Tuesday 10 December 2013

Is "Qi" relevant to today's Taiji boxer?

"Qi" - calligraphy by Zhu Tiancai
I recently followed the comments of a long time Taijiquan player on the internet. He was decrying the dilution of the traditional art and came to the conclusion that this was the fault of the current generation of silk-suited believers in "Qi". Was he right? Is Qi no more than an interesting historical concept of little relevance to today's Taiji boxer? Or is it a central concept that must be understood if we are to understand the art of Taijiquan as it has been passed down?

Chen Xiaoxing stated that it is impossible to reach a high level of Taijiquan without having a deep understanding of Chinese culture. "Students can reach a low level by copying the movements, but they could never hope to realise the depth and subtlety of Taijiquan without this understanding".

One of the most pervasive ideas within Chinese culture is the ever presence of Qi. At the same time, many western practitioners are extremely sceptical of its existence, dismissing it as an antiquated idea - knowingly pointing to the lack of "scientific" evidence? After all, they argue, it can't be seen, measured, touched etc...

To the Chinese the idea that there is no such thing as Qi is just as ridiculous.   To them Qi is an ever-present feature of life. Within the Great Dictionary of Chinese Characters, a vast compendium of Chinese characters spanning 8 volumes, no fewer than 23 different categories of Qi are listed. Categories such as: mood, morale, weather, energy, structure, vapour, momentum, destiny, spirit, meteorological phenomenon, atmosphere, strength, destiny, breath, smells... Within each category again, there are numerous different types of Qi.

To people who say that you cannot see or measure Qi, I would suggest they are looking in the wrong place. It has always been said that while Qi itself cannot be seen, it's effects can be felt. Doesn't it feel different to be fully energised than to be depressed? The Chinese use the expression Shen Qi to describe a state of heightened energy, self-confidence and pride (in the positive sense). Look at someone who has just won an Olympic gold medal or scored the winning goal in the dying seconds of an important football game. Compare the feelings they have with those of someone lacking drive and self-belief.

Another way in which Qi is understood within Chinese culture is in terms of momentum. In literature, art or martial arts mastery is achieved when a movement is completed in one swoop with no hesitation. When I started training Taijiquan one of the main differences I became aware of between the good practitioners and the majority of western practitioners was a kind of inhibited way of doing Taijiquan. As if they were constantly afraid of making a mistake.
In literature, arts or martial arts, mastery is achieved when movement is achieved with no hesitation.  
                                                                                                                                             Image: Janet Grimes

After twenty years of training they still stop every movement put their hands on their coccyx to physically check that they are in the right position. Don't get me wrong - Taijiquan requires constant rigorous attention to detail. But it also requires that a practitioner should exhibit spontaneity, fluidity and naturalness. At some point you have to start FEELING whether the position is correct. In an earlier blog post I wrote of Chen Xiaowang's response to the question of differences between Western and Chinese students. In his opinion one of the major differences was that Western students paid more attention to the external position and Chinese students paid more attention to the feeling of the movement.

Students often spend so much time agonising about Qi and trying to understand it in terms of their own culture which inevitably leads to approximations and misinterpretations.

Monday 11 November 2013

Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts - Meet the Instructor...

I was recently interviewed for Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts magazine's "Meet the Instructor" section:

How many years have you been practicing Tai Chi?
I was introduced to TCC in the mid-1990s, so about 18 years.

What stimulated your interest?
I was practicing and competing in external martial arts and initially used TCC as a form of cross training to increase my looseness. After about six months I met Chen Xiaowang for the first time. He gave a short lecture on Chen TCC and then stood up and unleashed a series of fajin that blew my mind. At that point I had spent about 15 years training, first in Karate and then in Shaolin gongfu and kickboxing. I had trained with some very strong teachers, but this was just on a different level. From that moment I have trained only Chen TCC.

What does TCC mean to you?
TCC is more than a martial art, it is a complete way of life. At its heart TCC involves the search for balance in both physical and psychological terms. Using the vehicle of martial arts we try to balance the internal aspects of the emotional and logical mind and external aspects such as body structure and the equilibrium of hard-soft, fast-slow, open-close etc. The road to mastery in Taijiquan (and anything else) is the path of patient, dedicated effort without attachment to immediate results. Great success in any physical endeavour, including Taijiquan is built upon consistency and patience. We must be prepared to pay the price both in time and energy.

What is the most important aspect?
Standing,reeling, silk, form - everything is there for a reason..
I believe in a "whole syllabus" approach, rather than picking out separate bits of the system. Every part of TCC is inter-related and there for a reason. Basic exercises like standing pole and reeling silk exercises, hand and weapon forms, push hands and pole-shaking etc complement and support each other. To get the most out of TCC, practitioners should also appreciate the history and underlying philosophy of the art. What is the most important aspect to a person can change over time. The young are naturally active and like low postures and explosive movement; the strong  may be drawn to the combat side; as people get a bit older health maintenance suddenly seems like a good idea; the elderly may look to maintain their mobility and suppleness. Ultimately to be successful in our practice we need to be able to adapt our TCC over time, all the time staying in line with the principles that have been laid down.

Do you have any personal goals?
Really Taijiquan is about the journey rather than the destination. I just want to carry on training with great teachers, following the traditional Chen village method and continue to develop naturally. A saying that is often quoted in Chenjiagou is that "you can't force the fruit to ripen". There are no shortcuts. The students I like the best are the ones who quietly show up week after week, year after year and just get on with it. No hurry, no impatience to get on to the next thing. Just consistent honest effort…

Who or what inspired you?
My first martial arts teacher John Bowen - that's me on the left (about 1981)
First I'd like to mention John Bowen the teacher who first set me on the martial arts path back in 1980. His passion for the Oriental fighting arts sparked an interest that has taken me to China and the Far East almost 20 times. He died tragically young, but I do wonder sometimes what he would make of my martial arts journey. Over the years I have been fortunate to learn from some great TCC teachers who have each inspired me in different ways: The aforementioned Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Zhenglei, Zhu Tiancai, Chen Ziqiang and Wang Haijun… The first time I went to China in 1997 it was like opening the door to a different world. For the last decade I've been training in the Chenjiagou Taiji School with Chen Xiaoxing. Anyone who has trained with him will be aware of his penchant for simple, repetitive and excruciating emphasis upon basic training, with no truck paid to entertaining students. He offers what works and then it is up to you to put in the effort. Don't think about success. Just follow the rules and grind out the skill.

What do you make of tai chi's current popularity?
For sure TCC is popular in terms of numbers, but there are still a great many misconceptions about the art. Many people come to TCC classes with the idea that is an easy option that doesn't need any self motivation or commitment. I read a recent article during which a person mentioned that his seventy something year old mother had gone to a Tai Chi class. She said she wouldn't be going back again as "she got more exercise during the walk to and from the class than during the class itself". The continuing move towards shorter and more simple forms and to fast-track instructor courses all feed into this. Taijiquan is much more than just learning a few sets of movements or a few push hands tricks. It is the development of complete physical and mental coordination. It means striving to follow a set of rules that have been passed down for many generations. If it is to maintain its credibility newcomers to TCC need to be steered towards qualified teachers who have taken the time to learn the art properly, and teachers need to be encouraged to continue working on their own development.

As a teacher how do you feel about the martial aspect of the art?
Qinna training with GM Chen Xiaoxing 
TCC is a martial art. Within Chen TCC we can trace back almost 400 years during which every generation, until recent times used their skills to defend themselves and their community. People often try to understand the martial aspect of TCC by comparing it to other more obvious martial arts. TCC has its own unique way of training martial skill. It requires us to train the whole body as a system rather than training individual techniques. Many learners become fixated on training set applications rather than the underlying method. Simply training hard is not enough. We must understand and train in line with Taijiquan's principles and philosophy. For example if we are to develop effective fajin we should first learn to "fang song" or loosen our body. Taijiquan's unique brand of looseness allows us to use strength effectively. We should also understand spiral force, the requirements for each part of the body, how to coordinate the crotch and waist, how to use the floor to employ the system's "rebounding force"…

What are your views on competition?
Competition training in the early 80s, when I had more hair!
Competition has its place. Before I came to TCC I competed many times in external martial arts competitions and once taking up TCC was successful in several push hands competitions. All valuable experience in terms of being tested under pressure. If your goal is to achieve fighting skills, you can learn a lot about yourself and your ability when faced with a non-compliant opponent. It's okay to talk about this or that technique, but can you continue to fight after you have been hurt?  Can you control your emotions when facing a strong opponent in a full contact bout? Do you realise how much punishment you or another person can take, without even being aware of it, when your adrenalin is flowing? Answering these questions gives confidence and a sense of realism to your training. Forms competition can motivate some people to train harder. Ultimately I find that the majority of students are not that interested in competition, which is also okay.

What direction would you like to see tai chi going in the future?
Regardless of style, I would like to see more people keeping confidence in the traditional systems. The traditional way is harder to learn, but it is worth learning.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Chen Xiaoxing Recognises International Branches...

