Chen Taijiquan: The Ultimate Grappling Art?

By Stephan Berwick

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Ren Guang Yi's Chen Taiji Grappling The defender's arms are tied up. As the attacker grabs his shoulder and waist, he is met with a sudden twisting motion that sends his upper body in one direction and his legs in the other. His body suddenly locked, he is thrown to the floor -- face first -- ending up nearly behind the defender, who looks down at him over his shoulder. The defender, however, is not a wrestler, judoka, or jiu jutsu expert. The defender is a Chen Taiji boxer and he has just used the signature Chen technique of Lie (splitting) -- one of the most devastating grappling moves of Chen Taijiquan.

A well-known exponent of full-contact Taijiquan, New York's master Ren Guang Yi -- a prot?g? of Chen Taiji's current standard bearer, grandmaster Chen Xiaowang -- won the 1998 heavyweight full-contact tui shou (push hands) championship at the biannual international Taijiquan competition in Henan, China. This occurred at the locale of Taiji's birth place -- Chenjiagou. Unknown to most, Ren's success in the rough-and-tumble world of mainland China's competitive push hands follows the lead set by his teacher, Grandmaster Chen, who himself enjoys a distinguished background as a China national heavyweight push hands champion. In China, the brutal effectiveness of Chen Taiji grappling is routinely on display at full-contact competitions where fighters exhibit the grappling skills of Taiji.

As such, Chen Taijiquan can be considered a close-range grappling art. But unlike other forms of grappling, Chen Taiji grappling is anchored in the structural dynamics of chan szu jing (silk reeling energy), expressed through the Ba Fa -- Taiji's Eight Powers.

Chen Taiji's Combat "Skills"
Chen Taijiquan is a complete martial art that develops a variety of attributes necessary for hand-to-hand combat. Based on ancient boxing methods going back at least 400 years and popular among the military of North China, Chen Taiji retains a powerful self-defense method with a progressive, logical training approach for fighters. As conceived by the style's Ming dynasty patriarch General Chen Wangting, and as taught by today's standard bearer Chen Xiaowang and his prot?g? Ren Guang yi, Chen stylists assimilate the art's combat skills over five distinct levels of proficiency.

Normally, when students enter the third level, they are introduced to the theory and techniques of the Ba Fa. They are: Peng (expand/adhere), Lu (divert, hold, and pull), Ji (follow and push), Ahn (cover the arms and push), Kau (lean or strike with the shoulder, knee, or hip), Zhou (grab and strike with elbow), Cai (hold and twist), and Lie (step in and throw from behind).

The Chen boxer's assimilation of these eight "skills" serves as a foundation for more advanced grappling and joint-locking, which are the hallmarks of Chen Taiji. The Ba Fa trains the Chen boxers in combat approaches that are conceptual first and technical second. They serve more as technical categories that aid in the mastery of the rich techniques that comprise Chen Taijiquan. Thus Chen Taiji combat training relies less on technique and more on developing the key attributes embodied by the Ba Fa. It is upon these core characteristics that Chen Taiji combat skill and techniques accrue.

Chen Taiji's Ba Fa also instills basic combat attributes that directly forge the practitioner's ability to grapple. In particular, the last two skills, Cai and Lie, are classic examples of Chen Taiji grappling that embody the system's approach to wrestling.

Cai: "Twisting"
Twisting strength underlies much of Chen Taiji grappling. Skilled Chen boxers have an uncanny ability to quickly twist an opponent's limbs and/or body effortlessly. In realistic grappling, when combatants' arms touch, grabs and pulls are generally used to bridge the gap and enter the close-range holding zone. But in Chen Taiji, this initial grappling zone is targeted as an opportunity to twist the opponent's limbs in a manner that often renders him unable to fully engage the defender. Chen Taiji grappling strategy often relies on Cai as a way to control the first stage of a grappling engagement when the limbs first make contact, well before their bodies wrestle at a closer, more dangerous range.

