Few people think tai chi looks like this; it seldom does, except when it needs to.
Earlier this week in class I got asked about “fajin.” I was glad to receive the question – it’s about time we discussed it.
An earlier blog post (“Why So Slow?” 19 April 2021) discusses why we go slow in the solo form and in push-hands practice. If you haven’t read it, please do so before continuing.
Once you’ve read the linked post, it’s time to sort out when and why we’d ever want to practice “fast,” and not only this, but how to go about practicing “fast” and what it really is.
In doing so, one of the questions we must answer along the way is “How fast is fast?”
This is an easy question– the Tai Chi Classics have the answer ready-made for us:
“If my opponent doesn’t move, I do not move. The instant he moves, I am already there.”
“If he moves fast, I quickly respond, and if his movement is slow, I leisurely follow.”
In other words, “How Fast?” is determined by our partner/opponent, understanding that we must be actively engaged in sensing (ting jin) and interpreting our partner’s movements and determining his intentions, and letting his actions guide our own. In this way we will seem, from our partner’s perspective, to be bewildering and impenetrable – both cloud-like and immovable at the same time:
“If he tries to find me above, he has to keep reaching higher, or if he tries to find me below, he has to keep reaching lower.
When he advances, he cannot get to me, but once he retreats, he cannot get away from me….
The opponent does not understand me, only I understand him.”
So much for “How fast.” Let’s talk about fajin.
The Chinese way to write fajin is 發勁. We already know what “jin” means. It means “Focused/Trained energy.” It’s distinct from “Li” which means “brute strength.” Fa – 發 – has a cluster of meanings such as “issuing,” “emitting,” “shooting,” “sending out,” etc. They give the impression of suddenness, explosiveness and violence – tai chi is, after all, a martial art. Punches and kicks obviously come to mind. There’s no such thing as “passively” kicking someone.
We spend a lot more time on “soft” than “hard” in tai chi for several reasons. The first is that “hard” is instinctual – toddlers know how to strike. The other reason is that “soft” and “slow” allow us to learn how our bodies move and work. This allows us to be “hard” via coordination and focus, rather than brute force (“Use yi, not li” from the Ten Essential Principles).
The drawback of this approach is that “hard,” “yang,” fajin and related concepts get de-emphasized, sometimes to the point where some long-time students may be convinced such things don’t exist in the art at all! Anyone who understands yin/yang theory, on the other hand, knows that “yang” and “hard” must be somewhere in there.
Fajin is strength, but it isn’t Li or brute strength. A useful translation might be “Trained energy issued outward” or “Focused explosive energy” or indeed any set of words you please, so long as they convey the idea of something powerful yet mindful that you’re doing to someone or something.
We start learning about fajin when we start developing the sense of qi (with the context of “internal energy”) moving through our bodies as we do the solo form and our qigong/zhan zhuang exercises. The Tai Chi Classics say that the energy comes from the root, which is in the feet; it’s developed by the legs, controlled by the “waist,” delivered by the spine, then expressed by the hands – by which we also imply the wrist, arms, elbows and shoulders. The opposite is true too – when we do Rollback or the first half of Push, we accept energy from our opponent through the hands, send it down the waist and into the legs and feet. This is all part of the yin/yang relationship we enter into with our partner when we do Push-hands. Practicing mindfully and paying attention to how we’re moving externally and how we feel internally deepens our understanding of the passage in the Classics.
Over time, and with focused effort, we begin to actively coordinate our movements so they carry this qi efficiently from its origin through its energy point to our intended target. The “energy point” is the place on our bodies where our qi is “issued” to an opponent or an inanimate object. It can be our hands (or a discrete part of our hands), our wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees or feet. Fajin can also be expressed in terms of joint locks and throws.
There are a few techniques in the tai chi expression of fajin that we don’t spend much time on in the early stages of our tai chi journey. They’re unnecessary at the beginning; the student isn’t ready for them, and bringing them up would only lead to confusion. But many of you have already done them in class. If you’ve done “13 Luohan qigong,” you’ve at least been exposed to the additional techniques – they have mostly to do with centering and rooting, and with the two vocalizations “hen” and “ha.” The rest is the repeated practice of coordinating our movements to efficiently move qi from one place to the other as we’ve discussed before.
The best way to understand tai chi fajin is to see what it looks like. Unfortunately, good videos of Yang style players are hard to find, and a great many of the rest are silly showmanship. The video below is the least showy example I can find, and the presenter is showing Chen style. But the essentials are the same and what he’s doing translates well into how a Yang player would express fajin – there isn’t much difference.
My experience has been that the best way to learn fajin as we express it in Yang style is to explore the concept in the “laboratory” of qigong (I use 13 Luohan especially for this); and once grasped, begin to inculcate it in my tai chi, still keeping the Ten Essential Principles uppermost in mind. I’ve always said that qigong is the laboratory or “playground” where we can explore with fewer boundaries, whereas tai chi is more about getting things as right as possible. In this way, the two practices – qigong and tai chi – complement and inform each other.
We shouldn’t spend too much time on fajin or “fast work,” relative to slow solo form and push-hands work. Slow work allows us to discover subtleties and gain new understanding. It’s too easy to let bad habits creep in doing too much fajin or “fast work.” Originally, tai chi didn’t have a form as we’d recognize it or if it did, we don’t know what it looked like. But we do know fajin was practiced with repetitions of single postures/transitions or combinations of no more than two or three. I see no good reason to deviate from this traditional approach. Ultimately, doing too much fajin or “fast work” ends up turning what should be a powerful internal martial art into a mediocre external one. So even once we get good at it, we’re not going to be doing all that much of it.
A more advanced technique in fajin – one common to almost all martial arts everywhere the world over – might best be called “compressing.” This technique is similar to one I’ve talked about which Josh Waitzkin refers to as “Making Smaller Circles.” It refers to generating fajin (or indeed doing anything in tai chi) in ever-smaller increments of space and/or time. This, however, is going to take its own post – stay tuned.