Chen Ziming’s general comments on Taijiquan

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Delving deeper into Chen Ziming’s book.

I posted yesterday about a translation of Chen Ziming’s book “The inherited Chen family Taiji boxing art” that is available on the Brennan translations website. I’ve just started reading it and noticed a couple of interesting things I thought I’d post about.

(It should be noted that I often read critiques of the translations by P. Brennan, saying there is too much of the author’s own interpretation in there, rather than a literal translation, so take that into consideration.)

Firstly, who was Chen Ziming?

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Chen Ziming was the same generation of Chen family boxing as Chen Fake, who moved to Beijing and made Chen style famous in the capital. Chen Ziming really rose to fame as being the student of Chen Xin, who (unusually for the time) was literate and wrote the first book on Chen style Taijiquan Taijiquan Illustrated, which contained several drawings of silk reeling energy which are still used today. The book was published after the death of Chen Xin by the historian Tang Hao and others. Chen Xin died in 1929. Some extracts of Chen Xin’s book are available on Jarek’s China from Inside.

There are various subdivisions of styles within Chen style. There is a big frame, small frame, old frame and new frame. As a student of Chen Xin, Ziming promoted what is known as the “small frame” of Chen Taijiquan. This sub style was born in the Chen village and uses smaller circles as a feature of its practice (it uses the same forms other Chen styles use).

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While the small frame is often said to be the more ‘traditional’ method because it stayed in the village longer, all Chen substyles share the same principles, so they’re not really separate styles, just each has a different emphasis, reflecting the person who passed them on.

From Wikipedia:

The increased interest in Chen-style t’ai chi ch’uan led Tang Hao (唐豪; 1887–1959), one of the first modern Chinese martial art historians, to visit and document the martial lineage in Chen Village in 1930 with Chen Ziming.[10] During the course of his research, he consulted with a manuscript written by 16th generation family member Chen Xin (陳鑫; Ch’en Hsin; 1849–1929) detailing Chen Xin’s understanding of the Chen Village heritage. Chen Xin’s nephew, Chen Chunyuan, together with Chen Panling (president of Henan Province Martial Arts Academy), Han Zibu (president of Henan Archives Bureau), Wang Zemin, Bai Yusheng of Kaiming Publishing House, Guan Baiyi (director of Henan Provincial Museum) and Zhang Jiamou helped publish Chen Xin’s work posthumously. The book entitled Taijiquan Illustrated (太極拳圖說 see classic book) was published in 1933 with the first print run of thousand copies.[11]

From Wikipedia:

Chen Xin initially trained with his father but his father ordered him to study literature rather than the martial arts. It was only later that he decided to use his literature skills to describe his understanding of the secrets of Chen style. In Chen Xin’s generation, his older brother, Chen Yao and his cousin, Chen Yanxi(陈延熙, father of Chen Fake) were considered masters of the Chen style. Chen Xin’s legacy is his book and his student, Chen Ziming (陈子明). Chen Ziming, went on to promote Chen style small frame throughout China and wrote books [32] promoting the art. Chen Ziming was in the same generation as Chen Fake.”

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At the start of the book Chen lists 9 ‘general comments’ about Taijiquan.

The first 6 are a kind of an orientation to the subject and a guide to what is in the book. From point 7 onwards it gets interesting. He makes some very good observations about Taijiquan that are worth reflecting on.

7. The boxing art called Taiji seeks an appearance of ease. Once you have practiced it to familiarity, you will be able to understand its subtleties and your body’s actions will never depart from the principles. If in the beginning you overanalyze each technique, you will come up with strained interpretations of them and will only get yourself stuck in your ideas, and this will instead hinder your progress. However, if you are able to abide by the principles, then after practicing for a long time you will naturally enter into a transformation of spirit. Therefore the solo set in this book is presented only as postures and movements, giving guidance in skills without lapsing into contrived profundities. As long as you do not forget that this boxing art is called “Taiji”, then through gradual practice the art will come to conform to the taiji concept.

