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.

The Taiping Rebellion and its influence on Taijiquan

This is Hong Xiuquan, the extremist Christian who orchestrated the biggest and most bloody civil war in history, the Taiping rebellion. It happened around the same time as the American civil war, and shared a lot of similarities.

Hong Xiuquan

The Taiping’s had some previously unimaginable beliefs in China, like equality for men and women (women fought in their army, which reached a million people) and no private ownership of land.

From the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Taiping Christianity placed little emphasis on New Testament ideas of kindness, forgiveness, and redemption. Rather, it emphasized the wrathful Old Testament God who demanded worship and obedience. Prostitution, foot-binding, and slavery were prohibited, as well as opium smoking, adultery, gambling, and use of tobacco and alcohol. Organization of the army was elaborate, with strict rules governing soldiers in camp and on the march. For those who followed these rules, an ultimate reward was promised. Zeng Guofan was astonished when, after the capture of Nanjing, almost 100,000 of the Taiping followers preferred death to capture.

https://www.britannica.com/event/Taiping-Rebellion

Under the Taipings, the Chinese language was simplified, and equality between men and women was decreed. All property was to be held in common, and equal distribution of the land according to a primitive form of communism was planned. Some Western-educated Taiping leaders even proposed the development of industry and the building of a Taiping democracy. The Qing dynasty was so weakened by the rebellion that it never again was able to establish an effective hold over the country. Both the Chinese communists and the Chinese Nationalists trace their origin to the Taipings.

https://www.britannica.com/event/Taiping-Rebellion

We believe these historical events contributed directly to the creation of Taijiquan. Without the Ching court being rocked to its core respected Confucian court officials like Wu Yuxiang and his brother would not have even interacted with a low-level martial artist like Yang Luchan. But the Taiping rebellion was not the only crises happening in China at the same time. A dynasty can survive one crisis, but several at once? No chance. The Yangtze river flooded leading to a catastrophic famine and loss of life and the British and the French started the second Opium war. There was also the Nian rebellion in the North.

The Taiping’s were eventually defeated with help from the Mongols and British. (The British wanted to sell opium, to sustain their empire and the Taiping’s were against that). If the rebellion had suceeded, just imagine the different China that would have emerged.

We cover all this in the 3rd part of your history of Taijiquan, and the crucial moment when the Wus first meet the Chens:

The Myth of Taijiquan part 1

The Myth of Taijiquan part 2

The Myth of Taijiquan part 3

The Drunken Boxing podcast. Episode 1 Marin Spivak.

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Byron Jacobs, who produced the excellent XingYi San Ti Shi primer I posted recently, has launched a new podcast that’s well worth checking out.

In the first episode, Byron talks to Marin Spivak, Chen Tai Chi disciple of Chen Yu, about what it’s like going to live and train gung fu in Beijing as a Westerner back in the 1990s and 2000s. Both Byron and Marvin made the jump to live and train in Beijing, so they have a good insight into Chinese culture, and particular gong fu culture.

I really liked the discussion of the tangled network of gong fu culture a prospective student has to find their way through in China, and which the average western student has no idea exists at all.

Enjoy. Link.

 

 

Chen Ziming’s general comments on Taijiquan

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Delving deeper into Chen Ziming’s book.

I posted yesterday about a translation of Chen Ziming’s book “The inherited Chen family Taiji boxing art” that is available on the Brennan translations website. I’ve just started reading it and noticed a couple of interesting things I thought I’d post about.

(It should be noted that I often read critiques of the translations by P. Brennan, saying there is too much of the author’s own interpretation in there, rather than a literal translation, so take that into consideration.)

Firstly, who was Chen Ziming?

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Chen Ziming was the same generation of Chen family boxing as Chen Fake, who moved to Beijing and made Chen style famous in the capital. Chen Ziming really rose to fame as being the student of Chen Xin, who (unusually for the time) was literate and wrote the first book on Chen style Taijiquan Taijiquan Illustrated, which contained several drawings of silk reeling energy which are still used today. The book was published after the death of Chen Xin by the historian Tang Hao and others. Chen Xin died in 1929. Some extracts of Chen Xin’s book are available on Jarek’s China from Inside.

There are various subdivisions of styles within Chen style. There is a big frame, small frame, old frame and new frame. As a student of Chen Xin, Ziming promoted what is known as the “small frame” of Chen Taijiquan. This sub style was born in the Chen village and uses smaller circles as a feature of its practice (it uses the same forms other Chen styles use).

