Handing Down the Family Treasure of Chen Taijiquan
By Martha Burr
Chen Jia Gou, the birthplace of Chen style taijiquan, seems unassuming surrounded by cornfields and fertile farming land. You can walk the dusty main street in perhaps ten minutes, and take in both the village shacks and the more grand old stone houses belonging to descendents of the town?s main family, the Chen clan. But the qi that has soaked into the dust for over twenty generations gives the village an invisible aura of vibrating energy emanating out of the sun dappled trees and grass. The history that overlies the brick and stone, and the light and shadow that envelopes the inhabitants of the village from the old men to the children playing in the street, is the inescapable legacy of both the origins and the future of taijiquan.
Chen Zhen Lei is the 19th generation successor of Chen style. He has gone from a hard childhood of hunger and deprivation, suffering through the political turbulence of the 60's and 70's in Chen Jia Gou, to become one of the world?s foremost authorities and promoters of his family style. Considering that Chen taiji is the origin of Yang, Wu, Wu/Hao and Sun style taiji, this is no small legacy, and one which Chen Zhen Lei feels acutely. Though he has traveled the world a great deal this past decade, he remarks, "I feel I cannot ever leave China. The root of Chen taiji is here in China, and my responsibility is to promote it here as well as abroad. My uncle taught me that I am the successor of the family style, and that if I do not do well I cannot report to our ancestors or our children. As the receiver and successor of taiji, my responsibility is to pave the way for the future. A lot of young people in Chen village do not have the same vision of the world, or a vision of responsibility. I have to tell them. Whatever you do, you have the mark of the Chen Family."
The Evolution of Taijiquan - Shanxi to Chen Jia Gou
Though the Chen style did not come out until 1928 when Chen Fa Ke taught in Beijing, the Chen family has preserved their martial art for roughly 600 years. Wenxian County is located in the northern Henan plain, bordering the Yellow River in the south and the Taihang mountains in the north. Chen Jia Gou village is located east of the county seat of Wenxian, on Qingfeng hill, near the bank of the Yellow River. It was here that Chen Bu, the first ancestor of the Chen family, came during the reign of Emperor Taizu of the Ming Dynasty, from Hong Tong county in Shanxi Province. Shanxi was known for its flourishing martial arts culture even then, and Chen Bu brought the martial arts of his family with him to Chen Jia Gou and passed it down through the next generations.
Upon this foundation it was to be Chen Wan Ting (1600-1680, 9th generation) who would add to the family wushu the classical Chinese philosophy, traditional Chinese medicine and certain characteristics of the nearby Shaolin gungfu that eventually crystallized into the first taijiquan.
Chen Wan Ting was both a scholar and a martial arts master, and a successful candidate in the Imperial military examinations at the provincial level in the late Ming dynasty. During the early Qing he also took the Imperial civil examinations and was appointed as Commander of the Garrison Force of Wenxian county in 1641. Political upheaval and social turbulence, however, forced Chen Wan Ting out of his official position, and during the early Qing he had to flee from the government. For a while he was harbored at Shaolin Temple, which was also sympathetic to the rebelling army. There, notes Chen Zhen Lei, "Chen Wan Ting developed a brotherhood with another Shaolin stylist, and this is one of the reasons why there is such a strong relationship between Shaolin and Chen taiji, even today."
Chen Wan Ting returned to Chen Jia Gou, and there, in his 80?s, he started to develop taiji, combining martial art with qigong, medicine and philosophy. "In his later years," says Chen Zhen Lei, "he studied the Emperor?s Yellow Book, combined with meditation, qigong and the meridian system. He combined family martial arts with the other martial arts he experienced. Taoist and Zen philosophy also merged with this thinking to create taiji. Chen Wan Ting took a lot from Taoist philosophy - the idea of opposites, Yin and Yang, and the belief that taiji motion is a microcosm of the universe. The human body must move naturally rather than be forced. You must use the opponent?s energy and interpret physics - leverage and motion - to understand how things move. How things stop. How things move faster. Chen Wan Ting?s thinking was very advanced in that direction."
