Rule Vs. Compromise in ‘Advanced’ Chen Taijiquan Practice; Leaning in Form Practice
Taijiquan has become a sort of spectator sport, which is to say that people have grown very accustomed to understanding Taijiquan visually. people who watch and critique often, and often as a primary way of learning about it, are generally accustomed to watching Chinese people in long silk (satin) outfits performing it. Besides the traditional cultural significance of such outfits, they have two distinct purposes in martial arts performances: a) they hide the visible structure and/or method of the body, including legs, torso and pelvic areas specifically, and b) they make the body movements appear softer and more flowing than they actually are, which is desirable for Taijiquan. One of the effects of this habit of viewing is that when the silk veil is removed some people get confused, a they are not used to seeing the movement in broad daylight.
Being a western practitioner in a well known line is also a complicated situation. It is an unpopular subject to discuss, especially in places like this, but perhaps people have heard to southern saying about “crabs in a bucket” specifically relating to people living in the ghetto being the most aggressive to attack their peers who attempt to raise themselves out of poverty?
Generally, Chinese people either don’t care about someone like me, or they want to prove that they can beat a westerner, or they simply think it is worthy of respect that a westerner worked at learning Chinese gongfu. However, westerners if they practice gongfu, will try to attack what they see much more aggressively especially if they are not very accomplished, perhaps out of some feeling of jealousy. I have seen this time and time again, just like crabs in a barrel; any time one gets a claw on the rim to climb out the others trying to climb out will pull it down.
I have come to understand this after years of teaching and publicizing the real practice with a very non-commercial outlook; If you pay your dues and do the hard work many western enthusiasts will be uncomfortable with that, and vocalizing it is much easier than paying dues and doing hard work yourself. A very large percentage of Chinese martial arts ‘aficionados’ are much more interested in the realm of fantasy (worship of and romance with the exotic Chinese father figure) than they are in the realities of personal practice and development. If a westerner were to actually develop authentic traditional gongfu skill and make it their own, and even possible further it in the traditional way, they in fact threaten this fantasy that so many western students prefer to live within.
The fantasy (and there are myriad within this complex) has to do with the exotic possessing an unreachable impossible skill and one’s self being genetically, or culturally inferior. In the end this fantasy supports the notion that there IS a strong protective and magical daddy out there for you, and that is what a lot of people simply need and their reason for getting involved in martial arts. If I tell you that your daddy is a myth and show you that Taijiquan skill has no relationship to that myth, that can be very unpleasant, regardless of its accuracy.
Taijiquan has a set of physical rules one is supposed to abide by, once they learn to even implement them properly, or they could be said to be practicing incorrectly or not even practicing Taijiquan by some folks. I’ll address just a few of these that relate to this issue specifically. It is said that the back must be straight and upright, the knees must not extend past the toes, the bum must not stick out, the head must be upright, the chest sunk, the upper back convex, and the list goes on and on. These are all good rules, but like all rules… well, the most ardent advocates of rules are always novices, because without embodiment of gongfu, adhering to rules is firstly the closest you will get, and secondly alleged to be the path to gongfu, “allegedly”.
I am not saying that these rules are bad, they are fine and useful, but without teaching, and without understanding they are quite useless. So, I want to put in perspective a bit some of these rules and how they really work in a dynamic environment. Firstly, the back straight and upright, everyone wants to achieve this because it allows the rotation of the central axis between tail and crown to be loose and neutral, as well as makes one feel much better (relating to qi) during practice.
Secondly, the bum not protruding; again everyone would want this ability because it refers to a few specific mechanisms; the ability to engage the bum to foot musculature, the lower back structure and the opening of dantian for both breath (qi cultivation) and Chansijin action, and again it also just feels better during practice.
Thirdly, the knees not passing the toes, you’d think everyone would want this because of multiple benefits; joint health because knees are not well constructed to withstand kinetic weight bearing stresses past the angles reached when at the toe line. Additionally, particular natural physiological root and arch (dang) structures reduces the more the knees pass the toe line.
If we take these three rules, each one is fairly straightforward on its own, but combining them is already very very complicated and in my view and experience that is my job as a teacher to convey. It is very challenging to teach and it is specifically what a great majority of Chen Taijiquan teachers do NOT teach. It is also what a great majority of Taijiquan students do not understand. It is also additionally what many of the normal critics do not understand because they have not made it far enough down the path to experience the difficulty or possibly even unwittingly chose or were taught a specific compromise that escaped the paradoxes of these compounded rules. This deeper teaching is really very hard to resolve for one’s self even as an advanced practitioner, before we can think of them even trying to clarify it for students.
The great majority of well known ‘high level’ Chen Taijiquan representatives ALL either lean, pass their toes with their knees, or stick out their bum, at one time or another during form practice. It is not because they do not have gongfu, or don’t understand the rules. It is precisely because they do understand the rules and are beyond the trap of rule adherence and simply practice gongfu compromising their chosen rules when it suits them in the interest of specific goals such as a low horse for example.
If one looks objectively at performances of well known representatives of the fist one can clearly see that this is how it works:
If the horse is very low, the practitioner will either:
1) Lean forward to move hips to the rear to accommodate stepping or stance with knees within toe line,
2) Make the stance extremely wide to allow the knees to extend more without passing toe line, thereby reducing mobility greatly,
3) Allow the knees to pass the toes moving the center of gravity forward making it easy sit up straight,
4) Allow the bum to protrude to move the hips to the rear, allowing the knees to stay within the toe line.
