Interviewed by Ronnie Robinson and Aarvo Tucker
Chen Zheng Lei visited the UK this autumn as a guest of Liming Yue, for whom he conducted a series of seminars. A 19th generation inheritor of the Chen Family style he is also one of the top ten Wushu experts in China.
At the recent Tai Chi Union for Great Britain General Meeting in Manchester Master Chen Zheng Lei very kindy paid us a visit, where he performed an impressive demonstration of Chen Style Taijiquan. Later that evening a number of us enjoyed a banquet in one of Chinatown’s best restaurants where we conducted an interview with Grandmaster Chen Zheng Lei.
In order to conduct the interview I requested the asssitance of Aarvo Tucker, who has a good command of the Chinese language, to act as translator. Aarvo also possesses a good knowledge of internal arts, and his role proved invaluable during the interview.
Ronnie Robinson - Editor TCC Magazine
RR: To begin with, could you tell me a little about your background in Tai Chi Chuan?
CZL: From the age of eight, I was taught by my uncle, Mr. Chen Zhaopei. In 1958, when I was eight years old, he retired from his post at the Yellow River Water Authority, and came back to our village. He had gone to Beijing in 1928 to teach Taiji, and when Chen Fake went to Beijing in 1930, he went to Nanjing to teach there. Chen Zhaopei taught in Nanjing for eight years at the Nanjing city government and at the National Martial Arts Academy at Nanjing.
RR: What was he teaching the city officials in Nanjing - was the main emphasis on health, or did he also teach them the martial side of Taijiquan? CZL: He taught the city officials mainly for health but he also taught their bodyguards martial applications. He returned home in 1958 and started teaching the current generation of the clan Tai Chi Chuan. I was eight or nine years old when I began learning from my uncle.
RR: What did you learn?
CZL: The Old Frame and the New Frame Forms, various weapons; single & double sabre, single & double sword and spear form.
RR: How much were you taught over what period of time?
CZL: Up to the age of 18 or 20 I was just taught the Old Frame first form. It wasn’t until the age of 20 that I started learning all the other forms.
RR: So you worked for almost 12 years on one hand form?
CZL: Yes, more than 10 years.
RR: What was your practise like; for example when did you usually practise?
CZL: It was mostly in the mornings and evenings. When I was learning something it would mainly be a group of us with our teacher, but generally I would practise on my own.
RR: So how long would you train each day?
CZL: Three or four hours each day.
RR: Did you feel a responsibility to study hard and were you conscious of being trained as an inheritor to this important Tai Chi Chuan dynasty?
CZL: From a young age Chen Zhao-pei inducted the notion into us that we had a responsibility to practice hard, to do things well, so that we could continue the tradition. If we didn’t we would be ashamed to our ancestors and embarrassed to our descendents.
RR: What effect did the learning of these systems have on your body and your mind?
CZL: When I started at the age of eight I didn’t really think much about those things, at that age you just practice. However, this was a very tumultuous time in China; you know what was going on: there was famine, there was the Great Leap Forward, and then, just as things were getting a bit better, in 1964-5 the Cultural Revolution began. These times did not provide right the conditions or permit the regular practice of gongfu. So during the early period practise was off and on. It was only after 1969 that I was able to apply myself to regular, continuous practice.
RR: Was there a period when Tai Chi Chuan was outlawed or when you were in danger from the Red Guards?
CZL: Because Chen Zhao-pei had worked in the previous government (the Nationalist, Chiang Kai-shek government) he was not allowed to teach. The Red Guards weren’t happy about people conducting meetings or practices in small groups. They regarded these small gatherings as subversive. He was persecuted by the Red Guards who beat and tortured him. He was so badly affected by this that he jumped into a well in an attempt to commit suicide. They pulled him out, but he was ailing for two years, and his legs were seriously damaged. After two years he could hobble around with the aid of a stool, and started teaching again. By that time there had been a change in policy.
