Eight Gates, Thirteen Postures & Jins
I received this question in my email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and started writing, it got a bit out of control and so now here it is in case it can be helpful to other people studying internal martial arts and particularly Taijiquan.
The question is this. I have studied the eight gates/forces of Tai Chi, but really don’t understand what they are. There are lots of different versions, some of which make sense, but none of which have given me a good idea of how to understand them and use them in sticking hands or sparring practice.
Taiji is a tough one, I know I had tons of trouble with understanding Jins (forces / energies) too at first, it is especially convoluted when you consider all the differing answers online and from various other sources as well. Honestly it is very difficult to try and discuss or teach / share this level of training through text; therefore I see a challenge, so lets give it a try….
First off let me say that Jins are not exclusive to Taiji or to any other Chinese Martial Art, they all share common ground to a certain extent, that said lets begin with the character we are talking about.
Jin 勁 is generally translated as “Power”. But this is not really doing justice to the character and the context in which we use it as martial artists. All Chinese characters are made up of what are called radicals, each of these radicals have different purposes; at times they imply meaning or origin of the concept and other times they are to imply sound of the pronunciation of the character. In Jin we can see other martial arts concepts and characters as a part of its make up. On the right of the character we see the character Li 力 which means physical force, power or physical strength. It is actually the drawing of an iron plow, something pulled by an ox. On the left side of the character we have three other parts, the lower character Gong 工 and the upper parts of the character which we will get to after.
Gong 工 translates normally as work and can be combined with Li 力 to make the character Gong as in Gong Fu 功夫 one of the monikers of the Chinese Martial Arts in general. To be specific the character 工 (gong) is a picture of a measuring tool, a carpenters square. So now we have two parts of the character normally translated as strength or power. One implying physical strength sometimes called “Ox Power” and the other the measured use of said strength. Intelligent strength is another way of translating this part of the character.
On the left side of the character are two more radicals, on the top the character for the number one Yi 一, and the second character in the middle is Chuan 巛 or river. Combined with the bottom left character 工 Gong they make up another character all themselves – 巠 Jing. Jing basically translates as a river flowing underground or something moving beneath the surface. When you look at all the parts of this complex character you start to see that the type of power we are discussing is not just physical strength, nor something that can just be below the surface, but is a type of power that requires measurement, skill, intelligence, physicality and training to manifest. Jin 勁 is therefore a deeper subject than many people at first think when talking about these subjects like the eight gates or eight Jins of taijiquan. When I am teaching in my classes I use this definition of the character “ Whole Body Connected Intrinsic Power”.
Taijiquan Jin Shu 太極拳勁術 (Tai Chi Power Technique)
The Eight Gates or Jins of Taiji are talked about a lot and as I said earlier they are generally talked or written about in confusing or conflicting ways. Well I am going to add to the pile of it all here but I am doing so with the best of intentions, I hope it helps rather than confuses.
Peng, Lu, Ji, An are considered the four main jins of taiji and when the art is placed on a diagram like the bagua they take the cardinal directions of North, South, East and West. These are the jins that are supposed to be the first line of defense in the players vocabulary for attack or riposte. The main skills of the art, but it is a mistake to think of them as techniques. These Jins are the principles and foundation of all the techniques of the art and are like the fuel that can be poured into the engine of any technique. These are the reason a movement found in taiji and as well in shaolin can be identical but feel so very different when applied by a skilled player. Different jins, different flavours.
Peng (掤), lu (履), ji (擠), an (按), cai (採), lie (列), zhou (肘) and kao (靠)
Generally this is translated as “Ward Off” by the taiji populace at large which tends to add to lack of understanding by students. Peng is better translated (in my opinion) as “expanding the structure in all directions”. This means that the structure of the player is paramount and must not only all be in alignment for the posture being performed (for example: Brush the Knee, Wild Horse Shakes Mane and the like) but once all the requirements are met to create the outward shape of the posture the jin must also be present. This means expanding in all directions simultaneously from the core (dantien) and allowing every joint, every surface of the body to expand and realize its potential. If an opponent pushes against your peng he should feel as though he is as able to push your structure as he likes and have no more effect than pushing against a tree. Inside your body the sensation is expansive and the mind is almost sensing your presence filling up space. This is like filling a room with your presence as you enter in the way a person of charisma does, like a rock star. The body expands and the minds relationship to the space around the body changes and attempts to fill it. (In old language this would be called expanding your qi). Take up space with your body and mind during the manifestation of peng.
