Chen Taijiquan Survival in Chen Village Through the Difficult Years Parts 1 & 2
These are several very informative articles written on facebook by Warmond Fang in response to much misinformation about this fascinating history. Copyright 2016! Posted here with permission.
(Taiji-guy-X was) claiming that Chen Taijiquan has no broken continuity and that what they call “old frame” in modern times is exactly what was practiced in Chen village since time immemorial and I can assure you this reading of history is incorrect and not supported by historical evidence.
It is true that all Chen Taijiquan started in Chenjiagou but due to a multitude of factors such as economic, political, natural disasters etc. Taijiquan suffered from broken continuity and what is called “old frame” or “laojia” today in Chen Village is not the same Taijiquan that has always been practiced since the advent of Chen Taiji in CJG. More accurately it was the frame that CZP brought back to Chen Village after he retired from the Yellow River Conservancy Commission in 1958 after discovering the fact that the art was near extinction in CJG.
Let’s first look at an original essay written by Chen Ke Shen (Chen Zhaopi’s son) regarding why his father was so adamant on going back to Chen Village in his old age and weathering the harsh living conditions there, instead of joining his son in Henan, Zhengzhou. I will post the original in Chinese and provide a translation after for non Chinese readers:
My father dedicated his life to spreading taijiquan. By the time he retired in 1958, he was already 65 years old. I was at the time the Deputy Chief of Finance for the Zhengzhou Yellow River Conservancy Commission. I begged for him to come live with me in Zhengzhou but my request was flat out rejected. He insisted that he had to return to Chen Village and make his permanent home there because he knew there were few people left practicing and the situation was getting worse with each passing day. He worried that Chen Taijiquan would become extinct and that is why he was willing to go back to his hometown and endure an impoverished life.
Source: http://www.cixitjq.cn/?thread-306-1.html (reposted from Chen Zheng Lei Official site)
Article: My Father Chen Zhaopi
Author: Chen Ke Shen
From this excerpt written by Chen Ken Sen regarding his father we can establish several important historical facts:
1) Chen Zhaopi was genuinely concerned that Chen Taijiquan would become extinct at it’s birthplace in Chen Village because there was very little people practicing. He was so concerned that he gave up spending his retirement years in comfort living with his son in Zhengzhou to go back to an impoverished Chen Village. He just wouldn’t do that if Chen Taiji was totally flourishing back home in Chen Village. This gives credence to the point that there wasn’t unbroken continuity in Chen Village. Chen Zhaopi himself realized this fact which is why he went back to Chen Village to teach in the first place.
2) It establishes that when CZP returned to Chen Village, he was very elderly and 65 years old in Republican Era China is nothing to joke about, it is not the same as being 65 today in modern China. The average life expectancy of that period in China was no more than 35 years old at around the beginning of the1900’s and improving slightly to 45 years old by 1950’s. This is why in China we have a saying that goes 人生七十古来稀 (Ren Sheng Qishi Gu Lai Xi) which translates into “A life to 70 years old is ancient and rare”, by today’s standards CZP at 65 years old in 1958 would be close to 95-100 years old. That is why this old Chinese quote has to be revised for Modern China because everybody lives past 70 years old now. Again the important point here is to put things into historical context and to acknowledge the fact that CZP was well past his prime by the time he returned to Chen Village and that this has a direct bearing in understanding what limitations he might have had in terms of transmitting his Chen Taijiquan to the people in Chen Village.
In the next section, I want to establish and examine just how dire was the situation in Chen Village in terms of Chen Taijiquan going extinct and what was the actual situation on the ground was. Below, I will quote an article published by Chen Zheng Lei’s that gives a a little more detail to the situation on the ground in Chen Village in 1958. I’ve posted the original Chinese and provided a translation after.