In 1969 Mao Tse Tung issued a proclamation saying that people should become healthy by climbing mountains, doing callisthenics and other physical exercises. This meant that they could now practice Tai Chi Chuan openly. It also meant they could further promote Tai Chi Chuan which resulted in the publication of books and information on the subject.
During this difficult time they changed the names of many of the movements, in order to be able to practice openly. When teaching the forms they used Chairman Mao’s catch-phrases and his name as they were doing the movements. “Buddha’s Attendant Pounding The Mortar” became “Mao Pounds The Mortar.” As we did the form we would also recite the Thoughts of Mao. This allowed us to continue training without fear of further retribution.
In 1935 when Chen Zhaopei was in Nanjing he published a book called, “Anthology of Authentic Tai Chi Chuan”(Taijiquan Huizong). After 1969 we were able to re-publish this material along with other writings on Tai Chi Chuan.
RR: How much Tai Chi Chuan was around, in the rest of China, at this time?
CZL: I hadn’t left my village at this time but I do know that there was Tai Chi Chuan in the main cities.
RR: What was the main style practised elsewhere?
CZL: Yang style was the most popular in the cities.
RR: Why is Yang style more widespread than Chen?
CZL: First of all, Yang Luchan started teaching publicly much earlier. Yang style has had 140 years exposure while Chen style has only been in the major cities since the time of Chen Fake (1928). There had been three generations of Yangs to help it spread, and they were in the capital. Chen Taiji remained in a remote village. It has only been in the last twenty years or so, that Chen style has had wide exposure.
RR: What are the pushing hands contests held in the Chen village like?
CZL: In Chen village they have pushing hands competitions every year. There are nine weight divisions. Other than grabbing clothes or directly striking your opponent everything else is okay. You are allowed to use elbows and shoulders but you can’t hit your opponent in the face.
RR: Did you take part?
CZL: Yes, when I was younger. Now my students take part. For the past 18 years we have had a county-wide competition (Wen County). Before that there were no formal competitions, only people in the village ‘exchanging skills’ against each other.(NB ‘Exchange’ might mean anything from discussing and sharing training methods to informal contests)
RR: In the formal competitions do participants apply Tai Chi Chuan principles?
CZL: Generally people follow the principles but it also depends on how they react under pressure. If they’re about to get pushed out of the ring they may resort to resisting the opponent.
RR: Are there many injuries?
CZL: No, there are few injuries. Occasionally people get hurt when they fall off the platform. Sometimes elbows can get hyper-extended, and other kinds of strains and twists. In the pushing hands and sanshou competitions injuries can come from pushes and strikes.
RR: Do the Chen Taiji people take part in these fighting (sanshou) competitions?
CZL: There are some who have taken part. Sometimes it’s difficult because the rules restrict some of the things they can do, and the protective gear can hinder movement. The range of techniques allowed in the competitions is restricted to striking, kicking, and grabbing the legs to take down the other person. Everything else is illegal.
RR: How do you feel about the new competition forms?
CZL: Those forms are based on the traditional ones, and are shortened. It is beneficial for competitions to have standard routines. It sets a clear model for which people can compete, but it is not suitable for practising gongfu. In the Competition Form there is a format, or a way of performing which cannot be changed. It therefore allows a common ground for judging.
RR: Why do you say the competition forms are not for practising gongfu and what is the difference between competition and traditional forms?
CZL: For the sake of the competition the forms are set, no deviation, and so they are ‘dead’ in a way.
RR: Is there anything you can say which would provide inspiration for others training in Tai Chi Chuan? Are there any particular concepts or methods that you would recommend to students to develop their gongfu?
CZL: In my years of teaching experience, what I feel is important for those beginning to learn Tai Chi Chuan, is to get a teacher who is very clear in his/her teachings; someone who can describe and clearly explain the concepts and techniques of Tai Chi Chuan. Without that knowledge it is difficult to get to the levels of mysterious subtlety of Tai Chi Chuan.
