Chinese Wisdom of the Body. Evidence from the Martial Arts


V.V. Maliavin

It is well known that Chinese culture attaches a great importance to human sensitivity, both social and corporeal. It is far less known that Chinese tradition of martial arts is probably the most elaborate and efficient product of such attitude. This paper explores the nature of the corporeal awareness in the practice of the so called “Internal Schools” or rather “Schools of the Internal” (nei jia ??), primary in its most sophisticated offshoot: taijiquan. At the moment I have to skip very delicate issue of the Internal School’s relation to the “Three Religions” of China. Suffice is to say that despite the objections of Buddhists it is generally believed, and with good reason, that this martial tradition is Taoist in its inspiration and general outlook. Yet there are significant differences between institutional Taoism and “Internal Schools” both in their respective approaches to the human body and the goals of their practice: Taoists aim at acquiring the “immortal body” while martial art practitioners are concerned primary with the communicative capacities of human being, human sociality in its most pristine form. Moreover, in some traditions of taijiquan, notably that of Chen and Yang schools, taijiquan’s link with Taoism is questioned and even openly denied[1]. For our purpose this controversy is largely irrelevant.

We should keep in mind, though, a variety of meanings woven into the concept of body. We habitually distinguish between physical body proper, individuality and some kinds of metaphysically conceived body such as the social body, divine bodies like the Church of Christ in its “internal” dimension, the Body of Buddha (Dharmakaya) etc. Recently E. Levinas pointed to the significance of the “ethical body” – a space of co-responsiveness, mutual vulnerability and thus ethical responsibility preceding subjective reflection[2]. Generally speaking, the body stands for a universal mediator between internal and external, immanent and transcendent aspects of existence. But, of course, the boundary lines between different types of bodies are determined by their cultural background. Taoists traditionally distinguished between three types of body: the physical body, the “body of qi” and “the body of emptiness” or “the body beyond body”.

Now Chinese tradition tends to diminish, even ignore the significance of the individual level in the corporeal continuum of the world while stressing the importance of body’s somatic substance on the one hand and its social as well as spiritual qualities on the other hand. Locus classicus in “Meng-zi” defines self-cultivation as a development of awareness from the individual’s “small body” to the “great body” of society traditionally identified with the space of ritual relations, the domain of the (carefully cultivated) “habits of the heart”. Chinese concept of the body is not so much personal as, so to say, intra-personal and trans-personal. It seems, in our individualistic modern world this idea of body and especially its practical applications are rather hard to grasp let alone appreciate.

Yet this view of body has a solid epistemological ground. Chinese thought does not resort to the individual reflection and the parallelism of ideas and things to construct its conception of the world. Instead, it relies on the immediate experience-ing of the world, it actually practices its credo through the corporeal presence. Wu Kuang-ming rather awkwardly for the Western reader calls this approach “body thinking”[3]. To explain the difference between Modern (Western) and Traditional (Eastern) patterns of personality let us resort to a simple scheme (Fig.1). The modern personality is based on the reduction of living, i.e. corporeal, experience to the self-identical subject/individual whose logical counterpart is the world of objects. The rigid correlation between subject and object is the fundamental myth of Modernity. Subjective identity which is a cornerstone of modern society is no less problematic because it is affirmed at the cost of obliterating the actual living experience.

 ???       S.                                   O.   ???

(Beyond interior, or innermost)                  Beyond exterior, or decorum

Traditional personality is divided into inner and outer dimensions which are rooted in the corporeal existence prior to the emergence of subjectivity. Yet the inner always has something even more internal within itself and the outer – something even more external to itself. So the inner has as its “ground” the innermost, the mystical depth within and it is this inner depth that corresponds in a meta-logical way to what is most external, something “extra” to every substance, a decoration. It is not enough to say that “the symbol is born every time when the interior, the spiritual finds its expression in the exterior, in the corporeal”[4]. Symbolism is regulated by the logic of inversion: the innermost is projected into the pure exteriority; it is, as M. Henry would say, the essence of manifestation.

