Chen Ziming’s “The inherited Chen family Taiji Boxing art”.

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Paul Brennan has added a new selection of translations to the martial arts manuals contained on his website. This one is Chen Ziming’s “The inherited Chen family Taiji boxing art”.

Sample quote:

My colleague Chen Ziming is a native of the Chen Family Village in Henan and an expert of the Taiji boxing art. After many years of painstaking effort, he has written The Inherited Chen Family Taiji Boxing Art. A month ago, he begged me to proofread it and also to produce a preface. I read it carefully over the course of two weeks and could not help but slap the table in amazement. The Taiji boxing art is truly a means of connecting to the Way, which cannot be said about most other boxing arts. But unless you achieve a high level, you will not be capable of discussing its essentials.
This art as it is taught in modern times can be divided into about three styles: [1 – Chen] Chen Style Taiji is in a direct line of descent from the Chen family in Henan. [2 – Hao] Hao Weizhen taught Sun Lutang what is called “Open & Close Taiji”, but Hao Style was obtained from Wu Yuxiang, who had learned Chen Style. [3 – Yang] The Taiji that Yang Luchan studied was likewise taught to him by a member of the Chen family, Chen Changxing, and then Luchan taught it to his own sons, Banhou and Jianhou, and to this day his version is in fashion everywhere. All three of these versions actually originated from Chen Style. They have each evolved and been improved, and so they each have their differences.

Link.

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One stroke of the brush

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Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash

It says in the Tai Chi classics that the movements of Tai Chi should be continuous, like a rolling river:

Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river rolling on unceasingly.”

There are a few interesting things to unpack about this quote, taken from the Tai Chi Classic attributed to Chang San Feng. Firstly, it doesn’t call the martial art “Tai Chi Chuan”, instead it calls it “Long Boxing”, which is yet another indicator that what is known as the “Tai Chi Classics” are in fact, just a collection of common sayings about martial arts of the time that have been bundled together.¹ I tend to regard what we know as “Tai Chi Chuan” today, in all its various forms, as the modern expression and amalgamation of older Chinese martial arts; it is an evolution of ideas and techniques, rather than a ‘new’ martial art which was invented in a moment of divine inspiration by somebody having a dream about a Crane fighting a Snake, which is one of its apocryphal origins myths.

Secondly, the image of water harks back to ideas of Taoism, which uses water imagery frequently in its depictions of worldly affairs. The imagery of a river is a good one. And the implication is clear: no stopping. Continual movement.

Quite often people who think they are doing a Tai Chi form continuously are not. They’re putting in little stops at the end of movements. My teacher called this “posturing”. A good performance of a Tai Chi form will smooth out all these end points so that the form becomes like a single stroke of a calligrapher’s brush on a canvas.

When approached this way, the Tai Chi form stops being composed of numbered moves which are separate elements. As human beings we’re so ingrained in this type of thinking that we even classify Tai Chi forms with numbers on the end. E.g. the “The Tai Chi 24-step form, the Chen style 48 form, the Yang style 108-posture form, etc..” with the number indicating how many different postures there are in the form. When you do the form as ‘one stroke of the brush’ then the whole form becomes one move from beginning to end. Sure, you move from close to open to close to open, and so on, continuously within the movement, but there is still only one movement.

But why? Well, in terms of aesthetic value, it’s definitely more pleasing to the eye to see somebody who moves like this, but that’s not the only reason. In terms of martial technique, the ability to flow smoothly between techniques is key to being able to respond adaptively to whatever the opponent is doing. If you’ve never put the time into practicing movements smoothly you can’t expect to just pull that skill out of the bag when required.

Another reason is that it’s much easier to learn to coordinate your arms and legs if you can move at a constant rate. It gives you the mental space you need to slow down (which is a whole principle in itself) and become more aware of the movements you’re doing, rather than rushing through them, which creates mental blank spots you may miss.

You need to approach continuity as a task that is going to take you a while to complete. As you do the form become aware of where you’re losing awareness and continuity. Has a hand stopped moving here? An arm become immobile there? Did you pause for a fraction after completing Brush Knee Twist Step? (Here’s a hint, you probably did).

