In Conversation... #3

Chen Xianglin.jpg

Chenjiagou native Chen Xianglin has trained Taijiquan since early childhood, A former instructor in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School, today he teaches in Shanghai – China’s largest city.  In the following conversation Chen Xianglin talks about his early days learning Taijiquan and touches upon the role of the traditional art in the modern world.     

Q: You come from Chenjiagou, so it was quite natural to come in touch with Taijiquan from an early age. How old were you when you started practicing?  What and who inspired and supported you at the beginning?

Chen Xianglin (CXL): I’m Chen Xianglin of Chenjiagou, a 20th generation descendant.  My quan journey - I remember starting to learn at about the age of six or seven.  I already learned the Laojia Yilu in primary one, from the uncles and grandfathers of my family and also from my PE teacher Chen Lizhou as part of our weekly curriculum.  Chenjiagou is the birthplace of Taijiquan and as such everybody practiced it.  Like playing with your friends, you naturally join in the game. There was also the task of daily practice within the home that was not dependant on your mood or inclination.  It was very likely that you were smacked for not wanting to practice and still had to finish the “task” of the day with tears in your eyes.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the teachers who guided and most influenced you from the early days to today?

CXL: The teachers who guided and influenced me in my life are the “grandmasters” outside the gate of my home. Like, Chen Lidong (third granduncle), Chen Shitong (clan granduncle), Chen Xiaowang (cousin uncle), Chen Xiaoxing (cousin uncle), Chen Ziqiang (cousin brother).

Q: Can you describe your training routine at the beginning, and how training changed in different periods of your development? Are there some basic training elements present throughout all those years?

CXL: I was actually physically weak when I was a child, and was frequently ill. When I first started to train it was daily taolu practice.  I was very tired and every part of the body ached and I felt my brain needed oxygen. In this way it continued day after day.  As the body adapted and improved it could then withstand the more dynamic and demanding training.  Training in the noughties was more traditional with refinement of the Taolu and Zhanzhuang and training aimed at increasing strength and body capability. Also Taiji moving step Tuishou that emphasised shuai (throwing). And more modern elements of fighting and San Shou methods.  The fundamental and constant element is to continue to maintain a good level of Taijiquan’s core curriculum i.e. Zhanzhuang, Laojia Yilu, basic Tuishou, and enhancing lower plane stability.

Q: What was the most difficult thing in the learning process for you, and how did you deal with it? What motivated you to persist over the years and did you find it difficult maintaining the high standards set by your predecessors?   

CXL: The most difficult and challenging is persistence and perseverance.  For me the solution is to simply close my eyes to outside affairs. At every stage to focus on myself and Taijiquan. Overcome by unquestioningly practice. There are many external stimuli and temptations and to maintain one’s original intention is not easy.  To achieve success or to be able to become a model in your profession, not only outstandingly but exceptionally, the common quality must be unremitting perseverance!  I am a member of the Chen family, it is also incumbent on me to carry on and properly promote the family art.  I am entrusted with the mission of practising and teaching Taijiquan and I have persevered.

Q: What were your goals as a young student and how have they changed over the years?

CXL: There were no goals to speak of when I started as I was very young. It was simply practice.  Functioning in society and learning from experiences gradually set my goal more clearly: to continually improve and to better grasp the core essence of Taijiquan method and skill; to allow more people to start to understand and recognise real authentic Taijiquan and; to enable more people to participate.

Q: With the increased prosperity and standard of living in China what changes have you seen in people’s attitude to Taijiquan training?  

CXL: The faster technology improves the more convenient it is for people to obtain information. People pay more and more attention to quick results. The higher the cost of living is, the greater the pressure is, and people are less able to be mentally quiet and calm, which is the antithesis of Taiji principle.  However, there are always a type of people who can bear hardships and stand hard work. They have the spirit to be extremely focused and unperturbed, as seen in great scientists, entrepreneurs and craftsmen. This is the type of people who can also bear hardships and stand hard work if they come to learn Taijiquan. Taiji in fact cultivates this kind of mindset.  Teaching methods should keep pace with the progress of society. Adjusting the teaching mode can also keep Taiji young and up to date, promoting mental stability and physical fitness. Adapt to the needs of different age groups and different types of people.

