The High Level Skills of Chen Fake
The High Level Skills of Chen Fake
by Peter Wu Shi-Zeng
Published in T'ai Chi - The International Magazine of T'ai Chi Ch'uan Vol 25, No 1
The name of Chen Fake (1887-1957) is renowned in Taijiquan circles, particularly among Chen stylists.
One could ask, "How truly proficient was Chen Fake's skill in Taijiquan?" Some would reply they are unsure. Some would say he must have been very good, as he was a famous Taijiquan master.
As for querying how his skill compared with other Taijiquan masters of his generation, I believe few could answer this question.
This article is intended not only to reveal more about Chen Fake as a famous master in the history of Taijiquan, but more importantly to provide a richer and more accurate picture of the heights attainable in Taijiquan as a martial art.
Due to limited experience, most people have a narrow view of the highest levels of Taijiquan. Their understanding is restricted to what their teachers have shown them and by observing demonstrations by famous Taijiquan practicioners.
They may believe they have seen the best in Taijiquan whereas they have probably seen only aa fraction of what is attainable.
Once people become aware of the levels reached by Chen Fake, they are not as easily satisfied and are inspired to practice harder and pursue a greater degree of excellence.
Chen Fake's family
Chen Fake came from a long line of Taijiquan masters. His great-grandfather, Chen Chanqxing (1771-1853), was the teacher of Yang Luchan (1799-1872), the founder of Yang style Taijiquan. Only after studying for many years under Chen Changxing did Yang Luchan master the true martial art of Taijiquan.
Chen Changxing's father, Chen Bingwang, was also very famous for his Taijiquan skill. Chen Changxing earned his living as a security guard, transporting cargo through the Henan and Shandong provinces.
He always made a safe delivery, as the local bandits were intimidated by his martial prowess and left him alone. When Chen Changxing retired, he opened a martial art school in his village.
Chen Gengyun, the grandfather of Chen Fake, lived to 79 years of age. From a young age, Chen Gengyun was trained in the martial arts by his father, Chen Changxing. As an adult he also worked as a cargo transport guard. He once took part in a local battle and greatly contributed to its success.
On one occasion he was delivering cargo to Laizhou town in Shandong province and defeated the notorious local bandit, Tian Erwang. The grateful townspeople donated money to erect a memorial in his honor.
In the early 1900s, a provincial government official, Yuan Shikai, who later became the first president of the Chinese Republic, saw this memorial. Yuan Shikai was so impressed that he located the hero's son, Chen Yanxi and brought him to train his sons for six years. Chen Yanxi, the father of Chen Fake, was a Taijiquan master in his own right and lived to the age of 81. He was also a famous master of traditional Chinese medicine.
The following story was related by Chen Fake to his student Hong Junsheng (1907-1996)
When Chen Yanxi returned home after several years of teaching the sons of Yuan Shikai, he was very pleased to see that Chen Fake had made great progress in Taijiquan.
Chen Yanxi walked to the corner of the courtyard, inserting his hands in the opposite sleeves of his traditional leather coat. He asked his son and several nephews to surround and attack him. as soon as someone touched him, he would turn slightly and the attacker would be propelled to the ground.
Chen Fake, relating this story to Hong Junsheng, sighed with feeling, "I'm not as good as my father. When I strike someone, I still need to use my hands."
This episode left a lasting impression on Chen Fake and inspired him to greater achievement. Hong Junsheng once told me that Chen Fake finally did reach this standard in the later years of his life.
Chen Fake had told Hong Junsheng much about his early life and training in Taijiquan.
Chen Fake was born when his father was quite old and was the only surviving son in the family, as his brothers died in an epidemic. He was spoiled and lazy as a child. As a result of poor eating habits and lack of exercise, he was unfit and developed a lump in his abdomen, which at times was so painful that he would writhe in his bed. Athough he was aware that Taijiquan is beneficial to health and would probably help reduce the pain and heal the lump, he had become so weak, he avoided training. Due to his ill health, he was excused from practicing and up to 14 years of age he still has not trained very much.
Chen Fake had a cousin who was living with them while his father was away teaching the family of Yuan Shikai. The cousin kept Chen Fake company and assisted with the farm work and looking after the family. He was a strong and healthy young man of sturdy build, and he was one of the best of the young Taijiquan artists in the Chen village.
