White Crane Martial Arts

By Liu Changjiang

(Translation by Stephanie A.H. Divo, PhD; edited and adapted by David F. Dolbear)

(Additional commentary (in italics) by David F. Dolbear)

This essay discusses the relevant connections between correct skeletal posture and the pursuit of a sense of “centeredness” (zhongxin), “emptiness and solidity” (xu shi), and “void” (wu) through taijiquan practice.

Each of the 205 bones in the human body fulfills its own responsibilities and the bones’ collective function is to support and preserve the correct position of and protect the internal organs and soft tissue. However, all of the myriad types of motion of which the body is capable are the result of muscle flexion and extension co-coordinating with the skeleton to produce various leverage effects. All types of motion (i.e., bending, twisting, rotating, extending, contracting) can be explained and understood both scientifically and from the standpoint of practical application in taijiquan. Thus, taijiquan manifests its scientific and practical nature in the same way.

Taijiquan is both a science and an art. The particular demands of taijiquan practice and the complex associations made in the process of deepening one’s understanding require many and varied details in the process of teaching and training. These cannot simply be understood from a strictly scientific standpoint but must be inspired and understood through oral teaching. Otherwise, one’s practice will degenerate into outer appearance without content and in the end lose the artistic qualities which make taijiquan unique. 

  1.  (The training methods required to truly understand taijiquan are very precise. They correspond perfectly with the science of human physiology. Moreover, they must be introduced to the student on a progressive basis. Each specific method relates to a particular stage of one’s development. It is only through oral instruction and open dialogue between teacher and student that the various progressive training methods may be correctly applied. If the student is simply given information regarding training methods and their sequential application without ongoing supervision from a qualified teacher the practice will degenerate to the level of a mechanical calisthenic. The unique quality of movement that represents the artistic aspect of taijiquan will fail to develop.)

There is a saying, “learning postures is easy, changing them is hard”. This expresses the “stubbornness” of the mind and body in relying on preconceived notions in thought and habit. Since the body and mind want to “hang on” tenaciously to information provided through sensory input, it is essential that one’s initial exposure to the principles of taijiquan be absolutely correct. Therefore, rigorous demands must be set on beginning learners of taijiquan in terms of their postures, movements, practice methods, state of mind and consequently their understanding.

  1.  (This passage again reflects the need for ongoing supervision, especially during the initial stages of taijiquan training. The training required to execute all postures correctly is most strenuous and will challenge the student mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Most students will not endure the discomfort of correct training without consciously or subconsciously seeking relief. Constant vigilance on the part of the teacher is required to keep the student on the correct path.)

While the requirement in taijiquan to be “erect and comfortable” (zhong zheng an shu) is only one of the art’s principles, it is nevertheless a very important one. In order to achieve it properly, one must involve all aspects of the body and the correct state of mind. Through long practice of merging conscious intention (yi) and movement, the full and natural range of skeletal adjustment must be developed; otherwise, the natural expansion of the muscles will be limited, as will the ability to intuitively know and feel “centeredness” (zhongxin)..

  1.  (Any number of physiological and emotional factors may interfere with one’s ability to express the full natural range of motion of the skeleton. Much of the discomfort experienced in the process of learning to execute the postures correctly may be attributed to this limited range of motion. The many “core” muscles that lie close to the skeleton must be gradually trained to express their optimal degree of flexion and extension before the postures may be done in a relaxed and comfortable manner. If one’s ability to adjust the skeletal structure is limited, the movement of the center of gravity will also be limited. In this case, one cannot feel the correct placement of one’s center of gravity in all of the various postures and meeting the requirement of zhong zheng an shu cannot be realized.)

A human being is a macrosystem with a life force. Using this as a basis for consideration, we can see how the body can respond to gravitational force to seek stasis and balance. The body responds to the downward force of gravitational weight through a reflex process which reflects a similar force from the ground upward through the body. If 100% of the body weight is located on one foot, one may more clearly feel both the downward gravitational weight and the body’s upward reflex response to that weight. Furthermore, when the body is aligned correctly, the upward reflex force will be close to if not equal to the downward gravitational weight. The net result of these two converging forces is to effectively cancel each other out at the body’s core, i.e., the center of gravity. The “zero” which results is the “wu” (void) which is referred to in the saying “Taiji is born of wuji”. If one wishes to pursue “wu” in the stability of the body’s core, one must first contemplate and then grasp the distinctive feeling of the body’s internal adjustments as it attempts to balance and “protect” its core.

