Chen Taiji’s Eyebrow Level Staff
Master Chen Ziqiang Paving the Way to Success

By Emilio Alpanseque

Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine - Summer 2018The name Eyebrow Level Staff inevitably brings to mind images from myths and stories about cudgel-bearing warrior monks taking part in battles against Japanese bandits along China’s southeastern coast.  However, this article is not about the Eyebrow Level Staff that according to legend originated in the Southern Courtyard of the Shaolin Temple.  Instead, this is about lesser-known Chen style Taijiquan weapon form of the same name, still practiced in Chen Village today, based on our exclusive conversations with the 20th generation Chen Family (12th generation Chen Taijiquan) descendent Master Chen Ziqiang (陈自强) during his most recent visit to Santiago, Chile, as part of his 2017 Annual Workshop Tour in South America.

Introducing Chen Village’s 4th Dragon

Born in 1977, Master Chen Ziqiang began practicing Chen style Taijiquan at a very early age under the guidance of his father, Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing (陈小星), and advised by his uncle, Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang (陈小旺), who is the current guardian of the style.  He has been meticulous in his dedication to the style, training continuously throughout his life.  Known as the 4th of the Chen Family’s Seven Dragons (a respected group of descendants of his same generation from the Chen Village), Master Chen became an avid Taijiquan competitor starting in 1996, earning many medals particularly in the Pushing Hands (推手) divisions at provincial and national levels until his retirement in 2004.  Having ancestral roots back to the style’s founder certainly places on his shoulders a great responsibility of maintaining the high reputation of his family, a task that he has carried out with outstanding results.

At his young age, he is not only an accomplished Chen Taijiquan master and a highly decorated former athlete, but also an exceptional teacher and researcher.  Since 1998, Master Chen has been head coach of the competitive teams of Chen Village Taijiquan Academy, leading his teams to overwhelming victories and receiving lots of attention from martial arts enthusiasts at home and abroad.  He also attended the Xi'an Institute of Physical Education to learn Sanda (散打) free-fighting theories and applied human kinesiology to round out his extensive knowledge.  In 2008, after years of study and research, he published a comprehensive series of instructional manuals and videos on Chen style Taijiquan.  In 2010 he came out of retirement to take first place at the Kanglong Wulin Championships (康龙武林大会), a competition of challenge matches on top of the platform organized by the Chinese Central Television, and returned in 2011 with a full team.

Rooted in Classic Military Practices

According to Chen Family records, Chen style Taijiquan (陈氏太极拳) was created by the 9th generation Chen Family descendant Chen Wangting (陈王廷, 1600–1680) around 400 years ago in a village in Wen County, in the Jiaozuo municipal region of Henan Province – a locality that later became known as Chen Village.  Chen Wangting was very skilled in the martial arts and listed as a military officer for the Ming rulers during the last years of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and a commander of troops stationed at Wen County starting in 1641.  However, after the Battle of Shanhai Pass in 1644, which signaled the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), Chen was said to have participated in various failed anti-Qing uprisings and before eventually going into seclusion back in Chen Village.

Chen Wangting spent roughly three decades focused entirely on evolving his martial studies.  Apart from his own martial inheritance and military experience, he assimilated the essentials of other traditional Wushu styles of his era, such as the movements described in the classic New Treatise on Military Efficiency (纪效新书) written by the Ming General Qi Jiguang (戚继光, 1528–1588), together with traditional life preserving breathing and calisthenics methods such as Daoyin (导引) and Tuna (吐纳), classical medical theories such as the Meridian System (经络), and philosophical principles like the Yin Yang (阴阳), the Five Elements (五行), the Eight Trigrams (八卦) and more, and thus creating Chen style Taijiquan, the epitome of integration of ancient military methods, philosophy and medicine.

The Grandfather of All Weapons

Usually known in Mandarin as gun (棍), but in some cases bang (棒) or gan (杆, 竿), the staff is considered one of the four major weapons of Chinese martial arts.

Being abundant and ubiquitous in natural surroundings, it is highly likely that the combative use of staffs, sticks, cudgels, and similar objects has existed since the beginning of civilization and should be considered universal.  Staffs possibly became the favored weapon of choice in early times for increasing the reach, range, and striking power of the wielder, later evolving into a variety of pole-style arms such as spears, pikes, halberds, and others, ranging in a plethora of materials, lengths and usages as knowledge of metallurgy developed.

From the few Chen Family old manuals that are available, such as the Chen Family Boxing and Weapon Transmission Compilation (陈氏世传拳械汇编), we can infer the various martial practices during the old days at the Chen Village.  These manuals collected in the early Republican Era (1912–1949) include descriptions, theories and martial lyrics of various boxing and weapon routines.  For example, there are five sets of boxing, namely Toutaoquan (头套拳) or Shishanshi (十三势), Ertaoquan (二套拳), Santaoquan (三套拳), etc.; one set of Changquan (长拳); one set of Paochui (炮捶), and others.  Weapon routines include the saber, both single (单刀) and double (双刀); the straight sword, both single (单剑) and double (双剑); the staff (棍), the spear (枪), the Spring and Autumn halberd (春秋大刀), and more.  Lastly, Short-range Boxing (短打), Pushing Hands (推手), Tumbling Techniques (滚跃), Seizing Methods (拿法), and two-person weapon fighting routines are also listed in the available documents.

On Spear and Staff Routines

Founder Chen Wangting is often credited with inventing the partner spear-thrusting methods as the basis for the practical use of Taijiquan long weapons.  The old manuscripts do contain descriptions, martial lyrics, and training methods for various single and dual spear forms such as the 13 Spear (十三枪), and the 24 Spear (二十四枪), which matches movement-by-movement the Yang Family Pear Blossom Spear (杨家梨花枪) mentioned by Qi Jiguang in his New Treatise on Military Efficiency.  Conversely, specifically to staff routines, there are mentions of at least two sets, Panluobang (盘罗棒) and Xuanfenggun (旋风棍), including a short description identifying Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng as the origin place for the former routine, and also containing the martial lyrics, and single and dual staff training methods, for both forms.

Unfortunately, due to the absence of proper documentation for many generations, nobody can be sure if all these forms and training methods were part of Chen Wangting’s system at some point, or if they simply represent separate items practiced near Chen Village in different time periods.  The foundation of the Chen style as we know it today was structured by the 14th generation descendant Chen Changxing (陈长兴, 1771–1853), who created the Old Frame (老架) Chen Taijiquan with two routines: Yilu (一路) of 72 steps and Erlu (二路) of 36 steps.  Chen Changxing is also known for teaching Yang Luchan (杨露禅, 1799–1872), who became the founder of Yang style Taijiquan.  It’s worth noting that the numbers 36, 72, as well as their sum 108, are cosmological references used across Chinese Culture in philosophy, divination, literature, and even martial arts since the Apocryphal Texts of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).  However, in later generations, the number of steps of these forms have been expanded in different ways.

The Chen Family system was taught only in Chen Village until 1928, when the 17th generation descendant Chen Fake (陈发科, 1887–1957) moved to Beijing and started teaching there.  Chen Fake is known for creating the New Frame (新架) Chen Taijiquan and for having many important students who later returned to Chen Village to participate in the process of renovation of the Chen style curriculum after the Cultural Revolution (1966–76).  During this era, a routine called Pear Blossom Spear and White Ape Staff (梨花枪夹白猿棍) of 72 movements became standard, which contained methods and techniques from both weapons.  Some scholars believe that during times when spears were prohibited for civilian use, practitioners often used staffs for spear practice – which could explain why in Chen style there are various staff forms such as 13 Long Pole (十三杆) and various long pole sparring sets (三杆,八杆对练), which, upon observation, reveal the strong influence of single and paired spear techniques; meanwhile, there are no signs of staff-only forms.

The Eyebrow Level Staff Form

In 2008, The Eyebrow Level Staff of Chen Style Taijiquan Book and VCD was published as part of the Chinese Folk Wushu Classic Series collection by the Henan Electronic & Audiovisual Press.  The Chief Editor and compiler for this material was Master Chen Ziqiang, so he is the best possible person to ask about the origins and characteristics of this routine.  In regards to the actual weapon, Master Chen explains, “As the name indicates, the Eyebrow Level Staff or qimeigun (齐眉棍) is a medium-length staff usually made with round wax wood that is cut to reach the same height as the user’s eyebrows when supporting the staff on the floor.  In addition, the Eyebrow Level Staff used in Chen style Taijiquan should be non-tapered, as techniques and grips are executed from both ends.

“Historically, there were persons practicing with Eyebrow Level type staffs in the Chen Village without a doubt.  However, in more recent times, perhaps for a few decades, no one trained with them anymore and the long poles used in forms such as the 13 Pole or the Pear Blossom Staff dominated the scene.  I started at a late age to practice staff myself.  I was around 30 years old, and it took me a couple of years to collect information from historical records, manuals, names of the movements, and so forth.  I was interested in finding all the information I could on the techniques available for that type of staff, even from historical records of Wen County, so that I could develop a short routine since it would be very convenient for practitioners and easy to learn and practice.  That's why I compiled this form.  Apart from me and the students of my students, nobody else practices this form today.”

The Eyebrow Level Staff form created by Master Chen combines certain basic staff movements such as sweeping, blocking, holding and chopping together with the distinctive footwork and body methods of Chen style.  On this subject, Master Chen agrees: “Yes, the routine covers less than 20 movements and it can be performed in less than one minute, but it captures the full essence of our Chen style.  This is to say it does not follow any standardized stances commonly seen in modern staff forms such as bow stance or horse stance, but purely Chen style methods.  Both ends of the staff are used, and I also developed its own fundamentals training methods for single and paired practice.  Although none of the movements in the fundamentals training are in the form, they are very helpful to improve your understanding and handling of the staff, making you concern not only with your own balance and positioning, but also about using the staff as an extension of yourself.

