Taijiquan, Daoist Metaphysics, and Practice

I often wonder about the connections—or lack thereof—between some interesting and potentially mind-blowing metaphysical claim and what might be called (although I don’t like the phrase) “real life.”  Lately, that wonder has been directed toward ways in which training in a practice such as taijiquan that at least purports to be meaningfully Daoist might inform and be informed by academic study of Daoist metaphysics.

I’ve had a bunch of different taijiquan teachers over the years.  Some of them were widely read about Chinese culture and history.  Others, not so much.  For whatever it’s worth, only one them—my first taijiquan teacher, who taught Yang family style in Chapel Hill back in the late 90’s—was Chinese, and though I never found out how well-read he was, I have come to appreciate how deeply knowledgeable that old man was about both taijiquan and Chinese traditions.  I feel like I learned a great deal from some of my teachers and that I managed to learn a bit less from others, but I’m grateful to all of them for offering me something important, and I suspect that I could have learned more from each and every one of them than I did, had I understood how to be a better student.  In each case, the teacher taught with sincerity.

As I’ve tried to learn taijiquan, I’ve had various moments when I’ve had the opportunity to think about the connections between the practice I was learning and the Chinese philosophy I work on academically.  Let me share two such incidents.

In one case, I had a teacher who was showing a group of students how to do a particular move—if I recall correctly, it was a form of the move commonly called “brush knee”—and the teacher talked about how the movement of the hands relative to one another exemplified some principle of the interaction of yin and yang.   (I have one incident in mind here, but there was nothing unusual about this teacher saying this particular thing on this occasion; from what I’ve seen, many taijiquan teachers bring out the yin/yang trope frequently.)  I think I thought at the time something like, “Oh, geez, this is cringeworthy.  You can’t possibly understand what you’re talking about.”  (This teacher was not the one from China, and, though he was highly educated, his formal education was not in Asian studies, as far as I could tell.)  But, almost simultaneously, I recall being struck both by how arrogant my thoughts were revealing me to be and by how helpful it was in terms of the practice I was trying to learn to think of that movement in terms of the separation of yin and yang.  In addition, my teacher’s comment also seemed helpful in thinking about how to understand yin/yang metaphysics:  I began mentally tracing out the beginnings of some big theory of “embodied practice” and (to borrow an expression I think was introduced into the literature about Daoism by Russell Kirkland or perhaps James Miller) “biospirituality” that would withstand my own analytic scruples and perhaps lead to a respectable article-length piece that I could submit somewhere for rejection by the academic peer-review process.  (The theorizing soon came to a stop as the lesson progressed and I had to attend carefully to how exactly to move my body through space while doing the form I was learning.  Practice, such as it was, got the upper hand over my momentary dreams of theory, at least at that moment.)

Here’s the second incident, one that seems to provide a contrasting lesson to the first:  More recently, I was learning a different form of taijiquan, in a style and from a teacher that both place heavy emphasis on the martial aspects of the art.  This particular teacher was more well-read about Asia than some of the others.  As an aside during our lesson, he gave me a brief potted history of his particular style of taijiquan and of the traditional family styles in general.  According to this history, all the Daoist metaphysics that often gets linked to taijiquan is just unnecessary clutter that was added to the practice by various masters at some point along the way, more-or-less to sell the product to a Chinese audience that at the time was really into (what my teacher thinks of as) unmitigated obfuscation.  (There was more to the story my teacher told, but that’s the gist of it.)  I thought to myself that what he was saying seemed plausible and even wise, and it seemed at the time that his hard-nosed, “just the facts” perspective on a practice that he has dedicated a significant chunk of his life to mastering could shed some light on how to engage in a scholarly way with Chinese philosophy and religion—at least if that “just the facts” perspective was applied with care, and in exactly the right amount.

So, what’s the point—other than that I probably should recognize that I have a tendency to be overly impressed by pronouncements about the relevance of Chinese philosophy to taijiquan when they are made by people who are directing me to move my body through space in unfamiliar ways?  I don’t want to make too much of these two moments, or any of the numerous others at which I have been struck by the ways in which engaging in a physical practice that is more-or-less an attempted embodiment of a Daoist metaphysical perspective might benefit and be benefited by the academic work I do.  But, at the same time, I am convinced—at least to the point of being willing to blog about it and discuss it informally over drinks with friends—that engaging with a physical practice that is in some non-trivial way a descendent of a form of practice that was at some point in time a meaningful embodiment of yin/yang theory or of Daoist-inspired metaphysics can be helpful to one’s understanding.

