Monday, 2 May 2016

Chenjiagou - Poems, Professors and Hollywood Style Handprints ...

Zhu Tiancai
On 22nd April representatives from the six major styles of Taijiquan (Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu (Hao), Sun and He) came together for a series of events in Chenjiagou and the surrounding locale. Coming from all over China, the Chen stylists included both Chenjiagou players and students of Chen Fake’s disciples.   Officiating the events were Kang Gewu, President of the Chinese National Martial Arts Research Centre, Taijiquan professor Yu Gongbao and various officials of Wenxian and Jiaozuo.  The slogan for the grand and high profile gathering was “Meeting at Taiji’s holy ground!  Harmonising Taijiquan!” The event included a symposium with speakers presenting their take on Taijiquan and the direction the art is going, and demonstrations by the Taijiquan masters present.
Wang Xian
Over a decade ago I remember looking with bemusement at the plans for the future development of Chenjiagou. The model showed a six storey museum set within a landscaped Taiji-themed park, stadium, hotels, large-scale apartments, shops etc -hard to picture at the time in such a quiet and timeless place. Year by year we’ve gone back and seen all of these plans and more come to fruition. Looking at the rows of empty buildings and wide deserted streets, the next obvious question was, who was it for? The opening address of the "Celebrating the Source of Taijiquan" event answered this - explaining that the main aim of the event was to join together to promote Taiji tourism to its birthplace Chenjiagou and to the surrounding areas of Wenxian and Jiaozuo. 
Taijiquan is cool and mainstream in China Today
Billionaire and Taijiquan enthusiast Guo Guangchang (Image China Daily)
It’s obvious that the Taijiquan scene in China is booming. Over the last few posts I’ve highlighted a number of large scale events happening there and a quick glance at the mainstream Chinese media confirms this. With high profile individuals like AlI Baba internet entrepreneur Jack Ma and Guo Guangchang the billionaire behind Fosun, China’s biggest private conglomerate being avid Taijiquan practitioners, and a booming middle class looking to reconnect with their own heritage. In short, today Taijiquan is cool and mainstream.  It has not got the new age and slightly flaky reputation that it has in the West.  
Chen Xiaowang leading the group in paying respect to Chen Wangting 
On the following day representatives from all the major styles gathered at the Chenjiagou Ancestor’s Hall to pay respects to their common Taijiquan ancestor Chen Wangting. Chen Xiaowang represented the whole group for the ceremony burning incense and offering wine, as younger generation practitioners brought garlands of flowers to Chen Wangting’s alter. Next, Zhu Tiancai read aloud a poem he had composed honouring Taijiquan's ancestors and telling the history of the source of Taijiquan. All present then solemnly bowed to Chen Wangting pledging to work together+ for the spread and propagation of Taijiquan.
Zhu Tiancai reciting his poem 
Professors of Taijiquan
Martial arts have never really enjoyed a high status in China. Many martial artists were severely persecuted during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, and the bad experiences of Taijiquan practitioners in Chenjiagou and many other places are well documented.    The opening of the China Taijiquan Professional Education Centre and nomination of the first 13 practitioners to be given official recognition as “Professors of Taijiquan” marked a symbolic recognition of the importance of these ancient arts in the modern era. Little wonder that those receiving the awards looked so delighted. Chen Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xian and Zhu Tiancai were recognised alongside masters from the other styles of Taijiquan.   
Newly recognised Professors of Taijiquan - Back row rt-Lt: Zhu Tiancai, Wang Xian, Chen Zhenglei and Chen Xiaowang.
Handprints Hollywood Style
Chen Xiaowang's handprint immortalised for the Taijiquan Masters Wall
Hollywood is a Mecca for movie lovers, and the must-visit shrine in Hollywood, to which every Tinseltown pilgrim pays homage, is Grauman's Chinese Theatre.  Visit the Chinese Theatre at any time and you'll find hordes of tourists staring down at the footprints, handprints and autographs of Hollywood superstars past and present immortalised in the forecourt’s cement.  Now  a “Famous Taijiquan Masters Wall” has been  unveiled in Chenjiagou. Following a tradition immortalised by stars such as Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Clint Eastwood and Nicholas Cage – Taijiquan masters lined up to have their hand prints taken. I guess that’s progress. It’s clear that Taijiquan has been recognised as a valuable product and attraction by Chinese officialdom. Personally, I can’t help pining for the small rural village of the 1990s.  
Hollywood's Chinese Theatre comes to Chenjiagou!

