Sunday, 13 October 2019

Creativity in Traditional Chen Taijiquan

Chen Xianglin; "Persistance and the process of unquestioning practice"
In “Conversations with ...#3” Chen Xianglin, instructor of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School’s Shanghai branch, responding to the question - how did he overcome the difficulties of training and the high level of expectation placed on him - answered: “persistence and the process of unquestioning practice.” (Full interview can be found at: www.chentaijiquangbcom). In a similar way I’ve mentioned in several previous posts how Chen Xiaoxing often meets questions about practice with the phrase “you know the rules, follow the rules.”

Many learners instantly rise up and reject this idea of unquestioning practice - the western educational system actively encourages its students to question everything from the first days in school. This willingness to ask questions is viewed as a marker of intelligence and creativity?

In the thought provoking Making Ideas Happen Scott Belskey looks at the intersection where creativity and structure meet. The book’s subtitle, Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality points to a common problem facing today’s urbanised and individualised practitioner. The first chapter opens with the following paragraph: “In a world obsessed with innovation, it is easy to fall in love with ideas. The creativity quotient is the darling of the adventurous mind. For some of us, creativity is intoxicating. Our society has gone so far as to divide its members into two camps, the “left-brain people” and the “right-brain people”, under a radical (and arguably false) assumption that both parts of the brain cannot coexist effectively- that brilliant creative people are inherently unable to act as organisers and leaders.” His conclusion - the creative psyche rebels against organisation and is intolerant of “procedures, restrictions and process.” Paradoxically, he found that it is organisation and process that provides the guiding force of productivity.

The most important, and often most neglected, organisational element is structure. We tend to shun structure as a way of protecting the free-flowing nature of ideas. But without structure, ideas fail to build upon one another. And without structure, we can’t focus long enough on any particular idea to develop it to its maximum potential. Chen Taijiquan’s training methodology has a clear and systematic means of progression. Skills are overlaid upon each other step-by-step. Often a person’s Taijiquan development is likened to the broader educational system - first you must go to nursery school, then primary, secondary school, university etc... Everything works out (within the limits of an individual’s potential) as long as stages are taken in the correct order.

Does that mean that we should never ask questions? Not at all, just that we question when we have something real to ask. Often people ask questions before they have even tried to train a movement. Like there’s an unwillingness to train unless everything is perfectly understood first, which is of course impossible. In response to this kind of incessant questioning Chen Xiaowang would often say “train first and often the question answers itself.” Through the process of training and working things out questions often answer themselves in a real way, where the body actualises the element being considered rather than simply logging one more intellectual realisation that, put to the test, cannot be used in a practical way. It might help you win the debate, but in all likelihood you won’t win a fight.

Forget Taijiquan for a moment and look at this through a different lens. I listened to an interview with Mike Tyson when he spoke of his early years with legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. He didn’t give the impression that they debated every instruction. Rather that he was in effect “programmed” by following the instructions he was given. Through this unquestioning application he went on to become a legendary fighter in his own right.

Mike Tyson with man who made him Cus D'Amato: "A boy comes to me with a spark of interest. I feed the spark and it becomes a flame. I feed the flame and it becomes a fire. I feed the fire and it becomes a roaring blaze."
Limiting ourselves by confidently training within the fixed framework passed down through generations of refinement by accomplished Taijiquan practitioners offers the best chance of a successful outcome. Again this is not unique to Taijiquan but holds true in many cases. The following statement by the Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Igor Stravinsky could have been a call to Taijiquan players to have faith in the traditional method. “My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.”

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Keeping an upright posture...

A common saying inside Chinese martial arts tells us that, “people who bow their head and bend their waist will not achieve a high level of gongfu”. The saying highlights the importance of maintaining a centred and upright position and is as true for Taijiquan as it is for other martial disciplines. Letting this ideal position become compromised by leaning the body inappropriately is a major mistake, as leaning in any direction inevitably borrows power from other parts of the body. 
Chen Ziqiang - "central balancing point like a needle standing on end" 
To overcome the tendency to lean or slant the body, we need to place great attention on maintaining a straight line to connect the upper and lower body - from the baihui point, situated on the top of the head to the huiyin point, located between the anus and the genitals.  The importance of this connection is reflected in the Taiji saying, “one straight line joining the upper and lower body”.  During his recent seminar in Warsaw’s Chen Taijiquan Akademie Chen Ziqiang compared this central axis to a needle balanced so that it is dead straight standing on end. Because the balance is so fine, to remain upright it has to be adjusted constantly. At the same time the whole body remains loose and relaxed and qi is allowed to sink down to the dantian. Every movement requires the waist, with the abdomen as centre, to be constantly adjusted so that the whole body is balanced.  Fulfilling the requirements of suspending the head, the tailbone straight and centred, storing the chest and rounding the back, shoulders sunk down elbows lowered, spine relaxed and the waist loose and agile. 

