Putting theory into practice...
(lun, 18 nov 2019)
Chen Xiaowang - "Have a strong will, strong consciousness and practice continuously"
The development of a Taijiquan practitioner from basic performance to an elite level of accomplishment is
a long and complicated process. To begin with we need to accept the fact that ultimate mastery is built from a certain starting level of innate ability and potential. In this sense Taijiquan is
no different than other disciplines be it tennis, wrestling or running. To reach the highest levels of accomplishment talent needs to be identified and nurtured from an early age. This isn’t to
say that learners can’t make significant improvements at any age, but starting early is clearly an advantage. I remember a lecture given by Chen Zhenglei at his International Chen Taijiquan
Training Camp in Hebei province in 1999 where he spoke of the ideal process of learning Taijiquan. He quoted the saying that to get the full benefits of Taijiquan a person should “learn when you
are young, train in the middle years and conserve energy when you are old.”
Starting at an
early age students can fully develop their athleticism - that is the physical qualities of strength, power, speed, mobility, agility, balance coordination and endurance. Starting at a later age
these qualities still need to be developed, but in a way that is appropriate to the individual’s physical capacity.
There are other
factors in play beyond the starting age of a practitioner. If we look again into the sporting world, it’s easy to find instances where athletes with the best technical abilities do not
necessarily win. A strong mind, as well the right social environment and optimal support can also be crucial factors in triumph or defeat. Another Taijiquan saying advises us to learn the
principles and methods from a competent teacher and to consult with our “good friends”, read fellow students, when things are not clear. The mental side of Taijiquan training is as important as
the physical side. Developing and fine-tuning skills and reaching and maintaining high levels of performance over the course of a lifetime requires many hours of training and with it the need to
maintain motivation. And not just the ongoing desire to train hard, but the attendant ability and sincere motivation to identify discrepancies between one’s perceptions and
There are many factors then behind the science of Taijiquan skills acquisition in terms of – motor control and
development and the strengthening of the psychological aspects of an individual. In China’s Tai Chi Renaissance, an article in an early edition of T’ai
Chi magazine, Chen Xiaowang listed the attributes and mindset required in an individual is to develop a high level of skill in Chen Taijiquan. He mentioned five key points:
1. Be clear
about the demands on all parts of the body.
the main regulations, principles and theory.
3. Put the theory into practice.
4. Coordinate theory with demand (“You must do every action on the basis of the demands of the theory”).
5. Have strong will, strong conscientiousness, and practice continuously.
In the same article Zhou Yuanlun, deputy secretary-general of the Shanghai Wushu Association, emphasised the depth of
the theory that underpins Taijiquan stating that “Only by going deeply into the theory can you make improvement.” In practical terms working out how to combine theory with practice by determining
the true meaning of the rules and advice that has been passed down.
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Mental, emotional and physical conditioning in Taijiquan...
(Thu, 07 Nov 2019)
A complete training approach needs to balance the internal and
external, balancing physical and mental aspects.
Taijiquan is no different than any other martial art in that to achieve usable skills you have to
put in the hard work. This is reflected in sayings such as “Go to bed with tired legs and wake up with tired legs”, “eat bitterness” etc. But training hard is not the whole story. The obvious
consequence of intense training is the expending and depletion of energy, physical and injury and damage to a practitioner’s body and, at times, feelings of exhaustion and despondency. To counter
these negative aspects most traditional martial systems include exercises to help the body recover and recuperate – exercises such as zhan zhuang (standing pole), variations of standing, seated
and even lying down meditation, massage, breathing exercises etc. To be completely clear, these methods were never designed to replace intensive training but to complement it.
The late grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang summarised the balance between training and recovery as
follows: “Taiji gongfu is acquired through a combination of training and nurturing, with nurturing being its mainstay.” Optimum performance is only possible when all the forces within the body
are balanced so every aspect must be cultivated and nurtured. He went on to say that robust good health was the necessary foundation without which any talk of gongfu was
Taijiquan trains skill and resiliency
In The New Toughness Training for Sports, premier
sports psychologist James E. Loehr examined the mental and physical factors that impact human performance at the highest level. In particular he looked at the areas of mental, emotional and
physical conditioning and the equally if not more important need to actively train recovery in these same three areas. “At the most basic level, recovery is simply anything that causes energy to
be recaptured… It’s essential also to understand that recovery occurs in three areas – physical, mental and emotional – [just like the three areas to which we must apply stress if we are to see
improvement and growth of a Taijiquan martial artist].
The most common signs of recovery identified by Loehr in each area include, but are not limited
to - Physical Recovery: reduced feelings of hunger, thirst, sleepiness, tension; slower heart and breath rates; decreased blood pressure, muscle
tension and brainwave activity. Emotional Recovery: feelings of emotional relief; increased positive feelings of fun, joy, humour, and happiness;
decreased negative feelings of anger, fear and frustration; and increased feelings of self-fulfilment. Mental Recovery: feelings of mental relief such
as an increased feeling of calmness; the sense of mentally slowing down.
Back to Taijiquan – Where some people are naturally drawn to the physical aspects of practice
enjoying the sweat and hard work, and others prefer the quieter and more meditative aspects. Both are necessary and any complete training approach needs to take account of multiple
characteristics that address both internal and aspects. The goal in the end, alongside the development of skill is to get stronger and more resilient physically, mentally and emotionally. Final
word to Loehr, who after a lifetime coaching world class performers to peak performance in disciplines including boxing, speed skating, golf, tennis etc., concluded that, “Mind, body, spirit,
thoughts, feelings, emotions are all part of the same continuum of life. There is and can be no separation.”
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Creativity in Traditional Chen Taijiquan
(Sun, 13 Oct 2019)
Chen Xianglin; "Persistance and the process of unquestioning practice"
In “Conversations with ...#3” Chen Xianglin, instructor of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School’s Shanghai branch, responding to the question - how did he overcome the difficulties of training and the
high level of expectation placed on him - answered: “persistence and the process of unquestioning practice.” (Full interview can be found at: www.chentaijiquangbcom). In a similar way I’ve mentioned in several previous posts how Chen Xiaoxing often meets questions about practice with the phrase “you
know the rules, follow the rules.”
Many learners instantly rise up and reject this idea of unquestioning practice - the western educational system actively encourages its students to question everything from the first days in school.
This willingness to ask questions is viewed as a marker of intelligence and creativity?
In the thought provoking Making Ideas Happen Scott Belskey looks at the intersection where creativity and structure meet. The book’s subtitle, Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and
Reality points to a common problem facing today’s urbanised and individualised practitioner. The first chapter opens with the following paragraph: “In a world obsessed with innovation, it is
easy to fall in love with ideas. The creativity quotient is the darling of the adventurous mind. For some of us, creativity is intoxicating. Our society has gone so far as to divide its members into
two camps, the “left-brain people” and the “right-brain people”, under a radical (and arguably false) assumption that both parts of the brain cannot coexist effectively- that brilliant creative
people are inherently unable to act as organisers and leaders.” His conclusion - the creative psyche rebels against organisation and is intolerant of “procedures, restrictions and process.”
Paradoxically, he found that it is organisation and process that provides the guiding force of productivity.
The most important, and often most neglected, organisational element is structure. We tend to shun structure as a way of protecting the free-flowing nature of ideas. But without structure, ideas fail
to build upon one another. And without structure, we can’t focus long enough on any particular idea to develop it to its maximum potential. Chen Taijiquan’s training methodology has a clear and
systematic means of progression. Skills are overlaid upon each other step-by-step. Often a person’s Taijiquan development is likened to the broader educational system - first you must go to nursery
school, then primary, secondary school, university etc... Everything works out (within the limits of an individual’s potential) as long as stages are taken in the correct order.
Does that mean that we should never ask questions? Not at all, just that we question when we have something real to ask. Often people ask questions before they have even tried to train a movement.
Like there’s an unwillingness to train unless everything is perfectly understood first, which is of course impossible. In response to this kind of incessant questioning Chen Xiaowang would often say
“train first and often the question answers itself.” Through the process of training and working things out questions often answer themselves in a real way, where the body actualises the element
being considered rather than simply logging one more intellectual realisation that, put to the test, cannot be used in a practical way. It might help you win the debate, but in all likelihood you
won’t win a fight.
Forget Taijiquan for a moment and look at this through a different lens. I listened to an interview with Mike Tyson when he spoke of his early years with legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. He didn’t give
the impression that they debated every instruction. Rather that he was in effect “programmed” by following the instructions he was given. Through this unquestioning application he went on to become a
legendary fighter in his own right.
Mike Tyson with man who made him Cus D'Amato: "A boy comes to me with a spark of interest. I feed the spark and it becomes a flame. I feed the flame and it becomes a fire. I
feed the fire and it becomes a roaring blaze."
Limiting ourselves by confidently training within the fixed framework passed down through generations of refinement by accomplished Taijiquan practitioners offers the best chance of a successful
outcome. Again this is not unique to Taijiquan but holds true in many cases. The following statement by the Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Igor Stravinsky could have been a call to
Taijiquan players to have faith in the traditional method. “My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall
go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint
diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.”
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Keeping an upright posture...
(Sat, 14 Sep 2019)
A common saying inside Chinese martial arts tells us
that, “people who bow their head and bend their waist will not achieve a high level of gongfu”. The saying highlights the importance of maintaining a
centred and upright position and is as true for Taijiquan as it is for other martial disciplines. Letting this ideal position become compromised by leaning the body inappropriately is a major
mistake, as leaning in any direction inevitably borrows power from other parts of the body.
Chen Ziqiang - "central balancing point like a needle standing on end"
To overcome the tendency to lean or slant the body, we need to place
great attention on maintaining a straight line to connect the upper and lower body - from the baihui point, situated on the top of the head to the
huiyinpoint, located between the anus and the genitals. The importance of this connection is reflected in
the Taiji saying, “one straight line joining the upper and lower body”. During his recent seminar in Warsaw’s Chen Taijiquan Akademie Chen Ziqiang
compared this central axis to a needle balanced so that it is dead straight standing on end. Because the balance is so fine, to remain upright it has to be adjusted constantly. At the same time
the whole body remains loose and relaxed and qi is allowed to sink down to the dantian. Every movement requires the waist, with the abdomen as centre,
to be constantly adjusted so that the whole body is balanced. Fulfilling the requirements of suspending the head, the tailbone straight and centred,
storing the chest and rounding the back, shoulders sunk down elbows lowered, spine relaxed and the waist loose and agile.
Concentrate on attack and defence
This search for
balance should be applied to all aspects of Taijiquan. A few pointers Chen Ziqiang gave during his six days in Poland included the importance of:
everything in line with shou yan shenfa bu (hands, eyes, body and footwork) – with each part of the body (waist, legs etc) doing what they are supposed to do. [This reminded me of Chen Xiaowang’s
statement said some years ago that “naturalness” was nothing more than every part of the body conforming to its appropriate function].
just training the dominant side. Most people are right handed and by training and making the left hand strong as well you can find real balance. For example, using the sword or broadsword the
support hand serves to add strength to the weapon bearing side. Enlivening the non-dominant side by performing basic drills with both sides increases the level of coordinated power that can be
push hands not just concentrating on attacking – at the same time as you are attacking you also have to consider defence. Take the case of Taijiquan’s shuai (throwing method). It’s not just about learning to throw an opponent; you also have to train to fall correctly. “Traditional Taijiquan is not like a
sporting contest on a soft mat” [here he was specifically referring to the practice of slapping the ground to dissipate the force of landing]. In combat on a concrete floor you protect yourself
by curling up as you are falling. Drawing your chin to your chest and drawing your knees and arms in. “When you land you don’t want to be in an open and exposed position so an opponent can stamp
Sword form workshop
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Taijiquan – “A Study of Contradictions”
(Mon, 26 Aug 2019)
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
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
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Chenjiagou - and the tradition of China’s “Martial Villages”
(Tue, 06 Aug 2019)
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
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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“Triple tasking” and the correct development of intelligence ...
