In martial arts there are two very different types of systems: soft, internal styles and hard, external styles. There are others as well and those that purport to mix, but I want to focus on those two, and in particular, the soft, internal styles as a contrast to the hard, external styles. The words “soft” and “hard,” as commonly used in English, are opposites, polar opposites in fact, representing a continuum of strong, resistant solidity. I feel this common usage of those terms has clouded the meanings and roused misconceptions, particularly of “soft” as used in internal martial arts. Note that in this article, I will be, for ease of explanation, over-simplifying a bit, but not to the point of error.
There is a common phrase from Chinese philosophy that states that “softness overcomes hardness” or that “the soft overcomes the hard.” People often look at this as philosophical mumbo jumbo. I have listened to someone say that if they took their hard finger and poked someone in their soft eye, the finger would win. That statement says a lot. It pokes (pun intended) fun at ancient wisdom and shows that soft things have a weakness that is ready to be exploited by hard things. It also highlights a major misconception which I will expand on later. As a counterpoint, the classic example of water is given: water erodes rock and creates things such as the Grand Canyon. However, this is not practical in a fight. Am I to drool on someone continuously over centuries, patiently awaiting victory? No.
Is it the case that the phrase should not be taken literally? Is soft weak? No, and no. The phrase is very literal, and soft does not mean weak. In martial arts the term hard is used in the common way. It means solid, strong, powerful. Of course, within the broad category of external martial arts there are styles that are considered hard and those that are considered soft. However, the word “soft” as used in external styles does not have the same meaning as “soft” as used in internal styles or T’ai Chi in particular. Even within internal martial arts, there are styles that are seen as hard and those that are seen as soft. However, “hard” as used in internal styles does not have the same meaning as “hard” as used in external styles. I am not going to cover all of those variations. I will stick to the original contrast.
If soft is not weak, then why is it perceived as such? I feel it is the result of two very closely related issues. One is that people have trouble getting away from the preconceived notion of soft and hard as being polar opposites. The other is widespread incorrect practice of soft, internal martial arts.
Hard is simple to do. It is how we would normally react. I tend to use the phrase “conventional strength” when talking about hard strength as used in external martial arts. Kids fighting in the playground or adults fighting in a bar are examples of hard, though not necessarily trained or skilled hard. External martial arts train hard to become harder, stronger, and faster through use of good structure, strength training, more stamina, and efficient strategies. There is much overt and visible strength in these hard styles.
Let us return to soft now. Hard seems clear and much strength is used. If soft is the polar opposite of hard, then much less strength must be used, right? This is where the problem is and can be seen in bad T’ai Chi all over the world. There is a saying about T’ai Chi that goes something like this: “Done right, T’ai Chi is the best martial art. Done wrong, it is the worst.” Best and worst are both extreme, and I am not going to get into that, especially the idea of T’ai Chi being the best. I do not want to start that kind of argument here. However, done poorly, T’ai Chi is a very, very bad martial art. This is because those people want to be soft without really knowing what soft is. They relax because they know they should relax without really knowing what the right kind of relaxation is. They give up using as much conventional strength as they can because they know they are not supposed to be forceful. So, what happens then? The person ends up being relaxed in a way that still has the joints closed even though the joints should be open. Because they lack clarity as to what soft is and they have tried to give up conventional strength, what they end up doing is using tiny bits of conventional strength in order to move around. Being “relaxed” and using tiny bits of conventional strength may seem radically different than methods employed by hard external martial arts, but it is actually the same, still hard, just much, much less hard. This is why bad T’ai Chi is not effective as a martial art. What we end up having is someone being hard and strong against someone being hard (without knowing it) while at the same time being passive and weak (tiny amounts of conventional strength).
This is not what soft is supposed to be in internal martial arts. The soft of internal martial arts is not the polar opposite of the hard of external martial arts. They are not on a continuum. You cannot get to one from the other. They are different things, even though they both use the human body in similar shapes performing similar techniques. When encountering a force from an opponent, if being hard, there are 2 main possibilities: resist or withdraw. For those not trained or skilled, this can be blatant; resisting becomes hard clashes and withdrawing becomes moving out of the way or even running away. For those with training and skills, it becomes more subtle, resisting and withdrawing are done at angles to the force, and timing becomes very important. However, conventional strength is still being used to either do something to the force or to get away from the force, and because conventional strength is still being used, it is hard and external. What, then, is soft?
