Nearing Christmas, under the bright festive lights of Hong Kong, K.T. Lin and Nicholas Fung (馮嘉傑) from the Hong Kong Chen Style Taiji Practical Method (香港陳式太極實用拳法) organized the year ending workshop with Master Chen Zhonghua. On a mild weekend, more than thirty participants from Hong Kong, the Mainland, USA and Canada gathered to train with Master Chen. A special thanks to Tim Duering and Hán Ruì (韩瑞) who came from Daqingshan to help with the workshop. For two days, Master Chen covered the basics of the Practical Method such as the , movement and . Master Chen also covered the of Chen Taijiquan as well as hands on applications and the intricacy of push hands training.
In the beginning
Wén (文) and Wu (武)
We all start our Taiji journey with some preconceive notions regarding the nature of the chuan and the requirements for training. Chen Fake (陳發科; 1887–1957) often said “Learning martial arts (武) is even more difficult than learning literature (文).” Hong Junsheng (洪均生, 1956-1996) understood this expression to mean that training produces a physical results. Master Hong emphasized this point by adding the word “Practical” (实用). to describe his training system. Master Chen Zhonghua (陈中华; b.1961 ) trained with Master Hong and Master Feng Zhiqiang (馮志強) in Taijiquan and linguistics at the University of Regina, Canada. Master Chen bridged the gap between traditional Chinese methods and modern Western thinking by contrasting the subtle but distinct differences between the East and the West. His workshops requires the understanding of the literature (文) in order to rediscover the martial arts (武).
The Way? (道)
Master Chen always emphasize the Taoist influences needed to understand Chen Taiji. Taoist philosophy begins and ends with the Daodejing (道德经 ), a 6th century BC text written by the sage Laozi (老子). The text begins in Chinese:
This text has been translated into English more than two hundred and fifty times. Typically, a translator provides his own interpretation or bias to this short sentence in order to convey meaning. However, as Master Chen points out in the problem of “Learning a new language”, this could result in confusion or even distortion. Using a more literal translation :
“A way that can be followed is not the way.
A name that can be named is not the name.”
The words and sentences must now be understood in the context of Taoism, its systems and traditions. As Master Chen reminds his students, do not try to understand those words in the context of another system such as logic. If the sentence appears to be illogical then abandon logic. Even when all your past experiences and present achievements are all dependent on logical thoughts. Once you accept this approach, in Chinese tradition, you have “enter the door” (入门) and can learn its mysteries. Bruce Lee summarized this experience as “enter the dragon” and once there, you will have to get ready for the wild ride. This is the beginning of the literature (文) of Taiji and one of the keys to rediscover the martial aspect (武) of the quan.
Many people begin their Taijiquan journey not looking for martial arts ability but in a quest for health. Master Chen was empathetic that the origin of Chen style Taijiquan was a martial art and that health benefits was a serendipitous but happy coincidence.
The historical roots of Taijiquan can be traced to Chen Wangting (陈王庭, 1580–1660) of Chenjiagou (Chen Village, 陳家溝). For the next two hundred years, each generation produced outstanding proponents in the martial arts. However, theirremain within Chen Village. Their main occupations were farmers who used their martial arts prowess to protect their village. In the 1800′s, this training system spread outside the local region of Chenjiagou, eventually reaching to the heart of the Chinese empire, Beijing. In the cosmopolitan city, the criteria for self preservation was different from those in the countryside. Overtime, the five family styles (Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu, Sun; 陳, 楊,武,吳,孫) was established and each style created their own lore and insights. The representatives for each style earned their reputation through their martial prowess and some practitioners were able to maintain their abilities even as they grew old and their strength declined. In the modern era, noted Chen practitioner Master Hong Junsheng lived to the age of ninety and Master Feng Zhiqiang lived to the age of eighty-four. Each master was able to maintain their skills and vitality even in their advanced age. As Chinese society changed, there was a general shift in emphasis from the martial to the literature. Over time, Taijiquan was recognized by its benefits to health and longevity rather then an art of self defense. In the West, there is even a tendency to abandon the martial aspect of the art and focus purely on the health benefits. This is to “put the cart before the horse” (本末倒置) and ignored the original purpose of the system.
I have commented in a previous workshop that to “find a good teacher, first look to his students.” In this workshop, Master Chen address another issue why this is important. The martial arts unlike literature requires hands-on experience. In this multimedia age, there are more than enough books and videos describing martial arts techniques. As Chen Fake and Hong Junsheng remind us, Chen Taijiquan is a physical phenomena and you have to experience it. Master Chen’s workshop is one of those rare opportunities. Third hand descriptions are just a pale shadow of the real experience. The crucial importance of direct transmission exist not only in Chen Taijiquan but also in most traditional Chinese martial arts as well as in Chan (禪) Buddhism. In Chan Buddhism, the concept of a special transmission that exists outside the scripture (不立文字、教外別傳 ) is the requirement of direct contact with an enlightened being. Your teacher’s words can show you the door but you also need his physical presence to cross the threshold.
Some where along the way
The descriptions of the marvelous techniques of Master Chen, Tim Duering and Hán Ruì are beyond my capabilities. There were many memorable moments including the effortless ease of Master Chen’s applications, the great push hand techniques of Han Rui and the extensive experience of Tim Duering. I am sure there will be many videos from this workshop. I can, however, reproduce some of the more interesting soundbites that paraphrases the concepts that Master Chen was discussing. It is extremely lucky that Master Chen often repeats the concepts in both Chinese and English so nothing gets lost in the translation. To the casual reader, those sentences appears to be random words. For the students of the practical method, they are just threads in the tapestry of the quan.
Master Chen Said:
“It is not logic but sequence.”
“Do not need to do anything difficult as long as the principle is correct.”
“Whole body power use the entire stick.”
“Finish an action, then there is a reset.”
“During an action you cannot change specifications.”
“Switching is changing the pivot point.”
“Form training is getting the body ready.”
“Training is to re-calibrate. Once your body listens to you then you can react to an infinite possibility.”
The cycle begins again
Some final words for those traveling the long and arduous path towards Taiji enlightenment. A poem from Wang Zhihuan (王之渙, 688–742) to consider for those lonely moments in between workshops:
白日依山盡， 黃河入海流。 欲窮千里目， 更上一層樓。
Which translates as:
The white sun sets behind the mountains,
The Yellow River flows into the sea.
A grander panoramic view is obtained,
By going up a flight of stairs.
It will soon be 2016 (the year of the Monkey). Already Master Chen has planned to travel around the world once again to provide this hands-on transmission of Chen style taiji. With each foundation, eachand each push hand practice, a new generation of Chen style taiji enthusiasts can glimpse the distant past in order to create a new future for this ancient art.