Soft Power and the Beginning of It All

By Gene Ching

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Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine Fall 2018If you're paying any attention to world politics nowadays, especially where China is concerned, you've heard the term "Soft Power."  Soft Power is a persuasive approach to international diplomacy that appeals to others through cultural influence, values and foreign policies. It is a strategy of attraction and co-opting rather than what’s called "hard power," the use of coercion by force or financial pressure like trade wars. In 2014, Xi Jinping, the President of the People's Republic of China, said, "We should increase China's soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China's messages to the world."

So what does international diplomacy have to do with martial arts?  When it comes to Chinese styles, it’s half of everything, the veritable "grand ultimate," the Yin that makes the Yang.  Nothing exemplifies Soft Power more than Tai Chi.  With its modest approach, Tai Chi has risen to become one of China's greatest exports, a perfect example of appealing to others through cultural influence.  If all the grassroots Tai Chi could be tallied – the classes happening in parks, in rehabilitation facilities, and in senior centers – the overall sum would make a persuasive argument for Tai Chi being the most popular martial art in the world.  While Tai Chi probably won't win you any belts in an MMA cage, it may aid your aging parents (and inevitably you too) as you grapple with fall prevention.  In the long run, which is more valuable?

In order to begin to grasp anything in Chinese culture, you must understand the power of allegory.  It’s not just about fighting; Tai Chi is much more than just a martial art.  It is an expression of Chinese philosophy and values.  It is a martial interpretation of China's indigenous wisdom – Daoism.  Traditional forms do far more than provide exercise and self-defense skills.  They tell stories.  They share culture.

Tai Chi, or more formally Taiji (太極), is a Daoist philosophical concept first and foremost.  The martial art of Tai Chi Chuan (aka Taijiquan 太極拳) doesn’t emerge until much later (some 15 centuries later by some reckonings).  The Chinese character tai means "big" or "extreme."  In the context of the martial arts, it has commonly been translated as "grand."  Ji is trickier to translate.  Precedent translators have used "ultimate" so the most prevalent translation of Taiji is "grand ultimate."  More recent translators have gone with "ridgepole"; however, the pole that ji refers to is closer to polar opposites like the North and South Poles, or positive and negative polarities.  The symbol commonly called Yin-Yang (☯) is more properly named Taiji Tu. In Mandarin, tu means "diagram" (圖).  In Daoism, Taiji is the initial stepping stone that begets everything else.

However, there is something, or perhaps nothing, that precedes Taiji.  That is Wuji (無極).  Wu is a negating term, so Wuji is the absence of ji, the non-ultimate, the lack of ridgepole.  Wuji is the void before there was anything.  And, of course, there’s a martial art attached to it, a rare style known as Wujiquan.

Taiji Comes from Wuji

Master Yang Chenhan (楊承翰), who has adopted the Western name "Ben," is a proponent of Wujiquan.  As he explains, “In Daoist philosophy, the universe starts in a Wuji state.  So Wuji is a state that there’s no differentiation, no movement – everything is a blur – just like science said that.  How the universe got created – it was in a very ‘no movement’ state [and then] becomes Big Bang.  And then, that Big Bang split everything into everything.  So Wuji is a state when there’s nothing there, when there’s no movement, no differentiation, everything is blur.  Suddenly there’s a force, movement starts to get slow, slow, slow and gets stronger, stronger, stronger.  We call that movement Taiji.  Once it gets to that – BANG – there’s two forces.  And that’s Yin and Yang.  Yin and Yang split and becomes Four Phases.  Four Phases split and becomes Eight Trigrams.  And then Eight Trigrams becomes everything – Sixty-Four gua.”

The Chinese martial arts are divided into internal styles, known as Neijia (literally "internal family" 內家 ) and external, or Waijia ("external family" 外家).  These are often described as soft styles and hard styles.  These internal soft styles include Wujiquan, Taijiquan, Xingyiquan (形意拳), Baguazhang (八卦掌), along with many others.  Recently some scholars have noted that the internal schools are essentially those derived from Daoism while the external schools generally originate from Shaolin Buddhist traditions.  This has led to an academic postulation that internal actually might refer to indigenous culture because Daoism originated in China whereas Buddhism comes from the outside, from India.