International branches of the Chen Village Taijiquan School

We arrived back from China yesterday after our school's latest intensive training camp with Chen Xiaoxing in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. This year's group was 11 strong, made up for the most part of instructors and long term practitioners. As the rapid pace of China's economic development continues unabated, there have been many changes in the village since my first visit in 1997. This was the tenth anniversary of our school's annual visit to train in the village school with Chen Xiaoxing, and one of the things that has not changed is his insistence upon traditional village style training. In the village people often use the expression of "training the frame" rather than "training the form". The difference is subtle. The idea of training one's frame points towards great attention to minute details of posture and movement, rather than simply popping out repetitions. This is the way of Chen Xiaoxing.

2013 group in Chenjiagou
Every day the group trained for 5 hours, broken into a morning and an afternoon session. Each session is the same - half an hour of standing, half an hour repeating one reeling silk exercise and the rest of the session doing a few movements of the form and then repeating them until the session was over. Throughout, Chen Xiaoxing meticulously corrected everyone in the group relative to their level.  Once a mistake has been identified, for example a tendency to lean in some particular direction, to stick out your chin, raise your chest etc - then that is what must be painstakingly undone through every movement in the form. Some people find this type of training incredibly frustrating; understanding the correction intellectually, but confusing this with what is required, which is to reflect this understanding physically.

No short cuts
One of the sayings often quoted in Chenjiagou is the idea that "you should do the right thing and - not be in a hurry for success". This does not apply only to Taijiquan, but to all traditional martial arts and is very much at odds with modern ideas of "fast track" methods and short cuts. The essence of traditional Chen style Taijiquan is today, as it has always been, rooted in the deep cultivation of all the physical, mental and energetic capacities of an individual. This means following a precise training methodology. Clearly understanding the rules and requirements of the system and then training each mistake that has been identified until it is eradicated.

Ceremony Recognising the New Branches 
Chenjiagou Taijiquan Instructor Wang Yan's powerful Xinjia demo
The last day in Chenjiagou was marked by the highlight of the trip -  a ceremony in front of the main training
hall to mark the formation of several official international branches of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. Chen Hui, senior instructor of the school, in the absence of Chen Ziqiang who was abroad teaching, was the master of ceremonies. In the characteristic style of all official Chinese events he loudly announced what the event was, before introducing a series of demonstrations from instructors and students of the school. First up were four students ranging in age from early childhood to about late sixties showing Taijiquan as a discipline for all ages. This was followed by demonstrations of the hand and weapons forms of the system and then a demo of traditional push hands by two of the school's instructors.

Earlier this year Chen Ziqiang endorsed our school as the official UK branch of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School,  it was now time for the official presentation by Chen Xiaoxing. The event was reported on the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School's website as follows:

"On the 22nd October 2013, 19th Generation inheritor Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing represented the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School in holding a ceremony and the presentation of plaques to England's David Gaffney and Davidine Sim, Seattle's Kim Ivy and San Diego's Allison Helm. This follows the establishment Italy's branch. The school has now established branches in England and America. With the establishment of the branches we aim for more standardisation of Chen Taijiquan and stricter management in order to promote and propagate the pure essence of traditional Chen style Taijiquan".

 Now all we have to do is live up to this...

Chenjiagou Taijiquan Xuexiao - UK Individual Membership

With the naming of our school as the official UK branch of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School, Taijiquan students and practitioners in the UK can now apply to join as Individual Members. Benefits of joining include:

  • Reduced price for UK seminars with Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing and Master Chen Ziqiang (both will be coming to the UK in 2014)
  • Reduced price for regular CTGB Sunday workshops
  • Bi-monthly e-newsletter with news from the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School in China, training advice etc.
  • Membership card & t-shirt

The cost of membership is £35 per year. Cheques payable to "Chenjiagou Taijiquan GB"
Address: CTGB 14 Clifton Avenue, Culcheth, Warrington WA3 4PD

GM Chen Xiaoxing presenting the plaque to Davidine and I recognising Chenjiagou Taijiquan GB as the Official UK Branch of the Chenjaigou Taijiquan School 

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Lee Davis-Conchie - A life well run...

I've just switched my phone on after landing in Beijing, only to get the news that Lee Davis-Conchie passed away as we were flying to China. I know a lot of people have been following Lee's story over the last few years.

Happy day in Luhacovice, Czech Republic
Lee was my student, an instructor in our school and my friend. Just over two and a half years ago he phoned with the shocking and unexpected news that he had leukaemia. Since then he went through a roller coaster journey with many emotional highs and lows: 12 gruelling courses of chemotherapy; an ultimately unsuccessful bone marrow transplant. In the beginning it seemed unthinkable that Lee would not come out victorious in the end. He was just that kind of apparently indestructible person. Who goes through 7 hours chemo and then goes out into the hospital grounds to practice his spear form? Who leaves the cancer ward with a drain hanging out of his chest to do a Chen Ziqiang Cannon Fist seminar? Many people have Chen Xiaowang's calligraphy hanging on their walls. Lee had it inked onto his body - alongside a dramatic tattoo of Chen Wangting. A year after getting his calligraphy he showed a surprised, to say the least, Chen Xiaowang his art depicted on skin instead of the usual rice paper.

