This interview we conducted with Chen Zhonghua, is the prepublication version of an article which appeared in the Fall of 2005 issue of TaiChi Magazine. It is offered here as a source for future discussion and feedback, for interests of the readers.
Q & A with Chen Zhonghua
This article presents questions and answers, based on instructions in workshops, with Chen Zhonghua. The course material was Hong’s Practical Method of Chen style Tai Chi. Training emphasized mechanics and application skills. This selection of those questions and answers dealt with understanding of function and usage of the kua,in developing those skills.
The questioning here led to answers which deal with some universal topics and challenges which inevitably present themselves to serious Tai Chi practitioners, regardless of style. For example, often discussed ideas about “whole body movement”, “separation of upper and lower body “, “role of the waist”, “transfer of power”, “opening the kua”, and “central equilibrium”, are considered here with a penetrating survey in a precise context with a practical orientation.
As one comprehends the following elaboration, these intellectually familiar concepts may be better appreciated as being far more than some aesthetic or philosophical ideals. Rather, a very persistent and patient commitment to the physical work of developing the skills related to usage of the kua, is prerequisite to actualizing those ideals. Perhaps this may serve to inspire further exploration, to help readers progress through the challenges of actually integrating the concepts into their practice.
Anatomy and General Understanding
Q. It is quite common for teachers of the internal arts to emphasize the importance of the kua for attainment of higher levels of skill. What could you say about the kua in terms of its role in the practice of Tai Chi?
Its fundamental role is that without the kua the upper and lower body cannot properly work together. The kua is the body part responsible for integration of upper and lower body.
Q. Can you give some description or details? In context of the hips, groin, pelvic girdle, or the femur, speaking in simple layman’s view of anatomy—- how would you describe the kua?
The kua is that ball joint inside, at the top of the thigh bone. I dont know the English name for it (femur), the ball joint inside, inside the hip.
Q. The tops of the thigh bones that rotate?
Yes, the ball joint, thats the kua.
The rest, the body parts connected with it, are just things associated with it. Thats why there is always confusion, why the understanding of it always changes. At different levels you will be able to associate your kua with other parts of your body. Its these various different perceptions of experience of the kua, that give rise to different explanations of the kua among different masters or teachers.
Q. When they talk about the kua, maybe their definitions are more in terms of its usage?
Yes. As you exercise that joint, itaffects the structure and movement of your body. The better you are at using the kua, the better your body is coordinated. So it will appear that different masters use the kua differently, with varying levels and depth of experience of that function.. Ability to connect the kua with better integration with the body reveals higher skill.
But the simple objective anatomical definition of the kua has not been wrong in the past. It is commonly understood to be that ball joint.
Functional Relationship with Upper and Lower body
Q. So greater ability brings better coordination of kua with different parts of the body. Could you distinguish the role of the hips, the waist, and the kua in terms of using it properly?
To properly use your kua you have to properly use the body parts around the kua. You have to use your hips correctly and use your two thigh bones,
the femurs, correctly; also, to use your weight correctly and move your tail bone correctly. These are the things that are associated with it, so they must be considered. But these are aboutthe kua, relevant to the kua. They are not the kua itself. Yet when you talk about the kua, you cannot talk about it without considering the areas I just mentioned.
Q. Perhaps the area of the body that most frequently causes confusion about mechanics of correct Tai Chi practice is the role of the waist. Can you talk about the connection of the waist and the kua, and the distinction between the waist and the kua in terms of usage?
In terms of function, it is better to emphasize the primary role of the kua, rather than the waist. On the surface, people view Tai Chi exercise in terms of the waist. Waist is what you see, but the work is done by the kua. Consider the waist area from the kua, the crease in the two legs, (inguinal crease), from that portion all the way up to your arm pits. This whole body trunk, this one piece must be expressed, exercised as one piece. Think of this one piece as a round cylinder sitting on top of two legs. It is the function of the kua to coordinate the two legs directing this one cylinder.
Q. Communication from the legs to that whole upper body?
The communication will never occur unless the kua is properly aligned.