During the Chinese New Year of 1958, Chen Zhaopi returned to Chen Village to visit relatives. He had been away for decades. The founding birthplace of Taijiquan was not be found anymore. The older generation of masters were old, withered or dead (Grandmaster Chen Fake had passed away in Beijing in 1957). Those family members that were of the same generation as Chen Zhaopi experienced years of war and chaos and and not many of them remained. Originally, including Chen Zhaopi’s brother and cousins, there were 10 in his generation and all had possessed taiji gongfu skills, the majority of them were either dead or scattered around the country. Ranking ninth in seniority was Chen Zhaoxu, the son of Chen Fake. During the forced collectivization of farmland policy of the Communists, he was charged with being anti-farm collectivization and added with his already historical problems (During the War of Resistance with Japan, he was part of a local militia) he was imprisoned and passed away in 1960. Tenth in seniority was Chen Zhaokui, who was far away in Beijing. In Chen Village, there was only one student of Chen Fake whose name was Wang Yan, that still taught a couple of students in Taijiquan. He however, was already in his twilight years and approaching the end of his days. After the communist victory, there were political movements after political movements, the people in the village no longer had the heart to practice taijquan. The days of the past where Chen Village was known as the place where “If you drank the water in Chen Village, you would know martial arts” had vanished The glory days of a thriving Taijiquan community had become extinct long ago.
Witnessing that Taijiquan in his hometown was on the verge of extinction, the elderly 65 year old Chen Zhaopi shed a tear. In his youth, to further spread the art of Taijiquan, he travelled over half of China and published a book “Chen Shi Taijiquan Huizong”. Now, in his old age returning home with pride and glory, he had discovered that the taijiquan he dedicated his life to spreading had no successors in its hometown and founding brithplace. How could he not be sad?
Chen Zhaopi was desperate and exasperated. He returned to to Zhenghou and resolutely made the decision to retire and return to his hometown of Chen Village. Despite being in his decrepit and twilight years, he was going to single handedly use his “old bones” (metaphor for elderly/senior) to pass on Taijiquan. “He was quoted as saying to his children “Our family art has been passed on for a dozen generations, it cannot go extinct at the hands of my generation”
At the time, Chen Zhaopi’s son was woking as the Deputy Chief of Finance for the Zhengzhou Yellow River Water Conservancy Commission, he was married and with his children lived a happy and stable life in Zhengzhou. When he learned that his father wanted to retire and return to Chen Village, he was adamantly against this. Before the Communist victory, Chen Zhaopi had taken a second wife while teaching in Nanjing whom his children referred to as “wu niang”. She had lived with Chen Zhaopi in Chen Village for a little bit but being an urbanite was not able to adapt to the rural life of northern China. Upon seeing that Chen Zhaopi wanted to return to Chen Village permanently, she was also adamantly against this idea.
His son told him “ Our family background is not good, we are landlords, if you return you will suffer from discrimination”
His wife said ”You can return, but I am not going. Let’s see how you will survive as alone as an elderly man.”
His co-workers at his work unit also tried to convince him not to retire. They said “if you retire now you will only be able to receive 40% of your retirement pension. If you wait a couple more months, there might be a new policy in place and you will be able to get 60% of your pension. your best option is to wait a bit longer”.
Chen Zhaopi could not wait another day. “I am not doing this for money, even if I don’t receive a retirement pension, I still must return home. I cannot watch the Taijiquan in Chen Village go extinct.”
Article Name: The Teacher of the 4 Tigers of Chen Village – ChenZhaopi
Source: Chen Zheng Lei
Note 1: There’s a famous rhyme that goes “喝喝陈沟水，都会翘翘腿” (He he Chengou Shui, dou hui qiao qiao tui” This translates directly has one who has drank the water in Chen Village will know how to kick a bit. It’s a metaphor to describe that there was a strong martial arts culture in the village and if you were from there, you were fluent in martial arts in some degree.
Note 2: Political Movements after political movements refer to the Anti Rightist Campaign, Anti-Landlord Campaigns, Forced Collectivization which was part of the Great Leap Forward. The Chen family would have been hit in all these campaigns for being landlords and then they would have had all their lands taken from them during the forced collectivization period. Also some Chen family members such as Chen Zhaoxu had ties to the local militia affiliated with the KMT (Guomindang, the previous regime that ruled China and lost to the communist in the Chinese Civil War)This would land him in jail an eventual death in 1960. Chen Zhaohai who is Chen Zhaopi’s brother and Chen Zheng Lei’s father was also executed by the communists for having relations to the militia of the KMT. All in all this was a bad time to be a Chen and it certainly adds to why there wasn’t many people practicing or many people teaching.