Escaping from hospital for
Chen Ziqiang's Cannon Fist Workshop
Kipling's famous poem asks whether you can 'fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run'. In the last two years, with all the stress and uncertainties that he faced, Lee achieved an extraordinary amount: He became a poster boy and champion for UK blood cancer charity, the Anthony Nolan Trust, set up in 1974 to establish a register of bone marrow donors; he co-founded the Blackpool and Flyde Haemotology Support Group to help people with blood disorders, their families and careers; He "escaped" from hospital to take part in our school's first in-house Chinese Wushu Association grading conducted by Chen Ziqiang. Lee gave one of the most accomplished performances of hand and sword form, showing only poise and confidence. Looking at him, it was hard to believe that he was ill at all. Though his mum Pat said he was desperately ill at the time, sleeping all the way to and from the event, but adamant that he was not going to miss it; Lee attended most of the seminars with Chen Xiaoxing and Chen Ziqiang over those last few years. Sometimes having to sit down for a few minutes' rest, but even doing this with a smile and purpose - looking out for a few of the other students going through their own health issues - as he put it "time for a cancer break"! As well as keeping his own classes going, Lee set up a monthly Taiji in the Park event to raise money for local Blackpool charities; Recognising his great spirit, Lee was inducted into Martial Arts Illustrated magazine's Hall of Fame in the True Grit category...

Getting Duan Certificate from Chen Xiaowang
You get the picture. This was a man who thought about more than himself. This was a man who took joy in living his life and helping others to live theirs. This was a man who inspired people. In a rare role reversal, Chen Ziqiang asked to have his picture taken with Lee as he found his attitude inspirational!

Lee seemed to be in a good place. He was ready for a second transplant, this time from a donor from Israel. It seemed like there was still a fighting chance for him - according to the doctors it was as close to a 100% match as was possible. Only a week ago Lee was coming to train when he got a severe headache. It turned out he had had a brain haemorrhage. A few hours later he was given the devastating news that his life could now be measured in days.

I wrote most of this blog on the plane to Chenjiagou accompanied by an eager group excited at the prospect of training at ancestral home of Taijiquan. Yesterday we were with Lee. A real warrior - no self pity, meeting his next journey head on and making sure that the people left behind we're OK. Lee never managed to fulfil his ambition of training in the village. So he donated a little piece of himself to be laid at the tomb of Chen Wangting.

Lee, Chen Xiaoxing and Adrian Barry, 
who looked after Lee's classes when he was ill
Chenjiagou Taijiquan GB is a close family and like all families we sometimes lose loved ones. But their presence and influence carries on within the family. At the end of his life Lee said to me "they say I've inspired a few people", clearly taking comfort from this. You don't have to come from Chenjiagou to be a warrior... Sitting with Lee at the end of his life he introduced Davidine and I to one of his nurses as his mentors and inspiration. This truly brought a lump to my throat, coming from someone who had just taught me a life lesson in how to face the unfaceable. Lee was 44 years old when he died. I salute you my friend for living what so many only talk about.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you 
Except the will which says to them: 'Hold on!' 
Then you are a true warrior!

Good Times!

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Thai boxing challenge for the Chen Taijiquan School...

Taijiquan v Thai Boxing! On September 28 in Jiaozuo, Henan, China, 5 instructors of Chenjiagou Taijiquan Xue Xiao will be fighting 5 Thai Boxing champions from Thailand. Chen Taijiquan has a proud record as one of China's most traditional fighting arts. We all know that it is a great form of exercise beneficial for everyone regardless of age and level of fitness... but somehow the martial aspect has been downplayed in the West (and to a lesser extent in China itself) to the point that, as one of my students put it, people think it is nothing more than "yoga done standing up". This is in danger of becoming a self fulfilling cycle as more and more people think that Taijiquan is the least challenging form of exercise, only fit for geriatric people. I read a book review the other day of someone who mentioned that his mother, who was in her 70s, had taken a Taiji class. She told him she wouldn't be going back as it was not challenging enough. In her words - "the walk to and from the class was more exercise than the class itself"! 

I am 100% in favour of an inclusive approach to Taijiquan. Yes it can be done for health, Yes it can be done for personal cultivation, and Yes it is a powerful and dynamic martial art! The best way to show this is for elite practitioners to show this aspect to the world. This event is being billed as a "Champions Showdown" and a cursory look at the fighting records of the competitors shows that it promises to be great night's action and a stiff test for the lads from Chenjiagou. (the Thai fighters names are not included as it was difficult to decipher them from the Chinese text).