I don’t mean that studying the academic history of the martial arts (or of various qigong or yangsheng practices, or of Daoist zuowang meditation or visualization techniques, or whatever) is what is going to help me understand Daoist metaphysics (although it could, and maybe it has), nor do I mean that engaging in some broadly anthropological or sociological study of various practice communities is going to do the trick (but it might).  I mean to express something simpler, and much more naïve:  that actually getting off my ass and trying to learn how to do some sort of Dao-inspired practice seems to have the potential to help me be a better scholar, at least at some point down the road, even if such practice is the kind of thing that many of us do our best to keep separated from our professional profiles.

11 replies on “Taijiquan, Daoist Metaphysics, and Practice”

  1. Nice point, Steve. Hope we may have a chance to chat it over drinks sometime soon. But before that happens, I guess one most relevant theory on this issue is Prof. Ni Peimin’s gongfu approach that he has been promoting in a series of works including his recent book on Confucius:


    I remember we have a post on Peimin’s article on Gongfu in New York Times too:


    Personally, I believe it is true that Playing Taiji would indeed be a great help to experience the way of Daoist (as well as Confucian) teachings – it is not a must of course – though for Western philosophers who have not had other chance for a deeper engagement with Chinese way of life, this could be a very beneficial way to approach the essential manner of comportment in Daoist/Confucian “practice,” so that one can stay away from the various kinds of “armchair” interpretations of Chinese philosophy…

    Hope this helps a bit!

  2. I wish this wonderful post had come with a video. I see from Youtube that the “brush knee” move is nothing at all like the Charleston.

    Huaiyu, I can well imagine that if I were to engage in taijiquan, it might greatly improve my bodily comportment and thereby improve other things about how I live. More generally, engaging in various practices, especially as taken directly from the Chinese tradition, ought to help a Westerner understand Chinese philosophy about how to act. But I think Steve’s topic is rather whether or how performing (even) what approaches being purely rote physical movements can improve one’s understanding of specifically metaphysical ideas, or at least of be rather abstract sayings that seem to be about the form and operations of nature – I’ll say “big views” for short.

    I think it would be fascinating to discuss the various ways such a connection might go. Steve, I wonder if you can say something more about how the brush-knee move seemed to illuminate the yin/yang idea?

    Some big views might lend themselves to being physically “acted out” in one way or another, and thus better understood by actor and audience. Empedocles’ view of evolution (as the coming together of matter into body parts, and of independent body parts into creatures) might thus be represented by the Ross sisters’ picnic dance:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61cY1ILv60k ,
    or Heracleitean metaphysics by a Charleston revue:

    That isn’t to say that these movements would make the views more plausible; they might only stimulate skepticism. For the movements bring out or represent some aspect of the views especially clearly or vividly, drawing one’s attention to a problem as the mere verbal articulation of the views might not. Granted, any armchair philosopher worth his salty snacks ought to be able to notice and articulate the problems in seated words far better and more quickly than he could do by way of dance. Still, the point of principle is that movements can do such work.

    Taijiquan looks as though it involves a focus on balance, balance in movement. Not as walking does, for walking is full of falling (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pcYag8oGik). Rather, taijiquan looks like balance that is always maintained through the movement: constancy through change. That too is a Heracleitean idea.

    I don’t know much about Daoist metaphysics except what I read in this blog, where mostly what I read is Stephen Walker’s arguments that some of what passes for Daoist metaphysics is really ethics or metaethics instead, misread. But anyway one reading of Ursula K. Leguin’s The Lathe of Heaven is that Daoism involves the idea that no matter what you do to try to improve the world in general, it’s all going to stay just as good or bad overall. Any innovative improvement will have new drawbacks; everything stays in balance. That’s a counterintuitive view, but I can see how taijiquan might make it more intuitively plausible by representing in a viscerally vivid way the possibility of coexistence between change and balance. Even if the only way the balance is maintained is by the movement’s being slow.

    Thus, where the dances shown above can be relevant to big views by suggesting impossibilities, taijiquan may be relevant by doing the reverse. (That’s different from the function of taijiquan in teaching us to aspire to new kinds of balance in our lives, by showing us that we can achieve them in physical movement.)

    In what kinds of ways other than “acting out” or representation might a program of physical movements help us understand big views?

