Last one in this series, covering Practice flow, creative drills sanshou variations:
This video touches on a subject that is both sensitive, and one that I have been working on privately for over ten years; how to bridge the gap in knowledge and action from form/tuishou to practical martial application in Chen Taijiquan.
Of course plenty of people know and are well versed in functional application usage in Chen Taijiquan, and certainly I would not claim mastery myself, but my version of the size of what is to be mastered will certainly differ from some others, who all too readily call themselves ‘master’, of likely a smaller fifedom.
For a number of years I wrote online about a Taijiquan that included a well mapped out striking art within a seamless flow between sanda (broken contact, or flexible range), to sanshou (intermittent contact, or middle striking range), tuishou (push hand, or close range), and shuaijiao (grappling, or clinch range).
This prompted many debates and exclamations of disbelief. This video touches slightly on this subject.
These days (2012 since you may read this later) the current landscape of ‘success’ of a martial arts school in mainland China often includes a mad dash for publicity aided by presence and medals at tournaments. These tournaments were formatted after the re-emergence of traditional gongfu practice after the cultural revolutions prohibition of public gongfu training. Although more fight oriented martial arts contest such as MMA and the like have recently also gained popularity in China, the rise of “Tuishou” competitions has also been huge for Taijiquan. generally the big venues for promotion of students and teachers of Taijiquan are Tuishou and Form performance competitions.
Form competition is easy to figure out, and tuishou competition generally consists of a type of grappling that would mostly be considered a kind of ‘shuaijiao’ in the Taijiquan style, where points are won by throwing the opponent to the ground or out of the ring. Perhaps these competitions were designed to prevent injury or perhaps their rulesets were designed to promote a certain aspect of popular gongfu practice, I cannot say with any certainty. What I can say is that the competitions are decidedly sport oriented in their rulesets, and favor athleticism over martial arts (self defense).
Having myself never been well suited to be an excellent athlete, I was always partial to the martial arts side of the practice. My viewpoint is that gongfu practice should make martial ability available to those without the natural advantage of athleticism or great strength, and the leverage and efficiency science of Taijiquan should be effectively used to balance it. Of course, everything has its limits. One does need as much strength as possible, and as much health as possible, and overcoming one of great strength or athletic ability is not an easy task either.
I was fortunate enough to start my education in Chen Taijiquan from a teacher, Chen Jinhong (Gene Chen) who was very well versed in Chen Taijiquan as a striking art. Having been a true martial arts nerd, he had literally travelled all over mainland China starting the early 1970’s to research all three styles of Taijiquan, and then specifically the surviving students of Chen Fa-Ke.
He had received a lot of instruction in the striking and fighting methods of Taijiquan during a time when tuishou competitions did not exist and surviving old-timers practiced an art they’d learned as a martial art. Keep in mind this was well before Chen Xiaowang, or any of his generation were known at all as they are famous now.
Due to the time period of his study of Chen Taijiquan being really devoid of sport competitions, Gene Chen had no focus whatsoever on the goals and demands of the sport arena for Taijiquan. He was taught and maintained a view of the art only suited to the needs of self defense and fighting arts, which absolutely require a striking skill set. He abhorred the use of ‘brute force’ and demanded adherence to the ‘soft overcomes hard’ methodology. In his time, Taijiquan styles, such as Wu, Yang, and Chen were only thinly separated and their commonalities as all being Taijiquan were dominant. Even more-so the distinctions of line, style, or ‘frame’ within Chen Taijiquan that we see today were simply non-existent.
The methodology he learned and taught worked from the premise of wanting (needing) to protect one’sself in a violent situation such that the best outcome was to be hard to make contact with, and if contact was made, the goal was to control and manipulate the contact to advantage in striking, locking, and throwing among other things. So, it was a system of progressive management of boundaries and ‘gates’ as they can also be called. This differs greatly from a popular modern fascination with allowing ‘opponents’ to start encounters from a position of contact such as tuishou, or even more-so, grappling range, such as is popular in sport. In this context, tuishou was a partner PRACTICE consisting of many different types of methods that all seamlessly carried over into sanda, sanshou and grappling range uses.
