The 4 Principles of Quan-fa: Float, Sink, Swallow, Spit

First I though about just naming this post “Float, Sink, Swallow, Spit”.

Then… I realized how high Google ranking that would get me with all you pervs out there, so I added the “The 4 Principles of Quan-fa:” -part before.

So, for all you weirdos out there, read no further. Because this post is about the four essential principles of TCMA (traditional Chinese martial arts) also known as Quan-fa, Kung Fu, Gong Fu, Chinese Boxing and a trillion other names depending on the Chinese dialect and phonetic transcription method you use.

Whatever you choose to call it though, Okinawan Karate (and Japanese Karate in extension) somehow sprung up from this tradition a very long time ago.

So, based upon this relation, of course there remains much to learn from the Chinese martial arts.

Too bad most of us look away.

(Note: I blame modern wushu)

Therefore, today I thought we could have a look at one of the most interesting not to mention sound and pratical concepts of TCMA. Namely, the four principles of attack and defense; known as Fou (Float), Chen (Sink), T’un (Swallow) and T’u ( Spit).

Note that these four concepts are predominant in the southern Chinese traditional martial arts (like White Crane, Mantis etc.) which means they are historically significant for us Karate dudes and dudettes.

So let’s have a quick look to see what the fuss is about, and what the correlation to Karate is:

#1. Fou (to float):


Fou, “to float”, basically means uprooting an opponent via a sudden release of force, directed upwards. Float is the expansion of energy, which is capable of “bouncing” the opponent away, and is analogous to “Ward Off” (Peng) in Tai Chi.

Float essentially refers to deflecting an opponent’s attack upwards and thereby uprooting said opponent, and skillfully applied the opponent will feel like being afloat on water (hence the term) and is easily thrown away.

Some textbook Karate kata techniques that embody Float could be the wa-uke (double rising block) in Bassai Dai/Matsumura Bassai (open hands), the jodan-uke of Gekisai Ichi/Ni, the two morote-uke of Jion, the ura-uchi of Pinan/Heian Godan (before the jump) or why not the last move of Kushanku/Kosokun/Kanku Dai (te-guruma)?

I bet you can come up with loads of better ones that apply to your specific understanding of Karate.

#2. Chen (to sink):


Chen, “to sink”, is used to control an opponent’s movement in the opposite direction of Float dropping the aggressor down. Sink is, just like the other concepts here, difficult to truly master because it depends on your skill to feel or perceive your opponent’s exertion of force.

However, if you master this you can render your opponent immobile and put him under complete control.

Sink is analogous to “Push Down” (An) in Tai Chi, where it refers to pressing down the opponent’s “bridge” (arms, basically).

Also, you know how beginners bounce up and down when they first try to punch hard? And the sensei goes “Stop bouncing, keep your head on the same level!”. Well, that’s because Sinking and Floating is so natural to do when you want to achieve maximum power. (Speaking of power.)

Some examples of Sink from Karate kata could be the numerous dropping movements from the first half of Seipai (hiji-ate, otoshi-zuki…), the first move (tetsui uchi) of Pinan Nidan/Heian Shodan, the first gedan-uke of Fukyogata Ichi, the first move (juji-uke) of Gankaku/Chinto, the drop down in Unsu, first move of Nipaipo (picture) etc.

The examples are numerous. And it’s often a first move, for some reason.

But the principle remains.

#3. T’un (to swallow):


T’un, “to swallow”, means to absorb and deflect the incoming force or attack. Perhaps best embodied by Steven Seagal in particular and just Aikido in general (when I think about it, all of these principles constitute the core of Aikido!), Swallow refers to sucking in the opponent… before destroying him/her totally.

In Tai Chi, Swallow is analogous to “Roll Back” (Lu). Adhere to your opponent’s force, allow it to continue on its path, divert it, and direct it into a harmless circuit ending in total mayhem. You win.

In Karate kata we find these types of Swallow movements in kata like Seienchin (the one legged stance before lunging forwards into the open/closed fist strike), the numerous deflective movements of Empi/Wanshu, the mawashi shotei-uke of Anan, the hiji-gatame before the double strikes in Nipaipo and Chatan Yara Kusanku and so on.

Note that these principles often combine with each other, like Sinking/Swallowing, Spitting/Floating etc, as is very obvious in the Seienchin example (Swallow/Float), for example.

