Daoist metaphysics in practical application

23 Mar

In recent years, serious academic studies of Chinese martial arts have produced valuable information. Unfortunately, for many of those comfortable with what their teacher told them and what they have believed for years, this information challenges many long held beliefs and it is more comfortable to ignore.


At this point, the historical record seems quite clear. Prior to the Ming Dynasty, martial arts in China meant weaponry, with the associated wrestling, kicking and short striking necessary to complement such weaponry. This should not surprise us. Men fight wars with weapons and a similar developmental path occurred in the West.


As battlefield martial art (weaponry) trickles down into the regular population, there is an increased interest in the unarmed aspects and the development of more diversity. The “civilian” is not engaging in battles, with large armies, in armor, etc. The civilian martial art is for personal honor (duels), minor conflicts of self interest, and the rather vague all encompassing term “self defense.” In China, during the Ming Dynasty, the historical record indicates that for the first time unarmed systems as we know them began to emerge.


Simultaneously, these new unarmed systems interacted with and were influenced by religious, quasi-religious and shamanistic practices that had already existed in the society but had never been connected to the practice of martial arts. Men such as Chen Tinghua perceived connections between their martial arts and existing religious practices such as Daoism. Unfortunately, we are actually left with a case of “the chicken or the egg”? Did the martial arts develop FROM Daoist metaphysics? Or, did later practitioners simply borrow metaphysics to explain already existing techniques and strategies?


In Daoist metaphysics, the “Taiji” is much more than a little circle divided with a squiggly line. It is much more than “yin” and “yang.” It is an entire cosmological system. One of the most important aspect of this system is the north-south axis.


In martial arts, we can visual that north-south axis as the moment two combatants approach each other. For example, you could visualize yourself standing at the southern pole, facing north toward your opponent, who is standing at the northern pole facing south. However, in most Chinese martial arts the idea of standing on the same line (Jih Wu) and exchanging blows is akin to “cave man fighting.” There are more efficient methods of fighting.


I can step to my left or to my right, creating an angle. That angle can allow me to “slip” an attack, it can be an angle that allows me to strike in a way that is more difficult to avoid, or even allow me to strike in a way in which my opponent can not counter attack. If I am standing at either pole and begin moving in either direction, I am moving along the cardinal points of the compass. One potential way of explaining this, rather than simple compass points (north, northwest, northeast, etc) is the “Ba Gua.” Did the I-Ching and the Ba Gua create this strategy? Or is just a way to explain this strategy?

7 star

The “Qi Xing” (Chat Sing) or “Seven Star” is a representation of the big dipper in Daoism. It is however represented by a zig-zag like line. Take a look at the “Ba Gua” again, thinking of it as a compass. You are facing north. You step to the left to create an angle (you are standing on the southwest marker). Either your strike or your footwork takes you toward your opponent. You are traveling on the southwest-to-northeast line. You are also zig-zagging across the primal north-south axis. THIS is “Qi Xing.”


Teachers such as Chen may have recognized in their martial arts these illustrations, and found them useful. For most of the public however, they were outright fooled into thinking that the so called “internal arts” were in fact the product of Daoists at Wu-Dang mountain. In 1894, Chen, Liu Dekuan, Li Cunyi and Liu Wei Xiang, teachers of the so called “internal arts” (Taiji, Hsing Yi and Bagua), found their methods shared many common points and adopted the name “Nei Jia Quan.”

Depending upon the source, some claim the four were unaware of an earlier Ming Dynasty martial art and book by Hung Bai Jia with the title “Nei Jia Quan.” Hung’s “Nei Jia Pai” book claimed HIS art had Daoist origins and originated at Wu Dang Mountain. Nothing at all documents or confirms this account and in all likelihood it was just a story by Hung to boost the credibility of the art.


Regardless, the general public neither questioned Hung’s pseduo-history NOR made a distinction between Hung’s “Nei Jia Quan” and the NEW group using the same name. Thus, the public incorrectly associated the three arts of Taiji, Hsing Yi and Bagua with Wu Dang.


Returning to the understanding of martial arts footwork and angles using the Daoist metaphysical cosmology, now consider the “five element” theory and it’s implications for combat. The “five element” theory is both “creative” and “destructive”. Movement and angles can create opportunity while intersecting the north-south axis can result in counter attacks which “destroy” your opponent and his offense. It is much more complex than “my A punch beats your B punch.”


Returning to the “chicken or the egg” argument, we have an account by a famous Hsing-Yi instructor that when he trained (within the past 100 years) the so called “five element” theory was not discussed or taught as part of Hsing Yi. Yet we also know that by the late 1800′s the so called “internal arts” (Taiji, Hsing Yi and Bagua) were all established and popular among those who used these methods for fighting. The obvious conclusion, “five element” theory was adopted after the fact to explain fighting concepts which had developed independent of Daoist metaphysics.

I am sure this will create quite a controversy, but the truth is still the truth, regardless of whether you like it or not. Be well, and train hard.

Sifu Ross


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: