Taoist concepts like taiji, wuji, and yin yang are important components of Taoist creation theory and are often misunderstood. This essay, written by Steve Galloway in 2011, explores the vocabulary of Taoist creation theory: wuji, taiji, and yin/yang. You can skip to the summary at the end if you just want to catch the main points.
The Nature of Taiji
Ask a martial artist for a definition of Tai Chi, Tai Chi Chuan, Taiji or even Taijiquan, and you will probably get a bewildering reply to the effect that Tai Chi means “grand ultimate fist”, hotly pursued by the well worn “get-out” that any meaning beyond “grand ultimate fist” is lost in antiquity, language, and translation. Lost for words, and perhaps wondering what such a bionic creation as a grand ultimate fist might attach itself to, or whether it needs to be attached to anything at all, students capitulate with a muted “oh”, and the teacher hopes to God or Tao that nobody asks for a demonstration of empty force.
So, we go to class. We learn what a forward bow stance is. We learn that “Wuji” means “shoulder’s width” stance. At some point we are told to “begin Tai Chi”, and if you think like I do, you look at your hands and wonder how grand your fists might one day look.
The answer does not feel right for some people. The question lingers, and those with enquiring minds ask again. What is Taiji? Does it really mean “grand ultimate fist”?
Does it matter? After all, Taiji is a thing of doing. Perhaps we hold too much store by labels and names. Sometimes we just need to know, and for those with an inkling that vocabulary like “Taiji” is rooted not only in an esoteric martial art but in the broader context of Taoism’s profound scholarship, suddenly it is not reasonable to accept that one of the world’s great philosophical traditions would underpin its entire philosophy with such a ridiculous thing as somebody’s fist. For a credible explanation of what Taijiis as an activity, we need to understand Taoist philosophy and its language. This piece looks at the vocabulary of Taoism’s creation theory: wuji, taiji, and yin/yang.
The principle of Wuji
When we think of Taiji, two other concepts are never far away: “Wuji” and “Yin/Yang”. Wuji, where the story starts, is a neutral state which Taoists depict as a circle. Wuji is “empty”, “without polarity”, and it can be interpreted to mean “without limit”, or “without boundary”. Wuji might be the state of the universe in the instant before its creation. Wuji might be the stillness of an interstellar cloud of gas and dust. Wuji implies a point of origin too, and the idea of “origin” is yet another ingredient to consider. Wuji is a component of a Taoist rationale which implies that by returning to origin, we can understand origin and with that knowledge understand what follows. The same principle drives scientific investigation. In meditation and application, it is a state from which we can observe and manage reality.
The principle of Taiji
Whether we think of Wuji as origin, or emptiness, or neutrality, or “without limit”, Wuji is not prone to idleness. Wuji inherently harbours a natural pivotal function of movement and stillness. Physicists would recognize Taiji’s spiralling characteristics as a fundamental force of nature: a principle called the “conservation of angular momentum”. Whether you use the vocabulary of Taoism or Physics the principle is the same, and the principle is affirmed by Taoists and scientists alike to be an absolute symmetry of nature – in other words, we do not yet know of a circumstance in the known universe where the principle does not work.
The solar system we call home formed in time’s frigid emptiness from a coalescing cloud of dust and gas. Scientific and Taoist models alike need an event to start the creation process. Scientists suggest a stellar shockwave, perhaps unleashed in a detonating supernova’s cataclysmic epiphany, nudged particles into a point of density around which the natural laws of angular momentum played out. In Taoism, the function is concisely called “Taiji” and where scientists might depict the process in the mathematics of formula, Taoists depict angular momentum or Taiji as a spiral. As Taiji spiralled out of the stillness of Wuji, the vaporous cloud spiralled inwards around a point, eventually igniting under the heat of its own pressure. A star was born, and in a similar way the planets formed too.
