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Center for Taiji Studies

Center for Taiji Studies Articles
Feng Zhiqiang on Integrating Mind and Body
Yang InterviewNurturing WaysMind and BodyBuilding SkillsBuilding Skills

By Yang Yang and Scott Grubisich

Originally published in the June 2000 issue of T'ai Chi Magazine.
Reprinted here courtesy of Wayfarer Publications.

Introduction by Yang Yang
Feng Zhiqiang is a Grandmaster of the 18th generation of the Chen style Taijiquan. He is well known as a top student of the 17th generation Grandmaster Chen Fake, as well as the Xinyi Grandmaster Hu Yuezhen.

In December 1997, I returned to China for the first time since my arrival in the United States. In accordance with martial tradition, my first priority was to visit my shifu, Grandmaster Feng.

The following is an interview that I had conducted then, and during subsequent visits over the past few years, with Grandmaster Feng. The interviews were conducted at the request of Mr. Marvin Smalheiser, editor of T'Al CHI Magazine.

Taijiquan is a subtle art. Inescapably, words used to describe levels of progression are subtle also. To reproduce Grandmaster Feng's teaching without editing, I have tried to translate his words as directly as possible. In many instances, it was imperative to retain the original Chinese terms.

I believe that accurate translations and explanations of traditional sayings are crucial for non-Chinese speaking persons to study the art. I have observed, on several occasions, instances where poor translations and/or mispronunciations have confused and even distorted the correct teachings.

In this article we have used the pinyin system for writing Chinese words, with the intonation noted in parenthesis. In Mandarin Chinese, each word can be spoken with one of four different tones. Different intonations have different meanings, so any romanization must include the tone to convey the intended meaning. For example, xin(1) means xin with the first tone, with the number 1 representing that first tone.

I have assumed that the Western Taiji community is readily familiar with some of the most common Chinese terms, such as xin(l) [heart-mind], yi(4)[mind-intent], peng(2)/lu(3)/ji(3)/an(4)[wardoff/roll-back/press/push], and jing(l)/qi(4)/shen(2) [essence/intrinsic energy/spirit]. Where necessary, I have explained or clarified the original Chinese sayings.

My translations and comments are included in brackets [] to distinguish them from Grandmaster Feng's words. It is difficult to translate some of the traditional sayings into English. I wish to express my gratitude to Dr. Kam Ming Wong of the University of Georgia at Athens for his review and comments on some of the translations.

At several points Grandmaster Feng emphasizes xiu(1)lian(4), which refers to a deeper level of practice and understanding. Xiulian demands the integration and practice of mind and body.

When referring to practice of the mind xiu-lian is a form of spiritual exercise, encompassing morality, purity of thoughts and behavior, etc. It can be either a verb or a noun, and Master Feng uses it as both.

Yang Yang (YY): What is Taiji? How is it expressed in the art of taijiquan?
Feng Zhiqiang (FZQ): Taiji is essentially Heaven and Earth. Before the Earth and Heaven originated, it was an abyss or void, called wuji. There was no difference between clear and opaque.

Although wuji is characterized by jing(4) [stillness], it also had movement, a dynamic element. When the movement accumulated to a critical level, then you have ji(2) dong(4) [grand movement].

At this point, the clear energy goes up, and the opaque energy goes down. Going up means Heaven, going down means Earth. Then, it is Taiji. Taiji has yin and yang: stillness and movement, inhale and exhale, soft and hard, close and open, empty and solid, short and long, withdraw and extend.

Yin and yang should be evenly distributed. The balance of Heaven and Earth will bring a good environment. The country and people will be safe and peaceful; the harvest will be plentiful. If Heaven and Earth are not balanced, there will be natural disasters, such as floods or droughts.

Human beings need the balance of yin and yang to keep healthy. If yin and yang are not balanced in the human body, there will be a disorder of qi and xue(3) [blood], manifested by the disease of limbs and organs.

