by Robert Amacker
Possibly a year after my lifelong friend and martial arts partner, Martin Inn and I had immigrated Chu, Ch’u-fang into the United States, he announced a new and important mission for us. There was someone else, someone of great importance, that we must now turn our efforts toward immigrating. This was a special and secretive individual only known to a few advanced adepts, such as Mr. Chu, and we should be honored to have the job of bringing him to America. He was so special because he had mastered the technique of “empty force,” the highest achievement of Taijiquan. When one’s circulation of qi becomes high enough, he reaches the point at which he can project it at others, knocking them down at a distance, or even killing them. We all have some idea of what this looks like, having seen it in countless gung-fu movies. Marty and I were properly stunned, not expecting to be “living the dream” of becoming gung-fu supermen quite so quickly, and Mr. Chu must have noticed, asking next if we believed him, to which, after quickly glancing at one another, we both assured him that of course, teacher, you can bet on it. After nodding solemnly for a moment, he told us, sounding rather disgusted, that we were fools. No one, he emphasized in a slightly louder tone of voice, can do this, and don’t believe anyone that tells you that they can.
I am sure that no one could righteously fault me for ending the current discussion right here, because Mr. Chu’s warning is definitely the short answer to the whole subject of empty force, given what people take the phrase to mean. It is a worthwhile warning, because purveyors of this “power” seem to surface every few years with the persistence of some sort of biblical pestilence. It is amazing to see the number and relatively high caliber of people who can be taken in by this “emperor’s new clothes” con, in which an inability to be affected by this “qi attack” identifies an insufficiency in you, rather than in the one mounting the attack.
But I am going to speak a bit more about this topic, because it is nothing more nor less than the furthest extension of a certain Taijiquan methodology, and this methodology is quite interesting and generally completely misunderstood. Most of Taijiquan’s training methods are quite misunderstood, principally because they can easily be mistaken for those training methods used by other martial arts. In most martial arts, one trains by rehearsing one’s fighting behavior, rehearsing it until it is fast enough and strong enough to be used. Taijiquan utilizes a unique method, a method based upon the elimination of the variables affecting the acquisition of any new skill, and in which the skill is demonstrated by the apparent victim of the situation.
This dynamic is evident in the very first learning situation in which the student participates. He is instructed to “yield,” that is, to maneuver his body such that he allows no pressure to accumulate, which actually means that he moves at the slightest pressure. What does the elimination of variables mean in this situation? What would this imply if viewed as a supposedly martial situation? It would seem that no one is doing anything terribly practical. All of this yielding does not present a very satisfactory solution to this “attack,” appearing as it does to leave the person yielding in a condition that could be easily taken advantage of, and to leave the person attacking practicing the defeat of a rather unskilled opponent.
In fact, nothing in Taijiquan training resembles anything even remotely relevant to martial art until the skill of yielding evolves into the skill of adherence. This term is simply the technical Taijiquan nomenclature for the process of making taijis with the opponent. Why not go directly to this process, and the development of this skill? Because the fundamental ingredient of this skill is yielding. In our initial exercise we have eliminated the “variable” of needing to exhibit martial relevance. We need also to eliminate the variable of considering any activity other than this yielding business. For this to be possible, we need to eliminate the variable of someone taking advantage of this single-minded concentration. This means that the “pusher” must never suggest that the “yielder” should seek any other solution. Practically speaking, this means that when he encounters a “hard” place on the “yielder,” he should abandon it and go around it until he finds a “soft” spot. This runs slightly counter to the usual martial reasoning, which might dictate that the “pusher,” having discovered such hardness, should “help out” his partner by pushing on it until his partner wakes up and “yields.”
Unfortunately, this is confusing something that tests a skill with something that cultivates it. The challenge implied by such a test can certainly advance a student’s progress, but this also confuses teaching with practicing. When actually teaching the skill of yielding, the teacher might put his finger an a hard spot and insist on keeping it there until the student reacts, but this is to convey the essence of what is being demanded. The quickest road to development is not found in bringing the student’s attention constantly to places where he can’t yield, but in probing those where he can, then going around these spots to “softer,” that is, more responsive areas.