He further elucidates on the idea of “conforming to the Taiji concept” in point 8:

8. Learning Taiji Boxing, regardless of beginner or advanced practitioner, never goes beyond the methods of movement and stillness, opening and closing, rising and lowering, turning side to side. As a beginner, you have to clearly distinguish between these opposites. Then after a prolonged period of training you will achieve such skill that at any time you will be able to alternate between them with your whole body all at once, which is the most delightful aspect of the advanced level.

This reiterates an important point in Taiji practice. Your body needs to be going through a process of going from one ‘extreme’ to another to be practicing Tai Chi. (I put extreme in quotes because there are no physically extreme positions in Tai Chi, unlike Yoga, for instance). You do need to arrive at a closed position, then move to an open position and then close and so on. That action is what makes the Chen boxing art “Taijiquan”. That action can also only really be achieved by doing what Taiji people call “moving from the dantien”.

That’s one of the profundities about Taijiquan. Everything is tightly packed together into the simple concept of “Taiji”. Like Dr Who’s Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. There’s a lot of stuff in there and you need to unpack it bit by bit to understand the profound simplicity of the whole.

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The whole Chen Tai Chi curriculum, in video form

Well, this page is interesting. It’s from Chen Bing, a Chen family member who is based in Los Angeles, USA, and from the looks of things, and it looks like a video reference for the whole Chen style Taijiquan curriculum!

https://chenbing.org/videos

​Chen Bing Taiji Academy (陳炳太極院) was established by Master Chen Bing who is a 20th generation representative of Chen Family Taijiquan.   Its headquarter is located in Chenjiagou, Wenxian County, Henan Province, China. – the birth place of Taijiquan.  Master Chen Bing is a direct descendant of Chen Wangting (陳王廷), the creator of Taijiquan.

That’s very generous of him to share these videos. It’s fascinating. Things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. The advanced stepping and silk reeling he shows shares a lot of similarities with Bagua (the tea cups-style exercises of Bagua Zhang are obviously silk reeling exercises, so this should be no surprise, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a Chen guy walking a circle, like they do in Bagua).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8JBxWQz3bg

  2. The advanced push hands videos look a lot like ‘wrestling without being allowed to grab the legs’. Looks like good basic training in stand-up grappling:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjiw-JAl9YI

  3. The ‘primary explosive power’ video combines all the basic ‘fa jing’ moves you find in the Chen ‘old frame’ form into a nice little sequence:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqcFfZaYPYA

  4. There’s a Yoga sequence at the end! Obviously he finds that a useful addition to Tai Chi. More weight to the idea that the primary origins of the ideas of body movement in Tai Chi and Yoga originate from the same source (or at least are compatible).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXT67_vgncw

Interview series with Jarek Szymanski

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Jarek Szymanski’s website, China from Inside was one of the first and best resources on the web for the history and practice of Chinese Martial Arts, written by a European living and working inside China. It was particularly good for finding out how internal martial arts, like XinYi, XingYi, Bagua and Taijiquan were actually practiced in their native environement.

I remember reading his website back in the 1990s, and it’s still there!

Nick at Masters of the IMA has been working together with Jarek over the last few months on recording some of his experiences in China back in the 90s – how he came to end up living in China, his experiences investigating the history of various CMA, etc.

He’s posted the first parts of the interviews on his website, and it’s well worth a read. You can find out all about his experiences on Mount Wudang and Beijing, and get his opinions on how modern Chinese martial arts related to the older traditions, and how they differ. I really liked his insights into places like the Shaolin temple and Mount Wudang (see part 5) and how they’ve changed over the years compared to his visits there in the 90s.

It’s well worth a read.

