Saturday, 31 October 2015

Bourne director travels to China to find out more about Bruce Lee and the Taiji Connection!

I came across an interesting article on China’s “World Taijiquan” website a couple of months ago that discussed a set of photos taken at Long Beach, California in 1964 showing Bruce Lee training Taijiquan.  Famous for films such as Enter the Dragon, Fists of Fury and The Big Boss, the article asked why it was that while everyone knew about the influence of Wing Chun master Ip Man on Lee’s martial arts, the importance of Taijiquan on his development had been so overlooked.

Lee’s earliest introduction to Chinese martial arts was through Taijiquan, his first teacher being his father Li Haiquan. Lee senior was a famous Cantonese opera artist who had studied Taijiquan for many decades and by all accounts had a decent level of skill. The general narrative goes that Lee junior stopped doing Taijiquan when he was twelve or thirteen years old and moved on to other things. The article on the other hand stated that “Li Xiaolong (Bruce Lee) studied from his father from a young age, and without break for the next twenty years”…and that “Taijiquan’s gongfu and philosophy played a huge part in his martial arts development”. At the time these photos were taken Lee would have been somewhere in his twenties. Some forty years after his death, it seems that the role of Taijiquan in Lee’s formative years is about to get the full Hollywood treatment. 

Hollywood Director George Nolfi Meets Chen Taiji Grandmaster Wang Xian
An intriguing piece of news just released on China’s Qiling Film Industry’s website Entertainment News links famous Hollywood director George Nolfi, Chen Taijiquan grandmaster Wang Xian and the little dragon himself, Bruce Lee!

Nolfi is director of blockbuster movies including The Bourne Ultimatum, The Adjustment Bureau, Ocean’s Twelve and The Sentinel. His latest film project titled Birth of the Dragon tells the story of Bruce Lee’s rise to international superstardom.  While researching the movie Nolfi, was intrigued at how Taiji principles seemed to underpin much of the philosophy within Lee’s own Jeet Kune Do system. In the eyes of the American movie maker Taijiquan was a soft dance-like exercise of little practical use as a fighting art, yet Lee repeatedly exhorted and promoted the principles of Taiji through concepts such as “using stillness to overcome movement”, “the coexistence of hard and soft” and “the cultivation of internal as well as external”…  Nolfi puzzled over this link to Taiji which, to his way of thinking, seemed completely at odds with the dynamic portrayal of Lee on the silver screen.

Hollywood meets Taijiquan-  George Nolfi and Wang Xian 
To satisfy his curiosity he decided to do some firsthand research into Taijiquan in China. Entertainment News reported: “On 29th Oct in preparation for the upcoming American-China collaboration, Birth of the Dragon, Hollywood director George Nolfi flew into Shanghai and accompanied by the CEO of the Qilin Film Industry travelled to Hangzhou to visit 19th generation Chen style Taijiquan inheritor Wang Xian in order to fully understand the essence of Taijiquan culture in preparation for the film”.

Chen Taijiquan's short power
The famous one inch punch...
The report went on to say that Nolfi came to China with lots of questions about Taijiquan. He was introduced to Wang Xian by billionaire entrepreneur Jack Ma of and kung fu stars Jet Li and Wu Jing all of whom are disciples of Grandmaster Wang. Without further ado Nolfi was shown the effectiveness of traditional Chen Taijiquan. First up Wang Xian’s disciple Wang JIngchen demonstrated Taijiquan’s short power or cun jin by smashing a pile of tiles. Cun jin can be translated literally as “inch power” - it might surprise filmgoers familiar with Lee’s “one inch punch” to know that this has been trained in Chen Taijiquan for centuries now. Nolfi expressed surprise that Taijiquan could generate force like this. Next up he asked if he could try a little with Wang Xian. Making contact with the seventy year old Wang, Nolfi was instantly tossed to the floor. Afterwards he was reported to have said that it is the first time he has experienced what Taijiquan gongfu is and he wants to put it on the screen. It’s even been whispered that Wang Xian might play a cameo in the film!