RR: How would you describe these concepts?
CZL: For example, we talk about practising slowly and being relaxed. Some people misunderstand this, and think that Taiji is only slow and relaxed, and it is for old people to keep fit. When you want to use it for fighting, how do you use it without using any force? Many people don’t realise that being slow and relaxed is a way of practicing (liangong). Being relaxed and practising slowly are methods, not objectives. These are methods, which help us to get rid of the post-natal, stiff force in our bodies, and access our pre-natal, natural energy (Xiantian ziran qi). This pre-natal natural qi is the energy we have when we are in our mother’s womb. After we enter the world we need to move about, work, etc, and so we take in food and water to give us energy for these activities, and that is post-natal qi. In our Tai Chi training there is this process, which we must explain to learners, that helps us to get rid of this stiff force. This process gradually increases and makes fuller our pre-natal qi, opening up the energy channels of the body.
RR: Do you think it’s important for Tai Chi Chuan practitioners to have an awareness of the energy system and the acupoints and meridians etc.?
CZL: You needn’t think of these things. If your neiqi (internal energy) isn’t full, then however much you think about it or read about it won’t be of any use. The practice of Tai Chi Chuan will open up all the passages and meridians in the body. It is not important to have knowledge of where in the body this will happen because it will happen naturally, if you practice properly. If you just read about it, you will have knowledge of where, but without proper practice it will never happen.
RR: Can you get the same benefits from practising other styles like the Yang style for example?
CZL: Yes. As long as the teacher has the knowledge to help you to practice the principles properly. In Yang style there are also people who know the right way and those who don’t. There are thousands of people who practise, only few who will attain the art. It is not so easy to reach these (high) levels.
There are three things which are important to developing good Tai Chi Chuan:-Teacher, talent and transmission. First, you need to have a good teacher, someone who is clear. Second, is having talent, the intelligence to absorb and understand the information and the ability to imitate well. Finally there is hard, diligent practise, a willingness to undergo the pain and toil of practise.
RR: There is a large body of knowledge in Tai Chi Chuan and many things that a student can practise. For example, there is pushing hands, form, Zhanzhuang. Would you recommend any particular area of practice for developing specific goals?
CZL: Practising Zhanzhuang (a range of static practises from standing meditation to low stance holding) is good for developing internal energy. You can practise this exercise at different heights, high or low,and for different lengths of time, depending on leg strength. It helps in concentrating the mind, understanding relaxation, strengthening the legs, and increasing internal qi.
RR: At Chen village, do people often do Zhanzhuang?
CZL: People train more in the forms.
RR: I believe you also practise Qigong?
CZL: Qigong is a relatively new term for arts, some of which, are over 2,000 years old. Originally these were called Daoyin breathing techniques or Neigong. If you practise neijiaquan and don’t know about training qi, then it is not neijiaquan.
RR: Do you practise kinds of qigong specific to Chen style, or do you do other kinds?
CZL: Practising Tai Chi Chuan is training for qi. All the movements of Tai Chi Chuan are training for qi. Sometimes, considering the needs of students, we take simple movements to repeat, as an exercise for strengthening the body and qi.
RR: What about the Chen silk-reeling exercises?
CZL: They focus on a kind of use of power that is hidden in the form, spiralling power. By isolating the movements from the form and practising them individually, it helps the form improve. They are exercises for beginners to work on individual movements, and work on their foundation.
RR: Do you practise them much?
CZL: Mainly when I am teaching.
RR: Are there are any things you would like to add?
CZL: It is important to have a clear understanding of what Tai Chi is about. You need to know why you practise being relaxed, why you practise softness; understand the objective, and that there is a process. Quite a few people don’t make it through the process, and give up, because of reasons to do with work, money, family, health, etc. Many people learn Tai Chi, but not many stay with it all the way. It is not that it is extremely difficult or the teacher is not teaching fully. If you have those three things: a good teacher, some natural ability, and determination to practise hard, then you can succeed.