Tuesday, 26 September 2017

UFC legend Anderson Silva meets Chen Taijiquan...

Chen Taijiquan Chen Xiangin meets MMA's Anderson Silva
I saw this interaction between UFC legend Anderson "The Spider" Silva and Chen Xianglin one of the branch instructors of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School and a member of its fighting team and thought some of you might enjoy it.
Mixed martial arts website bloodyelbow.com reported recently that "the UFC is headed to Shanghai in November with Anderson Silva expected to headline in a bout with Kelvin Gastelum. The UFC is finally headed to mainland China five years after their first event in Macau, back in 2012".
Brazilian mixed martial artist Anderson "the spider" Silva holds the longest title streak in UFC history, which ended in 2013 after 2,457 days, with 16 consecutive wins and 10 title defences of the UFC middleweight crown. He was described by UFC president Dana White and a number of mixed-martial-arts publications as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.

Silva and Gastelum are currently in China promoting their upcoming bout. One of the most dominant strikers the sport has ever seen Silva's main martial art is Muay Thai, but he is a black belt in Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo.

After the press conference yesterday (25th Sept) for the upcoming fight the "Spider" met with Chen Xiangln for dinner and for a friendly exchange of skills. Chen Xianglin is one of the guys we've watched over the years emerging from the ranks of students and developing into an accomplished martial artist.

In the short clip of their meeting Silva's jaw  visibly dropped at the explosiveness of Chen's short range fajin. What's the chance he'll add Chen Taijiquan to his repertoire?
Legendary MMA champion Anderson Silva experiencing Chen Taijiquan


Monday, 25 September 2017

On Taijiquan, weightlifting and a shared world view...

Unveiling Chenjiagou's new statue of Chen Wangting
Chenjiagou is buzzing at the moment with the unveiling of a new and bigger statue of Chen Wangting. At the same time, coming across the following quote by Wang Xian made me chuckle: “What’s the biggest secret in Taijiquan – train, train, train and train again. If you just look and don’t practice even Chen Wangting couldn’t teach you”! A simple and unmistakable message that nobody could fail to understand! Everybody gets the idea that superior skills require bitter training. Ultimately every person makes a decision how hard they are going to work and, by definition, the elite level is built on a commitment that the masses cannot commit to. As bodybuilding legend and multiple times Mr Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman puts it: “Everyone wants to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody want to lift no heavy-ass weights”!

Joking aside, a serious obstacle faces many western students of Taijiquan that cause many students to get a disproportionately small return in real Taijiquan terms for their hard efforts. The various internal martial arts systems share many training methods and theories which practitioners, while sweating and knocking out the reps, often pay lip service to. Requirements such as:

Chen Xiaoxing - "without understanding China's
traditional culture you cannot go past a basic level"

Head held as if being suspended by a string
Eyes kept level
Tongue against the upper palate
Shoulders relaxed and elbows sunken
Chest relaxed and contained
Qi to dantian
Kua relaxed
etc. etc...

These are the core requirements. The problem is that the benefits of training these aspects are not at all obvious. Many students are able to quote these rules, but lose confidence in prioritising their attainment in their daily training. The average Chinese student has less internal conflict when their teacher asks them to follow these requirements. Not that there are no lazy or impatient Chinese students, or that all Chinese students pay strict attention to these details and don't get distracted by the more dynamic side of Taijiquan. But these ideas are shared throughout Chinese culture.  Many of the same requirements underpinning Taijiquan are also central to the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine,painting and calligraphy etc. Even the ultra stylised medium of Beijing opera requires performers to keep their kua level, to sink qi to the dantian, lift the crown of their head etc. In an interview with Chen Xiaoxing he went as far as describing the lack of understanding of traditional Chinese culture as one of the most significant barriers for non-Chinese students. Without this, he believed a person could never get beyond the basic level of imitating the outside shape.

During the London Olympics I watched the weightlifting event. As one of the Chinese contestants prepared to make his final lift his coach quietly said "chen qi" or "sink your qi". At this pivotal moment he for sure wasn't looking to make some kind of obscure philosophical point. The advice carried a clear and understandable message to his lifter. The lack of understanding this shared world view is a barrier that western Taijiquan students must overcome if they are to be successful in their practice.
Chinese weightlifters understand what is meant by "sinking the qi"

Friday, 15 September 2017

Doing it "correctly" v "quickly"...

It's always a pleasure to return to Poland. As usual Chen Ziqiang's week long series of workshops was ably hosted by Marek Balinski's Chen Taijiquan Academie in the suburbs of Warsaw. A recurring pointer over the different sessions was the need to be patient and to do the right thing. Haste, impatience and the urge to do it quickly- be it the handforms, weapons or push hands - only lead to poor realisation. Ultimately this kind of short-cut thinking kills any chance of developing authentic skill. Conversely, careful repetitive practice allows one to systematically train out any mistakes of structure or timing and coordination. To quote Chen Ziqiang, "Be patient. Do it right. If you do the right things, the right things happen".

