Saturday 29 December 2018

Why slow training wins the race...

What makes Taijiquan training different from  that of other arts? I've been asked this question many times and usually answer that the most obvious difference is its use of slowness and looseness as the core method to bring out necessary martial qualities like speed, strength, accuracy etc... 

To reach an advanced level we need to practice slowly, taking care to self-correct all the time. Using slowness to achieve detail. What details are we talking about? Here's a few to be going on with:

1.    Accuracy - in terms of posture and function

2.    Intention and how it matches to movements 

3.    Maintenance of the correct energetic state (of different parts simultaneously to enhance the "whole")

Chen Yu: "Never do an approximation of a movement"
People often either over-complicate or completely misunderstand Taijiquan's training process. In a hurried effort to access higher levels of skill, making the critical error of ignoring necessary stages such as laying down the correct physical shape. Completing this stage naturally opens the door to the internal aspects. Simply put, if the learners hips are not level or the shoulders are lifted, if the chest sticks out or the body is leaning - there's no need to be too concerned with dantian qi.  If training is approached logically it is obvious that at this stage they'd get more bang for their training buck by correcting the visible mistakes rather than losing themselves in some fanciful esoteric wandering. 

Chen Yu, in "Chen Taijiquan: Masters & Methods" cautions that haste makes it more likely for movements to be cut short and in the process important details missed out. He advises practitioners to never do an approximation of a movement: "In every movement, the spirit must be guiding the energy, and the intention driving the power" - training in this way enables the practitioners to develop vital martial qualities including stability, accuracy, speed and ferocity. To ensure not to make the mistake of cutting short and approximating he suggests that  "every movement should take 3-5 seconds to complete so that the Jin in every action is brought out".

Chen Xiaowang: "Every part does what it is supposed to do without obstruction
A central goal of Taijiquan is for movements to become natural, to rid every action of any awkwardness and not telegraphing within an action. Chen Xiaowang often repeats the phrase "natural is the first principle". In this context natural means that every part and each section of the body do what they are meant to do without obstruction. Practitioners are often able to (correctly) repeat the requirement that one must be loose and relaxed in order to enter the door of Taijiquan. However, relaxing is not a simple process. For a start,  if the body's position is not correct, it cannot relax properly.  The process of adjusting and "fixing" the posture, undoing fixed habits and embedding new ones that conform to the system's detailed requirements can only be done in meticulously and mindfully. 

Bringing out the skills of Taijiquan require the ability to move with precision and focus towards an intended direction. In practical term every movement must be finished carefully and exactly, as the end of one movement represents the starting point of the next. During a particular workshop Wang Xian stressed that only by starting from the correct position can the next movement be done correctly. He said with humour (I'm paraphrasing here): "if you start from the wrong position it's 100 percent certain your movement will be incorrect... If you start from the correct position, there's a small chance you might do it correctly".
Wang Xian: "Only by starting from the correct position can the next movement be done correctly"


Monday 17 December 2018

USA Reflections...

San Diego at the Taoist Sanctuary
On the flight home after a couple of weeks of seminars and  a short book tour on the west coast of America I had the chance to reflect  on the trip as a whole. The first evening of our stop at Bill and Allison Helm's Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego opened with a lecture on our latest book Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods (published in August). The talk was structured around four themes that recurred throughout the book: ideas about the nature of Taijiquan; the importance of nurturing within the training process; the most effective way to train if you are to bring out the functional capacity of the art - in particular the role of body integration; and finally some of the problems   facing the art of Taijiquan as it goes into the future. Problems include: the fact that for the majority of practitioners Taijiquan is a discipline no longer practised for its original purpose; the fact that while the number of people practising Taijiquan is at an all time high, the number reaching any meaningful level of skill is depressingly small; and the many misconceptions about the art that still persist...

Over the course of the seminar the San Diego group trained Chen Taijiquan's jibengong (basic training methods) and the Laojia Yilu. Any complete training approach needs to consider multiple characteristics including both internal and external aspects of training. All martial arts, in their own way, follow processes designed to systematically develop the attributes of power, strength, speed and the ability to change. The basic training exercises and first routine provide the template through which Taijiquan practitioners can hone these qualities. At the same time Taijiquan’s training emphasis is very different to other martial arts in the way in which practitioners are required to put aside generally accepted methods of improving the previously mentioned elements of power, strength, speed and changeability:
On the floor...

In terms of strength - they are asked to put aside physical strength as a means of developing looseness (song) and pliancy (rou) – “Using intention and not strength”; To increase speed, the system counter-intuitively instructs practitioners to slow down their movements, keeping faith with Taijiquan’s maxim which states that “extreme slowness gives rise to extreme speed”; To develop the quality of changeability Taijiquan advises learners to “use inaction to control action, meeting all changes with constancy”. With this basis the skilled exponent is psychologically strong enough to wait for opponents to over extend their position before launching an attack.