Chen Jianqiang
Fighting at 75Kgs, Chen Jianqiang is the current over 80Kgs China national Push Hands champion. A hugely experienced Taiji competitor and winner of many push hands titles including - 2008, Henan province open-weight champion, 2009 Hunan province Championships 80kg champion and consecutive wins at the 2011 & 2013 Jiaozuo International Taijiquan Push Hands competition. His opponent was runner up at the 2011 Thailand Bangkok tourney and was the 2012 Thailand WBC Muay Thai Tournament Champion. His fight record is an impressive 79 fights with 63 wins, 6 losses and 10 draws.

Wang Jin Hu
Wang Jin Hu from the Chenjiagou school was runner up in this years China national push hands tournament and was a gold medallist at the 2012 Chen Village international tournament in the traditional handform, long pole and push hands divisions. His opponent is a seasoned and successful fighter boasting a professional Thai boxing record of 125 fights, with 114 wins, 8 losses and 3 draws. He was the 2010 Thailand Bangkok Prince's Cup Tournament champion. He was also competed under MMA rules winning the 2011 Beijing 3MMA championships and competing in the 2012 Xian MMA championships.

Wang Yan
At 60kg Wang Yan was the 2008 Henan province push hands champion; the 2009 Hunan province championships winner at 65kg; and won consecutive push hands titles at the 2011 and 2013 Jiazuo International tournament. His opponent was runner up in the 2010 Thailand Bangkok "King's Cup; winner of the 2011 Zhanjiang Sino-Thai tournament and the 2012 Thailand Bangkok "Prince's Cup". He has a professional Muay Thai record of 58 fights, with 48 wins, 7 losses and 3 draws.

Zhang Yanfei
Also at 60kg, Chenjiagou's Zhang Yanfei was runner up  at the 2007 Jiaozuo International Taijiquan Conference and winner at the same competition 4 years later in 2011. This bout is made at 65kg. His opponent has a fight record of  57 fights, winning 40, losing 14 and drawing 3 times. His championship wins include: 2009 Thailand Chiang Mai International Thai Champ; 2010 Thailand free Style Tournament; 2011 Jiangsu Bruce Lee Jeet Kune Do World Cup Championship; and the 2012 Inner Mongolia Championship.

Ren Gaochen
 The final bout is made at 70kgs and features  the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School's Ren Gaochen who first place in the 65kg class in 2012 in Chenjiagou in the international push hands tournament. His opponent is a seasoned campaigner who has had 95 fights, winning 78, losing 10 and drawing 7. His successes include: 65kg champion of the 2010 Thailand Muay Thai year-end finals; runner up at the 2011 Thailand Muay Thai King's Cup; and champion of the 2012 Thailand Muay Thai North-South War.

I've been to the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School many times over the last decade and have watched these guys growing from kids to formidable Taijiquan practitioners. It's great to see them stepping up to the plate to take this challenge, not just for Chen Taijiquan, but for Chinese martial arts as a whole. Just like to say good luck guys!!!!

Friday 30 August 2013

Just doing it!

Lee Davis-Conchie - Face of the Anthony Nolan charity 
Just got back from visiting one of our school's instructors and good friend Lee Davis-Conchie. It was a good day to visit. Lee has been battling leukaemia for the last couple of years. Today he got the fantastic news that he is in remission and is set to have a life-saving bone marrow transplant. Usually people have a transplant after two lots of chemotherapy. This will be Lee's second transplant and he has just finished his ninth lot of chemo - the last lot being particularly hard. What's this got to do with Taijiquan?

Throughout his battle Lee has never stopped training. Staff in the Blackpool General hospital were dubious about him training his spear form after a day's chemotherapy! He has often come to class with a Hickman line sticking out of his chest - I confess to having been ignorant as to what this involved - its a line inserted into a large vein just above the heart, the other end hanging out of the chest, for drug administration etc... Last year he "broke out" of the cancer ward to come to Chen Ziqiang's seminar. In a reversal of the usual end of session photos Chen Ziqiang asked to have his picture taken with Lee, saying that his attitude was inspirational! 

If you looked at his Facebook page you wouldn't see any great fanfare - no breathless announcements
Just doing it!
"yaaaah I'm going out/I've just been out to do some Laojia". Just out with no excuses and doing it. Lee's attitude brings to mind a conversation we had with Tian Jingmiao, disciple of one of Chen Fake's most famous students Lei Muni. She compared Taijiquan training to brushing her teeth - just a normal part of her everyday routine - Nothing to make a big fanfare about.  Real achievement in Taijiquan, or any other martial art, comes from doggedness and consistency. We've all seen the flashes of blinding enthusiasm that have to be shared with everyone else - usually by beginners who shortly afterwards move on to the next thing. Or by those who desperately want others to know they are doing a bit of training. Serious practitioners have long since simply accepted training as part of their normal routine.

