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.