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Excerpts from the Tai Chi Book

The Fundamental Principles of
Yang-style Tai Chi

by Chen Longxiang
Translated from the Chinese by Matthew Miller

Mastering the fundamental principles of Tai Chi is the key to training well and raising one’s skill level.  These fundamental principles can be summarized into 16 basic points as follows:

1.  Stand centered and upright (li shen zhong zheng )

When practicing Tai Chi, one must first pay attention to maintaining a centered and upright stance.  “Centered and upright” means that the body neither hunches forward nor leans backward.  The base of the spine and the vertebrae maintain a straight line.  When practicing the Taiji form, one must remain centered and upright from beginning to end.  In the Tai Chi classics it is written: “the base of the spine must be centered and upright.” If the base of the spine is centered and upright, the center of gravity of one’s stance will be stable.  If the center of gravity is not stable, then during combat it will be easy for an opponent to throw one off balance.  In order to stand centered and upright, one must focus one’s attention both internally and externally.  Internally, one’s spirit must be inwardly fixed.  The spirit cannot gallop outward (be distracted by external stimuli).  The mind must be stable and quiet.  Externally, one must suspend the head and pull up the back, relax the lower back and settle the kua.  In this way, one can naturally maintain a centered and upright posture.

2.  Calm and relaxed ( an shu song jing )

Tai Chi simultaneously trains the spirit, yi and xuling.  When practicing Tai Chi, from the very first movement until the very last you must maintain a peaceful, easy spirit and a relaxed, natural posture.  You must relax to the point where you are thoroughly relaxed, where relaxation penetrates every part of your body, where there is not the slightest trace of strain or rigidity, where your body is emptied of all tension.  Throughout the entire form, from the preparatory stance to the final movement, rid your mind of all distracting thoughts.  Be as calm as still water.  Focus the mind.  Become wholly absorbed in the form.  Allow the heart to settle.  Silence all thoughts and concerns.  This is what is known as “When one is still, there is no part which is not still.” Through calmness one can maintain a clear, alert and keen nervous system, thereby cultivating wisdom and intelligence.  In the Taiji classics it is written: “A feather cannot be added/ A fly cannot alight [that is, the slightest contact, the subtlest resistance is immediately felt – Ed.]/ Others do not know me/ I alone know others.” By consistently practicing Taiji in a stable, relaxed manner, one may, through spontaneous inspiration, realize this marvelous, spiritual state.

Although Tai Chi demands that the entire body be relaxed, you should be relaxed but not slack.  Furthermore, your movements must be completely permeated and guided by spirit qi(see No. 9 below).  When relaxing, one must first relax the mind, and then relax the body.  The head, neck, upper back, shoulders, lower back, hips, knees, hands, elbows, wrist, feet – every joint must be completely relaxed and open, thoroughly at ease, without the slightest trace of rigid force.  Profoundly relaxed, profoundly soft.  The Taiji classics write: “The one relaxes, a hundred relax/ As soft as if the skeleton were fractured in a hundred places/ As soft as if one had no bones.” When all the joints are at ease, the qi and blood flow smoothly, the spirit is clear and the bones comfortable.  With time your internal jin will increase.  Ultimately you will be able to transform extreme softness and flexibility into a strong, firm internal force that is relaxed, settled, soft and elastic.  Thus you will arrive at the highest level of skill in Tai Chi. 

3.  Xu ling ding jin  ( xu ling ding jing )

Practicing Tai Chi requires xu ling ding jin.  Spirit must penetrate the crown of the head.  So-called “xu ling ding jin” means that the head and face must be straight, and the bai hui acupoint (at the crown of the head) must gently push upward, as if a cord were pulling up the crown of the head and suspending it from above.  The lower jaw is slightly tucked in, the tip of the tongue pressed against the palate.  It is as if one were carrying a bowl of water on the crown of the head without allowing it to spill.  This is entirely accomplished with the spirit and yi.  At all times one maintains anawake, light, subtle ling feeling.  One has the quality of “raising one’s head up to the blue sky while one’s feet tread beneath the ground.”  But this is entirely a matter of yi: one must not use force to push the head upward.  If one uses force to push up the head, one will inevitably become stiff, rigid and inflexible, thus losing the feeling of ling.  In practicing Tai Chi, one need only constantly maintain a feeling of xu ling ding jin, then one’s spirit will spontaneously rise upward, and one’s qi and blood will flow freely.

