Zhao's Stronghold

By Gene Ching with Gigi Oh

Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine January/February 2013 China has one of the longest recorded histories in the world. For researchers of the Chinese martial arts, it's a two-edged sword. On one edge, there's a rich treasure trove of history that is readily available for anyone to plunder. That history sets the stage for the development and evolution of Chinese martial arts and is a key factor to understanding eccentricities within the tradition. On the other edge, that history is incredibly long, complex and muddled. Few martial artists are earnest historians so most oversimplify it. Complicating matters even more, the origins of the Chinese martial arts are tightly woven with threads of myth and mysticism. Unraveling tangled lineages from legend is a daunting task.

History is written by the victors and each of China's two-dozen-plus dynasties have rewritten their own version. Most recently, the communists enrolled China into a massive reeducation program. The Cultural Revolution had tremendous collateral repercussions upon Chinese history and, consequently, the Chinese martial arts. Now that the revolution is past, some of these party-line histories are fading. New information and documentation has come to light, taking some of the rewrites to task. In the last few years, dramatic amendments to many martial histories have been made, most notably within the sophisticated art of Taijiquan.

Straddle the Tiger
Taijiquan has been a tent-pole style for the Chinese martial arts. The time-honored health-oriented peaceful poise cloaking an effective means of self-defense is exactly the sort of image that China wants to project with her martial arts. Much attention has been given to the development and promulgation of Taijiquan across the globe. In 1991, the Chinese Wushu Association published competition forms for four of the major styles of Taijiquan. This landmark publication aspired to share, as well as standardize, Taijiquan "in order to interflow and develop taijiquan internationally" (Competition Routines for Four Styles Taijiquan, p.2).

Four is considered an unlucky number because, in Chinese, it is phonetically similar to the word for death (四 "four" and 死 "death," both pronounced "si"). The number of standardized styles was soon increased to five. Five is more auspicious as the Five Element theory (wuxing 五行) is a dominant Chinese world view. Today, the five major styles that have been standardized for competition are all named after their family of origin: Chen style (陈式), Yang style (杨式), Wu style (武式), another Wu Style (pronounced similarly, but a different character entirely 吴式) and Sun style (孙式). Chen style is the root from which the other four styles have developed. All five lineages draw their family trees back to Chen family progenitor Chen Wangting (1580-1660 陈王庭). Prior to Chen, Taijiquan lineages step into legend with Wang Zongyue (王宗岳), who is attributed as the author of two significant martial works, Yinfu Qiang Pu (Yin Spear lyrics 阴符枪谱) and, one of Taijiquan's formative discourses, Taijiquan Lun (often translated as The Taiji Treatise 太极拳论). Some scholars are skeptical of Wang's true identity, yet he still figures prominently in all Taijiquan lineages. Prior to Wang, the lineage gets truly mythic with the Wudang Daoist priest Zhang Sanfeng (张三丰).

Today, a sixth style is emerging as a significant Taijiquan lineage: Zhaobao Taijiquan (赵堡太极拳). According to 12the generation Zhaobao Taijiquan Master Wayne Peng, Zhaobao's exclusion from the major five was politically motivated. The other Taijiquan styles all attributed their founding to their families. Each of the five styles standardized for competition are named after an actual family ancestor, thus the family surname. Zhaobao takes its moniker from its place of origin, not its family, the town of Zhaobao (赵堡镇 Zhao is a family name; Bao means "fort" or "stronghold," attesting to the town's military roots). Zhaobao practitioners never relinquished their claim to Zhang Sanfeng as the original founder. They never placed another family name above his. Where the majority of lineage holders in the other styles share the same name, in the eleven generations of Zhaobao practitioners, there are eight different surnames. The Communist government didn't approve of the religious implications of the connection of Zhaobao with Zhang Sanfeng and Daoism. China has always struggled with religious movements like Falun Gong. Some believe that it is for this same reason that Wudang Taijiquan is also excluded as a major style by the Chinese government. Master Peng mentioned he discussed this with Coach Wu Bin (吴彬) at KUNG FU TAI CHI 20 YEARS, and Coach Wu said that, in the end, the exclusion was good because the government modified those five styles.

Zhaobao is parallel to Chen style in many ways. Both originate in Wenxian county of Henan Province, not far from where the original Shaolin Temple is located. Also, like Chen style, Zhaobao is currently on their 11th and 12th generations, although Chen style actually changed their generation count about a decade ago. Just prior to the millennium, 11th generation Chen Xiaowang (陈小旺) considered himself to be a 19th generation descendant. The reset acknowledges Chen Wangting as the founder instead of Zhang Sanfeng. Chen Wangting was allegedly a contemporary of Zhaobao's first recorded ancestor, Jiang Fa. Jiang was allegedly a Wudang priest, descended from Zhang Sanfeng's lineage. Some accounts even cite Jiang Fa as the catalyst of Chen Wangting's new style.