We reviewed the spear form over the course of two days going deeper into  the essential points of the weapon. Despite it being an experienced group that knew the choreography well, he spent  half of the first day working on three core basic drills which combined, trained the "martial flower" pattern. The martial flower synchronises fast and agile footwork with movements of the spear, "as if there were an axle turning two wheels closely on either side of the body".  As mentioned in a previous post, people often incorrectly do this movement by turning the spear in front of their body as if paddling a canoe.

Students often get impatient during this kind of basic practice, but that is what gets results. Commenting on one over-zealous student moving furiously up and down the room: "Look at him spinning the spear around as if he knows what he's doing". Superficially the hand movements were OK, but the footwork was completely uncoordinated,

stepping back as if both feet were fixed on tramlines. Chen Ziqiang recalled how he was instructed to train the martial flower for two years before being allowed to begin learning the spear form. And to train the basics of the sabre for five years before learning the form. Training in this way ensured that the essential characteristics became default settings over which it was easy to learn the form correctly. Obviously this time scale might not be practical or possible for a middle-aged practitioner who enjoys Taijiquan as a hobby and trains a couple times a week. However, it does point to the importance of careful mindful practice and the fact that doing it correctly is far more important than doing it quickly.
Qinna training...

 On a similar theme, during push hands training emphasis was placed on fixing the movement track until it is seamless. For instance, repeatedly training a single qinna with the idea of adding speed in the future when it can be applied instinctively without excessive or telegraphed movement. Going through the dingbu drill, carefully paying attention to the moments when you or your opponent were vulnerable to attack. Being mindful of changes in weight and the points where the opponent became double weighted and unable to take their foot off the ground.

In the beginning learners are naturally anxious to get everything, but at some point there's a need to realise that the best results only come if training is approached in a particular way. Above simply training hard (which is a given), what's needed is the mental capacity to take a step back and undoing mistakes.  Adopting a state of relaxed mindfulness, in a sense, not trying too hard and not fixating on any one particular aspect. Many people may misinterpret this as advocating some kind of easygoing less than optimal approach. This is a serious misunderstanding. Relaxed in this sense doesn't mean just sloppily doing what you want, but building slowly from fundamentals and adding to them layer by layer - no matter how long it takes...
Warasw spear group

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Taijiquan's "Placing Hands"

Kenji: Manga and Chen Taijiquan come together

Many people approach Chen Taijiquan’s “push hands” without really appreciating its subtleties and its place within the training curriculum. Interestingly even the term “tuishou” or “push hands” is a relatively recent term. Go back through the literature left by earlier generations and the term more commonly used was “geshou”. The literal translation of this is “putting hands”, but for readability in English we can say “placing hands”. Think of the action of putting a glass of water onto a table. Without paying attention and putting it down carefully we’ll either spill the water on the way to reaching the table. Or, worse we’ll drop the glass onto the floor if we release it too early. From this simple example we can see that the distance, angle etc must be exact.
The following text is adapted from Paul Brennan’s translation of Chen Ziming’s 1930s Taijiquan treatise.  “…you will begin to sense that the subtleties of the placing hands exercise come entirely from the ordinary practice of the Taijiquan form. All of the principles within the form manifest from a balanced energy. Placing hands is the application of that balanced energy.
Diligently practice the form. Once you are accomplished at it, you will naturally be able to move on to placing hands… In the beginning, work hard and unceasingly. But you must not learn placing hands first as it will undermine everything you are working towards, and for your whole life you will never be able to reach the heart of the art. If you do not first learn the form, and you instead want to start with placing hands exercise, you will be like an infant who learns to walk before learning to stand – ie always falling over. To abandon the beginning in search of the end is to start with the goal and neglect the work that will get you to it. If you do not know what comes before and follows after, how can you be on the right path? It is the form that is to be practiced first. People who first learn placing hands are all impatient for quick results, and they do not start with the form because they are all afraid of the hard work it entails and want only comfort. Unable to face up to the proper sequence of training, they just want to jump ahead. It is like wanting to draw lines and circles without the use of compass and square. In this way, they all produce something that a true craftsman would deem worthless”.   
Chen Ziming "placing hands"
Even with the basis of good form skills students must not become transfixed with the idea of pushing their opponent or forcing their techniques on and “winning” the encounter. This is a serious misunderstanding of the exercise. While it may seem to have been applied instantaneously, an accomplished practitioner applying a technique goes through the following four stages.

