First published in 2015 in Tai Chi and Oriental Arts Magazine
Last year I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Grandmaster Chen Xiao Wang. I’m not one who goes in for hero worship in any shape or form but after having trained with Master Chen for the last 14 years I have found his teaching to be an extremely insightful and positive influence on my Taiji training. Therefore, the interview was something I was very much looking forward to. The day soon came round and this particular June afternoon found us all sitting around the kitchen table at Karel and Eva’s house nursing steaming cups of delicious Oolong tea. Master Chen, looking very dapper in his jet black silk suit, sat across the table from me his meaty, bear-like hands gesturing beautifully as he talked. Despite punctuating his words with the occasional explosive Fajin, I soon felt greatly at ease and found myself just happily listening, simply immersed in the story of the Chen family history straight from the horse’s mouth:
SM: Thanks very much for meeting me today Master Chen. Could you start things off by talking about the history of Chen Family Taiji a little?
CXW: OK…It’s my pleasure. We’ll start from the 9th generation of Chen Family Taiji with Chen Wangting. For a long time Chen Wangting was an army general and scholar during the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644). He was a fearsome fighter both with weapons and in unarmed combat. Being the winner of many battles he was highly recognised and rewarded by the emperor but when the Ming dynasty came to an end and the Qing dynasty began (1644-1911) he didn’t want to serve the Qing dynasty and decided to retire to Chenjigou village.
Back in Chenjiagou he lived a simple life and farmed his land during the warmer months of the year and over the winters he worked on developing Taiji. Chen Wangting was already a very good martial artist when he retired and had lots of fighting experience, he was also a scholar and widely travelled. So he combined all of his knowledge of fighting and Taoist principles (yin/yang principle), Meridian theory and Chinese Medical theory. All these different elements he brought together and created a new kind of movement that was good for the body, good the mind and good for fighting: Chansigong, the Silk-reeling technique or spiralling movement. He devised 5 Taiji forms as well as pushing hands routines – the pushing hands routines were to help people train together but without injuring each other so much when sparring. He also created some two person spear fighting routines.
After Chen Wangting the next few generations all did well and prospered and the Taiji practise stayed the same. At the 14th generation things changed with Chen Changxing. He did Taiji very well. He was a good fighter and trained many of his students to work as bodyguards on trade convoys as there were many bandits in the area in those days. There are many, many stories about Chen Changxing’s Taiji skills but I’m not going to talk too much about stories today just Chen Family history. Chen Changxing condensed the five hand forms into just two sets: Yilu and Erlu. We would call them Laojia or old frame today. The weapons forms and pushing-hands routines are much the same as they ever were.
One of Chen Changxing’s friends was a wealthy business man who owned a Chinese Medicine shop in a town nearby. One day a couple came in and offered to sell him their son to work in his shop. He accepted and this 12 year old boy was Yang Lu Chan – he went on to create Yang style Taiji. By the time he was 18 Yang Lu Chan had outgrown shop work and so he was sent to work for Chen Changxing. Working as a servant in Chenjiagou over the years, Yang Lu Chan often had a chance to watch Chen Changxing teaching his students Taiji. One night when Chen Changxing was on his way home he noticed someone in the shadows practising something that looked a little like Taiji but didn’t recognise him as one of his students. He asked Yang Lu Chan where he had learned Taiji and Yang Lu Chan explained that he had learned just by watching here and there while doing his job and by training at night time. Around this time Yang Lu Chan was given his freedom by his owner and he was allowed to stay in Chenjiagou – he stayed for for 6 years of basic training. After this first period he went away travelling as he wanted to test his Taiji skills against other martial artists in the land. He fought against many other people and found that while he didn’t ever lose, he also didn’t ever win. So he came back to Chen village to train with Chen Changxing for another six years.
A funny story during this time is that one night after class Yang Lu Chan was following Chen Changxing up some stairs on their way home. Young Yang, who was carrying a lamp to light the way, decided that this was a good time to test his master. He blew out the lamp and in the darkness grabbed Chen Changxing around the waist to try and topple him off the stairs. Chen Changxing responded straight away, he was very fast. Using a movement like ‘Fists Drape Over the Body’ with a little Fajin (Master Chen gestures violently in his chair) he knocked Yang Lu Chan all the way down the stairs to the bottom where Yang got up on to his knees and bowed repeatedly saying ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!’
After this time Yang Lu Chan went away to make a life on his own and ended up teaching Taiji to the royal family in Beijing. Over time he changed his Taiji for the royal family to make it easier to learn. He made it simpler, a little less hard work, without the silk-reeling and the difficult movements like the jumps and Fajin. People say that he came back to Chenjiagou for another 6 years but it’s not true. He did come back to visit once for a few days but he didn’t stay. Many historical records show this. When he came back to visit he was very well dressed, wearing a long fox fur coat. Everybody said to him how smart and regal he looked but he just replied that the coat was only made from dog fur.
In the 15th generation there was Chen Gengyun. He worked as a bodyguard protecting convoys full of valuable goods. Once when he was working away from home his convoy ended up being delayed by three years. When he eventually got back home to his wife she opened his suitcase to find that nothing inside has been touched. She asked him why and he replied that he had just been practising Taiji continuously all day and all night. He just slept when he was tired and as soon as he woke up he would immediately start training again. He didn’t have any time to open his suitcase. Another time when Chen Gengyun was working away he and a friend went to see an outdoor play. There was a big audience and about halfway through the performance a large group of trouble makers started to push the crowd violently to get to Chen Gengyun to challenge him to a fight – he was very well known for his Taiji. Chen Gengyun simply stood his ground and didn’t do a thing. The crowd broke upon him like water flowing around a stone, all falling to the floor when they tried to shove him or move him. He and his friend made a quick get-away only to soon be cut off at a bridge over the local river. On the one side was the gang and on the other Chen Gengyun and his friend. Chen Gengyun told his friend to hold on tightly to his belt and not to let go under any circumstances. Then suddenly he strode across the bridge right through the crowd with one arm in front sweeping all those at the front off the bridge and into the river. Seeing this, all the others behind were scared and ran away.