If you make continuity the focus of a complete run through of the form then over weeks and months you can get to the stage where your movement becomes very smooth and even. Now you’re ready to look for a deeper meaning. Consider the aforementioned river – it moves continuously, in that it never stops, but different parts of it move at different rates. Where the river narrows rapids form, where it flattens out the pace is more genteel. The form is like this too. There are faster bits and slower bits – quite obviously in Chen style, but also in the even-paced Yang styles. Let the movements guide you – they’ll tell you where you should naturally ‘go with the flow’. Now your techniques will start to become more realistic and you’ll be able to appreciate the type of movement required to make them work.

As Bruce Lee said. “Be like water, my friend”.

¹. See Douglass Wile’s Lost Tai Chi Classics from the late Ching Dynasty

 

Q&A with Michael Babin

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I’ve known Michael Babin (online) for a number of years, and always enjoyed his insights into online discussion forum arguments and martial arts in general. Michael lives in Canada and may, or may not, be a retired Tai Chi teacher. Do we ever retire? Now David Roth-Lindberg, another online friend, has done a Q&A with him and published it on his blog, Thoughts on Tai Chi.

It’s worth a read as Michael has quite a few insights into the world of being a Tai Chi teacher and his dry sense of humour always amuses me.

Q&A with Michael Babin

Michael’s blog

Thoughts on Tai Chi

Tai Chi beneath the surface

As we approach the holiday season, stress starts to enter the body and mind, family dramas intensify and it’s easy to forget the simple things in life. That’s where Tai Chi can help.

The question of what use Tai Chi or martial arts are to modern life comes up frequently. Unless you’re in a job that requires frequent encounters with violence most of us will live our whole life with minimal exposure to violence.

So what else can martial arts offer? This short film by Pamela Hiley shows some of the meditative sides to life that Tai Chi can reveal, where questions resolve to silence and are answered by nature.

“True to Life’ is a cinematic essay portraying the spiritual ideas of Pamela Hiley, a Welsh born Taiji master living in Norway. This is an exploration of Taoist philosophy, seen through her eyes, with very little factual information apart from ideas on the transcendent mind: breathing, balance, defence, neutralisation of conflict and moving beyond polarity. We follow Pamela on a trip to China where she meets with masters and students of these ancient arts – they love and share a deep respect for the mysteries of their common practice. But this film is not about a journey in the physical world, but rather trip into the the inner landscape of the mind.”

 

A new take on an old challenge video…

For a while now (10 years in fact!) there’s been a video on YouTube purporting to show a push hands challenge match that went down between Chen Xiao Wang, the recognised head of Chen style Taijiquan, and a XingYi practitioner from Taiwan called Liao Bai.

The challenge is often cited as a rare example of an uncoperative push hands exchange featuring Chen Xiao Wang, and one in which he doesn’t come off looking as proficient as he normally does. While nothing of substance happens at all in the clip, the fact that Liao Bai is able to launch a couple of strong attacks through Chen Xiao Wang’s defences, and occasionally make Chen move a foot is seen as some sort of a victory for him.

Firstly, I find the idea that this is some sort of victory slightly bizarre to begin with – I mean, he made him move his foot? Really? Is that it?

Secondly, the explanation that accompanies the YouTube video is written by only one side of the two parties involved, and heavily partisan. The clip is described as a “freestyle push hands”. However, it may turn out that what we’re seeing is nothing of the sort.

Mike Sigman posted recently:

Liao came to a workshop of CXW’s and bragged that no one can take his Tiger Fist releases. The video pretty much starts where CXW calls him on it and says, “OK, you do it”. Liao attempts a number of times to release his Tiger Fist (you can see it is the same release every time) and CXW attempts to absorb and instantaneously release back into Liao Bai, by CXW’s use of Receiving Jin. A lot of people embarrassed themselves and their reputations by publicly posting this video and saying it was “push hands”: it wasn’t even close … it was an example of CXW trying to use Receiving Jin in an open, unrehearsed setting, thus making it a good video to study.

OK, Mike is clearly a paid-up member of Team Chen Style :), but even so, I find his explanation persuasive. What they’re doing in the clip is clearly not push hands in any way, shape or form.  There’s just some awkward feeling out – a touching of the arms, then Liao Bai tries to launch attacks, while CXW tries to absorb them, without attacking back. Chen is clearly not even trying to attack back. If his only aim was to show he could absorb the attacks (using Receiving Jin), then this makes sense. And for the most part he succeeds.

