The Way of Water

zorya_water3One of the most commonly used metaphors within Daoism and Daoist martial arts is that of “being like water.” But what could be meant by this? What is water really like?

Firstly, let’s look at the Peng strength of Taijiquan. The Taiji Classics tell us that Peng is like “water that supports a moving boat.” As well as Peng being the name of a specific upwards deflecting action, Peng strength is meant to be present throughout the whole of our Taiji practice. Apparently, one of Taijiquan’s earlier names was Pengquan.

It is said that water can support the weight of a small leaf or a mighty ship, but it always knows how much force to use. In this respect, using Peng strength refers to the even distribution of pressure or force. Rather than using localised strength just around a specific point of contact, we should make our bodies bear the load of any hostile force evenly. Our bodies should be rather like a water-filled balloon. Any pressure applied to the outside should condense the contents evenly, and if the pressure inside exceeds the pressure outside, the outside object will be bounced back. Needless to say, we should also aim to be rooted during our Taiji practice, so we shouldn’t just roll away. The purpose of using Peng strength is to use intelligent and adaptable strength, rather than simple brute force.

zorya_water1The Chen style classics also tell us that we should “advance like water,” seeping into any gaps that might appear in an opponent’s defenses. Generally in Taijiquan we are told to “move like a river.” Some say we should move “like a flowing river,” others say “like a mighty river” or “like a surging river.” Individual teachers might emphasise different aspects of the river metaphor, to best suit the needs of the point they are making. Perhaps it needs to be understood that the mighty Yangtse is not quite the same thing as a babbling English brook, or perhaps it does not matter so much. Perhaps scale is not as important as the nature of water itself.

It is often supposed that water is almost infinitely soft, always adapting and simply flowing around any obstacle. As such the metaphor is often sited by Taiji practitioners who wish to emphasise the need for softness within Taiji practice. While the need for softness might be perfectly correct, it is still only half the story. To really understand what it means to be like a river, we need to think back to our Peng strength analogy.

If you were to stand facing upstream in a river that came up to our chest, in addition to the water that you could feel flowing around you, you would also feel a degree of pressure building up against your front. Depending on the force of the river, you may or may not be able to remain standing. Again, that is not all that important, it is all simply a matter of scale. While you might not be able to hold your footing in this particular river, a horse or an elephant might.

Of course, no examination of water as metaphor within Daoist martial practice would be complete without examining Xingyiquan’s Zuanquan (drilling fist), associated with the elemental phase of Water. This technique clearly shows a more overtly aggressive side to the nature of water as the fist “shoots out forcefully like a water spout.” The punch follows a fairly straight oblique drilling line, but as the technique accelerates towards its zenith in conjunction with a straight forwards advancing jump step, the actual path of the strike is usually slightly curved. While some stylists deliberately make the technique follow a curved path, I prefer to think of the fist as setting out with a spiralling straight line intention, rather like a spinning bullet. If my “spiralling water spout” encounters an obstacle along the way, it will to a varying degree defect and / or be deflected by that object, depending on the relative strength of the two forces.

An article on the use of the Large Saber by Glen Gurman in issue 6/2 of the Pa Kua Chang (Baguazhang) Journal contains an all important phrase:

“…the river cuts the stone, but the stone shapes the course of the river.”

A river cuts a channel for itself through the land, and in turn, the land shapes the course of the river. On a massive scale, all along the river’s journey, little contests of relative Peng strength are being played out, minute after minute, day after day. And what the river cannot erode today, it will keep banging away at, slowly, gradually making an impact wherever it is strong enough to do so. The Dao Dejing tells us that ultimately the softest thing in the world will overcome the hardest. Let’s just remember that there’s nothing “weak” about water.



Before her passing, Joanna Zorya, ranked as a Grade A instructor in the UK, was the head teacher of the Martial Tai Chi Association.  Her web site is Her several series of VCDs and DVDs,are all available through Plum:
Joanna’s Instructional DVDs

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