Master Chen Zhonghua – Pioneer of “Practical Method” Taijiquan

by JVanko on 2010/11/04

Master Chen Zhonghua is a modern day pioneer of Taijiquan, and he is re-inventing the way people practice it. The interesting thing is that his intention is to return Taijiquan to its original purpose, that of a martial art.

Chen Zhonghua began his training at a young age. However, it was not until he met Master Hong Junsheng that he was introduced to the “real” Taiji, the one that we hear about in stories, the one in which Taiji is a “supreme and ultimate” martial art, a far cry from what it has become in most Taiji schools today. The root of this “real and practical” method of taiji is rooted in the lineage of Master Chen Fake (Chen Family Taijiquan), and has been passed on through direct transmission from teacher to student through the centuries. Hong Junsheng learned this tradition from Chen Fake and focused on developing its practical usage instead of focusing on the health aspects as most other schools have done. To Hong, the health aspects were a byproduct of the martial art, a benefit obtained by someone pursuing martial skills. Master Hong honed his martial skills through more than 50 years of practice. In Hong’s system, called “practical method,” every move has a practical purpose (i.e. Martial applications) and can be applied in combat.

As a complement to becoming a disciple of Hong Junsheng’s practical system, Chen Zhonghua also became a disciple of Feng Zhiqiang, another main student of Chen Fake. Feng’s “Hunyuan Taiji” system also a large qigong component and other health aspects in its practice, and was a good complement to Hong’s system.

So why is Chen a pioneer? Besides being an expert on the practical aspects of Taijiquan, Master Chen speaks (very) fluent English, having served as a translator and English teacher. He also understands both Chinese and Western cultures, having lived in both. Furthermore, Master Chen is always experimenting with modern ways to teach Taiji and get across his message including one of the first online learning websites as well as a very complete web portal and numerous free videos on youtube. Finally, Master Chen is constantly looking for new ways to perfect his art and teach it, which involves new explanations of theory, creation of new training devices and specialized exercises.

Chen Zhonghua’s pioneering efforts are already working; not only does Chen have dozens of disciples many of which were already experience martial arts teachers when they met him, but his students are doing very well in competitions, in China. Chen has a schedule full of teaching seminars all over the world. Furthermore, Chen has invested in the development of a large mountain resort in China called Daqingshan to bring Taiji enthusiasts and masters together in full-time training programs. Staying true to his legacy, Chen Zhonghua has truly spread the art of Chen Style Taijiquan “Practical Method” worldwide, a treasure and beacon of light for those who are interested in learning authentic Taijiquan, the way it was meant to be.

The Story of Chen Zhonghua

Chen Zhonghua was born in the winter of the third year of the “Three Bitter Years” (1961), a period of famine, drought and floods that left millions of people in China dead. While his mother was pregnant with him, she and the rest of his family suffered from starvation. The situation was so bad that the landscape of China was completely devoid of life. Anything that moved or grew was eaten. Out of necessity people had taken to eating leather and the bark from trees. As a result of these conditions Chen Zhonghua was born small and weak with severe health problems including damaged lungs. He was not expected to live into adulthood. Poor health kept him home and indoors for the first nine years of his life. During this time, the main illness was with his heart, liver and lungs while he also suffered from arthritis. These desperate circumstances lead to his determined pursuit of martial arts as a way of strengthening himself and alleviating some of his chronic health issues. Also, being very small he was on the receiving end of harassment from larger friends so learning a martial art was also a form of self preservation.

In 1979, Chen Zhonghua attended Shandong University in Jinan after graduating with the highest English marks out of seventy-six million students in his district. It was in this year that he heard of the amazing skills of an elderly man teaching Taiji in a park in the mornings. His subsequent visits to the Black Tiger Springs Park convinced him that Hong Junsheng was a man of real gong fu and that his Taiji was worthy of learning.

