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The silkworm spins its cocoon from raw silk. Each cocoon is made of a single continuous thread of silk measuring between 1000 to 3000 feet long.
When the caterpillar eats its way through the cocoon, it destroys the silk. The Chinese found that the silk could be extracted by boiling the cocoon and killing the caterpillar.
This practice has led to the emergence of a number of protest groups who feel that the method is inappropriate.
The thread must be drawn from the cocoon in a very particular way in order to avoid damaging the silk. If it is drawn too quickly, the thread will snap. Too slowly and it will sag.
The action must be slow and smooth, without any gaps and deficiencies. Tai chi takes its strength from this operation.
In tai chi the body needs to sustain a consistent vector of force in a given direction. This is achieved by aligning the body so that a path is provided for the force to travel along.
The path is called 'inherent peng'. It cannot be broken when the body moves or turns, otherwise the ability to transmit power is lost.
Reeling silk is a means of utilising the connective tissues of the body, along with soft muscles, spine and waist - in order to provide this path. The energy wave needs to use your body as a conduit.
If the channel is weak or tense in any way, the wave will be blocked within. Your body must be internally strong and loose from the ground to fingertips.
Reeling silk is markedly different from mere connection. Its unique quality is the use of circularity. Spiralling and twisting provide the underlying physical framework for this type of movement.
'Winding' or 'drawing' refers to action of bringing force towards you and is reflected in the jing of rollback and pluck.
'Reeling' is the reverse of winding; in which force is projected (fa jing) from the body by the use of spiralling.
When you perform reeling silk, your body should move like a caterpillar; undulating, feeding an energy wave through the entire structure.
Circles and spirals
Tai chi gains its strength by way of the curved, and every movement involves spiralling.
The twisting and turning of the body in tai chi is usually quite subtle, with only the barest hint of spiralling evident to the observer.
It is important not to exaggerate the use of spiralling, otherwise the joints will close and freedom of movement is lost. As with everything else in your practice, intent is essential.
Chen style uses reeling silk in a more explicit manner than the Yang system.
Inexperienced exponents simply twist their disconnected limbs instead of unifying the complete structure for every movement.
The use of reeling silk is essential during combat, where the wave-like undulations are used to absorb and redirect incoming force.
Beginners start by learning how to perform a whole series of qigong/neigong exercises which lay the foundation for reeling silk. Later, the same exercises are then reconsidered with a different emphasis.
Coordination and timing become the focus, as well as alignment.
By moving the body in an increasingly integrated manner, the strength increases and the correct muscles are used for the production of power.
Lines of force are critical at this stage. In particular the maxim: square on the inside, round on the outside.
This builds up a lot of physical power and every movement feels to come from the muscles of the central torso, back and legs.
Eventually, the exercises are re-considered. Now that the correct alignment exists and the muscles are working effectively, the focus shifts to rhythm and flow.
Instead of feeling muscular, the muscularity has been internalised and can no longer be felt. The kinetic wave is the onus.
Reeling silk skills will not emerge until later in the syllabus. It is only later when reeling silk becomes a neigong that the full power is apparent.
The student must comprehend the exercises introduced in the beginners syllabus, for these hold the seeds of what is to come later.
A tai chi student demonstrates reeling silk in every single movement. A master internalises reeling silk until only the most subtle kinetic wave is left.
Be advised that reeling silk can never be completely internalised. If you can see no evidence of it in somebody's tai chi, then it most likely does not exist.
18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023