(Tue, 25 Jun 2019)
I was chatting with one of my students who has Parkinson’s disease. He told me about one of the methods he was following having taken advice on the best way to slow down
the progress of his condition. The most obvious physical symptoms of Parkinson's are tremor, stiffness and slowness of movement. Non-motor functions are also affected with impairments in the
domain of executive functioning being common. A day-to-day example of executive functioning would be something like multi-tasking situations like walking with someone while having a chat. He had
been asked to “triple task” – for example riding on a stationary bike while, at the same time, turning a hand crank and counting backwards from one hundred. The advice he was given has a
clear parallel with Taijiquan training.
Feng Zhiqiang - Taijiquan as a method for "correctly developing intelligence"
an article by the late master Feng Zhiqiang in which he spoke of the benefits of Taijiquan training. As well as the usual benefits like: the development of both internal and external strength,
enhanced body coordination, looseness and flexibility, mental quietness, martial ability etc, he spoke of Taijiquan as a means to train “the correct development of intelligence.” What does this
mean in practical terms?
training works towards unifying all elements of “separateness.” So there can be: no raising up without some aspect of sinking; no focus on forward movement without simultaneously considering the
rear; no focusing on the external shape without paying attention to the internal energetic sensation. For the beginning student it is enough to try to keep the body upright, be as loose as
possible, and try to keep the feeling of lightly lifting the top of the head. Over time the mind is engaged to a greater and more subtle degree. In Chen Taijiquan this is sometimes referred to as
the “rule of three” where the body is divided and subdivided around its upper, middle and lower aspects. For this reason Taijiquan has been called the study of contradictions. It is the
reconciliation of these contradictions that eventually creates the experience of “oneness” or true holistic movement. So when we talk about balance we aren’t talking about some static state, but
a dynamic process as an individual continually and instinctively adjusts to shifting and evolving circumstances.
Achieving this requires us to carefully following a process for an extended time with no expectation of quick successes. Trying to put this message across in today’s ever
more frenetic and instant culture can sometimes feel akin to King Canute trying to hold back the tide. You only have to look at popular apps like Headspace that promises to show “how to
meditate in ten minutes.” During one of our training camps in Chenjiagou Chen Xiaoxing remarked that anyone can train hard for a week or two, but few people can do it daily for five years and
Chen Xiaoxing - It's easy to train hard for a short time. Can you do it long term?
I was struck
by the following passage from an article by Phillip Zarrilli describing the process of learning the ancient Indian martial art kalarippayattu: “A student’s regularity of attendance,
attitude, seriousness of purpose, maturity and emotional stability all come into play in the teacher’s decision regarding advancement. None of this is expressed or spoken. The teacher collects
and registers his daily impressions of students. There is no overt sign of approval, nor is reassurance or encouragement given on any regular basis. The individual is basically alone, confronting
himself as he struggles awkwardly with the external form of the system and to advancement within it.”
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Focus on the process
(Fri, 24 May 2019)
Taijiquan results are forged by an ongoing process, not by dramatic sudden events. All accomplished practitioners create their own skill by following a
carefully orchestrated process. Success in Taijiquan – for success read the achievement of a meaningful level of skill - requires us to follow series of steps that have been handed down for
generations. Everyone can quote the stages and requirements. How many follow them? Manifest skill is usually the result of a repetitive journey. Drip, drip, drip and then the sudden overnight ten
Learners are often impatient. Seeing the end product, the polished, dynamic and accomplished practitioner, they typically ignore the process that preceeded
this level of skill. The process was the long and bitter road that few people get to witness: the long daily training sessions, the injuries and rehabilitation, the dark lonely days when they are
sustained only by inner motivation and determination. The process is the real back story with its countless iteration of form routines, basic exercises and partner drills.
It may be nice to think of skill as something that arrives in a flash - an event like a sudden flash of illumination or moment of enlightenment. This kind of
thinking dismisses the need for the drudgery of daily training. How often we see learners questioning everything incessantly but doing little real training - If they only knew the “correct” way
to do it… Of course this is an illusion. As I saw it described elsewhere “Such a belief is a mirage of event over process. If you try to skip process, you’ll never experience events.” Sadly, as a
media-centred, “I want it today” society, the spotlight and the glory all goes to the event, while the process is hidden behind the woodshed.
Chen Zhaopi compared Taijiquan skill to a bowl of soup. Question any chef and they will surely confirm that the perfect dish is a series of ingredients and a
well-engineered process of execution - a little bit of this, a pinch of that, everything done at the appropriate time and place, and wham, you have an appetizing meal. Like the soup, Chen Zhaopi
said Taijiquan skill in the end everything is blended together and can’t be separated. Skill eludes most people because they are preoccupied with
events while disregarding process. Without process, there is no event. For our chef, the cooking is the process, while the meal is the event. For the Taijiquan player the repeated (appropriate)
training is the process, while the skill is the result.
A young instructor form the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
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Chen Xiaoxing – “If you can see it, it is too much”!
(Tue, 02 Apr 2019) The experience of training in Chenjiagou has changed in many ways over the years. In the first place
it’s impossible to ignore the backdrop of the speed and scale of changes taking place in China. Within this setting, the remarkable pace of
development of Chenjiagou shows no sign of slowing down. The simple dusty village that captivated me in the 1990s, seeming to have stood still in time, has been replaced by a modern vision of
what the birthplace of an art as famous as Taijiquan “should” look like. With stadiums, a modern exhibition centre, Taijiquan museum and numerous Taiji themed tourist attractions. In the centre
of the village the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School has also grown larger over the years. The main training hall that used to be a Spartan concrete floored empty space is now fully equipped with modern training aids including a full sized boxing ring, rows of heavy bags and a raised push hands ring.
That said, within the school there is still a palpable sense of tradition. A portrait of Chen
Xiaoxing, the current principal of the school looks down from above the entrance to the room. The opposite wall is decorated by portraits (left) of his direct ancestors: his father
Chen Zhaoxu; grandfather Chen Fake creator of the New Frame routines; another three generations back, Chen Changxin who reclassified the older forms of the system into the Laojia
routines; back to Chen Wangting creator of Chen family Taijiquan.
With all the changes,
some things are refreshingly familiar. For instance the importance Chen Xiaoxing places on zhan zhuang (standing pole) as the primary means of realising and training Taijiquan’s jibengong
(basic training). Taijiquan’s training methodology is built upon an implicit understanding of the ultimately limiting practice of building strength and fitness on top of
At the most obvious level zhan zhuang helps to establish the required body shape - hips and
shoulders level, crotch rounded, head upright and balanced, shoulders relaxed and elbows sunken etc… requirements quoted, but often not manifest to a sufficient degree. Beyond this zhan
zhuang training provides a means of beginning to physically understand and manifest critical but far from obvious aspects of Taijiquan.
During his camp at Tomlin, Slovenia in August 2018 Chen Xiaoxing spoke at length about the
importance of zhan zhuang training:
Zhan Zhuang (photo by Rob Steenkamp)
is training fundamental skill (gong). Why fundamental skill? The saying is “Train quan without training gong, at the end all is in vain”. Many people think that basic training involves
stretching the legs and back etc...in fact fundamental skill, as in the taolu (form routine) involves feeling the intention and qi. Whether it is zhan zhuang, reeling silk or form, the
fundamental skill is mentally and physically enabling the experience of intention and qi and the extent to which they can be achieved. Because fundamental training is done in a static
posture, it is easier to grasp and experience them, unlike in the form routine where one has to cope with a myriad of changes of directions and focus. The mental and energetic feel
gleaned from the basic training can then be incorporated into the form. This is the reason why zhan zhuang is important and is a part of training that cannot be missed.”
Chen Xiaoxing jokes
sometimes that the thing his students fear the most is standing. Where some people emphasise standing training as a relaxing meditative experience, with him it is also a physically and
psychologically challenging practice. Training two sessions a day, every session begins with half an hour or so of zhan zhuang. During our recent visit a film crew spent several days
shooting around the school and surrounding village. The German-New Zealand-China collaboration, documenting the many “Colours of China” had spent a year filming around the country. The
German project manager was fascinated with the paradox of Taijiquan training - on the one hand the quietness of the practice, and on the other the intensity. The way that everyone in the
room’s legs seemed to be shaking with the effort the instant they were adjusted and corrected by the teacher.
the visit we spent ten days working through and refining the Xinjia Yilu routine. If our motivation for training is functional efficiency, then a critical goal of training is the
development of non-telegraphed movement. Where modern practitioners often talk about effective martial training, in reality practice is often geared more towards performance and
demonstration. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this in terms of fitness and health, self-expression etc. But, in a real situation telegraphing your intention can lead to a
disastrous outcome. Anyone who has taken part in competitions where there are real physical consequences for making mistakes realise quickly and painfully the importance of hiding
what you are going to do. Chen Xiaoxing often repeats the phrase “if you can see it it is too much.” For example as a practitioner shifts
weight from one side to the other, the intention is to move the waist in a narrow almost imperceptible arc. Just as not engaging the waist is a fault, over-turning is also an error.
So we need to look beyond aesthetics and the desire to show everything.
Xinjia training in the main hall of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School (Photo by Rob Steenkamp)
Key points emphasised by Chen Xioaxing:
Guarding against the danger of movement being overly
Using the form to bring out qualities such as the
ability to change suddenly, accuracy, timing etc
To be effective movement must not be
The critical importance of intention and
CTGB 2019 group with Chinese students who trained alongside us
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Reducing tell-tale signals…
(Thu, 07 Feb 2019)
Today many people train Taijiquan for enjoyment, sports performance, artistic expression etc. Nothing wrong with that in
itself, but the mindset is very different from that advocated in traditional Taijiquan where we are told to train using intention without revealing our purpose externally. An often quoted saying
from famous military strategist Sunzi’s “Art of War” advises that: “If one knows the enemy and oneself, one can fight a hundred battles without defeat”. How is this relevant to Taijiquan
practice? It’s generally said that a person trains form to know themselves and that they train push hands to know an opponent. But this isn’t quite sufficient. For sure push hands training
sensitises us to the movements of an opponent. However, it is critical to realise that this is not a one way interaction. Learning to read the movements of an opponent has to be tempered by an
awareness that one’s own movements may be read by the same opponent. Even as an exponent is feeling for the tell-tale signals giving away the
intention of another, he must learn to recognise his own anticipatory movement. This is one of the reasons why the form is practiced so slowly and
meticulously. By carefully and meticulously examining each movement one can begin the step-by-step process of rooting out any “telegraphing” of our own intention. By uncovering all the places
where movement is inefficient or lacking the necessary smooth and spiralling quality, one gradually reaches the point where it can be said that we “know ourselves.”