As he created taijiquan its health aspects were very important, but Chen Wan Ting?s military side also contributed to the development of his art which included combat and defense. Chen Wang Ting promoted not only taiji forms but also push hands as direct application. He refined the basic movements to push and lean, how to feel and sense qi force, and how to understand the motion, control yourself, and understand others.
As it was created by Chen Wan Ting, taijiquan was handed down in Chen Jia Gou generation after generation. Based on these sets of movements handed down in the family, Chen Changxing (1771-1853, 14th generation) developed the movements into today?s old form sets of Chen Style taijiquan. Another 14th generation family member, Chen Youben, made some changes on the basis of the original sets of movements and created the small (or new) form by discarding some difficult movements and keeping the scale of the original form. Chen Xin, a 16th generation descendent, spent 12 years completing the four volumes of the book Teaching Materials of Chen Style Taijiquan, summing up the theories of the style. Finally, Chen Fa Ke (17th generation) created the new form of the big form, and in 1928, he and Chen Zhaopei (18th generation) were invited to Beijing and Nanjing to teach taijiquan. Since then Chen style has spread not only outside Chen Jia Gou, but beyond China and throughout the world.
Chen Zhen Lei - Growing Up in Chen Jia Gou
Chen Zhen Lei was brought into the world the same year as the People?s Republic of China. It would indeed be auspicious for him. "I was born in 1949," he says. "My family was involved in taiji for generations, and my whole family practices taiji. Since I was a kid I was influenced by taiji and my family style only - I had no contact with other martial arts. Since I was eight I studied taiji with my uncle Chen Zhao Pei. He started teaching in Beijing in 1928, and taught for the Nationalist government during the 1930's. Later, in 1938, the Japanese invasion occurred, and he moved back to Henan province. He was part of the Flood Control Committee, and worked to control the Yellow River and taught Chen style. In 1958 he retired from the Flood Control Committee and moved back to Chen village."
"At that time a lot of people in the village did not practice taiji because of the scarcity of food. My uncle felt sad, because he didn?t want to lose the style. I was eight years old, one of the youngest, when I started to study with my uncle. He produced quite a few good taiji students, now all famous, including Chen Xiao Wang, Zhu Tiancai, Wang Xian and myself, known as the Four Tigers."
Chen Zhen Lei studied with his uncle for fifteen years, until Chen Zhao Pei's death in 1972, learning all of Chen style taijiquan, taiji sword, double sword, double broadsword, 13 staff, spear and kuan dao, as well as many other weapons. "With my uncle," says Chen Zhen Lei, "I studied not only martial arts but also philosophy, the way to treat people, how to live in society and be a good human being. He taught me to be a healthy person, be ethically and morally righteous. To be a good teacher, and also a good student." After his uncle?s death in 1972, Chen Zhen Lei continued his studies with another uncle, Chen Zhao Kui, the grandson of Chen Fa Ke, and pursued push hands and theory more in depth.
"We had a hard life," recalls Chen Zhen Lei. "When I was one year old my father was persecuted and died. Our family was blacklisted. Things were very hard, and we did not have much to eat. At 14 years old I had to work, and could not go to school. I had to feed the animals with the old men. That was the time I worked hardest on taiji, and committed myself to it entirely."
"I would work for one hour on the horse stance, one hour on the bow stance. I would do the form and sweat so much my socks and shoes would fill up. The whole route of the form would be all wet with perspiration. I would practice to the point of having no sweat left. I'd do 10 sets, in 2-3 hours. Summer time and winter time. In the winter my sweaters were so wet I could wring them out. And it was hard to get the energy because at that time there was not much to eat, and not much nourishing food. Even basic food you couldn't get. From this lack of nourishment both myself and Chen Xiao Wang still have problems with our fingernails, which we cannot recover from even today."
Chen Zhen Lei remembers that after his uncle died it was the spirit of Chen Zhao Pai that helped him carry on, even though his family suffered very much. Taiji offered him an escape from the world in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, into a world of his own. "When I practiced taiji I felt like I was in heaven," he says. But even as his taiji got better and more refined, Chen Zhen Lei was frustrated because he and his cousin Chen Xiao Wang were not allowed to compete for political reasons. It would be a twist of fate and a nearly lost Chen Jia Gou tradition which would change things.
