“Mind-Intent” and Force: Hong Junsheng’s Perspectives
Posted by Editor on September 24, 2006
Reply to Wujimon: Focus for Form Practice, Point 3
Here we reply to Wujimon’s Point three, (go here for reply to points 1 & 2, and here, for original post) which raised some issues relevant to Hong’s valuable contributions to Chen Style Taiji theory and practice.
Wujimon’s Point 3:
Physically, the move is still the same whether going in/out, it’s just the intention is shifting depending on action, correct? Ie .. intention on elbow when moving in, intention on finger when moving out, yet physically there is no difference in movement as the elbow and hand are connected by the frame of the body.
Another excellent question. But this time we have to explore some very different angles.
First, before getting into a consideration of Hong’s Practical Method relative to your question, let’s consider what it means to say “just the intention”, and “physically there is no difference”. That opens up a whole can of worms, as it seems to imply somehow mind and body are these two separate entities in some mechanistic view of the “physical” body controlled by the “abstract” mind. We know from modern scientific understanding, in biology, physics, psycho-physiology, etc., that this old Newtonian view of human existence just doesn’t hold any water. Even rudimentary understanding of things like “muscle memory”, “cellular intelligence”, “holistic approach to health”, even the general concepts of “mind body coordination”, etc. —- all these things reflect a world view where it is not meaningful or productive to consider mind and body as separate.
Now, when we look at Taiji movement in particular, we add even greater emphasis to the unifying values of mind body integration. We might consider that to be one of the foremost foundations of internal martial arts. The standard principle, expressed in so many different ways by different teachers, conveys the idea that intention becomes integrated into the physical structure, so that structure, movement, and power flow directly from intention. Pick up most any issue of Tai Chi Magazine, and some article will refer to the principle: yi leads the chi, and chi leads the li. As in, intention leads the chi, which leads the physical.
Now, to consider the question with the benefit of perspectives we might gather from Hong’s book, Volume One on Theory. Let’s look at some of his writings which specifically address the issues of mind intent, and relationships between intention and force, and force and skill.
In his introduction, Hong includes a section, “Mind-Intent, Strength, and Dynamics”. He writes,
“Mind-intent is a desire, not an empty fantasy… the learning of Chen Style Taijiquan requires the use of ‘mind-intent’ as opposed to awkward force. However, this does not negate the use of force. One should combine force with skill.”
Then, of course, throughout the entire text which follows, Hong develops his theories as to the various requirements which lead to the development of the skill which emerges from the correct training methods. But before we consider that aspect, let us look at Hong’s further consideration of the context of force and power.
In his preface to “Annotations on Taiji Treatises” (the classic work of Wang Zongyue, of the Qing Dynasty), Hong addresses the problems which evolved over the centuries, from teachers misinterpreting those writings. He lamented these misunderstandings, which he felt revealed that:
“…there is no clear understanding of what the text is about. For example, the text ‘…it obviously is not power that wins’ and ‘what can speed do’ were originally criticisms of the natural abilities, and reminders to the learners to ‘learn to use force’, not a negation of the use of ‘force’, ‘speed’, and ‘ability’. The intent was in the scientific use of power, to utilize the ‘four ounces’ of a small power, to move the ‘thousand pounds’ of a greater power. Using power minimally and efficiently will naturally cause ‘speed’.
However, some ‘learned’ practitioners of Taiji could not understand the original meaning. Thus they put their emphasis on “intent’ and ‘qi’, and as a result, they reject the word ‘force’. Even worse, they created the absurd notion of ‘slow defeating fast’, which no doubt changed science into superstition.”
He wrote further that this unfortunate history of losing correct Taiji knowledge led to the modern practice of participants in push hands competitions using only awkward force, as opposed to the application of true Taiji skills. In that same section, he then introduced what he described as his eventual understanding of the skill,
” ‘follow the curve, and open into the straight line’ refers to the spiral movements of Taijiquan.”
In this statement he begins to address his position as to the “skills” which enable Taiji practitioners to “learn to use force” with greater efficiency. His own push hands experimentation enabled him to formulate his theories on double weighting, and of the functional relationships of upper body and lower body coordination, of separation of heavy and empty on left and right sides, and front and back of the body. He elaborated on these in great detail throughout his work, concluding in his realization of “how to lead, so as to understand ‘Four ounces can move one thousand pounds’ “. For Hong , Chen Style offers the important contribution of cultivating usage of spiral movements, to develop the skills which facilitate “minimal” and “efficient” use of lesser force to overcome greater force.