After the San Diego seminars we spent a couple of days of down time in San Francisco’s historic Chinatown. The oldest Chinatown in the U.S., this colourful district played a pivotal role in the history of Chinese martial arts in the country. Walking down the bustling streets of the largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia has much the same feel as strolling through the back streets of Hong Kong. Loud murals decorate many of the side streets - terracotta warriors, the monkey king and his companions and of course Bruce Lee, the “Little Dragon” born in the city in 1940 before moving to Hong Kong with his parents as an infant. The story goes that on his return to America, the brash young Lee alienated many of the older established Chinese masters as he attacked the “classical mess” of traditional gongfu and his assertion about its reliance on, among other things, “ineffective” forms training.
The late Bruce Lee is never far away in San Francisco's Chinatown
Somewhat ironically, a paving slab beneath one of the murals of Bruce Lee was inlaid with a bronze inscription of an old Chinese idiom - “When you drink water, think of its source”. In one form or another I've heard this saying repeated many times over the years. From my younger days doing Shaolin Gongfu when we were told never to forget we were no more than links in a chain. In Chenjiagou I saw the saying presented in a slightly different form - "When you drink the water, remember the person who dug the well". Chen Taijiquan is close to four centuries old. It didn't emerge from a vacuum but was built upon existing knowledge in areas including martial arts, traditional health practices, elements of Chinese medical theories and ancient philosophy. Throughout Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods all the older generation teachers interviewed stressed the importance of following a prescribed route that had been passed down by previous generations. Wang Xian, speaking of this "carefully preserved knowledge... [stated that] Taijiquan offers one of the most formally thought out, meticulous, and clearly articulated set of principles and practices". Our job in training Chen Taijiquan is to try to understand and manifest these principles that have been handed down.

Stopping for a coffee at the Caffe Trieste I was told by a chatty regular that this was the place where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for ‘The Godfather.’ I did a little research on the place and found that "...when Papa Gianni founded the Trieste in 1956, upper Grant and the Trieste was ground zero of the Beat Generation. The poets, the writers, the thinkers, the talkers all came here.” Since we were on a mini book tour I took that to be a good omen!! 

Our next stop was Kim Ivy's Embrace the Moon School in Seattle. The Seattle programme began with a "Book Club Potluck" - Great food followed by a lively Q&A session on Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods - covering the books content and the background story behind its creation. We basically wrote the book to “scratch an itch” and tried to present it as if we were sitting around the fireside having an informal chat with the most illustrious elders of Chen Taijiquan. 

Seattle at the Embrace the Moon Taiji School
On the floor, again!
Like the seminars in San Diego, training centred around Chen Taijiquan's basic exercises and Laojia Yilu. Taijiquan looks to hone four external and four internal aspects: externally training the hands, eyes, body method and footwork (shou, yan, shenfa, bu); internally training spirit, intention, intrinsic energy and trained power (shen, yi, qi, jin). Taken together these represent the "gong" of the art. In practice these elements must be cultivated carefully bearing in mind the health, strength, experience and level of understanding of the practitioner. Over the course of the US seminars practitioners varied in age from people in their twenties to seventies - from pro-athletes to retired office workers – from veteran practitioners to newcomers whose experience could be measured in months. To be successful training has to take into account these natural differences and be approached on an individual basis. As the saying goes “Don’t’ compare yourself to another person today, compare yourself to yourself yesterday”.

Seattle - Laojia Yilu
So what are we trying to achieve when we train Taijiquan? The most obvious place to start is with the name of the system - "Taiji" refers to a philosophical concept that dates back to China's ancient past. "Quan" is martial arts. Together giving a total art built upon the integration of philosophy and martial arts. Manifesting the art to its full potential depends upon working from where you are today and embracing concepts that have grown from a different culture and mindset.   
Just me and my pal Bill Helm having some fun in Chinatown 



