Chen Taiji Quan ( Tai Chi Chuan ) has many varieties that have developed over the years. Some of them are authentic, some of them are bizarre, and some of them are focused on particular areas of development at the expense of other areas. The art integrated techniques of many of the prominent martial arts of Chen Wangting’s day. These are techniques that are commonly shared by many martial arts, but the difference is in the method of application and cultivation.
The Chen practice consists of mainly two forms that have been compressed from perhaps seven at some point in the past. The two main sets are first road, Yi Lu, and second road, Er Lu. The first road is sometimes called the negative (Yin) set because it leans more towards internal development and cultivation of internal energy, techniques of yielding, attaching, and changing in relation to opponent’s movement. The second road is sometimes called the Yang set as it focuses more on expression of developed internal energy, offensive striking, non attachment and hardness in relation to opponents force and movement. In fact both of these forms cultivate both Yin and Yang elements in regards to martial arts as well as cultivation, but the second (Er Lu) is often more visibly outwardly aggressive. Besides these two forms as a basis, there is still a lot more.
I am not greatly interested in names, classifications and theoretic systems. I appreciate what works and is authentic. if it does not work or is not authentic, a special name will not redeem it. Here is a brief look at some of the lines within Chen gongfu.
Chen art now consists of many different styles; In the Chen Zhao Kui line (Direct family line from the last family head, Chen Fa Ke) the gong fu is called Chen Shi Taiji Quan (Chen style Tai Chi Chuan). It still retains elements of Chen Fa ke’s practice. Traditionally only the head of the family was allowed to make changes to the family art (this may be disputed, and I am sure everyone has made their own changes anyhow). Chen Fa ke made some additions and editions that resulted in a significantly more complex art that may lead to quicker development (according to some) of skill if practiced correctly.
Some of the movements are more intricate and some more clear in terms of how to train the energy. It is overall one of the more difficult ways to practice. The stance is low to medium height and should not be wider than two shoulder widths of the practitioner (not extremely wide.) The movements may be big and small but focus on development of small circle energy (topic for another discussion) and power in all movements. There is body opening and closing as well as techniques that do not exist in other branches.
Some people in Chen Jia Gou or within a line that originated under Chen ZhaoPi instead of Chen Fa Ke call their form Lao Jia meaning old frame. Some of the exponents of this line include Chen XiaoWang, Chen ZhengLei, and Zhu TianCai. The movements can be very big as well as the stance, wide and may be fairly low. The principles and methods should not vary greatly from those of the Zhao Kui line except for what I have mentioned, though the shape and particulars of many mmovements may be very different.
There is also a style that is now called xiao jia (small frame) which is similar but has smaller movements, and has a different view of the execution of certain principles and techniques. The XiaoJia line is represented by practicioners such as Chen LiQing and Chen Peiju.
There is an offshoot of xiao jia that someone named zhaobao style, referring to thhe nearby village called Zhaobao. There is also a related form named after someone named “He” so it is called He style, though similar. Another branch of this is also callled “hulei Jia” meaning thunder style. These are all actually branches off of xiaojia to my understanding.
Feng ZhiQiang was a student of Chen FaKe, but due to differences with other Chen lines, he named his style “Chen Shi Xin Yi Hun Yuan Taiji Quan.” His practice includes some elements and flavor of Liu He Xin Yi Quan practice. The movements in general are large and the stance tends to be medium height and medium to large width, bigger than Chen Zhao Kui line. The practice focuses on relaxation, stretching, extending the Qi, and well… It is also a bit complicated.
Chen Taiji Quan method starts with the mind. By using intention and visualization a movement begins in the mind and then leads the body’s energy (Qi) to move the body physically. Proper harmony of Body and Qi creates useable energy called (Jing.) In Taiji quan the mind first controls the body, then movement of the body cultivates internal energy, by opening energy pathways (Lu) and agitating joints and energy release centers of the body. Also, proper movement of the extremities controls the way the center of the body moves.
