Thoughts on Chen Taijiquan Illustrated #1 – Yang style vs Chen style

The newest addition to my collection!

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!

New book alert! Chen Taijiquan Illustrated

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.

Chen Taijiquan Illustrated – available now!

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:

An extract from Chen Taijiquan Illustrated by David Gaffney and Davidine Siaw-Voon Sim

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!

Tai Chi Chuan a comprehensive training manual by Raymond Rand

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.

Nonstop Jiujitsu by Brandon Mullins and Stephan Kesting

I’ve ordered my copy of Chen Taijiquan Illustrated so will review it at some point in the future.

What’s better in martial arts – Body Methods or Foundational Movements?

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.

Sweaty work – a fun class!

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.

How to do a Technical Stand Up

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.

Torso Flung Punch by Chen Zhaopi, 1930,

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.

Yang style Tai Chi: The needle in the cotton

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.

Single whip posture by Li Xianwu, 1933.

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.

Are weapons forms more traditional than hand forms?

(Chen Wei Ming – Tai Chi Sword 1928)

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?

(Liu Dianchen, Beng Chuan, 1921)

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!

Whole body movement

Chen Ziming demonstrating whole body coordination.

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:


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.”

Chen Ziming

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
 [1] The Nature of the Art
 [2] Methods
 [3] Sequence of Training
 [4] Postures
 [5] Movement
 [6] Breathing
 [7] Spirit
 [8] Whole-Body Coordination
 [9] Switching Techniques & Transitional Movements
 [10] The Body Performs & the Mind Ponders
 [11] Do Not Be Greedy or Rash

Things You Should Be Listening to Right Now

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’.

You can get this one on YouTube or as a podcast.

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.

Lineage Queens

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a Chinese martial artist start to explain the history of their style in a way that means, by sheer coincidence, that their particular lineage is the most special and authentic example of all the different branches of their style, then I’d be as rich as a relative of a Conservative MP in 2020 with no previous experience of procuring PPE equipment.

So, what’s going on here? Obviously not every single Chinese martial artist you talk to can have the ultimate lineage of a style, so one of two things is happening here. Either, you’ve just happened to bump into that one guy on the planet who has the best version of this style known to mankind… Or, like most human beings, the person talking lacks the self awareness to see that they are parroting a line they’ve been sold, and that they’re now selling to you. Everybody likes to think that they are doing the real thing, and that means, that all the other people who do their martial art a bit differently to them therefore can’t also be doing the real thing. As a side note, I think the elaborate and fanciful origin stories of most Chinese martial arts serve a similar purpose – to make the students confident that their style is somehow better than the others.

The most recent example of this phenomina I’ve listened to was in an episode of a podcast featuring a Chen style lineage holder talking about why his style is the best. The whole episode is essentially about who has the real Chen style lineage – the Beijing Chen group or the Village Chen group. I don’t do Chen style myself, and don’t really have any desire to either, so I don’t have a dog in the fight, but listening to the long, convoluted reasoning he used to explain exactly why his lineage is better than the others, I do wonder if he’s ever stopped to listen to himself?

Martial arts styles are essentially brands, and everybody involved is selling you their particular brand in one way or another, whether they realise it or not. This is a cynical view to take on martial arts, I agree, but I think it’s also historically accurate. Martial arts styles only appeared in China the age of commercialism when people realised that it was possible to make money teaching them. Before that different styles didn’t necessarily have different names, or names at all. Once you could make money teaching it was necessary to differentiate your particular style from others, otherwise, how would you attract students?

I don’t mean to single out the Chen style guy – he’s not alone by a long stretch – but it seems to me that all Chinese martial artists have some version of the same story they tell themselves about why their lineage is the most special, unique or authentic. Heck, I used to be one of those guys myself!

This is usually the point where my very wise Polish BJJ friend taps me on the shoulder and reminds me with his usual Spartan brevity that the only reason lineage becomes important is because the art has died and nobody is using it to fight with any more.