The abovementioned meta-logical link is defined on the diagram by the words taken from Ch.15 of “Dao-De jing”: “efficient in the minutest, all-pervading in what is most abstruse”. This is the reference to the omnipresent reality which precedes the world of things, i.e. any length and duration. Quite understandingly, the author of “Dao-De jing” is reluctant to describe the appearance of the sagely people who grasped this truth. He speaks instead about their spiritual condition which is the state of exceptionally heightened sensitivity, of extreme alertness. By virtue of this extraordinary awareness the sages are capable not only to comply to emerging circumstances but to anticipate and even invisibly influence the course of events. This capacity is praised in one of the most popular sayings of taijiquan masters: “he does not move and I don’t move either. As soon as he starts to move I move ahead of him”.

Evidently, this “abstruse connection” is not a subject of knowledge in any formal sense of the word. As long as we possess individual consciousness we can only be, as Chuang-zi puts it, “in proximity” of it. This reality is to be grasped through “internal insight” (nei wu??) or just “corporeal encounter” (ti hui??) that presumes “forgetting” (wang?), “abandoning” (fang?) of Self’s grip over the world. According to Chuang-zi, this “burying one’s Self” and “letting-go” of things brings us in touch with the Great Ancestor within us, our “primordial image” which is in fact our essential sociality, social practice n its most pristine form that coincides with the spontaneously emerging social order, the realm of the everyday life[5].

We are dealing here with a sort of the “corporeal continuum”  beyond the opposition of subject and object – something similar to M. Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the “flesh of the world”. To live in and by this continuum is to “follow” (shun?, yin?, cong? etc.) the eternal Beginning. This may explain the martial art practitioners’ preoccupation with the “martial virtue” (wu de??) whose main requirement is complete selflessness.

I finish my introductory remarks by pointing out four main aspects of this reality.

Ontologically, so to speak, it is defined in Taoist literature as “thusness” or “being so of itself” (zi ran??). “Thusness” is simultaneously the general principle of existence and the singularity of each moment. It is related, no doubt, to the expressions “transcending everything by itself” (chao ran??) and “self-sustainment” (du li??) from the “Dao-De jing”. Yet it is also closely linked with the notions of “multiplicity of subtleties” (chung miao??), “multitude” (zhung fu??) etc. in the same book. So, the concept of zi ran explains perfectly both unity and multiplicity of being. By doing this, it does not establish any privileged way of representing reality but bestows equal value on every moment of existence no matter how short and fleeting. Living by zi ran means: indifference makes the difference. Hence the tendency towards dissolving the solid forms manifested in virtually all cultural practices in China from painting to medicine. Of special notice is Chinese craftsmen’s taste for changing flat surfaces into the moving space of concave and convex parts (in furniture, bamboo carving, plastic modeling etc.) or creating twisted bodies that provide an almost panoramic view of the sculpture and highlight the interplay of its visible and invisible parts. This outlook transforms physical presence into the trajectory existence, a hidden continuity so important in Chinese medicine. The latter, as is known, views the human body as the network of non-anatomical channels and various openings, so the space “in between”, the absence of body proper is a real location of zi ran.

As ideal co-relation or absolute functionality the corporeal presence is based on the principle of centrality (zhong?) which implies a center that holds, a balance of forces and spaces from infinitely small to infinitely great. Its widely known image is the emblem of the Great Limit (tai ji) or, more precisely, the curving line cutting the circle. This line indicates the incessant co-emergence and multiplication of fractal structures based on the interaction of Yin and Yang. It is the sign of the pure event, the non-measurable, purely qualitative circuit of Being’s self-transcendence, a “semen” of the world where actual and virtual aspects of existence are endlessly projected on each other so that they are fused without becoming identical. In this circuit everything is grounded in its alterity. As G. Deleuze notes, in this circular movement, no actualization (self-identity) can exhaust the real (corporeal presence) and their every encounter can only illuminate the abysmal darkness of non-being, the limitless reserve of things[6]. The geometrical correlates of this centrality are the figures of sphere, double spiral and folds. “Abstruse communicability” is precisely communication in the fold, on the edge of everything.

