太极拳论 - 武禹襄

Speaking of Taijiquan by Wu Yuxiang

Translated by 冷门道士 - Copyright 2014, Creative Commons 3.0 SA-BY-NC.


The Taijiquan Lun is the longest of what are called the Taijiquan Classics. Limiting ourselves to what we can say as historians, these classics only appear after Yang Luchan and are, if not the product of the Wu Yuxiang school, then most likely the product of its Li Yiyu branch. The Yangs were somewhat illiterate, even down to Yang Chengfu, whose published manuals were ghostwritten by his students. The Wus were cultured as were the Lis. Beyond this, authorship of the Lun is hard to nail down. For convenience's sake, I ascribe this text to Wu Yuxiang, as it almost certainly came out of his lineage. Which is actually Yang's lineage, I guess. And didn't he study with the Chens? You can see why the Chinese like to blame the Yellow Emperor or Zhang Sanfeng for everything. It dodges so many bullets. Anyway, whoever wrote the Lun, it is the content here, and not the author, that matters.

On the surface, the Lun is composed of a little mysticism, some woo-woo cosmology, and a lot of rather bland and elementary statements about taijiquan. It makes you wonder why anyone bothered preserving it. But you must remember that Wu (or Li or ...) was writing before Sun Lutang published the first public manuals of wugong (武功). In Wu's time, martial writings were privately shared within a family's school and were never meant for public consumption.

It seems obvious to me that Wu would write as deeply as he could in the Lun while couching the entire work in terms that would mean nothing deep at all to the uninitiated. These kinds of texts were often memory aids and were combined with private teachings. Such a text helps you remember the teaching. I think this was the case with the Lun. And so, even if another taijiquan school obtained it, they could only guess at the teachings it represented. And that is what I am doing here with this translation: guessing at that teaching.

Or, at least, refusing to take any part of the text at surface value. Taijiquan translates as Ultimate Boxing. It gave up being Cotton or Long for Ultimate only after its boxers had defeated all other schools' boxers. A document like the Lun is only valuable in such a context if it reveals the practical aspects of how a long, soft, slow form becomes supremely victorious once you speed it up and dance. With this in mind, my translation takes the standpoint of a text concerned with taijiquan in the violent moment.

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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

The taiji practitioner grows by not limiting himself.

This is often translated "The ultimate is born of the infinite." Or worse, "Taiji is born of wuji." Well, yes. And "the journey is everything." Cool. But 无极 means "without limits." It can mean limits in time or space. But "grows by being eternal" seems iffy to me. The 者 could be used to make it "This taiji" or "Taiji (pause) [taiji defined here.]" Since the 太极拳论 was written to help our practice in preparing for the violent moment, I'm going with 者 as "-ist."

Moving and changing calmly is the crucial point.

动 is "use," "act," "move," and "change." 静 is "still," "calm," "quiet," "not moving." Outside moving; inside still.

Latent expansion nurtures this growth, yeah.

阴阳 is usually translated as "Yin-Yang" which is about as helpful as "Wuji." 阴 also means "hidden," "secret," or "latent." And 阳 is the principle of expansion. "Latent expansion" is the state of being ready to expand, in the sense of projecting physical energy. I am not taking the easy way out with 之 here either, which would make "Mother of Yin-Yang" or "another vague and mystical phrase." And in traditional Chinese prose, 也 or ye3 is like the Japanese yo, yeah. Really. You know?

Changing movement is the principle of separation.

"Changing movement" tries to capture more of what 动 implies than either of those words alone would do. "Separation" is remaining separate while "not trading the near for the far."

Quiet calmness is the principle of joining.

静 is usually translated "not-moving" out of a fetish for symmetry. But we don't really stop moving, do we? We do have to be quiet and calm, if we are going to join with our opponent's energy and bounce him off the ground, yeah.

By not going along with our opponent, we fall short.

Other translations of this line fall into the Pit of Ezra Pound, who never figured out that Chinese characters often come in pairs. 不及 is "to fall short of" and similar. 无过 could also be stretched to "by not living with" for a stronger and more poetic emphasis of just how joined the sentence previous to this one meant for us to be.

