The Nurturing Ways of Chen Taiji
Interview by Michael A. DeMarco, M.A., & A. Edwin Matthews
Published Summer 2000 in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts.
Taiji forms and styles are not all alike. There are different teaching and training methods involved. Plus, the overall reasons for practice may represent a wide-range of particular goals. It seems that a style's uniqueness is greatly influenced from the leading instructor of that particular system. If we look at Chen Style Taiji, we find an array of sub-styles that reflect the flavor of individuals who have developed their own particular branch from the lineage. One of the more notable branches come from Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, born in 1926, who teaches in Beijing. We were fortunate to conduct an interview with one of Feng's direct disciples, Mr. Yang Yang, who provided an in-depth perspective on this particular system of Chen Taiji.
The following interview was derived from two meetings with Yang Yang which followed workshops he conducted in Erie, Pennyslvania. These were held at Ed Matthew's studio called Body Awareness on October 12-15, 1998, and October 12-15, 1999. Yang told of how he became involved with Chen Taiji at an early age and eventually became a formal disciple of Feng Zhiqiang. Feng has developed a clear, comprehensive way of teaching his system. Since Yang arrived in the United States to complete a doctorial program at the University of Illionis-Urbana, he continues to teach Feng's system to students here. The system is a balanced blend of the standard Chen Taiji routines, locking techniques (qinna), silk-reeling (chan si jin), push-hands (tuishou), and energy work (qigong).
Following the interview section is a technical section which illustrates some of silk-reeling exercises and locking techniques. It is hoped that readers will closely compare the movements shown in both these sections to find how particular segments can be found in both the silk-reeling and locking techniques. According to Feng and Yang, these same movements can also be found in the Chen Style routines, push-hands, and qigong since all work together for health as well as self-defense.
Yang Yang's Start In Taiji
Where did you live in China and how did you learn about Chen Taiji?
I am from the city of Jiaozuo. It is about twenty five miles from the Chen Village, and so Chen Style is popular there. Likewise, because the Shaolin Temple is just south of the Yellow River, Shaolin boxing is also very popular in my city. In the local parks you can see people play different martial arts. The interesting thing is that we can also see different versions of the Chen Style. There are specific areas in the park where people practice their particular version and push-hands. It's a small city where people are very friendly. It's a good environment to start taiji study.
Do most instructors teach the first routine to focus on relaxation?
Relaxing is one aspect and obviously a starting point for beginners. Other fundamental exercises, such as wuji practice, are just as important to teach relaxation. All of the Chen style principles can be learned from practicing the first routine. If you do the first routine well, you can also do the second routine (paochui) and weapons forms well. If you have not learned the first routine well, your second routine and weapon forms will be just as lacking.
You then traveled to study more?
I went to study engineering at a college in Shanghai. Because my dad is a musician, he believes if one wants to learn how to play music well it is always good to visit the best teachers. However, even though someone is a well-known or famous teacher that does not necessarily mean that he really understands the art. You should be able to recognize that. The more you visit, the more you can compare and learn. So he always encourages me to visit teachers. So I applied that idea to my taiji practice. Plus, I'm lucky I had good teachers to encourage and help me. They helped me a lot. For example, my first three teachers are all friends of Chen Zhaokui. They learned from him so I also got the opportunity to learn from him. I did this whenever I went back to my hometown on my summer vacation from Shanghai.
Did Chen Zhaokui study with Chen Fake in Beijing?
Yes, Chen Zhaokui is Chen Fake's son. He lived in Beijing for most of his life. Later, he spent a lot of time traveling and teaching taiji in other cities. So people from Chen Village invited him back to teach. And the younger generation from Chen Village studied from him. Unfortunately, he died when he was pretty young. I think the reason he passed away had a lot to do with the political stress.
Your next teacher was Feng Zhiqiang? How did you meet him?
In 1982, I attended a national taiji conference in Shanghai called "Famous Taiji Masters' Gathering," or something like that. I met Master Feng there. What happened was that one of my hometown teachers, Zhang Xitang, also went to Shanghai to see the gathering. He was a good friend of Chen Xiaowang and asked him to try to introduce us to Master Feng. We just wanted to see him. So one day during the seminar, Chen Xiaowang called to say, "I talked to uncle (he called Master Feng "uncle," because Feng is one generation older), and he would like to meet you guys."
You must have enjoyed this special gathering and seen many taiji styles?
