the effect of lifting excess stresses off the various parts of the spine and allowing them to move freely, similar to the way traction in hospital can free the back from inappropriate strains and pressures so it can move freely. One additional result is that the circulation to the head through the neck is improved. Consequently the movement of qi around the body becomes more noticeable. There is a famous taijiquan saying “xu ling ding jin.” Its most common English meaning is “top of the head is pulled upward as if suspended by a string” at the bai hui acupuncture point (at the rear of the crown of the head.) When the head is as if suspended or raised upward, the resulting position of the head enable it to turn freely and aids the balance of the body.
Ding can be considered the principle that dictates stretching the spine upward to understand and maintain balance, reduce stiffness and to understand and increase both peng and fang song. This basic skill is frequently first grasped in standing exercises like zhan Zhuang, where the lack of motion allows the student to focus more easily on gaining the correct balance and looseness in the body.
Chen has two meanings in Taijiquan. The first meaning relates to how the body must “sink” to connect to the ground. The second meaning relates to how the qi must be trained to always be sunk down. These two meanings refer to two separate but closely related skills. The skill of “sinking” the body is dependent on the skill of fang song. The joints must remain loose but still coordinated together. The body is allowed to compress, either using the force of gravity or a force applied from another person. This compression must be directed down the leg without causing stiffness.
Training the qi to remain sunk is more difficult to describe. The reference to qi is difficult for many people to understand and a directive to do something with qi brings even more difficulties. The dantian (or sea of qi) must move freely first. The qi moves naturally initially. Then, as the qi increases, it must be kept sunk and not allowed to rise out of control, e.g. getting excited or emotional. It must be sunk down to flood the legs and reach the ground. These actions can be felt clearly and unambiguously, in the body and legs, when the body and legs have been trained sufficiently and properly. The combination of these two skills produces a skill that may appear unbelievable, where a significantly bigger and stronger person is unable to push over a smaller, weaker person; where someone on their back leg can simply push backwards someone opposing them on their front leg. However it is a basic skill that can be understood and developed with the correct teaching and considerable practice.
Through the skill of chen, incoming forces are directed down the legs to the ground and conversely outgoing forces are generally pushed from the ground. It requires a mobility in the hips and waist that is difficult to describe and comes from long training in the correct manner. A student must be led to it by a teacher who not only understands the skill but also how to it. For strength to be connected to the ground it must first sink to the ground. In this respect chen is closely related to peng. Without a well developed peng jin, including a mobility of the dan tian a well developed chen or root will not be possible. The outgoing force which arises and pushes from the ground is not something mystical but the result of careful training, a coordination of peng jin, a certain type of leg and body strength, and control. The body acts like a highly specialized and controlled spring. When it is compressed, the pressure goes to the ground and when it is released it pushes from the ground. A good root is essential to neutralize and release strength effectively using the internal method of Chen style taijiquan.
Understanding and developing a root is initially developed in standing (zhan zhuang) practice. Through correct standing practice peng jin and ding jin are developed along with balance and an understanding of qi. Training the body and qi to sink and remain sunk under pressure is a major focus of taiji forms. In the beginning moderated and slow movement allows the quickest route to understanding and increased skill. Sinking at the start and end of each movement is part of the process of developing chen.
Relaxing the upper body and hips and strengthening the legs is fundamental to developing a strong root. More importantly, loosing the body (fang song), particularly the hips, so your qi naturally sinks to the legs and feet, helps develop a root. The intensity of practice and the strength required increases significantly as the qi sinks more to legs and a person’s root develops. After the skills of fang song, peng and ding are understood in the body and the mind, specific rooting exercises can be used to aid the development of chen.
When rooted under pressure, the feeling is that the joints redirect in a downward direction and the joint itself may move down slightly. It should not be mistaken for lowering the body, crouching down, or simply bending the joints. To crouch down low usually provides improved mechanical leverage and requires greater leg strength. A lower stance will strengthen the legs but not necessarily develop the root. Initially the skill of chen is trained in a more upright position as it takes more skill to be lower and be rooted than to be more upright and rooted.
Chan Si Jin
The type of motion required in taijiquan is called silk reeling or chan si. Although I list it as the fifth most important skill for beginners to pay close attention to, without chan si jin there can be no taijiquan. Chan si describes how the body must move to move the qi, to maintain peng jin and to co-ordinate the constant opening (kai) and closing (he) of the outside and inside of the body that taiji is composed of. Again it is not easy to describe or to understand in its entirety because it needs to be understood more by the body than by the mind. For the body to understand, it needs to be able to approximate chan si motion repetitively until its entirety is grasped. This is done through the continuous and repetitive practice initially of reeling silk exercises (chan si gong) and then, more importantly, forms (tao lu.)
For the beginner chan si gong can be considered the early training of taiji shen fa (body mechanics) in movement. By following the relatively simple choreography, in a progression from simple to more difficult, (first with one hand and then with both hands, first stationary then with steps,) the beginner will find how the body moves in circles and spirals. For the beginner the internal movement is not important. Paying attention to winding in (shun chan) and winding out (ni chan,) front circle (zheng mian) and side circle (ce mian), and normal direction (zheng) and reverse direction (fan) is sufficient. Try to move smoothly and without stiffness. Gain the skill of fang song by removing the blockages caused by stiffness in the joints. Aim to get all parts of the body to move in a circle and spiral.
This form of spiral movement not only appears on the surface of the skin, but also appears inside through the whole body. It causes every joint and limb to experience motion. Through repeated coiling and stretching in the training for a prolonged period of time, the body will naturally attain the resilient and elastic strength peng jin that is loose and yet strong at the same time. Chan si jin is the method that the body uses to move so as to retain peng jin.
In the mid 1980’s teachers from Chen Village, notably Chen Xiao Wang and Chen Zheng Lei, as well as others created silk reeling exercises (chan si gong.) These exercises were derived from important movements in the training forms to aid in the development of chan si jin. It became well established quickly as a means of teaching larger groups the basic grasp of movement in Chen style taijiquan, particularly helpful for those without regular access to direction and correction from a good teacher and whose practice time is too short to allow progress in understanding to be made immediately through the traditional forms. Although these sets of exercise may look different from teacher to teacher, they all train the same set of principles.
In this summary, I have described the five most important skills at the foundation of taijiquan for beginners. My hope is that those who wish to understand and gain the skills of taiji will be aided by these descriptions. There are three requirements needed to gain gongfu: a good teacher, good understanding and good practice. History has shown that all who have achieved a high level of skill had all three. These articles aim to help in understanding what taiji is and what its skills are. Gongfu may be translated as skill, but the idea of time spent is a more useful translation. Without developing the basic skills of fang song, peng jin, ding jin, chen, & chan si jin, progress will be limited.
In my own training with my teacher Chen Zheng Lei, these ideas were not explained to me in a theoretical way, but arrived at after long practice with regular correction and derived from experience. These were not ideas we first discussed but principles that grew out of my practice and the repeated correction from my teacher. It is important that the student understands this and does not neglect their practice. In the beginning, training taijiquan is like paddling upstream: as soon as you stop paddling you will move backwards. So train steadily and without a break with a good teacher and progress will come to you.