Repulsing the monkey

攆 猴 Repulse monkey is one of the repeated moves in the Tai Ji set. Why do we repulse the monkey? The simplest explanation is that to calm the mind, we must repulse or expel () the chattering monkey mind.

This makes sense, but perhaps there’s more to it than this. As ever, the question to ask is: What would a Chinese person understand by the name of this move?

Monkey was a cheeky Chinese demi-god. He got up to all kinds of mischief, but the exploit that the Chinese best remember is revealed by the name of a movement in the Lok Hup set: Monkey picks fruit. According to the legend, Monkey stole the Peaches of Immortality from the garden of Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, and gorged on them. He is now an Immortal – the goal of Taoist practice – but he has taken a short cut. This is cheating, and Buddha Shakyamuni imprisons him under Five Elements Mountain for 500 years. This episode is widely depicted in Chinese art, both in paintings and sculpture.

In Repulse Monkey we try to stop Monkey from stealing the peach. Imagine a nice juicy peach in the upturned palm of your hand. As Monkey reaches for it, you withdraw it, and the rear hand delivers a palm strike, thrusting him away.

You think this image a bit fanciful? The movement just before Repulse Monkey is Fist Under Elbow. This was once explained to us as: Reach out, grab an apple, and slice it in half. Now, apples are to the West what peaches are to the East. The Chinese Peaches of Immortality should remind us of the Golden Apples of the Garden of the Hesperides in Greek mythology which also conferred immortality. One of the 12 Labours of Hercules was to steal some apples from this garden, which was guarded by a dragon. The parallels don’t stop there: the Peaches of Immortality were in the garden of the Queen Mother of the West, whilst the Hesperides were also in the far west, and situated near a mountain – the mythical Mount Atlas. The Garden of Xiwangmu is situated near a mythical Taoist mountain, Mount Kunlun. Both gardens are attended by young maidens: the Garden of Hesperides is named for the nymphs who tend them, whilst Xiwangmu’s garden is tended by her seven daughters. The Garden of Hesperides is the original paradise (the word means ‘enclosed garden’) – the Garden of Eden.

Hercules’s 11th Labour: Attic black-figured amphora c. 540BC. Panckoucke Collection, Boulogne-sur-mer. Photo © Egisto Sani

In Repulse Monkey, then, we thrust away our desire to achieve results without working for them.

If one may not steal one of the Peaches of Immortality, how can one get one? Xiwangmu would occasionally give them to deserving mortals. In other words, they cannot be taken, but only given. In the West, this is what we call grace.

Monkey holds a Peach of Immortality

A final inspiration for our practice comes from the monkey itself. The character yuan today refers to any kind of monkey but formerly it was used just for gibbons. Gibbons swing through the forest canopy on their long arms, which are beautifully extended in long, relaxed arcs, rather than locked straight, with the elbows pointing down. “Drop elbows” was the correction Mr Moy gave more than any other.

A Hainan gibbon in the Bawangling National Nature Reserve in South China’s Hainan Province.

New Wednesday morning beginners’ class (April 2023)

Edit: PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS POST RELATES TO A CLASS THAT STARTED IN 2023

We are starting a new beginners Tai Chi class after Easter at the Silver Road Community Centre on Silver Road (the old Silver Rooms), beginning on Wednesday 26th April 2023. The class runs from 10am – 11:30am – please get there around 9:45am the first time you come.

There is some 2 hour free parking on Silver Road and Silver Street, but not much – you may have to go up to the top of the hill and park on Crome Road (near George White School), which is outside the controlled zone.

Classes cost £4 and you can pay-as-you-go. Existing students are welcome to come to this class as well.

You don’t need any special equipment or clothing. Some people change into a pair of light training shoes.

Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West

西王母 Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, was the mother of the Weaving Maiden 織女 (zhi-nu). In older texts however, it is Xiwangmu herself who weaves. Wang-mu can also mean grandmother or ancestral mother; Xiwangmu is an ancient mother goddess. She lives in the far west on the mythical Mount Kunlun (after which a real mountain was later named). This mountain is an analogue to the Garden of the Hesperides of Greek mythology. Like the golden apples of the Hesperides, the peaches which grow on Xiwangmu’s sacred tree confer immortality, and are the gift of Xiwangmu. The Jizhingshu or “Bamboo annals” – an ancient chronicle of China which describes events up to 299 BCE tell how King Mu visited Xiwangmu on Mount Kunlun, where she made him immortal. Xiwangmu confers immortality.

In the image at left we see her riding a tiger. However, the Shan Hai Jing (“Classic of Mountains and Seas”), which dates to the 4th century BCE, describes her as having a human face but a tiger’s body and teeth, and a leopard’s tail – a fierce, shamanic figure. She is attended by fabulous creatures such as a nine-tailed fox and a three-legged crow.

The head-dress she wears is a sheng. Whilst the sheng was a common object in ancient China, only Xiwangmu is ever depicted wearing one: it is her “attribute” (just as St Peter is always depicted with the keys of heaven, or Saint Catherine with a broken wheel).

Sheng is also the horizontal axis of the old Chinese loom, around which the warp threads were wound – the oldest depictions of the head-dress show such an axis. Sheng thus marks Xiwangmu out as a weaver. She is a weaver of fate, like the three norns of Norse mythology: a cosmic weaver; the magpie (crow) is one of her familiars.

A woman wearing a hua-sheng (flower sheng) in a Chinese costume drama

The connection of the head-dress with a loom seemed a bit far-fetched until I stumbled across this image of a Dutch girl in traditional dress in the KLM in-flight magazine. The form of the head-dress is far too particular to be purely decorative, and its resemblance to the sheng is very striking.

Laurelle, Zuid-Beveland NL – photo © Jimmy Nelson 2021

The text in the Shan Hai Jing is difficult to translate, but Xiwangmu controls constellations, including the “Grindstone” – a reference to the Pole Star, about which the sky turns. Her tree is thus a world tree, and she is its guardian.

Xiwangmu is also herself associated with the 7th day of the 7th month. A tale from the Western Jin period (266–316) tells how Xiwangmu visited the emperor who was on a quest for immortality. She took with her seven peaches, and gave five to the emperor. He ate them but kept the stones, which he wished to plant. Xiwangmu just laughed, telling him that the tree only bore fruit once every three thousand years. In these legends we see how the Weaving Maiden’s attributes as a weaver and her connection to the Festival of Sevens were originally aspects of her mother, who is a much older goddess.

You can read more about Xiwangmu in an excellent article on suppressed histories.

A modern image of Xiwangmu by 白树是我呀 showing her splendid sheng (head dress).