I loved it very much. That was the first and last biggest master's gathering in China to this day. That was the first time in my life to see so many top masters from the taiji community. Most of the best teachers of all taiji styles attended. It was hosted by Gu Liuxin because he held a good government position and had the power to arrange the gathering. People respected him because he was a scholar and was good in martial arts. For Chen style, they had Master Feng, Hong Junsheng - another one of Chen Fake's recognized students - Gu Liuxin, and Chen Xiaowang. For the Yang style, they had Fu Zhong-wen and Yang Zhengduo. For Wu style, they had Ma Yueliang and his wife, Madam Wu, plus Wang Peisheng. For Sun style, they had Madam Su Jianyun. There were some others as well. With such masters giving presentations and demonstrations, this event offered people a very rare opportunity to see the dif-ferent styles. I am not aware of any similar meeting taking place before or since then. Perhaps in the future there will be another.
You left Shanghai to go to school in Beijing. How did you make time to study with Master Feng?
During the last year of engineering school, in 1983, I was thinking about quitting college and just devoting my life to taiji training with Master Feng. I talked to him about it and he said, "No, finish your degree. Just finish your work, and I'll try to get you a job here in Beijing." Getting a job is the easy part. In China, the problem is to change hukou, the local registration that everybody must have. Because my first job was in Shanghai, my huko was in Shanghai. There was almost no way for me to transfer my hukou from Shanghai to Beijing. That was a big problem. Master Feng did help me and I tried very hard, but it didn't work out. The only way was to go to school, so I went to law school in Beijing. I skipped a lot of classes and instead went to the park to practice. But I did do well and passed the national bar examination in 1988.
You studied at first for your health. Why not Yang style?
There's no doubt Yang style is more popular than Chen style - than any style. But people can start with any style. Whether you have access to a teacher may determine the style you can study. If you can get access to all the different styles, then it's easier to choose which version you like. With Chen style, you can start with any physical condition, background or age. I've been working with people who started in their 70's and they are doing very well. Some people have misunderstandings about Chen style.
Some say Chen Style is for fighting and Yang Style is for health and the elderly.
Yes, I really want to talk about this. I'm not being critical of other styles, because any style may be good if taught by experts in that style. The key issue is whether you get the real stuff from your style or not. If I practice Chen style but I couldn't get the real stuff I'd say, "Chen style is not good" - that's not fair, right? My point is that health and self-defense or fighting are actually one issue. Usually people separate the two - "I practice for health," or "I practice for fighting." I don't think that's the method for understanding taiji better. Such a division won't lead to a complete understanding of taiji practice. If you are not healthy, you can't fight well either. Taiji is such a rich practice with so many benefits. Beginners cannot comprehend the wealth it contains. All aspects of the training system are related. You cannot say "I want this but not that." If you study only one part, then your returns will be considerably less than if you understand and practice the complete art. Why limit yourself from the beginning?
So the primary thing is to work on being healthy?
If you keep yourself healthy, then you can fight and you can defend yourself. That's really about internal energy. That's taiji practice. Working on your internal energy and getting stronger is good both for your health and for your self-defense. You can use it for both.
When you started teaching here, did you find that students wanted to progress faster, learn more and more movements, without giving the basics enough attention?
Like taiji, Chinese martial arts, Beijing opera, music, you may have to follow their rules. You have to start from the very beginning, otherwise nobody would teach you. You have to follow their rules from the very beginning. That's good for you, because if you don't have the foundation you cannot go to a higher level.
Yes, most of the students want to learn more and more forms, so they feel they are making progress. As teachers, we should point out to the students the importance of the quality of the form and the basics, which include qigong and theory.
Can teaching be adjusted to the individual so they can progress according to their own abilities?
Yes, in fact it should be that way in all aspects of training. We talk about the individual, their personal background, and physical and mental condition. In taiji, we talk about yin/yang: there should be some variations as we follow the principles. Going back to one of your other questions about the different versions of Chen style... People have different understandings of the art. The art is so rich; maybe you look at it from one angle and I look at it from another. As a result, we have a different understanding. It is more important to incorporate the principles. For example, it doesn't matter whether one practices taiji with a big frame or small one. The version may be different, but the principles should be the same.
There's an old saying in China, "First you copy, then you want to try to change." At first it's not easy to see how to do it - you make a copy. Like in the feeling of push-hands, even when you talk about hard/soft, you really have to touch the teacher; you really have to feel it. So this is one of the subtle parts of taiji training. You cannot get this even on videotape. I really have to touch to know what the teacher means. And even if you touch, you still have to think very hard.