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While the small frame is often said to be the more ‘traditional’ method because it stayed in the village longer, all Chen substyles share the same principles, so they’re not really separate styles, just each has a different emphasis, reflecting the person who passed them on.

From Wikipedia:

The increased interest in Chen-style t’ai chi ch’uan led Tang Hao (唐豪; 1887–1959), one of the first modern Chinese martial art historians, to visit and document the martial lineage in Chen Village in 1930 with Chen Ziming.[10] During the course of his research, he consulted with a manuscript written by 16th generation family member Chen Xin (陳鑫; Ch’en Hsin; 1849–1929) detailing Chen Xin’s understanding of the Chen Village heritage. Chen Xin’s nephew, Chen Chunyuan, together with Chen Panling (president of Henan Province Martial Arts Academy), Han Zibu (president of Henan Archives Bureau), Wang Zemin, Bai Yusheng of Kaiming Publishing House, Guan Baiyi (director of Henan Provincial Museum) and Zhang Jiamou helped publish Chen Xin’s work posthumously. The book entitled Taijiquan Illustrated (太極拳圖說 see classic book) was published in 1933 with the first print run of thousand copies.[11]

From Wikipedia:

Chen Xin initially trained with his father but his father ordered him to study literature rather than the martial arts. It was only later that he decided to use his literature skills to describe his understanding of the secrets of Chen style. In Chen Xin’s generation, his older brother, Chen Yao and his cousin, Chen Yanxi(陈延熙, father of Chen Fake) were considered masters of the Chen style. Chen Xin’s legacy is his book and his student, Chen Ziming (陈子明). Chen Ziming, went on to promote Chen style small frame throughout China and wrote books [32] promoting the art. Chen Ziming was in the same generation as Chen Fake.”

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At the start of the book Chen lists 9 ‘general comments’ about Taijiquan.

The first 6 are a kind of an orientation to the subject and a guide to what is in the book. From point 7 onwards it gets interesting. He makes some very good observations about Taijiquan that are worth reflecting on.

7. The boxing art called Taiji seeks an appearance of ease. Once you have practiced it to familiarity, you will be able to understand its subtleties and your body’s actions will never depart from the principles. If in the beginning you overanalyze each technique, you will come up with strained interpretations of them and will only get yourself stuck in your ideas, and this will instead hinder your progress. However, if you are able to abide by the principles, then after practicing for a long time you will naturally enter into a transformation of spirit. Therefore the solo set in this book is presented only as postures and movements, giving guidance in skills without lapsing into contrived profundities. As long as you do not forget that this boxing art is called “Taiji”, then through gradual practice the art will come to conform to the taiji concept.

He further elucidates on the idea of “conforming to the Taiji concept” in point 8:

8. Learning Taiji Boxing, regardless of beginner or advanced practitioner, never goes beyond the methods of movement and stillness, opening and closing, rising and lowering, turning side to side. As a beginner, you have to clearly distinguish between these opposites. Then after a prolonged period of training you will achieve such skill that at any time you will be able to alternate between them with your whole body all at once, which is the most delightful aspect of the advanced level.

This reiterates an important point in Taiji practice. Your body needs to be going through a process of going from one ‘extreme’ to another to be practicing Tai Chi. (I put extreme in quotes because there are no physically extreme positions in Tai Chi, unlike Yoga, for instance). You do need to arrive at a closed position, then move to an open position and then close and so on. That action is what makes the Chen boxing art “Taijiquan”. That action can also only really be achieved by doing what Taiji people call “moving from the dantien”.

That’s one of the profundities about Taijiquan. Everything is tightly packed together into the simple concept of “Taiji”. Like Dr Who’s Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. There’s a lot of stuff in there and you need to unpack it bit by bit to understand the profound simplicity of the whole.

Chen village has grown

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I found an interesting post on Slantedflying.com about Chen village and how it’s grown. There’s a video in it that shows an aerial view of the village and the massive training hall. It’s more like a small city than a “village” now!

It’s incredible how the popularity of Tai Chi has transformed this “rural backwater” (as I’ve often heard it described) into a bustling, modern, mini-city.

Here’s the video:

 

 

January forms challenge!

New Year, new form

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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: