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


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