One evening, during an after dinner conversation among the elders at Chen Fake's home, the subject was brought up about the traditional family martial art. Someone in the group sighed regretfully, saying "In Chen Yanxi's lineage, each generation has produced a highly skilled practicioner. It's a pity to see his tradition end in Chen Fake's generation. He's already 14, but he's still so weak and fragile that he cannot put in the necessary effort. It appears obvious that it will be lost forever."
When Chen Fake heard this comment he felt ashamed, saying to himself, "No matter what the cost, I won't allow our family traditional skills to be lost at my hands. At the least, I can catch up with my cousin." He then realised, "We eat, sleep, work and train together. I may train hard to improve, but so will he. How can I ever catch him up?" This problem disturbed him, and for days he couldn't eat or sleep.
One morning he and his cousin were walking to work in the fields. Part way there his cousin stopped, suddenly recalling that he had forgotten a farming tool. He said to Chen Fake, "You hurry and retrieve it for me. I'll walk slowly till you catch up." Chen Fake quickly complied.
During lunchtime, Chen Fake reflected on his cousin's chance remark, and was inspired to relate it to his plans for training in the martial arts. He concluded that if he trained harder than his cousin, he would make speedier progress and eventually catch up. From then on Chen Fake resolved to practice much harder, without making his cousin aware of his extra efforts.
In addition to training with him, he continued to train at midday when his cousin napped. He shortened his sleeping time to just over two hours and would get up and train some more. Since he was afraid to wake his cousin by the noise of going outside to practice, he trained in the small space between their beds. He modified noisy movements, such as stamping the foot, and developed a gentler and more relaxed form.
Chen Fake thus trained extremely hard for three years until he was 17, with his cousin completely unaware. Occasionally, Chen Fake practiced push hands with his uncles, but dared not train with his cousin, whose skill was superior. His cousin took push hands seriously and often injured his partners. He would remark "Martial arts training should be taken seriously. You cannot take it lightly just because you're training with someone you know. Once taking it lightly becomes a habit, you will be disadvantaged when facing the enemy." Even when training with family, the cousin would not relent the tiniest amount, often throwing his opponents so hard they would injure themselves and bleed.
After training hard for three years, Chen Fake found that the lump in his belly had virtually disappeared and his fitness had improved. His health and strength had become normal for a boy of his age. Meanwhile, his martial skills had progressed unnoticed.
One day, in order to test how much progress he had made, he invited his cousin to practice push hands. His cousin laughed and said, "Well, all but one of the young men of our family have experienced my skill. Previously you were too delicate and dared not push hands with me. Now that you have become stronger and sturdier, you should be able to withstand my strikes and throws. It is now time for you to get a taste of my push hands skill."
Following this conversation they took position. His cousin tried three times to advance and throw Chen Fake using fajin. On each occasion he was instead countered and thrown back by Chen Fake.
Not until the third time did his cousin suspect that Chen Fake's skill had surpassed his own, yet he wasn't fully convinced. He was upset at losing, and as he was leaving he grumbled, "Every generation in your lineage produces master hand practicioners, probably by passing down secret techniques. Even hopeless ones like you, who are not as good as me, can now defeat me. There is no point for any of my lineage to pracice this art for we don't know the secrets."
Chen Fake informed Hong Junsheng, "In fact, my father had not been home those previous three years, so he could not have taught me any secret family techniques. My skill was purely the result of three years of hard work."
Through these incidents we can see the importance of hard training. Diligent and consistent practice is important to become stronger and make greater progress in our techniques. We cannot conclude from this story that there are no secrets in Taijiquan, but rather that secrets are relatively unimportant. It is true that for those three years, his father could not have taught him any secrets. However, prior to this period, Chen Fake would have become aware of his father's training methods and principles, but he just had not put in the necessary effort to properly train them.
Moreover, during the three years of his hard training, he had also trained with his uncles, who would have reinforced the authentic principles of Taijiquan. To claim there are no secrets is simply to state that Chen Fake did not know any principles or techniques unknown to his cousin. All martial artists in the Chen village were practicing the traditional Chen style martial art.
Chen Fake had progressed quickly and achieved a great understanding of Taijiquan through his determination to work hard, first by spending more time, and second by training with feeling. In contrast, once his cousin had achieved a certain level of skill, he was satisfied with his ability. Unlike Chen Fake, he didn't train as much, nor did he truly put his heart into it; thus he was eventually surpassed by him.
For the normal Taijiquan practicioners, us, it is certainly not sufficient to train hard. It is first essential to learn correct techniques, followed by hard training, which will lead us to success.