An early shot of Chen Zhenglei and Chen Xiaowang
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Why slow training wins the race...
(Sat, 29 Dec 2018)
What makes Taijiquan training different from that of other arts? I've been asked this question many
times and usually answer that the most obvious difference is its use of slowness and looseness as the core method to bring out necessary martial qualities like speed, strength, accuracy
To reach an advanced level we need to practice slowly, taking care to self-correct all the
time. Using slowness to achieve detail. What details are we talking about? Here's a few to be going on with:
1. Accuracy - in terms of posture and function
2. Intention and how it matches to movements
3. Maintenance of the correct energetic state (of different parts simultaneously to enhance the
Chen Yu: "Never do an approximation of a movement"
People often either over-complicate or completely misunderstand Taijiquan's training
process. In a hurried effort to access higher levels of skill, making the critical error of ignoring necessary stages such as laying down the correct physical shape. Completing this stage
naturally opens the door to the internal aspects. Simply put, if the learners hips are not level or the shoulders are lifted, if the chest sticks out or the body is leaning - there's no need to
be too concerned with dantian qi. If training is approached logically it is obvious that at this stage they'd get more bang for their training buck by correcting the visible mistakes rather
than losing themselves in some fanciful esoteric wandering.
Chen Yu, in "Chen Taijiquan: Masters & Methods" cautions that haste makes it more
likely for movements to be cut short and in the process important details missed out. He advises practitioners to never do an approximation of a movement: "In every movement, the spirit must be
guiding the energy, and the intention driving the power" - training in this way enables the practitioners to develop vital martial qualities including stability, accuracy, speed and ferocity. To
ensure not to make the mistake of cutting short and approximating he suggests that "every movement should take 3-5 seconds to complete so that the Jin in every action is brought
Chen Xiaowang: "Every part does what it is supposed to do without obstruction
A central goal of Taijiquan is for movements to become natural, to rid every action of any
awkwardness and not telegraphing within an action. Chen Xiaowang often repeats the phrase "natural is the first principle". In this context natural means that every part and each section of the
body do what they are meant to do without obstruction. Practitioners are often able to (correctly) repeat the requirement that one must be loose and relaxed in order to enter the door of
Taijiquan. However, relaxing is not a simple process. For a start, if the body's position is not correct, it cannot relax properly. The process of adjusting and "fixing" the posture,
undoing fixed habits and embedding new ones that conform to the system's detailed requirements can only be done in meticulously and mindfully.
Bringing out the skills of Taijiquan require the ability to move with precision and focus
towards an intended direction. In practical term every movement must be finished carefully and exactly, as the end of one movement represents the starting point of the next. During a particular
workshop Wang Xian stressed that only by starting from the correct position can the next movement be done correctly. He said with humour (I'm paraphrasing here): "if you start from the wrong
position it's 100 percent certain your movement will be incorrect... If you start from the correct position, there's a small chance you might do it correctly".
Wang Xian: "Only by starting from the correct position can the next movement be done correctly"
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(Mon, 17 Dec 2018)
San Diego at the Taoist Sanctuary
On the flight home after a couple of weeks of seminars and a short book tour on the west coast of America I had the chance to reflect on the trip as a whole. The first evening of our stop at Bill and Allison Helm's
Taoist Sanctuary of San Diego opened with a lecture on our latest book Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods (published in August). The talk was structured around four themes that recurred throughout
the book: ideas about the nature of Taijiquan; the importance of nurturing within the training process; the most effective way to train if you are to bring out the functional capacity of the art - in
particular the role of body integration; and finally some of the problems facing the art of Taijiquan as it goes into the future. Problems include: the fact that for the majority of
practitioners Taijiquan is a discipline no longer practised for its original purpose; the fact that while the number of people practising Taijiquan is at an all time high, the number reaching any
meaningful level of skill is depressingly small; and the many misconceptions about the art that still persist...
Over the course of the seminar the San Diego group trained Chen Taijiquan's jibengong
(basic training methods) and the Laojia Yilu. Any complete training approach needs to consider multiple characteristics including both internal and external aspects of training. All martial arts,
in their own way, follow processes designed to systematically develop the attributes of power, strength, speed and the ability to change. The basic training exercises and first routine provide
the template through which Taijiquan practitioners can hone these qualities. At the same time Taijiquan’s training emphasis is very different to other martial arts in the way in which
practitioners are required to put aside generally accepted methods of improving the previously mentioned elements of power, strength, speed and changeability:
On the floor...
In terms of strength - they are asked to put aside physical strength as a means of
developing looseness (song) and pliancy (rou) – “Using intention and not strength”; To increase speed, the system counter-intuitively instructs practitioners to slow down their movements, keeping
faith with Taijiquan’s maxim which states that “extreme slowness gives rise to extreme speed”; To develop the quality of changeability Taijiquan advises learners to “use inaction to control
action, meeting all changes with constancy”. With this basis the skilled exponent is psychologically strong enough to wait for opponents to over extend their position before launching an
After the San Diego seminars we spent a couple of days of down time in San Francisco’s
historic Chinatown. The oldest Chinatown in the U.S., this colourful district played a pivotal role in the history of Chinese martial arts in the country. Walking down the bustling streets of the
largest Chinese enclave outside of Asia has much the same feel as strolling through the back streets of Hong Kong. Loud murals decorate many of the side streets - terracotta warriors, the monkey
king and his companions and of course Bruce Lee, the “Little Dragon” born in the city in 1940 before moving to Hong Kong with his parents as an infant. The story goes that on his return to
America, the brash young Lee alienated many of the older established Chinese masters as he attacked the “classical mess” of traditional gongfu and his assertion about its reliance on, among other
things, “ineffective” forms training.
The late Bruce Lee is never far away in San Francisco's Chinatown
Somewhat ironically, a paving slab beneath one of the murals of Bruce Lee was inlaid with a bronze
inscription of an old Chinese idiom - “When you drink water, think of its source”. In one form or another I've heard this saying repeated many times over the years. From my younger days doing Shaolin
Gongfu when we were told never to forget we were no more than links in a chain. In Chenjiagou I saw the saying presented in a slightly different form - "When you drink the water, remember the person
who dug the well". Chen Taijiquan is close to four centuries old. It didn't emerge from a vacuum but was built upon existing knowledge in areas including martial arts, traditional health practices,
elements of Chinese medical theories and ancient philosophy. Throughout Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods all the older generation teachers interviewed stressed the importance of following a
prescribed route that had been passed down by previous generations. Wang Xian, speaking of this "carefully preserved knowledge... [stated that] Taijiquan offers one of the most formally thought out,
meticulous, and clearly articulated set of principles and practices". Our job in training Chen Taijiquan is to try to understand and manifest these principles that have been handed down.
Stopping for a coffee at the Caffe Trieste I was told by a chatty regular that this was the
place where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for ‘The Godfather.’ I did a little research on the place and found that "...when Papa Gianni founded the Trieste in 1956, upper Grant and
the Trieste was ground zero of the Beat Generation. The poets, the writers, the thinkers, the talkers all came here.” Since we were on a mini book tour I took that to be a good
Our next stop was Kim Ivy's Embrace the Moon School in Seattle. The Seattle programme began
with a "Book Club Potluck" - Great food followed by a lively Q&A session on Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods - covering the books content and the background story behind its creation. We
basically wrote the book to “scratch an itch” and tried to present it as if we were sitting around the fireside having an informal chat with the most illustrious elders of Chen
Seattle at the Embrace the Moon Taiji School
On the floor, again!
Like the seminars in San Diego, training centred around Chen Taijiquan's basic exercises and
Laojia Yilu. Taijiquan looks to hone four external and four internal aspects: externally training the hands, eyes, body method and footwork (shou, yan, shenfa, bu); internally training spirit,
intention, intrinsic energy and trained power (shen, yi, qi, jin). Taken together these represent the "gong" of the art. In practice these elements must be cultivated carefully bearing in mind the
health, strength, experience and level of understanding of the practitioner. Over the course of the US seminars practitioners varied in age from people in their twenties to seventies - from
pro-athletes to retired office workers – from veteran practitioners to newcomers whose experience could be measured in months. To be successful training has to take into account these natural
differences and be approached on an individual basis. As the saying goes “Don’t’ compare yourself to another person today, compare yourself to yourself yesterday”.
Seattle - Laojia Yilu
So what are we trying to achieve when we train Taijiquan? The most obvious place to start
is with the name of the system - "Taiji" refers to a philosophical concept that dates back to China's ancient past. "Quan" is martial arts. Together giving a total art built upon the integration
of philosophy and martial arts. Manifesting the art to its full potential depends upon working from where you are today and embracing concepts that have grown from a different culture and
Just me and my pal Bill Helm having some fun in Chinatown
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Realising Chen Taijiquan’s Six Harmonies
(Mon, 01 Oct 2018)
Taijiquan skill arises from a comprehensive study of the body as a unified whole or system. The core training methods of the system are built around
the qualities of
looseness, pliancy and slowness. Slow training provides a means by which to improve body co-ordination and to help to rid the body of any excess
tension. The process of slow training over an extended time helps practitioners to achieve a unification of body and mind described in Taijiquan literature as the harmonisation of the mind
(xin), intention (yi), intrinsic energy (qi), and body strength (li). Every facet
of a person – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – is seen to be interconnected and interdependent, and no aspect can be understood in any meaningful way except in relation to the whole.
This wholeness is realised via the nurturing of Taijiquan’s six harmonies.
Internal and External Harmony - Chen Xiaoxing by Mary Johnston
harmonies are understood in terms of three external and three internal harmonies. The external harmonies refer to the physical components of the body, which must be ordered in a way that
optimises one’s structure. The three external harmonies denote the connections between:
These can be
widened to take in the connections between the left hand and the right foot, the left elbow and the right knee and the left shoulder and the right kua
(and vice versa). The late grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang summarised the external harmonies simply as everything “arriving at the same time”– so every
movement is performed as an integrated whole. The correct
way to apply power arises not from isolated muscular strength, but from an optimally aligned body structure and unified movement through a relaxed physical and mental state.
internal harmonies refer to the unification of an individual’s:
(Heart) – Yi (Intention)
(Intrinsic Energy) – Li (Body Strength)
Jin (Tendons) – Gu
this context, xin refers to the emotional aspect of one’s mind, yi to its logical or intentional part. The literal translation of the Chinese character
xin is "heart". Early pictograms of the character for xin unambiguously show a picture of the physical heart. Xin represents the centre of human feelings and emotions. Literature from the Warring States period
of Chinese history depicts it as the centre of an individual’s emotions and sentiments, from tranquillity and calmness, to anger, grief and disappointment.
players are often told to “use intention and not force”. Mental unity is predicated on the presence of both the emotional and logical mind. In
a real confrontation conflicting feelings or thoughts can have dire consequences. While xin or heart is necessary to summon up sufficient courage,
yi enables them to act with a clear purpose and make the right decisions in an instant. So, in a real
world example we could compare an individual exhibiting xin without yi to the hothead who fights rashly and
with uncontrolled emotion and no clear intention. Conversely, yiwithout xin, could be characterised by the
individual lacking in fighting spirit although knowing in their mind what they should do. The idea of linking heart and fighting spirit is also common in the West, where, for example, a skilful
but hesitant boxer will often be accused of lacking heart. The fusing of heart and intention allows one to bring into play an energy that is fully focused and integrated. Combining this with the powers of the body represents a joining of internal and external aspects – that is the connection of energy and strength (qi and li).