Monday 1 October 2018

Realising Chen Taijiquan’s Six Harmonies

Taijiquan skill arises from a comprehensive study of the body as a unified whole or system.  The core training methods of the system are built around the qualities of looseness, pliancy and slowness.  Slow training provides a means by which to improve body co-ordination and to help to rid the body of any excess tension. The process of slow training over an extended time helps practitioners to achieve a unification of body and mind described in Taijiquan literature as the harmonisation of the mind (xin), intention (yi), intrinsic energy (qi), and body strength (li).  Every facet of a person – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – is seen to be interconnected and interdependent, and no aspect can be understood in any meaningful way except in relation to the whole. This wholeness is realised via the nurturing of Taijiquan’s six harmonies.
Internal and External Harmony - Chen Xiaoxing by Mary Johnston
The six harmonies are understood in terms of three external and three internal harmonies. The external harmonies refer to the physical components of the body, which must be ordered in a way that optimises one’s structure. The three external harmonies denote the connections between: 
Hands - Feet
Elbows - Knees
Shoulders - Kua
These can be widened to take in the connections between the left hand and the right foot, the left elbow and the right knee and the left shoulder and the right kua (and vice versa). The late grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang summarised the external harmonies simply as everything “arriving at the same time” – so every movement is performed as an integrated whole. The correct way to apply power arises not from isolated muscular strength, but from an optimally aligned body structure and unified movement through a relaxed physical and mental state. 
The three internal harmonies refer to the unification of an individual’s:
Xin (Heart) – Yi (Intention)
Qi (Intrinsic Energy) – Li (Body Strength)
Jin (Tendons) – Gu (Bones)
In this context, xin refers to the emotional aspect of one’s mind, yi to its logical or intentional part. The literal translation of the Chinese character xin is "heart". Early pictograms of the character for xin unambiguously show a picture of the physical heart.   Xin represents the centre of human feelings and emotions.  Literature from the Warring States period of Chinese history depicts it as the centre of an individual’s emotions and sentiments, from tranquillity and calmness, to anger, grief and disappointment. 
Taijiquan players are often told to “use intention and not force”.   Mental unity is predicated on the presence of both the emotional and logical mind. In a real confrontation conflicting feelings or thoughts can have dire consequences. While xin or heart is necessary to summon up sufficient courage, yi enables them to act with a clear purpose and make the right decisions in an instant.  So, in a real world example we could compare an individual exhibiting xin without yi to the hothead who fights rashly and with uncontrolled emotion and no clear intention. Conversely, yi without xin, could be characterised by the individual lacking in fighting spirit although knowing in their mind what they should do. The idea of linking heart and fighting spirit is also common in the West, where, for example, a skilful but hesitant boxer will often be accused of lacking heart. The fusing of heart and intention allows one to bring into play an energy that is fully focused and integrated.  Combining this with the powers of the body represents a joining of internal and external aspects – that is the connection of energy and strength (qi and li). Achieving this degree of synchronisation enables the body to operate as a unified whole - in terms of Taijiquan’s harmonies, linking the tendons with the bones.

Monday 13 August 2018

Chen Zhenglei - Four Steps to Combat Skill...

At his recent training camp in Chenjiagou, Chen Zhenglei addressed the question of how a practitioner should approach Taijiquan if they are to develop high level fighting skills. During the course of his lecture spoking about what people should focus on at the different stages of training? In summary he suggested that the development of Chen Taijiquan’s internal martial arts skills arise from following four steps:

1. The first step involves an in-depth and meticulous study of the “gongfu frame” (the first routine) of Chen Family Taijiquan. Chen Taijiquan’s gongfu formula is based on  the foundation of the original boxing form that has been passed down from generation to generation.

2. From this basis studying the indoor methods within the gongfu form that enable the altering and transformation of power and the system’s attacking skill.  These skills are based on the changes and transformations that arise from the total familiarity of the gongfu form.  Study each and every move for the ability to bring out the perfect round, complementary and spiral force, and the skill to transform each and every move that can be utilised. The goal here is to achieve the highest level of power that encompasses looseness, pliancy, elasticity and “shaking power”.
3. The third step is to study the indoor method of tuishou.  Based on the foundation of the alternating and complementary spiralling skill, learning the two persons tuishou methods, using the skill that has been extracted from the meticulous study of the form. Through these methods becoming familiar with the different energies/power and attack/defence possibilities.  Practicing until one is completely accurate in listening and differentiating incoming energies and until reaching the stage where the opponent can be felled unwittingly and unconsciously.
4.  Finally, studying the sanshou method of Chen Taijiquan.  Now building on the foundation of the previous steps, a practitioner undertakes two persons’ sparring that is not restricted by the prescribed form, so as to learn the full repertoire of defence and attack. Using the ba fa - peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou, kao - together with seizing, grasping, throwing, sweeping, practicing possibilities of actual fighting.  Until reaching the stage of being able to borrow another’s force, to “divert thousand pounds with four ounces”.

As always, the advice was that there could be no shortcuts and that the above four stages must be progressed through step-by-step, layer by layer, gradually and incrementally increasing one's level of skill.


Thursday 2 August 2018

Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods

Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods records the thoughts of some of the most knowledgeable Taijiquan practitioners of recent times – Feng Zhiqiang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Xiaowang, Wang Xian, Zhu Tiancai, Chen Zhenglei, Chen Yu and Yu Gongbao:

Taken together, the masters presented are not restricted to any one school. That said there are many connections and areas of shared experience between them. Combined, they represent a strong link in a chain preserving a common heritage. In modern times there has been a mystification not just of Taijiquan, but traditional martial arts as a whole. These arts that for centuries were trained in a practical and pragmatic way as a means of self-protection are treated like some kind of modern fantasy. What exactly is Chen Taijiquan? Chen Taijiquan is a sophisticated physical system that has been shaped by a different cultural tradition. It presents us not only to new ways of performance, but also to new ways of thinking and understanding. Unfortunately, the vast majority of explanations fall far short, showing either a lack of knowledge or a strong bias in perceptions. Concepts that don’t translate easily into English are often disregarded from the outset.