    One way might be by influencing the direction of our attention. If taijiquan makes balance enjoyable, it may leave us more inclined (so to speak) at other times to think about balance, and thus help us attend to and thereby understand big views about balance. Of course the effect on a beginner and on an adept will be different. The Charleston might at first work as a kind of aversion therapy against all thoughts of change, but with practice and endorphins the effect may go the other way. More generally, experience of success in any kind of physical training might be generally encouraging in other aspects of life, such as thinking (or, if you like, the rest of thinking).

    Influence on our attention is just a hop, skip and a jump away from influence on our credence. For example, taijiquan looks really cool; and that might attract us to whatever philosophy seems to be associated with it. I suppose that’s not a completely irrational step, if we don’t make it a long confident stride.

    Elegance in a theory does seem to count in its favor, if only because as between two otherwise similar theories, we can more easily use the more elegant one. Conceivably a regimen of physical movements can increase our sensitivity to the relevant kinds of elegance, and thus improve our thinking about big views. Does taijiquan have that kind of effect?

    Yin/yang gives metaphysical importance to some pretty visceral things: light/dark, dry/wet, male/female, action/passion. (I write with only the Western layperson’s accidental knowledge of yin/yang.) Perhaps taijiquan makes use of some facts about how different movements of our bodies feel more male or female than others, more active or passive than others, more light or dark than others, etc., to reinforce the idea that these distinctions line up in the traditional way. If so, should we count that as an increase in understanding, of the view or of reality? Or might it simply be an increase in credence?

  3. If I understand Peimin’s piece in the Times, it is concerned with the idea that in Chinese philosophy what appear to be metaphysical claims are in fact something else (mainly or instead), perhaps something like poetry or music. To approach them by trying to define their terms clearly and argue about their truth rigorously would be to misunderstand their nature and point, which is more about orienting us for the sake of our particular lives (but not in the way that theoretical physics orients the work-life of engineers).

    How can prima facie metaphysical claims orient us for our lives (without our taking them seriously as truths)? Perhaps that question is in some ways analogous to our question, How can bodily movements help us understand metaphysical claims?

    But if the “metaphysical claims” mentioned in the latter question are not really to be taken as metaphysical claims, as proposed truths about the cosmos – if they are instead a sort of poem, painting or music – then their kinship with patterns of bodily movement may be more intimate.

  4. I wrote above,
    If I understand Peimin’s piece in the Times, it is concerned with the idea that in Chinese philosophy what appear to be metaphysical claims are in fact something else (mainly or instead), perhaps something like poetry or music.

    (This will come back around to Steve’s post.) That reading of Peimin probably makes his proposal too strange. I’ve wanted an alternative to the idea that he was suggesting that Chinese big views aimed not to be true descriptions of reality, but instead aimed to be such that if you think they’re true you’ll live better, so that Chinese philosophers would have been promoting as true ideas they chose without regard to whether those ideas are true.

    So here’s another alternative. Consider a statement of the form “Most people think X.” Behind it there’s likely to be a tacit qualifier: most people in our country, in our school, in our department, at this meeting, or whatever. And for the purposes at hand the qualifier may not matter. That is, for the issue at hand it may not matter whether people very far away mostly have a different view. For the purpose at hand it may not be necessary to think of the qualification, or to have it readily available.

    Instead of words, I might use a picture – say, five people, four of whom think X. Like the famous map on the cover of the New Yorker, showing 10th Avenue much larger than China. We much more readily think of a picture (than of words) that it doesn’t necessarily make claims; it’s just a mode of representation that can be more or less useful for different purposes. (A Mercator projection doesn’t actually claim that Greenland is bigger than Argentina.) We use a picture for certain kinds of calculation, as we use one or another mode of representing numbers for one or another kind of calculation. We might also say of a conceptual scheme that it is neither true nor false, but can be more or less useful for this or that purpose.

    So suppose we have what looks like a metaphysical proposition from China. Perhaps we can regard it instead as a conceptual scheme rather than a proposition; or as at most the proposition that such-and-such a conceptual scheme is useful. It might then be valuable while literally not make any (other) truth claim at all.

    Can somebody propose a particular Chinese big claim for which this defense is plausible?