This works both ways, however, the center also controls the way the extremities move. Aiyaah…this is so complicated, yes, that is why one learns it step by step. To explain it all here just results in a mass of contradictions and paradoxes. One cannot really understand all the levels at the same time until one has practiced for a long time. Once you really understand all these levels (by doing) it becomes even more futile to try to explain them all at once.
I have seen it written in various locations and publications, the levels of practice in Taiji quan written in an organized fashion. I am not going to do that because In my experience there is little that is organized about it. There is no standard Taiji path. There are the basic principles, the forms, techniques, and practice methods, but the path will vary according to the needs and abilities of the student.
Taijiquan is said to be “Yi Rou Ke Gang” which means basically that softness overcomes hardness. While modern interpretations of the art have grown to define Taijiquan as a completely soft art. This principle of softness does not intend to define the level of hardness or softness used in the art, but a specific method for engaging hard force by using softness, which in this case is not always actual softness of the the limbs or even application, but a flexibility or non-rigidity towards change and force. Often softness and relaxed movement is taught first as an entry into the door of Taijiquan, but it is not the end of the road.
Some may criticize Taijiquan for starting students by learning such refined movement. Some arts start instead on the gross movements later leading to fine movements. Taijiquan is slow to learn, and only one in many will actually develop anything at all. It is also worthy of note that one must choose their sacrifice. If you choose to start with the high level technique and move towards the union of the gross and the fine, there is the likelihood that you will never make it to the complete stage, however, if you start with the gross and move towards the fine, you may never make it to the fine stage either.
Taijiquan was created by an older man who had a lot of experience, so it is a bit picky and insists on the practitioner being committed to study of refined elements. This is hard, but when it works the skill is super fine. The truth about the levels is that it is not easy to say exactly how one will progress, but people as always like to arrange ideas into clean systematic courses that are easily understood. However you arrange them, these are the elements of development that need to be attained in Chen taijiquan:
1) coordination and familiarity. Students during this period are just learning the movements and trying to remember them. Fast speed would not be beneficial at this level when learning the forms…but is applicable when practicing san shou and other fighting applications which can be studied at any time. It all depends on the student.
2) development and differentiation. At this stage the student must separate, identify, and cultivate the energies of Yin and Yang within the body and movements. The method at this stage must be more Yin than Yang, so softer rather than harder, and fluidity rather than rigidity
3) engaging. At this time the student must practice using the Yin Yang differentiation and express the difference by practicing power strength and speed coming from softness, emptiness, and slowness. One must find the connection in the body to apply strength and power.
4) unifying. Now the forces of Yin and Yang become one, they are not the same, but one, well that is another complicated story. This stage is like a churning, like the sea or inside a volcano, a mixing of Qi. It is neither hard nor soft, but interchangeable; what appears soft has hard within, and vise versa.
5) Taiji. This is just being the Taiji energy. It can be called return to Wu Ji or emptyness, again complicated. No words for this really.
So, these are the necessary elements. They may be studied in another order, or concurrently, but they build on each other so learning out of sequence can have pitfalls. Other people may explain them differently or with more or less stages, but they must have these essential ideas to function. Most of the taijiquan practitioners that I have met have some attainment of only stages 1 and 3. That means they know the moves…maybe, and they can use some power, but they are missing the fundamental building blocks of stage 2 and therefore can never attain stage 4 or 5.
I have also met others who only have stages 1, and 2. these students never learned stage 3 so they only think they have stage 4, Ai…that is disappointing. That means they have developed the differentiation and the flavor of the gongfu, but no real power, and no real connection or Yang expression happening in the body. If you are lucky enough to learn 1, 2, and 3 from someone truly good, then you have a good foundation. By the time you are involved in stage 4 it mostly up to you. The way must be shown by the teacher, but only the student can traverse it. Stage 5 is entirely up to the student.
As they say about gongfu; the teacher only points the way and opens the door.
Just watch out that they are not pointing the wrong way…