The famous Taiji grandmaster Chen Fake (1887-1957) was born and grew up in the Chen Family Village of Wen County, Henan Province. He was the standard bearer of the 17th generation of Chen Style Taijiquan. His great-grandfather was the famous Chen Taiji grandmaster Chen Changxing. His grandfather Chen Genyun and father Chen Yangxi were also well accomplished Taiji masters.
Chen Fake was the youngest of three brothers. Both of his older brothers passed away in their early ages. His father was in his sixties when Chen Fake was born, and Fake was spoiled as a young child. There was no pressure from his parents for him to practice Taiji. In addition, he did not have a good diet. He eventually developed a stomach ailment and could not digest food very well, and his health was poor. While playing outside one day when he was 14 years old, he overheard family elders lamenting his laziness: “This family has produced so many famous/well accomplished masters: his ancestor, his grandfather, and his father. This glory seems to be ending now because he (Chen Fake) is only interested in playing and having fun and not in practicing Taiji”.
From then on, Chen Fake started working hard and practiced the form several dozen times a day. After a few years of training, he cured his stomach problem and became very strong. He had improved his Taiji skill tremendously and reached a high level. He was not satisfied with his accomplishment, however, and continued working hard under careful guidance from his father. He eventually reached a very high level of skill where his hunyuan nei qi was strong but also xuling, his silk reeling energy was both strong and soft, and his push-hands was also cu shen ru hua. Masters from both within and outside his family all had difficulty handling him. He became famous after he defeated several martial art instructors in war lord Hang Fuqiu's army.
In 1928, master Chen Zhaopei (18th generation) was teaching Chen Taiji in Beijing. Then the Nanjing Martial Art Institute was established, and Chen Zhaopei was invited to teach there. Chen Zhaopei recommended Chen Fake to replace him in Beijing by saying: “I learned Taiji from my third uncle” (Chen Fake). He wrote a letter to Chen Fake before he left for Nanjing, asking him to teach in Beijing, and Chen Fake traveled to Beijing by himself after he received Zhaopei's letter.
Fake remained undefeated after taking open challenges for 17 days in Beijing and became very famous in the martial community, and people referred to him as “Taiji yi ren” (the best Taiji master). Since that time, the real gongfu of Chen Style Taiji started to be recognized and respected by the outside world. In order to share this art with general public, grandmaster Fake opened the “Zhongzhou Institute” to teach Taiji in Wai Luomashi Da Jie outside Xuanwu Men in Beijjing. Before then, Chen Style Taiji had been taught in a secret manner, kept in the Chen family and practiced only in a small region of China.
Grandmaster Fake's teaching changed this tradition, made this art available to the outside world, and opened a new era in the development of Chen Style Taijiquan. This became the second landmark in China's Taijiquan history. Grandmaster Chen not only had high martial art skill but also high moral virtue. Although he had compared skills with many martial artists in his nearly 30 year teaching career in Beijing, he seldom made enemies and had made many friends within the martial arts community in Beijing. He is called the “Quan Shen” (martial saint) by international martial artists.
Chen Fake, a seventeenth generation family practitioner, and ninth generation stylist from Chen Wangting, is recognized as one of the greatest practitioners of his family's style in the 20th century. Chen Fake (pronounced: Fah Ke) along with his nephew, Chen Zhaopei (who preceded him) brought the Chen family style of Taiji out of the closet as it were, and into mainstream martial arts when he went to Beijing in 1928. Although, Taijiquan had already went public in 1911, thanks to Yang Luchan, Yang Shouhao, Yang Chenfu, and Wu Jianquan.
Chen Fake was initially regarded as something of a novelty in Beijing, because he was both a Chen family member and practiced the style that greatly influenced the publicly known styles' development. It was soon clear that he was much more than a mere novelty. By all accounts, Chen Fake possessed superior skills due to his skill in Push Hands and his ability to use his skill to neutralize and ward off challengers.
In my opinion, those who claim to be his students, or students of his students, seem to miss even some of the most obvious aspects of Chen Fake's practice. This is exemplified by the subtle movements in his joints, especially in the extension of his elbow. Many of the practitioners who follow Chen Fake's lineage demonstrate constantly bent (or unbending) elbows that do not penetrate or twist with power whatsoever. Instead, they rely on tricks or force to carry forth some overt resemblance of power. Tricks and strength that can be rendered useless by those who understand and employ softness and ting jing (listening energy) in their application.