Q: You have fought successfully in competition many times.  Beside practicing dilligently under the guidance of a good teacher, which traits should a fighter develop in order to bring out the best of their potential?

CXL: To get good results in competitions, not only is it essential to train hard with a good coach, but also cultivate a strong mindset such as self-confidence, not giving up easily and a quiet determination.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your specific training in preparation for competition?

CXL: In addition to our regular training, there will also be some so-called pre-competition training. This stage of training is more intensive, more demanding and more targeted.

Q: Although you are still young, you are already a proficient teacher. When did you start teaching, and when did you establish your school in Shanghai?

CXL: In 2007 I became assistant coach in Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. A year later I started teaching the adults of the school and then went on to become a main coach.  I first came to Shanghai in 2012 at the invitation of a student in order to promote Taijiquan teaching. In 2016 with the support of Principal Chen Xiaoxing and Chief Coach Chen Ziqiang I established my own chain of training centres Shanghai Chen Taijiquan Quan Guan  (Xianglin Taijiquan Quan Guan).  At the present time there is the headquarter in Chenjiagou as well as five branches in Shanghai. Establishing my own centre also enables me to adjust teaching according to my own experience and the pace of life and urban characteristics of Shanghai, in order to better promote Taijiquan.  It is only possible with the help of many teachers, friends and students.

Q: Would you agree, that teaching helps one to get to deeper understanding of Taijiquan?

CXL: As soon as i started to teach I realised that training to be good yourself is not the same as imparting knowledge in order to teach well. Teaching makes me more clearly realise its principle, its finer details, and its usage etc...So teaching definitely helps me to understand Taijiquan better.

Q: Do you find it important to study Taijiquan theory as well in order to improve the practice?

CXL: Theoretical knowledge is very important because Taijiquan is not just a sport or a martial art. It has a profound cultural background, which can in fact be elevated to high philosophy.  There’s a common saying that states, “before learning Taijiquan first read books; understand the book you will naturally learn quan”.  Taijiquan principles encompass medical theories, theories of mechanics and physics, psychology, art of war and science that does not violate the natural mechanics of the human body. A good understanding of traditional Chinese culture will also help to understand the Taiji theory. Therefore it is necessary to improve theoretical knowledge as well as gongfu skills. Otherwise “one leg is long and the other leg is short”[youwill limp along in your practice and development] - you cannot run fast.

Q: What is the main quality of Taijiquan? What does it means to you?

CXL: To me the main character/quality of Taijiquan is balance. The philosophy of Yin-Yang balance can regulate the body and emotions, which will be of great help to the physical and mental state of a person.   In Taiji Tuishou first destroy the balance of the other side, and then create a new balance. It's like breaking out of the old mindset in life to build a new understanding. As paradoxical as it sounds, Taiji can help you find a way to get along with this contradictory and interesting world.

Q: To end this interview, can you give one piece of advice that could help and inspire students of Taijiquan?

CXL: The above is just my personal opinion, and the answer may not be comprehensive enough. I think if foreign friends learn Taijiquan, they should first learn  Quan Jia - (physical framework through form practice), then know the theory, know about Yin and Yang, understand the sequence and logic of advance and retreat, and then better integrate Taiji into their lives according to their own world to achieve long-term benefits.



In Conversation ... #2


Chen Ziqiang is the Chief Coach of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School and is the eldest son of Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing. The following discussion is a compilation of several conversations during his seminars in the UK and Poland as well as notes from his lecture at the Asia Pacific Museum in Warsaw organised by the Chen Taijiquan Akademia. Below he talks about some of the core requirements that must be understood and applied in the development of Taijiquan skill.  

Q: Students of Taijiquan are often confused about the training theory and the philosophy from which the system draws so heavily. These subjects are spoken about by every teacher but learners are still often unclear about the correct way to train. Can you give some guidelines on how to train in the correct way?

Chen Ziqiang (CZQ): The requirements or rules of Taijiquan passed down to us from previous generations point the way for today’s practitioners. They are guidelines for how to train, pointing to the necessary things a person needs to know in order to practise good and correct Taijiquan. What can be gained from following these guidelines and theories and how will it affect both physical and mental capacities? Students have to dissect the ideas and mentally absorb all the information so that the mind can control the body. All of the requirements I’ll talk about are applicable in both the hand and weapons forms.

The first requirement is for the feet to be planted firmly in the ground. Why do they need to be planted and how does that affect the whole form? The answer is that it enables the body to be held in the correct position.

The second key requirement is to relax the kua and knee joints. In practice the legs are the root of one’s movement. By moving the legs the body can be carried from side to side and in all different directions. If you don’t relax the kua and bend the knees it inhibits the ability to change weight correctly. Loosening the kua and bending the knees is one of the major requirements of Taijiquan which enables the body to be maintained in an upright position and for movements to be correct.

A third important requirement is to contain the chest and settle the back (han xiong ta yao). Fulfilling these enable a person’s strength to be condensed into one place. The anatomy of the body contains a number of natural curves including the spine and chest. How can a line be formed through these curves? Storing or containing the chest and settling or piling the back enable a straight line to be formed. This straight line has to be visualised and doing so helps to maximise an individual’s strength.

The fourth important requirement is to loosen the shoulders and lower the elbows (song jian chen zhou). Loosening the shoulders enables the whole body to relax. Lowering the elbows forms a shield of protection for the body. Another thing to bear in mind that people sometimes miss out is making the two arms act as if they were two gates or doors. Think of a set of double doors with a centre piece. The right hand [like the right door] protects the right side. In the same way the left hand protects the left side. The centre piece equates to the body. It’s like a person’s vision – during the process of looking out, at some point the vision focuses onto one point. If the hands cross too far across the body the centreline will be lost and the shoulders will tense up. If you don’t cross far enough, the centre is open and unprotected.  Habitual correct placement can only be realised through extended practice.

The fifth important requirement is maintaining a very light energy that lifts the top of the head while at the same time keeping the neck relaxed (xu ling ding jin). The head should be upright at all times without leaning to the left, right, front or back. During practice the head must not move independently of the body. [In a sense] the head is carried by the body. Only if the head is upright can the body be straight. To give a simple everyday example, if a person is walking and leans their head to one side,  they will inevitably start to move in that direction. Taijiquan’s theory says the head is the commander of the body and that keeping it upright helps to keep the spirit calm and alert.

There are four more things that you have to pay attention to. Firstly, the eyes must always be level and gazing ahead. It doesn’t matter if a person is tall or short, they have to look level and not look down. The gaze of the eyes also helps to maintain the head in an upright position. At the same time, keeping the eyes level and ahead enables a person to be aware of their surrounding. Look up and they miss something below,  look down and they miss something above. Looking to the left and right is the same. 

Another part of the body that has to be level is the two hips. Like water, the level of the hips must be the same - they mustn’t tilt. If we take the example of a half-filled bottle of water - even if the bottle is tilted, the water will move according. No matter how the bottle is turned, water will find this level. It’s very easy to keep the hips level when standing upright or sitting down. However, it’s difficult to maintain when you start to walk, do the form, jump etc. The function of the hips being level is to connect the upper and lower body. Without this connection the body will not become an integrated whole. 

We should also talk about the requirements for the wrists and fingers. Energy should always be held in the wrists, especially when you release power (fali). The wrist should always be level and holding strength. If the wrist is bent or weak,  it will break on impact and also  strength cannot be expressed out to the end of the fist. Energy and strength has to be brought to the tips of the fingers. They must have a feeling of being naturally stretched and full right to the fingertips without being forced. This requirement is not just present in one movement but holds for every movement you do.

These are the very basic requirements you have to fulfil when doing Taijiquan.

Q: What are the main benefits that can be obtained from practising Taijiquan?

CZQ: There are three main benefits: first it trains self defence ability so that a person can protect themselves; it can lead to an increased level of fitness; and it is a means through which to cultivate the temperament and temper the character. To go through each briefly:

As far as the development of gongfu or martial skill is concerned we can use the simple analogy of a toothpick. Everybody can easily break a toothpick, but I would challenge anyone to place it in an upright position and use their hand to break it from above. People would be afraid to do it. When you are training for any skill - like the example of the toothpick, from small insignificant beginnings you have to train to bigger things. Training martial skill rests upon the development of an individual’s physical strength, their fitness and constitution, level of technique and gong. It takes time, and is not something that can be achieved very quickly. Constant practice is needed to realise the skill.

