In which I ask a really dumb question about Cheng Man Ching

Once again, not a huge amount to report; have been head-nodding tired of late, so off my practice a bit. Today’s energies have been directed at clearing a long-neglected greenhouse of bindweed and thistles; the earth inside is now ready to be dug over and manured ready for the tomatoes, basil and chili… Also got a frame half-full of compost, with the remainder to be topped up with manure, and that’s for mushrooms 🙂

CMC Book Cover

A day or two ago, I was looking at Mark Hennessy’s translation of Zheng Manqing’s book “Master Cheng’s New Method of Taichi Ch’uan Self-Cultivation“. Not for the first time, by any means – I’ve had this book for years – but I haven’t read it for quite some time, and maybe the tiredness made me look at it from a different angle.

The thing about the Zheng Manqing form is… why 37?

The translator, Hennessy, notes that in Zheng’s various books the forms are counted differently, and yet always add up to 37 movements:

In every book Cheng himself published, he manages to count the postures differently and yet makes absolutely sure that the final count is thirty-seven. (p x)

In the next paragraph, we are told:

The question remains as to why Cheng labored in fitting his simplified Form into an uncompromising thirty-seven-posture model. He never wrote of any reason, nor alluded to the possibility of a correlative cosmological interpretation. […] We can only assume that if this question was important he would have left us a clue.

What struck me as curious, though, was this, in a later part of the book, Discussions:

There are three distinctions of ch’i. The first is inside your body – blood ch’i; this is our foundational ch’i and it must be kept at thirty-seven degrees Celsius. The second form is outside your body – air ch’i; this is the stuff we breathe and it can be connected to the tan-t’ien, the so-called Sea of Ch’i, or Room of Stored Essence. Nourishing your ch’i by sinking your breath to the tan t’ien warms your essence ch’i into the third form of ch’i – yuan ch’i. This ch’i connects the body’s membranes and permeates the bones. (p22-23)

Now, I’d be the first to admit that this is a tenuous link, but there we are: the only place where Zheng mentions thirty-seven in any context other than the length of the sequence. In the context, it’s actually unnecessary to mention it at all, to be honest, since “body temperature” would have been as easy. (Of course, perhaps this is what the original says, and it’s only a translator’s phrase – but I don’t think so, since I gather the translator is American, and the Americans don’t use the metric system…).

In a way it makes complete sense: 37-degree blood qi is the foundational level of qi, the 37-sequence form is the foundational level of self-cultivation…

I’ve googled it, but I don’t find this hypothesis anywhere. Has it been discussed to death and discarded so that no-one talks about it now? Is it crazy? Let’s bear in mind that Zheng is not exactly shy and retiring in his style of writing; it would seem perfectly in keeping for him to make an analogy between his new taiji style and the fundamentals of life…

Your opinions?

3 Comments

  1. I think that is not the correct explanation.
    AFAIK from my late Master Song Zhijian, an indoor of ZMQ, it has to do with the Yijing, where there are 36 special hexagrams (sorry, at school I lack my sources), and ZMQ combined it with one (beginning or closure, I also forgot) for the unity of Taiji to be 37.

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    1. Thanks for the reply, Yiming. I did say in the title that mine was a stupid question! I would be interested to learn more about the relationship between the hexagrams and the form.

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  2. Emlyn, I stumbled upon this post and found it very interesting. I’ve been learning the 37-form Yang Taiji simplified by Zheng Man Qing for slightly over two years. And over the last two years, I have also been reading up on Taiji books by the old masters. I managed to get hold of two books written by Zheng Man Qing in the original language: 1) 郑子太极十三篇 (13 Commentary on the Zheng Man Qing Taiji),2)郑子太极自修新法 (New Method for Self-learning of Zheng Man Qing Taiji). From what I read, there is no significance in the number. Zheng Man Qing says he simply eliminated the repetitive forms. He listed a few reasons for doing so, and if I can remember correctly, they are: 1) he was tasked to instruct a big group and he found that he didn’t have the time to teach the such a big group the “original” Yang form consisting of more than 100 forms. 2) He argues that the original Taiji developed by Zhang San Feng (张三丰)consists only of 13 forms. As such, the 37 forms that he simplified from the original Yang form is already 24 forms more than the original Taiji developed by Zhang San Feng. 3) The original Yang forms of more than 100 forms is too cumbersome and hard to remember and serves no real incremental benefit. If the intention of the repetitive forms is for the practitioner to enhance his Taiji through repetition, then the same benefit can be achieved by simply repeating the 37 forms as many times as the practitioner likes, and he can do so with greater flexibility in terms of the number of times that he would like to repeat, without the burden of taxing his memory by having to remember the original Yang form.

    From what he says, we can thus conclude the forms are important, but only up to a certain. This is only in line with what the Taiji masters say in general. The forms, if practised correctly, help in strengthening the body and cultivating the qi. But beyond that, it’s the qi that ulmately matters. The body must be moved by the qi and the qi must be controlled by the mind. Chen Xiao Wang (陈小旺), arguably the best Taiji master of the Chen Taiji in the world currently, mentions specifically the forms are not the most important aspect of Taiji. He says that a Taiji master needs only one single day to develop new forms. The essence of Taiji lies in cultivating the qi through the forms. I think this is why despite the fact that there are so many different schools of Taiji, with some varying from others in a significant way, they all achieve the same power and benefit. It is the principles behind Taiji that are important ultimately, and the forms just need to be in line with the principles.

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