    1. ting jin (listen to an opponent’s energy)

    2. dong jin (understand…energy)  

    3. hua jin (neutralise…energy)

    4. fa jin (release your own energy)


Monday, 28 August 2017

Integrating Body and Mind…

Six harmonies to unify body and mind
The famous Chinese military strategist Sunzi stated that: “Victory comes from deep thinking, detailed preparation and long calculation”. Chen Taijiquan’s systematic training methodology takes into account every aspect of an individual. Its unique training method was devised to unify body and mind and sayings such as “concentrate on one thing lose everything” reflect an implicit understanding that no single facet can be understood except in relation to the whole. Recognising this practitioners work towards harmonising the opposing forces or aspects within the body through the gradual realisation of Taijiquan’s “six harmonies” – divided into three external and three internal harmonies.
Understanding and applying the six harmonies is not easy, especially the three internal harmonies and learners shouldn’t expect to achieve this overnight. To take them in turn, the external harmonies refer to aspects of  structure and alignment and the coordination of the external aspects of the body. The three external harmonies represent the connections between:

Hands – Feet

Elbows – Knees

Shoulders - Kua

The realisation of the external harmonies is sometimes referred to as the skill of “everything arriving at the same time”.

Working Towards Integration
Chen Xin
Broadly speaking we can say that anything that leads us towards integrating the body and mind leads us towards realising the six harmonies. Over the generations different ways have been used to explain this process. For example, Chen Taijiquan makes use of “three sectional movement” explained by Chen Xin as follows: “Jin is divided into three sections, every section is interconnected [jin] moving from section to section”. The following passage taken from the Chen family classics explains how to use this theory to synchronise the whole body:

“In truth it can serve the purpose by discussing them [the different parts of the body] by three parts: the upper, the middle and the lower, or root, middle and tip. For the entire body, head is the upper part, chest is the middle part and legs are the lower part. For the face, forehead is the upper, nose is the middle and mouth is the lower. For the torso, chest is the upper, stomach is the middle and dantian is the lower. For the legs, kua is the root, knee is the middle and foot is the tip. For the upper limb, arm is the root, elbow is the middle and hand is the tip. For the hand, wrist is the root, palm is the middle and finger is the tip, from which the case of the feet can be deduced. So there are three parts from neck to feet. It is important to focus on the three parts in their cooperation. If the upper is not clear, there will be no source, if the middle is not clear, the internal body will be empty, and if the lower is not clear, instability will occur. From this it is obvious that the three parts of the body cannot be overlooked”.

The bow has the function of stretched power between two opposing forces. 
Others use the idea of “Five Bows” to explain Taijiquan’s internal power mechanics – simply put, bows have the function of stretched power between two opposing forces.  The body consists of five primary bows - the torso, the arms and legs which, when combined, form the basis of focused whole body jin.  They allow the collective force of the entire body to be emitted through one point, hence the saying, “five bows combine into one”.

In practice it is important to become more aware of movements opposing and complementing each other - recognising the fact that if there is a motion upward, there will be a motion downward. If there is a motion forward, there will be a motion backward.  If there is a motion leftward, there will be a motion rightward. This is reflected in advice passed down such as: “The heels sink down while the achilles tendon lifts up. The kua loosen while the lower spine lifts up. The shoulders relax while the neck lifts up”. Or the “three liftings” of the internal martial arts which instructs practitioners to use intention to lift the baihui, tongue and huiyin while everything else sinks down.

To summarise harmonisation:
-      No action in isolation

-      When one part moves another part harmonises (upper/lower, left/right, hand/foot/ qi/action etc) 

While Taijiquan is considered to be an “internal” martial art, there is a close relationship between the external and internal aspects. So for instance, the process of quieting the mind leads to the calming of the emotions and inevitably to the relaxation of the body. In the early stages of training practitioners use the external shape to lead the internal, eventually using internal energy to drive the external shape.

Taijiquan’s three internal harmonies are usually described as the harmonisation of one’s xin (heart/mind), yi (intention), qi (intrinsic energy) and li (body strength). These are unified through the connections of:

Xin – Yi

Yi – Qi

Qi – Li

Or alternatively:

Xin – Yi

Qi – Li

Jin (Tendons) – Gu (Bones)

Zhu Tiancai summarised the body’s internal connections as a chain reaction:

1.   Xin is activated in instigating an action.

2.   Yi dictates the direction and power of the action.

3.   Yi sets in motion qi energy (that starts to move under the direction of yi).

4.   This in turn produces li or physical power.
Singapore 2002 pushing hands with Zhu Tiancai: "Intention dictates the power of an action"
Heart and Intention

The xin represents the centre of human feelings and emotions, from tranquillity, calmness and serenity to anger, grief, disappointment and frustration etc. The yi, on the other hand, refers to the logical decision-making mind. To cultivate mental unity both the emotional mind as well as the logical mind must be present. Fully focused energy can only be achieved with a decisiveness of purpose.

Nowhere is this more important than in the arena of combat where conflicting thoughts and feelings can easily lead to an unsuccessful outcome. Here xin is needed to summon up courage and fighting spirit and yi to make clear judgements and logical decisions. To paraphrase 14th generation master Chen Changxin, when facing an opponent “stand like a living dragon and then crush him like plucking a weed”.  
Chen Changxin statue in Chenjiagou

Monday, 7 August 2017

Taijiquan's "Big Four" Joints...