I was aware at the time that his skills and curriculum were rare in Chen Taijiquan, so when I went to train with others after his passing I was not sure if I would find anything that matched that set of methods. What I found was both enlightening and interesting. I hence trained with first, Feng Zhiqiang, of whom Chen Jinhong was the first Tudi of (yes really, and there are handwritten letters to that effect from Feng himself in existence), who I was formally introduced to by Chen Jinhong, and then was so lucky as to meet by chance and then become Tudi of Chenyu some years later.
What I found was that while everyone has their own way of doing things, there are corresponding pieces of the larger puzzle that define and in this case redefine the pattern of the overall map.
Training with my Shifu, Chenyu, I was introduced to what I would consider the best and most deeply considered structural body method of any Chen Taijiquan I had ever or since seen. While the self defense application methods I had learned previously were very complex and excellent, the structural frame and body methods only went as far as ‘good’ and very functional given their intended context. In the case of what I learned from my Shifu, before we can even get to application methods we have to understand that body method and frame was absolutely core to the whole practice. So it was in a way a reversal in a sense where the previous methods did emphasize frame, their deeper methods were very much informed by the applications that they served, while in the case of Chenyu’s methods coming down from his father, Chen Zhaokui, the applications actually grew forth from the gongfu and body developed out of the prescribed practice methods.
Approximately a decade has gone by since I started my training with Chenyu, and almost 18 years as well since my initial training began in Chen Taiiquan. When I began with Chenyu the situation was very very small. I was I believe, his 7th or 8th disciple, not 7th or 8th FOREIGN disciple, just 7th or 8th sequentially in all. When I was training it was usually at his home or in the courtyard outside and there were mostly 2-4 people present. I created my first website, http://taijigongfu.com to promote him and his gongfu with my very limited skill in website creation (which is still very limited), and also posted a lot of information in online forums, some of which was directly at my Shifu’s behest. Some of what I posted early on caused a lot of trouble because Chenyu’s skill was so different than what had been seen and difference is not always well received by any establishment. I was in the position of explaining some of that as well.
Now Chenyu has quite a vast network of branch schools and has a very well known name within mainland China and all over the world in Taijiquan circles. The situation is certainly different that what I was fortunate enough to stumble into, but anyone can see that his skill and the great talent with with he developed his art is still in full bloom.
Having significant years of, albeit, different Chen Taijiquan behind me before I met Shifu was very helpful, especially given the application context that I had learned, but I did absolutely start over with out a second thought. What became clear from the very beginning, besides the fact that his skill was so very deep and vast, was that many of the strategies, and applicable Jin he showed ran very much parallel to the Chen methods I had learned from Chen Jinhong and later Feng Zhiqiang, although he engines that powered them were radically different. In some cases the WAYs that they operated were very different, although the mechanics of the action where similar.
What I realized was that I was looking at a different facet of a prism, perhaps many more facets than I had ever seen in one person’s method, and regardless of the difference in the facets visible, it really was the same prism. I was able during those times, to learn many things that are really not so popular these days, such as the less tournament oriented methods, due to a number of reasons that I may describe later. Many of Chenyu’s disciples have gone on to win medals and the like in years since, and the tournament process was already starting when I was living there. Although I did also learn a fair amount that applied to those situations, I also remember with fondness and humor, that many of the most celebrated application methods at the time, where the ones that would get one disqualified from any tournament, and this did happen to a number of his students and friends at the time. These stories were the sources of a lot of entertainment and fun times in general, but for me, they were really instructive and I took them to heart.
