Explosive Power

By Gene Ching and Gigi Oh

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine November/December 2013 In the late sixties, Bruce Lee literally exploded upon the American martial arts community with his now legendary one-inch punch. Lee's historic one-inch punch demonstration was witnessed by a live audience at one of the most important U.S. martial arts events of the times, the Long Beach International Karate Championships, hosted by Kenpo Grandmaster Ed Parker. Many of the forefathers of American martial arts established their reputations there, pioneers like Chuck Norris, Billy Blanks, Joe Lewis, Benny "the Jet" Urquidez and Bill "Superfoot" Wallace. Lee had already begun his rise to Hollywood stardom with his role as Kato on The Green Hornet, but he had yet to fully conquer the martial arts world. Lee repeated his one-inch punch demonstration time and time again at successive U.S. gatherings and on TV, and each time his critics were left awestruck. Even today, Bruce Lee's one-inch punch continues to be discussed on the Internet. Duped videos of Lee's demos have received millions of views on YouTube. "Reality" science TV shows like Stan Lee's Superhumans and Mythbusters have "investigated" the one-inch punch in sensational attempts to prove its reality, and to boost their ratings.

The one-inch punch is so fascinating because it plays to a deep-seated fantasy within the martial arts - to send an opponent flying with minimal effort. So many martial arts films depict villains being tossed through the air like rag dolls. It is superhero stuff, making Stan Lee's take on it quite appropriate. In actuality, such scenes are more of a testament to the acrobatic skills of the stunt-person villain than the martial arts skill of the hero.

Live martial arts demonstrations still showcase masters flinging their students about. This is most prevalent at Tai Chi demonstrations. Students are sent flying at the mere touch of a master. Such demonstrations are met with more skepticism, and rightly so. In Chinese, the student victim is called a xiashou (literally "under hand" ??), and more often than not they conspire with the master to make the fall more dramatic and spectacular. It's a shame, as such chicanery is painfully obvious, and only weakens the reputation of the martial arts as a whole.

But despite skepticism and deception, Bruce Lee's demonstrations don't appear staged. Many sources report that his one-inch punch was genuine. Such power lies well within the laws of physics, especially when the opponent is factored into the equation. Even Stan Lee's Superhumans and Mythbusters concluded that a one-inch punch was possible. However, both shows only used stationary targets to measure impact, and as any fighter knows, timing is everything. If the opponent is off balance, the impact of a one-inch punch is magnified. A cursory examination of Bruce Lee's demonstration footage reveals that his xiashou is standing erect, flat-footed and straight-legged, ready to receive the punch. Lee, on the other hand, is in a grounded horse stance, which he quickly shifts to a bow stance when delivering his punch. Given the posture of the two martial artists, and the astonishing speed that Bruce Lee had at his command, it isn't that unbelievable that Lee's xiashou was toppled so easily. The very physics of their respective postures gave Lee a tremendous advantage. It allowed him to perform his feat with that signature panache which made him so charismatic.

Tai Chi Almighty and an Intangible Cultural Asset
Bruce Lee introduced Kung Fu to the world like no other. He was a genuine original, but he also emerged from a traditional Chinese foundation. Despite his later criticisms of what he called "classical" styles, he stitched strong threads of traditional Chinese martial arts to hold together his unique rendition of the martial arts. The notion of the one-inch punch stems from what the Chinese martial arts calls "fajin (??)." Fajin, like so many Kung Fu terms, is a little tricky to translate. First of all, as with many Chinese terms, there are two spellings. Typically, spelling differences can be attributed to different systems of Romanization for Chinese characters. For example, the popular spelling of Tai Chi is more properly spelled Taiji (??) when using Pinyin Romanization, the most commonly accepted method to transliterate Chinese characters into the alphabet. Tai Chi is a non-systematic Romanization, but it was first so it is more accepted, and once established, it is difficult to correct language. But fajin is different. The second character can be transliterated as either fajin or fajing using Pinyin. This is a quirk of Pinyin. When transliterated as jing, the second character is often confused with another commonly-used Chinese martial arts term, jing (essence ?). Chinese has a lot of homonyms, compounded by the fact that the language is tonal, so the same sound might have completely different meanings depending upon the tone and context. What's more, some words have different tones, again depending upon the context.