Concentrate on attack and defence
This search for balance should be applied to all aspects of Taijiquan. A few pointers Chen Ziqiang gave during his six days in Poland included the importance of: 

-          training everything in line with shou yan shenfa bu (hands, eyes, body and footwork) – with each part of the body (waist, legs etc) doing what they are supposed to do. [This reminded me of Chen Xiaowang’s statement said some years ago that “naturalness” was nothing more than every part of the body conforming to its appropriate function]. 
-          not just training the dominant side. Most people are right handed and by training and making the left hand strong as well you can find real balance. For example, using the sword or broadsword the support hand serves to add strength to the weapon bearing side. Enlivening the non-dominant side by performing basic drills with both sides increases the level of coordinated power that can be brought out.  

-          during push hands not just concentrating on attacking – at the same time as you are attacking you also have to consider defence. Take the case of Taijiquan’s shuai (throwing method). It’s not just about learning to throw an opponent; you also have to train to fall correctly. “Traditional Taijiquan is not like a sporting contest on a soft mat” [here he was specifically referring to the practice of slapping the ground to dissipate the force of landing]. In combat on a concrete floor you protect yourself by curling up as you are falling. Drawing your chin to your chest and drawing your knees and arms in. “When you land you don’t want to be in an open and exposed position so an opponent can stamp on you.”
Sword form workshop  

Monday, 26 August 2019

Taijiquan – “A Study of Contradictions”

Searching for the fine details of posture- a young instructor in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School correcting Zhan Zhuang
To the uninitiated Taijiquan can appear to be a strange and inconsistent discipline. From the beginning it asks learners to put their faith in the counter-intuitive idea of using slowness and softness as the means to developing superior speed and power; to have confidence in the ability of stillness and calmness to overcome an opponent’s forceful attacks; and to “use the mind and not strength.”

At the same time, like any other martial art, Taijiquan requires them to set their sights high if they are to develop real and effective skills. Simply, they must approach training with ambition. The first time I trained in China back in 1997 I bought a bootleg disc of Wang Xian and his disciples demonstrating the breadth of the Chen Taijiquan system. To say I loved the disc would be an understatement! At the time my eyes were untrained to many of the subtleties of Taijiquan, but it had everything - power, speed, coordination and a  tight focus and togetherness when groups of instructors demonstrated. The last performance was Wang Xian himself explosively demonstrating the Xinjia Yilu on the banks of the Yellow River. When he reached the end of the form and quietly closed, the following simple message played across the screen- “If you want to be better than everyone else, train harder than everyone else” - pretty ambitious right?!

Going back a further generation Chen Zhaopi, the teacher most credited with sparking the modern resurgence of Taijiquan in Chenjiagou, described an individual’s progressive advancement from beginner to advanced practitioner via three stages: in the first, a learner must open their joints training the overtly physical aspects of the art; the second stage encompassed the long journey of understanding Taijiquan’s neijin or internal energy;  the third he described as “continuous movements executed in one breath.” This elevated level represented the height of perfection: with a complete integration of form and spirit; body completely balanced and unrestrained; and movements natural and instinctive. Reaching this level is referred to as shen ming, or "divine realisation". 
A youthful Chen Zhenglei teaching the next generation

Getting down to day-to-day training we’re told to relax and not to “try” too hard; to be natural and don’t force it; to cast aside stiff energy etc. All the while continually having our frame adjusted to a place where the legs are literally trembling with the effort. I remember a training session with Chen Xiaowang where someone asked about the pain they were experiencing in their legs and if it ever got easier. His oblique answer was simply to say, “don’t put so much importance on the pain in your legs.” In other words, just because the legs are hurting no need to add to that by fixating on it. If you’re doing Taijiquan properly your legs are going to work hard. Taijiquan has a saying “concentrate on one thing lose everything.” No matter how hard you train if you pay too much attention to any one thing you will move away from the ultimate aim that is no less than the total integration of internal and external, physicality and consciousness.