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Bruce Lee biopic - filming begins in Chenjiagou!

Wang Xian (Rt) in a scene from Birth of the Dragon

Shooting officially began on the new Bruce Lee biopic "Birth of the Dragon" on the 11th April in Chenjiagou. The film tells a fictional story of Lee's life before he became an international movie  star, culminating in his well-documented challenge against Kung Fu master Wong Jack Man in San Francisco in 1965.
Wang Xian and Philip Ng who plays Bruce Lee
As reported in an earlier post, the film is being directed by George Nolfi, whose past successes include The Bourne Ultimatum and  The Adjustment Bureau. It tells the story of how Lee was deeply influenced by Taiji culture and received instruction in Taijiquan enabling him to bring his martial arts understanding to a high point. In the movie Wang Xian plays the part of Bruce Lee's Taijiquan master - in reality he learned the art from his father in Hong Kong.

Before shooting began, a number of trips were made to scout out the best locations for the early part of Lee's story - eventually deciding upon locations in Jiaozuo, Wenxian and in the scenic area of Yuntaishan. The cast was finalised, Hong Kong born American actor and martial artist and action choreographer Philip Ng Wanlung playing Bruce Lee; Xia Yu plays Wong Jack Man and, as mentioned previously Wang Xian takes the role of Lee's Taijiquan master - with students from his school acting as extras in the movie.
Director George Nolfi overseeing proceedings in the garden where Yang Luchan learned from Chen Changxin.

Wang Xian - movie star!

As well as promoting Chinese martial arts, Birth of  the Dragon introduces the world to Taijiquan's birthplace Chenjiagou. The film is expected to be released in 2017.   


Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Taijiquan - getting beyond the obvious...

A few days ago I watched a documentary about a young English guy's experience training karate in Okinawa and saw a number of parallels with the hurdles facing western students of Taijiquan. The student in the film was in his early thirties - fit, strong and obviously committed, with a love for the art he was practising. In spite of this, his exasperated teacher berated him for not "trying" hard enough. The teacher wasn't questioning the sweat and effort of his foreign student, but his lack of progress in understanding more than the face appearance of techniques he had trained for several years. One of the things he was struggling with was the basic block or "uke".

Having trained karate for a decade from my mid teens, much of the time with Japanese instructors, I trained the same technique thousands of times confident that I understood it. All these years later it was telling to see the Okinawan instructor explaining to the camera that Japanese was a subtle and highly nuanced language. While the word uke literally means to block, it also hints at the qualities of receiving or accepting. He wanted his student to face his opponent and advance unhesitatingly, but at the same time to merge with the attack rather than just try to overpower the other person.
D. Gaffney (Rt) UKKW Midlands Karate Championships in the mid 80s
Taijiquan asks its exponents to "welcome" an attack. Not to simply learn rote applications, but to train the ability to "listen" to, connect with and redirect an opponent's movements. In real time, dealing with an attack, the speed and suddenness of an accomplished practitioner's finishing movement makes almost invisible the preceding connecting and neutralising phase.
Chen Xiaoxing: "Try to understand the multiple layers within a technique".
I remember Chen Xiaoxing telling a student not to underestimate the importance of hard physical training but also to try to understand the multiple layers contained within a technique. Taijiquan is built upon a complex philosophy and methodology that is often misinterpreted and misunderstood.  Chinese Whispers, a Facebook page posting ""Whispers" from the Taijiquan/Internal Arts community in China. Interpretations. Reflections. Observations. Commentaries...", asked the question what is the most difficult aspect of Taijiquan? The article answered with the following passage: "The best answer is in Lao Zi's Daodejing Chapter 41  - that explains that "contradiction is the dynamic expression of the law of nature". Taijiquan is a typical example of contradictory dialectics: its fundamental principles exist in contradictions and paradoxes and if they are not viewed as a dialectical unity - if you insist that a circle is a circle, a straight line is a straight line, that what are opposites can never be reconciled or that they cannot complement each other - then the theory of Taijiquan will not become clear".

