十三势行功心解 - 王宗岳

Understanding the Effective Achievement of the 13 Powers by Wang Zongyue

Translated by 冷门道士 - Copyright 2015, All rights reserved.


Anyone hoping for a list of the thirteen whatever will remain disappointed. I have seen lists of thirteen taijiquan postures (Play the Lute, et al.), thirteen body parts, body parts plus directions summing to thirteen. I'm thinking no one knows what the number thirteen really signified to the original generations of taijiquan.

When trying to answer this kind of question, it does not help that much of the translation of taijiquan documents is reductionist. Far too many translators are unaware of or simply overlook character pairs (bigraphs) which are relevant. They ignore larger groupings as well, such as four character idioms, as well as allusions to same. And they further ignore the relationship between paired lines which is part of the heritage of Chinese writing. The resulting translations read like a list of now-cliched adages for beginners.

In this work, I discovered that many of the lines appeared to be written by the author in pairs, as is common in poetry. The lines work well enough on their own. But they reveal considerably more meaning when treated as intentional pairs, where the second line expands or elucidates the first. Wherever I have found this to be the case, I have run both lines together in the original so that one can compare the result with other translations which provide the parallel Chinese.

Finally, my choice of "powers" instead of "postures" or similar in this and other works that I have translated comes from my understanding that the point of taijiquan is the power you generate, not the dogmatically defined posture you can imitate. When you think about it, the postures are the impotent pauses between expressions of potency. Let us imagine Yang Luchan using Snake Creeps Down. Let us say that he transitions from Single Whip to Snake Creeps Down as he is fighting you. At the instant he achieves the Snake Creeps Down posture, you are becoming aware that the transition to that "posture" resulted in your knee being broken by his shoulder. It wasn't broken by Single Whip nor by Snake Creeps Down. Your knee was broken by the power practically expressed in the transition from the one to the other.

I suspect that, given the Chinese love of category and combinatorics, there was a traditional list of thirteen transitions where power was transferred from the practitioner of taijiquan to the opponent. And these were used as a teaching tool that was common enough that they were not explicitly listed. But, as with everything else I think I know, I could be wrong.

Comments, improvements, and convincing lists of thirteen T'ai Chi whatsits 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


Fluid energy is made effective by means of the mind.

Xing2qi4 (行气) is [to do | to perform | capable | competent][fluid energy]


Its use must be steady and calm.

Wu4 (务) here is "must."


You must be able to hold it back, within your bones.

Chen Weiming (陳微明) writes of holding fluid energy in the spine in Taijiquan Da Wen (太极拳答问).


The body is applied by means of fluid energy.

Yun4 (运) can be "moved." But we are not talking about moving the whole body. We are talking about the application of the body to the opponent, where fluid energy (气) and not mere strength is required.


Its use must smoothly conform to your intent.

Shun4sui4 (顺遂) is "all going smoothly" or "just as you wish."


You must be able to express it easily with an unhurried mind.

Alternatively, "... easily from your center" where the center is the body's core or "the spine considered waist-wise" as one of the songs expressed it.


Consciousness can rise up to permit the expression of power.

Jing1shen2 (精神) is often translated as "energy" or "spirit." But all of its usages point to mind or consciousness. This points us to the root we should rely upon. Rely upon consciousness to lift you up and enable you to express power because consciousness is what can do this. This line and the next two seem grouped together in the original.


The principle is: without being late, repeatedly predict your opponent's actions.

Chong2zhi1yu2 (重之虞) is "predict repeatedly." Your consciousness, aware of your opponent's intentions, can rise up to permit the expression of power.


This is called "subjecting oneself to not knowing."

Ding3tou2xuan2 (顶头悬) can be "suspended by the crown of your head." Fine for practice but here we are talking about the practical expression of power. Xuan2 can also mean "baseless" or "without foundation." Tou2 can be "aspect" or even "leading aspect." And ding3 can be "to be subjected to." We join with the opponent. We let him decide what to do. We don't know what to do and so we do no deciding. We let consciousness rise up and express power as we perceive his intent to act.