The more subtle lesson in this methodology is that practice must accommodate the learning needs of both players. I have always said that one cannot teach Taijiquan without doing it, in some sense at least, wrong. It is, literally, the art of revealing nothing. “I know the opponent; he does not know me.” -Classics. But that does not mean that in practice one of the players must be practicing it wrong. In fact, one of the most sacred rules of Taijiquan behavior is: never push on what is hard. I always tell my students that they are looking for holes. The correct penetration of the opponent’s defenses is like putting a key into a lock. If you bang into the edges of the lock, it will seem that your key does not fit. You must relax your hand completely, so that it itself yields, through the medium of the key, to the hardness of the lock.
This conforms perfectly to correct training on the part of the “pusher,” to never push on what is hard. As I have said, this (pushing on what is hard) can only be done by a teacher, because he is skilled enough that this will not corrupt his technique, and because he recognizes that this is teaching, not practice.
What should be carefully noted in the above is that the whole process, this particular elimination of variables, demands a cooperative effort on the part of both players. It should be starkly contrasted with the idea that one person is trying to do something and the other person is trying to “help” him perfect it by making it as hard as possible to do. This kind of “negative reinforcement” training is only appropriate in correcting things that one already knows how to do, not in effecting the learning of entirely new skills. For this, one must make the new experience as easy as possible, so that from this taste the student develops a standard against which his future progress may be measured. In the basic exercise of yielding, it is equally encumbent upon both players to disallow the appearance of any pressure beyond an agreed upon baseline, this causing both to develop correct habits. Imagine if the common martial logic was applied in reverse, in which the pusher would be looking for soft places, and the yielder were trying to make that as difficult as possible. In this case, he would be practicing becoming as hard as he could wherever touched (thus denying his opponent any softness to push on), and thus be practicing exactly the opposite of the desired discipline.
I have taken the reader through this painstaking examination of the fundamental tool of Taijiquan because this selection of the cooperative over the competitive, this method employed by both players to raise the entire level of their encounter, in which both players literally assist their “opponents” (and I am sure the reader will grasp why, at this point, I choose to put the word opponents in italics) in their end of the execution, is a model for every phase of Taijiquan training, up to and including the highest level of practice. This is why I insist upon describing Taijiquan as a method of training, rather than as a method of fighting. I do not mean by this to in any way apologize for Taijiquan as a martial art, quite the contrary, in fact, but to indicate that there is no way, by watching the training protocols of the art, that one could accurately predict or imagine what it would look like in actual combat. The protocols are not designed or intended to be in the slightest bit “realistic,” but rather to eliminate as many variables as possible in the pursuit of the “taste” of the desired technique.
After some experimentation with yielding, the next phase is adherence, or the making of taijis with the opponent. This skill must proceed without violating any postural and/or behavioristic rules. The restriction on stepping might seem as though enforced to make neutralization of pressure more difficult (it is easy, after all, to just run away), and it does, of course, serve the purpose of encouraging more flexibility and range of movement. Its main function, however, is to facilitate the acquisition of mutual taijis. In all we have eight of them to master, and the wonderful thing about fixed-step tuishou is that every one can be “tasted” in that format, without taking a single step. The protocol is what it is in order to eliminate the “variable” of steps, the taking of which makes their acquisition enormously more difficult.
This initial physical understanding of how to make taijis and what they feel like is an enormous step. In addition, the taijis are completely mutual “virtual objects.” They have no physical reality of their own, but they are capable of being mutually perceived on a physical level, of literally being “felt.” Their production is a mutual project. The whole idea of one player trying to make them and the other trying to stop him is not just wrong, it is completely nonsensical. This mutual effort is gradually more successful, and the more successful it is, the more the players can be led into successively more sophisticated variations. The classic protocols in this regard are marvels in that the players are drawn gradually into fully connecting upper and lower and from this connection into the taking of proper steps. Not only that, but the classical protocols retain this previously mentioned quality attaining their highest level when seeming to deliberately assist the opponent in making the countermove.
