9 February 2022

You don’t get any awards for winning “Stump the Grandmaster.”  What you get is embarrassment, an awkward shrug, and (hopefully) the inspiration to find the answer – or the route to it – for yourself.

I know this because this is exactly what happened when I asked Grandmaster Yang Jun a question about “intent” at a seminar I attended in September 2019.  I asked him to speak about “yi” or “intent,” and his answer was basically “I could explain it in Chinese, but not in English, and you probably wouldn’t understand anyway because it’s wrapped up in concepts unique to Chinese culture.”  

This answer is the single reason I’m studying the Chinese language and Chinese culture – I want to be able to understand what the Grandmaster knows and means.  Allowing for the fact that my own understanding of “yi” is imperfect, what follows is what I’ve discovered of it so far, both on my own and from others’ explanations in English.

We learn the word “yi” – “intent” from Yang Chengfu’s Ten Essential Principles:  用意不用力, pronounced “Yong yi bu yong li,” or “Use intent, not strength.”  This concept is intrinsic to most “internal” Chinese martial arts.  Like many such concepts, it’s easy to read too much into it, and just as easy to oversimplify it.

The best way of understanding “yi” is by analogy.  We’ll use the act of driving a car.  When we start out learning, we don’t know what we’re doing, and our first attempts at driving are overwhelming and jerky – we slam on the brake, we screech the tires stomping on the gas pedal, we throw our passenger all over jerking the steering wheel and so on.  We don’t know where all the controls are, how they feel, how they work or how they communicate with us and with other drivers.  Our “yi,” at that point, is that of learning about all this.

Presently we achieve a degree of mastery over the controls of the car and we’re ready to enter traffic.  This is a new layer of overwhelming stimuli, and we regress somewhat – what used to be smooth acceleration, braking and steering becomes panicked reaction at what the other cars are doing and what we’re doing.  It feels like we’ve never operated a car before.  Our “yi” here is learning to integrate our skills into dealing with conditions on the road.

With time and practice, we become comfortable with the way the “rules of the road” work and we can focus on operating the car as a part of traffic.  We learn about different traffic patterns, different conditions (rain, ice, snow etc.), we handle hazards with less panic than we used to, and over time, we give driving no thought.  Our “yi” once we’ve arrived at this point is not operating the controls of the car or competently participating in traffic – now our “yi” is simply getting where we want to go.

Tai chi follows almost the exact same progression.  When we’re first learning, we’re focused on what our hands and feet are doing, on remembering the order of the postures, on balancing and all the physical aspects – we’re figuring out what the “externals” are.  Our “yi” is on learning where everything goes and in what order.  This is a parallel to learning the controls of the car in a safe place like an empty parking lot.

As we advance, we begin to focus on what the postures and transitions feel like, how the energy in our bodies moves from one place to another, and how our physical structure enhances this energy transfer.  We learn how our feet and legs feel when we’re “rooted and centered.”  We begin to interact with partners (“push hands”), and we begin to discern their energy and what they intend to do.  This is like learning to drive in traffic and in different conditions.

Eventually, we learn to integrate all this and simply do tai chi.  We may or may not follow a form – we just do tai chi.  When we’re interacting with a partner or an opponent, we’re not thinking of either what he or she’s doing or what we wish to accomplish – we just do tai chi.  This is like just getting in the car and going wherever we want, without giving the individual elements like the controls, the traffic patterns or the road conditions much if any thought.  It’s at this point where our “yi” – our “intent” – becomes something that’s hard to name or describe.  

Which is probably what Grandmaster Yang was trying to say all along.