What's questionable is the idea that Chen Fake, and later his youngest son, Chen Zhaokwei, were teaching a “new” frame. It would seem that they were both teaching efficiency and practicality. It's easy to question the idea that which is more elaborate is “old,” and that which is efficient is “new.” Another question about Chen Fake's legacy is how different his style is from Chen Zhaokui's which, in my opinion, is further nonsense. When all of Fa-ke's verifiable students, bar a mere few, and Zhaokui's are similar; then this casts further doubt on the “old” frame, “new” frame argument. In all actuality, this may be just a way to shift attention from Fa-ke and Zhao-kui's popularity to another Chen family member's version or interpretation of the style. Despite any diversions, Chen Fa-ke and Chen Zhao-kui's Chen style remain the most popular to this day.http://www.chiflow.com/html/Taijiquan_Chen2.htm
A short collection.
The following story was related by Chen Fa-ke to his student Hong Jun-sheng (1907-1996). When Chen Yan-xi returned home after several years of teaching the sons of Yuan Shi-kai he was very pleased to see that Chen Fa-ke had made great progress in Taijiquan. Chen Yan-xi walked to the center of the courtyard, inserting his hands in the opposite sleeves of his traditional leather coat. He asked his son and several nephews to surround and attack him. As soon as someone touched him he would turn slightly and the attacker would be propelled to the ground. Chen Fa-ke, relating this story to Hong Jun-sheng, sighed with feeling ‘I’m not as good as my father. When I strike someone I still need to use my hands’. This episode left a lasting impression on Chen Fa-ke and inspired him to greater achievement. Hong Jun-sheng once told me that Chen Fa-ke finally did reach this standard in the later years of his life.
Chen Fa-ke had told Hong Jun-sheng much about his early life and training in Taijiquan. Chen Fa-ke was born when his father was quite old, and was the only surviving son in the family as his brothers died in an epidemic. He was spoilt and lazy as a child. As a result of poor eating habits and lack of exercise, he was unfit and developed a lump in his abdomen which at times was so painful that he would writhe in his bed. Although he was aware that Taijiquan is beneficial to health, and would probably help reduce the pain and heal the lump, he had become so weak he avoided training. Due to his ill health he was excused from practising, and up to 14 years of age he still had not trained very much.
Chen Fa-ke had a cousin who was living with them while his father was away teaching the family of Yuan Shi-kai. The cousin kept Chen Fa-ke company, and assisted with farm work and looking after the family. He was a strong healthy young man of sturdy build, and he was one of the best of the young Taijiquan artists in the Chen village. One evening, during an after dinner conversation among the elders at Chen Fa-ke’s home, the subject was brought up about the traditional family martial art. Someone in the group sighed regretfully, saying ‘In Chen Yan-xi’s family lineage each generation has produced a highly skilled practitioner. It’s a pity to see this tradition end in Chen Fa-ke’s generation. He’s already 14 but he’s still so weak and fragile he cannot put in the necessary effort. It appears obvious that it will lost forever.’ When Chen Fa-ke heard this comment he felt ashamed, saying to himself ‘No matter what the cost I won’t allow our family traditional skills to be lost at my hands. At the least I can catch up with my cousin.’
He then realised, ‘We eat, sleep, work and train together. I may train hard to improve, but so will he. How can I ever catch up?’ This problem disturbed him, and for days he couldn’t eat or sleep. One morning he and his cousin were walking to work in the fields. Partway there his cousin stopped, suddenly recalling that he had forgotten a farming tool. He said to Chen Fa-ke, ‘You hurry and retrieve it for me. I’ll walk slowly till you catch up’. Chen Fa-ke quickly complied. During lunch time Chen Fa-ke reflected upon his cousin’s chance remark, and was inspired to relate it to his plans for training in the martial arts. He concluded that if he trained harder than his cousin he would make speedier progress and eventually catch up.
From then on Chen Fa-ke resolved to practice much harder, without making his cousin aware of his extra efforts. In addition to training with him, he continued to train at midday when his cousin napped. He shortened his sleeping time to just over two hours, and would get up and train some more. Since he was afraid to waken his cousin by the noise of going outside to practice, he trained in the small space between their beds. He modified noisy movements such as stamping the foot and developed a gentler and more relaxed form.
Chen Fa-ke thus trained extremely hard for three years till he was 17, with his cousin completely unaware. Occasionally, Chen Fa-ke practiced push hands with his uncles, but dared not train with his cousin whose skill was superior. His cousin took push-hands seriously and often injured his partners. He would remark, ‘Martial art training should be taken seriously. You cannot take it lightly just because you’re training with someone you know. Once taking it lightly becomes a habit you will be disadvantaged when facing the enemy’. Even when training with family the cousin would not relent the tiniest amount, often throwing his opponents so hard they would injure themselves and bleed.
