Shi San Shi: The Thirteen Powers by Sam Masich
in presenting and learning the Shi San Shi
inherent difficulties in presenting any kind of holistic concept. It is
often difficult to see the forest for the trees. Frequently Tai Chi players
become so engrossed in the practice of a single energy, drill or skill,
as to miss the contextual relevance of their exploration. Contemporary
players often limit their focus to a few drills, usually a solo barehand
routine or two, a few basic push hands drills, fixed step freestyle push
hands and perhaps Tai Chi straightsword. Limiting the training syllabus
in this way leads to erroneous conceptions of the art and makes difficult
the thorough integration of the Shi San Shi. One factor in this
problem is lack of information and instruction, though often, even when
excellent instructors make themselves available, students do not work
hard enough or think hard enough on the problems of Tai Chi. This leads
to an amplification of habits and preferences developed around practitioners’
personal advantages and/or limitations. In push hands for example, taller
persons frequently develop skills based on out-ranging or ‘distancing’
practice partners, while strong, short individuals often tend to bulldog
their way through situations. Smaller or weaker practitioners on the other
hand can develop evasive, ‘slippery’ styles. By default, strong
people generally develop forceful strategies and the naturally quick use
speed. Tai Chi players who build their practice around advantage, limitation,
or preference rarely experience much of what the art really has to offer
and skill development frequently occurs in ways that are contrary, divergent,
or at best, parallel to the central nature of the original study.
I strongly suggest reading this material several times and in several ways. Study it first as a conceptual whole. Later consider individual topics for reflection through practice. Explore it also in random sequence, working to construct the connections between elements which seem to relate. Working this way will assist the process which leads toward the ‘one feel’, the unification of the Thirteen Powers that a master Tai Chi practitioner embodies.
are the Shi San Shi?
“Be serious in the practice of Peng, Lü,
‘Shi San’ simply means ‘thirteen’. This is an auspicious number in Chinese culture particularly as it is the sum of eight and five. These numbers are related to the Ba Gua (Eight Trigrams) and the Wu Xing (Five Phases) which have functioned as conceptual cornerstones in the Chinese view of cosmology for millenia. Having provided the structural underpinning for many important theoretical models, the Ba Gua and Wu Xing haved served to assist in the organization of abstract concepts in such disparate fields of knowledge as medicine, religion, philosophy, visual arts, music, and the martial arts. In Taijiquan the Ba Gua and Wu Xing are related to the Ba Men (Eight Gates. aka. Ba Jin Eight Energies) and the Wu Bu (Five Steps) which refer to the naturally occuring strengths of the arms and legs respectively.
‘Shi’, generally anglicized as ‘postures’ (as in ‘the Thirteen Postures’), is a more difficult term to adequately translate. The Chinese character is comprised of yi (agriculture) over li (power, strength or force). This refers to the kind of strengths and forces employed in farmwork, lifting, hoeing, plucking, pulling, tying, squatting and so on. Shi also means ‘influence’ as in, a physical force which influences circumstances. A closely related character, again containing the word ‘agriculture’, is yi which means skill, craftsmanship or art. This yi is used in many terms refering to the use of specialized skills including, wuyi (martial skill), and Liu Yi (the classical Six Arts: rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, mathmatics). Thus the Shi are the powers, forces and strengths inherently developed in the aquisition of a skill. They are the elements of deft craftsmanship in an art and the kinetic potency which accompanies the ‘knack’. A way to think about ‘farming strength’ in terms of martial arts is to consider the old time boxer who goes home to the farm at harvest time in preparation for an upcoming bout. Tossing and stacking huge bales of hay, he trains his muscles for the endurance, strength and large heaving swinging actions of his pugilistic goal.
Shi used in conjunction with the word zi (appearance). Zishi does actually mean ‘posture’ but this does not quite summarize the intended meaning for Tai Chi purposes. Another set of meanings for Shi however, includes ‘situation’, ‘state of affairs’ and ‘circumstance’. These notions of intrinsic condition guide inquiry toward the presence of the latent, innate potencies concealed within an object, structure, or action.
Taken together, these two notions of Shi, innate ‘strength’ and inner ‘state of affairs’, perfectly convey the sense of intention in Taijiquan’s use of this character. Taken literally Shi refers to the kinetic strengths and skills inherently developed while performing the tasks of a farmer. In the context of Taijiquan the reference is toward the strength, skill and potential for influence which reside inherently in the arms and legs for use in the kind of circumstances for which Taijiquan is practiced. This leans a little closer to the notion of ‘posture’ in the sense of; ‘the intrinsic powers and potentials which reside innately in the arm and leg structures (‘postures’), and which spontaneously occur in the context of the mid-range in hand combat’.
