Yang Cheng Fu’s Important Principles

The famous Tai Chi Chuan Master, Yang Cheng Fu set out a number of fundamental principles or essentials for the effective practice of Tai Chi Chuan.

In the introduction to his classic 1934 book, ‘The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan’ Yang Cheng Fu stated:

‘Generally speaking, there are thirteen important points in taijiquan. These are: sink the shoulders and drop the elbows; contain the chest and pull up the back; the qi sinks to the dantian; an intangible energy lifts the crown of the head; loosen the waist and kua; distinguish empty and full; upper and lower follow one another; use mind intent, not strength; inner and outer are united; intention and qi interact; seek stillness in movement; movement and stillness are united; and proceed evenly from posture to posture.

These thirteen points must be attended to in each and every movement. One cannot neglect the concept of these thirteen points within any of the postures.’

What follows is a more detailed explanation about each of Yang Cheng Fu’s 13 principles.

1. Sink the shoulders and drop the elbows;
2. Contain the chest and pull up the back;
3. The Qi sinks to the dantian;
4. An intangible energy lifts the crown of the head;
5. Loosen the waist and kua;
6. Distinguish empty and full;
7. Upper and lower follow one another;
8. Use mind intent, not strength;
9. Intention and Qi interact;
10. Inner and outer are united;
11. Seek stillness in movement;
12. Movement and stillness are united;
13. Proceed evenly from posture to posture.

It is interesting how Yang Cheng Fu identifies 13 important points, particularly as many contemporary authors and teachers refer to Yang Cheng Fu’s Ten important principles. The ten principles appear to come from a reduction of related principles in the list of 13 principles published in Yang Chang Fu’s 1934 book. The following principles appear to have been combined:

  • ‘Contain the chest and pull up the back’ is combined with ‘The Qi sinks to the dantian’.
  • ‘Use mind intent not strength is combined with ‘Intention and Qi interact’
  • ‘Seek stillness in movement’ is combined with ‘Movement and stillness are united’.

I am not sure whether this reduction from 13 to 10 principles represents the evolution of Yang Cheng Fu’s own teachings as he developed his Tai Chi Chuan over time. It is also possible that the reduction from 13 to 10 principles results from interpretations of Yang Cheng Fu’s teachings by subsequent authors.


1. Sink the Shoulders and Drop the Elbows

Sinking the shoulders refers to relaxing and opening the shoulder joints and allowing the arms to hang loosely.

Many people carry tension in their shoulders, neck and upper back. This is particularly true of those in office jobs who sit in one position for an extended period of time. This build up of tension causes the shoulders to lift up, limiting the range of movement, constraining the lungs, restricting breathing and blocking the flow of Qi through the upper body and arms.

As you practice Tai Chi Chuan, keep your shoulders in a relaxed and natural position. If you lift your shoulders, the Qi will rise with them and the whole body will be without strength. Without sinking the shoulders it will also be difficult, if not impossible to follow the next of Yang Cheng Fu’s principles, that of containing the chest and pulling up the back.

Dropping the elbows is essential if you want to sink and relax your shoulders. Lifting up your elbows and sticking them out to the sides is accomplished using the deltoid muscles of the shoulders. So it follows that in order to keep your shoulders relaxed you should not stick out your elbows. You will see this principle in the majority of movements in Tai Chi Chuan forms where it is very common for the elbows to be positioned so that they point towards the floor.

From a martial perspective, keeping the elbows down also protects the mid-section of the body from attack.


2. Contain the Chest and Pull Up the Back

In the West, a traditional strong posture is often considered to be one where the shoulders are held back the chest is stuck out and the waist pulled in. This is the complete opposite of the posture that is required in Tai Chi Chuan.

Containing the chest and pulling up the back refers to the process of relaxing the chest and allowing it to sink gently inwards to become hollow or concave, whilst at the same time allowing the back to round slightly in the horizontal plane. As the back rounds horizontally the shoulder blades gently open up.

Relax the pectoral (chest) muscles the rib muscles and the sternum (breast bone), allowing the chest to sink inwards and the Qi to sink down into the belly and the lower dantian. Breath from the abdomen.

Raising the back is also termed plucking up the back and refers to allowing the vertebra of the spine to relax and open up. Again, don’t use strength to force the spine into an upright position, just maintain the natural curvature of the thoracic vertebrae. Also, be careful as you lift and open the thoracic vertebrae as this can lead you to allow your breath to rise up into your chest.


3. The Qi Sinks to the Dantian

This principle refers to the process sinking the Qi down the upper torso and abdomen and allowing it to collecting in the lower dantian.

The lower dantian is a centre of Qi or life force in the human body. It is located in the centre of the abdomen around three finger widths below the navel and about a third of the way into the body. It is not a specific point in the body, rather an area of the body. The lower dantian is the focal point of abdominal breathing techniques and is the location of the body’s centre of balance and gravity.