Psychologically this holistic, encompassing, dynamic and essentially communicative reality whose infinite instances of actualization are like places of the body which are equally “near” to each other presumes some sort of feedback, “passive syntheses” which give rise to consciousness. The key psychological terms in Chinese tradition of martial art – qi ?(life force, sensitivity), yi? (will), xin? (heart), qing? (feeling), shen? (spirit) et al. – are intra- and meta-personal in nature. They are closely linked with the immanent affect of life and fill the whole universe. It can’t be otherwise since being in the circuit of Tao amounts, as we already know, to sticking to the source of things or, as Taoist classics put it, practicing (you?, xi?, gong?) the “everlasting”. The Way as the dynamism of non-being can only be practiced. And its practitioner can only look within: meditation in Taoism is called “inward contemplation” (nei guan??). Some modern masters of qigong claim they can perceive the life of the body down to the level of cells. More interestingly, Chinese treatises on self-cultivation since ancient times instruct to live without “looking for a stick to lean on”[7]. Surely, the sage gets his support from centrality within himself. But his experience of being real can only be known as a phantasm. This startling discovery turned out to be a final destination of Chinese literature and pictorial art.

The conceptual framework of China’s martial arts is shaped by the above mentioned principles. Perhaps of primary importance among them is the relation between inner and outer, formless and formal aspects of “practicing the Way”. The former part of this opposition – always relative, of course — has an ontological though neither logical nor practical priority over the latter. Probably the earliest theoretical essay on the martial art “The Canon of the Sword of Chaotic Integrity” (Hun yuan jian jing????) ascribed to the 14th century Taoist hermit Bi Kun right from the opening lines makes explicit the continuity of internal and external aspects of martial practice. Bi Kun writes:

“The universe is the vast body of chaotic integrity and this body is concealed in mystery. The use of the Primordial is the external side of the art. Chaotic union is harmony and primordial origin is one”[8].

Later Bi Kun mentions other important themes of martial practice already familiar to us: the merging of form with formless and pervasive nature of enlightened experience:

“In the limit of things the glittering light appears and human traces disappear. The body is flying fast and the sword soars invisibly. Sometimes, obeying the power of the will, I roam beyond thousands of li. Sometimes while sitting calmly within four walls I perceive in spirit the unbending sincerity…”[9].

Around 1560 Ming general Qi Jiguang compiled a book on martial art which included a treatise on the fist combat techniques. Despite the purely practical character of Qi Jiguang’s compendium we find in it references to the spiritual qualities of such fighting and these are related to the absence of its recognizable forms. “This art, writes Qi Jiguang, is very subtle and rooted in the obscure depth of life. It is impossible to understand it … Its movements are as fast as thunder. This is what is called: “no tricks, no postures, all is done in a blink of eye”[10].

Qi Jiguang describes the martial practice in a manner quite familiar to us today: as a sequence of the “configurations of force” (shi?) which point to the dynamic yet supra-temporal quality of life’s flow, the (dis)junctions of actualization and realization mentioned above. These sequences are exact correlates of the “trajectory” nature of inner enlightenment. In taijiquan they are shaped by the interchange of Yin and Yang, “empty” and “substantial” aspects of existence as well as “extension” (kai ) and “compression” (ho, ) of the living space. This is the pulsation of the Taiji body in its simultaneous unfolding and folding, the condition of sensibility and the nurturing of life’s immanent force. Not accidentally the corporeal awareness is compared in “Internal Schools” to the trembling candle light[11].

Already the earliest evidence suggests that the patterns of internal force are not available for reflexive knowledge. They have the names, though, that refer to the finite nature, the inner determination of  intentionality. But these names are obviously metaphorical, even hazardous because the finitude of the Will that shapes the patterns of force is itself infinite. In fact, they point to the supra-temporal moment of insight which pierces like “one thread”, “one principle” various planes of existence and asserts the continuity of Taiji body. Such is the making of centrality: it embraces and harmonizes infinitely small and big, fleeting instance and eternity[12].

The said sequences have a cosmological dimension as well. Their order, no matter how trajectory, symbolizes the world creation starting from the primordial chaos (No- Limit) and culminating in the chaos of the esthetical diversity of life (Great Limit) revealed by human creativity.

