What It Takes to be a Taiji Master in Chen Village
Chen Ziqiang Answers When Asked
by Mark Wasson
Chen Ziqiang was born thirty years ago in Chen Village, Henan Province, China. He is the oldest son of Chen style Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing, and he is the nephew of Chen Xiaowang. He is also the great grandson of legendary taiji master Chen Fake.
Even at thirty, Chen Ziqiang is considered a taiji master by his peers, which is quite impressive because the Chinese martial arts community in China demands the highest standards and strictest requirements before awarding that title to someone.
Chen Ziqiang has competed in many national tournaments throughout China and won many gold medals in every division he has competed in, including open hand forms, weapons forms, and pushing hands. He has moved away from competing the last few years to become a judge for such events, a position hard to come by in China.
Over the last ten years I have traveled to Chen village over fifteen times. Back then it was the last village at the end of a one-lane dirt road, and even many of the people in Wenxian ? the nearest town some fifteen minute's drive away ? didn't know exactly how to find it. It was a small out-of-the-way place back then. Even with its famous history, you couldn't tell it from any other village in Henan.
Now, however, because of its fame and reputation for being the premiere training school for Chen style taiji in China, the government has built a four-lane paved road right through the middle of the village, dividing the village in two. The school that once only had twenty or so students now has well over a hundred and fifty. The school is so full of students, in fact, that Chen Xiaoxing has been forced to start construction on another building to add to the existing school, which was enlarged just two years ago. This new addition will house another hundred students, and based on how popular the village has become, it will be filled quickly.
Over the last ten years I have gotten to know Chen Ziqiang and the other Chen family members well. I have seen Chen Ziqiang and his skills develop from an outstanding young man with high potential in the martial arts world to a mature taiji master of national renown. In Chen village he and his cousin, Chen Bing, are second only to his dad and their more famous uncle, Chen Xiaowang, in taiji skills and fighting abilities. Chen Ziqiang is so famous for his fierceness in the fighting ring that everyone in Chen village ? and the surrounding countryside, for that matter ? are terrified to touch hands with him.
When asked about his fierce reputation and the many stories of how he has damaged some of his opponents in competition, Ziqiang waves that worry away. He says, "When I was young, I was very competitive in the extreme. Fighting is a lot about heart. And when I was competing, I simply refused to lose. Being a Chen family member, I look at it as: if I let myself lose, I would disgrace my family and our ancestors. That drove my fierce nature and determination to win every time. But without having to compete anymore, I have adjusted my temperament down quite a bit."
The reputation still remains, though.
I ask Ziqiang how badly he has ever hurt any of the people he had fought. He answers somewhat warily at first. "Well, I never killed anyone," he states, smiling. Then he adds, "You have to understand, in China, and especially in Henan where taiji was born and where the Shaolin temple is only a couple hours drive away, the way we play martial arts here is much rougher than in other places. We take our fighting skills very seriously here. It's not uncommon for someone to get a broken arm or wrist, or broken ribs, in a fighting match. It's just part of the training experience here."
I can personally attest to Chen Ziqiang's reputation for fierceness. Being an adopted member of that family, I have only ever practiced pushed hands with direct family members, and of those family members, Chen Ziqiang is by far the fiercest. When you fight with Chen Ziqiang, this young master has only one speed, and that is full throttle. Outside the fighting ring, Chen Ziqiang seems as quiet and mild-mannered as a pussy cat, but once your hands touch together, he becomes like a tiger. A light goes on in his eyes that is chilling.
Nowadays Chen Ziqiang pretty much runs the whole Chen family taiji school in Chen village. His title is school manager and head instructor. His father, Chen Xiaoxing, being the leading Chen family member in the village, has semi-retired from teaching to deal with many of the administration needs of the growing school (which has well over a hundred and twenty students enrolled at any given time) and other matters in the village.
Chen Ziqiang has more duties that require his time also, and he has had to give up some of his teaching responsibilities to his younger brother, Chen Zijun; but he still oversees every level of training of each group of students everyday. That doesn't include the three hours of personal training he puts in everyday before dawn.
In the Chen Family Chen Village Taiji School, there are no days off from training, not in the rain or snow or heat, which can be sweltering, reaching well over a hundred degrees with one hundred percent humidity in summer.