At heart Taijiquan is a functional combat system and like all martial arts the three essential elements of strength, speed and change must be omnipresent. Through a variety of training methods, the aim is to enhance the body’s strength, speed and develop a more and more subtle ability to change.  These results cannot be achieved without committing to a programme of hard work way above a person’s normal capacity. However, Taijiquan is different to other martial arts:  From the perspective of strength, it tells practitioners to “practice by using intention and not use strength”, and also through looseness to completely discard their inherent physical strength; To cultivate speed, Taijiquan advocates using slowness, its boxing theory speaking of the way in which "extreme slowness gives rise to extreme fastness"; To increase the skill of change Taijiquan advocates "using inaction to control action; meeting all changes with constancy”.  In essence, therefore, we can see that Taijiquan requires practitioners to put aside the accepted methods of improving and enhancing the functions of martial arts.   

Over the years we’ve kept detailed notes of our meetings with the various teachers - initially for our own interest. The passing of Feng Zhiqiang in 2012 was a stark reminder of the importance of documenting the teaching of this elder generation. In Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods:

Feng Zhiqiang - image by Janet Grimes
Feng Zhiqiang - a senior disciple of the legendary seventeenth generation master Chen Fake, explains how Taiji gongfu is acquired through a “combination of training and nurturing, with nurturing as its mainstay”.  He stresses the fundamental importance of cultivating and nurturing every aspect of one’s being. The basis of Taijiquan rests upon the steady building and development of qi (intrinsic energy), of shen (spirit), of xing (character) and of shen (body). To enter the door of authentic Taijiquan training he advocates placing a premium on developing the twin qualities of looseness and heaviness. Feng Zhiqiang cautions awareness of the many traps lying in wait for practitioners not fully conversant with the aims and method of Taijiquan. He touches on numerous interesting topics including: the use of specific acupoints as gateways through which a practitioner can help the relaxation process; the need for a “complete training” approach emphasising training the three aspects of internalised skill, form push hands; and the role of physical strength in Taijiquan practice.

Chen Xiaoxing – Principal of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School addresses the nature of Taijiquan and its integration of philosophy and martial arts. Starting from the widespread misperception of Taijiquan as an unchallenging art for the old and infirm, he rails against the general public’s view of Taijiquan as some kind of recreational “exercise for parks and street corners”. Chen Xiaoxing touches on the necessity of having a good working knowledge of ancient Chinese culture and its unique way of understanding the laws of nature and the interrelationship of things. He is of the opinion that without this, while one can realise the most basic physical aspects of Taijiquan, “there’s no possibility an individual will be capable of practising good Taijiquan”.

Chen Xiaoxing - image by Mary Johnston

Collectively Chen Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xian and Zhu Tiancai have come to be known as the “Four Buddha’s Warriors” of Chenjiagou. In the book:

Chen Xiaowang - speaks about the best way to bring out the functionality of the form, paradoxically cautioning against learning set applications. To reach the highest stage of Taijiquan development, an individual must react in an instinctive and spontaneous way. The physical body and mental intention have been harmonised and absorbed to become a natural part of one’s being to the point where they are able to move and react exactly as circumstances dictate from moment to moment, rather than trying to react with a limiting series of fixed ideas. Ultimately Taijiquan adepts work towards a time when the whole body acts as a unified and highly co-ordinated unit. Chen Xiaowang gives a comprehensive explanation of just one aspect - the way in which the two hands are synchronised to accommodate their alternating function as either the “guiding” or “directing” hand.

Wang Xian - discusses the most important points to consider when practising Taijiquan: including its focus on looseness, spiral movement and the necessity of using intention; the best way to bring out the system’s functionality; the three stages of progression that all practitioners must go through and the specific drills and training methods that must be employed at each stage. Wang Xian explains that the form is not a dead thing, but must be alive within the principles. 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.

Zhu Tiancai - talks about his experience learning Taijiquan in Chenjiagou and about training with his two main teachers Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui. He outlines the main differences between the Laojia (Old Frame) and Xinjia (New Frame) routines he learned from these two teachers respectively. Zhu asserts that despite superficial differences; in essence the two forms are the same and goes on to describe the core methods of Chen Taijiquan: first looking at the bafa or eight types of jin, which he believes are often quoted but only understood at the most superficial level; next describing the four different methods of training Chen Taijiquan uses to develop and bring out these types of jin. He explains the two overarching ideas that must be present if one is to be able to react in a spontaneous way and at the same time remain within principle. In the concluding section Zhu Tiancai speaks about the importance of nurturing one’s body and cultivating one’s character.

Chen Zhenglei - After clarifying the difference between Taijiquan and external martial arts systems, goes on to explain several necessary ways practitioners should approach their study of Taijiquan: firstly placing an emphasis upon understanding the principles and philosophy of the art instead of fixating on individual postures and applications; secondly, seeking the cause rather than the obvious manifestation of movements; and finally, training the whole body to be a synchronised system rather than concentrating on individual applications. This approach is opposite to the common Western way of viewing the world where components of a whole are separated out to allow us to study them more closely. In the process losing sight of the fact that it is the working of the whole that matters.

