Intention (意) is a pervasive term in all internal martial arts. It is explicitly central to Xingyiquan and Yiquan, but it is also extensively discussed in the Taijiquan, Liuhebafa and Baguazhang literature. The way I understand it, Intention (意) is the element that brings agency to the practice. Its accepted etimology is composed of 音 and 心 to bring the meaning of the voice or expression of the mind. David Hinton in his book "China Roots" brings an interpretation that starts from this etimology to a cosmologic view, based on the daoist tradition:

"意 has a range of meanings: “intentionality,” “desire,” “meaning,” “insight,” “thought,” “intelligence,” “mind” (the faculty of thought). The natural Western assumption would be that these meanings refer uniquely to human consciousness, but is also often used philosophically in describing the nonhuman world, as the “intentionality/desire/intelligence” that shapes the ongoing cosmological process of change and transformation. Each particular thing, at its very origin, has its own , as does the Cosmos as a whole. can therefore be described as the “intentionality/intelligence/desire” infusing Tao/Absence and shaping its burgeoning forth into Presence, the ten thousand things of this Cosmos. It could also be described as the “intentionality,” the inherent ordering capacity, shaping the creative force of ch’i."

Yì (意) as a character appears in different words that point globally towards three main meanings. The first is intention, will, in words like determination, willpower (意志), intent (意圖), inclination, disposition (意向), deliberately (故意) and intentionally, meticulously (刻意). The second is meaning, idea, around opinion, meaning (意思), idea (主意), suggestion (意见). The last meaning is around the mind – attention (注意), to be aware, to realize (意識) or to mind (在意).

Intention (意) precedes, is present and lingers on after the movement

The first aspect of intention (意) that we can find in the texts is that it is present throught the movement. Intention (意) is not only a spark that ignites the movement, but a quality of mind that permeates and links all phases of it. Intention is the single common thread underlying the whole movement.

As a first step, Intention springs from the mind towards the whole body, a point that is made over and over in the different schools. For example, in his Study of Xingyi Boxing (形意拳學), Sūn Lùtáng (孫祿堂) makes this point very clear:

The intention comes from the mind. Therefore when the mind’s intention is genuine within, effects will manifest externally, internal and external always operating in unison.

Or for a Taijiquan flavor of it, we can look in the book Taiji Boxing – Wu Jianquan Style (太極拳 - 吳鑑泉式) under the section Understanding How to Practice the Thirteen Dynamics (十三勢行功心解) by Xú zhìyī (徐致一):

Use mind to move energy. You must get the energy to sink. It is then able to collect in the bones. Use energy to move your body. You must get the energy to be smooth. Your body can then easily obey your mind.

If we progress from the mind to the movement, in the Study of Liuhebafa Boxing (六合八法拳學), Chén Yìrén (陳亦人) makes the point that intention is present in that fleeting moment before moving:

欲動似非動 靜中還有意
When you are about to move, there seems to be no movement, and yet within that stillness, there remains intention.

From the mind, through energy, it reaches the whole body, in a movement that is expansive from the idea to the whole body, as Dǒng Yīngjié (董英傑) explains in Taiji Boxing Explained (太極拳釋義):

Once your mind moves, it expresses into your limbs. The grand polarity generates the dual aspects, which lead to the four manifestations, the eight trigrams, and the nine palaces.

And later in the same book, Dong Yinjie indicates that Intention (意) continues, is present after the movement is completed:

My power seems to be relaxed but not relaxed, about to extend but not fully extending. Although the power finishes, the intent of it continues.

Intention (意) and the Body (身)

It naturally follows that Intention (意) permeates the whole body, and in every movement and posture, intention has to be cultivated and found. as Dǒng Yīngjié (董英傑) makes this point when explaining of the Wáng Zōngyuè (王宗岳) Treatise on How to Practice (行功論):

Intention is something that moves between the bones and muscles. When practicing the solo set or playing hands, the experience feels captivating in a way that words are not quite adequate to explain. You must get intention to course through your whole body. When your intention goes to the left, your body goes to the left, and when your intention goes to the right, your body goes to the right.

In many styles intention is expressed through the eyes, a point that is explained clearly by Sūn Lùtáng (孫祿堂) in his "Authentic Explanations of Martial Arts Concepts" (拳意述真) when he explains the meaning of the Ten Eyes:

十目: 即十目所視之意。
The ten eyes: This means the intention of the vision. [i.e. Look so intently it is as though you are gazing with a great many eyes.]

Conversely, this is a point that is less adressed, the influence of the body on intention (意). The right posture of the body allows for intention to surface (意). Dǒng Yīngjié (董英傑) also makes this point in his explanation:

When practicing Taiji Boxing, there are three things that have to come together: spirit, intention, and shape. As long as your postures are correct, spirit and intention will automatically fall into place.

Intention (意), Mind (心) and Energy (氣)

In order to be able to mobilize energy and body, a prerequisite for true intention is to be away from a state of agitation. This is particularly true in sparring situations, where our natural reactions stir up the mind and induce reflex movements from the body. The texts make clear thout that stillness, calmness is a pre-requisite of true intetion. For example, in the "Authentic Explanations of Martial Arts Concepts" (拳意述真) by Sūn Lùtáng (孫祿堂) he reports the explanation by Lǐ Cúnyì (李存義):

If I am not in a state of stillness, then it is not true intention that is going to be moving. If it is not true intention that is moving, then how is there going to be subtlety? Therefore what is intended by “movement” is true intention. When you have achieved the highest level in the practice of the boxing art, it is just that your nature has attained stillness, your true intention is expressing the movement, and there is subtlety of spirit.

