On learning Taijiquan full time

by charlie gordon on 2010/08/27

Many more Chinese martial artists have visited Daqingshan this year compared to last, with various Taijiquan styles, Yiquan, Tongbeiquan, Baguazhang, Xingyiquan and Shaolinquan all being represented.Many have come from Linyi, a near-by city known in Shandong for its martial arts pedigree. Shandong itself is a province famous for its long and deep martial history in China. Outwardly these martial artists say they come to learn from Master Chen, however most if not all come to test his skill.

During a break from the constant stream of guests, Master Chen explained that all of his visitors come with their minds already made up, and thus will never be able to learn. “People will always believe what they want to believe, no matter how skillful you are”. No matter the outcome of these encounters, they all return home continuing to believe what they think they know about Master Chen and “real” Taiji skills. He then went on to describe people’s reactions after pushing with him, and how their minds get in the way of learning:

After pushing with Master Chen everyone’s reaction is the same: “He’s too strong. He’s just stronger than I am”.

After this experience, the correct progression of thought should be:
“No, it’s not just that he’s stronger than I am, it’s something he does”. Then,
“I can only be strong like him if I do what he does” (Practical Method).

However, after experiencing Master Chen’s power people react in the following ways:
“He’s stronger because he is younger – it’s not proper Taiji”. Or,
“He’s strong and fast. He got me this time but I’ll get him next time”. Or,
“I don’t understand it, I don’t like it, and I don’t want to try it”. Or,
“I want to be strong like him so I’ll learn his tricks and put them in my own form”.

Most visitors’ reactions fall into one of the top three but a few have been of the fourth, and so they returned to Daqingshan to learn from Master Chen. But according to him they will never succeed in learning because both their logic and their understanding of Taiji are flawed. Master Chen has no tricks, he has the Practical Method.

Master Chen recounted a story of Master Hong to illustrate how having pre-conceived ideas of Taiji   inhibits learning. After moving back to Jinan from Beijing, Master Hong taught in many locations in Jinan and eventually ended up teaching at the Jinan Martial Arts Academy. For over 10 years Hong taught daily in the same gymnasium with Wushu instructor Master Wu. Wu thought Hong was a fake – his Taiji ridiculous – and for 10 years he had never shared a word with nor touched Master Hong.

One day while Master Hong was demonstrating a technique on a student, Master Wu had had enough – after teaching side-by-side with Hong for so many years, he could no longer stand to see this old man continue to cheat his students. Interrupting Master and student, Master Wu requested Hong to demonstrate the technique on himself instead, thinking he would finally expose Hong for the fraud he was. Upon first touch Master Wu was immediately thrown against the wall. In all his martial arts experience Master Wu had never felt anything like Hong’s energy. Completely surprised yet unhurt, Master Wu promptly requested to become a disciple of Master Hong. Imagine being Master Wu and realizing that you had wasted an opportunity to train every day with a high level Master for 10 years!

However, Master Chen raised this subject not out of despair but out of hope, for he said that for the first time in his teaching career he encountered a student who came to test him and came away from the encounter with the  right mind towards learning. A fellow Taiji brother (Let’s call him Liu) of mine had studied another Chen Style Taijiquan for over 10 years when he first met Master Chen. He came to Daqingshan dissatisfied with his previous training, and when he first pushed with Master Chen he didn’t understand – he had never experienced anything like it, and from such a small man at that.

Liu had planned to spend 6 days training on Daqingshan, and at the end of the first day he thought to himself, “I need to lift more weights and train harder to beat him”.

After the second day he thought, “I need to learn his tricks in order to make my taiji as good as his”.

Upon the third day he realized “Putting his tricks in my form won’t help. I need to learn his form. I must start training the Practical Method”.

After only 3 days, Liu decided to return home, as this new realization meant he had to ask his current teacher for permission to start training with Master Chen. He had realized what most others do not: if 12 years of his previous training didn’t produce enough power, how would adding a few techniques from a different system help? Liu understood that Master Chen’s power is a result of his form, and so abandoning his other training to start the Practical Method is the only way.

Those of us who study with Master Chen are under no illusion as to how long and hard a road it is to achieve true Taiji skill. To fail to mention or deny this fact would only give his students a false impression of what Taiji truly is. The reason that Taiji is so difficult to master is the same reason why one cannot borrow Taiji techniques to supplement training in another martial art: Taiji movements are completely counter to human nature. And thus Taijiquan is a complete system unto itself; incompatible with any other. Master Chen has stated that any similarities between Taijiquan and other martial arts are  superficial. To be unaware of this point is to risk wandering off-course on the Taiji path.

In order to attain his level of skill, we must train in the Practical Method for as long and as hard as Master Chen has. There are no shortcuts, there are no secrets. In his book, Master Hong quotes Grandmaster Chen Fake,

“In learning Taiji, one must pay attention to details to progress steadily. Gongfu is such that the time and effort you put into it is always the same as the result. If you put in as much time as I do, you should be as good as I am. If you put in more time than I do, your gongfu must be better than mine. In this art, there is no cheating. There is no short cut”.

