Innovating Traditional Martial Arts
Ren Guangyi's 5 Step Roadmap

By Stephan Berwick

Ren Guag-Yi How does a martial arts master transcend the traditions of his art? In today's fast growing martial arts industry - a field of dizzying variety - the aspiring student finds both classicists and modernists all claiming to offer the very best. But the very best of what? Are traditional arts best, because they are time-tested, rich in content and expression, and offer deeply satisfying elements unique to the system? Or are contemporary mixed martial arts best, because they draw on what is most effective for combat, offering the essence of what makes martial arts so powerful - self defense? It is upon this dichotomous environment that professional martial artists either thrive or fail.

Perhaps innovative martial artists who find a balance between these extremes are the ones who deserve note. Among the best known examples of innovators who developed new approaches based on the traditional are Chen Fake, Bruce Lee, Ed Parker, and most recently the Gracies. They are proof that the level of innovation achieved by a martial artist is in direct proportion to how well he or she has mastered the core concepts and foundation of his or her chosen art. But dedicated traditionalists often exhibit the most difficulty in moving their arts past the old ways into new territory. This is especially so in Chinese "internal" arts such as Taijiquan.

Taijiquan, or Taiji, is a classical art that has undergone much change with the spreading of different versions of the discipline. But Taiji has had only mixed success in being recognized as a martial art. While it now enjoys widespread appeal, the art has grown at a cost to its traditional values, technical vocabulary, and training emphasis, as embodied by the founders of Taiji - the Chen family from Henan, China. The original Chen family creation consisted of effective combat training that was both health-giving and practical in application. However, so much of what is seen as Taiji today is simply an exercise for health. The question, then, is how can a subtle art like Taiji be enhanced or modernized in such a way that it is widely appealing without losing the best of its ancient knowledge and benefits? And how can martial artists aspiring to professional success not deviate from the traditional heart and soul of a beloved art?

The emergence of New York's Master Ren Guangyi suggests answers to these difficult questions. Often profiled in the martial arts press for his dedication to traditional Taiji, he is widely recognized as a personification of authentic Chen Taijiquan - a practical combat art with deep health benefits. But what underlies Ren's inspiration is his dedication to the classics as the foundation of his ability to innovate his chosen art.

Taijiquan: A Martial Art of Innovation
From the very beginning of Taijiquan's history, the art was based on innovation. Chen Wangting, the creator of Taijiquan, was an innovator who developed a boxing style based on popular martial arts of his time combined with 'internal' concepts. This resulted in 5-7 routines and the Push Hands training method, as well as other aspects of the art. Later, Yang Luchan's teacher Chen Changxing modernized the Chen family art when he captured the system essence in two forms that survive to this day as the Chen Taiji Lao Jia (Old Frame) forms. A few generations later, the Chen Taijiquan grandmaster Chen Fake greatly innovated Chen Taiji when he created the popular, more intricate Xin Jia (New Frame) version of the classical Lao Jia version, which propelled his family art to new heights. Later, his grandson Chen Xiaowang advanced it further, with his creation of silk reeling exercises and two comprehensive basic training forms.

Inspired by his teacher, Chen Xiaowang - whose modern practice and teaching methods spurred Chen Taiji's worldwide growth - Ren is now challenging an audience of some of the most innovative leaders in their fields. Whether they are his celebrity students, or, like the author of this article, professional martial artists, his followers recognize something beyond his skill. What we recognize is his retention of Taiji's traditional essence in a modern context.

A Roadmap for Martial Arts Innovation
Ren is accomplishing this in five fundamental ways. For those seeking more from their martial arts, the following roadmap provides a view into the rules of innovation that permeate most fields, but are especially acute in martial arts. The roadmap is easy to grasp, but hard to put into practice. The following factors are offered as both an inspiration to martial artists of any discipline and a guide to how a traditionalist can thrive in a fast-moving, highly competitive industry that uniquely combines art, health, and self-defense. While these five aspects are the norm for successful creative artists, they are seldom, if ever, delineated for the martial artist.

