A Treatise on Nine Essential Concepts
The First Essential Concept
It is universally true that all disordered things would be integrated and all separated things would unite as a whole. Therefore, things between heaven and earth and from all directions have their own places though they come in all shapes and sizes. This means that one ultimate origin can evolve into ten thousand variations and ten thousand variations would be integrated into one ultimate origin. There have been discussions aplenty about martial arts, which, in a nutshell, are all movements and movements are nothing but qi. Though movements vary from each other, qi is the common element they share. What is one? From head to toe the human body is comprised by internal organs inside and covered by the skin and flesh outside. And all these body parts are integrated into one well-connected unit. It would not break up upon impact nor would it fall apart when hit. When the upper part moves, the lower part follows. When the lower part moves, the upper part leads. When the upper and the lower parts move, the middle part propels their movement. When the middle part moves, the upper and the lower parts act in cooperation. The outer and the inner are integrated. The front and the rear work in coordination. This is what oneness means. This is not something that can be achieved by forcing yourself through it. Instead, it can only be achieved through incessant and diligent practice. When the situation requires you to remain motionless, you should keep a peaceful mind and stand still like a mountain. When the situation requires you to move, you should act like a dragon or a tiger. Your attack should be lightning fast. When you stop moving, all your body parts come to a halt effortlessly. When you start to move, all your body parts go into action unimpeded. Your attacks should be as overwhelming as a great river forcing its way downstream and as fast as gunshot leaving people with no time to cover their ears. You should take your opponent by surprise so that your attacks hit its target in an unanticipated way and without being noticed. Can such proficiency be developed out of nothing? Qi must be accumulated day by day. Martial skills would be perfected through incessant practice. If you want to get a glance at this esoteric art passed down from generation to generation, you must first broaden your horizons and become a cultivated person. Eventually you will achieve the state of mental clarity. Improvement would be made gradually. So you should not cut corners. Instead, you should be patient, do things step by step, and upgrade yourself from one stage to another. Finally all the body parts will be well-connected and well-coordinated. When this state is achieved, disordered things will be integrated and separated parts will be united into one.
The Second Essential Concept
There is nothing between heaven and earth that only goes one way without going back. Nor is there anything that does not curve, but travel only in straight lines. It is a universally true law that everything has its opposite and anything moving forwards would come around. The concept of qi has been involved in the discussions about martial arts. Qi is one. How can it be divided into two separated things? Two refers to inhaling and exhaling, which represent respectively yin and yang. A marital art cannot be without motion and motionlessness. Qi cannot be without inhaling and exhaling. Inhaling is yin and exhaling is yang. Motionlessness is yin and motion is yang. Those going down are yin while those going up are yang. When qi of yang ascends, it has the nature of yang. When qi of yang descends, it becomes yin. When qi of yin ascends, it becomes yang. When qi of yin descends, it still belongs to yin. This is how things are classified in terms of yin and yang. What are purity and impurity? Those going up are pure while those going down are impure. Pure qi goes up while impure qi goes down. Purity belongs to yang and impurity belongs to yin. Yin and yang complement each other. If you see it as a whole, it is qi. If you see it as two things, they are yin and yang. Qi cannot be without both yin and yang. A human cannot be without motion and stillness. A mouth cannot be without air going in and out. A nose cannot be without carrying out the functions of inhaling and exhaling. This is called the principle of oppositeness and cyclicality. Although qi has two aspects, they are actually one. Those who are serious in martial arts should not take this concept lightly.