Jarek Szymansk interview part 1

Jarek Szymansk interview part 2

Jarek Szymansk interview part 3

Jarek Szymansk interview part 4

Jarek Szymansk interview part 5

Jarek Szymansk interview part 6

Fun quote:

“When we got there, we saw some Shaolin monks (wuseng) giving performances not in a stadium, but just in an open space outside the temple. As far as I can tell they were demonstrating some forms and hard qigong, iron shirt (tie bu shan), etc. My Polish friend and I had great fun ‘testing out’ the iron shirt guy – when he invited members of the audience out to test his iron shirt, I don’t think he was expecting to be punched full force in the stomach by two 6-foot Polish guys (laughter). It was at that point that I realised so-called iron shirt is not that special, most demonstrations of iron shirt are just a combination of timed breathing and muscle contraction, similar to what I had practiced in my early karate years.”

Thoughts on an interview with Wang Yan, head coach of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School

Born in 1990, Wang Yan became head coach of Cheng village training centre in 2013 and is as a Taiji fighter as well as a coach, not to mention an expert in forms. He was one of the “nine tigers” – the best nine students of Chen ZiQiang. There’s an interview with him in English on Chen Taijiquan blog, with some great pictures from his private collection. The interview is pretty long, but there are lots of really interesting insights into his daily training, San Da competitions training and how exhausting it all was!

I’ve cherry-picked a few quotes below:

from:

https://chentaijisi.wordpress.com/2018/03/07/if-you-give-more-you-receive-more-an-interview-with-wang-yan-head-coach-of-the-chenjiagou-taijiquan-school/

On his own training:

“Our daily routine started in the morning with running and warming-up excercises. In the first morning class we studied forms, in the second class we did strength excercices, in the third class we did push hands exercises, kicks, punches and other self defense techniques, and during the last evening class we were again doing push hands exercises, and sometimes weight lifting.”

“When a student grows a little older, reaching his late teens and early twenties, then the school starts putting much more attention to learning taolu (forms).”

“When I was a young student, the training was more strenous then now. The approach has changed nowadays towards a somewhat softer way. Students now come from more comfortable backgrounds and are, generally speaking, often more interested in computer games than in serious training.”

 

“Some of us developed more in the direction of Taiji fighting, while the others became the very best in various Taiji forms.”

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Competition training:

“To develop stamina we would practice frog jumps, running in a crouched position, running while carrying someone on our shoulders etc., until the point where I would be absolutely exhausted.

One method of practicing tuishou was, for example, being in a circle of about twenty students, who would challenge you one after another. When I knock the first one down, the next one would attack, and so on till the last one, after which the circle repeats itself. I also practiced the same circle exercise blindfolded in order to sharpen body sensations. Sometimes during wintertime, shifu would take us outside, dressed just in trousers, to train in the snow. One of exercises was to hold each other by the legs while ‘hand walking’ on the cold or frozen ground.

Before tuishou competitions I always have to control my weight, so during preparation time I would eat less and avoid spicy and very greasy food. Finally, after hard training, it is also important to have a proper rest.”

 

Training:

“There is a saying: “By missing one day of practice, your skill regresses for three days”. So, I make sure that I practice every day.That means that I go at least through forms. And when I have some more time, I do also some fitness exercises like running and weight lifting.”

It really does sounds beyond what most people could have physically and mentally endured at a young age, and more extreme than the training is in Chen Village these days.

There’s a lot of controversy in Tai Chi circles about the role of weight training in internal arts. It’s often dismissed as either unnecessary or worse, damaging to progress. It sounds like the antithesis of the frequently heard advice to relax more. Yang Cheng Fu’s “10 important points” essay is often read as a warning of the dangers of following an “external” path. (I think people often miss the meaning of that text though, so I’ll return to it at a later date.)

When the Chen Tai Chi masters teach seminars to Westerners they keep the focus on traditional conditioning exercises, like silk reeling, or zhan zhuang and forms, which do not involve weights, and emphasize things like relaxation and internal conditioning. Traditionally of course, training with heavy weapons would have been a form of weight training, and village farmers would have naturally been very strong people from all the physical labour, but there still seems to be a contradiction between the methods espoused to Western students in seminars and the content of the syllabus for training young fighters in Chen village itself.