Talking about fitness, take for example the health concerns of people who are mature in age. As they get older the bones get more brittle and one of the things they fear the most is falling over and breaking bones. Many research studies have shown Taijiquan practice to lead to significant improvements in stability, coordination and balance. Because of the increased stability and balance the likelihood of seniors falling over is reduced. When they do fall increased levels of coordination give them a better chance of recovering their balance.  Studies also found that bone density levels improved. So Taijiquan practice can also be seen to have good outcomes for elderly practitioners.

The third main benefit relates to the aspect of character cultivation and the tempering of temperament. Taijiquan practice is built around the requirements of softness as well as hardness. An individual enters Taijiquan through softness.  [The training method means] you have to be very patient, through physical activity training to be soft and in a state where the mind is unhurried. The requirement of Taijiquan is to reach a balance; this is what cultivation is all about. Through the physical exercise your mind, without even knowing it, becomes incrementally calmer. This increased degree of calmness can be transferred into your everyday life.

Anyone who has learned Taijiquan will have had a teacher who would have told them about the requirements- loosen the shoulders and lower  the elbows, store the chest and stretch the back, relax the kua and bend the knees etc. It is important to be aware that these are not just words. While they are very easy to recite practitioners should be very strict with themselves in trying to actually apply them. Not just during Taijiquan practice, but trying to remember them at all times in everyday life. These requirements are a guideline and a blueprint to be followed. Regardless of whether it is health and fitness, martial arts or cultivation you just have to observe and follow them, after that it’s up to you which path you follow. These are the rules of Taijiquan, if you follow the rules and don’t invent new rules you won’t go down a deviated path.

Q: Can you talk about some of the common mistakes people make when training Taijiquan.

CZQ: I’ll summarise so it’s not too complicated. A lot of people know and talk about the 13 postures of Taijiquan: peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou, kao, jin, tui, gu, pan and ding [That is the eight core jin: ward off, divert, squeeze, press, pluck, split, elbow, bump and the five steps: forward, backward, left, right and centrally balanced]. Many teachers, especially during push hands, emphasise the eight energies. However, in reality when doing push hands you have to remember that the person in front of you is a live person and is not just going to stand there. While you may want to an (press) your opponent, if he moves away you’ll be pressing an empty space. In the moment when pressing, if the person resists and pushes against you it becomes resistance. So there is the second energy lu (divert). If a person doesn’t want to cooperate with you and pulls in the opposite direction it again becomes resistance.

Sometimes in their enthusiasm to observe the eight methods practitioners become too fixed in their minds about them. You can’t be too fixated on them especially when doing push hands. Instead the mind must be flexible, bearing in mind that the other person does not always act in cooperation with you. So, within the rules you have to be flexible.

Doing the hand or weapons forms these techniques serve as a basic guideline. The most basic thing that everyone does is the act of breathing. If you stop breathing it means that your life is over.  Similarly, within the thirteen methods, the two most basic but most important requirements are the first and last - peng and ding (warding off and centrally balanced).

Q: Can you expand on peng and ding and tell us why these are the most important of the thirteen methods?

CZQ: A. I’ll use the example of a basketball.  If it’s overfilled with air it becomes too hard and is not comfortable to use.  When a player handles the ball it is not at the ideal condition. On the other hand, if there’s not enough air in the ball, it will not bounce. When it’s not filled with air it is not a complete round shape. There are depressions on the ball’s surface and it wouldn’t pass the standard test of people who play basketball. The idea of peng is like a perfectly filled basketball and is applied to every Taijiquan posture.  Guarding against the errors of being too stiff (over inflated) or too deflated, just like a basketball.  Through practice practitioners have to try to reach a place where a posture is not in excess or deficient. This is achieved through experimentation and practice.