Whatever the case may be, Neijia follows Daoist cosmology, which has a numerological building pattern.  Wuji begets Taiji.  Taiji begets the Four Symbols (sixiang 四象) and the Five Elements (wuxing 五行).  Then comes the Eight Trigrams (bagua 八卦), composed of combinations of three broken (Yin) or solid (Yang) lines called yao (爻).  When the trigrams are paired, they become the square of eight, the Sixty-Four Hexagrams (liushisi gua 六十四卦).  Note that gua doesn’t distinguish quantity like the English words "trigram" and "hexagram").  So each of those sixty-four hexagrams contain two trigrams with three lines each – that’s three times two times sixty-four for a total of 384 yao.  That’s a lot of math for the martial arts, but remember the 384 yao because it will come up again.

Master Yang explains the martial allegories. “So in Chinese martial arts, everything follows that philosophy.   Wuji, Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua – our internal martial arts basically follow this rule.  Yin and Yang, then we have Taijiquan.  For Bagua – Eight Trigrams – we have Baguazhang.  For Five Elements, we have Xingyiquan.  And then there’s Wujiquan.  It’s at the top – the original state.”


The Mystery of Wuji

Given the importance of Wuji in Daoism, it’s astonishing that its manifestation as a martial art is so rare.  Few martial artists have even heard of the style.  Master Yang laughs at the notion of its obscurity and doesn’t quite know why it isn’t more prevalent.  “It’s something that people heard, but never seen it done,” says Yang.

Yang learned his style from his father-in-law, Grandmaster Shou-yu Liang (Cover Master October 2000 and May+June 2007 梁守渝).  It’s one of many unique disciplines that Grandmaster Liang has brought from the Emei Mountains in Sichuan Province, a region venerated as a bastion of martial arts and holy shrines.  Not that Master Yang had any doubt, but as he began to research Wujiquan, he had a difficult time to find corroborating evidence.  “I try to search everywhere – internet – I see some Wujiquan, but totally different from the one I learned.  It’s more like a simple exercise.

“Our Wujiquan is a very profound long form, and it was inherited from my father-in-law’s grandfather.  He learned a few forms back then.  It’s very difficult to learn anything – to learn martial arts.  He was a rich guy.  He met someone in the mountains, and then he has to donate three gold taels to exchange for a few forms.  The one form he learned was Dapeng Qigong [a Dapeng is a Chinese giant mythical bird akin to the middle-eastern Roc (大鹏气功)].  It’s something like Iron Shirt – Golden Bell kind of thing.  Another one is Wujiquan.  I think three forms – another one, I forgot.  But Wujiquan is one of the forms and it’s rarely seen in China too.  But people always talk about it, just like Dapeng Qigong.  People heard about it, but never seen it.  Before, Chen Style is like that too.  Water Style is like that too.  It was a very closed kind of atmosphere.  They don’t exchange much.  But Wujiquan, until now, was still very mysterious.”

The name of that mysterious mountain master is lost, but Grandmaster Liang’s grandfather was Liang Zhxiang (梁芷湘) and his father was Liang Zuofeng (梁作風).  The Liang family kept both Wujiquan and Dapeng Qigong within their clan, passing it down like a family treasure.  Grandmaster Shou-yu Liang became an internationally renowned martial arts teacher, well known for his Iron Body skills from Dapeng Qigong.  Master Yang became part of the family when he married Grandmaster Liang’s daughter, Helen Liang (Cover Master July+August 2003 and May+June 2007 梁好).  But that wasn’t what got him into Wujiquan – at least, not exactly.

Grandmaster Liang has taught Dapeng Qigong publicly, and even shared the teachings in his monumental book Qigong Empowerment: A Guide to Medical, Taoist, Buddhist and Wushu Energy Cultivation published by YMAA in 1996.  But Wujiquan was different.  “He never openly teach before,” states Yang.  “He started maybe three or four years ago.  In China’s national competition, he was invited as a master demo.  He was doing a demonstration, and then Coach Wu Bin (Cover Master March+April 2007 吴彬) saw the form.  And he was very impressed.  That’s the only time he did the demo in China, before he came out to the U.S., long time ago, when he was younger.

