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Essential #4 - Full and Empty

20 Jan 2015


Yang Cheng-fu's Single Whip.
Our new essential has a couple of unusual characteristics. Its martial aspect is far more obvious than its energetic aspect. This essential is also the first that is difficult for many beginners to understand. Sometimes that is the result of their teachers' own inability to put the concept into words, but we can remedy that problem. Let's take a look. Yang Cheng-fu put it this way:

Distinguish Full and Empty

The brevity of these points belies their importance, and perhaps even emphasizes it. Brevity is typical of older martial arts writing, because it is intended only for close students, not the general public. The purpose of the writing is not to provide encyclopedic instructions, but to provide bullet points to remind the student of lessons already taught. The purpose of columns such as mine is to elaborate upon the points that many students have not had access to, because their own teachers did not have access to them.

"Full and empty" most commonly refers to the use of legs, though it is not restricted to legs. Its opposite is "double weighted", which simply means you spread your weight equally between the two legs. I prefer to call it by a more accurate term, "equally weighted". You can say that you have not started practicing tai chi until you split at the waist and empty one leg. You empty one leg, for instance, when you step out to one side from a posture with both feet together. You empty the stepping leg and fill the supporting leg.

Does this mean the weight ratio must be 100% and 0%? Not at all; far more common is 70% and 30%, but that is not carved in stone either. As you move in transition from one posture to another, you constantly change the full leg, which means the degree of fullness of either leg is constant changing. Because of the importance of having full and empty, this means transition movements are a potential time for attack: you may attack others in their transitional moments, and you may be attacked yourself in your transitional moments.

The essential is important enough that Cheng Man-ching, Yang Cheng-fu's last disciple, commented about it in his book Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treatises on T'ai Chi Ch'uan: Separate the substantial and the insubstantial. Cheng claimed that the transition can be protected only by keeping the back erect - not merely straight, but vertical as well. This is a controversial belief that disputes some of Cheng's early Yang family training. In my lineage, the Yang medium frame to which Cheng was secretly exposed outside of Cheng-fu's school, the back may be tilted as long as it is otherwise straight.

Not controversial is his point that a full left foot is attached to a full right arm, just as the right foot has a power attachment to the left arm. These attached limbs are full and empty together. Thus Brush Knee & Push, if pushing with the right arm, is supported over the left leg. In Single Whip when the left leg is forward, the right hand, back in a hook, is equally full. If it seems counterintuitive that in this posture the front hand is empty, with the back leg, study the use of the back hook for striking (through the back of the wrist), which is not taught in Traditional Yang Style (large frame).

If you're still not getting the point of full and empty, try thinking of it this way: You want to be Ready to Run. Ready to run literally means you can run away at a moment's notice, but the phrase means more: It means you are ready to move in any direction at a moment's notice. When your legs are equally weighted you cannot move until you shift your weight to one leg or the other - in other words, until you are full and empty. If you have to shift, you are not ready to run. To be ready to run you must already be full and empty.

Cheng Man-ching's dictum of full arm and leg opens us to energetic possibilities. We can attack from the leg, through the arm, if they are connected as both full, or both empty. The energetic "full" line goes from the root in the foot, up the back of the leg, inside the thigh to the sacrum, up to the shoulder, then splitting out to the opposite arm, palm and fingertips - regardless of the posture.

Full and empty is a yin-yang concept. Aside from your legs and arms, can you experience it in other parts of your structure? Let me know.


You may also like this related article: Tai Chi Essential #3: Relax the Waist (199)
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