After training hard for three years Chen Fa-ke found that the lump in his belly had virtually disappeared and his fitness had improved. His health and strength had become normal for a boy of his age. Meanwhile his martial skills had progressed unnoticed. One day, in order to test how much progress he had made he invited his cousin to practice push hands. His cousin laughed and said, ‘Well, all but one of the young men of our family have experienced my skill. Previously you were too delicate and dared not push hands with me. Now that you have become stronger and sturdier, you should be able to withstand my strikes and throws. It is now time for you to get a taste of my push hands skill’.
Following this conversation they took position. His cousin tried three times to advance and throw Chen Fa-ke using fajin. On each occasion he was instead countered and thrown back by Chen Fa-ke. Not until the third time did his cousin suspect that Chen Fa-ke’s skill had surpassed his own, yet he wasn’t fully convinced. He was upset at losing, and as he was leaving he grumbled, ‘Every generation in your lineage produces master hand practitioners, probably by passing down secret techniques. Even hopeless ones like you who are not as good me can now defeat me. There is no point for any of my lineage to practice this art, for we don’t know the secrets’.
Chen Fa-ke informed Hong Jun-sheng, ‘In fact, my father had not been home those previous three years, so he could not have taught me any secret family techniques. My skill was purely the result of three years hard work’.
Through these incidents we can see the importance of hard training. Diligent and consistent practice is important to become stronger and make greater progress in our techniques. We cannot conclude from this story that there are no secrets in Taijiquan, but rather that secrets are relatively unimportant. It is true that for those three years his father could not have taught him any secrets. However, prior to this period Chen Fa-ke would have become aware of his father’s training methods and principles, he just had not put in the necessary effort to properly train them. Moreover, during the three years of his hard training he had also trained with his uncles, who would have reinforced the authentic principles of Taijiquan. To claim there are no secrets is simply to state that Chen Fa-ke did not know any principles or techniques unknown to his cousin. All martial artists in the Chen village were practising the traditional Chen style martial art. Chen Fa-ke had progressed quickly and achieved a great understanding of Taijiquan through his determination to work hard, firstly by spending more time, and secondly by training with feeling. In contrast, once his cousin had achieved a certain level of skill he was satisfied with his ability. Unlike Chen Fa-ke he didn’t train as much nor did he truly put his heart into it, thus he was eventually surpassed by him. For the normal Taijiquan practitioner like one of us it is certainly not sufficient to train hard. It is first essential to learn the correct techniques, following with hard training will lead us to success. Hong Jun-sheng always said, ‘We have to train Taijiquan the smart way. We need to use our brain. First we learn to train correctly, then we put in the hard effort’.
By Peter Wu Shi-zeng
Chen Fa-ke once told Hong about the time he was invited to defend his district. Although he did not say which year it occurred, it must have been before 1928 when he went to Beijing. Some of the materials I saw indicates that it was probably around 1926. In those years, China was then suffering a period of disintegration. Districts were dominated by different warlords, bandits were everywhere, and security of life and limb was at its lowest level. A bandit group called the “Red Spear Club”, a heretical organization, captured several towns and their surrounding environs. The Wen-xian city district was also under the threat of being overrun. The district administration requested Chen to lead his students to join protecting the district. The Chen village where Chen Fa-ke lived was under the administration of Wen-xian local government. After arriving at their City, Chen succeeded in seizing two of the bandits. (Several books describe this incident in detail, but their reliability is unknown). There are, however, two reliable stories of this time.
A martial art instructor had been hired by the district administration prior to Chen. When he heard Chen had arrived, he went to challenge him. Chen was sitting on the left side of the ‘bashen table’, a Chinese table enabling 8 people to seat around it, which was inside the main chamber of the house. In his left hand Chen was holding a bag containing tobacco and in his right a paper fire-lighter. The martial art instructor entered the house, stepped forward and punched Chen with his right fist while at the same time shouting, “See how you deal with this!” Chen had seen him entering the house, and was half way standing up to welcome him, when the punch reached his chest. Chen intercepted the fist with his own right wrist and pushed slightly forward. His opponent was sent flying backward out of the door and landed on his back. Chen returned to his room, packed up and left with no farewells.
When Hong Jun-sheng heard this story, he certainly believed it was within the capability of Chen’s skill, but he could not understand how Chen could counter so explosively at the instant of contact with his opponent. When Hong skill eventually improved, he was also able to make his opponents fly at the instant of contact with his opponents. He understood that this is achieved by channeling the chansi jin (‘spiral force’) of the whole body into the hand with smaller circles while at the same time speeding up the movements.