Nolfi just about to experience Chen Taijiquan gongfu
Nolfi at the Chenjiagou Taijiquan Museuem
Carrying on his desire to understand Taijiquan’s roots and place in the pantheon of Chinese martial arts, Nolfi visited Chenjiagou, where he was given a tour of the Chen Family Temple and the Chenjiagou Taijiquan Museum and watched demonstrations of Chen Taijiquan forms. And the final word to Nolfi – “Through the ages Bruce Lee is the most famous representative of the Chinese people. In the West he is not just the first person to popularise Chinese Kung Fu, but so many years after his death interest in him has not diminished. This time coming to China I want to more closely understand Chinese culture, Chinese martial arts and also the background of Bruce Lee’s life”.

I can’t wait for this movie!

Thursday, 8 October 2015

An Eventful Chenjiagou Trip...

I'm writing this blog post in transit from Chenjiagou to Borneo via Shanghai. During the flights and the down time in between I had a chance to reflect on an eventful and thought-provoking visit to China. I won't apologise for rambling on a bit, but this trip brought back many memories as the confluence of several large events in the village saw us meeting lots of old friends from the past.

The first few days in Chenjiagou were quiet. Training with Chen Xiaoxing in the small room he likes to use just a few doors away from his living quarters. Every morning at about 8am he leaves his room and walks the few metres to the training room. This is an unchanging routine and it is expected that those who are training with him will have begun standing before he arrives. After adjusting each student's posture he leaves everyone to try to maintain the position and feeling for another 30 or 40 minutes. This is followed by a short break and then half an hour or so doing a single reeling silk exercise. Another short break to ease the legs and then everyone trains individually on whatever it was they are working on while the teacher wanders about informally correcting any mistakes he sees. The kind of person who needs to be entertained and spoon fed does not tend to enjoy or last long with this kind of training.

Branch instructors of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
Quickly people began to arrive from all over China for the main purpose of our visit, Chen Xiaoxing's six day training course for the branch instructors of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. The course was intended as an opportunity to meet and upgrade their standard together. Chen Ziqiang addressed the group during a meeting one evening saying that while the school has branches all over China as well as a number of international branches, it is not often that they can come together to share expertise and support each other. He spoke animatedly about the importance of coaches of the school knowing the history and theory of their system and not just repeat what they hear someone else say. As part of the coaches education programme certain language needed to be standardised to avoid confusion. For example the confusion between whether to refer to the current generation as eleventh (tracing back to Chen Wangting) or nineteenth (tracing back to Chen Bu) generation. Chen Ziqiang said that within the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School his father's generation are nineteenth generation and his students twentieth. On another evening Chen Xiaowang took time away from his own event to talk to the group for an hour or so about the principles of Taijiquan and how to apply them in your practice.

Words of advice from GM ChenXiaowang 
The main aspect covered during the course was the Xinjia Erlu or New Frame Second Routine, the dynamic form created by Chen Fake, with additional sessions on the fundamentals - zhan zhuang and chansigong. At the beginning of each session Chen Xiaoxing would climb onto the stage in the front of the main training hall and demonstrate a short series of movements, explain the finer details, and then go through each move slowly and then explosively as they're supposed to be done in the second form.

GM Chen Xiaoxing supervising his son Chen Ziqiang

Students were then divided into two groups, one group to train inside the training hall under the supervision of his son Chen Zijun and the other group to train outside with his older son Chen Ziqiang. Both sons would go over the movements their father had just shown, get adjusted and corrected by him,  before leading their respective groups. Chen Xiaoxing is emphatic in his belief that teachers should not be too proud to be corrected in front of their students.  He recounted one particular Taijiquan instructor in China who trained several times in Chenjiagou with him and who invited Chen Xiaoxing to his school to teach.  During the sessions Chen Xiaoxing noticed
that the instructor seemed agitated each time his posture was being adjusted.   On  asking what the matter was, he got the whispered reply, "would it be ok to correct me afterwards?"   Chen Xiaoxing said that this kind of ego makes him angry and that he never again treated the instructor as a serious person worth teaching.