#4. T’u (to spit):

T’u, “to spit out”, is perhaps the most common and easy to understand of these concepts. Spitting is, just as the name suggests, releasing energy. Lashing out. The main movement in punching, striking and kicking is Spit. Also means “to eject”, but not in the VCR/VHS sense.

In Tai Chi, Spit is analogous to “Press Forward” (Ji). Most often used when you direct/reflect the “borrowed” force back to the opponent. Every Aikido throw basically ends with Spit. Applies both to joint-locks and throws as well as kicks, punches and other “ballistic” attacks.

Sink.... and Spit!

I’m not even going to give you examples of kata where this concept is found, because every other move (in any kata) is a Spit move anyway. It’s like 90% or something, and funnily enough this percentage seems to increase the further away from the “source” you get.

XMA anyone?

Yeah. I said it.


Okay, so that was “The 4 Principles of Quan-fa: Float, Sink, Swallow, Spit”.

Interesting huh? Unless you’re a complete ignoramus, it’s pretty cool how you can actually find whole sequences of moves that embody this entire concept of Float, Sink, Swallow and Spit in certain kata.

For instance, the two 45 degree combos in Kurururururunfa, as done in this video 0:22-0:27 and then again 0:30-0-35.


In mere five seconds, you have Swallow, Float, Spit and Sink. In that exact order.

Literally a textbook example!

Other kata where similar easy-to-understand, all-encompassing sequences are found could be Bassai Dai, Seipai, Pinan/Heian Godan, Gekisai, Shisochin, Heiku and many more.

Seek and thou shalt find.

The hard part is, of course, how to effectively apply these concepts in a “balls to the walls” -bunkai/kumite scenario with a partner offering some lovely active resistance.

Let’s make that homework of the week, mmkay?