The “Red Spear Club” was an evil religious sect. Its members would utter spells and use magic charms, and by inscribing talismans on their bodies before any battle they believed they would become bullet-proof and impervious to knife thrusts. They would thus charge bare-chested into battle. When their gang had encircled Wen-xien, all but one of the citadel gates had been closed, and the drawbridge was lifted. Chen Fa-ke was standing on the bridge holding a bailagan pole (an extremely resilient tree branches for making spears). Holding the pole without a spearhead he awaited the gang’s attack. One of the “Red Spear Club” leaders rushed in with a spear and stabbed at Chen who instantly repulsed it with his wooden pole. The enemy’s spear was sent flying out of his hands into the air. Chen’s pole immediately followed through and shot forward, piercing the enemy’s torso. Seeing their leader killed, the other gang members fled in a panic. Thus was the town saved.
In 1956 Hong traveled from Jinan to Beijing to study further with Chen. He arrived to find two agents from the new local government questioning Chen about the incident mentioned above, which they treated it as a ‘man-slaughter case’. After he fare-welled the two government agents Chen told Hong that a good deed done for the people had become a troublesome matter. Fortunately, the new government did not bother Chen again, because the “Red Spear Club” was a reactionary group soon to be eradicated by the new government.
By Peter Wu Shi-zeng
Chen Fa-ke had spoken about how he came to teach Taijiquan in Beijing. His nephew Chen Zhao-pi (1893 - 1972) was in the business of transporting herbal drugs from their hometown to Beijing (then called Beiping). Yang style was most practiced Taijiquan in Beijing, and it was widely known that it is originated in the Chen village. Several members of the Henan community were very happy to learn that Chen Zhao-pi was from Chen village, who also practiced Chen style Taijiquan. They took it as an honor for the Henan people and invited him to teach Taijiquan in Beijing, where there were many students began to train under him. When Wei Dao-ming, the mayor of Nanjing (which was the capital at the time), discovered this he sent a large monetary incentive for Chen Zhao-pi to go and teach Taijiquan in Nanjing. Chen Zhao-pi was undecided between the option of more money or maintaining the newly established relationship with his students who had only been learning for a short period of time. He solved his dilemma by telling his Beijing students that he had learned Taijiquan from his third uncle whose skill was far greater than his, and who was currently available. He then invited Chen Fa-ke to teach Taijiquan in Beijing.
My ‘small-frame’ Chen style teacher Chen Li-qing (born in 1919, of the 19th generation of the Chen family) has told me of an incident related to Chen Fa-ke. Chen Li-qing was the only daughter in the family, and was nick-named Sai-nan (‘competes with males’). As a girl she would climb up trees, over walls, and onto roofs. She possessed more audacity than most boys. Her father Chen Hong-lie was one of the leading figures in Chen small-frame Taijiquan. Although he was one generation junior to Chen Fa-ke in the Chen family, in age he was about two to three years older. Both of them had been born in the same month, on the same date, and at the same time! In the year when Chen Li-qing was about nine years of age she and her father happened to meet Chen Fa-ke in the street. Chen Fa-ke mentioned going to Beijing, and his plans to gather students and some relatives in the evening at the Chen family Shrine for a farewell party, and also practice Taijiquan. Knowing she was too young to be allowed to attend, Chen Li-qing used a tree at the back of the shrine to help climb over the wall and hide herself under the altar table before the adults were due to arrive at evening. She came out to watch when the Taijiquan demonstrations commenced. After a number of students had finished their performance Chen Fa-ke also performed. When he stamped his foot, dust and sand fell from the roof with a cracking sound. His fa-jin made the flames of nearby lanterns to flicker and crackle. As a finale Chen Fa-ke practiced push-hands with his students. His fa-jin threw some students flying up the wall and falling down. This was the only Chen Fa-ke’s demonstration that Chen Li-qing saw but was very impressed. She had never seen his ability demonstrated as normally everyone practiced Taijiquan in their own courtyard. Chen Li-qing has described her father’s skill to me. He practiced ‘small-frame’ Taijiquan with very good skill, but he was not as good as Chen Fa-ke who practiced ‘large-frame’ Taijiquan. The two styles are come from different streams. I believe that Chen Li-qing would have no reason to be biased in favour of Chen Fa-ke. She told me that Chen Fa-ke was the most skilled of his contemporaries at the Chen village. She also said that from the generation of Chen Chang-xing to that of Chen Fa-ke, their particular lineage was the most prominent in Taijiquan skill as well as having a high moral standard!