The 16th generation was Chen Yanxi he was a well known body guard trainer. There are many stories about him but for another time. The 17thth generation was Chen Fa Ke, my grandfather. He was very famous. He was well known for his Taiji skills and for being a very good fighter. But also everyone liked him for having a good heart – he was very humble and always tried to help people. As well as teaching Taiji, Chen Fa Ke worked for the police in Wenxian helping them catch bandits. The police would often call for Chen Fa Ke to come and help them and by using his fierce Qinna he was always able catch and control them.
Another story is that at one time in Wenxian there was a large group of bandits who were part of a religious cult that believed that they were invincible, that no blade or bullet could hurt them. They were called the Red Spear Gang and were causing a lot of trouble in the region. When he’d had enough, the chief of police at Wenxian sent a message asking if Chen Fa Ke could come and sort them out. Chen Fa Ke agreed and on his way there he was met by the gang at a large bridge across the river outside Wenxian. Someone had told them that he was coming. At the front of the crowd was the big boss with a long spear. He said Chen Fa Ke couldn’t come across and laughed saying that nobody could hurt him or his gang, that no blade or bullet could pierce them. Chen Fa Ke just stood there calmly, holding his plain wooden staff. Suddenly the big boss lunged at Chen Fa Ke with his spear. In one very fast movement Chen parried the blow and hit the boss in the chest with the end of his staff – it went straight through his body and two feet out the other side. When they saw this the rest of the gang suddenly lost confidence and ran away, of course they were not invincible after all, and they never came back.
Chen Fa Ke spent 30 years teaching in Beijing. He developed the New Frame (Xinjia) forms, yilu and erlu. He made the chansigong, the silk-reeling technique, clearer and more intricate and added more fajin, more spiralling movement and more martial applications.
In the 18th generation there was my father Chen Zhao Xu, and Chen Zhaopi, Chen Zhaokui and Chen Zhao Chi – all who reached a very high level in Taiji. Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui were most well known teachers but it was Chen Zhaoxu and Chen Zhaochi who had the highest level.
The 19th generation is not as good as the previous generations. That is why I always practise very hard. Before 1980 I spent a lot of time looking for what teachers were left, to find out what the standard was after my father’s generation. I couldn’t find anything so I just practised very hard myself. After many years of training, after lots of trial and error, practising hard every day, trying this and trying that and always asking questions but not being happy with the answers I eventually discovered the Taiji principle myself during the year 1979-1980. The principle never changes: one Taiji principle, three kinds of motion. Since 1980, when I’m training, every day there is less deviation, the principle is clearer and more delicate. Every day my Dantien gets stronger, my body gets stronger and my Qi is more flowing. So every year since 1980 my Taiji improves, it only gets better because the principle is now clear. Each year you can see the difference. If the principle is not clear it is very difficult to improve your Taiji and you don’t know your deviations.
In 1980 I started working for the Chinese government. They wanted to start to promote Chen family Taiji to more people. But they said that other martial arts have basic exercises (Jibengong) and that Taiji is too difficult. I said to them that Laojia yilu is the basic exercise in Taiji! They said Laojia is too difficult – so from here I developed the silk-reeling exercises to help people learn Taiji and to make the principle clearer.
In 1984 I started teaching in Europe and everyone found that Laojia is too difficult. So I developed the 38 form by taking out most of the repetitions in Laojia…but this was still too long for people to learn! So then I developed the 19 form and it’s still too long for most people! People don’t know how to learn… but in any form, in any number of movements it’s always the same principle: 1 principle, three kinds of motion. From one principle come one thousand movements.
SM: Thanks Master Chen, that’s excellent. Could you tell me a little bit more about Taiji principles and how to practise?
CXW: OK, no problem. There is just one principle and three kinds of motion. The one principle is that the whole body moves together following the Dantien. In every movement the whole-body moves together but the Dantien leads the movement and the whole body must be supported in all directions. This is very important. One principle, three kinds of motion: the three kinds of motion are as follows…First, horizontal motion, the Dantien rotates horizontally. The second kind of motion is vertical motion, the Dantien rotates vertically. The third kind of motion is a combination of the first two. Any movement that is doesn’t follow the principle is a deviation. So when we are training every day we are trying to find and reduce our deviations from the Taiji principle.
Really, it’s impossible to have no deviation at all and one lifetime isn’t enough, but this is the principle that guides our training. Even the most advanced and precisely engineered machinery has some deviation. It is just natural to have deviations but as we reduce it everything really improves, we become stronger, more balanced, more flowing.
SM: Master Chen, after all these years do you still feel like your Taiji is improving?
CXW: Every day. Every day in my training there is less deviation. Every day I have some questions that I work on and every day some answers. Since 1980 when I discovered the principle I always improve: more balanced, Dantien stronger, Qi more flowing. Training Taiji is never ending, there is always more to discover and you can always improve.
SM: Just one last thing Master Chen. What are your hopes for the future of your Taiji?
CXW: After all my decades of training and teaching Taiji I look back and see all the wrong turns I have made. Now I realise that everything is the same and comes from the same principles. After all of my experiences I realise that the way is actually from the complicated to the simple. My purpose is to put signs on all the wrong turns where students can easily lose their way, to make the path clearer for them. If I can simply help people improve their Taiji then I will be very happy and all my wishes will have come true.
SM: That’s great. Thank you very much for your time Master Chen.