Fa means to dispatch, emit, or issue. Jin or Jing means power, strong, tough, or unyielding. Fajin is commonly translated as "explosive power" or "issuing power." For many traditional Chinese martial arts styles, fajin is the key ingredient to powerful Kung Fu. It relies upon keeping the body soft in order to generate the most power, like a whip. Where many martial arts strike like a crowbar, styles that incorporate fajin strike like a ball on the end of a chain. Fajin does not photograph well. It is so dynamic that when frozen in a snapshot, it looks distorted and weird. It doesn't capture on video that well either. Even in high definition, videos get stuck with that same distortion. Fajin is best experienced firsthand. It can be witnessed issuing out of form recitals from great Kung Fu masters, but it is best experienced by feel. It can be felt much more powerfully than it can be seen. Bruce Lee's one-inch punch is a classic example of fajin; however, that is just one case. Fajin is not limited to this sort of demonstration alone, and many Kung Fu masters have a handle on fajin.

Fajin should not be confused with lin kong jin (pure empty force ???) despite the temptation. Practitioners of lin kong jin boast that they can throw opponents, even knock them out cold, without making any physical contact. Proponents claim they can do this by qi projection. While the notion of qi and qi projection does arise in discussions of fajin, lin kong jin extends the idea beyond the physical realm deep into the mystical. Although the resulting flying xiashou in lin kong jin demonstrations might appear similar to flying xiashou in fajin demos, there is a huge distinction. Having bodily contact makes all the difference in the world.

While many Chinese styles have fajin within their practice, the most overt example today lies within Chen style Tai Chi (????). Perhaps this is the most apparent here because the western perception of Tai Chi is that of a slow, meditative and soft practice. The explosive bursts of Chen Tai Chi fajin can be shocking for the uninitiated. "Most people practice soft and simple Tai Chi," states Master Chen Bing (??) in Mandarin. Chen is a leading proponent of Chen Tai Chi, a 20th generation master whose skill and outstanding competitive record has earned him certification as a "Chinese Intangible Cultural Asset of Tai Chi" and the nickname "Tai Chi Almighty (taiji quan neng ????)." "Most people see Chen Tai Chi fajin are surprised. They think it is Shaolin. They think it is too hard (for Tai Chi)." Chen has even heard of Chen practitioners getting kicked out of American public parks because the space was designated for Tai Chi practitioners only, and the occupants didn't think Chen style was soft enough.

Slow Down. Don't Force It.
Chen is a soft-spoken man, well-proportioned with the broad shoulders common to farming stock. He has exactly the sort of gentle presence and calm demeanor one might expect of a Tai Chi master. It is hard to imagine that this is the same man who reset his own severely dislocated middle finger during a Push Hands bout at the China National Championships. After which, he not only went on to defeat his opponent, he defeated two more and captured the gold. In China, Tai Chi Push Hands is much more rigorous, violent and injurious. Nevertheless, Pushing Hands with Master Chen can be very gentle and soft, depending on how he is approached. Like a true Tai Chi master, he reflects what he is given. After a lifetime of training, as soon as he makes contact, he instinctively searches for an opening, constantly coming in at alternate angles, but he never oversteps his defense. Only a violent action is met with a violent response. A passive push is accepted and dissolved gracefully.

Like most of the children raised in Chen Village, Chen Bing started practicing Tai Chi at a very young age. He began at age five, but admits he had no special feeling for the art for the first decade of his tutelage. He was just doing it like all of the other kids in the village. He did idolize Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang (???). "He could escape any lock," says Chen with admiration. "He was my hero." Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang is the 19th generation lineage holder, and was already traveling the globe to spread the art when Chen Bing was growing up. Chen Bing remembers how the grandmaster would return to Chen Village from his world travels and openly practice with everyone. No one could get close to him. Then, at nineteen, Chen Bing started to think seriously about his future. As he was the eldest of his generation, there were a lot of heavy expectations placed on him. At that point, he realized his responsibility and started to dedicate himself to his unique heritage with the utmost seriousness.

"In the beginning, all Chen Village kids do fajin, punching and kicking," states Master Chen. "It didn't feel right for me. I was getting headaches. So I decided to not force it. I slowed everything down to make it more natural. If the movement took half a second, I took a full second to practice it." Many practitioners are too literal about form practice. They imagine that the movements in a form are exactly like how they are used in combat. It is a somewhat absurd notion, especially when it comes to Tai Chi as no one fights in slow motion. Tai Chi forms are recited slowly as an exercise, not as a literal application. "Most people understand the surface," observes Master Chen, "but they don't really understand."