Again, that sounds a bit harsh, but he could well be right. BJJ is a brand like any other martial arts, and very marketing heavy, but in BJJ circles people don’t tend to care about lineage in the way they do in Chinese martial arts because the art has a healthy competiton culture. Nobody would say things like, “This is not the real Rio De Janeiro style of jiujitsu”. They’d just get laughed out of town for saying that. In BJJ, if you can make a technique work in training, or even better, in competition, then it’s valid. There is no need for any other type of validation. If it works, it works. You are expected to add to it and innovate. I really like that. Sure, there are a few branches of the BJJ tree that venerate the original self-defence orientated teachings of Helio Gracie as if they were written in stone, and refuse to modernise for fear of losing their street effectiveness, but they’re not that big a deal in the great scheme of things. The rest of the BJJ world carefully steps around them so they can carry on living in the 1930s without affecting anybody else. It’s not a big problem.

Lineage is real. It exists. But surely, what matters more is what we can actually do with the art?

My question is always, “does it work?” If it does, I’m interested.

Don’t stick out your bottom!

I had an interesting conversation with a reader recently about Tai Chi and butts, which I thought I’d share as it’s a good topic. A lot of Tai Chi people, me included, tend to stick out their bottom slightly during form and push hands. Maybe more so in push hands… either way, it’s a fault that inhibits relaxation.

Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

I think in push hands it happens because people try to “brace” against the incoming force to stop themselves being pushed backwards, but by going for a short term solution they are inhibiting their progress in the long term.

Q: Do you have any experience of Chen style TCC? I’ve been to a few lessons. Seems like, in order to soften the kua sufficiently, you need to stick your backside out more than in Yang….?! Having spent a whole lifetime trying not to do this, it feels weird…..!

A: I’ve never really done Chen style, but I’ve looked into their silk reeling exercises quite a bit – just the simple one hand “wave” – I really like that and do it quite often.

I’ve seen some Chen stylists that stick their butt out a lot, but to be fair I’ve also seen a lot of Yang styists do the same. I think as part of an opening and closing movement it’s ok (like in Yoga, for example), but leaving it “stuck out” all the time can’t be right. Tai Chi requires you to move from the waist (or the dantien, if you like) and that encompasses both the front (belly), sides and back of the body around the waist line – the lower back is part of that. If you put your hands on your lower back then stick your butt out you can feel your muscles contract and tighten – having a tight lower back as your default means you can’t effectively “move from the dantien” so everything else you do, no matter how clever or artful looking, has to be wrong because the foundation is wrong.

When doing silk reeling exercises I try to keep my lower back relaxed and “hanging down” – that’s the right feel – so the movement can originate there. The form should be no different. I feel like the people who stick out their butt have simply missed an obvious problem with their Tai Chi.

A reply to Mark Chen

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

I recently reviewed Mark Chen’s book “Chen Syle Taijiquan Collected Masterworks” which is a really good translation of Chen Zhaopi’s 1935 book on Taijiquan with additional translation notes from the author and appendices on Tai Chi matters. It’s a good book and he did a great job. That should be the end of it, but I’ve somehow got dragged into a side issue.

As part of my review I did notice that some included documents, called “Chen Chanxing’s Discussion of Taijiquan’s 10 main points”, that Chen Zhaopi attributes to his ancestor Chen Chanxing, were in fact the 10 Thesis of Yue Fei, but with the name “Taijiquan” unscrupulously inserted into them and Chen Chanxing attributed as author.

These documents are widely known as the “Xing Yi Classics” or “The 10 Thesis of Yue Fei” – and while nobody really thinks, or can prove, that Yue himself wrote them, they’ve always been associated with the martial art of Xing Yi/Xin Yi – there is simply no debate about this. I raised this issue in my review.

Mark has posted a response to this issue in my comments section, which I’ll address in full here:

“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.

OK, he’s factually correct about this, (except for calling Mr Sigman’s comments “thoughtful” 😉 ) but he’s taken a position worthy of a modern politician, I feel. He’s simultaneously leaving enough room to wiggle out of saying Chen Chanxing wrote the 10 Main Points (dropping just one single “may” in the book, before making the assertion several times) while at the same time doubling down on the inference that it is true because the time period fits.

Mark continues:

“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.

First let’s deal with Mark’s strawman argument of Yue’s authorship. Nobody sensible these days is claiming that this is true, so let’s not get distracted. The way Mark draws a parallel between Chang San Feng and Yue Fei is interesting though.

