Soft Force

Sifu Wong using soft force to break a piece of sugar cane supported on two eggs without breaking the eggs, taken from an illustration in his book, “Am Introduction to Shaolin Kungfu”, published in 1981.

Question 1

I have been talking with my wife and we plan to take Tai Chi classes. I want to learn more about the history as well as the spiritual and mental aspects of the art. What recommendations would you offer to a future student?

— Robert, USA


First, decide whether you wish to practise Tai Chi dance or genuine Tai Chi Chuan. Tai Chi dance gives you benefits like balance and gracefulness, as well as recreation and socialization. Genuine Tai Chi Chuan gives you good health, vitality, combat efficiency, mental freshness and spiritual joy.

If you are contented with Tai Chi dance, it is easy to find an instructor, and its practice is generally easy and fun. Finding a genuine Tai Chi Chuan master is very difficult, practising it is even more difficult, but the rewards are worth all the difficulty.

The history of Tai Chi dance is about fiffty to a hundred years. There was no specific point in time when Tai Chi dance started, and there were no founders. Tai Chi dance developed, or more correctly degenerated from genuine Tai Chi Chuan perhaps about a hundred years ago, but it has gathered momentum very quickly in the last fifty years.

Today, as a rough estimate, more than 90% of those who practise Tai Chi, practise the degenerated dance version, and not the original genuine version. A notable factor is that those who practise Tai Chi dance usually do not know they are doing so; they think they are doing genuine Tai Chi Chuan.

A simple, effective way to find out whether yours is Tai Chi dance or Tai Chi Chuan is as follows. As genuine Tai Chi Chuan is an internal martial art, you can find out by checking whether your have learnt (or will learn) anything internal and martial in your art. If you are not sure, you can count that you have not learnt them; if you have, you will surely know.

Tai Chi Chuan has a history of more than seven hundred years. Its “founder” was the great Taoist priest Zhang San Feng, who evolved it from Shaolin Kungfu. It was first called Wudang Long Fist. Later the scholar-general Chen Wang Ting called it Tai Chi Chuan, which means “Cosmos Kungfu”.

There is nothing much that can be considered spiritual or mental in Tai Chi dance. Although in theory many Tai Chi dance instructors may say that their art is rich in Taoist philosophy which pays much attention to the spirit or mind, in practice virtually all their attention is given to physical matters, like how to co-ordinate your hands and legs, and how to move gracefully.

On the other hand, genuine Tai Chi Chuan training involves cultivating the “three treasures”, namely jing, qi and shen, which are matter, energy and spirit or mind. Indeed, every movement in genuine Tai Chi Chuan is a training of energy and mind.

Question 2

I have read your excellent book “The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan” and am very interested in learning the Wudang Tai Chi form. From some things you said, I surmise that Wudang was devised as a non-traditional way of attaining health/longevity. Also it seems good for self defence, especially compared with Wu or Yang styles, but without the elemental and very differentiated energies used in Chen.

— Joss, United Kingdom


I do not know what you mean by non-traditional way of attaining health/longevity, but from the way I interprete it, all the various styles of Taijiquan, including the Wudang Style, are traditional. The Wudang Style is in fact the most traditional for attaining health and longevity as well as for attaining combat efficiency and spiritual fulfilment, and all other Taijiquan styles were derived from it.

By traditional, I mean following established tradtions regarding both philosophy and practice. Some established traditions concerning the philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan include convictions that the aims of Tai Chi Chuan are to attain health, longevity, combat efficiency, and spiritual joy, and that the fundamental operating force to acheive these aims is chi (spelt as "qi" in Romanized Chinese). Some established traditions concerning the practice of Taijiquan include showing respect to the master, training diligently every day, and emphasizing on developing “kung” (spelt as "gong" in Romanized Chinese) rather than on learning techniques.