The flow of your mind must be able to change quickly.

Or, "quickly and effectively be able to change your state of mind and, hence, its expression."


Your mind must be fully engaged.

Full here comes from yuan2huo4 (圆活) which is "full" in the sense which is also "rich" when applied to sound. Alternatively, "you must be fully interested in the moment." "In the event," as Peter Ralston might say.


This is called changing according to the actual situation.

Xu1shi2 (虚实) is not empty and full, it is unreal and real and can be translated as "comprehending the real situation."


Issuing energy must come from profound relaxation and is concentrated into a single target.

One of the Yangs said that most people make the mistake of only half-relaxing. And by this, he may have meant that, for the advanced practitioner, the muscles, even under compression, are relaxed.


The body is kept straightforward, leisurely, comfortable and sustains you in all directions.

Li4 (立) is often taken to be "stance." But here it is more "established," "set up." This is the body in motion, not in posture.


Issue fluid energy as though threading nine winding pearls and you will be successful in every endeavour.

The last four characters are an idiom for "successful in every endeavour."


Fluid energy must be expressed throughout the entire body.

This is sometimes translated as "fills the entire body" or "is dispersed through the entire body." But wei4 (谓) is in every sense of its uses rooted in "expression" and "make meaningful."


Apply energy as if it were the finest tempered steel.

This can also be "move energy" which would imply that the cutting edge is always latent whenever you are in motion.


Ask yourself, How can you be hard and not break?

This is not necessarily a warning against being hard. Following from the previous "Apply energy as if it were the finest tempered steel," we ask "How can you keep the steel edge latent without yourself becoming rigid and breakable?"


Your being should be like a falcon seizing a rabbit, lively as a cat seizing a mouse.

Xing2 (形) can be "body." But it is also "form," "being," "appearance." Shen2 (神) can be "spirit," "soul," or "unusual," "mysterious." "Lively" seems better here and saves us from trying to figure out what is a "spirit" and what is a "soul" and what is the Holy Ghost. I don't believe the practice of taijiquan relies on metaphysical distinctions.


Be still like a mountain peak, move like the great rivers.

And follow every rainbow, till you find your dream. True. But not terribly profound. Sometimes I think these classics have more authors than a Hollywood script (which average six authors, last I checked.) As if everyone who transcribes them has to toss in their two cents' worth of cliche. Would one author really repeat himself so often and so ineffectively across so few short works?


Store up energy as if drawing a bow, issue energy as if releasing the arrow.

We have seen these lines before as well. But there is more here than cliche. Releasing an arrow is not the same as shoving a fist. When you thread the nine pearls, from the foot to the fingers, the "impact" is a release and not a blow.


Within the distorted, seek the straight, storing up and then releasing.

Qu1 (曲) is crooked, bent, angled, false, unfair, distorted. So the sense is: "In the maelstrom of conflict, with all its wayward motions, find the vector of attack and straightforwardly release what you keep at all times stored up."


Power is issued from the spine as your steps follow your opponent's changes.

It is important to realize, in a practical way, the traditional taijiquan practitioner's reliance upon the spine. Once you are aware of it, you see the spine mentioned throughout the classics.


Receiving his approach is to let go, cut off, and again join.

When the opponent closes so that your light joining hold on him is useless, let go, cut off (neutralize) his incoming energy, and rejoin him.


Backwards or forwards, you must be collapsible.

Or, moving in any direction, joined to your opponent, you must have the quality of being collapsible. This collapsing of the body neutralizes the opponent's force and maintains nearness. In other words, you are constantly turning his attacks into "air kungfu."


Advancing and retreating, you must be constantly converting his energy.

Zhuan3huan4 (转换) is "transform" or "change." But it is also "convert." You are constantly converting what he does into something else, something which is to your advantage.


Be extremely soft and only then are you able to be extremely hard.

I think we underestimate just how relaxed the original practitioners were. If one looks at enough primary sources, one gets only hints as mentioned above.


You must be able to breathe and then comes the ability to be flexible.

Qi4 (气) is not breath. When the classics mean "breathe" they say "breathe" or hu1xi1 (呼吸).


