Martial Art Philosophy principle taiji

Fang Ning On Tai Chi Chuan Kung-Fu

Translated by Vincent Chu


It is common among martial artists to discuss their skills. The same is true of Tai Chi Chuan practitioners. We have seen a competition match where an older man defeated a younger man; we heard from our teachers and read from books how the Yang Family members’ kung-fu was so good that they defeated hard style practitioners without any difficulty. When a young man is defeated by an older man, we say that the young man’s kung-fu is not as good as an older man’s. You may wonder how to measure kung-fu skills in Tai Chi Chuan. The following is my understanding and interpretation of how to measure different levels of Tai Chi Chuan kung-fu with my sixty years of practical knowledge.

Tai Chi chuan kung-fu is divided into ten levels. The first three levels are called lower level or what some people call the level of “entering the door” for this is the beginning of a journey of Tai Chi Chuan training. If a student has achieved the third level, he is considered to have entered the door of training. Fourth to sixth levels are called the middle level or what some people call “enter the door and go into the room”. It is so-called because the student is no longer a beginner and all his instructions are taught in a closed space. Seventh level is the level for a Tai Chi Chuan practitioner to master. Eight to tenth levels are the higher levels and are commonly referred to as “reaching the peak and summit.” Eighth level means one has reached the peak but not the summit. Throughout the history of Tai Chi Chuan, the number of people who achieve this level is very few, so few that we can count them without fingers. People who have achieved this level must have spent decades of diligent practice. For now, anyone who has achieved eighth level will be very famous not just in China but throughout the world if he wanted to show his skill to the public.

The following is a more detailed discussion on the ten levels of Tai Chi Chuan kung-fu. We all know that Tai Chi Chuan is an internal martial art and it is based on the philosophy of yin-yang(that is soft interacting with hard). The whole process of Tai Chi Chuan training is to break down the stiff and rigid body into a soft and relaxed body and then assemble this soft and hard body into a hard and solid body like steel. The Classics say that one should first seek the familiar and then try to understand the jing (internal power). From beginning to understand the jing, with practice the practitioner develops enlightenment. With the term “familiar” the Classics refers to the concept of transforming the hard and rigid body into soft and relaxed body through push hands and the knowledge of these concepts is also called “entering the door” kung-fu. Therefore, it is taught orally. Of course, if one practices Tai Chi Chuan just for health, one does not need to practice push hands. However, if one practices Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art, one must practice push hands. Otherwise one is never considered to have entered the door. From push hands exercise, one slowly understands the jing. These are the first three levels of Tai Chi Chuan kung-fu.

From push hands exercise standpoint, the first three levels of kung-fu are the yielding or neutralizing of the opponent’s energy. The Classic of Tai Chi Chuan Circle says that the retreat circle is easer to do than the advance circle. The first three levels are also called the retreat circle. In level one, most of the movements are composed of stiff and rigid energy, very little of yielding energy. In the second level, yielding energy increases and rigid energy decreases in all movements. This is the result of understanding the concepts of push hands exercises and getting familiar with the opponent’s energy and movements. In the third level, all the movements are controlled mainly by the yielding energy and one begins to understand the jing. At this time, one does not just understand and know the jing but is able to maneuver in a circular motion to neutralize the coming energy.

The first three levels is for a student not familiar with the concept of circle to become very familiar with the concept of circle and can use this circle principle to adhere and follow the coming energy. When one understands how and when to use this circle to retreat, one is beginning to understand jing.

Fourth to sixth level kung-fu is working with the advance circle. Therefore, it is also called the advance circle training. When I speak of advance circle, it is not simply a response after retreat. It is in the process of retreating that your yielding energy adheres to the opponent’s energy at all times and under this condition you are forced to advance. For in this situation, your advance maneuver threatens and can cause your opponent to lose balance and get defeated. Your offensive maneuver can be a strike or just fa jing(release energy) and can send the opponent flying. At this time, the student begins to develop fa jing or one inch fa jing techniques. Therefore, if a practitioner does not possess these fa jing or one inch jing techniques, one is considered not to have achieved the fourth level and has not entered the door.

