Wu Yuxiang’s “Si Zi Mi Jue” or “Four Word Secret Formula”
The ability to use Qi (internal energy) in various capacities depends upon the foundational principles of proper body structure, the ability to root, and Song, the state of dynamic relaxation. When these three aspects are fully integrated, the individual is able to listen or “ting” to ones own body as well as outside of the self. To listen to another person is the basis of push hands and T’ai Chi applications wherein the external movement and internal energy combine into a seamless whole. One such technique of listening and responding is known as the “Four Secret Word Formula” that Wu Yuxiang taught to his students.
Wu Yuxiang or Wu Yu-hsiang (1812–1880) was a t’ai chi ch’uan (taijiquan) teacher and government official during the late Qing dynasty. Wu was a scholar from a wealthy and influential family who became a senior student of Yang Lu-chan although he also studied for a brief time with Chen Qing-ping from the Chen family before creating the Wu (Hao) style of T’ai Chi Chuan.
Wu wrote numerous books and essays on T’ai Chi Applications and principles, but one of the most provocative is his theory of the Four Secret Words, a timing technique of responding to an opponent’s force by using proper T’ai Chi principles and Qi. The Four Secret Words are Covering, Blanketing, Intercepting, and Swallowing, and Wu’s poems, explanations of each word, and his overview are translated as follows:
Move Qi throughout your body; use it to cover your opponent’s force so that he cannot move
Use your Qi to directly cover the opponent’s incoming force
Direct your Qi to where the opponent’s forces are coming from, target it precisely, then release
Use Qi to swallow the force of the opponent whole and dissolve it
What these four words describe are things invisible and silent. Unless you have reached the level of dong ji [deep understanding of Taijiquan] and until your skills become extremely refined, you cannot fully understand them. These four words are all about Qi. With qi, you can then let movement naturally flow from your four limbs, and then the limbs can do whatever needs to be done naturally and without loss of energy.
Overview and Analysis
To understand the gist of these Four Words, one needs to comprehend how these techniques are based upon the ebb and flow of Yin and Yang, the proper timing of how and when to use Yin and Yang against an opponent, and the role of Qi (Internal Energy) as integrated with T’ai Chi techniques.
Qi, or internal energy, functions like a Sine Wave: as one energy (yin or yang) begins to peak the other energy begins.
Yang energy ascends as Yin descends; similarly, as Yin ascends, Yang descends. Yet it is important to note that the energy is never only yin or only yang, but that yin is contained and present within yang and yang is within yin. This integrated process is represented more accurately in an ancient rendering of Yin and Yang as a horizontal “S” which includes two Sine waves layered one upon the other and with the “dot” emphasizing one energy always present within the other:
To extend this to working with an opponent, the act of responding to that person’s energy must be cognizant of whether that person’s energy is yang or yin ascending or descending, which enables us to respond/act appropriately with our own yin or yang energy.
The Four Secret Words emphasizes that our response should in proportion to the energy of the other person, and that response requires body sensitivity, timing, and technique. Each of the energies of the four techniques happen in response to a specific moment within the opponent’s movement, which is rendered as four “stages.”
Four Stages of using Qi
- When an opponent attempts to release force, use Fu: Covering
- When an opponent starts to release force, use Gai: Blanketing
- When an opponent releases the force but force has not reached its maximum, then use Dui: Intercepting
- When an opponent releases the force and the force is or almost reached its peak, use Tun: Swallowing
The relationship of the stages of these four techniques could be represented as a graph. The opponent’s energy is rendered as a blue line that tracks from initial movement and force from Zero to One Hundred percent. Points along that continuum are designated where each technique would be appropriate: Swallowing at the 90% point; Intercepting between 55% and 60%; Blanketing at the 15-25% range; and Covering from 0% to 5%.
As the opponent’s force moves towards its extreme (from 0% to 100%), that force would require differently timed responses, techniques, and Qi. For example, Swallowing would happen near the end of the opponent’s action (90%), and to “Swallow” the person’s energy, one would absorb, yield, and deflect like roll-back energy (“Lu”) in Grasp Bird’s Tail. Swallowing is more “externally” or physically active and uses less visible Qi (represented on the Graph as the Orange Line at 25%). As the physical movement of a move decreases, the amount of Qi required increases. The Orange line on the above graph represents this continuum of Qi necessary for each movement.
Higher level skill necessitates increases levels of focused Qi and less external movement. Qi in this instance is not muscular force, but internal energy. Intercepting the opponent’s energy and redirecting it, requires more Qi than Swallowing, which is more broadly physical, for example. Blanketing and Covering require even greater Qi be synchronized with the technique.
As the level of Qi increases, the amount of external physical movement to execute the technique decreases. Swallowing requires the most physical movement; intercepting is more balanced between internal (Qi) movement and external; blanketing is mostly Internal; and Covering is nearly entirely internal with very little external motion. The saying for Covering is “Imagine your Qi is bigger than your Opponent” whereby the Qi is larger than any possible physical movement.
Further, the degree of focus and intention (Yi) required for each technique changes as well, wherein increased Qi levels require more finely honed Yi and increased sensitivity. To fully integrate these skills requires an ability to understand and utilize the physical movements, the ability to convert Qi to force or fa jin, and focused awareness (Yi). The order of technical skill to properly execute each of the Four Secret Words from least to most advanced is as follows: Swallowing, Intercepting, Blanketing, and Covering.
While getting to the point where our skill is high enough to use Blanketing or Covering may seem daunting or even discouraging, we must remember that we always practice where we are and continue to hone our ability to use the proper principles of Body Structure, Rooting, and Song, which applies to each and every technique. To be able to recognize Yin and Yang is absolutely crucial as well. That foundation of proper principles and understanding makes the learning of deeper skills attainable.
The old T’ai Chi adage is “Discern Yin from Yang.” As we practice the form, we distinguish yin and yang within the movements, but as the technique of Four Secret Words emphasizes, we work to discern yin becoming yang and yang becoming yin. When we can distinguish that process within our bodies and in our movements, we can extend that outwards to others either through playing at pushing hands or through applications. And in doing so, we are working to always deepen our understanding of T’ai Chi and ourselves.