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.    

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Sanshou training in Warsaw

Marek Balinski and Chen Ziqiang
Pad work
I've been in Poland training with Chen Ziqiang in a series of seminars organised by Marek Balinski, chief coach of the Warsaw Chen Taijiquan Academie. Chen Ziqiang was assisted by Wang Yan, captain of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School's fighting team. He was featured in my post a month or so ago leading the school to victory in their recent challenge match with a team of Thai boxers from Thailand. These are some impressions from the week.

First up was two days of sanshou and tuishou training in the Polish Wushu Association's purposely fitted combat sports facility.  Chen Ziqiang explained the four different types of tuishou: first, the five standard drills - single hand, double hand, forward and backward stepping, big step and flexible step. These exercises teach many of the core skills necessary for combat in a fixed and controlled way. The standard drills are enough for students whose main purpose in learning Taijiquan is for health and fitness; second, is what Chen Ziqiang described as "experimentation". Working from the preceding drills practitioners train the different qinna and application potentials, again in a controlled way; third, the stand up grappling that he said is often mistaken for Taijiquan sanshou (free fighting). This type of push hands training starts with both players being in contact with each other and from that position train mostly rooting, throwing and sweeping skills; the fourth type is sanshou, where two people stand apart from each other and then bridge the gap. In sanshou every type of techniques can be used - striking, elbowing, kicking, throwing etc..

Over the two days Chen Ziqiang systematically moved between applications from standard push hands drills, to line drills that focused on the footwork supporting techniques. Finally, training the same techniques on kick shields so that the group could practice applying with full power. Like all excellent coaches he managed to get important concepts across while the sessions were in progress: keeping the shoulders loose in order for the arms to turn freely; sinking the elbows to guard the ribs; maintaining awareness of correct timing and distance; how to change the fighting range; flexible footwork etc... ; even touching on the study and practical use of pressure points to support qinna.

There was a day to review the early part of the Laojia Yilu. When Chen Wangting created Taijiquan the idea was to develop an effective martial system. Chen Ziqiang stressed that everything within the form has its function and purpose and that no detail should be overlooked. From the starting position external aspects and internal energy are harmonised via the intention. Hands, eyes, body and footwork are coordinated. He stressed the need to look beyond your hands when doing the movements, giving the simple example that if you were punching someone you would look at them and not at your own fist. 

Anyone who has trained with Chen Ziqiang will have experienced his physically challenging warm ups. During several of the sessions over the course of the week he handed the warm ups over to Wang Yan. Anyone feeling relieved soon changed their minds.  Chen Ziqiang remarked laconically after one particularly strenuous session that "my student's warm ups are harder than mine".

L-R Davidine Sim, Chen Ziqiang, Wang Yan & David Gaffney
Our Polish visit concluded with three days of spear training. Chen Ziqiang places great emphasis upon exercises to develop basic skills. Just as a knife, fork and spoon each has its own function and usage, every weapon has its own characteristics that must be manifested. He recalled how he had trained the jibengong (foundation exercises) for weapons for several years before being allowed to train the forms. While this may not be practical for many students today, it does point towards the need to pay more attention to training the core skills of each weapon rather than just running through the forms. Chen Taijiquan's spear form marries the qualities of both spear and staff - the spear elements being straight and staff movements circular.  "Spear" techniques emphasise thrusting (zha), blocking (lan) and intercepting (na). Staff techniques are built around the ability to turn the weapon like two wheels on either side of the body and not done as if you were paddling a canoe - a mistake Chen Ziqiang said is made by the majority of people training the spear.

Development in Taijiquan is a continuous process, realising the connections between all aspects of the system and putting them into practice on the training floor.

Warsaw 2016

Monday, 22 August 2016

Keys to success - consistency and perseverance…

An early picture of Chen Xiaowang - "No excuses, training every day without fail"
“What ultimately separates those who succeed from the rest is what goes on between their ears and in their heart and souls”. The preceding quote from an unknown source points to the truth that to perform at a high level in any sport or physical discipline demands sacrifices and discipline from participants, and the possession of qualities like doggedness, constancy and a long-term perspective. Without the right mindset it doesn’t matter how much natural ability you have, or which famous teachers you learn from.