Chen Wangting never enters into the Zhaobao lineage. However, the Chen and Zhaobao lineages intersect with Chen Qingping (1795-1868 陈清萍). Chen Qingping is considered a 7th generation master of both Chen and Zhaobao. A descendant of the Chen family, he married a woman from Zhaobao town and learned Zhaobao under Master Zhang Yan. Chen Qingping is already highly significant in Taijiquan history. He was one of the teachers of Wu Yuxiang (1812-1880 武禹襄), the founder of Wu style Taijiquan. Wu's grandstudent Hao Weizhen (1849-1920 郝為真) was one of the teachers of Sun Lutang (1861-1932 孙禄堂), the founder of Sun style Taijiquan. As Taijiquan ramified into distinct separate families, Wu and Sun have previously been attributed as a variation of Chen after Chen Qingping. For Zhaobao practitioners like Master Peng, the connection between Zhaobao with Wu and Sun is more profound than with Chen. He postulates that Wu and Sun may have actually originated from Zhaobao Taijiquan, completely independent of Chen style.

Holding the Moon before the Chest
Like many Chinese martial arts, Zhaobao descends from a tradition of secrecy that has just begun to open up to the general public. The lineage left Zhaobao town around 1937 during the Japanese invasion. Japanese troops had made it all the way to Henan Province where Zhaobao Great Grandmaster Zheng Wuqing was a combat instructor for the Guomindang. Zheng was a martial brother of a noted warlord, Feng Yuxiang (冯玉祥) who helped him escape to Xian. Xian is one of the World's Four Great Ancient Capitols alongside Athens, Cairo and Rome. Home to the Terracotta Warriors, Xian is one of China's oldest cities with over three millennia of recorded history. In comparison to the small town of Zhaobao, it was gigantic. Here, Zheng taught for six decades before passing away at the age of 91, spreading Zhaobao Taijiquan to countless new advocates. Zheng's successor, Song Yunhua, came from the opposite side of China, Shandong Province, when he was only three years old. His father was a college professor and they both trained together, making them of the same martial generation. That is somewhat unusual in Chinese martial culture where Confucian hierarchy reigns supreme; a good father is always held above a good son. Song's father objected at first, but Zheng could see that the son had talent, so he convinced the elder Song to overlook the situation. The Song family were wealthy scholars who escaped persecution when the communists came by willingly giving up their businesses and turning over their assets. They managed to keep their mansion and Grandmaster Zheng came to live with them there.

Traditional Zhaobao Taijiquan, as inherited from these masters, has only six forms: four empty hand forms, staff and jian (straight sword 劍). The primary form is commonly called Zhaobao Taijiquan (赵堡太极拳), but it has an older name, Zhengtong daili jia (正统带理架). The vast majority of Zhaobao practitioners only practice this form. Only a very few still practice the three other forms: Tengnuo jia (腾挪架), Shangzhan jia (闪展架) and Hulei jia (呼雷架). These Chinese names are challenging to translate into English, particularly the older name of the primary form. The weapons forms are named after the weapon: Zhaobao Taijigun (赵堡太极棍) and Zhaobao Taijijian (赵堡太极劍). Peng comments that some of his fellow Zhaobao masters have introduced some new weapons forms, and while these might propound Zhaobao methodology, they are not traditional to the curriculum.

Master Peng is quick to show respect for Chen style and the other styles of Taijiquan, but he is also quick to point out the difference he sees between Zhaobao and the others. Like Chen, Zhaobao Taijiquan has both fast and slow rhythms. However, Peng says that the other styles tend to be more circular, while Zhaobao is more spherical. Where the other styles might move along the same plane, Zhaobao moves in a three-dimensional fashion. As evidence, Peng offers one of the most universally common moves of Taijiquan, the Single Whip (danbian 單鞭). For most other styles, this technique is executed with a flat circular movement. But for Zhaobao, the Single Whip deploys spherical motions from both arms. According to Peng, this creates more opportunities for qinna (joint locks 擒拿) because it has an added degree of freedom for movement. While qinna is a specialty of many styles of Taijiquan, it is a facet of combat where Zhaobao excels. According to Peng, the spherical freedom permits Zhaobao applications to do what qinna is meant to do - separate tendons and break bones.

Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar
As a former combat trainer for both the military and the police, Master Peng has a more extensive history of sparring than most Taijiquan masters. He was born in Xian in 1968 and boasts that the city's proud history gives its citizens an innate love of the martial arts. He began his training at age six and studied four different Kung Fu styles: Fanziquan (翻子拳), Sanhuang Paochui (三皇炮锤), Tantui (彈腿) and Zhaobao. He began studying under Grandmaster Song Yunhua in 1975 and became his disciple in 1980.

Peng always loved fighting, so by 1984 he was very active in Sanshou (free sparring 散手). Back then, Sanshou had not been adopted by the government-sponsored Chinese martial arts associations, so it fell strictly under the auspices of the Chinese military. Peng fought on a military team, as all of those early Sanshou competitions were only military back then. He captured two consecutive Sanshou titles at the National Wujing Competition (wujing means "armed police" 武警). In 1987 he won the 56K title, and the following year he won the 60K title.

After that, Peng followed his master to Hong Kong as an assistant coach. Song had chosen the scholarly road after his father and become a professor at Xian's illustrious Northwest University (西北大学). He moved to Hong Kong for a while and taught Zhaobao there where it spread throughout Southeast Asia. In 1990, Song authored the first book on Zhaobao. Peng spent some five years following Song in that region. He travelled all around Southern China to teach and was often confronted with the attitude that Taijiquan has no fighting ability. Consequently, he was tested a lot. Peng also went to Thailand, where he decided to stay for a while longer to teach Zhaobao and study Muay Thai. Peng says that even today in Hong Kong there are four Zhaobao schools, all run by teachers that are older than him. One is by the horse track in an affluent area; the other three are converted Karate schools. Even with Hong Kong's diverse martial arts community, Zhaobao won over a lot of converts. Peng attributes this to the power of Zhaobao qinna.

Peng asserts that there are two forms of Push Hands (tuishou 推手) in Zhaobao Taijiquan: one for health and one for combat. The health version is just for the students to learn balance and flow. The combat version is further divided into two flavors. In public, such as at tournaments, Zhaobao follows the general rules and regulations that Chen style implements for competitions. In private, Zhaobao permits a lot more qinna techniques during Push Hands, many of which aren't allowed in competitions. Zhaobao also includes Sanshou, and Master Peng claims that Zhaobao was the first Taijiquan style to participate in that. When it comes to Taijiquan practice, Zhaobao fighters espouse the philosophy of sanheyi (three are one 三合一). The three elements are Forms (taolu 套路), Push Hands and Sanshou.

However, all Zhaobao practitioners need not be Sanshou champions. Zhaobao Taijiquan can be practiced just for health too. In fact, it is commonly practiced at three different levels: high, middle and low frame. Most students begin with middle frame where the stance is at a medium depth. Some practitioners, particularly those rehabilitating from injury or the elderly practicing strictly for health, might only practice high frame. Here the stance is fairly high. More diligent practitioners work their way towards low frame where the stances are quite deep.

Like with every style of Taijiquan, the movements of the form are executed slowly at first. The slowness is to allow the body to relax. When relaxed, the movements become smooth. Once the student can move smoothly, that critical transition between yin and yang can become much faster. Seamless transition between yin and yang is the underlying key to all Taijiquan. Yin and yang can represent any dualistic concepts, right and left, near and far, spherical and linear, even - paradoxically - fast and slow. Once this is mastered, speed and power emerges. Throughout the form, the Zhaobao practitioner is constantly turning in a spherical manner. This is expressed in a four-line mnemonic espoused by Zhaobao Taijiquan: Hand Dissolves Circle (shou hua yuan zhou 手化圆周), Arm Like Snake (zhi rao yuan zhou 肢绕圆周), Body Follows (shen xing yuan zhou 身行圆周) and Footwork Like Circles (bu zou yuan zhou 步走圆周).

White Crane Spreads Its Wings
When it comes to martial arts, Taijiquan is the sleeping dragon. While Taekwondo is usually cited as the world's most popular martial art due to the immense number of schools worldwide, Taijiquan may well outnumber it. Taijiquan has countless undocumented practitioners in parks and public spaces across the globe. And the practice has more longevity, so there are innumerable groups in senior centers and rehabilitation facilities.

In the West, Taijiquan is often misunderstood. Because the movements are generally slow, most can't understand its combat applications. Because it is Chinese, many can't even resolve the difference between Tai Chi Chuan and Taijiquan, which are just different romanizations of the same Chinese characters. So just like the overwhelming convolutions of Chinese history, the complexities of Taijiquan history stand outside the grasp of the average westerner, or even the weekend practitioner. Nevertheless, serious Taijiquan practitioners are eager to understand their history, as well as the similarities and differences between the other styles. As more information emerges, one cannot but marvel at the ongoing saga of the development of Taijiquan, the permutations of the retelling, and the sagacious lessons borne within.


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January/February 2013

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