Chen Family Taijiquan Unpacked: Gongfu Utility System
[Above: Chen Taijiquan Gongfu Utilities, Bow & Arrow Fist]
Chen Taijiquan Gongfu Utilities is a teaching and practice curriculum that I have developed over many years of personal practice, research and teaching. After many years of consideration I have decided that at least some of it needs to be shown and even publicly taught if the opportunity arises before Taijiquan’s last traditional coffin nail is hammered.
Chen Taijiquan traditionally is what I would call a “packaged system” as if packed into a suitcase for travel. The main elements of practice in current popular Chen Taujiquan are forms: Yilu & Erlu, Tuishou, and then weapons…and sport competitions. There are auxiliary practices of all kinds of course, but those are the main components. Recently some Chen Village schools have been importing pugilistic and sparring methods from “Sanda” (basically Chinese sport kickboxing) techniques to fill in certain missing pieces that have been lost to time’s erosion.
Most surviving traditional Chinese martial arts include heavy doses of technique based single and two-person drills for development of fighting abilities. Tuishou is an exceptional drill system for developing certain abilities but it is not nor was ever intended to be an end in itself but simply a drill for a particular skill set and level of engagement. In Chen Taijiquan these days we simply do not see the normal set of technique/engagement drills that other arts have, namely the pugilistic kind that address the situation of an opponent actually attempting to strike and otherwise seriously hurt.
Over the last few years there are a number of popular methods of excuse and rationalization for this omission. The two most popular are as follows:
1) “Taijiquan does not need any such drills because tuishou/shuaijiao is already fighting, Taiji style.”
2) “Taijiquan does not have any techniques as it is about principles and energy.”
3) “Taijiquan has tons of techniques, but you have to be a master to understand them.”
Regarding number 1, Tuishou is simply NOT fighting even less than wrestling (shuaijiao) is. All of these ranges and methods of engagement that can be used within a fight context, but there are very good reasons that all such sporting events have rules that confine their activities to within that particular context, to prevent it from becoming, well, fighting. Although I do have some compassion for those who truly believe it, the idea that throwing someone out of a circle, or pushing them around while they are not allowed to strike is “fighting” is just silly.
Regarding number 2, this one is easy enough to debunk just by a bit of understanding of the forms, which contain many many obvious striking, kicking, locking and other techniques. Those are not included to for thrills and show. Those are what you will use if you are skilled. No one would have included such complicated and numerous methods for no useful reason.
Regarding number 3, well that is just self defeating. The truth is one needs to be taught specifically how to develop and use these techniques, and in many cases even what they are. “Mastering” a skill is an excellent goal, but it is putting the cart before the horse to require mastery even before understanding and practice.
In my earliest Chen Taijiquan instruction I was lucky enough to be exposed to a very detailed system of drills and practices. My teacher, Gene Chen was not in any way concerned with sport and had learned in China at a time before sport and commercialism were king. His concern was purely martial arts and he had a delivery system for techniques rather than an idea or principle. “Delivery system” in this case means a bridge between Tuishou and fighting, or “sanshou”.
I have been aware for a number of years that this is an uncommon situation in today’s Chen taijiquan. Most people have no exposure to anything between tuishou/wrestling and fighting. They either have to figure it out for themselves or just dream about it. Figuring something out for one’s self might result in something effective, but it will not decipher the traditional method. Dreaming about it, that works very well on the internet.
Ever since my years with Chen Jinhong (Gene Chen) and then his Shifu, Feng Zhiqiang (a decidedly martially skilled practitioner) I’ve been creating drill practices for myself that expanded on and maintained what I had learned. Learning the system of Chenyu from his father, Chen Zhaokui one has to deal with a huge amount of detail relative to other Chen systems. Not only is there detail regarding internal work and structure, but also technique; there are so many packed into the forms. Chenyu taught to “Use your brain” and carefully consider what is useful and practical in gongfu and practice hard to bring it to fruition. His emphasis was heavy on single form practices as well as “practicing out” all of the Jin in the forms when I was living in Beijing.
Taijiquan originally was created as 7 sets of some type then later compressed into lesser numbers of forms, then finally into the main two forms. It is easy enough to understand that originally it was not so different than a lot of other Chinese martial arts in the area of technique and focused practices. Numerous sets implies that each set had it’s own focus. Compressing the art into 2 main forms means that there are a LOT of different focuses and techniques squeezed into one container. If we just want health or an overall body method or principle then this practice method on it’s own is still very useful. However if we want utility of the actual methods contained within we must actually unpack the forms.
“Unpacking” means literally clarifying and practicing each and every contained method we want to learn and use. Some of these are big, some are small, some are just jin, and some are compounded and very complicated. I have been fortunate in that I have had very good and quite rare instruction regarding solo/two person drill method, Jin detail, and the specific character and method of Chen Taijiquan martial application such that I could assemble this systematic approach for myself and my students.
Chen Taijiquan only relatively recently became (apparently) a system of a couple of somewhat slow forms that had no explicit martially practical (pugilistic) developmental practices. It is a certainty that teachers/practitioners in the past held their own secret or private practices in these areas, but honestly, most of that is being lost as I write. I am painfully aware, that most teachers now do not have access to the knowledge to bring out the authentic traditional methods and teach them in practical context. I realize that give another decade or two this idea will be a corpse or just a ghost and all will be lost to sport, mysticism or reinventing the wheel. In that interest I have decided to make some of my own hard learned practices in this area public and if there is interest, teach them on a wider scale.
The above video is a basic prerequisite practice of this Gongfu Utility system that I casually call “Bow and Arrow Fist” for perhaps obvious reasons. This practice is a direct extension of a method from our forms. What you see may look a bit simple but that is because it is already at a fairly advanced stage of it’s execution. At the basic level it’s shape appears much more complicated. This is one of more than 30 such drills that are all quite detailed. Please enjoy the lovely scenery of the dregs of winter in a parking lot.