Allowing the body to relax and the Qi to sink to the lower dantian imparts a feeling of relaxation and a sense of the body being rooted and stable.


4. An Intangible and Lively Energy Lifts Up the Crown of the Head

This refers to the process of correctly aligning the head so that it sits balanced lightly on the top of the spine and of relaxing the muscles of the neck.  With a balanced head and relaxed neck, the blood and Qi are free to flow through the upper spine and head, leading to a sense of vitality of spirit.

The head should have a slight lifted feeling as if the crown of the head is suspended from the ceiling by a silken thread.

Another way of describing the sensation of a slight lifting of the head is to imagine that you are wearing a baseball cap and that you are very gently pushing the top of your head upwards into the cap.

Many Tai Chi instructors will tell you to tuck in your chin when practicing Tai Chi. This is because the slight tucking in of the chin creates a lengthening of the neck muscles. Personally, I prefer to think about this the opposite way around and to focus on gently lengthening the muscles of the neck which leads to a slight tucking in of the chin.

It is good practice to focus your attention upon acupuncture point or cavity at the crown of the head. This point is known as the Bai Hui or ‘Hundred Meetings’ and it is the very topmost point on the human body.

DU20 Bai Hui – Note the position of the point on the centre line of the head and in line with the tips of the ears.

DU20 Bai Hui

The Bai Hui is DU20, the 20th point of the body’s Governing Vessel, the Du Mai, which one of the 8 extraordinary meridians.

As well as being the very topmost point on the human body, the Bai Hui is located directly over the centre of the spinal column, so when you turn your head from left to right the Bai Hui point is located at the axis of the rotation.

Locating Bai Hui is pretty simple. Rest the tips of your thumbs at the uppermost point of your ears, as you reach your middle fingers up to touch one another, at the crown of your head, you’ll find the Bai Hui.

You can also locate your Bai Hui by putting the tip of your finger on the crown of your head. When you’re in the right place you should be able to feel your head rotating beneath your finger tip, without your fingertip being pulled side to side or back and forth.

The base of the skull (the Occiput) rests upon the first Cervical Vertebrae (C1) that is at the very top of the spine which is known as the Atlas and the joint where the two bones come together is the Atlanto-Occipital Joint. The Atlas and Occiput are connected by muscles at the back and front of the upper neck, known as the Rectus Capitis muscles and it particularly important to focus upon relaxing these muscles.

As you lift up your head and gently lengthen the muscles in the neck it is important to relax. Do not use strength to force the neck into an upright position as this will strain the muscles and inhibit the flow of Qi and blood through the neck and head. If your head bobs and swings your Tai Chi practice will be fruitless.


5. Loosen the Waist and Kua

Many people interpret this principle as ‘relax the waist’. However, I think that Yang Cheng Fu was being quite specific when he stated the principle ‘relax the waist and kua’.

When interpreting this principle it is important to understand that the Chinese definition of the waist is not the same as in the West. In China, the waist or Yao refers to the mid-section of the body and includes the abdomen, lumbar spine, pelvis and hips. This is a much larger area than the western definition of the waist which tends to cover a narrower area between the bottom of the rib cage and the top of the pelvis.

In simple terms you can think of the kua as the inguinal fold or the crease at the top of the leg, between the groin area and the front of the thigh. Inside the body, the main part of the kua is the ball and socket joint of the hip and all of the muscles that are responsible for the movement of the hip joint.

The waist and kua form a bridge connecting the upper and lower body and contain a series of structures which are responsible for the movement of the waist and hips. These structure cover a larger area of the body than you might think, ranging from the lower part of the femur, just above the knee joint, through the pelvis and abdomen up to the uppermost vertebra in the lumbar spine.

The waist and kua have a significant influence on the movements of the whole body and the ability to apply martial power. When the waist an kua are relaxed and loose the power generated by the legs can easily be transmitted to the arms. In Tai Chi Chuan, it is often said that:

‘The root is at your feet, power is generated by your legs and is directed by your waist, then expressed in your hands and fingers.’


6. Distinguish Empty and Full

This principle is also commonly translated as ‘distinguish substantial (full) and insubstantial’ (empty)’.

It is of primary importance in Tai Chi Chuan to distinguish between “Xu” (Empty) and “Shi” (Solid). Substantial (Shi) means solid, implying firmness and stability  but not rigidity or stiffness. Insubstantial (Xu) means empty, implying the ability to change, not lifelessness.

In terms of the distribution of weight between the legs, the weight bearing leg is substantial or full and the non-weight bearing or lesser weight bearing leg is insubstantial or empty. If the weight of the entire body is placed over the right leg then the right leg is substantial or full and the left leg is insubstantial or empty. If the weight of the entire body is placed over the left leg then the leftleg is substantial or full and the right leg is insubstantial or empty.

Being able to distinguish between the substantial and insubstantial legs is crucial to being able to step easily and turn smoothly and without effort.