We have three sources: Heaven, Earth, and human beings. Heaven and Earth (yang and yin) create everything. Everything has yin and yang. Between Heaven and Earth, there are beings.

We say human beings are the ling(2) [soul] of everything. The world is created by the combination of Heaven, Earth, and human beings. Heaven has three best things: sun, moon, and star. Earth has three best things: water, earth, and fire. Human beings have three best things: jing(1), qi(4), and shen(2).

Taijiquan originated by following the dao of Heaven and Earth movement, the dao of yin and yang, combined with traditional Chinese medical theory. Heaven, Earth, and human beings all have cyclical movement. All have the character of circulation.

In human beings, the energy circulates in the meridians, the network of the whole body. Various health problems will appear if the meridians are blocked. So it is said bu(4) tong(1) ze(2) tong(4) [you will feel pain if the meridians are blocked].

The spiral movement of Taiji is based on the same theory of the heaven and earth rotation. Qi rises through the du meridian, sinks through the ren meridian, and fills the dai meridian.

So Taiji practice is mainly the xiulian of yin and yang; practice both xing(4) [character/spirituality/personality] and ming(4) [body/life/physical health]. Xing determines jing(4) [stillness, peaceful, quiet]; ming determines movement.

Wuji is jing(4); Taiji needs movement. Central equilibrium is required when you move; yin and yang must be evenly distributed. Jing(4) will arise after enough movement.

Conversely, you want to move after you rest for a while. It is a very natural procedure. [Master Feng is emphasizing that the correct practice of Taiji is a very natural process. Stillness naturally follows movement, and movement naturally follows stillness. The two depend upon and evolve into each other, just as the yin and yang portions of the Taiji diagram.]

Taiji is an art based on this theory. This mainly is talking about nurturing health. If you talk about self-defense, Taijiquan absorbed the best things from many different internal and external martial arts and combined them with its theory of yin and yang.

It became a unique art with a very valuable, effective health function and practical self-defense ability. This is the character of Taijiquan.

YY: You are famous as one of the top students of the Chen style 17th Generation Grandmaster Chen Fake. Besides Chen style, did you study other arts? How are these arts integrated into the essence of your training system?
FZQ: As a young man, in my hometown [Sulu, Hebei Province] I studied Shaolin from my uncle, Wang Yun Kai. Later in Beijing, I learned Tong Bei Quan from Grandmaster Han Xiao Feng, who is from Can Zhou, Hebei Province. [Cang Zhou is a famous area for several martial arts.]

I learned the Chen style from Grandmaster Chen Fake. Prior to this, I had studied Xinyi from Grandmaster Hu Yuezhen. Both teachers taught me qin(1) shou(4) mi(4) shou(4) [closely and secretly].

Chen style Xin Yi Hun Yuan Taijiquan [Grandmaster Feng's training system] is mainly the combination of what I learned form Grandmasters Chen Fake and Hu Yuezhen.

Besides the Chen style first and second routines, we also have many single form repetition practices. The essential single forms are called taiji hun(2) yuan(2) gong(1) [dynamic qigong exercises], taiji chan(2) si(1) gong [silk reeling exercises], taiji ji(4) ji(2) [fighting] gong, etc.

If we put all the gong together, we have almost 10 routines. Those are the gong that will help Taiji practitioners reach a high level. There is an old Chinese saying: "You will get nothing, even if you practice all of your life, if you do not practice gong."

We call it xin yi because we have to use yi to guide the qi, use qi to move our body. So practice qi instead of li [psychical/muscular force], and practice yi instead of qi. If you practice li, it will break. If you practice only qi, you will be stiff. It will flow if you practice intention.

Hun yuan is the essential nature of the Taiji symbol. If you can master hun yuan, you will know the direct route to reach the high level of Taijiquan. With dantian hun yuan qi as the base, guided by xin yi, following the principals of yin/yang and practicing/experiencing/applying the 13 postures, one can accomplish the crystal of hun yuan qi, the high level of gongfu.