With regards to ding (stability) - as a person holds a posture, eventually a position is reached where everything matches his body. Each individual has to strive for the best position for his own body, bearing in mind everybody is different, some people are tall, some are short etc. Everyone is unique. What is ultimately aimed for is a state where peng and ding are optimised according to your own body, through a process of harmonising and balancing. To reemphasise this point, first you have to look for the two basic requirements of peng and ding. That is expansion according to one’s own body, and central stability. These are the compulsory components a learner must get into their body. Be it the form, push hands or weapons forms you must try to get these two qualities before introducing the other eleven methods. Only with peng and ding established a learner can bring in the other eleven methods. Without the foundation of peng and ding all the other components are useless.

Q: Can you offer any further words of advice or encouragement for Taijiquan practitioners going through their own journeys?

CZQ: Simply, when you practise Taijiquan you cannot be impatient, but you also cannot be aimless. You have to progress gradually.


In Conversation ... #1

Chen Xiaowang.jpg

Chen Xiaowang is the son of Chen Zhaoxu and grandson of the renowned seventeenth generation master Chen Fake. Born in Chenjiagou in 1945 he began studying his family art when he was seven years old. His two primary teachers were his uncles Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui. In his early years he also trained with his father before his untimely death. Emerging as one of the leading practitioners of his generation he has been responsible for much of the popularisation of Chen Taijiquan around the world. Recently he has returned to China having spent several decades travelling the world and spreading the art of Chen Taijiquan. Below he talks, amongst other things, about how reeling silk exercises entered the Chen Taijiquan training syllabus:

Q. Chen Taijiquan has evolved over the course of many generations with significant changes at certain times. A few examples that immediately spring to mind are Chen Changxin’s development of the Laojia routines and later Chen Fake’s creation of the New Frame. And of course, like any human pursuit there are bound to be changes in training methods etc in line with the realisation of different individuals. In recent times we have seen the introduction of practice methods such as silk exercises and short forms. Can you tell us something about how this has come about?   

Chen Xiaowang (CXW): In the past Laojia was the jibengong (basic training) of Chen Taijiquan and everything started with Laojia Yilu. [As part of an official programme documenting China’s different martial arts] I was asked to present a set of jibengong (basic exercises) characteristic of the system. At first I didn’t want to do it, and explained we already have a jibengong and that is the Laojia. Despite my protests I was tasked to do it by my superiors. In the context of their project [which involved producing books about each of the different martial systems] they said that the Laojia was too long to be considered as a basic training method. They gave the example of Changquan (Long Boxing) where learners first learn the stretches, the punches, the kicks etc... before they put them together into a routine. That gave me something to work on but it still took some effort, but having a point of reference helped. 

I put some thought into it and set about compiling something. It occurred to me then that I needed to work out how best to show the movement rules and principles of our system. In 1980 the set was compiled and in 1982 it was published in Wulin magazine. I don’t think that it would be easy to find a copy of the magazine now. In 1984 [the reeling silk exercises] were officially published as Chen Taijiquan’s jibengong in the book Taijiquan Handed Down Through Generations published by  People’s Sport Publications. This was the first time that zhan zhuang, front reeling silk, side reeling silk etc.. were formally recorded.

Q: People are often surprised to hear that the reeling silk exercises are such a recent addition to the Chen Taijiquan training syllabus, assuming that they have always been trained in Chenjiagou?

CXW: Before that nobody can produce any material regarding this. Before 1984 any reference to silk reeling must be considered as anecdotal as there is no written record available to support it. You can look up all written material prior to this and you would not find any mention to support its use.

Q: The silk reeling exercises have been used now for four decades and have become a core part of many practitioners practice now. Do you think they represent a true representation of Chen Taijiquan’s essential principles and method?

CXW: Over the course of my own Taijiquan journey I walked many wrong paths and it wasn’t until the period of 1979/80 that I feel I really understood the systems principle. I theorised this and that but many things turned out not to be on the right track as they didn’t stand the test. Since that realisation until today the principle has held firm and unshakable through my many years of study and practice. And I have put lots and lots of thought and time into it. That shows to me that the principle is correct.

Q: So, reeling silk energy has always been trained through the practice of the form, but in the past practitioners had to search for the different manifestations?

