The instruction around the Elbow is one that is not to be overlooked during practice. At first it seems a bit counter intuitive, as it asks for a very mobile joint to be in a sunken position.

The first indication by the texts is that it should be "sunk" or "dropped", along with the shoulder. One can read this on many texts related to postural instruction, such as the Eight Points of the Body Method (身法八要) by Wǔ Yǔxiāng (武禹襄) for Tàijíquán (太極拳) practitioners:

含胸、拔背、
裹襠、護肫、
提頂、弔襠、
鬆肩、沉肘
"Contain the chest, stretch the back
Wrap the inner tighs, protect the hips
Lift the crown, hang the crotch
Loose the shoulders, sink the elbow.


Or in the First Secret Song (歌訣一) of Bāguàzhăng (八卦掌):

沈肩墜肘伸前掌
"Sink the shoulders, drop the elbows, and extend the front palm forward."

It is not always easy to pinpoint what "sinking" the elbow mean. Although although it is often translated as "sink", different words are used in Chinese. These words have associated meanings that are useful to keep in mind. The first is Zhuì (墜), that is given by my dictionaries as "to fall, to drop, to weigh down". The second is Chén (沉) which means "to sink, to submerge, to keep down", but also "deep", "heavy". It seems to me that there is an implied sensation of heaviness, of weight that brings the "sinking".

This is the basic, but not the unique instruction on elbows that can be found. Another one is the relation of the "sinking" of the elbow and the protection of the abdomen and the ribs. In the sixth of the Xingyi Eight Character Secret (形意八字訣) by Lǐ Cúnyì (李存義) and Jiāng Róngqiáo (薑容樵) one can read:

肘下垂,則兩肱自圓,能固兩脅。
"When both elbows hang down, then both arms are naturally round, and can solidify the ribs.

And on the Second Secret Song (歌訣二) of Bāguàzhăng (八卦掌):

後肘先疊肘掩心
The rear elbow is folded to cover up the center

A third point can be noted on the aspect of bending of the elbow. Jiāng Róngqiáo (薑容樵) states it clearly in his instruction of Bāguàzhăng (八卦掌)on "Relax the Shoulders; sink the elbows. Strengthen the belly; open the chest." (鬆肩沉肘,實腹暢胸)

沉肘是使肘部經常保持著向下沉墜,在鍛煉時必須屈如半月形。
"The Sink the Elbow instruction is contantly sent to the elbows, in order to keep them sunk at all times. During practice it is mandatory that the elbows remain bent like in a half-moon shape."

Jiāng Róngqiáo (薑容樵) gives even more precise instruction on the instructions for Sāntǐ Shì (三體式) in the Arms song (臂) of the Nine Songs of Xingyiquan (形意拳九歌):

左臂前伸,
右臂在肋,
似曲不曲,
似直不直,
過曲不遠,
過直少力。
"The left arm stretches forward.
The right arm is by the ribs.
They seem bent but are not bent.
They seem straight but are not straight.
Bend too much and there is not enough reach.
Make it too straight and there is not enough strength."


As implied in the text above, there is a link between the position of the elbow and capacity to emit power. Yáng Chéngfǔ (楊澄甫) makes it very clear in Sink the Shoulders and Drop the Elbows (沉肩墜肘):

肘若懸起,則肩不能沉,放人不遠,近于外家之斷勁矣。
"If the elbows seem raised or suspended, then the shoulders cannot sink. Therefore the ability to release (power towards) the opponent does not go far. This is similar to the external styles discontinuous power."

The elbow (肘) and the unification of the body

It is important to keep in mind that the elbow does not function alone, as nothing does in Internal Martial Arts (內家拳). Instruction on it is very precise, as the relationship between the elbow and the knees is classified among the Three External Coordinations (三外和). This is particularly transmitted on Xíngyìquán (形意拳) texts, for example in "The Six Harmonies of Xingyiquan" (形意拳六合) by Líng Shànqīng (凌善清):

肘往下垂勁,兩膝往里扣勁,是曰肘與膝合
"When the two elbows are sinking and the two knees are locked internally, it is said that the elbows and the knees are coordinated."

The unification of the body is of course a topic by itself.

The elbow (肘) in combat

Finally, the elbow is also seen as both a "weapon" and a "technique". In Xíngyìquán (形意拳) it is classified among the Seven Stars (七星) or seven points of contact, as one can read in the "Song of Seven Stars" (七星歌) by Jiāng Róngqiáo (薑容樵):

用必七體,
頭肩手,
胯膝合足,
相助為友。
"In applications it is necessary to use the seven forms: These are the head, shoulder, elbow, hand, Thighs, knees and feet, They help one another as old friends."

And the elbow is also a key element in the applications of Tàijíquán (太極拳). It is one of the Eight Directions or Eight Methods (八法秘訣) with subitilities of its own.

A reminder from the Secret of Eighteen Dependencies (十八在訣) is suitable as the final word of this survey:
肘在曲使
"The elbow strike is used bent, "

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