In a recent interview Chen Xiaoxing highlighted the twin qualities of consistency and perseverance as central to the development of a meaningful level of Taijiquan ability. I remember listening in some years ago during another interview when he was asked about his personal training history. Chen Xiaoxing was visibly annoyed at the suggestion that it was somehow easier in the past. His reply at the time was that the problem facing the contemporary practitioner was not a lack of time, but a lack of commitment and application - plain and simply, too many excuses and not enough training. He countered the distractions facing modern Taijiquan players with the experience of hardship and starvation, political persecution and backbreaking work on the fields or in a brick factory. In spite of everything they managed to develop their skills.   
In an article published in, Bruce Kasanoff examined “Three Essential Elements of a Winning Mindset”. He cited the work of University of Pennsylvania Associate Professor Angela Duckworth and her study of grit, defined as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals”. Duckworth’s research found that individuals possessing “grit” can, through hard work, expand their capabilities beyond others with seemingly more ability:

A young Chen Xiaowang - "the key to success is consistency"
“Grit predicts surviving the arduous first summer of training at West Point and reaching the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee, retention in the U.S. Special Forces, retention and performance among novice teachers and sales agents, and graduation from Chicago public high schools, over and beyond domain-relevant talent measures such as IQ, SAT or standardised achievement test scores, and physical fitness”.
Chen Xiaoxing: "You have to treat a year like a day and that is not easy. It's very easy to train ten times for one day, but to do it year after year..."
Chen Xiaoxing, in answer to the statement that “to achieve what you have achieved must take a lot of time and effort”, answered “you have to work harder than most people can imagine”. He cited the example of his brother Chen Xiaowang’s unceasing practice: “When Xiaowang was training as a professional [In 1980 he was selected by the Henan Sports Council to go to the Zhengzhou Sports Academy to train alongside elite participants from a variety of sports], he was training thirty repetitions of the form a day – every day without fail. The key to success is consistency. You have to treat a year like a day and this is not easy. It’s very easy to train ten times for one day, but to do it year after year… most people can train like this for a few days, but how many can do this for five years?”.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Have confidence and walk the road ...

Wang Yan, captain of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School fighting team getting ready for the Thai challenge.
Results have just reached me from the latest challenge match between instructors from the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School and a team of Thai boxers from Thailand.  The "Taijiquan PK Muay Thai King Competition" was the highlight of The Third China International Chenjiagou Chen Style Taijiquan Exchange Competition which took place from the 1-5th August in Chenjiagou.

The challengers from Thailand
A close and hard fought contest
Closing the event was a bout between Wang Yan, captain of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School fighting team, and a seasoned Thai fighter. Wang Yan won a hard fought contest to seal a 4-1 victory for the Taijiquan boys. After the fight, a clearly exhausted Wang reflected on the hard training he and the team had done in preparation for this challenge – “so much hard work for this one moment”.
Wang Yan's arm raised in victory!
Skill and achievement comes with a price. Over the years I’ve seen Wang Yan and the rest of the team develop from children in the school into powerful, confident martial artists. From the outside it may seem easy, but anyone who has been to the Chenjiagou school knows that these guys train hard. I remember a student some years ago who was homesick and struggling with the gruelling daily training. Going to Chen Ziqiang for advice he was asked to:  “Have confidence and walk the road. The uphill path might be difficult but continue to walk it”. Great advice for all of us!
Chen Ziqiang presenting the trophy to Wang Yan, who he has coached since childhood

That's Wang Yan in front of me with the spear some time in the early 2000s! 

Sunday, 31 July 2016

On GB's Olympic boxers, Hemingway and a meeting with Wang Xian...

