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Thirteen postures - Shi San Shi

Taijiquan is sometimes referred to as the shi san shi - thirteen postures. This name is derived from the notion that there are thirteen basic postures, energies or skills that run throughout the whole of taijiquan, and all other skills come from variations and combinations of these skills.

The shi san shi are normally divided into two:

·      Ba fa (eight methods) - these are shou fa (hand skills) and

·      Wu ba (five steps)- these are shen fa (body movement skills)

Although this tradition is primarily received through the Yang tradition, the Chen tradition is somewhat different, there are a number of similarities and it can be interesting to relate the shi san shi back to the principles and traditions of Daoism, from which both families draw.

The shi san shi relates to two of the most important theoretical documents of taiji and Daoism the Taiji T'u (Taiji Diagram) of Chen Tuan (although most people are probably familiar with it through the Neo-Confucian re-interpretation of Chou Tun'yi) and Fu Hsi's pre-heaven arrangement of the bagua derived from the Yellow River diagram (again this diagram is perhaps best known through Shao Yung's Hsien T'ien T'u. Ostensibly all of these two diagrams describe the same thing - the passage from wuji (original nothingness) through to physical manifestation. Chen Tuan and Chou Tun-yi describe the movement form wuji through yin and yang and the five elements to manifestation, while Shao Yung applies the logic of the Yijing to Fu Hsi's bagua arrangement and shows the process of manifestation from wuji to taiji, the bagua and ultimately the hexagrams.

For Chou Tun-yi the five elements equate with taiji and underlie the manifestation of the bagua at the same level as yin and yang. The mixing and changing of yin and yang within taiji is the same as the dynamic relationships of creation and destruction between the five elements. Thus the five elements underlie the bagua just as yin and yang underlies the bagua.

Similarly in taijiquan the wu ba (five steps) provides a foundation for the ba fa (eight methods).

The wu ba are:

·      Jin bu - step forward

·      Tui bu - step backward

·      Zuo gu - look around left

·      You pan - look around right

·      Zhong ding - centred

Within taiji literature there are a number of different versions of how the five steps relate to the five elements and the five directions. While each of these may have its own internal logic, there is a common convention in Chinese martial arts that you are standing in a central position in front of the Emperor facing South, ready to defend him.

For Chen village this would make sense. The Yellow River - the traditional divide between warring states is just to the South of the village. The ancestors' graves and shrines face south. Even their current training hall faces south.

Thus wu bu (five steps) would relate to the wu xing (five elements) in the following way:

·      Jin bu - step forward - South - Fire

·      Tui bu - step backward - North - Water

·      Zuo gu - look around left - East - Wood

·      You pan - look around right - West - Metal

·      Zhong ding - centred - Centre - Earth

Basic physical orientation with the compass points is a fundamental method of placing yourself in the world and universe. Within the Daoist tradition the universe exists on three levels - earth, humanity, heaven. This is sometimes referred to as the sanyi or 'three in one'. The earthly, celestial and human spheres each reflect and duplicate each other in a complex of correspondences. In the heavens there are the star constellations, the planets, the sun and moon. On the earth there are the rivers, mountains and seas. The constellations in the heavens, for example, correspond to the mountains on the earth. The five sacred mountains of the earth correspond to the five yin organs, five directions and five colours. The organs of the body have direct physical correspondences in the external world. Thus the intestines in the centre of the body find a correspondence with the snaking curves of the Yellow River across the central plain of China. Just as the intestine digests food so the Yellow River provides the rich silt and water to grow it.

Again this triple structure of the universe is reflected by a triple structure in the body itself. The upper, middle and lower body correspond to the three levels of the universe. They also relate to the three treasures of jing, qi and shen. In heaven yin and yang are related to the sun and moon. In the head these become the left and right eye. In the body the sun is the heart, the upper body and the moon is the kidneys the lower body. Yang is related to the left and up while yin is related to the right and down. Thus within the lower body the kidneys also duplicate this yin and yang relationship of sun and moon.

The centre is a privileged position in Daoist thinking. In the Yijing wuji becomes two - yin and yang. The two are then divided into four. The four directions represent opposite and opposing forces: heaven and earth, fire and water. For Daoists earth is 'the one' placed in middle. This is why the fifth direction, the centre is such an important concept. It unites the two antagonists. It is a subtle combination of the opposites.

It is also a subtle combination of the three different systems of manifestation common to Daoism. The above shows how the division of the Yijing is correlated with the five elements. However, it does this by using the logic of the Dao De Jing. Verse 42 says:

Dao gives birth to one

One gives birth to two

Two give birth to three

These three give birth to ten thousand things.

For Daoists this is perhaps the most important verse of the Dao De Jing. The Dao, the void gives a first breath of qi. This divides into two - yin and yang. Yin and yang then recombine into taiji - two united in one. This double movement of separation and re-combination into a new form of unity is fundamental to the dialectic of Daoist thought. Chen Tuan's diagram takes this logic and extrapolates the next division of the two into four which also form a unity in five. As Chou Tun Yi puts it:

'The Five Elements are the one yin and yang; the yin and yang are the one Taiji; and the Taiji is fundamentally Wuji. The Five Elements come into being each having its own particular nature (hsing).'

The unity of the three and five represents a principle of response in the universe. It is this reunion that allows the reunification of the multiplicity of manifestation into one. The centre is the element that unites all the elements. The unity of the centre points us back to the unity of original chaos and of taiji - the supreme pole.

All Daoist practices begin by working with the body and taijiquan is no exception. The aim is to integrate the individual with the universe into a coherent harmonious unity. Working with the five directions gives the martial artist a simple way of centring themselves. You stand at the centre of the universe. At the same time the dan tien becomes the centre of your body, which is fundamentally of the same nature and structure as the universe.

The four directions plus the fifth of the centre on another level represent the square of the earth. Above this are the eight directions, which represent the circle of heave. Thus the shi san shi makes the human body of the taiji practitioner into a representation of the ming tang - hall of light - the palace of the Emperor. Just as the Emperor governs the country ensuring that the rivers are kept dredged so that the waters can flow and that the dykes are kept strong so that the waters are kept in their channels, so too this image of the ming tang places the practitioner at the centre of a body that is the image of a country.

Although, like 12th Century master Danyangzi we might say that this is 'nothing but metaphors' to loosen the knots of common sense and give us something to think about while we are exercising, we can also posit a correspondence between the philosophical concepts and the physical practice.

Thus before starting we always make ourselves still. From stillness comes movement. Movement can be either yin or yang. This can be understood in a range of ways:

Yang - forwards - opening - hard - fast

Yin - backwards - closing - soft - slow

Within the Yijing the four directions are greater yin, greater yang, lesser yin and lesser yang. Within Chen taiji we can view this as the two dan tien movements and their two qualities - the small and the large spiral. From these four potential movements of the dan tien we spiral out into the ba fa or eight hand techniques. Thus any hand technique has to be understood as relating directly to and springing from the movement of the dan tien, which in turn stems from the division of yin and yang.

Again there are a number of ways that the ba fa are made to correspond to the bagua. The version that I am giving here is one that corresponds nicely with a progression from the qualities of yin and yang as outlined by Shao Yung in his taiji t'u.