1. Respect the founders and your teachers.
The respect and admiration Ren holds for his teacher Chen Xiaowang and the Chen family and village where he trained is perhaps the deepest thread running through his soul as a martial artist. Ren's strict dedication to craft and excellence is inspired by those who came before him and passed the art to him. Ren appreciates and studies the achievement that went into the creation and evolution of Chen Taijiquan.

In traditional martial arts, the most accomplished are usually the ones that hold their teachers in the highest esteem. This is often true in technical fields, as well as in the creative arts. Recognizing the foundation others laid is crucial to understanding how and where you can progress with your craft.

2. Adhere to the traditional rules and concepts.
Ren is well known for his very strict training regimen and long experience as a Chen family prot?g?. What is not widely known is Ren's deep study of and adherence to the core rules and concepts of his art.

Taijiquan is an art that demands a sophisticated understanding of its traditional concepts - ideas that go back to Chen Wangting. Ren never underestimates the deep wisdom and science that the original concepts of the art provide. His training, performing, and teaching all closely follow the classical rules that make the art distinct.

When Ren teaches or practices Taijiquan he follows the classical guideposts that imbue his Taiji with high levels of precision, completeness, and structure. His classes always begin with standing practice (zhang zhuang), followed by the core Taiji body mechanic exercises, silk reeling or chan szu jing - the two most crucial aspects of Chen Taijiquan that embody the art. The technical standards honed in this traditional basic training permeate his own practice, as well that of his students. He rarely deviates from these standards, thus never sacrificing what always makes his chosen art unique and time-tested.

3. Develop a classical foundation.
For a practitioner and/or teacher, martial arts excellence is based on strict foundational training. This is akin to formally-trained classical dancers, western boxers, contemporary wushu athletes and Ren's mentors, the Chen family - all of whom exhibit deeply-honed basic skills derived from highly systematic training.

From this basis, Ren spent over three decades developing the classical foundation of Taijiquan. Chen Taijiquan's shen fa - body/mind method - is crucial for Ren. He strives for a consistent shen fa based on strict zhang zhuang, chan szu jing, and balanced Yin and Yang (empty and full).

Ren routinely stands for up to an hour at a time, followed by silk reeling practice and a strict forms training that balances hard and soft. After decades of this classical training regimen - standard practice in the founding locale of Taijiquan, Chenjiagou in Henan, China - Ren exhibits the deep foundation that dedication to traditional training breeds. These skills infuse Ren's expression of the art.

4. Define a unique expression of the art.
Ren's Taiji is traditional in structure, yet modern in feel. Anchored by a foundation in the classical method, Ren practices Taiji with an interpretation all his own, yet never deviates from traditional requirements.

Ren's distinct Taiji style is marked by an emphasis on extreme lower body strength and flexibility, with an overt display of martial 'spirit'. His pronounced expression of yi or 'intention', often not displayed by Taiji practitioners, imbues his Taiji with a spirit normally associated with fighters. His Taiji is externally dynamic, yet dominated by internal power. He expresses Taiji with a flavor that is both visually arresting and accurate by traditional Chen Taijiquan (and Chinese martial arts) standards.

About four years ago, Ren displayed his Taiji in the rock and roll world, appearing on tour with rock legend Lou Reed. Ren's expression of Taiji meshed perfectly with Reed's music and lyrics. This innovative collaboration offered an interpretation of classical martial arts that was distinctly modern, yet well-anchored in the classical standards of both music and martial arts.

5. Develop a distinct teaching and training method.
Ren has created specific teaching methods that leverage the best of classical Taijiquan in a more direct, accessible way without compromising the core principles and standards of Taijiquan as it was meant to be.