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Henan's Military Police Learn Chen Taijiquan


China's official military police website recently highlighted the introduction of Chen Taijiquan into the training programme of its officers. The idea behind its introduction is to transmit traditional culture, improve officers physical constitutions and to enrich their cultural awareness and life style when they are not on operational duty. In the time-honoured Chinese way, the movement is encapsulated in a slogan: "Learn Taiji, strengthen the body and spirit, quieten the heart and nurture the body".

To get the project up and running, Henan province's military police approached Henan's Chen Style Taijiquan Association and invited Zheng Dongxia to teach them Taijiquan. Zheng Dongxia is a disciple of Chenjiagou Taijiquan grandmaster Chen Zhenglei and daughter of Zheng Guorui one of his senior disciples from the early days. I visited Zheng Guorui's school in Wenxian back in 1997 when his daughter was about sixteen years old and already a competent coach, barking commands at the young students under her charge. Fast forward a couple of decades and it is now the military police being put through their paces.
1997 visiting Zheng Guorui's  Henan Wenxian Taiji Shaolin Wushu School. 


Thursday, 17 March 2016

Chen Shitong - Chenjiagou's "Taijiquan Hermit"

A young Chen Shitong at the entrance of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School 
Wang Juan, a reporter from Wenxian Zazhi magazine was inspired to write about Chen Shitong after meeting him at the recent Chenjiagou Taijiquan Exchange and Competition. Chen Shitong made an appearance after being out of the public eye for many years. People may remember him pushing hands with Chen Xiaowang in an early and widely seen documentary about Chenjiagou Taijiquan. In the film Chen Shitong presented a stocky and powerful figure, but over the last decade he had lived quietly in the village, facing the biggest battle of his life.

Under the heading "Taijiquan Hermit" Wang Juan documented Chen Shitong's courageous fight back from serious health problems. Born in Chenjiagou in 1947, like many youngsters in the village Chen Shitong learned taijiquan from his father from an early age. The training was informal and ad hoc until Chen Zhaopi retired to Chenjiagou and began to develop the next generation in a systematic way. Chen Shitong was ten years old at the time and trained  alongside future luminaries of Chen Village Taijiquan such as Chen Xiaowang, Wang Xian, Zhu Tiancai and Chen Zhenglei.

At the time they studied within the small space of Chen Zhaopi's courtyard, his simple village house doubling up as an informal martial arts school. Sometimes there were between thirty and forty students training there. Chen Shitong reminisced on how fortunate he was to have been able to learn from Chen Zhaopi. Not only was Chen Zhaopi an accomplished martial artist, he was also highly literate and so was able to transmit the theoretical knowledge of Taiji as well as the movement system.

 With the opening of the new Chenjiagou Taijiquan School in the 1980s Chen Shitong was appointed as one of the instructors tasked with developing the new blood of the village. Chen Shitong told Wang Juan that he never considered himself either privately or publicly as a Taijiquan grandmaster, preferring to live a quiet life and stay "within the soil of his birthplace". While he is modest about his achievements, Wang reported how Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, one of the guests at the 1st Taiji Festival in Jiaozuo, commented after seeing him perform that, "It's not only the "Four Jingang" in Chenjiagou, Chen Shitong's Taijiquan is also very good".
Centre row Chen Shitong - on his right is Chen Chunlei and on his left Chen Zhenglei and Chen Xiaoxing 