Think of it like a physical machine. The U joints on the 2 thighs must adjust so the cylinder can be aligned correctly, adjusting in terms of length, angle, and its ability to maneuver with connectedness.
This connectedness is very elusive and difficult. The requirement of the joint is to be connected to take full weight of the body, yet it must have flexibility to direct movement at all times. So it is similar to a universal joint. The kua must be able to carry the weight with a constant friction level, and yet constantly changing direction, without disrupting the connection.
Primary Role of Kua, Guiding, Adjusting Function
Q. How does the kua function to accomplish those different things?
The other body parts I mentioned earlier must come into play.
We must understand how they work together.
Now we are talking about the function of different body parts associated with the kua. The trunk, the waist and torso, must be erect. It sits squarely on top of the two legs, and the kua joint guides the waist as it adjusts to actions involved in maneuvering, changing direction.
The two kua guide change of direction. The body trunk doesn’t guide, it adjusts to changing direction. Like a log in water, the water can move causing the log to move, not the log causing the water to move. The two kua must move in a manner directing upper body movement, not the other way around.
Recognize this major distinction. Most people mistakenly assign primary function to the waist. The waist actually is the base of this cylinder I talked about. To view waist movement as primary, to view it as physically moving this cylinder, causing your legs to move— thats wrong understanding. Leg movement causes the kua to move, thus causing the adjustment of the trunk.
Q. Like the incorrect practice known as noodling? Too much waist movement, or the knees and the arms and shoulders are moving all over place, with no kind of strong connected root from the ground and power because the upper body is separated from the lower?
Q. This has been the most amazing discovery emerging from what you have taught us, over the course of this workshop. For so many years, books and instructions from teachers always seem to place all emphasis on the guiding role of the waist. Mention is made of the necessity to open the kua. But no one has ever clarified details of how the waist is being directed by kua, as opposed to moving the waist, using the waist muscles—- rather than being directed by the adjusting mechanisms of the kua. Now it is clear why performance of form and difficulties in push hands practice have been less than satisfactory, with the undesirable qualities mentioned. This is a starting point to get on the right track. Thank you very much.
You are welcome.
Integrative Function of the Kua
Q. Can you elaborate how the kua makes for the correct connectedness of the trunk, hands, and arms being driven powerfully from the ground—– as opposed to non connected noodling?
The critical element is the action of upper body in relation with lower body. The trunk must be set in a fixed position and cannot move independently. It can only rotate, or adjust to the action of the legs. Action of the legs must be on the knees. When the knee moves, energy is propelled both ways. One portion goes to the feet right through the ground, the other portion into the kua in directing the trunk. That is the proper action.
That is why beginners have excess knee movement. As they improve, movement of knees becomes smaller. With practice they learn to effectively make use of small movement to cause large changes in the body.
Q. Did you say that one knee is pushing while the other is pulling? One pushing the ground the other pushing the kua?
The two knees: one must go up, one down. That is the physical action. At all times the main source of power of the body must be two knees going one up one down. As skill develops, they may not appear to do so, but the action is still the same. As the player gets more advanced, knee movement may be less obvious, but still the power must be initiated from the two knees.
Q. How do you distinguish that from saying the power is coming from the kua, one pushing down and one pushing up?
Kua is the joint responsible for transmission of power. The mistaken notion of dantian acting as the transmission should be amended, to recognize the primary role of kua. The dantian, ( in Tai Chi functional terms, not qigong usage), is defined as the area between the kua and the arm pit. This is one big ball. When this area turns you wont see the kua turn. On surface, you only see the area from kua to arm pit turn. Therefor many people practice shoulder movement, turning dantian from the top. We must emphasize turning of the dantian from the bottom.
Q. And that is from the knees pumping like pistons, one going down and one going up?
It is more precise then that, but at the beginner level it is important to know that the knees function like two pistons.
Kua Establishing Correct Usage of Dantian and Upper Body
Q. When you bring in the concept of the dantian, are you saying the kua is rotating on each side and the ball is staying centered?
Whatever the intended activity of the upper body may be, rotations of the two kua are coordinated so as to ensure the trunk sitting on top of them remains erect all the time.