Chen Xiaoxing can be very humorous. One student asked earnestly how you could tell if your buttocks were sticking out too much?  His tongue-in-cheek answer was - "if your trousers fit comfortably when you're standing up, but you feel them stretching as you turn your hand (he was referring to the single hand front reeling silk exercise), then your buttocks are sticking out too much". In between teaching Chen Xiaoxing would often bark at the constant stream of tourists wandering into the training room, shouting at them to get out of the room if they were not supposed to be there. But, as anyone who has trained in Chenjiagou knows, some of these guys are really thick skinned and within a few minutes they would try to sneak back in.

Going through the finer points
At the end of the course Chen Xiaoxing led detailed sessions on Zhan Zhuang and Chansigong- explaining and demonstrating the underlying theories and then correcting the group. He spoke of the absolute need to be  natural and the use of  intention rather than trying to force things. Many of the requirements of Taijiquan are very subtle, for example you must have the intention or feeling as
if the collar bones are lightly drawn towards each other. But if this closing
can be seen externally then it is too much. He advised everyone to follow their own body condition. He gave the example of someone with a curvature of the spine. Trying to straighten the spine cannot bring a good result, rather the person must use feeling and sensation to reach the optimum place for themselves.

Chen Xiaowang's 70th birthday celebrations took place over three days at the same time as Chen Xiaoxing's training camp. We only managed to attend his birthday banquet held one afternoon in a plush hotel in Wenxian. After the morning session was over we joined Chen Ziqiang and his father to travel the short distance to Wenxian to join the festivities just as they were starting. On the head table with Chen Xiaowang were representatives from the other four main Taijiquan styles. A sea of tables filled a vast room and I heard one guy estimating that there were close to 1,000 people attending. It was great to meet up with Taiji friends we've not seen for some time. Especially a big shout out to Singapore-based Chen Taijiquan veteran Foo Shang Wee who we first met back in 2000 when we trained with Zhu Tiancai in the Lion city. Foo took us around the city and photocopied and bound some of his large collection of Taijiquan articles and notes which were invaluable when we wrote our first book.

During the bash we shared an interesting table with Chen Jingyuan the Chenjiagou Village Head, Chen Bing, Zhao Zhifang who we first encountered at Chen Zhenglei's First International Taijiquan Training Camp in Handan, Hebei province way back in 1999. How time flies, he was an exuberant young instructor then and was in Chenjiagou ready for Chen Zhenglei's large camp that started during the last few days of our stay. Zhao was accompanied by his wife and children. His wife is an old friend of ours who happens to be a disciple of Chen Xiaoxing. So their's must be an interesting household when talking Taijiquan!

At Chen Xiaowang's birthday bash L-R David Gaffney, Chen Jun, Chen Bing, Chen Yingjun, Davidine Sim
The village continues to grow year by year bearing little resemblance to the place I first visited almost two decades ago. This time we stayed at Chen Ziqiang's new training centre five minutes walk from the main school. The centre is seven stories high with the fifth and sixth floors serving as training areas, four floors of modern accommodation and a viewing platform on the top floor from which you can see the the extent of the changes. Eventually he plans to add another two stories.
Chen Ziqiang

On the penultimate night of the camp a stage was erected in the Main Street in front of the school for a series of demonstrations and fun auctions to raise money for the needy of the village. Before proceedings got underway an old character from the village got up on the stage and in a powerful voice told all the people who were sitting on the seats reserved for the performers to get up, shouting, "if you're impersonating a famous person, stop it"! There were many demonstrations of hand and weapon routines, groups and individuals including a powerful young man doing the swordform who turned out to be Chen Shitong's grandson. The last Taijiquan performance of the evening was by Chen Xiaoxing. With the time getting late he did a short section of the New Frame First Form before casually leaving the stage. The show was closed by two young women doing a Chinese version of the can-can. What this had to do with the rest of the evenings entertainment I have no idea, but hey this is China.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Chen Taijiquan in Slovenia's elite Planica Olympic Centre

