Taijiquan - Original Chen Family Style
Taijiquan has become recognized as China's Number 1 morning exercise. Its roots lie in the martial arts. The purpose of this lens is to show the original style, Chen Family Style, as a complete martial arts system that also happens to bestow great health benefits, and distinguish this from the other styles that developed from it, practiced throughout the world. It was created by a military general and not quite as 'gentle' as some have come to accept. For dedicated people looking to study the genuine article, it is like the best quality ginseng that can be found but you have to look hard for it in difficult-to-reach places. It is not as readily available as the simplified versions. And, even Chen Taijiquan has its offshoots and variations - Zhaobao Style, Small Frame, Hunyuan Taiji, that are really quite different than than original version.
The True Nature of Taijiquan
Setting the Record Straight
(Note: Taijiquan is the Pinyin version of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, which is the older Wade-Gilles' version. Pinyin has generally become the preferred method in recent years.)
Having studied for almost three decades, the original style of Taijiquan, from the actual lineage that can be traced to the actual creator of the skill, as well as having trained at the very birthplace (Chenjiagou in Wen County, Henan) where the art still flourishes today, under my grand-teacher (my teacher Master Michael Tse's teacher) the 19th generation standard-bearer, Chen Xiaowang, it is true and fair to say that the much Taijiquan practiced throughout the world today could not appear more different, like night and day. In Chenjiagou, in truth, I have witnessed even twelve to fourteen year-old children demonstrating greater proficiency in movement and principles than the majority of teachers in the West!
I say this as no disrespect to the millions of practitioners in the world that practice Taijiquan for health and enjoy the many benefits, but to set the record straight, as the general public shares a mass misconception of this skill. The very mention of Taijiquan sometimes provokes reactions from dismissive looks to outright derisive imitations. Original Taiijiquan is actually closer to Shaolin temple gongfu (Kungfu) than the slow 'gentle' exercise now adopted by senior citizens, or the passive 'moving meditation' embraced by New Agers performing distorted furtive movements or else moving lifelessly with the perfunctory 'dead-behind-the-eyes' expression. In China, all ages practice Taijiquan, but in Chenjiagou and Wenxian (the neighboring town) they introduce the skill to children early, as young as four, more as a fun activity initially, and then more seriously around age ten or so, especially to those that show more potential and aptitude.
While it is indeed a very healthy method of training it is nonetheless one of China's major branches of martial art! It is Taiji's internal training (Qigong - regulated breathing, movement, and relaxation) that bestows health, and it this aspect that has been the main focus, but original Taijiquan also features push-hands, partner training of applications, including throws and trips and joint-locks, as well as explosive punching and kicking, jumping, stamping, sweeping changes in tempo, and low stances in the forms or solo training.
To fully understand how the image of Taijiquan has changed over the centuries, we need to look at the origins, and what has happened since its inception.
Origins of Taijiquan and Its Dissemination
Legend has it that Taijiquan was created thousands of years ago by a wandering Daoist monk, named Chang San-Feng, after he witnessed a fight between a snake and crane, or that the movements appeared to him in a dream. However, in the 1930s a martial artist and historian, named Tang Hao, after thorough research, concluded that it was actually created around 400 years ago by Ming dynasty military general Chen Wangting (9th generation Chen family). As chief of the civil troops and a master martial artist he was recorded as having defeated over a thousand bandits. In his retirement he created Taijiquan by combining combat skills from sixteen schools of martial art (including Shaolin), as well as special techniques from respected martial artists at the time, along with internal training (Qigong) for health.
This skill is based upon Daoist Yin/Yang theory of complimentary opposites (hard and soft, fast and slow, firm and yielding, solid and empty, opening and closing etc.). Taiji, being the principle, the mother of Yin and Yang, shows the duality of nature, and explains how everything exists only in relation to its opposite and follows cyclic change. Quan means 'Fist' or 'Boxing' so Taijiquan literally means 'Yin/Yang Boxing' or 'Taiji Fist'. It is for the very reason alone that most Taijiquan we see is all Yin - slow, soft, and gentle, with no duality, no changing, that it should be called something other than 'Taijiquan'. If it is not trained as martial art it should not be rightly called 'Quan'. 'Taiji Qigong' would be more appropriate - energy skill based on Taiji principles.
