2001 Grand Master Feng Lecture

Like the Body of a dragon

Notes from the 2001 Feng Zhiqiang San Francisco Intensive
edited by Malcolm Dean
translated by Brian Guan

In July 2001, Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, the founder of Hunyuan Taiji, gave a four-day intensive near San Francisco where he presented several wide-ranging lectures on principles of taiji practice and philosophy. Here are a few of his comments on principles of practice. Where Master Feng is quoted, the translation is from the audio tape of his lecture; otherwise the material is condensed from the audio or from our notes. We'll try to bring you some of his very interesting comments on taiji philosophy later on. Many thanks to Brian Guan for his translation. -- ed.

Six Principles of Hunyuan Tai Chi Practice

During his introductory remarks, Grandmaster Feng discussed six basic principles of Tai Chi practice. They were:
  1. Gentle is better than forceful.
  2. Slow is better than fast
  3. High is better than low.
  4. Long is better than short.
  5. Curved is better than straight.
  6. Single-weighted is better than double-weighted.

Comments on the Principles

1. Gentle is better than forceful.

Hunyuan taiji, like Chen style taiji in general, is an internal martial art. But it's all too easy for students to succumb to the temptation to use stiff external force. In terms of practice, "forceful" means over-exertion: stiffness of body, rigidity of intention and sometimes even a showy, martial performance style. In other words, too much yang, not enough yin.

For this reason, during the intensive Feng Laoshi (teacher) recommended the elimination of any excessive or showy fajin during practice. [ Fajin is the explosive release of energy at critical points in the practice forms where martial techniques would be applied if in actual combat.] Fajin is a traditional part of taiji, but it's dangerous if not done correctly, ha said. If the energy is not released cleanly, the chi can bounce back into the body and cause tissue damage. Some taiji players exaggerate fajin and end up injuring themselves. Feng Laoshi made clear he considered such exaggerated exhibitions to be both counter-productive to the development of gongfu (internal strength and ability) and an example of poor form.

In his own demonstrations, Master Feng refrained from any stamping fajin , and only occasionally issued power through the fist or elbow, and then only with moderation. In his remarks, Grandmaster Feng emphasized that this is because fajin , even if it is done correctly by an experienced player, can cause harm to the body over time by damaging the tissues, especially the joints, internal organs and brain. Stamping can cause long-term harm to the knee and hip joints, as well as the internal organs, and punching can actually cause a concussion-like effect on the brain. He cautioned that the damage may not show up immediately, but may manifest later in life and cause health problems. So gentle is better than forceful.

2. Slow is better than fast.

Just as being too forceful in practice is detrimental to the development of gongfu , so is being too fast. The development of true internal strength and skill requires two things: internal self-knowledge and internal relaxation. Internal self-knowledge can only be gained by experience. The student must practice slowly and gently enough to see and understand every nuance of his or her movement, from the top of the head to the tip of the toe and out to the ends of the fingers. That's why slow is better than fast. Internal development also requires internal relaxation, which means both mind and body must be calm and open. Just as too much force in the body results in stiff movement, too much force in the mind results in stiff intention. Both damage the flow of chi and must be avoided. Therefore, again, gentle is better than forceful. Gentle does not mean lax, however; it means alert, awake, aware, yielding, returning. Therefore slow and gentle is better than fast and forceful.

3. High is better than low

Master Feng emphasized that constant practice in a stance that is too low can cause long-term damage to the body, especially the knee joints. [Again, Master Feng was commenting on poor habits developed by some over-enthusiastic younger practitioners, who push themselves into very low practice stances in order to build strength and martial ability as quickly as possible.]

Feng Laoshi also pointed out that there can also be an interruption of chi flow in low stances that compromise a move’s effectiveness in martial application. A stance that’s too low will cut the flow of chi at the knees, and will also cause leakage through the huiyin (perineum). Grandmaster Feng stated, “...when you have very low stance, chi leaks out from the perineum. There’s no way you would know. When chi leaks out from the perineum you can never sense it. Also, when >you have very low stance the angle at the knee is too sharp, so chi can't flow down the leg very easily. We must differentiate between what is good for us and what is bad for us, and what is damaging our body and what is nurturing our body... When you are practicing in lower stance, yes, your martial ability may increase faster, but you’re doing damage to your own body, and you don't even realize that you’re leaking chi.” So high is better than low.

