Chen Taijiquan's Six Stages of Learning by Wang Haijun Translated by David Gaffney

Article first appeared in Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts magazine
The process of learning Taijiquan must be approached systematically if the student is to achieve the best results. Chen Taijiquan training has traditionally been divided into six stages, each laying down the foundation for the next. These stages are learning, practising, correcting, smoothing, examining and dismantling the frame. Each stage is necessary and none should be omitted.

The first stage is called xue jiazi or "learning the frame". In the initial period of training, students must learn the movements of the form. In Chenjiagou the conventional foundation form is the Laojia Yilu (Old Frame First Form), this being the vehicle through which all the subsequent higher level skills are built. During this stage the requirement is simply to become familiar with the sequence of movements and aspects such as where one's weight should be, what direction the body should be facing and so on. This first phase is sometimes referred to as "plotting the route".

Once the movements have been learned, the student must practise intensely until they are completely familiar with the form. This second stage is known as lien xi jiazi or "practising the frame". At this stage the learner does not have to concern themselves to much with too much detail, just training the form until it becomes very familiar.

The third step is nie jiazi or "correcting the frame". Now that the learner is very familiar with the sequence and basic requirements, more detailed corrections are required from the teacher. While the student now knows the routine, at this point they are still making many mistakes in terms of their posture and movement. Perhaps the shoulders are tight or the elbows are lifted. During this third stage the teacher carefully adjusts a student's posture in line with Chen Taijiquan's strict requirements. Nie jiazi can also be translated as moulding the frame. The student must be patient as every aspect of their body, movement and posture is carefully rearranged - drop your elbow, relax your shoulder, push out more with your hand etc.

The fourth stage is shun jiazi, which can be translated as "smoothening out the frame" or making it flow. Even after the posture has been corrected in the previous stage a person's body is still stiff. When they move, it is like a machine with no oil. Now the training emphasis must be upon becoming very smooth and very natural. After correction, you should practise until you find that the whole body becomes coordinated and flowing. When you move, whether it is slow or fast, your movements should maintain the same quality. You must not let your movements become scattered and dispersed if you speed up, letting the shoulders lift or allowing your qi to rise up. Your breathing is similar. For example, if we consider a sequence of movements where we breath in as we close and out as we open or. Where we breathe in as we turn left and out as we turn right, there should be no change in this pattern whether you go fast or slow. This fourth step, therefore, just requires you to become smooth.

When this has been achieved, we enter the fifth stage of pan jiazi or "examining the frame". Now the form is very standard in terms of movements and postures you must go deeper putting the gongfu into your body. Through careful and meticulous study you must fix all the postures until they are extremely accurate. Training in a low position to develop the lower plane strength and stability or xiapan; ensuring that you fulfil the requirements of being supported on all directions; lower body strong and upper body light; body moving in unison and so on.

The sixth stage is called cai jiazi or "dismantling the frame". Dismantling the frame entails training until the function of every posture can be brought out optimally. Taijiquan is a martial art, so with every posture we should start learning the application. Training one movement at a time, this is the time when you should start to work on the different body methods and applications contained within the form. Many teachers begin to teach applications straight away, before the student is ready.
Teaching applications in this manner gives a student little chance of being successful. For example, even if you show him a lock, he can't use it effectively because the body has no coordination. It is simply not ready. First your movements must become smooth. Your qi must be be flowing and unblocked. Then you start to think about bringing every posture out, learning the applications of the movements in the form. At this stage when you practise, even thought there is no actual opponent, you train every movement as if there were.

If all of these stages are completed one comes to a point where applications against a real opponent can be brought out at will. In a serious encounter they do not have to pause to think about their response. Instead the most appropriate and effective reaction will naturally come out. This level of skill is called yong jiazi.

You must have a clear picture of how to train correctly to achieve a good end result. Often students simply have the wrong idea of how to train and in their mind they are not convinced of the method. When you practise you should make sure that you follow these six steps. Throughout the learning process you must have patience and not be in a hurry. First try to discard your hard strength. In the early stages of learning a student is repeatedly told to relax. Many people genuinely feel that they are relaxed, when in taiji terms, they are still quite tight. The result of this tightness is that their body movement is very stiff and is not led by the waist. Throwing away your hard strength allows you to develop a very strong root, to co-ordinate your breathing with your movement, and to improve your qi and blood circulation.

A common problem is for people to be in too much of a hurry to learn the martial applications contained within the form. Whilst being taught the details of a particular movement or posture, all they want is to learn the application. However, their movement is stuck - not smooth - so you first don't teach the application until everything is smooth and everything looks like Taiji. When you practise you should reach a stage where everything feels very comfortable because the movement is so natural. Once this feeling is achieved consistently, it sends a message to your brain that everything feels correct, comfortable and balanced. First you should find this sensation.

To achieve this you must be prepared to discard your hard strength and learn to use your body in a new way. Throwing out your hard strength allows you to grow a new type of strength. If you use your hard strength, there is no place to grow this new strength. Those unwilling or unable to give up their hard strength will not be able to realise Taijiquan's unique method of releasing power (fajin). Without giving up this hardness they cannot reach a level where all movement follows the silk-reeling principle, with everything turning, everything coming from the waist and from the dantian. First the dantian moves, then start to move your body. This is very important, so learning just try to get the movement smooth.

A Taijiquan saying is that "learning slowly also is fast". At first glance, this seems contradictory but training slowly gives you time to think about the rules. In Taijiquan every part of the body has its own rule. After you have trained these rules into your body you no longer need to think about them. Whether you move fast or slow it is the same, not when your going fast different than when you are going slow. Now when you move still your mind turning your body, the knee turning, ankle turning, your leg turning. Later you don't need to think about it, because your body knows it. So this needs training. When you train a lot you will get this. Then you can start to learn the applications.

Traditionally we also speak of "three understandings" which must be realised as one passes through the aforementioned six stages of learning. When you begin to learn, the first level of understanding is reached when your mind knows what to do - your body needs to do this circle, your arm needs to do that circle etc. At this level one's ability is still limited. While the mind understands, the body often doesn't follow. It doesn't do what your mind thinks it is doing. Sometimes your mind knows how to do it, but your body just doesn't let you. At this first stage we say that "the mind knows but the body doesn't know". The second level of understanding is reached when your body and mind become synchronised. Or "the mind knows and the body also knows". The final level of understanding is called shen. Now you need to understand the energetic connection between your mind, qi and body. Everything comes from your mind moving your qi, the qi then activates your movement. These are the six steps and three understandings.

Wang Haijun explains the eight energies of Taijiquan in the Essence of Taijiquan by David Gaffney & Davidine Siaw-Voon Sim.

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