Achieving this degree of synchronisation enables the body to operate as a unified whole - in terms of Taijiquan’s harmonies, linking the tendons with the bones.
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Chen Zhenglei - Four Steps to Combat Skill...
(Mon, 13 Aug 2018)
At his recent training camp in Chenjiagou, Chen Zhenglei addressed the question of how a practitioner should approach Taijiquan if they are to develop high level fighting skills. During the course of
his lecture spoking about what people should focus on at the different stages of training? In summary he suggested that the development of Chen Taijiquan’s internal martial arts skills arise from
following four steps:
1. The first step involves an in-depth and meticulous study of the “gongfu frame” (the first routine) of Chen Family Taijiquan. Chen Taijiquan’s gongfu formula is based on the foundation of the
original boxing form that has been passed down from generation to generation.
2. From this basis studying the indoor methods within the gongfu form that enable the altering and transformation of power and the system’s attacking skill. These skills are based on the
changes and transformations that arise from the total familiarity of the gongfu form. Study each and every move for the ability to bring out the perfect round, complementary and spiral force,
and the skill to transform each and every move that can be utilised. The goal here is to achieve the highest level of power that encompasses looseness, pliancy, elasticity and “shaking power”.
3. The third step is to study the indoor method of tuishou. Based on the foundation of the alternating and complementary spiralling skill, learning the two persons tuishou methods, using the
skill that has been extracted from the meticulous study of the form. Through these methods becoming familiar with the different energies/power and attack/defence possibilities. Practicing until
one is completely accurate in listening and differentiating incoming energies and until reaching the stage where the opponent can be felled unwittingly and unconsciously.
4. Finally, studying the sanshou method of Chen Taijiquan. Now building on the foundation of the previous steps, a practitioner undertakes two persons’ sparring that is not restricted by
the prescribed form, so as to learn the full repertoire of defence and attack. Using the ba fa - peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou, kao - together with seizing, grasping, throwing, sweeping,
practicing possibilities of actual fighting. Until reaching the stage of being able to borrow another’s force, to “divert thousand pounds with four ounces”.
As always, the advice was that there could be no shortcuts and that the above four stages must be progressed through step-by-step, layer by layer, gradually and incrementally increasing one's level
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Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods
(Thu, 02 Aug 2018) Chen Taijiquan: Masters and
Methods records the thoughts of some of the most knowledgeable Taijiquan practitioners of
recent times – Feng Zhiqiang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Xiaowang, Wang Xian, Zhu Tiancai, Chen Zhenglei, Chen Yu and Yu Gongbao:
Taken together, the
masters presented are not restricted to any one school. That said there are many connections and areas of shared experience between them. Combined, they represent a strong link in a chain
preserving a common heritage. In modern times there has been a mystification not just of Taijiquan, but traditional martial arts as a whole. These arts that
for centuries were trained in a practical and pragmatic way as a means of self-protection are treated like some kind of modern fantasy. What exactly is Chen Taijiquan? Chen Taijiquan
is a sophisticated physical system that has been shaped by a different cultural tradition. It presents us not only to new ways of performance, but also to new ways of thinking and understanding.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of explanations fall far short, showing either a lack of knowledge or a strong bias in perceptions. Concepts that don’t translate easily into English are often
disregarded from the outset.
Taijiquan is a functional combat system and like all martial arts the three essential elements of strength, speed and change must be omnipresent. Through a variety of training methods, the aim is
to enhance the body’s strength, speed and develop a more and more subtle ability to change. These results cannot be achieved without committing to a
programme of hard work way above a person’s normal capacity. However, Taijiquan is different to other martial arts: From the perspective of
strength, it tells practitioners to “practice by using intention and not use strength”, and also through looseness to completely discard
their inherent physical strength; To cultivate speed, Taijiquan
advocates using slowness, its boxing theory speaking of the way in which "extreme slowness gives
rise to extreme fastness"; To increase the skill of change Taijiquan advocates "using inaction
to control action; meeting all changes with constancy”. In essence, therefore, we can see that Taijiquan requires practitioners to put aside the accepted methods of improving and enhancing the functions of martial arts.
Over the years we’ve
kept detailed notes of our meetings with the various teachers - initially for our own interest. The passing of Feng Zhiqiang in 2012 was a stark reminder of the importance of documenting the
teaching of this elder generation. In Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods:
Feng Zhiqiang - image by Janet Grimes
Feng Zhiqiang - a senior
disciple of the legendary seventeenth generation master Chen Fake, explains how Taiji gongfu is acquired through a “combination of training and nurturing, with nurturing as its
mainstay”. He stresses the fundamental importance of
cultivating and nurturing every aspect of one’s being. The basis of Taijiquan rests upon the steady building and development of qi (intrinsic energy), of shen
(spirit), of xing (character) and of shen (body). To enter the door of authentic Taijiquan training he advocates placing a premium on developing the twin qualities of looseness and heaviness.
Feng Zhiqiang cautions awareness of the many traps lying in wait for practitioners not fully conversant with the aims and method of Taijiquan. He touches on numerous interesting topics including:
the use of specific acupoints as gateways through which a practitioner can help the relaxation process; the need for a “complete training” approach emphasising training the three aspects of
internalised skill, form push hands; and the role of physical strength in Taijiquan practice.
Chen Xiaoxing –
Principal of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School addresses the nature of Taijiquan and its integration of philosophy and martial arts. Starting from the widespread misperception of Taijiquan as an
unchallenging art for the old and infirm, he rails against the general public’s view of Taijiquan as some kind of recreational “exercise for parks and street corners”. Chen Xiaoxing touches on
the necessity of having a good working knowledge of ancient Chinese culture and its unique way of understanding the laws of nature and the interrelationship of things. He is of the opinion that
without this, while one can realise the most basic physical aspects of Taijiquan, “there’s no possibility an individual will be capable of practising good Taijiquan”.
Chen Xiaoxing - image by Mary Johnston
Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xian and Zhu Tiancai have come to be known as the “Four Buddha’s Warriors” of Chenjiagou. In the book:
Chen Xiaowang - speaks about the best way to bring out the functionality of the form, paradoxically cautioning against learning set
applications. To reach the highest stage of Taijiquan development, an individual must react in an instinctive and spontaneous way. The physical body and mental intention have been harmonised and
absorbed to become a natural part of one’s being to the point where they are able to move and react exactly as circumstances dictate from moment to moment, rather than trying to react with a
limiting series of fixed ideas. Ultimately Taijiquan adepts work towards a time when the whole body acts as a unified and highly co-ordinated unit. Chen Xiaowang gives a comprehensive explanation
of just one aspect - the way in which the two hands are synchronised to accommodate their alternating function as either the “guiding” or “directing” hand.
Wang Xian - discusses
the most important points to consider when practising Taijiquan: including its focus on looseness, spiral movement and the necessity of using intention; the best way to bring out the system’s
functionality; the three stages of progression that all practitioners must go through and the specific drills and training methods that must be employed at each stage. Wang Xian explains that
the form is not a dead thing, but must be alive within the principles. You must be conscious that
you're training a martial art (quan) when doing form or the form will be empty (kong). This can be in terms
of understanding the potential functions of movements or in the development of martial qualities such as rootedness, footwork and awareness.
Zhu Tiancai - talks about his experience learning Taijiquan
in Chenjiagou and about training with his two main teachers Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui. He outlines the main differences between the Laojia (Old Frame) and Xinjia (New Frame) routines he
learned from these two teachers respectively. Zhu asserts that despite superficial differences; in essence the two forms are the same and goes on to describe the core methods of Chen Taijiquan:
first looking at the bafa or eight types of jin, which he believes are often quoted but only understood at
the most superficial level; next describing the four different methods of training Chen Taijiquan uses to develop and bring out these types of jin. He
explains the two overarching ideas that must be present if one is to be able to react in a spontaneous way and at the same time remain within principle. In the
concluding section Zhu Tiancai speaks about the importance of nurturing one’s body and cultivating one’s character.
Chen Zhenglei - After
clarifying the difference between Taijiquan and external martial arts systems, goes on to explain several necessary ways practitioners should approach their study of Taijiquan: firstly placing an
emphasis upon understanding the principles and philosophy of the art instead of fixating on individual postures and applications; secondly, seeking the cause rather than the obvious manifestation
of movements; and finally, training the whole body to be a synchronised system rather than concentrating on individual applications. This approach is opposite to the common Western way of viewing
the world where components of a whole are separated out to allow us to study them more closely. In the process losing sight of the fact that it is the working of the whole that
Chen Yu – Beijing based son of the eighteenth generation master Chen Zhaokui addresses the confusion of many modern practitioners regarding the role of physical strength in Taijiquan. He points to the need for individuals to possess a basis of
physical strength to support the more subtle elements of skill. Going on to explain why the qualities of looseness (song) and suppleness or pliancy
(rou) are so important in the development of a fully integrated type of strength. He details the approach that must be followed if one is to integrate
the internal and external aspects of the body.
Yu Gongbao - author of the
world's first dictionary of Taijiquan and China’s first Professor of Taijiquan explores the art from the perspective of its cultural properties. He outlines the characteristics of this
distinctive martial art that uses physical movement to express the spirit of the Chinese nation, Yu explains how Taijiquan culture functions within a system that can be neither divided nor
isolated. Rather, it must be understood from numerous dimensions. In his logical study he considers some of the main elements we need to think about
including Taijiquan’s broad social influence, including the way in which practicing Taijiquan has provided a portal through which many non-Chinese have come to appreciate cultural norms and the
principles of self-cultivation.
Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods is available from Amazon.com
Chen Taijiquan cover calligraphy by Chen Xiaowang
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Martial art or bitter art?
(Sun, 29 Jul 2018)
In Philosophical Perspectives on the Martial Arts in
America, Carl B. Becker, a specialist in Asian philosophy and ethics, compared the typical approach of Western and Eastern people to training martial arts. An interesting point he made was
that Western culture usually approaches martial arts and sport in general in terms of “play and recreation”: Fun, enjoyment, self-improvement, health etc being some of the common reasons given by
individuals for taking part. Easterners (the article spoke specifically about Japanese), in contrast, would often respond with that they were training a valuable discipline. Obviously there are
some serious practitioners in the West and lightweight practitioners in the East, people are people after all.
Applying this to Taijiquan, for the most part it is portrayed as gentle, relaxing and an easy
option. Leafing through a magazine in the dentist’s reception the other day, I saw “Tai Chi” described as - “An enjoyable way to pass an hour during the hectic busyness of the real world”. Real
Taijiquan training can be a lifelong journey of personal cultivation and development. But it does not come without paying the price of sweat and discipline. Following are comments by Deng
Xiaofei, Zhong Lijuan and Wang Shili, three branch instructors of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School describing their thoughts on the Taiijiquan journey:
Deng Xiaofei: “When I was young my shifu said wushu (martial art) is also kushu (bitter art). It is bitter and dry – but you need to eat this bitter every day. You have
to endure the loneliness and persevere until one day you can use what you learn".
