Understanding the Six Harmonies

The “six harmonies” are guidelines that appear in a great many Gongfu styles, but as with so much else, how they are interpreted may vary. They are often subdivided into the san nei he (3 internal harmonies) and the san wai he (3 external harmonies). Let’s start with the internal harmonies:

1) XIN (spirit) harmonies with Yi (intention). What is their actual relationship?

Here, spirit doesn’t refer to any kind of ethereal or divine spirit. For martial arts purposes, spirit could perhaps be read as martial spirit – the desire to be alive and stay alive. It is the ferocity or courage with which one preserves oneself or others. Xin is sometimes translated as “heart” or “emotional mind”. Bruce Lee once said “look for the emotional content”, Xin is “emotional content”.

Yi is sometimes translated as “intention” or “wisdom mind”. It refers to one’s experience or knowledge base. A fighter might have a strong spirit, but without good tactics, combat knowledge and martial skills, she would not be able to fight very effectively.

The spirit works alongside the intention, and also plays an initiating or driving role. The intention can be thought to temper or focus the spirit, so the fighter is controlled and intelligent, rather than wild and clumsy.

Jiang Rong Jiao showing his Xing Yi.

Jiang Rong Jiao showing his Xing Yi.

2) YI (intention) harmonises with Qi. Qi is a hard word to translate in terms recognisable to Western anatomical thinking. “Physical energy” is probably a useful translation here. As well as spirit and intention, one needs to be sufficiently healthy and have adequate energy levels to move and fight effectively. Your intention informs your energy – it takes on a guiding role to ensures that you do not over-exert yourself and burn out too quickly. But health also plays a role in determining one’s ability to think clearly and make sound decisions, so the relationship is a mutual one.

3) QI harmonises with Li (strength). Effective and powerful physical movement should be guided by all of the other factors listed above. Li represents the final physical manifestation of Spirit, Intention and Energy. Again, the relationship is harmonious. A fighter’s energy levels determine how much strength she is able to exert and the better her physical strength, the more power she is able to exert without expending too much energy.

Now we get to the 3 external harmonies

1) Hips and Shoulders harmonize. Upper body movements should never be disconnected one’s the lower body. The upper (above the waist) and lower (below the waist) portions of the torso should move in harmony with each other, so the hips and shoulders need to move in conjunction with each other in order to maximize power. This harmonious relationship can be expressed on various planes:

a) Horizontal turning movements involve the torso rotating horizontally around the vertical axis of the spine. This method is used extensively in Baguazhang and in the Yang and Zheng Manqing Taiji styles.

b) “Vertical circle” movements such as those seen in Xingyi’s Piquan and Dragon forms and Chen style Taiji’s “Double stamping feet” involve compressing and expanding the upper and lower torso down the front of the body around the horizontal axis of the waist. Such movements undulate the spine in a Snake-like (or Dragon-like) way.

c) “Sideways vertical” circular movements, such as those most often seen throughout Chen style Taijiquan, involve a similarly undulating spine action, but with the movement performed sideways. In modern times, this movement method has been likened to the rotation of the drum inside a washing machine.

For all of these methods, momentum needs to flow freely between the shoulders and hips. The torso needs to ripple or undulate in order for power to travel unimpeded throughout the entire body. The final position for a given movement will often involve the shoulders being directly over the hips as this alignment optimises the strength of the torso. The waist area needs to be strong and flexible for power to be generated in this way, so the waist should be fangsong (loose and relaxed). Due to the versatility of the different movement types possible employing the waist and hips, an image commonly used in Chen style Taijiquan is that of “lower dantian rotation”. Close examination of one’s abdominal muscles during sideways vertical motions in particular, should reveal a muscular effect that looks as if a ball is rolling clockwise or anti-clockwise around one’s navel.

Whether the upper or lower half of the body initiates the movement is not always the same. For horizontal coiling movements (such as those often employed in Baguazhang), the shoulders will turn and drive the hips causing the kua of the frontmost hip to fold. When uncoiling, the kua will unfold first and the uncoiling hips will drive the shoulders.

2) Knees and Elbows harmonise. The relationship between the elbows and knees is similar to that of the hips and shoulders. At its simplest, elbows are often kept in line with (directly over) one’s knees in order to optimise the strength of one’s physical structure. The elbows are also driven by the shoulders and the knees are driven by the hips.

3) Feet and Hands harmonise. There is a saying in Gongfu that “the foot and the fist arrive together”. This usually refers to a strike connecting with its target as the fighter settles into her final stance. For example, if she steps out into a Santi posture, the lead hand will strike in unison with the lead foot stepping out and bearing around 40% of her weight. When jump stepping, the strike will occur as the back foot arrives and the fighter settles her weight over her back leg. The feet and hands moving in unison means that they are often held in vertical alignment together. The effect can be somewhat like a marionette puppet, with strings connecting the (say) right foot to the right hand, and the right elbow to the right knee.

In some styles, foot pivoting occurs when striking and again, the rule is that the foot will arrive in its finished position as the strike occurs. While a tiny (microsecond) delay between turning the foot and striking may be permissable when delivering a very soft (whipping) strike, the hand should never lead the foot. Indeed, the biggest hurdle facing many beginners is learning to stop letting their hands and feet lead the way, dragging the body behind as an afterthought. All movements should flow outwards from the fighter’s centre to the hands and feet. The hips and shoulders drive the knees and elbows, which in turn, drive the hands and feet.

A bone of contention in martial arts is whether movements should radiate outwards to the hands and feet from the lower dantian (the area between the navel and the tops of the legs), or undulate from the ground upwards; or whether power from both sources should merge explosively at the point of striking.

It is certainly physiologically true that movement starts from the lower spine, so the lower dantian idea is true in scientific terms. But the fighter’s experience of how she feels herself generate the power for a given strike might be different. She may, for example, begin a technique by stepping to the best tactical position from which to perform the technique. The movement will be initiated from the lower dantian region, very quickly down to her feet. When there, she will obtain a root then strike.

Rooting requires the fighter to relax and sink downwards. She will also be able to push off from her weight bearing leg to her less-weighted leg to drive her movements. The push should generally surge horizontally through her body rather than vertically, so that she does not “uproot” herself. Her torso (and specifically the hips) will drive the limbs into position from the centre of the body out to the hands and feet, using the pushing leg as something to push against for stability and power.

While some styles focus on keeping the soles of both feet rooted to the ground at this stage, other styles allow one of the feet to pivot to allow free hip rotation to occur. The pivoting foot should still be “rooted” by gripping the ground. Many styles prefer the foot to remain flat on the floor as it pivots around the heel or the ball. Which approach is “best” remains a contentious issue and is probably irrelevant, as adepts of each method can usually demonstrate the pros and cons of their particular approach.

As a final word on the matter of whether movements are generated from the centre or from the ground, I would like to offer something from my personal experience. I have found that the most powerful strikes combine the two methods. Reeling silk style movements involving long axial rotation of entire limbs (moving outwards from the lower torso) are often at their most powerful when explosively combined with uncoiling and / or undulating movements that surge upwards from the ground into the fighter’s fists.* The foot and the fist arrive together, but whether they arrive on the exact same microsecond (or whether the hand arrives almost imperceptibly late) depends on how quickly the undulating wave is travelling.

* see my article on fa jin for a more detailed description.


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 http://www.martialtaichi.co.uk/contacts.html. Her several series of VCDs and DVDs,are all available through Plum:
Joanna’s Instructional DVDs

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