In terms of the upper and lower body, the lower body is substantial and is stable and rooted to the ground both physically and energetically, whilst the upper body is insubstantial, light, flexible and able to move freely. If you think about it this makes a lot of sense. The amount of weight parts of the body have to support increases further down the body. This can be seen in the vertebrae of the spine, which become larger and more substantial the further down the spinal column you go. The Bai Hui point (DU 20) at the very point of the head bears practically no weight at all whilst the two Yong Quan points (KI 1) together support the entire weight of the body.

In terms of the arms, the upraised or outstretched arm is normally substantial whilst the lower or downwards moving arm is normally insubstantial. For example, when performing  move such as brush knee and twist step the upraised, front arm is substantial and the other arm is insubstantial.

7. Upper And Lower Follow One Another

This principle refers to the coordination and integration of the movements of the upper and lower body. This does not mean that the body moves as one solid unit. Rather the body moves in a joined up, integrated manner.

When moving in Tai Chi all parts of the body move together. There is not one part that does not move and the body is unified in one Qi. When one part moves all parts move. When one part stops all parts stop.

One expression of the principle of upper and lower body following one other is the general principle of the alignment of the hip joints with the shoulder joints. When standing in a neutral position, the left shoulder sits above the left hip and the right shoulder above the right hip. When turning the body the movement is from the Kua. The hip and shoulder joints remain aligned with little or no twisting of the vertebrae in the spine. This principle extends to the movement of the head which should also rotate in concert with the body as it turns, with the ‘nose and navel in alignment’.

The arms should also move in a coordinated way with the body. For example, as you step forward in any movement that involves extending the hand, the movement of the hand and arm should be coordinated with the shifting of the weight from the rear to the front foot, with the hand coming to a stop at the end of the movement at the exact same time as the forward shifting of the bodyweight comes to an end.

Coordination of the movement of the hands and arms with the bodyweight applies as much to up and down movements as it does to forwards and backwards movements. A good example of this is the opening or commencing movement of many Tai Chi forms in which the arms rise up with the body as the legs straighten before descending with the bodyweight as the knees bend.

Without coordination of the upper and lower body your movements will be disconnected, scattered and confused and they will be ineffective in both attack and defence.


8. Use Mind Intent Instead Of Strength

Among the people who practise taijiquan, it is quite common to hear this comment: “That is entirely using the mind, not force”. In practising taijiquan, the whole body is relaxed, and there is not an iota of stiff or clumsy strength in the veins or joints to hinder the movement of the body. People may ask: How can one increase his strength without exercising force?

According to traditional Chinese medicine, there is in the human body a system of pathways called jingluo (or meridians) which link the viscera with different parts of the body, making the human body an integrated whole. If the jingluo is not impeded, then the vital energy will circulate in the body unobstructed. But if the jingluo is filled with stiff strength, the vital energy will not be able to circulate and consequently the body cannot move with ease. One should therefore use the mind instead of force, so that vital energy will follow in the wake of the mind or consciousness and circulate all over the body. Through persistent practice one will be able to have genuine internal force. This is what taijiquan experts call “Lithe in appearance, but powerful in essence”. A master of Taijiquan has arms which are as strong as steel rods wrapped in cotton wool, with immense power concealed therein. Boxers of the “Outer School” (a branch of Wushu with emphasis on attack, as opposed to the “Inner School” which places the emphasis on defence) look powerful when they exert force, but when they cease to do so, the power no longer exists. So it is merely a kind of superficial force.


9. Intention and Qi Interact


10. Inner and Outer are United

In practising taijiquan, the focus is on the mind and conciousness. Hence the saying: “The mind is the commander, the body is subservient to it”. With the tranquility of the mind, the movements will be gentle and graceful. As far as the “frame” is concerned, there are only the Xu (empty), shi (solid), kai (open) and he (close). Kai not only means opening the four limbs but the mind as well, he means closing the mind along with the four limbs. Perfection is achieved when one unifies the two and harmonizes the internal and external parts into a complete whole.


11. Seek Stillness in Movement

In the case of the “Outer School” of boxing, the emphasis is on leaping. bouncing, punching and the exertion of force, and so one often gasps for breath after practising. But in taijiquan, the movement is blended with tranquillity, and while performing the movements, one maintains tranquility of mind. In practising the “frame”, the slower the movement the better the results. this is because when the movements are slow, one can take deep breath and sink it to the dan tian. It has a soothing effect on the body and the mind. Learners of taijiquan will get a better understanding of all this through careful study and persistent practice.


12. Movement and Stillness Are United


13. Proceed Evenly From Posture to Posture

In the case of the “Outer School” (which emphasizes attack) of boxing, the strength one exerts is still and the movements are not continuous, but are sometimes made off and on, which leaves opening the opponent may take advantage of. In taijiquan, one focuses the attention on the mind instead of force, and the movements from the beginning to end are continuous and in an endless circle, just “like a river which flows on and on without end” or “like reeling the silk thread off cocoons”.