In this fourth to sixth level kung-fu, training involves collecting all the limber body parts and beginning to form firm body parts and from one inch fa jing into even smaller unit of fa jing techniques. Common people generally withdraw their arms one or two feet to reserve power and then punch forward. This is called one foot fa jing technique. At the fourth level, one does not need to withdraw the arms and hands. At this level, a simple fa jing technique cause the opponent to fly. This is the sign that he has entered the door and begins to go into the room. At this time the practitioner should feel the legs and feet are much stronger and are rooted. After one has achieved the fourth level and higher, one is at a very delicate time. The classic calls this as one day’s worth of practice and one day’s worth of skill. This is also the time when the practitioner has entered the door and has gone into the room. The classic also calls this the time of “no rest and keep practicing.” The classic says that in order to learn correctly, one must begin by oral transmission. When a student has achieved level four, he has completed the oral transmission period. Although the student does not practice push hands exercises this time, practice of the solo form can improve Tai Chi Chuan kung-fu. Of course, with a teacher’s guidance, the student’s progress is much greater.

When a student has achieved level six, he has entered the room and understands the knowledge. Now he is beginning to understand how to let oneself go and follow the opponent’s energy and apply energy any way he likes. From my sixty years of practical experience, level seven is the key level in which one is going from middle kung-fu into higher kung-fu transition. It is the level of using the mind to control all movements any way one likes. When a student completes this level, the student has also completed the advance circle. The next step is no circle. It is also for the student to practice one inch fa jing technique to small units of fa jing techniques. At this time, one should find that part of the body is soft and every part of the body is solid. Every part of the body can yield and every part can fa jing. Therefore, depending on which part of the body is in contact with the opponent, that part of the body will strike the opponent.

From push hands application standpoint, the first three level are outer circle yielding while fourth to fifth levels are inner circle yielding. The sixth level is yielding with the body. That means one leads the opponent’s energy close to the body and then maneuver the body for yielding. This technique is called “separation of the flesh.” Level seven is no circle strike. Besides the three ways of yielding as described above, one can lead the opponent’s energy to come close to the body and counter strike without yielding. This technique is called “point strike.” At this time, you cannot see the hands move because when the hands touch, it is a strike. When the hands stick, it is also a strike. In this point of contact, it is composed of strike and fa jing and it can be either soft or solid, it can be yield or fa jing. You can say that it is soft and you can say that is is solid.

Levels eight to ten are advanced Tai Chi Chuan kung-fu. Because I have not achieved this yet, I cannot define what it is. From what I heard from my teacher and sixty years of practical experience, anyone who has achieved this level can do wonderful things. This is what the classics commonly refer to when it says, “the opponent does not know me but I know the opponent.” The body is so sensitive and light that one cannot add one feather, fly and mosquito cannot land on the body. When an opponent punches the body, the opponent is already injured and is flying backward but you did not see my improvement. Any movement can cause the opponent injury and bleeding. Of course, in martial arts taining, There is no such thing as the end state. The more your practice, the better the skill. Skill is infinite. Tai Chi Chuan practitioners past and present have achieved skill that most people do not believe was humanly possible.

Fang Ning On Tai Chi Chuan Kung-Fu

Classic Martial Art Mindset principle taiji

What is the 10 essentials of tai chi chuan?

Following are the Ten Essentials of Tai Chi Chuan Orally transmitted by Yang Chengfu Recorded by Chen Weiming Translated by Jerry Karin