4. Long is better than short

One of the most important principles of Hunyuan taiji is learning to relax the joints and fully extend the arms, legs and spine.

(continued in next column)

Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang in "Leisurely Tie Coat" from the Hunyuan 24-movement first form. At Pema Osel Ling, near Santa Cruz, July, 2001.

This promotes the flow of chi and creates a body "like a dragon". Grandmaster Feng explained, “...Taiji is a 'long' form of martial art, as in stretching, lengthening. Xingyi [another internal martial art related to taiji], in contrast, is a shorter form, more compact. Even though Xingyi is a short form of martial art, it uses the body's natural springy, jumpy power to make up for the lack of reach. However, taiji is a long form of martial art. It’s like the body of a dragon. Tongbei, another Chinese martial art, is another long form of martial art, because you are always extending your arms. Taiji absorbs the strength of all these different martial arts and forms its own unique style. This movement in our form [he demonstrated a move] is from xingyi. This [he demonstrated another move] is from tongbei. This move is from Shaolin. This is from Preying Mantis. This is also from Preying Mantis. The elbow strikes in taiji come from Baji. Taiji is a compound of eighteen other martial art styles. [Taiji uses] the theory of Taoism, the I Ching [Book of Changes], and Chinese Traditional Medicine to form its theoretical foundation, especially yin-yang theory and the meridians in traditional medicine.”

In performance, Master Feng himself expressed very long, large movements, fully extending his arms (see photo above) by gently opening and releasing the joints. Since he has an enormous reach, the effect is heightened, but his arms are never over- or hyper-extended. They always retained a natural, relaxed curve. Even though in application movements may be very small and concise, in practice they should be large, round and long to better promote the flow of chi and build gongfu. Thus long is better than short.

5. Curved is better than straight.

Grandmaster Feng stated: “But even when your limbs are lengthened, they’re also curved. The body is the same. It should never be too straight. There should always be a curve. In taiji the body is considered to have five bows, as in "bow and arrow". So one arm, the other arm—two bows. One leg, the other leg and your spine, three more. So, five bows. There is a taiji saying that your body has five bows, and if you can express the springy power [in these five bows] there is no opponent under Heaven [who can beat you]... Curving the chest is also a bow [this is the obverse to curving the back]. Only by practicing in a slow and lengthening manner, can you then cultivate this springy energy. Something with springiness is very strong. If you drop it, it won't break. But if you have something that is hard and brittle, when you drop it, it will shatter. That’s what the old martial arts masters would say: If your body has five bows and you can do the spring-like energy, you will have no enemy and no opponent under Heaven [who can beat you]. Practicing martial arts, you should know the theory. Only by knowing the theory can you grasp the martial art aspect.” So curved is better than straight.

6. Single-weighted is better than double-weighted.

Double-weighted" means the weight of the body is evenly distributed on both feet. " Single-weighted " means the weight is on one foot. Double-weighted is bad because it's static; when both feet are grounded, it's hard to move or turn. Single-weighted is good because it's dynamic; it's easy to move when one foot is grounded and the other free. In push-hands, "double-weighted" also implies using force against your opponent's force, while "single-weighted" means yielding to force first in order to neutralize it, then applying force into emptiness - in other words, using "four ounces to move one thousand pounds".

Grandmaster Feng explained: “Weight on one side is better than evenly distributed. Single-weighted is better than double-weighted. Even when you are standing upright, your weight should only be on one leg. When you’re standing you should be relaxed and have your weight shifting from one leg to the other, never fifty-fifty. But don't be too obvious. That looks funny. Don’t let it be visible to an observer, but [even when standing] you should shift your weight from one leg to the other. Same thing with the foot. When you are standing you should never tighten your foot, and you should instead flex it gently. Never stay in one position.”

Master Feng never stopped this kind of subtle practice for the entire four days of the intensive, even when he was lecturing or resting. It seemed so natural that it was not noticeable, but if you looked closely, you could see he was always gently moving. Even when he was apparently standing still, he was actually gently rocking his weight back and forth from foot to foot, as if performing a slow-motion qigong.