Chen Yu – Beijing based son of the eighteenth generation master Chen Zhaokui addresses the confusion of many modern practitioners regarding the role of physical strength in Taijiquan. He points to the need for individuals to possess a basis of physical strength to support the more subtle elements of skill. Going on to explain why the qualities of looseness (song) and suppleness or pliancy (rou) are so important in the development of a fully integrated type of strength. He details the approach that must be followed if one is to integrate the internal and external aspects of the body.   

Yu Gongbao - author of the world's first dictionary of Taijiquan and China’s first Professor of Taijiquan explores the art from the perspective of its cultural properties. He outlines the characteristics of this distinctive martial art that uses physical movement to express the spirit of the Chinese nation, Yu explains how Taijiquan culture functions within a system that can be neither divided nor isolated. Rather, it must be understood from numerous dimensions.  In his logical study he considers some of the main elements we need to think about including Taijiquan’s broad social influence, including the way in which practicing Taijiquan has provided a portal through which many non-Chinese have come to appreciate cultural norms and the principles of self-cultivation.

Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods is available from

Chen Taijiquan cover calligraphy by Chen Xiaowang


Sunday 29 July 2018

Martial art or bitter art?

In Philosophical Perspectives on the Martial Arts in America, Carl B. Becker, a specialist in Asian philosophy and ethics, compared the typical approach of Western and Eastern people to training martial arts. An interesting point he made was that Western culture usually approaches martial arts and sport in general in terms of “play and recreation”: Fun, enjoyment, self-improvement, health etc being some of the common reasons given by individuals for taking part. Easterners (the article spoke specifically about Japanese), in contrast, would often respond with that they were training a valuable discipline. Obviously there are some serious practitioners in the West and lightweight practitioners in the East, people are people after all.

Applying this to Taijiquan, for the most part it is portrayed as gentle, relaxing and an easy option. Leafing through a magazine in the dentist’s reception the other day, I saw “Tai Chi” described as - “An enjoyable way to pass an hour during the hectic busyness of the real world”. Real Taijiquan training can be a lifelong journey of personal cultivation and development. But it does not come without paying the price of sweat and discipline. Following are comments by Deng Xiaofei, Zhong Lijuan and Wang Shili, three branch instructors of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School describing their thoughts on the Taiijiquan journey:
Deng Xiaofei:  “When I was young my shifu said wushu (martial art) is also kushu (bitter art). It is bitter and dry – but you need to eat this bitter every day. You have to endure the loneliness and persevere until one day you can use what you learn".

Zhong Lijuan:  "Learning Taijiquan is like preparing to build a house. You have to start with digging the hole and doing the piling before you can do anything. The piling time often takes a lot longer than the building time. But once it is established you can build not just one storey but ten, twenty, or even a skyscraper. Therefore, all of us who have vowed to train Taijiquan do not just want the obvious rewards or be dazzled by momentary fame but hold a good attitude and persevere with our training until real gongfu is acquired".

Wang Shili: "People who persevere until they are old are very rare. It is not even one in a hundred or one in a thousand. It is very scarce – people who persevere a lifetime. It is not a matter of wanting to be part of a trend or a fashion, but the attitude should be:
Live until you are old
Learn until you are old
Train until you are old”
As long as life goes on, then training should go on".
Deng Xiaofei - A "martial art" is also "bitter art" that must be eaten every day

Published in August - Chen Taijiquan : Masters & Methods

A series of interviews, training tips and insights from some of the foremost masters of Chen Taijiquan.   





















Monday 16 July 2018

Chen Taijiquan’s “Special” Training - Single Movement Drills

Single movement drills - Wang Xian training Xin Zhou (Piercing Heart Elbow). Source: Chen Family Taijiquan Tuishou 
Training Laojia Yilu in Chenjiagou some years ago I was told not to “stupidly train repetitions of the form thinking that this would be enough to make your Taijiquan work as a martial art”. The first routine or Yilu is often referred to as the Gongfu Frame, used to lay the necessary foundation of correct physical structure and smooth energetic connection - over time helping to develop the often talked-about qualities of fluidity and agility at the top, heaviness and rootededness at the bottom. However, despite its fundamental importance, it is important to see form training within the context of a larger system.

In Going Beyond the Norm: An Interview with Chen Stylist Wang Xian, written by Asr Cordes and published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in 2002, Wang Xian said “soft training is not enough to reach a high level of martial skill. If you want fighting skill, you will need special training”. What the first form lacks, for the most part, is speed, suddenness and abrupt explosive changes. People train Taijiquan for different reasons, but if we’re looking to develop combat capabilities in an effective and functional way these aspects need to be honed to a high degree. In the traditional syllabus the Erlu (second routine) is trained to do this - hence the saying “Yilu cultivates qi, Erlu explodes.” Another of the “special” training methods used to bring out the hard or gang side of Chen Taijiquan is practising repetitive single movement drills.

