Four Ounces Can Move a Thousand Pounds
There's a time-honored adage in Tai Chi "Four ounces can move a thousand pounds." It's a bandied about in Tai Chi circles so much that it was even referenced in Disney's 2021 live action reboot of Mulan. "Four Ounces Can Move a Thousand Pounds" is the title of track 9 on the original motion picture soundtrack.
But what does it really mean? Tai Chi boasts a lot of extraordinary claims. There are 16 ounces to a pound. Can something, or someone, move another object that outweighs them by 16 times using Tai Chi? Is this just some Tai Chi fantasy? Is this even possible within the realm of physics?
Teaching Tai Chi and Physics
When it comes to the physics of Tai Chi, there is no better authority than Dr. Robert Chuckrow. Chuckrow's Ph.D. is in experimental physics from NYU. He has taught physics for over four decades at NYU, The Cooper Union, Fieldston and numerous other institutions of higher learnings. He also has an impeccable Tai Chi lineage. He has been studying Tai Chi since 1970 and trained under several notable masters such as Cheng Man-ch'ing, William C.C. Chen, Elaine Summers, Alice Holtman, Harvey I. Sober, Kevin Harrington, and Sam Chin Fan-siong. A noted teacher in his own right, Dr. Chuckrow has authored numerous articles on Tai Chi, as well as several award-winning books. His previous works with YMAA are The Tai Chi Book,Tai Chi Walking, and Tai Chi Dynamics.
When it comes myths about Tai Chi physics, Dr. Chuckrow is here to set the record straight. Tai Chi Concepts and Experiments: Hidden Strength, Natural Movement, and Timing is his fourth YMAA-published Tai Chi book. In it, Chuckrow applies his extensive knowledge of physics to the decades of wisdom that he has cultivated on Tai Chi. It is a distillation of more than a half century devoted to the study, practice, and teaching of Tai Chi and physics. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach, Dr. Chuckrow analyzes Tai Chi in contemporary terms we can all understand, not just physics, but also anatomy, physiology, psychology, and spirituality. Despite his scholarly approach, it is easily accessible to anyone. You don't need a university degree to follow along.
Being an academic, Chuckrow doesn't make unfounded claims. He respectfully cites his predecessors and frames them in way that we can all understand. Tai Chi Concepts and Experiments devotes sections to wisdom that was passed down to Chuckrow by his illustrious teachers along with context and analysis to unravel anything mysterious. He clarifies of "secret" teachings revealed by Cheng Man-ch'ing and others. Chuckrow also references the Tai Chi Classics from whence the "Four Ounces" originates. By decoding these venerated adages and principles, he uncovers their intentions in refreshingly clear and concise English.
Pounds or Catties?
Translating Chinese into English, especially old Chinese like the Tai Chi Classics, is no easy task. When translating between languages, X does not always equal X. There is always a lot of interpretation from the translator alongside notions that just don't translate so smoothly. For example, in Mandarin "Four ounces can move a thousand pounds" is si liang bo qian jin (四两拨千斤). Si liang literally means 'four ounces' which is simple enough. On the other hand, Qian jin means 'thousand catties' which is awkward if taken literally.
A catty is an old Chinese measurement term that's still in use today. However, there's some discrepancy in how that is calibrated. Japan, Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan calculate it at around 600 grams while mainland China has rounded it down to 500 grams. Consequently, it's closer to 1300 or 1100 pounds, respectively. That doesn't sound nearly as poetic, so translators just round it off back to a thousand.
The more critical term is bo which is formally translated as 'move, dispel or distribute'. Chuckrow cites another common translation – 'deflect.' He sees the adage as an important concept despite being muddled from translation into English and its implications to physics. According to Chuckrow "…its wording leads to misunderstanding in explanations involving physics because it is inconsistent with Newton's third law. Namely, if A exerts a force on B, then B must exert an equal and opposite force on A. So if there is a force of one thousand pounds, it must be exerted on something (or somebody) that (or who) exerts one thousand pounds back." (p. 168) This may seem picky to some, but for the benefit of Tai Chi, it is important to be correct.
Tai Chi Concepts and Incoming Force
Chuckrow uses the "four ounces" adage to consider the nature of the deflection of "incoming force" and like any good scholar, define the parameters of his discussion. In this manner, many of the common misconceptions bandied about by Tai Chi enthusiasts who do not have a decent grasp of basic physics are corrected. According to Chuckrow, "Physics-wise, it is simply incorrect for an attack to be described in terms of an opponent's "incoming force," and therefore, it is incorrect to analyze the neutralization in such terms. Maybe the opponent intends to exert one thousand pounds of force on you, but he is unable to do so because of how you arrange the conditions." (p.168)
While this might seem like getting a lecture, it's one every Tai Chi practitioner whoever cited the "four ounces" adage needs to hear. It could save them from embarrassment at the next Tai Chi cocktail party. Ever the teacher, Chuckrow elaborates with physics equations and diagrams. That may get a little too intellectual for some readers. It's a leap from the talks of Professor Cheng Man-ch'ing to Pf – Pi = F • t. but Dr. Chuckrow makes it work on several levels. While the physics equations may appear daunting for some, the lion's share of his explanations are clear enough for readers to understand even with no physics background.
Tai Chi Experiments and Relaxation, Balance and Rooting
Where Tai Chi Concepts and Experiments truly shines are in the experiments. Chuckrow's book is full of 'experiments' – simple demonstrations of his theories that you can follow along for yourself. These are explorations into the power of relaxation, balance, and rooting, that clarify his propositions. He asks the reader to get up out of his or her reading chair and try these simple movements, to feel it for yourself. These experiments are insightful tools for self-discovery for Tai Chi practitioners at any level.
Tai Chi instructors will find Chuckrow's experiments especially useful because they can be integrated into any curriculum. Many of the experiments could be expanded into a topic to fill a regular class period. There's plenty of material here that can be easily shared with your classes. It's not style specific so it can work no matter what type of Tai Chi you teach. Some of it will even work for any general physical course. Essential elements of Tai Chi are distilled down to several simple techniques that anyone might use to get in touch with their own center.
No matter what your level of skill, these experiments are helpful in furthering you along with your Tai Chi journey. If you've ever been curious about understanding Tai Chi in terms of physics, or you just want to deepen your Tai Chi practice, Tai Chi Concepts and Experiments: Hidden Strength, Natural Movement, and Timing is a must read.