For every student, training starts each day at dawn with a five kilometer run, then thirty-to-sixty minutes of standing meditation, then two hours of continuous forms practice ? where "continuous" means ten repetitions of the long form without breaks. And that's just before breakfast. After breakfast, groups of kids, depending on their training level, will break off and be taught by individual coaches. For the rest of the day the students train in fighting skills, weapon's practice, endurance drills, weight training, and anything else their teachers can find for them to do. Training ends at dusk.
For Chen Ziqiang himself, he puts in three more hours of training in the early-morning darkness, before any of the regular students have even gotten out of bed.
Chen Ziqiang tells me, "I wish I didn't have to teach so much. I wish I could just practice. Practice is very interesting for me. There is so much in the forms to discover. But with the school growing so fast, and there is so much to do, my dad needs us all to help out."
A few years ago Chen Ziqiang was offered a scholarship as the head taiji coach at one of the bigger colleges in Henan province. He was very happy to attend. It was the first time he had ever lived outside the village, or away from his family. He felt very independent for the first time in his life. It was a learning experience that opened his eyes, he says.
Unfortunately, his dad called him back to the village before he graduated, because the school was growing in enrollment so fast that it required total reconstruction of the old school, and the whole family was needed to help with all the details of teaching and seeing over the building of the new school. Like a dutiful son, Ziqiang returned home to help his family.
For as long as I've know him, Chen Ziqiang's work ethic has been twice that of any other person in Chen village. He works harder and trains longer than anyone I've ever seen. Pound for pound, I've never met anyone as strong or with as hard-muscled a body as Ziqiang. He can work all day training and never slow down.
When Ziqiang was training in push hands to compete for different competitions, every student in the school had to form a long line, and one by one each student had to attack Ziqiang. Usually within seconds there would be a loud slamming noise and the attacker would crawl away to get back into line, and the next opponent would immediately attack Ziqiang. This would go on for hours non-stop, with no breaks. No one ever came close to taking Ziqiang down, and Ziqiang never tired, even after having faced down each student in the school at least thirty times. After a competition was over, the grueling training regime in the school would resume back to normal, and never was there so many grateful faces on so many students, because Chen Ziqiang would finally stop pounding people into the ground and start teaching again ? at least until another competition was near.
When Ziqiang tells me that he was quite lazy about his training as a kid, it really surprises me, seeing the maniacal way he trains now. But he tells me that it is true.
"I started my training at three years old," Ziqiang tells me. "For the first couple of years, all I did was standing meditation. I didn't like it, but no child would like long periods of just standing. So my father would bribe me to train. One time my father came back from Japan where he had been teaching, and he brought back a small television. My father knew I liked cartoons, especially Mickey Mouse. So to get me to train, he said I could watch the cartoons after my training each day. That got me to do my training. Later, I got my inspiration from my older brother, Chen Bing."
Chen Bing is four years older than his cousin, Chen Ziqiang. Chen Bing's dad, who is Chen Xiaowang's older brother, left the village when Chen Bing was a baby, leaving Chen Bing to be raised and cared for by Chen Xiaoxing, the youngest of the three brothers. Chen Xiaoxing raised Chen Bing in his own house, and the two cousins became as close as brothers. In fact, they think of each other as brothers more than cousins. Chen Bing went on to become a world class taiji performer and fighter, and teaches Chen taiji all over the world now. His work ethic very much inspired his younger cousin, Ziqiang, to train hard in taiji quan when they were kids.
"I used to follow my older brother, Chen Bing, all over the place when I was young," Chen Ziqiang says. "Chen Bing would practice all the time. There was no school then, so we would just practice together out in the fields."
Many people don't know it, but Chen Xiaoxing trained all the Chen family sons, including Chen Xiaowang's sons. Chen Xiaowang left the village over twenty-five years ago, when all the kids were very young. He traveled all over China teaching Chen family taiji, then later worldwide. He was gone from the village for months on end. He did this to help support the family, but it left Chen Xiaoxing, the only brother in the village, to train the young Chen family members. When Chen Xiaowang came back from trips, he would give intensive corrections to the family members; but the day-to-day training was left to Chen Xiaoxing. Chen Xiaoxing has trained more champion fighters than anyone else in the village.
I ask Chen Ziqiang what he feels is the most important thing people should try to master to achieve good skill in taiji quan. "I think mastering the body mechanics of the taiji movements is the most important goal one should strive for," he says. "At least at the beginning of your training.
"Each movement has different qualities, and different energies," he says. "Very often in pushing hands, people's energy gets scattered. Once that happens, it's easy to throw them down. More understanding of these qualities and practice is needed to take one's skill to a level where taiji can be used successfully as a martial art."
I ask Chen Ziqiang to explain deeper what he means by energy "being scattered," and how to correct it.
"When you do pushing hands, you try to 'uproot' your opponent," he says. "Then it's easy to throw them down. Beginners usually cannot keep a good root. You move them a little and their energy becomes like cooked noodles ? too soft, with no strength to deflect incoming force. Uncooked noodles are stiff and can easily stand on one end to support downward ? or straight on ? force. But if you use horizontal force, they are too brittle and break. To uproot your opponent, you need to split his energy. You need to get him going in two directions."
As an example, he explains that there are two types of techniques to get an opponent going in two different directions. Both are different. In the first technique, called "li" (splitting energy), you split the attacker's energy by attacking him in two different places on his body.
"For example," Chen Ziqiang says, "you can fold, or trap, an opponent's knee with your knee, allowing it to escape in only one direction or it will be broken. Then you hit the opponent's upper body with your hands or arms, or your shoulder, driving him in the opposite direction he wants to escape in order to free his knee. The opponent's knee is trapped by your knee, and the ground, holding it firmly in place. The only thing that your attacker can do to escape is move his upper body away from the pressure in the lower body. He can't move away, though, because you apply opposing force to his upper body at the same time, in the opposite direction as the force on his knee.
"At this point the opponent's energy will split into two opposing directions. This will break his root. With no root, the opponent is basically in no position to develop strength to counter the pressure you are attacking him with. His energy is divided, split, and it scatters in every direction."
"When the body realizes it is defeated and it will suffer injury if it doesn't move fast, it will move instinctively, with great force, away from the direction where the immediate and most severe pressure is threatening. That is when you borrow your attacker's energy and add your energy to it in a direction that will end with the person hitting the ground.
"This example is known as 'big splitting,' or deflecting one thousand pounds with only four ounces of energy. The Laojia long form is full of these kinds of 'big splitting' techniques.
"The Xinjia routine emphasizes more, and smaller, two-directional attacking techniques as opposed to the Laojia method," Chen Ziqiang says. "Xinjia techniques also require greater skill to master. This is because your two opposing attacks have to be applied in a shorter distance of movement. This means your body travels less distance, but has to generate the same amount of force as in the Laojia techniques which are longer. This is why the Xinjia routine is considered more advanced. Not because it is better than the Laojia routine, or has more effective techniques, but because it requires greater skill to utilize. To develop 'short power' requires much greater kung fu, or skill."
I ask Chen Ziqiang to give an example of how to utilize short power.
"For example," he says. "Xinjia utilizes a lot of chin na (joint locking) techniques. Chin na utilizes 'ji' energy. Some people don't realize it, but 'ji' energy, which is most commonly translated as pressing, can also be translated as squeezing energy too. Joint locks press a joint inwards, or outwards, causing instantaneous and extreme pain.
"Here are two examples of chin na which requires very fast short power," Ziqiang says. "If you want to fold the wrist inward on your opponent, you turn his wrist inward towards the inside of the forearm and squeeze the back of the wrist and the back of the forearm together at the same time, like a vise. This puts extreme pressure on the outside of the tendon's of the wrist, actually splitting, or tearing them. The technique is also pressing, or better described as squeezing.
"Another simple chin na technique works just the reverse," he explains. "If you want to break your opponent's elbow, you opponent's arm has to be straight. By immobilizing his hand and shoulder so the arm is stretched out straight; then you press inward on the outside side of your opponent's elbow. This straightens the arm to the breaking point and tears the ligaments apart in the elbow that hold the biceps and forearm muscles together.
"There are dozens of applications that you can use to perform any of these techniques," Ziqiang says. "What determines which energy you use at a given time in a fight depends entirely on your position in relationship to your opponent, and the force he is directing at you. You never force a technique, but there are so many applications for each energy that it usually only takes a slight adjustment in your position, in relationship to your opponent's force, to use any of the techniques that taiji utilizes."
Chen Ziqiang explains that the other method he mentioned is even simpler to perform than splitting, or pressing/squeezing. He says most taiji movements incorporate a number of energies.
"If an opponent comes at you with a grab or a punch," he explains, "one simple way to get him moving in two directions is to add your energy to his, as in using 'lu' energy, or roll back energy; then as he is moving down and in on you, you change techniques and utilize kao energy, or shoulder strike energy. Before his body can adjust to your new incoming force, you direct him downward or upward, away from your body's centerline; you strike him hard with your shoulder and send him back far away from you. Other energies work well together too; 'ji' and 'zhou' (elbow energy) work well together to initiate an attack, as well as 'peng,' (ward-off), and zhou (elbow). There are numerous ways you can blend the energies utilized in taiji quan to work together. If the opponent has skill, then you may have to try a number of combinations before you can catch him."
It should be pointed out that Ziqiang and I have discussed many ways over the years to use taiji techniques, but space here doesn't allow for more to be described.
Asked for pointers on how to develop higher taiji skills, Ziqiang replies, "There are three keys necessary to using taiji techniques effectively. First you need a good root. To achieve this, Chen stylists practice in low stances that build strong legs. Strong legs enable you to move faster and push harder. You also need to relax, especially your upper body. When you relax, your qi naturally sinks to your legs and feet, giving you a strong root. The more flexible your upper body is, the faster you can react to any attacking force directed at you. You'll never get anywhere in pushing hands without developing a strong root and being flexible in your upper body.
"The third important factor to utilizing taiji techniques," he says, "is to learn taiji strategy. The most important strategy is to always be in a stronger position than your opponent. If your opponent is in a weak position in relationship to you, no matter how strong he is physically, he cannot generate much force against you. Nor will he be able to deflect your attacking force easily. He will always be behind your movements. Like playing tag, he will always be trying to catch up to you, but you are always ahead of him. The taiji classics say, 'When your opponent moves, you move faster'. Having the strongest position enables you to always be ahead opponent's attack."
I ask Ziqiang what people need to do to take their taiji practice to a level where it can be used as a martial art to protect oneself. Ziqiang answers, "You need to do a lot of pushing hands. Pushing hands teaches you your mistakes, and how to move faster. When you are pushed to the ground, you think about why it happened and how to correct it. You probably will get knocked down a thousand times because there are so many angles of attack taiji can utilize. But you will learn over time, if your mistakes are pointed out to you. That is important. You need someone better than yourself to push against and who can explain what you are doing wrong. If you only push against other beginners, you will both just struggle with each other to see who is stronger. A good teacher will explain to you your mistakes. A bad teacher will just knock you down to show you he is better than you.
"Pushing hands," he says, "was designed to practice one's skill and taiji strategy. This involves learning both attacking and defending skills. Most beginners just want to attack, however, because attacking is easier, and it takes less skill. Defending is always much harder to learn how to master. But against another trained martial artist, one's ability to defend is what will determine the outcome of the fight. So people should practice more learning how to dissolve an opponent's energy than think about attacking."
I ask Chen Ziqiang what he concentrates on when he is pushing hands with someone. He says, "I completely forget about the form. I only concentrate on where my opponent's energy is, and my position in relationship to that energy. That tells me where I have to be, or move to, in order to control the situation. When I am no longer feeling threatened by my opponent's energy, I then determine what application is best to utilize."
I ask Chen Ziqiang what he means by forgetting the form. He says, "Each movement in the form incorporates many different energies. Pulling, pushing, turning, deflecting, dissolving, cranking, squeezing, pounding, and many more. In pushing hands, the situation is constantly changing, so you can never use a movement just like it is done in the form. You have to be able to adjust instantly to any new incoming force, so you are constantly changing your position in relationship with your opponent.
"The form," he says, "teaches how to develop energy; you practice it to get good health. Pushing hands teaches how to use your energy for martial arts. The form is like when you are a child learning how to live. Pushing hands tests what you have become with that knowledge when you have become an adult. If you relate the form to life, mastering the form is at the children's level. Mastering pushing hands is formless, so it is at the adult level. Adults have to deal with many different and unexpected changes in life. If you are too rigid, life can break you. If you are too soft, you cannot achieve progress. Taiji Quan is about balancing both yin and yang, so when you look deep into it, it is also about life."
Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2006.
About Mark Wasson:
Mark Wasson is a senior disciple of Chen Xiaowang. He is also the chief representative in the U.S. for Chen Xiaoxing and the Chen family in Chen village, China. He can be contacted through his web page at www.worldchentaichi.com