Even before Qi Jiguang another military official, Tang Shunzhi, composed similar treatise on the technique of combat which also opens with the statement that this art consists of certain configurations of force that cannot be reduced to fixed forms and their use “depends on the situation”[13]. Besides, Tang Shunzhi wrote a poem on a “Taoist from Emei Mountain” who possessed “even more marvelous art of fighting than the Shaolin fighters”. While performing the sequence of prescribed movements, this Taoist hermit “was twisting and bending in all directions as if he had no bones” and “his whole body was like one hand”. Having finished his exercise he “sat on the mat in silence, guarding spirit deep inside”[14]. In Tang Shunzhi’s description this Taoist looks like a divine person, a kind of superman and this is not just literary fantasy. The master of the “Internal School” must embody its own alterity, the immense explosive power of Being’s dispersal in the spirit of Zhuang-zi’s classical saying:

“Sitting like a corpse he manifests the image of dragon”.

Such is the background of taijiquan tradition with its sophisticated expression of the central idea of Chinese wisdom: the convergence of spirituality and corporality in the very limit of their being. This means: concreteness coincides with universality, more corporality invites more spirituality. This is possible because the pure dynamism of centrality is both the nature of life and the condition of consciousness. The main principle of taijiquan’s practice is relaxation (song) which brings the body to its most pristine condition of Great Limit, its differentiating matrix of existence. The degree of relaxation indicates the level of spirit’s clarity and vigilance. For relaxation stimulates the circulation of life force through the interchange of its various modes: empty and substantial parts of the body, its openings and closings, hardness and softness etc. The growing intensity of somatic processes raises spiritual sensitivity.

In the state of complete relaxation the dynamism of somatic substance – both material and spiritual – generates a particular kind of cumulative force called jin? (there is no appropriate word for it in Western languages) – a chief weapon of taijiquan practitioners. The relation of jin to qi is like a relation of an arrow to a bow: when the bow is well bent the arrow slips off the bow without effort. So jin is accumulated and issued by the configuration of the whole body but presupposes the latter’s full transparency and even “emptiness”, total absence. As is stated in the “Song on Transmitting the Mystery” (???), one of the earliest texts in taijiquan tradition,

“No forms, no images, the whole body is suspended in the void”[15].

???????? 

This void must be understood in its dynamic mode, as an act of self-emptying. The internal force is born not by somatic rhythm per se but by the act of yielding, dispersal (san?)[16] that, like chain reaction in the nuclear reactor, releases an enormous amount of energy. Through self-emptying the physical force (li?) can be transformed into the jin-force as well.

The absence of forms and images does not imply here bare nothingness, but something quite the contrary: the fullness of Being’s potential reduced to the symbolic matrix of experience. It is in fact a virtual reality located, according to the classical Taoist formula, “between presence and absence”. It is the Vortex of Tao within which myriads of symbolic, would-be worlds come into being and pass away before they acquire a visible form. And it embodies the pure affection which is the driving force of life’s transformations.

So, seemingly calm and economical movements of Taiji exercise are traces of a long, even infinitely long, way through the abyss of life. According to the classical instruction, the internal force used in Taiji must be accumulated as the silk thread is being reeled off the silk cocoon: impeccably gently and patiently, with extremely acute feeling of rhythm and alertness. Another classical dictum states that the life force in the body “moves as if in the pearl with nine twisted passages and reaches even the minutest places”[17]. We are reminded once again that the body of this Great Limit practice is essentially spherical and holographic so it contains the circuit of the Great Limit in its every point. The metaphor of the pearl, as is often the case in taijiquan tradition, looks a bit strange: does it refer to some object or anything substantial at all? No wonder it has been interpreted differently. Sometimes it is conceived as a chain of pearls – the conception which is in accord with the nature of Taiji body as the continuity of different moments similar to jewels pierced with a thread. Yet issuing of internal force presumes the pristine unity of the corporeal presence.

Now the Great Limit or centrality stimulates the growth of consciousness because it represents the symbolic distance or co-relation of incompatible entities, i.e. the crack within unitary experience. In other words, it generates the experience of limits and uniqueness revealed in the moments of creative transformations. This means that behind the evolutionary unfolding of the world the vortex of Tao contains a reversal movement leading to the source of Being and this is the movement of the absolute “following” – the most effortless of all movements. Centrality is the name for immanent transcendence. It nurtures awareness without identity or an alternative identity, being as co-being, Mit-sein whose nature is constant self-differentiating. “Song on the Transmission of Mystery” formulates this truth in the most plain words:

“Respond to the other, be so by itself”. ????

