I recently had an encounter with a teacher here in Shanghai which made me change the way I think about the IMA concepts of relaxation (song), sinking (chen) and peng jing (expanding force) – how to define them and what is possible with peng in particular.
To give a bit of background, I had been continuing my search for a push hands group that actually allowed the use of force, or could at least deal with force, as opposed to the ‘polite pushing’ normally found in Shanghai’s parks. Through an MA group in Shanghai I had met a guy online (who I shall call Wan) who had mentioned to me that if I was interested in push hands his teacher was quite good.
Naturally I was curious to see if the teacher had the kind of skills I had read about. However, due to various hiccups along the way it took 2-3 months before I finally got round to visiting the teacher in question (Jiang laoshi). According to Wan, Jiang laoshi was quite unusual in that he had studied at least 3 of the major styles of taiji (Yang / Chen / Hao) with direct students of some very famous teachers (e.g. Yang style from a student of Tian Zhaolin; Chen style from a student of Chen Zhaokui; etc).
I arranged to pay a visit to a local sports stadium, which was where Jiang laoshi normally taught at the weekends. So it was one morning that I found myself one Sunday morning at a sports centre on the outskirts of Shanghai. I was met by Wan, a friendly bespectacled young guy in his late 20s. After some twists and turns we reached a clear open space surrounded by trees which provided some shade, a perfect place for taiji practice. And lo and behold, a small group of students of varying ages were being instructed on the finer points of push hands by a short, skinny elderly gentleman who I (correctly as it turned out) assumed was Jiang laoshi.
As my previous experiences with teacher N (the shuai jiao teacher) had shown, in situations like these most Chinese teachers are very wary, as they are not sure whether the visitor has come to ti chang (lit. ‘kick school’ – issue a challenge) or actually to study, so it is common practice for the teacher just to acknowledge the visitor, maybe show them one or two things, and then leave them to get on with it.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jiang laoshi was very open, and we had a long, interesting conversation about the early history of Yang and Chen style in Shanghai, in particular how Chen Zhaokui’s xinjia came to be taught there. I later learned from Wan that it was very unusual for Jiang laoshi to be so chatty, and that normally it took several months before he opened up to students. After some brief introductions of my background, Jiang laoshi and his longtime student Li put me through some tests to see where I had gotten with my neijia practice. The tests were very similar to some “teacher tests” or single posture testing which can be found on the internet – where someone (A) assumes a posture and then B applies pressure to it from various angles, or where two opponents try to prevent being uprooted by the other.
Sad to say, they were disappointed to find that I had little ability to relax (song), sink (chen) or display integrated whole body power (peng jin / zheng jin) and were able to uproot and move me around easily. They both remarked that if I had not told them they would have barely thought that I had practiced any neijia before. Obviously, this was disheartening, but I reminded myself that you only improve by being shown your shortcomings / weaknesses.
Jiang laoshi and Li then proceeded to show me what they meant by these 3 concepts (song, peng and chen). Perhaps I have not been exposed to enough high level teachers, but I was amazed by some of the abilities of both Jiang and Li – I discuss some concrete examples below:
SONG (relaxation): Li was able to generate incredible power from his hands (grip strength), all the while stressing to me that his arms and shoulders were completely relaxed (song). He allowed me to feel his arms and shoulders with my hands, and I found to my surprise that they were almost completely relaxed – very difficult to detect any tension at all. He also showed several qinna methods which were extremely inventive and painful for the person on the receiving end – my wrist is still a little sore a week later!
PENG (expansive / integrated force): My previous understanding of peng was that it was a structural force based on maintaining a certain structure and alignment. However, both Jiang and Li demolished this idea, as they were able to exhibit peng in positions in which it seemed they were at a tremendous mechanical disadvantage. For example, Li demonstrated that he could allow me to push his arm to completely collapse against his chest (called ‘sealing’ in taiji, and which normally is described as a beginner’s error), and still have extremely strong peng force expanding out. Even in such disadvantageous situations, he seemed to have huge stores of power in reserve and was able to launch me away with little effort. To explain, he just said that peng does not rely on a fixed structure and what he had done was merely a demonstration of small circle vs large circle peng, something which I am still trying to puzzle over now.
CHEN (sinking): Jiang and Li also reinforced an idea which I had been mulling over for a while but had not seen put into practice until that point, namely that sinking in taiji has nothing to do with low stances. Jiang and Li were both able to withstand pushes from me (using all of my strength) without any discernible sinking into a stance – albeit that their knees were slightly bent. When asked about this, Li answered by saying “You are pushing up here [indicating his chest]. But my centre of gravity is still down here [pointing to his dantian], so of course it is easy for me to keep my balance. However, when I push you, your centre of gravity floats up into your chest, so of course it is easy for us to push you out.”
Jiang and Li then proceeded to teach some simple exercises and stances to try and help me get rid of the excess tension in my body, particularly the shoulders.
One other comment that Jiang laoshi made that has stuck with me is that the precise form you practice in taijiquan is not that important – the form is merely a vessel, the important stuff is what is inside. Without the elements I have mentioned above, then you cannot even be considered to have ‘entered the door’ of taiji. Jiang laoshi implements this in his own teaching – in terms of form, his students are free to choose whether to study Yang or Chen style form with him, to him there is not such a big difference in the goals and content of both. Certainly food for thought.
Needless to say, I will be continuing to visit Jiang laoshi in the future and hope to have breakthroughs to report.