Here there are some important historical facts to Note:
1) According to the observations of Chen Zhaopi, upon his return to Chen Village he found almost nobody practicing taijiquan and that many of the old masters were either too old, dead or not present in Chen Village even among his own generation. Only one student of Chen Fake was mentioned by name “Wang Yan” as teaching a couple of students.
2) The communist regime were not friendly to the Chen family and many got disheartened and discouraged with practicing taijiquan as struggling for survival under the new regime took first priority. Chen Zhaopi’s own son was concerned for Chen Zhaopi’s well being for returning to Chen Village because of their landlord background in communist China.
3) Bringing this back to my earlier point. Chen Zhaopi had a real fear about Taijiquan going extinct in Chen Village such that he left his son and his wife in Zhengzhou and went back alone at 65 years old. He also gave up a large chunk of his pension as well to retire and leave his work unit early. If the situation wasn’t as bad as it were, I cannot see why CZP would do this especially since his son had a very good job and comfortable life in Zhengzhou and wanted Chen Zhaopi to stay in Zhengzhou with him.
Furthermore, his son pointed out that he would face political persecution and discrimination if he returned to Chen Village. We can thus surmise from all these factors that in fact Chen Taijiquan in Chen Village was in serious trouble of going extinct and it was these extreme times that caused Chen Zhaopi to take extreme measures to go back to Chen Village. In this context, how can one honestly argue that there wasn’t a continuity problem in the Village line!? I have a lot more to write so I’m going to end this post here for now because there’s just too much material to cover and translating is just too time consuming. But we should all really critically look at this historical context and then think about the delveopment and evolution of Chen Taijiquan and the issue of continuity between the different lines.
This is the second article to follow up on the previous one I wrote about Chen Zhaopi’s reasons for returning to Chen Village due to the decline and near extinction of Chen Taijiquan as narrated by his son Chen Ke Sen. I previously also gave an account of the observations Chen Zhao Pi made upon his return to Chen Village as described by Chen Zhenglei.
This article will describe the situation from the point of view of Zhang Weizhen who was then the Village head and Communist Party Secretary of Chen Village. He is an important figure in understanding Chen Village history as he played an important role in in the following ways:
1) Welcoming Chen Zhaopi back to Chen Village to teach Taijiquan
2) Protecting the Chen Family during the period of the destroy the old 4 campaign and up until the Cultural Revolution until he himself was persecuted
3) Post cultural revolution he played a vital role in inviting Chen Zhaokui back to teach in Chen Village and after the death of Chen Zhaokui, he also was instrumental in inviting Feng Zhiqiang back to teach in Chen Village.
There’s a lot of material to cover since this will cover a historical period from Wold War 2 all the way to post cultural revolution (I doubt I will get to the Cultural revolution part, too much material). All original Chinese sources will be posted in original Chinese and translated in English thereafter. Sources and links to source material will be provided.
Taichi Tang, brought up a series of claims which if I have space in this article I will address otherwise I will address them in a separate post. I like your enthusiasm but your scholarship is sloppy, can you please provide evidence to your claims please?
I want to start off by translating sections from an an article published by the Chen Taijiquan Research Academy and Wenxian Martial Arts Association that documents Zhang Weizhen narrating the history and development of Chen Taijiquan in Chen Village. The article is titled “ Zhang Weizhen saves Chen style Taijiquan at a Critical Time”. I have posted the article in it’s entirety but only translated the parts I thought were relevant to the discussion.
“Chen Style Taijiquan was in the past flourishing, but in the period of time after the communist liberation, it was very close to becoming extinct. If not for the fact that certain actions were taken in time, I’m afraid Chen Style Taijiquan would have become a footnote in history. “When 70 year old Zhang Weizhen, the current Henan, Wenxian, Chenjiagou village director discusses this part of history it gives people a feeling of relief and comfort. Yesterday, when reporters were conducting interviews in the birthplace of Taijiquan, Chen Village, Zhang Weizhen narrated a surprising and little known part of history in the development of Chen Taijiquan.
