In this blog, we’ve examined Taiji mostly through the lens of Yang-style teaching, which is my primary experience and the most popular style in the United States. The slow and gentle movements of the Yang style are easily accessible to people of all ages for general health and balance. While it’s also a martial art, this aspect is not as obvious as in the other four styles – and particularly Chen, which features both the soft and the hard martial applications.
I got an up-close view of Chen-style Taiji recently in a Washington, DC, suburb, where Grandmaster Zhu Tiancai led a group of 40 Taiji enthusiasts through a series of vigorous exercises, including the Chen form, push hands and applications. We also benefited from the translation of Chen Master and author C.P. Ong, whose book, Taijiquan: Cultivating Inner Strength, is an authoritative source on the Chen style and an excellent primer on Taiji generally.
Chen was the first school of Taijiquan, dating to the 1600s, when Chen Wangting developed the martial arts form in his native Chen Village. For more than a century, the elders of Chen Village kept the Chen family secret until Yang Luchan, the father of Yang-style Taiji, was invited into the village to learn in the early 1800s. Today, Chen is chasing Yang for influence. Grandmaster Zhu is one of four “Jingangs” (Guardian/Warriors) from Chen Village who travel the world to preserve and expand the reach of Chen-style Taiji.
Students attending the Washington-area workshop came from all across the country, some expressing concern that, at 75, Grandmaster Zhu might not be back this way again. My friend Ray Abeyta, who hosted Zhu many times at his Texas School of Tai-Chi and Healing in El Paso, skirted Hurricane Harvey to fly in to see his old friend.
“Grandmaster Zhu is a national treasurer in China,” said Abeyta, who has visited Chen Village and competed in push-hands tournaments in that country. “He is humble, grounded and generous with his family art, and he is deservedly well-loved and respected. I’ll be passing along greetings from all of my students who worked with him over the years.”
Indeed, Grandmaster Zhu’s face lit up when he saw Abeyta, and drew him to the front of the class several times to demonstrate different postures and moves. Zhu is a slight man with thinning jet-black hair who looks decades younger than he is. The vitality you see in his appearance is magnified when he is in motion, as he literally pulses with qi energy as he moves. “In …. Out … in …. Out …. In …. Out,” he commanded during drills, two of the few English words he uses, cuing the all-important breath, which is another word for qi.
Qi, the subtle breath, is the magic potion that stirs the inner cauldron. All Taiji is focused on the quest for inner strength (neijin), which is cultivated through qigong exercises and meditation, along with the Taiji form and push-hands practice. Throughout the exercises, Grandmaster Zhu constantly reminded the students to sink qi/energy to the “dantien,” a metaphysical position about three-fingers’ width below the navel, the “cauldron” from which internal strength is expressed, usually through the hands and fingers.
At one break in the workshop, Grandmaster Zhu gathered everyone around him, promising through his interpreter, Master Ong, to tell the “secret” of Taiji. “If you want to know the mystery of internal strength, just relax. That is the secret. If you relax and breathe, you can sink the qi to the dantien. And now you know, the mystery is gone.” The students laughed, as they all strained to relax. It is the first bit of instruction every Taiji student hears, to relax – fangsong – but actually achieving this essential first step to Taiji is not easy.
Many of Zhu’s Chen exercises include fast-motion repetitions of the slow-motion form movements – the expression of power through fajin, or explosive force. Yang stylists practice fajin without the fast strikes, again using the internal power to repel opponents with what appears to be little effort. The quick punches, strikes and stomps give Chen its martial character separate from the other styles.
The fast and slow synthesis of the Chen style can be seen in the following demonstration by Grandmaster Zhu. Unlike other styles, the internal energy is expressed directly as Zhu moves from one posture to the next, particularly on the fast strikes, which also are generated from the dantien:
I stumbled through the Chen form, which I’ve never practiced, and it was clear that Grandmaster Zhu was not happy with any of his students on the first round. He stopped the exercise to demonstrate the essential four cardinals jins, or power – peng (push up), lu (roll back), ji (press) and an (push down). Unless you are cultivating these jins when you do the form, you are just going through the motions, he suggested. As we worked through the second and third rounds of the form, we became more emphatic in using these jins.
As C.P. Ong notes in his book, one of the oldest verses about Taiji was written by Chen Wangting, preserved from the 17th century. The first two lines of the poem, “Song of Boxing Canon,” reveal the distinctive feature of Chen style:
Charging, retreating, back and forth, all can plainly see,
I fully rely on coiling is the basis of all my combat techniques.
It is this coiling, spiraling power cultivated in Chen-style Taiji that makes it unique. Chen stylists enhance this technique by practicing chansi, or “silk-reeling,” referring to the motion of pulling silk from a cocoon without breaking it. Grandmaster Zhu demonstrates the Chen silk-reeling exercises here:
Editor’s Note — Throughout this blog, I’ve been using different romanization systems — the Wade-Giles system I learned many years ago, and the Pinyin system that is the most prevalent today — based on the literature I’ve been reading. As a result, I’ve been mixing the two systems — Tai Chi (Wade-Giles) and qigong (Pinyin), for example. From now on, I intend to use Pinyin, the official system. Thus, you will learn more about taiji and luoxuan (coiling) in future blogs.