  1. Empty, lively, pushing up and energetic
    ‘Pushing up and energetic’ means the posture of the head is upright and straight and the spirit is infused into its apex. You may not use strength. To do so makes the back of the neck stiff, whereupon the chi and blood cannot circulate freely. You must have an intention which is empty, lively (or free) and natural. Without an intention which is empty, lively, pushing up and energetic, you won’t be able to raise your spirit.
  2. Hold in the chest and pull up the back
    The phrase ‘hold in the chest’ means the chest is slightly reserved inward, which causes the chi to sink to the cinnabar field (dan1 tian2). The chest must not be puffed out. If you do so then the chi is blocked in the chest region, the upper body becomes heavy and lower body light, and it will become easy for the heels to float upward. ‘Pulling up the back’ makes the chi stick to the back. If you are able to hold in the chest then you will naturally be able to pull up the back. If you can pull up the back, then you will be able to emit a strength from the spine which others cannot oppose.
  3. Relax the waist
    The waist is the commander of the whole body. Only after you are able to relax the waist will the two legs have strength and the lower body be stable. The alternation of empty and full all derive from the turning of the waist. Hence the saying: ‘The wellspring of destiny lies in the tiny interstice of the waist. Whenever there is a lack of strength in your form, you must look for it in the waist and legs.
  4. Separate empty and full
    In the art of Tai Chi Chuan, separating full and empty is the number one rule. If the whole body sits on the right leg, then the right leg is deemed ‘full’ and the left leg ’empty’. If the whole body sits on the left leg, then the left leg is deemed ‘full’ and the right leg ’empty’. Only after you are able to distinguish full and empty will turning movements be light, nimble and almost without effort; if you can’t distinguish them then your steps will be heavy and sluggish, you won’t be able to stand stably, and it will be easy for an opponent to control you.
  5. Sink the shoulders and droop the elbows
    Sinking the shoulders means the shoulders relax open and hang downward. If you can’t relax them downward, the shoulders pop up and then the chi follows and goes upward, causing the whole body to lack strength. Drooping the elbows means the elbows are relaxed downward. If the elbows are elevated then the shoulders are unable to sink. When you use this to push someone they won’t go far. It’s like the ‘cut off’ energy of external martial arts.
  6. Use Intent Rather than Force
    The taiji classics say, “this is completely a matter of using intent rather than force’. When you practice taijiquan, let the entire body relax and extend. Don’t employ even the tiniest amount of coarse strength which would cause musculo-skeletal or circulatory blockage with the result that you restrain or inhibit yourself. Only then will you be able to lightly and nimbly change and transform, circling naturally. Some wonder: if I don’t use force, how can I generate force? The net of acupuncture meridians and channels throughout the body are like the waterways on top of the earth. If the waterways are not blocked, the water circulates; if the meridians are not impeded the chi circulates. If you move the body about with stiff force, you swamp the meridians, chi and blood are impeded, movements are not nimble; all someone has to do is begin to guide you and your whole body is moved. If you use intent rather than force, wherever the intent goes, so goes the chi. In this way – because the chi and blood are flowing, circulating every day throughout the entire body, never stagnating – after a lot of practice, you will get true internal strength. That’s what the taiji classics mean by “Only by being extremely soft are you able to achieve extreme hardness.” Somebody who is really adept at taiji has arms which seem like silk wrapped around iron, immensely heavy. Someone who practices external martial arts, when he is using his force, seems very strong. But when not using force, he is very light and floating. By this we can see that his force is actually external, or superficial strength. The force used by external martial artists is especially easy to lead or deflect, hence it is not of much value.
  7. Synchronize Upper and Lower Body
    In the taiji classics ‘Synchronize Upper and Lower Body is expressed as: “With its root in the foot, emitting from the leg, governed by the waist, manifesting in the hands and fingers – from feet to legs to waist – complete everything in one impulse.” * When hands move, the waist moves and legs move, and the gaze moves along with them. Only then can we say upper and lower body are synchronized. If one part doesn’t move then it is not coordinated with the rest.
  8. Match Up Inner and Outer
    What we are practicing in taiji depends on the spirit, hence the saying: “The spirit is the general, the body his troops”. If you can raise your spirit, your movements will naturally be light and nimble, the form nothing more than empty and full, open and closed. When we say ‘open’, we don’t just mean open the arms or legs; the mental intent must open along with the limbs. When we say ‘close’, we don’t just mean close the arms or legs; the mental intent must close along with the limbs. If you can combine inner and outer into a single impulse, then they become a seamless whole.
  9. (Practice) Continuously and Without Interruption
    Strength in external martial arts is a kind of acquired, brute force, so it has a beginning and an end, times when it continues and times when it is cut off, such that when the old force is used up and new force hasn’t yet arisen, there is a moment when it is extremely easy for the person to be constrained by an opponent. In taiji, we use intent rather than force, and from beginning to end, smoothly and ceaselessly, complete a cycle and return to the beginning, circulating endlessly. That is what the taiji classics mean by “Like the Yangtze or Yellow River, endlessly flowing.” And again: “Moving strength is like unreeling silk threads”. These both refer to unifying into a single impulse*.
  10. Seek Quiescence within Movement
    External martial artists prize leaping and stopping as skill, and they do this till breath (chi) and strength are exhausted, so that after practicing they are all out of breath. In taiji we use quiescence to overcome movement, and even in movement, still have quiescence. So when you practice the form, the slower the better! When you do it slowly your breath becomes deep and long, the chi sinks to the cinnabar field (dan1 tian2) and naturally there is no deleterious constriction or enlargement of the blood vessels. If the student tries carefully he may be able to comprehend the meaning behind these words.  


    Martial Art pushhands taiji

    Grandmaster Wang Yongquan (1903 – 1987)

    Yang Style Taiji Grandmaster Wang Yongquan (1903 ~ 1987)
    Student of Yang Jianhou, Yang Shaohou and Yang Chenfu
    楊氏太極拳第四代宗師 / 汪永泉 (1903–1987)