Forms are frameworks for transmission, sculpted by generations of masters and constantly developed and improved upon right up to today. At their most fundamental level, they can be practiced solely for their health benefits. On the deeper level, and for applications to combat, forms are pragmatic tools for focused introspection. This is particularly present within the internal forms like Tai Chi. Like all Tai Chi masters, Chen espouses the dualities of Tai Chi. "The fundamental of Tai Chi is hard and soft. Fajin is the hard, but it cannot be separated from the soft because softness is fundamental. This is how you get explosive power. Start soft. Train for softness to quiet and focus your mind."

When practicing forms, there's a lot more than just reciting the movements, especially with internal styles. "Intention (yi ?) is internal. If the mind is soft, this will transfer to the physical, the tendons and bones. The first step is to integrate internal and external. Practicing softness gets you to the internal. It gives you a better feeling of center. From practicing softly, you find your correct center, your dantian (field of qi ??), and your breath."

This soft and slow practice sparks the fuse for the explosion. It takes careful preparation, lest it all explode in your face. You need to have a solid foundation, one with the kind of depth that can only be built from years of practice. "The requirements for fajin are more stringent. You do all of this slow movement, and then you must express all of this movement - have all of the qualities together - in a split second. Getting to the softness must have a strong foundation to emit fajin. This requires both slow and fast practice. You practice equilibrium, focus and intention when practicing slowly so it is easier. You practice harder when faster. This only comes with a lot of repetition."

The key is self-awareness. Through cultivating the form slowly and softly, the practitioner gains a complete understanding of personal potential and limitations. The tricky thing about fajin is that it breaks apart if the practitioner attempts to overstep his or her ability. "In Tai Chi, if your natural ability is to punch at a hundred pounds, you don't try to punch at two-hundred pounds. You try to maximize your power through optimal alignment, focused intention and the other principles of martial arts. But you're only trying to get your hundred pounds. You never lose balance in fajin because you never go for more than that hundred pounds, never too much. You always search for proper posture and alignment whether fast or slow. This is why fast and slow, and hard and soft, are the same." The present steroidal zeitgeist so pervasive in martial arts today drives practitioners to get more than their bodies might retain. The Tai Chi approach is just looking to maximize what their bodies have. "Some other styles aim to get two-hundred pounds out of one-hundred. Chen style is only looking to increase the quality of that one-hundred. It's still soft because it is circular."

When it comes to weight comparisons, Tai Chi practitioners always defer to the classic Tai Chi adage, "Four ounces deflects a thousand pounds (si liang bo qian jin ?????)." Master Chen reframes this concept into more convincing measurements. "It comes down to the quality of force exertion. If a two-hundred-pound puncher goes head-to-head against one-hundred-pound puncher, typically the one-hundred-pound puncher will be defeated. The only chance the one-hundred-pound puncher has is to come at an angle."

Shock and Admiration
While Tai Chi is typically characterized as internal, in combat it is all about the changes. It takes advantage of that fleeting transition between internal and external, hard and soft, or fast and slow. "If you toss something into the air, for a split second it is between rising and falling. At that moment, it is weightless. That's when to strike. Where Tai Chi has eight jin (same jin as in fajin, this refers specifically to eight combat principles in Tai Chi, specifically peng (ward-off ?), lu (rollback ?), ji (push ?), an (press ?), cai (grab ?), lie (break ?), zhou (elbow ?), and kao (shoulder ?), Chen Tai Chi has more. Jingtan (literally 'frighten' or 'startle' and 'admire' ??) is that split second opening, when the opponent is weightless. That sudden change is shocking. It catches people off guard and sets up the surprise. Why do you trip over a little rock? You trip because you don't expect it. It's that sudden change of direction. We try to create that opening for that shock to befuddle the opponent."

Just like Bruce Lee set up his xiashou by positioning him in a weak posture, Chen Bing lures his opponents in, feels for that moment when they are transitioning, and unleashes his attack to take full advantage of their weightlessness. A measure of power against a static target like what was tested on Stan Lee's Superhumans and Mythbusters only tells one side of the story, the sheer force of the strike. In essence, that skeptical notion that the xiashou abets with the attack is true, although it is not necessarily due to some pre-agreed-on conspiracy. In order to get that explosive power, not only does the emitter have to be primed to maximize impact through posture and execution, the timing has to be right. True masters of fajin understand how to manipulate their opponents into that moment of weightlessness, into jingtan, and then explode into that. This requires a keen understanding of yourself and your opponent. It is only through exploiting the opponent's weakness where fajin can really explode.

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine November/December 2013


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About Gene Ching and Gigi Oh :
For more information on Chen Bing in English, visit ChenBing.org. The authors gratefully acknowledge Master Tony Wong for his assistance with this interview (www.chenfamilytaiji.com).

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