Monday 18 August 2014

Meeting Wang Xian...

For the record...
At the beginning of the month I spent a week in the French coastal town of Fecamp. We came here to meet, train with and interview Wang Xian, one of the pre-eminent Chen Taijiquan practitioners of the elder generation. Fecamp is in the Normandy area and has a long martial history. Here, close to our hotel, William of Normandy celebrated with a giant banquet almost a thousand years ago after conquering England and killing King Harold. The nearby beaches saw action more recently with the bloody allied landings in the Second World War. Wang Xian's camp brought a more peaceful martial vibe...

The Four "Buddha's Warriors"
Wang Xian is one of the "Four Buddha's Warriors" of Chenjiagou Taijiquan and is renowned for his great combat skills. Over the last two decades I've had the chance to train with the other three and was curious to see how his teaching style compared. One of the things I really enjoyed about the seminar was his spontaneity in breaking out of the set programme. Many people who only learn via seminars and don't attend regular classes find this stressful. They argue that the poster said Laojia Yilu or Xinjia Erlu or whatever and that this should be stuck to, or the group won't be able to finish the form. Anyone who has trained in a traditional class for any length of time knows that the best instruction often arises in an unplanned way.

The programme for the week was Xinjia Yilu (New Frame First Form). On the first day Wang was not satisfied with the footwork of the group, so spent quite some time having everyone go through various stepping drills  - including how to take deceptively long or "greedy/hungry" steps to enter an opponent's space unexpectedly. At any time he would switch from the Xinjia to train some movement from Laojia that could illustrate the point he was trying to put across. With a great emphasis on appreciating the subtleties that lie at the heart of correct Taijiquan he would repeatedly ask people to place their hands on his waist, kua, shoulders, chest or dantian so they could feel what was happening. Then after a while he would call everyone to go away and train themselves - "You won't get it by watching me doing it.You'll only get it by doing it yourself!

Wang Xian explains a point...
Above all, he constantly stressed the need to achieve "song" or looseness through slow training and great attention: "Everything is dependent upon song"; "the amount of Qi in the body is a direct reflection of the degree of song". The Daodejing says that one must: "Make freedom from desire your constant norm; thereby you will see what is subtle. Make having desires your constant norm; thereby you will see what is manifest". The failure to understand the difference between the root of a movement and its ultimate expression is a great barrier to many students. It's not that they are not prepared to work hard and sweat, but desperately wanting the end product, they cannot appreciate the need to minutely examine their practice. It's easy to see the explosive fajin of an accomplished practitioner or an exciting application. It's not so easy to realise the correct route of the movement or its energetic requirements. When people are asked to train slowly, you can see that in a short time, some people soon feel the need to go faster, some just get bored and start to do some push hands, some just have a convivial chat with their  friends. Only a few painstakingly repeat the movement over and over, checking if their chest is loose, back filled, kua relaxed etc etc ... It's particularly striking when the teacher leads the group through the form after telling everyone to do it slowly. Some people are always one step ahead. Those who know how to learn try to stay with and  mirror his movements as closely as possible.

(L-R) David Gaffney, Davidine Sim, Wang Xian & Yen Sujie
A few of the tips he gave over the course of the week included:

Don't stupidly repeat the form and think that you are going to get fighting ability. You must take out single movements from the form and train them repeatedly until you completely understand them.

The form is not a dead thing. Many people can do an outside imitation of the form, but they are lost in, as one participant put it, "copy and paste mode". The form must be alive within the principles.

Use slowness to achieve detail. I cannot emphasise how much importance Wang put on the fundamental need to train slowly. Everyone can quote Taijiquan's requirements such as storing the chest and filling the  back, but finding the  optimal degree of relaxation, extension or co-ordination of different parts of the body can only be realised through slowness. 

In his final address to the group at the end of the seminar he told everyone to "train everyday or you won't get it - you cannot train for one day and rest for three"!

Monday 11 August 2014

Chen family comes out fighting over Zhang Sanfeng claims!!!