4. Qi Sinks Down to the Dan Tian ( qi chen dan tian )

In practicing Tai Chi, the emphasis is on xu ling ding jin (see above) while at the same time qi sinks down to the dan tian.  The dan tian (“cinnabar field”) is a point 3 cun below the navel.  When practicing Tai Chi, one consciously guides one’s breathing, using intention to sink the qi down to the dan tian.  Those who regularly practice Tai Chi use abdominal breathing, but beginning students of Tai Chi should take care not to forcefully sink qi down to the dan tian.  One must not purposefully stifle one’s breath in order to pump the abdomen like a bellows.  It must be understood that qi sinking down to the dan tian is the natural result of the whole body relaxing and opening up.  The entire body must be relaxed and open, easy and calm.  First relax the mind and then the body.  Once both the mind and body are entirely relaxed, only then will the qi naturally sink down into the dan tian.  The student must always bear this in mind.

5. Relax the shoulders and allow the elbows to hang
song jian chui zhou )

“Relax the shoulders and allow the elbows to hang” is also known as “Relax the shoulders and drop the elbows.”  “Relax the shoulders” means the shoulders relax and sink downward.  This is also known as “settling” the shoulders.  The shoulders must not round forward or shrug upward.  When the shoulders are hunched, one’s yi and qi have a tendency to float upward, inhibiting the free circulation of qi and blood in the body.  “Allow the elbows to hang” means the elbows hang down with a relaxed, heavy, sinking quality.  When one practices Tai Chi the shoulders must not be squared and stiff.  The arms should be slightly bent, maintaining a natural curve.  The elbows should be relaxed and dropped.  One feels a heavy, sinking force inside the arms.  This force feels heavy but at the same time soft and elastic, rather than stiff.  The force is outwardly soft but inwardly strong, “like iron wrapped in cotton.”  After much practice, this force will penetrate deep inside the body, and one’s power will become unlimited.

6. Slightly concave the chest and pull up the back
han xiong ba bei )

When practicing Tai Chi, one must slightly concave the chest and pull up the back.  In Chinese, the expression “slightly concave the chest” is literally “the chest contains emptiness” or simply “the chest contains.”  It means that the chest is slightly sunken inward in a comfortable, relaxed, natural manner.  Concaving the chest in this way allows the qi to sink to the dan tian.  The chest must not be pushed out.  Pushing out the chest and squaring the shoulders military-style obstructs the smooth flow of breath.  But, at the same time, you must not purposefully draw in the chest and round the shoulders.  Purposefully drawing in the chest so that one becomes hunchbacked will narrow the chest cavity thus preventing the diaphragm from descending, obstructing breathing and inhibiting blood flow to the heart.  Such a posture will negatively influence both one’s Tai Chi form and one’s health.  Slightly concaving the chest is very important in Tai Chi combat where it is an indispensable method of defense by which one “contains” an opponent’s attack (“transforms it into emptiness”).

“Pulling up the back” means that the back is stretched upward.  In order to do this, one must gently push up the crown of the head (see xu ling ding jin above).  In the Tai Chi classics it is written “the coccyx should be centered and upright, so that spirit can penetrate the crown of the head; the entire body must be light as if suspended from above by a cord attached to the crown of the head.”  If the crown of the head is held as though suspended from above, then the back will naturally be pulled up.  Thus, one’s posture will be full of power and grandeur.  Pulling up the back also allows the qi to stick to one’s back and collect in one’s bones.  During push hands, one will be able to discharge power from the spine and throw the opponent far.

7. Interior and Exterior are United (nei wai xiang he )

Practicing Tai Chi it is necessary that “the upper and lower are coordinated,” and that “the interior and exterior are united.”  The “interior” means using yi to move qi.  The “exterior” refers to one’s posture and movements, and their changes from insubstantial to substantial.  Together, interior and exterior represent the unity of spirit and form.  The two are inseparable: every movement and every posture must be must be integrated with one’s spirit and yi.  For example, one has the intention (yi) of withdrawing, thus one’s movements bend and collect; one has the intention of releasing (jin), thus one’s movements extend and expand.  This is true of the breath as well, which rhythmically rises and falls.  The body’s movements flow with the opening and closing of the breath; the inhalations and exhalations of the breath flow with the opening and closing of the body’s movements.  In this way, interior and exterior are united and internal jin grows day by day.

8. Upper and the Lower Are Coordinated (shang xia xiang sui )

When practicing Tai Chi, every movement requires that “the upper and lower are coordinated.”  In the Tai Chi classics it is written “When one moves, there is no part which does not move/ When one is still, there is no part which is not still.”  Every movement must use the lower back as its axis.  The lower back leads the entire body.  Under no circumstances can there be localized, independent movements which are not initiated and propelled by the lower back.  Nor should one’s hands move before one’s feet.  Every movement must be rooted in the feet, sent forth from the legs, governed by the lower back and expressed through the fingers.  From the feet to the legs to the lower back, at all times every movement must be a single qi (a single wave of energy – Ed.).  When the spine of the lower back commands, the hands and feet follow.  The eyes and spirit follow, the upper and lower are linked together, thus forming an integral whole.