The most important thing is jing(1) shen(2) yi(4) nian(4) [spirit and intention]. This is the main principal of our practice. So we call it Xin Yi Hun Yuan Taiji. We have the name Chen style because it was first studied and developed by the Chen family. It is not mysterious; it is a very scientific art. It becomes more complete after many generations' contributions.

YY: You say that you must practice gong. What is gong?
FZQ: Gong practice is the foundation; it is the bigger xiu(1) lian(4). Gong practice strengthens internal qi. It is the process of collecting the qi from nature to replenish our human energy.

If I want to cook dumplings and noodles, I need flour [as the main ingredient]. The gong is the flour. Qi is the source of our dong(4)li(4) [power]. Because it is an internal art, you must start with the internal first, and then learn to coordinate the internal with external movement. There is an old saying: Xing(2) qi(4) ru(2) liu(2) shui(3) [Circulating qi is like water flowing]. If you don't have the feeling of internal qi, that means you are doing only the external form.

[Correct practice of the form is also the process of accumulating gong. Feng Zhiqiang is emphasizing that gong practice is the beginning point. As you proceed, each subsequent step should use the gong accumulated and is also a further means for the continued accumulation of gong.

[The gong he is talking about here is the same Chinese character as in the term gongfu or qigong, but when used as a single word has the meaning described above. The relationship may be described as follows: qigong (energy work) is an essential practice to achieve a foundation of gong. With a strong foundation of gong, one can ultimately achieve a high level of gongfu. Practice of form, applications, fa jin, etc. without the foundation of gong is empty practice that may yield short term benefits but will not allow the practitioner to reach a high level of gongfu. [I would also add that some people have paid a high price for emphasizing short term gains in fighting skill and ignoring gong.]

If you want to do Taiji well, it is not enough to only practice form. You have to practice gong: hun yuan gong, silk reeling gong, ji(4) ji(2) [fighting] gong, step by step. Hun yuan gong [qigong exercises] will nurture you energy, help your transition of jing/qi/shen, and improve the electronic/magnetic energy.

Hun yuan gong will allow you to proceed to a higher level, from small to medium to big accomplishment. You will absorb the best things from Heaven and Earth.

There is an old saying: You can skip quan, but you cannot skip gong. After you know gong, then you can know quan. Not many people have a lot of time to practice everyday.

If you are busy, try to find time to practice gong. You can skip quan [form]. This was my teacher's advice. The busier you are, the more you need to practice gong, because it can replenish the jing/qi/shen you consume. This way you can have a healthy, long life.

To practice this kind of art, your qi must be smooth (qi shun(4)).

[Traditional Chinese medical theory says that in order to have smooth qi, you must be taiji tai he, or peaceful]. You have to xiulian; don't let the distractions of the material world bother you. Xiulian primarily refers to your mind and behavior; you have to improve your xin and shen. One who has xiulian does not desire another's material possessions. Your thoughts should be zheng(4) [proper, i.e., you cannot have bad thoughts].

You have to xiulian your zhong qi. Zhong qi can reach up to Heaven or down to the Earth. Bai hui [the acupuncture point at the crown of the skull] is Heaven, and hui yin [the point between the anus and genitals] is Earth. If you have accomplished the xiulian, your qi will reach Heaven, otherwise it will only reach Earth/Hell. [This is a well-known Chinese saying.]

Between Heaven and Earth is the human being. When human beings are in the womb, they absorb nutrients through the umbilical cord. It is not possible to breathe through the nose. After birth, human beings start post-natal breathing [using the nose and mouth]. Our practice is to return to pre-natal breathing. We return our post-natal modality to our pre-natal origin.

YY: Xiulian is obviously a very important aspect of Taiji practice. Can you tell us more about how to xiulian? How is the concept related to de [morality]?
FZQ: In the martial arts community, people refer to improving de and technique simultaneously. It is called practicing both dao and martial art. There is a reason. Without de, people may use the art to do bad things. To be honest, I think my Taiji practice makes my dao higher than that of the average person.

