Wednesday, 19 April 2017

"Moulding" the posture...

Carefully "fixing the frame": Chen Xiaoxing adjusting the posture of Chen Zijun
Don't over-emphasise the fast and explosive movements! The following training advice was posted on the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School’s website:    

“Chen Taijiquan practitioners often have a misunderstanding about their training.  Many think they have to be hard, vigorous and explosive to illustrate their martial abilities.  Under this mistaken perception many Chen Taijiquan practitioners over-emphasise fali (releasing power) - putting too much importance upon trying to punch and stamp powerfully.  Prolonged practice in this way is actually harmful to the body.    

Now Chen Xiaoxing corrects the posture of Chen Ziqiang in the Chen Family Temple
The principle of training should be based primarily on slowness. Training using the slow method cultivates the body, while fast training is ultimately detrimental both in terms of health and function. So the form should be trained until it is comfortable and natural, round and lively. Cultivate qi so that it sinks to and accumulates in the dantian where it can be distributed throughout the body. The highest level of Taijiquan is characterised by the phrase ‘circularity with one breath’. To achieve this train slowly and softly until the whole body moves in unison as an integrated whole”.    

Even experienced practitioners can refine and improve the quality of their physical structure and movement patterns. The time honoured way of training is to continually “fix the frame”. Teachers carefully adjust or “mould” their student's posture to come ever closer to conforming to the strict guidelines passed down. Throughout the process students must be patient as every aspect of their body, movement and posture is systematically rearranged – sinking the elbow, relaxing the shoulder, rounding the crotch, suspending the top of the head etc etc.
Chen Xiaowang corrects Chen Bing


Friday, 24 February 2017

Chen Bing speaks...

Davidine Sim & Chen Bing
The following answers are part of an interview, conducted by China's World Martial Arts Union and translated by Davidine Sim. Chen Bing speaks openly about his early years in Taijiquan. Including: childhood perceptions of Taijiquan; the influence of his uncles Chen Xiaoxing and Chen Xiaowang; understanding what Taijiquan is; and the problems that come with widespread propagation.
Q:  Can you talk about your early learning history and experience?

Chen Bing:  There was no question of choice when I began practicing Taijiquan as it's a family heritage.  Particularly being a male and being the oldest, the family started teaching me from the age of five.  Like it or not, you had to learn.  At that time (in 1976) it was still the tail end of the Cultural Revolution and the country was still not promoting the practice of martial arts.  But, after some discussion, it was decided that my training should commence, even though it was not done openly.  It is embarrassing to admit, but as I was still quite young I did not understand Taijiquan or the fact that it is a family inheritance.  Also because the then society did not condone the practice, and the government policy was still quite restrictive, plus the fact that most youngsters are more concerned about playing, I really did not like it at all.  This dislike only changed more than ten years later.

Q:  What unforgettable training incidences can you remember from your childhood?"

CB:  At that time I did not like Taijiquan so I'd think of different ways of evading training.  Everyday my uncles (Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Xiao Xing) would ask me if I had trained and I would say I had.  Most times this was untrue.  In this way I would try to outwit the adults.  One day my uncle asked me if I had trained and I said I had.  He asked where and I told him at such and such a place.  At that time it was a predominantly agricultural village and there were no concreted ground.  My uncle brought me to the place I had pointed out and, seeing no footprints whatsoever, exposed my lie.  I had a beating from him that day and never dared lie to him again.
Chen Bing
The second memorable incident happened when I was ten years old and in my third year of primary school.  One morning my class teacher unexpectedly called me out and personally tied a red neckerchief round my neck. He told me that it was an important occasion and I was required to go and demonstrate Taijiquan. I didn't know what was going on and went out into the school ground where I saw that the whole place was full of people. There were even people on walls and trees.  A platform had been erected upon which sat my uncles and grandmother.  I didn't pay much attention to my family's history and origin before, but now I realised that my family has a secret that I didn't know.  That was the first visit by a Japanese Taijiquan organisation who had arrived during a "search the source and visit the ancestors" trip.  One of the items on the programme was a children's Taijiquan performance.  I was very nervous because I hadn’t trained properly and was not sure I could remember the middle section of the form.  I managed to somehow get through the Laojia Yilu.  But a strong message got through to me that day -   that I must practice hard as my whole family and clan are somehow closely linked to Taijiquan.  This occasion also stimulated a certain pride and sense of responsibility. 
Q: What influence did your uncles have on your learning?

