Discussion of potential concepts in a fragment of text from Yang Ban Hou’s Taijiquan classic

Every once in a while I want to make a post about the martial arts and their relationship with Daoist theory. This particular post is a dissection and reinterpretation of a concept from Yang Banhou’s manual on taijiquan which was given to the Wu family. Whether you believe that this interpretation is accurate or not, I think that the concept holds water theoretically, especially taken in context with the rest of the document which can be seen on the excellent blog www.brennantranslation.wordpress.com

ding zhi fang zhong, zu you gen,

stable in the earth’s centre, the feet have root:

定: ding: stable, set, stabilize, be stable.
之: zhi: of, the.
方: fang: square, earth.
中: zhong: centre.
足: zu: feet, enough.
有: you: to have, exist.
根: gen: root, origin.

Different meaning:
set in the centre of the square is the way to take root.

方 fang refers to a square with four corners, representing the four cardinal directions of north, west, east, and south. The four directions are translated as water (north), wood (west), metal (east), fire (south). Each of the corners is a different arrangement of yin and yang with North representing a yin shell with small yang inside (winter solstice, the moon), south a yang shell with a small yin inside(summer solstice, the sun), west young yang (spring time), and east as minor yin (fall).
The centre of the four directions is middle earth, so 方中 fang zhong means the centre of the four directions, or the middle earth. The centre is Taiji and has both yin and yang, made separate from one another.
The earth element also represents the intention mind, which can be directed at varying degrees of concentration. The intention is the thing which ties the other aspects of body and mind together, for instance: intention arises from within consciousness and feeling (fire/south) and can engage with intrinsic physical material (essence/water), and can be controlled by the male (wood/west) and female (metal/east) aspects of the mind.
Root in Taijiquan is a dynamic engagement and is not as simple as standing in one place and not moving. Root requires the body and mind to both have a relationship with the ground and with posture and movement. You must be able to root yourself mentally as well as physically, so making the assumption that root is a simple manifestation of the feet on the earth is a mistake.
The relationship between the centre and the other elements is very complex, but put most simply, the four cardinal directions are all contained within the centre, so if you move forward, forward becomes the centre as soon as your feet have both become solid on the ground. This is the same for every direction. Furthermore, if your intention moves forward, to be truly rooted, it must arrive completely and stabilize after the motion is completed, so the intention and body must move in unison and in harmony.
The propriety classic said: “the centre from which affection, anger, sadness, and joy have not yet emerged is in harmony with each extension of each branch of the centre.”

the centre in this case is silence and stability of mind, but in the physical imperative, it is stable non movement. In the case of each extension being in harmony with the centre, in the mind it means that all emotions should accord with stability, and the mind is anchored. In regard to physical movement, it means that the movements must always accord with the physical and energetic root established before movement. No matter how you move or what emotions express themselves in Taiji form, push hands, or fighting you should always try to maintain calm and an open and rooted awareness in relation to the world and your opponent.

足 zu means foot but it also means enough. Laozi said: “he who knows what is enough will be forever happy,” I would hasten to say “he who knows how much movement is enough will be forever successful in physical interactions.” This theory is deep, don’t take it for granted.
有 you means to have or to be.
根 gen means root or origin. Laozi said “the gate of the mystery goddess is the root of the world,” the gate of the mystery goddess is the open sky, the root of the mind is emptiness, the goddess represents stability and yin energy, and the mystery represents yin and yang mixed chaotically together. the root of the feet on the ground never stays in one place. Being rooted requires you to engage dynamically with the earth whether it is stable or not.

ding zhi fang zhong zu you gen.

So I prefer the interpretation “maintaining stability in the centre of the four directions is enough to have a root,” since it accurately reflects how situational change can allow us to be drawn away from our centre and gives us a secret by which to maintain the centre under all circumstances. How good one is at maintaining this centre really comes down to how hard they work and how deeply they understand this principle. It is an inexhuastible principle.

One thought on “Discussion of potential concepts in a fragment of text from Yang Ban Hou’s Taijiquan classic

  1. I am familiar with the text. Also, our approach to the Old Yang form leans heavily on Daoist cosmology (three alchemical chambers corresponding to Three Worlds etc.).

    The text has some problems right from the beginning in its presentation of Later Heaven Boxing in terms of a Later Heaven diagram which appears to be either in error or occluded.

    I feel that the differentiation of primary (square) vs. secondary (corner) powers may constitute a late-1800’s effort to reformulate the martial art in specifically Daoist terms. In any case, the ability to root effectively also has to involve 9 correspondances of joints in three chambers: arms, torso and legs. I’m familiar with this teaching in the Yang-Wu lines; don’t know if they are also to be found in Chen. Certainly, they are in the Chen forms, but I am not familiar with the Chen Xin doc.

    Wishing you every success with this new blog!

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