Traditionally the Chen clan were farmers (still to this day) and bodyguards who provided security transporting valuables across bandit country. They were highly respected for their pugilistic skills. The 14th generation patriarch, Chen Changxing, was the first to teach an 'outsider', Yang Luchan, and accepted him as a disciple. Yang eventually left Chen village, and traveled to Beijing where he became known as 'Yang The Invincible'. There he created his own version, a simpler and softer style, easier to learn and practice. Out went the explosive energies, the deeper postures, and the coiling, spiraling energy essential to Chen Style. This was the birth of Yang Taijiquan, and those exposed to it would have been unaware of Chen Taijiquan at the time as it remained in Chen village, still a closely-guarded secret. When the 17th generation patriarch, Master Chen Fake, arrived in Beijing during the 1920s and demonstrated his skill people did not recognize it as Taijiquan, even though this was the original version!
With the arrival of firearms, Taijiquan's role on the battlefield was rendered somewhat obsolete prompting many masters to conclude that its future lay in health and fitness promotion. Soon, other styles emerged, including Sun and Wu, based either directly or indirectly on the Chen style, and slowly Taijiquan (albeit the other versions) spread across the globe and has continued to grow increasingly popular, with remarkable success as a curative for many illnesses.
While there is nothing wrong with any of these styles, as long as they follow Taiji principles, the main problem with Taijiquan in general is that people are continually looking for ways to make it easier to practice, and the greater majority of Western practitioners actually train hard, with sweat and pain. All we tend to see today is 'Lazy Taiji' or 'Taiji Light'. In every instance that I have come across a group practicing Taiji in a park there is a lot more standing about chatting than actual hard practice. Many practitioners even refer to themselves as 'players', as if it is all a bit light-hearted. Alarmingly, a great many teachers today do so without qualification or permission, and on the other side of the same coin most prospective students are really not that discerning or knowledgeable enough about standards. Some of those teaching have only studied from a book (!) and little old ladies or men teaching their church groups etc. are simply not teaching proper skill. Never mind that they have no concept of the martial art side, they do not understand Taijiquan movement principles - upright posture, strong legs/ relaxed body, moving from the waist and able to release or express power, with the right 'spirit'.
Thankfully, the Taijiquan that remained with Chenjiagou for generations is now out and gaining more attention and popularity as more people are keen to discover the source. Many foreign students throughout the world travel to Chenjiagou to study for weeks or months, and return. This is a nice way to study - to be fully immersed in it, training with a coach several times a day - but it is not altogether necessary. That said, it is still important to find the right linage and to be aware that there are still many unqualified people out there even teaching Chen Taijiquan, and without proper permission or teachers themselves.
Differentiating Chen from the Rest
Chen Taijiquan is a complete martial art system unlike others that feature one long form (with maybe one sword form). Today, Chen features two shorter forms (19 and 38) but traditionally, there was two empty-hand forms - one slow and one fast. The first, slow, is more 'internal' for health and strength, and the second, much faster, is more 'external' and combat-oriented. The system also includes several weapon forms such as double-edged straight sword, broadsword, double weapons, spear, staff, and Guan Dao (halberd), to name a few. Push-hands is trained to develop martial usage.
Unique to Chen is Silk-Reeling energy, so called as it resembles the action of the silkworm as it spins its thread. This coiling spiral energy links every posture into one continuous flowing form ('like a great river') and emanates from the Dantian (the center - the lower abdomen, from navel to the small of the back), spirals out to the limbs and extremities and returns. Each hand following the waist is twining inwards as the other twines outwards. It is a very dynamic and engaging activity involving the whole body. Practicing Chen Taijiquan produces a feeling unlike any other method I have trained, and it is quite addictive.
Also unique to Chen Taijiquan is the expression of the powerful explosive power called 'fajing'. This issuing energy, the motivational force behind punches, kicks and elbow and shoulder strikes is generated with the force of a tidal wave that crashes and then disperses. It is not readily found in any other of the major styles.