CB: It was my aunt (Chen Ying) who taught me first.  My uncles were very busy and were often away from home.  On their return they would watch me train and check on me.  They were very strict and I was somewhat afraid of them, knowing that ultimately I needed to pass their approval. Later I heard that my uncles had achieved many first prizes.  There were few television sets then, but I heard on the radio the name Chen Xiao Wang, that he had won a gold medal in an inaugural National competition in Xian.  When I told the news to my grandmother she was very proud.  I had the idea that I would like to follow the same path. In my youth my two uncles were my role models.

Q:  What was the biggest difficulty you encountered in your training?

CB:  Before the age of seventeen, I didn't train very hard and did not commit heart and soul into Taijiquan, so I didn't sense any difficulty.  When I truly began to like Taijiquan and train seriously I realised that I needed a very good teacher.  By that time my two uncles had become sought after and often went abroad and it was not easy to have them
beside me.  Sometimes it was difficult to see them even a few times in the year.  In this period I encountered many problems and, because the opportunity to communicate with them in person was rare, I was overwhelmed by these questions and didn't know who I should ask.  When you have many questions that you cannot find answers for it does affect your positive progress.

I decided to write a letter to my second uncle.  In his reply he wrote: "It is inevitable that there would be so many questions and that these questions overwhelm you.  But this is how training quan is.  By continuing to practice there comes a moment when you suddenly understand, when the problem is solved. Even if you understand the theory now, but because your gongfu is not accomplished, your body is not able to understand so it's still a blank.  Therefore you need to practice without break and in the process of learning you will realise one day that all the questions have been answered.  That's because your body has completely understood".

He taught me to "understand during the process; to realise a theory in practice, in order to own the thing.  When one day the chore of training translates into interest then it is evident that you have committed body and mind.  Your level will improve and mature very rapidly at this juncture".  At the time those words were imprinted in my brain.

Q:  You have now trained for quite a long time.  What is your understanding of Taijiquan?

CB:   When I was young I regarded Taijiquan as a combat art, to be used for fighting.  Because of my young age I wanted to be stronger than my peers. Now, from being a sports person to being an instructor then on to teaching all over the world, I realise that Taijiquan has multiple functions.  As an example when we're teaching abroad, it is not only a fitness discipline but also a representation of Chinese culture.  Through Taijiquan people abroad are able to become better acquainted with Chinese culture as well as China.  It enables deeper understanding and communication between the East and West.  From a personal point of view Taijiquan offers a means of growing into a more wholesome person. An individual's training experience, hard practice, relentless perseverance and consistence cultivates the spirit and tempers the will.  The reward of acquiring gongfu and enlightenment through the sacrifice of toil, that "heaven rewards the diligent".  The quan theories also teaches me the laws of nature and the universe. It enables me to better understand society, the world, the natural world, the universe, thus it enlightens and augments my mind and improves my wisdom. 

Q:  You have students all over the world now.  What do you think is the most important aspect they should learn?

CB:  Perhaps the most important aspect is their understanding of Taijiquan.  If they know the cultural essence of Taijiquan then they have a basis from which to train.  Otherwise it poses too many questions.  For example, What is Taijiquan? If people know what Taijiquan really is then the often asked question of why the " Four Jinggang" are not practising the same way will no longer be a question.  They often ask which of them is right (or wrong) or even who is better (or worse).  But if they understand Taijiquan this will not be a question.  And they will know that if the four of them have identical forms, then that would be abnormal.
Q:  By that you mean that everyone has a different understanding of Taijiquan?