Zhong Lijuan: "Learning Taijiquan is like preparing to build a house. You have to start with digging the hole and doing the piling before you can do anything. The piling time
often takes a lot longer than the building time. But once it is established you can build not just one storey but ten, twenty, or even a skyscraper. Therefore, all of us who have vowed to train
Taijiquan do not just want the obvious rewards or be dazzled by momentary fame but hold a good attitude and persevere with our training until real gongfu is
Wang Shili: "People who persevere until they are old are very rare. It is not even one in a hundred or one in a thousand. It is very scarce – people who persevere a
lifetime. It is not a matter of wanting to be part of a trend or a fashion, but the attitude should be:
Live until you are old
Learn until you are old
Train until you are old”
As long as life goes on, then training should go on".
Deng Xiaofei - A "martial art" is also "bitter art" that must be eaten every day
Published in August - Chen Taijiquan : Masters & Methods
A series of
interviews, training tips and insights from some of the foremost masters of Chen Taijiquan.
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Chen Taijiquan’s “Special” Training - Single Movement Drills
(Mon, 16 Jul 2018)
Single movement drills - Wang Xian training Xin Zhou (Piercing Heart Elbow). Source: Chen Family Taijiquan Tuishou
Training Laojia Yilu in Chenjiagou some years ago I was told not to “stupidly train repetitions of the form thinking
that this would be enough to make your Taijiquan work as a martial art”. The first routine or Yilu is often referred to as the Gongfu Frame, used to lay the necessary
foundation of correct physical structure and smooth energetic connection - over time helping to develop the often talked-about qualities of fluidity and agility at the top, heaviness and
rootededness at the bottom. However, despite its fundamental importance, it is important to see form training within the context of a larger system.
In Going Beyond the Norm: An Interview with Chen Stylist Wang Xian, written by Asr Cordes and
published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in 2002, Wang Xian said “soft training is not enough to reach a high level of martial skill. If you want fighting skill, you will need special
training”. What the first form lacks, for the most part, is speed, suddenness and abrupt explosive changes. People train Taijiquan for different reasons, but if we’re looking to develop combat
capabilities in an effective and functional way these aspects need to be honed to a high degree. In the traditional syllabus the Erlu (second routine) is trained to do this - hence the saying
“Yilu cultivates qi, Erlu explodes.” Another of the “special” training methods used to bring out the hard or gang side of Chen Taijiquan is practising
repetitive single movement drills.
Single movement training involves the repeated practice of a wide variety of actions and techniques focusing on different areas of the
body. It helps to refine the techniques that form the basis of Taijiquan push hands and combative ability. For instance the eight methods of peng,
lu, ji, an, cai,
lie, zhou and kao as well as techniques common to all martial
systems such as kicking, punching, throwing, grasping etc.
Some years ago Zhu Tiancai came to our school in the UK and taught his Taiji Sanshou set (which he called the 42 Fajin at the time). Zhu
had developed this based upon a 32 fajin pattern that he had learned from Chen Zhaokui. While the Taiji Sanshou could be trained as a continuous series of movements like a form, it is really
meant to be trained as a series of single movement drills. Each of the exercises are used to hone the combat potentials hidden within the hand form. By taking out difficult movements, such as
Ying Men Kao (Enticing Bump) which utilises the chest as the striking area, or functional movement like Wai Bai Li Shua (Outward Swing and Inward Throw) where the upper and lower body
coordination is required to throw an opponent - and practising them repeatedly we can improve the accuracy, speed and timing of movements. In Taijiquan
Tuishou Wang Xian says, “single movement training shows each movement clearly and completely, forms can often conceal the real usage.”
Sealing the Throat training with Zhu Tiancai
As well as letting us train and refine complex movements, single movement training gives us a means to train potentially dangerous
movements in a controlled way. Chen Zhaokui stated that “some applications of the movement cannot be used in push hands, for example, elbow strikes… and also attacking vital points of an
opponent, or qinna”. To address this problem he pointed to the value of single posture training to develop certain martial skills that are inherently difficult to train safely with a partner.
These single movement drills can be taken from the handforms, particularly the Erlu. Drills from Zhu’s Taiji Sanshou that clearly fall into this category include movements such as Suo Hou Zhang
(Seal the Throat Palm), Liao Yin Quan (Lift the Crotch Fist) and Shuang Feng Guan Er (Double Crests Strike the Ears) and Quan Xin Zhou (Piercing Heart Elbow)…
Sealing the Throat Single Movement Drill - Zhu Tiancai
While training single movements we should not lose sight of the fundamental requirements: the harmonisation of internal and external
aspects; the co-ordination of the upper and lower body; clearly differentiating weight distribution; strict attention to timing. The goal is to utilise all of the body’s potential during
movements, which should be fast, focused and complete. With extended focused training movements become internalised and can be brought out instinctively without conscious thought. The aim is to
be able to direct power explosively with precision and ferocity - executing techniques crisply, quickly and smoothly and with precise timing – whilst attacking an opponent at their weakest point
and at the most vulnerable time.
Single movement training can also be used to train Chen Taijiquan’s stepping methods, developing the ability to move with agile footwork –
forward, backward, left and right and to be able to instantly attack or evade an opponent.
A saying often repeated in Taijiquan circles is “Practice ten thousand times and the skill will naturally emerge.” Failing to train single
movements is to omit an important part of the training process. Without it, an individual may have a nice looking form, but it will be a form that is empty of content, and put to the test in a
real physical confrontation will, in all likelihood, come up painfully short.
Notes on single movement training
Correct basics are essential before training for speed and power.
Begin slowly, training to execute movements correctly and paying careful attention to avoid losing energy and “collapsing” (diu)
during soft practice.
Speed up gradually, taking care not to lose the precision you have laid down in the primary stage and paying careful attention not to
exert energy too forcefully (ding) when you do explosive movements.
Pay attention to keeping your energy tracks undetected. Being able to do a technique forcefully is of little use if it is telegraphed
and easily read by an opponent.
Wang Xian training Dingzi Quan Guanyang (Nail-Shaped Fists targeting the temples)
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The Role of Weapons Training
(Thu, 03 May 2018)
Just out part two of a three part article published by Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts magazine looking at Chen
Taijiquan’s integrated syllabus - this time looking at the place of weapons training. A quick note for anyone seeing the magazine – an article with the imaginative title “From Organ Builder to
Arms Dealer” is mistakenly attributed to me. Just to be crystal clear, it’s not mine!
The Role of Weapons Training in Chen Taijiquan
Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts Magazine
Chen Taijiquan has an extensive and complex corpus for developing skilled and effective martial practitioners. In this issue
we continue to examine the way in which the seemingly different aspects of the Chen Taijiquan syllabus are actually interrelated and mutually supporting. In the first part we looked at the
relationship between form training and push hands. Here we examine the role of weapons training within the wider Taijiquan curriculum and the way in which the various weapons can be used to
develop the physique and qualities of a Taijiquan player. Preserved within the weapons routines are flexible sinuous movements, dynamic actions, swift changes in tempo, and fierce chopping,
slicing or thrusting movements. Here we’ll consider how the demands of the different weapons, with their distinct characteristics and techniques, can have a transformative effect shaping new
levels of body awareness and dexterity.
A wide variety of weapons continue to be practiced in Chenjiagou, the birthplace of Taijiquan, a fact that comes as
something of a surprise to many people. These include the sword, broadsword, spear, halberd, long pole, eyebrow staff and double iron mace, among others. Some of these weapons are drawn from
China's ancient battlefield arts; others like the two section pole, evolving from agricultural tools, to eventually be incorporated within the Chen Family Taijiquan weapons syllabus. Knowing that
the likelihood of ever having to use the weapons for their original purpose is unlikely, leads many practitioners to the conclusion that they are irrelevant in the modern age. Even those that do
incorporate weapons into their practice often fail to see beyond the surface elements of performance and aesthetics, losing sight of the many potential benefits that can be gained from
During one of our early trips to
the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School in China’s Henan province we were instructed that Taijiquan combat skill could only be achieved by gaining proficiency in four key areas: constitution or basic
physical conditioning; strength; technical skill and gongfu or cultivated skill. Taijiquan, in common with all traditional Chinese martial arts involves the balancing of internal and external aspects. Without an external basis any
internal development is of limited value. To put it bluntly, ""coordinated strength" means nothing if you don't have any strength to coordinate". Beyond their obvious functions, the different
weapons help to train many diverse qualities essential in honing a “Taijiquan physique" - attributes such
as strength, dexterity, agile footwork and whole-body coordination. Weapons practice can help to achieve correct timing in all one's movements. Holding and manipulating the various weapons also
lead to improvements in the complexity of your hands and footwork skills. Viewed in the context of the system as a
whole, weapons training complements barehand training by magnifying certain requirements: the mind and intention must be extended all the way through the length of the weapon; movements
must stay relaxed, agile and efficient at the same time as controlling a weighty object; and footwork must be lively and responsive to enable rapid changes position.
Just as a fork and a spoon must be used in a precise way when one is eating, each weapon calls upon the practitioner to
clearly bring out different functional movements. For instance, the difference between Pi (splitting) andKan (cutting) was illustrated in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School with the example of how "a woodcutter goes into the forest
to cut a tree down, then splits the logs for firewood. The two techniques are different and if he splits the logs as he cuts the tree he will not
have firewood". We’ll also consider some of the specific benefits that can be achieved by training the
more commonly used weapons, bearing in mind that there are inevitably areas of similarity between certain weapons:
Short Weapons Including the Sword and Broadsword
In Chen Taijiquan, the sword used is relatively light in weight, its use relies more upon skill, precision and speed than
upon strength. Its lightness means that the swordsman cannot rely on strength and attack head on. Rather he must develop a high degree of sensitivity and awareness of any openings an opponent may leave. Taiji sword emphasises variations of
speed to express extremely sudden and accurate movements such as splitting, pointing and piercing. The sword trains flexibility and the full extension of one’s body and practising the sword form allows an exponent to
develop the ability to project force in a relaxed manner to the tip of the sword. It also helps to create
an efficient Taijiquan body, with repeated practice loosening the large joints such as the hips and shoulders. Relaxing the shoulders and the kua is crucial if one is to develop an integrated
body. The famous internal martial artist Sun Lutang was of the opinion that many people, despite training gongfu for many years, failed to achieve this. He believed that the task of loosening the shoulders and kua was of such importance
and that in the early stages of training learners should focus upon them above everything else and that failing to address this meant that whatever they trained would be incorrect. The precise
nature of the sword movements also helps to increase the suppleness of the wrists and hands.
The Chen Taijiquan Broadsword is characterised by fast, explosive and direct movements. Where the sword is double-edged and
light, the broadsword is single-edged and heavy. As such the broadsword lends itself to cutting movements that are large, expansive and powerful in
nature - “like splitting a mountain.” Actions are more direct and obvious than the straight sword. A fact reflected in the Chinese martial arts saying: “Broadsword is like a fierce tiger, sword
is like a swimming dragon.” Training with the broadsword yields special benefits for the legs and waist. This weapon features complex stepping and wide expansive movements. Its demanding
challenges encourage practitioners to exert greater focus and effort in training leading to significant improvements in their overall skill level.