My Chen style teacher, Hong Junsheng, always said, "We have to train Taijiquan the smart way. We need to use our brain. First we learn to train correctly, then we put in the hard effort."
Exploits of Chen Fake
Many sensational combat tales have been passed down to us about Chen Fake. These stories could provide material for many excellent and exciting movies and television shows.
Yet, if we talk about something fanciful, it may prove fascinating but we cannot learn much about real Taijiquan. We need to ascertain the truth about Chen Fake to stimulate interest and lead students to pursue the true principles of Taijiquan. Also, if we try to emulate ficticious exploits, we may lose confidence in our art and give it up from a falsely percieved inadequacy on our part. Only if we can discern which of the stories are true can we be inspired to train hard in the right direction.
I will therefore introduce some stories about Chen Fake that are not just fables. I have selected each story according to three sets of criteria to ensure a high degree of credibility,
1, The story has been passed down by a direct student of Chen Fake or by a family member. This person must either have witnessed the events in person or have had them directly related by Chen Fake. Also, the person must be deemed a reliable and trustworthy source.
2, The martial arts techniques depicted must be consistent with the principles of Taijiquan. We can thus explain how they work and be able to learn from them.
3, The martial skills demonstated in the story are those we deem Chen Fake must have possessed, because many different people have purportedly witnessed him using these same skills in different situations.
For each story I mention, I will provide some explaination, to allow readers to decide for themselves if the story is believable.
I will first mention a story in the next section that has been reported in many books and newspapers. By analysing this story, I wish to show that it cannot relate to true events.
In 1928 Chen Fake's nephew, Chen Zhaopi was teaching in Beijing. Many people came to challenge him and test his skill in Taijiquan. Among these challengers were the powerful and famous "Three Heroic Li Brothers", who were keen to try him.
Chen Zhaopi was worried he would lose against them and sully the reputation of the Chen family. He quickly sent for his uncle Chen Fake to defend their family honour. When Chen Fake arrived in Beijing, he was taken to meet the brothers. It was a summer evening and all three brothers were at home. Chen Fake was left waiting in the courtyard while Chen Zhaopi went inside to speak to them.
The eldest brother sat in an armchair drinking tea. Chen Zhaopi suffered great fright and broke into a sweat when he saw the opponent, who looked tall and strong. He thought "Uncle had better win this fight, for if hecomes to harm I will be in great trouble with the family."
When the Li brother saw Chen Zhaopi hesitating he demanded, "Do you come willing?" Chen Zhaopi replied, "Don't you want to see the Chen family martial art?" Li shouted in response, "Well!" slamming down his hand on the table and propelling the tea bowls and pot into the air. Li moved away from his armchair and stood waiting like an iron tower.
At this point Chen Fake dashed into the house. As Chen Zhaopi was trying to move away, he heard his uncle shout "Hah!" It was the sound he made when exerting internal power. The next thing Chen Zhaopi knew, the "iron tower" was violently thrust away and thrown against the window sill, breaking the window. The other two Li brothers just stood in shock. As Chen Fake was preparing to leave, he asked, "Who wants to try again?" The Li brothers slunk away like cats.
This tale of Chen Fake seems to be very fascinating. One day when I was chatting with Master Hong Junsheng, he told me it is just a fable.
Master Hong was a practical person, yet he had no doubts Chen Fakes skill and abilities. He believed it is sufficient for us to learn from Chen Fake's example of self-discipline in training, without recourse to fantastic stories.
According to Master Hong, there are several unreliable aspects to the above story. Firstly, Chen Fake was invited to Beijing by Chen Zhaopi for totally different reasons (more on this later). Secondly, Hong and other students of Chen Fake had never heard this story. Thirdly, there is no record of any persons called "The Three Heroic Brothers" in Beijing during that time.
Finally, Chen Fake was a friendly person; he did not behave like a rogue and get involved in street fights. Hong was a very practical person. he did not like others to make up the story about Chen. Hong felt the decent Chen Fake was was good enough for us to model and there is no need to add on other unreal stories. I will begin to depict some of the more reliable deeds of Chen Fake below,
Chen Fake once told Hong about the time he was invited to defend his district. Although he did not say which year it occurred, it must have been before 1928, when he went to Beijing. Some of the materials I saw indicates that it was probably around 1926.
In those years, China was suffering a period of disintegration. Districts were dominated by different warlords, bandits were everywhere, and security of life and limb was at its lowest level.