Chen Zhaoxu
An article published on Taiji Yiren, a Chinese site created to promote Taiji culture, reported the response by Chen Zhaoxu to the question – “How do you train this martial art”? Chen Zhaoxu (the eldest son of Chen Fake and father of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing) answered, “You have to fangsong (loosen) the “four big pieces” in the body”. That is the two shoulders and the two kua.

His younger brother Chen Zhaokui expanded on this, advising practitioners of the need to pay attention to relaxing the chest as only if your chest relaxes can your shoulders relax. He gave the example of push hands: “During push hands, the first thing is to control someone’s shoulders. If your shoulders are not flexible, you are actually locking yourself”. He went on to suggest that once you’ve solved the problem of the shoulders - that is they are flexible and can execute full rotation – even if someone locks you from behind,
Chen Zhaokui - "First thing is to control an opponent's shoulders"
you can reverse the attack and escape. Chen Zhaokui spoke of the relationship between the shoulders and the kua:   “Relaxing the chest and shoulders facilitates the folding movement of the torso and that has a direct relation to the kua being relaxed.  

Sun Lutang - "First solve the problem of the shoulders and kua"
Sun Lutang, the renowned internal martial artist and creator of Sun Style Taijiquan believed that, such was the importance of these four joints that in the early stages of training learners should focus upon them above everything else: “The key is in the shoulders and kua. In the beginning don’t think about anything else – just solve the problem of these two parts”. He advised learners to constantly think about how to relax and sink (ie don’t lift) the shoulders. This focus should be carried over to encompass one’s daily activities – “In your everyday life think about sinking your shoulders and dropping your elbows. [In time] you’ll see an obvious change”. Sun Lutang was of the opinion that a lot of people who have trained gongfu for many years have not succeeded in opening their kua.  Concluding that this was a serious failing that he believed meant that no matter how much effort they put in, without addressing this shortcoming, whatever they you train will be incorrect”.
Sun cautioned practitioners to be patient, advising them to only move on to other aspects of training when this basic requirement was achieved. Relaxing the shoulders and the kua is crucial if one is to develop an integrated body and from that point start to open up and stretch the rest of the joints: “After your shoulders and kua open other things are not so difficult. If you are diligent and persevere your body will start to change shape – you might even get unexpected results”.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Taijiquan's "Potential Strength"

Taijiquan's potential by Mary Johnston
Taijiquan teachers often use the expression - “be strong in eight directions”.  But what does this actually mean in practice? Fundamental to understanding how the Chinese understand dynamic processes is coming to terms with the character shi which can be loosely translated as the “configuration of energy”, or we could say latent energy. In texts from as far back as the Warring States and Qin period the term shi can often be found paired with the character xing, “external shape”. For example, a boulder has a shape. If it is balanced at the edge of a cliff it is said to have shi. The term is used widely in the Chinese tradition to describe the manifestation of energy from potential. China’s most revered military strategist Sunzi described the potential of a rock perched on the edge of a cliff and the devastating power that could be released from this quiet and harmless state. The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of him not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable. Similarly, Taijiquan appears quiet on the surface, but a highly trained practitioner seeks to be in a place of balance where they can instantly react to a force coming from any direction. 

Sunzi would have seen the potential of this
 rock perched high above the Grand Canyon
John Hay (1994) in his introduction to Boundaries in China describing shi wrote: “Its boundaries are therefore in time as well as space; they are never geometrically precise. Instead of exterior planes, they have a changeable envelope of textured energy”. Little wonder then that western Taijiquan players often misunderstand their Chinese teachers. During one training camp in Chenjiagou a student asked whether a particular movement was peng or lu. The answer he received was, “It could be peng and it could be lu”. That is, it had the potential to be either depending upon the intention at that moment. The student walked away confused and disappointed that they had not received a “straight answer”.

Friday, 7 July 2017

On push hands competitions...

A common phenomenon at competitions is the sight of those on the sidelines shaking their heads and criticising the competitors.  These armchair experts quote Taijiquan ideals such as “using four ounces to uproot a thousand pounds” and “using softness to overcome hardness“, to pour scorn on the contestants, none of whom measure up to their standards of what Taijiquan should be.  The criticism is often unfair.  Firstly, most of the critics have never put themselves into the competitive arena and experienced for themselves the performance-sapping effects of nerves and pressure. 

 Secondly, the sayings represent a perfect model that all Taijiquan exponents aspire to.  For example, “giving up yourself to follow others” requires an individual to remain circular within their postural framework, sticking and following an opponent without losing contact.  At the same time maintaining agility and sensitivity throughout with the ability to assess the opponent’s attacks and determine the distance, direction, speed and power of any threat.  All the while maintaining the ability to assess and respond to minute changes.  Following the opponent’s posture and borrowing his strength rather than resisting reaching a stage of being able to react according to the situation.  To reach a stage where you can do this is no easy task, so perhaps it is a bit unfair to criticise the average competitor for not living up to these ultimate standards.  After all, no one would expect a club runner to keep up with Usain Bolt, so one should not be too surprised when an average competitor does not live up to the standard of the great masters.

