Chinatown - The Magazine, in conjunction with Radio BBC GMR Eastern Horizon, met up with Chen Zhenglei (CZL) during his recent visit to Europe. CZL is one of the foremost Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) exponents in China today, and has been recognised by the Chinese government as one of the top ten living martial artists.
NF: Can you first give us a concise history of Taijiquan?
CZL: Taijiquan has a history of several hundred years. There have been legends about a certain Zhang Sanfeng from Wudang being the creator of Taijiquan, but this is very much in the realms of folklore. Reliable historical research has ascertained that Taijiquan came from Chenjiagou (Chen Family Village) in Henan Province. Chen Wangting of the 9th Generation of the Chen family created Taijiquan based on the family martial arts. Chen Wangting was a scholar as well as a warrior. Based on the family martial system, he incorporated the study of the Yijing’s Yin-Yang principle, Traditional Chinese Medicine’s jingluo (channels and meridians) theory, the art of daoyin/tu-na – what is known today as qigong, and the observation of the flux of nature and physiology of the human body, to create what is known as Taijiquan. In the 14th generation this was taught to one outside the family, and from there branched out into the other 4 major systems of Yang, Wu, Wu (Hao) and Sun family styles.
NF: How popular do you think Chen style Taijiquan is today?
CZL: In the last 20 years, following the opening up of China, contact with the outside world is now commonplace. There has been a rapid increase of visitors to China to “seek the root”, “trace family”, “seek a teacher”, “learn skill” and “sight see”. This has led to an increase in interest of Chinese culture, especially traditional Taiji which is a representative art of China. People have come to realise that Taiji is not an ordinary wushu (martial art), but encompasses profound cultural values. Through the study of Taiji people can come to appreciate an excellent ancient culture, especially the philosophy of change – the Yin-Yang study contained in the Yijing. Taijiquan is not just health enhancement, cultivation, leisure pursuit, self-defence; it is a complete life enhancing principle that has been embraced by the multitude. In this time of relative economic wealth, people are seeking an activity that is lifelong, leisurely and calming. Taiji fits exactly. With the increasing flow of people into China to learn this skill, the Chinese government is actively supporting and promoting Taiji. To date 7 National Taiji Festivals had been successfully held, attended by upwards of ten thousand spectators, visitors and competitors, and televised by the main national TV as well as all the provincial TV stations. Taiji will be one of the demonstration wushu sports in the 2008 Olympic Games, with a high chance of future inclusion in the Games.
NF: As Taijiquan becomes more popular, there will be unscrupulous and unqualified people who will exploit the situation, playing on superstitions and mysticism in the midst of authentic practitioners. What are your views on this?
CZL: In China there is a saying “A bend cannot suppress a straight”. It is important to have the correct method. I believe that if there is the presence of the true way, then it will be more difficult for the incorrect way to gain footing. Another is education. With correction education, people are less likely to stray.
NF: Can you give us some advice on how to learn Taiji - the dos and don'ts?
CZL: People's perceptions of Taiji are often erroneous. They think it is a pursuit for old people, and movements resemble “feeling your way in the dark” or “groping for fish in the water”. This is not the aim of Taiji. Taiji requires one to be “song, rou, man” (loose, plaint, slow). Its criteria are different from other wushu, with their very obvious martial appearance of strength and speed, fists flying and legs kicking. Taijiquan is a very high-level sophisticated neigong quan (internal martial art). In order to achieve its ultimate skill, the training requirements are different. “Song, rou, man” are training methods, not the ultimate aim. Why do we require this? Because we are restricted by what is know as post-natal qi – the strength acquired after birth in order to survive in the world – to grow, to live, to toil. This qi is absorbed from the food we eat, water we drink, and the air we take from our environment. The strength harnessed is for daily toil, and different from the strength we hope to harness from Taiji practise. We must first rid the body of the stiff force required for toil in order to re-harness our pre-natal qi – therefore the “song, rou, man”. Song” (looseness) is in order to achieve elasticity and bounciness; “rou” (pliancy) in order to harness steely strength; and “man” (slowness) in order to cultivate speed.
Once you’ve understood this, you will need proper instruction, and then go through the stages of progression, before you can achieve your goal. A lot of misunderstandings arise from witnessing the slow practise of Taiji.
NF: Where can people find instruction?
CZL: I have several students who are Taiji instructors. In Manchester Chen style Taijiquan is very popular, and also in other regions of Britain.
The Chinese official statement says, “Chen style Taijiquan is a latecomer who has caught up”. Yang style Taijiquan has been the most well known and widely practised; particularly following the creation and promotion of the state approved Simplified 24 Steps. In the last 20 years, however, many devotees started tracing the root of Taiji and the trail leads them to Chenjiagou, where they see the true face of Taiji. Students nurtured by Chenjiagou teachers are now out in the world actively promoting the art, and the wider public has now acknowledged Chen style, with its unique characteristics. It shares with other styles the feature of movements that are slow, smooth, flowing and comfortable, but have kept the original characteristics of alternating slow with fast, soft with strong, and with its liveliness and looseness, elasticity and bounciness, leaping and jumping, together with spiral reeling movements, sets it apart from the others. For those who have traced the ancestor of Taiji, it has become an all-consuming passion.