The Third Essential Concept
Qi is generated from the human body. Although the body consists of a myriad of parts, they can generally be divided into three sections, namely, the upper, the middle and the lower (these three sections can also be understood as the base, the link, and the end). In the case of the entire body, the head is the upper section, the torso is the middle, and the legs are the lower. In the case of the head, tianting (the forehead) is the upper section, the nose is the middle, and the chin is the lower. In the case of the torso, the chest is the upper section, the abdomen is the middle, and dantian (positioned about two inches beneath and behind the navel) is the lower. In the case of the lower body, the hips are the bases, the knees are the links, and the feet are the ends. In the case of the arms, the shoulders are the bases, the elbows are the links, and the hands are the ends. In the case of the hands, the wrists are the bases, the palms are the links, and the fingers are the ends. It would not be necessary for us to discuss the feet. This principle of three-section division can apply to any body part from head to toe. What is important is to know the principle of three-section division and pay attention to it. If you do not have a good understanding of the upper section, you will have nothing to base on. If you do not have a good understanding of the middle section, you will be empty all over. If you do not have a good understanding of the lower section, you will be apt to fall. So how can this principle not be taken seriously? When qi comes into action, it starts from the end, followed by the link, and driven by the base. This is a picture depicted from the perspective of division. If we see the body as a whole, from crown to sole it is nothing but one single unit despite the fact that it is made up by numerous body parts. From this point of view, then what are the three sections of it? And what are the three subsections of these three respective sections?
The Fourth Essential Concept
In addition to the body and qi, we are going to talk about extremities. Extremities are the ends of the body. They have been given little attention in the past discussions about the body and qi. As martial power is internally-generated and qi is transferred from within to the extremities, qi will be insubstantial if it does not come from within the body. But if it cannot reach the extremities, it will still be insubstantial despite its seeming substantiality. So how could we not elaborate on extremities? However, if we merely focus on fingers and toes, we will only touch on the extremities of the body. And the extremities of qi are still not discussed. What actually are the four extremities? Hair is one of them. As hair is not one of the four limbs nor was it mentioned in the theory of five elements, it seems to be so insignificant. In fact, hair is the extremity of blood and blood is the sea of qi. Hair seems to be irrelevant in the discussion about qi. But the generation of qi would not be successful without blood. When blood is involved, so is hair. The extremity of blood is considered to be in good shape when hair is thick and grows exuberantly. The tongue is the extremity of the flesh and the flesh is the container of qi. If qi cannot reach the extremity of the flesh, qi will not be energized to capacity. The extremity of the flesh is considered to be in good shape when the tongue is strong. The extremity of the bones is teeth and the extremity of the sinews is nails. Qi is generated from bones and converges in the sinews. If it does not reach the teeth, it will not reach the extremity of the bones. If it does not reach the nails, it will not reach the extremity of the sinews. When the teeth are so strong that they seem to be able to cut through the flesh and the nails are so strong that they seem to be able to penetrate the bones, then the four extremities are considered to be in good condition. When the four extremities are in good condition, qi will grow to its full capacity. Then how could it still be plagued by the problem of insubstantiality?
The Fifth Essential Concept
A martial art is measured in terms of its martial actions, which are in turn measured in terms of qi. A human comes into being when his five viscera are formed. That means the five viscera are the sources of qi. In other words, the five viscera, namely, the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys, are the sources of human vitality. The heart has the nature of fire, with the characteristic of fiery ascension. The liver has the nature of wood, with the characteristic of growing into curved and straight forms. The spleen has the nature of earth, representing depth and thickness. The lungs have the nature of metal, characterized by its capacity of being remolded. The kidneys have the nature of water, moistening and flowing downwards. These are the characteristics of the five viscera. Each organ has it own function. That is why they cannot be ignored in any discussion about martial arts. The lungs are housed in the chest, serving as the canopy of other internal organs. When the lung meridian goes into action, all other organs would not stay still. The heart is situated in the center of the breast and flanked by the lungs. Positioned under the lungs and above the stomach is the heart meridian. The heart is the master. When the heart fire flares up, the auxiliary fire of the two kidneys would come into its assistance. In between two sides of ribs are the liver and the spleen, which are respectively on the right and left. The kidneys are located at the fourteenth lumbar vertebrae. These are the positions of the five viscera. But the five viscera are connected to the back via the kidneys. The waist is where the kidneys are situated. So the waist is the body part of the utmost importance as it is the root of other internal organs. When the kidney water is abundant, metal, wood, water, fire and earth are all in a vital and robust state. And these five elements are respectively embodied by the five viscera. Although the five