Lie: "Splitting"
A signature fighting technique of Chen Taiji, "splitting" describes a highly disruptive throwing approach. Best described as exerting two opposing forces simultaneously, Lie techniques usually result in punishing head/neck locks and throws. When executing Lie, the defender simultaneously exerts opposing forces on opposite sides of the opponent's body. This causes a "splitting" effect of the opponent's body. In combat, it is usually initiated by a sudden step to the outer side of an opponent's defenses. The defender's lead arm would then grab around the rear upper body of the opponent, producing a torsion-laden head, shoulder, or even jaw lock. This technique usually leads to an excruciating torque of the opponent's body that causes the legs to spin out of control, resulting in being thrown -- full body -- over the defender's lead leg.

Torsion Power and Silk Reeling Energy
Through years of strict stance, forms, and partner drills practiced under specific body structural guidelines and leg conditioning, Chen Taiji seeks to build a physical frame capable of generating explosive torsion power. This unique power is most commonly expressed when striking with fa jing -- the explosive release of flexible, relaxed power of which Chen Taiji is famed.

Many readers experienced with Chen Taijiquan may be familiar with the concept of chan szu jing training to forge such internal strength. Although beyond the scope of this article, silk reeling energy is how Chen Taiji conceptualizes and trains for the optimal skeletal/muscular structure that enhances energy flow and usage -- or as described by Chen Xiaowang, to "feel qi (internal energy) flowing." Similar to the coiling undulations of a silk worm, silk reeling energy training ignites an internal torsion in the body, centered on the lower abdomen or dantien.

Honed with silk reeling, Lie and Cai are the skills that best exemplify Chen Taiji grappling. Revealed in detail for the first time by Ren Guang yi for Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine, techniques based on these two important concepts are devastating. The grappling techniques of Lie and Cai displayed in the accompanying photos are built around Chen Taiji's unique emphasis on chan szu jing. When using Lie and/or Cai in combat, the Chen boxer attempts to use his own torque, executed along the structural pathways of proper chan szu jing, to violently lock his opponent's body.

Yin & Yang in Chen Taiji Grappling
Torsion underlies the coiling nature of Chen Taiji applications so as to read, redirect, lock and throw at most combat grappling ranges. The twisting of an opponent's body and/or limbs in opposing directions can be explained, at a fundamental level, with the well-known Taiji concept of opposites, or Yin and Yang.

Under the guidelines of silk reeling, the Chen Taiji boxer builds a well-tempered balance of forces in the body. The mechanics of Lie and Cai in application causes a paralysis of the defender's body, which appears similar to the mechanics of wrestling but is actually fueled by the torque derived from the coiling nature of chan szu jing. Thus when two sides of the defender's body are forced to move in opposing directions, the result is an expression of tremendous torque resulting in the effect of "splitting" or "twisting" an aggressor's body with excruciating torsion power.

In effect, the Chen boxer disrupts the opponent's physical balance of Yin and Yang by enveloping his structure, disrupting it softly and finishing the encounter explosively. First the opponent is lulled into an overly Yin posture which is suddenly exploited by the Chen boxer with a forceful (Yang) expression of power that immobilizes and usually finishes the bout with a lock, throw, or worse. While this might seem like advanced judo leveraging techniques, it is not. Chen Taiji grappling is focused on exploiting an aggressor's structure to render his limbs and stance impotent, rather than relying on just techniques of leverage to throw or dominate an opponent.

Thus, manipulating the forces often described as Yin and Yang are basic to the Chen Taiji grappler. It is through the grappling skills of Lie and Cai that this first becomes evident to the novice or laymen.

Grappling with Lie and Cai
In today's Chenjiagou (Chen village), sparring training routinely focuses on the fundamental skills of Lie and Cai. Serious boxers in Chen village spend years grappling to develop these skills. After they show proficiency in Chen Taiji's 5 levels of push hands training, live usage is introduced through sparring with upright grappling. This forces the boxers to develop root, body and limb sensitivity -- all while toughening the body and mind with aggressive, yet safe contact training. Once the basics of upright grappling are instilled from this type of sparring, Chen boxers are then trained to bring out the classic skills that comprise the Ba Fa. At this stage, most Chen boxers begin to "feel" and use the skills of Lie and Cai, sooner than they often realize. When they begin to sense torsion in the body, they're then able to bring these skills to life.