Article Name: Zhang Weizhen Saves Chen Taijiquan at a Critical Moment
Source: Chen Taijiquan Research Academy And Wenxian Wushu Association
Zhang Weizhen summarized the development of Taijiquan with the following: “In the past, Taijiquan was flourishing and thriving as a martial art but it thrived and declined with changes in trends in society.” According to him, in 1941, Chen Village and surrounding areas suffered from a severe plague of locusts and disruptions from the KMT (Guomindang). Chen Village and the surrounding area became a desolate area strewn with corpses and even tragic scenes of cannibalism. Because even basic sustenance was a problem, the continuity of Chen Taijiquan was broken in the past. There is a colloquial saying “ The poor study the intellectual arts and the rich study martial arts”. As the situation slowly improved, those who fled Chen village slowly returned and settled down in Chen Village. It was at this time that the broken continuity of Chen Taijiquan was reconnected once again.
Article Name: Zhang Weizhen Saves Chen Taijiquan at a Critical MomentSource: Chen Taijiquan Research Academy And Wenxian Wushu Association
Here some things I want to make note of:
1) In the 1940’s, Chen Village suffered from a locust swarm and warfare at the same time. He describes the situation as a desolate area strewn with corpses and even scenes of cannibalism. This brings me back to some earlier points I brought up in my first article. That is, in this type of environment it seems unlikely that any type of practice of taijiquan would be going on given the dire circumstances.
2) This is a pretty straight forward point, people in Chen Village couldn’t feed themselves so teaching and practicing of Chen Taijiquan stopped. The exact Chinese he uses is 陈式太极拳曾一度中断, the key word to take from this sentence is the last two characters “中断“ (zhong duan) which translates into English as discontinue, disconnect, discontinuity. Again this should raise important questions regarding the claim that there was no broken continuity in transmission in Chen Village.
In the next section I want to look at the more factual details of what actually happened on the ground in Chen Village as a result of a deadly locust induced famine and warfare. Again the following is a recount of events by Zhang Weizhen, the communist party secretary and village director of Chen Village.
In discussing taijiquan, no one in Chen Village will forget the “4 tigers” but only the older generations in Chen Village will know how they came to be cultivated. In discussing this piece of history, Zhang Weizhen’s face turns serious. Zhang Weizhen told reporters starting in 1943, taijiquan suffered an unprecedented catastrophe and nearly became extinct. Among the many reasons for this one can only use the term natural disaster to describe the situation. In 1943, Wenxian suffered a very serious natural disaster. Not only was there a food shortage, the Japanese also were constantly plundering the village. The helpless residents of Chen Village hand no choice but to flee from famine. In those years, fleeing famine became the only option for survival for the people in Chen Village. According to recollections from the older residents, during that time period Chen Village had a population of about 4000 people, of which 800 or so fled to to Xi’an alone (Development of Chen Quanzhong Branch begins here). Inside the village only a handful of elderly people remained, so who would have their minds focused on practicing taijiquan? In just a couple of short years, the number of people who still knew Taijiquan became far and few. Those who did not know taijiquan had no chance of learning Taijiquan and as a result was facing the danger of extinction.
Finally the Communist victory came and those who previously fled the village started to slowly return home to Chen Village but of those who returned, virtually none of them knew Taijiquan. At the time, there were no more than a few people who knew Taijiquan at all. A few more years passed, the situation in Chen Village improved somewhat and from the many returnees, there were finally 2 people who knew Taijiquan. They were masters‘ Wang Ting Xuan and Chen Ke Zhong. While both had decent gong fu skills, they were very reluctant to openly teach taijiquan because their family background was not good. They did not want to go against the prevailing Mao ideology of destroying “The 4 olds”. In 1953, a group of young teachers at the Chen Village elementary school: Dang Yuan Feng, Zhang Kui Yuan, Wang Zhong Shi knew that Wang Ting Xuan knew taijiquan so they invited him to teach them at the school in the evenings. This was the earliest instance of any type of activity in the teaching and learning of Taijiquan since the communist victory in the civil war.
