Acclaimed rock ‘n’ roll icon Lou Reed (Walk on the Wild Side, Perfect Day) was also a Tai Chi fanatic, practicing Chen style since the 1980s. Sadly, Lou passed away in 2013 from liver cancer, but his writings about Tai Chi, meditation and music are about to be published by HarperCollins. The Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi, is out on March 14 via HarperOne, and features a foreword from the late artist’s partner, Laurie Anderson.
If you’d like to get a flavour of Lou’s Tai Chi and his thoughts on Tai Chi then check out this short video called Lou Reed – The Voice and The Practice. It’s nice to see that he was into the martial side of Tai Chi as much as the performance side – there’s a nice clip of him pushing hands with his teacher Ren Guang Yi, for example. I quite like the “New York vibe” he brought to the practice.
Great video post from Nabil Rene whose work in Chen style Tai Chi I’ve been following for a while now. Take a look:
For clarity, his assertion is that the “dantien” is something that doesn’t exist by default, the way, say, your shoulder exists, but that it is formed by the simultaneous actions of other parts of the body. In this case, the hips, back, spine, breathing and more.
I’ve written here before that this is somewhat similar to the idea of the lap in English. The lap is formed by taking a seated position, and when you stand up it disappears.
So, when you form Tai Chi postures, you are also forming a dantien. Or at least you should be.
You can think of this as being an incredibly complicated prospect, but I don’t think you need to. There is also an implied simplicity to the idea. The problem is that when you start out the feeling of ‘strength’ in that area of the body is inherently weak, but correct practice of Tai Chi should be the training you require to start to build that dantien so that it’s a much stronger feeling.
Correct practice on a daily basis is what you need.
Of course, if you talk to Chinese medical practitioners, to them the dantien is as real as any other part of the Chinese medical system, and doesn’t require ‘work’ to exist. But I think that when talking about Tai Chi things, it’s safer to assume that this is not the dantien being talked about.
I’ve always been curious about the postures in martial arts forms where both feet are together, because these postures don’t look very martial at all. In fact, it’s hard to imagine why you would want to use a stance like that in a fight, and yet we find them in a lot of Tai Chi forms:
It seems to be mainly Taiji lineages that have some influence from Sun Lu Tang that do this the most. A lot of people attribute the distinctive ‘feet together’ postures he used to his prior training in Xing Yi, and there could be some truth to this. Xing Yi does have ‘feet together’ postures quite a lot.
Of course, the root of Xing Yi is spear fighting, but the modern interpretation of the art is heavily biased towards bare hand training, and this creates a misleading impression. Think about it – if you were at at least one spear length away from your opponent the risk of being tackled to the ground because your feet are together would be greatly reduced. You’re now free to use the power generation advantages that can be gained by letting both feet come together, which is handy when you are holding a heavy object, like a spear.
If you watch this excellent video of Xing Yi spear technique by Byron Jacobs you’ll see that he doesn’t hang out with his feet together all the time, but occasionally he uses the feet together moments for power generation (and of course, also standing on one leg for range advantage and manoeuvrability in a way that makes sense with weapons).
In Xing Yi the most famous example of the ‘feet together’ posture is the Half-Step Beng Quan. Here the back foot stepping up to meet the front foot in place creates a powerful closing action of the body, kind of like a door slamming.
So, is this the origin of ‘feet together’ postures in Taiji forms? Quite possibly. However, there is one more thing to consider. After first learning Xing Yi, Sun Lu Tang learned his Taiji from Hao Weizhen 1849–1920, who learned from Li Yiyu 1832–1892, who learned from one of the Wu brothers, Wu Yuxiang 1812–1880 who had learned directly from Yang Luchan 1799–1872 and also sought out Chen Qingping 1795–1868 who he learned from in Zhaoboa village.
It’s often thought that the distinctive stepping seen in Sun style Taiji, where the back foot is often lifted and brought up close to the front foot, is a consequence of Sun’s prior Xing Yi training. This makes sense as part of the narrative created as part of the Sun Style Taiji brand, which is that he incorporated his earlier Xing Yi and Bagua training into his Taiji style. However, if you look at the Wu (Hou) style he learned, it already had this distinctive stepping in it.