    The defense might link up with Steve’s question about taijiquan insofar as we can think of the body as a potential symbol system. Justice & Mercy mentioned recently that one traditional daoist view is that the human body corresponds in detail to the universe. And a friend told me not so recently that in traditional Chinese medicine the foot and the ear each correspond in detail to the whole body (so that massaging a certain part of the foot or of the ear can address problems in, say, the stomach). One thing the two views suggest is a general propensity to use the body – one’s own body – as a field of associations with other things, and hence presumably as a symbol system of some sort.

    Of course there are deeply different ways to use the body as a symbol system. And if the system is simply that a certain part stands for a certain thing, the question arises: what counts as using the symbol?

    I’m reminded of a song I heard as a child, sung to the tune of “Let the Rest of the World Go By.” There seem to be many versions in circulation. My memory of the lyrics begins with the last three lines of the introductory verse:

    One fancy dress
    Caught my eye, I confess:
    Because it was made of a map.

    Her back was Brazil
    Her chest was Bunker Hill
    And just a little bit below
    Was Me-hi-co.
    Her shoulder blades
    Were Japanese
    And on her neckline
    There was Greece.
    Her hips were Siam
    Her knees were Hindustan
    I’m not quite certain of her thigh—
    Because just then, I saw my wife
    So to prevent a deal of strife
    I let the rest of the world go by.

    And then there’s “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” . . . Where were we? Oh yes, if a part of the body is a symbol for something, what counts as using the symbol? One possibility is that one uses one’s own body as a kind of memory palace or map of this or that, to organize associations. That can be especially useful if everybody else is using their bodies according to pretty much the same scheme of associations.

    Where the symbols are movements of the body rather than parts of the body, there can be something like speech using the symbols. Consider, for example, various kinds of sign language. One kind uses positions of the hand to represent letters. In this scheme no part of the body stands for anything.

    Another kind of sign language involves a large repertoire of more or less ideographic or ideosomethingic words, like the one word of old American Indian sign language I know (because an armchair philosopher has to be prepared for all eventualities): hold the left hand palm-up in front of your chest and move a loose right fist in a horizontal circle over the left hand. That’s coffee, in imitation of using a grinding machine. In this sign the right hand stands for a hand, and the left hand stands for a hand holding a grinder or for the body of the grinder. In other such signs the hands may stand for other things – think of a sign for butterfly. But in these two signs one might say the significance of the bodily parts derives from the significance of the whole, rather than vice versa. (But their derivative significance allows one to generate new signs, e.g. for a butterfly with an injured wing, or for a jammed coffee grinder.)

    The movements of taijiquan are, I suppose, not much like speech. A repertoire of movements might serve as a kind of map, I suppose, or as a list for ordered review (contemplation).

    I don’t know what sort of philosophical or big talk might go along with teaching the movements of taijiquan, or how standardized it might be. If the traditional view is that the signifcance of this or that part or movement is natural, some adherents of the view might think no accompanying talk is necessary.


  5. Hi Steve! I certainly found this provocative: I mean to express something simpler, and much more naïve: that actually getting off my ass and trying to learn how to do some sort of Dao-inspired practice seems to have the potential to help me be a better scholar, at least at some point down the road, even if such practice is the kind of thing that many of us do our best to keep separated from our professional profiles.

    I have played Taiji only a little bit, interacting with two very different teachers, one whose New Age schtick I found very off-putting, the other a serious Chinese expert who has on a few occasions been enthusiastic about chatting about Daoist metaphysics. But I don’t have enough experience in these contexts to go very far in responding to your thoughts.

    What you’ve got me thinking about instead is the role , in the life/practice of traditional Chinese literati, of a whole range of activities, from taiji to poetry, calligraphy, etc. And the questions of (1) how that may relate to our (my) lives today, and (2) how this might shed light, or not, on philosophical theories. In brief, I’m thinking about the way in which, at the extreme end spectrum at least, every movement can have meaning and value, all contributing or detracting from valuable and/or harmonious life-with-others. I suspect that we really can learn something about the value and effects, and the ease or difficulty, of these philosophical ideals through some reflection on how we live our lives today. Which includes how we move our bodies through space, in both familiar and unfamiliar ways.

  6. Hey Steve; I’ve been running a course for 3 years now that tries to incorporate weekly archery practice while we read a lot of primary and secondary material on Daoism and Zen Buddhism. Part of the rationale for the course was some version of your question, but for students: does getting them off their asses to engage in a somewhat difficult but manageable Dao-inspired activity make them better students of Daoism? I’m still trying to figure out how to assess that; I’ve accumulated a lot of post-activity reflection pieces but haven’t sat down to process them. Just an FYI, I suppose… I’ll have to write up a thing one of these days about it.

