Review: Chen Style Taijiquan Collected Masterworks, by Mark Chen

An important addition to the writings on Taijiquan, and Chen style in particular, that ultimately raises more questions than it answers.

I first heard about this translation of Chen Zhaopi’s 1935 book on Taijiquan by Mark Chen in an interview he did with Ken Gullette on his Internal Fighting Arts podcast. It’s well worth listening to that episode because Mark is an engaging speaker and he covers all the most interesting revelations of the book there.

I was impressed with the podcast, so ordered the book and finally managed to finish reading it recently. As already mentioned, the book contains translations of selected texts from Chen Zhaopi’s “Chen shi taijiquan hui zong” (“Chen family taijiquan selected masterworks“), published in 1935, but contains texts that claim to originate from earlier periods, authored by Chen Chanxing (and that’s where the fun starts), but let’s first take a closer look at who Chen Zhaopi was.

Chen Zhaopi

Chen Zhaopi is a pivotal figure in Chen family history, as he was the first Chen practitioner to move to Beijing from Chen village and teach Taijiquan commercially, in 1928. When he later accepted a teaching post at the Central Guoshu Academy in Nanjing in the south, the famous Chen Fake replaced him in Beijing in the north, securing the Chen legacy. Chen Zhaopi’s life (recounted in detail here) is a remarkable story, as he went through a series of highs and lows. His toughest time was during the Cultural Revolution when he was persecuted heavily, so much so that he attempted suicide. Thankfully he survived, and once Mao had decided that Taijiquan was not a threat to the nation returned to teaching in the Chen village where he managed to tutor the next generation, who are all famous names in Chen style today. Without his efforts it’s unlikely that a martial tradition would have survived in the Chen village at all.

Collected Masterworks starts with two biographies of Chen Zhongshen, a famous fighter for hire from Chen village who lived during the tumultuous events of 19th century in China, suppressing rebels, and was renowned for his excellent martial skill. Longer versions of these biographies later appear in Chen Xin’s book. It feels somewhat like these biographies are added to the start of this volume to stake the claim of Chen fighters to being experienced fighters and serious martial artists.

Of more interest to the casual reader are the next two texts which are attributed to the famous Chen Chanxing (although the author notes they have also been attributed to Chen Wanting elsewhere), who was the teacher of Yang Luchan in most of the orthodox histories of Taijiquan. That makes them the most important texts in this collection. Mark gives excellent introductions to each text he translates, with copious notes.

The first text is “Chen Chanxing’s Verse of Taijiquan”. It’s short – just 1 page long – and although it doesn’t mention Taijiquan by name, reads like many old Chinese texts on Taijiquan. E.g.:

“Freely bending and extending, others know nothing, Always in contact, I totally rely on winding”.

The second text attributed to Chen Chanxing is a compilation of posture names from the Taijiquan form.

But the third and final text attributed to Chen Chanxing is where the mystery deepens. It is much longer and titled: “Chen Chanxing’s Discussion of Taijiquan’s 10 main points”.

Reading through the text of “10 important points”, I found the words eerily familiar, “in all matters separation must have unification”, “inside and outside are joined, front and back mutually support each other”…. then I realised that was because I was reading a modified version of the Xing Yi classics normally referred to as “The 10 thesis of Marshal Yue Fei” and sometimes attributed to the eponymous Song dynasty marshal.

You can read the 10 Thesis online here: https://ymaa.com/articles/2014/12/marshal-yue-feis-ten-important-theses-part-1

While they are of unknown provenance the 10 Thesis forms the basis for most of the classic writings on Xing Yi that you’ll find in later works; so I’d say its connection to the martial art Xing Yi is unequivocal.

Except here. Here, in Chen Zhaopi’s book it is presented as Chen Chanxing’s original writings on Taijiquan. The author (either Chanxing, Zhaopi, or maybe Mark Chen?) even puts the name “Taijiquan” into the text itself to make it seem more authentically about Taijiquan. E.g. “Taijiquan is ever changing. There must be energy everywhere…”

Obviously, these references to “Taijiquan” are not found in the other available translations of Yue Fei’s classic (the version linked above appears in “Xingyiquan: Theory, Applications, Fighting Tactics and Spirit” by Yang Jwing-Ming, for example). These translations use the term “martial arts” instead.

