Stories and Lessons from Master Chen Zhonghua

by Marvin Glotfelty on 2008/06/15

Most of the following relate to Tai Chi principles and form, but some are just general comments. All the comments below were either heard directly from Master Chen, or conveyed from another person who heard the lesson directly from him, or is based on my personal observation or experience. – Marvin Glotfelty It is better for people in a small village (like where  Chen Zhonghua grew up) to leave, and perhaps go seek their fortune in a City or elsewhere. An old Chinese saying goes: “If you move a tree, it will die. If you move a person, he will thrrive”.

Everything is opposite. The things that you understand to be real, are not real. The things that you understand to be unreal, are actually real. An application of this principle to Tai Chi is when someone tries to push you backward, it seems that you have to move away from them to keep your balance, when in fact, if you sink and move forward, you will maintain your root. While doing Chi Kung, our group was practicing the motion of extending our arms and fingers to each side, then moving them downward to our side and closing our fingers into fists, then moving our hands back up to our chest to repeat the move. This seemed like a Chi-catching activity, so we all did it as if we were catching imaginary butterflies.

Master Chen corrected us and explained that when you extend your arms properly (shoulders down and fingers extended, so as to keep your meridians open), the Chi energy flows out of your body. At the same time, however, Chi energy is flowing into your body through that same pathway. Therefore, in this case, the extension of one’s arms was the entire Chi Kung move – the rest of the activities are only to reposition your arms. The analogy that Master Chen provided was that if he was going to show us how to sit in a chair, he would sit down, and then get up and then repeat the action until we understood. This does not mean that getting up is part of the chair-sitting activity. Getting back up was just required to reposition himself back to his starting point.

During a hike on the Daqingshan Mountain with Master Chen and several other students, I was pointing out some of the geological features we were seeing. The mountain is composed mostly of granite, which weathers to sphere-shaped boulders because its internal pressure is released in a process called exfoliation, which means that it sheds layers like the skin of on onion, resulting the a somewhat spherical shape.

Later, we encountered a large pile of angular rocks at the base of a cliff face, where a rock slide had caused the rocks to break free of the cliff face, and fall down into a pile. These rocks were also granite, but very angular, so I explained that they had this angular shape because their rock faces had been recently exposed, and they will now be able to release their internal pressure and become more spherical in the future.

Master Chen explained to the group that this was an example of intent. The rock’s shape will change as a result of its intent, in the same fashion that our actions and growth result from our mind intent. While doing an exercise called ‘towel twisting’ where we alternately extended and retracted our hands in front of us, while shifting our energy from one qua to the other, I noticed that I could feel good energy at each “ending point”, but felt weaker in between.

Master Chen said that the problem resulted from the fact that I was moving at a faster pace with my hands than with my dan tian and qua, so the energy was lost at that time. Master Chen went on to explain that you cannot have movement and intent (power) in the same location, or you will be double-heavy. This can be visualized like a teeter-totter.

If you want one side of the teeter-totter to move upward, you put weight (intent) on the opposite end. There must always be the pivot point in the middle, which does not move, but only serves as the axis of rotation. In the teeter-totter example, the pivot point would be the fulcrum of the teeter totter.

As the start of your turning motion during the single whip move, you make the “crane beak” shape with one hand. Remember to keep that hand stationary as you move to open up your body into the single whip position, as if you were gripping a vertical wooden pole to support yourself. In the bow or horse stance, there should be less weight on the hip above the power leg (which is often, but not always the front leg), and more of the weight should be on the hip above the stability leg (which is often, but not always the back leg).

The energy flows from the power leg in an upward arch, and the energy flows from the stability leg in the same direction, but in a somewhat horizontal arch. When doing circles, keep your middle finger tip directed toward a single point, and don’t let that point vary when your posture changes. Compress the elbow and shoulder downward toward the hip above the power leg.

Open your back (separate your shoulder blades), and keep your torso and head vertical. When taking a Tai Chi stance, many people visualize their head being pulled upward by an imaginary string, as an imaginary force pulls downward on their hips. An alternative mental image is that your chi energy is being jetted out of the top of your head like a fountain, which pulls the top of your head upward. You cannot make two movements with one action. It is like a monkey wrench that has a gripping end, and a handle.

The gripping end holds on to the pipe or bolt, but the gripping end does not apply the turning force. The handle is where the force is applied to turn the pipe or bolt, but the handle does not grip anything. At some point between the gripping end and the force end, is the pivot point (as described above, in item 5), which does not move, but only rotates. In the same way, our body cannot make two movements with one action. Another comparison can be drawn with walking. You can only move one leg at a time, or you will make no progress. After each step is completed, that leg becomes stationary and the other leg can now move.