Later, in his “Annotations”, on Verse Three, Hong elaborates further, addressing the relationship of soft and hard:
“When the opponent attacks with hard strength, I must flow (neutralize) with softness. On the surface, this is a simple statement. In reality, when beginners use softness to neutralize hardness, they will easily lose power (be deficient).
Therefor, we must understand how to use hardness and softness. What is soft and what is hard? How do the two coordinate and exchange? Without learning Chen Style Taijiquan, or learning Chen Style Taijiquan without understanding silk reeling, the hard and soft energies are both, unavoidably, the straight lines of advance or retreat…..Therefor the perception of the learner is that hardness will result in a head on collision, while softness will result in losing control…..”
Hong goes on to point out the value of the circular movements of Chen style, in adjusting for straight line power, with coordinated rotation of body parts to always meet the opponent’s force with the appropriate hardness or softness, as required at the point of contact. He describes this as a process whereby the circular movement revolves to a point where it changes into a triangle, when it encounters the opening of the opponent’s movement creating a point of force, exposing their vulnerability. He states:
“But how can one be with the flow while the opponent is against the flow? I believe this has to do with the coordination during the spiral movement of the torso, stance, and hand techniques. In general, when self-rotating, shun and ni must be governed by the opponent’s changes. The revolving movement must change into triangles according to the opponent’s movements.”
We see from this sequence of Hong’s writing, that issues such as the relationship of intention and physical force, and the relationship between force and power, and softness vs. power, all come down to understanding and development of true Taiji skills. In particular, the unique skill of Chen Style is the skill of coiling with the silk reeling energy, driven by the coordinated rotations of joints throughout the body, which allow for maintenance of solid structure, with the alignment for correct angles to be employed in response to the opponent’s movements. Rather than “awkward force”, it is the skill of integrating these objective principles, developed through correct practice.
Hong’s Practical Method arrived at its theories and practices through decades of its evolution in applications employed by Hong in actual practice. In his annotations on Verse Seven, Hong used an analogy comparing Taiji to calligraphy and writing. He wrote:
“Every movement in Taijiquan is like a dot or stroke in Chinese calligraphy. Every form is like a sentence in an article. One routine is like the whole article. In learning, one must first of all recognize the shape of he characters, the pronunciation of the characters , and the meaning of the characters. Then he can use these characters to make sentences. Eventually, he will be able to write a whole article. Push hands is like making a sentence. Free sparring is like composing articles….
Therefor, I believe push hands is a stage of learning used to test the correctness of movements after learning the routines. The secrets (subtleties) should be learned through learning the moves, and then having the teacher explain and test the applications on you. This method should give one a rough understanding of the subtleties.”
Obviously, in this discussion, we have gone a little bit further than merely answering the question of intention and its physical correlates, in connection with Taiji movements. But this is a very important issue, when we put it into the context of so many misunderstandings that have cropped up over the years, when people think of Taiji as a “mysterious” practice, with the “mental” aspect being somehow separated from the physical outcome of Taiji techniques. We can see that Hong was sensitive to this “confusion”, and that he sought to always clarify the mechanics and processes to help students achieve the expected results. If the practitioner is able to achieve his “mind intent” with successful applications in push hands or free sparring, utilizing the desired Taiji principles, as opposed to crude force, then it is a sign of good progress. The “scientific” method Hong advocated was to try it out, apply it with guidance from the teacher, and find out what really works.
So then, it might be reasonable to ask, what is the value of reading and writing about these things, anyway — if it is all about “the proof is in the pudding”? Well, the hope is that there might be some insights gained that might steer us in a slightly better direction, if we have been laboring under some basic incorrect assumptions. Hong’s writing can be seen as the endeavor of a true scholarly warrior to analyze, test, clarify, and express certain principles for correct Taiji practice, in a manner which might allow readers to get a somewhat more concrete understanding of the basics and subtleties. In this article we have attempted to bring out some of his expressions which reveal his insightful perspectives, common sense, and his ability to bring clarity to issues which often got very muddled by other teachers —- issues which still confuse many students to this day. Hopefully, some better understanding can lead to some more fruitful practice.