 It is important to make the distinction between modern push hands competitions and the hitting or connecting hands of the past.  Before techniques such as throwing, seizing and striking were used, not dissimilar from today’s sanda and sanshou.  Much of what Taijiquan uses for self defence is prohibited in tournament style competition, and whenever a fighter’s arsenal of techniques are restricted, inevitably what they can do is weakened and diluted.  For this reason competitions are viewed as sport rather than real combat.

 Competitions are best viewed as a testing ground to see what does and does not work for an individual and then, with this feedback, to adjust their training accordingly.  If the competitors have trained hard and developed some degree of rooting, balance and neutralising skill then they should not be too worried about being taken or thrown by an opponent.  Without ever being tested many practitioners continue to walk around with a false sense of their true level of martial skill. That said, you shouldn’t put too much importance on sporting competition. At the end of the day push hands competitions take place in an arena with rules and referees and is not the same as real combat, and techniques that win a point may be less effective in the unforgiving real world.  
 1997 British Open Chinese Martial Arts Championships: -80Kgs Final



Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The spiritual dimension…

Laozi image in the Chen Family Temple
A prospective student phoned me recently informing me that he had studied martial arts for some years and was now ready to do "something spiritual"! It brought to mind a case in the news a little while ago about a yoga teacher who was told by the church where she taught that she would have to find a different room. Yoga teacher Naomi Hayama was outraged at the suggestion that she was doing a "spiritual" discipline: "They are trying to say it is a spiritual practise but my classes are not… I respect people who are religious but I am not. That's what attracted me to yoga”. I was tickled by the response of a friend of mine (who happens to be an Indian guy and a committed yoga practitioner) on Facebook who dryly commented that, "900 million Hindus might disagree".

In one of the featured articles in the book Asian Martial Arts: Constructive Thoughts and Practical Applications, Michael Maliszewski Ph.D. revisited a ten year research project  he had previously completed dealing with meditative practices and indigenous healing traditions associated with many Asian martial arts. Some twenty years since his work was published he believed, “there had been a decline in the depth that has characterised the more traditional systems. The spiritual or meditative focus is more “generic” in the sense that any loose association with the ethereal is deemed spiritual”. Maliszewski concluded that, “in general martial arts study today, practitioners do not have the dedication to endure the long hours of training required to reach a level of authentic mastery in a tradition”.
During one of our training trips to Chenjiagou someone asked about the “spiritual dimension” of Taijiquan. They were told that there are three reasons for training Taijiquan: first for training an individual’s strength, constitution and general health; second, on the basis of good physicality training for combat; finally, on the basis of the previous two aspects they could begin to talk about spiritual development.
Over a lifetime’s training the committed Taijiquan practitioner embarks on a process of nurturing and cultivating or “xiu yang”. In The Taoist Body Kristofer Schipper describes xiu yang as the: “means to arrange, to smooth down any roughness or irregularities by  repeating an action many times in harmony with the cosmic order, until perfection is achieved. The perfect and complete body is thereby nurtured, its energies strengthened; it thus becomes totally integrated into the natural and cosmic environment. From there, the way is led – by repeated, cyclical movements – to spontaneity, which is the essence of the Tao”. 

Morning practice in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School - ongoing daily effort, the real path...


Monday, 22 May 2017

Train beyond your normal limits...

New learners don’t need to get bogged down with the Taijiquan’s high philosophy. Especially during the early stages of one’s training  journey where it is too profound and complex to be applied in any practical way.   Being able to recite the system’s advanced theories and repeat parrot-fashion whole verses from the Taijiquan classics means nothing if it is not supported by sustained training so that a person can physically manifest the principles of Taijiquan.   
Wang Xian: "You must train past your body's normal limits".
How intense should this training be? The following quote by Wang Xian makes his opinion quite clear: “Taiji training is very hard. You must train past your body’s normal limits – many times past these normal limits. Normal training just will not do. You need to push”. In a previous post I noted Chen Xiaoxing’s advice to one of his student’s in Chenjiagou “not to underestimate the importance of hard physical training”.  

Tian Jingmiao: "It's all a matter of repetition".
Some years ago we trained in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park with Tian Jingmiao, a disciple of the renowned Beijing based Chen Taijiquan teacher Lei Muni. She said that, “Practice is simply a matter of repetition, the more you do the better you get”. To incrementally increase the level of both intellectual understanding and physical skill we must work through the different stages of training in a logical manner. There is a saying that all practice must be done “according to the principles”. The principles start with the fundamental requirements. Then, on this foundation, learners advance in a step-by-step manner towards the higher levels of skill. To use a modern analogy: “learning Taijiquan is like installing a computer with hardware and software in order to improve its capability.  The hardware increases the physical capacity of the computer, making it stronger and more functional.  The software, on the other hand, performs the functions of the hardware and increases the number of functions.  In order for a computer to perform increasingly complex tasks, it is necessary to continually upgrade both the hardware and the software.  Taijiquan requires an exponent to possess a strong and useful body – the hardware, as well as trained skills – the software”.   

