First published in the No.49 edition of Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts Magazine
‘Learning Taijiquan means to educate oneself. It is like slowly advancing from primary school to university. As time passes, more and more knowledge is gained. Without the foundations of primary school and secondary school, one will not be able to follow the seminars at university. Studying Taijiquan requires starting from the very bottom, working one’s way systematically and step by step towards the more advanced levels. Someone who does not accept this, thinking that he may take a short cut, will not be successful’ Chen Xiao Wang [i]
‘Soup, spaghetti, or pizza?’ Chen Xiao Wang asks and looks at me enquiringly. I’m not really sure how to answer his question; it is a difficult decision to make. Nervously, I reply, ‘pizza please Master Chen’ and I know that I am asking for trouble. We are at the end of a long day of training and the time has come for questions and posture corrections. Not being one to miss out on some ‘hands-on’ tuition, I have sacrificed myself and stepped forwards, assuming the deep posture of Single-Whip or Dan Bian for Master Chen to correct.
Master Chen immediately gets to work. Carefully he lifts me up and adjusts my hips so that I’m in a reasonably high posture and then delicately addresses my spine and rib cage. After some tweaks to my shoulders, arms, hands and head he stands back, gestures towards me and calmly announces ‘Soup’ to the rest of the hall. In this position my body is very comfortable and relaxed. I can feel my limbs nicely connected to my centre and my body weight is flowing smoothly down to the floor. It is a good feeling and one that I can’t always achieve in my own training. Satisfied that everyone has taken note of his work Master Chen turns his attention back to me and continues adjusting. Now he takes great care and very softly guides my hips significantly lower. With continuous, tiny manipulations he manages to keep my hips fluidly balanced all the time. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that he is concentrating, listening and feeling with his hands as he finds the most balanced position for my centre now that my stance is much lower. In the foreground of my senses I observe that my left leg has started to shake and a bead of sweat runs steadily down my back.
As the minutes go by it seems to me as if time has slowed down. My legs start to burn with fatigue and I feel my body start to expand and flow pleasantly, as if filling with warm water. Once again Master Chen comes to a stop and turns to address the crowd, ‘Spaghetti!’ he says in a tone that suggests he is now a little happier with his creation. It’s not easy to maintain the posture for long and just as I’m starting to consider easing my way out of it, to let someone else have a go, he recommences his endeavour with renewed vigour. Lower, and then lower still, he eases my hips down. I start to discover leg muscles that I never knew I had. My legs in fact, feel as if they are on fire. I just focus on breathing and relaxing and it helps, a little. In fact, I am amazed at just how full and deep a breath I can naturally take now that my posture is in a better position.
The minute, constant adjustments he makes here and there only add to the intense fatigue but it is not entirely unpleasant, for at the same time my body feels incredibly well balanced, connected and flowing, with my feet feeling as if they are merging into the ground. Finally, with one concluding adjustment to my left hip and lower spine, Master Chen steps back and smiling broadly declares ‘Pizza!’ much to the amusement of everyone else. I can now feel sweat both on my brow and running freely down my back. Even my legs are sweating as they shake and struggle to maintain the posture. The classic Taijiquan phrase ‘eating bitter’ comes readily to mind. I think to myself that enough is enough and as I go to lift myself out of position Master Chen holds me down in place and I find, much to my dismay, that I can’t get up. ‘A little Chilli perhaps?’ he asks with a serious look on his face. ‘No thank you Master Chen, I have to stop!’ is my stammered reply, but to my horror he only continues to hold me down in position with a wry smile on his face. Just as I seriously think that my legs are going to give way he lets me go and very slowly I inch my way up and out of the posture. Master Chen begins to laugh heartily and so do I, and when I look around the hall everyone is smiling and laughing and I suddenly feel very happy. So I thank him, we shake hands and I slowly shuffle off to the sideline to recover as someone else goes up to enjoy the same treatment. ‘You want soup, spaghetti or pizza?’ I hear him asking over my shoulder.