The commentators of this statement resort to a metaphor of the   undifferentiated wholeness: one should be “vast as the ocean and empty as the sky”[18]. What the taijiquan master responds to is not a thing since his awareness precedes the opposition of subject and object. He follows  “the profound impulse” (xuan ji), “heavenly impulse” (tian ji) etc. of universal transformations. Contemporary taijiquan teacher Li Ya-xuan, defines Taiji skill as the ability

“To follow the impulse and respond to changes”[19]. ????

The highest spiritual concentration is achieved in the absence of reflecting ego and that’s what corporeal awareness is: a lucid and boundless flow of spiritualized life. Its reflection – an inevitable attribute of consciousness – is oriented not to the (as yet nonexistent) individual but to the fact of communication. When unconstrained by deliberating reason it provides all those who are living by it and, therefore, living fully and without mediation, with a real safe haven just because it precedes all things and, therefore, threats. The awakened mind is actually “blind” because it perceives the prehistory of events, it is, in Lao-zi’s words, ‘enlightened on the minutest things” (wei ming).

Now we can appreciate the semantic complexity of the term “will”, one of the key concepts in the “Internal Schools”. Its basic meaning is “the move of the heart”. In more concrete terms, it makes possible relaxation and “guides qi”. The Will belongs to the corporeal continuum of centrality hence the classic expression: “the will of the whole body”. Yet the will is opposed to body’s material aspect. As the classical aphorism of taijiquan instructs, “use will, do not use physical force”. This requirement is not without its practical reason because the will which is the guiding impulse of the internal force acts much faster than the physical force informed by the calculative reason. The will never breaks down, it “goes far”, even “beyond the world”. As a power of self-transcendence it must address the spirit and be completely free from psychic affections. Apparently, the will is not an intellectual reality. It embodies the primordial dynamism of life, the bodily intuition merged with consciousness and, as we know, these polarities in taijiquan complement each other.

The capacity of our body to react to external influences even before they become the facts of individual consciousness has been occasionally noticed by Western philosophers. Spinoza and Nietzsche praised the  “reason of the body” and modern phenomenology is quite at home with the concept of the “original knowledge of the body”[20] The Taoist tradition provides detailed and consistent evidence of the bodily awareness as original being-in-the world. A recently published text by one of the taijiquan’s founders states it clearly:

“The knowledge of the mind leads to the knowledge of the body, but the knowledge of body is higher than the knowledge of mind”[21].

The very term knowledge here requires further qualifications. One of the recently published texts coming from the Yang school of taijiquan contains the attempt to distinguish between inner “awareness” and external “knowledge”. The former constitutes “the underground”, the invisible prehistory of the latter:

“With inner motion we have awareness, with external movement we have knowledge. When inner motion reaches its limit there is an external movement. When awareness attains its fullness knowledge appears. It is easy to master movements and knowledge but it is hard to understand motion and awareness”[22].

In the boundless field of life’s force there are no obstacles to contact and hence no need for confrontation. There is only fleeting boundary line of potentially infinite spheres (within one infinite sphere). Physical contact is only a condition, a mark of self-emptying (“yielding”, “giving way” zou ? in terms of practice). Curiously, it is not located anywhere. But this “shedding one’s Self” releases the potential of body’s living space rooted in the infinity of centrality-sphere. As an aphorism of taijiquan tradition instructs, “hand is not a hand, there is a hand everywhere”. Indeed, less is more. Did not Lao-zi mean this truth of symbolical inversion when he compared the space of the world to the bellows: the more you pump it the more comes out of it?

Viewed in this light, taijiquan’s mastery is the capacity to maintain centrality in the continuity of spheres. The capacity to withstand attack amounts to reducing one’s sphere to the vanishing point and the capacity to strike – to using the potential of the greatest available sphere. This is why the will which is rooted in the creative circuit of Taiji should be directed far behind the opponent in the combat and its working does not presuppose any confrontation. And yet the taijiquan masters insist on withholding it (shou) for the sake of preserving centrality[23]. Nothing mysterious in this demand: centrifugal movement in Taiji is always accompanied by the centripetal one.