Chen tends to feature much lower postures than others, so the Chen student's legs, on average, tend to become bigger and stronger. This trains the bone energy which is the foundation for a healthy body. Training in this manner forges a strong root connection to the ground, so it is not easy to lose balance, especially when pushed, even by much larger opponents.
Those used to the "Holding a Ball" posture commonly found within other styles may be surprised to know that in Chen Taijiquan, this does not appear or exist at all! In Taijiquan, the whole body is like a ball, as an extension of the Dantian, so all movement is like a three-dimensional sphere. This internal connection is not exactly easy to understand, grasp or express, especially without a good teacher, and is very subtle. Perhaps adopting this posture helps the student understand the feeling of 'roundness' that needs to be accomplished, but then the ball exists outside the body, not inside it.
Good skill and true relaxation is only possible from steady arduous training; relaxing under the pressure created internally, from many repetitions in low stances and painful periods training the legs in still postures until the strength and tension is literally 'ground out' and there is none left! Anything less and the relaxation is superficial and artificial. For example, a person can appear most relaxed when performing his/her form but invariably becomes stiff and tense (from fear of injury or losing) when 'touching hands' with an opponent. In this instance their energy rises up and away from the legs, causing the body to become lighter and therefore easier to push, all with minimal effort by the opponent. Once the legs are strengthened they can support the body, the upper body empties of tension and energy sinks down, reinforcing the 'root' connection with the ground- solid, like a tree, and the practitioner becomes heavy, like a dead weight. With the hips sunk the waist can turn freely like an axle (Dantian like a ball in a socket) and neutralize force from any direction. If the hips are not sunk the Dantian becomes locked, Qi (energy) is blocked, and the student will topple.
Those who practice form only, without push-hands, cannot in all honesty claim to "know" Taijiquan as they are exposed to merely one side of it or see only half the picture. To understand is to know yourself in relation to others (duality).
External martial arts make the body stiff and do little to develop the health of the internal organs. In fact, many can be detrimental to health. 'Soft' Taijiquan does little to make the body fit and strong as bone Qi is not trained. With steady practice over time Chen Taijiquan bestows a body that is both strong and soft, at the highest level 50% Yin and 50% Yang - perfect Taiji!
The first form is trained slowly (and with many repetitions) to build up Qi, strength and stamina to prepare the student for the second form, which is physically demanding and without the foundations it could seriously exhaust and/or injure the student. There is the physical liability such as back spasm and elbow injury which are prone if the principles are not followed but also the energetic liability as the Qi surges strongly and quickly through the body and if the body is not ready it will be too strong and can lead to heart palpitations, dizziness, nausea and retching etc.
Taijiquan is also practiced slowly so that when the skill is applied properly and quickly in the heat of battle the individual's mind is calm, his posture and body mechanics will be correct which means he will not lose balance and use minimal effort to overcome a stronger opposing force.
Taijiquan for Health
In China, Taijiquan has proven successful as curative for numerous illnesses including chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, tuberculosis, arthritis, ulcers and diabetes, to name a few. In the West studies have shown Taijiquan improves balance and helps with rehabilitation after stroke.
There are several reasons for why Taijiquan is so effective as a health exercise. First, the principle when practicing is to adopt "a serene heart with a concentrated mind". We all know the proven fact that stress is the number one killer and stress lowers the immune system. Training in this relaxed manner causes us to forget our worries and troubles, and our nervous systems come to a state of rest and balance. During practice we cultivate this state of health and vitality, and our sense of well-being and inner peace continues for hours afterwards. So practicing everyday (twice optimally) maintains the health of body, heart and mind, warding off stress-related illnesses. It is estimated that between 40% to 80% of all doctors visits are stress-related. (Master Michael Tse pictured right)
Taijiquan works for health as it is founded on Qigong principles. Relaxation of the whole body, with deep natural breathing, with smooth spiral and circular movements results in opening the acupuncture channels, which is harmonious for the internal body, and improves the function of the digestive and lymphatic systems, and improves the skeleton, bones and muscles.
One major factor contributing to Taijiquan's reputation as a supremely healthy exercise is the fact that millions practice outdoors in amongst fresh air. Air equals Qi, which is necessary for health and well-being This is often overlooked and neglected. Practicing every day indoors with artificial lighting, in air-conditioned rooms (artificial environment) would offer little in the way of health.