CB:  Taiji means Yin-Yang changes.  Most people understand Yin-Yang, but forget its most important aspect - "changes".  Its inevitable aspect is change, and it does not remain the same.  The time is different, the person is different, the environment is different, constantly evolving and changing.  Taijiquan is the same.  Everyone's practice is different and this is normal.  But there are aspects that remain unchanged and constant.  We must view change from the viewpoint of mutual transformation of Yin and Yang, change that occurs within transformation and development.  The results of practice have assimilated the person's personality, realisation, temperament, character etc. It becomes the person, and is expressed through the physical movements.  If you are exactly like your teacher, then you're stuck at the stage of imitating your teacher and have not moved to the stage of realising yourself.  If we are clear about the ideology of Taijiquan then we will be rid of many of Taijiquan's misperceptions.

Q:  What challenges do you face in the drive to promote and popularise Taijiquan?  How do we let the general public correctly understand Taijiquan?  In mass propagation how do we express the core essence of Taijiquan?

CB:  From the viewpoint of a teacher what I can do is teach not only movements but also the theories.  As long as the principle is followed the outward expression is not crucial.   Sometimes an external shape can be very standard and is an exact duplication of the teacher's, but your execution does not exhibit Qi sunk into the dantian, therefore your frame is an "empty frame".  You have not demonstrated the key element.  The Internal martial system does not look at the degree of accuracy in the external shape.  The underpinning principle is the criteria.  In the absence of this, the external manifestation is not important.  Let the students grasp this and they will not be entangled about external movements.  Instead they will be seeking the internal feeling.

Q:  What have you gained from your work publicising and propagating Taijiquan?

CB:   Firstly, when I started teaching I was worried that teaching will affect my training.  I said to my uncle that "as I have to explain, demonstrate and transmit, my internal feeling is reduced and will affect my own development".  My uncle said to me that you need to first find yourself, then maintain yourself.  During teaching continue to maintain yourself and don't lose your stance - "teach and train, train and teach".  It forged my interest in teaching as I embraced the concept that teaching is training and to train whilst teaching.  In the process of teaching I'm also upping my own skill. The second aspect is the sense of achievement when I see students improve.  To witness the benefits and the transformation that Taijiquan has given them, either in physical health or mental well-being. Thirdly, from a personal point of view.  With the gradual insight gleaned from Taijiquan I'm able to slowly change and adjust my mood and my interaction and conduct with the wider society.  I'm in fact a rather hot-tempered person.  Through practising Taijiquan I'm continually correcting and changing myself.

World Martial Arts Union interview with Chen Bing
Q:  Some people still think Taijiquan is a health exercise for middle/old age people.  What do you think is the best way to engage the younger people?

CB:  I think this is a misapprehension.  They don't comprehensively know the root of Taijiquan.  It has been overtaken by one aspect of its expressions.  But it shouldn't be viewed in a negative way because it has been accepted in that section of the populace and it's health benefits have been acknowledged.  I consider it a success in its mass propagation on a national scale. 

To engage and recruit younger peoples we must consider 1. that young people haven't as much free time as the older retired people.  Taijiquan cannot be too time consuming and at the same time need to show results more quickly.  Therefore we need to have a concise method that is suitable for young people - concise training that brings out the essence.  2. that it needs to be modern and trendy in order to attract them in the first place.  Yoga has been successful in imaging itself as body beautiful with graceful movements that are comfortable and flexible.  It is an attractive pursuit.  Taijiquan perhaps can learn from this.  For example Taijiquan instructors need to present a certain image, its movements require some adaptations, its practice environment need some appropriate arrangements etc. in order to match the younger person's tendencies towards trend and modernity.

Q:  There is a voice today that says that Taijiquan is a health exercise and not a combative system.  What is your view?