Chen Xiao Wang was born in 1945 in Chenjiagou (Chen Village) Henan province, China. His training started as a young child when he was rigorously tutored in Chen family Taijiquan theory, forms, weapons, pushing hands and free sparring first from his father Chen Zhaoxu, and then later his uncles Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui. For the first few years he was a little reticent with his training and it was, for the most part, simply because he was forced by his father that he continued with his studies. However, on one normal village day in 1953 his feelings towards Taijiquan were to be changed forever after witnessing an impromptu demonstration of his father’s sublime Taiji skills. So, on this particular day, with all their chores taken care of, a young Xiao Wang accompanied his father on a trip to see some friends at a house on the other side of the village. Upon arrival they could see that there were many people gathered inside chatting and socialising and Chen Xiao Wang and his father were soon happily embroiled amongst the crowd. Little did they know however, that a big lump of a man, a well known prankster and long time Taiji aficionado named Chen Lizi, had sneaked up on them from behind. All of a sudden he leaped out, grabbed Chen Xiao Wang’s father’s arm and twisted it violently in a bid to test his skills with some vicious Qinna. Instantly Chen Zhaoxu responded and with a powerful shake threw Chen Lizi high up into the air where he promptly smashed against the roof beams. Before he could fall to floor Chen Zhaoxu shot forwards to catch Chen Lizi and laid him carefully on the ground. It took him some time to recover and when he finally came round he said all he could remember was grabbing Chen Zhaoxu’s arm and then suddenly everything had gone black.
After seeing his father’s remarkable skills Chen Xiao Wang decided to dedicate himself entirely to his training from then on and continued to do so even in the terrible conditions of the ensuing Cultural Revolution. In fact, it was during this time that Chen Xiao Wang’s father died as a result of being falsely persecuted and imprisoned under the emerging extreme left wing regime. After his father’s death Chen Xiao Wang focused on studying with his uncles Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui, a process that he says was extremely arduous and demanding. Even today Master Chen says that he finds his father’s death difficult to accept having lost not only a father but also his Sifu and mentor. However, at that time this great loss only served to motivate him further in his quest for Taijiquan skill or ‘gong fu’. Day after day he would take himself off to train in peaceful solitude on the banks of the East River. His rigorous training allowing him some bitter-sweet respite from his troubles as he simply immersed himself entirely into the world of Taijiquan.[ii]
In 1980 Chen Xiao Wang became a board member of the Henan Institute of Sport and began teaching Taijiquan professionally. He entered the National Taijiquan Competition winning gold medals in pushing hands for three consecutive years (1980, 1981 and 1982) and in 1985 he represented China the first International Martial Arts Competition in Xi’an receiving the world champion title for Taijiquan. From here Master Chen continued to compete in many prominent competitions and was awarded the title of champion in Taijiquan more than twenty times. In 1990 he made the bold and life changing decision to leave China on a mission to share the treasures of Chen family Taijiquan with the world. Ever since then he has been touring Europe, North America, South America and Asia teaching his family art untiringly, inspiring thousands of people across the globe to take up, enjoy and reap the benefits of this extraordinary art.[iii]
The first time I met Chen Xiao Wang was back in 2002. I had already been practising Yang style Taiji for a few years when out of the blue one of my fellow students invited me to go to Reading for a workshop with Master Chen hosted by Karel and Eva Koskuba of the Chinese Internal Arts Association (www.ciaa.co.uk). I jumped at the chance because I had always wanted to see Chen Taiji and I had heard lots of good things about Master Chen’s skills. All in all, I was very curious to find out more about the Chen style, the mother source of Taiji. The workshop was a fascinating experience. First of all Master Chen talked a little about Taiji principles. In a clear and down to earth way he explained how we must learn to move in a balanced and relaxed way with the Dantien as the organiser behind the integrated, whole-body movement that comprises all Taiji movement: ‘from one principle come one thousand movements’ Chen Xiao Wang enthused. Furthermore, he added, any kind of movement that does not comply with this simple yet fundamental Taiji principle is a ‘deviation’ and in one’s own training it is the discovery and subsequent resolving of such deviations that paves the way for ongoing improvement. Therefore, in order to get the most out of our Taiji training we must constantly seek to reduce our deviations from the Taiji principle.
As he demonstrated some of the basic Silk-Reeling exercises (Chansigong) his calm presence and exceptionally fluid and stable movements made for some remarkable viewing. Working through the exercises ourselves, his regular corrections allowed me to realise that I hardly knew my own body at all despite my years of previous training and irrational beliefs to the contrary. It was both disappointing and massively enlightening all at the same time! When it came round to him giving me some input on my movements rather than being overly critical or waffling on about mystical concepts he just gently adjusted my posture and manipulated my body in such a way that I could really get a felt sense of what to do and what to aim for. He stood opposite me mirroring my stance and holding both arms guided me, again and again, through the simple but very tricky ‘Concealed Punch’. It was quite an incredible and unmistakable physical sensation; for the first time in my training I had the direct sense of integrated movement initiated from my centre. I smiled widely as I relished this brief glimpse of the key Taiji principle and looked up to see Master Chen smiling too, ‘much better now!’ he said and we both laughed happily. Only when a person’s skill is thoroughly embodied through many decades of training can someone really teach in this way.
