The easiest way to rob your opponent of their power is to break their connection with the ground. Thus uprooted, Newton’s Third Law compromises their ability to generate penetrating force, and reduces any continued aggression from a potentially deadly threat to a mere nuisance.
The complementary skill—the ability to keep your footing amidst incoming force—is known in Chinese martial arts as rooting.
Typical demonstrations of rooting skill consist of a wushu master in a static posture, with a pack of disciples pushing and pulling to no avail. These shows are impressive, but often fail to highlight the most important characteristic of the skill: effortlessness.
Strong legs and the ability to hold low stances are not equivalent to a root. They produce similar results during low-intensity training, such as fixed-step push hands, but more energetic sparring practice exposes the distinction.
The use of static postures leaves you vulnerable to counterattack. In real hand-to-hand combat, your opponent’s goal is not to uproot you; they will be quite content to drop you where you stand. Clamping yourself onto the ground is the worst possible strategy. The pseudo-root provided by a stiff ma bu exposes your lower body, and prevents you from maintaining a superior position in relation to a mobile adversary.
An Applied Art of Non-Contention
Rooting demonstration by Taiji master Chen Xiaowang
Rooting skill keeps you upright and stable, without a penalty of immobility. Instead of intentionally engaging your legs to counteract a push or pull, you adjust your center of gravity to nullify it. Since your joints remain unlocked, you can move your body and limbs at will.
To root is to deny your opponent a surface on which they may productively apply their strength. They touch your body, but cannot disturb your center.
How can you develop a strong root? Learning to sink the qi is not enough. Fortunately, there are specific, self-correcting partner drills designed to sharpen this skill.