In 1957, Taijiquan master, Chen Zhaopi retired and returned to Chen Village, seeing the current state of Taijiquan he felt very desperate. He told the residents of the village who were of any influence on multiple occasions that Taijiquan was a spiritual treasure of the nation. It cannot be lost and certainly cannot go extinct. At his calling Chen Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xi’an and Zhu Tiancai began their study with Chen Zhaopi. Their Taiji classes caught the attention of Chen Ke Zhong another Taijiquan master in the village. He was motivated by their classes to come out and openly teach taijiquan. Chen Ke Zhong taught the Chen Taijquan Small Frame and his primary students included Chen Junling and Chen Bo Yuan etc (Present day master Chen Boxiang is from this lineage).
Article Name: Entering the Birthplace of Taijiquan – Chenjiagou
Source: Chen Taijiquan Research Academy & Wenxian Wushu Association
1) According to Zhang Weizhen, there was a massive exodus from Chen Village due to famine and warfare. He notes that 800 or so of a total population 4,000 at the time fled to Xi’an alone. That’s 20% of the Chen Village population gone to just one city. While the actual number of people who fled was unknown, he does note that only old people were left and most did not know taijiquan. This means many of the skilled masters fled Chen Village during this time, including the branch that would include Chen Quanzhong. The small frame lineage of Chen Ke Zhong also fled at this time and he did not return until the end of the Chinese Civil war close to a decade later. Chen Quanzhong and Chen Liqing would both make Xi’an their permanent home and did not return to Chen Village. So what we have here are famine, mass starvation, cannibalism, warfare, plundering by both KMT forces and Japanese forces and on top of that a massive exodus from the village to all parts of China. I invite everyone to think about this broken continuity problem in this historical context. The evidence suggests that broken continuity was inevitable all things considered.
2) At the conclusion of World War 2, he notes that few of the returnees from the exodus knew taijiquan in the village and the only ones with any skill were Wang Ting Xuan and Chen Ke Zhong. However, they did not teach because of Mao’s “Destroy the 4 Old” Campaign. According to Zhang, the first sign of any teaching and learning of Chen Taijiquan happened in 1953, when Wang Ting Xuan taught elementary teachers secretly at night inside the school. That’s 4 years after the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War and at least a decade since the beginning of the Exodus from Chen Village in the early 1940’s. Basically we have a situation where there was no taiji being practice for a decade plus because of famine and war. Again think about that in terms of continuity.
3) Zhang notes that Chen Ke Zhong did not start to teach the small frame until 1958 being motivated by Chen Zhaopi’s own efforts to teach. So we can see that even small frame lineage probably had continuity problems inside the village especially in the context where a large portion of the Chen Family packed up and left. Chen Liqing and her family of small frame practitioners would be included in this part of history. Again Chen Liqing never returned to Chen Village and made Xi’an her permanent home.
In the next section I want to translate an article that was published in the Southern Weekly Magazine written by Dai Zhi Yong who was conducting an interview with Chen Zhenglei and republished by Phoenix News Network. In this interview he gives an account about some of the Chen Masters in the 1950’s mainly his own father Chen Zhaohai and that of Chen Zhaoxu (Chen Xiaowang’s father).
”In 1958, the year Chen Zhaopi returned to Chen Village, Chen Zhenglei was 9 years old and Chen Xiaowang was 13 years old. Chen Zhenglei’s father Chen Zhaohai was the brother of Chen Zhaopi. They were both sons of Chen Deng Ke. In 1945, Chen Zhaohai was the captain of the Wenxian Security Brigade. He had control of the local troops and participated in the War against the Japanese until their eventual surrender. When the Communists established their own local government in the area, Chen Zhaohai wrote a report and together with his handgun handed them to the local communist underground intelligence operative. After that, he left for Zhengzhou to engage in commerce.
In 1949, Zhengzhou was liberated by the communists and Chen Zhenglei was born in Zhengzhou. “It was October of the Lunar Calendar that year, when I was 4 months old a person came to find my father and told him he had to return to Wenxian to explain the events of his past. He said he had already handed in his report prior along with his handgun. Many of his friends in Zhengzhou tried to convince him not to go and some even tried to persuade him to flee to Taiwan. Chen Zhaohai told them “ I don’t have any previous blood feuds and I did not participate in the 3 year Chinese Civil War. What do I need to be afraid of?”