Taijiquan itself makes no apologies for its paradoxical nature. The very name of the system is drawn from the philosophical concept of Taiji – it is the martial art of balance and change. It is up to each individual to reconcile the apparent contradictions for themselves. This area probably confounds western Taijiquan students the most. For example many athletically able students are overly concerned with external appearance and shape – whether it be in terms of strength, flexibility etc. It’s there that they get their positive strokes from others who also don’t see the whole picture. And to be very clear this is not to diminish the fundamental importance of strength, flexibility etc. This type of student can find it very hard to open up their mind. During a training session with one of the younger generation teachers from Chenjiagou, a strong and flexible individual stretched out into a wide and low posture. The teacher’s correction was to lift the posture up and advise him to put attention to loosening his kua and rounding his dang (crotch). Although the position was low, it was locked in such a way that the dang strength that is a vital part of Chen Taijiquan was totally lacking. The immediate response – “What exercise can I do to loosen it?” - completely missing the point that this was not something that was going to be corrected by grinding out some reps.
Another face of Taijiquan - Chen Zhaokui traing qinna

Taijiquan is built around the qualities of agility and changeability. It requires us to aim high but at the same time do today’s work. Chinese culture is imbued by the Daoist tradition and an acceptance of seemingly contradictory aspects if we are to see a thing in its entirety. The following passage from the Inner Chapters of Zhuangzi point simultaneously to the need for careful instruction, effort and time while being mentally calm, free and ungrasping.”  

“Neither deviate from your instructions, nor hurry to finish. Do not force things. It is dangerous to deviate from instruction or push for completion.  It takes a long time to do a thing properly. Once you do something wrong it may be too late. Can you afford to be careless? Follow with whatever happens and let your mind be free; stay centred by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate… It is best to leave everything to work naturally…”




Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Chenjiagou - and the tradition of China’s “Martial Villages”

Wrestlers from China's Yi people
One of the things I love about traditional Chinese martial arts is the sheer diversity and the ingenuity of the countless different systems. I remember watching the first delegation of Chinese wushu performers to visit the UK back in the 1980s. It was the first time many of us saw martial artists from mainland China.In those pre-internet days the event caused quite a stir in the local martial arts community.

On 20th July Chenjiagou’s International Culture Centre hosted the Chinese Wushu Association’s (CWA) three day long national taolu (forms) tournament. This is the first time it has been held in Chenjiagou since the inaugural competition in 1993. Theme of the 16th tournament was the promotion of the development of China’s “martial arts villages” or significant locations in the ongoing history of the countries martial arts. At the opening ceremony one of the Wenxian officials explained that the competition was emphasising the taolu of each system “because learning a set of taolu is the first step in laying a lifetime practice.” Secondly the competition was intended to let people to feel the “atmosphere and warmth of family” – with competitors taking part in a discipline that has a family feel to it. One of the aims of the competition was for all the competitors taking part to have a deeper appreciation of the many stories that make up Chinese wushu. In all 97 different martial arts locations were represented consisting of 1600 competitors.

Each different location has its own story to tell about its part in the development of China’s many different martial arts systems. Some are well known to martial arts enthusiasts - places such as: Dengfeng home of Shaolin boxing; Foshan the source of Yongquan (Wing Chun); Fujian birthplace of White Crane which in turn spawned the Okinawa art of Karate etc. Others are less well known. Competing on the same stage in Chenjiagou were individuals representing the 129 disciplines recognised by the CWA.

China has a long tradition of “martial arts villages” - locations with their own distinctive fighting arts. A couple of months ago I was in Kunming close to the border with Vietnam. Everywhere you looked there was evidence of the areas Torch Festival through which the local Yi people expressed their obsession with combat. Much as many other minority traditions have been co-opted by local governments, the festival is a rapidly-growing tourist attraction. Despite this, local customs continue to thrive. Just a glance at the picture above of the locals in competition is enough to know that, while the art they are practicing might not be well known to the outside world, these are seriously conditioned and motivated individuals.

These are not flash in the pan events. The Yi people are one of the most populous minority groups in China and the Torch Festival has been celebrated by them for thousands of years. It is said to remember a mythological battle between the gods of the sky and earth. Their spirit of combat is not restricted to humans another feature of the festival being bull fighting. Not done in the Spanish style where matador faces off against and ultimately kills a tormented bull. In the Yi version animals are pitted against each other and the contest ends when one turns tail and runs away.

Back to Taijiquan - I enjoy the fact that we are training an art that has been forged and stood the test of time. And the fact that it has its own unique features and methods.

As part of the opening ceremony representatives from all the major styles demonstrated - pictured above Chen Xiaoxing and his students.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

“Triple tasking” and the correct development of intelligence ...

I was chatting with one of my students who has Parkinson’s disease. He told me about one of the methods he was following having taken advice on the best way to slow down the progress of his condition. The most obvious physical symptoms of Parkinson's are tremor, stiffness and slowness of movement. Non-motor functions are also affected with impairments in the domain of executive functioning being common. A day-to-day example of executive functioning would be something like multi-tasking situations like walking with someone while having a chat. He had been asked to “triple task” – for example riding on a stationary bike while, at the same time, turning a hand crank and counting backwards from one hundred.  The advice he was given has a clear parallel with Taijiquan training.  

