My Odyssey with TaijiQuan

by webmaster on 2010/05/05

by Kim Allbritain

The following is a brief account as to how I became involved with Chen Taiji in the first place. The first 20 years or so……..
I began with the martial arts in 1970, as a sophomore in high school. It was Taekwondo with a Korean teacher. After 2 years I went on to study Kaju Kempo for a couple of years and then Karate with Larry Lunn of Cleveland, Ohio. It was his teaching that had the most impact on me over time. He taught his students how to use Karate technique to fight, yet also that Karate was more than just fighting, that it was about being a Gentleman Warrior as well. I was promoted to Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in 1976. Now many years and much experience later I hold the rank of 7th Dan.
Learning martial arts in the United States from the 60’s through the 80’s was an interesting although incomplete experience. Despite developing skills with our body to use in combat, there was much not taught, not known.
The cultural turmoil in the 20th century in Asia wrecked havoc on the traditional societal structures containing the martial arts we were trying to learn. One of the things we did not know for many years was that not every Asian teacher was in fact a true master of his art. I’m not saying we were deceived, just that we were culturally naive. Absorbing the intricacies of one culture into another is a long term process. How long did it take China to absorb Indian Buddhism, for example ? …………Centuries.
In the last 10 years or so, many students and teachers of the arts have undertaken important research in these areas, casting light on subjects that were misunderstood in the recent past. Translating available documents, interviewing the surviving members of past generations and slowly piecing together the puzzle of why the arts we learned seemed to be different from the arts we expected to learn.
This resulted in a great deal of adaptation for most of us. For example, concepts of grappling were diminished by Karate’s early practitioners in the USA and Europe, in favor of striking (Atemi-waza). This was as we were taught. The meaning and nuance of Kata were oftimes confused and many movements interpreted as a strike with the hand or foot only, when they were actually grappling components used to set up a strike.
Some techniques that were originally not included in Kata at all, such as high kicks and long range footwork were over emphasized for the sake of competition. The concepts and mechanics of power generation were frequently overlooked in favor of fast long range techniques,again for the sake of tournament competition where power was not usually a factor.
A schism existed between fighting and Kata performance. The movements of Kata could not usually be employed successfully in fighting and the favored techniques of fighters were not found in the Kata. Despite years of study, it seemed to me that there was a disconnect in my studies.
In any event, this was the state of most Karate in about 1990 when I began researching Taijiquan for the first time.