I think you can see that influence extending into Sun Lu Tang’s Taiji, which makes sense since he learned from this lineage.
Finally, I should note that thought this post I don’t want to create the impression that all the steps in either Xing Yi or Taiji performed by Sun Lu Tang are small or restricted. He also had plenty of wider postures in his arts too, for example.
However, compare it to postures found in other styles of Taiji whose practitioners didn’t have to wear court dress:
My copy of Chen Taijiquan Illustrated arrived, and I’ve almost finished it. It’s an easy read since the word count isn’t very high – it’s essentially a series of high quality training notes, illustrated, which I think really helps to convey the message in a way that text alone cannot. I’m not going to do a full review for a while, I’m going to let the book sink in first, but I might do a series of posts on ideas it has sparked in me.
Here’s the first one.
The thing I wanted to talk about today was how similar Chen style (as described in this book) is to Yang style. I think a Yang stylist would get almost as much out of this book as a Chen stylist. While the content and methods described in the book all clearly derive from Chen style, as do the illustrations, I’d say 90% (or more) of what’s described here is exactly the same as Yang style.
So what’s different? Bits and bobs on silk reeling, some stepping methods and stance details and the bits on fajin. But even then, they’re not something alien to a Yang stylist, and would be easily within reach of anybody who wanted to take their practice in that direction.
What’s the same? The emphasis on posture is really good here – how to round the back, contain the chest, round the kua, the eight energies, the 5 steps, push hands strategy and training methods, quotes from the classics, being centred and upright, rooting, the dantien, martial applications, etc.
What was I surprised not to find more of? Opening and closing using the 5 bows, and empty and solid. Perhaps more on using the force from the ground… There are mentions of these things throughout, but the book never really goes deeply into them. Perhaps it was too complex for the illustrated book-based approach? There’s only so much you can fit in one book, and there’s plenty of content here.
However, the emphasis on the body requirements of Tai Chi, and explanation of why these things are done, is excellent and transfers effortlessly across Tai Chi styles. It’s reminded me a lot how similar Yang style and Chen style are ‘under the hood’, so to speak. I wrote a post recently where I talked about them being similar but different. I still kind of think that. My view is that at some point Chen style incorporated the ideas contained in “Taijiquan” wholesale from Yang Luchan’s lucrative teaching business in Beijing into its larger, pre-existing, village style (which was more militia fighting and weapons-based) – it absorbed it whole – a bit like a whale swallowing a smaller fish. It was easy because all Chinese styles are similar to some extent. But of course, this means that the Yang style is still there inside Chen, and it’s impossible not to see how ‘almost the same’ they are when reading this book. (I think the spiraling and silk reeling stuff was from the pre-existing Chen style). Your opinion may be different. Food for thought!
Thanks to Ken Gullette at Internal Fighting Arts I just caught wind of this new book that’s just come out called Chen Taijiquan Illustrated. I had a quick look on Amazon using the “Look Inside” feature and the illustrations look fantastic. It looks like it’s designed to be halfway between an instruction manual and a comic. It’s a very cool style that’s quite unlike any Tai Chi book I’ve seen before.
I think that often Tai Chi books, with pages after pages of printed text, can be a bit off putting for people who are learning an art that is all about feel, movement and “doing it”, not “reading about it”. And when they do have photographs in them they are often black and white and a bit dull and lifeless. So, for the visual learners out there, I think the colourful and imaginative approach found in Chen Taijiquan Illustrated will work very well.
Here’s an example:
Here’s another thing: Looking at the contents page, this is the first Tai Chi book I’ve seen that mentions the concept of Man, which translates as Slowness, apart from the book written by my Tai Chi teacher. Man is a concept my teacher talks about a lot, and it’s nice to see it mentioned in another Tai Chi book – I was starting to think that it was a concept that was unknown to the rest of the Tai Chi world!
