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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What is Tai Chi Chuan?

A question that comes up a lot from beginners seems to be “what defines Tai Chi Chuan?”. Non-beginners seem to not worry about this question and just practice, which is for the best, but it seems everybody goes through a stage where their mind needs to define and categorise what it is they’re doing. What makes it Tai Chi Chuan, as opposed to, say, Bagua, or JuJitsu?

I can only answer from my current understanding. I’ve been doing Tai Chi long enough to realise that today’s epiphany is tomorrow’s half-truth, so I wouldn’t say this will be my final word on the subject, but it’s something I’ve settled on recently.

When defining what Tai Chi Chuan is I look first at the name – TaiChi boxing/fist. So, it’s a martial art whose chief feature is about TaiChi – the interaction of Yin and Yang. Therefore, for a movement to be Tai Chi Chuan it requires that the interaction of yin and yang is correctly distinguished (i.e. in harmony) in all the movements, and (crucially) also in the fighting strategy (no double-weighting).

That’s it!

On one level my answer sounds like a ridiculous over simplification, and it is, but that doesn’t make it ring any less true. It’s only when you ask yourself ‘what does distinguishing yin and yang mean?’ that you realise how deep the wormhole goes. There are obvious, simple, answers like always having your weight on one leg and not both at the same time, but there are much more subtle answers to do with where force is inside the body, and how it is utilised.

A good place to start with this line of enquiry is by looking at your own form with No.4 of Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points in mind.

4.) Differentiate between insubstantial and substantial. This is the first principle in T’ai Chi Ch’uan. If the weight of the whole body is resting on the right leg, then the right leg is substantial and the left leg is insubstantial, and vice versa. When you can separate substantial and insubstantial, you can turn lightly without using strength. If you cannot separate, the step is heavy and slow. The stance is not firm and can be easily thrown of balance.