CB:  Its health benefits and health enhancing qualities are undisputed and widely acknowledged.  Not only in terms of physical but also mental health.  The main question is Taijiquan's effectiveness as an actual combat skill.  I think we need to consider this from different angles.  Firstly, we live in a time that is very different from the time of its inception.  When Taijiquan was created its chief function was for the purpose of bare-hand attacks and defence.  If the then existing model of Taijiquan is transferred to the modern era it may have become obsolete and extinct.  The fact that it has survived to this day is because it's main function has undergone a Yin-Yang change.  The creation of Taijiquan with its health-preserving and mental processes was to counteract the harm and injuries that resulted from martial practices. Today if the combat side had remained the main focus it will not have been assimilated by the mass and promoted by the government. Taijiquan is flourishing apace today because its health-enhancing and fitness-promoting aspect is now the focus.  However the combative side is now under-emphasised. There should be no question to its effectiveness.  It's a matter of which aspect of it you're focusing. We adapt to our bigger environment…  From a young age we trained, firstly for Taolu competitions and later to Tuishou contests.  Gradually even the Tuishou contests became curtailed.  Our platforms become lesser and the paths that lead from them become narrower.  Extremely high level Taijiquan combat exponents have limited outlets. As a result, many abandon this route and decide to follow the crowd and the ever-expanding demand for the health and fitness aspects.  However as the art develops there are now a section of the Taijiquan practitioners who are again examining and developing the martial side.

Q:  What role does Taijiquan play in our nation's promotion of Chinese Culture and our future so-called China Dream?

CB:  China is not strong if it grows only in economic strength.  Economy without being sustained by cultural values will be short-lived.  I believe that to realise the China Dream there's the need to invest robustly in China's traditional cultural values.   China is currently facing the scenario of having a very strong economy and quite a strong military.  However we're look-down-upon by even countries much smaller than ours.  This is because we're not strong in our cultural values and we need to attach great importance to this and actively promote it.  In cultural exchanges in the strong civilised nations we're facing many issues that are not accepted by the West.  I think Taiji culture with its underpinning philosophy of balance, inclusivity, etc. is a good entry point to promote our culture, that will be accepted by other nations.  My hope is that it can be promoted from a governmental/national level. 

Q:  What is the biggest dilemma that you have faced?

CB:   Society today has presented us with many dilemmas.  Do we change our culture in order to adapt to the market trend, or stand firm and preserve the culture?  In response to the present societal conditions do we change or not?  Under what circumstances do we need to stand firm and under what circumstances do we need to evolve and change?  These are not easy issues.  To do them simultaneously may result in both being done badly. 

Chen Bing, born in 1971, is the 20th generation direct descendant of the Chen Taijiquan Family.  He was raised by his uncle Chen Xiao Xing and began his Taijiquan training from the age of 5.  In 2007 he established the Chenjiagou International Taijiquan Academy in Chenjiagou.  He teaches all over China and Internationally.




Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Chen Village Taijiquan not just for uncles and grandpas!

The idea of traditional Gongfu permeates Hong Kong's popular culture. But those committed to actually training the arts in the old way are a shrinking and ageing group. A New York Times article posted last year by journalist Charlotte Yang spoke of the demise of Hong Kong's traditional martial arts scene. A combination of rising rental costs, ageing students and lack of interest from the youngsters who in the past would have filled the training halls, meant that few schools are left. Those that are left aren't  flourishing. Now, the report suggested, those same youngsters are more interested in their iPads than in the dusty art of gongfu.
In Yang's words: "With a shift in martial arts preferences, the rise of video games — more teenagers play Pok√©mon Go in parks here than practice a roundhouse kick — and a perception among young people that kung fu just isn’t cool, longtime martial artists worry that kung fu’s future is bleak." Or in the dismissive words of one young interviewee: “Kung fu is more for retired uncles and grandpas".
Some of the many Taiji schools in Chenjiagou

Interestingly, at the same time, there has been a renaissance of Taijiquan schools in Chenjiagou. Several of the large schools in Chenjiagou are internationally known, like the schools of Chen Xiaoxing, Wang Xian, Zhu Tiancai etc. But talk a short walk through the back streets of the village and it's easy to find evidence of many smaller and less famous training halls.  The images above and to the right show just a few of the many advertising banners in the backstreets of the village.
The scale of change in Chenjiagou in the years since I first visited has been almost unbelievable. Many of the changes don't sit well with me and there are clear parallels with the commercialisation of the Shaolin Temple. That said, everywhere you look there are young people training and images of the cool face of Taijiquan. 
Not just for uncles and grandpas! Chenjiagou Taijiquan instructor Zheng Xiao Fei


Friday, 27 January 2017

Want skilful push hands? Don’t neglect your form training!

