Gongfu and Techniques

by Sun Zhonghua on 2011/01/05

I was watching Chen Zhonghua teach push hands one day in July of 2010 on Daqingshan when I could not resist saying, “I have a method.” On hearing this, Chen Zhonghua stepped away. The opponent did not move. I picked up where they had left off and proceeded to knock the opponent down. Of course I caught him so that he would not hit the floor.

Zhonghua smiled, “That is “Zhao” that you used.”

“Zhao” is method or technique. Mostly it refers to offensive techniques. Zhonghua implied that I did not have Gongfu.

I thought that the moves I used came from the Practical Method. They were small and suitable. I knew that I used “Zhao” which is a technique that is part of the skill levels. The opposite of skill is Gongfu which is abstract. It is not visible and can only be felt.

Chen Zhonghua with Hong Junsheng

Zhonghua knew what I was thinking. Later on when we were dodging the rain under the eaves, he offered his hand for me to try. As soon as I approached him, I got bounced back by his fingers. His hand, body and feet never budged one little bit. I tried again and again I was bounced back. I tried several different tactics but all to no avail. Bystanders saw and went to try their hand at it. Zhonghua bounced them out just the same (outsiders may have thought that it was staged).

My experience told me that THIS IS gongfu. True gongfu is not in the same dimension as techniques. People without gongfu will be controlled by people with gongfu immediately upon contact. No technique will ever work.

In the evening Zhonghua and I were chatting over tea in the lobby at the Yulange Hotel. His disciples and students were practicing Yilu (First Routine) at the far end of the lobby or outside in the front yard. He said to me, “Look, I will issue towards the chandelier. He beckoned a foreign student over. On contact, the student flew out on a curve sideways. Though he did not fly very high, he did go towards the chandelier. Zhonghua then told this student to go get those outside. Before they came back, Zhonghua told me that he was going to issue towards the pillar. True to his words, the foreign student made a curve in the air and headed towards the pillar.

I understood that Zhonghua was using his actions to demonstrate to me the difference between technique and gongfu. I remember a story I had written previously.  At the New Asia Hotel in Shanghai Zhonghua had bounced two students in the hallway: one into the utilities room and the other into the fire exit. I had thought these were coincidences. Now I realized that Zhonghua chooses the destination before issuing. It is a rare skill to issue people wherever desired. But if you can only issue in a straight line, you cannot possibly throw people into the utilities room across the hall. Being able to make one’s opponent stumble in a curve and then head into the utilities room across the hall is not only gongfu but superior gongfu. Putting these two events together, I had a better understanding of Zhonghua’s gongfu.

An ancient maxim came to mind, “The great master does not talk of techniques.” Zhonghua demonstrated real gongfu to me to caution me against too much attention to techniques and the desire to win. I wholeheartedly appreciated his gesture.

I have been rambling for a while on gongfu, but what is gongfu? Historically there has been a myriad of answers. Some say that it is the training of different static and moving “zhuang”(pile standing) together with techniques. In the martial arts world there are adages such as, “The fist is no match to technique; the technique to gong”; “Practicing martial arts without gong will end up with nothing but old age”; “One hundred punches is no better than standing a bit”; etc. I will not comment on these here. In the taiji inner circle, it is common knowledge that both Grandmaster Chen Fake and Hong Junsheng did not do gong, neither did Chen Zhonghua.

I had mentioned in a previous article that Hong’s sixth son recalled that his father once said, “Grandmaster Chen Fake never even finished the first move Buddha’s Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar when he issued people.” Grandmaster Chen Fake was not a strong man and never practiced zhanzhuang or breathing but we must admit that he possessed superior gongfu. Both Grandmaster Hong Junsheng and his disciple Chen Zhonghua are a little over 160 centimeters in height and weigh around 60 kilograms. Their arms, waist and legs are not extraordinarily strong and yet, they both bounce people as if throwing simple objects. Neither practiced zhanzhuang or breathing exercises. Again we must admit that they both possess superior gongfu. These facts are the best arguments. Gongfu does not have a necessary relationship with zhanzhuang or breathing exercises. Grandmaster Hong Junsheng had the ability to issue wherever touched even at an advanced age. At the banquet for his 90th birthday, his speech was “Does anyone want to push hands with me?”  If you watch the video clip of him pushing hands with his grand students,  you will not say “Get nothing even when you get old.”

Grandmaster Hong Junsheng and Chen Zhonghua as master and disciple do not only share similar height and weight, but also temperament and sense of pride. Both are highly intelligent and learned with sharp minds and insightful abilities. Even the way they shared their humor are similar. No wonder Grandmaster Hong always thought of his far away disciple in Canada and Chen Zhonghua always talks of his master with feeling. Here is a story of how humorous Grandmaster Hong was. When he was eating with foreign students, he joked that reaching for food with chopsticks is performing a positive circle. Taking the food back and put it in the mouth is performing the negative circle.

I spent a lot of time with Chen Zhonghua and experienced his deep sense of humor. On Daqingshan, he got up around 5 every morning to train with his students in front of the Yulange Hotel.

