Master Ni Excerpts #3: Tao of China

• Master Ni: “Always Guard the Center.”

• Master Ni: the Biography of a Free Man

• Although not a Taoist, Master Ni is Chinese

Master Ni: “Always Guard the Center.”

On several occasions Master Ni said: “Always guard the center.” To understand the Chinese context behind this comment let us examine the calligraphy.

Zhöng = the Middle

Let us begin with zhöng, which is most commonly translated as middle. The word and its ideogram represent an incredibly important concept in Chinese culture.

In our Chinese/English Dictionary zhöng is translated as:

      1) center, middle;

      2) in, among;

      3) between two extremes;

      4) medium; or

      5) China.

Notice that the middle is not without tension. Instead it is between two extremes. In the right context, zhöng or middle could even mean China, itself. Just as tao means ‘path’, ‘method’, and ‘Taoism’, simultaneously, zhöng means ‘middle’, ‘between two extremes’, and ‘China’ simultaneously.

Zhöng’s ideogram: an arrow hitting a target

The actual ideogram for zhöng is a vertical line through the center of a box.

"It represents a square target, pierced in its center by an arrow."[i] By extension some other translations of the word include, "To hit the center, to attain."[ii] Hence this symbol does not just represent the center, but instead has the connotation of achieving the center. Attainment of the center is a dominant feature of Tai Chi practice as well as Taoist thought. Remember this is not a passive state, but instead a constant redefinition – a re-attainment of the center.

To further indicate the importance of this concept in Chinese, this ideogram is also used extensively in Chinese calligraphy as a part of other ideograms.

Zhöng’s compound words: Communist Party, Central Equilibrium, One's Center

Each ideogram in the Chinese language is monosyllabic. Because of this it is commonly said that all Chinese words are monosyllabic. Indeed this is one feature that differentiates Chinese, Tai, and Tibetan – the Sino-Tibetan language group, from other languages. While true in theory and for categorization, practically speaking the Chinese spoken language is made up of so many compound words, that it could easily be argued that Chinese has innumerable compound words. Instead of adding more words to create more meanings, they combine two of the monosyllabic characters to create a third related but unique meaning. The whole is more than the parts. Indeed the meanings of these compound words, made up of two or more single syllable words, are not easily discernible from their components. The whole forms unique meanings connected, but unique, from the parts. These two syllable words are similar to our compound words such as cupboard, where the parts are related but separate from the full meaning of the word.

There are an uncountable number of these two syllable compound words in Chinese. They are so important that they are always included in the better dictionaries under the first word of the compound. The more important words have more compound words associated with them. The more obscure words have less compound words associated with them..

Zhöng is important enough to form many compound words. These combinations further refine its meaning. For instance, zhöng combined with the ideogram for gėng, translated as ‘share in common’, means the Communist Party, zhöng gėng. Hence the Communist Party translated literally means something like ‘balanced sharing’. The concept of the middle between two opposites dominates Chinese thought. Indeed Tai Chi is the middle between the opposites of yin and yang. Zhöng when combined with dďng, means ‘obtain the center’ or ‘central equilibrium’, probably the most important of the thirteen elements of Tai Chi. Zhöng when combined with the ideogram for heart, xin, means ‘one’s center’. When Master Ni said, “Always guard the center,” he could have said protect the heart.

When we combine the ideogram for Tao with that of the Middle, this combination could be translated as ‘the method or process of attaining the center’. That is the point. (Excerpted from Tao of China: Chapter 1: pp 5&6)

Master Ni: the Biography of a Free Man

“Who is this Master Ni?”

“A native of mainland China he was born near Shanghai on July 1, 1914. He lived there until 1950, when, at the age of 36 years old, he left with the Nationalist government to go to Taiwan. Then in 1974, at the age of 60, he left Taiwan to come to Santa Barbara, California, USA to teach Tai Chi[iii]. He has been there ever since. After teaching for 28 years he retired in June of 2002 one month before turning 89. As of this writing he is 94 years old with no serious health problems. Master Ni continues to live independently with his wife and walks daily.”

“What is his religion?”

“Although many of his students refer to him as a Taoist, he resists the label.

When asked: "Are you a Taoist?”

Master Ni replied: “I teach Taoist meditation. But am I a Taoist? No! (his emphasis) I am a free man.”

When queried for an explanation he replied: “If inside a circle can’t see outside. I want to see everything – inside and out – front and back.” (Excerpted from Tao of China Chapter 2: p 14&15)

Although not a Taoist, Master Ni is Chinese.

It is tempting to think of Master Ni as a Taoist, even though he considers himself a free man, as referenced above. Yet it is significant that he is Chinese.

As Master Ni said: “China is the umbrella. Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are under it.” Besides the 3 Doctrines, yin-yang theory, alchemy and the martial arts are also under the umbrella of China. Each of these are separate from but part of the multitude of philosophies that are integral to Chinese culture of which Master Ni is part. (Excerpted from Tao of China Chapter 3: p 23)


[i]Chinese Characters, Dr. L. Wieger, S. J. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, translated into the English by L. Davrout, S. J., 1965, 1st published 1915, p. 260

[ii]Chinese Characters, p. 260

[iii] Because it has become the generally accustomed spelling this work will use ‘Tai Chi’ of the older Wade Giles system, rather than ‘Taiji’ from the modern Pinyin system.

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