KA in Atlanta – 1976

Finding a teacher. I began to pursue the study of TaijiQuan and found locating a knowledgeable teacher to be a frustrating task. Taiji, as I discovered, was not like Karate, it was more technically demanding in ways that Karate was not,and at least, in the beginning, not as physical.
My past learning was interfering with my new direction.
I sensed that most of the Taiji teachers I ran across weren’t really proficient in their understanding of the art. Perhaps a harsh sentiment, but I had to trust my own experience. Karate instructors are not always experts in their art regardless of rank, but for the most part by the time one has achieved a mid level Black Belt ranking, their competency and knowledge would be evident in their movements.
This seemed not to be true of the Taiji instructors I was finding. There was a tendency to teach forms without explanation or any hint of deeper knowledge and no indication of combat usefulness. There were few answers to basic questions. Add to this a mix of Eastern mysticism, Taoism, the I-Ching sprinkled with a dash Chinese Cosmology and a belief in the powers of Qi and the learning result was confused and Taiji’s intentions obsfucated.
Because of my experience in Karate, I judged Taiji from the level of someone who already knew a level of physical control beyond the norm, someone who used body mechanics to achieve power generation and at least some fighting competency. I expected that Taiji would provide that same martial capability.
At this time, on my path, I had seen nothing that convinced me of Taji’s exaulted place in the martial arts literature. There were few applications that appeared to work or even make logical sense. In retrospect, I often wonder why I continued to search for knowledge in this area at all.
In 2001 I attended a Chinese Martial Arts competition just to watch and see what the level of popular knowledge really was. I made some contacts there that led me to a teacher in Jacksonville, Fla, Mr. Kam Lee. I attended a seminar hosted by Mr. Lee, taught by Zhu Tian Cai, one of the leading exponents of Chen Taiji from Chen Village where the art was founded 400 years ago. I was suitably impressed by what I was seeing and continued to practice and learn this method for several years. During that time I attended about a dozen seminars of this type taught by Chen Xio Wang, Zhu Tian Cai and Chen Zhengli, all of Chen village and the Chen Family style. I also attended many weekend workshops taught by Mr. Lee in the same genre.
These teachers were all extremely skillful and professional in their teaching and performances of Chen style and I worked hard at learning what I could of this art from these various sources as most were direct lineage holders of the Chen Family style.
I began to slowly learn the details of this strange form of martial art but, most of it remained incomprehensible to me. Still, I persisted. For 2 years I worked on committing these long and often obscure movements to memory while simultaneously attempting to comprehend their martial significance. I did get better at the forms and could do them well enough compared to everyone else, but still had no clear idea how Chen was to applied in action.
With my studies in Karate, it was frequently clear how movements from the forms were utilized in combat. We learned them, repeated them and eventually were able to achieve results with them. There were also additional layers of meaning, of nuance frequently hidden, but the basics were clear and effective. I had became accustomed to this level of understanding from the forms, however I was not finding this clarity with Taiji despite training with its official representatives.
I expressed my concerns and was assured that if I practiced the forms 10-20 times a day for 10 years or so, I would begin to get it. I was also told continuously to relax my body, to soften my structure.
There was a critical issue however, one that was really starting to concern me. I had seen performances of the forms many times, but I had not yet seen the applications that were in those forms. I saw the use of Chi Na technique, which is based on twisting and locking of the joints in the arms and hands, a precursor of jujitsu. Almost all forms of martial art use chi na or some derivative, but it as an adjunct, not the main application base. I still did not understand what Taiji was supposed to actually do. Did it make using Chi-na technique more effective ? Was there something else ? What was the intent of a Taiji fighting strategy ?
We practiced Push Hands, but none of the students were getting it which was not surprising but what concerned me here was that none of the teachers were demonstrating anything but the basic patterns. I needed to see people who understood Taiji doing taiji so I could understand where this was all going.
I was starting to see a similar schism in Taiji that I had experienced in Karate,only more pronounced, a perceived gap in knowledge between the forms of the system and the applications.
It was beginning to look like an impossible quest. If I had to practice for 10 years to start to understand, how long would I have to practice to actually develop real skills ? Even more critically, since I was not seeing the teachers perform their art in the context I believed it was designed for, was I even being exposed to correct methods ?
In the midst of all this effort and confusion an opportunity to travel to China, to Chen village arose. I jumped on it as it seemed the best way to see how this art was practiced in it’s homeland. I signed up to compete in push hands and forms at the tournament held near Chen Village and off we went.
Three weeks later we arrived home from our trip, disappointed beyond belief. China was beautiful and educational and the people I met were friendly and more than happy to exchange ideas. Regarding martial arts however, I saw nothing in my travels except history. Not one expression of what I was looking for anywhere, even in the demonstrations in Chen Village. The tournament was the worst I had ever been a part of so I’ll spare everyone most of that sad tale. Except, that while competing, we were not allowed to compete with the athletes from China ! We were not even allowed to witness their competition ! It was held in a sperate facility in another location ! We traveled 20,000 miles to compete and learn and were treated like children shuffled off into a corner.
At no point in my trip did I see anything other than the controlled performance of forms. No push hands, no fighting, no indications that I was ever going to see more than formal exercises.
I was completely frustrated at this point. I concluded that I was not going to learn what I wanted following this path. There was little point in continuing to pursue Taiji this way as I had already been exposed to the top representatives and their teaching was not working for me. I was essentially being asked to follow a path based on faith, a faith that to me was still unjustified.
Everyone seemed to be very skillful but in exactly what, I was not certain. I had to trust my instincts based on years of successful martial arts practice. I’ve competed often and had thousands hours in the Dojo fighting. I’ve knocked a lot of fighters down with techniques that worked, were repeatable and teachable to my students. I was not going to waste any more time with this pursuit of myth.
If the story ended here, I would not have this web site and you, dear reader, would not be reading this.
The Hong Practical System Method of Chen
Several months later as I was leaving a movie theater, a young man handed me a card for some free lessons at a Kung-Fu school down the street from my house. I almost tossed it, but then recognized the name. Arthur D’agostino. I had met him several years earlier at a tournament. He was coaching his students in push hands and they were winning. We spoke for a while and he invited me to his school to work out. I decided to pay him a visit and see what he was all about.
Mr. D’Agostino was a very unassuming and easy going gentleman with a good background in Praying Mantis and Wah Lum Kung Fu. A champion forms competitor teaching his skills locally and also teaching Chen Style Taiji. I went to his school and was introduced to the Hong Style Practical Method System of Chen. He had studied Chen with a famous martial artist and disciple of Hong Junsheng, Li Enju.
From the very moment I started working on this version I could feel a difference.
I won’t say that this version of Chen was better than what I had experienced before, but the teaching methods were. It made sense to me. That was enough. I had enough experience to realize that styles of martial arts are not really better or worse than one another, but that one had to find a style (and a teacher) that optimizes learning for the participants.
For the first time I could feel physically and intellectually that the movements I made were workable. The applications matched the form, something that rarely happens. This I came to learn later was part of the genius of Hong Junsheng.
After studying with Chen Fake, (17th generation Chen master), for many years in Beijing during the 1920’s and 1930’s, Master Hong had returned home to Shandong province just after WWII. It was his idea to match the movements identically to the silk reeling exercises and to the applications.
In most forms be they Taiji or Karate, movements are abstracted from the actual performance and “hidden” in the forms. This makes understanding them extremely difficult and results in many misinterpretations and opportunities for lost knowledge.
I spent several months working with Mr. D’Agostino before accidentally finding yet another teacher of the Hong style, Chen Zhonghua (Joseph). Master Chen was a disciple of Master Hong’s and was currently living in Edmonton, Alberta. I was advised he was teaching a long intensive course in Arkansas at the home of one of his disciples and decided to go.
I attended this 17 day intensive course in Chen Taiji from Master Chen in Arkansas and I knew that I had found a teacher with the knowledge I was seeking and the ability to convey it’s many intricacies. I watched as Master Chen explained movements in detail and demonstrated their application. The movements in the form correlated with the applications exactly.
It was immediately obvious to me that Taiji is generally not represented as a true martial art in the public awareness because it is not properly disseminated. I had seen practitioners who moved smoothly and had a type of control that seemed martial, but they did not exude power or they would/could not teach what they knew.
In my experience, teachers who know their art, teach it. Those that do not know it well enough tend to ignore application science in favor of pure movement skills. They hide their lack of knowledge in a myriad of irrelevancies. This may not seem significant to the reader of this page, but it makes all the difference in the world.
Chen Style Taijiquan as taught by Chen Zhonghua, in the tradition of his teachers, is as authentic as it gets. The difference islike night and day.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Paddy Hanratty January 9, 2014 at 7:11 am