One day a foreign student came running when others had almost finished Yilu. It looked like he got up late. While leading the class in Yilu, Chen Zhonghua said, “Good afternoon!” The student came running and answered without thinking, “Good Afternoon!” Everybody laughed. It was 5 in the morning but he said “Good Afternoon!” In a simple joke, he let the student know that he was late for class. Over dinner, Chen Zhonghua was always full of treasured moments. Whenever he was at the table, there was always laughter. There were several times that he was not at the dinner table. I noticed that the food was as good as every other day but the students ate two extra large plates of rice! It seems that his jokes were more enticing than food. I am not a humorous person. At work my colleagues called me “stone faced”.  On many occasions I told Zhonghua that “humor is the excess of intelligence”. It seems that I did not have enough wisdom.

I am writing as I am thinking so as to make this article not boring. In fact, Zhonghua does not simply joke around. He is well read and learned. He enjoys discussing philosophical subjects and loves the subject matter of taiji. He has the ability to talk about taiji in simple and humorous ways. In addition, when he did his master’s degree in education, he studied educational psychology. His ways of imparting knowledge must be well thought out. That aside, it is such a pleasure to see students come thousands of miles and cross the oceans to his side to learn taiji, to listen to his stories and to enjoy meals with him.

The more we know about grandmaster Hong Junsheng and Chen Zhonghua, the more we will understand why they possess such high level gongfu and what Practical Method is about.[singlepic id=1 w=320 h=240 float=left]

I do not intend to define gongfu in scientific terms. I just want to use some of the personal experiences with Chen Zhonghua to illustrate the process of training gongfu.

It was said that “After ten thousand repetitions of the form, the gongfu will show itself.” The first thing about taiji is to repeat the forms. “You cannot make a circle or a square without a compass and a ruler” (Chinese idiom that means there are rules for everything). “When the grandmaster teaches, he only teaches the rules.” One must train the forms according to the rules. After one reaches the level of competency in forms, he can then practice the art of push hands. Therefore, the forms and push hands complement one another. When pushing hands, only movements from the form can be used. At the beginning, one would rather lose than use anything outside of the forms. When practicing the forms, one must carefully savor the implied applications of each move. “When practicing the form, do so as if pushing hands with a partner.” In addition, the form must be trained from rough to detailed (this refers to the details of each move and their authenticity); from outside to inside (inside and outside must be harmonized).

When you train for an extended period of time, you have created fixed patterns for your movements. Any reaction in your push hands will be from the correct movement in your form. Thus, “When the rules are followed to the extreme, every move becomes part of the form,” as Grandmaster Hong Junsheng said in his “Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method” book. You will also have the ability to make quick decisions upon sensing your opponent. Together with the hands on experiences you have accumulated over the year, you will have the ability to avoid detection. If you still have minor mistakes in your movements, your opponent will not be able to take advantage of them any more. Your internal movements will become more and more able and agile to the extent that you have an automatic transmission (like in a car) in your body. Externally your physical movements will have higher and higher quality. The improvement of your internal and external abilities will transform your body into a biologically sound and dynamic structure. By this time, you will possess a great deal of power and can handle yourself in front of strong opponents. Your push hand skill will be at a level next to none. Upon more continuous training over the years, your entire body will go through transformations. Your muscles and ligaments will be hard but soft, loose but tight (not hard and sometimes soft; loose and sometimes tight).[singlepic id=7 w=320 h=240 float=left]

On the surface, you will have no more muscularity showing. The human body is extremely adaptable. Through long periods of (years) professional training, your bones, joints and tissues will acclimatize to taiji movements and will go through transformations. Every part will have separated yin and yang. Every body part has taiji. When you touch your opponent, you can instantly control him. And your opponent will only feel awkwardly uncomfortable but have no way of recovering from a losing position. There is no need to have “neutralization” in a normal sense. When a point is being touched, it instantly extends and dissolves the force. When the oncoming force is from the top, your body can “flow over” his body from underneath. If the oncoming force is from the bottom, your body can “climb” over to the other side of the opponent. If the oncoming force is on your chest and abdomen, the contacting point submerges while the rest of the front body will emerge to make the force fall into emptiness. At this stage, your push-hands is simply like playing games. In some cases, as soon as your opponent opens his hand, your entire body would already advanced and stuck onto him. All these are mysterious to the eyes of the onlooker and even bizarre (some say it is sheer terror). Without first hand experience, no matter what you say, you always have a grain of doubt in your heart. By then, the real taiji gongfu is in you.

Most importantly, and it is what I have repeated numerous times before: First your form must be authentic and traditional such as the Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method; Secondly, your entire learning process must be under the supervision of a teacher who himself had received the true transmission. You cannot succeed if either of the two is missing.

