Learning the form is an entry way into Taijiquan. It is like learning vocabulary when we first go to school. However, we go to school not only to learn vocabulary, but also to learn how to communicate more effectively. Studying vocabulary is really just the first step. Similarly, once you learn the movements and the techniques in the form, you must further comprehend the principles and theories of the movements. If you don’t follow this path, what you acquire is simply an empty frame, and you’ll never be able to transform your internal ability into a new form of energy. But first we must understand what is “Eight Gates and Five Steps.”
“Eight Gates and Five Steps,” also referred to as “The Thirteen Postures,” is an important aspect of Taijiquan. One can never enter the door of Taijiquan if one does not practice the “Eight Gates and Five Steps.” During form practice, we are required to become a three-dimensional circle without losing our balance. The elders of the Art defined “Eight Gates” as the “Four Cardinals” and “Four Corners,” i.e., ward off, roll back, squeeze, press, pluck, split, elbow, and lean (Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao). In reality, these terms have two kinds of meaning. First, the direction of the Jin is indicated, Second, these are the names of the “power” (Jin) used in Taijiquan. Nonetheless, these two meanings are really talking about the same thing. During form practice, the body has to maintain a three-dimensional spherical structure. Once this sphere moves, the eight different directions will generate eight different directional Taiji Jin, collectively call the “Eight-Gate Jin.” This Jin comes from the center of the sphere and expands and spirals outward, and does not initiate from the hands, legs, or other body parts independently. If any part of the body initiates the force separately, the Jin will travel in a straight line, and when it encounters resistance it becomes a “directly opposing” (ding) Jin. This is against Taijiquan principles. Another way to explain “Eight-Gate Jin” is that it consists of: up, down, front, back, left, right, internal, external, which represents a perfect sphere. When using the two fundamental ways of power generation - spiral and open/close - it becomes the “Eight-Gate Jin.” If the sphere is formed uniformly, the Jin will distribute evenly throughout the entire body. Once the intent arrives, open becomes expansion, and close becomes contraction. There will also be close within open, and open within close. The external opening is the same as internal closing, and external closing is the same as internal opening. Every movement involves expanding and contracting in a spiral fashion, resulting in a sphere rolling around. This is the foundation in the generation of “Eight-Gate Jin.”
Elders of the Art had their own individual interpretation of the “Eight-Gate Jin.” Some put the emphasis on body positions; others focused more on the directionality of the Jin. Unfortunately, none really articulated the focus of “Eight-Gate Jin,” which has caused a lot of confusion for us followers. To explain in simpler terms, the total Jin of Taijiquan is “ward off” (Peng) Jin, which comes from the rebounding Jin produced by release of the body weight on the ground. The remaining Seven Gate Jin can be described as the Peng Jin produced by the sphere of the body rotating in different directions. Having this Jin means that “when one part moves, all parts are moving,” so that one can control and counter all directions.
“Five Step” is left, gaze, right, glance, and center. Starting with the center, our spine, left and right are the front left and right 45 degree corners; and gaze and glance refer to the rear left and right 45 degree corners. This pattern is like the number five on the face of a dice. The three-dimensional circle we form with our body is alive, and can move left and right. But regardless of how we move, we must not lose our central equilibrium. The spine should be erect and sink down, while the tail bone section remains vertical and centered, and does not sway. Once the center is gone, equilibrium cannot be maintained. Therefore, one must always gently suspend the head (xū lǐng dǐng jìn) and sink the Qi to Dantian (qì chén dāntián), so the spine will have a feeling of an up-and-down counter pull and thus maintain erectness.
Using the legs to move forward, backward, left and right is a way for the body to rotate and turn in different directions. When you put the soles of your feet on the ground, no matter how you move, your body weight should really rest on only a single point. Furthermore, this point should be constantly switching between the soles of the two feet much like a droplet of water rolling on the surface of a Chinese lotus leaf. This way, you are moving like a ball rolling on the ground with the point of contact being a small point that is constantly changing. How this point changes will depend on how one follows and responds to incoming force. However, we must recognize that our body is not really a ball, so to train our body to behave like a ball will take a lot of time and effort. This way of moving is not just used in form practice, but should also be used for fajin (power emission). If you push down solidly on your legs, you are using brute force, which is against Taijiquan principles, and you would not be able to utilize gravity. In the Taijiquan Treatise, this “double-weightiness” is clearly described as a “sickness.” To overcome this problem, one has to improve the way one uses the waist and legs so that the contact point of the body weight keeps changing.
Speaking of the contact point of body weight, we cannot ignore the discussion of “rooting.” The “root” in Taijiquan is alive and does not necessarily reside entirely in the legs. It could be located at the top of your head, i.e., you can maintain balance by gently lifting up the top of your head. Let’s look at a bop bag. No matter how you push it, it always bounces back. This is because its bottom is round and the contact point of force can change according to the external push. Its body (its “spine”) and head remain vertical and erect. If you break the neck of the bop bag and let its head hang to one side, this will produce a completely different effect. The bop bag will fall down! In external martial arts, the focus is often on developing a horse stance that is deeply rooted down. However, this is just a practice of using force against force unilaterally. Using force against force is “to oppose forcefully,” which is not sought in Taijiquan. This external practice may be very powerful at the point of contact, but the other directions are so weak that even a slight push will cause one to lose balance. Because one uses force, this type of horse stance is very easily uprooted. A skillful Taijiquan practitioner will take advantage of the slight rebounding force of his opponent’s body to easily uproot him. Meanwhile, the point of contact of his body weight keeps changing so his root is alive. Furthermore, if the top of his head remains buoyant, his root will be hidden and he can never be uprooted.
By Patrick SW CHAN 陳少華
Translated by Dominic and Theresa Chan