If your de is not good, your art and technique cannot possibly reach a high level. I learned about de from my two teachers. Sometimes I would make mistakes. But the important thing is that I could check myself and find the problem, correct it, and improve my de.

So we have to improve our de when we pursue the art. You can talk about dao after you improve your de and master the art. This dao is not evil dao. It is the big Dao of yin and yang. It is consistent with Earth and Heaven. It is as big as the sun and moon. It is the goal for our xiulian. But how to xiulian? We should cultivate our mind before we practice quan. Practice xin(1) shen(2) yi(4) xing(4). Those four things are actually one thing. Xin is shen, shen is yi, yi is xing. Xiulian improves our mind, both and courage.

It is not an easy job to xiulian our mind and body. It cannot be done in one day. So we are practicing our mind and body, practicing our courage, practicing our jing/qi/shen.

The whole Taiji process [if done correctly] is xiulian. Dao practice will make the person strong to defend themselves and they will defeat the evil things. So our purpose is very clear; otherwise, why do we practice? It is also said "Taiji should tai(4) he(2)." He means peaceful harmony of the internal organs and all cells. Without he, you will fight internally within yourself and feel sick. You must be able to nurture your qi.

[The phrase "Taiji should be tai he" means that the harmony described above is a goal of the Taiji practitioner. It is something one works towards, and an indication that one's Taiji practice is proceeding correctly.]

If you can do this, people will recognize and respect your art from their hearts, not by force. If you hurt people's eyes, break their ribs, etc., you are damaging your de. Taiji practitioners shouldn't do that. It requires big gongfu.

When you use Taiji to fight, you need big gongfu to defeat people without hurting them. The big gongfu can also prevent evil things from happening. It will scare people from doing bad things.

I came out into society after I retired from my job [in the early 1980's]. I recalled I never hurt another person. I am very happy with what I have contributed to society and the world within such a short period of time. I am also very happy with the friendships I have built. We have a very good relationship with other martial arts.

YY: People get confused about peng. How do you define it?
FZQ: Peng(2) lu(3) ji(3) an(4) xu(I) ren(4) zhen(l) [you must clearly differentiate and pay attention to peng/lu/ji/an]. Shang(4) xia(4) xiang(l) shui(2) ren(2) nan(2) jin(4) [a good coordination between the upper and lower body will prevent the opponent from entering].

Ren(4) ping(2) dui(4) fang(1) lai(2) da(3) wo(3). Si(4) liang(3) hua(4) dong(4) bo(1) qian(1) jin(1) [no matter how hard the opponent attacks, I can use four ounces to neutralize]. These sayings are used to express the purpose.

Peng means energy goes up; lu, back (left or right side); ji, forward; an, down. But peng is also expressed in lu, ji, and an. Lu is back peng. Ji is forward peng. An is down peng. If you don't have the peng energy, you are too soft. Peng/lu/ji/an are just the variation of peng: up/down, forward/backward, and left right.

YY: Does this mean there are two definitions of peng? One is the upward direction of the four side energy, while the other is a broader concept, the expanding energy concept?
FZQ: It is OK to differentiate; to give two definitions. One is the upward direction of the four-sided energy (peng/lu/ji/an), the other is yi(4) qi(4) gu(3)dang(4). [Gudang has a very subtle meaning. Here it is used to describe the outward expansion/movement/vibration of yi and qi.]

Every movement is guided by yi and qi movement. If you don't have yi qi gudang, you collapse. Even if your limbs do not move, you need to have yi and qi. When your intention arrives, your qi will arrive. Movement will follow naturally and your force will arrive.

YY: What is your advice for people in America to practice taiji? What should they pay attention to for push hands practice?
FZQ: Practicing quan and gong is solo work. Push hands is two person training. Quan and gong are xiulian; push hands is also xiulian. Quan and gong are practicing yi and qi movement; push hands is also practicing yi and qi movement.

Because push hands is practice of yi and qi movement, the following are required:
  1) zhong ding [central equilibrium],
  2) luo(2)xiuan(2)chan(2)rao (3) [spiral-ling energy], and
  3) 3) zhan(l) lian(2) nian(2) shui(2).

[Zhan lian nian shui is most often translated as adhere/connect/stick/follow. An understanding of the application of spiral energy and adhere/connect/stick/follow can only be gained through experience [i.e., by the teacher demonstrating, one on one, to the student.]

You must avoid ding(3) pian(l) diu(I) kang(4). [Ding means meeting and responding to an incoming force "head on." Pian means "oblique," referring to the loss of central equilibrium.

[Diu means yielding without response, yin but no yang. Diu also means disconnected, without listening. Kang means resist/fight/struggle while you already lose your balance without doing any neutralization]. You must be able to bian(l) hua(4) bian(l) fa(l) [release energy at the same time you neutralize]. It is called hua(4) zhong(t) you(3) fa(l) [having release within neutralization].

Practice and cultivate qi instead of li; practice and cultivate yi instead of qi. After you have practiced enough and in the proper way, you will naturally accumulate the gong(1) dao(4) zi(4) ran(2) cheng(2).

[This is a very well-known saying. The meaning is similar to the term gongfu. It refers to an accomplishment, which is the fruit of constant and dedicated effort and correct practice. This saying can refer to any accomplishment - not just wushu.]

After you have practiced push hands, then you practice jian(4)shou(3) fen(1) li(2) [to throw the opponent away immediately upon touching during sparring].

It is like you are raising wheat. You cannot pull the wheat up [force it to grow]. Or, to use another example, you cannot expect a baby to run before it can even stand. You must proceed step by step. It sounds slow, but actually it is the most efficient way. You cannot proceed too quickly If you do, you will break the moderation principle, wu(2) guo(4) wu(2) bu(4) ji(2). Push hands requires moderation and the avoidance of ding pian diu kang [defined above]. Never have the idea of hurting people; this is also xiulian.

In the classics it is said "rou(2) hua(4) gang(l) fa(l)," which means yield/neutralize with softness, release with hardness. You must practice rou(2) [softness] and hua(4) [yielding/neutralizing].

The same principle applies to quan, [form] practice; practice song(l) [relaxation] first. It is easy to practice quan, but difficult to practice song. In push hands, it is easy to practice fa [quick release], but difficult to practice hua(4). If you can hua with 1,000 pounds, it is such an easy job to fa.

[Another issue is how to fa. The correct, or most efficient, way is to remain relaxed until the point of contact. All energy is then focused on that point.]

You should think of push hands as a gong practice. After you have practiced enough, concise instruction from the teacher will be sufficient to explain the deeper meaning.

[The actual words used by Master Feng here were "yi ( I )di an (3) jiu (4) tou(4)," which means one touch can penetrate. "One touch" refers to brief instruction from the teacher.] If you haven't practiced enough, you will never understand, no matter how hard the teacher tries to explain. If you haven't practiced enough, your instinctual reaction to a push will be to ding [apply force against incoming force].

Push hands is gong practice, and it is qigong practice. Lastly, it is practice of technique. [Note: Feng Zhiqiang has defined the step-by-step order of practice: gong-Chuan-push hands-free fighting.]

The entire interview is available in the June 2000 edition of T'ai Chi Magazine (Vol. 24, No. 3), published by Wayfarer Publications, p.o box 39938, Los Angeles, CA 90039, Fax No. (323) 665-1627, e-mail taichi@tai-chi.com.

Additional subjects addressed by Master Feng include daoist meditation, stories of his teachers (Grandmasters Hu Yuezhen and Chen Fake), criteria for a student to find a teacher and for a teacher to accept a disciple, chan-si "silk reeling" force, historical relationships of "old" & "new" and "big" & "small" versions of the Chen style, cai/lie/zhou/kao, and definition of "ling".

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