Chen Taijiquan Gongfu Jia & The Death of Romance
Besides being a centuries old Chinese martial art, Chen Taijiquan always was and especially now is a kind of celebration of culture and philosophy. People the world over often see and use this practice as an affirmation and illustration of their ideas of cosmic harmony, intricacy, propriety, order and Chinese cultural beauty, which kind of encompasses many of the aforementioned ideas. In some ways this relates to this somewhat Confucian ideology of putting things (and people) in their natural order in the universe and the Daoist view of harmony.
In the current moment the worldwide mass popularity of Taijiquan, (Chen or other varieties) is mostly about expressing and celebrating these cultural and philosophical ethos and aesthetics. To many Chinese people this is very important as an expression of identity which for many is very tightly bound to ethnicity and national pride. For many non-Chinese ASPIRING to even properly understand that set of philosophies and ideologies and then possibly express a bit of them is a great challenge, often failed. That is attractive due to a form of culture worship, or a personal need for ‘salvation’ and/or a search for meaning in life. Mostly it is a form of exotic sinophile fascination, that tied to the search for existential meaning or place easily grows into a mechanism for social status establishment within small (or in some case very large) groups.
Taijiquan as an expression of philosophy, cultural nuance, ethnic and national identity, and generally beauty-aesthetic, is in essence a type of romance expression. People seeks to embody a physical poetry of a past era, and the romance of quasi-spiritual thinking made physical, lending a greater, deeper meaning to (the appearance of) their lives for at least that moment of practice/demonstration. From an experienced eye looking at the vast majority of groups and styles even in the very famous well reputed Chen “martial art” Taiji schools it is clear that this romance approach to practice is very prevalent and entrenched. Any practice without this aspect at the forefront does not go far in popularity these days.
This particular point is very important to understand. In the style and line of Chen Zhaokui, and really much that we see from the line of Chen FaKe as well, and certainly from the line of Chenyu as I know it, this particular issue is a clear and dividing line on how to understand the approach, goals and methods of the frame. Our method from Chen Zhaokui is essentially a NON-ROMANCE style. My Shifu, Chenyu made many very aesthetically beautiful performances. Neither he nor I would ever claim that aesthetic beauty was not important to him or the style, it certainly was and is and on many occasions great jokes were had at the terrible ugliness of some hapless student’s demonstration during teachings. There was and certainly is concern for appearance. However the actual appearance takes a back seat to function and is in fact a proper by-product of it.
The important question is, does the practice seek to express a set of philosophies or ideologies, or does it seek to develop a practical physical function? In the older martial art, the physical (as in physics, like leverage and mechanics) structures and methods were designed based on these philosophies and in accordance with Chinese cosmology. Therefore the ideology and philosophy is expressed by performance as a visual by-product of proper function. A simple example would be, a movement trained for throwing or locking an opponent using the Daoist approach to natural forces and “Taiji” (yin-yang interplay) will naturally express “Taiji” when demonstrated. Alternately, a movement designed to express “Taiji” by appearing like “Taiji” or really just the IDEA of “Taiji” will both BE and appear very different. The romance approach is to practice movements that express “taiji” aesthetic non-dependent on Taiji function as a basis.
Many of the most popular modern commercial schools of Chen Taijiquan at this time (2016) would fit perfectly into this description of the romance school of Taijiquan. Many, even most of these schools will teach, practice and demonstrate apparently proper movements. They may have within their curricula a number of applications for any action whether natively or externally (sport) sourced. What most do not have though, is the functional knowledge and approach to every action, ever movement, every inch of their practice.
This point is not about “application”. It is about JIN, and essentially physics and leverage in even a simple and western science kind of way. While not intending to subvert the “qi” or Chinese energetics/medicine paradigm, let’s just say that simply put, “Taiji” action is also a route towards “most efficient leverage” within any action. The Taiji approach to action and function, while in some cases apparently different from western science, in fact seeks the same result as most good engineering; efficiency and ease of use.
In many current examples any given movement, whether it be a complete sequence or one action of a single limb in one fraction of a sequence, may often display the great appearance of “Taiji”. These qualities may be, softness, flow, relaxed structure, nuanced pacing, structure in accordance with gravity and well, poetics etc. What is usually missing though is the efficient leverage and engineering compelling each action and every inch. The result is a Taijiquan practice with many instances being light one function and heavy on the “Taiji” appearance.
If one extends a limb with every thought of “Taiji” principles or aesthetics and zero thought for the functional physics and leverage of that one single action, here we have romance. Romance is practice that illustrates the dream or illusion of a functional leverage rich action (Taiji) rather than the reality. This kind of practice is like telling one’s self a fantastic story about the power and depth of each movement. In many cases this is necessary because the actual knowledge of the minutia of each inch of leverage has been lost.
The approach of cultivating functional “Taiji” leverage in each inch is what and why we call it “gongfu-jia”. Gonfu-jia (gongfu frame) is solely focused on functional leverage and structure without any of the romance of selling a Taiji fantasy to one’s self. An action or movement that is empty (devoid of structural and kinetic leverage information) is what is considered wrong, and is usually keenly felt as physical and mental discomfort by a dedicated student. This is however, very different from the idea of so-called “practical method”. This school, while also being a non-romance approach, has in fact achieved that focus by simplifying and removing any and all actions and movements that were either too difficult for its progenitor to pass on, or too difficult for him to learn. In simplifying practical focus was achieved, to some degree, for the movements/actions that remained. The movements/actions and JIN that were cut away in this process are MANY however.
The practical focus and result of Gongfu-jia are not achieved by a pairing down or editing process, but instead by an entirely different configuration and approach from the very beginning. Every inch of attention to leverage and function is built from the ground up from the beginning. Lack of clarity and understanding for any particular movements, actions of uses is resolved by structural and functional analysis, then informed rebuilding rather than dismissal and removal. This does require both the full range of structural curriculum as well as at least a very broad surviving application curriculum. This is imperative to inform the student/practitioner of leverage and function from the more gross all the way to the nuanced, fine and transitional actions. Of course this is not a common situation to find especially given modern history and social change.
The unlikely proper convergence of mindset and available curricula are and were necessary for the preservation of the Gongfu-jia approach. This is why it is no surprise that it is not in great supply. Many Taijiquan ‘enthusiasts’, no matter how petty, political, and status oriented they may seem or actually be, really do want authentic gongfu. The situation being that they do not have access to that unlikely convergence of fates often results in an ambitious effort to ‘fill in the blanks’ as they say. In some cases filling in the blanks consists of applying romance technology to single actions and transitions or whatever they perceive as holes in usage and function in their practices. In other cases “filing in the blanks” may consist of applying romance technology to their entire frame of practice.
In Gongfu-jia we generally seek to kill all romance in our practice. If beauty results, that is from proper “Taiji” aligned function and leverage in our movements. There is no doubt that such a practice devoid of romance can create some pretty bleak times for a practitioner especially in the early years, but the potential payoff later is often greater.
So one can ask themselves, how much of the “Taiji” that they see in their actions (or the demonstrations of their teachers if they have the eyes to discern) are derived from function based “Taiji” leverage and efficiency? How much, if any of that “Taiji” they see is derived from the intent to embody “Taiji”? -A completely different situation with a completely different result.