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.