I’ve heard this comparison between Chang San Feng and Yue Fei before. For sure, Yue Fei didn’t write the Xing Yi classics, but they certainly do embody his philosophy – which we know in detail because he was real. The Tai Chi classics have got nothing to do with Chang San Feng’s philosophy, especially because he never existed, whereas there is incontrovertible evidence that Yue Fei was a real, flesh and blood person. 

The point about citations from Ming Dynasty works being supportive of a Tai Chi origin of the Xing Yi classics is very strange – maybe I read it wrong, but the postures mentioned in General Qi’s Ming Dynasty manual are in virtually everything – there are more variations on single whip in Baji than there are in Tai Chi, for example. 

Richard Dawkins made the criticism that comparisons between imaginary details of imaginary things seem to be more important in religion than is the actual existence or otherwise of those things. It’s a really good observation, and I think 100% true when people start to defend the religion of Taijiquan.

But the real elephant in the room is the content of the 10 Main Points/10 Thesis. Theses are replete with Xing Yi terminology, but there is very little Tai Chi terminology. Mark himself notices this and remarks upon it in his book! I would offer a simpler explanation: Perhaps the reason why these writings are so untypical of Taijiquan is that… they’re not about Taijiquan?

And then there’s the long history of these writings being associated with Xing Yi both in a literary and oral tradition, which Mark completely ignores.

Here are just 3 examples of quotes from the 10 Thesis from the literary tradition on Xing Yi to establish my case:

1.  Sun Lu Tang’s “Xing Yi Manual” (1915)

 Sun Lu Tang writes: 

 “While once at Bai Xiyuan’s home in Beijing, I got to see one of the Yue Fei manuals, not an original copy of course, but a handwritten copy made by someone in a later generation.

While we don’t see his copy of the manual in his book, it establishes the tradition of this hand copied manual attributed to Yue Fei coming down the generations.

2. Li Jianqiu’s “Xing Yi Manual” (1919)

As mentioned before, this 1919 Xing Yi manual contains all 10 chapters of the 10 Thesis in its entirety. They are at the end of the book:

And inside, in a preference written by Zheng Lianpu it states:

“In the summer of 1915, I returned south, and as I passed my hometown, people praised me as a prominent expert for making a study of the contents of Yue Fei’s boxing manual. Within it are nine chapters of essential principles and one chapter on fighting. Although the content of the writing is not without its flaws, the style of the writing is marvelous, powerful, and smooth, and as suits the work of Yue Fei, the theory is refined and thorough. It is certainly not the case that Yue Fei was unable to communicate. I say that equipped with this old Xingyi manual, you too will obtain such a level of clarity.”

3. Liu Dianchen’s Selected subtleties of Xingyi Boxing Art (1920)

Selected Subtleties of the Xingyi Boxing Art by Liu Dianchen

This book from 1920 quotes freely from “The manual”, which is, of course, Yue Fei’s 10 Thesis.

E.g. “The Manual says: “The hand lifts like an arrow and drops like the wind, chasing the wind and pursuing the moon without letting up.” It also says this on the quickness of the hand techniques: “Attack where he is unprepared and appear where he does not expect. Do not fear his vigor and fierceness, for with but a move he is defeated.” “

This is from Thesis 9, the Thesis of Stepping.

Mark continues:

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.”

Yes, I think that’s exactly what it is!

A version of it has possibly ended up in the Chen village at some point and been adapted. However, I think I’ve shown that the oral and literary provenance unequivocally connects it to the martial art of Xing Yi/Xin Yi explicitly, not Taijiquan. Mike’s argument (as I understand it) is that the 3 internal arts are all the same “stuff”, so what applies to one applies equally to all 3. I’d disagree. I’ve already posted about how this mashing together of history is just intellectually lazy. In reality, most Tai Chi people know very little about Xing Yi but they feel like they are authorities on it because they know the “main thing” in the internal arts, (according to them).

Like I said, Mark’s book is great – you should get it. He’s said his piece about my review, which is fair enough, but personally, I disagree. C’est la vie. I’ve little enthusiasm for getting into a long protracted debate over it with either Mark or Mr Sigman because I don’t know what else there is to say, so hopefully they’ll just let it be.

We can but hope!