Single movement training involves the repeated practice of a wide variety of actions and techniques focusing on different areas of the body. It helps to refine the techniques that form the basis of Taijiquan push hands and combative ability. For instance the eight methods of peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou and kao as well as techniques common to all martial systems such as kicking, punching, throwing, grasping etc.

Some years ago Zhu Tiancai came to our school in the UK and taught his Taiji Sanshou set (which he called the 42 Fajin at the time). Zhu had developed this based upon a 32 fajin pattern that he had learned from Chen Zhaokui. While the Taiji Sanshou could be trained as a continuous series of movements like a form, it is really meant to be trained as a series of single movement drills. Each of the exercises are used to hone the combat potentials hidden within the hand form. By taking out difficult movements, such as Ying Men Kao (Enticing Bump) which utilises the chest as the striking area, or functional movement like Wai Bai Li Shua (Outward Swing and Inward Throw) where the upper and lower body coordination is required to throw an opponent - and practising them repeatedly we can improve the accuracy, speed and timing of movements. In Taijiquan Tuishou Wang Xian says, “single movement training shows each movement clearly and completely, forms can often conceal the real usage.”

Sealing the Throat training with Zhu Tiancai
As well as letting us train and refine complex movements, single movement training gives us a means to train potentially dangerous movements in a controlled way. Chen Zhaokui stated that “some applications of the movement cannot be used in push hands, for example, elbow strikes… and also attacking vital points of an opponent, or qinna”. To address this problem he pointed to the value of single posture training to develop certain martial skills that are inherently difficult to train safely with a partner. These single movement drills can be taken from the handforms, particularly the Erlu. Drills from Zhu’s Taiji Sanshou that clearly fall into this category include movements such as Suo Hou Zhang (Seal the Throat Palm), Liao Yin Quan (Lift the Crotch Fist) and Shuang Feng Guan Er (Double Crests Strike the Ears) and Quan Xin Zhou (Piercing Heart Elbow)…

Sealing the Throat Single Movement Drill - Zhu Tiancai

While training single movements we should not lose sight of the fundamental requirements: the harmonisation of internal and external aspects; the co-ordination of the upper and lower body; clearly differentiating weight distribution; strict attention to timing. The goal is to utilise all of the body’s potential during movements, which should be fast, focused and complete. With extended focused training movements become internalised and can be brought out instinctively without conscious thought. The aim is to be able to direct power explosively with precision and ferocity - executing techniques crisply, quickly and smoothly and with precise timing – whilst attacking an opponent at their weakest point and at the most vulnerable time.

Single movement training can also be used to train Chen Taijiquan’s stepping methods, developing the ability to move with agile footwork – forward, backward, left and right and to be able to instantly attack or evade an opponent.  

A saying often repeated in Taijiquan circles is “Practice ten thousand times and the skill will naturally emerge.” Failing to train single movements is to omit an important part of the training process. Without it, an individual may have a nice looking form, but it will be a form that is empty of content, and put to the test in a real physical confrontation will, in all likelihood, come up painfully short.

Notes on single movement training
  • Correct basics are essential before training for speed and power.
  • Begin slowly, training to execute movements correctly and paying careful attention to avoid losing energy and “collapsing” (diu) during soft practice.
  • Speed up gradually, taking care not to lose the precision you have laid down in the primary stage and paying careful attention not to exert energy too forcefully (ding) when you do explosive movements.

  • Pay attention to keeping your energy tracks undetected. Being able to do a technique forcefully is of little use if it is telegraphed and easily read by an opponent.
Wang Xian training Dingzi Quan Guanyang (Nail-Shaped Fists targeting the temples)

Thursday 3 May 2018

The Role of Weapons Training

Just out part two of a three part article published by Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts magazine looking at Chen Taijiquan’s integrated syllabus - this time looking at the place of weapons training. A quick note for anyone seeing the magazine – an article with the imaginative title “From Organ Builder to Arms Dealer” is mistakenly attributed to me. Just to be crystal clear, it’s not mine!    

The Role of Weapons Training in Chen Taijiquan
Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts Magazine
Chen Taijiquan has an extensive and complex corpus for developing skilled and effective martial practitioners. In this issue we continue to examine the way in which the seemingly different aspects of the Chen Taijiquan syllabus are actually interrelated and mutually supporting. In the first part we looked at the relationship between form training and push hands. Here we examine the role of weapons training within the wider Taijiquan curriculum and the way in which the various weapons can be used to develop the physique and qualities of a Taijiquan player. Preserved within the weapons routines are flexible sinuous movements, dynamic actions, swift changes in tempo, and fierce chopping, slicing or thrusting movements. Here we’ll consider how the demands of the different weapons, with their distinct characteristics and techniques, can have a transformative effect shaping new levels of body awareness and dexterity.