Chen Xiaoxing and Chen Xiaowang pushing hands in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
To use Taijiquan as a combat art, both form training and push hands must be seen as complementary and vital. Training the form without doing push hands, while giving some exercise benefits, will not equip an individual for combat and self defence. Conversely, if an individual just does push hands without the foundation of form training, while they may develop certain techniques, they will not be able to use these to their full potential. Therefore, the experienced practitioner should train form and push hands concurrently, without favouring one over the other. While the less experienced practitioner must accept that form training is the basis and foundation upon which any future push hands success is based.

"Tuishou and form training are inseparable"
 In the words of Chen Xiaowang: “Tuishou and form training are inseparable.  Whatever defect a person has in the form will be revealed during push hands as a weakness that can be taken advantage of by an opponent.  That is why Taijiquan requires one to have the whole body working in unison.  One must practise tuishou frequently.  Tuishou is a practical application and is the only way of accurately testing the form.  Learning Taijiquan and its postural requirements is like manufacturing the different parts of an item of machinery.  Tuishou is like its assembly.  If all the different components of the machinery are made to requirement, then it is easy to assemble the machinery.  However, if the parts are wrongly built and are either too big or too small, or if they are simply the wrong parts - it will be impossible to build the machine”. (Source: The Essence of Taijiquan)

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Chen Zijun - on the need to synchronise the whole body...

In the following offering from Chen Zijun, taken from a short film released recently in China, he gives some pointers on what are the most important things to be aware of in your Taijiquan training:

"There are numerous movements in Taijiquan. Many people say the kua is very important, others that the waist (yao) is key. But really most important is considering the whole body. The crucial point is to train the unification of the external and internal aspects so that upper and lower, left and right are synchronised so that the whole body functions as a single unit. In this way expressing your power into a single point. The whole body must be considered from head to toe: head suspended, eyes looking to the six roads (that is, not just looking forward, but engaging your peripheral vision), listening behind because you cannot see what is behind you. Maintaining a sense of calm and quiet during training. Not just training your body to be quiet, but also ensuring your brain remains quiet. Only then can your reactions be truly fast. In this way you increase your ability to change, preparing you to meet any external disturbance. Maintaining yin-yang balance in every sense.

Chen Zijun - "The whole body synchronised and acting as a single unit"

Monday, 19 December 2016

On Tour in the USA...

Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego
I just got home a few days ago after a couple of weeks teaching and enjoying some great hospitality across the pond in the USA. 
The first stop was sunny California for a four day workshop at the Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego, Bill and Allison Helm's long established centre for traditional healing and martial arts. 
One of the items was a talk on Taijiquan's "six harmonies". During the session we spoke about the role of looseness and co-ordination  in the harmonisation of both internal and external aspects.

Over the years we have had the opportunity to interview many high level Taijiquan teachers from Chenjiagou. To get things rolling one of the first question we usually ask is "what is the single most important thing a person should pay attention to when training Taijiquan ?" Anyone who has trained for any length of time knows that there is no single simple answer, but it seems to work  in getting things started.

Faced with this question:

Chen Xiaowang answered: "maintaining the dantian as the body's centre" - The dantian acts as a co-ordinating point through which all the power of the body can be focused and brought out to a single point.

Chen Xiaoxing answered: "timing is of the utmost importance" - Timing of different aspects including the left and right sides, upper and lower body, and internal sensation co-ordinated with external movement.

Chen Ziqiang answered: "the most important thing is to always be aware of the feeling beneath your feet" - Taijiquan's sequential and co-ordinated movement starts from the feet, goes through the legs, directed by the waist and expressed in the hands.

Wang Xian answered: "to rid one's body of all unnecessary tension" - He expanded that "In Taijiquan practice, holding even the slightest tension in your body means that your whole body will be out of balance".