There are also the ‘internet famous’ pictures of Chen ZiQiang doing weight training, and looking very ‘cut’ that spark off these debates, for example:

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So, it’s interesting to read the above interview, where Wang Yan makes clear the role that weight training played in training his generation of Chen village teachers, especially when preparing for San Da competition. It’s also interesting to note that they may be the last generation to be trained like that, as “Students now come from more comfortable backgrounds and are, generally speaking, often more interested in computer games than in serious training.

That’s an interesting point in itself, that makes me wonder if that generation was a kind of high point for martially trained Tai Chi fighters from Chen village. “May the children of your enemies live in luxury!”, as the famous Cynic philosopher Antisthenes said; a quote that echoes the famous poem/meme:

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Of course, it’s all a matter of perspective. The people Wang Yan is training now are probably working a lot harder than most people could tolerate, even if they’re not doing wheelbarrows in the snow in winter wearing only their trousers 🙂

Full-time training

If I was training full time to be a fighter and I had a fight coming up in which somebody was going to try their best (under the rules) to hurt/beat me, then you can bet I’d be weight training too! You can’t fake fitness. And no matter how good your Tai Chi skills, if you get out of breath in a fight and your conditioning fails then you can’t fight back. Also, extra muscle mass doesn’t stop you from doing internal movement, although speaking realistically I don’t think that would have been the focus of training going into a fight.

Wang Yan was training as a full-time athlete. As well as doing all the hard physical training he would have been training in traditional Chen family methods at the same time. One does not preclude the other. While some might look down on all that physical training, it appears that the Chen village plan is to develop physical attributes first in its young people, including fighting skills, and later the more subtle Tai Chi skill is focussed on.

Here’s a video of Wang Yan doing some traditional Chen forms:

And here he is looking pretty good in a San Da match from 2013:

He’s a great inspiration for all Tai Chi practioners everywhere.

The real heroes of Chinese martial arts

Chinese martial arts is full of genuine historical figures who become heroes. In this new blog series Will from Monkey Steals Peach blog is documenting his travels in China, discovering the places associated with the old heroes.

In his own words:

“Forget Jackie Chan & Bruce Lee, in this series I will be talking about some of the real heroes of Chinese Martial Arts, and their contributions to what we practice today. In this episode, I visit the Southern Great Wall in Taizhou to introduce the Generals Qi Ji Guang and Yu Dao You, who were massively influential figures in formulating the martial arts we practice today.”

Is Taijiquan Taoist?

I wrote a blog post the other day in which I mentioned that the Taoist origins of Tai Chi are historically unproven, yet the similarity in ideas is obviously there.

I got an interesting comment back on Facebook from somebody linking to a book I wasn’t aware of:

“Roel Jansen: Your information on the origins of Tai Chi is outdated. Please read ‘Tai Chi – the true history & principles’ by Lars Bo Christiansen to get up to date with the latest findings on the daoist origins of Tai Chi.”

So I looked the book up and it exists – it’s on Amazon.

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You can read a lot of the book on Amazon’s “look inside” feature. It’s about the newly found Li family manuscripts from which the author draws some pretty wild conclusions, one of which is that the Taoist link to Tai Chi has now been proved beyond doubt.

The book author has a website too, which contains his main arguments in the QnA:

I thought something seemed a bit ‘off’ with the whole thing, so I looked around and found the eminent Douglas Wile, who wrote two books on the Tai Chi Classics that are very good, and that classic essay on Chan Sang Feng, had written a massive article on these Li manuscripts, (and Lars’ book) which is here:

https://mas.cardiffuniversitypress.org/ … /download/

It’s a mammoth read, but looks at the whole thing from a more balanced perspective, including all the political leanings.