Feng Zhiqiang - Taijiquan as a method for "correctly developing intelligence"
I remember an article by the late master Feng Zhiqiang in which he spoke of the benefits of Taijiquan training. As well as the usual benefits like: the development of both internal and external strength, enhanced body coordination, looseness and flexibility, mental quietness, martial ability etc, he spoke of Taijiquan as a means to train “the correct development of intelligence.” What does this mean in practical terms?

Taijiquan training works towards unifying all elements of “separateness.” So there can be: no raising up without some aspect of sinking; no focus on forward movement without simultaneously considering the rear; no focusing on the external shape without paying attention to the internal energetic sensation. For the beginning student it is enough to try to keep the body upright, be as loose as possible, and try to keep the feeling of lightly lifting the top of the head. Over time the mind is engaged to a greater and more subtle degree. In Chen Taijiquan this is sometimes referred to as the “rule of three” where the body is divided and subdivided around its upper, middle and lower aspects. For this reason Taijiquan has been called the study of contradictions. It is the reconciliation of these contradictions that eventually creates the experience of “oneness” or true holistic movement. So when we talk about balance we aren’t talking about some static state, but a dynamic process as an individual continually and instinctively adjusts to shifting and evolving circumstances.

Achieving this requires us to carefully following a process for an extended time with no expectation of quick successes. Trying to put this message across in today’s ever more frenetic and instant culture can sometimes feel akin to King Canute trying to hold back the tide. You only have to look at popular apps like Headspace that promises to show “how to meditate in ten minutes.” During one of our training camps in Chenjiagou Chen Xiaoxing remarked that anyone can train hard for a week or two, but few people can do it daily for five years and beyond.
Chen Xiaoxing - It's easy to train hard for a short time. Can you do it long term?
I was struck by the following passage from an article by Phillip Zarrilli describing the process of learning the ancient Indian martial art kalarippayattu:  “A student’s regularity of attendance, attitude, seriousness of purpose, maturity and emotional stability all come into play in the teacher’s decision regarding advancement. None of this is expressed or spoken. The teacher collects and registers his daily impressions of students. There is no overt sign of approval, nor is reassurance or encouragement given on any regular basis. The individual is basically alone, confronting himself as he struggles awkwardly with the external form of the system and to advancement within it.”

Friday, 24 May 2019

Focus on the process

Taijiquan results are forged by an ongoing process, not by dramatic sudden events. All accomplished practitioners create their own skill by following a carefully orchestrated process. Success in Taijiquan – for success read the achievement of a meaningful level of skill - requires us to follow series of steps that have been handed down for generations. Everyone can quote the stages and requirements. How many follow them? Manifest skill is usually the result of a repetitive journey. Drip, drip, drip and then the sudden overnight ten year success!

Learners are often impatient. Seeing the end product, the polished, dynamic and accomplished practitioner, they typically ignore the process that preceeded this level of skill. The process was the long and bitter road that few people get to witness: the long daily training sessions, the injuries and rehabilitation, the dark lonely days when they are sustained only by inner motivation and determination. The process is the real back story with its countless iteration of form routines, basic exercises and partner drills.
It may be nice to think of skill as something that arrives in a flash - an event like a sudden flash of illumination or moment of enlightenment. This kind of thinking dismisses the need for the drudgery of daily training. How often we see learners questioning everything incessantly but doing little real training - If they only knew the “correct” way to do it… Of course this is an illusion. As I saw it described elsewhere “Such a belief is a mirage of event over process. If you try to skip process, you’ll never experience events.” Sadly, as a media-centred, “I want it today” society, the spotlight and the glory all goes to the event, while the process is hidden behind the woodshed.
Chen Zhaopi compared Taijiquan skill to a bowl of soup. Question any chef and they will surely confirm that the perfect dish is a series of ingredients and a well-engineered process of execution - a little bit of this, a pinch of that, everything done at the appropriate time and place, and wham, you have an appetizing meal. Like the soup, Chen Zhaopi said Taijiquan skill in the end everything is blended together and can’t be separated.  Skill eludes most people because they are preoccupied with events while disregarding process. Without process, there is no event. For our chef, the cooking is the process, while the meal is the event. For the Taijiquan player the repeated (appropriate) training is the process, while the skill is the result.  
A young instructor form the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Chen Xiaoxing – “If you can see it, it is too much”!

