You do not need to know anything about Asian philosophy to study Chinese martial arts. But that’s not to say that some understanding might not really enhance your experience. I hope that by deconstructing the parts of the famous Yin Yang diagram, I can show you some fighting principles and patterns of change based on the Yin Yang philosophy.
This school of thought influenced almost all of Chinese life. Its symbol is recognized worldwide. But most people know next to nothing about it. I tell my students, this is not just a symbol, more like an equation—a picture worth considerably more than 1000 words—showing some essential patterns of change.
Very old representations started as a circle split half black/half white. Later it was redrawn as an “onion” with alternating concentric circles to present the idea that nothing is entirely Yin or Yang, or even fifty-fifty. Everything has layers of opposition, stacked all the way down to the core.
Different philosophers and monks continued to refine the figure until it became the Yin and Yang drawing we know today. It is also called the “Double Fish as I will explain below.
Even the simple circle bounding the figure has meaning here. It represents patterns of constant change repeated over and over. The circle is dynamic—an action, not a portrait. No matter the complexity of Yin and Yang variations, both sides still “swim” within the universal continuous circle.
It is often said that all movements in Kung Fu are circular. This encourages all sorts of unique practices. For instance, circular movement have no corners. That is why continual rotation of the circle can be studied, repeated and perfected. The Kung Fu student learns to flow continually from one action to another. This circle-within-a-circle allows Kung Fu its flexibility, deceptive strikes, and strategies.
Two Big Fish
As in the early versions, the circle is divided between black and white, but in the shape of two fish playing. Notice the path of the fish, continuously chasing one another. Thus, night fades into day and day into night, each transformation starting with a little wedge of light or darkness that grows into a full head and then transforms into its opposite. Their shape is a beautiful and simple rendition of waxing and waning, the ever-turning movement of complementary forces.
In martial terms, the pair of alternately colored fish designates key pairs of actions, principles and relationships. For instance, one student acting as “attacker” and the other as “defender.” Other “big fish” to explore are Block/Punch, Strike/Grapple, straight/curved, internal/external. Such patterns are at the heart of Kung Fu. Each attack may change into a defense, proving the skill and adaptability of the student.
The Eye Dots
Day starts with dawn then grows brighter. But before dawn, night has already crested and is winding down. At the height of the day, the waning begins—after 3:00 starts the slow seeping of night. Change always comes from the middle of its complement. Within the belly of any mammoth change, there exists a new start. The eye of one fish takes on the color of its opposite.
A punch expends its power, then transforms into a retraction. A beginner punches out one arm and draws the other back to his hip. The entire body is employed for a single punch. As he advances in practice, multiple actions converge. He now learns that in the middle of his punch his other hand is beginning an entirely new action. The “eye” is already performing backup duties, such as a hidden strike or a follow-up kick. Change comes from within.
The borderline between the bodies of the two fish form the shape of an “S.” If you trace the “S” with your finger you will find something interesting: it is the most basic shape that allows you to reverse your direction without stopping. This pathway completely flips the direction of movement without changing its shape. Of course, if you want to go in the opposite directions you have to imagine the “S” curve facing the other direction.
In martial arts, the “S” curve is the primary method of reverse actions. At the end of each movement I perform an almost impossible to see “S” curve to reverse my direction. In grappling, I not only reverse, but do it with an undetectable “S” that confounds my opponent’s plans. When you make a mistake, the “S” acts to immediately reverse and nullify the error. Basically, the “S” curve is everywhere.
This brief introduction to adaptive thinking only begins to cover the martial wisdom locked into those two ever-swimming fish. I hope it will at least begin to explain a system of thought and perception of patterns that is not only logical, but perfectly adaptable for human existence.