Back in 2006 when I visited Chenjiagou for weapons training with my Sigong, Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, during some 'down-time' my Sifu, Master Michael Tse, turned to me and said, "Only in the cities do people discuss health". I smiled and knew immediately what he meant. In the West people, including the fitness gurus, can be neurotic about health, diet and exercise, alternating and changing these things like fads, desperate not to become ill. Over there in Chenjiagou no-one probably even thinks about it; they just are. The villagers live close to nature (Dao), tending to the fields, training Taijiquan, and spending leisure time talking or playing with friends and family. They all have healthy ruddy complexions, and they all appear robust and vital, Even the senior citizens struck me, as they were unlike most seniors in the West I have encountered: their postures were straight, their faces were youthful and their eyes were extremely bright and alert. So, to really attain the health benefits of Taiji you must live it.
Highest Level Taijiquan - Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, 19th generation standard-bearer
Footage of my Sigong (teacher's teacher) - a young Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang taken from a Chinese documentary about Chenjiagou.
Studying Chen Taijiquan is like studying a university degree. You can learn a few short forms, like taking a few semesters, and that may be sufficient for you, or you can study for many years to learn the entire syllabus. And, in reality, even that is just scratching the surface. I have been studying Taijiquan for a long time and the deeper I go with it the more I realize how much more there is to it know. There is no end to the wonder. You only keep getting better and better and understanding it more clearly. But of course, it is all dependent on what you are prepared to put in to it.
Developing good skill takes time. There is a Chinese saying with Taiji, "Three years small improvement, six years moderate improvement, nine years big improvement". Unfortunately, the Western mentality is to want everything and immediately. The tendency is to want to reach the destination rather than enjoying the journey getting there. Actually, with Taijiquan there really is no end. And there is no way to rush the process.
Many students do not realize or appreciate this and so once they have acquired some basic skill, and mistakenly think that they know it, they leave the class and feel they have no need of the teacher anymore. This is exactly when they need the teacher most, as the teacher is needed to get to the next level. I would estimate that somewhere between 70% to as high as 90% of teachers today fall into this category. A small number only are qualified or granted permission from their teachers to teach. Most think they are good enough and have no-one to tell them otherwise. We all need someone above us to keep us in check. They willingly (foolishly) cut themselves off from the source, which accounts in no small part as to why the general standard of Taijiquan today is so poor. It is because of this aspect of human nature that the skill was only taught to family members for so many generations, as they could be trusted to respect the skill and their teacher. Actually, this is the same for all the traditional Chinese martial art and Qigong skills as, sadly, not that many people can really be trusted with these skills. It is the ones who prove themselves to be good and loyal students that eventually become good masters.
Some people believe that the more teachers they study with the better they will be, but the more respectful and loyal a student proves to be the more the teacher is willing to invest his time and energy bringing him or her up. So, it is all about relationship. The highest level teachers I have encountered (or read about) had only one (maybe two) teachers in any given skill in their entire lifetime. My Sifu, Master Michael Tse only studies Taijiquan from one teacher, Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang (inarguably one of the most prominent masters in the world), who in turn, learned only from his two uncles (Zhaokui and Zhaopi) after his father (Zhaoxu) passed on. Having too many teachers only leads to confusion.
I would also just add that a number of teachers claim to have studied with a renowned and respected teacher (and quite possibly they have) but here is the real criteria - does the renowned and respected teacher claim that person as his student?
If you are seriously considering studying this amazing skill then I strongly urge you to find a qualified traditional teacher with some recognized lineage. Travel far and wide and pay what you must if this is what is needed. Picking merely the closest or the cheapest could cost you dearly in the long run if they have incorrect understanding and no integrity. As the saying goes, "A journey that begins out by a hair's breadth can end up out by a thousand miles!"
I teach group classes, privately, and seminars in East Bay, California. My web site is www.sifuwallace.com
Below is a short clip of my Taijiquan. Thanks for reading, I hope you can appreciate the profundity of traditional Chinese martial arts skills and find a good teacher to help you on your journey. I wish you joy in your practice!