How you do that each time varies, but the trunk must remain level, erect, and suspended.
Q. It seems that the functional role of the abdominal area just above the kua, the dantian or whatever, this includes the whole waist?
Q. So the waist really isnt moving, its not moving up and down and not moving left and right. Its staying in one place like a ball sitting on top of these two rotating balls under it?
I can give you a better word. Its called adjusting, not moving.
The dantian area adjusts to the movement or the actions of the kua area, driven by the knees. At the same time, the dantian area can adjust to other movement, such as the shoulders being pushed or pulled by your opponent. In any case, dantian doesn’t cause action. It adjusts to actions applied on to it.
Q. Would you also say it is the point in the center of the body that maintains that uprightness and equilibrium?
Yes, it maintains and it adjusts. It does not create action. But for most practitioners, due to incorrect understanding, they attempt to create the action from the waist.
Q. So you mean dantian should keep itself completely stable?
Yes, it is important that movement is initiated in the knees. Incorrect practice, attempting to initiate movement from dantian, leads to twisting the waist, the knee, the arms and everything. The common mistakes in practice, wrong body mechanics such as the knee twisting sideways, are due to wrong application of kua, not connecting properly with associated body parts.
Q. So if the kua is open, one can get this action with the knees, one going to the ground, one going to the kua, and adjusting with each other to allow the continual centered position of the dantian. If the kua is too pinched, or closed, or compressed, however you say it, then the knees will not be allowed to go down and up? If there is some twisting of the knee, does that mean the kua is resisting being open?
Two ways to view it. One, the kua is resisting, so the knee twists. Second, even if flexibility of the kua is adequate, to allow correct action of the kua, incorrect action of the knees would push the kua out of alignment. It is necessary to develop the awareness of coordination of kua and knees.
Q. You have to learn how to coordinate them with each other to produce the proper alignment and the proper balancing?
Functional Relationships of Kua, Dantian, and Physical Structure
Q. You have clarified the function of knees and kua, and their primary role in directing action of the waist, dantian, and upper body. Can you elaborate further on the mechanics of how the kua directs the activity of the dantian, to allow the qualities of correct practice, and higher levels of Tai Chi?
Consider the globe of the earth. We have all seen these globes, resting in a seat cradled underneath. Similarly, the kua has legs underneath it. Compare what is above it to the globe. This globefor us is the dantian. Dantian is anything sitting on top of the two kua. When the two kua move proportionately, in coordination with each other, the dantian resting above can function correctly for desired results. If one kua moves more than the other kua, you will see a noodling quality or other incorrect practice.
This defines the relationship between kua and dantian. Kua is only the seat. Dantian is what is on top of the seat. If one kua disengages from this dantian, resulting movement is not upright, not balanced, causing noodling, wiggling, and other incorrect qualities. An example would be belly dance movement, as contrasting with the dantian movement we describe.
Q. Practically speaking, when I see you move, your shoulders stay level and your hips stay level. They rotate, but they dont gyrate up and down.
They dont but they do. You may not see the subtle underlying activity.
Q. Well, I see the back of the hips where they are connected is moving a lot, but it keeps the part above those ball joints appearing to stay level. It seems to me that the pelvic hip points, which are level with the dantian and the waist, they seem to stay level.
Sure, that seems a good observation and you can say that. I agree with you.
Q. I think when most people say hips, they dont understand anatomy. They may understandhips as being all those bones in the waist area. Where the hip joints are really much lower than that at the top, right where the leg sockets are. Those leg sockets twist around all over, but you can rotate them by adjusting them in coordination and still keep the hip points level.
Yes. You are describing what you see, as correct or incorrect. Also you are describing a quality. A good quality, high quality, and low quality. But the essence is still deeper than that.
Essentially, it is like the ball sitting in the seat. You can move the globe with the seat stable. Or move the seat, the globe will move. The bottom line will depend on skill level. At varying levels of skill, your actions are different.
At higher levels, the seat remains stationary, always adjusting. The globe moves above it. At beginning level, we are incapable of movement of the globe by not moving, so we move a lot. The result is overextension and problems you have noticed. You observe my hips and kua area remain relatively stable, yet I can still cause action of the body. Thats the difference between our levels. Ultimately, at highest level, it shouldnt even move.