The TL;DR version is: It’s complicated. The verdict is still out :)

Here’s a pertinent quote:

The question of whether taijiquan is the product of Daoism creating a martial art or a martial art absorbing Daoism is a critical issue in Chinese martial arts historiography. If anything, Daoism is an even more slippery term than taijiquan itself, but the issue has become highly politicized, which is understandable in the context of Chinese history and culture. However, for a Western scholar to stumble into this minefield bespeaks a certain naiveté. The assertion of Daoist origins has become associated with cultural nationalism and the search for Chinese identity, often called ‘Chineseness’. Chinese scholars have built entire careers out of championing either Zhang Sanfeng or Chen Wangting, but it is very unseemly for Western scholars to insert themselves in this politicized process of roots-seeking and competing attempts to identify origin, creator, or birthplace as ‘transient points of stabilization’
[Laclau 2000: 53].

I think there are other questions that need to be asked about the whole question of “Is Tai Chi Taoist?”

For instance how many of the concepts we associate with Taoism, like the Tai Chi symbol, the I-Ching, Wu Xing and Bagua are actually Taoist in origin? Chinese Folk Religion, is actually the largest religion in China, and makes use of many things that we in the West think are “Taoist”.

As HotSoup on the RSF forum posted recently:

“There is an opinion that asking a CIMA practitioner from the beginning of the nineteenth century whether his art was “Buddhist” or “Taoist” would make as much sense, as asking a medieval fence teacher whether his fencing was “Catholic” or, say, “Juwish”.

Byron Jacobs: incovenient truths in “Da Dao Taiji” documentary

My Facebook friend Byron Jacobs is the Technical & Events Manager and Technical Committee Member at International Wushu Federation in China. That’s a pretty high up in Chinese Martial Arts for a guy from South Africa 🙂

This is a YouTube video about him:

As you can see from the video, he’s fluent in Chinese and lives in China. He trains Xingyiquan under his Sifu, Di Guoyong.

Recently Byron appeared in an episode of the Chinese TV documentary “Da Dao Taiji” in which he was interviewed about traditional Chinese martial arts, its utility in the modern age and the problems it is facing both in the mentality of practitioners and their methods today.  I don’t think they were quite expecting such a frank interview!

Unsurprisingly, it was edited quite heavily, and they only kept some of these “inconvenient truths” in the documentary.

The good news is that here on Tai Chi Notebook you can view his whole interview, complete with subtitles. It may have been too hot for Chinese TV, but nothing is too hot for you, my dear readers!

(As an interesting sidenote, the new laws in China were passed last year prohibiting people with tattoos from being shown on TV, so they had to smudge out his tattoo for the aired version of this!)

Enjoy the inconvenient truths video:

 

And here is the entire episode 2, as it appeared on Chinese TV:

Old Wu style Tai Chi video

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A video surfaced recently of an old performance of Wu style Tai Chi from a gentleman called Cheng Wing-Kwong (1903-1967), who was a disciple of the Wu Jian-Quan, the founder of Wu style Tai Chi.

The video is poor quality, but I like the performance – it’s flowing, well coordinated and done at a good pace, which makes it more interesting to watch. As Wu and Yang style continued to evolve along their separate trajectories they started to look more and more different to each other. In this older video, I think you can see that they looked closer to each other “back in the day”.

 

 

January forms challenge!

New Year, new form

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Due to a nasty training injury, I’ve had to lay off the “rough stuff” for a while, which means I’ve got more time to spend on forms practice than usual. The latest little project I’ve been amusing myself with is learning the start of a different Taiji form than the one I know.

I’ve picked Chen style, since this is the oldest style, and pretty different to my Yang style form.

It’s often hard to see the connection between Yang and Chen style since they look so different, but as I’ve discovered, if you start to learn the beginning of one after already knowing the other it’s very easy to see how they have the same root. This has already provided lots of insights into my regular form by looking at how Chen style treats familiar movements.

To be clear, I’m just learning the first few moves of the form. Probably I’ll get up to the Crane Spreads Wings move (or whatever they call it in Chen). After that, I think the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in and the time spent working on a new form and remembering it starts to outweigh the benefits you get from practising it.  I already know a long form, so I don’t think there’s much to be gained by undergoing the arduous process of learning another one.

