In more than a way, Chén (沉)is the complement of Dǐng (頂).By itself the character means to sink, to drop, to lower, heavy. In this sense it points in the opposite direction of Dǐng (頂): Dǐng (頂) pushes to the top, Chén (沉)drifts to the bottom. It appears in words like heavy (沉重), to precipitate (沉澱), to sink (下沉) or profound (沉思). Where Dǐng (頂) has a connotation of activity, of pushing to the top, 沉 brings a more passive sensation, such as in calm and steady (沉着), stillness (沉寂), contemplation (沉思) or stagnant (沉凝). And where Dǐng (頂) is associated with an outgoing vitality, 沉 brings a more collected trait, such as in a reserved (深沉) person, taciturn (沉默), or to be absorbed by something (沉思).

Sinking (沉) and the elbow

Chén (沉) is mostly as an instruction for the elbows, but sometimes also to the shoulders. The first indication by the texts is that it should be "sunk" or "dropped". 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:

"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):

"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 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". It seems to me that there is an implied sensation of heaviness, of weight that brings the "sinking". Another term that is used is Xiàchuí (下垂), which has the meaning of hang down.

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:

"When both elbows hang down, then both arms are naturally round, and can solidify the ribs.

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)

"The Sink the Elbow instruction is constantly 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."

The powers of gravity

Surrendering oneself to gravity allows the practitioner to mobilise its power. As Will Johnson explains in the “Posture of Meditation”, allowing oneself to weigh down brings many benefits, such as rooting

“Alignment is only important in so far as it allows us to surrender the weight of the body to the pull of gravity and experience the feeling of relaxation. To relax in this way is to reestablish our connection with the earth.”

And harnessing the power of gravity:

“By aligning our bodies with the directional flow of the gravitational field, we effectively transform the effect of gravity from a force against which we must constantly struggle and brace ourselves into a force that can provide both support and stabilization, a sea in which we can float and feel buoyed up.”

A point that is not lost in the Martial Arts literature, where a link between the sunken position of the elbow and capacity to emit power is established. Yáng Chéngfǔ (楊澄甫) makes it very clear in Sink the Shoulders and Drop the Elbows (沉肩墜肘):

"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."

Sinking (沉) and awareness

The sensation of sinking should not be confused with an stagnant heaviness. There is a lightness in sinking, and of enhanced sensitivity. Will Johnson explains:

“A body that can align itself with gravity and then relax through surrendering its weight to the gravitational pull activates an awareness of its tactile, sensational presence.”

And 楊班侯 Yáng Bān hóu brings the same point, warning against a confusion between sinking and a stagnant heaviness in the chapter 太極輕重浮沉解 Taiji's Lightness, Heaviness, Floating and Sinking from the 太極拳說四十篇Forty Chapters on Tàijíquán:

Both sides fully sinking is okay. It has to do with being ready to move. It is different from heaviness.

Weigh Down (沉) and the unification of the body

And finally, 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):

"When the two elbows are sinking and the two knees are locked internally, it is said that the elbows and the knees are coordinated."

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