The Carp leaps over the Dragon Gate

Ohara Koson - Leaping Carp

This phrase, well known in China as a metaphor for great success, has its origins in the leaping of carp in China’s Yellow River. Like migrating salmon in the Western hemisphere, the carp swim upstream, leaping the rapids which form as the river flows through a cleft in the mountains. So difficult is the ascent that many carp are unable to complete it and fall back. A legend tells that they complained to the Emperor who found that they had a point and decided to reward the successful few by transforming them into dragons. The rapids were then named Lóngmén 龍 門, the Dragon’s Gate.

Tai Chi is full of references to carp leaping the Dragon Gate. We find it at the end of the sword set (#47 Carp leaps the Dragon Gate) and also of the Yang family sabre set (“Left Right Part the Waters, Jump the Dragon Gate), although the name is not preserved in the version of the set transmitted by Mr Liang to Mr Moy. In both sets the move comes close to the end of the set where it thus symbolises the achievement of success after a long effort.

The leaping of carp is a common subject in both Chinese and Japanese art. This image is by the famous Japanese painter and engraver Ohara Koson (1866-1945).

Needle at Sea Bottom

What is the meaning of this movement – what would a Chinese person understand by its name? The word ‘needle’ might remind them of the legend of the Monkey King, who for a weapon used a magical iron pillar, twenty feet long, that he could shrink to the size of a needle and tuck behind his ear. This iron pillar, the legend says, was used by Great Yu to “fathom and fix” the depth of the rivers and seas when he brought the Yellow River under control (the river used to flood repeatedly). This is an historical event that took place 4000 years ago; the Chinese refer to it as Great Yu Controls the Waters (大禹治水 dà yǔ zhì shuǐ). This magical weapon was found for Monkey by the Dragon King and Queen, who lived at the bottom of the sea.

But perhaps we are pushing a needle to the bottom of the sea, rather than picking one up? This may be the correct explanation, but the sea may not be where we first think it is.

In this view the sea would refer to the ‘sea of qi’ 氣 海 qì hǎi, in other words the lower dan-tien (the energy centre in the belly). There’s even an acupuncture point here with this name (CV6). The bottom of this sea 海 底 is not the seabed, but the pelvic floor. Martially, it seems that the move was originally used to attack the cavity between the hip and the groin. If the strike was not sufficient to disable the opponent, one continued downwards in order to push the opponent to the ground.

Yang Cheng-fu demonstrates “Needle at Sea Bottom” (1931)

Here is Yang Cheng-fu demonstrating Needle at Sea Bottom in his book The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan. Yang describes using the movement to break free from a grab of one’s right wrist at the end of the previous ‘Brush Knee’. The opponent is pulled first towards you and then down, uprooting him. “The movement’s intent is like a needle probing the bottom of the sea”. There is no mention of striking with the hand, but we should remember that the book was written and published quite late in the development of Tai Chi: in 1931. By this time several movements had lost their original purpose; a classic example is White Snake Shoots out Tongue, whose original meaning was only preserved in oral transmission.

The way Mr Moy performed Needle at Sea Bottom himself was similar, although with a narrower base so that the weight remained in the back foot. However the way he taught it was a bit different. To beginner and intermediate students he showed a table stretch with straight legs, designed to stretch not just the legs, but the back and spine:

Needle at Sea Bottom – a table stretch.

The coccyx stretches back and the head forwards, lengthening the spine. Additionally there is a rounding across the shoulder blades and across the back of the pelvis.

To students who were more flexible Mr Moy taught the version he himself performed in which he allowed both knees to bend. This clearly won’t stretch the tendons in the leg, but it creates more stretch across the back of the pelvis, opening the sacro-iliac joints.

Remembering that Tai Chi is an “internal” art (內家 nèi jiā), one further possibility comes to mind: perhaps the sea here is neither a figurative ocean, nor the ‘sea of qi’ of an opponent, but the one inside ourselves?

Further references

  1. Jim McClanahan: The Magic Powers of the Monkey King’s Iron Staff
  2. Sara Olsen: Needle at Sea Bottom

Carry tiger to mountain

What on earth can the name of this movement mean? The names of the movements are recorded at least as early as 1931, when they appear in Yang Cheng-Fu’s book “Applications of Taijiquan“. The Chinese characters 抱虎归山 Bào hǔ guī shān literally say: “Embrace tiger, return (to) mountain”. The tiger is a fierce animal: powerful and dangerous. The mountain is its home. Here the tiger stands for a fierce opponent who is sent back whence they came, but what is the carrying/embracing about? The name has confused many, with some even speculating that bào might actually stand for its honomyn , which means leopard. There’s no evidence for this at all, and it’s not the character in Yang Cheng-Fu’s book (although this would have been dictated to a senior student).

I searched the internet for 抱虎归山 and discovered this scroll by the Chinese artist Zhang Shan-Zi. The scroll dates from 1925, which is before Yang Cheng-Fu wrote his books. Zhang made many tiger scrolls including one bearing as its title the famous Chinese phrase “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

The image makes clear the meaning of “embracing”, but is otherwise a bit of a red herring. The tiger tightly hugs a boulder on a steep mountain side to avoid falling. As Sun-Tzu wrote in ‘The Art of War’ (5th century BCE): “Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer”. In the Tai-ji movement, the tiger is the enemy.

How does this relate to the mechanics of the movement? First of all, remember that “Cross hands” is a separate movement: when we cross hands, we are not really carrying the tiger, even if this is a handy aide-mémoire. Yang Cheng-Fu’s book says: “From the previous movement (Cross Hands), presume the opponent closes on me from behind at the right corner”. If the opponent is close, then the movement that follows is a trip. The right leg is picked up and placed behind the opponent’s leg. Then we push him back and trip him over.

How is this like “embracing a tiger”? The answer comes when we look at Yang style Tai-ji. In Yang style, when we step to the corner the left hand falls and the right hand rises. Yang Cheng-fu describes two applications for this movement in his book. If the opponent attempts a strike with their right hand (or foot), then the raised right forearm wraps the attacking limb. Then the left hand pushes them over. See the picture below.

Yang Cheng-Fu demonstrates one application of “Embrace Tiger” – although sadly not the one which gives the movement its name – blocking a right punch with the right forearm before striking with the left palm. From “Applications of Taijiquan”, 1931.

So far, so good, but we still have not ’embraced’ our opponent. Yang Cheng-Fu describes another application: if the opponent attacks with their left hand then after the block the (raised) right hand circles round the back of the opponent. We hug them close, with a movement that some have described as like scooping up a child, before the left hand, continuing forward, knocks them over with a push to the face or shoulder.

In the meantime, after generations of oral transmission and evolution have obscured the meanings of the movements, it does no harm to imagine that when we cross hands, we embrace a tiger.

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.

The Weaving Maiden

In the previous post we tried to explain why the Fair Lady of “Fair Lady Weaves Shuttles” is actually called a jade maiden. Now we turn to the movement itself. Its name implies a woman sitting at a loom, but images of the weaving maiden more often show her spinning thread. In the image at left the jade maiden is depicted as a flying spirit. Why is that? And what is she spinning?

The Weaving Maiden 織女 (zhi-nu) is a character from Chinese mythology, the youngest of the seven daughters of 玉皇 the Emperor of Heaven (literally ‘The Jade Emperor’ – that word again) and 西王母 Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West. Her particular task was to weave clouds.

The sisters would come down to earth to play and here a cowherd fell in love with her. She returned his love, and they were married and had two children. When the girl’s parents found out about this they were furious. The girl was returned to heaven and a river – the Milky Way – was placed in the sky to separate them. In China the Weaving Maiden is associated with the star Vega and the cowherd with the star Altair. The Milky Way, known in China as the Silver River or Heavenly River, does indeed run between these two stars. You can learn the Chinese names of these stars, and of the stars representing their children, on the blog Jade Turtle Records.

But the story is not over! The magpies built a bridge between earth and heaven so that the two lovers could meet. Moved by this sight, the parents permitted the lovers to meet on this bridge once a year. This meeting is celebrated each year on the 7th day of the 7th month at a festival called the Night of Sevens (Qi Xi) or Double Seven Festival. (In 2022 it fell in August). This is the turning point of the year, the time when summer turns to autumn; traditionally, it was the time when girls would begin sewing clothes for the winter.

The reunion of the Weaving Maiden and the Cowherd on the bridge of magpies. Artwork in Summer Palace in Beijing.

So now we know who the girl was, but why does she crop up in the name of a Tai Chi movement? Perhaps this story of a heavenly girl and an earthly boy has some kind of allegorical significance for the Taoists?

Well, as it turns out, both the weaving maiden and the cowherd are depicted in the Neijing Tu or Diagram of The Internals (see the image at right), which was discovered in the White Cloud Temple in Beijing. Taoists were concerned with internal alchemy – the process of internal transformation – and the diagram attempts to depict this process. The text around the Weaving Maiden refers specifically to the kidneys and the spleen. This doesn’t mean that Fair Lady Weaves Shuttles is designed to benefit the kidneys and spleen: the weaving motion is more to do with the visiting of the four corners. But the Taoists use the relationship between the Weaving Maiden (yin) and the Cowherd (yang) as an allegory of the circulation of energy between the kidneys (the Weaving Maiden) and the heart (the Cowherd) which lies at the root of Taoist Internal Alchemy. That’s a topic for another time.