Chen Zhaopi
An article by Wang Xian recalled a favourite verse that Chen Zhaopi liked to sing: 
 “When I hear the rooster crow, I awake and practice Taiji.
Right now I am old, but I can still stick to the floor.
I want someone who can be my successor.
Even with sweat pouring out everywhere, I am happy.”

A EssĂȘncia do Taijiquan - Portuguese language edition now available on Amazon.com







Wednesday, 19 April 2017

"Moulding" the posture...

Carefully "fixing the frame": Chen Xiaoxing adjusting the posture of Chen Zijun
Don't over-emphasise the fast and explosive movements! The following training advice was posted on the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School’s website:    

“Chen Taijiquan practitioners often have a misunderstanding about their training.  Many think they have to be hard, vigorous and explosive to illustrate their martial abilities.  Under this mistaken perception many Chen Taijiquan practitioners over-emphasise fali (releasing power) - putting too much importance upon trying to punch and stamp powerfully.  Prolonged practice in this way is actually harmful to the body.    

Now Chen Xiaoxing corrects the posture of Chen Ziqiang in the Chen Family Temple
The principle of training should be based primarily on slowness. Training using the slow method cultivates the body, while fast training is ultimately detrimental both in terms of health and function. So the form should be trained until it is comfortable and natural, round and lively. Cultivate qi so that it sinks to and accumulates in the dantian where it can be distributed throughout the body. The highest level of Taijiquan is characterised by the phrase ‘circularity with one breath’. To achieve this train slowly and softly until the whole body moves in unison as an integrated whole”.    

Even experienced practitioners can refine and improve the quality of their physical structure and movement patterns. The time honoured way of training is to continually “fix the frame”. Teachers carefully adjust or “mould” their student's posture to come ever closer to conforming to the strict guidelines passed down. Throughout the process students must be patient as every aspect of their body, movement and posture is systematically rearranged – sinking the elbow, relaxing the shoulder, rounding the crotch, suspending the top of the head etc etc.
Chen Xiaowang corrects Chen Bing


Friday, 24 February 2017

Chen Bing speaks...

Davidine Sim & Chen Bing
The following answers are part of an interview, conducted by China's World Martial Arts Union and translated by Davidine Sim. Chen Bing speaks openly about his early years in Taijiquan. Including: childhood perceptions of Taijiquan; the influence of his uncles Chen Xiaoxing and Chen Xiaowang; understanding what Taijiquan is; and the problems that come with widespread propagation.
Q:  Can you talk about your early learning history and experience?

Chen Bing:  There was no question of choice when I began practicing Taijiquan as it's a family heritage.  Particularly being a male and being the oldest, the family started teaching me from the age of five.  Like it or not, you had to learn.  At that time (in 1976) it was still the tail end of the Cultural Revolution and the country was still not promoting the practice of martial arts.  But, after some discussion, it was decided that my training should commence, even though it was not done openly.  It is embarrassing to admit, but as I was still quite young I did not understand Taijiquan or the fact that it is a family inheritance.  Also because the then society did not condone the practice, and the government policy was still quite restrictive, plus the fact that most youngsters are more concerned about playing, I really did not like it at all.  This dislike only changed more than ten years later.

Q:  What unforgettable training incidences can you remember from your childhood?"

CB:  At that time I did not like Taijiquan so I'd think of different ways of evading training.  Everyday my uncles (Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Xiao Xing) would ask me if I had trained and I would say I had.  Most times this was untrue.  In this way I would try to outwit the adults.  One day my uncle asked me if I had trained and I said I had.  He asked where and I told him at such and such a place.  At that time it was a predominantly agricultural village and there were no concreted ground.  My uncle brought me to the place I had pointed out and, seeing no footprints whatsoever, exposed my lie.  I had a beating from him that day and never dared lie to him again.
Chen Bing
The second memorable incident happened when I was ten years old and in my third year of primary school.  One morning my class teacher unexpectedly called me out and personally tied a red neckerchief round my neck. He told me that it was an important occasion and I was required to go and demonstrate Taijiquan. I didn't know what was going on and went out into the school ground where I saw that the whole place was full of people. There were even people on walls and trees.  A platform had been erected upon which sat my uncles and grandmother.  I didn't pay much attention to my family's history and origin before, but now I realised that my family has a secret that I didn't know.  That was the first visit by a Japanese Taijiquan organisation who had arrived during a "search the source and visit the ancestors" trip.  One of the items on the programme was a children's Taijiquan performance.  I was very nervous because I hadn’t trained properly and was not sure I could remember the middle section of the form.  I managed to somehow get through the Laojia Yilu.  But a strong message got through to me that day -   that I must practice hard as my whole family and clan are somehow closely linked to Taijiquan.  This occasion also stimulated a certain pride and sense of responsibility. 
Q: What influence did your uncles have on your learning?

