Tai Chi Chuan - The Art of Overcoming Hardness with Softness
by Cheng Tin-Hung and Dan Docherty
The theory of Yin and Yang has taught us that hardness can overcome softness and that softness can overcome hardness. Let us now see how this theory works in practice when applied to Chinese martial arts.
A common occurrence in martial arts would be where A attacks B with all his strength and B uses all his strength to block the attack. Here the parties are engaged in a battle of force and the stronger side will win.
In another typical situation let us suppose that two men, one weak, the other strong, go to the same martial arts school and learn the same techniques for an equal length of time. In a fight between the two, the stronger will still defeat the weaker.
Wang Chung Yueh, a Tai Chi Chuan master, who lived during the Ming Dynasty, studied this type of situation. After many years of observing various hard styles of the Chinese martial arts, he came to the conclusion that, stylistic differences aside, when used in combat the end result was always the same; victory would go to the swiftest and strongest, and not necessarily to those who had made an intensive study of their art.
Chang San Feng had studied the same situation, even before Wang did. Driven by a belief that victory need not inevitably go to the strong, but that brain could defeat brawn, he used his knowledge of Taoism to create a martial art based on the principles of Tai Chi -- the changes of Yin and Yang. He called it Tai Chi Chuan, the `Chuan' meaning `Fist' and thus implying martial art.
Correct application of Tai Chi Chuan techniques in combat will result in the situation where a slight application of force is sufficient to deflect, divert, or otherwise render harmless a force which is many times greater in magnitude. Thus the soft overcomes the hard and the weak need not fear to do battle with the strong. For the purposes of Tai Chi Chuan in combat, softness is the child of wisdom, and is not merely a weak force which can somehow magically defeat a stronger one.
The two major principles of Tai Chi Chuan self-defence strategy are using stillness to defeat motion, and using softness to defeat hardness.
The Solution Part One: Stillness defeats Motion
The practice of this principle requires a clear mind. We should wait for our opponent to begin making the first move then `pre-empt' him by reacting decisively before he can complete it. We do this because, when facing our opponent, we do not know his intentions, and so we do not know which part of our body he will attack. It is better, then, to wait until he commits himself to an attack so that we can divert it before it reaches its conclusion, and then we in turn can counter-attack by striking his weak points.
We must avoid taking this principle to the absurd conclusion of waiting for our opponent to hit us without moving a muscle in response. That is why in a classical text on the Thirteen Tactics it is written, `If the enemy does not move, we do not move, but as soon as he begins to move we move at once.'
In using this principle, our mind must remain clear to enable us to detect our opponent's slightest movements and to counteract any intended attack. The key to this principle is that once our opponent has committed himself to an attack it is already too late for him to react to our counteraction.
In the words of the military strategist Sun Tzu, `We must know ourselves and our opponent.' We can only do this by remaining calm and collected until we clearly detect an impending attack to which we then immediately respond.
The Solution Part Two: Softness overcomes Hardness
In the practice of this principle we must consciously avoid using brute force in attempting to counteract the attacks of our opponent. Mind and body must work in harmony in the correct application of the techniques of defence and counter-attack.
The idea is to divert the attacks of our opponent in such a way as to turn his own force against him. This requires the use of one or more of the Eight Powers of Tai Chi Chuan, which are discussed below.
Thus, if our opponent tries to punch us in the chest, the us of `Lu', a slight diversion to the side, will be enough to divert even his strongest attack and pave the way for our counter-attack. In the Song of Tai Chi Pushing Hands it is written, `A force of four ounces can overcome a force of a thousand pounds.'
Constant practice with a partner over a number of years is necessary to develop the ability to apply this sophisticated concept of self-defence. Even then we still require tuition from a competent instructor.
To put this in simple terms, most of us are aware that an ox can be led with a length of string. Let us take the string to represent the four ounces and the ox to represent a thousand pounds. If the string is tied to a ring on the end of the ox's nose it can be easily led, but if it is tied to its hind leg a different result can be anticipated. The value then of a competent instructor is to teach the correct application of softness, or slight force.
The use of hard force has certain clear-cut disadvantages, even for the mighty among us. It requires a greater expenditure of energy, whether used in defence or attack. This affects our breathing and increases our heartbeat which in turn puts a strain in our central nervous system, thus indirectly slowing our actions and reflexes.
All this is of course very much to the advantage of our opponent. The use of softness on the other hand requires the expenditure of very little energy; our muscles remain relaxed and supple making our actions swift and sure. It also serves to develop clarity of thought and sensitivity, and to reduce stress.
The net result is that when using this softness in combat against a `hard' opponent, whether in hand or body contact with him, our body acts as a radar system, feeding us information about our opponent's intentions, which his own hardness or tension allows our softness and sensitivity to detect.
The other disadvantage in relying on strength alone is that there is always someone stronger. It should be recognised that even the strong get old some day.
To further ram home theory and practice we only have to look at Western history for our vindication. Perhaps the best example of its use was in the war between Greece and Troy, where for years the Greeks laid siege to Troy and thousands of lives were lost on both sides in a bitter war of attrition. Finally, at the suggestion of Odysseus, the most cunning of their leaders, the Greeks pretended to sail away, leaving behind the gift of a huge wooden horse.
The Trojans hauled this into their city as a triumph, believing the war to be over. Late at night, a party of Greeks, who had hidden inside the horse, broke out, killed the guards and opened the gates for their comrades who had returned and were lying in wait.
The Trojans, unprepared and unarmed after a night of celebration, were no match for the Greeks and Troy was put to the sword.
This illustrates that the real meaning of softness lies in the use of intelligence rather than brute force.