viscera have their own positions, they are also interconnected to different body parts. The crown and the skull belong to the kidneys, so do the ears. The lips, cheeks belong to the spleen. The sideburns belong to the lungs. Tianting is the master of the head and is where the essences of the five viscera converge. It is the chief of the head and commander of the entire body. Yintang (the part in between the eyebrows) is the most important part of the stomach qi of the Yangming meridian. Qi generated from tianting passes through this part. Qi generated would reach the six yang meridians by way of the kidneys. So this part is the pivot of tianting. The eyes belong to the liver. But if we break them down into details, the upper eyelids belong to the spleen, the lower eyelids belong to the stomach, the outer eye corners belong to the heart meridian, the inner eye corners belong to the small intestine, the whites (of the eyes) belong to the lungs, the blacks (of the eyes) belong to the liver, and the pupils belong to the kidneys. So the eyes are actually places where the essences of the five viscera assemble and not belong exclusively to the liver. The nostrils belong to the lungs while the lower cheeks belong to the kidneys. The ears belong to the meridian of the gall bladder while the protruded bones behind the ears belong to the kidneys. The nose is situated in the center. So it belongs to earth, serving as the source of the vitality of all creatures. It is in fact the master of the central qi. The part in between the nose and the lips is called renzhong, which is an important place because it is where blood and qi meet before they surge upwards to Yintang and tianting in the end. The concave part below the lips is called chengjiang, below which lies dige (the chin). Dige echoes with tianting and is the base of the kidney meridian. The crown is where blood and qi converge and through which the paths of the five viscera pass. At the front of it lies the passage through which food and air go in and out. At the rear of it lies the pathway through which qi of kidney ascends and descends. Qi of the liver turns left from it while qi of the spleen turns right. It is of great importance and is the leader of the entire body. The breast belongs to the liver while the shoulders belong to the lungs. The elbows belong to the kidneys. The four limbs belong to the spleen, so do the shoulder-blade area. The ten fingers belong to the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys respectively. Both the knees and calves belong to the kidneys. The heels are the crucial parts of the kidneys. Yongquan (acupuncture points at the soles of the feet) are the acupuncture points of the kidneys. These are generally how the body parts are related to the five viscera. The parts that protrude belong to the heart while the parts that cave in belong to the lungs. The parts where the bones are exposed belong to the kidneys. The parts where the sinews interconnect belong to the liver. The parts where the flesh is thick belong to the spleen. Toelaborate on them in terms of their meaning, the heart is like a ferocious tiger and the liver is like an arrow. The spleen symbolizes unequalled strength and power. The meridian of the liver is the most flexible. Qi of the kidneys is as swift as the wind when it goes into motion. These are their applications. When a meridian is in use, all the body parts connected to that meridian would not stay idle. This is something beyond words and can only be experienced by the practitioners of this art. As for their mutually generative and restrictive effects, we are going to deal with them here. In essence, the five elements and all the body parts are nothing but one unit. The four limbs and three centers are integrated into one qi. In that case, is it necessary for us to be specific on one particular meridian and discuss them one by one?
The Sixth Essential Concept
The harmony between mind and will, the harmony between qi and strength, and the harmony between sinews and bones, these three are the three internal harmonies. The harmony between hands and feet, the harmony between elbows and knees, and the harmony between shoulders and hips, these three are the three external harmonies. Collectively, they are known as the six harmonies. If the left hand harmonizes with the right foot, the left elbow harmonizes with the right knee, the left shoulder harmonizes with the right hip, or the other way around, and the head harmonizes with the hands, the hands harmonizes with the body, and the body harmonizes with the footwork, are they not external harmonies? If the heart harmonizes with the eyes, the liver with the sinews, the spleen with the flesh, the lungs with the body, and the kidneys with the bones, are they not internal harmonies? These all are variations of harmony. In short, when one part moves, all parts move; when one part stops, all parts stop. This is a rule applicable to the five viscera and all other body parts.
The Seventh Essential Concept
As the place where the six yang meridians converge, the head is the master of the entire body. All the body parts are dependent on it. So the head must be the first to advance. The hands are vanguards with their bases at the shoulders. If the shoulders do not advance, the hands and feet will not move forwards. Qi concentrates on the wrists and the waist functions as the driving mechanism. If the waist does not advance, qi will be weak and insubstantial. So the advance of the waist is crucial. Though your mind should be on your entire body from crown to sole, maneuverability lies in footwork. You are not getting anywhere if you do not bring your steps forwards. That is why steps must be brought forwards. When you take a step forwards with your right foot, your left foot must follow, and vice versa. All of these above are known as “seven advances”. They are nothing but the ways of generating force from the ground. Without these advances, the entire body is devoid of the momentum of moving forwards. With these advances, all body parts could move ahead in sync unimpeded.
