Animal mind

I was practising zhan zhuang in the garden yesterday morning. Heavy but broken black clouds were low in the sky, allowing golden moments of sunlight to break through and illuminate the tops of the saplings I planted last month. As I stood, the blackbirds landed close by my feet, scraping caterpillars against the path to rub the hairs off. A robin came to investigate me, lost interest, and went to the next garden. A squirrel ran along the top of the fence at the end of the garden, paused for a short while to survey the territory, and then leisurely went back the way he came.

It occurred to me that this was the experience of those Daoists who developed the neijia styles. In their silent, stationary, meditations, they would have observed the life around them, just as I do; having stilled their minds, they project no emotion, no intentions, that would alert the beasts and birds around them. Thus, in the mountains, they would have seen the bears and the tigers, the storks and the snakes, going out their business with no fear of the observer.

That led me back to something I’ve mentioned before, the naming of taiji movements. In the West, names such as ‘Parting Wild Horse’s Mane’, ‘Fair Lady Works Shuttles’, ‘Stork spreads wings’ are regarded with amusement. How flowery! How poetic! But silly, after all; shouldn’t we give them names that explain how they’re used? What’s the, you know, practical application there, man? Of course, the answer is no, the names are perfect. They come from a close observation of nature, a clear understanding of the energies, the principles, the flow involved in that movement. It’s only our dysfunctional society, where children think milk is produced in factories, that is so alienated from the world of nature, that doesn’t get this.

Moreover, the ability to observe that nature, and the ability to express these energies in one’s own body… that comes first and foremost from control of one’s mind. To achieve that stillness. To know the body from inside. To understand how that flow of energy moves the human body to achieve that end… It’s the mind. All in the mind.

For me, I got that through yiquan, though of course I had a background in taijiquan before I got to it and, of course, I had completed several meditation retreats. For me, yiquan and taijiquan complement one another; the exact same principles, but expressed with yang energy in yiquan, and yin energy in taijiquan.

Thus, I agree with an awful lot that Tabby Cat writes about on this topic. I don’t agree that CMC-37 is the best, though of course I do also practise that form. He’s lucky, in that he found a teacher who led him to this insight. Not everyone gets that luck, and for them that form is not better than yiquan is for Tabby. For myself, it was with yiquan that I had the breakthrough. Horses. Courses.

But he’s right, though: it’s all about the energy. It’s all about the mind.


  1. Heya 🙂

    Actually, one funny thing about Chinese martial arts is that many (most) of the poetic names seem to be recycled – for example, “baiheliangchi” (white crane flaps wings) is reused in many styles (including weapons); of course, some names are rarer or perhaps unique to that style. Perhaps each of these are like chengyu (idioms) – they tend to be 4 characters in length, they may even have stories behind them as chengyu do. 🙂


  2. Hey Ed, nice to see you here 🙂 The question is, do the movements in the other styles share the same energy, even if the action is a bit different?

    BTW, are you still in Japan?


  3. Hi, whole skill sets have been based on the observation of nature…insects even… e.g. Praying mantis boxing…


  4. Hmm – I would say, not necessarily, except as vaguely embodying the name given to the technique. Another example is how in the same routine you may have a particular technique two or more times – but in the quanpu, the names for the movements have changed completely. (If my memory is correct, there is a “white crane flaps wings” in xingyiquan’s wuxinglianhuanquan, as an example to compare with taijiquan; the movement looks like opening of the arms horizontally (before paoquan).)

    In some ways, it seems that quanpu are sort of like “secret codes” that only people who have learned the routines for would be able to decipher.

    Yup, I am still in Japan!


    1. Hmmm, well, it was a nice theory… I hope you’re taking good care of yourself in Japan; the news I’m reading about the ongoing crisis at Fukushima is very unsettling…


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