Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Chen Xiaoxing – “Know the rules, but be flexible in their application”!

Chen Xiaoxing - "The direction depends upon where your opponent is"
During one session at GM Chen Xiaoxing's recent seminar in Warsaw somebody asked him about the exact direction of the fist in the "Punch to the Ground’ posture. Chen Xiaoxing shook his head and answered "mei guanxi" ( "it's not important").  The group consisted of students who have completed the form and with several years’ experience.  He explained that the direction depends on where your opponent is.  What is important is to be structurally correct, to be rooted, to be able to move in complete unison and to be able to adapt to a changing situation. These are the skills that should be developed.  Variations of this question come up frequently - what is the EXACT position of the hand, the foot, etc.  As students are more frequently exposed to different teachers and to different ways of doing the same form, their confidence and certainty are often being replaced with confusion and uncertainty. New students obviously need a clear map when they are first learning the form, but over time the form should act as a template rather than a shackle. Instead of focusing on the differences, focus on the things that are the same - Is the structure correct and the energy unbroken? Are we alternating opening and closing correctly? And with no unnecessary or additional movements to telegraph the intention?
Poland 2014

The key point of this seminar is:  learn the rules, but be flexible in their application. Chen Xiaoxing illustrated this point with a joke about two groups of soldiers - one Japanese, the other Chinese. Both were ordered to march. After a time the path was blocked by a river where, without a moment’s hesitation, the Japanese soldiers marched straight into the river and were washed away and drowned.  The Chinese soldiers, however, on arriving at the river, halted but continued marching on the spot. The moral of the story - you must obey the rules, but you must also have the presence of mind to change according to the situation in front of you.

Brain mapping research - subject Chen Xiaoxing
In July this year I reported on the ongoing brain mapping research being conducted by Polish scientists from Biomed Neurtechnology. On that occasion Chen Ziqiang was the subject. This time the researcher was happy to find  his father Chen Xiaoxing in town. The results have not been analysed yet, but the preliminary impressions of researcher Greg Wlodarczyk were very interesting. During the first measurement stage when Chen Xiaoxing was asked to sit with his eyes open and keep his mind free (i.e. not in any kind of quiet or meditative state), the frequency of his normal brain waves appeared to be more like those of a person in his 30s.  Wlodarczyk explained that a person in his early 60s would typically show much less frequency. During the final stage Chen Xiaoxing was asked to close his eyes and to consciously quieten his mind.  Like the test with his son there was an obvious and strong connection between the frontal and rear parts of the brain. We'll include a full report of the findings from both Chen Xiaoxing and Chen Ziqiang in our next book (yes, it’s a plug!!!).

Friday, 10 October 2014

Do you own your Taijiquan?

The last few months I've been on the road, taking in France, China and Slovenia like some kind of Taiji gypsy. One of the fascinating things you can't help but notice is the different perceptions of the art that many people hold. Here I'm talking about serious Taijiquan practitioners, if we judge seriousness in terms of dedication and time spent actually doing it (as opposed to talking about it!). Beyond the common martial art v health distinction, there are many different ways a person can approach Taijiquan and get a good return for their investment of time and effort.

CTGB 2014 group in Chenjiagou L-R:  Crawford Currie, Viki Lloyd, Dragan Lazarevic, Davidine Sim, Chen Xiaoxing,  David Gaffney & David Murray
The time honoured method of training in Chenjiagou places great emphasis upon realising fundamentals before progressing to the next level. That said, one of the things that struck me during this recent trip was the many different ways Taijiquan can be practised depending on the age, fitness and goals of the person: 
  • One group of young guys in their teens and early twenties started every day training Laojia Yilu with Chen Ziqiang before going training weight training and sparring sessions to prepare some of them for a repeat of last years challenge match with a team of champion Thai boxers from Thailand.  Others to prepare for full contact sanda competitions.
    Two of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School's top young fighters
  • A group of more mature students were training the Guandao (halberd) everyday with Chen Hui, another of the school's senior instructors. Using heavy weapons they were building strength in Taijiquan's traditional way while mastering the favoured weapon of Chen Wangting, creator of Taijiquan. 
  • One elderly character who comes to Chenjiagou for a few months every year and delights in walking around bare chested (or in a vest in severe weather), as well as doing his forms, was constantly stretching to keep his mobility in later life. 
  • An elegant young woman was training everyday in the double sword form - one of the most aesthetically beautiful weapons in the system.
My sword group in Slovenia
  • One of the Chinese students who joined our group with her husband is an expert in Chinese tea culture and a member of China's traditional painting society. Each day after training she would go to her room to work on a long term project of doing a calligraphy copy of the Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine - one of the defining classic texts that underpins many of the theories of Taijiquan. To her Taijiquan practice is a natural extension of a deep study of China's culture.

It's vital to learn from someone who really understands Taijiquan
Each of us has our own unique body and temperament. Throw into the mix age, fitness, past experience... Different people who learn from the same teacher must ultimately bring out their own particular strengths. In Chen Zhaokui’s widely circulated article “Training for Sparring”, he urged practitioners to consider carefully their own physical and mental advantages and disadvantages and train accordingly: 

"After a reasonable mastery of sparring techniques, you should specialise in one or two techniques, the exact ones will be defined by your build, stamina, reflexes, and other factors.  For example, a tall person should put emphasis on cai, or plucking, and lie, which means splitting… A short person should mainly practice shoulder, elbow, and leg techniques in order to attack the lower part of the opponent.  He must be fast and agile…For the powerful, emphasis should be on cai, lie, and zhou.  Strikes should be so powerful that the first strike eliminates all possible attacks…For the agile, emphasis should be on fake moves.  The opponent should be tricked in any way possible… Then …hit with fast moves…For those with slow reflexes, emphasis should be on defence, i.e., when the opponent strikes, the strikes should be blocked and then countered". 

Chen Zhaokui - "Specialise"!!


The important point is that at some point we need to make the Taijiquan we train our own. Of course it's vital that you learn from someone who really understands Taijiquan and put in some serious training under their guidance. BUT if your idea of doing "good Taijiquan" is being a clone of your teacher, ask yourself why all the most highly skilled practitioners express their own distinct flavour? If you've followed a teacher for fifteen or twenty years and still depend upon them, rather than your own understanding then have you really learned anything?