Silk reeling and Shen Jiazhen (1891-1972)

Shen Jiazhen (1891-1972) co-authored the book Chen Shi Taijiquan (1963), which contained the famous silk reeling diagram below:


Silk reeling is the essential skill of Chen style Tai Chi Chuan and involves learning how to wind the body so that all movements arise from the dantien, and that when ‘one part moves, all parts move’. Other styles of Tai Chi do pay lip service to this idea, of course, but I think only the Chen style really gets into it in the level of depth that’s required because they have a deliberate method (Silk reeling) that’s all about this concept.

When I look at family members of other Tai Chi styles perform Tai Chi I don’t see the same type of movement that you find in Chen style. It’s hard to evaluate of course since a lot of Tai Chi masters can hide the details of the movements. I’ve been told that the current head of the Chen style, Chen Xiaowang, is very good at hiding the movement so you don’t see it. But if you look at videos of Wu and Yang family members I don’t believe that the same silk reeling is really going on there. I see lots of really smooth movement (sometimes called “drawing silk”) but not the dantien control that you typically associate with Chen style.

If you understand the concept of silk reeling I see no reason why it can’t be added to these other styles of Tai Chi, of course. In fact, my own lineage started as a Yang style, but it is more of a hybrid style, as it has gone outside of the bounds of a single “family style” and added in elements from elsewhere, including silk reeling from the Chen style. It doesn’t pretend it got it from elsewhere.

When my Tai Chi teacher introduced me to silk reeling he used the pattern in the diagram above from the Shen Jiazhen book on Chen style. Looking back now I realise that this was actually a very difficult place to start with silk reeling because of the pattern’s complexity. It mimics the Tai Chi diagram… but not quite completely. If you look at the bottom of the diagram you’ll see that there’ s an extra little circle going on. The changes from open to close are also really frequent and quick, compared to a standard single arm wave silk reel.

The way my teacher taught me you stood in a forward bow stance and did one arm at a time. Then change stance for the other arm. The illustrations of the hands are pretty accurate and show the way the palm turns nicely. The numbers are important because these indicate the positions where the body changes from open to close and vice versa (with accompanying weight shifts). The diagram on the left is for the left hand and the diagram on the right is for the right hand.

A portion of Shen’s book on the subject of silk reeling has been translated into English and can be read here.

As I said, I don’t think this exercise is good for beginners. A better starting point for learning the basics of silk reeling would be a simple single arm wave. The best instruction I’ve seen on this is by Mr Mike Sigman. In this video (which I’ve posted before, I think) he explains the concept of muscle/tendon channels, open and close and goes over a basic single arm wave and what you should be doing in very clear terms: