The Simple Wisdom of a Village Grandmaster
By Stephan Berwick
Chen Taiji Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing, on his historic first visit to the U.S. this spring, preferred to eat the way he always does - simple, non-spicy, and wholesome. When asked whether he wanted Western or Chinese food, he chose Chinese. Asked whether he wanted noodles or rice, he chose rice. With all the choices offered him on each U.S. coast, he always preferred the familiar and the simple.
Much like country folk anywhere, Chen Xiaoxing keeps it simple and to the point. He does not drink alcohol and makes up his mind with ease. His simplicity is disarming - especially in the wild world of martial arts. And it is a simplicity that emanates from his preference for the toughness and purity of the rural.
When he was born about 50 years ago in Chenjiagou, the Chen family village in North China, the village was the site of a unique family martial tradition isolated in the deep countryside of Henan province. Days were spent focused on 2 essentials of survival in the China of that era - farming and martial arts. And with a long history as military folk, the Chens were especially dependent on martial arts. While Henan province boasts a proud martial history - it is the home to both Shaolin Temple and Chenjiagou - Chen village managed to hold onto martial traditions by the central roles that family, land, and self-sufficiency play in isolated rural communities.
Rural Martial Traditions
The history of martial arts in China is rife with traditions stemming from rural areas. Nearly impossible to count, categorize, or even track, China's rural martial arts are diverse and often quite old; but like so many ancient traditions, they are increasingly dying. Be it outside interference, changing lifestyles, or simply the departure of their best and brightest, rural martial arts persist, but are uneven in quality and consistency.
The Chinese government attempted to research traditional martial arts in the early 1980s. Hundreds of boxing styles were recorded and categorized. But when examining the (published) results of this landmark research, the bulk of what was identified and recorded were routines or single forms, not necessarily intact, complete systems. While this was partly due to the secrecy many masters held about their boxing systems, it was also due to the dwindling open practice of traditional martial arts in Mainland China that continued well into the late 1970s.
Thankfully, by the mid-1980s traditional martial arts began to re-awaken in China. No longer banned by the government, village boxers began to exhibit their skills publicly and teach more openly. This welcome trend notwithstanding, it was city dwellers who took the lead in exhibiting their martial skills - skills often rooted in the villages of their ancestors. Village-based masters emerged far less often.
But one can not underestimate the persistent self-sufficiency that rural areas breed. In Chenjiagou, rural survival - especially during periods of political and social change - bred generations of battle-hardened warriors whose strength was forged by a martial tradition that stood the test of time. To this day, Chenjiagou progeny boast a highly traditional sense of pride and martial ethos spawned in the countryside.
Chen Xiaoxing, The Last Village Grandmaster?
Thus no surprise that Chen Xiaoxing declares, "I really have no need to leave Chenjiagou. Everything I need is here." Now that the Chinese government allows private property ownership, the growing village martial arts school - originally conceived by the esteemed Chen Zhaopei and built in the early 1980s - is now wholly owned by Chen Xiaoxing. With this edifice under the full control of the Chens who trace their lineage directly to the great 17th century master Chen Chanxing (Yang Luchan's teacher and the compiler of Chen Taiji into the routines that survive to this day), Chen Xiaoxing is armed with an establishment rooted in village family tradition, uniquely positioned to offer anyone a taste of what it means to be a Chen boxer.
And what does that mean? It means integrating the basics of boxing practice with the basics of life. Students in Chenjiagou still train in a simple environment centered around farming and boxing. Throughout the day, villagers can be seen practicing their routines on the farms, courtyards and ancient fields used as training grounds for generations. So while the school has become the nexus of Chen Taijiquan training, its atmosphere is imbued with the overwhelming spirit of a long-surviving rural lifestyle centered on family, farming, and boxing practice.
As Chenjiagou's current head master, Chen Xiaoxing (younger brother of the world-famous Chen Xiaowang) is perhaps today's leading example of China's enduring rural family martial arts. While some masters today speak of their commitment to (family) martial traditions, Chen Xiaoxing questions if they really mean it. During his recent first visit to the U.S. this spring, he stated that "I hear of masters claiming to safeguard martial traditions in the countryside, but I don't know how sincere they really are."
With admiration he describes the now well-known story of how his ancestor Chen Zhaopei single-handedly saved boxing practice in the village and how, later, the famed Chen Zhaokui (son of the legendary Chen Fake and Chen Xiaoxing's uncle) always made sure to return to Chen village at least annually to train the upcoming generation. It is their commitment to the family tradition of their home village that inspires Chen Xiaoxing to remain in Chenjiagou, keeping his family's martial tradition alive at its birthplace.
Trainer of Village Boxers
To that end, he has emerged as perhaps the last of his ilk that continues to train villagers (and, increasingly, outsiders) in the village of his birth. His commitment to remain in a rural environment is both practical and spiritual. Chenjiagou's physical isolation provides an increasingly rare environment for undiluted, non-commercialized martial training. The village attracts outsiders from within China and the globe seeking a focused training experience that has remained largely unchanged for at least 300-400 hundred years.
Chen Xiaoxing oversees the training of a growing number of young fighters who have distinguished themselves in competition and teaching. He is quite vocal about the professionalism of Chen village training for those seeking higher-level skills. Chen enthusiastically describes the typical 8-hour training day serious Chen village trainees endure. Chen village training encompasses stance/posture practice, intense forms training, and plenty of combat practice that is grappling oriented and includes painful qinna (joint-locking) training. Unlike many martial art teachers who seek to simplify and ease training regimens for amateurs, he is quite explicit that one's level is dictated by one's training.
Such training is built around the core elements of stance, form and sparring. Stance practice is centered on hours of Zhang Zhuang or neutral standing practice, followed by exhaustive forms training. Standard forms training in Chenjiagou is focused on practicing at least 10-20 reps of the Lao Jia Yi Lu (Old Frame First Form). With one form taking about 12 minutes to execute correctly, it is standard practice in Chenjiagou to spend half the day just on this routine! Village teachers often won't even begin correcting trainees' forms until they've performed at least 10 reps of the Yi Lu. Sparring is practiced from the base of Chen Taiji's "5 Levels" of push hands training. After spending hours on basic push hands, trainees engage in upright grappling practice to build rootedness, relaxed strength, and neutralization skills. From this foundation of classical training, Chen Xiaoxing's son, international full-contact push hands champion Chen Ziqiang, is training young village boxers with protective gloves and body armor to build a future generation of Chen Taiji Sanda champions.
Chenjiagou training is highly focused on the basics of boxing practice. At a recent U.S. east coast seminar, he pushed the students through 2 hours of practice on just 3 seemingly simple silk reeling exercises, which the students found excruciating, but deeply satisfying. Speaking no English, he did not have to rely on words to get his point across. The next day, the seminar participants completely understood the lessons in body structure and rootedness he imparted.
Such boxing practice - based on a rural survival instinct - is serious business. And Chen Xiaoxing, who oversees the training of all the emerging fighters from Chen village, is a testament to this professionalism. Because he has traveled little and is a staunch "homebody," aspiring boxers seeking a glimpse into what authentic Chen village martial training really is can best find this in Chen Xiaoxing. His approach to Taiji training is practical, powerful, and anchored in the survival instinct ancient martial artists depended on.
Spreading Village Martial Traditions
During a recent seminar, he didn't hide his enthusiasm for demonstrating the powerful fighting techniques of his family art. His dynamic Qinna (joint-locking) and his fluid, rooted push hands skills astounded seminar participants accustomed to more staid instruction. The accompanying photos taken by Ren Guang Yi of Stephan Berwick and Chen Xiaoxing in excruciating Qinna practice capture the essence of Chen's skill and how he imparts it. His direct approach to teaching the concepts of Chen boxing easily strikes a chord with no-nonsense Americans and typical city dwellers.
While his approach is rural in tone, its effect is decidedly urban. Chen Xiaoxing cuts through much of the muck that passes for "traditional" martial arts. Be it by design or not, he's now ready to take his message of authentic, unadulterated classical martial arts training beyond his home village. With expansion of the village school underway, he encourages students from all nationalities to attend live-in training at this venerable institution. As a preserve of Chen family martial traditions, the school's increasing international attendance is causing an unprecedented spread of martial traditions easily lost today.
All students at the village school - be they local or foreign - are expected to participate in the activities that typify the village boxer's life. Although outsiders are not expected to farm and help around the school, they are welcome to. And with the nearest urban area 30 minutes away by car, the most hardy decide to stay in Chenjiagou to experience the lifestyle of Chen family boxers that survives largely unchanged, except in its scale, from the old days. Chen Xiaoxing is the current spirit behind this, anchoring Chenjiagou in boxing traditions now accessible to all of sincere interest.
Perhaps this can be attributed to his rural heart. During his U.S. tour, he brought one simple piece of home with him - his own tea. As he sipped it at every point on his U.S. journey, his Chen village tea seemed to fortify his simple yet powerful message of "I want to see Chen Taiji grow as much as possible." His commitment to home, while extending his country hospitality to others, suggests a confidence and vision that will speak volumes in generations to come.
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Stephan Berwick :
A long-time contributor to Kung Fu Tai Chi, Stephan Berwick, a senior disciple of Ren Guang yi, who is also mentored by Chen Xiaowang, is a Washington, DC based Chen Taiji instructor. He can be reached at http://www.truetaichi.com.