CB: It was my aunt (Chen Ying) who taught me first.  My uncles were very busy and were often away from home.  On their return they would watch me train and check on me.  They were very strict and I was somewhat afraid of them, knowing that ultimately I needed to pass their approval. Later I heard that my uncles had achieved many first prizes.  There were few television sets then, but I heard on the radio the name Chen Xiao Wang, that he had won a gold medal in an inaugural National competition in Xian.  When I told the news to my grandmother she was very proud.  I had the idea that I would like to follow the same path. In my youth my two uncles were my role models.

Q:  What was the biggest difficulty you encountered in your training?

CB:  Before the age of seventeen, I didn't train very hard and did not commit heart and soul into Taijiquan, so I didn't sense any difficulty.  When I truly began to like Taijiquan and train seriously I realised that I needed a very good teacher.  By that time my two uncles had become sought after and often went abroad and it was not easy to have them
beside me.  Sometimes it was difficult to see them even a few times in the year.  In this period I encountered many problems and, because the opportunity to communicate with them in person was rare, I was overwhelmed by these questions and didn't know who I should ask.  When you have many questions that you cannot find answers for it does affect your positive progress.

I decided to write a letter to my second uncle.  In his reply he wrote: "It is inevitable that there would be so many questions and that these questions overwhelm you.  But this is how training quan is.  By continuing to practice there comes a moment when you suddenly understand, when the problem is solved. Even if you understand the theory now, but because your gongfu is not accomplished, your body is not able to understand so it's still a blank.  Therefore you need to practice without break and in the process of learning you will realise one day that all the questions have been answered.  That's because your body has completely understood".

He taught me to "understand during the process; to realise a theory in practice, in order to own the thing.  When one day the chore of training translates into interest then it is evident that you have committed body and mind.  Your level will improve and mature very rapidly at this juncture".  At the time those words were imprinted in my brain.

Q:  You have now trained for quite a long time.  What is your understanding of Taijiquan?

CB:   When I was young I regarded Taijiquan as a combat art, to be used for fighting.  Because of my young age I wanted to be stronger than my peers. Now, from being a sports person to being an instructor then on to teaching all over the world, I realise that Taijiquan has multiple functions.  As an example when we're teaching abroad, it is not only a fitness discipline but also a representation of Chinese culture.  Through Taijiquan people abroad are able to become better acquainted with Chinese culture as well as China.  It enables deeper understanding and communication between the East and West.  From a personal point of view Taijiquan offers a means of growing into a more wholesome person. An individual's training experience, hard practice, relentless perseverance and consistence cultivates the spirit and tempers the will.  The reward of acquiring gongfu and enlightenment through the sacrifice of toil, that "heaven rewards the diligent".  The quan theories also teaches me the laws of nature and the universe. It enables me to better understand society, the world, the natural world, the universe, thus it enlightens and augments my mind and improves my wisdom. 

Q:  You have students all over the world now.  What do you think is the most important aspect they should learn?

CB:  Perhaps the most important aspect is their understanding of Taijiquan.  If they know the cultural essence of Taijiquan then they have a basis from which to train.  Otherwise it poses too many questions.  For example, What is Taijiquan? If people know what Taijiquan really is then the often asked question of why the " Four Jinggang" are not practising the same way will no longer be a question.  They often ask which of them is right (or wrong) or even who is better (or worse).  But if they understand Taijiquan this will not be a question.  And they will know that if the four of them have identical forms, then that would be abnormal.
Q:  By that you mean that everyone has a different understanding of Taijiquan?

CB:  Taiji means Yin-Yang changes.  Most people understand Yin-Yang, but forget its most important aspect - "changes".  Its inevitable aspect is change, and it does not remain the same.  The time is different, the person is different, the environment is different, constantly evolving and changing.  Taijiquan is the same.  Everyone's practice is different and this is normal.  But there are aspects that remain unchanged and constant.  We must view change from the viewpoint of mutual transformation of Yin and Yang, change that occurs within transformation and development.  The results of practice have assimilated the person's personality, realisation, temperament, character etc. It becomes the person, and is expressed through the physical movements.  If you are exactly like your teacher, then you're stuck at the stage of imitating your teacher and have not moved to the stage of realising yourself.  If we are clear about the ideology of Taijiquan then we will be rid of many of Taijiquan's misperceptions.

Q:  What challenges do you face in the drive to promote and popularise Taijiquan?  How do we let the general public correctly understand Taijiquan?  In mass propagation how do we express the core essence of Taijiquan?

CB:  From the viewpoint of a teacher what I can do is teach not only movements but also the theories.  As long as the principle is followed the outward expression is not crucial.   Sometimes an external shape can be very standard and is an exact duplication of the teacher's, but your execution does not exhibit Qi sunk into the dantian, therefore your frame is an "empty frame".  You have not demonstrated the key element.  The Internal martial system does not look at the degree of accuracy in the external shape.  The underpinning principle is the criteria.  In the absence of this, the external manifestation is not important.  Let the students grasp this and they will not be entangled about external movements.  Instead they will be seeking the internal feeling.

Q:  What have you gained from your work publicising and propagating Taijiquan?

