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What is a Spiral - Part 3

The spiral is one of the unique attributes of Chen taijiquan.  It is perhaps the key innovation that Chen Wangting made when he developed the Chen family taijiquan.  His other innovations include: the incorporation of Daoyin (a Taoist method of circulating qi through body movements) and Tuna (a deep breathing exercise from the Taoist traditions), the development of push hands and the use of yin yang strategy.   However, it is the spiral that co-ordinates everything else to become the unifying principle of Chen taijiquan.  It is the symbol of Chen Wangting’s genius.

Chen Wangting was the ninth generation ancestor of the Chen family and he was a soldier at the end of the Ming Dynasty.   In ‘The Annals of Wen County’ Chen Wangting is mentioned as the chief of the civil troops in 1661.  After the downfall of the Ming dynasty Chen Wangting is believed to have retired from public life and studied Taoism.  This is shown in part of a poem he wrote near the end of his life:

‘Recalling past years, how bravely I fought to wipe out enemy troops,

And what risks I went through!

All the favours bestowed on me are now in vain!

Now old and feeble, I am accompanied only by the book of Huang Ting.

Life consists in creating actions of boxing when feeling depressed,

Doing field work when the season comes,

And spending the leisure time teaching disciples and children

So that they can be worthy members of society.’

The great achievement of Chen Wangting was to make his taijiquan a complete system with a unified logic.  The system incorporated the best martial practices of his day, traditional Chinese medical theory, as well as Taoist theories and principles.

The spiral movements of Chen taijiquan are graceful to watch.  They not only symbolise, but literally embody the movement of yin to yang and yang back to yin.  The way that the spirals connect with each other combines elegantly with jingluo theory (the theory of the meridians) to increase the transportation of qi around the body with particular emphasis on the ren, du, dai and chong channels. 

Although the spiral movements occur throughout the Chen system the way that they use the various channels to transport qi is most clearly seen in the Chan Si Gong or Silk Reeling exercises.  The effect of transporting qi in this way is to build up the body and enable the explosive delivery of force.  With this innovation Chen Wangting not only used traditional Chinese medical theory but advanced it in the development of his taijiquan.

The spiral movements of Chen taijiquan alternately open and close, expand and contract.  They switch from full to empty, soft to hard and slow to fast.  These combinations of movements greatly facilitate the transportation of qi around the body. By constantly twisting one way and then the other the two kidneys are alternately tightened and loosened encouraging the qi to flow.  The qi is collected in the lower dan tien area and then pressed throughout the body by rotating the dan tien and twisting the waist.  When the waist is twisted correctly the spine becomes an internal spiral. The twisting motion of the spine is extended outwards along the limbs pushing qi to the extremities of the fingers and toes and then allowing it to return to the dan tien.

Using the spine in this way relates to the Daoyin practices which traditionally used back bending exercises to squeeze the qi about the body. The adaptation of Tuna - deep breathing exercises from Taoist and medical traditions – was also important.  They utilise abdominal breathing for relaxation, health preservation and increased circulation of qi.  For Chen Wangting the Tuna breathing meant on the one hand that the taijiquan practitioner’s body would be helped to relax and on the other that an increased volume of qi would be available in the dan tien for circulation to other parts of the body. 

The innovation of combining these techniques with martial arts allowed taijiquan to develop into a complete system of exercises, which are both a powerful martial art and have the effect of preserving health.  In Chen taijiquan inner and outer movements are fully co-ordinated, or as Chen Wangting put it ‘practising a breath inwardly, and the muscles, bone and skin outwardly’.  Using the spiral, movements, breathing and consciousness are subtly combined together. 

Glenn Gossling