A wide variety of weapons continue to be practiced in Chenjiagou, the birthplace of Taijiquan, a fact that comes as something of a surprise to many people. These include the sword, broadsword, spear, halberd, long pole, eyebrow staff and double iron mace, among others. Some of these weapons are drawn from China's ancient battlefield arts; others like the two section pole, evolving from agricultural tools, to eventually be incorporated within the Chen Family Taijiquan weapons syllabus. Knowing that the likelihood of ever having to use the weapons for their original purpose is unlikely, leads many practitioners to the conclusion that they are irrelevant in the modern age. Even those that do incorporate weapons into their practice often fail to see beyond the surface elements of performance and aesthetics, losing sight of the many potential benefits that can be gained from them.

During one of our early trips to the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School in China’s Henan province we were instructed that Taijiquan combat skill could only be achieved by gaining proficiency in four key areas: constitution or basic physical conditioning; strength; technical skill and gongfu or cultivated skill. Taijiquan, in common with all traditional Chinese martial arts involves the balancing of internal and external aspects. Without an external basis any internal development is of limited value. To put it bluntly, ""coordinated strength" means nothing if you don't have any strength to coordinate". Beyond their obvious functions, the different weapons help to train many diverse qualities essential in honing a “Taijiquan physique" - attributes such as strength, dexterity, agile footwork and whole-body coordination. Weapons practice can help to achieve correct timing in all one's movements. Holding and manipulating the various weapons also lead to improvements in the complexity of your hands and footwork skills. Viewed in the context of the system as a whole, weapons training complements barehand training by magnifying certain requirements: the mind and intention must be extended all the way through the length of the weapon; movements must stay relaxed, agile and efficient at the same time as controlling a weighty object; and footwork must be lively and responsive to enable rapid changes position. 
Just as a fork and a spoon must be used in a precise way when one is eating, each weapon calls upon the practitioner to clearly bring out different functional movements. For instance, the difference between Pi (splitting) and Kan (cutting) was illustrated in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School with the example of how "a woodcutter goes into the forest to cut a tree down, then splits the logs for firewood.  The two techniques are different and if he splits the logs as he cuts the tree he will not have firewood". We’ll also consider some of the specific benefits that can be achieved by training the more commonly used weapons, bearing in mind that there are inevitably areas of similarity between certain weapons:

Short Weapons Including the Sword and Broadsword
In Chen Taijiquan, the sword used is relatively light in weight, its use relies more upon skill, precision and speed than upon strength. Its lightness means that the swordsman cannot rely on strength and attack head on. Rather he must develop a high degree of sensitivity and awareness of any openings an opponent may leave. Taiji sword emphasises variations of speed to express extremely sudden and accurate movements such as splitting, pointing and piercing. The sword trains flexibility and the full extension of one’s body and practising the sword form allows an exponent to develop the ability to project force in a relaxed manner to the tip of the sword. It also helps to create an efficient Taijiquan body, with repeated practice loosening the large joints such as the hips and shoulders. Relaxing the shoulders and the kua is crucial if one is to develop an integrated body. The famous internal martial artist Sun Lutang was of the opinion that many people, despite training gongfu for many years, failed to achieve this. He believed that the task of loosening the shoulders and kua was of such importance and that in the early stages of training learners should focus upon them above everything else and that failing to address this meant that whatever they trained would be incorrect. The precise nature of the sword movements also helps to increase the suppleness of the wrists and hands.

The Chen Taijiquan Broadsword is characterised by fast, explosive and direct movements. Where the sword is double-edged and light, the broadsword is single-edged and heavy.  As such the broadsword lends itself to cutting movements that are large, expansive and powerful in nature - “like splitting a mountain.” Actions are more direct and obvious than the straight sword. A fact reflected in the Chinese martial arts saying: “Broadsword is like a fierce tiger, sword is like a swimming dragon.” Training with the broadsword yields special benefits for the legs and waist. This weapon features complex stepping and wide expansive movements. Its demanding challenges encourage practitioners to exert greater focus and effort in training leading to significant improvements in their overall skill level.
While the broadsword falls under the classification of short weapons, practitioners are called upon to use it like a long weapon. Skilled exponents can cover a surprisingly long distance by utilising explosive leaping and jumping movements. As a means of overall body training, the explosive leaping and jumping movements have much in common with modern plyometric training exercises used by many of today’s elite sports performers. Simply put the combination of speed and strength is power and for many years coaches and athletes have sought to improve power and enhance performance by employing various jumping, bounding and hopping exercises.