Lee is on his way to being a posterboy for the Anthony Nolan Charity, who recently took a series of photos highlighting his warrior spirit. The Anthony Nolan Charity was established in 1974 to create a register of donors willing to donate their bone marrow to people desperately needing a transplant. Since then over 10,000 people have been given another chance of life. The charity is always looking for new people to register as donors...

Monday 12 August 2013

Is it possible to make a sudden leap forward in skill?

Gradual and systematic progression
"Practice quan a thousand times, the skill will transmit itself"

To learn Taijiquan one needs a gradual and systematic progression, from the elementary to the advanced level. Anyone who goes against this tenet will not succeed! We can't really be any clearer than that, can we? Zhuangzi's Daoist classic summarises the only really effective way to approach learning:: "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". Likewise, there is a saying that is often repeated in Chenjiagou that "you should treat ten years as if it were one day". China's rural martial arts have long accepted the need for patience and the acceptance of  following the rules for an extended time.

People often talk excitedly about some breakthrough or other they've just experienced - some discovery or new realisation. These breakthroughs are a natural and normal part of the learning process. But this new understanding means little if it is not then relentlessly trained into your body.The advice left by successive generations of masters is very clear on this point: 

Chen Xin (16th Generation): "All idle talk does is to create a tide of black ink; actually putting it into practice is the real thing".

Chen Fake (17th Generation): "How much you accomplish depends entirely upon how much effort you put in..."

Chen Zhaopi (18th Generation): "Besides having the direction of a good teacher,the main criterion is whether the person himself is willing to put in the hard work".

Chen Xiaowang (19th Generation): "train diligently, ignore tiredness and accept the need for hard work".
"Train diligently and accept the need for hard work"

A few weeks ago, in response to the question as to whether progress is always incremental and gradual, or can it in certain instances also be sudden and fast? Chen Ziqiang's (20th Generation) answer left little room for doubt: 

"... a person should practice diligently and persevere unremittingly. It is not possible to have a quantum leap. This is wishful thinking, a pipe dream. There are no shortcuts".  

Monday 22 July 2013

Becoming a part of the Chen Village story...

Signed - CTGB the Official UK Branch of the Chen Village School
On July 1st 2013 Chen Ziqiang, Chief Instructor of the Chen Village Taijiquan School (Chen Taijiquan Xuexiao) and David Gaffney and Davidine Sim, founders of Chenjiagou Taijiquan GB (CTGB) signed an agreement making CTGB the official UK branch of the Chen Village Taijiquan School. This was a proud moment for the school and follows a relationship of nearly two decades.  

We first visited Chenjiagou in the mid 1990s. At that time it was a very different place than today. The two large roads that bisect the village had not yet been laid. The new family temple, the Taijiquan museum, the impressive fa├žade at the entrance of the school were not yet built. There were no western-style toilets or showers. I vividly remember a blisteringly hot July day on that first visit when we walked through the fields to be shown the memorial tablets of some of the most venerated ancestors  - Chen Bu, Chen Wangting, Chen Fake, Chen Zhaopi…  The reverence in which the tombs were approached made it obvious that these were important figures in the history of Chen Taijiquan. But on that first visit they all seemed to blur into each other.  Today they are all comfortably familiar names.  
2003 - The first British group to train intensively in the Chen Village School. Back (L-R): Tim Drummond, 
Meko Parkinson David Gaffney, Neill Baker.Front: Gynn Williams, Mary Shah, Davidine Sim, Dave Ashby. 

After several more visits on our own, in the winter of 2003 we were ready to take the first British group to train intensively in the Chen Village School with GM Chen Xiaoxing.   During our stay Chen Xiaoxing closely supervised the group’s training. Every day the routine was the same - five hours formal instruction and then self-practice to consolidate the keypoints we covered that day. For nineteen days GM Chen worked slowly through the Laojia Yilu routine.   Chenjiagou can be very cold at the end of November. It is situated on flat, open farmland, so there’s little protection from the cold northern winds that regularly blow in. That year it was so cold that the group weren’t interested in buying souvenirs when we got the chance to go into the nearby Wenxian, but all got excited to see some thermal underwear. The largest pair I could get were about two sizes too small and for the next few weeks it felt like training with a spring-loaded crotch!     