2004 was a bad year for Chen Shitong. His father was seriously ill and Shitong looked after him day and night. The illness was protracted  and many villagers came to visit.  As a result of the exhaustion and worry caused by caring for his father as well as the regular stream of visitors, one day Chen Shitong felt faint and dropped to ground. He was rushed to hospital where he was found to have had a brain haemorrhage.
Chen Shitong with (L-R) his son, daughter and reporter Wan Juan
The doctors told him that it was unlikely that he would have survived his illness if it wasn't for his Taijiquan. He had helped a number of people recover from illnesses such as high blood pressure or stroke and he knew that if he was to make a meaningful recovery he was going to have to work hard.   His son and daughter were by then good enough to take over the teaching and Shitong began the slow road back to health with the help of Taijiquan.  He is certain that his recovery is largely down to Taijiquan.  Everyday, very slowly at first, his body gradually became stronger.  Chen Shitong's practice was consistent, training outdoors everyday unless the weather was bad.  At the interview he tapped his chest proudly and said, "I train everyday. Taijiquan has saved my life!  If it wasn't for Taijiquan I wouldn't have survived".
Today Chen Shitong has fully recovered except for some residual weakness that affects his movements.  He had often thought about how Chen Zhaopi came back to Chenjiagou after retiring to regenerate the Taijiquan practice in the village.  He wondered what he could do to carry on this work. A few years ago he mentioned this to his children and some disciples and they suggested that he set up a Chen Style Research Centre so as to pass on his lifetime of Taijiquan realisation.   His mind was in a contented place - "my mind is very calm, like a pool of calm water".  He is convinced that his life has been saved by Taijiquan and whatever time he has left he wants as many people as possible to benefit in the same way.

Chen Shitong's does not want to be in the limelight, but he felt a responsibility to show himself and try to inspire the next generation of Chen Taijiquan practitioners for as long as he can: "If there is a function anywhere I like to be present, to see how the younger people are progressing. Many of the older generation are coming to the notice of the public now as so many people are travelling to the sacred ground of Taijiquan. It's not easy to live like a hermit now!"
Chen Taijiquan master Chen Shitong

Monday, 7 March 2016

Launching the First World Taiji Culture Festival...

Tian Chunyang
Thoughts on the future of Taijiquan... 

 On the 1st March, a roundtable discussion and press conference was held to launch the First World Taiji Culture Festival due to take place from 8-12th April in Sanya’s Nanshan on Hainan Island. The launch was attended by thirty or so Taijiquan experts including representatives of the major families, Taijiquan researchers, historians and people who have dedicated themselves to the promotion of Taijiquan. During the discussion prominent figures in the Taijiquan world discussed some of the issues facing Taijiquan in today’s world and how they could be addressed. Issues raised included: the preservation of the martial aspects of Taijiquan; engaging young people and working towards making Taijiquan be accepted as a “normal” activity like jogging; the need for an elite platform for training and competition; the need to maybe lower standards to draw people into Taijiquan; if change is inevitable, then it must be change that the ancestors could accept; the need for Taijiquan masters to lead from the front in terms of both behaviour and martial skill; how to reduce the complexities of Taijiquan without reducing the quality; integrating the physical and mental – training the body and the mental processes.

Tian Chunyang – Wu Style Taijiquan

“The performance of Taijiquan can help to maintain health and fitness, but it is still a “quan” (martial art) and not practiced just for theatre, or exclusively for its health benefits. As far as the quan side of Taijiquan is concerned, it should not lose its practical defensive and attacking skills – so people who practice Taijiquan shouldn’t discard the martial arts element”.


Zhai Weizhuan
Zhai Weizhuan – Wu (Hao) Style Taijiquan

“Wu style Taijiquan is a movement principle that requires simultaneous internal and external training. With a lot of elements that involve using qi in combination with Chinese martial techniques to combine jing, qi and shen in order to get the best benefit. Our society is now open and it is our responsibility to let Taijiquan benefit the population”.


Li Bing
Li Bing – Sun Style Taijiquan

“Today Taijiquan is very difficult to propagate especially among young people. We should make a success of this Taiji culture festival so that, in China and around the world they know the attraction of Taijiquan. In this way Taijiquan can become a “normal lifestyle” [like jogging in the park or going to the gym].

 Ma Guanglu – Chen Style Taijiquan

“Use this platform to have an elite high quality training and competition so that it can spread out. Also use it to emphasise the traditional cultural essence of Taijiquan”.
Ma Guanglu
Zhai Yue – Chief Editor of Wuhun (Martial Soul Magazine)

“The most urgent problem facing the ongoing development of Taijiquan is how to attract young people to take part. Also, how to allow the slow method of Taijiquan to change the quick pace of our society….We need to allow the attraction of Taijiquan to be shown to the younger generation through either the web or other modern media. We might even have to “lower the door frame” so people can come in”. To lower the door frame is a euphemism for lowering standards – Zhai’s message is a warning that if people keep clinging to lofty ideals the art of Taijiquan itself may die off.  