Thus, if you try to grab and pull, or step forward and push in the same action, your force will be lost and the action will be ineffective. In Tai Chi, we seek to fill the empty spaces that our opponent may leave open to us. This is like Chinese calligraphy in the sense that the inked portions are not considered the relevant elements, but rather the empty spaces that are defined by the ink. Another example that Master Chen provided was when a seed sprouts in the earth, it must move up through the soil and around rocks to reach the surface and receive sunshine.

If the sprout encounters a rock surface, it twists and curves around that surface to find a soft pathway to get through. This is analogous to the Tai Chi application of filling empty spaces. We need to diminish flat surfaces on our body, and make them into rounded surfaces. If you push against a side of a square block, you may tip it over if you are strong enough.

However, if you push against a spinning ball, your hands will slide off and the force will be redirected, do matter how strong you are. When your opponent pushes against you, there is a single contact point. You should maintain that contact point, even as you and your opponent alter your positions, until you have the opportunity to apply an additional force to your opponent in the direction of weakness.

Then, you can put your opponent off balance. The torso of a person’s body (from the waist up) can be considered framed in a box that extends from shoulder-to-shoulder, and from chest-to-back. Similarly, the lower half of a person’s body can be considered framed in a box that extends from hip-to-hip, and from front-to-back. If your opponent pushes against your arm, you may direct the alignment between your elbow and finger tips at a right angle to the box that is framed by the other person’s torso.

Then, you can direct energy from another part of your body (such as your knee or qua) that is capable of rotation and not locked, to be directed at a right angle to the box that is framed by the other person’s lower body. Now, you have matched your opponent’s force, so the push him/her off balance, you only need to direct a small force to the same point on his/her torso (the point at right angles to their upper body), except that this additional force is applied at a 45º angle. The application of force is like swinging a stick.

If you hit something with the broad side of a thin stick, the force will be weak and ineffective. If you move the same thin stick in a path parallel with its length (like an arrow), and hit something with the tip of the stick, the force will be much greater. This is analogous to Tai Chi application, and this is why we must not “move” when we apply force. The hand and arm that are applying the force to our opponent should be locked in place, and the hand and arm do not actually apply any force – the force comes from the foot, through the dan tian. That force must be directed in a clear linear path, without wavering, and without leaking out energy sideways, due to unnecessary movements or incorrect posture in the arm or other body parts.

You should visualize your body as two cylinders – one within the other. The outer cylinder should remain stationary. The inner cylinder expands to provide energy. If a portion of the outer cylinder moves or is out of position, it will leak off the energy. If the outer cylinder is in proper position and does not move, the energy from the inner cylinder will build up to a substantial and explosive force, like a bullet being fired from a gun.

Sometimes it is difficult to understand how connection of energy can be maintained between your fingertips and foot, even though there are curved areas along the path from your hand to your elbow to you shoulder, and so on. This can be conceptualized by considering a door. If a nail is driven into the top-center and bottom-center of the door, the two nails can act as a hinge that will enable the door to rotate, so that power applied to one side of the door will be conveyed to the other side of the door. Even though the two nails are different than a steel rod that extends all the way through the door, they provide the basis for connection and conveyance of energy (note that the two nails must not move). This is analogous to the curved pathway from your fingertips to your elbow to your shoulder. Even though your body parts form a curve, there is a straight line from your fingertip to your elbow that can be further extended to your qua and to your foot.

Even though connection of energy in your body is not the same thing as chi, you need that connectivity to experience and apply chi energy. Since developing energy connections occurs internally within your body, it is something you can “feel” and “discover”, but it is difficult for the beginner at Tai Chi to see. That is why connectivity and chi energy are sometime mistaken for metaphysical or mystical things, when in fact they are based on body structure and the natural laws of physics. You need to have a balanced force in order to maintain stability. If your opponent pushes on your arm, and that arm is connected to your back foot, you may be stable.

However, if your opponent continues to push and you continue to maintain a rigid posture, you will eventually fall backward (like a piece of furniture being tipped over). That is because you have force on your front (where you are being pushed), but no force behind you. If you extend your leg backward, or if you sink and open your qua, or if you extend your hand forward toward your opponent, you have now caused a position where you have force both in front and in back of your center point. This modified position will enable you to maintain stability.


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