Obviously everybody and their dog knows that Tai Chi is done slowly, but Man is more of a mental quality than a reference to the speed of the form. It can be thought of as “not rushing”. The speed you are moving at is irrelevant to the concept of Man, but if you want to acquire the ability of Man then the best way is by slowing the form down and focusing on keeping your mind on what you are doing. Whenever you find your mind wandering off you just stop the form (no matter how far through it you are) and start again. After a few weeks or months you’ll find you are much better at staying focused on your form than you were before. By adopting the qualities of “not rushing” you open up the headspace required to be aware of other things going on, things that you would simply miss otherwise. I’ve written about not rushing before.
At £16 Chen Taijiquan Illustrated is not particularly expensive for a colour book either. And I’d love it if there was a book on Brazilian Jiutjisu that was written and illustrated in the same manner because I think it would also benefit from this approach. Incidentally, there was a good book written about Brazilian Jiujitsu recently, that has colour photos (and very nice ones too) that I still dip into now and again called Nonstop Jiujitsu, by Stephan Kesting and Brandon Mullins. I reviewed it on my blog recently, so check out my review.
I’ve ordered my copy of Chen Taijiquan Illustrated so will review it at some point in the future.
I got asked once by a CMA practitioner what the “Shen fa” (body methods) of Brazilian Jiujitsu were and I drew a blank. The only answer I could come up with was “we don’t have any”. What I think we have instead though are foundational movements. Let me explain.
While Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, Xing Yi and Bagua all have “Shen Fa”, which are “body methods” that need to be internalised before the practitioner can be considered sufficiently proficient in the art, Brazilian Jiujitsu doesn’t have them in the same way. Instead, it has a series of foundational movements that crop up so often in techniques that they are considered the foundations of the art, and are usually done in class as warmups.
I taught an interesting Jiujitsu class this week. (Well, I thought it was interesting – I think you’d have to ask the students themselves what they thought!) I started with the group practicing the basic Technical Stand Up both forward and reversed (which is doing it backwards, so you go fro standing to sitting down), then with variations like a knee or an elbow on the ground instead of a foot or hand.
A Technical Stand Up is a way of going from sitting on the ground to standing up that exposes you to the least risk if you’ve got an aggressive person attacking you. It minimises your chances of getting kicked in the head and also affords you the ability to kick back at the attacker’s knee, possibly hyper extending their leg painfully.
Once everybody in the class could do a Technical Standup well enough we went on to practice applications that utilised it as part of the technique. A good example is a basic X Guard sweep, or a way of returning to base after completing a tripod sweep. (I’ll not explain what those are here, because I don’t want to get lost in the details of these techniques in this post, because that’s not what this is about.)
Foundational movements in Jiujitsu include the aforementioned Technical Stand Up, but also things like a bridging movement, a hip escape (shrimp), a triangle, a forward (and backwards) roll and an inversion. If you can’t perform these basic movements correctly then your chances of doing any technique correctly are going to be severely limited.
In contrast, Chinese martial arts “body methods” include things like dantien rotation, opening and closing the chest and rounding the kua. These body methods are postural observances and ways of moving that need to be kept in place during all movements.
Why one art should have developed body methods, and the other not even have that concept, is worth thinking about, and I think it relates to the role of form in Chinese martial arts. Practicing solo movement in the shape of a form done in isolation from other people allows the possibility of subtle things like body methods to be developed.
There are no forms in BJJ. Sure there are solo exercises you can practice to warm up or condition the body, but they don’t have the same function as form (tao lu) does in CMA. BJJ is heavily partner orientated. All the drills and sparring need another person physically there to do it with. To practice BJJ we literally have to get together with other people in nice matted areas and throw down. There is no other way.
These body methods in CMA have resulted from forms, but my suspicion is that this was never planned, rather they have grown out of a situation that happens when you are required to practice forms. Why CMA started practicing forms in the first place is a different question – there are some clues as to why that might be in the video I shared the other day by Simon Cox on the Taoist concept of the Subtle Body.
It’s analogous to the situation in China between Shuai Jiao and Kung Fu (Wu Shu). Shuai Jiao has no extended tao lu (forms), like Kung Fu does, but it has an awful lot of solo conditioning exercises with and without weights and belts. I’m not a Shuai Jiao practitioner, but I think you’d be hard pressed to say that Shuai Jiao has Shen Fa in the same way that the various Kung Fu (Wu Shu) styles do.