As things drew to a close Master Chen said he would provide us with a demonstration and so we all sat down around the edge of the hall and waited with baited breath. As he stood in the centre of the hall preparing himself, his eyes closed, Master Chen appeared calm, motionless and balanced. Slowly and smoothly he began. His form looked different to what I was used to but never before had I seen Taiji done so well or indeed any kind of movement performed at such a high level. He seemed to combine incredible smoothness, structural integrity and fluidity with deep, solid stances that just exuded stability and balance. Even from seriously low stances he was able to step and move nimbly. Everything about him just looked natural somehow.
I was already impressed when after about 2 minutes into the demonstration everything changed. Suddenly Master Chen jumped high into the air and landed unwavering, both feet slamming into the ground with a loud bang that reverberated through the floor only to then emit a flurry of lightening fast punches. It was like a bomb going off. For the next couple of minutes I was in shock as Master Chen proceeded to let rip up and down the hall indefatigably. But as quickly as it had started it was all over and Master Chen was back in the centre of the hall quiet, calm and motionless once more. The hall exploded with applause. My mind was completely blown, this was like another world. I didn’t even know that there were any fast movements in Taiji let alone jumps, stamps, kicks and punches. In this sense I had always wondered why the simplified Taiji I had learned before wasn’t more like its sibling arts of Bagua and Xingyi but now with this Chen style, I could see how it all fitted together; the softness and slowness was one side of the Taiji coin that facilitated this new exciting other. All I wanted to do now was learn Chen style and the rest they say is history.
Training with Master Chen is a very down to earth experience with lots of simple warm-ups and extensive periods of standing meditation (Zhanzhuang). When teaching form he will take us through a small section of movements which we then repeat time after time, after time, gradually building up to longer portions or indeed the whole form. When I first started training with him I found it quite challenging, both physically and mentally. ‘One more time!’ he would say and very slowly we would work through whatever section we happened to be focusing on for at least the one hundredth time. He would demonstrate a few times and then we would get back to work with each new repetition commencing with a few minutes of quiet standing and one of Master Chen’s softly spoken catchphrases ‘Calm…down…’ lingering in the air. Periodically, we would stop and hold a posture for what seemed like ages while he would slowly and carefully correct everybody.
This simple process has taught me quite a lot over the years. Firstly, it has trained me to pay attention to how my whole body moves and how my mind is engaged with what I am doing, two absolute Taiji essentials that I’m still working on. Secondly, it has taught me how to watch and learn from observing. By watching Master Chen very carefully year after year I can now see much more in the way he moves than I would have ever thought possible in the early days. A picture paints a thousand words as they say. So after every training session with him I come away tired, my legs thoroughly tortured, but feeling very calm and happy. Every year when Master Chen comes to Reading to stay with Karel and Eva I am very excited. I’m amazed at just how consistent he has been over the years and it has been remarkably reassuring to train with him year in, year out for the last thirteen years. I always get to learn loads of cool stuff and inevitably end up going away being hugely inspired all over again which helps immensely in my own training and teaching.
As well as the larger seminars where we train all the delightful requisites mentioned above, I particularly love the small group seminars where we work on things in more detail. And of course, if there’s an opportunity to do pushing hands with Master Chen I always grab it with both hands. There is a lot to learn from pushing hands with Chen Xiao Wang. Despite him being twice my age he combines tremendous softness and dexterity with a very formidable, fluid power. Although he takes it easy on us I find it daunting to say the least, for when he applies a technique on you it is very much like being hit by a bus or perhaps being rapidly crushed to the ground by a powerful hydraulic press. Similarly, GM Chen’s Qinna (joint locking) skills are excellent and very memorable due to the intense pain he can inflict in an instant. Earlier this year Karel and Eva kindly set up a meeting for me with Master Chen so that I could interview him about Chen Family history and Taiji principles in more detail. Fortunately, Master Chen’s spoken English is pretty good which more than made up for my basic mandarin skills. So on a Wednesday afternoon in June in between exhausting seminars, we all sat in Karel and Eva’s kitchen nursing mugs of green tea and Master Chen explained. Next time we’ll look at what he said…
Photographs of Master Chen reproduced with kind permission from WCTAG
[i] Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan (translated by Jan Silberstorff). 2012, Singing Dragon.
[ii] Chen Xiawang Yanshi. Chen Family Taijiquan. 2008.