The experience of training in Chenjiagou has changed in many ways over the years. In the first place it’s impossible to ignore the backdrop of the speed and scale of changes taking place in China.  Within this setting, the remarkable pace of development of Chenjiagou shows no sign of slowing down. The simple dusty village that captivated me in the 1990s, seeming to have stood still in time, has been replaced by a modern vision of what the birthplace of an art as famous as Taijiquan “should” look like. With stadiums, a modern exhibition centre, Taijiquan museum and numerous Taiji themed tourist attractions. In the centre of the village the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School has also grown larger over the years. The main training hall that used to be a Spartan concrete floored empty space is now fully  equipped with modern training aids including a full sized boxing ring, rows of heavy bags and a raised push hands ring.

That said, within the school there is still a palpable sense of tradition. A portrait of Chen Xiaoxing, the current principal of the school looks down from above the entrance to the room. The opposite wall is decorated by portraits (left) of his direct ancestors: his father Chen Zhaoxu; grandfather Chen Fake creator of the New Frame routines; another three generations back, Chen Changxin who reclassified the older forms of the system into the Laojia routines; back to Chen Wangting creator of Chen family Taijiquan.
With all the changes, some things are refreshingly familiar. For instance the importance Chen Xiaoxing places on zhan zhuang (standing pole) as the primary means of realising and training Taijiquan’s jibengong (basic training). Taijiquan’s training methodology is built upon an implicit understanding of the ultimately limiting practice of building strength and fitness on top of dysfunction.
At the most obvious level zhan zhuang helps to establish the required body shape - hips and shoulders level, crotch rounded, head upright and balanced, shoulders relaxed and elbows sunken etc… requirements quoted, but often not manifest to a sufficient degree. Beyond this zhan zhuang training provides a means of beginning to physically understand and manifest critical but far from obvious aspects of Taijiquan.
During his camp at Tomlin, Slovenia in August 2018 Chen Xiaoxing spoke at length about the importance of zhan zhuang training:
Zhan Zhuang (photo by Rob Steenkamp)
“Zhan zhuang is training fundamental skill (gong). Why fundamental skill? The saying is “Train quan without training gong, at the end all is in vain”. Many people think that basic training involves stretching the legs and back fact fundamental skill, as in the taolu (form routine) involves feeling the intention and qi. Whether it is zhan zhuang, reeling silk or form, the fundamental skill is mentally and physically enabling the experience of intention and qi and the extent to which they can be achieved. Because fundamental training is done in a static posture, it is easier to grasp and experience them, unlike in the form routine where one has to cope with a myriad of changes of directions and focus. The mental and energetic feel gleaned from the basic training can then be incorporated into the form. This is the reason why zhan zhuang is important and is a part of training that cannot be missed.”
Chen Xiaoxing jokes sometimes that the thing his students fear the most is standing. Where some people emphasise standing training as a relaxing meditative experience, with him it is also a physically and psychologically challenging practice. Training two sessions a day, every session begins with half an hour or so of zhan zhuang. During our recent visit a film crew spent several days shooting around the school and surrounding village. The German-New Zealand-China collaboration, documenting the many “Colours of China” had spent a year filming around the country. The German project manager was fascinated with the paradox of Taijiquan training - on the one hand the quietness of the practice, and on the other the intensity. The way that everyone in the room’s legs seemed to be shaking with the effort the instant they were adjusted and corrected by the teacher.      

During the visit we spent ten days working through and refining the Xinjia Yilu routine. If our motivation for training is functional efficiency, then a critical goal of training is the development of non-telegraphed movement. Where modern practitioners often talk about effective martial training, in reality practice is often geared more towards performance and demonstration. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this in terms of fitness and health, self-expression etc. But, in a real situation telegraphing your intention can lead to a disastrous outcome. Anyone who has taken part in competitions where there are real physical consequences for making mistakes realise quickly and painfully the importance of hiding what you are going to do. Chen Xiaoxing often repeats the phrase “if you can see it it is too much.” For example as a practitioner shifts weight from one side to the other, the intention is to move the waist in a narrow almost imperceptible arc. Just as not engaging the waist is a fault, over-turning is also an error. So we need to look beyond aesthetics and the desire to show everything.

Xinjia training in the main hall of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School      (Photo by Rob Steenkamp)

 Key points emphasised by Chen Xioaxing:

·         Guarding against the danger of movement being overly stylised

·         Using the form to bring out qualities such as the ability to change suddenly, accuracy, timing etc

·         To be effective movement must not be telegraphed

·         The critical importance of intention and feeling

CTGB 2019 group with Chinese students who trained alongside us