We follow along, flowing in curves, and then expand.

So, having joined with your opponent, you follow along with his intentions. But not linearly, like meat hanging from a meathook (taijiquan literary allusion). You flow in curves, like a flowing curvy thing. And then you release your latent expansion. Or "just extend" (就伸), if you want to be picky about it. Just don't extend without releasing your latent expansion, yeah.

If our opponent is hard, we die away with softness.

This often gets translated into some smoothed-out form of "Man hard I soft call this escape." 走 is "go" or "escape" or various, and often translated here as "yield." But in taijiquan, the sense is "dying away," out of his force and into the ground. Also, this way, I can drop the didactic "we call this" bit of 谓之.

Wu actually uses "I" and "he." But I have chosen to translate most of the text in terms of "we" and "our opponent."

We follow our opponent, making our adhering his burden.

I notice that other translations drop the 背, "a burden on one's back," not knowing what to do with it. One of the influences on taijiquan was a sword style in which one kept one's sword on the opponent's sword. Your sword adhered to his without you giving up your freedom. This became a burden to him, which you relieved by killing him.

Again, I've phrased it all away from the didactic "we call this adhesion." Wu Yuxiang was a product of his time and fell into dogmatic prose forms a bit. But he was a better writer than most of his translators seem to allow.

We respond to pressing, rapid movements with pressing, rapid movements.

Taijiquan may respond here in kind. But not in opposition. If he moves fast, pressing us, we move fast, maintaining the pressure of adhesion.

We respond to slow movements by slowly following and going along with our opponent's movements.

随 is not only "following" and "going along with" but also "adapting" and "to let s.o. do as he likes." If you think about it, we do this with rapid, pressing movements, too. But rapid ones lead to the opportunities for releasing latent expansion while the slow ones don't. At least, not if he's paying attention.

Although our changes arise from ten thousand causes, their working out is done with consistency.

一贯 is both "consistent" and "persistent." Keep in mind, in such cases, it is not one or the other in the Chinese mind. It is both. So our flow of change is done with both persistence and consistency. Or Wu Yuxiang would have used different characters. This overlay of meanings is so often the case in Chinese that I point out relevant multiple meanings throughout. Creating an appropriate layering in the English-speaking mind is left as an exercise for the reader.

By letting our opponent do as he will until the situation is ripe, we gradually apprehend an understanding of his energy.

由着 is "let one have his way." 熟 is "ripe." We could do "until he is ripe (for destruction)." And 而 indicates a causal relationship leading to the second clause. I am mystified by other translations of this passage as well as by their frequent reluctance to translate 劲 (jin4) beyond "jin." Ooh. Magic Jin. Oh, please.

劲 combines strength, energy, vigor, spirit, mood, manner, expression and more. When used alone, we can layer these together and understand "his energy" as being "his immediate physical and mental state in this violent context." Or as Peter Ralston might put it: "the ongoing event of his being at this moment." When combined with other characters, 劲 becomes much more specific. But it is always an error to think of 劲 in any sense as mystical. None of this is mystical. Or we couldn't put it into practice.

By perceiving our opponent's energy, we gradually achieve an unusual and lively understanding.

Many translators fall for the siren call of 神明 here. Taken together, 神明 is "gods." And so the sentence ends up, "By understanding the magic jin, we ascend (及) the staircase (阶) to the gods." Or similar. I like Led Zeppelin as much as the next person. But Robert Plant cannot help us here. By splitting 神明, we get 神 (unusual, lively, spirited) and 明 (understanding). Which is, in fact, what we get.

But if one does not exert oneself physically for a long time, one cannot suddenly see the "how" of it in a clear light.

豁然贯通 is "suddenly see the whole thing in a clear light." 焉 can be "how" but is really a rhetorical question marker, as in "How can you not see the obvious?" So in the translation, 'the "how" of it' is the immediately-grasped and practically- and physically-expressed understanding of what to do, within the violent moment.