Not reading Chinese, I don’t know if the phrase “Taijiquan” was used in the original print edition by Zhaopi (1935), at a time when it was already in common usage, or was inserted into this translation by Mark Chen in this edition. And if it was used by Zhaopi, did he insert it or was it in the original source material allegedly from Chen Chanxing?

But either way, clearly something is being done to attach Chen Chanxing’s name to the history of Taijiquan by co-opting some old martial arts writings.

In the Translator’s Preference at the start, referring to the 10 points, Mark Chen writes:

“Interspersed amidst the theoretical discourse, the text contains perhaps some of the best practical martial-arts instruction ever written. It is clearly a transitional document on the timeline of taijiquan’s evolution, composed in an era when utility was still paramount – the work of a vastly experienced fighter wielding a vigorous rhetorical facility to convey the true “look and feel” of an advanced martial art. What emerges from the text is not theoretical pablum about soft overcoming hard, but a picture of the formidable fighiting system that made the Chen clan of Wen County some of the most feared caravan guards and bandit hunters of the Qing dynasty, from Hubei to Shandong.”

I’d say he’s right about the value of the text, and the reputation of the Chen clan, he just has the wrong author, and the wrong martial art!

Whether or not Marshal Yue Fei actually wrote these 10 thesis (obviously this is unprovable) is beside the point, the point is that they are well known and in wide circulation, and Chen Chanxing certainly did not write them.  And yet this book treats them as the original writings of Chen Chanxing, without question.

Maybe I’m missing something here, (and somebody please correct me if I’m wrong) but I find this error perplexing as the author has clearly put huge amounts of effort into this translation, and agonises over each character he translates. The Appendices where he talks about the details of his translation and the provenance of different Taijiquan writings, like the Salt Shop Classics, and also the Chen Wanting origin story are really fascinating and show how much work he’s put into researching this book.

Moving on, the next chapter is by Chen Zhaopi himself and contains annotated photos of Zhaopi performing the Chen old frame first form. These photos will be of particular interest to modern day Chen practitioners as he performs many movements in quite acrobatic ways, including movement 54 called the “Iron split” where he drops to the floor in a dramatic half splits movement. 

After this we have an explanation of push hands and the original texts written in Chinese. Finally, the appendices and copious notes sections are well worth reading. 

Overall this book is an excellent addition to the literature on Taijiquan, and an essential purchase for all Chen stylists, although I keep coming back to the question of why Chen Zhaopi is presenting the Xing Yi classics as belonging to the Taijiquan literary canon and presenting them here as the writings of Chen Chanxing.

Chen Style Taijiquan Collected Masterworks is clearly a labour of love for the author and translator and every Taijiquan practitioner will enjoy it, but for me it ultimately throws up more questions than it answers.

Buy this book on Amazon.

11 thoughts on “Review: Chen Style Taijiquan Collected Masterworks, by Mark Chen

  1. Pingback: A reply to Mark Chen | The Tai Chi Notebook

  2. Thanks to Mark Chen for his comments and also thanks for writing his book, which I really enjoyed.

    If anything, I don’t think our more or less ‘recent’ history of Taijiquan and related other martial-arts is anything more than superficial. Until we can understand how so many traditional writings, sayings, apothegms, etc., are found commonly in so many Chinese martial arts, indicating a spread the must have taken probably some centuries, we’re not going to reveal in great truths about the Chinese martial-arts.