Movements can be performed in different ways depending upon the ultimate objective of practice. Often the routine is executed with long, low stances as a way of conditioning the body, increasing one’s power and speed. However, when training for combat use, very low stances limits the fast and agile footwork necessary in combat. Bearing this in mind, the Taiji player working on the application potentials of the broadsword routine would typically train with a higher posture to enhance mobility. So, to achieve optimum martial and conditioning benefits, practitioners should train over a range of heights.
Long and Heavy Weapons
We’ll look at the benefits that can be gained from training with three of the better known long weapons – the long pole, the halberd and the spear. Many modern day Taijiquan players are unaware of the importance placed on strength training in the past. In Chenjiagou on the training ground where Yang Luchan learned from Chen Changxin to become the first non clan member to learn Taijiquan, there is a heavy rectangular stone weight that the then practitioners are believed to have trained with. The final test in China’s imperial military examinations established in the Ming dynasty was lifting just this kind of weight. Though less popular than in the past, traditional strength training methods such as pole shaking and practising with heavy weapons continue to be used up until today. In any case, a certain amount of pure strength must be developed to wield long and heavy weapons.
The long pole used in Chen Taijiquan is usually at least three metres long and made of white wax wood that possesses the dual qualities of strength and flexibility.  This flexibility allows the practitioner to transmit force through it as they shake it. The nature of the long pole demands a significant degree of transformation as a practitioner's body is physically changed, becoming stronger and more flexible so the pole's qualities can be expressed. Training with the long pole helps to increase whole body power, explosiveness and the amount of power that can be transmitted from the dantian out to the extremities. The dantian is a point about three fingers beneath the navel and approximately an inch beneath the surface that represents the bodies’ centre of energy and balance This weapon is usually trained either as a thirteen-movement routine or by performing repetitions of individual pole shaking drills which help to develop and isolate different body mechanics. These pole drills focusing upon the actions of pi, beng, zha and dou or splitting, bursting, thrusting and shaking. As well as form training and single movement exercises, a number of two-person “sticking” drills are also practised with the pole to enhance the ‘listening’ ability and combat skill of practitioners. - and to apply the basic skills of Taijiquan, such as sticking, adhering, following and linking

The halberd (guandao), also known as the “Spring & Autumn Broadsword” or less prosaically as the “Big Knife” is an imposing and heavy weapon characterised by strong and powerful movements. Generally, there are two kinds of Guandao. An extremely heavy weapon favoured for basic gongfu training, and a lighter weapon adapted for fighting. Handling this weapon effectively requires a significant degree of upper body strength and a stable root. The weapon derived its name from the adventures of legendary Chinese general Guan Yu during the chaotic “Three Kingdoms” (A.D.25–220) period of Chinese history. Uniquely the names of each of the movements of the halberd routine come in the form of a seven-character poem which, when taken as a whole recount the story of General Guan. Consequently every time the form is practised, his exploits are re-enacted.

Guan Yu’s weapon is said to have weighed eighty-two jin (one jin is about five hundred grams).  This was also the favoured weapon of Taijiquan’s creator Chen Wangting.  The dynamic nature of the guandao form, with its sudden changes in direction, sharp turns and explosive leaping movements makes it a premier tool for total body-conditioning.  The weapon requires practitioners to move and be responsive in every direction. Today’s practitioners use weapons ranging from a few kilograms to more than twenty kilograms.  Its practice is based on thorough grounding in the core skills of Taijiquan, as it demands a stable lower plane, good upper body strength, and excellent spatial awareness.
In Chinese martial arts circles it is said that "the spear is the king of all weapons". Also known as the “Pear-Flower Spear and White Ape Staff”, the Chen Taijiquan spear is trained through a form that includes the functions of both spear and staff. The overall tempo is forceful, direct and rapid with few movements being done slowly. All Chinese martial arts including Taijiquan seek to develop skills in the four key areas of shou,yan, shenfa, bu or hands, eyes, body and footwork. Where the handform trains the qualities of rootedness, stability and careful accurate footwork, the spear form demonstrates the dynamic expression of Chen Taijiquan’s agile footwork skills. Built around a series of intricate and rapid stepping movements known as the “martial flower” it is a practical training tool helping to improve agility, or the ability to move quickly and effectively in different directions. The development of upper body strength, upper and lower body co-ordination and overall flexibility is an added bonus.

A point to bear in mind with all of the weapons is the need to pay 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 common mistake when training the spear.
The Role of Double Weapons

The Chen Taijiquan curriculum also includes a number of double weapons including the double sword, double sabre and double iron mace. As well as possessing the qualities of their equivalent single weapon, training the double weapons can provide many additional training benefits. Firstly, they help to coordinate the left and right sides of the body. At no time should one side be active while the other is dead, so both hands must have the function of supporting each other. Training with the double weapons also helps to increase the coordination of the upper and lower body. For example, usually the sabre goes forward with the same leg (i.e. left sabre with left leg) though there are exceptions. Another benefit of training with the double weapons is that it forces the subordinate hand to work, which ultimately helps to improve the hand form.
Incorporating these classical weapons into one’s practice enhances overall skills, preserves an unbroken tradition of martial culture and greatly increases physical and cardiovascular fitness. Training with weapons increases the coordination and integration of physical movements and adds an extra dimension to be aware of. Each of the weapons has its own unique characteristics and conditioning benefits, and for those willing to put in the requisite time and effort, they remain highly practical training tools. In the third and final part of this series we’ll consider the role of internal training methods within Chen Taijiquan.


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