Approaching Core Priciples

by Sam Masich

In order to master forms and drills in traditional Taijiquan training it is necessary for students to examine the core principles of the art. More than lineage, certification, or other credentials, adherence to these principles ensures the authenticity of one’s practice. All aspects of Tai Chi are subject to these guidelines. Body posture, movement transition, energy circulation, martial interaction and use of weapons all follow similar criteria. Thus it is very important that Tai Chi players learn to embody these basic qualities in the simpler early stages of the syllabus.

While there are a wide variety of avenues one might take in exploring Taijiquan’s core principles, the tendency of most teachers throughout the art’s history has been to focus on the training and study of the legs. This makes a great deal of sense as the understanding of all other elements in Tai Chi is predicated on clarity and solidity of stance. Classical Tai Chi literature, along with oral tradition, provides us with a rich legacy from which to draw our understanding of basic elements. The received wisdom of former masters provides a vast source from which to draw inspiration and to challenge to the limits of our current understanding and ability. Thus, the study of classical concepts regarding legwork might form a significant part of our core principle studies.

The following treatise is an edited excerpt from a work in progress working-titled, Taiji Nan Jing (The Book of Difficult Problems in Tai Chi). In this treatise, I introduce issues important in understanding the criteria for Taijiquan stance work found in the Wu Bu or Five Steps. The Wu Bu, which comprise the last five of the so called Thirteen Postures, seem to be generally overlooked in contemporary Taijiquan training. Thus this treatise is intended to underline the importance of this ignored subject and to stimulate exploration by other students, teachers and authors.

Treatise on the Wu Bu Five Steps
(Stance Behaviors)

by Sam Masich

About the Wu Bu
The last five of Taijiquan’s Shi San Shi, or Thirteen Powers (oft. “Postures”) are the Wu Bu, usually translated as the five directions, the five steps, the five phases or the five elements. Although these are said to be fundamental aspects of Tai Chi training, it is rare to find a Tai Chi practitioner with a truly integrated sense of the Wu Bu, and problems abound with regard to interpretation and the application of the Wu Bu theory.

To complicate the issue there is very little available material exploring this subject. Most books provide at best a cursory explanation or a simple list. The main difficulty arises from questions related to function. Just what are these five things anyway? Are they postures? Are they stances? Are they positions? Are they techniques? Are they sensibilities related to the “five elements?” And just what are the “five elements?”

The Wu Bu relate directly to the fundamental operation of the legs, hips and waist, particularly in relationship to the Ba Men (Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Tsai, Lieh, Jou, Kou). Yang Family classics address this directly:
“The division of the steps contains the concept of the five phases and allows us to control the eight directions.” “Our body contains the eight trigrams, and our feet step out the five phases.”

Compare this to text from the Taijiquan Classic:
“The root is in the feet, Jin is generated from the legs, controlled by the waist and expressed through the hands and fingers. From the feet to the legs to the waist must be integrated with one unified Qi. When moving forward or backward, you can then catch the opportunity and gain the superior position.”

The legwork in Taijiquan is distinctly different from that of other martial arts styles. The approach to mobility in Tai Chi is designed to give support to the all important tsan-nien jing (sticking-adhereing energy). Without studying and integrating the specific qualities of the Wu Bu, it is virtually impossible to develop accurate or functional sticking energy. The revered text, the Song of Sparring, is the oldest literary source to directly describe the requirements and purpose of the Wu Bu in Taijiquan. It states:
“In advance, retreat, gaze left, look right and central equilibrium, you must stick, connect, adhere, and follow, distinguishing full and empty. The hands and feet follow each other, and the waist and legs act in unison.” “Drawing the opponent in so that his energy lands on nothing is a marvelous technique.”
Since the legs and waist are so obviously important, study of the Wu Bu should be one of a serious Tai Chi student’s major and critical focuses.

Jin, Tui, Gu, Pan, Ding
The common manner of naming the Wu Bu in Chinese is: Jin, Tui, Gu, Pan, Ding. This is typically translated as: Advance, Retreat, Left, Right and Centre. This simplistic interpretation, while it may serve to help students to initially remember the general idea, is imprecise and creates complications when plunging very deeply into the subject. In fact, it actually sways attention from some very important clues and issues related to the Wu Bu and the Thirteen Powers in general.

The expression “Jin, Tui, Gu, Pan, Ding”, is a shorthand mnemonic for the actual names of the Wu Bu which are: Jin Bu, Tui Bu, Zou Gu, Yu Pan, Zhong Ding. By understanding what these terms actually mean, we will arrive at a much clearer understanding of the function and significance of the Wu Bu, or “Five Steps.” Lets look at the term “Wu Bu” itself. Wu simply means “five”. In this case it also implies the relationship between the Wu Bu and the Wu Xing (five elements).

Bu is an involved term and has several layers of meaning. Its use in the Shi San Shi represents one of the more brilliant double entendres in Tai Chi. Interpreters have typically either rendered Bu accurately as “steps” or inaccurately as “elements.” Bu could be also be translated as paces, or stages and also means the condition, situation or state of things. In Chinese martial arts, Bu is a general term referring to stance and foot/leg work. If we keep in mind our general definition for the Shi San Shi or the 13 Powers, an ideal translation for Wu Bu might be something like:
“powers based on the five stages of footwork” or, “the five implicit behaviors of the stance” or even (considering the interactive nature of the Wu Xing), “the five innate powers and conditions arising from the natural cycle of stages within the stance”.
It is the inherent behaviors, strengths and stages that are the subject in the Wu Bu, not the shape or position of the stance as such. The innate conditions for power in stance work. We are also referring to the cyclical way in which these powers emerge and dissolve. Also, as importantly, we are speaking of the natural constraints inherent in the legwork. This is very much in keeping with Wu Xing, Yi Jing (I-Ching) and general Taoist philosophies, which recognize the intrinsic power of limits. The concept of conditions as opposed to shapes will be clarified further when we discuss Zou Gu and Yu Pan, the most misunderstood of the Wu Bu.

A simpler definition for Wu Bu might be helpful for the purposes of discussion. Most often we will simply use the Chinese Wu Bu, otherwise we will continue to use The Five Steps, as this rather adroitly handles the concept of Bu as footwork and Bu as stages (eg. 5 “steps”or stages in the legwork). It is up to the Tai Chi adept to keep in mind the notion of power, conditions and behaviors as this is necessary for proper training anyway. If you ponder these matters deeply, you will gradually understand the intention of the Shi San Shi theory. These may seem like minor distinctions but keep in mind that a small redirection of the arrow early in its path can mean hitting an entirely different target.

This next part of this treatise continues to describe the Wu Bu individually in detail, examining terminology, function and historical reference. It continues with an examination of the relationships between the Wu Bu and the Wu Xing (Five Phases) with details on martial arts strategies in Taijiquan. This in turn precedes a further discussion entitled, Distinguishing Hip and Waist, which expands the exploration of the Wu Bu concept for practical study.