With your mind empty, open, and alert, your head is energetically erect.

Much is made of this line in other translations. It's just about the head. Inside and out. Inside, you are fully in the moment. Outside, the head is upright, with the spine straight. Anyone who practices pure sitting (打坐) knows that slumping the head and rolling in the tailbone both increase blood pressure. Do both and your body throbs with the heart's beats. Straighten both out and the throb recedes and descends. Both of these spinal bends break the flow of energetic strength as it moves through the body when unleashing latent expansion. So don't be bendy.

Fluid energy submerges the legs and lower stomach.

Here, the magical, mysterious qi (气, pinyin qi4, Wade-Giles ch'i, Japanese ki) makes its appearance. Except it is not magical or mysterious. When the Yangs say "The body is like a construction of pipes. We do not hit him with the pipes. We hit him with the water in the pipes," they are not speaking figuratively. The choice of 沉 here alludes to depth of water, submersion, immersion, and sinking beneath the waves. This is not a coincidence. 气 is not the will, the intention, the breath, or the sensation of enhanced bloodflow. It is that which subjectively feels like a fluid filling the body.

If one practices taijiquan long enough and deeply enough, one will experience the feeling of filling up with water from the ground to the bottom of the stomach. Hence, for clarity, "legs and lower stomach." This is not the easily-achieved fullness sensation we get early-on in our arms and, later, everywhere. This early experience is the first stage of enhanced bloodflow due to a developing openness in the body. Fluid energy is a further stage of this openness. Chen Weiming speaks of having this feeling in the back and gathering it along the spine as latent expansion. It is the basis of what the primary sources call 化劲 or hua1jin4, the changing energy which is the height of internal boxing arts.

不偏不倚, 忽隐忽现.
不偏不倚, 忽隱忽現.
Always unbiased, energy is suddenly present, suddenly hidden.

Other translations treat 不偏不倚 literally: "not leaning, not inclining." But this is no revelation. From our first introduction to taijiquan, we are taught to keep our spine upright and straight. But then, in some moves, it inclines, in a straight way. This four-character phrase means unbiased, impartial, and even-handed. In our encounters, we remain unbiased by what is going on. We just go with it. And then our expression of latent expansion suddenly comes, suddenly goes.

左重则左虚, 右重则右杳.
左重則左虛, 右重則右杳.
When our opponent presses our left side, we empty it. When he presses our right, it disappears.

Still in the context of the violent moment, this is not simply avoiding double-weightedness by filling and emptying the legs in turn. This is our response to aggression. 重 is weight or heavy. But it comes in the form of the opponent pressuring us, not from his sitting on our shoulders. If he does that, you've messed up.

仰之则弥高, 俯之则弥深.
仰之則彌高, 俯之則彌深
In moving upwards, we become larger than our opponent. In moving downwards, we root ourselves more deeply.

则 here is a conjunction used for contrast, not simply "principle" or "rule." This fits with 弥, "more." 仰 is "looking up," "admire," "rely on." So the first phrase could be: "By relying upon our opponent (through adhesion and following), we overwhelm him. 俯 is "looking down," "to stoop." But we are moving. So in going down, we go deeper.

进之则愈长, 退之则愈促.
進之則愈長, 退之則愈促.
In advancing, we are more constant than our opponent. In retreating, more urgently intimate.

Other translations make 长 "long." So, in advancing, we are longer? Hmm. 促 may be "urgent" and "hurried" but also "close" and "intimate." So in advancing, we are constantly in the moment and constantly adhering to our principles of taijiquan. And in retreating, we retreat urgently, staying ahead of his aggression, while remaining intimately close.

一羽不能加, 蝇虫不能落.
一羽不能加, 蠅蟲不能落.
A feather cannot be added to us; a fly cannot alight on us.

We are still in the context of violence and following directly from the last line. So, in our advance and retreat, our opponent cannot touch us in a way that affects our freedom.