The Eighth Essential Concept
The movements of the body are instrumental when you are in a fight. What are the movements of the body? They are straight movement, lateral movement, upward movement, downward movement, advance, retreat, 180-degree turn, and 90-degree turn. When you move forwards in a straight line, you thrust with all your power without thought of retreat. When you make a lateral movement, you compress your force and blaze the way. When you move upwards, you should stretch your body as if it became longer. When you move downwards, you should shrink your body as if it became more compact. When it is necessary for you to advance, you should a make a bold lunge with full force. When it is necessary for you to retreat, you should hold back your power and make leeway for maneuver. When you make a 180-degree turn, your rear becomes your front. When you make a 90-degree turn, how could those on your left and right not be prevailed? This should be done in a bold way. Observe the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent and maneuver yourself in response. You can move forwards or sideways in response to the situation. There is no one magic formula for all scenarios. You should move upwards or downwards according to the circumstances. So how could you stick to one fixed strategy? When the situation compels you to move ahead, you should not move back lest your momentum would be adversely affected. When it is time for you to move back, you should use the retreat as leeway for maneuvering ahead. Then retreat is advance. In other words, retreat is actually a way to help you move forwards. When you turn around to mind your rear, your rear is no longer your rear. If you turn to your side, your side is no longer your side. Generally speaking, observe with your eyes and think with your heart. The key lies in the body. When your body advances, your limbs move along without order. When your body remains inert, all the body parts become sluggish. So how could the movements of the body not be discussed?
The Ninth Essential Concept
The movements of all the body parts are in fact based on footwork. Footwork is the foundation of the body and the pivot of all movements. When you are in a fight, the key to victory lies in body movement and the base of body movement rests on footwork. You cope with the changing situation with hand techniques. But the change of hand techniques is enabled by footwork. How can you advance, retreat, turn around, turn right or left without footwork? How can you extend or shrink your body without footwork? Watch with your eyes and analyze with your mind. With proper footwork, you can turn and position yourself to all directions effortlessly and unpredictably. You act without awareness and react automatically. When your body is about to move, your footwork has already gone into action. When your hands are about to move, your footwork leads the way. You achieve your objective without being aware of it. You move without being thinking about moving. This is what is described as: when the upper part is about to move, the lower part automatically follows. Your feet can be divided into the lead foot and the rear foot in terms of their positions. That is what is called foot position. However, we can also say that there is no such thing as foot position. When the lead foot moves forwards, the rear foot follows. Then we can say that the feet can be divided into the lead foot and the rear foot. But by reversing the positions of the feet, the lead foot would become the rear foot and vice versa. And by reversing their positions again, the lead foot would become the lead foot again after becoming the rear foot, and vice versa. In that case, we can say that there is no such thing as foot position. In short, martial arts are made up by movements with footwork as the key. Flexibility lies in footwork. Mobility also lies in footwork. So footwork is of great importance.
Translated by Lam Lap Wai
“A Treatise on Nine Essential Concepts” is my
translation of Jiu Yao Lun, a classic text highly valued
by the Zhaobao Taijiquan community. The same text
with one additional passage was entitled “Ten
Essential Concepts of Taijiquan” (Taijiquan Shi Da Yao
Lun), with its authorship attributed to Chen Changxing,
by the Chen Style Taijiquan community. However, this
piece is probably a creation of neither the Zhaobao
community nor Chen clan. Instead, it was borrowed
from Xinyiquan. In some sources, the authorship was
attributed to Yue Fei (1103-1142), a famous and much
respected general in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). In
any case, I’ve translated it and think that it would be of
some use to Taijiquan or Xinyiquan practitioners alike
or even the wider martial arts community. Feel free to
comment on or correct it. And if you want to quote it
somewhere, it would be appreciated if you have the
courtesy of acknowledging the translatorship.