How are the concepts of hardness and softeness in Chen Style explained?
There's one old saying from the classics: "Accumulation of softness will lead to hardness." We do need both, soft and hard, but we cannot start with hard. We need to accumulate softness and then transfer the softness to hardness.
What is softness? Do you need to put your hands on an experienced teacher to know?
To make it simple, softness is being relaxed. And here I want to make it very clear the differences between softness and collapse. The two are completely different. A lot of people make the mistake of collapsing when they try to be soft. You have to feel it. You cannot learn it from a book, you cannot learn it from a video tape, or CD. Yes, you have to feel it.
Some people who are very busy with family or their work have only limited time to practice. Are there basic things that you never want to skip? Is there a priority?
I would say, don't skip qigong. If you are busy, still do the qigong. If there is more time, then practice the routines and silk-reeling.
Silk-reeling after the routines?
The silk-reeling and the routines are almost the same rank. After that, you learn push-hands. Push-hands is not only an exercise for you to consume energy. It can also be used to generate energy. That's a very important point. As long as we can make our practice more energy-oriented, no matter what we practice, we'll be okay. So why mention push-hands? Because lots of people think push-hands is just pure energy consumption. That's wrong. With push-hands, you should train in a gentle nurturing way. You can train to generate energy instead of purely wasting or consuming your energy.
What type of qigong practices would you recommend? Standing Pole?
Yes, Standing Pole is one static part of qigong practice. There is also the dynamic, or moving part. Start with the standing, and then later you can do some moving qigong exercises.
Is any particular type of qigong good for beginners? Are all the same?
There are many styles of qigong. Like any other profession, you've got good and bad instructors, especially in qigong. People want quick results. Based on that demand, some people create strange exercises that are bogus. It has happened in China and I expect it's going to happen in the United States, or already has happened here. So I want to take this opportunity to say to the readers in your journal: be careful and make sure you're practicing correct qigong. Because this is something unlike the taiji routines. Practicing the routines incorrectly may hurt you, but not too bad. But, if you practice qigong the wrong way, you may cause great damage.
How does it benefit our taiji by having our inner energy flowing?
In general, when we watch someone perform taiji, we usually ask if the taiji is "empty" or not. Is there energy there or is it just pure mechanical movement? An experienced teacher can check a student's energy flow in different ways, such as through push-hands, or just looking at the form. After you start practicing an internal art, it becomes very easy for you to see what energy is in the form.
A beginner usually starts with qigong or the first routine?
That depends on the teacher. Some like to start with qigong and others start with form. We must pay attention to cultural differences too, because generally people have an idea that taiji is a morning exercise for the elderly. They already have an image of taiji in their mind. So when I came to the United States and started teaching, I would ask, "So you guys think that is what taiji looks like? Let's try this." After they got involved, they really enjoyed it. Then I'd say, "Here is the whole training system. Do you want to learn the real stuff?" After they practice qigong, they can easily tell the difference between only doing form and doing both (qigong and form). Then they can tell the dif-ference between qigong and taji and are happy to practice both. Recently, with the help of the media, people are getting a better understanding of taiji and qigong.
How do you compare your teaching methods with Master Feng's?
There are different levels of taiji training in terms of weight shifting, coordination, footwork, silk-reeling, etc. It is difficult for beginning students to study, practice, and get the benefit if they start with the refined level. So, I first present the essential form and silk-reeling. Gradually, based upon the student's progress, I will introduce the more subtle, refined movements and silk-reeling. I refer to these levels as "essential" and "refined" forms. This method has been working very well. Every time I meet with Master Feng, I realize I still have so much more to learn. His system is so very rich. That's the biggest difference between us. There's also a small difference. I live in America, so I probably know American culture a little bit better than my teacher. So in terms of how to present things, I needed to change the teaching method a little bit.
He is very different from the other teachers you have trained with?
Yes. You asked why I chose him as my teacher. Number one is fate. Also the criteria I used to choose a teacher is by what he really knows. How I check this is by looking at his disciples to see if they're good. And I look at his practice to see if it's good or not. Another criterion is to see if he is willing to share his knowledge with me. Of course, you yourself should be good and pass his test. But, assuming you pass his test, will he share his art with you or not? Because no matter how good the teacher is, if he doesn't want to share his knowledge with me, there is no reason to call myself his student. So, I think Master Feng is a very good person, plus he's knowledgeable, and he's willing to share with his students. So I chose him.