“…find a style (and a teacher) that optimizes learning for the participants…”

That about sums it up. Thank you very much for sharing your personal experience with this wonderful art.


Ymarsakar June 12, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Internal martial arts often function on different principles than external martial artists. While Okinawan karate was a sort of hybrid when it was first transmissioned from Fujian White Crane and other martial arts in the south of China so many centuries ago, it became more external once ported over to Japan, when there was one teacher and maybe 300 students. Not really able to get a really deep understanding that way. Kyokushin just ultra specialized in the hard and forceful nature of karate.

For Westerners, I often use the firearm analogy. A firearm merely needs the intent of the user to aim, breathe, and pull the trigger. That’s pretty much the same thing in internal martial arts. The power source is all internal (gravity is an internal power when you convert it from your environment). But instead of gravity and mass, or ligaments and fascia, the firearm uses the gunpowder inside the round or casing. Because humans need will and intent to make our body do things, or we can go back on instinct and do auto pilot, we often get the “order” of movements incorrect. The order is important. If the round in the gun explodes before you aim it, then there’s a problem. If the strength of the firing chamber is weak internally, then the weapon may damage the user, rather than the target.

Don’t jerk the trigger. The recoil should be a surprise, if for single shot long shots. Just as Chen’s videos, where he says that you shouldn’t feel what’s going on, that the opponent should be falling down and you would be surprised that this happened. That’s proof you are channeling internal power that is not associated to your muscles. Your muscles aren’t pushing the bullet. It’s just aiming and funneling the tube down in which the bullet travels.

In external martial arts, the mentality is often reversed, where the stronger you contract the muscles, the more damage and power you get out of a technique. Instead of shooting bullets, it’s like you’re using your muscles to hold the trigger and barrel down as you do full auto. Or using the gun as a club to beat people to death with. While technically the tools might be the same, the way they are used, aren’t.


gilly June 17, 2014 at 6:23 am

Really interesting analogy


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