The normal translation for this jin is “rollback” but this leaves much room for misinterpretation as well. A normal mistake I see in my students is when they first learn “rollback” they tend to treat it as a retreat rather than a manifestation of a jin. Lu is not running away from force by changing the weight to the back leg, I prefer to translate this jin as “leading to emptiness, dissolving like smoke, or disappear.” Lu is to deflect 1000lbs with 4 ounces, using the least amount of force to move the opponents force away from doing damage to you. The old saying “The opponents fist should brush your beard” would be an example of lu jin. Normally we see this labeled as “sideways force” to move an incoming power away from us, but this is too finite. It is leading the opponent to nothing, allowing there power to manifest uninterrupted but never allowing it to find it’s target. Either bumping the attack to the side or moving the body around it like a hand passing through incense smoke.
Normally translated as “press” and matched with a technique with the hands touching one another (as is the case in the Yang style “Grasp birds tail” sequence). Translated directly the character means to squeeze like taking an orange and crushing it for juice. The idea of Ji jin is to squeeze space around either yours or the opponents body or both. Using the example of the press movement in yang style we define a round space on the chest between the arms and the chest and the palms. As one squeezes the ball inwards with the elbows the palms move forward as though the ball is changing shape, this gives us structure and motion equally. The other way of seeing squeeze (my preferred one) is to see a defined space in your structure during a shape; for instance the space between your elbow and your knee in something like lazy about tying coat in Chen taiji. If you place an opponent within that space and then move to squeeze that space closed with your structure basic physics states that two objects cannot occupy the same space and so when they contest to do so the one with the superior structure will remain. Most taiji grappling style movements break the opponents structure and use ji jin to squeeze the space they are standing in closed to pop them out of it. Owning the space within the body is structure and movement, owning the space directly around the body allows for Ji.
Another often mistranslated character which allows for misunderstanding of the jin it represents. In yang style it is often a part of the grasp birds tail sequence (Ward Off, Rollback, Press, Push) and translated as push. To push something away from your body is Tui 推 not An, but An like many of these characters is a word used in context of martial arts differently than is normally seen in the language. An Jin is a type of force that is exerted while harmonizing with the opponents force and loading the opponents body with your own force simultaneously. In the yang style sequence push would be better said as “Push Downwards” “Load and Release” “ Harmonize Downwards” or “Receive, Deflect and Add and Release”. Harmonizing with an opponents force is another of the secret words of Taiji which I will get to later in this writing. To take an opponents pushing technique and push down on it and into their structure (legs) will cause them to power upwards and forwards if they do not change methods and instead try to overpower you. Adding your force into their structure makes them add their force upwards and when you release them they bounce upwards and uproot themselves. This is like pushing a floating ball under the water and then removing all your force at once so the ball floats upwards quickly, sometimes even leaving the water from the upwards force. Allowing the opponent to throw themselves is of higher skill than overpowering them directly.
The four secondary Jins in Taiji (cai (採), lie (列), zhou (肘) and kao (靠)) are found on the bagua diagram of the style in the four corners NW, NE, SW, SE and are meant to be secondary lines of defense when the art is in use. If one of the four main methods does not work or your position is compromised, the four secondary methods are in place to recover your position and regain the tide of battle.