So while sensing and feeling -- especially as taught by Chen Xiaowang -- are crucial, it remains difficult to teach or explain how the sensations of internal strength lead to actual combat usage. To that end, Master Ren and the author strive to reveal these concepts technically in both their teaching and photographic records, as displayed in this article.

The following photos reveal the torsion power inherent in three classic Chen Taiji grappling applications using Lie and Cai. A Lie arm-lock and head-lock are displayed, revealing the technique of "splitting" the opponent's body, followed by a signature Cai technique that demonstrates the effects of "twisting" on an opponent. The proper execution of Lie usually results in a throw, while the application of Cai generally produces a locking of the opponent's body.

The Cai application chosen for this article provides a clear view of how an opponent's body appears when his limbs (and torso) are twisted to the extreme. Twisting the opponent's arms across his body in opposing directions, Ren is able to control his opponent to fully immobilize or "twist" him into a throw -- or dislodge joints if his opponent resists.

Lie is among Master Ren's favorite skills. He exhibits an uncanny ability to torque his opponents' bodies at full-contact speed with ease. Master Ren employed the techniques of Lie to win the heavyweight division of the 1998 full-contact international Taiji Push Hands competition in Wenxian, China. Documented on his video of the event (available through, Master Ren displayed his use of Lie in a variety of bouts -- some against opponents bigger and seemingly stronger than himself. In one bout against a European competitor, Ren was able dislodge his opponent almost exclusively with Lie.

The photos of Lie techniques display how Lie can be applied to either the limbs or the torso. The first application reveals the mechanics of a classic Chen Taiji arm-bar technique. Master Ren is shown "splitting" with a torque applied in opposing directions on the shoulder and wrist of the opponent's arm. To execute this maneuver, Ren grabs behind the author's shoulder with a downward pull while grabbing his opponent's wrist in an upward direction. This creates a corkscrew effect that locks his opponent's arm and body, easily immobilizing him. The second Lie technique is an application highly characteristic of Chen Taiji grappling. Featuring a rear head grab in one direction while striking/pushing with the legs in the opposite direction, a devastating hold is produced that flows into an explosive throw.

Basic Skills, Complex Techniques
These seemingly complex grappling techniques are actually based on simple skills. What underlies the successful use of these techniques is the very basic skills of root and silk reeling. When the Chen boxer is able to harness his internal strength with basic zhan zhuang stance exercises, he then progresses to moving his qi throughout the body with the practice of simple silk reeling exercises.

With internal strength harnessed through these core basics, his forms, push hands, and sparring training will exhibit a strength, sensitivity and responsiveness not reliant on amassing technique. Once free of trying to memorize and perfect loads of techniques, the Chen boxer becomes open to almost any fighting technique without overly relying on too many. It is this quality that fighters of any discipline strive for, but few achieve, whereas in Chen Taiji it is just considered a natural stage in what is a highly progressive, logical system of combat.

As a sophisticated system of combat that encompasses striking, grappling and joint-locking, Chen Taiji places a high emphasis on basic body skills that fortify all ranges and types of fighting techniques/approaches. Thus Chen Taijiquan -- especially as a grappling art -- not only breeds quality wrestlers but also offers training and concepts that can enhance the skills of any grappler.

"It's all about the silk reeling," Master Ren asserts. As such, like his mentor Chen Xiaowang, Master Ren emphasizes basic silk reeling exercises in his classes and seminars. These basic exercises are the foundation of combat skills in Chen Taijiquan -- an art that possesses a potent approach to realistic grappling. A highly effective stand-up grappling system, Chen Taiji may very well offer an ideal arsenal for fighters looking to enhance their overall combat skills for the ultimate in street-oriented grappling.

Read more about Chen Taijiquan combat in Master Ren's first book, Taijiquan: Chen Taiji 38 Form and Applications, recently published by Tuttle Publishing.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2004 .

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About Stephan Berwick :
Stephan Berwick, a winner of the 1st International Chen Style Taijiquan Association Achievement Award, is a senior disciple of Master Ren Guang Yi who is also mentored by Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang. For more information on Master Ren Guang Yi and Chen Taijiquan, visit

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