January forms challenge!

New Year, new form


Due to a nasty training injury, I’ve had to lay off the “rough stuff” for a while, which means I’ve got more time to spend on forms practice than usual. The latest little project I’ve been amusing myself with is learning the start of a different Taiji form than the one I know.

I’ve picked Chen style, since this is the oldest style, and pretty different to my Yang style form.

It’s often hard to see the connection between Yang and Chen style since they look so different, but as I’ve discovered, if you start to learn the beginning of one after already knowing the other it’s very easy to see how they have the same root. This has already provided lots of insights into my regular form by looking at how Chen style treats familiar movements.

To be clear, I’m just learning the first few moves of the form. Probably I’ll get up to the Crane Spreads Wings move (or whatever they call it in Chen). After that, I think the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in and the time spent working on a new form and remembering it starts to outweigh the benefits you get from practising it.  I already know a long form, so I don’t think there’s much to be gained by undergoing the arduous process of learning another one.

This little project has made me think about a few side issues, which I’d like to go over below:

  1. Learning from video

There’s this unwritten rule in martial arts that learning anything from a video is bad, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Learning from a real person is preferable, but not always practical. If you’ve got enough experience in an area then I think you can learn a lot from video. Also, let’s not forget, that there are videos on YouTube of recognised experts, like Chen Xiao Wang, doing the form, who are doing it a lot better than any local teacher you’ll find.

For instance, here’s the renowned Taijiquan expert Chen Zheng Li doing the Chen Lao Jia Yi Lu form in a nice relaxed pace that’s easy to follow:

Of course, there will be fine details I’ll miss by copying him, but I’m doing this more as an exercise in personal exploration, rather than in trying to get the Chen form perfect. In fact, I’ve already modified one move I felt would work slightly better in a way I’m more familiar with. (I’m a heretic, I know)

2. Distinguishing ‘energy’ from ‘moves’

Taiji uses the four primary directions of Jin – Peng (upwards), Ji (away from the body), Lu (towards the body) and An (downwards) in various combinations. It’s often hard for people to separate this ‘energy’ direction from the physical movements themselves. So, a “ward off” posture is one thing, but the energy that you usually use with it – Peng – is another. Confusingly, Peng is often translated as “ward off”, so the two become conflated. By doing a new form with different moves, you get to see how the same ‘energy’ is used in a different arm shape.

For instance, in Yang style the ‘ward off’ movements tend to have the palm pointing inwards towards the body, while in Chen style, they are pointed outwards, away from the body.


3. Spotting similarities

So, while a Chen form may look very different to a Yang form, once you start thinking in terms of which of the 4 energies you’re using, you start to see the similarities, even if the postures look different.

For example, both forms start with a Peng to the right, a step forward, another Peng forward, a splitting action, then another Peng to the right, then into the Peng, Lu, Ji, Lu, An sequence known in Yang style as “Grasp Birds Tail” in Yang and “Lazily tying coat” then “Six sealing four closing” in Chen style. (Apparently, the Yang naming came from a mistranslation of the original Chen name, but this matters not to me).

(Note: In some performances, of Chen style – like the one above by Chen Zengli, he misses out the “Lu then Ji” move of the sequence. In others, like this one by CXW below, it’s in there. I don’t know why. Personally, I like to put it in, because it connects me to the Yang style I know.)

Doing Peng in a different arm configuration than you’re used to is, frankly, good for your practice, because it helps you break out of the mould a bit, into a freer execution that is not dictated to by the conventions of your particular style.

The New Year Challenge! Do it yourself

I’d like to challenge you to do the same thing in January. If you’re a Chen stylist, then learn the start of the Yang form up to White Crane Spreads Wings. If you’re a Yang stylist, then give the Chen form a go. Alternatively, investigate the opening sequence of Sun, Wu or Wu(Hao) style. Give it a go!

Here’s a video of Yang and Chen forms done side by side that I’ve posted before because it helps show the similarities:


3 thoughts on “January forms challenge!

  1. Nice article, Graham, and it’s a great idea [especially for experienced practitioners] to try and learn “variations on the theme” as it were. In recent years, I have taught myself 16 Posture variations of Yang, Sun and Wu style taiji from video or dvds and practise them regularly thought they are not my primary choices for solo form practise. I chose those three styles as I have experienced all three from live teachers in the form of more traditional long sets.

    It’s quite a good exercise to try and copy what you see without the benefit of a live role-model and it can be easy to fool yourself as to just how good one’s reproduction is compared to the original source. As Mr. Sigman pointed out, transmissions tend to fade from the founding generation on in the same way that photocopies of photocopies don’t tend to have the sharpness of the original image. Then again, in the martial arts, fortunately, there are always those who manage to re-invent the wheel and get things back on track.

    The only thing I would add to the post is that it can be a great idea to set yourself a goal of doing that solo exercise every day for 100 days [or whatever arbitrary period of time you choose] and to video yourself along the way regularly during your time and compare how you are doing to what your role model is doing.

    Of course there can be limitations to personal instruction even though it’s best to go that route but that’s not always possible. Sadly, it is also true that many taiji teachers still would tell you that what you learned previously was no good [even if it was] and that you have to start over exclusively with their teachings. Not much help for those of us with limited time, some experience and a realistic appraisal of what taiji can and cannot be for us.


  2. They say that money lasts 3 generations. The grandfather makes a fortune and he then somewhat spoils the son. The son, having had an easy upbringing, totally spoils the grandson, who dribbles the family fortune away.

    In the case of the Yang Taijiquan, the “grandfather” was Yang Lu Chan, who studied the Chen-style Taijiquan (the Yangs now acknowledge this) and he taught the Yang-style Taijiquan. The grandson was Yang Cheng Fu, who was a bit of a slacker when he was young, but at some time he realized Taijiquan was his inheritance method of making a living. So Yang Lu Chan the grandson, cobbled together what we now know of as the official Yang-style Taijiquan. It is far removed from the Chen-style, mainly because Yang Cheng Fu wasn’t a diligent practitioner of the art when he was young.

    Yang was so badly thought of, in terms of Taijiquan ability, that when he became the titular head of the Yang style, the Wu family broke away from the Yang style; now they’re separate styles.

    So, yes, the Yang-style is a misshapen copy of the Chen-style and that’s why they’re so similar, but different. Regardless of the appearance of the form, though, the essence of Taijiquan is how the body moves. If you understand how the body moves, you can make up your own style. Take a look at the two side-by-side forms and watch one simple move: the raising and lowering of the two hands at the start of the form. Notice that Yang Jun raises and lowers his hands very differently than the way Chen Zhenglei does. Remember that Yang Lu Chan raised and lowered his hands the way that Chen Zhenglei does. 😉


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