In Taoism as in Science, an event is needed to move from a state of Wuji. Just as an external shock might have nudged the nebular cloud that spawned our solar system into its self-sustained rotation, the application of Taiji on a human scale can happen with the application of intent. Taiji’s principle is scalable, so that the laws of angular momentum, or just “Taiji”, which applies on a universal (macrocosmic) scale, applies on a human (microcosmic) and microscopic scale too. It is no coincidence that body mechanics and energetics rely heavily on subtle spirals and coiling as Taijiquanpractitioners step out of a state of wuji into motion. Regardless of language, they are crucially emulating and feeding on nature’s motive force.
As Taiji spirals or coils, it segregates into opposing energies of Yin and Yang, and at this stage the interplay of Yin/Yang creates “qi” or “chi”, energy or perhaps information, which provides a framework or construct in which the physical universe exists. InTaijiquan, Taiji is important because practitioners do not rely on overt muscular strength in the execution of their art. Power is developed internally, and Taiji is the catalyst a martial artist employs to marshall force, or “jin”, to deal with an opponent. By now, we have moved from the realm of wuji, through taiji, and into the realm of yin/yang. Taoists portray Yin/Yang in a few ways:
The principle of Yin/Yang & Energy
As Taiji spirals or coils, it segregates into opposing energies of Yin and Yang, and at this stage the interplay of Yin/Yang creates “qi” or “chi”, energy, or perhaps information, which provides a framework or construct in which the physical world plays out. InTaijiquan, Taiji is important because practitioners do not rely on overt muscular strength in the execution of their art. Power is developed internally, and Taiji is the catalyst that a martial artist employs to marshall force, or “jin”, to deal with anopponent. By now, we have moved from the realm of wuji, through Taiji, and into the realm of Yin/Yang. Taoists portray Yin/Yang in a few ways:
Here, yin and yang are shown to operate in three states. In each state, Yin and Yang rotate within Wuji’s circle. Yin is “black”, yang is “white”, and in the first two diagrams each energy state is seeded with its opposite state. Yang contains a Yin seed, and Yin contains a Yang seed. The third diagram differs: Yin and Yang by now are rotating around Wuji, which is depicted as a circle in the centre.
The three diagrams depict the progressively developed states of a Taijiquanpractitioner’s lower dan tien. The lower dan tien is situated in a person’s lower abdomen and could be considered as a pump sitting at the centre of a network of energetic meridians, driving energy around a person’s body and interacting with two other dan tiens located in the chest and head. Acupuncturists address this network in their clinical work. The energetic system is called the “energy body”. It is not something that exists in a physical context because it does not operate in the physical realm like the rest of a person’s physiology.
Sometimes, the notion that there is an aspect of reality that is outside the scope of our senses is difficult to understand. Sometimes the notion is disturbing. Yet, we know there are ranges in the light spectrum that we cannot observe. For example, we cannot tune our vision to observe the world in infrared. The world can be observed in infrared, though, and although we cannot modify our eyes to see the world as it exists that way, we can see what the world in infrared looks like with mechanical aids. We can crudely use other senses to at least feel infrared’s heat.
As elusive as the energy body is to “awaken” and observe, it operates according to the same laws of nature and physics that govern the physical realm. Although we have to use equipment to see what the world looks like in infrared, with conditioning it is possible to interact with the energy body without equipment. Western science has no comparative language to describe this as it does, say, for Taiji and angular momentum. Instead, we can turn to Traditional Chinese Medicine. The language we use is not important here, rather the fact that practitioners can tune the mind to observe, interpret, and even manage the human body’s interaction with the energetic realm to a potentially high degree. The language of Taoism – Wuji, Taiji, and Yin/Yang is just a framework within which protocols – physical conditioning, breathing, intent, and “jins” among other tools – can be used to interface to a person’s own energy body, and at the highest level of ability to others’, too. Some people attempt to equate the energy body to such similar “energetics” as chakras. For the purpose of this piece, it is better to assume that other components of the energetic realm, like shen, chakra, etc. operate within their own mappings or “bodies”.
In a normal state, shown here, the lower dan tien turns once in a daily cycle, propelling qi (or “chi”) around an individual’s meridians. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, if you are alive, your dan tien is active and it operates in this nominal state. Often, this iconic symbol is illustrated in reverse, i.e. the white section dominates the lower part of the cycle. Sometimes, too, the image is flipped so that the direction of rotation is reversed. In its correct orientation here, yang (white) is peaking at its cyclical polarity, and yin proportionally gains dominance until reaching its polarity.
In this state, a practitioner has learned to coordinate dan tienrotation with his or her breathing. This is a significant development, and practitioners with this level of ability are able to generate substantial energy. In martial practice, qi is converted to a range of forces called “jins”. In spiritual practice, the enhancement aids in the yet further refinement of “shen”. A newcomer to internal arts can commonly take three years to physically and energetically condition this kind of ability to any purposeful effect.
In this state, a practitioner has developed his or her energetic body to a state so that his or her lower dan tien splits – the core reverts to stillness (Wuji -the centre disk in this illustration), and only the outer shell rotates. This level of conditioning is uncommon, and needs a level of teaching which students are hard pressed to find.
Crucially, Taijiquan practitioners who can internally generate force using their energy body are capable of unusual results. The complexity of conditioning the physical body, the energetic body, and execution in combat does not makeTaijiquan a superior art, and indeed Taijiquan’s sheer complexity is perhaps its nemesis. In the 21st Century “internalization” is beyond the scope of most teachers’ repertoires, and mainstream Taiji is practised for physical fitness: in other words, the “energetic” processes have been stripped away. Communism’s purgative intervention in the 1900’s and Tai Chi’s subsequent reinvention in State sanctioned styles such as Simplified Tai Chi in the 1950’s leaves a raft of “Tai Chi” formats devoid of the internal art, and with good reason: practitioners of advanced internal arts can earn prison sentences in China’s post “cultural revolution” era. Despite this, the art persists. AsTaijiquan matures in the West with a number of accomplished proponents, the good news is that whatever political influence China imposes on its cultural and philosophical treasures, it can be argued that there is already sufficient knowledge in the West to sustain Tai Chi, Taiji, Tai Chi Chuan, or Taijiquan in its many varied forms.
Summary: the nature of Taiiquan
Taiji is a pivotal, spiralling, or coiling force which we might call the motive force of creation. Taiji transforms Wuji into complementary polarities – Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are most often considered to be cyclical, but Yin and Yang can also reunite to the state of Wuji by expansion and contraction.
In Taoist theory Wuji, Taiji, and Yin/Yang are universal principles and they apply on any level of scale: macrocosmic, microcosmic, and microscopic. In human terms (microcosmic), we are ideally a conduit between the environment and earth (Taoist concept: tian/di/ren –respectively heaven/earth/man), and Taoists believe it is possible to tap energy or information – qi – that flows between the environment and earth for various purposes – medical, martial, spiritual, or otherwise. Taijiquan could be considered as a “combat system using the motive force of creation”. In a neutral state –wuji – we calm our emotional mind, our intent and energy, and we align our body to connect to the earth and the environment. As we focus our mind and formulate our intent, energy follows. Our intent (yi), and our mind (xin) are essentially Taiji, and the practitioner’s objective is to utilize Taiji’s energetic spiralling force in the execution of physical applications that are appropriate to handle an opponent’s threat.
Science and Taoist philosophy use different language to describe nature in remarkably comparable ways. Taoist theory regarding energy/information transmission has uncanny commonality with wave and string physics, which are relatively recent developments in Western Science, and interestingly some Taoist theory has yet to be matched with Western science at all.
Whether we call Taiji “grand ultimate fist” or anything else at all is unimportant. After all, Taoism is a thing of doing rather than academics. Put into practice, Taoist theory is capable of producing results for which Western science has yet to develop a language to explain. It is astonishing to imagine that much of what the Taoist practitioners of Wudang formulated by using their minds as tools and laboratories millennia ago has yet to be accounted for by the mathematics and equipment available to us in the 21st Century.