While the broadsword falls under the classification of short weapons, practitioners are called upon to use it like a long
weapon. Skilled exponents can cover a surprisingly long distance by utilising explosive leaping and jumping movements. As a means of overall body training, the explosive leaping and jumping
movements have much in common with modern plyometric training exercises used by many of today’s elite
sports performers. Simply put the combination of speed and strength is power and for many years coaches and athletes have sought to improve power and enhance performance by employing various
jumping, bounding and hopping exercises.
Movements can be performed in different ways depending upon the ultimate objective of practice. Often the routine is
executed with long, low stances as a way of conditioning the body, increasing one’s power and speed. However, when training for combat use, very low stances limits the fast and agile footwork
necessary in combat. Bearing this in mind, the Taiji player working on the application potentials of the broadsword routine would typically train with a higher posture to enhance mobility. So, to
achieve optimum martial and conditioning benefits, practitioners should train over a range of heights.
Long and Heavy Weapons
We’ll look at the benefits that can be gained from training with three of the better known long weapons – the long pole, the
halberd and the spear. Many modern day Taijiquan players are unaware of the importance placed on strength training in the past. In Chenjiagou on the training ground where Yang Luchan learned from Chen Changxin to become the first non clan member to learn Taijiquan,
there is a heavy rectangular stone weight that the then practitioners are believed to have trained with. The final test in China’s imperial military examinations established in the Ming dynasty
was lifting just this kind of weight. Though less popular than in the past, traditional strength training methods such as pole shaking and practising with heavy weapons continue to be used up until today. In any case, a certain
amount of pure strength must be developed to wield long and heavy weapons.
The long pole used in Chen Taijiquan is usually at least three metres long and made of white wax wood that possesses the
dual qualities of strength and flexibility. This flexibility allows the practitioner to transmit
force through it as they shake it. The nature of the long pole demands a significant degree of transformation as a practitioner's body is physically changed, becoming stronger and more flexible
so the pole's qualities can be expressed. Training with the long pole helps to increase whole body power, explosiveness and the amount of power that can be transmitted from the dantian out to the
extremities. The dantian is a point about three fingers beneath the navel and approximately an inch
beneath the surface that represents the bodies’ centre of energy and balance This weapon is usually trained either as a thirteen-movement routine or by performing repetitions of individual pole
shaking drills which help to develop and isolate different body mechanics. These pole drills focusing upon the actions of pi, beng, zha and dou or splitting, bursting, thrusting and shaking. As
well as form training and single movement exercises, a number of two-person “sticking” drills are also practised with the pole to enhance the ‘listening’ ability and combat skill of
practitioners. - and to apply the basic skills of Taijiquan, such as sticking, adhering, following and linking
The halberd (guandao), also known as the “Spring & Autumn Broadsword” or less prosaically as the “Big Knife” is an
imposing and heavy weapon characterised by strong and powerful movements. Generally, there are two kinds of Guandao. An extremely heavy weapon favoured for basic gongfu training, and a lighter
weapon adapted for fighting. Handling this weapon effectively requires a significant degree of upper body strength and a stable root. The weapon derived its name from the adventures of legendary
Chinese general Guan Yu during the chaotic “Three Kingdoms” (A.D.25–220) period of Chinese history. Uniquely the names of each of the movements of the halberd routine come in the form of a
seven-character poem which, when taken as a whole recount the story of General Guan. Consequently every time the form is practised, his exploits are re-enacted.
Guan Yu’s weapon is said to have weighed eighty-two jin (one jin is about five hundred grams). This was also the
favoured weapon of Taijiquan’s creator Chen Wangting. The dynamic nature of the guandao form, with its sudden changes in direction, sharp turns and explosive leaping movements makes it a
premier tool for total body-conditioning. The weapon requires practitioners to move and be responsive in every direction. Today’s practitioners use weapons ranging from a few kilograms to more than twenty kilograms. Its practice is based on thorough grounding in the core skills of
Taijiquan, as it demands a stable lower plane, good upper body strength, and excellent spatial awareness.
In Chinese martial arts circles it is said that "the spear is the king of all weapons". Also known as the “Pear-Flower Spear
and White Ape Staff”, the Chen Taijiquan spear is trained through a form that includes the functions of both spear and staff. The overall tempo is forceful, direct and rapid with few movements
being done slowly. All Chinese martial arts including Taijiquan seek to develop skills in the four key areas of shou,yan, shenfa, bu or hands, eyes, body and footwork. Where the handform trains the qualities of rootedness, stability and careful accurate footwork,
the spear form demonstrates the dynamic expression of Chen Taijiquan’s agile footwork skills. Built around a series of intricate and rapid stepping movements known as the “martial flower” it is a
practical training tool helping to improve agility, or the ability to move quickly and effectively in different directions. The development of upper body strength, upper and lower body
co-ordination and overall flexibility is an added bonus.
A point to bear in mind with all of the weapons is the need to pay attention to training the core skills of each weapon
rather than just running through the forms. Chen Taijiquan's spear form marries the qualities of both spear and staff - the spear elements being straight and staff movements circular.
"Spear" techniques emphasise thrusting (zha), blocking (lan) and intercepting (na). Staff techniques are built around the ability to turn the weapon like two wheels on either side of the body and
not done as if you were paddling a canoe - a common mistake when training the spear.
The Role of Double Weapons
The Chen Taijiquan curriculum also includes a number of double weapons including the double sword, double sabre and double
iron mace. As well as possessing the qualities of their equivalent single weapon, training the double weapons can provide many additional training benefits. Firstly, they help to coordinate the
left and right sides of the body. At no time should one side be active while the other is dead, so both hands must have the function of supporting each other. Training with the double weapons
also helps to increase the coordination of the upper and lower body. For example, usually the sabre goes forward with the same leg (i.e. left sabre with left leg) though there are exceptions.
Another benefit of training with the double weapons is that it forces the subordinate hand to work, which ultimately helps to improve the hand form.
Incorporating these classical weapons into one’s practice enhances overall skills, preserves an unbroken tradition of
martial culture and greatly increases physical and cardiovascular fitness. Training with weapons
increases the coordination and integration of physical movements and adds an extra dimension to be aware of. Each of the weapons has its own unique characteristics and conditioning benefits,
and for those willing to put in the requisite time and effort, they remain highly practical training tools. In the third and final part of this series we’ll consider the role of internal
training methods within Chen Taijiquan.
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What’s the hurry, do it properly…
(Fri, 27 Apr 2018)
In a recent post I went
back through some old notes on Chen Taijiquan fajin. This time, in a similar way I’ve gone back through some of my battered old notebooks to pick out some words of advice on the rationale behind
Taijiquan’s use of slowness as a primary training tool. One of the first notes I’d highlighted was the advice that “slow movement is not the aim of Taijiquan, only a practice method”. With experience
this may seem obvious. In the early years, after coming from an external martial arts background, it was less clear. It is important to understand what Taijiquan is – a vast subject in itself. Chen
Taijiquan is a centuries-old Chinese martial art that uses a number of different methods and concepts to train a high level of body integration and martial ability. An often misunderstood area is the
highly practical benefits that can come - if one keeps confidence in the traditional slow training method.
In the first place slow
training enables a practitioner to develop a high degree of synchronisation of timing throughout the body parts involved in any particular movement. Not just involving one isolated muscle but the
cooperation of all. In the words of Chen Xiaowang, “Slow training allows you to slowly form the dantian as core. One part moves, all move. Connected from section to section, qi unbroken
throughout”…this movement system can then be adapted to all circumstances”.
“Taijiquan movement is based on a body philosophy whereby everything is natural and unforced… left/right upper/lower forward/backward - all complementing each other, with no contradiction or
friction”. Taijiquan’s movement system operates within a strict discipline that works towards the elimination of any unnecessary and potentially telegraphed movements. “To this end there are
exact prerequisites in terms of intention, body requirements and limb placement… Slow training allows you to check for yourself whether you are following these requirements”.
Slow training allows
us the possibility of NEVER IGNORING THOSE DETAILS. The unique nature of Taijiquan’s movement system is designed to get rid of all stiffness and rigidity in the body. With mindful training we can
lay down the correct energy route: foot – knee – hip – waist – shoulder – elbow – hand all controlled by the waist as manifested in silk reeling exercises. Learning to loosen the body
(fangsong) before using strength i.e. with the correct degree of relaxation you can use your strength effectively – the spiral force, shaking energy, rebounding force.
While learners often
become fixated on the end postures of Taijiquan, the system’s usage is more clearly demonstrated in the space between postures. Here it is especially important to take care that you are not
straying from the rules. A note I took from one of Wang Xian’s sessions reads: “You must practise slowly, especially through transition movements because during transition movements you must
manage changes and manage deviations – self correcting all the time.” He went on to advise that “You must know your boundary [position of maximum strength]… explore this through slow
Slow training allows us
each aspect carefully when practising until it becomes natural
feel the movement. After adjusting a student’s posture Chen Xiaoxing doesn’t say “have you got it”, he usually asks “you gan jue ma?” (“can you feel it?")
intention – to internalise – to calm the mind
I’ll leave the final word
on slow training to Chen Xiaoxing who, when asked why the movements had to be done so slowly, replied simply: “What’s the hurry? Do it properly”!
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Practice Makes Permanent...
(Mon, 12 Mar 2018)
CTGB's Crawford Currie -"Always practice good habits"!
Put in 10,000 hours of practice and you can become an expert – right? The “10,000-hour rule” popularised in
Malcolm Gladwell’s thought provoking book Outliers has entered into popular consciousness. It’s an appealing and easy to understand idea that by
putting in this amount of practice you can become a top performer in any area whether it be playing the piano, climbing or Taijiquan.
If it was only that simple! To begin with, all practice is not created equal and in reality it might be more
accurate to say that practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent! While an often quoted Taijiquan adage advises practitioners to “practice 10,000 times and skill will naturally
emerge”, this is usually accompanied by the reminder to “always practice good habits”.
For practice to really bear fruit it must be deliberate and purposeful. As 18th Generation Chen
Taijiquan master Chen Zhaokui put it in his article Training for Sparring “… hard training means clever training… and the goal of training must be
clearly defined”. Brad Stulberg, co-author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success addressing
the quantity re quality issue: “Yes, great performers spend a lot of time practicing … but there are a lot of
people who spend a lot of time practicing who never reach world class or even national class levels… What separates the great performers from those that don’t meet that high bar is not
necessarily time spent practicing, but again, what they do as they’re practicing… In deliberate practice, you need to be fully tuned in to
learning the skill you are working on, and minimise distractions as much as possible (put away your phone). Because focusing intently takes so much energy you can really only sustain that level
of practice for 60 to 90 minutes at a time”.
It’s a given that the achievement of mastery is built upon consistent hard training over an extended time
frame. That said Taijiquan adepts have long understood the serious problems that arise when incorrect movement patterns or deviations in posture are allowed to develop. As the saying goes,
“Taijiquan is easy to learn but difficult to correct”. So better to practice less but correctly and intelligently than more and in the process develop any indirect or direct bad habits. The
reality is that all the practice in the world isn’t going to help if your body isn’t up to the task. Ultimately Taijiquan’s rules are what set practitioners free. The human movement system is
highly complex and by imposing specific constraints – in this case Taijiquan’s rules for each part of the body etc –optimal functional patterns of movement begin to emerge. It is these essential
and carefully laid down habits that make practice productive and performance effective.
