Samstag, 24. Januar 2009

Article: Ziran – the Chinese Concept of Naturalness

An essential concept of Taijiquan, whose importance is repeatedly stressed, is naturalness. This concept is often used when referring to the execution of movements. For example, Wu Yinghua says:

“Whether in the form or in pushhands all movements should be natural.”
(Ma, p. 24)

It is also used to stress the naturalness of breathing. In an interview with the journal “Martial Arts”, (p. 8), Ma Yueliang answers the question of whether the study of Taijiquan is associated with any particular technique of breathing:

“No, only breathe naturally.”

Ma Jiangbao expounds that instead of controlling the breath or adjusting the movements to the breathing, one should breathe as usual when learning the form. A deep and full breathing is achieved through regular practice, and “breathing will adjust quite naturally to the movements.” (Ma, p. 53)

However, students of Taijiquan – particularly Western students – react with a mixture of amusement and helplessness when they meet with difficulties in the execution of movements, and are advised to conduct them, “completely naturally”. This is usually attributable to a misunderstanding based on ignorance about the background meaning of the Chinese concept of ziran.

In Taijiquan, ziran is translated as “naturalness”. But ziran is a concept that has both a colloquial and a philosophical meaning. Ziran is a two-character word that consists of the characters zi and ran.

A simple translation would understand the word as a combination of its single components. A dictionary translates the sign zi with “self” and ran with “so”. Combining its single components would thus render ziran:


This is quite a simple translation, and it does indicate the original idea that informs the ziran concept. In an expanded entry in the same dictionary, we find under ziran:

“nature, naturally, by itself, to let something take its [natural] course”.

Ziran can simply be equated with nature, but it also indicates the inner nature of all beings and things, which are self-so.

If one studies the history of Chinese philosophy, one finds the first usage of the concept of ziran in the Laozi, in the Zhuangzi, in the Mohistic Canon, and also in the Xunzi (see also Röllike).

The concept of ziran was developed as an answer to the question, ‘what is dao?’ In the Laozi, verse 25 says:

Human beings follow the law of earth,
earth follows the law of heaven,
heaven follows the law of dao
and dao follows the law of ziran.

Bauer explains:

"The expression ziran literally means “to be so by itself”. It is first used in the Laozi and refers to the structure of Tao, which cannot be referred back to anything else.” (Bauer, p. 202)

Within daoist tradition all of this implied that through retreating back to nature, one could be nearer to the dao. In observing and imitating nature, and through rejecting human culture, one could perfect one’s own character. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD these ideas changed. It was no longer absolutely necessary to search for the dao in nature, but rather one’s own self became the mirror of the dao.

Bauer says that, “it is the sole acknowledgement of the own self in all expressions and activities of life which is the decisive feature of ‘naturalness’ and ‘freedom’ , which can be found in nature and the dao as well as in the ideal/perfected human being.” (Bauer, p. 203)

According to Wu Yinghua the demand for naturalness can be explained by referring to the origin of many movements of Taijiquan in traditional Chinese martial arts. These movements were developed in accordance with human physiology and the laws of nature. In Taijiquan one says:

Shen xin ziran – the body and the heart-mind are natural.

Through calmness of movement and stillness in the heart-mind (xin) practitioners of Taijiquan shall find and cherish their naturalness. This form of naturalness refers to body and mind and is not assumed to be automatically there, but needs to be worked for and maintained in a continuous process. This becomes apparent when Ma Jiangbao (Ma, p. 53) says about the practice of breathing in Taijiquan:

“Although breathing should not be consciously directed, the correct breathing can only be achieved if the body’s posture is correct: upright position of the head, upright coccyx, upright back, lowered shoulders, elbows and pelvic hips.”

These are the very preconditions, which for most people are not given as matter-of-fact, but need to be achieved and sustained through regular Taijiquan practice.

· Bauer Wolfgang, China und die Hoffnung auf Glück, DTV,
Munich1989 (China and the Hope for Happiness).
· Das neue chinesisch-deutsche Wörterbuch,
The Commercial Press, Kong Kong 1989
(The New Chinese-German Dictionary).
· Ma Jiangbao, Tai Chi Chuan, Mach: Art, Ratingen 1998.
· Martial Arts, Heft No. 8, Martial Arts Verlag,
Stelle-Wittenwurth 1986.
· Rollike Hermann-Josef, Der Ursprung des Ziran-Gedankens
in der chinesischen Philosophie des 4. und 3. Jh. v. Chr.
Europäiche Hochschulschriften: Reihe 27, Asiatische und
Afrikanische Studien, Bd 51, Heidelberg, 1994.
(The Origin of the Ziran Idea in Chinese Philosophy in the
4th and 3rd Century B.C).

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