Early morning in Yosemite Valley
We took a few days off for a road trip to Yosemite National Park - a long time bucket list item since I bought an Ansel Adams print of the El Capitan rockface over thirty years ago! It was fantastic to train at dawn in the Yosemite Valley, seeing deer coming down to drink in the river a few hundred metres in the distance. During Taijiquan practice we very much focus on the "small dao" - looking at the inter-relationships of the body as an integrated system. In the evening I read about John Muir (1838-1914), one of America's most famous and influential naturalist and conservationist.  Muir has been given many titles over the years including "The Father of our National Parks," "Wilderness Prophet," and "Citizen of the Universe." Reading some of Muir's quotes in his favourite place reminded me of the "great dao" that Taiji philosophy draws from:

"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” 

"There is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself"

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

A Seattle Wall

Next to Seattle to Kim Ivy's Embrace the Moon School for Taijiquan and Qigong for three days of workshops. Carrying on the focus on incorporating correct principles in practice, working on the Laojia Yilu routine. Kim's training centre is in the process of some renovation work and one of the walls due for covering with sound proofing insulation had become a temporary backdrop for friends and students of "the moon" to post their thoughts. A few of my favourites from the 150 or so affirmations written on the wall: 

"Often the best answer is practice"
"One more time"
"Just relax, and when you think you are relaxed, relax more!"
"The secret of Taiji? Very strong legs!"
Embrace the Moon Taijiquan and Qigong Centre

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Learn diligently and train bitterly...

Yue Fei
A few weeks ago I visited a temple in Hangzhou province that honours one of China's most revered generals. Yue Fei (1103-1142) lived in the Southern Song dynasty and his life is remembered as one of the country's greatest examples of filial piety and heroic patriotism.  He has been credited as the creator of a number of martial arts including Fanziquan and Chuojiaoquan, but the two styles most associated with Yue Fei are Eagle Claw and Xingyiquan. One book states Yue Fei created Eagle Claw for his enlisted soldiers and Xingyiquan for his officers.

Groomed from birth to be a warrior and to do great service for the country, his mother famously had the four characters "jin zhong bao guo" (serve the country loyally) tattooed on his back as a constant reminder to never forget his duty.
The youthful Yue Fei learning the martial arts under the maxim - "Learn Diligently, Practice Bitterly"

A mural on one of the temple walls caught my eyes. The image depicts Yue Fei training his martial skills under the four character idiom, "learn diligently, train bitterly" (qin xue ku lian). This maxim is often used by people practising Chinese traditional arts whether it be music, calligraphy, martial arts etc... The best learning process being the combination of knowledge and action.

At our recent camp with GM Chen Xiaoxing  we trained alongside a quiet and serious person named Chen Hong. I first met him at last year's Chenjiagou Taijiquan School branch instructors' course. He's one of the very first group of students to train full time in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School when it opened in 1983.  More than three decades later he trained alongside our group and a new crop of Chinese students. Each time Chen Xiaoxing explained or demonstrated a movement, Chen Hong observed intently, and then took himself off to a quiet corner and worked on whichever point had just been explained. 
Lt-Rt Davidine Sim, Chen Hong, David Gaffney

Our training trip to Chenjiagou is for the purpose of deepening knowledge and embedding skill.  The training curriculum invariably focuses on training the fundamentals (standing pole and reeling silk exercises) and the gongfu form (Yilu) under the watchful eyes and guidance of one of the most highly skilled masters of taijiquan.  Most experienced students find this training to be demanding but invaluable, and make many return visits to do the same.  The inexperienced and less discerning ones may view the training as repetitive and monotonous and become impatient for more entertaining items.  They have no insight into their own lack of skill and think that knowing movement patterns equals proficiency.  
The maxim on Yue Fei's temple struck a chord - learn diligently and train bitterly! There are no short cuts in learning the traditional art.  First  be clear of the correct training method. Then drill it into the body. What is required is serious, disciplined study alongside focused repetitive training.  
At the tomb of legendary General Yue Fei