Expertise then is developed based not just upon the time you devote, but on the way you practice. Back to
Chen Zhaokui, “Emphasis on slow moves only leads to slow strikes which an opponent can counter easily. But emphasis on fast moves alone makes it difficult to feel the path of your energy and
makes it easy to strike along a longer path than necessary. Being fast refers to the speed which is built up through familiarity of the energy path. It is a speed without loss of
Chen Zhaokui - "hard training means clever training"
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Notes on Fajin…
(Thu, 22 Feb 2018)
Chenjiagou street art...
I came across an old notebook filled over the course of a training camp in China’s Hebei province during one of our early trips to China in the
1990s . The camp lasted ten days with training focused on Xinjia Yilu and Tuishou. One evening a number of coaches gave presentations on
different aspects of Chen Taijiquan that included contest push hands, the health benefits of Taijiquan, TCM and Taijiquan and understanding Taiji philosophy and culture. One young Chinese coach
gave a short presentation of his research into Chen Taijiquan’s fajin method. Below are some notes I took during his talk.
“If you want powerful fajin the most important thing is the development of Chen Taijiquan’s “shaking elastic force””
There are three keys to developing fajin:
1. Practise with the aim of getting rid of stiff energy (fang song):
relaxation/looseness is the foundation of fajin
absolute softness leads to absolute power/strength and is the way to achieve complete
get completely relaxed – rid of any stiff energy released en route
all muscles and joints relaxed, stretched and sunk
limiting/resisting muscle that prevents energy release should be reduced
by shortening the resistance of muscles speed and power is greatly increased
2. Energy route is transmitted from feet – legs – waist - extremities
- this is a fundamental requirement
Intent and consciousness most important in fajin – use spirit and consciousness to manage qi and qi to manage body. This cannot be
over-emphasised – to get to a high level you must rely on intent
jin must start from both feet - if not from rooting
it’s the same as water with no source
if there is no resistance force (rebounding energy) from the floor then energy cannot go through and cannot form a complete system
waist and dang must be coordinated in a rapid shaking/thrusting movement leading to elastic force
aim is to concentrate all the body’s energy onto a single point
penetrating force - energy is focused on the contact point and when releasing energy maximum power should be concentrated at the end point before
if you have the energy and thrust without a focused contact/end point it is useless so the target point must be exact.
Shaking energy ceases at the point of contact – shaking the body without this focused endpoint is worthless nonsense!
energy starts from both feet
waist and hips shake and spiral
must have an exact target point and direct energy to it
Approach training in a step-by-step manner with the idea of working from the “least to
- prolonged practice leads to ease of movement
- movement that is under one’s own self control
The explosive fajin of GM Chen XiaoxingAdd caption
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Real Taijiquan Can’t be Simplified…
(Sun, 21 Jan 2018)
years ago we were training in Chenjiagou when one of our group posed the question "what is the most important element in determining whether a person would develop a meaningful level of skill"?
The answer - "discipline and the capacity to work hard for an extended time". But is the willingness to "eat bitterness" enough? An old Taijiquan saying suggests that "Taijiquan can only be
taught orally" - that is from person to person. The aforementioned "oral transmission" refers to a close, long-term interaction between teacher and student, and assumes that the teacher
understands Taijiquan theory and is capable of and willing to impart it to another person and that the student has the intelligence and ability to understand the teaching as well as the diligence
to put it into practice.
Chenjiagou street mural - Chen Zhaopi passing on his skills to the next generation
simply training hard is not enough. We must understand and train in line with Taijiquan's principles and philosophy. If a person does not learn the correct method or take the correct path,
it is difficult for them to advance to a higher level of skill. On reaching a certain level, it is not a question of time whether someone can further improve. The key is whether he
has acquired the technical ability/skill to enable him to take his practice to a higher level.
society tends to emphasise "hustle", "efficiency" and "life hacks" - "five steps to a perfect relationship"... or "the one thing you must do to be in the top one percent" etc etc. Taijiquan
is a subtle and multi-dimensional discipline that cannot be simplified in this way. In a beautiful passage taken from Dr. J: The Autobiography, basketball great Julius Erving talks
about the dangers of confusing rhetoric with high level experience. Specifically he was referring to the difficulty of conveying the reality of playing on court through the second hand medium of
commentating from the sidelines:
remarkable to me how we can fill hours, days even, of television talking about basketball, and yet I always feel that we are failing to communicate the truth of the game. ...I worry that I am not
up to the task of explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or to describe a painting through text.
You can give a feeling of the work, or compare it to something else, but you can't re-create the actual feeling of being on the court, or making that move, of imposing your will, of the precise
moment that you realise you can reach the front of the rim… Because it is not a moment, it is a sense, an instinct, a flicker of insight and nerve so sudden that you have to act on it before it
is a thought. What do you see? A subtle shift of weight, a lowering of the hands, a leaning forward, a glance, and that is enough to set off a chain of events. They are actions that set off a
thousand instincts. But from where we are sitting above the court, we are unable to explain the game through these small moments, and instead talk about the Bull's second chance scoring and the
Rocket's bench production. I understand the need to do that...but I also know that we are simply describing a simulation of the game, rendering a three-dimensional activity into two
parallel with Taijiquan is clear. Where the spectator or lower level player gets caught up in the obvious manifestation of a particular action, skilled exponents act from a deeper place.
From a training foundation that considers every aspect of physical and mental harmonisation they reach a place where every "action sets off a thousand instincts".
Chenjiagou street mural - "Everyone in Chenjiagou knows Jin Gang Dao Dui"
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Chinese Folk Religion and Taijiquan...
(Tue, 19 Dec 2017)
Four famous generals from China's distant past, including Yuchi Gong and Qin Qiong now worshipped as "Door Gods"
A couple of weeks ago I broke the journey home from Chenjiagou, making a stop in Kota Kinabalu on Borneo
island for a week to visit relatives. One afternoon we took a drive to the small settlement of Tuaran to eat the noodles the town is famous for. A couple of streets from the restaurant was
Calligraphy reads- "Jing Gang Subdues the Demon
unexpected bonus - replete with a colourful ten storey pagoda, the splendidly named "Temple of
Dragon Mountain"! While the Malaysian-Chinese locals I travelled with described it as a Daoist Temple, puzzlingly a large sign painted on a wall next to it described it as Ling San Buddhist
Temple of Dragon Mountain
In the West it is often assumed that there are clearly demarcated lines between China's different
philosophies. However, in the day to day lives of the Chinese the lines are in reality more blurred. Walking through the temple the philosophies of
Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism co-exist harmoniously: statues of the Daoism's iconic Eight Immortals and various deified warriors from the China's distant past; a giant smiling golden Buddha;
figures from the Buddhist classic Journey to the West including Tripitaka and his companions the Monkey King, Sandy and Pigsy; and a statue of a benevolent looking Confucius sitting solidly in a
prime spot. These are accompanied by many images and figures from fearsome Jing Gang subduing demons to murals of various dragons and other colourful beasts, deities and young
I read an article recently by Chen Jinguo, a scholar of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society, who
suggested that folk religion represents a core element of Chinese cultural self-awareness. While Professor Han Bingfang of the Institute for Research
into World Religions at the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing went so far as to call Chinese folk religion the "core and soul of popular culture".
Chinese martial arts, including Taijiquan, being an important component of Chinese culture have inevitably
been influenced by these forces. Taijiquan is often simplistically referred to as a Daoist martial art. A cursory examination of its names shows
that it too draws from this common culture: the Chen Family Rules are typical Confucian standards of idealised behaviour adopted by many clan groups; the underlying philosophy of naturalness and
of using softness to overcome hardness are clearly drawn from Daoism; while the postures in the form such as Jing Dang Dao Dui (Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar) show the influence of
Buddhism. What all three philosophies have in common is the idea of an integrated universe balancing the three components of "heaven, earth and man".
and the Monkey King!
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Through realisation not speech...
(Mon, 27 Nov 2017)
In November Chenjiagou is quiet. I've been coming to the village for over twenty years now, training in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School with GM Chen Xiaoxing since 2003. The changes in the
village year on year have been quite remarkable. That said, I was unprepared for the difference in the last twelve months: the centre of the village has become a green pedestrianised oasis; on
one end of the village a new "mountain" has appeared; even the small dark room two doors down from Chen Xiaoxing's living quarters within the school has had a facelift, with a coat of paint, a
mirrored wall and a pair of calligraphys hanging opposite to each other. That aside it remains the place where he teaches day in day out.
One thing that never changes is Chen Xiaoxing's demanding training regimen. Each morning the first session is scheduled for 8am and always begins with zhan zhuang (standing post). As Chen
Xiaoxing likes everyone to be standing when he comes in, people usually start five or ten minutes earlier. The floor is paved with stone tiles each about a metre square. As students come into the
room they fill up the squares on the floor with one person to each, lining up from the back of the room. By the time he enters everyone is already training. Student by student, Chen Xiaoxing then
systematically adjusts the posture of everyone in the room.
Many people describe zhan zhuang as a type of standing meditation. In contrast, I remember Chen Xiaoxing joking some years ago that the thing his students feared the most was the standing. His
corrections lead students into a deep and very demanding position - always sitting further back and deeper than their assumed position. Over the course of forty minutes or so the group do their
best to maintain the posture. Within a short time some people's legs are shaking uncontrollably, other stronger and more experienced practitioners on the surface seem to hold their shape, but
everyone imperceptively moves out of position. After ten or fifteen minutes Chen Xiaoxing returns and repeats the process again leading everyone to a place that tests their limits. The training
is painful and mentally challenging and the results come millimetre by millimetre. Chen Xiaoxing brings the standing to a close with a clap of his hands and there is a palpable sense of relief as
everyone moves about, some going out into the winter sun to bring some life back their aching legs.
Disciples and students of GM Chen Xioaxing
After five or ten minutes' respite the class continues, now lining up facing the mirrors. For the next three quarters of an hour the training focuses on silk reeling exercises designed to instil
Chen Taijiquan's spiralling movement. Chen Xiaoxing doesn't specify which drill students do and most stick to the single front reeling silk exercise or the double hand front to back exercise.
Again he moves from person to person carefully moving students through the movement route - always holding the hips down and back so there is no respite for the legs. Correcting each person
through touch, individually addressing their shortcomings: relaxing the chest, back or shoulders; ensuring the body doesn't lean in any direction; fixing any inconsistencies of coordination
between upper and lower body; anything that doesn't conform to the standard he requires.
Shaolin fighter Yi Long feels the burn
Altogether this first part of the class training zhan zhuang and chansigong lasts about an hour and a half. Throughout the process the students do not talk or ask questions. Their job is to
"listen" to and try to feel and understand the posture and movement method and to replicate it as closely as they can. On a blackboard fixed to one of the training room walls some previous
student has written the phrase "through realisation not speech". This method of transmission through direct experience is fundamental to a true understanding of Taijiquan. In China there is a
saying that to experience once is better than to hear a thousand times. Like the difference between someone describing a dish and actually tasting it for yourself. No matter how articulate the
person, words can give some idea, but they can never transmit the experience of actually eating the dish. The same holds true for Taijiquan's method and expression. A short film last year
featured Yi Long the Shaolin "Fighting Monk" during which he visited Chenjiagou. Delong is one of China's most famous and colourful fighters who last year lost a close decision in a bout with
Thailand's famous Muay Thai boxing champion Buakaw. When his posture was adjusted by Chen Xiaoxing you could see him gasping in an effort to maintain the position.
