十三势歌 - 王宗岳

Song of the Thirteen Powers by Wang Zongyue

Translated by 冷门道士 - Copyright 2015, Creative Commons 3.0 SA-BY-NC.


A text in Chinese has many meanings. But not in the way that saying so in English suggests. Consider that a poorly educated Chinese reader has only a limited vocabulary. To write for this person, one would use simple common words of single characters and bigraphs. But as an educated person writing, say, a song for the uneducated, you are aware of the other bigraphs that arise, willy-nilly, as you write. And so you make sure that a reader who catches those bigraphs also reads something that makes sense in the context of the song. There are also the patterns of the rhyme to be considered. In the case of this song, the pattern is four and three. So, on each line, the first four characters must work together and the second three must work together. And then there are four to six character idioms in the language, which are called to mind by their beginnings and endings. And there are resonances from the official way of writing which all educated men also had to learn. And then there are the resonances which arise from historical usage as you go back through the dynasties to the extent of your historical knowledge. And all of this is present in the same text to whatever extent the writer is able to bring his knowledge to bear on it.

As a translator, however, all you can do is pick a slice through the text and show one resonant flow. In this song, I have consciously grabbed the first slice up from the bottom, wherever I could find it. This produces a layer throughout which is different from, yet consonant with, the simplest and most direct reading. Additionally, for your entertainment pleasure, I have made it rhythmical and rhyming. Sort of. As for the tune it should be sung to, I have no idea. We all know that most poems can be sung to "The Yellow Rose of Texas." So you can go with that tune until such time as you can come up with a better one.

Comments and improvements upon the rhythm and rhyme of the verse are welcome and may be sent to Submitting a comment implies your releasing it under the Creative Commons 3.0 SA License and agreeing to its possible inclusion in future commercial versions of this text.

NOTE: If any of the characters below appear as a big square, that means it is not in the utf-8 font on your device. This can be caused by vendor font choice or by your locale or by the character being so rarely used nowadays as to be found only in utf-16 font sets. If this occurs, you can find the original text on various sites on-line in both simplified and traditional characters. Good luck finding two that match.

The Text


Thirteen powers, taken together, cannot be despised.

Qing1shi4 (轻视) is despise, scorn, contempt. Taken separately, they could be "seen as gentle," "revealed as easy," or "shown easily."


Their origin is the small of the back, if thought about waist-wise.

Yao1ji4 (腰际) can be both waist and small of the back. Consider how often the primary sources refer to higher powers of taijiquan come from holding fluid energy in the spine. So our thinking about the waist should perhaps include a better concept of the spine within the small of the back.


Turns and changes must consider what is really there.

Xu1shi2 (虚实) is discerning what is true and what is false.


Energy must fill all of you. Of sluggishness, beware.

Qi4bian4zhou1shen1 (气遍周身) is fluid energy | everywhere | entire body. And sluggishness is mental.


From out of stillness movement comes but movement as if still.

Dong4 (动) is to move or change. Chu4dong4 (触动) is to touch someone, to stir up their mind, to move them internally.


Your enemy will think your changes all are mystical.

Alternatively, "Your ability to withstand change appears now magical."


Outward power always comes from deliberate intent.

Shi4shi4 (势势) is [condition | sign | outward expression ][power | influence | potential]


But do not give it too much thought. Keep practice diligent.

Or "Power should come unconsciously at the cost of long and serious practice."


Every moment, keep your mind down within your waist.

Liu2xin1 (留心) taken together is "to pay attention to." This would perhaps work for practice. But taken separately it is "leave" "the mind" and yao1jian1 (腰间) is the space within the waist, the body's center. Keeping awareness in this space is a higher goal.


With your stomach all relaxed, energy fills its space.

More literally, "In your stomach, only emptiness. Fluid energy rises like fire."


Keep your tailbone nice and straight, lifeforce rises up.

Literally, "keep your tailbone upright and liveliness will push up from below."


Free of worry, free of care, now go beat him up.

Ding3tou2xuan2 (顶头悬) is almost always translated "as if suspended from the crown of your head." Interestingly, it can also be "head straight toward what you are worried about." Qing1li4 (轻利) is not only "light and sharp" but also "to think little of material gain." So we have "Unconcerned by material circumstance, head straight for the opponent." Beginners and those who take their taiji without the quan can substitute: "Entire body light and sharp, suspended from the top."


Careful attention must be paid to ascertain direction.

Xiang4 (向) is direction or facing and, in our case, vector of force.


For flexibility as you open and close, rely on inspiration.

Many good things can be made of this phrase. Qu1shen1 is both "flexible" and "to press or yield according to circumstance." Kai1he2 (开合) is "open and close." Ting1 (听) is "listen." Zi4you2 (自由) taken together is "freedom" and taken separately is "your own inner reasoning." So another nice translation would be: "For press or yield, for open or close, listening (energy) is freedom."


When entering upon this way, your teacher is your lodestone.

Xu1kou3shou4 (须口授) is even stronger really: "requires oral instruction."


But skill, from effort without cease, must come from you alone.

Literally, "The practiced excellence which comes from never-ending effort lies on the way of self-study."


Talk straight, practice, think, ask yourself the whys.

Ruo4yan2 (若言) is "candid speech." Ti3yong4 (体用) is "theory and practice." The last three characters make: "What is the principle?"


Your spirit will take your body right up to the skies.

Literally, "Your spirit will become the ruler, your bone and flesh will submit."


Comprehend your effort from intention to its end.

Xiang2 (详) is "detailed" or "comprehensive" and modifies tui1 (推) here, which is "to push" and, by extension, "effort."


A practice that extends your life, a springtime without end.

Both yi4shou4 (益寿) and yan2nian2 (延年) mean "to prolong life." Bu4lao3chun1 (不老春) can be, poetically, "joy that does not grow old."


Sing it, baby, sing it, one hundred and forty times.

Now if the author's longform had one hundred and forty dynamics, this would be one way to stretch the effort out beyond the usual twenty or so minutes. Otherwise, from here to the end is pretty much just filler.


Every word is meaningful. Every phrase is fine.

Literally, "Every word is vivid and clear. Nothing meaningful is omitted."


Unless you progress on from here, with tears and blood and sweat,

Literally, "Unless from this place you inquiring go,"


Your wasted effort brings you only tears of sad regret.

And the Yellow Rose of Texas is the only girl for me.