“Basically, this traditional staff routine does not have any exaggerated movements like the modern staff forms have, which are mostly aesthetic and flowery actions added for the sake of demonstrations or sports.  The Eyebrow Level Staff form is very simple, and the Chen style flavor is easily recognizable to the average viewer.  Practitioners should pay attention to the combined use of the body and staff, also known as the principle of Unity of Person and Staff (人棍合一).  This is to express the way that each movement is applied, having to make slight adjustments for weight/length/feel/balance to allow the staff to follow the body naturally and let the body follow the staff as well.  In fact, this may be easy to say, but it does take many years of practice.  The longer you practice, the clearer these details will become.”

On the Creation of New Forms

Following similar efforts of standardization and popularization by other Chinese martial arts schools, direct line successors of Chen style Taijiquan have formulated many traditional forms over the years.  For instance, Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei (陈正雷) developed the 18-Step form as a simplified version of the Old Frame Yilu traditional form, Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang developed the 19-Step and 38-Step forms based on the movements from both Old and New Frames Yilu, and there are many other examples.  The purpose has always been to offer shorter forms suited for beginner practitioners without compromising any of the traditional aspects of the style.  In regards to this process, Master Chen clarifies: “All these forms have a major and mandatory requirement; they must not deviate from the principles and origins of Chen style Taijiquan, which means they must have historical backing.  They can’t be created just by anyone following personal choices.  They need to be rooted in Chen Taijiquan.”

Master Chen refers to the Chen style straight sword as an example: “The 49-Step straight sword form from Chen Village should really be a 54-Step form, which is the oldest version, but is no longer practiced anymore.  When I asked my father about it, he told me that when he was a child he studied it, but that after some time he did not train it and didn’t retain it.  That's why I started paying more attention to the weapons.  My father had an aunt called Chen Yuxia (陈豫侠, 1924–1986), the daughter of Chen Fake, who learned the sword directly from his father when they were in Beijing.  My father looked for her to learn this form but eventually forgot it.  I always kept this anecdote in my mind.  Later, I was able to locate an old issue of the magazine Wulin (武林), a very famous martial arts publication in China, with a complete article with Chen Yuxia performing the sword form, including photographs and even the martial lyrics.  So, based on that information, I republished the 54-Step straight sword form and created a shorter 36-Step form accordingly.”

Master Chen further elaborates: “I was involved in this process of collecting and compiling since 2005, because until 2004 I was still directly involved in competition.  Upon my retirement, I devoted around 3 years to bring together all the forms that my father had taught me.  This included all the main fist forms from Old and New Frames as well as the simplified forms of 19-Step and 38-Step Taijiquan; all the main weapon forms such as single and double broadsword, the Pear Blossom Spear White Ape Staff, the Spring and Autumn halberd, etc.; as well as Pushing Hands techniques, and others.  Then, I used three more years to investigate and compile a few other forms that were not commonly practiced anymore such as the Double Mace (双锏), the Flail Staff Sparring Set (梢杆对练) and others.  Lastly, I also created a few new forms including the Taiji Sphere (太极球) based on Taijiquan Basics and the Taiji Fan (太极扇) based on straight sword techniques.”

On Tradition, Inheritance and Development

The late 20th and early 21st centuries have witnessed a major and unprecedented transformational process in China, including changes in politics, economics, consumerism, urban culture, social media, and so forth.  In this regard, carrying traditional Chen Family Taijiquan forward alongside the ongoing process of modernization could be a complex paradigm shift and certainly not free of controversy.  In this regard, Master Chen hopes that the notion of researching and synthesizing old and new methods, postures, movements and strategies of traditional Chen Family Taijiquan into new routines or other new training approaches will no longer be perceived as problematic by the hardline purists, especially after understanding the extensive time and effort made by members of the Chen Family over the years to ensure a comprehensive traditional syllabus.  Tradition in martial arts should be understood as the effect of handing down a system from generation to generation without modifying its central essence, principles and philosophy while venerating a common ancestral line.  Tradition should not be considered as an immutable relic of the past that cannot be revised or altered.  On the contrary, changes in tradition should be incessant and inevitable in order to ensure the relevance, validity and success of the Chen Family Taijiquan into the next generations.

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine - Summer 2018

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About Emilio Alpanseque :
Emilio Alpanseque currently teaches in El Cerrito, CA, and can be reached through his website He wishes to thank Raúl Toutin, Ricardo González Cabezas and Aznous Boisseranc for their support and contributions to this article. For more information about Master Chen Ziqiang search for @ChenZiqiang.Chile on Facebook.

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