Monday 26 August 2019

Taijiquan – “A Study of Contradictions”

Searching for the fine details of posture- a young instructor in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School correcting Zhan Zhuang
To the uninitiated Taijiquan can appear to be a strange and inconsistent discipline. From the beginning it asks learners to put their faith in the counter-intuitive idea of using slowness and softness as the means to developing superior speed and power; to have confidence in the ability of stillness and calmness to overcome an opponent’s forceful attacks; and to “use the mind and not strength.”

At the same time, like any other martial art, Taijiquan requires them to set their sights high if they are to develop real and effective skills. Simply, they must approach training with ambition. The first time I trained in China back in 1997 I bought a bootleg disc of Wang Xian and his disciples demonstrating the breadth of the Chen Taijiquan system. To say I loved the disc would be an understatement! At the time my eyes were untrained to many of the subtleties of Taijiquan, but it had everything - power, speed, coordination and a  tight focus and togetherness when groups of instructors demonstrated. The last performance was Wang Xian himself explosively demonstrating the Xinjia Yilu on the banks of the Yellow River. When he reached the end of the form and quietly closed, the following simple message played across the screen- “If you want to be better than everyone else, train harder than everyone else” - pretty ambitious right?!

Going back a further generation Chen Zhaopi, the teacher most credited with sparking the modern resurgence of Taijiquan in Chenjiagou, described an individual’s progressive advancement from beginner to advanced practitioner via three stages: in the first, a learner must open their joints training the overtly physical aspects of the art; the second stage encompassed the long journey of understanding Taijiquan’s neijin or internal energy;  the third he described as “continuous movements executed in one breath.” This elevated level represented the height of perfection: with a complete integration of form and spirit; body completely balanced and unrestrained; and movements natural and instinctive. Reaching this level is referred to as shen ming, or "divine realisation". 
A youthful Chen Zhenglei teaching the next generation

Getting down to day-to-day training we’re told to relax and not to “try” too hard; to be natural and don’t force it; to cast aside stiff energy etc. All the while continually having our frame adjusted to a place where the legs are literally trembling with the effort. I remember a training session with Chen Xiaowang where someone asked about the pain they were experiencing in their legs and if it ever got easier. His oblique answer was simply to say, “don’t put so much importance on the pain in your legs.” In other words, just because the legs are hurting no need to add to that by fixating on it. If you’re doing Taijiquan properly your legs are going to work hard. Taijiquan has a saying “concentrate on one thing lose everything.” No matter how hard you train if you pay too much attention to any one thing you will move away from the ultimate aim that is no less than the total integration of internal and external, physicality and consciousness.

Taijiquan itself makes no apologies for its paradoxical nature. The very name of the system is drawn from the philosophical concept of Taiji – it is the martial art of balance and change. It is up to each individual to reconcile the apparent contradictions for themselves. This area probably confounds western Taijiquan students the most. For example many athletically able students are overly concerned with external appearance and shape – whether it be in terms of strength, flexibility etc. It’s there that they get their positive strokes from others who also don’t see the whole picture. And to be very clear this is not to diminish the fundamental importance of strength, flexibility etc. This type of student can find it very hard to open up their mind. During a training session with one of the younger generation teachers from Chenjiagou, a strong and flexible individual stretched out into a wide and low posture. The teacher’s correction was to lift the posture up and advise him to put attention to loosening his kua and rounding his dang (crotch). Although the position was low, it was locked in such a way that the dang strength that is a vital part of Chen Taijiquan was totally lacking. The immediate response – “What exercise can I do to loosen it?” - completely missing the point that this was not something that was going to be corrected by grinding out some reps.
Another face of Taijiquan - Chen Zhaokui traing qinna

Taijiquan is built around the qualities of agility and changeability. It requires us to aim high but at the same time do today’s work. Chinese culture is imbued by the Daoist tradition and an acceptance of seemingly contradictory aspects if we are to see a thing in its entirety. The following passage from the Inner Chapters of Zhuangzi point simultaneously to the need for careful instruction, effort and time while being mentally calm, free and ungrasping.”  

“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. Once you do something wrong it may be too late. Can you afford to be careless? Follow with whatever happens and let your mind be free; stay centred by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate… It is best to leave everything to work naturally…”




Tuesday 6 August 2019

Chenjiagou - and the tradition of China’s “Martial Villages”

Wrestlers from China's Yi people
One of the things I love about traditional Chinese martial arts is the sheer diversity and the ingenuity of the countless different systems. I remember watching the first delegation of Chinese wushu performers to visit the UK back in the 1980s. It was the first time many of us saw martial artists from mainland China.In those pre-internet days the event caused quite a stir in the local martial arts community.

On 20th July Chenjiagou’s International Culture Centre hosted the Chinese Wushu Association’s (CWA) three day long national taolu (forms) tournament. This is the first time it has been held in Chenjiagou since the inaugural competition in 1993. Theme of the 16th tournament was the promotion of the development of China’s “martial arts villages” or significant locations in the ongoing history of the countries martial arts. At the opening ceremony one of the Wenxian officials explained that the competition was emphasising the taolu of each system “because learning a set of taolu is the first step in laying a lifetime practice.” Secondly the competition was intended to let people to feel the “atmosphere and warmth of family” – with competitors taking part in a discipline that has a family feel to it. One of the aims of the competition was for all the competitors taking part to have a deeper appreciation of the many stories that make up Chinese wushu. In all 97 different martial arts locations were represented consisting of 1600 competitors.

Each different location has its own story to tell about its part in the development of China’s many different martial arts systems. Some are well known to martial arts enthusiasts - places such as: Dengfeng home of Shaolin boxing; Foshan the source of Yongquan (Wing Chun); Fujian birthplace of White Crane which in turn spawned the Okinawa art of Karate etc. Others are less well known. Competing on the same stage in Chenjiagou were individuals representing the 129 disciplines recognised by the CWA.

China has a long tradition of “martial arts villages” - locations with their own distinctive fighting arts. A couple of months ago I was in Kunming close to the border with Vietnam. Everywhere you looked there was evidence of the areas Torch Festival through which the local Yi people expressed their obsession with combat. Much as many other minority traditions have been co-opted by local governments, the festival is a rapidly-growing tourist attraction. Despite this, local customs continue to thrive. Just a glance at the picture above of the locals in competition is enough to know that, while the art they are practicing might not be well known to the outside world, these are seriously conditioned and motivated individuals.

These are not flash in the pan events. The Yi people are one of the most populous minority groups in China and the Torch Festival has been celebrated by them for thousands of years. It is said to remember a mythological battle between the gods of the sky and earth. Their spirit of combat is not restricted to humans another feature of the festival being bull fighting. Not done in the Spanish style where matador faces off against and ultimately kills a tormented bull. In the Yi version animals are pitted against each other and the contest ends when one turns tail and runs away.

Back to Taijiquan - I enjoy the fact that we are training an art that has been forged and stood the test of time. And the fact that it has its own unique features and methods.

As part of the opening ceremony representatives from all the major styles demonstrated - pictured above Chen Xiaoxing and his students.

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