There are many factors that are stumbling blocks on your quest.  1). The routine is faulty. 2). The teacher does not have the goods or he is not willing to share. 3). You do not train hard enough. 4). Your training is intermittent. 5). You are not patient and therefore you quit. 6). For fame and money you lose sight of what you are training for. 7). You are double-faced with your master. 8). Rely on your physical ability and do not pay due attention to skill and gongfu. 9). You do not do enough research to enable understanding. 10). You are unethical, jealous, proud, ruthless and harsh.

Any of these factors will totally destroy any chance of success along the path of mastery. This is why there are so few masters with real gongfu. Those who are smart will always outsmart themselves. They will misinterpret the master’s instructions and change the form to the extent that they will act differently when in front of the master and when not. They will end up doing the form wrong. Those who are impatient will apply the techniques to win. They will learn many techniques and will always win. They will not go very far in gongfu. It is a good thing to have power but those with it will always use it to win instead of learning and applying taiji skills. They will belong to the school that believes “Power makes up for skills” and will go astray. Some will quickly start participating in competitions of form and push hands. They will end up having good ranking but that has nothing to do with true taiji. We have all seen many people in this category. No wonder Grandmaster Hong Junsheng and Zhonghua both say with a sigh, “Our style is not suited for smart people, nor strong people.”

Without accumulation, there is no taiji gongfu because gongfu starts with quantity and ends up as a matter of quality. To gain gongfu it takes time. Some people will gain gongfu faster than others but there is no instant gratification. In this society of fast food domination, people are more here for fame and fortune. These are contrary to what gongfu is about. I will stop here for now. Best wishes to all for success!

Chen Zhonghua with Hong Junsheng in 1991

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

CantonCannon January 5, 2011 at 1:40 am

Good article! Happy New Year, Master Sun!


Hong Sen January 5, 2011 at 2:35 am

Good article! Thank you Master Sun Zhonghua! Indeed Uncle Chen Zhonghua does have superior abilities in his understanding of taiji theory. I have rich experiences of his insightful understanding, detailed explanations, and his steadfast pursuit of the art. He deserves the title of a true master of the generation!


Tim Duehring January 5, 2011 at 5:40 am

Thank you for this great article Master Sun. Your observations and insight are appreciated very much.


ttruscott January 5, 2011 at 11:25 am

I was uplifted and encouraged by this essay…thank you very much, Master Sun.


wushaozhi January 5, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Hi Master Sun! My respect to your literary ability! I support your views and experiences! My experience push with Master Chen Zhonghua is his hands, body, feet don’t move at all but I was bounced back. Because I know him very well so I could experiment on him. I would try the same move 3 to 5 times. I always thought that the first time I was not prepared maybe I needed a second time to verify the move. But in reality no matter how I try I was bounced back each time. Each time when I felt something wrong the body was already suspected in mid air. Taijiquan is magic! Wu Shaozhi in practice.


Jay Smith January 5, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Very nice article Master Sun. It reminds me how fortunate I am studying under Master Chen!

Thank you.



KT Lin January 6, 2011 at 2:57 am

Marvelous, Master Sun. Very well written! I thought many of the thoughts in your articles, especially those about Master Chen’s highly intelligent and very sophisticated humor and profound understand of human psyche, time and again, but don’t know how to put them in writing. And now you have done it with such ease. And your depiction of the process of how gongfu is gained through repeated practice of form in accordance with the principles and under the supervision of a qualified master gives those like me some hope that if I keep doing this the right way maybe one day I can also be a link of the Taiji leanage. I realize how lucky we are to have met Master Chen so that we can experience the taste of true taiji Gongfu.

Look forward to more of your wonderful articles.



Li Xinming September 13, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Master Sun’s articles reminds me of the nice spring days on Daqingshan. Master Sun’s article is based on facts. His analysis of the learning procedure can be used as a textbook in learning taijiquan. Thank you very much for your teachings. Good health to all my teachers!


gigi December 2, 2011 at 1:15 am

Considering the Zhuan Guan video , “turning over of the joints” is gongfu or zhao?
Greetings from Romania!


Chen Zhonghua December 2, 2011 at 1:55 am

Definitely gongfu! Zhuan Guan is considered one of the highest levels of taiji. By the way, it is not simply “Turning of the Joint.” It is a special taiji terminology, denoting a level of ability.


Anonymous December 2, 2011 at 9:23 am

Thank you Master Chen!


Michael Calandra February 9, 2012 at 4:10 pm

This is a great article and should be read by every student of Chen Zhonghua. Thanks again.


bruce.schaub February 11, 2012 at 11:31 am

Michael, thank you for directing us (who had not seen it) to this article. It’s very inspiring. Master Sun writes with the eloquence of a diplomat, and the insight of a very wise man. I will read it often to remind myself of it’s many important points.


Loretta June 9, 2013 at 9:22 am

Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after checking through some of the post I realized it’s new to me.
Anyhow, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be
bookmarking and checking back often!


Asad Habib August 9, 2013 at 1:11 pm

A brilliant article and one that I need. Thank you.


Carlos Hanson October 26, 2013 at 3:59 am

Based on comments made to me this summer in Edmonton, I find it helpful to keep in mind that “gongfu starts with quantity and ends up as a matter of quality”.


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