And while this may be disheartening to some, it is also the reason why Master Chen has many dedicated students. We are lucky to have found a teacher who is so open and willing to share his knowledge. Master Chen often emphasizes the importance of correct learning because without this awareness we are likely to get side-tracked in our training. I would like to thank Master Chen for his generosity and guidance on the Taiji path, and offer this quote reproduced from Sun Zhonghua`s previous article on the website to inspire my fellow Taiji brothers and sisters,

“Just take one step at a time, understand one bit at a time. There is no fame. There is no obvious sign. Just follow the purity of the true path, while enjoying the journey and the process.”

About charlie gordon

I started studying Chen Style Practical Method with Gordon Muir in Victoria in 2007. After attending a few workshops with Master Chen Zhonghua, in 2009 I decided to go to Daqingshan for 3 month full time training. After the summer I stayed in China another 6 months studying Mandarin and training with Master Sun Zhonghua in Beijing.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicholas Fung August 29, 2010 at 1:40 am

I can’t agree more.


Khamserk August 29, 2010 at 5:10 am

Beautifully articulated, thanks for this awesome article!


hengli August 29, 2010 at 11:41 am

Wow , a very honest and true article I think. Made me think about myself and experiences I got with a lot of Martial Artists…and for myself I think I want to enjoy my training and I think to be happy is most important. I play different martial arts because I didnt find a real Taiji Training (or Teacher) which would make my doubts quiet. I have trained Taiji for 16 Years only to come to the point to realize that it is impossible to learn. So for me and for a lot of my friend it has been more and more a looking for “Quan Shu”…looking for mechanics and how to use them in pushhands. Some do Yang Style, some do Chen Style or Yiquan but we all try to play everyday and get better. It is not possible to learn Taiji if one wants to really learn it , there are only forms and pushhands patterns, then more forms, more forms and on and on and on. For me my Training has helped me a lot to understand how to develope Structure and Internal Energy and how to improve the quality of my movements. I dont know anymore what Taiji is about, so I work with the videos of Master Chen, learning the Form and try to understand the rules and ideas. One must learn to relax, and not to think to much about, just do it and play everyday… To be more healthy and more happy in allday life is also a good goal, having peace in heart is the thing or not? I got times with my Taiji I was so unhappy and also angry, I dont want that anymore. Martial Art is also for having a good and happy time isnt it? With Practical Method and Master Chen Zhonghua the practicioner has a very good system he can train without doubt and if there is doubt one can have replys, this is a great thing, and is not often found in Taiji I think…a big problem is that if the true thing is in front of your eyes, can you realize it? Most people just look superficial, and not do not realzie what is wrthful and what is just performance…maybe a problem form human beings general?
thank you all for this great and inspiring site!


Xavier November 1, 2012 at 1:54 am

Very deep article, sir.
Would like to add on how my own experiences parallel this.
It is said that “You cannot strengthen the weak but seeking to weaken the strong.”
In that above context, the term ‘Cross-training’ becomes loosely used and misunderstood.

As just a general example:
If I train boxing and perform poorly against a good kicker i.e. say I keep getting kicked in the head.
Some will then decide to start ‘cross training’ to learn kicking.
However, this will do NOTHING to help me avoid getting kicking in the head because I have not fundamentally changed my relationship with my opponent.
I am getting kicked in the head because I have a defensive hole.
Learning to kick per se just gives me a new set of skills to master.

Thus, I move from becoming an imperfect boxer to becoming an imperfect boxer and an imperfect kicker.
No change in relationship between me and my opponent; and no quantifiable improvement over the fundamental problem (poor defense in this case)

The goal of cross-training is actually reductive rather than cumulative.

It is to change the way our body moves, reacts and behaves under new situations of stress.
It is done under a process of elimination; not accumulation.
You eliminate your own obstacles rather than seek to acquire the skills that someone else has.

So in order to ‘cross-train’ successfully, we will need to follow instructions and not ask questions.
Whatever progress and or abilities that we get or do not get then become incidental by-products of the gradual reworking of our body.


Wilkin Ng November 1, 2012 at 12:30 pm

It makes sense to cross-train if there is something lacking. But GM Hong is the testament that you can progress far just by practicing two Practical Method forms. I have found that a vigorous yilu will get my heart rate up, and I can do more internal yilu to strengthen my structure.


Xavier November 1, 2012 at 10:40 pm

Roger that sir! You said it beautifullly- In your example, less is more.

The problem or challenge with ‘cross-training’ is that we aim to over come what we lack by adding something ‘more’.
Learning to do the ‘positive circle’ was very humbling for me.
It was damn funny when I first tried to do the ‘positive circle’ – I kept staring at myself in the mirror wondering how on earth i could keep screwing up a movement sequence that had really only 3 parts to it (elbow in, turn waist, lead with hand)

I think my wife thought I was mad.
When I did it infront of the mirror without my shirt on, it was even worse. hahahaha.
Your body just doesn’t want to listen to you– and staring at myself in the mirror just made me laugh at how ridiculoused I looked with my butt, shoulders and stomach all in the wrong place at the wrong time!

Less is more; but that is what makes it so difficult!
Here’s to the journey of a thousand miles!


pingwei November 21, 2012 at 8:09 pm

Excellent article about real Tai Chi training. The problem is that most people cannot tell the right from wrong. People would rather believe what they have been doing is right. Other way around, they would be emotionally crashed. We are fortunate enough to have Master Chen Zhonghua. We are fortunate to allow ourselves totally immerse in the Practical Method.


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