The Planica Olympic Training Centre
I returned last week from the Planica Olympic Training Centre in Slovenia where we took part in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School’s First Advanced European Chen Taijiquan Camp. The chance to train with three senior instructors from the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School drawing participants from as far as Russia, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, USA, Germany and a large contingent from our school in the UK. The event was organised in conjunction with our affiliated branches in Slovenia to continue to make available high quality traditional training available in Europe. For the six day camp GM Chen Xiaoxing led the training assisted by his two sons Chen Ziqiang and Chen Zijun.
UK group and affiliated instructors

 The Planica centre is a state of the art facility that draws elite athletes from around the world from many disciples but especially winter sports. Without a doubt the most striking feature of the venue are five progressively larger ski jumps situated by the entrance. Here many world records have been set including: the first 100m ski jump in 1935; the first 200m jump in 1994 by the legendary Toni Niemenen; and the current world record of 239 metres set in 2005. It was fun watching a transfixed Chen Xiaoxing marvelling at the flying ski jumpers of the Slovenian national team in the break after breakfast and before the mornings session got underway. 

The centre itself is decorated with many motivational images of successful Slovenian athletes. Interestingly the definition of success here is not just the winning an Olympic medal – and there were plenty of those, but of athletes who had reached their own personal potential. One of the first images I noticed showed four young 4 x 100m metre relay runners joyfully celebrating after the Sydney Olympics. I googled their event to see that the four guys had been eliminated after the first heat. Their achievement was making the Olympic Games. What a healthy attitude – celebrating real genuine effort and not decrying the efforts just because it doesn’t match the powerhouse nations in the event.  We could learn from this in the world of Taijiquan. 

Chen Zijun leading the 24 Spear sessions
On to the camp, training began each day at dawn and finished at dusk. Zhan zhuang and xinjia yilu with Chen Xiaoxing. 24 Spear on the first three evenings with Chen Zijun, an instructors lecture on the fourth evening then Double Mace with Chen Ziqiang on the final two evenings. There was lots of information and lots of effort: Chen Xiaoxing on the need for western people to have more confidence in feeling and less need to verbalise everything; Chen Zijun’s powerful performance interspersed with regular quiet instruction as people began to get flustered or try too hard, stand quietly, fang song (loosen up) and an jing or "be peaceful and tranquil", before beginning again; Chen Ziqiang’s insistence on understanding the function of each action with the weapon etc.
Standing every day at dawn

UK's Rob Sidwell posture correction
All in all, it was a fantastic weeks training in an inspiring venue that left us all with lots of material to work on until the next time. The atmosphere and history within Planica is one of an enduring pursuit for excellence. One of the great things of this camp was practicing Taijiquan in a setting alongside highly motivated athletes from other countries and disciplines: sitting in the food hall with young ski jumpers who had funded themselves to come here; watching a team of Italian winter sportsmen being put through challenging leg power drills watched intently Chen Ziqiang, no doubt getting new ideas of how to condition his young charges in Chenjiagou. While the centre has been used by many other martial arts bodies over the years ours was the first Taijiquan group. As we were leaving 60 Taekwondo athletes were arriving from eight countries including Japan and Canada.     

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Precision, precision, precision...

Eyes level, chin drawn in...
Many, maybe most, people approach Taijiquan training, or any other discipline for that matter, in a pretty haphazard way. It’s not that there’s not lots of hard work and sweat, there’s just too much “blindly chugging away in the weight room” – grinding out the reps without paying attention to all those little details. 