With Nicola Adams (World & Olympic gold medallist) and Joe Joyce one of the favourites to take gold at Rio 2016 
I'm sitting in the lounge of Madrid airport with an eight hour wait until my flight back to the UK, so I'm taking the chance to write this post.  Just over a week ago I was in Heathrow airport where I bumped into some excited members of Britain's Olympic Boxing team waiting for the flight that would take them to Brazil and the 2016 Rio games. The fighters included Nicola Adams, already a world and Olympic champion, looking to retain the title she captured during the London games four years ago; the immense Joe Joyce, one of the hot favourites to take gold in 
British Olympian boxers Lawrence Okolie, Frazer Clarke & Josh Buatsi
the super heavyweight category. Also Lawrence Okolie who began boxing six years ago as an obese and bullied teenager who is now GB's heavyweight representative, Frazier Clarke (super heavyweight) and Joshua Buatsi (light-heavyweight). It would be hard to find a friendlier group of guys and I have to admit that I felt like getting on the plane with them to see how their Olympic adventure plays out. After shaking hands and wishing them luck in Rio I carried on with my own journey.

 Wang Xian in Pamplona
We arrived in Pamplona in northern Spain, famous for its annual bull running festival, part of the week-long San Fermín festival immortalised by novelist Ernest Hemingway. We were in Spain to meet up again with GM Wang Xian taking part in his week long seminar and completing an interview we started several years ago on his take on Taijiquan - part of the on-going research for our next book project.
Pamplona, Spain: David Gaffney, Wang Xian & Davidine Sim

The seminar was billed as Laojia Yilu, but Wang Xian is a traditional style teacher who very much follows his own inclinations during the sessions. He would see something lacking and address it. For example, seeing that everybody's footwork was not as agile as he would like, he led the group up and down the sports hall in a variety of stepping drills. The need for flexible footwork was emphasised in training the form with changes of tempo and the development of the ability to steal space from an opponent.

Another time, he asked everyone to gather round, sat down and gave a detailed talk about the role of Qi in Taijiquan and the importance of trying to feel the movements and not merely copying them externally.  Wang Xian constantly stressed the need to finish every movement carefully and exactly. The end of each movement represents the start position for the next move. "Starting from the correct position ensures that the next movement can be done correctly".

Some of the advice Master Wang Xian gave during the seminar included:

"Practice slowly and self-correct all the time, especially during transitional movements. Because during transition movements you have to manage internal changes and manage postural deviations."

 "Many people become satisfied after achieving some small improvements and stop actively looking to continue to develop their Taijiquan. The 3 stages of learning are: train until you are completely familiar with the movements; understand the energy within each movement (dong jin); reach a stage where you have an instinctive intrinsic understanding (shen ming). This is a process that takes time".

 "You must be conscious that you're training a martial art (quan) when doing form or the form will be empty(kong). This can be in terms of understanding the potential functions of movements or in the development of martial qualities such as rootedness, footwork and awareness. For example, you must know your body's boundary - the position of maximum strength and not go beyond it. This can only be realised through slow practice".

 "People often neglect the importance of the eyes during training. The eyes should not be allowed to look down or to stare ahead in a blank unfocused way. Your peripheral vision should always be engaged and watching around you".

 "In terms of health do your best to maintain your capabilities. Your range of movement, for eg.the ability to pick your knees up high etc. can be reduced or lost over time. This is especially important as you get older".
Pushing in the down time with Paris based Chen Taijiquan teacher Rudolphe Pollet
I first became aware of and inspired by Wang Xian after watching a pirated vcd in China nearly 20 years ago. The disc had a picture of Chen Zhenglei on the cover and stated that it was his vcd. Inside, though, it showcased the skills of Wang Xian and his students. The disc finished with a scene of him performing a powerful Xinjia Yilu by the banks of the Yellow River, closing with the words "If you want to be better than everyone else, train more than anyone else".


Tuesday, 31 May 2016

China returns to its traditional roots…

Taijiquan as part of the official school sports programme
In the last post I reported the formal induction of 13 renowned Taijiquan players  as "Professors of Taijiquan", an official recognition of  their roles as educators.  This is part of a wider movement in China as the country looks to reassert its identity.  Professor Guo Qiyong, dean of the School of Chinese Classics at Wuhan University said,  "traditional culture offers China the ideological roots to develop and prosper as a nation. Without it, the Chinese will lose their identity in the trend of globalisation".