CB:   Firstly, when I started teaching I was worried that teaching will affect my training.  I said to my uncle that "as I have to explain, demonstrate and transmit, my internal feeling is reduced and will affect my own development".  My uncle said to me that you need to first find yourself, then maintain yourself.  During teaching continue to maintain yourself and don't lose your stance - "teach and train, train and teach".  It forged my interest in teaching as I embraced the concept that teaching is training and to train whilst teaching.  In the process of teaching I'm also upping my own skill. The second aspect is the sense of achievement when I see students improve.  To witness the benefits and the transformation that Taijiquan has given them, either in physical health or mental well-being. Thirdly, from a personal point of view.  With the gradual insight gleaned from Taijiquan I'm able to slowly change and adjust my mood and my interaction and conduct with the wider society.  I'm in fact a rather hot-tempered person.  Through practising Taijiquan I'm continually correcting and changing myself.

World Martial Arts Union interview with Chen Bing
Q:  Some people still think Taijiquan is a health exercise for middle/old age people.  What do you think is the best way to engage the younger people?

CB:  I think this is a misapprehension.  They don't comprehensively know the root of Taijiquan.  It has been overtaken by one aspect of its expressions.  But it shouldn't be viewed in a negative way because it has been accepted in that section of the populace and it's health benefits have been acknowledged.  I consider it a success in its mass propagation on a national scale. 

To engage and recruit younger peoples we must consider 1. that young people haven't as much free time as the older retired people.  Taijiquan cannot be too time consuming and at the same time need to show results more quickly.  Therefore we need to have a concise method that is suitable for young people - concise training that brings out the essence.  2. that it needs to be modern and trendy in order to attract them in the first place.  Yoga has been successful in imaging itself as body beautiful with graceful movements that are comfortable and flexible.  It is an attractive pursuit.  Taijiquan perhaps can learn from this.  For example Taijiquan instructors need to present a certain image, its movements require some adaptations, its practice environment need some appropriate arrangements etc. in order to match the younger person's tendencies towards trend and modernity.

Q:  There is a voice today that says that Taijiquan is a health exercise and not a combative system.  What is your view?

CB:  Its health benefits and health enhancing qualities are undisputed and widely acknowledged.  Not only in terms of physical but also mental health.  The main question is Taijiquan's effectiveness as an actual combat skill.  I think we need to consider this from different angles.  Firstly, we live in a time that is very different from the time of its inception.  When Taijiquan was created its chief function was for the purpose of bare-hand attacks and defence.  If the then existing model of Taijiquan is transferred to the modern era it may have become obsolete and extinct.  The fact that it has survived to this day is because it's main function has undergone a Yin-Yang change.  The creation of Taijiquan with its health-preserving and mental processes was to counteract the harm and injuries that resulted from martial practices. Today if the combat side had remained the main focus it will not have been assimilated by the mass and promoted by the government. Taijiquan is flourishing apace today because its health-enhancing and fitness-promoting aspect is now the focus.  However the combative side is now under-emphasised. There should be no question to its effectiveness.  It's a matter of which aspect of it you're focusing. We adapt to our bigger environment…  From a young age we trained, firstly for Taolu competitions and later to Tuishou contests.  Gradually even the Tuishou contests became curtailed.  Our platforms become lesser and the paths that lead from them become narrower.  Extremely high level Taijiquan combat exponents have limited outlets. As a result, many abandon this route and decide to follow the crowd and the ever-expanding demand for the health and fitness aspects.  However as the art develops there are now a section of the Taijiquan practitioners who are again examining and developing the martial side.

Q:  What role does Taijiquan play in our nation's promotion of Chinese Culture and our future so-called China Dream?

CB:  China is not strong if it grows only in economic strength.  Economy without being sustained by cultural values will be short-lived.  I believe that to realise the China Dream there's the need to invest robustly in China's traditional cultural values.   China is currently facing the scenario of having a very strong economy and quite a strong military.  However we're look-down-upon by even countries much smaller than ours.  This is because we're not strong in our cultural values and we need to attach great importance to this and actively promote it.  In cultural exchanges in the strong civilised nations we're facing many issues that are not accepted by the West.  I think Taiji culture with its underpinning philosophy of balance, inclusivity, etc. is a good entry point to promote our culture, that will be accepted by other nations.  My hope is that it can be promoted from a governmental/national level. 

Q:  What is the biggest dilemma that you have faced?

CB:   Society today has presented us with many dilemmas.  Do we change our culture in order to adapt to the market trend, or stand firm and preserve the culture?  In response to the present societal conditions do we change or not?  Under what circumstances do we need to stand firm and under what circumstances do we need to evolve and change?  These are not easy issues.  To do them simultaneously may result in both being done badly. 

Chen Bing, born in 1971, is the 20th generation direct descendant of the Chen Taijiquan Family.  He was raised by his uncle Chen Xiao Xing and began his Taijiquan training from the age of 5.  In 2007 he established the Chenjiagou International Taijiquan Academy in Chenjiagou.  He teaches all over China and Internationally.