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)

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