So the combat in taijiquan is essentially the interaction of spheres where success depends on the purity of the will, i.e. the capacity to preserve the perfect correspondence between infinitely small and infinitely great spheres. The most efficient way is to attack (in the will) the opponent’s constitutive center through contracting sphere or draw the opponent into expanding sphere. “One should not attack opponent’s center with one’s own center, instructs Wang Yongquan. It is necessary to attack with the might of the whole sphere”[24]. But we should remember that centrality finally transcends the world of things and allows to strike from nowhere and in no time. That is what the fantastic cook in Zhuang-zi’s story did when he reached “the most difficult place” in ox’s body and had to act from his “central line”. The capacity to use the void of symbolic centrality is perhaps the only secret of taijiquan masters.

A good illustration to this point is provided by the popular blockbuster “Matrix”. Most critics in the West saw in it a gloomy allegory of the epistemological dead-end of Western civilization. It is rarely noticed, though, that the film suggests the way out of the Matrix’s trap and the one obviously connected with Taoist or quasi-Taoist practices. The leader of resistance against the yoke of the Matrix, a young man called Neo (i.e. New Man), studies Oriental martial arts and acquires an amazing speed of physical movements with no less outstanding clarity of spiritual perceptiveness. Neo does not fight against the illusory appearance of the world in the Matrix by, so to say, intellectual means. In fact the art of cinema that contributed so much to creating the world of all-pervading illusion also offers antidote to this world. The eye of the camera and special effects tell more than physical eyesight and even imagination can see. The physical objects in the film demonstrate an astonishing plasticity: human bodies are suspended in the air, objects bend in all directions disclosing, as it were, their illusory nature. Some decisive scenes are shot in a very slow motion, presenting the world that is folding unto itself within one passing moment; the world of insight that belongs to the so called “Bullet-Time”. Neo demonstrates capacity to avoid flying bullets – a skill actually attributed to some great masters of martial art in China and Japan. This effect discloses the nature of spiritual awakening. The bullet, as physical object, has a fixed trajectory and duration of flight, no matter how short, while the spirit is capable to transcend all things, to undergo transformation (shen hua) even faster than the shortest conceivable span of time. Strictly speaking, it is not an issue of “avoiding” bullets. The awakened consciousness precedes all things and sees no objects. We are dealing with the differential relations of virtual tendencies which cannot be separated and yet are never identical. This phantom speed-space[25]is the biggest challenge of modern technology.

There is no dualism of mind and matter in Chinese worldview. But continuum of Being’s transformations has a vertical axis, or inner depth, with different levels of internal lucidity. This hierarchy has three main layers: material body (xing?), body’s somatic substrate (qi) and spirit (shen). The basis of their continuity is the Void as a real condition and force of self-transcendence. The body as xing is viewed in China as essentially unsubstantial, an empty form similar to shadow or the body of the doll. The dimension of qi corresponds to the psychic conditions and that of the spirit is beyond physical perception or intellectual understanding. In an anonymous treatise on martial art “Canon of Spiritual Motion” (Shen yun jing???) three types of combat are mentioned: that of bodies, of qi and of spirit. “In the combat of bodies the victory is achieved through physical contact. In the combat of qi one can frighten the opponent just with the movement of hand. In the combat of spirit one gets hold of the opponent without moving”[26].

These levels of martial art are projected on a more basic opposition of its internal and external aspects, the internal dimension having priority and representing the real basis of practice. Thus qi corresponds to the “substantial” side of martial exercise while the physical force is secondary. Moreover, this division is correlated by a more sophisticated distinctions between the formless and the form, the “Former Heaven” (xian tian??), which corresponds to the immanent transcendence of life, and the “Posterior Heaven” (hou tian??), the world of forms. Since the Void is not an essence or entity, every level of being is marked by this opposition: it is important to distinguish between the qi of “former heaven” and “posterior heaven”, between “primordial spirit” (yuan shen??) and “knowing spirit” (zhi shen??).