About 5 years ago Ren began to create new routines that exhibited and taught the classical power of Chen Taiji in a modern context. He created two new fundamental forms (21 Compact & Compact Cannon Fist) that were derived from classical Chen Taiji, as well as other arts. The routines were designed to quickly bring out Chen Taiji's unique powers in a challenging yet easy-to-digest sequence of power-oriented techniques. In 2005, Ren taught these forms for the first time at a seminar in Washington, DC, which attracted a wide cross-section of martial artists not normally interested in attending Taijiquan seminars. Their common denominator was an interest in a more contemporary version of traditional, martial-oriented Taijiquan.

For Ren, imparting the health benefits of Taijiquan is becoming a strong focus of innovation as well. His highly direct teaching approach imparts the traditional body method of Taiji in such a way that it isolates physical problem areas - sometimes even curing illnesses in some of his students.

Martial Arts Innovation in Practice
Following this roadmap, Ren has built a student body comprised of a fast growing number of some of today's most discerning luminaries from sports, music, art, and business. His extremely popular New York city classes are becoming one of New York's 'coolest' gathering places for a cross-section of Taiji and martial art enthusiasts seeking more than just standard martial arts fare. And his 2 'Compact' forms and teaching method for health indicate where and how Ren is evolving traditional Taijiquan.

Compact Form: Ren recognized the need for routines that offer comprehensive training which could be achieved in the confines of the small living spaces available to most city dwellers today. His first creation was a routine that combined Chen Taiji with select techniques from other styles into a condensed form that could be practiced in 5 minutes in a very tight space. The form is now taught as a novice set as part of Ren's standard curriculum. One of the first students to learn this form was Lou Reed, who now helps Ren teach the routine to his other students.

Compact Cannon Fist: The origins of this powerful, condensed fajing (power issuing) routine derive from Ren's movie experience. Acclaimed film director Darren Aronofsky hand-picked Ren to bring Taijiquan's essence to his philosophical sci-fi motion picture, The Fountain, released in 2006 and starring action star Hugh Jackman as a warrior who travels through time seeking immortality. Ren personally trained Jackman for six months and designed a highly compact form for him that exhibited Chen Taijiquan's unique fajing in a distilled yet visual manner. Jackman performed this new routine in the film to great effect, spurring Ren to add the routine to his teaching curriculum. This routine serves as preparation for the traditional Cannon Fist form - an addition much appreciated by his students.

Pain relief: After developing these highly focused routines, Ren developed a health-oriented teaching approach that targeted specific problem areas in the body. Based on the logic and concepts of traditional Chen Taiji, Ren's highly targeted, hands-on teaching method addresses specific physical problems adults usually suffer from. One of his students, the leading pain specialist Dr. Dan Richman, has become an advocate of Ren's health-giving teaching method, referring a wide variety of patients to Ren.

Today, classical martial arts are rife with mixed messages that pose serious challenges to those attempting to innovate ancient arts without losing their essence. The roadmap Ren followed points the way for traditional martial arts to survive and thrive. His adherence to the traditional requirements of his art, coupled with an ability to innovate, is a model appreciated in many other endeavors but seldom celebrated in martial arts.

As a profession, martial art is becoming more competitive and diffuse. Both modern and traditional styles are growing in popularity. Choices abound, but innovating classical arts seem less prevalent than the trend towards mixed martial arts. Only rarely does a master such as Ren emerge who can translate the deepest traditional elements of martial arts into a modern context. Ren hopes that the steps he has taken to innovate his beloved art will inspire traditional martial artists to take their chosen arts into areas not seen before.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2007 .

About Stephan Berwick :
Stephan Berwick is an original student of Ren Guangyi, profiled in the Spring 2007 edition of Kung Fu Tai Chi story, "History is the Best Teacher". He is the co-author of Taijiquan Hand & Sword with Ren Guangyi and teaches Chen Taijiquan to defense professionals and the physically challenged in the Washington, DC area. He can be reached at

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