Earlier this month 26 teams, made up of more than 2,500 teachers and students from Wen County, Henan Province’s primary and secondary schools, participated in a collective display of the “Traditional Taijiquan Routine” as part of their sport education programme. Since 2001 Wen county, whose environs include Chenjiagou, has been actively promoting Taijiquan in all its primary and secondary schools - at present more than 50,000 students and teachers practise Taijiquan!

Wen County students demonstration
It’s hard to over-emphasise the transformation that has taken place in China over the last three decades or so. Most readers will be familiar with the story of how practitioners of Taijiquan (and other traditional arts) were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. The book  Essence of Taijiquan recounted how Taijiquan’s renaissance began in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping, in his position as Vice Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, wrote the simple words “Taijiquan Hao” or “Taijiquan is good” for a group of visiting Japanese delegate:  “An article published in Chinese Wushu magazine (2003) under the title of “Ten Significant Events in Wushu” describes vividly the full impact of this statement:  “Deng Xiaoping’s writing breathed new life into the development of Taijiquan as well as other traditional Chinese martial arts.  In the previous ten years all traditional arts had stagnated and were in danger of extinction.  With the new China (after the Cultural Revolution) all the treasures of China were awaiting their fate.  Nobody was certain whether the wide variety of martial arts would ever be able to see light again”.  Even though the political climate had eased, traditional martial arts were not a priority for the new legislation and were in a state of limbo.  People lacked the confidence to practise openly and were waiting for a decision from higher up to revive it.  “The very positive statement by Deng Xiaoping gave an indication to the whole of China that after the storm of the last ten years Taijiquan was going to enter a new era of regrowth”.   
In Wen County all primary and secondary school children and teachers train Taijiquan 

Taiji Culture Schools
Back in September 2015 a ceremony was held marking the collaboration between the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School and the Jiaozuo Taiji Specialised Secondary School. The Jiaozuo school is at the forefront of the national implementation of China’s first Taiji-centred education schools. The school was established with the intention of preserving and propagating the country's ancient Taiji culture.  Speaking at the event Chen Zijun explained that with the social development of Taijiquan it is essential to raise the quality of the martial artists coming out of the school.  In setting  up a branch of The Jiaozuo Taiji School within the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School there are obvious benefits to both sides: “This cooperation will allow us to comprehensively develop both the civil and military talents of students. To better carry forward the traditional martial arts while recognising and understanding their heritage and culture”.
Chen Zijun: "Carrying forward traditional martial arts while recognising and understanding their heritage and culture".

The reassertion of China’s traditional culture has not been restricted to Taijiquan. In China, towards the end of last year I came across an article in the China Daily newspaper which spoke of the increasing relevance of the ancient classics in modern classrooms. The article was illustrated with a photo of a group of young children, dressed in the style of the Han Dynasty that ruled China  1,800 years ago, reciting the Analects of Confucius. The article followed 6-year-old Chen Quanjin as he spent his summer vacation doing traditional Chinese studies at the Chenxiang Guoxue Institute in Guozijian: “Chen Quanjin has mastered the Dizigui, a Chinese book dating back more than 300 years that lays out standards for being a good child and student. He says the three-character verses are understandable and trip of the tongue - “Older siblings should befriend younger ones; younger siblings should respect and love older ones. Siblings who keep harmonious relationships among themselves are being dutiful to their parents”.
Pupils in traditional Han costumes reciting the Analects of Confucius during a ceremony marking the 2,565th anniversary of the birth of the ancient philosopher
This resurgence of interest in traditional culture has backing from the highest places: "In April 2014, China's Ministry of Education issued a guideline for teaching traditional culture from primary school through college. It required more lessons on traditional culture to be included in primary and middle school textbooks. President Xi Jinping echoed this view when he visited Beijing Normal University in September 2014. He voiced disapproval of [previous] decisions to remove Chinese poems and essays from textbooks saying that: “China’s cultural genes should be planted in the minds of the young”.  It appears that the reversal of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution is well underway.

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!