He couldn’t have known that as soon as he returned to Wenxian he would be arrested and locked in the Wenxian courthouse. When Chen Zhenglei’s mother heard that her husband wasn’t coming back she found a donkey, packed her bags and holding a 4 month old Chen Zhenglei returned to Chen Village. My father had sent word that he wanted to see his child. “My father was older than me by 50 years, in our family there is a saying, if you get a son in your old age, when you see your child you have to bite off one of their fingers.” Chen Zhenglei’s relatives were worried his father might bite off Chen Zhenglei’s finger so they did not send him to see his father.
Chen Zhaohai was imprisoned for one year and then the communists initiated the Repress the Anti-Revolution Movement (1950). The policy at the time was anyone who served the previous regime as a Security Captain, gendarme, or company commander or above were to all be executed. As a result, my father was dragged out and executed. When talking about this part of his past, Chen Zhenglei dejectedly said “I have no impression and recollection of my father at all.” Chen Xiaowang’s father (Chen Zhaoxu) would also suffer a similar fate a couple years later. Zhang Weizhen said” He (Chen Zhaoxu) was arrested in 1955 and 4-5 years later died in jail.
1) Chen Zhaopi had mentioned that in his 10th generation many Chen members were either dead, missing or not in Chen village. The above account by Chen Zhenglei, indicates that his father Chen Zhaohai was not in Chen Village at the end of world ward 2 and had relocated to Zhengzhou. He stayed there until 1949 where he returned and was imprisoned and subsequently executed in 1950. Therefore he would not have been able to teach anyone taijiquan. Chen Zhenglei was 4 months old at the time so it’s obvious he learned nothing from his father.
2) Chen Zhaoxu was arrested in 1955 and died in jail in 1960. That means that Chen Xiaowang was 10 years old at the time and Chen Xiaoxing was 3 years old. Assuming generously that Chen Xiaowang started his training at 5 years old, he would have only learned from his father no more than 5 years and its unlikely Chen Xiaoxing learned anything because he was 3 years old. This gives a strong indication of how much Chen Zhaoxu passed on to his 2 children which of course wasn’t much at all.
3) We can see based on this precedent and treatment of the Chen Family by the communists, it is not at all surprising that many were reluctant to teach taijiquan at all. We see 2 distinguished 10th generation masters killed by the communists. Again something to think about when pondering this messy continuity issue.
Article: The Inheritance of Chenjiagou Chen Taijiquan: Because Taijiquan was Illegal in the past, no one dare practice.
Source: Chen Zhenglei
Basically starting form around World War II, Chen village suffered from famine, warfare and plundering. This led to a max exodus of the population from Chen Village to other parts of China with Xi’an being the biggest destination with about 20% of the Chen Village population moving there. Then even after the Communist victory only 2 renowned masters with skill return namely Wang Ting Xuan and Chen Ke Zhong, but they refuse to teach for fear of persecution and Wang Ting Xuan doesn’t teach secretly until 1953 and Chen Ke Zhong doesn’t start until 1958.
Chen Zhenglei’s father is arrested in 1949 and dies in 1950 before he could teach anyone and Chen Zhaoxu is arrested in 1955 and dies in 1960 also leaving him very little time to teach anything. Again CXW was 10 at the time and assuming he started his training at 5 he couldn’t have learned more than 5 years from his father but starting at age 5, what he could have learned would have been limited. Chen Xiaoxing was 3 when his father was arrested so he probably learned nothing from his father. Including the previously mentioned Wang Yan, in my first article, we have a total of about no more than 3 Chen Teachers teaching by 1958 and many of the skilled teachers were killed or moved away from the village before 1958. The historical evidence is that Chen village had at least a lost decade in its transmission of its family art.
This whole translating business is time consuming but I want to lay out the history with facts and evidence to make my point. I’m really going out of my way, above and beyond the call of duty to share this history of Chen Taijiquan so if you disagree with any parts of what I’m writing, I welcome you to state your opinion and challenge what I wrote. I expect only the courtesy that you please provide factual evidence for your claims and not just make random claims and statements. I find it really tiring and annoying to debate and answer claims that are not supported by historical evidence or facts.
I still have more material to cover that will lead into the period of the Cultural Revolution which gets really interesting as far as the history is concerned but again it will have to wait until I have more time as translating the articles is just time consuming.
Part 3 will follow soon (I believe)