人不知我, 我独知人.
人不知我, 我獨知人.
Our opponent does not know us. We, alone, know our opponent.

知 is "to know" or "be aware of." My opponent is unable to bring my state of physical and mental being into his awareness. But I am fully aware of his.

英雄所向无敌 - 盖皆由此而及也.
英雄所向無敵 - 蓋皆由此而及也.
To be invincible: in every case, conceal your thinking, yeah.

The first phrase is the dogmatic "hero without a peer." 由 is "cause," "reason," "to follow," "from." In the violent moment, you are conscious and your consciousness must come to expression if you are to overcome your opponent. So we conceal any hint of our thinking until we unleash it, allowing it to appear from nothingness.

斯技旁门甚多. 虽势有区别.
斯技旁門甚多. 雖勢有區別.
In this art, there are many schools. But in their power and potential there is a difference.

It is unclear whether "this art" means taijiquan or boxing in general. From what follows, many consider it to be the latter. But in early taijiquan, there were many remnants of external boxing. There was a Yang form which was said to have 200 movements and be performed in three minutes. Taijiquan still had many elements of Shaolin-style dynamics in its various forms. I doubt if the author was concerned with what was not in his school. He is pointing out that the power and potential (both part of 势) in our art relies upon internal development. This is consistent with my translation of the text's first line.

概不外乎壮欺弱. 慢让快耳. 有力打无力. 手慢让手快. 是皆先天自然之能.
概不外乎壯欺弱. 慢讓快耳. 有力打無力. 手慢讓手快. 是皆先天自然之能.
For the most part, the strong take advantage of the weak, the slow yield to the fast, and that is all. The strong beat the weak. The clumsy yield to the deft. In every case, the victor relies on the natural ability he is born with.

Aw, he couldn't be talking about taijiquan schools here. Them T'ai Ch'i guys would never rely on strength or speed. They only use mystical chi and magic jin, right? I contend that he is addressing only the students of his own school, asking them to take an honest look at their own practice. You can't make real progress at anything unless you are honest with yourself. You must give up all of the external to make the internal pure. Or you will never knock anyone over a boxcar.

These have nothing to do with what we gain through hard study.

I left out the "yeah." Enough of that.

We must study the attraction that allows a very light force to push and turn a very heavy one.

On the surface: "Study this sentence: 1/16 of a catty pushes 1000 catties." But recall that the Yang adhesion, described by primary source witnesses, appeared as an almost magnetic attraction. 句 here is gou1, not ju4. Note that 拨 is not only "push" but also "turn round." So the author means both. Otherwise, he could have used 按, 推, or 压.

Victory comes without visible use of force.

If your force is visible, you are not practicing taijiquan.

观耄耋能御众之形. 快何能为?
觀耄耋能禦眾之形. 快何能為?
Observe the form which allows those of advanced years to defend themselves against a crowd of opponents. How can this be due to speed?


Immediately be as if peacefully in accordance with your opponent.

平准 is "peacefully in accord." 立 is "stand," "set up," and "establish" as well as "immediate." I am mystified by other translations of this phrase.

活似车轮. 扁沉则随. 双重则滞.
活似車輪. 偏沈則隨. 雙重則滯.
Be exactly like a turning wheel. As you follow, thwart his expectations while remaining rooted. Double-weight and you will stagnate.

扁 is usually translated "lean" or "incline." But in classical usage, it meant "to be different" or "contrary to expectations." Here we have 沉 again, "deeply submerged." We double-weight as soon as we stop turning and following.

Clearly, practicing simplistically, even for many years, will not enable us to move one who changes.

I am keeping these two characters (化者) together: change-ist. If our opponent changes more quickly than we can follow, our practice has been too simplistic.

率自为人制, 双重之病未悟耳.
率自為人制, 雙重之病未悟耳.
If, in our haste, we find ourselves doing what benefits our opponent, the fault is in not yet fully understanding doubling and that is all.