9. Use Intention Not Force ( yong yi bu yong li )

When practicing Tai Chi, one must be light, relaxed and natural, using yi (intention) rather than force.  In this way, one can nurture a posture of xu ling which resonates with spirit.  In Tai Chiit is important to use yi to execute one’s movements.  The emphasis is on consciousness.  The execution of every movement must be permeated with a guiding consciousness.  The classics write “the leadership of the yi and qi comes from the allegiance of the bones and flesh.”  That is to say, the yi is the leader, and there can be no awkward, clumsy force [which results from “bones and flesh” moving in a thoughtless, inattentive manner].  While practicing Tai Chi, the entire body relaxes and opens up.  All tension unconsciously held in the muscles and joints is released, so one is without a trace of force.  The limbs and skeleton are so soft, it is as if one had no bones.  Hence every joint can be pervaded by the guidance of yi.  Wherever the mind goes, the qi goes as well.  Strength is born of yiJin spontaneously arises.  One does not use awkward, thoughtless force.  Only in this way can true internal jin grow daily.  Achieving extreme softness and extreme strength, one becomes all-conquering.

10. Step like a cat ( mai bu ru mao xing )

The footwork in Tai Chi is light and nimble, firm and steady.  One must raise the foot in a relaxed, heavy but soft manner and plant it evenly and solidly.  One must step like a cat, lightly rising and lightly falling, without making a sound.  For this reason, footwork training is extremely important.  For example, when the foot rises and takes a step forward, first the rear leg and kua must relax sending the stepping foot forward.  The kua sends the foot forward; the foot does not pull the kua forward.  The heel lightly touches the ground, then the foot plants itself solidly.  The lower back relaxes, the kua sinks and the center of gravity gradually shifts forward.  As the back leg prepares to step forward, first it relaxes and softens.  The back foot rises very slowly, and steps forward very lightly.  This is known as stepping as if one were on the edge of a precipice, or as if one were walking on thin ice.  The upper body must remain centered.  One must maintain a constant height: up and down movements must not be too large.  With daily practice of this footwork, one’s stride will lengthen.  One’s legs will have a relaxed, elastic jin, thus one’s step will become light and nimble, firm and steady, like a cat.

11. Wield jin as if reeling raw silk from a cocoon
yun jin ru chou si)

When practicing the form, one must seek to attain the wei or quality of Tai Chi.  One must do the form with great solemnity, dignity and depth.  The movements must be sinking and heavy, but without being stiff and sluggish.  They must be light and nimble, but without being superficial and floating.  The movements must be meticulous, steady and even, as if one were reeling raw silk from a cocoon.  In order to achieve this quality, it is necessary for the entire body to be relaxed, both arms heavy and hanging down, the yi leading every movement.  One must meticulously pay attention to and experience one’s movements.  Jin is wielded in a smooth, fine manner, as if one were reeling raw silk from a cocoon.  One’s step is as light and nimble as a cat’s.  Practicing thusly, one’s Tai Chi naturally acquires a rich, mellow flavor, a special quality that is endlessly pleasing.

12. Linked together without interruption (xiang lian bu duan)

When performing a round of Tai Chi, one’s movements are continuous and unbroken, like drifting clouds and flowing water, like the reeling of raw silk, like the great Yangzi River surging and surging ceaselessly.  The mind moves the qi; the qi moves the body.  At the end of each movement, the jin appears to cut off, but in fact does not cut off.  There are no pauses, just as a wave does not hold still at its peak or trough, although it may appear to do so.  Advancing and retreating must overlap; going forward and returning must change into each other, moving in cycles, linked together without interruption.  The blood and qi circulate naturally, hence one’s inner qi grows in abundance.