  1. (In the Northern Wu style of taijiquan, both in the “bow” stance (weight on forward leg) and the “sitting” stance (weight on rear leg) virtually 100% of the body’s weight is on the weighted leg. In other taijiquan styles the body weight is completely on one leg only during transitional movements. Much of the discomfort experienced during the initial stages of training in the Northern Wu style of taijiquan results from attempting to accomplish this degree separation of substantiality and insubstantiality in the basic stances. Liu Changjiang feels that 5 years of supervised training in the basic stances may be required to gain this skill)

One may then proceed to practicing the alternation of emptiness and solidity (xu shi zhuan huan) in the legs. This will lead to the ability to clearly feel the role of the waist as “interlocking” the empty and solid components. The “waist” here is the area encompassing the lumbar spine and sacrum. The manipulation of this “interlocking point” is controlled by the will, and the resultant changes in the body’s core are internal manifestations of yin and yang. Internal movement originates at this point, symbolized by the internal curve in the taiji diagram. If one wishes to distinguish clearly and control and stabilize this process’ pure and unadulterated “flavor”, then it is necessary to adhere to two essential principles. First, one must grasp the correct quality of relaxation which is learned through the alternation of emptiness and solidity in the legs, Secondly, one must manifest slowness and stillness in movement.

  1.  (The practice of alternating emptiness and solidity in the legs and modulating the interlocking point is a function of applying specific training methods which are not given here; see commentary 1. above. One function of these methods is to set up a lever effect in the entire sacro-lumbar area which gives rise to the interlocking effect described above. These methods must be learned with ongoing supervision from a qualified teacher. Form training in Northern Wu style taijiquan emphasizes extreme slowness, and internal stillness. To complete one round of the 83 posture form may take 1 hour or more.)

While in the correct posture, in which emptiness and solidness are clearly defined, the carefully cultivated habit of standing with stability on one leg will help the insubstantial leg to move freely, rising and falling with agility. The process of gradually gaining stability is also indispensable for cultivating the sinking of “internal qi” into the supporting leg continuously. This discourages stagnation and helps one to gain the skilled discipline (gongfu) of “substantiality that is never completely immobile”. If one studies deeply and comes to a detailed understanding in this manner, one can very quickly perceive the interaction between internal change and external movement.


  1.  (This describes the progression in understanding which is only possible if one has achieved understanding of the “interlocking “effect described above. Transforming insubstantiality into substantiality must be understood as a process by which the weighted leg never reaches a static internal state. This manifests the theory in taijiquan that “There is movement in stillness.” One must be guided through this process through oral instruction.)


Positioning the sacrum


The physiological forward protrusion of the human lumbar vertebrae culminates at the point where base of the fifth lumbar vertebra and the top of the sacrum meet. This is called the lumbo-sacral junction. A normal forward protruding angle is 30 deg., between a horizontal baseline and the base of the top of the sacrum (see fig. A). If the angle is greater than 30 deg. it may be viewed as abnormal. In this case the lumbar and sacrum meet at a tilt, increasing pressure on the disc in between (see fig B).


In the normally bent leg postures of taijiquan, an angle of less than 30 deg. is the correct position; this is accomplished by gathering in the sacrum, decreasing the lumbo-sacral angle and bringing it closer to the horizontal base (see fig. C). This position relieves pressure on the lumbo-sacral disc and eliminates back pain.

As one adjusts the lumbo-sacral angle, one must also adjust the thoracic and cervical spine areas to maintain consistency throughout the spinal column. This is accomplished by hollowing the chest inward and lifting the first thoracic vertebra (dazhui). This adjusts the forward protrusion of the cervical vertebrae, correlating with the adjustment of the lumbo-sacral angle. Additionally, the chin is drawn in and the top of the head (baihui) is lifted. At this point, the lumbar column will be standing straight and the posture will be comfortable (anshu).