Either way, it’s rare to find a clip of Chen Xiao Wang that’s not cooperative, so it’s instructive. Most of the time Chen succeeds, but not always. That’s what ‘real’ looks like. It’s not going to sell seminars or generate income, and it comes with risks to both health and reputation so I can see why he does so little of it, but you know it when you see it.

I created this blog post to counteract the popular narrative that surrounds this video. If we’re going to get to the bottom of it then it’s important to hear from both sides, and so far the idea that it’s a push hands challenge has gone pretty much uncontested.

It might be time to view it again, with fresh eyes.

 

Bad news people – Qi is not mystical

 

woman holding eye and concentrating

Magic? Or something else…

I read this in a blog post today:

“I remember one time when a student was showing a qigong posture she was taught from another teacher and spoke about how qi circulated through it. He adjusted her posture slightly and said “now you have qi circulation”. “

From here. 

When you read something like this I think it reinforces the incorrect idea that Qi is some type of etheric, mystical energy that rises in our bodies like steam and can be directed by the mind… (in fact, that’s what the article goes on to talk about)

Well, frankly, it isn’t. At least in the context of martial arts, it isn’t. Acupuncturists probably have a different opinion on that, but I’m not talking about acupuncture.

But at the same time, if you know what is meant by “Qi” (through your practical understanding) then that original sentence I quoted above does make sense. Let me explain.

You’ve got to remember that when a Chinese teacher talks about Qi in terms of martial arts, what they are talking about is related to your physical structure. The stuff that makes you up. Skin, bones, tissue, muscles, etc…

If you have “strong Qi” then it means you are physically strong. So, for example, a strong athletic young guy or gal would be described as somebody with “strong chi”. Usually, the posture is good, the eyes bright, the hair shiny, etc… These are all aspects of “strong Qi”.

A weak slumped, tired, or sick-looking person would be described as having “weak Qi”.

man old depressed headache

You, my friend, have “weak Qi”.

So, an old person could have either “strong chi” or “weak chi” depending on how they presented themselves. If you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, you’re doing well. Your Qi is strong.

close up photo of blue peacock

Strong Qi, or BDE as the Yooth say today…

In Tai Chi your Qi refers to your physical structure in a movement, as well as a special type of conditioning of the body’s structures that takes place through exercises like Standing Post and Silk Reeling. Through these exercises, you can strengthen the felt connection from your fingers to your toes – a kind of all-over body suit. It’s the strengthening of this ‘body suit’ that explains the circus-style feats of strength you see martial arts groups demonstrating. Things like throwing a needle through glass, bending a spear on your neck, being resistant to blades and breaking rocks with your hands.

 

I would not suggest trying these things at home! Sure, there are often ways to fake feats like the ones above, but there are also ways to do it correctly, utilising the conditioning of the body’s Qi.

Martial arts techniques in Tai Chi require two things – Qi and Jin. Here we’re only talking about Qi. I’ve talked about Jin before.

Qi (Chi) relates to structure. So, if you adopt a Tai Chi posture that’s relaxed, sunk, stable and strong (i.e. your structure is good), then you are “using your Qi well”. And it could be said the “Qi is circulating well”. (Actually, nothing is circulating in the sense of water in a pipe). If your structure is off in some way then it could be said that your “chi is not circulating well”.

So, if we read that quote again, with the new knowledge that it is to do with posture and structure:

“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have qi circulation”. 

Could equally be written:

“He adjusted her posture slightly and said, “now you have better structure”.

So, to me that means, he corrected some defect in her posture (say an overly tense lower back, or tense shoulders, for example), so that her “Qi” started to circulate – i.e. the posture regained its natural strength.

Sorry guys, but none of this has anything to do with steam or heat or a mystical energy in the body. But it’s so easy to assume that this is what is meant when you read quotes like the one above.

Especially once you add to that the fact that people can feel pretty much anything they can imagine. 

 

Trust me, I’m a Doctor

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The most recent episode of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor featured Tai Chi!

“Michael Mosley finds out whether t’ai chi can offer the same health benefits as vigorous exercise – without all the huffing and puffing. ”

They compare the same time spent doing Tai Chi to the time spent doing Zumba, which is far more vigorous. Is he really “doing Tai Chi”? Well, that’s up for debate, but the results are surprising.