San Shi and the ‘mid-range’
Shi San Shi is the foundation and raison d’etre for virtually all of Taijiquan’s solo and partner forms as well as for it’s renowned martial strategies which employ a wide array of specialized jin (kinetic force energies). Tai Chi’s unique approach to body positioning, structural alignment, and the use of qi (vital energy) is known for providing vibrant health benefits. What is less known is that all of these methods stem from the Shi San Shi martial theory.
Martial arts styles can almost be defined by their predominant focus on a particular range. Styles such as Shaolin Changquan, Shotokan Karate and Tae Kwon Do focus on long, outside-range punching and kicking, whereas inside to ground range grappling arts include Shui Jiao, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Roman-Greco and Freestyle Wrestling. Taijiquan’s formal training methods focus predominantly on the mid-ranged grappling skills of push hands. The mid-range itself is defined by a positioning between opponents which allows either’s hands to reach the other’s torso without need of stepping or lunging, but by enough distance between each other as to prevent close body to body contact. This is the sphere of interaction predominantly dealt with in Taijiquan’s Shi San Shi theory. It is a range shared by arts such as Wing Chun, Aikido and to some extent Xingyiquan, Bagazhang. In Tai Chi however, this range is characterized more by a sticking, jostling kind of grappling than by disconnected punching or overt joint locks. Ultimately, Taijiquan utilizes all distance ranges and includes skills of punching, kicking, throwing and locking in its arsenal, but it approaches these elements in a unique way.
Tai Chi martial arts training begins with a thorough and detailed study of mid-ranged grappling via push hands drills which have been designed according to the Thirteen Powers theory. A main purpose of these exercises is to assist the practitioner in developing special abilities derived from a maximized sense structural integrity and movement efficiency. Simultaneously the practitioner cultivates abilities to influence other’s stability and security to the degree that in a situation of combat opponents cannot express their power effectively or defend themselves successfully. As the ability for this kind of control increases within the mid-range, these principles and tactics are translated into the context of other ranges and skills. In this way push hands training is employed as a model and point of departure for techniques of all varieties.
Taijiquan’s theory is based on the observation that, since all threatening contact must pass through the mid-range, it is at this axis that one should commence and focus training. This is not to say that Taijiquan theory devalues the extreme outer and inner ranges or discourages their study, but rather that it approaches these ranges progressively, from the prerequisite of having first mastered the pivotal mid-range. True to its most basic tenets, Tai Chi moves from the central out to the periphery.
The advantage of this approach is that it enables Taijiquan martial artists to build their defensive and offensive strategies from the actual axis of engagement, thus avoiding the development of certain habits which can become engrained by a preliminary focus on extreme ranges. To concentrate initially or excessively on the long range can lead to the cultivation of a somewhat pre-emptive, anticipatory, attack oriented style, constructed around hand-eye coordination, speed and power. Conversely, to apply one’s energies predominantly to study of the closest ranges can lead to a tendency to wait excessively in defense, resulting in a forced over commitment to tight engagement with the opponent and a frequent necessity for ground fighting. Both range extremes favor youth, quickness, size and strength, and both commonly lead to training injuries as actions are frequently forced past safe limits by the urgency of circumstances.
As a method which first cultivates connection in order to control the opponent through dominance in the mid-range, Taijiquan’s approach provides an alternative avenue toward the study of extreme ranges. While this path may seem somewhat indirect compared to more conventional martial arts approaches, in the long term it requires less in the way of speed and power and generates relatively fewer injuries. Almost anyone, regardless of their physical characteristics, can eventually excel in this type of martial arts training, and continue well into their senior years, assured that the practices will improve, not deteriorate their physical condition.
The study of the mid-range in Taijiquan begins with mid-range grappling (via push hands training) which is at first very soft and fluid in nature. In time this evolves into a kind of controlled jostling which leads to explosive ‘strike-pushing’ methods and later to full out striking techniques. These skills are all built upon the initial mastery of mid-range grappling techniques derived from the vital Peng, Lü, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao based drills. It is as a result of this evolution that technique naturally progresses from the mid to the mid-outside and outside sparring ranges. Conversely, mastery of the mid-range allows controlled access to the closer mid-inside, inside and ground grappling ranges and its principles are directly applicable to the other ranges. This cannot be said of the extreme ranges which find themselves at a loss when matching skills derived from their polar counterparts. Whereas most martial arts styles seem determined to avoid the mid-range, and instead focus on only one or two of the other ranges, Taijiquan enthusiastically invites connection in the mid-range and seeks the entire sphere from its axis. Herein lays much of the secret of the Thirteen Powers.
© Sam Masich
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