As these conditions are met one must feel deeply for the downward flow of gravity and the body’s upward reflex response. The more correct the posture, the more one may clearly feel the two forces meeting at the waist and canceling each other out. The degree of relaxation and feeling of agility in the muscle groups of the hips and lower back will increase, increasing the potential for “relaxed change” (songbian) internally, guided by the will. This level of relaxed change must develop further if one is to succeed at “push hands” (tui shou). Because the sacrum is tightly connected to the pelvic bone, the pre-adjustment of the sacrum’s position will have a direct effect on the movement (lateral and rotational) of the lumbar vertebrae. The movement of the lumbar vertebrae will have a direct effect on the movement of the center of gravity. The position of the sacrum is adjusted by the application of specific internal manipulations. (See commentary 4. above.) This feeling of relaxed change must be accompanied by a spatial awareness within one’s body. Through deeply focused practice one must increase the “space” of the agile movement of the center of gravity, transforming relaxed internal change into relaxed external movement at will.


  1.  (There is no adequate way to describe the level that this process leads to in words; its acquisition is entirely experiential. Once the student understands and can employ the essential training methods, a myriad of internal phenomena will be experienced while practicing. The clarification and relevance of these internal feelings must be discussed with an open mind with one’s teacher and classmates.)

A human being is a living body with a particular weight. When the force of this weight is offset by the reacting force (fan zouyong li) the search for and clear distinction of relaxed feeling in the waist will begin to develop. The ability to maintain balance will also improve. However, further study is required to gain a pure and adulterated “density” of emptiness (wu) in the waist. In order to increase this “density”, one must regularly and open mindedly seek guidance from one’s classmates and teacher. During “push hands” practice, one must gradually shift towards the practice of “examining inner force” (wen jin) and always attend to maintaining the center of gravity in the correct posture.

  1.  (The feeling of “density” of wu in the waist is best understood through comparative metaphor. For example, one may compare it to the quality of emptiness within a deflated ball, as compared to the nature of the space within an inflated ball.)

During solo practice as well as in “push hands” training it is necessary to pay special attention to the feeling of “void” (wu) occupying the entire waist area as well as cultivating the authentic internal feeling of the effect of the difference between the downward (gravity) and upward (reactive) forces on one’s postures. At this level the waist area has a great void as if a door has been opened wide. The potential is now there for inner force (jin) to permeate the four extremities. However correct teaching and methodology are required in order to grasp the correct principles within practice before one can attain the level of “empty movement” (kong dong). Otherwise, stiffness and “active force” (li) will still be present.

One’s own correct feeling of empty movement originates in the waist, but only after one can freely move the inner force (nei jin) to the four extremities will one succeed at “push hands” (tui shou). At this point one may gradually delve into the study of “qigong”, i.e., how “spirit” (shen) integrates “conscious intention” (yi), activating “intrinsic energy” (qi), which mobilizes “inner force” (jin). It is essential that one pursues this study of “qigong” in keeping with one’s personal level of development. To try to do too much in relation to one’s own level of understanding and internal feeling will easily cause one to go astray or become one sided in practice. As a result the subtle refinement that we seek will be lost.

  1.  (The process of reaching the stage of ability to conduct inner force to the extremities begins with absolutely correct postural alignment. Training then advances progressively to learning to relax and empty the “waist”, distinguishing the empty and solid in the legs, alternating the empty and solid elements and enlarging the space of agile movement of the center of gravity. Unless one progresses in this manner, it’s very easy to overemphasize certain limited aspects of training, limiting one’s potential for improvement. The subject of “inner force” and the processes by which it is conducted to the extremities will be addressed in another essay.)

The above essay is only a simple explanation of pursuing the method of “great emptiness and great solidity” (da xu da shi), and how this method helps beginning practitioners of taijiquan to seek the relationship of the body’s balance adjustments between the center of gravity and alternation of emptiness and solidity. The study of this relationship begins with relaxing the waist area by gathering in the sacrum and adjusting the alignment of the entire spinal column, which encourages relaxation in the many muscle groups of the pelvis and lumbar areas. However, this only offers a limited view of taijiquan practice. It is only concerned with an explanation of proper skeletal alignment and the principles to which the beginning practitioner should adhere.