Cai is translated as “pull down” or more accurately “pluck” like picking fruit from a tree. When picking fruit from a tree like say cherries or apples puling down evenly or slowly will tear the stem and damage the fruit. In order to avoid this a sharp and quick pull (plucking) of the fruit is needed. In martial use the idea of plucking is used extensively throughout different styles including taiji. Generally the cai jin is meant to connect to the opponents spine through the limb and the quick jerk not only steals the balance but also can ruin the structure making them vulnerable for another method or technique. Generally plucking is done on an angle rather than simply downwards, most effectively towards a hole or “well” in the opponents stance. To easily understand the holes or “wells” (in the style of praying mantis I practice plucking is sometimes known as throw the frog in the well) in any basic stance draw a line between the heels. Ninety degrees from either side of this line will be the two main weaknesses in the stance and are generally the targets for effective plucking or Cai Jin.
Lie is a character used to define a type of splitting or tearing force. When I explain this jin to students I use the metaphor or tearing a piece of cloth, both hands must move in opposition to one another in order for the cloth to tear. This force of tearing or rending can be found all throughout taiji practice with one limb or part of the body moving in one direction and its opposing part balancing that action in the other direction. Basic physics “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” applies here, but in human bodies the issue is that we are able to disobey the equal force on both sides of the body rule. For example in the taiji movement “walk backwards and ward off like a monkey” we see the hands moving both forward and backward, but in order to have lie jin other aspects of the body mechanics must be in play. The forward and backward arms must be equally drawing power away from each other originating at a single point. (This is like pulling a string apart by pulling on each end equally, the breaking point should be in the middle, balanced and at the point of origin of the split). But this is not really enough to call it lie jin, the parts of the body creating the forward and backwards movements of the hands must also be equally moving from one another. Another good example is in punching one can either push the fist forward or split the length of the body by driving the rear leg into the ground and the fist forward equally, splitting the body in the middle.
Another aspect of lie jin when one can create it in their own body and movements through practice is being able to centre the point of origin of the tearing or splitting within an opponents body as would be seen in a basic arm breaking technique. The split would begin in the joint of the elbow and reach away in both directions, powered by our bodies taking the bones of the lower arm (radius and ulna) in one direction and the upper arm (humerus) in the other. Muscles, tendons and other tissues can be easily torn and damaged with this kind of force applied to them, particularly is the force is spiraling.
Plainly this character means elbow and at first glance it seems strange that elbows or elbow techniques would be isolated as having their own type of jin. But when you consider the feeling that being struck with someones elbow has, especially from a trained internal stylist it becomes more apparent that there is a particular flavour to that type strike. In order to manifest internal force and drive it into another persons body that force must be generated via a cascade of muscular contraction, well trained nervous system response to mind intent and proper alignment and structure to deliver the power through the limbs to the opponent. The more joints the power needs to be delivered through the more chances there are for the structure and balance of the muscularity around the joint to be incorrect, leaking force and creating tangents of force that do not increase or allow the power to flow through properly. The use of the elbow as a weapon is very very easy and powerful and when delivered in most forms. This is because it removes joints from the system before the power is delivered. In Chen taiji for instance it is common to see elbows resting on the torso and the torso twisted quickly (fajin) to deliver the elbow into the target, removing all the joints in the arm and attaching the weapon directly to dantien. There is a taiji saying “even the Masters fear the elbows of the youth.”
The last of the eight jins to discuss is Kao, translated a lot as either “Shoulder” “Body Bump” or “Body Attack”. This is the ability to transfer force directly from your body (most often the torso) into the opponent directly and fiercely. The saying “Whole Body is a Fist” describes the idea here, that power can be delivered from any part at any time, which gives the player shortest of short range power and opportunity to damage the opponent even in wrestling. The training for kao jin is usually focused on the back of the shoulders, sides of the shoulders and chest but Kao means any art of the body can be trained to deliver power. The shoulders are the easiest to accomplish while the rib cage and stomach are more difficult, the lower back, top of the head (punch to hit the ground in taiji) and hips are most difficult for people. The training is generally seen out of context for taiji or other styles training and so is often not connected to the style directly by many people. Iron body methods that involve bumping into walls, trees or other players work on the ability to deliver force out of the different parts of the body. Exercises like Xinyiliuhe Body Banging “Carp jumps out of the Water”, Bagua’s “Bear rubs Back” and the like train this. Any part of the body can be trained in this way by bumping incoming force off of the body from any angle and on any part. Kao is a powerful tool for rescue when the opponent has passed through your four primary jins.