This little project has made me think about a few side issues, which I’d like to go over below:

  1. Learning from video

There’s this unwritten rule in martial arts that learning anything from a video is bad, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Learning from a real person is preferable, but not always practical. If you’ve got enough experience in an area then I think you can learn a lot from video. Also, let’s not forget, that there are videos on YouTube of recognised experts, like Chen Xiao Wang, doing the form, who are doing it a lot better than any local teacher you’ll find.

For instance, here’s the renowned Taijiquan expert Chen Zheng Li doing the Chen Lao Jia Yi Lu form in a nice relaxed pace that’s easy to follow:

Of course, there will be fine details I’ll miss by copying him, but I’m doing this more as an exercise in personal exploration, rather than in trying to get the Chen form perfect. In fact, I’ve already modified one move I felt would work slightly better in a way I’m more familiar with. (I’m a heretic, I know)

2. Distinguishing ‘energy’ from ‘moves’

Taiji uses the four primary directions of Jin – Peng (upwards), Ji (away from the body), Lu (towards the body) and An (downwards) in various combinations. It’s often hard for people to separate this ‘energy’ direction from the physical movements themselves. So, a “ward off” posture is one thing, but the energy that you usually use with it – Peng – is another. Confusingly, Peng is often translated as “ward off”, so the two become conflated. By doing a new form with different moves, you get to see how the same ‘energy’ is used in a different arm shape.

For instance, in Yang style the ‘ward off’ movements tend to have the palm pointing inwards towards the body, while in Chen style, they are pointed outwards, away from the body.

 

3. Spotting similarities

So, while a Chen form may look very different to a Yang form, once you start thinking in terms of which of the 4 energies you’re using, you start to see the similarities, even if the postures look different.

For example, both forms start with a Peng to the right, a step forward, another Peng forward, a splitting action, then another Peng to the right, then into the Peng, Lu, Ji, Lu, An sequence known in Yang style as “Grasp Birds Tail” in Yang and “Lazily tying coat” then “Six sealing four closing” in Chen style. (Apparently, the Yang naming came from a mistranslation of the original Chen name, but this matters not to me).

(Note: In some performances, of Chen style – like the one above by Chen Zengli, he misses out the “Lu then Ji” move of the sequence. In others, like this one by CXW below, it’s in there. I don’t know why. Personally, I like to put it in, because it connects me to the Yang style I know.)

Doing Peng in a different arm configuration than you’re used to is, frankly, good for your practice, because it helps you break out of the mould a bit, into a freer execution that is not dictated to by the conventions of your particular style.

The New Year Challenge! Do it yourself

I’d like to challenge you to do the same thing in January. If you’re a Chen stylist, then learn the start of the Yang form up to White Crane Spreads Wings. If you’re a Yang stylist, then give the Chen form a go. Alternatively, investigate the opening sequence of Sun, Wu or Wu(Hao) style. Give it a go!

Here’s a video of Yang and Chen forms done side by side that I’ve posted before because it helps show the similarities:

 

My first video interview! Scott P. Phillips and the God of War and Accounting

I’ve been thinking of doing a new series of video interviews with various people from the Tai Chi and martial arts scene, so when the opportunity to interview Scott Phillips, author of Possible Origins: A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion came along I jumped at the chance.

I thought the interview went pretty well, so here it is in full. Please share it!

We jumped all over the place from Chinese history, the Boxer Rebellion, martial arts as theatre, Shaolin, Wudang, the origins of Xingyiquan, dealing with real violence, Rory Miller, Mexican drug cartels, child kidnapping in ancient China and more, including the superbly named Guan Gong, who was the “God of War and Accounting”!

I’ve uploaded it to both YouTube and Vimeo. I cut things short at the 1-hour mark but had the feeling we could have kept going for another 2 hours at least, so maybe we’ll do it again, perhaps with a little more focus on a particular subject.

Hope you enjoy.

YouTube:

 

Vimeo: