One purpose of poetry is to communicate succinctly. My favorite songwriter John Prine was certainly a poet—he could tell an entire story in one sentence. (The day after I wrote this, John Prine was pronounced Illinois’ first poet laureate 🙂 .)

Though I lack skills to write artistically and eloquently, I have attempted to concisely convey some often misunderstood aspects of taiji (tai chi) in these two short poems. Both poems were initially published on our facebook page a while back, but I thought I would share them here also.

It was quite surprising to me that, according to our web statistics, one of the most common search terms landing on our web site are the Chinese words “peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie/zhou/kao“—also referred to as the “ba fa” or eight forces of taiji. Apparently there remains quite a bit of misunderstanding about these terms, though the meaning is really quite simple. Perhaps even “elegant,” as mathematicians would say, in terms of the succinctness with which they describe all possible (balanced) barehanded martial strikes. So simple, in fact, I really couldn’t justify an entire blog article dedicated only to their meaning.

The purpose of peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie/zhou/kao is alluded to in the first poem, and the phrase is defined in the second, though before getting to those the individual definition of each term is as follows.

Understanding peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie/zhou/kao

Each term refers to a direction and/or length of force:

peng/lu/ji/an are all directions of force – up, back, forward, and down respectively.  Generally they are long range forces, though of course movement in any of these directions can be executed as medium or short range also. (There are two important points worth noting. First, an means a downward force, while ji is any straightforward force.  I do believe that the common translation of ji as “press” and an as “push” has been the reason for some misunderstanding. Second, and a bit confusingly, peng has a second meaning referring to employment of internal strength—every force has peng energy.)

cai refers to a plucking/jerking force, generally (though not always) implying a “shorter” or more explosive movement down and backwards.

lie refers to an opposing or “splitting” force, where the arms, or perhaps an arm and a leg, move in opposing directions (as in some foot sweeps, kicks, or armbars).

zhou literally means elbow, but here represents any medium range force (which, by definition, is expressed through elbows or knees).

kao literally means shoulder, but here implies any short range force (expressed through the shoulder, body, hips, or even legs). A better translation would be “bump.”

In combination these terms cover every direction and length of balanced movement (and therefore every expression of force) possible. And of course every movement of any taiji form is one, or possibly a combination, of peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie/zhou/kao. The direction and length of form movement IS the intention of the movement, and focusing on the intention of the movement is fundamental to form practice.

These are very simple concepts, but a great deal of skill is required to realize these combined motor skills. Of course the mechanisms of movement/power generation are what distinguishes all internal arts from the external: core recruitment, intra- and inter-neuromuscular motor control, and the “elastic force.” All of these mechanisms of “internal power” have been described in great detail in earlier posts on this blog.

Here is a Youtube video of Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang demonstrating peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie/zhou/kao.

Now on to the poems . . .

The relation between qigong and taiji

Qigong is mind/body/spirit integrative exercise.
Any mind/body/spirit integrative exercise is qigong.
Meditation is the essential foundation of all qigong.
Tranquility is the reason why qigong can heal.

Taiji is one kind of qigong.
The only difference between moving qigong and taiji forms:
Taiji choreography is intended to instill complex motor skills—
The ability to move (and therefore exert force) efficiently and with balance, in any direction and over any distance (short, medium, and long range) and with force expressed with any part of the body – the martial application.

Taijiquan Training and Martial Application—In a Nutshell

Sitting and standing meditation, dynamic qigong and forms to build gong:
balance, agility, flexibility, strength, coordination.
To build and understand the elastic force and internal power.
Internal power (nei dan gongfu) is not natural ability.
It must be learned.
Peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie/zhou/kao are simply motor skills –
movement (and therefore force expression) in any direction (up, backward, forward, down, diagonal, and opposing) and over any length/duration (long, medium and short range expressed through hands/feet, elbows/knees, and shoulders/hips).
In combination peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie/zhou/kao include every possible direction and length/duration of movement – there is no balanced strike in any martial art not practiced in taijiquan.
Push hands to learn to harmonize with others.
To not enter the fight (struggle directly against) while maintaining mental and physical balance. To learn to calibrate and express internal force without forfeiting balance or tiring. To continue building internal power.
Cooperating and resisting partners are both necessary.
Agile as a cat, solid as a mountain.
Footwork is crucial to neutralize and engage.
If sticking/listening in engagement then quickness is no issue;
No strike can reach you.
Sticking requires calibrated expression of force – not too much, not too little.
It is not a game to see how lightly two people can touch.
Silk-reeling to neutralize linear force with spiraling movement, and to express force generated from the core through the extremities without loss of power.
Never bent, limp, or weak – always upright, rooted, balanced, and powerful.
“Four ounces to deflect 1000 pounds” refers to efficiency of force exertion, not total force output.
No technique. Tremendous skill.
As you learn more about yourself, and about others, the probability of a physical altercation approaches zero.
Bringing practice to daily life is the goal.
Harmony with all around us.
Nurturing, balance, moderation, tranquility and awareness in everything we do.
With your whole being, develop your life.
The older the wiser, the stronger, and the happier.
The waters keep getting deeper – who has reached bottom?

LiBai

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Two poems and understanding peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie/zhou/kao

3 thoughts on “Two poems and understanding peng/lu/ji/an/cai/lie/zhou/kao

  • Tai chi is known for its “songs” and silky moves
    may you become known for these excellent poems.
    The literary tradition contains many secrets
    a passion revealed in continued practice.
    Many steps to arrive at oneness.
    The way has Installed a rough and smooth course.
    Best follow nature
    prepare to invest in loss.

  • Brilliant, succinct summary of the ba fa. I hope you’ll also talk about the 5 steps, which is something that’s never made much sense to me. I mean, of course we go forward, back, left and right; why are we even talking about this? The only sense I can make out of it is to say, “keep the central equilibrium whatever direction you’re going in”. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe a great deal. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it– though I’ve noticed that there’s always a lot of discussion of the ba fa, and rarely, or never, much about the stepping methods.

    The poems are exquisite. Thanks!

    1. I believe you are exactly right – the 5 directions (left, right, forward, backward and central equilibrium) simply refer to the objective of moving in any direction (or remaining still and rooted) while maintaining central equilibrium. This is what western boxers call footwork, while the eight forces are expression of force. (In Newtonian mechanics every force ultimately reduces to either a push or a pull in a specific direction). Everything, of course, works together. Footwork/angles are extremely important in self-defense, but this I think is another topic . . .

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