Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Concept of Power in Martial Arts

The Concept of Power in Chinese Martial Arts

By Jonathan Bluestein

It is often justifiably said that to understand deeply the Chinese martial arts, one has to research to an extent the Chinese language as well. One of the least understood ideas in Chinese martial arts happens to be the use of Power, and that misunderstanding stems from differences of culture and language.

In English terminology, using power in the context of martial arts is pretty simple and straightforward. You may use power, more power, or perhaps ‘explosive power’. So there’s power, and there is ‘bigger power’, and also that ‘explosive power’, which is just ‘power moved at greater speed’… whatever that may mean. But for the Chinese, power is expressed in two different ways, with a clear distinction between them.
One type of Power, the simple type is called , and written like this:

That character is basically a drawing of an iron plough. So in effect, Li is that type of thing which plows strongly through the earth, pushing against much resistance.

Another type of Power is Jìn, and is written like that: 

Unlike Li, which is just this one drawing, Jin is made of four drawings put together. The one on the right side is the same as Lì . We therefore learn that Jìn is something that already contains Lì within it, but also features additional components.
The character on the left within Jìn , is Jīng
The character Jīng is made up of three drawings itself:
Yī – One, or ‘whole’.
Chuān – A river.
Gōng – Work, or something being in the works.
So quite literally, Jīng hints at: “something working-flowing beneath the whole”, and means either “an underground river” or “to pass through something”. Therefore:
Jìn 勁 = Jīng巠 + 力 =
A power that passes through
(And does so similarly to the power of an underground river)

But in reality, it is even more than that. Consider that the drawing for Gōng is actually a carpenter’s ruler, and that the concept of the character Gōng is used in China to symbolize that “some work was done here”. As in 功夫 Gōng Fū (Kung Fu) – skill acquired through continuous effort. So the inclusion of the component Gōng within the larger drawing of Jìn tells us that Jìn is more than just a ‘power that passes through’ – it is also a power that required some previous ‘work’ to make happen. This brings us to the real and full definition of Jìn in the Chinese martial arts:
A power that passes through and requires skill to manifest
Therefore, we end up with two types of power:
1.      , or ‘dumb power’, which is brute force. The type of power anyone can use. Lifting something off the floor. Putting a book on a shelf. Breaking a stick. Opening a jar. Pulling a rope. Tractor digging a hole. These are all Lì – a natural power.
2.      Jìn , or ‘skilled power’, which is a power that manifests a skill or technique that required lots of work to become proficient at. A well-honed power. Like an Olympic weightlifter doing his thing. 

A vault-jumper propelling himself to the air. A master issuing a punch from zero distance. A bullet leaving a rifle. These are all Jìn – a trained power.

Thus in the traditional Chinese martial arts we talk less of ‘power’, ‘more power’ and ‘explosive power’. What interested the people who carried on these traditions throughout the centuries were the actual qualities contained within the different powers, and what these qualities meant. Lì is ‘dumb’, and is therefore limited. But Jìn may express as a concept some very advances notions of transferring energy. Hence, the use of Jìn for martial purposes is called Fā Jìn 發勁. Often wrongly translated as ‘explosive power’, but actually meaning ‘to emit Jìn‘. This issuing outwards of Jìn from one’s body to another can then take many shapes and forms. It can be Cùn Jìn 寸勁 (Inch Power) – a very short and fast explosive power issued from close range. It may express outwards as Dǒu Jìn 抖勁 (Shaking Power) – a longer Jìn that contains tremors and affects the opponent differently. Another is Làngtou Jìn 头劲 (Wave Power) – a mechanism that uses a waving pattern of the body, especially the spine, to generate momentum for martial applications. There could even be countless combinations of all of the above, and many more. 

Imagine then how intricate and rich the traditional Chinese martial arts truly are, if mere two words as such, Lì and Jìn, can contain so much within them, and require a whole article to be understood. Think of this minor example and remember, that the traditional martial arts are beyond the technical – they are a complete cultural heritage, and ought to be understood in that fashion.


Jonathan Bluestein is best-selling author, martial arts teacher, and head of Blue Jade Martial Arts International. For more articles by shifu Bluestein, his books and classes offered by his organization, visit his website at:

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Angelika said...

Wow, this is a really easy to understand explanation of Fa Jin! Thank you!

Mike at said...

I'd take the jing analysis in a slightly different direction which could hint at how this power could feel to the recipient and how one should train to acquire this power.

Regarding "river", the often overlooked interpretation of "water" (river is a mental construct; a category of water) is that water is connected! Water at the head of the river is water at the mouth of the river. The entire river is one water. Water is a metaphor for connectedness.

"One" is another millennial old reference to connectedness which has also been variously referenced as dao, unity, qi (as the indivisible stuff of the phenomenal world).

So in this one character, we get two references to unity or connectedness; a sort of reinforcement of the idea or importance of the feeling of connection.

And then "gong" is the work required to achieve this feeling of internal connectedness that is expressed in movement as unity, or moving like a river.

Unfortunately, the folks who promote the idea of "moving like a river" to mean being limp-noodle-like to "flow around obstacles" are really missing the obvious and key point of the unified quality of water! Of course, water flows around obstacles but more fundamentally, in so doing, water retains connectedness!

Therefore, "jing" suggests connectedness of movement (like a river is "moving") which is a long-trained kinesthetic quality which when it is expressed martially, is felt as a stronger kind of power than "li" power.