Empty Force (also known as “Kong Jing”)
Is it fakery? If so, what exactly is it faking?
Is it real? If so, why does it look fake?
Every so often a new video is circulated which demonstrates some tai chi master apparently throwing people around without touching them. Sometime the master uses light contact, and sometime he or she is several feet from the other person. These demonstrations become fodder for proponents and detractors of tai chi, qigong, psychokinesis, telepathy, religion, and martial arts in general.
Monotheist: “Do you believe in God?”Scientist: “I suppose that depends on the definition of God. What do think God is like?Monotheist: “Well, first of all, She is black.”
It is very easy to look at such a demonstration and dismiss it as obvious fakery. Yet the demonstrations continue to surface with different masters. They also include a wide variety of volunteers, some of whom are well respected martial artists with national championships to their names.
The most recent video to invigorate controversy is one showing Madame Yan Fang as she calmly tosses and flips various students who seem alternately amused and shocked.
When we witness something that seems too strange to be believed, it is important for us to analyze not only what we are seeing, but the preconceptions and assumptions about what we are witnessing. While some might see a particular phenomenon as a miracle of divine origin, others will see a natural event with a perfectly scientific explanation. A bad scientist will jump to conclusions about the mechanisms involved, and bad theologians will preconceive the divinity involved.
“I know that you believe that you understand what you think that I said, but I’m not so certain that you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
I have had personal experience with several such “Empty force” demonstrations, both as a witness and as a participant. Some demonstrations were performed by honest teachers and some were performed by those whose presentation might be considered to be somewhat less than honest . I believe I can offer some unique insights.
To the outsider witnessing such demonstrations, it is easy to dismiss the demonstrations based merely on the fact that the teacher will almost never demonstrate on someone who is not one of his or her own students. The teacher will often give an explanation for this. The most common explanations are:
a. The student needs to have some training in order to sense the teacher’s qi and to respond appropriately.
b. The student needs to have strong enough qi that they will not be injured or made ill by the teachers powerful qi.
c. The demonstration is qi against qi. Therefore the student must have some in order to be pushed. “It is easier to bounce and inflated balloon than it is to bounce a deflated one.”
Very few of the people who demonstrate such skills would claim that they could do the same thing in a fight, and they are often quite up front about that fact. Actual matches with those who do make such claims and are called to task nearly always end badly.
So what is going on with these empty force demonstrations?The students are experiencing something. Perhaps it is a kind of hypnosis or something like it. Perhaps there is something more.
Before we attempt a scientific hypothesis, lets try to understand the experience from the subjective point of view. I will leave an objective look at the nature of “qi” to another article. Instead let’s just hold our noses and assume that there is some subjective and objective experience of something called “qi”.
Lets say that qi is experienced like electricity or a similar kind of energy that circulates in conductive material in the human body. Let’s assume that, like any electric current, it has a magnetic field. Further, let’s assume that one can master the cultivation and circulation of this energy in such a way as to manipulate the magnetic field and cause it to interfere with the energy circulation in another person.
There are, in my experience, two very different types of teacher who do this practice: the “good kind”, and the “personality cult.”
The Good Empty Force Master
The good teachers will practice manipulating their students qi and instruct the students to relax, clear the mind, and follow the energy as honestly as possible. When the student follows the teachers qi correctly, he or she will be commended. When the student does not move, the teacher will tell them to practice more and come back when they are ready. When the student responds, but does so in a way that is not following the teacher’s intent, the teacher will admonish them by saying something like, “No. That was you. That was not me.”
I have had the opportunity to visit some “good empty force” masters. I would ask politely for a demonstration of empty force, and when they agree, they do so by saying, “Well, we can give it a try.” One teacher began by making subtle gestures with his hands that coincided with what I was feeling inside my body. If I had just followed his hands, I would have risen up on my toes and then bounced down the hallway. However, at the last second I “felt the energy” change and I dropped to the ground. He came forward and congratulated me saying, “That was very good.” He had deliberately made his external movements different from the energetic intent, in order to see if I was responding to his qi or to my own ego. I have not always done so well.
When a students practice being pushed around by a “good empty force master” for a long time, they become extremely good at sensing an opponent’s intent. They are experts at “investing in loss” and at using the opponent’s ego as a weapon. When engaged in a wrestling match, a push hands match, or a fight, such a student will be able flow effortlessly with the opponent’s attacks, neutralizing them before they happen.
The Bad Empty Force Master
The bad teachers will practice manipulating their students qi and instruct the students to relax, clear the mind, and follow the energy. When the student follows the teachers qi correctly, the teacher might commend the student or might simply assume a mantle of superiority. When the student does not move, the teacher will tell them to practice more and come back when they are ready. When the student responds, but does so in a way that is not following the teacher’s intent, the teacher will change his or her own movements in order to make it appear as if they are causing the movement.
The “bad empty force master” will be less concerned with the student’s ability to be balanced and follow honestly, and more concerned with looking impressive to onlookers and to the student.
When a student practice being pushed around by a “bad empty force master” for a long time, they become extremely good at being pushed around. When engaged in a wrestling match, a push hands match, or a fight, such a student will be able flow effortlessly with the opponent’s attacks, flying through the air, bouncing across the room, or slamming into the ground. Often they will lose to the opponent even before the opponent has attacked.
It is impossible to determine with any certainty whether a performance is real or faked. Sometimes the participants themselves, instructors included, cannot tell for certain. However, there is something real here. It is just that what is being demonstrated is seldom what is being perceived.
One thing of which I am certain. Viral videos of empty force demonstrations, whether honest or not, do little to legitimize tai chi in the eyes of the general public. They appeal to those who want to have magical powers, but are not prepared for the hard work required for mastery. Such demonstrations might also discourage other students who are willing to work hard, who expect nothing and who are prepared for anything.
One of my teachers once said of empty force demonstrations, “Middle level masters demonstrate these things. High level masters do not demonstrate these things. Low level masters cannot do these things.”
It is relatively rare to find teachers who openly teach empty force. I have met several who could practice this way, but they prefer to develop their student’s sensitivity through tuishou (“pushing hands“) or other means.
Master Yan Fang, the woman in the video mentioned earlier, is a respected teacher whose students have proven themselves as skilled tuishou competitors. She has been forthright about the nature of the demonstrations, and has gladly demonstrated the ineffectiveness of this type of demonstration on an untrained volunteer.
The 56-year-old Yan claims to be the first Tai Chi heir of Li Jingo. However, due to her public demonstrations of “kong jing,” the son of Li Jingwu and at least one apprentice, Xiang Guoyuan, have disowned her. She has apparently been removed from the official list of the late Li Jingwu’s apprentices.
Of course, just as kong jing should not be accepted nor dismissed on face value, so is it also with anything official in China. Ever since the Falun Dafa disaster of the 1980’s and 1990’s, the Chinese government has been quick to criticize anyone who attempts to claim or display anything that might be taken as supernatural abilities. Part of the reason for this is a rational fear of personality cults and the inherent dangers such cults pose to their followers. Therefore, anyone who achieves any fame or notoriety for extraordinary qigong powers will likely find themselves standing “officially” alone. None of the 1000 shades of grey, that accompany any official authoritarian Chinese policy, are comfortable hues for those who challenge common understanding or normal boundaries.
It could be that those who disown Yan Fang genuinely believe her to be a deliberate fraud. It could also be that they fear any association with such demonstrations.
It could also be that many serious tai chi teachers believe that such demonstrations of “Empty Force” should be kept in the context of serious classes, and should not be made vulnerable to misunderstandings and the inevitable ridicule that results.
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