5.a.iv.-silk-reeling-motion Section

A Method of Training Silk Reeling Motion

by Nick Gudge - written 2009 last updated Feb 2015

‘Silk reeling’, ‘whole body motion’ and ‘one part moves all part moving’ are all phrases that describe the type of motion required to attain significant gong fu in Taijiquan. All styles of taijiquan make reference to one or more of these labels in describing their requirements. The question I address in this piece is “How to train this type of motion.”

“Silk reeling” is the label given to the specific method or type of motion that is a fundamental requirement in Chen style taijiquan. This means that without silk reeling motion there is no Chen style taijiquan type motion. It is not easily described. There are also significant differences in how it is understood (i.e. the process of learning how to do silk reeling) and the large variation of movements that are all include in the practice of silk reeling motion within taijiquan.

In the beginning, as an aid to understand silk reeling, the process is usually simplified in a relatively small number of repetitive exercises. Within these exercises there are four aspects of motion that can be identified and practiced. These aspects are:

1. shifting weight (left to right etc)
2. turning the waist (left to right, up to down, forwards to backwards etc)
3. expanding and contracting the limbs
4. winding in and winding out (sometimes called twining or coiling)

Initially these four aspects or functions of motion are proscribed in a very specific pattern to produce a number of exercises (called silk reeling exercises) as an aid to grasping the nature of this type of motion. In these exercises the balance of these four aspects of motion can vary and still be correctly described as silk reeling. In short there is not one way and one way only (choreographically) to do silk reeling. For example, in the exercise described below, (right side single hand front circle silk reeling,) the weight change can occur at different times, the weight change can be fast and slow, the weight change can be slight or considerable or not at all(!) and these variants can all be silk reeling provided the nature of the movement is retained.

Silk reeling exercises were devised to provide an aid to understanding. As such they are steps that can lead to a certain physical and bodily understanding. As an example, if I was trying to describe how to reach a particular destination to someone, the directions I give will be partially dependent on the understanding the person already has. If they don’t know the area I might give them the simplest route that is easiest to follow, with the most road signs so they can see if they are going in the correct direction. This might not be the quickest or the shortest route. Later on when they have some understanding they might begin to take alternative routes which might get them to their destination more quickly. This is also true of learning silk reeling motion.

As an aid to understanding this type of motion I have described a simple silk reeling exercise below in detail. The exercise as described is a beginner’s way of practicing. It can be changed in numerous ways and still be correct. The method I am describing is that used by my teacher Wang Hai Jun whose pictures I have used to illustrate this example below. This particular exercise as described trains the dang (the arch made by the crotch and legs) to move in a backwards motion - dang zou hou hu.

There are four ‘steps’ to this exercise but these steps can be thought of as points on a circle. The exercise is continuous and the movement should be smooth and continuous. To give the reader a clearer idea I have included a brief description of each step and a front and side view of each step. Step four is followed by step one.

Right Side Single Arm Front Circle (zhengmian) Silk Reeling Exercise (chan si jing)

Description, front view and side view pictures for Right side:

Step 1: Weight on the right leg (70%), right arm extended to the right diagonal, palm out, waist forward.
Step 2: Weight to the left (65%), right elbow down palm forward, waist to the right corner
Step 3: Weight on the left leg (70%), right arm in palm up, waist to the front
Step 4: Weight to the right (65%), right arm up palm facing the left rear corner, waist to the left corner


The process of learning using this exercise might be described as follows:

  1. The choreography of the exercise is learned
  2. The choreography of the exercise is practiced until it become very familiar
  3. Gross physical errors (stiffness and incorrect directions) are corrected
  4. The exercise is practiced more until it become smoother, the body looser and the legs stronger.
  5. Attention is paid to the shifting weight (left to right etc) so it is smooth and continuous. The hips move so the perineum moves in a figure of eight and the knees move in small circles. Both knees move left and right together, one opening out, the other closing in. When one knee moves forward the other moves backwards. Neither knee must collapse inwards or push outwards (beyond the toes or beyond the outside of the foot. The foot should stay flat on the ground, lightly ‘gripping’ the ground with the toes and heel. The weight predominantly shifts left between Step 1 and Step 2 but continues to shift left between Step 2 and Step 3. The weight predominantly shifts right between Step 3 and Step 4 but continues to shift right between Step 4 and Step 1 above.
  6. Attention is paid to the turning the waist (down, left, up and right etc) so that it is smooth and continuous. The waist should move away from and towards the alignment of the hips and should not be stiff and in constant alignment with the hips. The waist turns further than the hips. The waist turns right as the body begins its weight shifts left (see Step 2) and the waist turns left as the body begins its weight shifts right (see Step 4.) So for part of the circle the waist and weight move in opposite directions e.g. weight moves right and waist turns left and for part of the circle they move in the same direction e.g. weight moves right and waist turns right.
  7. Attention is paid to the expanding and contracting the body so that it is smooth and continuous. Initially this begins with the arm, which should stretch out during half the cycle, being completely extended but without stiffness or raising the shoulder (Step 4) and contract in during the other half the cycle, being fully contracted (for the purposes of this exercise) but without stiffness or collapsing the armpit at another part of the cycle (Step 2.) It is easy to ‘break’ the silk reeling motion in the shoulder so it is important to make sure that the waist moves the arm and not to move the arm from the shoulder. Particular attention has to be made to relaxing / loosening the shoulder as the arm is pushed up. Try and keep the arm lightly stretched to the elbow, wrist and fingers both when the arm is extended and when it is contracted.
  8. Attention is paid to the winding in and winding out (sometimes called twining or coiling) of the body. This is very difficult to describe across the whole body. The nature of ‘winding’ is that one end of a bone rotates more than the other. In this exercise the arm is winding in (shun chan) from Step 1 to Step 3 and winding out (ni chan) from Step 3 to Step 1. With time the understanding of the winding motion in the body can be extrapolated across the whole body so the windings of the arms, torso and legs work smoothly together.

(N.b. To optimise winding the two ends of the bone want to rotate in opposite directions, e.g. when the wrist is winding out the elbow is winding in and when the wrist is winding in the elbow is winding out. This motion is described relatively so the two ends may both be winding in the same direction but at different rates.)

The effect of all this motion is first and foremost to gain an understanding of how to move the body in the particular manner required to gain taijiquan skill.

The types of errors most common are as follows:
1. The body (hips and shoulders particularly) are too stiff
2. The waist is too stiff and won’t turn either away from the hips or in a circle
3. The legs are not strong enough so the hips and back (waist) stiffen
4. The knees collapse in when shifting weight
5. The windings are not smooth and continuous but stop and start
6. The turning of the waist is not smooth and continuous
7. The weight shifting is not smooth and continuous
8. The expansion and contraction along the limbs is not smooth and continuous
9. The co-ordination of the elements is inappropriate causing the jing to break

The implications of some of these errors are as follows:

1. If the legs are not sufficiently strong enough & suitably conditioned then the body will stiffen.
2. If the body is stiff, it will not communicate motion from one part to the next sufficiently or effectively.
3. If the various body parts do not communicate / transmit the power stored and released across the body effectively then this power will be insufficient to be of use.
4. If the body does not move in circles (spirals in three dimensions,) it will not conserve the twisting power that it utilises so it will not be constantly available.
5. Also, if the body does not move in circles (spirals in three dimensions,) it will not be able to neutralise where there are breaks in the motion.

By making these four aspects of motion smooth and continuous initially it become possible for the student to identify numerous errors and breaks in their silk reeling. I also think it is easier to feel the movement inside the body.

Remember this is a method of beginning understanding silk reeling so a certain way of moving the body (silk reeling) can be grasped. Loosening the body and maintaining peng jing at all times in all places naturally results in silk reeling motion. So there is more than one way to gain this understanding and skill. Silk reeling exercise are a relatively modern invention. Like much of taijiquan's initial training it is designed to facilitate the internal movement of the dan tien. This will only occur if the waist and hips are loosened sufficiently so the movement of the 'external' body (the limbs, chest and waist) lead the dan tien into motion.

The overall effect of this motion is like storing and releasing energy/power in a spring. Over time the rhythm can change and power can be directed towards specific places and in specific directions within the exercises. The circle itself can change. These are all matters that are beyond the scope of this article.


Nick Gudge is a student of Wang Hai Jun and teaches Chen style taijiquan (tai chi) classes in Limerick.