Tai-Chi Master Jan Silberstorff on the new book

Jan Silberstorff, born in 1967, is a direct student of his Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang. In 1989 he passed the state teaching examination for Taichi-Kwan in the People’s Republic of China. In 1994, under the aegis of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, he founded the WCTAG (World Chen Tai-Chi Association Germany), which is now probably the largest Tai-Chi association in Europe. He speaks fluent Chinese and has become well known as a result of his numerous tournament victories in Europe and China, as well as regular items about Taichi-Kwan on TV and in the press.

Dear Mr. Kernspecht,

I have now read your book with great pleasure, and am extremely gratified for many reasons.

First of all because we are clearly both working on similar concepts at present, and secondly because I am pleased that you have relieved me of a personally unpleasant task to which you appear to be far more suited than I.
I refer to the attempt to place our concepts on a scientific footing.
I personally prefer to argue more on the basis of the insights I have gained from practical, inner Taichi-Kwan training, and of their successful implementation in practice. Accordingly I tend to illustrate my theories with “stories” from my life, thereby bypassing my inborn laziness with respect to scientific research and source material.
I therefore find it easy to identify with the unnamed Indian mystic and professor whom you quote in your introduction as saying that the eastern mind can only be pseudo-scientific. Perhaps that is why I have spent so much of my lifetime in that part of the world …
I realise that you are happily able to combine both these approaches, which both pleases and relieves me. In future I can simply refer people to your book and continue to rely on my ”stories” …
On page 34 you cite a classic principle of the Chinese martial arts (which is of fundamental importance in Taichi-Kwan, but also forms a traditional part of Shaolin-Kwan): “If the opponent does not move, I do not move. As soon as the opponent wants to move, I move first.” I think we both regard this as a starting point for our work, though during my activities within my association I have taken the liberty of translating this sentence (which in Taichi-Kwan literally says “The opponent does not move, I do not move. The opponent moves, I move before him“) slightly differently, or adding to it: ”The opponent does not move, I do not move. The opponent moves, I am already there.” In this way I not only place myself in a position where I start last but move first (which you have explained very well on the basis of neurological research findings), I also ensure that I really am the first to arrive. More than this – wherever the opponent attempts an attack I am already there before him, I become his worst nightmare, for wherever he wants to go I am already waiting for him. In our pushing hands exercises we practice this by trying to ”feel our way” deeply into the opponent and accompanying his movement from the deepest source we are able to perceive, almost as if guiding it. With sufficient skill we experience the movement of the other person at source, though he himself is unaware of this because he lacks the requisite ”sense of feeling”. Naturally we can only perceive in-depth movement in the other person if we are generally capable of perceiving it in ourselves. Accordingly, self-knowledge always comes first. In practice this means that training in the forms always stands above pushing hands.
This explains the old saying by Lao-Tzu very well: ”He who knows the other person is clever, he who knows himself is wise.” And also the classic saying ”One must first overcome the enemy within before one can overcome the enemy without.“ We take this very literally.
This is why working with our energy is so important to us. In our view any impulse whatsoever, whether physical or mental, is always primarily a result of inner energy. Just as we do not normally perceive the energy itself, but only its effect. In this connection the Zhuang-Zhi refers to the ”fasting of the heart“ to point out a level that lies before the perceptions (of ourselves and also of others) of which we are conscious). This means that we must become aware of the area that lies before feeling. In Taoist terms, we must learn to feel non-feeling. In this way the wise man is able to ”act in secrecy” or ”not act, though nothing is left undone” (Lao-Tzu). For this action takes place in an area which occurs before the perception threshold of an untrained person, and which is therefore concealed to him, i.e. he is unable to recognise any action. To quote the founder of our style, Chen Wangting (17th Century): “Nobody knows me, though I know them all.“
We are also similar with respect to the principle you cite on page 37 of your book: “Do not follow the arms, follow the body“. In view of the above I would however go one stage further (inside) and say: “Do not follow the movements of the opponent, but rather his centre.“ This principle is incorrectly understood by most followers of Taichi-Kwan. They try to follow the movements (and ultimately also the arms), and continue to do this even when they are no longer actually threatened by them, or never were in fact threatened by them – it is just that they did not realise this).
But if I follow – or rather guide and accompany – the movements of the opponent from his centre, I take control right from the start. In the ideal case this means that the opponent is unable to come forward in the first place, and the fight becomes a “non-fight”. In practice it means victory at the very first moment. Feeling one’s way further and further to the source of movement means that our own movements become increasingly smaller and therefore more subtle, forming the basis for the following principle in the inner martial arts: “Large movements are not better than small movements. Small movements are not better than non-movements. True movement arises from non-movement.“
In order to perceive all these phenomena we must of course go on a journey deep within ourselves. This explains the way in which Taichi-Kwan and its so-called ”inner energy development” or Chi-Kung is practiced. Accordingly, Taichi-Kwan and in particular the content of training in the forms is often misunderstood by outsiders. It is therefore important not merely to do the forms, but to understand their real, profound importance and see them as a tool for working on the inner self, not just as a collection of external techniques. The latter would have no value in themselves, and you yourself are well aware – as you have explained to me – of the value of ”slow-motion training”.
It is interesting: when I first started I asked myself how anybody could ever ”fight” with such slow training, and it was with some envy that I looked over the fence at my friends in the external martial arts world.
In fact precisely the opposite applies now: I find it almost impossible to understand how “fast training” can lead to a certain depth at all. Of course, by practicing this one quickly discovers the spiritual concept of ”giving oneself up” in order to become aware of the dimension that lies behind or rather before it, and to position oneself better in this area. I also discern a further concept in your idea on page 50, and especially your remarks on “overcoming fear”: while the fear is still there, we ourselves are no longer where the fear is. It is as if the rain is still falling, but I am no longer standing in the rain. I am sitting inside (in the dry), and am now only an observer of the rain, i.e. this fear, so to speak. Of course the dimension before the “I“ cannot be perceived by the “I” in this sense, however if I have trained correctly it explains why I act so much more efficiently at moments that ”I” in the truest sense do not perceive. For example during a real but sudden or surprise confrontation, where fear has just as little time to appreciate the situation and develop as ”I” myself. “Fear” and awareness only occur at the moment when the opponent already lies beaten on the ground. One might say that things happened far too quickly to lose or feel fear. Only afterwards do I realise what has happened, and a kind of ”after-fear” sets in. Intuitive control of a situation is made possible by following the Taichi-Kwan principle ”If the opponent moves slowly, I move slowly. If he moves quickly, I move quickly.” Specifically this means that I always move in the energy of the other person. It is quite simple: if the attack is serious, so am I; if it is only sporadic, I am no different. In this way I am in no danger of over or under-reacting. These processes happen too fast for me to exert mental control over them, however. Once again remaining natural and use of the right energy are decisive, for the (re)actions are intuitive in a serious encounter, and usually not consciously controlled.