Due to my earlier contextual exposure to Chen gongfu, I really took those teachings to be greatly important. In my own experience I had already come to feel that “you are what you train”, and that if you train to survive in a certain rule set, that will also be the confines of the natural responses you develop for use. Although it did not prime me for a type of success or achievement that may have been desired, this understanding was really an affirmation of my previous experiences and did nothing but send me further in that direction. Generally I have since been most interested in any method that would quickly get one disqualified in a tournament, and concerned that those who train gongfu with the security that the absence of those methods provides are going to miss something entirely vital to the original purpose and method.
In my view, all three families of Taijiquan have something special of value. I have been exposed to the other two (Yang and Wu), in a second hand fashion from my first teacher. Similarly, each one of my Taijiquan teachers had something unique of value that I was able to benefit from. Their differences where very instructive, and with thought to the reasons for their differences, can be extremely enlightening.
Besides the gongfu frame itself, which is a treasure from my Shifu that I feel is unmatched, one overriding teaching he gave was very simple: “dong naozi!” This simply means, “use your head”. By this he meant that one has to carefully consider their practice. One has to carefully manage the precision of their practices, but more than that, one has to use their head and boldly, creatively find ways to build their gongfu into a usable form. He called this, “taking the gongfu and practicing it out.” He understood this because essentially he is a genius in particularly that area and he was able to pass that enthusiasm on.
He taught that it was not enough to practice the form and be done with it, but that one had to pick out every jin to practice to fruition in the ways one might want to use it in order to be successful. He said that those who were not smart enough to figure out how to do this would not make it work. He had been taught a similar way by his father, but was fortunate enough to have a great environment to test it all out; he used to frequently take a move his father had just taught him and then go get in a scuffle and see how it might work apparently.
For my own part, I did take this teaching to heart and still do. Not only is it not good enough to simply practice form, it is extremely challenging to figure out HOW to decipher what form practice is trying to develop for usage on one’s own. Additionally, a very important issue is that almost no one has the TIME to teach it that way. To properly acquire a gongfu frame such as Chenyu’s method already requires at least several years for a beginner, then to develop that gongfu requires many more years. Somewhere along the way one must also figure out how to bring that developed gongfu online as function in fighting, which is several steps beyond tuishou, another set of practices that are very hard to learn well.
I am sure there are others doing this in their own ways, that is the nature of the practice, but my situation is unique in that I had to assemble the unique set of pieces and practices I had. They may be no better or worse than the ones anyone else had, but they were unique to my situation. Although I had completely given my practices over to the methods I learned from my Shifu, I also had many useful things I had learned before that had some character differences but mirrored very closely things he had taught me. My job was to basically, assemble these disparate pieces in ways that did not overlap, repeat, or produce inconsistencies in practice methods; essentially to form a unified whole with the best parts of the old and new without creating kinks and knots.
For the last decade since I began training with Shifu, I have put my attention to developing what he taught me in frame and method, and concurrently identifying the other disparate methods I have that fit and don’t fit. Everyone develops their own gongfu in the end. It is not really possible to truly copy someone or acquire their methods by appearance either. I wanted the gongfu that I developed to address all the areas of usage that I had been exposed to. Having learned several kinds of solo and partner drill templates from different sources over the years, and having many of those examples very closely mirror each other made things a bit easier. Eventually I reached a sort of understanding that allowed me to more easily extract particular jin or actions from the traditional methods in a sort of distillation and create individualized practice methods for them that express the original traditional strategic methods of Chen gongfu as well.
This is the Chen Fist and Palm system that I refer to in the description of the video above. There are already codified, a significant number of distinct forms that all lend themselves directly to useful application methods, and all come out of the traditional practices, but are not likely often seen in this form. I use these as focused teaching aids to give students a better idea and kind of a jump-start as to how to approach form practice towards martial arts. It has become known that Chen Zhaokui himself was an avid creator of forms and focused methods. I may publish some documentation or video of more depth about these methods in the future, but for the moment they are for my students, and my school is very small. I am certainly open to talking about them with interested parties though, and I hope that others feel inspired to create and progress in a similar fashion.
There certainly is no substitute for authentic and proper instruction, but then there is a lot of work still to be done.
More to follow. Thanks for reading, it was long.