Thursday, 3 May 2018

The Role of Weapons Training

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 them.

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) and Kan (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.

 

Friday, 27 April 2018

What’s the hurry, do it properly…

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”.

Chen Zhenglei: “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 practice”
Slow training allows us to:

-          examine each aspect carefully when practising until it becomes natural
 
-          Try to 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?")
 
-          Use 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”!

Monday, 12 March 2018

Practice Makes Permanent...

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 quality.”
 
Chen Zhaokui - "hard training means clever training"
 

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Notes on Fajin…

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 release

-          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 instantly relaxing

-          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! 

To summarise:
i.                     energy starts from both feet
ii.                   waist and hips shake and spiral
iii.                  must have an exact target point and direct energy to it
 
3.       Approach training in a step-by-step manner with the idea of working  from the “least to most”

-      prolonged practice leads to ease of movement 

-      movement that is under one’s own self control
The explosive fajin of GM Chen XiaoxingAdd caption
 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Real Taijiquan Can’t be Simplified…

A few 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
 
So, 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.
 
Modern  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:
 
"It is 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 dimensions".
 
The 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" 
 

 

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Chinese Folk Religion and Taijiquan...

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 an
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?

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 maidens. 

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". 
Confucius
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!


Sunday, 26 November 2017

Through realisation not speech...

Chenjiagou's facelift
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 way.

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 fundamentals...


Pre-party photo: L-R: David Gaffney, Chen Xiaoxing, Davidine Sim