By Peter Wu Shi-zeng
When Hong Jun-sheng was young his health was not very good. In 1930 he studied Wu Style Taijiquan from Liu Mu-san following an introduction by his neighbors. Liu Mu-san was the senior student of the Wu Style Taijiquan founder, Grand Master Wu Jian-quan (1870-1942). After practicing Taijiquan for more than 30 years Liu was prominent in Beijing. He was then about 50 years of age and worked as service supervisor of the Department of Telegraphs in Beijing. About 20 to 30 of his students would study Taijiquan every morning at his house. Liu had studied in France and was well educated. He valued theory, was skillful in lecturing, and demanded a high standard from his students. Liu’s skill at the time was considered to be of an extremely high standard by his students and by Hong. His body was stout in appearance, but his movements were very swift and light, steady and elegant when practicing Taijiquan and the sword. His push-hands skill earned great esteem from the students, his opponents could not stand firm when he utilized either ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ jin. When he taught nian jin (‘sticking energy’), he would tell the student to hold a firm stance and he would push forward with a burst of fajin, but pull back just before reaching the opponent’s torso. The student would loose his stance with a feeling of being dragged and toppled. It was the skill of taking advantage of his opponent’s reaction. Liu preferred to practice Taijiquan as slow as possible, to enable improvement to the level of “slow but continuous” motion. In 1982 Hong encountered Ma Yue-liang (1901-1998) in Shanghai. Talking about Liu, Ma said he knew of him as a fellow student under the same Taijiquan master. Hong joked with Ma and said, “I should call you student uncle”, and Ma laughed.
After Hong had been learning Wu style Taijiquan for 6 months, an article in the Beijing newspaper caught the attention of Hong and Liu: “Yang Xiao-lou, a prominent actor of the Beijing opera, practices the Chen style Taijiquan from Chen Fa-ke of the Chen Village”. They were very interested and wanted to learn more about Chen Style, as they knew that Yang style was derived from it. They resolved to let Liu to invite Chen Fa-ke to Liu’s house to negotiate teaching Taijiquan.
Chen Fa-ke was then 42 years old. After greeting them he took off his coat and commenced a demonstration in the courtyard. With the perception of being the better the skill the slower the movements, Hong and other students were prepared to spend about one to two hours to watch the demonstration of this prominent Taijiquan master. They were all astonished to see that it took less than 20 minutes to finish both routines. Not only were the movements swift, but there also stamping of the feet, jumping around, and expressing of fa-jin with sound when striking. Once Chen had gone home, there was an uproar among the students, “Taijiquan requires the footwork of stepping like a cat and channeling jin should be like drawing silk fibre from a cocoon. Such quick movements would surely break the silk fibre. With such heavy stampings that dust and sand falls off the roof, there is nothing like the stepping of a cat.” As Liu’s knowledge and skill were much higher, so was his understanding. He replied to them, “Although there was fast movements, they were turning in circular motion. There were many fa-jin performed, but they were executed in relaxation. Looking from his arms, his muscle did not tense up. This would appear to be internal art. Since we have already invited him to come teaching, we better learn from him once. Once we finish the forms, I will then practice push-hands with him. If his skill is greater than mine we will continue studying. Otherwise we won’t waste any more money”. Henceforth, each person contributed two dollars per month, with thirty people this amounted to sixty dollars per month, allowing Chen to teach them three times per week.
Master Liu always instructed his students learning Taijiquan that a straight and upright torso is essential, leaning forward or backward should not be allowed as this will break apart the jin in the waist. Footwork should be changed between substantial and insubstantial in a swift and steady manner. Their first push-hands session was conducted after Liu had completed learning series one of the Chen style routine. Hong and other students expected that Liu’s high level skill should equal Chen’s. Unexpectedly, the difference between them was so great and obvious that they were all astonished. Liu was like a two years old kid in Chen’s hands and was totally unable to control himself. His body would lean forward when pulled by Chen, and lean backward when pressed. The waist jin was totally broken and his footworks were completely wrong in order. Liu’s elbow joint was sprained in a pull drill by Chen, and the pain lasted over a month even after applying medicinal paste. The students were so intimidated that they dared not practice push-hands with Chen. Chen laughed and said to them, “The injury was caused by my inadvertent mistake of not being aware of Liu’s slight ding- jin (‘resistant force’). Just relax and follow the movements. I will pay more attention, and it should be all right. It is unacceptable to hurt people when teaching push-hands.” Liu and the students were mollified and continued their study.