The above eight jins or eight “gates” as they are sometimes called are not only present in the form or combat but in the intermediary of push hands where they are trained with a partner. Without the ability to touch and “taste” or “hear” the jins it is difficult if not impossible to gain a real understanding of them. From a yang style perspective we see the primary four jins worked in the peng lu ji an sequence of push hands – the most commonly seen drill. It is important though to feel and change the jins as the movements progress and not to contest with your partner too early. Studying through touch supports the discovering of another of the Jins of taiji Ting Jin 聽勁 or listening energy. This is not listening with the ears but instead reaching out with your sense of touch into the partner or opponent to feel into their body as it changes. Listening in this way can not only give you the ability to feel a movement begin earlier and earlier, like feeling the spine turn before the hand moves or the abdomen begin to turn before the spine. Training with a partner lets you feel them move and manifest the jins one after another and this sensory input allows you to learn to recreate what you feel in your own body. On a side note, what people now call Disciples were generally referred to as students “Allowed to touch the Master” and feel him change and use the jins so as to pick them up directly from the source.
A second set of push hands exercises known as Da Lu or four corners push hands is meant to work the secondary jins of Kao, Lie, Zhou and Cai with a partner in the same way.
The Five Steps (Bu步)
The five steps of taiji are almost always a part of the conversation eventually when one is referring to the jins or “gates” it is the eight and these five that make up the “13 postures” talked about. The five steps are Jin, Tui, Ku, Pan & Zhong Ding. In the simplest terms these are translated as step forward, retreat backward, look left, gaze right and central equilibrium. These are all found in the forms of taiji and are also all found in the yang style movement “grasp birds tail”. Each section of grasp birds tail is associated with each of the steps. Of importance to mention are looking, gazing and central equilibrium here. Looking is predatory and is focusing on an opponent directly, moving your intent towards them and carefully studying them. Gazing is the vision of a prey animal, watching and gazing towards the horizon looking for predators. It is a soft vision, the use of the peripheral to see around the opponent and softly gazing into them. Looking and Gazing to me is much like ting jin, both focused and unfocused, predatory and watchful, aware, receptive and ready. “Without training the eyes the intelligence of the body is useless.”
In addition to this understanding the following quote from Mike Sigman is useful in seeing the differences between Yang and Chen Taiji.
“Noting the differences between the Chen and Yang styles for the 5 steps. The Chen style: “Teng: Sudden upward-angles strike (Yang: step forward), Shan: Sudden emptying downward (retreat back); Zhe: Bend/close opponents arm back on him (look left); Kong: Sudden emptying not quite downward (Gaze Right); and Huo: Overall smooth and flowing (central equilibrium).”
– Article in ‘Internal Martial Arts”: October, 1999. Mike Sigman
Zhong Ding 中定 “Stand like a balance, turn like a wheel.”
Central equilibrium is the ability of finding verticality in the body which relies on not only the spine and skeleton but the understanding of axular force. The central pole of the body must like a vertical axle, unmoving from side to side but able to rotate at will. It not only will receive power and turn it away from the spine but create force at the same time. The whole of taiji skills revolve around (no pun intended) the ability to have zhong ding, it is one of the reasons structure is of such importance in Taiji training.
Four Secret Words
While the 8 Gates and 13 Postures are the more common words used in taiji training, there are others including the following “Four Secret Words” – When I learned these from Master Xu Guoming he mentioned few people teach them and almost never openly. He referred to these words as high level push hands methods that need the player to work through the first methods as a base to build the more difficult skills of Mi, Kai, Dui and Tun. I am including them here for interest but will conclude this article and leave you with this – “It takes three lifetimes to learn Taijiquan”.
Four Secret Words
Mi- Spread qi over the body and the opponent
Kai – Lightly cover
Dui – Equalization of force
Tun- Drink the power