2007 Chenjiagou recognised as the birthplace of Taijiquan.
Open warfare has erupted in China over the question of Taijiquan’s origin. It appeared that the dispute over where Taijiquan was created and by who had finally been settled in 2007. After extensive investigation and evaluation by the Chinese Wushu Association, and China's People Association, Wen County, Henan Province was named as, the "birthplace of Chinese martial arts Taijiquan" and "China Taijiquan birthplace" respectively.  Chen Wangting was recognised as the creator of Taijiquan. This confirmed the 1930s research of Tang Hao, often viewed as China’s greatest martial arts historian. 
However, the origin debate has dramatically reared its head again in the last few weeks. On July 16 China’s Ministry of Culture accepted and announced “Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan” as one of the approved applicants in its "Fourth Instalment of National Intangible Cultural Heritage Recommended List” under the “Traditional Sports, Entertainment and Acrobatics Category”. The Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan group in question hail from Shaowu County in China’s Fujian Province. The level of anger at this announcement can be seen from the reactions of two of the leading members of the Chen family, Chen Xiaowang and Chen Zhenglei.

Chen Xiaowang addressing the press over the Zhan Sanfeng issue...
Earlier today (August 11) Chen Xiaowang, an eleventh generation descendant of the founder of Taijiquan, held a press conference in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. During the press conference he publicly criticised the Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan farce, and requested clarification from the relevant bodies and an assurance that they would deal with the issue justly, fairly and transparently.

Taking questions
Chen Xiaowang pointed out a number of inaccuracies with the claims of  Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan as regards to Zhang Sanfeng's birthplace and its association with the art of Taijiquan and the evolution of the various schools of Taijiquan.  He also pointed out the realistic and multi-angle damage the inclusion of "Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan" could cause.  In his words, "Once included in the list, it will create confusion regarding historical records and bound to lead to endless controversies".  He also questioned the selection process of the Ministry of Culture, and went as far as stating that " there may be serious bureaucratic and other unhealthy practices." Strong words in China when speaking about the actions of officials!

In a similar vein, Chen Zhenglei reacted immediately upon returning from his world teaching tour on July 23. Hearing the news on his arrival back in China, within two days two letters were sent on behalf of the Henan Taijiquan Association and the Wenxian County Department to the Ministry of Culture and the National Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre about the “problem report”. Chen Zhenglei also contacted Zhengzhou's major news organisations, and "as an individual and as a Chen Taijiquan successor" made public the situation and his dissatisfaction with the whole affair.
Chen Zhenglei - "Zhang Sanfeng story based on myth and fairy tale".

Chen Zhenglei stated that the criteria for "intangible cultural heritage" is its lineage and  continuity, generally for  three generations or more, through father to son (the family), or master to disciple, or through other forms of traditional school.  He went on to say that the Zhang Sanfeng Taijiquan story is based on myth and fairy tale, and the Ministry for the protection of intangible cultural heritage must not confuse the public. This is not the first time that Chen Zhenglei has spoken out against misrepresentations of Taijiquan and the damage this can do to public perceptions. Over a decade ago in
 an interview with BBC Radio’s Eastern Horizon programme, which we reproduced in The Essence of Taijiquan under the heading “Ancient Art or New Age Fad”?, Chen Zhenglei stated that: “There is lots of imitation Taijiquan out there, and the public do not know the difference. These eclectic styles will be passed on as authentic and there will be fewer traditionalists amongst Taijiquan practitioners”.

The mythical Zhan Sanfeng popularised in the Jin Long novels
So just who was Zhang Sanfeng and does it matter who created Taijiquan? In popular culture Zhang Sanfeng is closely linked to the Wudang Mountains.  This is largely due to the martial arts novels of Jin Yong and the movie “Taiji Master” by Jet Li.  Whether or not he was a real person, or during which historical era he lived has been variously debated. But in both myth and 'fact' Zhang Sanfeng is an alchemist and Daoist monk of Wudang. Which begs the question why does the current application come from a group in Fujian and not from Wudang in Hebei? And if the claim is recognised will all the other Taijiquan families have to acknowledge it as their ancestor?

Whatever the truth, it seems the public is lapping it up. In September 2013, Shaowu held an "Across the Taiwan Strait · Sanfeng Hometown" event, and showcased for the first time Zhang Sanfeng (original style) Taijiquan slogans.  Since then almost 3000 foreign students are reported to have come to learn the “Shaowu Zhang San Feng (original style) Taijiquan and Taiji exercises." It is this stressing of the wording “original style” that has stirred up other Taijiquan groups in China. This year from March 31 to April 2, the first Shaowu Zhang San Feng (original style) Taijiquan competition, took place with nearly 2,000 people attended the event. 

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