Baihui lifted...
The accompanying photos of a group of young Chinese soldiers being trained to hold themselves to the rigorous standards expected of the PLA remind me of the endless hours in Chenjiagou. It doesn’t matter how many times you do the foundation exercises or forms, they can always be embedded more deeply and accurately. Relax the collar bones and draw the chin in so they are connected, lightly lift the top of your head, step out carefully “like gliding on ice” – ready to withdraw your foot at any time…
Stepping with control, ready to withdraw at any time...
Asked about the rationale behind these exercises, an army training officer explained that “repeated precision movement” was the best way to make sure that an optimal response would come out when needed. For precise we could substitute accurate, careful, meticulous, exact, correct…

It’s almost heretical in today’s instant and on-demand world to say that the most effective way might not be the quickest way. But training build upon a meticulous attention to detail is the only way to truly establish Taijiquan’s rules within your body. The reward is optimal movement patterns that will greatly improve performance.  

Chen Xiaoxing - meticulous attention to detail

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Are you ready to train applications?

An old saying advises Taijiquan practitioners “not to leave the door for 10 years”. The saying is not meant to be taken literally, but it does recognise the fact that Taijiquan is a complex, multi-dimensional discipline with distinct stages of training: learning, correcting, adjusting the form etc. Done in the traditional way, the form settles into a coherent whole, integrating knowledge gained in previous levels. Training slowly through the different stages demands strict discipline and regularisation, a point by point harmonising. This process is known as xiu lian, which literally means “to put in order and nurture”. In the Taoist Body Thomas Schiffer likens this to the tuning of a harp with ten thousand strings.

Contrast this approach to the modern rush which sees students desperate to get to the advanced levels of Taijiquan in the shortest possible time. Desperate to learn applications and to show how strong their fajin is, when they’ve not even understood many of the basic requirements of Taijiquan. There is a pitfall of sacrificing higher level long-term benefits in favour of short-term gains. For instance, once you start relying on the use of force, it’s a hard habit to break. Sadly this impatience is not unique to Taijiquan. In classes now we often see the phenomenon of the two year Karate or Taekwondo black belt. They’ve “mastered” the external arts and are now ready to tackle a more “spiritual” art.

Chen Xiaowang explaining the step by step journey from beginner to advanced practitioner. 

The traditional way is to first put the building blocks in place – a strong unmovable base, co-ordinated movement, agile footwork; develop the correct energetic qualities – heavy at the bottom, light at the top, expanding from inside to out and fullness in the dantian. With this basis develop an understanding of Taijiquan’s different types of jin or trained power – peng, lu, ji, an etc. Training push hands in the same way – first looking to develop the skill of listening to and following the movements of an opponent. Then eliminating the mistakes of disconnecting from your opponent, leaning and resisting with force against force…

When you reach the point where your movement is smooth and coordinated, and you have understood the idea of following an opponent’s movement, then you can begin to examine the application possibilities within the form. Not simply collecting set responses for each movement.
Many students would argue that they have done 10, 15, 20… years training so surely they must be ready to do applications. But if that time was made up of a couple of days a year at a crowded seminar with a teacher from China, and a few hours a week training with teachers who themselves haven’t had enough contact time with a teacher who understands the progressive method of Taijiquan - then the truth may be they are not ready.
The opinions of the grandmasters of Chen Taijiquan are quite clear and consistent on this point. I remember Chen Zhenglei emphasising this point during a training camp in China: “Instead of training individual applications you should train the whole body to work as a system”. Chen Xiaowang was even more direct when answering a question about the application for one of the movements in the form:– “Even if you learn 10,000 applications, if they’re not based on correct principles, they won’t work”.
Chen Xiaowang: "Even if you learn 10,000 applications, if they are not based on correct principles, they will not work"!
At the end of the day what we are trying to achieve in Chen Taijiquan is the ability to respond to an opponent in a natural unforced and spontaneous way. To do this we cannot cut out any of the progressive steps. Like all other martial arts the level you achieve depends on the quality of your foundation. 