13. Breathe naturally ( hu xi ren zi ran)

When practicing Tai Chi, one’s breathing must be deep and long, smooth and even.  One should breathe naturally and not try to purposefully coordinate the breathing with one’s movements.  Master Li Yaxuan once said “The art of breathing in Tai Chi is mainly about sinking qi to the dan tian (see .  Breathe internally from the dan tian in order to harmonize the breathing with the continuous movements of the body.  Uninterrupted internal dan tian breathing can also stir the continuous exchange of qi in external breathing, and make the breathing deep and long, smooth and even.  Internal and external breathing are deeply attached to each other, like glue or lacquer.  At the same time, we must not pay too much attention to our breathing.  Rather we must allow it to flow in and out naturally.  When one exhales, one’s posture opens and releases ; when one inhales, one’s posture closes and collects.  When an opening or closing movement reaches its limit, or when one movement changes into another, it is even more important that there is correspondence with the beginning or ending of a breath.  For example, when the body moves from a closed posture to open one, the qi immediately changes from inhalation to exhalation.  When the opening movement reaches its limit, this corresponds with the end of an exhalation, and possibly the beginning of an inhalation.  When the body moves from an open posture to closed one, the qi immediately changes from exhalation to inhalation.  When the closing movement reaches its limit, this corresponds with the end of an inhalation, and possibly the beginning of an exhalation.  But some movements are the opposite, inhalation corresponding to opening, and exhalation corresponding to closing.  Also, within the span of one opening movement, perhaps there is more than a single exhalation.  Perhaps one must add an inhalation (that is, the opening movement begins with exhalation and ends with inhalation) or add an exhalation (that is, the opening movement has an inhalation in the middle between two exhalations).  In the same way, within the span of one closing movement, perhaps there is more than a single inhalation.  Perhaps one must add another exhalation or inhalation.

In sum, the movements are unbroken, the breathing is unbroken, the movements and breathing correspond to each other and are inseparably linked.  If one tries to rigidly and mechanically match one movement to an inhalation and another movement to an exhalation, this is not the Tai Chi art of moving qi.”  Master Li also said: “I do not advocate coordinating the breathing (to the movements), but rather I advocate natural breathing.  When one’s Taiji practice becomes natural, one’s breathing will spontaneously coordinate (with one’s movements).  Always remember, the coordination of breathing will come naturally.  If one pays particular attention to coordinating the breathing, the opposite will come true and one’s breathing will be uncoordinated.  Furthermore, one can become ill from practicing in this manner.  While it is true that Tai Chiis a form of Qigong, nevertheless Tai Chiis all about flowing qi, nourishing qi, natural qi.  It is not about exerted qi, bottled-up qi (as in holding one’s breath), stagnant qi, unnatural qi.  A bowl of water spilled on the ground will spontaneously flow to the lowest point.  There is no need to advocate the water flowing to any particular place.  Tai Chiis Qigong, but more importantly it is a natural gong (art).  If one advocates or holds a view that water should flow to such and such a place, this is tremendously unnatural.”  These comments are succinct and to-the-point.  The natural coordination of movement and breathing in Tai Chi is in harmony with human physiology.  Through this type of natural breathing, one’s qi sinks to the dan tian, thus one’s movements become light and ling, sinking and stable, relaxed, soft and natural.

14. Steady and composed (xin xing chen zhuo)

When practicing Tai Chi, not only must the body be relaxed, and the mind quiet and the breathing be natural, but is even more important that one be cool-headed.  One’s mind and qi must not be flighty, impatient and agitated.  One’s face must be filled with Tai Chi intention (yi).  One must have a solemn and dignified spirit.  With great stability and calm, great composure and steadiness, one performs a round of Tai Chi.  If distracting thoughts grow thickly in the mind, if the mind and intention are agitated and confused, one will not be able to practice a stable and calm gongfu.

15. Movements are light and ling ( ju dong qing ling)

            When practicing Tai Chi, one must use yi (intention) rather than force.  One’s spirit must penetrate the crown of the head.  Qi must sink to the dan tian.  Above, there is a qishi of xuling.  In the middle, there are silk-reeling movements.  Below, there are smooth, stable cat-like steps.  Centered and upright, without leaning.  Relaxed, soft, smooth and vigorous, one’s movements are naturally light and ling.  Empty and solid are clearly distinguished.

16. Movements are harmonious and slow ( yun xing he huan)

Tai Chiuses stillness to control movement.  Although the movements in Tai Chi appear nearly static, the purpose of this type of movement is to train the spirit, to train the yi and to train xuling.  Thus all the movements of the Tai Chi form must all be slowly performed with stability, calm, ease, lightness and softness.  It is best that the speed be slow, slow to the point where the breathing is deep and long and the qi sinks to the dan tian.  When practicing, one’s speed must be even, neither fast nor slow.  One step at a time, one carefully inquires and searches for correctness.  If the beginning student adheres to these principles, carefully trying to figure them out, patiently uncovering their meaning, and if he or she has a Tai Chiinstructor of authentic lineage from whom he or she can receive oral transmission and demonstration, then he or she can obtain the true essence of Tai Chi.


Tai Chi Book cover