This dynamic again forestalls any desirability for competition. The kind of cooperation indicated here, this mutual desire to maintain what is called the Civil Aspect of the art (the making and maintenance of mutual taijis), is productive of ever more sophisticated exchanges, far more satisfying than any competitive satisfaction. Continued practice of this kind gives rise to what I call lively legs. The combination of this increasing liveliness and more sophisticated development of the mutual taijis (specifically, of the airball) gradually gives rise to what I call proper discharge, in which there is some moment where both feet are off of the ground.This is in contrast to double-weighted or Classical discharge, where the feet leave and return to the ground at the same time. Once this level is reached, the student may explore all of the movements of Sanshou, and equip himself with a “myriad” of changes. “From a myriad of changes, there is only one principle.” -Classics.
At every single level of this study the methodology may be attacked as “unrealistic.” I commonly heard the objection, when demonstrating any of the protocols, that “I wouldn’t let you do that.” This reaches a peak when observing the practice of discharge. Many observers feel downright insulted that you would imagine they would be taken in and impressed by something so obviously “cooperative.” Truth is, not only is it cooperative, but it takes years of training just to get cooperative enough to make it work like that. Mr. Chu used to laugh at the idea that discharge was a weapon. “What kind of weapon would that be?” he would say, laughing. “To win real fight one must hurt opponent. ‘You should go fight that guy,’ they will say. ‘If you lose he just push you away and you can try again.’”
In fact, the operative skill, just as it is in all the other protocols of Taijiquan, is found in the “victim.” In the most elementary of encounters, it is the one who gives up, who “yields,” that is demonstrating the point of the exercise. When it is an exchange of techniques or postures, as translated into English, the skill is exhibited in the giving up of one technique and the change into the next. In Three-step Tuishou the most critical skill is shown when in retreat, giving up ground. In the discharge protocol, the critical skill is found in the dischargee, not the discharger. Not only is discharge not a weapon, It is a cooperative act that depends far more on the dischargee than the discharger to even take place. Its historical record as a weapon is possible because, even though it is a cooperative act, cooperation may sometimes be tricked or coerced into existence. In the time of Taijiquan’s creation, it was a point of technique with the great majority of boxing styles to assume a defensive posture and action that mimicked the cooperative element needed for the discharge phenomenon to occur.
As this kind of stance and behavior is far more rarely associated with fighting today, any demonstration of the discharge protocol will be immediately accused of being “staged,” and “a setup.” This, of course, is indeed exactly what it is. It’s intention is not realism, nor is it a demonstration of power. It is a training discipline that is not ever intended to be turned into a weapon, but which, like a lot of other “phony” looking disciplines of Taijiquan, is instrumental in developing one.
The logical extension of these training techniques implies greater and greater sensitivity to touch, and greater and greater liveliness in the legs. The tuishou exercise, which appears to train one to be “rooted” and never take a step, has as its real desired result footwork that activates at the slightest touch, changing one’s actual foot position by only centimeters or less, and at lightning speed. One is actually training to be “discharged” at the opponent’s lightest touch into a position of advantage.
The whole idea of empty force, seen from this point of view, is simply a logical extension of the training techniques to a point that stretches credulity, but not logic itself. In fact, the reprograming of the cerebellum that is implied by Taijiquan training suggests a natural extension of the skill of yielding to the eyes, which Cheng affirmed with certainty, and without which, he maintained, Taijiquan would not actually be a martial art. Indeed, the implication of the training protocol, that all change must be in response to touch, would prohibit any response until an attacker had actually landed a blow, and this behavior could clearly not be the intended result of years of study. In the very first move of Sanshou, before any contact is made, side B steps back in response to A’s advance, giving immediate lie to this supposed restriction. The idea that one could be so responsive on this level of sight that any degree of energetic event could take place, even a discharge (being as cooperative as it is), is not totally beyond the possibility of occurring, but notice that this interpretation puts the burden of skill on the dischargee, and has nothing to do with any sort of special power on the part of the discharger.
As far as any fantasies concerning what appears to be happening in supposed demonstrations of “empty force,” these should be relegated to the same mental dust bin as similar martial fantasies about making oneself heavier or lighter at will, or fighting multiple assailants while blindfolded. All of these kinds of stories have their origins in some sort of reality, but never the reality that is presumed. The presumed reality here is that someone is emitting a force that operates at a distance and can affect completely untrained and even unaware opponents. In the words of Chu, Ch’u-fang: no one can do this, and don’t believe anyone who tells you that they can.