Lao Hu - The Tiger Dance
"We Chen family," notes Chen Zhen Lei, "besides being very dedicated to taiji, have a folk activity called the Tiger Dance. In the South they have the Lion Dance, in the North we have the Tiger Dance, where we take the knife and spear and fight with the tiger."
It was in 1972 that Chen Zhen Lei started playing Tiger Dance in Chen Jia Gou. Fifty years earlier, in the 20's, a group of people in the village could play the Tiger Dance very well. "It was very famous around that region," recalls Chen Zhen Lei. "Those old men taught us - there were only two of them left, both seventy or eighty years old. They couldn't really show us, so they would sit on the stool and describe the dance and its movements and coach us on how to do it. There are six sets in the Tiger Dance, and I had to put together what was in each set. Finally I designed it and learned it, and then I taught it to other people. The last two sets, however, I couldn?t teach anyone - going through the knife gate and the fire ring."
The Tiger Dance tells the story of the tiger and the tiger fighter in a series of six sets, like six acts in a play. The tiger fighter must use his martial arts skill and cunning to fight and outwit the tiger, and in the process he must go through dangerous rings made up of knives and fire.
As Chen Zhen Lei tells it, "I played Wu Song, the famous tiger fighter. The tiger fighter first goes through the knife ring but the tiger can?t go through it - so the tiger bites the knife ring and ruins it, tearing it apart. Next is the fire ring - a steel ring with clothes tied to it and doused with gasoline and lit. The tiger fighter goes through again, but like before, the tiger can't go through. The fire burns the tiger and it has to back up. The tiger fighter comes back through the fire and returns to fight the tiger again."
"Then the tiger gains the advantage and the tiger fighter has to run away. The next set is with the bamboo sheet, which is small and hard to get through, but the tiger fighter can, making the tiger mad again, and they fight once more."
"Then they go to the mountain, which is made of many stools, held by other players, about eight meters high, tied together with ropes. To attract the tiger to the mountain I get on the mountain and stand upside down on my hands (a trick I played a lot when I was little). The tiger sees the tiger fighter and is going to eat him, so I slide down the mountain in between the stools and the tiger can't find me. He gets mad again and tears the stools apart, to find me practicing gungfu underneath. He comes after me, but I fight with him until he dies."
Today, Chen Zhen Lei is the only one left who knows the entire Tiger Dance, and even then, in the 70's, he was the only one skilled enough to go through the two sets of fire and knife rings. It was this very skill that was to change his future forever.
Hard Won Success
One day in 1974 the officials of the National Competition came to visit Chen Jia Gou, including the Party Secretary. As Chen Zhen Lei recalls, "I was to entertain them with the Lao Hu, the Tiger Dance, and to perform the most special two sets, the knife and fire rings. After they saw me perform the dance they all suggested that I go to represent Henan Province in the National Competition. The tiger dance won me the right to compete. I was 24 years old, and I became the sprout coming out."
From 1974-88 Chen Zhen Lei competed as a National Champion many times, winning titles in taijiquan, staff, spear, sword, and other events; he was finally recognized as a martial artist.
This also changed his political fortune, and as the Cultural Revolution was winding down in 1976 Chen Zhen Lei went to work at a factory. "The owner there really liked me," he recalls, "because he liked taiji. He hired me. He was criticized for hiring the bad guy?s kids. With that kind of background I also couldn?t get a wife. Then I met my wife, who was from our village, and her father had been denounced as a rightist and gone back to Chen village to work. We were two black sheep. My family never thought I would become the important person I am today."
With a job and a family and the growing recognition as a martial artist, Chen Zhen Lei's life began to improve. He credits his success in all his endeavors to taiji. "The flexibility of taiji is what guides you," he says. "I have a mind of taiji. It has influenced my work in every direction. Taiji teaches you how to adjust yourself accordingly. You can use this kind of mind to work out different situations. In the factory, I applied it to the transactions of money, reports, how to get customers, how to manage the business. Everything was so new to me, and I constantly had to learn. The commitment, the will, and the practice of taiji, along with its principles, all helps one in adjusting to different situations. Its mindset lets you defend yourself. It has guided me from village life to factory life to leadership life today."
As China began to open up again in the 80's, taijiquan was also being opened out to the world, and Chen Jia Gou went from a sleepy little village to a site of legendary historical pilgrimage. Chen Zhen Lei recalls the second Japanese invasion, this time a peaceful and progressive one. "In 1981 many Japanese came to China and we received them. Taiji was already the fashion in Japan, even more popular there in the 70's than in China. The Japanese really helped to popularize taiji and Chen village. In 1981 a taiji association in Japan wanted to go to Chen village. That made big news! People came from other villages all over to see the Japanese. It was an extensive news broadcast, and had great influence, and it gave a name to Chen village. From that event people from all over China knew taiji - before they didn't. Then lots of foreigners came, groups, teams from all over, every year over 1000 people. Then the county and national government built a studio nearby and hotels, and developed the tourist association."
In 1983 martial artists from Chen village started to go out and people in the world began to recognize Chen taiji. Chen Zhen Lei?s cousin Chen Xiao Wang was selected by the People?s Congress as one of the most famous masters of China and recognized by the Chinese Martial Arts Association. Chen Zhen Lei himself was also recognized, and finally got to leave the factory and went to the Wushu Institute to teach and coach wushu.
"Since 1984 I went out to teach taiji," he says, "and to study and compile knowledge about the art. I began to write books. While my uncle was alive I helped him as a secretary. I always did self-study during the Cultural Revolution. Afterwards, I went back to college from 1985-88, because I felt I wanted more education. I studied different things, including physics, physiology, sports management. My friends encouraged me to write books. I just wanted to develop more and more, better and better."
In 1994 Chen Zhen Lei was selected as Vice Director of the Wushu Institute, to manage technical aspects of wushu, and develop not only taiji, but other styles as well. He is the leader for 400 schools in Henan province, including Shaolin Temple, and he helps manage the schools, and coordinate activities and organizations with directors, teachers and coaches. He has written four taiji books and made ten videotapes, and he has been to Japan 18 times.
Chen Zhen Lei is now one of the top leaders in wushu in all of China, recognized by the nation as one of its treasures. As fulfilling as his success is, however, Chen Zhen Lei will admit that, "management is not really my favorite. It's a complicated, difficult job, but I feel I don't have enough time now to practice taiji, which is what I would like to do full time." However, he takes the responsibility of promoting and organizing wushu with the seriousness and gravity that he applies to all his areas of life. What inspires him with leadership is the ability to motivate others, and to create vision for the future of the art.
Chen Zhen Lei comments, "Now we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping?s words, 'Taiji is good.' It is the 40-year anniversary of the Chinese Wushu Association." He has not only seen taiji explode in popularity all throughout China and the world, but he has played an integral part in promoting the art and preserving its integrity. "I know a lot of people all over the world try hard to promote Chinese martial arts and I feel impressed. I sincerely hope everybody can unite, gather, work together to promote it for art and health, for a common goal, for the better of humanity."
The Future of Taiji
Today, still as the Vice Director of the Wushu Institute, Chen Zhen Lei has three children, two daughters and one son. His eldest daughter is at the Beijing University of Sports and Physical Education, and the youngest is still in high school. They are the next generation of the Chen family. In accordance with the Taoist philosophy of his ancestor Chen Wan Ting, taiji represents a microcosm of the workings of the universe, and so too do Chen Zhen Lei's children represent the microcosm of the greater family of the world. And the distillation of twenty generations of Chen Family taijiquan. "I have to take the responsibility of this family treasure," he says, "and hand it down to the next generation. When I was a kid I graduated from the 6th grade only. I wanted to go to college. My son's vision will be different. I want to motivate him, and cultivate him into a really full person. I teach my children, everything you do, everything you say has part of the taiji in it. Every angle of your life has your taiji in it. It is how we learn to live harmoniously"
Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 1999 .
Martha Burr :
Chen Zhen Lei will be touring the U.S. this summer giving various seminars on Chen taijiquan and other martial arts related topics. Dates include: Seattle 7/2-4; San Jose Area 7/6-8; Honolulu 7/9-11; Alabama 7/16-19; Chicago 7/23-25; Washington DC 7/30; Baltimore 8/4-9; For more information please call: (334) 343-6023