Chen Tai Chi
Chen Tai Chi is the original of the five major Tai Chi styles. A family secret kept secret for over 300 years, it was only revealed to the world in the last centruy years. It has since become a hallmark of excellence in tai chi circles.
Chen Tai Chi is widely practiced across China and we have filmed the style's patterns before in many towns and cities - many masters and stylists will have a basic grounding in a major internal style like Tai Chi as well as their own preferred kung fu style. It is characterised by a balance between soft, flowing movements and explosions of power and jumps, as well as its demanding physical requirements.
In Beijing, May 2005, Wushu Scholar met with Master Zhang Lian En, a practitioner whose lineage extends back to the renowned Chen Fa Ke, to explore the principles and techniques of the 'hard' Tai Chi style.
Chen tai chi - a 'hard' soft style
Chen tai chi, like other styles of tai chi, teaches the principle of a whole style contained in a single pattern. There are only two core patterns (RELATED VIDEO: Chen Tai Chi), (RELATED VIDEO: Chen Pao Cui ? Cannon Hammer) excluding weapons, so knowledge and understanding of each movement is key.
"In past time, the traditional masters taught students by showing with no explanation - for example, if a master taught to 10 students, that will cause 11 different moves,? explained Master Zhang. ?This is because the master has his way of moving and the students have their way. In my teaching, I teach my students to move the same way. My teaching method is a copying method. It is a clone way."
The preciseness of his movements is evident in our videos of Master Zhang. For example, in the Chen Style Basics Montage video, Master Zhang goes through some of the basic movements and stops at each posture, counting the steps. We asked how he ensures his students grasp the fundamentals without subjecting them to the same regimen he suffered.
"Ok, I'll explain like this. You know Chinese characters look complicated. But if you separate all of them, you can see there are actually not many strokes. hen, shu, pie, n? ?not many. My foundation training is the same - I separate all the moves into the essentials to make it simple."
In fact, Master Zhang is a classical stylist - a fine artist - and a textbook example of the principles in action. This quality shines through in the videos we've released this month showing Master Zhang.
The quality of movement Master Zhang calls 'silkworm grabbing' instantly identifies this style from other martial arts. The slow, conscious drawing of power from the root of the feet through the body into the hands in a single line mimics the way in which silk must be drawn from a cocoon. One accidental jerk or strong pull will break the thread. In Chen tai chi, this is especially important for generating power and also improving the practitioner's health. Consciously leading the energy through the entire body means that all the muscles and connective tissues are stretched and worked. Movements never come to an abrupt end, but flow purposefully into each other.
He explained to us that when striking, Chen tai chi uses the entire body's energy to generate force. "Without using the proper moves, the force is only good for hitting, but won't penetrate. With a 25 kg force from a straight punch you will only make people's skin hurt. But the Chen method of twisting from the waist will penetrate into the opponent's inner body and make inside hurt. Like a bullet moving."
The principle governing this 'twisting' is to use the body like a lever. One point in the body is used as a lever and the waist and backside simply apply force on one side of that lever. Think back to dreary physics lessons in school and you may remember learning about pivots, levers, 'moment' and force. Chen tai chi uses this principle to devastating effect.
Master Zhang falls firmly into the 'no-nonsense' category of martial arts masters. His form is precise and excludes extraneous flowery movements, but most refreshing was his enthusiasm for lei tai competitions and fighting. In his younger years during the 1970s and 1980s (he is over 50 now) Master Zhang had fought in a number of competitions and 'informal encounters', and his current students are following his path, distinguishing themselves in recent competitions. From 1984-1989 his students won six gold, one silver and one bronze medals at all-China level lei tai competitions, and in 2002 won one gold and one bronze medal at a Tai Chi competition in Chen Jia Gou, the home of Chen Tai Chi.
The trend in China, he remarked, has started to move away from modern wushu and the san da so popular in the 1990s and focus in on traditional styles like Chen Tai Chi. His only regret about this favourable shift was that he was now too old to compete in lei tai! Among his martial arts heroes, he included Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan - the former for his massive impact on martial arts cinematography and the latter because he was brave enough to do his own stunts!
On the distinction between internal and external styles, he laughed. "I think all martial arts are from same root. How can you separate them into Inner and Outer?" So does he think Westerners have made a mistake drawing this distinction? "No, no, it is Chinese making mistake. All martial arts use hands and legs for fighting and defense. How can you separate them into different things? All include grabbing, taking, wrestling, punching?."
In opposition to the view that Tai Chi is not a martial art, Master Zhang delineated some of the key principles of fighting, Chen style. One waits for the opponent to attack, but this doesn't mean neutralising an attack and then counter attacking. The method is called 'one go' - the defense and counter in the same move. At this point, his student joked that you should say ?one go? when you start fighting, and then the next minute your opponent should be on the floor! Training to get this kind of skill, or to win at lei tai competitions takes a minimum of three years hard training, even with the modern scientific training methods Master Zhang uses.
Whilst both containing martial principles, Master Zhang told us that the role of the first Chen 81 Step pattern compared to the Pao Cui is that the former teaches principles whereas the second is more directly related to fighting applications. Again, likening Tai Chi to the art of calligraphy, he explained that the 81 Step pattern is like writing the correct character, exactly as it should be, whereas the Pao Cui is like the cursive or cao shu style of writing used in everyday life.
In relation to breathing and the secrets some claim to protect, again he was refreshingly candid. His method is to breath naturally, from the dan tian. When striking, you breathe out forcefully, with a little shout. Many of us will breathe in the correct way for striking when we sneeze - the force that emanates from a violent sneeze is dan tian force and replicates the way of breathing and striking in Chen Tai Chi.