  7. Toward how the practice of taijiquan (and calligraphy) might improve our moral character and understanding, and a Westerner’s understanding of Chinese ideas, here’s a thought or two.

    Once we’re talking about social life rather than metaphysics, the notion of “body language” is of course more familiar. For example, there’s Confucius’ complex body language as described in LY 10. And there’s collective body imagery, as when one person walks behind another to indicate followership.

    Sitting up straight, and with knees not maximally far apart; stepping so as to walk quietly – certain kinds of bodily movement are expressive of respect and/or inherently respectful. Noticing this, one might go too far in developing a discipline of bodily respect; which might then displace other respect, and even end up mainly as a marker or assertion of one’s own respect for the rules and of one’s high status, or status as a ritual object; and hence end up mainly as a demand for respect. Noticing that, one might react too far in the direction of some conception of bodily authenticity, which fails to train or value essential kinds of respect.

    Taijiquan could be a device for finding a middle ground. On the one hand, it looks like it can develop physical skill, stamina, and patience in such a way as to help people past some of the body’s natural tendencies to do various disrespectful things such as sit with the knees apart, slouch, fidget, etc. (and maybe train people against a more general fidgetiness of the soul). On the other hand, it is abstract; it is not in any obvious way a discipline of interpersonal signals. In that way it would seem to avoid, or to try to avoid, being a kind of training in insincere body-speech.

    One video for “Walking and Falling” shows a Western city sidewalk in slow motion; the walkers seem to galumph in unbalance, showing on their faces their preoccupation with their problems. One can imagine that some taijiquan might have trained them to enjoy a prettier kind of walking.

  8. While Taijiquan training can be connected to Taoism the problem is that not only does each separate system of Taijiquan differ philosophically but this includes the myriad of subdivisions of those systems, with each master having his or her own separate spin on how the spiritual impacts the physical. It’s probably best for the individual practitioner to decide independently how the regular practice of Taijiquan long form training relates to Taoism.

    The Yin and Yang aspects of hand positioning, however, is easier to fit into the big picture. The one thing that most practitioners want to do is keep qi [chi] circulating to the extent that tingling or warmth sensations can be felt in the arms and hands [at the very least], and hand positioning does make a difference during the execution of techniques in the long form. It’s generally agreed that a yin-hand means that the hand is slightly lower than the forearm [bent down at the wrist] whereas a yang-hand means that the hand is slightly above the plane of the forearm [bent up at the wrist]. In theory if one manages to always have one hand yin while the other hand is yang then qi will more smoothly flow between the hands, arms, and shoulder girdle. Whether or not this is true – well try it and see for yourself.

    Taijiquan long form training is marvelous for the body and is a nice compliment for Yoga practice. Yoga keeps the body flexible and limber and Taijiquan training gives you something to do with it that depends on the body being flexible and limber. Where does Taoism fit into all of the above? I don’t know. While I am a Taoist of sorts I never think of philosophy when practicing my long form. I think about techniques or balance points or proper breathing cycles or on the critical component of focused relaxation [Sung], but never on philosophy. Your mileage may vary.

  9. Steve: Bertrand Russell complained that scholars of Plato never study maths or the other things that Plato practiced and loved. Instead, these scholars get caught up in studying Plato’s texts. Russell thought this is problematic because one who understands the things Plato loved has a nontrivially richer understanding of the texts than scholars merely focusing on these texts (and, by extension, the language(s) in which these texts were written). Whether Russell is right, and in what way one’s understanding is enriched, are hard to pin down exactly. But something seems interesting and intuitively true about Russell’s claim. In fact, it almost makes unmathematical Plato scholars seem like an absurd bunch.

    By the same token, I think your claim that engaging in Daoist practices may enhance one’s understanding of Daoist metaphysics is interesting in the same way as Russell’s claim. A scholar who merely studies Daoist texts seems, in light of your post, as absurd as a Plato scholar who doesn’t study maths. As someone who has hitherto only studied Daoist texts (and the languages of the texts), I feel like a Plato scholar who has never studied math.

  10. Charles: The question is whether Daoist practices enhance your understanding of Daoist metaphysics, not if studying Daoist metaphysics can enhance your understanding of Daoist practices. By analogy, of course one can study maths without studying Plato, but that does not mean one would not benefit from studying maths alongside Plato.

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