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

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Chen Xiaoxing - "When you know you know"!

Taking in Aberdeen Harbour Enter the Dragon Style
I'm writing this latest post at the end of this year's training camp in Chenjiagou with GM Chen Xiaoxing. Our group was sixteen strong, plus a group of Chen Xiaoxing's Chinese students who trained alongside us.

Mixing it with some of the Ani-Com characters
Most of our group met in Hong Kong and enjoyed a day off to shake off some of the jet lag before flying on to Chenjiagou. With such a short time in Hong Kong, we joined an organised tour and visited some of the "Fragrant Harbour's" iconic sites -  several with links to martial arts culture: we took a sampan around Aberdeen Harbour, a location for countless local films, usually centred around the ongoing battle between the Hong Kong police force and the infamous triads. It has also been a standout location in a few international cinema classics - most notably and memorable being Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon - where the various fighters boarded a junk bound for the mysterious Mr Han's Island; we also visited the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC) and the nearby Ani-Com Park. The HKCEC is a major landmark on the Hong Kong Island skyline instantly recognisable to Jackie Chan fans as the setting for the dramatic ending of New Police Story;   Ani-Com Park opened earlier this year as Hong Kong's first selfie theme park and features life-sized statues based on 30 classic Hong Kong animation and comic characters including Hero Wah, Andy Chan, Bruce Lee, Old Master Q etc...;  Repulse Bay, located in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, and whose name comes from a 19th century battle in which the British army repulsed attacking pirates that infested the area. A colourful Daoist temple flanked by the giant statues of Tin Hau (Goddess of the Sea) and Kwun Yum (Goddess of Mercy). Westerners are always a bit perplexed at the seeming randomness of Daoist temples. Here we were met with colourful mosaic statues of folk deities including the God of Love , the Fish God and the God of Wealth, and creatures like dragons, goldfish and rams.

The next day we flew into Chenjiagou. For the first time trained at Chen Ziqiang's new seven storey accommodation/training facility. At first sight it would be easy to be misled by the facade and entrance - marble floored with four floors of comfortable accommodation.  Above, though, hidden from the outside world are three floors of cavernous, spartan training areas. On the few days when it rained and the latest batch of the school's recruits were put through their paces above us, the building seemed to shake as their efforts echoed through the building. 

Top James Lucas, Below Dana Gelatova and Biljana Dusic being corrected
For ten days we settled into a daily routine of two sessions of two and a half hours with GM Chen Xiaoxing.  Each session started with jibengong (basic training) consisting of zhan zhuang (standing pole) and chansigong (reeling silk). Then, a few moves at a time, deepening of the Laojia Yilu routine - referred to in Chenjiagou as the "mother form" or the "gongfu form". 

There is a Confucian adage that says "a mirror doesn't lie, it simply tells the truth". It reflects exactly what is before it. Basic training with Chen Xiaoxing is a gruelling and repetitive business. With standing, for instance, he corrects each student in turn, adjusting and leading them into a better structural position - at the same time dramatically increasing the demands on the  legs. The lack of adequate leg strength is one of the limiting factors on the ability to "fang song" or loosen the body to the degree required by Chen Taijiquan. Over the course of each session every student would be corrected two or three times before Chen Xiaoxing brought the standing to a close with a clap of his hands after thirty or forty minutes. That's being corrected approximately fifty times over the course of the ten days. Anyone who didn't have a better idea of what to work on when they went home just wasn't paying attention! Reeling silk training involved another half an hour continuously drilling a single movement, trying to remain completely level with the upper body compact and unbroken whilst going through the exercise.   After one challenging session Chen Xiaoxing remarked that, "the training my senior students "fear" the most are standing and reeling silk".

Chen Xiaoxing is a great believer in developing a deep foundation through this kind of simple basic training and have little patience for abstract speculation and talk. When one of the Chinese students, rubbing his painful legs after one session of zhan zhuang, asked him, "how will I know when I find the right feeling?"   His short, simple yet profound answer, "you know when you know. When you don't know, you don't know".

CTGB's 2016 Chenjiagou training group with GM Chen Xiaoxing at the Chen Family Temple

Friday, 7 October 2016

Stillness in motion...

Taijiquan players often quote phrases from the classics, often with little thought or understanding of what they mean in a practical sense. For example, the instruction to "seek stillness in movement, and movement in stillness". Asked to expand the stock answers are "the mind is still while the body is moving"... or that it's "like meditation in movement". And then move on...

Look at the picture below of Chen Xiaoxing at his recent camp at the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. His dynamic explosive movement is combined with an expression of focused calmness. Laozi's Daoist classic the Daodejing succinctly states that: "The heavy is the root of the light; the quiet is the master of motion". This is not the quietness of docility. Instead it is the supremely balanced place where a practitioner is not fixated on any one thing, whether it be an opponent in front of you, an intended technique, or a preconceived idea of any incoming attack. Rather, in a neutral and balanced state, possessing the ability to change instantly from one state to another. In Taijiquan parlance, "strong in eight directions".

Chen Xiaoxing - "stillness in motion"

To achieve this all the practitioner's senses must be activated - feeling the sensations of lifting the head while sinking the body to be rooted and heavy; expanding the body, listening behind... In tuishou there is even a saying that you "should try to smell your opponent". What is required is the use of all the senses to get a true reading of a situation.

Chen Xin writes: "Eyes level gazing forward, shining into all four directions". This means that although the eyes are directed forward, one must be aware of one's surroundings. The spirit should be like that of a cat stalking a mouse. The direction of the eyes is in accordance with the body's movements. The eyes act as the forerunner of the mind. Again to quote Chen Xin "Of a hundred boxing skills, the eye is the vanguard". But behind the eyes it is the mind that maintains inner awareness. The mind, that gives the command to act. It is therefore important to keep the intention of the mind consistent with every action.

Slovenian Workshop

We were in Slovenia last week teaching workshops for the Slovenian Chenjiagou Taijiquan Association organised by Biljana Dusic and Dragan Lazaravic. Great to see the group progressing year by year! In 2015 Chenjiagou Taijiquan GB, with the assistance of the Slovenian Chenjiagou Taijiquan Association, organised the First Chenjiagou Taijiquan School Advanced European Taijiquan Training Camp held at the fantastic Olympic Training Centre in Planica. Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing, assisted by his two sons Chen Ziqiang and Chen Zijun led a week of intensive training. It was an international event with participants from the USA, Slovenia, Italy, Russia, Croatia, Germany, Hong Kong, and the largest group from our school in the UK. Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing will be conducting another camp in Planica in 2018.