Fluid energy comes from simple and harmless cultivation.

In other words, it arises from right practice and there is nothing you can do beyond right practice to speed its development. In fact, anything you add is likely to harm you as anyone who has lost a night's sleep to burning stomach muscles could tell you.


Power comes from storing it in the relaxed muscles and having an abundance.

In other words, when all of you is relaxed, nothing is straight and then the compression of the whole body has an abundance of latent power.


The mind commands; fluid energy is expressed; the waist manifests power.

Xin1 (心) can be "mind" or "center" and, perhaps, is best taken as both. The imagery here is military. The mind is the commanding general. Fluid energy is the banners of soldiers, in the sense of a Qing army. And the waist is the big banner, the force which strikes and makes itself felt.


First seek to be open and afterwards seek to be tight.

Kai1zhan3 is to "open," "develop," or "unfold." The more open the body is the greater the differential between its open state and its expanded, rigid state which is the momentary state of impact.


Only then can you arrive at the state where the fine and dense is hidden.

Let's talk about this "state." Zhen3mi4 (缜密) means delicate and meticulous and deliberate and fine and careful. Think about what those mean if layered together into a single state. Zhen3 on its own means "fine and dense" or "fine and close." Mi4 is usually "secret" or "confidential." But it can also mean "thick" and "dense." I would take 缜密 as one of those hints of what is to come through right practice. This is better than a premature effort to define and explain it here.



I'm starting to view this as a marker for: "Second anonymous author adds his contribution while continuing to hide under the attribution to the same shadowy, perhaps non-existent, certainly mystical figure from the past."


First, be attentive; then, engage the body.

Or, primarily engage the mind and only then burden the body with the effort of combat. This is the most direct sense of the original. It could also be: First, be in your center (the spine thought about waist-wise) and, from there, be in your body. The original author, of course, could "intend" both meanings, this being Chinese.


With the abdomen loose and slack, fluid energy can be stored in the bones.

This is another vague hint which leaves us wondering, which bones? So we leave open the possibility of "all bones." I think it is important not to take these statements as figurative. When they say it is stored in the bones, I contend they are saying there is a subjective sensation of "energy" in the bones. Otherwise, we are left with a mystery religion.


The mind is relaxed and the body is calm.

Shen2 (神) here is "spirit" in the sense of "state of consciousness," hence "mind."


In every moment, you are mindful.

Or, "..., you are in your center." Or, probably, both.


Always keep in mind, the is no movement without stillness and no stillness that is not is motion.

Qie4ji4 (切记) is "always remember." The point here seems to be that you are essentially still and calm, no matter what else you are doing and regardless of what is within your ongoing event.


Lead his movement back and forth with fluid energy kept in your back, stored in the bones of the spine.

You can't ask for a more explicit reference to the importance of the spine within traditional expression of taijiquan in combat. As Musashi would say, "You must research this."


Internal stability is consciousness and this is revealed in your easy and comfortable expression.

Or, when your consciousness is internally stable, anyone can see that you are at ease and comfortable in the midst of conflict.


Walk the way a cat does.

You will want to observe a cat in order to see the concrete meaning here.


Issue energy as if spinning silk.

Which is to say, steadily and continuously. Or the energy is broken.


Your whole attention is on consciousness, not on fluid energy.

Consciousness is not a generic term or a vague state of mind. It is absolute, alert, mental dominion.


To focus on the fluid energy is to become stagnant.

Or, if you have developed an internal boxer's body, it will take care of supplying the fluid energy without your interfering mind.


Those with fluid energy are without strength; those without fluid energy are merely strong.

As you practically develop fluid energy, you reduce your reliance upon strength. What you think of as strength is not strength. It is your imposing a mental limitation on your unlimited capacity.


Fluid energy is like a tire and the lower back (thought about waist-wise) is its axle.

Here we have the spine again, projecting the fluid energy, which another classic tells us is projected through the fingers. Think about reducing your mental image of what taijiquan is to that which conforms to the classics rather than adding the classics to what you think you know.