    Doug Wile’s scholarship in regard to the sayings of Wang Cungyue is a case in point: No tangible trace of a historical person can be found via the gazetteers can be found, but Wang’s purported sayings appear to have been made by Zhang Naizhou, a noted martial artist who did not practice Taijiquan, but apparently was skilled in one of the Shaolin arts. That would indicate that basic Shaolin principles concur with basic Taijiquan (and therefore Xingyi, Bagua, and so on) principles. In fact, to cut to the chase, the Yin-Yang symbolism which extends over the Chinese martial arts and which actually refers to movement principles, should be enough to tell us that the key to Chinese martial arts’ relationships is found in the general field of movement principles, not style history and mythology like Yue Fei, Zhang Sanfeng, and so on. Focusing on lineage details of many arts is fine, but to miss the movement relationships of the Chinese martial arts is to miss seeing the overall forest by dwelling on the appearance of the trees.

  3. Thanks to Taichi Notebook for the review and thanks to Mike for his thoughtful comments. As a point of clarification, please note that I do not make the assertion that the “Ten Main Points” was written by Chen Changxing (though the version in the book was obviously written or adapted by a taijiquan partisan). My introductory remarks for chapter 3 say that it “may” have been written by Changxing, and in the preface I indicate that this attribution is used throughout the book for convenience. I further allege that the document “plausibly dates to Changxing’s lifetime,” and the argument for this is given in appendix C.

    Regarding Li Jianqiu’s claim (in his 1919 book) that it was written by Yue Fei: while it is certainly possible that the document was written by someone other than Changxing, it was written by Yue Fei only in the same sense that the “taiji classics” were written by Zhang Sanfeng; that is, it was not written by Yue Fei. First, its idiom clearly belongs to the nineteenth century (a fact that is easily discernible in the original Chinese). Second, it quotes from Ming dynasty sources. For example, the passage beginning, “can go, can accomplish, . . .” on page 31 of my book is lifted directly from Zhuge Liang’s delightful letter to Cao Zhen in chapter 100 of _Romance of the Three Kingdoms_ (as far as I know, the only instance of epistolary homicide in recorded history). Other similar references are noted in the book, and while they could theoretically have been taken from pre-Song historical texts (specifically, the _San Guo zhi_), this is not likely the case. General readers were unaware of the cited events until the publication of _Romance_ during the Ming dynasty, so the references would have been meaningless before that time. As another example, the expression _shen fa_ (“body technique”) is a term of art originating in Qi Jiguang’s “Quan jing”–again from the Ming dynasty and further evidence of a taijiquan connection.

    In view of these and related observations, it is nearly certain that “Ten Main Points” was written in the nineteenth century. If it did not originate in Chen Village, then the arguments in my book’s appendix C indicate that it was adopted there around or before the middle of that century. So we can further assert that if any borrowing occurred, it happened roughly during Changxing’s lifetime.

    Finally, it’s worth noting that Mike’s comments are generally correct. As I explain at length in appendix B, many martial-arts things (particularly from the Central Plain) lack a tidy provenance, and “Ten Main Points” may well be an example of a document that was exchanged and adapted by many hands over time.

  4. In other words, you don’t know that answer to when and where anything was first published, so your premise about Xingyi and Taijiquan floats without foundation. Nor have you addressed what is well-known … that various Chinese martial arts all tend to use the same set of basic admonitions, in one form or another.

    Another real problem for the would-be historians is the fact that most of the inner topics and ‘secrets’ and other lore were never put into writing. If you take any worthwhile Asian martial art, even today, the teachings and lore are still mostly word of mouth. Yet, even back in the 1930’s, etc., Tang Hao, Gu Liu Xin, etc., all said that they would only include data in their “histories” if the facts were supported by written material. What the hey? In arts that are 99% oral transmissions they only cobbled together a “history” if there was supporting documentation, but they ignored history that couldn’t be vouchsafed with something in writing? That means that most of the “history” accepted by outsiders is probably wrong.

    I asked Chen Xiaowang about a couple of historical topics and he told me what he knew, but he always told me “this is the oral history” and in many cases he told me the version he knew, but said, “True, or not true … I don’t know for sure”. You might want to take your westerner’s sudden epiphanies and consider that there is a lot that your ‘historians’ simply don’t know and can never know, so the ability of a podcast to discern the truth is not really very much.