“So Wu Bin had a strong impression, and many years later he wants to do some old martial arts research.  He remembered that form and he wants to include that form in his research.  He has a team and they try to find Master Liang.  Throughout China, they look.  They try to get this guy.  Wu Bin looking for my father-in-law.  Couldn’t find him because he’s in Canada already.  Until only few years, they met in San Jose, at the Tiger Claw Elite Championship [There have been five Tiger Claw Elite Championships when both Grandmaster Liang and Coach Wu Bin were in attendance, but this likely happened at the first of these in 2009 – ed].

“Wu Bin said, ‘You know that Wuji.  I still remember – forty years ago.  And I’ve been looking for you for forty years. I want to include it in my research.’  So that made him, my father-in-law, decide I should teach this form.”

Aside from what’s been passed down within Liang family, Grandmaster Liang found a book that matched their form.  That book is Zhang Sanfeng Zushi Zhen Chuan Wujiquan Putushou (張三丰祖師真傳 無極拳譜圖說) by Liao Huang (廖璜) and Lu Yisu (呂一素), published by Hong Kong Kam Wah Publishing House (香港錦華出版社).  “That’s the only thing that we’ve seen in the outside world that’s the same thing as us,” declares Yang.  “The movement is exactly the same.  I still have that book.  So that’s the only thing we know.  And that book is a very profound book.  It’s not written in everyday language.  Ancient.  So it’s a little bit hard to understand.  But the book, it has movement names, it has introduction and conclusion.”


The Form of No Form

“Wujiquan is one empty hand form, 128 movements,” describes Yang.  “In the book, it mentioned that Wujiquan was originally from Zhang Sanfeng.”  Zhang Sanfeng (張三丰) is a legendary Daoist immortal credited as the founder of Taijiquan and Neijia.  He is purported to have resided at Wudang Mountains in the 12th century and lived for three centuries.  Yang continues, “It says Zhang Sanfeng created three martial arts styles.  One is Taiji.  One is Bagua.  After that, later, he created another one called Wuji.  So Wuji was actually founded after the others.  And each style, each form, is 128 movements.  Combined together, that’s how many?  384. It matches with 384 yao.”  There’s that number again – 384.  Note that this contradicts many beliefs about Taijiquan, which is more typically characterized with 72 or 108 movements.

“There’s no weapons,” Yang goes on.  “Just one form.  In the form, you can use it as qigong cultivation.  The whole form is like a path of Daoism’s universe.  It goes from in the beginning, how your original qi goes in, according to Wuji.  You invite Wuji, and then you bow to Wuji, and then you circulate it around your body.  And then it goes into Yin and Yang, and then Four Phases, sixiang, and then Bagua.  And then it becomes everything and then it comes back together.  It’s like a process of cultivation.

“It has a lot of power emission movements – fajin (發勁).  Just by the look, it’s very different.  It doesn’t have cat walk.  It doesn’t have Chen style’s walk.  It doesn’t have Sun style’s walk.  It’s just a normal step.  Xingyi has santishi (three body power ‘stance’ 三体势).  Chen style has chabu (fork step 叉步).  Sun style has Sun style step.  Yang style has cat walk (maoxingbu 猫行步).  Bagua has tangnibu (treading mud step 蹚泥步).  This is different.  It has low stances.  It has high stances.  It has movements, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes strong, sometimes soft.  It’s still part of Neijia.  When you see it, you will not think this is part of Taiji.  It’s nothing like Bagua or Xingyi.  It’s very, very unique.

“It has a lot of martial arts applications too.  At the beginning of movement, it’s mostly qigong – how you bring Wuji into your body.  You invite it in and you bow to it.  It’s like a ceremony.  You shine on your three Dantian – Upper Dantian, Middle Dantian, Lower Dantian, and then come back to upper Dantian – nurturing Wuji.”  Dantian ("elixir field" 丹田) is the energetic focal centers in Neijia.  The Upper Dantian (上丹田) is between the eyebrows; Middle Dantian (中丹田) is centered at heart level; Lower Dantian (下丹田) is centered below the navel.  “And then you bring it out, and you start to search and BOOM – it’s into Taiji.”