I very much liked your example of how aggression can in fact serve to prevent violence, while a lack of emotion can be extremely dangerous (P. 14-15). No doubt a high level of ”intuition”, allowing a correct assessment of the relevant person and situation, is however required to avoid any provocation at the wrong moment.

But what really gave me special pleasure was your emphasis on the outside position. The outside position has always been the one I preferred, and it has often given me a gratifying advantage. The outside position is always the primary position in our pushing hands exercises, which has led me to conclude that this is one of the differences between our Taichi-Kwan and your WingTsun system. I am therefore glad that I can now jettison this idea.

I hope I have not been too long-winded and remain, with best regards

Jan Silberstorff

Dear Mr. Silberstorff,

My wholehearted thanks for your remarks about the 1st edition of my book, as I feel understood although you practice a completely different style.
Let me quote from your letter: "The opponent moves, I am already there." This corresponds to the example of the race between the hare and the hedgehog in my book "On Single Combat", where the hedgehog says: "I am already there."
Your admonitions that ”One must first overcome the enemy within before one can overcome the enemy without“ and "Self-knowledge always comes first" or ”He who knows the other person is clever, he who knows himself is wise” are also reflected at the higher or inner level of WingTsun.
”We try to "feel our way" deeply into the opponent and accompany his movement from the deepest source we are able to perceive, almost as if guiding it“ could equally well be descriptive of WT, as is your statement that ”training in the forms always stands above pushing hands“. I could join you in countering the WT fighter who believes that tactile feeling is the ultimate aim in WT with ”We must become aware of the area that lies before feeling“.
”Do not follow the movements of the opponent, but rather his centre.“ is a well-known WT maxim, just as ”victory at the very first moment“ is our ideal.
Your words on overcoming fear: ”While the fear is still there, we ourselves are no longer where the fear is. It is as if the rain is still falling, but I am no longer standing in the rain. I am sitting inside (in the dry), and am now only an observer of the rain, i.e. this fear, so to speak“, likewise reflect our own understanding. I was very gratified to read your statement: ”If he moves quickly, I move quickly“, as this is also the WT attitude to speed, which in our case – owing to Chi-Sao and our short distances – does not necessarily possess the overriding importance is has in other styles. One of our WT adages is that we do not need to be fast ourselves, as we also borrow speed from the opponent.
”But what really gave me special pleasure was your emphasis on the outside position“. The fact that this pleased you also pleases me, for I consider the outside position to offer more safety than the inside position – particularly important for those less experienced in Chi-Sao.