If you get iPlayer then you can watch it at the link below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bnbjlc/trust-me-im-a-doctor-series-8-episode-6

 

Natural structures in Tai Chi

I spent my lunch hour practicing Tai Chi with the leaves falling around me, which made me realise that Autumn is definitely here. Practicing under the trees also made me think about the strong parallel between the postures of Tai Chi and the structures of nature.

Take trees for example – the branches grow upwards and outwards:

alone autumn branch cold

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you look at the postures of a Tai Chi form you can see the same ‘outwards and upwards’ structures:

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Animals have the same quality too. The horns on a deer are a good example:

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But the alert, ready posture of most animals (when they’re not sleeping) also mirrors this:

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The spine is always extended, the eyes engaged and the posture directed upwards and outwards.

The following is a Yang Tai Chi form video. Notice that his body structure is always opening outwards and upwards:

So why do we do this in Tai Chi? Well, natural structures are inherently strong structures. Nature has been working on trees, plants and animals for millions of years, and they have evolved into strong shapes that can take a battering from the elements and survive. In terms of postural considerations of Tai Chi we are aiming to mimic natural structures to take advantage of their inherent strength. For example, with the arms, the elbow is usually kept below the wrist in Tai Chi, when the hand is going up and outwards, this enables your arm to create the same sort of shape as a tree branch that grows outwards and upwards.

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If you collapse the structure of your arms – say, close your joints like the elbows and shoulders too much, you don’t get this effect of mimicking natural structures. Instead, the structure needs to be supported by more muscle usage if it is going to withstand pressure.

Think also of stretching the ‘body suit’ of skin, fascia, tendons. If you bend the joints too sharply you lose the stretch from feet to toes. If you look at a picture of a fower, plant or tree, it looks kind of ‘stretched out’, doesn’t it?

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

There’s a lot to learn from nature.

 

Jin, by definition, requires intent

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My post called Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form got a few nice reactions, so I wanted to write a follow up because as always in Tai Chi, today’s epiphany is tomorrow’s half truth.

In the last post I was talking about how, if you let the power of the movements naturally arise, it just works, as opposed to trying too hard to put power in them, which always leads to you screwing it up. But that doesn’t mean that if you just sink your weight and relax that your Tai Chi will become naturally powerful all on it’s own. If you want to send force outwards using Jin you need to be consciously aware you’re doing it.

I was reminded of this recently by a post by Robert Van Valkenburgh:

Jin, by definition, requires intent. If you don’t know you’re doing it, how can you be doing it?

As I explained in the last post, using Jin (ground-based force) as opposed to Li (muscle-based force) requires a relaxed body with the ability to sink the weight down to the ground, so it can rebound into the hands.

What I neglected to mention was that if you just sink the weight downwards, then that’s the direction it will go. It’s not going to magically just appear in the hands. So how do you get it there? The answer is, using the Yi.

The Yi is one of those hard-to-define Chinese terms we so often come across in Tai Chi. The most general ‘catch all’ translation you find is “intent”. But you can also think of it as “the mind directed to do something” or “the mind directed in a direction”.

So how do you get the force of the ground into the hands? By using the mind to direct it there. In fact, you want to direct it outwards and past your hands and into your opponent. I like to think of directing it from my foot (the part of me that is nearest to the ground) all the way to the horizon, through my hands, when I do an outward expressive movement, and down and in towards my foot when I do an inwards movement.

Don’t think of the path of power ( a Jin path) as going up the leg, through the torso and then down the arm and out – trapping the mind inside your body like that will not help the energy go outside it, which is what you want.

So, don’t worry about the path it takes, just ‘think’ in a straight line from your foot to your hand and out. The Jin path you create with your mind usually goes from your foot, through the air (at some point) and to your hands and in a straight line, since that’s the quickest route.

In the picture of Yang Cheng Fu below you can imagine that the Jin path goes from his back foot to this hand like this:

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Jin path

So when you run through the form, your mind needs to be creating these jin paths as you practice. As well as you doing everything I said in the last post – relaxing, sinking the chi and coordinating the body so all the separate parts arrive together. That’s the Tai Chi form in action.