Meeting Hong Junsheng

Chen Zhonghua first visited Black Tiger Springs Park on a Sunday. People were leaving the park as he arrived, but there was still a small crowd on the raised platform above the tiger’s mouth. As he approached the crowd, he realized that it was a group of Japanese visitors who had been studying with Hong Junsheng. They were watching a demonstration performed by one of the visitors, a rather stout and dark looking young man. He was fast and intense with his form. His eyes were a beam of light on his hands. His hands were both purplish and he pounded the floor loudly. This was great! Chen was immediately impressed. Power, that’s what he wanted! Then a Japanese visitor went up to an old man with white hair. Through an interpreter he expressed his wish to experience the old man’s skills, claiming it would be a great loss if he went back to Japan without experiencing those great skills. The old man was standing with his legs quite close to each other. It was not a martial pose at all. He was smoking a big pipe with his left hand which left his right hand free. He was facing the Japanese visitor with the right side of his body. Through the interpreter, he told the visitor to try whatever he wished; he would not fight back, he would only defend himself. Seeing that the old man was not preparing for battle, it took a lot more interpreting and discussion before the visitor was convinced that it would be safe to attack. The visitor threw a punch at the old man’s face. The old man turned his body a bit, meeting the fist with his right shoulder. On impact, the visitor flew up and back, away from the old man. He was at least ten feet away when he landed. He stepped up to the old man again, obviously uninjured. “I do not know what happened,” he said. “Could I try the same move on you again?” Again, he flew back and landed on the same spot. Frustrated but not giving up, he tried a third time and ended up on exactly the same spot. His face showed total perplexity. Joseph Chen, standing among the watching crowd, was deeply impressed and puzzled. He was determined to find out the gong fu that was behind this impressive show of skill and control.

Chen Style Taijiquan “Practical Method”

“Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method” is a system of Taijiquan. This title was formally introduced by Grandmaster Hong Junsheng, in his book published in 1988, “Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method”. The Practical Method is distilled from the teachings of Chen Fake and Hong Junsheng.
Grandmaster Hong Junsheng was the most prominent disciple of the 17th generation standard bearer of the Chen family, the renowned Chen Fake. In 1928, Grandmaster Chen accepted the invitation to teach in Beijing. Thus, he became the first master from the Chen Village of Wen County, Henan Province, to teach the Chen family style openly to the public. As one of Chen Fake’s earliest students, Hong studied for several hours daily with the Grandmaster, for 15 years, the longest duration of any of Chen’s disciples. Hong further honed his skills, teaching in Jinan, from 1945 to 1956. Practicing diligently what he had learned, Hong thoroughly examined each move, and organized all of them into categories. He discerned all the variations of movements in the form, with a clear perception of the unique requirements each move demanded from the body. With his comprehensive understanding and the ability to apply it, Hong arrived at a profound level of integration of the art, experiencing Taiji as a microcosm of all human activity. He then returned to Beijing for high level training from the Grandmaster, in 1956. 

The term “practical” took shape in Hong’s mind 1956, when he went to Beijing to receive his final instructions from his master Chen Fake. Hong had always recognized that the movements in the routines were not exactly the same as those which were taught in the applications. He asked his master whether it might be beneficial to practice movements in the form exactly the way they would be applied in fighting or push hands. Chen Fake gave his blessings to this advancement of the teaching. Naturally, Grandmaster Chen was very happy to see his earliest student and the high level of mastery he had attained. He proceeded to dissect the two forms, Yilu and Erlu Cannon Fist, in the greatest detail, from the most advanced perspective. Hong absorbed this detailed instruction in every move in both forms.

When Grandmaster Chen Fake demonstrated the applications, he would always say, “This is the practical way of using it (movement in forms.” He would also steadfastly maintain that “Every move in this form is practical.” Enriched so deeply during this process of the highest levels of “indoor” transmission, Hong’s “Practical Method” crystallized. This is the form Grandmaster Hong taught in Jinan from 1957 until his passing in 1997.

In form training, movements connect with each other in slow, smooth and comfortable ways so that they flow into each other. This method of training creates a special flow and beauty, as we observe it in form demonstrations. It is an integral part of Taiji practice. In Hong’s Practical Method, this physical cultivation is perfectly complemented by the systematic and comprehensive integration of the practical applied value of every movement in the forms, to provide a fast track to higher levels of mastery of the complete discipline.

Gong and Fa

“Fa is the method of execution of the techniques, while Gong is a specific skill needed to make the techniques really work in combat.”

Gong (martial skill) and Fa (techniques) have been historically separated as two components in the learning process. This is often demonstrated in the case where a teacher will teach all choreographed forms, without explaining the meaning of the forms. On the surface, the shape looks fantastic, but the actual fighting ability only comes from the Gong. Historically in China, sometimes beginning students tried to challenge the teacher in combat to gain a reputation. In this case, the teacher deliberately avoided teaching the substance (Gong) to students, especially at the beginning. In many cases, this “trial period” of holding back could last a long time. This eventually caused the separation of Gong and Fa. Eventually, students could not even recognize the difference between Gong and Fa, even when they saw it in front of them. Students could not win the martial skills (Gong) simply because they only practice the movements (Fa). They need Gong to be shown to them by the teacher. The old saying, “Better to teach 10 Fa than 1 Gong ” shows how closely guarded Gong was in the past in the Chinese martial arts, and Chen Style Taijiquan was no exception.