The two of us have only read each other’s books and had a very agreeable conversation over a meal on one occasion, but without having to touch hands we found that we speak the same language and share a very similar understanding of the martial arts, while a superficial observer watching us at work would think that our movements are very different. A cleverer man than I once used the building of the Tower of Babel as a symbol of this: there was a ”confusion of languages“ after which each person used a different language and no longer understood the others. The same applies today with the different religions, but also with much more profane things such as the martial arts. Everybody thinks himself to be the sole possessor of the truth, and openly or secretly derides what others consider to be true. The average martial artist only sees the external form of movements, techniques, forms, exercises and the sequences in ”partner dances“. He is able to appreciate speed, power, dynamism, suppleness and artistry, but his understanding hardly scratches the surface. A master, however, must explore and understand things in-depth – which means going inward, to the centre. This is what is meant by ”a journey deep within oneself“, which is also a journey into the depths of a martial art. Our nature and understanding when doing this also determines our understanding of the martial arts.
Let me use the image of a circle to illustrate what I mean. Inside the circle I have entered a number of styles at random, e.g. WingTsun, Aikido, Taichi-Kwan, Escrima, Shaolin, Muay-Thai, Pakua. I could equally well have written Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism or Hinduism, for religions – like martial arts – have superficial aspects, and a journey to any religion is always a journey to oneself. Within the large, "exoteric" circle – at one third of its radius – I have drawn a second circle which I call the "mesoteric" circle. Even closer to the centre is the "esoteric" circle. The term "esoteric" has nowadays become misused by sensationalists and as a result one is almost ashamed to use it, though it basically only means "inside". Esoteric knowledge is "insider knowledge" held by people who have penetrated to the inner circle.

So what is the way of WingTsun or Aikido or Shaolin?
My drawing plainly shows it as the line that proceeds from the relevant style directly to the centre of the circle – this is what is generally referred to as Do, the Tao or "the Way". And just as many roads lead to Rome or to the centre of the earth, there are many different ways to that which all the martial arts share at their core.
And now it becomes clear why although we represent different styles, there is a greater understanding, proximity and affinity between us two than e.g. between you and most practitioners of your style. Our students pay attention to familiar physical postures, technical execution and sequences, i.e. to external aspects, while we see with the heart.

There is undoubtedly exoteric, mesoteric and esoteric WingTsun, just as there is outer, middle and inner Taichi-Kwan, and there must also be e.g. Aikido people who are outer, middle or inner Aikidoka, depending on their level of understanding.
At the outer (exoteric) level, WingTsun and Taichi-Kwan are far apart. This is the level and phase at which probably 70% of our students find themselves.
Advanced students are in the mesoteric circle, and have a much greater understanding of those who are in the mesoteric circle of other styles.
But somebody who has found access to the innermost (esoteric) circle of his style after decades of inner deliberation on the subject will find himself at very close quarters with somebody who has an intimate knowledge of another style, however much this style may differ superficially.
Interestingly enough, we two are able to communicate better than I can e.g. with a master in a different wing-chun style, although his style is actually closer to mine than yours is. This is because styles which initially only have minor differences tend to make a point of emphasising these differences and building these few differences into an insurmountable wall to distinguish themselves even further. This is in the nature of the tendency to form a "reference group" or "psychological group", which is why I shall return to our subject in resignation.

So if the radius is the way of the relevant style, does this mean that every way is equally fast? Has this way already been covered right to the end by every style? Is one way more difficult than another? Does every way have travellers who have already been there, and who might act as travel guides?
And what about the saying that the way is more important than the goal? For what is the way the goal? What is the goal? What indeed is the goal? Is not somebody who constantly changes his Si-Fu or Sensei or Guro in danger of remaining an eternal student, an eternal seeker who has programmed himself never to "want" to arrive? But on the shoulders of Lessing, did not Max Planck also recognise that it is not the possession of truth but wrestling to achieve it that constitutes the happiness of a researcher, for in the long run staying where we are leads to fatigue and lack of energy. We should talk about this over our next meal together.


Keith R. Kernspecht

PS: The deeper we dig, the more we penetrate from the surface to the interior, to the origin and centre, the fewer the real differences we find where the truth is concerned. I am reminded of this when considering the importance of the Qmran scrolls, which were found in caves approx. 30 km to the east of Jerusalem between 1947 and 1956. While this highly contentious material did not bring about the fundamental upheaval of the Christian church that some had rashly predicted – as they unfortunately fulfil more of a social, cultural, political and economic function today – I should quote M. Baigent on the matter: "The Dead Sea Scrolls make the three great religions which take their origin from the Middle East appear in a new light. The more one examines these religions (I would say the more deeply one penetrates into the interior), the more one finds how much they overlap and how much they have in common – in fact that they basically all come from the same source (I would say "centre"), and that the disputes among their adherents, if not based on misunderstandings, are not so much due to spiritual values but rather to politics, envy, selfishness and an interpretation made from the viewpoint of prejudice and arrogance."
I would like to add blind fanaticism to this list as a dreadful symptom of identification.