Although Wujiquan is a stand-alone independent single form, Master Yang cautions that it’s not something for beginners.  “It’s better to have Taiji foundation.  Then you have to have some Bagua foundation.  There’s some Bagua movement, and there’s some Taiji movement too.”


The Revelation of the Void

”I never learned this before.  Wow," Master Yang raves.  “So different.  And so interesting because I learned external and internal – several martial arts.  And I learned Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua – even just Taiji, I learned five styles already. So in my martial arts background, a big part is Daoism.  Daoism is universe.  It’s always something very interesting to me.  And then this form, it’s just from the beginning to the end, how a person is born, all the way to the end of the life.  So a very complete cycle of Daoism.  So I say, ‘Wow!’  You can feel.  You can practice as meditation.  You can practice as demonstration or performance.  You can practice as martial arts applications.  So it’s something that’s always very interesting.  A lot of time, I just practice as meditation.  I feel very comfortable.  I can feel the qi.  When you practice, the sense of the qi is very, very strong.  You can feel it goes around your body and it’s just very comfortable.

“In terms of martial arts, it’s got qinna (joint locks 擒拿) applications in it.  It’s got a lot of take downs applications.  It’s got some strikes – fajin applications there.  For all the martial arts, we all only have two legs, two hands, so internal-external movements are still the same.  There’s how you carry it out.  Wujiquan, it’s the same thing.  You can see a lot of movements – the way to use it is still similar to all other styles, but you need to have very strong Dantian qi, so you can emit power.  That’s how you make your power more solid.  That’s how you make your balance more solid.  We call it – just like Taiji – emphasize qi chen Dantian (氣沉丹田) and xu ling ding jing (虛領頂勁).”

Qi chen Dantian means to sink qi or energy down to the Dantian and xu ling ding jing means that the vitality of spirit leads to the top of the head.  Yang explains, “So you’re like sand bag or punching bag.  You’re very heavy down there.  But you’re lifted up.  Two forces – one going down, one going up.  Your qi is like water, sinking down so you're rooted to the ground.  This is your source – Wuji – rooted to the ground.  Xu ling ding jing is pulling you upward.  Your qi also lifted upward so your spirit also has been lifted.  It shows in your face.  It shows in your movement.  All internal martial arts should emphasize this – Wujiquan too.  So you are very solid.  You're very rooted to the ground.  But you're very light up here so your movement is not stiff.  It's relaxed.

“All the power are stored inside.  When you need to use it, lots of power.  When you don't need to use it, you appear very humble, very gentle, very soft.  And also that's the ideal character of our Chinese philosophy – or Daoist philosophy.  Always being humble, but being humble means you need to have strength inside.  Yes, you need to have strength so you can be humble.  If you don't have strength inside, it's not called humble.  It's called weak. [laughs]

“So humble means strength.  Soft Power.”

The Chinese martial arts is about much more than simple fighting skills.  It’s about self-cultivation and longevity.  It’s about the esoteric practice of nurturing qi.  And it’s also about allegory.  It’s a vehicle for Chinese culture, a means for the Soft Power acumen of Daoism to be transmitted to persuade practitioners on how to lead a healthier life.

Anyone can follow the movements of a form and glean health benefits.  Some can train with intention and extract the hidden fighting secrets beyond the obvious combat skills.  But to truly master the arts, deep understanding of the underlying philosophy is required.  And just like the persistent practice necessary to gain physical expertise, scholarly research is needed to penetrate the depths of experience that brought that form into existence.  The form originates from something, or, in this case, from nothing.  While it is important to know "how," it’s even more important to know "why," especially in order to gain true mastery. This is not about religious conversion.  It’s about understanding different cultures and sharing wisdom.

“By learning Wujiquan,” says Master Yang, “you will get your interest, and you will go into Daoism.”

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Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine Fall 2018

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About Gene Ching :
Gene Ching is the Publisher of Kung Fu Tai Chi and the author of Shaolin Trips.

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