My dictionaries provide 3 possible translations for 靜: quiet, calm, still. In modern Chinese the term is used to design what in the west we would call « static »: static electricity (靜電) in science, for example; or a still life (靜物画) in arts. It can also be found in expressions that evocate tranquility, like ”the sea is calm and tranquil” (海上風平浪靜). A pure translation of the term points then to a quality of that a pristine lake or a quiet forest: still but not stiff, calm but not on a psychological term, quiet as when movement has ceased.

To capture the sense of the term it is also good to note that the term meditation is often used as a translation of 靜坐. If translated literally, character by character, we would read “sit quietly” or “sit still”. One does not need to go far to find it: the Chinese title of “The Tao of Meditation” by Jou Tsung Hwa (周宗樺) is 靜坐開悟之道 or literally “An introduction to the way of sitting in quietness”.

Quietness in Internal Martial Arts

A first aspect of 靜 that can be found in the texts is its opposition to speed, a sort of duality between stillness and movement. It is treated here as a technical aspect of fighting, in the sense that it is needed to be learned to be used in the right opportunity, as a tool. For example, in the “Thirteen Secret Words of Practice” (十三字行功訣) by Yang Banhou (楊班侯) one can read:

"In Ward-off it is important that both arms keep round, then quietness and activity, insubstantial and substantial can be used to attack as wished."

A second aspect is 靜 as a quality to be included in the movements. Rather than being a pair stillness-movement, this second meaning implies that calmness has to be maintained throughout the practice. In “Seeking Calmness in Movement” (動中求靜), Yang Chengfu (楊澄甫) indicates that the student should remain calm despite being in movement:

Tàijíquán uses calmness to control the movements, through moving one remains calm."

It is certain that this is an aspect that looks very proper to Taijiquan, as it explains the reason for slowness in training. In the text, Yang Chengfu (楊澄甫) goes on with:
"Therefore, when practicing postures, the slower the better."

In fact, this impression of 靜 being a exclusive feature of the system of Tàijíquán (太极拳) is only apparent. In the studies written by Sūn Lùtáng (孙禄堂) and Jiāng Róngqiáo (薑容樵) on Xíngyìquán (形意拳) and Bāguàzhăng (八卦掌), quietness is mentioned as a requirement for practice. It is often associated with Wuji (無極), the undifferentiated state that precedes and concludes every practice. For example, in the Xing Yi Wu Ji Song (形意無極歌) by Jiang Rongjiao (薑容樵) it can be read:

"The nature is empty, the spirit concentrate on quietness."

This connotation of the term in the Internal Martial Arts texts is the closest to the meaning of 靜 that can be found in the ancient texts, and this brings another hint of its meaning.

靜 in Ancient Texts

靜is also an ancient term that was can be found in the earlier texts. For example, in the Chapter 16 of the 道德經 (Dào dé jīng) one can read:

Returning to one's roots is known as stillness.

And again in the 管子內業 (Guǎnzi Nèiyè), chapter 3 one can read:

The pivot of heaven is uprightness. The pivot of earth is flatness. The pivot of man is quiescence.

It is not only the Taoist-leaning texts that put quietness as central to man’s nature. In Confucian texts, such as the Great Learning -大學 - Da Xue, quietness is also given this place:

What the Great Learning teaches, is to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence. The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained to. To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose.

For the ancient, 靜 is therefore associated to Early Heaven (先天): a primordial quality that is present before differentiation and movement – and therefore its association with Wuji (無極) in the internal martial arts texts. Beyond being a core quality of human nature, it is also a state worth to be looked for, as the aim of a movement of return.

Zhuang Zi’s (莊子) hints on methods

The question that follows then is “how” approach this return to quietness (靜), this state of calm unperturbedness or tranquil repose. Throughout his text, Zhuang Zi (庄子) proposes an indication on how to return and reach it.

A first pointer may be found with “Sitting in Forgetfulness” (坐忘), a process that is described in chapter 6: The Great and Most Honoured Master (六。大宗師) :

Yan Hui said, 'I am making progress.' Zhongni replied, 'What do you mean?' 'I have ceased to think of benevolence and righteousness,' was the reply. 'Very well; but that is not enough.' Another day, Hui again saw Zhongni, and said, 'I am making progress.' 'What do you mean?' 'I have lost all thought of ceremonies and music.' 'Very well, but that is not enough.' A third day, Hui again saw (the Master), and said, 'I am making progress.' 'What do you mean?' 'I sit and forget everything.' Zhongni changed countenance, and said, 'What do you mean by saying that you sit and forget (everything)?' Yan Hui replied, 'My connexion with the body and its parts is dissolved; my perceptive organs are discarded. Thus leaving my material form, and bidding farewell to my knowledge, I am become one with the Great Pervader. This I call sitting and forgetting all things.'

The paragraph describes a long term process that reaches the end of something that could be called a “spiritual” state. The main aspect of “Sitting in Forgetfulness” seems to be the “Calming the Thoughts”, as stated in the Chapter 23 - Geng-sang Chu (廿三。庚桑楚):

(On this) Nan-rong Chu abruptly sat right up and said, 'What method can an old man like me adopt to become (the Perfect man) that you have described?' Geng-sang Zi said, 'Maintain your body complete; hold your life in close embrace; and do not let your thoughts keep working anxiously: do this for three years, and you may become the man of whom I have spoken.'

There is a further explanation in in Chapter 4 - . Man in the World, Associated with other Men (四。人間世) , where managing the flow of thoughts seems to be related also to the appropriate placing of the will (“fasting of the mind”). Once this is done, the senses, the mind and the spirit will be calmly performing their functions:

'I venture to ask what that fasting of the mind is,' said Hui, and Zhongni answered, 'Maintain a perfect unity in every movement of your will, You will not wait for the hearing of your ears about it, but for the hearing of your mind. You will not wait even for the hearing of your mind, but for the hearing of the spirit. Let the hearing (of the ears) rest with the ears. Let the mind rest in the verification (of the rightness of what is in the will). But the spirit is free from all pre-occupation and so waits for (the appearance of) things. Where the (proper) course is, there is freedom from all pre-occupation; such freedom is the fasting of the mind.'

This is just an illustration of how this state of quiescence (靜) could be attained. There is of course not much in these three cotations to transform it into a practical method for the modern western practicant. It would even be pretentious to think so, as thousands of years of study and practice by brilliant masters were built on this tradition.

However three general points can be apprehended from what Zhuang Zi (庄子) says as principles in the way of reaching quiescence (靜) :
  • Achieving quietness is a gradual process, that comes with constant practice, and takes a long time to mature, if to be reached at all
  • This process is related to regulating the flow of thoughts, aiming at having a non turbulent flow
  • It is also related to the appropriate use of the intention or will, so that sensations and thoughts are properly managed.

Unless noted otherwise, all quotations of classical texts and accompanying translations come from the Chinese Text Project

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