Yáo Fùchūn (姚馥春) and Jiāng Róngqiáo (姜容樵) take it a step further in Taiji Boxing Explained (太極拳講義). Beyond stillness, the mind needs to be focused, in order to make the body available to generate internal power:

Focus your intention. This is a matter of mind. When performing the Taiji Boxing set, in each movement focus wholeheartedly on that technique. Then wherever your hands and feet arrive, your mind and intention will also arrive. Thus it is said: “Use intention rather than exertion.” If there is the slightest awkward effort, there will be stagnation among the tissues and vessels, making you unable to be lively and nimble, and your intention will not be able to be focused. But with your mind involved, you will be able to send energy and blood throughout your whole body. If you practice in this way for a long time without interruption, as long you are not using exertion, then you will have genuine internal power.

With calm and focus the conditions for applying intetion are present. In the Taijiquan Classics, the link from the mind to movement and energy is very briefly mentioned, for example in the Understanding How to Practice the Thirteen Dynamics (十三勢行工心解) attributed to Wáng Zōngyuè (王宗岳):

Use your mind to move energy.

Implicit in this phrase is the intention (意) that underlies the link between the mind (心) and the energy (氣). This point is much clearer in Xingyiquan within the notion of the Six Unions (六合), in particular the Three Internal Unions (內三合). The six unions can be found in many source, here is the version that is brougt by Wáng Xiāngzhāi (王薌齋) in the Correct Path of Yiquan:

It is said: “Mind is united with the intention, the intention united with the energy, and the energy united with the power. These are the three internal unions."

With one step further, Sūn Lùtáng (孫祿堂) descrribes the relation between intention, energy and the release of power. We can see in this excerpt that the Six Unions, Internal and External set the right conditions for the intention to go from the mind to the body and energy to be released:

Your energy is “rolled up and stored away tightly” (in your elixir field). When “releasing it, use all six unions” (i.e. mind united with intent, intent united with energy, and energy united with power – these being the three internal unions – as well as shoulder united with hip, elbow united with knee [and hand united with foot] – these being the three internal [external] unions).

Intention (意) in sparring

Being a fundamental element in the martial arts practice means intention is key element in combat. This angle is actually further detailed in different texts and having an overview of these different angles gives another flavor to understand intention. This point is very explicit in the following passage from the Chen style tradition that can be found in the General Explanation of Taijiboxing Fundamentals (太極拳學入門總解) by Chén Jìfǔ (陳績甫):

Here’s a secret: “A punch starts from your mind, the fist following the path of your intention. You should always know both yourself and your opponent, and respond according to the situation.”

Underlying the notion of application for intention, there is the notion of unification, that is of course developed with the 6 Unions. The passage below from the same book makes clear the connection between mind, intention, unification in sparring:

Your mind should be ahead of the opponent’s, your intention should defeat him, your body should attack him, and your step should walk through him. Your head should lift, your chest should go forward, your waist should be upright, and your elixir field should wield energy. From head to foot, there is a continuous flow.

The first concrete aspect of intention in sparring is that enables agility. The whole system of releasing power is guided by intention and relies on the readiness of the body, in the Study of Liuhebafa Boxing (六合八法拳學) by Chén Yìrén (陳亦人) we can find:

意動氣相隨 闗節含蓄力
Where your intention goes, energy follows, your joints containing power stored in readiness.

Another pointer from the same book points to a fundamental point that is also found in Xingyiquan - intention is ruthless, merciless:

意動似懼虎 氣靜如處子
The movement of intention is like a terrifying tiger, while the stillness of energy is like a shy maiden.

Intention (意) therefore brings this explosive, animal-spirit aspect to sparring. It also brings a strategic angle. In Taiji Boxing Explained (極拳講義), Wú Gōngzǎo (吳公藻) defines intention as the ability to use the different instruments available to catch the opponnent:

"Intention" means imaginatively using the principle of emptiness and fullness in order to catch the opponent off guard and attack him unprepared.

It naturally follows that to be effectice, Intention (意) , cannot be perceived by the opponent. In the Study of Liuhebafa Boxing (六合八法拳學) by Chén Yìrén (陳亦人) we can read:

見首不見尾 無象亦無意
The opponent is aware of only one part of your body at a time and confused about the rest, unable to interpret your shape or detect your intention.

Conclusion: Intention (意) without Intention (無意)

The ultimate level or goal of refining intention (意) is emptiness. This is pointed out by Sūn Lùtáng (孫祿堂) when he reports the words of Guō Yúnshēn (郭雲深) in "Authentic Explanations of Martial Arts Concepts" (拳意述真):

Train until “the boxing is without boxing, the intention is without intention, for within no intention is true intention”.

Or in more general terms we find in the Study of Liuhebafa Boxing (六合八法拳學) by Chén Yìrén (陳亦人), the central role of emptiness of mind:


The mind is fundamentally empty of any methods,
for the true method lies in emptiness.
With emptiness, there is naturalness,
and freed from methods, there is nothing holding you back.

In my opinion, this accomplishment of intention (意) is best described in the words of Lǐ Cúnyì (李存義) reported by Sūn Lùtáng (孫祿堂):

In the method of the Xingyi boxing art, “intention” is simply primordial human nature.

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