  • phether
    good read, very similar, and probably the root of, Kenwa Mabuni's 5 methods of defense :) keep up the great articles Jesse! Paul
  • This is all very interesting--we have discussed these very same concepts in my karate training, but we never related them to these Chinese methods, although we do study aspects of White Crane as they apply to Shorin-Ryu. In Shuri-Ryu we studied aspects of Hsing-Yi, of which there are five--chopping, crushing, drilling, exploding and crossing--and I think that might be an interesting set for you to go over as well, although they certainly incorporate these four concepts as well.
  • diego romero
    +1 for posting this :D it's also interesting to note movements (as opposed to sequences) that combine two or more of these. an example of this is the double block in seienchin, where you do an upwards nagashi uke (float) and pull (swallow. the full arm technique is also like the transition between the peng bridge and the lu action in tai chi) while sinking into shikodachi(sink, duh :p)and using a shuto barai (to which spit/fa jing can also be added in application). as for how to learn to use these... PUSH HANDS! just start adding striking when you get to a certain level of competency, and then gradually start removing the constant sticky contact to force the participants to create it by themselves in a free-flow, and eventually in free sparring.
  • Szilard
    Good article. It might worth mentioning that most of the kata examples fall in more than one category, sometimes maybe all four, depending on how you use the move. The basic Goju Ryu kata bunkai for almost each technique and combo teaches at least an attack, a defense and an escape from grab. The 3+ applications of the same move usually are based on 2 or 3 different principles of the four.
  • Manuel
    you said you blame modern wushu because of the unrealistic jumping kicks, am I right?
    • Well, more correctly I blame people who look at Wushu - and then dismiss TCMA because of what they see (flashy jumping stuff etc). So indirectly, I guess...
  • Peter Wong
    A nice website. Thanks for your articles. I enjoy reading them. By the way, in my opinion “Float, Sink, Swallow, Spit”(actually in Chinese the order should be “Swallow, Spit, Float, Sink”)is a very important principle for the Southern Shaolin Style kungfu, especially Fujian and Hakka kungfu, and it is not necessary "sequences" of can be done "at the same time".... This is my opinion, anyway.
  • Peter Wong
    By the way, I have just read your article on Ank? Itosu and you may take a look at his Ten Precepts (Tode Jukun) of Karate (???????)for an demonstration of the principle of the 4 Principles of Quan-fa: Float, Sink, Swallow, Spit. Look at this precept: "In karate, training of the hands and feet are important, so one must be thoroughly trained on the makiwara (words in brackets are my words: hence punch:spit/ stab). In order to do this, drop your shoulders (sink), open your lungs (swallow), take hold of your strength(swallow), grip the floor with your feet(sink), and sink your energy into your lower abdomen(sink). Practice using each arm one to two hundred times each day (spit)." You may ask me: Where is “floating”? Itosu has not mentioned it directly but let’s look at how White Crane “Bubishi” says: “????????”(The head should be posed as having a stone mill on the top of the his/her head…)(and hence “float”…)
  • Peter Wong
    Actually you can find the idiom of “Swallow, Spit ,Float, Sink”in this short section of Bubishi at least two times: “On the History of White Crane Fist”: (1) Lady Fang Seven (Fang Qiniang) imitated the crane’s flying movements and practise for 3 years and after that her breath and body force became connected and be smooth and become “??”(here the chinese word is not understandable in this context, I think there is a writing mistake)…. (2) “Forward, Backward, Emptiness, Fullness” “Swallow, Spit ,Float, Sink” swallow as the willows in the storm, spit as an arrow leaving a bow, float as waves up and down in the sea and sink as stable as the Mountain Tai. You move and the forces of the whole body convene and you stop and the bones and joints of the whole body relaxed. Move as the turning of a wheel and stable as a big stone. Punch with the force in the middle of the palm…” (3) You can also see the idiom in the traditional white crane book. For example: “Inside you use the methods of Swallow, Spit ,Float, Sink” and “Outside you use the subtle skills of the harmony of Hard and Soft”
  • Mario
    This is really cool! A lot of it sounds like judo!
  • Hi Jesse! Thank you for this post I found it very intereting. Also I found very interesting that last remark about "ther farther you get from the source the more you put spit on it". I absolutely agree. The spit is a reflection of society itself oriented to who is the we forget about the other things that can actually be much more interesting to practise and also very effective. A good example is jujutsu traditional arts and also early judo and also some styles of aikido that run nowadays, that I am glad to have seen. Thank you once again for this and keep the great articles!!! :) Miguel
  • May be these are karate interpretations, but I am not sure these interpretations of southern arts or at least not the style I train.
  • Darin Smith
    In the (properly executed) Isshin-ryu version of Seisan, all four of these principles are present. It is a hardcore lesson in these four principles (and possibly the reason it is the first taught--instill these behaviors early). Certainly you have the "spitting" with the variety of punches and kicks, but you also have "floating" (wa-uke just before the 1st turn), "swallow" (catching and pulling in the opponent...also an implied throw) in the sequence following the 1st turn, "sinking"--this is a primary feature of Isshin-ryu's Seisan that is unfortunately not always emphasized in many dojos and gets "lost". Every time you "break free of the grapple" (can also be interpreted in other more interesting ways) in the last half of the kata, you sink. You rise again on the next kick & punch sequence. It is an intentional move in the kata meant to pull your opponent off balance--especially if he has grabbed hold of you. Advincula sensei made a point to emphasize all these points in his excellent video instruction series.
  • Hey Jesse, Nice article, check out Sam Chien the first form of Wuzuquan (five ancestor fist) it practices the four basic energies. Sam Chien (3 wars) is the original version of SanShin Kata of Goyu Karate (?).
  • I was searching the net looking for some cool stuff and stummbled accross your site. I wanted to let you know that I think your site has some good pages and that I have already saved this page so I can visit again soon Thanks! Russell And Bromley Sandals
  • Donald Kinnie
    Very good summary, as usual! And I love that you bashed modern wushu and xma in the same post! Well done! LOL
  • Hello Peter Wong. Can you please let me know the full title and author of the traditional white crane book that you quoted when you said “ Inside you use the methods of Swallow, Spit ,Float, Sink” and “Outside you use the subtle skills of the harmony of Hard and Soft.” Thank you!
  • These are some of the concepts that have been lost to modern arts. Another fundamental concept stressed in my style and low-key used everywhere is "coiling". Examples include question mark kick or middle-block into same hand roundhouse punch for strikes. For examples in submissions look to Aikido wrist locks. In armed arts you'll see it in parry's and locks with the butt of the weapon. It's seen everywhere and described nowhere.

Leave a comment