Drilling single movements...
During the next hour and a half of the class the group separate to train whichever aspect each person wants to, either in the training room or in the yard outside - some training the different
handforms, a few training push hands drills. This part of the class is more informal as Chen Xiaoxing wanders around often joking, sometimes offering pointers to the faults he inevitably finds.
Now people can ask if there is anything they are not clear on - bearing in mind his lack of patience for stupid questions. One less experienced and over-eager student would often spend this time
doing the forward and backward stepping push hands drill. Frantically bobbing up and down as he trained, ignoring the advanced students who laughed at his efforts and advised him there were no
shortcuts and that gongfu couldn't be laid down in this way, prompting Chen Xiaoxing to say "don't tell people that I have taught you to do that"! Another often quoted expression is that
"If you train quan without training gong, a lifetime of training will bear no fruit". They, for the most part, trained individual movements from the forms or carried on training the
fundamental exercises. Slowly and systematically embedding the required shape, energetic state and movement method until it becomes the default state of the body. Without following this path an
individual can fool themselves gaining false confidence by collecting a large number of applications. However, at the time their skills are needed, ultimately they will not work optimally when
tested under pressure. The session finishes at 11am when everyone breaks to eat and rest. At 3pm the process is repeated...
Western students often find this approach problematic, as they are educated through a school system that values and rewards students who constantly raise their hands and ask questions. The
paradox is that while seeming to ask fewer questions, most of the students in Chen Xiaoxing's class have a far greater awareness of Taijiquan's underlying theory and principles. While it may be
difficult to put into practice, this theory has never been more readily available to students than it is today. One of the most frustrating part of teaching is the constant need to reteach people
the choreography of forms that they simply don't train enough to become genuinely familiar. The preliminary stage of Taijiquan training requires students to drill the forms repetitively until the
form is completely familiar. The next stage then is to dismantle the form, training each movement to conform to the requirements. This can only be done in a slow, meticulous and mindful
Chen Xiaoxing's 65th Birthday
Afternoon training was suspended on the 23rd to celebrateChen Xiaoxing's 65th birthday. One of the things I love about him is his aversion to pomp and show. I remember celebrating his 60th
birthday not in some fancy hotel, but in the main training hall of the school. This wasn't possible this time, as the hall now houses a full size boxing ring and a permanent raised tuishou
platform. Instead we decamped to Chen Ziqiang's training centre. Like before students of the school waited on the tables and the food was cooked on the premises by instructor Wang Yan's father
who is a chef and restaurant owner. The participants were an intimate group of disciples and close friends with not an official to be seen. Some of these guys have trained with Chen
Xiaoxing since the 1980s and have their own schools being renowned teachers in their own right. But when they come back to Chenjiagou they still line up in the small dark room to train the
Pre-party photo: L-R: David Gaffney, Chen Xiaoxing, Davidine Sim
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Why train weapons?
(Sat, 21 Oct 2017)
Chen Wangting, creator of Taijiquan with his favoured weapon
Weapons training has always played an important part in the Chen training curriculum. At the time of its creation, Chen style Taijiquan was practiced essentially to develop the martial and
military skills of the villagers of Chenjiagou. Without a doubt the training would have greatly enhanced the health of the Taiji boxers but this did not provide the main reason for practicing the
skill. In Chen Wangting’s day guns had yet to make an appearance; traditional weapons were still being carried onto the battlefield and used in actual combat.
Today, the weapon routines of the assorted Chinese martial arts are considered by most people only from the perspective of demonstrating or exercising in the park. Viewing the Chen weapon forms
in this way shows a superficial appreciation of their fundamental nature. Preserved within each of the Chen weapons routine is a complex martial training manual. As well as the flexible sinuous
movements, the forms include numerous dynamic actions, swift changes in tempo, and fierce chopping, slicing or thrusting movements.
Viewed in the light of the whole system, weapons training add to the barehand training of the Chen Taijiquan exponent by magnifying certain requirements. For instance, the mind and intention must
be extended all the way through the length of the weapon; movements must stay relaxed, agile and efficient at the same time as controlling a weighty object; and footwork must be lively and
responsive to permit rapid changes in the actual fighting sequence. Within the training curriculum of Chen style Taijiquan numerous weapons are still practiced today, including sword (jian),
broadsword (dao), spear (qiang), halberd (guandao), pole, double-sword, double-broadsword and double iron mace.
The sword is one of the most ancient weapons in Chinese martial arts history. Archaeologists have uncovered swords from as far back as the Bronze Age. When the Terracotta Army was unearthed in
the early Chinese capital Xian, a find dating back to the Qin dynasty more than two thousand years ago, the officers and generals were found carrying swords.
In Chen Taijiquan, the sword used is generally light in weight, with a flexible blade. For the Chen Taiji swordsman, success on the battlefield depended more upon skill, precision and speed. Chen
Taijiquan contains one single straight sword form consisting of forty-nine postures. The forty-nine postures can be sub-divided into thirteen basic techniques: thrusting downwards (zha); level or
upward thrust (ci); pointing by flicking the wrist (dian); chopping (pi); slicing levelly or obliquely upwards (mo); sweeping (sao); neutralizing in a circular path (hua); circular deflection
with point uppermost (liao); hanging (gua); pushing up (tuo); pushing (tui); intercepting (jie); and raising opponent’s weapon overhead (jia)”.
The sword’s flexibility allows the proficient swordsman to inflict injury from a great range of angles utilizing many diverse techniques. Its great versatility has led to the saying that there is
“no gap the sword cannot enter, and no gap that another can enter”.
Chen Xiaoxing training sword
The different weapons help to train the many diverse qualities essential in honing a “Taijiquan physique.” Practicing the Chen sword form allows an exponent to develop the ability to project
energy in a relaxed manner to the tip of the sword. It also helps to create an efficient Taiji body, with repeated practice loosening the large joints such as the hips and shoulders, as well as
helping to increase the suppleness of the wrists and hands.
Chen Family Temple mural - Broadsword
Another of Chen Taijiquan’s short weapons is the Broadsword. Easily distinguishable from the sword, which is double-edged and light, the broadsword is single-edged and heavy. The resultant
strength of the broadsword led to cutting movements that are large, expansive and powerful in nature. In appearance, using the broadsword is said to be “like splitting a mountain.” In character,
the Broadsword is traditionally compared to a ferocious tiger, with each movement being more direct and easily understandable than the straight sword. This is reflected in the Chinese martial
arts saying “Dao like a fierce tiger, jian like a swimming dragon.”
The Chen Taijiquan Broadsword form is short in length and dynamic in nature. Although classified as one of the system’s short weapons, the broadsword can cover a surprisingly long distance by
utilizing explosive leaping and jumping movements. Movements can be performed in different ways depending upon the ultimate objective of practice. Often the routine is executed with long, low
stances as a way of conditioning the body, increasing one’s power and speed. As a means of overall body training, the explosive leaping and jumping movements much in common with modern plyometric
training exercises used by many of today’s elite sports performers. Simply put the combination of speed and strength is power. For many years coaches and athletes have sought to improve power in
order to enhance performance. Throughout the last century and no doubt long before, jumping, bounding and hopping exercises have been used in various ways to enhance athletic performance. In
recent years this distinct method of training for power or explosiveness has been termed plyometrics (Flach, 2005: 14). In Chenjiagou, Taijiquan exponents have long understood this method of
training to enhance the explosive reaction of the individual.
When training for combat use, however, using very low stances, prevents the dexterity and fleetness of footwork required in a real conflict. The Taiji boxer focusing on training the applications
within the broadsword routine would usually practice in a higher posture to enhance mobility. Consequently, to achieve both martial and conditioning benefits, practitioners in Chenjiagou have
traditionally trained over a range of heights.
Chen Taijiquan Spear
As well as its short weapons, Chen Taijiquan also has a number of weapons for long range combat, including the halberd, long pole and the “King of Weapons” – the spear. An often-cited phrase
-“one hundred days to practice broadsword, one thousand days to practice spear” – reflects the intricacy and level of difficulty contained within the form.
Also known as the “Pear-Flower Spear and White Ape Staff” (Li Hua Qiang Jia Bai Yuan Kun), the Chen Taijiquan spear is trained through a form that includes the functions of both spear and staff.
The routine dates back to Chen Wangting, making it one of the earliest Taiji forms. In his comprehensive review of Taijiquan, The Origin, Evolution and Development of Shadow Boxing, Gu Liuxin
cites the evidence gathered by historian Tang Hao, who came to the conclusion that the texts of the famous Ming general Qi Jiguang had a profound influence on Chen Wangting’s creation of
Taijiquan. Qi’s military training text, in turn, documented the spear techniques of the Yang Family 24-Spear Form. The Yang family in question refers to a renowned female warrior of the Song
dynasty, who used the form to avenge the slaying of her male relatives, so should not be confused with the Yang Taijiquan family.
The earliest version of the Chen Taiji spear form followed the sequence of the Yang 24-movement
Ming General Qi Jiguang
form in both posture and name. Its uniqueness came as a result of the application of Taiji movement principles to the existing method. In the ensuing years, the Chen spear form has increased from
24 to 72 movements with the addition of a variety of staff movements.
Watching a skilled exponent performing the, its martial roots are immediately apparent. The overall tempo is forceful, direct and rapid with few movements being done slowly. Today it is highly
unlikely that anyone would need to use the spear for its original combat purpose, yet the Chen family spear form remains a highly practical training tool. Spear practice enhances barehand skills
by improving balance through the use of intricate and rapid stepping movements as well as developing upper body strength and overall flexibility.
Variously known as the “Spring and Autumn Broadsword,” the “Green Dragon Crescent Moon Broadsword” or simply the “Big Knife,” the halberd is one of the oldest weapons forms in the system.
Characterized by strong and powerful movements, the halberd is a large and heavy weapon requiring a high degree of upper body strength and a stable root if it is to be manipulated freely. The
Chen Taijiquan halberd trains the practitioner to move and be responsive in every direction. The halberd provides today’s practitioners with a tangible link to the earliest days of Chen
Taijiquan. The favored weapon of Chen Wangting, it is recorded in the Genealogy of the Chen Family that:
Guandao training - Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
Wangting, alias Zhouting, was a knight at the end of the Ming dynasty and a scholar in the early years of the Qing Dynasty. He was known in Shandong Province as a master of martial arts, once
defeating more than a thousand bandits. He was the originator of the barehanded and armed combat boxing of the Chen school. He was a born warrior, as can be proved by the
broadsword he used in combat.
While the individual names of the weapon or hand forms describe the movements, the halberd form is unique. Each of the thirty movements of this form is given a seven-character song or poem. When
taken in their entirety, they recount the story of General Guan, a famous warrior from the turbulent Three Kingdoms Period (A.D.25–220) of Chinese history. Consequently every time the form is
practiced, his exploits are re-enacted.
Contemporary practitioners should not overlook the importance of the weapons routines as they offer a tangible link to past generations. The forms are at once practical and aesthetic.
Artistically pleasing to watch, the weapons routines are physically complex and demanding to complete. Many of the weapon forms have changed little since the time of Chen Wangting. Consequently
they provide a window to the origins of Taijiquan and represent an important legacy to today’s Taijiquan practitioner.
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