  5. I think you’re deliberately obfuscating the issue to distract away from the very simple facts of the matter – your “principles are the same” argument is a separate issue to what’s going on here. That’s a superficial understanding of Chinese history, – mashing it all together and treating it like it happenes all at once, when things are decades or centuries apart – and (since you like to keep saying “westerner”) typical of a westerner 🙂

    Dont forget, this book was published in the Republican era, not in old China, hundreds of years ago – it was published in 1935, before the Communist takeover, but long after the fall of the Ching dynasty, the “self strengthening movement”, and the May 4th movement.

    The first version of this book was actually published in 1930 under a different name – “General explanations of Taiji Boxing Fundamentals” – Paul Brenan provides Chinese characters, if you need them: https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2019/09/01/an-introduction-to-chen-style-taiji/

    Brenan also, like me, notices the content of the 10 Thesis. He says:

    “The attribution to Changxing in this case is more likely to be purely honorary since the text appears to have been mostly copied from 岳武穆形意拳術要論 “The Essentials of Yue Fei’s Xingyi Boxing Art” in Li Jianqiu’s 1919 Xingyi manual.”

    So the content has previously been published in a Xing Yi manual, in case you were wondering.

    If you’d like to look beyond the superficial you should ask yourself the following questions:

    Where did Chen Zhaopi go in 1928?
    Where was he working in 1930?
    Who did he work for?
    What was happening in China in 1930-1935?
    What organisation published this book?
    What was their aim?

    Good luck in your research.

  6. I’m not telling you anything other than that you ought to be less sudden and quick with your dabbler’s epiphanies. 😉 A lot of the current “historical insights” I’m reading from the westerners tends to be “stories of China told by westerners to other superficially-informed westerners”.

    Dig deeper. The relationship of the Chen-style adherents to old Xingyi books (remember: the principles are the same) was discovered by Tang Hao and Gu Liuxin, long ago. What that indicates is unknowable, other than that the arts are related. Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang have the same basic principles built around Six Harmonies movement. We know that. But we also know that other non-neijia arts also contain many of the exact same wisdom and admonitions. We don’t know where any of those things originated or exactly when. The leap to “the Chens copied Xingyi” is pretty superficial. 😉

  7. Oh I think I know exactly what you’re trying to do 🙂

    Who do I believe Mike – you or my lying eyes?

  8. I’m not sure you understand it yet … you could take the phrases about Six Harmonies movement from Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, and *many* other Chinese martial arts and they’ll all be essentially the same ancient words (to make matters worse, you’re actually comparing the English translations). How do you know who copied what from whom and when those words/phrases were actually written? You don’t. Yet “Six Harmonies” admonitions about movement is there in numerous cases in Chinese martial arts. You’re actually assuming that what you read in a Xingyi text must be the first instance in which something is written, just as you at one time assumed that “four ounces” was original to Taijiquan. You don’t know. You’re making assumptions. 😉

  9. How do you know I don’t mean the capital of Rhode Island, or even God’s divine will? 🙂 Yes, maybe I should change that to provenance 🙂

    It’s not the simple case of a pithy phrase being copied or reused with a new twist like you find in the Salt Shop classics. ( And please stop trying to drop these nuggets of wisdom about the 4oz like it’s new information – we all know this already.)

    The 10 Thesis is a very long document, it’s several pages long, and it’s all here, copied completely, except for the words they changed to make it sound like it’s written about Taijiquan.

  10. Graham, as I’ve noted many times, the classical admonitions and apothegms of many/most of the Chinese martial arts are often the same words. For instance, I’ve seen you attribute the old saying that “four ounces deflects a thousand pounds” to Taijiquan, but it’s a common apothegm to many/most of the Chinese martial arts. For you to say that the Chens swiped stuff from the old sayings of Xingyiquan is naive. Xingyi, Taijiquan, and Bagua all use the same basic texts/admonitions (it’s a well-known bit of trivia) and all three martial arts have their antecedents in Shanxi Province … perhaps even with a common ancestor, but we don’t know that for sure.

    And please change “providence” to “provenance”. 😉

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