Is one approach better than the other? I don’t know. They’re just different and personally I enjoy practicing both.
My recent podcast with Chen stylist Ken Gullette has led to me thinking a lot about the differences between Yang style and Chen style Tai Chi Chuan. I know the official view is that these two arts are both the same art – “there is only one Tai Chi” – but I’m not really sure I believe that entirely.
The issue is confusing because a lot of highly partisan Tai Chi practitioners tend to view one of the arts as being a more ‘watered down’ or ‘less internal’ version of the other – if they’re on the Chen side of the argument then they view Yang style as a “watered down for the masses” version of Chen style, and if they’re on team Yang style then they view Chen style as a more “external and Shaolin” aberration of Tai Chi.
I’ve never been interested in either of those two arguments myself as they betray a kind of small-minded “my style is THE BEST” attitude that seeks to simply put down the other style for no good reason beyond “I don’t like it”. It reminds me of the worst aspects of jingoism that seeks to war with other countries simply because they are not us.
When I say I think Yang style and Chen style are really different beasts I mean it in a positive sense – they’re both good, and share a lot of similarities, and both exist under the banner of “Tai Chi”. But the emphasis is quite different between the two. I find Chen style seems to be more concerned with the body mechanics like silk reeling and opening and closing in different parts of the body, and going from being soft to sudden explosive movements (hard) then back to soft again.
Of course, opening and closing is there in Yang style too, but I don’t really know of any Yang stylists that put as much emphasis on it as Chen stylists do, especially the Chen Yu branch of the art, which goes really deep on it (to my eye at least). And as for silk reeling, that seems to be absent in Yang style.
Yang style, in contrast, has its main emphasis on a kind of “needle in cotton” feel throughout. It’s soft on the outside and hard on the inside and all done at the same speed – drawing silk, rather than reeling silk, like a long river flowing. That’s not to say that Chen style can’t be like that too, but the emphasis on that way of being is greater in Yang style.
Of course, the official view from the Chinese government (and Yang and Chen families) is that Chen style is the ancestor of Yang style. End of story. But like most things in China, I suspect it’s more about political expediency than historical accuracy. For example, there’s a complete lack of evidence that Yang Luchan ever visited Chen village, let alone trained there for years and years. (If you want to get picky, there’s hardly any evidence available anywhere that Yang Luchan actually existed at all!) And the Chen family didn’t get in on the Tai Chi teaching business until 1928, which is very, very late in the day compared to Yang style, since Yang Luchan was reputedly teaching Tai Chi in the Forbidden City from the 1860s onwards. There are a lot of holes in the official story. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that the official story can’t be true, but there are enough holes in it to make me the journalist in me question it.
But anyway, In Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points, we find number 6 – use the mind not force. Cheng-Fu goes on to explain that, “In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up. Then you can be agile and able to change. You will be able to turn freely and easily. Doubting this, how can you increase your power?”
I’m willing to bet that this piece of writing is responsible for leading more than a few Tai Chi practitioners down the wrong path, towards wet-noodle Tai Chi. The attitude of being a needle in cotton is the antithesis of this. If you’re going to make the outside soft then the inside of the body has to be hard, otherwise you are just a wet noodle, which sadly a lot of Tai Chi practitioners are. That’s how the Yin/Yang balance is maintained in Yang style.
Importantly, Yang Cheng-Fu goes on to say: “The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “when you are extremely soft, you become extremely hard and strong.” Someone who has extremely good T’ai Chi Ch’uan kung fu has arms like iron wrapped with cotton and the weight is very heavy.”
There it is – the needle in the cotton.
If you can imagine a needle (or an iron bar) wrapped in cotton, then just brushing your hand over the cotton we feel like everything was soft. But if you squeezed the cotton you’d feel that hardness at its centre. That is how the whole body should be when practicing Yang style. It’s a kind of presence that can only be acquired by long practice of Tai Chi Chuan, learning to move while relaxing the muscles and letting the flesh hang from the bones, while keeping the skeletal stricture strong. Both light and heavy at the same time.