In taijiquan tradition there are several stages of inner awareness. The lowest among them is the purely technical mastery of bodily postures. A qualitative leap is required to possess the so called “perceptive force” (ting jin??). The fact is that the internal force is essentially sensitive because it can act only in the presence of completely relaxed, i.e. free, consciousness. The “perceptive force” allows “to feel” the inner condition of the opponent. The next stage is the “understanding force” (dong jin??) which means the capacity to comprehend the combat in its spatial and temporal entirety. In the texts of the Yang-style tradition of taijiquan it is explained in the following words:

“The understanding force of humans is the edge of sight and hearing, a capacity to change through encounter with circumstances. It produces miraculous results all by itself. The body attains enlightenment without effort, inner motion and external movement are permeated by awareness and knowledge. When the perfection reaches this level everything will be done correctly and easily and there will be no need to engage your mind”[27].

The equation of the “understanding force” with the “edge of sight and hearing” is remarkably ambiguous. What does it mean? The highest state of empirical perception or the latter’s limitation calling for the leap to spiritual transcendence? Both suggestions are plausible. It is clear, though, that this “edge” is the very nature of transformations (dispersal) and the threshold of the pure transcendence. The latter corresponds to the highest stage of perfection defined somewhat conventionally as “spiritual illumination” (shen ming??). Its practical correlate is most probably the mysterious technique of striking through and by the void without physical movements (ling kong??).

Whatever the level of mastery in taijiquan, the principles of its practice are the same. In the spiral movement of Being that beings itself to lose is to gain: one should “forget oneself” and then forgetting must be forgotten just like dispersal must also be dispersed and the creative will, in order to create the new, must be non-willed. The truth of this persistent un-doing transcends all images and concepts, even the concept of pure interaction. The transition to the highest enlightenment through “following the impulse” is described in the saying of taijiquan masters which is known to me only in oral transmission:

“With will you are spiritual.

 Without will you are miraculous”.

????  ????

The highest skill is perfectly natural, says Lao-zi. It is the uncreated Void which makes possible all activity. It is complete calmness that releases the highest speed. It is the recovering of natural sensibility that reveals the miracle of life: effects without efforts, efficiency without actions. Living by Taiji means exactly dwelling in the intersection of forms and formless, by the “semen of things” where, according to Lao-tzu, we can contemplate the rise of things in their plenitude and the return of everything to its root, presumably without seeing anything yet clearly experiencing the miracle of being: a pure transcendence.

One final observation: this Taoist preoccupation with sensibility and communication which nourishes, in M. Maffesoli’s words, the comprehensive estheticism of life[28]seems amazingly modern. Indeed, under conditions of informational civilization the faculty of perception has acquired a much greater importance to the extent that it is likely to overshadow the intellectual reflection that used to be the basis for identity in the modern thought. Does not the digital world of electronic media actually disclose those extremely fluent, vanishing images of compelling phantasm that we encounter at the level of primal perception? Does it not require from us the capacity to deal with what J.G.Merquior called the “underground of thought” directly, to be involved in the world of mediation with the utmost immediacy? As P. Sloterdijk noted more than twenty years ago, “if mystical advances into the “innermost” zones of preindividual emptiness used to be exclusively a matter for meditative minorities, today there are good reasons for hoping that in our world torn by struggling identifications, majorities for such enlightenment will finally be found”[29]. One should add that, as the fantasy of the “Matrix” reminds us, the new idea of identity opens a new security zone for the Self amidst the cynical denial of privacy: it is precisely the sphere of perceptive communication that precedes reflectivity. This brings the social values of the informational age still closer to the Taoist ideal of a sage who harmonizes the world even before the consciousness of the world emerges.

Can’t we call it a providential gift of history when technological innovations detrimental to human spirituality turn out to be the means of  recovery of that spirituality along new lines and in new forms? We are not yet ready to say what kind of identity can be nurtured by relying on the bodily enlightenment which requires one’s decisive opening to the world and thus “forgetting”, un-doing any fixed ego. It may be a mixed blessing because while bringing us in touch with reality it affirms its non-availability for the critical thinking. We can say only that this will be a reality of the Great Self whose very essence is a promise to come, a New Man as anonymous as he is genuine. In practice we will observe, probably, the creative collision of reflection and perception which presupposes the loss of their respective metaphysical foundations. May be this is the real meaning of the Taoist maxim: “Respond to others, be so of itself”.

