Will The Real Reeling Silk Please Stand Up …

To Scrutiny? (With a twist at the end.)
by Joanna Zorya

It has come to attention in recent years that a number of Taijiquan practitioners have been taught an incorrect or incomplete rationale for the movement quality known as “reeling silk”.

Tai ChiMany people evidently have the impression that “reeling silk” merely means that movement is not allowed to cease once it has started. They would say that it is when movement stops that the Taijiquan commandment to “reel silk” with every movement becomes broken (“all movements, flow and counter-flow reel silk”).

There is nothing wrong with practicing flowing, ceaseless movement – as one part of your training. The purpose of this kind of practice is to teach you to change direction at any moment, continuously remaining adaptable to changing circumstances, perhaps when you are against a good fighter who is able to thwart one attack after another. However, each time you change direction it is in the hope that it will lead to a successful strike. Here again your striking limb would come to a halt, albeit momentarily.

However the interpretation that this is all that “reeling silk” means is wrong on several fronts.

Firstly you may notice the reference above to flow and counter-flow within reeling silk movement, the two Chinese words are shun and ni, yet most translators translate them as inwards and outwards instead, losing the crucial concept of moving against the flow of movement as well as with it and changing from one to the other.

Secondly, it must be remembered that Taijiquan contains many strikes and kicks and whenever these are fully expressed, there will be a moment when the blow stops and recoils. Taijiquan also contains whipping movements, such as “Single Whip” and “White Crane” – here also those movements will naturally come to a stop. It is said that we should gather power like drawing a bow and release it like firing an arrow. An arrow stops upon hitting its target.

Liu Feng Tsai Bagua Gao Style at plumpub.comThe original Chen style Taijiquan form routines contain many explosive movements where the practitioner stops and starts, recoils and reverberates. There is certainly nothing wrong with this, in fact this kind of training is absolutely crucial to developing the right kind of muscle state to be able to perform fast movements in actual combat. Strikes are by their nature rapid and explosive, sudden and shocking, suddenly moving and suddenly stopping. A Chen style Classic poem speaks of the practitioner being “In stillness like a solid mountain, in movement like a surging river”. Wang Zongyue’s Taiji Classic states that movement creates differentiation, but also that stillness leads to consolidation.

Now it is true that much emphasis is placed on whole body connection in the Chinese martial arts. The popular Taiji Classic Writing that is usually attributed to ZhangSanFeng does talk about ceaseless flowing movement, but it also states (in agreement with the Chen village writings) that when one part of the body moves, the whole body moves and when one part is still the whole body is still.

It is certainly true that it is very advantageous to move your body in a continuous flow of momentum, making copious use of curved shapes such as spirals, figure eights, helices, conic helices etc. In this way you can borrow your opponent’s momentum and add to it with your own whole-body-connected strength. The same Classic also points out that your power should be rooted in the feet, issued through the legs, be directed by the body and manifest in the arms and hands, or down through the kicking leg to the foot when kicking (a fact often overlooked by practitioners who insist that movement should always radiate outwards from and return to a person’s centre). But this should not be read that your body may NEVER STOP moving, particularly since the art of Taijiquan aims to conserve energy (here I use the term in a calorific sense) rather than leaping about and getting needlessly out of breath. Taijiquan aims to be “movement economical”, using the opponent’s strength and physical commitment against him. There may therefore be moments of stillness during a fight, perhaps when you are waiting for your opponent to commit himself to an attack you can exploit, following the common Taiji advice to “move second and arrive first” and to “lead your opponent into nothing and then strike”. Such strategy, far from being unique to Taijiquan actually dates back more than 2000 years to Sun Zi’s “Art of War” and was reiterated in Yu Dayou’s mid-sixteenth century sword manual “Book of Jian”. Such advice shows the importance of maintaining control throughout your movements and never relying on ballistic, uncontrolled force that an opponent can exploit, but that is not the same thing as stating that you may never be still. The instruction to move with your whole body and be still with your whole body should provide adequate warning against resorting to clumsy, ballistic movements.

True reeling silk movement, as I was taught it, refers to the whole body moving rather like a gearbox or some great clockwork device, progressive weight-shifts pushing successive body parts from the ground upwards with each part rotating smoothly and constantly, without ceasing. A hand should never extend and then twist, or twist and then extend – the rotation must be absolutely continuous, one way or another, like twisting or spinning individual silk fibres into a strong thread. Now of course, unlike a silk thread, when a limb has finished twisting in one direction, all it can do is rotate the other way and to do this it has to first stop rotating in the initial direction.

This characteristic continuous twisting action, one way or another, provides additional power and martial efficacy to one’s movements and additionally the torque of the spirally twisted musculature of the entire body provides much greater structural strength than any individual muscle could achieve, just as the spun silk thread is stronger than any individual fibre. (Some other stylists seem to think that this static torque is all there is to the reeling silk method, but again this is an incomplete understanding and strictly speaking has more to do with Taiji’s concept of “peng” strength. This is a kind of omnidirectional, evenly distributed, bouyant and expansive postural integrity that is meant to permeate all of one’s movements.)

One line from Chen Xin’s Illustrated Taijiquan Treatise may be translated as “All movements, flow and counter-flow, reel silk”. Another line states explicitly “Taijiquan is twisting, if you do not know twisting, you do not know Taijiquan” So rather than referring to “reeling silk” perhaps a more useful translation of chan si or chan si jin (literally “twisting silk power”) would be “Twisting Silk”.






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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