One of the things that Master Hong Junsheng realized after 15 years of learning from Chen Fake was that the form (sequence of movements) was not performed in the same way in which the movements were used in combat (in applications). This is typical of Chinese martial arts and can also be seen in Okinawan karate, which was strongly influenced by Chinese martial arts. Movements were modified and sometimes other new movements were included in the forms so that outsiders would not be able to easily copy the techniques and learn to defeat the master that he observed. So Gong was hidden.  This is a cultural reality in Chinese martial arts, especially when firearms were created, and many military and martial arts teachers were struggling to make a living teaching the martial arts. Master Hong Junsheng began to adapt the shape of the movements to be executed in exactly the same way as they were executed in combat. One would then no longer need to modify his movements in order to use them. Hong did not seek fame, but he managed to improve the learning curve of Chen Style Taijiquan with his innovative teaching methods. His teaching methods are what characterize what is known today as Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method.

In 1956, Hong Junsheng returned to Beijing and was rigorously tested by Master Chen Fake every day for four months. During this period, Master Chen Fake approved of the advancements Hong’s movements. He also called Hong’s movement “very practical,” which later inspired the name of Hong’s system. He Shugan was also present and observed the two masters in Tao Ran Ting park in Beijing during this period.

International Standard Bearer

In 2004 Chen Zhonghua went to Jinan and was given the status of International Standard Bearer by members of the Hong family and senior disciples of Grandmaster Hong Junsheng. The Hong family members spoke of their father’s Taiji. They spoke of how it was appropriate that the hard work and dedication to following the rules of Taijiquan had lead Chen Zhonghua to gain the skill that qualifies him to be a leading representative of Chen Style Practical Method Taijiquan internationally. Speeches were given by Hong’s sons and Hong’s grandson demonstrated Yi Lu for the gathering. The Standard Bearer, Li Enjiu, also gave a speech and later demonstrated applications with one of his top disciples, Master Ding.

Interview with Master Chen Zhonghua

At what age did you begin to study martial arts? Why did you decide to study martial arts? What was your early training like?

I started martial art on my own at the age of 6 but formal instructions started when I was in high school. I started martial art for health reasons. I wanted to use martial art to heal myself. I was suffering from a series of ailment that the medical professional could not deal with.
My early training was mostly hardships as the training methods were brutal and I did not have a healthy body.
To this day, what is the greatest benefit you have received from your study of the martial arts? Health.

What is your view of what “real” and “authentic” Taijiquan is?

Real and authentic are one of the same. Real taijiquan is something unusual and is more than an exercise or a sport. It is a special method that the ancients designed for martial purposes. These methods must be learned in a special setting. They cannot be figured out on one’s own.

What was your first exposure to “real” Taijiquan? How did you know it was real?

My first exposure to Taijiquan was with Grandmaster Hong Junsheng. At the time I did not know it was real. I came to realize that it is real only when after he passed away. This means that after he passed away I tried to explore other taijiquan systems and found most of them inadequate.

Why is your Taiji system called Chen Style Taijiquan “Practical Method?” Is there a difference between the Practical Method system and other schools of Chen Style Taijiquan?

My system is called Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method because it is the name given by my master Hong Junsheng. The difference is that this method focuses on being “practical”. Of course this is not to say that other systems are not practical. Just that in this system, Hong Junsheng considered being practical number one priority.

Why do the forms of different masters of Chen Style Taijiquan sometimes appear different?

This is a charged question. When students in the same class learn from the same master in front of them, they become different because of their differences in ability and understanding. Ideally they should be all identical but of course it is not possible.

You seem to use some special training methods and equipment. Can you explain this?

Compared to external martial arts and other systems of taiji, the Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method system uses relatively few training equipments. This is because the equipment used in old times is not easy to build and use in modern times. For example, the long pole is very difficult to carry around today. In our system, we use swords and broadswords. Some of the lesser known equipment we use includes:
Taiji Chan Gun: Rolling staff for peng energy training
Taiji Chan Jin:
Pulling Rubber Cords for circle training
Taiji Da Gan: Long Staff for shaking power training

In addition to having DVDs for sale, you also have a large amount of videos freely available on youtube? What made you decide to do this?