These are factual physiological realities that everyone has to contend with. It is not something anyone can hide from the experienced. Only novices and those who have not gone far enough will think this is hidden in plain site, because they are simply have not yet acknowledged their own or their teacher’s chosen compromise.
There are also distinct differences in the goals and methods of various lines within Chen fist, specifically in the areas the legs. This is also clearly visible these days. The way I was taught, Chenyu’s received methods from his father has a moderate length horse; it should be only two shoulder widths for gongfu practice (not performance). this moderate length horse is for martial arts, it can be heavy but it is mobile. If the horse is too wide the body weight is dispersed too far and it is too difficult to consolidate the body weight and essentially, root. For those who know about Chen Zhaokui, his stance was also known to be very low and there are many photos available. Truly this very low and narrow horse is the hardest to achieve and the great majority of ‘students’ and certainly western students have not even had a seconds experience IN that horse as they cannot even get close to sitting into it successfully and properly. Besides the simple pain of it, this close conflict of rules that makes it so challenging. This simply cannot be ‘understood’ within being IN that horse enough to discuss it, online for example.
In my practice, occasionally I lean a bit, certainly no worse, and in some case not nearly as bad as many famous Chen family representatives who train a low horse. In my practice My knees are much more consistently behind the toe line than some of the Chen family reps. and my bum? I know it is HOT, I mean a hot topic, but here is the other issue: The majority of Chinese people have flat bums. One would have to be willfully blind not to notice this. My ancestry is middle eastern, I have a big butt and practice only made it bigger. When I straighten my tail bone, my gluteal muscles will still appear round, because they ARE round. They are not expressing the curve of my tailbone. Chinese people, most of them do not have bums shaped like this, and so the majority of those who gets their info from watching will be understandably confused because they are constantly watching Chinese people and they never see a round bum.
Additionally, Chen Zhaokui’s line specifically uses dantian movement and folding that others do not, so occasionally the flexing of the lower back will be visible. I can pretty much guarantee that those who advocate NEVER seeing the lower back flex and the butt appear to protrude at all, also do not practice a low narrow horse with the knees within the toe line. A reliable (meaning someone who could do that consistently, not a still photo) example would be very hard to produce.
Again, this goes back to the general discomfort with respecting a western gongfu practitioner simply because they do not represent the magical body type that some people think they will achieve if they practice. It is a pervasive mythology, that one’s body will change into the burly barrel chested Chinese martial artist they see in the video from practicing right, but I have news, again, that will NOT happen unless you are genetically set for it. You can change your body to a certain level, but it is not what people imagine or claim it will be. You can do the best with what you have, but you are not going to change a frog into a prince with gongfu practice. People who watch TOO MANY Chinese gongfu videos and have too little development of their own come to think that Chinese gongfu development looks like Chinese body. It does not. You will not become nearly hairless, nor single eyelid, nor gain a layer of fat under your skin, nor will the angle of your hip-pelvis joints change to something else, no matter how hard you practice. You can only improve what you have been given. If I were to try to make a video with my butt really becoming flat and invisible from the side you would see my back being totally and consistently rounded (convex) which is undesirable for Chen Taijiquan.
I originally shared some photo stills from videos of well known “leaning towers of Chen,” Knee protrudes, and bum protrudes as well to illustrate the point. Some of those links have since been redirected or changed so I am removing the photos for the moment until I find new examples.
I have learned something over the years that is both humorous and disturbing, relating to my opening points. As a well known serious and public practitioner of any line, even if you have actual gongfu skill if you chose to or habitually sacrifice some rule to achieve a practice or demonstration goal you can only get away with it avoiding public criticism if you:
1) wear a silk suit with a long top to hide your bum as much as possible, preferably a baggy one to hide the angle of your possibly leaning back,
2) Have Chinese features or at least some sort of Asian genetic history to avoid being pulled down by novice crabs in a bucket who would praise the exact same methods in their fantasy exotic far-eastern daddy figures.
There would be no end to such examples I could find. I did not select nor omit any particular name for any reason. There are clear examples of them ALL looking like that, I am actually not particularly unique in that way, better in some areas worse in some areas than whomever you choose to compare to. In short, whether or not one appreciate my ‘style’ I am just like the big names; not perfect. That’s right, they are not perfect either, although for some they are much more pleasing to worship.
Generally, what we can see in the photos and the videos some of these stills were taken from is that those who appear to sit very straight, actually only sit very straight at the end of many moves when the photos will be taken, or when they stand up high. The transitions, the stepping, and the difficult low spots are often quite a different story.
Some of the practitioners in the photos leaned more when they were younger and now they are serious advocates of 100% straight and upright. Why and how did they make the change?
First of all sitting upright feels better, really, but when you are younger, practicing low also feels better if you like bitter gongfu, so that is a toss up. How did they do it? In most cases people straightened up their backs by discontinuing the low practice, or allowing their knees to pass the toes liberally, or BOTH. When I said the narrow low horse offered a very serious challenge to keeping a straight back I meant for everyone, not specifically for me. Hopefully this article helps people understand this.