耳 is classical Chinese for "and that is all." Which means that 双重 here is a great deal more than just one leg empty and one leg full. Let us look deeper into what is normally taken as meaning "double-weighted." Taken separately, 双重 is "paired" and "weight." Shuang1zhong4. And in your first lesson of the longform you are told not to be double-weighted. This is essential and necessary. But it is not sufficient for overcoming all opponents.

Looking further, we find that, taken together, 双重 is "double." Shuang1chong2. And if we combine all that has been given us in this text so far, the key to taijiquan in the violent moment is seen as a kind of "doubling." We then have: "the fault is in not yet fully understanding doubling." When we become so at-one with our opponent that he cannot affect us, so persistent and consistent in our adhesion that we are a burden to him, that burden becomes unsupportable, only to be relieved by his defeat. And that is all.

If you wish to avoid this error, you must understand latent expansion.

阴阳 can be the female and male principles of Chinese cosmology, if you wish. And in a longterm, thoughtful study that might be helpful. But in the violent moment, we must remain in a state of latent expansion.

黏即是走. 走即是黏.
黏即是走. 走即是黏.
Promptly adhering is yielding, dying away. Promptly dying away is adhering.

This continues the last thought and emphasises that adhering and yielding are not separate principles. To remain in a state of latent expansion, you must be both adhering and yielding until the moment of unleashing.

阴不离阳. 阳不离阴.
陰不離陽. 陽不離陰.
Latency is not separate from expansion. Expansion is not separate from latency.

Expansion itself, in the violent moment, is sudden and passes in an instant. Except for that brief moment, the state of latent expansion is maintained. Even within that moment, if the expansion is countered, you are still in the state of latent expansion. If we think of expansion as the moment of fa1jin4 (发劲), this unleashing is not a win-or-lose roll of the dice. It is an almost nonexistent drop of salt water in a sea of latent expansion.

阴阳相济. 方为懂劲.
陰陽相濟. 方為懂勁.
Latent expansion is like crossing a river. The method is based upon understanding the opponent's energy.

Anyone who has forded a rushing river with a backpack, a stick, and a bellyful of fear, knows the steady, slow, thoughtful approach which is the point of this metaphor. Energy again is "his entire being in this moment."

To understand the opponent's energy, the more you practice, the more proficient you will be.

This speaks to the necessity of two-person practice. Push-hands and sparring are the key to expressing taijiquan in the violent moment. But this practice must be done in the context of all of the principles expressed in this text. Or else we are simply falling into the "strong take advantage of the weak, the slow yield to the fast, and that is all."

Learn this text by heart, come to understand it, and you will gradually arrive at what your heart desires.

When you can express these principles in the violent moment, you understand them. Anything less is delusion.

The foundation comes from being a selfless, unhurried person.

捨己 is "selfless," "self-sacrifice for others," "self-renunciation." It would be a mistake to accept a shallow meaning for "selfless" here. Drive it as deep as you can.

Many make the mistake of seeking from afar what lies close at hand.

捨近求远 is "forgo what is close at hand and seek what is far away." This is often narrowed by taijiquan translators here to "do not trade the near for the far," an exhortation to adhere more closely. But we are at the end of the text and it is a more general statement. Many make the mistake of thinking there is more to taijiquan than there really is, whether in mysticism, secret techniques, hidden applications, or distant masters. As for masters, recall that one of the Yangs said there are two ways to master taijiquan: to learn from a master or to figure it out with your friends. In this world, friends are closer to hand.

We say, the slightest deviation leads to great error.

That would be deviation from the principles of this text.

Students must not discuss the details of what is here revealed.

不详 is "not in detail." 辩 is "dispute," "debate," "argue," and "discuss." 焉 is about four kinds of classical marker. We could also use it for: "How can students argue about this when they are still unclear themselves?" Or: "Only when your understanding of these details is clear should you debate its truth, discuss it, argue about it, etc." I'm just choosing the one that is in line with my premise of there being more to this text than "taiji is born of wuji" and "when we adhere it is called adhering." I hope you have enjoyed agreeing or disagreeing with me, because...

This is all I had to say.