CXW: [Yes, for example] within the Taijiquan routine, cloud hands is the only training method for double natural (shun chan) and double reverse (ni chan) big reeling silk. It requires proper attention on the waist and spine working in unison like the movement of a cars wheel. Here the key is not in horizontally reeling silk from left to right, but also contains inward to outward reeling silk – using that as the mainstay of the movement.

Q: Obviously this is a wide question with no simple answer, but how would you summarise the underlying principle of Taijiquan?

CXW: To practice Taijiquan, one must start with its main points. Ten thousand methods returns to one: Taijiquan contains myriad of changes, but it boils down to only one law of movement. The core of this law is the dantian. The realisation of the body’s core depends on and is ‘created’ by the coordination of all parts of the body. When we practice Taijiquan, the requirements for various parts of the body, such as loose shoulders, sunken elbows, stored chest, folded waist, released kua, bent knees, rounded crotch, and so on, are all for the purpose of the dantian becoming the core position of the body through the coordination of all parts of the body. When all parts of the body are in place, the dantian core naturally forms. If any part is not in the right position, it will affect the formation of the dantian core. For instance a tilted hip or a stiff shoulder, can affect the formation of the dantian core.

On the other hand, once the dantian core is formed, it can drive the whole body in turn, and form a movement rule whereby a single motion leads to multiple actions in a connected continuous flow. So the relationship between dantian and the body parts is complementary, the body parts support the formation of dantian core, the dantian core in turn leads to drive the whole body.

After the body core is formed, it drives the whole body through three different kinds of motions. The first kind of motion is the left-right rotation of the dantian. The most obvious of this kind of motion is in silk reeling whereby through the left and right rotation of the dantian the motion drives the silk reeling of the trunk, the silk reeling of the shoulder, elbow and hand, and also the silk reeling of the hip, knee and ankle, and forms a complete movement rule that enables one movement activating all movements. When qi travels inwards to the body it enters the dantian through the shoulders and waist. When qi travels outward, in the upper body it passes through the back, shoulders, elbows to the hands, and in the lower body through the hips, knees to the ankles.

The second kind of motion is the forward and backward rotation of the dantian. Movement is generated by the forward and backward or backward and forward folding motion of the chest and waist. For example, in the starting posture there is no side to side rotation of the dantian, but instead the forward and backward folding of the chest and waist, so there is no silk reeling in the hands. Also in the Double Raise Kick there is forward and backward rotation of the dantian as well as chest-waist folding movement. The qi route in this instance involves qi going to the hands in opening, returning back to the dantian when closing or gathering. For example, in the small reeling silk exercise qi is transported to the hand when the fingertips are backwards and qi is transported back to the dantian when the fingertips are upwards.      

The third kind of motion is between the first and the second. The dantian has side to side as well as forward and backward motions. Every time there is a change of energy/ force, the third kind of motion is involved. Take the right reeling silk as an example, there are two changes of strength in the cycle. The first change is when the right palm faces upward and then in a change of strength rotates slightly left to face downward and travels outward back to the right. The second change of energy/force occurs when the right palm faces outward and rotates down the right side of the body, to change to the palm to face upward, as it travels to the left. Therefore both the changes of energy involve the three kinds of motions. The change of force, both to the right and back, both to the left and forward, consists of four directions of motion.

When practising Taijiquan, carefully examine the expressions of the three kinds of motions. Half of the mind focuses on the movement of the body and the inner qi, while the other half focuses on the relaxation of the whole body so as to get the overall sensations of the whole body. The result of excessive concentration is to “attend to one thing and neglect many things.” In the  process getting half the result with twice the effort.

Q: There are now many short form versions of Chen Taijiquan and the other styles of Taijiquan. How did this come to be?

CXW: The story behind the 38 Form is the same as the reeling silk jibengong exercises. I was asked to do it. At first I was reluctant to do it as Kan Guixiang (赣桂香)had already compiled the 36 Form in Beijing. The officials said that’s the Beijing version, let’s do a Chenjiagou version and that’s how 38 Form came about. The 19 Form was created when I was teaching in Europe. Many of my western students said the 38 Form is too hard and asked if I had a shorter form. To accommodate them I created the 19 Form and then on my return to China I was recently asked to create a 9 Form set as 19 movements was still too long!