By Martin Boedicker
An is one of the Eight Gates (bamen) of Taijiquan. As a translation of an, the word ‘push’ is usually used. However, this often results with the student just trying to push the partner with pure force. But this is not an.
Ma Yueliang explained:
”An is an obvious strength. When applying an it is essential that one uses one or both palms to push at empty (xu) points of the other. If the other, for example, presses with ji, I can push down. This leads the attack in an oblique line downwards. When applying an the movement should be made in an undulating form, like the ups and downs of a wave. Thus, the posture of the other is shaken and he will lose his balance. The astonishing effect of an can be compared with the downward flow of water. In its softness lies hardness and there is no opening into which it does not penetrate”.
(Ma, Xu, p. 10)
The association of flowing water is surely inspired by the Secret Song of the Eight Methods (Bafa miju), where the symbol of water is in the foreground:
”How do you explain
the meaning of an?
Its application is like
the movement of water.
In its softness lies hardness.
It is a raging torrent, one can barely resist its power (shi).
When encountering something high, it swells considerably.
When encountering something low, it flows down.
Heavy waves move up and down.
There are no holes
that cannot be entered.“
(Wu, p. 102)
To understand the concept in its full depth, it must be remembered that an is one of the Thirteen Basic Movements (Shisanshi). Shisan is the number 13 and the second shi means ‘Basic Movement’. But in Tai Chi Chuan shi has also a different meaning which originates in Chinese strategic thinking. Here shi means ‘strategic advantage’ or ‘power’, as it is also used in the Treatise of Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan lun):
”In advancing forward and retreating backward, one can gain the opportunity and the strategic advantage (shi). If you do not gain the opportunity and the strategic advantage (shi), your body will be disorganised and confused.“
In Chinese, strategic thinking shi is often explained by the picture of water, for example by Sunzi:
”That the velocity of cascading water can send boulders bobbing about is due to its strategic advantage (shi).“
(Ames, p. 118)
Sunzi wishes to say that the power of water is not inherent in the water itself, but in the height from which the water is falling. Therefore this height is the strategic advantage and gives the water its power. The height is the real ‘strategic advantage’, without it the water is not in a position to unfold its power.
But shi is not only just a strategic advantage. Shi is the manipulating of circumstances – the way to create a strategic advantage as an alternative to the commitment of brute force. When the strategic advantage reaches a certain level, one can change the situation to one’s own advantage. In Chinese strategic thinking, real power is not the unfolding of force, but gaining the ability to obtain a strategic advantage.
”A failure to cultivate shi will surely give the upper hand to the enemy.“
(Lau, Ames, p. 88)
This concept has to be applied to an. It is not a question of when to push the other simply with great strength. Instead, it is to lead the attack and to gain the strategic advantage. From this favourable position not much strength is needed to push the other off balance. Exactly this situation, to gain the strategic advantage and then strike back, describes the Song of the Striking Hands (Dashouge):
”No matter how strong he attacks me, with the use of four ounces one can easily deflect a thousand pounds. Divert the attack into emptiness, the counter-attack follows immediately.“
Through leading the attack into the emptiness and thus weakening the body structure of the other, the strategic advantage is gained. When the counterattack is a push, one speaks of an an. So an is not just a simple push, but a highly sophisticated strategic concept.
· Roger Ames, Sun-tzu: the art of war, Ballantine Books, New York 1993
· DC Lau, Roger Ames, Sun Pin: The Art of War, Ballantine Books, New York 1996
· Ma Yueliang, Xu Wen, Wushi Taijiquan Push Hands, Xianggang Shuju Chuban Shanghai, Hong Kong 1986
· Wu Gongzhao, Wujia Taijiquan, Xianggang Jianquan Taijiquanshi Chubanxiaozu, Hong Kong 1981