YANG'S TEACHING METHOD
What is your reason for teaching Chen Style and what keeps you going?
I feel a responsibility, an obligation to share my experience with the people here, and maybe sometime back in my country. I started taiji practice because of poor health and it made me physically and spiritually strong. How these physical and spiritual aspects work together and how can we get more people to get the benefits - these are the big reasons I switched my academic major to the field of kinesiology.
A lot of people have skills that are much higher than mine. But not too many people felt as strongly as I did about taiji after it cured my health problems. So I would like to share this. This is why I attempted to study kinesiology even though I didn't have any preparatory background. It is very hard for me to study this, but I think I can go forward. There's more research to be done in Chinese medicine. I need to study more of that, too. I need to study more physiology, biology, and anatomy to see whether we can really understand this art better.
Your own personal research?
Yes. I am very fortunate to conduct research under the guidance of my advisor Dr. Karl Rosengren, Dr. Eddie McCauley, and Dr. Rick Washburn - leading professors in motor learning, exercise psychology, and exercise physiology. We are all excited about our preliminary research results and plans for future studies.
The other thing is the learning process. Everything moves together; it's one big thing. We can get many benefits from taiji training for the beginner, intermediate, and advanced practitioners. The more I study taiji, the deeper it seems. This includes how we apply taiji in our daily lives to handle our problems, such as financial, political, or whatever. It's very rich. More and more people also want to get the spiritual benefit from it.
What information and skills would you like a student to take home from your seminars?
First, to understand that each part of the practice - the routines, qinna, qigong, push-hands, and silk-reeling - are integral aspects of the whole system and are closely related to each other. These different parts are not isolated. Second, to focus on learning the twelve essential taiji principles as taught by Master Feng. The third thing is that I hope, by giving examples, that people can learn to apply the taiji principles to their daily life. This is the real benefit people sometimes don't recognize. Daily practice is important to gain benefits. For example, applying the principles can alleviate knee and shoulder problems which are pretty common now. People can look at the Chen style routines, applications, and silk-reeling exercises to understand any martial art style better. And also how we transfer our form and push-hands exercises to qigong exercises.
Do you find push-hands practice is the best way of learning sensitivity?
It's part of the training. We cannot say it is the best way, because the whole curriculum, the whole training, includes the routines, silk-reeling, qigong, and push-hands. All of these should work together.
Some say that all you need to practice is the routine. If you are ever attacked, you will automaticaly be able to defend yourself.
There is a reason why all of the different elements are included in the training system. The training curriculum was developed for some reason. Why do people practice the routines, qigong, qinna, and push-hands? There must be some reason. I would suggest that people will make better progress if they practice the complete system. It's better for us to try and see what happens. Some people practice twenty or thirty years and, when you touch them, they don't have the skills they should have. There must be some reason. If you try just one year, or even six months - try the push-hands, silk-reeling, and qigong exercises - see what happens. See whether that can make some difference for your progress.
Are there variations in the routines?
Variations come for different reasons. Big variations arise because of differences in understanding the theory of the principles, and on personal training and experience. There may be some good or bad variations. It's difficult for people to judge which one is good or bad. My suggestion is to visit different teachers, then compare and see whether the thing you get is correct or should improve, because there's no way you can judge by yourself. If you cannot see the difference, how can you compare? So I would say, read books, go to different seminars. That doesn't mean you do not respect your teacher, now. You really love the art; that means you love your teacher more.
You have a variety of martial artists attending your workshops, but each seems to find something to help their own practice.
Whatever you're practicing, see through the workshop whether you can get something maybe you missed, maybe your teacher missed, from the Chen system. Like the silk-reeling. Any style has "white crane spreads wings." If you add silk-reeling, see the energy there? Even that much makes a big difference.
You don't have to change your style. You can get some things from the workshop. That's what I think - especially the silk-reeling. Lots of people have knee problems. The problem happens because people have too low of a posture too early in their practice, or they hold an incorrect posture which may hurt their knees. Also, their alignment may not be correct. People twist a lot. The foot and the knee should be consistent with your body's direction. These two things help a lot of people in my workshops - I'm very happy with that. Some people just do the form the wrong way. They come from different styles, not only Chen style. We do need to move the knee, but the range of motion should be reasonable. That's one big thing I like about Master Feng's system - nurture!
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