Chenjiagou Winter 2003 - it was as cold as it looks!
The first group was eight strong and was joined by two Chinese guys who were in the school at the time – a Xingyi guy who soon picked up the colourful nickname of “Handsome Horse” and a Sanda practitioner.

Since then we have returned to the village just about every year, often twice a year, to study and learn from Chen Xiaoxing’s personal brand of old-school training. To date most of the students from our advanced class have been to the Chen Village School to train with him - some many times. As I write the next group is chomping at the bit for this year's trip in October.

Over the years each trip has had different characters and has left different memories.  One year we were
Training in Chen Dehu's garden
disturbed a few times during training by the regular groups of Taiji tourists who came to look around the village (before getting back in their buses to go to the next place of interest). Chen Xiaoxing was clearly losing patience with the interruptions when he simply said “follow me" and marched off. We followed him out of the school, down the street and into the house that belonged in the past to Chen Dehu. We went through the building into the garden where Yang Luchan had famously learned from Chen Changxing.  In a traditional martial art like Chen Taijiquan its vital that you appreciate the system’s history and your own part as a link between past and future generations. Training that afternoon one could feel a palpable sense of this history. This is the place that Chen Changxing, the fourteenth generation gatekeeper and famous “biaoshi” or merchant guard, trained. Lying on the floor was a stone that he is said to have used to sharpen his weapons and another that was used for strength training. Perhaps it was here that he synthesised the Laojia routines we practise today from the original forms of Chen Wangting?!  In another corner is a well into which Chen Zhaopi had thrown himself, unable to bear the persecution he suffered during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution. Chen Zhaopi is credited with reviving Taijiquan in its birthplace after decades of poverty and natural disaster had seen it almost disappear. 

Chen Xiaoxing - UK 2012
Over time these and many other stories of Chenjiagou have become personal, no longer feeling like legends from someone else’s history. At some point a mental switch took place when we were no longer outsiders looking in, but a part of the Chen village school. Over the years we've watched young students in the school mature into dynamic instructors in their own right. Walking into the Chenjiagou school now is going back to be met by friends.

The story of Chen Village Taijiquan can be traced back to Chen Bu, the first generation ancestor who founded the village at the beginning of the Ming dynasty in the fourteenth century.  In the ensuing years many people played their parts in the Chen Village story: there's Chen Wangting who created Taijiquan; Chen Fake who took the family art from the Village to Beijing; Chen Xioawang in the current generation who took Chen Taijiquan out of China on a global scale.  Our school has played its own part in the Chen Village School story. CTGB brought both Chen Xiaoxing and Chen Ziqiang to the UK for the first time.  Exciting events as they happened,but both of them are now familiar figures to all the students in the school!  At this watershed moment in our school's history I'd like to publicly thank all the people who have helped in our journey so far -and all those that have quietly supported the regular classes and workshops, the seminars with the teachers from Chenjiagou, training trips to Chenjiagou...  
2013 UK seminar with Chen Ziqiang

Monday 17 June 2013

We're all part of the "martial forest"...

At the moment I'm travelling with Chen Ziqiang on part of his European workshop tour. After taking in France and Spain, we're currently in Poland with Slovenia and our own school in the UK to come in the next few weeks. During the down time between workshops its been interesting to hear his take on training, on attitude and on martial arts in general.

According to Chen Ziqiang, in the past the martial arts community as a whole was referred to as "wulin" or "the martial forest". Distinctions such as "internal" and "external" were not emphasised like they are today. The arts were practical by nature and it was accepted that all martial artists were ultimately looking for the same things: a strong and healthy body; the ability to defend oneself and one's community; and to be able to attack effectively if necessary. Regardless whether a practitioner of Taijiquan started from the training method of slowness and looseness, or a so-called external practitioner from speed and hardness - it was accepted that ultimately they would arrive at the
Valencia workshop hosted by
Paco & Montse Serrano
same place. That is at a point where the body was perfectly co-ordinated; using weapons, the weapon was an extension of the body; movements were completely devoid of stiffness and clumsiness; and the martial artist was powerful, agile and possessed a fully focused spirit.

Chen Ziqiang was quite clear that among high level practitioners there was little conflict as they all knew they were working towards the same goals. Those coming up through the ranks, though, incessantly questioned the methods of other styles and even others within the same style who did not follow exactly the same lineage as themselves. 

During one workshop someone asked why the students of one famous Chen style teacher seemed to lean forward more than the practitioners from Chenjiagou. Chen Ziqiang was clearly exasperated and said, in Chinese, "why do they have to ask questions like this? His answer was "Your teacher has told you what to do, do it". Afterwards he said that this kind of thinking and the need to keep looking at and comparing what others are doing revealed a lack of confidence in their own training. 

Once you have found a path you wish to follow, commit to it. This is the traditional way...

