Physical Training Aug 2007
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Fa-jing in Tai Chi Chuan – Modern Science Perspective

copyright © 2007 Tim Chan See Meng, all rights reserved

I recall a period of time when there was a diabolical debate over the exact angle of the rear foot relative to the rest of the body position. For instance, many diverse views were shared on the change in foot stance of Yang Chengfu from his hey days to the latter years. One interesting comment that struck me was if it feels good or comfortable, then it is probably right. Similarly, there was also a time when many questioned whether one should consciously tuck in the coccyx when one performs the Tai Chi routine. One advice that came out of the public forum was to try it out - if it doesn’t feel natural then one is doing it incorrectly. 

Yang Chengfu, c1918
Yang Chengfu, circa 1918           

Yang Chengfu later years
Yang Chengfu, latter years

While these suggestions may sound logical and pragmatic, it can be quite daunting, especially for a beginner to appreciate what is natural or comfortable. For a start, if one is a beginner, all the movements are naturally unnatural and uncomfortable. Some notable characteristics of Tai Chi movements are relaxation ( 松腰 ), continuity ( 相連不斷 ), focused and meditative ( 用意不用力).

If it is an essential principle to tuck in the coccyx and yet one has to deliberately ensure this is maintained throughout the routine, I would be surprised if one can stay relaxed, focused and rooted to the ground for long. In such a situation, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether the principle is wrong or the Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) routine we are practicing is flawed. My point is taking the empirical approach alone by trying things out on trial and error basis is not going to take us far in resolving any of the above issues. Instead of just gauging whether we feel good or natural, we should find out the ‘why’ which I feel is equally important, if not more.

Recently, it has come to my attention that some practitioners are questioning whether the upper torso and head should be upright, perpendicular to the ground. Videotapes and even drawings of great masters like Yang Chengfu, Yang Sau Chong and Dong Ying Chieh have shown otherwise. My teacher, master Dong Ying Chieh certainly never taught me to assume this upright position. Master Yang Chengfu emphasized that one should sink the chest and pluck the back ( 含胸拔背 ),and straighten the head ( 虛靈頂勁 ).This leaves us to wonder whether these principles have been misunderstood and exaggerated in the forms. Let alone whether it is natural or not, I find it personally quite a challenge to fully sink the chest and pluck the back at the same time if one has to assume the upright perpendicular position.

Master Yang Luchan ( 楊露禪), and the second-generation masters are no longer around to elucidate the principles of the art. However, what they have left behind is their valuable insights captured in a few literary books known today as the Tai Chi classics. These masters had no qualms about putting the art to the test, eager to challenge and be challenged. It was a reality check that ensured the effectiveness of the art. Technology was not on their side to allow them to prove or refine the art in a more scientific way.

We live in a different world today. We are more restrained and much less inclined, for various reasons, to using the same approach as these masters. However, I still look forward to seeing a TCC master participating in the Japan K1 fight. That said, we should be looking for a less violent and more structured approach to understanding the art. And I find we can achieve this objective by expounding Chinese wisdom through Western science such as relying on the discipline of physiology and mechanics. In fact, many have already done so and I feel a more systematic research and experiments can be done, documented and shared with all ardent practitioners of the art. I am not an expert in these scientific disciplines, but suffice to say it has helped explained clearly some of the amazing feats I have witnessed in TCC.

My teacher Dong Ying Chieh constantly reminded me to move the waist (Yiao) and not the hip girdle (Kwa) to guide the shoulders. Otherwise, the twisting action is exaggerated and one loses core stability. If I had not known what make up the Kwa and the associated range of waist motion it supports, I would have a difficult time in correcting and convincing my students.

Let’s consider a spring coil that is compressed tightly as depicted in the diagram below. An inward force from the wall equally balances the inward force from the compression. This creates inertia within the coil. When the spring is released, acceleration creates a net outward ‘explosive’ force. This is shown in the diagram where the coil springs forward.


How is this applicable in the context of Tai Chi fa-jing? Imagine the wall is the solid ground and the coil represents the human body. We need a solid base to assist in providing the forward thrust and this is none other than mother earth, the solid ground that we are constantly reminded to stay rooted via our legs. Even in executing a flying kick, we need the ground to provide the initial lift to the air.

When an opponent pushes, the force is absorbed and neutralised by transferring the impact to the ground through the feet. The absorbed force, added on with our own force, is then returned to the opponent. This is done using the supporting muscles and tendons to create a sudden rebound, a split second repulse action. Of course, we still have to rely on the ground to provide the backward thrust to maintain our balance.

Call it the wonders of God’s creation, evolution or whatever; the different parts of the body, such as the spine, are the way they are for good reasons. The entire skeletal structure is held together and supported by muscle tissues and tendons of various shapes and sizes. Hence, if we want our body to be like a spring coil, we need to understand the best angle to position our legs, hands, torso and the associated muscle groups to use in order to attain the right body alignment to counter an incoming force through absorption, deflection or repulsion. In this regard, we can gain valuable insights from modern science.

And let us not forget the ultimate principle that the mental, physical and spiritual must move as one, in total unison. Once, we understand with the help of modern science, we are one significant step closer to the truth.

This is my layman attempt in using universal law of physics to explain the phenomenon of fa-jing. I hope this will kindle the interest of readers to use this mode of investigation to seek a more logical explanation to many principles of TCC, some of which have been mentioned earlier.

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Physical Training Aug 2007