I also think it’s very hard to get this feel by only practicing Tai Chi Chuan, and that’s one of the reasons that standing practice and Yi Quan has become so popular amongst Tai Chi practitioners. I think standing practice (Zhan Zhuang) provides a kind of shortcut to the kind of power required to be a needle in the cotton, but that’s a story for another day.
I listened to a rather interesting comment in a podcast recently from a Tai Chi practitioner who preferred to do weapons forms rather than hand forms because “Tai Chi is really a battlefield art” and the postures in the hand form are clearly derived from holding weapons, and it was therefore more authentic to practice the weapons forms. The implication is also that the hand forms were retrofitted onto the art, while the weapons forms are the true origin.
There’s some truth in this idea depending on which art you art talking about, of course. Xing Yi for example – there’s no doubt that the weapons forms came first. Doing a Beng Chuan (a straight punch to the belly or chest area) barehand, as presented in the classical 5 Elements form, leaves a lot of questions unanswered – why is your head not protected as you punch forward, for example? Why is your other hand pulled back at your hip where it’s not doing much of anything? What stops them punching you in the face?
As a barehand method, it’s clearly sub-optimal. Put a spear in your hand, and even better, wear armour, and it starts to make a lot more sense though. The hand withdrawing to your hip is pulling the spear back after a thrust, for example.
But if we’re talking about the long, elaborate weapons forms found in Tai Chi, done usually in silk pyjamas, then you’ve got to ask yourself – what good is all that dancing about if your goal is martial effectiveness on the battlefield? Do you think Chinese soldiers, village militia or bodyguards with spears or Guan Dao did this kind of practice? I don’t think they did. Or maybe they did for demonstrations at the many and frequent festivals in old imperial China in the Qing Dynasty, but what use is all that on a battlefield?
While using a spear, for example, might be connecting your art back to an earlier time and usage, I’m not sure that your 180-move spear form, with jumps, twirls and spins is any more “authentic” than a modern day hand form.
It’s very easy to fool yourself in Chinese martial arts. Stay sharp!
What makes Tai Chi, Tai Chi? One of the things you often hear said is that whole body movement, or whole-body coordination, is what makes Tai Chi different to other kung fu styles. How this is interpreted in Tai Chi Chuan, however, seems to vary slightly, moderately or even hugely depending on the style of Tai Chi you’re watching or doing.
I was scrolling through the excellent 1932 book by Chen Ziming (I’ve discussed this book before) on Chen style small frame called “The inherited Chen family boxing art”. I did a search of the text for “whole-body coordination” and it appeared 34 times! That gives a good sort of indication on how important he thought it was to his Tai Chi Chuan. In fact, the phrase “The entire movement must have whole-body coordination.”, appears in almost every single description of a move in his form.
Earlier in the book he lists the key points of Tai Chi boxing and says:
 WHOLE-BODY COORDINATION
四肢百骸協同動作此之謂周身相隨故太極拳一動無有不動一靜無有不靜 Your four limbs and hundreds of bones are to be moving cooperatively. This is called “whole-body coordination”. Hence in Taiji Boxing: “When one part moves, every part moves, and when one part is still, every part is still.”
He’s quoting “When one part moves…” from the Tai Chi Classics there. But what does he mean?
In some styles of Tai Chi the footwork is lively and continually moving. Wu (Hou) style springs to mind as a good example. In others, there are moments where the practitioner seems to almost stop in a semi-static posture for a moment or two – Chen style springs to mind. It’s therefore no surprise then that people’s definition of what “whole body movement” actually is can vary considerable.
It clearly doesn’t mean that the feet have to be moving all the time. My belief is that it’s more to do with engaging the whole body in a movement – think of the difference of lifting a heavy weight with just your arms, or getting your whole posterior muscle chain involved with the movement, all the way down to the feet. A Judo hip throw is a good martial example. When picking up a heavy object (like a spear) it’s more obvious when you are engaging the whole body and when you’re not. With a solo bare-hand form it requires an extra level of awareness to discern if you are engaging your whole body, or not, in a movement. You can essentially cheat because with no weight to carry, there are no consequences to using local movement. This is one of the advantages of practicing archaic weapons forms, even in the modern age – they give you direct feedback on your whole-body coordination.