What, then, are the traditional ways of Tai Chi Chuan to attain health and longevity? They include employing appropriate movements, breathing and meditation to clear toxic waste, to increase energy volume and flow, to build a pearl of energy at the abdominal energy field, and to attain mental freshness and inner peace. All styles of Tai Chi Chuan, if they are practised as genuine Tai Chi Chuan, use these traditional ways. On the other hand, taking vitamins or drugs, running or skipping over a rope, and using mechanical means like springs and weights are non-traditional.

In my opinion, much of Tai Chi taught today is non-traditional. Many modern Tai Chi practitioners or players are fond of saying that their art is not for fighting, and they seldom have any experience of chi. These are two glaring examples, although many people may be blind to the glare, that they have deviated from tradition. In other words, while Tai Chi Chuan is traditionally an internal, martial art, there is nothing internal or martial in much of the Tai Chi played today.

There is no doubt that all styles of Tai Chi Chuan are extremely good for self-defence. To say "it seems good" is insulting to Tai Chi Chuan masters, and a reflection on one's ignorance of Tai Chi Chuan as a great martial art. Whether Wudang is more effective than Wu or Yang styles for self-defence depends on other factors, like how the students train and what the teachers teach, and not on the style itself.

I do not know what you mean by “elemental and very differentiated energies used in Chen”. But energy or chi is elemental in all styles of Tai Chi Chuan. If different masters from the same or different styles use different terms to describe various applications of energy, it is for the convenience of understanding.

For example, Wudang and Chen Style masters often talk about “spirial force” used in executing a thrust punch. This form of energy application is also found in Yang Style and Wu Style, but is seldom mentioned because the thrust punch is seldom used.

Yang Style and Wu Style often mention “eight types of force” which refer to the eight ways of applying energy in the eight fundamental Tai Chi Chuan techniques of their styles. These “eight types of force” are not mentioned in Wudang and Chen Style because these eight fundamental techniques were developed from Chen Style, which itself did not specifically differentiate between these eight techniques. Chen Style in turn was developed from Wudang Tai Chi Chuan.

But this does not mean that Yang Style and Wu Style have more techniques than Chen Style and Wudang, or that these eight types of force are not found in Chen Style and Wudang. In fact, Chen Style and Wudang have these techniques and types of energy application, but they were not specifically named.

Incidentally, this brings to mind that Chinese masters are generally not concerned with theoretical analysis, but with practical application. If an opponent attacks them, what they are concern is successfully throwing the opponent a few feet backward; they are not bothered whether the energy they have used for the throw is called “qi-jing” (press-force) or “an-jing” (push-force).

Then, why is there a differentation into “qi-jing” and “an-jing”? This is for the sake of convenience. For example, after teaching a student how to develop and use energy in a certain way, he would say this is “qi-jing” so that the next time he mentions “qi-jing” the student would know what to do without the master having to repeat the process.

Question 3

In one of your articles, you mentioned “opening the energy centers” of one of your patients. Could you please explain this to me?

— Roselle, USA


Opening energy points for my students is a routine task I do frequently in my chi kung classes. During training, when I notice that the energy flow in a student is hindered, I help to speed up his progress by opening the appropriate energy point or points.

This is usually done by placing my index or middle finger on the point in question, vibrate the point, and channel some of my energy into him (or her) to act as a catalyse for his own energy flow. Even if I do not do this, the student through his own practice will also open the point, but it may take a few months, whereas with my help he accomplishes the break-through in a few seconds.

Question 4

I have been studying qigong since February. I am considering having my energy centers opened (if Sifu thinks I'm ready), but I am trying to find out as much as I can about this process before I go ahead with it.


Some masters may take opening energy points their main purpose, i.e. the main purpose of students seeing these masters is to have energy points open. But in my case, opening energy points is only a supplement, i.e. if it is needed to speed up the students' progress, I shall open their energy points. Some students do not need me to open the energy points for them; they achieve this on their own by their own training.

Taijiquan, Tai Chi Chuan

Taijiquan is an excellent art for good health, combat efficiency and spiritual cultivation

Question 5

What is the difference between practicing qigong with the energy centers opened as opposed to not having that experience?