Of course, that’s a tall order, and I’d suggest that beginners who are interested in this type of training pick a favourite move (a simple Push movement is a good one) and just practice it over and over, paying particular attention to mentally directing the path of forces in the body.

Without a teacher who can show you what it feels like it will be a bit like fumbling for something in the dark when you don’t know what it is or looks like. So get out there, try and get ‘hands on’ with a good teacher and you’ll get a better idea of what it feels like. If you find somebody who can do this then you can recognise it. It doesn’t feel like normal strength.

Ken Gullette, whose book I recently reviewed, has a good video that I hadn’t seen before which I think can give you a sense of what you’re looking for – the feeling of the ball under the water. That’s the main thing to focus on in this video.

Once you understand this concept then some of the lines in the Tai Chi classics will start to make more sense. Like, for example:

“The jin should be 
rooted in the feet, 
generated from the legs, 
controlled by the waist, and 
manifested through the fingers.”

“All movements are motivated by Yi, 
not external form.”

“6.) Use the mind instead of force. The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “all of this means use yi and not li.” In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”

“The yi and ch’i must interchange agilely, 
then there is an excellence of roundness and smoothness.
This is called “the interplay of insubstantial and substantial.”

 

Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form

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I don’t know if this is a famous quote from a master of old, or if it’s just something that Wayne Hansen thought of himself, but he uses it in his signature, and I was musing on this phase recently:

Don’t put power into the form let it naturally arise from the form

It’s such a great quote, because it’s absolutely true!

I was reviewing somebody’s form recently and the big thing I noticed was that they were trying to put power into the movements, rather than just accepting that the movements on their own are powerful, and don’t need anything extra to make them work. In fact, when you try and make Tai Chi movements powerful, it just messes them up, because you inevitably revert to tense, isolated muscle use, instead of a smooth flow of connected power, like a river.

(I think I should mention here that I’m not talking about the explosive bursts of power you typically see in Chen style forms. These are different. Instead, I’m talking about the general movements found in Tai Chi, typified by Yang style and it’s variations, which opt for a smooth form with an even pace throughout).

What that quote doesn’t do however is explain how it’s done. Tai Chi is full of these mysterious sayings, with very little explanation, so let’s break this one down and see where we get.

Fang song

Firstly, in Tai Chi we are frequently admonished to Fang Song or “relax” as we would say in English. We all instinctively know that a relaxed body can be a powerful body.  Think of how heavy a small child can make themselves if they don’t want to be picked up by going all floppy. Similarly, a baby’s grip is surprisingly powerful, but not tense.

Being too tense results in a kind of rigid and brittle strength. It’s strong, but it’s not deep. It tends to lie on the surface, like ice on a lake, but break through the surface and it’s nothing but water underneath. Relaxation can be more like thick sea ice all the way down.

But to be powerful a relaxed body needs to be a coordinated body. On a purely mechanical level that means moving so that the coordinated power of the body arrives at the right place at the right time. There’s no point punching with just the arm, but if you can coordinate your body so the legs, hips, torso, and arm are all working – arriving – together it creates a kind whole body power that doesn’t rely much on tension at all. But that’s still not the whole story.

That sinking feeling

This sort of whole body power on its own is not enough. The next stage is to get used to sinking into the movements. This sinking – dropping the weight of the body down into the ground through relaxing – paradoxically, enables power from the ground to come up into the hands. It generally moves in an upward and outwards manner, which is the Peng Jin that Tai Chi is famous for. All the movements of Tai Chi need to contain this Peng Jin.

I often read people who critique this method, thinking that “pushing from the legs” will just be too slow, but frankly, they just don’t know what they’re talking about 🙂

True, the legs are very much involved, but when you effectively sink – drop the weight down – it’s not a physical movement. It’s an internal movement. And the power of the ground arrives in your hands instantaneously, so there’s no delay. It’s not too slow to use.

Once you get used to doing this sinking you can feel it. It requires practice, probably daily practice to get it. But that’s why you do the form every day. Every day you are practicing movements where you drop the weight and put the power of the ground in your hands.

Remember, the movements themselves are powerful – you don’t need to add power in. Instead you need to learn to relax, coordinate and sink your ‘energy’.

Just look at that picture of Yang Cheng Fu above.

He’s got it.