Let me describe it another way. Consider the U joint on a car. It can move the wheel of the car in various directions. Whatever the range of direction, it is still movement. Yet a look underneath the car would reveal the U joint as fixed onto the bottom frame of the car. Like that, the body part, the joint of the kua, is fixed. Yet what’s inside it can move any direction.
Another analogy. Make your one hand like a cup, your other hand a fist. Put your fist in the cup. The cup is like the kua. The fist is inside it. Now rotate your fist, in the kua. The cup never moves, yet it allows the fist to change in various directions. In this manner, the kua doesnt really move. Yet it causes, it adjusts other parts of your body to move within a fixed frame.
Q. Is that contradictory to what you said earlier, about incorrect movement of waist first, to move the kua and knees—-that correct action is driven from knees, with kua adjusting, then causing waist to move?
No, not contradictory. Its exactly the same. For example, imagine your fist inside the cup. Your fist is like the femur that goes into the kua. It moves because theknee moves. The kua is in a fixed position, but it adjusts to allow movement changing direction. The kua is open, adjusting smoothly, so your body can change direction within a fixed frame. This is the requirement of Tai Chi, which appears contradictory to students. It is that very elusive ability which must be developed over time through practice.
Q. Could you explain the contradiction?
The contradiction of Tai Chi is that your body does not appear to move and yet you have to create action internally, to generate a degree power and dynamism at least equal to external arts such as boxing. How can you generate such power, if your body as awhole does not appear to move at all? The kua holds the key to answer this dilemma. When the kua is activated correctly, the kua and other body parts provide a fixed frame, so your body appears not to move. Yet this allows activity inside to produce external results .
Function of Kua in Transfer of Energy
Q. That leads to the question of the concept of energy transfer. Getting power or energy from the ground, the legs, to the torso, waist, arms, hands. The key to real power sounds like this coordinatingcontrol of the kua? Can you describe the process or explain the role of the kua in this transfer of energy from the ground, the legs, the kua, the torso, the waist, arms, hands—the role of the kua in generating that power?
Let’s view this from a different perspective.
Internal energy is activated though movement of joints, not through lack of movement. Rather, there is a flow of movement within the frame. But the action of the joints is not that they are stretched, or extended, or moved horizontally. The joints are only turned, or rotated.
Q. What you are describing sounds like experience of the kua in doing a positive circle.
I feel the pelvic girdle stays centered and thats the only way my dantian can stay centered. What happens is that thetwo kua kind of push against each other. So they have to turn. One has to rotate up to the other one around in the opposite direction of the circle. Its like they are pumping into each other.
Youre getting onto something very important here. The key is, your two kua are locked onto your body frame. Fixed in place, they do not move from that frame, they only rotate.
This is very different from your two hands, for example, which can move freely, without connection with rest of body. The kua is not free to move horizontally. Unlike hands, you cant put one kua on your body and the other three feet away from your body.
Your two kua are always connected, as an anatomical constant fact. When you believe you are moving your kua, you are actually just rotating one kua against the other. As you just said, its as if they squeeze together toward each other causing your waist to turn. Thats very crucial.
In terms of function of the kua in generation of energy, the kua is essentially a junction. So anything that you talk about in regards to any joint applies to kua. Tai Chi energy being the product of joint rotation, the kua’s role is most important, since it is the largest joint. Rotation of a small joint generates a small range of movement. When you rotate a large joint, you generate a large range of movement.
When you rotate your two kua, they cause your waist, your dantian, to turn. It is a coordinated and proportional movement, not independent activity of the kua. As the largest joint, the kua’s effect on range of movement of dantian and waist can be quite significant, so much so that the entire body can appear to move.
This is the unique quality of Tai Chi movement, generated by joint rotation, not by muscles pushing and pulling. This is drastically different from normal human activity, which employs the muscles in physical effort of muscles independently pushing and pulling various parts of the body.
The Key Role of the Kua in Meeting Unique Requirements of Tai Chi
Q. It seems the reason the kua makes everything else move, is because it’s in the middle of the body. Or it is controlling the waist, which is in the middle of the body.
Yes, you can say that. As well as being the largest joint, the kua is most strategically positioned . These things illustrate its crucial importance.
Q. As I understand your description of generation of power in the upper body, its the rotation of the kua, being in the middle, with the knees pumping the ground, driving the power directly through the center to get to those points of the upper body. What about in terms of its role in the classical Tai Chi functions? For example, to absorb and neutralize, when an opponent is pushing on you. You can maintain your balance or adjust your body parts to absorb his power and neutralize it and then redirect it.
Yes. Using kua to make dantian waist rotation, half a waist turn translates into 30-50 centimeters, or more, between one and two and a half feet. That is a wide range of movement, in terms of neutralization.
Q. How about in terms of redirecting power and then releasing power?
Your question reflects misunderstanding, as you are using the terms incorrectly.
There is no redirection and no release. The most crucial thing is to have proper use of dantian, that long ball centered in the body, controlled by its seat, the kua.
For example, in practice, my body is round. My physical action is more rounded than your physical action. Everything relates to the dantian. My movements more clearly reflect rotation around a clearly identified center. You might feel that you are trying to move like a ball too, but it appears as more linear movement. This prevents accomplishment of the higher Tai Chi skills.
All these skills people mention are representations of this one action. The big ball in the center moving, and turning. If the dantian rotates properly, with center never moving, the center never changes positions. Thus, automatically it accomplishes neutralization. Action becomes soft, smooth, and strong, causing redirection. To simply say this move is redirect, this move it push, this move is absorbing— such descriptions are incorrect. I can tell you though, when you master rotation of the center of your body, you will have peng, lu, ji, an and all the other tai chi energies. How they relate is an extensive topic for future discussion.
Correct Usage of Kua, Establishing a Center for Advanced Tai Chi Skills
Q. So the correct description is that you just have this very centered awareness that automatically adjusts to any movement upon it, or any pressure upon it?
Speaking in traditional terms, the goal as defined by Hong Junsheng
is to ultimately have one point on the body. Feng Zhiqiang described it as one grain of chi.
Through training, eventually you experience the body as always pivoting on one dot. Everything rotates and moves around it. Thats Hong’s description of the overall guiding principle. Feng’s overall guiding principle is one grain of chi. They are talking about the same thing.
Q. Is it a state of awareness and coordination of body, that the individual is experiencing all movement pivoting on this one point right in the center of the body?
Yes. And because everything pivots on it, you know where your center is, and your opponent cant find the center.
The requirement of Tai Chi is to be centered, and not reveal to your opponent where that center is. Your opponent feels no center, because he cant find it. Wherever he pushes, he can never catch what he cannot find. But if you lack recognition of your own center, your opponent can find it all the time. When you push, you generate a center as you respond to the push— your center goes directly into the push.
Q. When you havent developed the awareness and coordination of that center, it’s easy for the opponent to find it because any time you try to move or push youre pushing it right into him?
Yes. Also, from another angle, if I consciously create a center somewhere on myself, you can never find it. And if I dont establish a center you can find it, because
whenever you touch me you are actually creating a center on me.
Q. Because the person being pushed knows how to establish balance?
So the key is really about equilibrium and balance?
Yes. It’s who owns it.
Q. The one who owns the central equilibrium?
Yes. That word I have no problem with. In terms of yin and yang, balance and establishing center are critical variables.
Q. And when you resist, or meet force with force, you lose balance and immediately expose your center to your opponent?
If you own center, I lose it. If I own it, I dont lose it, and you can’t find it. Thats the objective of training. I have a student who is a magician. He says you impose your conduct onto your opponent. Understand that?
Q. Yes, but it seems pretty abstract.
It means, through training, I can construct a center onto myself, so you will not recognize it or be able to locate it. Before you start pushing me, I have already formulated a center in my body. As your actions are consumed in attempting to find my center, you cannot establish a center for yourself. Without any center you are lost.
Q. You dont have awareness and balance from that central point?
You can also see that, when people do the form incorrectly. From perception of a skilled eye, in observation of someone practicing form, it is obvious when there is no awareness of center. The quality of waving arms, arms moving independently from the body, overextension, and other flaws will be apparent.
This brings us full circle, to recognize the primary importance of the correct use of kua, driven by knees, guiding the waist with awareness of the center of dantian, coordinating activities of the upper body.
Practice for Developing Correct Usage of Kua
Q. Concerning training to improve these skills, how can we open up the kua? Here is the problem. People have difficulties practicing, because they are always compensating one part of the body for another, to try to get the appearance of the teachers form. How would you advise students to practice, to open the kua.?
There are some basic exercises you can do. Do all the foundation circles I taught you. To a certain extent, these facilitate opening the kua. Also practice the fetching the pail, twisting towel, 6 sealing 4 closingexercises. Practice that kua exercise, in which you squat down sideways with one leg stretched out, like the action of falling into a sled. Practice each side.
But these exercises do not really produce the open kua experience. They only loosen up the kua, so you are ready. The ultimate experience of the kua opening evolves over time as one learns how to restrain, or be in control of its movement.
Ill give you an analogy, to illustrate how to practice correctly. Compare the kua movement to a ball turning. The restraining capability I am describing is like that turning ball rotating inside a square box. Imagine the sides of the ball all press against the inside walls of the box. So the ball, in constant contact with the box’s four sides, is always restrainedfrom any horizontal movement. The ball can only rotate in its fixed position, inside the box. If the top of the box is open, you can touch it to spin the ball, but the ball doesnt toss or move horizontally. It only rotates.
This analogy illustrates the guideline for form practice. Body movement should be always connected and driven by joint rotation, not by independent movement of body parts. Form should be upright and stable. The body shouldn’t bob up and down, nor toss from side to side. The spine must be straight, moving rotationally from center, rather than tilting.
Movement reflects adjustment within a fixed frame, with limbs always connected. There is no waving of the arms. Arms only move connected with torso, from kua rotation driven by legs, not independently from the body. That is what kua movement is about. Only by moving in this manner, can you eventually develop your kua.
The function of the kua is to be able to rotate constantly, with the body adjusting accordingly. Many people develop only range of motion of the kua, not functional ability. Movement without stable rotation accomplishes nothing. Only balanced, coordinated kua rotation produces the qualities of soft, smooth, stable, neutralizing, redirecting—- all Tai Chi qualities. Tai Chi requires adjustment of each kua with each other in complete coordination, with the area above the kua maintaining its equilibrium in the midst of those two rotations.
Q. Thats what causes the body or the arms or the movements in the form to be caused by that rotation rather than to be caused by muscles pushing and pulling those parts of the body around?
Yes. Another point, as Master Hong said, The opening of the kua is a matter of one millimeter.If your kua is open, a very minute movement can bring profound results. Correct usage of the kua allows for application of whole body power. When the kuais open, it serves the function of connecting the body, allowing for flow of energy in a fixed frame.
Q. Could you say if the two kua are open they always counterbalance each other properly to allow the proper alignment and direction of the body? Then the kua can allow the body to have tremendous power because it is structurally aligned?
Yes. If the body is connected, with proper structural alignment, a little bit of direction from the kua gives it tremendous power, because the whole bodys weight can be directed at the point of contact.
If the kua is not open, mere physical movement of the kua may be like that of a belly dancer, without value for Tai Chi. Or one might possess the flexibility of a gymnast, moving the kua any which way, but have no Tai Chi skill. Stretching and increasing flexibility are a physical property, not necessarily indicative of an open kua. They do not have a Tai Chi function.
Opening of the kua is a function, vital for correct Tai Chi movement. Opening of the kua is a special quality. It reflects the ability to turn your kua to serve Tai Chi, to facilitate the proper structural alignment for postures to serve their proper function.
Coordinating the two kua together to produce the proper structural flow—this creates the proper Tai Chi form, with power, root,and whole body movement. The unity of movement of the different parts of the body is dependent upon the kua functioning properly to facilitate structuring of that unity.