You will have a better appreciation of the answer as well as your question if you understand the following. When you practise chi kung — real chi kung, and not gentle exercie that claims to be chi kung — you will generate an internal energy flow. This in fact is the fundamental objective of chi kung training. This means that those who have no experience of internal energy flow may not be doing real chi kung.

As your energy flow gathers volume and momentum, it will open up energy points which were previously close. Depending on different factors, such as which energy points are involved and how you train, this accomplishment may take a few seconds or a few years.

Hence, with this background understanding you may realize that your question is irrelevant. It is irrelevant because the immediate objective of practising chi kung is to open your energy points so that your energy flow will be harmonious.

In the beginning many of your energy points are close and many others open. Gradually you open more and more of your energy points. The opening of most of these points will be done by you yourself in your training; your teacher may help to open the more crucial points found at the surface.

On the other hand, your question is legitimate if you are referring to the opening of these crucial points or centres by your teacher. Whether you will have an advantage if these points are opened initially by your teacher, will depend on a few variables.

At one extreme, those who think that all they need to do is to seek a master to have him open their energy centres, after which they will be bestowed with fantatic health or power, are merely dreaming. At a more practical level, having energy points or even energy centres opened initally by a master is only advantageous if the students can maintain the energy flow; otherwise the points or centres will close again after some time, which may be a few days or weeks.

Question 6

The main reason I take up internal martial arts is for combat efficiency, since so many waijia arts are often diluted with flowery punches and embloidery kicks for performance. Currently, I am learning Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan.

— Xavier, Singapore


Whether an art is combat effective or flowery for demonstration depends not on its being waijia (external styles) or neijia (internal styles), but on how it is being taught and practised.

Question 7

You mentioned in your book “The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan” that Chen Style is famous for its martial aspects. However, I also hear that it takes very long to be good in Tai Chi self-defence (about 10 years?). This is very discouraging for me since that's the main aim of my Tai Chi Chuan.


If you have a good teacher and you are willing to work hard, you should be able to handle a black-belt within two years, irrespective of which style of kungfu (including Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan) you practise.

While Tai Chi Chuan is very effective for self-defence, that is not its greatest benefit. If, for some reason, your sole purpose is self-defence, you would achieve your purpose better by choosing a waijia (external style) kungfu. But making self-defence your only aim in practising kungfu is not a wise choice.

Question 8

At the same time, I hear that Baguazhang is famous for its combative efficiency as well. Also, I hear it does not take as long to learn, and gives the exponent good build up of chi.


Both Baguazhang and Tai Chi Chuan, as well as other styles of kungfu, are good for combat efficiency — so long as you practise them as kungfu, i.e. martial art, and not as gymnastics or dance. How long it takes to be combat efficient and how much chi you can build up, depend not on which style you practise but on factors like what your teacher teaches you and how you train.

Question 9

I have repeatedly studied your writings in “Introduction to Shaolin Kung Fu” and I greatly admire your knowledge and skill. I have some questiions which I have pondered for a long time but still do not understand.

On page 70 of your book you mentioned about transforming the “hard” force of Iron Arm to become “soft”. Also on page 71 in photos 85 to 88 you skillfully demonstrated “soft” force, using it to break a piece of sugar cane balanced on two eggs without breaking the eggs.

I find this demonstration amazing and marvellous. Can you please explain to me what “soft” force is?

— Andrew, Australia


In kungfu context, “hard” and “soft”, or “kang” and “rou” in Chinese, are vastly different from what a westerner would conceptualize hard and soft to be. “Soft” here does not imply any lack of power; in fact soft force may be more powerful than hard force.

Soft force does not use mechanical or muscular strength; its power comes from “chi” or vital energy. A classic example of soft force is flowing water or flowing air, such as a torrent or a hurrican, which of course is very powerful.

Question 10

Please forgive my ignorance. I have for a long time reasoned that all human movement and force is produced by muscular contraction, hence there is muscular tension and “hard” force. I thought that “soft” implied relaxed muscles but how could relaxed muscles produce movement and force to break something like a sugar cane, yet the eggs which are fragile remain intact. I do not understand; it's amazing.


Your thinking is typical of most Westerners. It is understandable that in a culture where the concept of chi is not innately present, its people would be unable to conceptualize an application of chi to generate force, which in this case is usually soft force.

It is incrediable but true that in generating soft force, there should not be any muscular contraction or tension. Indeed, if the exponent tenses his muscles, he will interupt the flow of chi with the result that little or no force will be produced. This is the reason Taijiquan and other internal art masters instruct their students not to use (muscular) strength when performing kungfu movements.

Someone who has no understanding or experience of soft force will logically think that it must be very difficult and complicated to generate soft force. It is not so. Vitually all the students who have learnt chi kung from me in intensive courses, experienced and developed soft force in just one or two days, and most of them are amazed at its power! If you happen to take an intensive course from me in future, you will be able to verify the truth of this claim.

Soft Technique

Sifu Wong using a soft technique of the monkey paw to deflect a powerful attack from a bigger-sized opponent

Question 11

When Kung Fu practitioners say they are using a “soft” block, are they using this same “soft” force?


Besides force, the term “soft” can also be applied to techniques. In other words, you can have soft force, and you can have soft techniques; and generally, though not always, soft force goes with soft techniques.

If your opponent gives you a thrust punch and you move your hand forward to stop the punch head-on, you are using a hard technique. In doing so, you may tense your muscles and marshal all the strength you can, in which case you are using hard force. Or you may relax all your muscles and let your chi flow forward to meet the punch, in which case you are using soft force in a hard technique.

Instead of meeting the punch head-on, you can merely move a step backward to avoid the punch. In this case you are using a soft technique. To be doubly sure, you may at the same time swing your tensed arm to block hard at the punching arm; you are using hard force. Or you may deflect the punching momentum with a gentle slap of your palm; here you are using soft force.

Question 12

When people say “to block one thousand pounds using only four ounces”, what do they mean?


They mean they use minimal force, which is usually soft and coupled with soft techniques, to overcome a combat situation where the opponent's force is many times more powerful.

The word “block” in the tactical principle you mentioned should read “neutralize”. Stepping back to avoid an attack as mentioned above is an example of neutralizing one thousand pounds using only four ounces. No matter how powerful the attack is, if you gently step back to avoid its direct impact, it cannot harm you.

Question 13

When one thousand pounds is travelling at a velocity in an attacking direction, is it possible to change its initial direction using only four ounces?


Yes, if you know how. Let us say you are driving a lorry carrying a load of a few tons. By gently turning the steering wheel you can change the momentum of the few tons.

Many centuries ago, a great Greek mathematician proclaimed that given the right leverage and enough space, he could lift the earth with his bare hand.

Question 14

Could I also receive instruction on how to develop and train this “soft” force — the very same force you used to break the sugar cane, please?


This cannot be done via an e-mail even if I want it. You have to learn from me personally. You will experience remarkable “soft” force within half an hour of my teaching you a chi kung exercise called “Pushing Mountain”.

If you practise “Pushing Mountains” daily for six months you would have developed enough soft force to break a piece of sugar cane supported on two eggs without breaking the eggs. But this is only a small reward compared to other benefits you will inevitably get! It is not for no reasons that students pay US$1000 to attend an intensive course.

Let us say some persons buy my chi kung books and read up on how to practise “Pushing Mountains”, which I have described clearly. They practise daily for six months, then try breaking a piece of sugar cane supported on two eggs. Not only they will be unable to break the sugar cane, they may hurt their hands.

Why is this so? It is because the essence of an intenal art, like “Pushing Mountain”, lies not in its external techniques but in its formless skills. Not only learning the skills has to be done from a master personally, the training to develop the skills has to be supervised.



Courses and Classes