On a more subtle (esoteric?) level, whole-body movement can refer to dantien controlled movement, as often exhibited in silk reeling exercises. This is where you’re controlling the extremities (the limbs) by subtle movements from your dantien. This is a step beyond simply activating the posterior muscle chain in a movement, it’s a different way of moving altogether, and well worth investigating. Find out how to do it here.
Whether you subscribe to the belief that a dantien exists, and can be used to control the limbs, or not, you’ll notice that Chen Ziming only listed whole body coordination as one of the key points of Tai Chi boxing. There are others – 10 others in fact. All of which are worth noting too:
Key Points for Taiji Boxing 性質  The Nature of the Art 方法  Methods 程序  Sequence of Training 姿勢  Postures 動作  Movement 呼吸  Breathing 精神  Spirit 變著轉勢  Whole-Body Coordination 周身相隨  Switching Techniques & Transitional Movements 身作心維  The Body Performs & the Mind Ponders 無貪無妄  Do Not Be Greedy or Rash 十三勢術名及其演練法
There seems to be a sudden influx of good things to listen to, so, rather than do individual posts on all of them, I’ve decided to round them up in a collection of Things You Should Be Listening To Right Now
1. Peter Lorge on Inventing Traditional Martial Arts
This was very entertaining. It’s a great lecture on the difference between traditional and modern in martial arts, and how ‘traditional’ is in fact usually created by the ‘modern’.
2. Lavell Marshall & Hohoo – Spirit of the Grassland
I loved this so much. It’s a look into Mongol wrestling culture. It’s from Byron Jacobs who filmed it on a recent trip to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia for a wrestling competition and features Lavell Marshal, who left his life in the west to move to the grasslands and practice Bökh.
“Bökh (Mongolian Wrestling) has been practiced by nomadic and steppe cultures for thousands of years. It epitomizes the culture of the Mongolian people and the spirit of the grassland.
Lavell Marshal (Hangai), left his life in the west to move to the grasslands of Inner-Mongolia to study the art under Ho Bagsh (Coach Hohoo), a well-known wrestler and former national Shuai Jiao champion.”
3. Why Conspiracy Theories Are So Damn Hard to Disprove, with Dr Hanan Bushkin
This podcast isn’t necessarily martial arts related, but a lot of martial artists seem to be the sort of people that fall prey to conspiracy theories. I know, because I talk to them. This podcast sheds some light on why that is.
“Dr Hanan Buskin is a clinical psychologist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In this episode we go deep into the benefits conspiracy theorist get from believing and sharing their crazy ideas and the long, difficult process required to gently wean them off conspiratorial thinking. “
4. Belts, Ranking, Titles & Hierarchy In Jiu-Jitsu With Priit Mihkelson
I had Priit as my guest in episode 5 of my podcast. In his most recent appearance, on the Sonny Brown Breakdown, he lays into the traditional structure of belts and titles in marital arts. He’s always worth listening to and I always find he delivers a fresh and interesting perspective on things.
“I talk to Priit Mihkelson, A Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt From Estonia and founder of Defensive BJJ. Priit always has a lot of interesting takes on the teaching, training & traditions of Jiu-Jitsu and after recently relocating his school I took the chance to ask him about his thoughts on belt rankings. We have a great conversation about how he has applied them to his Defensive BJJ system and set up his new school. We then move on to the use of hierarchy & titles like Professor and Master and their place in Jiu-Jitsu”.
5. Ken Gullette on internal body mechanics.
Finally, here’s another plug for my own podcast, The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast. I had Ken Gullette on recently who practices and teaches all the main internal arts but specialises in Chen style. Here’s the link to the podcast.
I really enjoyed this chat and although it becomes something of, “two old men talking about all their injuries”, at one point I think there’s a lot of value here. It also introduced me to a marital artist called Nabil Ranné from Germany.
Here he is teaching “Lazily Tying Coat” from Chen style.