In T’ai Chi, it is said that one should neither resist nor withdraw. Those 2 options are so typical and ingrained that it is difficult for people to even fathom that there is a 3rd possibility. However, it is this 3rd possibility that is the realm of softness. When teaching beginners, I refer to it as option 3 or door number 3. Furthermore, it is because option 3 is something very different than the other 2 options that I can say that this kind of soft is not on a continuum with that kind of hard. In fact, engaging in resisting or withdrawing keeps option 3 from happening. So, what is option 3?
Option 3 is allowing the force to pass through your body without it adversely affecting your balance or stability. This cannot happen if you withdraw from the force. If you withdraw, then the force does not enter in order to pass through. This also cannot happen if you resist, even if you use just a tiny bit of conventional force as your resistance. If you resist a force, then the force will land on and / or in you depending on various factors. If the force lands on and / or in you, then, once again, it cannot pass cleanly through you. For instance, if someone strongly grabs you and you hold strongly against it (resisting) so as to remain upright and in control of yourself, then the force of the interaction lands in you and will be felt in the areas of tension in your body. Your muscles would be strongly stabilizing your joints so you could try to be stable, and other muscles would be engaged in order to act out against the force. In this kind of situation, the bigger, stronger, faster person wins because the forces involved have less of an effect on their balance and stability, and therefore, ability to generate power, than the smaller, weaker, slower person. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, hard external training aims at making you stronger and faster, but also teaches strategy involving angles and timing in order to minimize the effect of the strength of the opponent on your stability and balance. However, by neither withdrawing nor resisting (option 3), you allow the force to enter your body and pass cleanly through it without it affecting your stability and balance, thereby preserving your power base and upsetting the power base of your opponent. The opponent’s power base gets upset because in most cases (depending on specifics regarding intention and technique of the soft internal practitioner), the power is returned to the opponent using various methods (depending on the style and branch of soft internal martial art). The harder they are and the more direct force they use, the more force that gets returned to them. It is as if they are fighting themselves. Furthermore, it confuses them to some degree because they are not getting the tactile feedback that they are used to getting.
All throughout life, the norm is using conventional force and either withdrawing from or resisting against forces that your encounter. Your body and mind are conditioned to what that all feels like. It becomes your sense of physical reality. If you are being hard and strong and your opponent is doing option 3, that will feel very different from what you are used to feeling. It is that odd feeling that is labeled as “soft.” That is the meaning of soft, and it is not weak. In fact, ideally it is as strong as whatever force is being manipulated.
So far, I have only touched on using the opponent’s force, but there are various ways of creating a force from the core of your body near your center of gravity (different styles and branches of internal martial arts may use different methods) that do not require you to brace hard and strongly against the ground in order to impact your opponent. When that force you create is “released” it passes cleanly through through your body in the same way that your opponent’s force passes cleanly through your body. This force is in addition to any force that your opponent is unwittingly supplying to the equation. Again, because this released force does not have a background of resisting or withdrawing to it, the way it feels to an opponent does not coincide with his normal sense of feel in a physical contest. It has that same odd feeling that is labeled as “soft.”
Other than feeling odd, what else is soft? The main characteristic seems to be that it is difficult to detect where the force is coming from. The “softer” the practitioner is, meaning the more cleanly the forces can pass through them, the more difficult it is to detect where the force is coming from when they apply it to you. Because your normal sense of physical interactions involve you either resisting or withdrawing from a force, when you encounter a force but cannot feel where the force is coming from, you cannot resist it because you cannot properly align against it. Also, depending on how well the internal martial artist can stick to and follow you, it can be also become very difficult to withdraw from them.
How does one become soft, allowing forces to pass through? That is a different discussion for a different time. However, I hope that I have given you a sense of what soft is and why it feels odd. Furthermore, I hope you now understand that this soft is not the polar opposite of and on a continuum with hard and so should not be considered as weak. It is the internal practitioners who do not enter door number 3 or who do enter but never get sufficiently skilled at it (the overwhelming majority of people who practice internal martial arts) who end up still using tiny bits of conventional strength and evasively withdraw from forces that have allowed the perpetuation of the misconception that soft is weak. Me? I keep working on becoming a clear conduit for forces, stripping away the errors little by little.