So the dream of domination and the power of illusion created unwittingly by the Enlightenment project are to be overcome not by the search for even more sober thought but by relying on those dream-like qualities of experience in order to assert a new Enlightenment based on the immediate and essentially corporeal living-in-the world.


[1] Cai Zhaoqi. Wo suo renshi di taijiquan. Taipei: Zhongguo yishiu kexue yanjiuhui, 1994. P. 147.

[2] On the typology of physical, subjective and ethical bodies see: E. Vyshegrod.Towards a Postmodern Ethics: Corporality and Alterity. – Ethics and Aesthetics. The Moral Turn of Postmodernism. Ed. by G. Hoffman and A. Hornung. Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag, 1996. P.65 ff. This typology does not fit well Chinese perception of body since it leaves out body’s somatic substance and puts too much emphasis on subject’s body.

[3] Wu Guangming. The Chinese Body Thinking. Leiden : Brill, 1994.

[4] R.Guardini. L’?sprit de la lithurgie. Paris: Plon, 1960. P.93.

[5] See, for example, Wang Fuzhi’s amazing commentary to the story about Taoist teacher Hu-zi in the 7th chapter of “Zhuang-zi”. Wang sees in the social division of labor the fulfillment of one’s “heavenly lot”.

[6] G., Deleuze, The Fold?Leibniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 125.

[7] Chenben yijin jing. Miben xisui jing. Taipei: Ziyu, 1997, p.44.

[8] Zhongguo gudian wuxue miji. Ma Li ed. Beijing: Renmin tiyu, 2005. Vol.1, p.172.

[9] Ibid., p.173.

[10]  For a detailed analysis of Qi Jiguang’s description of the fist fighting technique see: Ming-qing wushu guji quanxue lunxi. Yu Shuiqing et al. ed. Beijing: Renmin tiyu, 2008, p. 49-65.

[11] Oral transmission by Baguazhang master Li Ziming. For a similar motif of the “trembling of the living knowledge” in modern phenomenology see: M. Henry, Philosophy and Phenomenology of the body. The Hague: Martinus Nijhof, 1975, p.169. Another relevant remark belongs to E. Grosz: sensation, she says, “is always a mode of resonance or harmonious vibration, an oscillation extracted from the fluctuating, self-differentiating structure of the universe”. E. Grosz..Chaos, Territory, Art. Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p.19.

[12] It is remarkable that in China the art of fist-fighting (quan) was traditionally associated with the idea of “balance” (quan).

[13] Ibid., p. 23.

[14] Ibid., p. 36.

[15] Shen Shou, ed., Taijiquan pu , Beijing: Renmin tiyu, 1995, p. 236. On the authorship of this important text see: Chu Datong, Xue Xiuying, op.cit., p. 48.

[16] This is the main principle of artistic creativity as well as the quality of relaxation in taijiquan.

[17] Taijiquan pu. p.94.

[18] Chu Datong, Xue Xiuying, Taiji neigong. Taipei: Dazhan, 2005, p. 50.

[19] Li Ya-xuan, Yang-shi tai-ji quan jia quanzhen (An explaination of the genuine meaning of the Yang-style T’ai-chi chuan), Taipei: Iwen, 2003, p. 122.

[20] M. Henry, op.cit., p. 94.

[21] Douglas Wile, Lost T’ai-chi classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty, Albany: SUNY, 1996, p. 46.

[22] Shen Chou, ed. Taichi quan pu, p. 116. For a different English version of this text by D. Wile see: Douglas Wile, op.cit., p. 66.

[23] Wang Yongquan shou Yang-shi taijiquan yulu ji quanzhao, Beijing: Tiyu daxue, 2010. p. 19.

[24] Ibid., p. 86.

[25] This concept, one should note, was extensively analyzed by P. Virilio, J. Deleuze et al.

[26] Ma Guoxing. Guquanlun chanshi xubian, p. 291.

[27] Tai-chi quanpu, p. 137. Cf. D. Wile, op.cit., p. 71. D. Wile’s translation of the term dong jin as “interpreting enegy” is rather confusing for both grammatical and semantic reasons.

[28] Michel Maffesoli. Aux creux des apparences. Paris: Plon, 1990, p. 47.

[29] P.Sloterdijk. Critique of Cynical Reason. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 74.

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