There is very little authentic taiji information on youtube. I thought I should do my part in helping out.

In addition to Master Hong Junsheng, you also became a disciple of Master Feng Zhiqiang, the founder of Hunyuan Taiji and Qigong. How do you compare the teachings of these two exceptional Taiji masters? Did their teachings complement each other?

I mainly focus on Hunyuan Qigong with Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang. The Hunyuan System is made up of the Chen Style Taijiquan, Xinyi, and Hunyuan Qigong. As there is no Qigong component in the Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method system, I chose Hunyuan Qigong of Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang.

Is there a typical profile for one of your students? Can anyone practice your Taiji style?

A typical student in my school is one who is not content with the current status quo of taijiquan. 
Yes, anyone can practice Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method.

Can people really learn to fight using Chen Style Taijiquan?

Definitely. That’s what Chen Style Taijiquan was designed for. Chen Style Taijiquan is able to make a weak person strong, a slow person fast, a normal person a fierce fighter. This is not a mystery. It is the special ability of Chen Style Taijiquan.

What is the purpose of the tuishou? Is there a difference between tuishou and fighting?

Tuishou is a taiji game. It is used to verify the correctness of one’s taiji training. Real taiji fighting is called sanshou and duanshou. At this stage, there is only fighting, no rules.

Recently you have brought some of your students from Canada and other parts of the world to China to compete in tuishou competitions. Can you tell us about their experiences?

We did not participate in any formal government sponsored competitions as only Chinese students from recognized schools are allowed. However, our students competed in events with national and provincial champions and they did very well against these people.

Can you tell us about your mountain retreat in China called Daqingshan? Why did you decide to build it?

Daqingshan Mountain Resort is located in Shandong Province, China. It covers an area of 30 square kilometers with 14 mountains in it. Currently there are two hotels with a capacity of 150 beds, a restaurant that can accommodate 300 people, hiking trails, training halls and many other amenities. 
The purpose is to have such a place for taiji practitioners to stay for extended periods of time for health recovery, relaxation and taiji training.

Have you been to Brazil before? Do you plan to visit Brazil in the future?

I have never been to Brazil before. I would like to come for a visit and give a workshop on Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method soon.

 

About JVanko

Hunyuan Taiji Academy do Brasil. http://br.chenzhonghua.org

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jay Smith November 4, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Great article John, well done.

Reply

Xavier Santiago November 5, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Excellent article. A must read for anybody interested in learning more about the Chen style Taijiquan Practical Method and our Shifu, Chen Zhonghua. I felt really identified in the quote where it says that most of us who study with Shifu were not content with the status quo of Taiji. Studying with Shifu is not a path based on blind faith at all, nor on anybody’s personal beliefs. It is based on a clear road map of rules to follow for accomplishing true body rotation which will lead to the one ability of Taiji known as Peng. This unique martial ability is tested every day in class with Shifu and he explains exactly what he is doing to achieve it without the use of neither mystical nor vague language. Then he will guide you in your practice in order to reproduce the same exact abilities which work on anybody since it is based on a real physical method. If you are looking to learn Taiji as the martial art it was originally intended to be, you need to look no further than Master Chen Zhonghua and his Hunyuan Taijiquan Academy.

Reply

Xavier Santiago November 5, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I posted this article in a Taiji discussion group in Facebook and had a comment from one of my contacts. I asked him for permission to copy his comment here on the site and he agreed. Here is a Comment on the article by Alan Stent, a Yang style practitioner based in England:

Alan Stent: i will say he looks strange without the beard lol :) , But i agree he to me anyway is a pioneer, it’s not Tai Chi for the highest bidder and there is no bullshit or secret techniques it is build on a foundation of good basics so props to Master Chen Zhinghua :)

Reply

Xspeed November 5, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Hi There, I am Alan and first would like to apologize for the spelling mistake it’s Master Chen Zhonghua :) and secondly would like to say thanks to Xavier for bringing this website to my attention and indeed the attention of others on Face Book and lastly that Master Chen Zhonghua should keep up the good work, i have rarely if at all seen such clear and precise explanations of basic and fundamental principles, it is a joy to watch so Thank you

Yours Sincerely
Alan Stent

Reply

JVanko November 7, 2010 at 6:31 am

Thanks everyone for the comments. I hope that all will have as much fun in reading the article as I did in writing / compiling it. I would also like to thank Master Chen for contributing the time and some special pictures for making the article a success.

Reply

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