Monday, 12 January 2015

Mastering Taijiquan – A Journey not a Destination

Art historian Sarah Lewis: mastery - a constant pursuit
Killing time on a flight back from the USA a couple of weeks ago I browsed through the inflight entertainment guide.   Picking through a series of TED lectures, I listened to a fascinating talk by art historian Sarah Lewis, who considered the role of “the near win” in the quest for mastery. Lewis made the point that: "masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end, they're masters because they realise there isn't one".  Almost all high level practitioners speak in terms of process and refinement rather than ultimate arrival.

 Lewis listed several characteristics for master artists that I feel also apply to the likelihood of achieving a high level of Taijiquan skill. These high achievers, she found, are the kind of people who:

- Thrive not when they have done it all, but when    they still have more to do.

- Thrive when they stay at their own leading edge

- Can never do enough

- Give themselves over to a voracious unfinished path that always requires more.

- They build out of the unfinished idea, even if the idea is their former self.

Completion may be a goal in your Taijiquan pursuit, but it may never be achieved.   In Lewis’ words, “This is the dynamic of mastery.  Coming close to what you thought you wanted, to help you attain more than you ever thought possible”.

So how do we move from success to mastery? It has more to do with focusing not on outcomes or goals, but on a constant pursuit. Lewis illustrated her point with the example of an archery practice she had witnessed at Columbia University. Hour after hour the archers aimed at the bullseye which, from where they were shooting, “looked as small as a matchstick…I was witnessing what’s so rare to glimpse — the pursuit of excellence.” says Lewis. “Success is hitting that 10 ring. But mastery is knowing it means nothing if you can’t hit it again and again.”
Award winning photographer Li Yingjie's representation of Taijiquan

Monday, 1 December 2014

Looseness... is it really that important?

First time I went to China was in the mid-1990s. Each teacher I met I pestered with questions about how I could improve my Taijiquan to get the same level of explosiveness I was seeing from the teachers and their students. Invariably I was met with the same answer - "fangsong" or "loosen-up". 

           The explosive fajin of Chen Xiaowang
A year later I was back in China, again marvelling at the explosive fajin of many of the guys over there. Once more I was full of questions about how to get the same result. At the time we were training with Chen Zhenglei, but in the free time we spent quite some time with a young instructor whose name escapes me now. After listening to my umpteenth question about fajin, he asked me if I was really serious about this? After I replied "YES"! He said that "if you're really serious, then for the next year you should do NO FAJIN WHATSOEVER"! He put it bluntly, "Taiji power comes from looseness and pliancy and unless you understand and get this looseness, you won't fajin in the correct way". This was absolutely the last thing I wanted to hear. Before coming to Taijiquan I had trained external martial arts for fifteen years and - at the time - thought I knew a thing or two.  The message that came across load and clear was that it didn't matter what you've done before - if you want the same end product you have to follow the correct method.
                                                        Training in Zhengzhou in the mid 90s
All styles of Taijiquan are built upon the qualities of "song", "rou" and "man", that is looseness, pliancy and slowness. In a quick brainstorming session after class we came up with the following non-exhaustive list of benefits we can expect to gain if we achieve Taijiquan's brand of looseness:

1. Allows the body to be in a resting state

2. Whole body allowed to be loose and free

3. Diaphragm is unrestricted - so Qi is not stuck in the chest

4. Joints are flexible

5. Movements become expanded and comfortable

6. Allows roundness and circularity

7. Decreases stiffness, inflexibility and brute force

8. Increases speed and power

9. Enables Qi to sinkdown

10. Makes legs stronger

11. Stabilises the centre

12. Increases usability

13. Xiapan (lower plane) becomes strong

14. Increases blood circulation

15. Increases stability so that the form doesn't float
Looking for looseness, pliancy and correct structure

16. Improves Qi circulation

17. Increases sensitivity of the skin and flesh

18. Enables sectional movement

Working stiffness and incorrect movement patterns out of the body is a long term job.   Getting back to the UK, I took the advice on board and did no fajin for the next year...