Wednesday 15 May 2013

3 correct and 3 incorrect ways to train...

L-R David Gaffney, Wang Haijun, Chen Zhenglei, Davidine Sim - Manchester 2013
Had a chance to catch up with Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei yesterday during his UK visit. I first met Chen Zhenglei in 1997 when I spent several weeks training with him with a small group in Kaifeng. I remember that it was extraordinarily hot and the training was intense. Over the next few years I returned to train with him a number of times and, as well as training us very hard, he was keen that we caught the essence of Taijiquan. Looking back through my notes I see one entry where he spoke to us about the three correct ways and the three incorrect ways to train Taijiquan. Chen Zhenglei advised that we should:

  • Train the principle not physical strength
  • Train the source not the symptom
  • Train the method not the manifestation

Training the principle not physical strength:   Simply training hard is not enough. We must understand and train in line with Taijiquan's principles and philosophy. For example if we are to develop effective fajin we should first learn to "fang song" or loosen our body. Taijiquan's unique brand of looseness allows us to use strength effectively.  We should also understand spiral force, the requirements for each part of the body, how to coordinate the crotch and waist, how to use the floor to employ the system's "rebounding force" ...

Training the source not the symptom: People are often attracted to one particular aspect of Taijiquan - it might be low postures, push hands, fajin, flowing movement... Then they focus exclusively on that aspect. It's all very well taking a low posture, but can you respond from that position? did you get down following the correct spiral path and can you get back up smoothly? Is the posture correct, or have all the body requirements been compromised to get down lower. We can compare this to Chinese medicine - when illness occurs it is not enough to treat a patient's symptoms, instead one must treat the root cause of the illness. In Taijiquan the source is silk reeling movement. We should learn and apply the basics in order to get to a high level. Silk reeling movement is achieved when all movements are circular with no straight lines or acute angles.
Kaifeng, 1997

Training the method not the manifestation:  We must train the whole body as a system rather than training individual techniques. Many learners become fixated on training applications rather than the underlying method. This is like a maths student trying to remember the answer of every possible computation rather than learning the formula to be able to find the solution to any problem. So we have to concentrate on the body as a whole rather than parts of the body. When we do think about any particular part, this should be understood as a process towards achieving the whole body as a system.

This is the traditional way and over the years I have tried to apply this advice. For sure, at first it was not easy to understand the importance of some aspects or requirements, but with time you come to realise that everything is there for a reason.  

Saturday 27 April 2013

Why do the teachers all do it differently?

Chen Xin

I've been asked many times why do the teachers all do it differently? One of the most puzzling things to many Taijiquan students is why the teachers from Chenjiagou all seem to be so different. After all they trained with, for the most part, the same teachers, how is it then that they come to look so different?

First lets be clear what we are looking at. Chen Taijiquan is an internal martial art where every movement is led by one's intention. Chen Xin used the analogy of a writer composing an essay to illustrate the use of intention: "As the pen moves it carries the intention of the writer, producing on paper what the writer intends. What the mind plans, the hand writes. The writing requires the full attention and complete focus of the writer".

Concentrating upon details during a workshop at the Embrace
the Moon Taijiquan School in Seattle, USA
As Taijiquan students begin training they have to concentrate very hard on what to do as they are doing it - where the weight is, the position of the hands, angle of the body etc etc... As a result, the mind can become tense and movements can become disjointed and not free flowing. It needs an extended period of persistent practice to become natural, unforced and uninhibited.

To go back to the writing analogy. If we think back to how we first learned to write. First we were shown the letters of the alphabet. We were taught the rules of what made an "a", what made a "b"... and so on. We would painstakingly copy out a letter over and over again until we fulfilled the rules for each particular letter.  Then we would begin to string the letters together to form words, spelling each out carefully. In time we would "suddenly" be writing fluently and effortlessly. Taijiquan follows the same process. First learning the rules for each part of the body, learning how to move in the required way. As the requirements become second nature and we are no longer concerned with where the hands should be, the angle or direction, where the weight should be, our movements become "internalised".
Learning Taijiquan's rules for each part of the body
- Lecture at the Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego

We are not surprised when each of our classmates develops their own distinctive handwriting. As long as they continue to stay within the principles we can understand what they write. The same should hold true when we see the differences between the Taijiquan masters. Anyone who finds it difficult to reconcile the variations between Chen Xiaowang, Zhu Tiancai, Chen Xiaoxing, Wang Xian, Chen Zhenglei  et al... is perhaps guilty of confusing the manifestation with the method.

Get rid of bad habits before “souping-up” the engine...

The traditional way is to first put the building blocks in place – a strong unmovable base, co-ordinated movement, agile footwork.  Cultivat...