Cui Zhongsan
Cui Zhongsan – Yang Style Taijiquan

“All of us present have used many methods to propagate Taijiquan. Our reason for doing this is because we want to let a thing we love very much survive. During this process we must not forget what our old ancestors have left. It is through us that it continues to survive. There might be changes, but the changes should be a good change”.

 Zhai Jinlu – Taijiquan Researcher

“This roundtable conference has assembled some of the world’s leading practitioners – all gathered in one room. So the First Taiji Culture Festival should start from a very high standard in order to set the tone for its future development”.

Zhang Quanliang
Zhang Quanliang – Wu Style Taijiquan  

“Taijiquan skill is very comprehensive, so we should not limit it to just its health and fitness benefits. But, we should work to excavate its traditional cultural essence including its philosophy. As Taijiquan’s transmitters our main task is to educate the public and teach our disciples especially in the five virtues (de). In order to do this job well you have to present yourself as an upright person, as well as a good martial artist”.


Chen Xiaowang – Chen Style Taijiquan

“Cultivating your body and your character – When we train, first on one side you are training your body. On the other we have to nurture and cultivate our character. These are the two sides that have to be done simultaneously. If you just train the body and not the character then there is a lack of balance and sooner or later there will be problems. Likewise, people with mental problems will inevitably find that their body will be affected. So if you can sort out this mental problem, it will have a good effect on the body. So when training Taijiquan, you must have the dual aim of training the body and the mental processes (mind)”.

Liu Hongyao – Wudang (Contemporary Martial Arts Magazine)

“For Chinese Taijiquan to spread widely all over the world and be embraced by everyone, we have to find a way to be more scientific, standardised and structured”.
Fu Qingquan

Fu Qingquan
– Yang Style Taijiquan
“To propagate the spread of martial Taijiquan, the most difficult thing is getting across its complexity. The question is how do you reduce the complexities without affecting the overall quality? This is what we need to research and discuss”.

Huo Pelin
Huo Peilin – Sun Style Taijiquan  

“The World Taiji Culture Festival should lie beneath the umbrella of “big Taiji” [and not divide it into styles and families]. All the different types of Taijiquan have different shapes and forms, but the principle is the same. It is like calligraphy. We should put all the commonalities together in order to attract the people into the wider Taiji system”.
Gu Guangzhao
Gu Guangzhao – He Style Zhaobao Taijiquan

“The essence of Taijiquan is manifesting the source of your internal body through the external shapes and forms. When you reach a certain level of training you can feel definite and unique changes in your body. These are more than the result of improved health. So don’t lose this essence in the pursuit of competitions and beautiful postures. I believe that people in China, as well as around the world – what they truly want and admire is still the traditional thing that is contained in the internal essence of Taijiquan”.  

Considering that this is just the preamble before the actual event takes place in April, the First Taiji Culture Festival promises to be a great event. Can’t wait to see the all the papers and presentations from all the different teachers, researchers and historians.

Professor Yu Gongbao - chief editor world Taiji net.  Taiji Researcher/ historian opened the proceedings and chaired the roundtable discussion 


Monday, 29 February 2016

Celebrating Chenjiagou’s Unique Inhabitants

Chenjiagou today
I first visited Chenjiagou two decades ago and have been back close on twenty times now, the last time just a few months ago. Over that time the transformation of the village has been nothing short of staggering.  In the early years there was still a rural, raw and unregimented feel to the place, now it is really like a small town. Two months ago I stood on the seventh floor of Chen Ziqiang’s new seven-storey building to take in the panorama of modern Chenjiagou with its own stadium, high rise museum, modern supermarkets and wide roads. Some changes are welcome eg. well stocked pharmacies, good roads instead of mud tracks and internet access. Others are less positive - where before you could walk across open fields to visit and train near to the memorials of past generations of Chen ancestors, today you have to pay and go through a turnstile where the memorial stones are set inside a Taiji theme park and managed by the local tourist board. The event showcasing the Taijiquan skills of the people of Chenjiagou provided a timely reflection on this change and the need to celebrate the uniqueness of the village and the villagers themselves.
Chen Bing declares the event open!
Last week Chen Bing’s Taijiquan Academy in Chenjiagou reported on a new event created to showcase the village’s own Taijiquan players with the announcement that: “on the third day of Chinese New Year the inaugural Chenjiagou Taijiquan Exchange and Competition took place … the first meeting in several centuries of Chenjiagou’s Taijiquan players”. The event was a celebration of Chen Village Taijiquan, rather than being a showcase for any one particular school or lineage.
Opening the first Chenjiagou Taijiquan Exchange and Competition
Spring Festival Reunion

92 year old Chen Quanzhong returning to Chenjiagou after more than seventy years

The Spring Festival is the most important festival for Chinese people and is by tradition the time when families come together for “family reunion”. It dates back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC – 1100 BC) when people would sacrifice to gods and ancestors at the end of an old year and beginning of a new one. All people living away from home do their utmost to go back to their families and, during this time China’s transportation system of planes, trains and automobiles groans under the stain of the largest annual migration of people on the planet.  Taking advantage of the many practitioners coming home to Chenjiagou, Chen Bing, organiser of the event, brought together a dazzling array of Taiji talent. Over 300 people took part. Internationally feted masters demonstrated alongside practitioners who have stayed in the village quietly training away from the eyes of the world. Spanning the generations, the oldest practitioner was close on 100 years old – the youngest four years old.

Well-known Taijiquan players present included the 92-year-old Chen Quanzhong returning to Chenjiagou for the new year for the first time in more than seventy years. He was publicly thanked by Chen Bing for travelling from Xian to support the event. Chen Quanzhong  was joined by a who’s who of Chenjiagou talent - Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, Zhu Tiancai, Chen Lifa, Chen Shitong, Chen Shuying, Chen Shuzheng, Chen Zhaosheng, Chen Changliu, Chen Junling, Zhu Laohu, Chen Peilin and Chen Peiju ...   
Chen Xia - Laojia Yilu
Also attending were Chen Xia and Chen Zhiqiang (not to be confused with Chen Ziqiang), both of whom I first encountered way back in 1997 during our first visit to Chenjiagou. On that sweltering July day instructors of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School treated us to a series of demonstrations in the main hall of the school. Chen Xia demonstrated Laojia Yilu and her performance still sticks in my mind as one of the best demos I have seen by a female practitioner.  After the various performances of forms and weapons had finished it was announced that there would be a demo of push hands. I’d had some success in British push hands competitions and was put forward as one of three people to try push hands Chenjiagou style against  Chen Zhiqiang.  He was intense and powerful and gave us a reality check on what competitive push hands was really about! Afterwards we found out he was the reigning China National 75kgs champion.  I’ve heard little of Chen Xia and Chen Zhiqiang in the intervening years - in China there are many accomplished practitioners that we don’t  hear about in the West. The Chenjiagou Taijiquan Exchange and Competition is planned to be an annual New Year event to showcase the continuity of taijiquan in the village.     
Carrying on a tradition - one of the youngest performers 
“Taiji Families” Event

The event itself consisted of the expected forms, weapons and push hands divisions, but the highlight was a “Taiji Families Team” category. This novel category encouraged Taiji families comprising of a minimum of five people, or alternatively teams spanning three generations, to come out and perform together. Seasoned veterans performing alongside their children and grandchildren - a celebration of participation with widely varying levels of skill, but a shared enjoyment of just doing it.  Chen Quanzhong and Chen Bing were among those leading their respective families.  In today’s celebrity worshipping culture people tend to focus exclusively on a few elite Taijiquan performers and forget about the contribution and participation of countless grass-roots participants who may never become acclaimed masters but draw a lifetime’s fulfilment pursuing Taijiquan.  
Chen families playing Taijiquan:

Chen Quanzhong's family
Chen Bing's family
Chen Shitong's family

Chen Lifa's family