A bandit group, called the "Red Spear Club", a heretical organisation, captured several towns and their surrounding environs. The Wenxian city district was also under the threat of being overrun. The district administration requested Chen to lead his students to join in protecting the district. The Chen village where Chen Fake lived was under the administration of the Wenxian local government.
After arriving in their city, Chen succeeded in seizing two of the bandits. (Several books describe this incident in detail, but their reliability is unknown). There are however, two reliable stories of this time.
A martial art instructor had been hired by the district administration prior to Chen. When he heard Chen has arrived he went to challenge him. Chen was sitting on the left side of the "bashen table", a Chinese table enabling eight people to sit around it, which was inside the main chamber of the house. In his left hand Chen was holding a bag containing tobacco and in his right, a paper fire-lighter.
The martial art instructor entered the house, stepping forward and punching Chen with his right fist, while at the same time shouting, "See how you deal with this!" Chen had seen him entering the house, and was half way standing up to welcome him, when the punch reached his chest. Chen intercepted the fist with his own right wrist and pushed slighly forward. His opponent was sent flying backward out of the door and landed on his back. Chen returned to his room, packed up and left with no farewells.
When Hong Junsheng heard this story, he certainly believed it was within the capability of Chen's skill, but he could not understand how Chen could counter so explosively at the instant of contact with his opponent. When Hong's skill eventually improved, he was also able to make his opponents fly at the instant of contact with his opponents. He understood that this is achieved by channeling the chansijin ("spiral force") of the whole body into the hand with small circles, while at the same time speeding up the movements.
The "Red Spear Club" was an evil religious sect. Its members would utter spells and use magic charms, and by inscribing talismens on their bodies before any battle, they believed they would become bullet-proof and impervious to knife thrusts. They would thus charge bare-chested into battle.
When their gang had encircled Wenxian, all but one of the citadel gates had been closed, and the drawbridge was lifted. Chen Fake was standing on the bridge holding a bailagan pole (an extremely resilient tree branch used for making spears). Holding the pole without a spear head, he awaited the gang's attack. One of the "Red Spear Club" leaders rushed in with a spear and stabbed at Chen, who instantly repulsed it with his wooden pole.
The enemy's spear was sent flying out of his hands into the air. Chen's pole immediately followed through and shot forward, piercing the enemy's torso. Seeing their leader killed, the other gang members fled in a panic. Thus the town was saved.
In 1956 Hong travelled from Jinan to Beijing to study further with Chen. He arrived to find two agents from the new local government questioning Chen about the incident mentioned above, which they treated as a "manslaughter case",. After he farewelled the two government agents, Chen told Hong that a good deed done for the people had become a troublesome matter. Fortunately, the new government did not bother Chen again, because the "Red Spear Club" was a reactionary group soon to be eradicated by the new government.
A Martial Art Demonstration
Chen Fake had spoken about how he came to teach Taijiquan in Beijing. His nephew Chen Zhaopi (1893-1972) was in the business of transporting herbal drugs from their hometown to Beijing (then called Beiping).
Yang style was the most practised Taijiquan in Beijing, and it was widely known that it originated in the Chen village. Several members of the Henan community were very happy to learn that Chen Zhaopi was from Chen village and also practiced Chen style Taijiquan. They took it as an honour for the Henan people and invited him to teach Taijiquan in Beijing, where there were many students who began to train under him.
When Wei Daoming, the mayor of Nanjing (which was the capital at this time), discovered this, he sent a large monetary incentive for Chen Zhaopi to go and teach Taijiquan in Nanjing. Chen Zhaopi was undecided between the option of more money or maintaining the newly established relationship with his students, who had only been learning for a short period of time. He solved his dilemma by telling his Beijing students that he had learned Taijiquan from his third uncle, whose skill was far greater than his, and who was currently available. He then invited Chen Fake to teach Taijiquan in Beijing.
My "small frame" Chen style teacher, Chen Liqing (born in 1919, of the 19th generation of the Chen family) has told me of an incident related to Chen Fake.
Chen Liqing was the only daughter in the family and was nicknamed Sainan ("competes with males"). As a girl she would climb up trees, over walls, and onto roofs. She possessed more audacity than most boys. Her father, Chen Honglie, was one of the leading figures in Chen small frame Taijiquan. Although he was one generation the junior to Chen Fake in the Chen family, in age he was about two to three years older. Both of them had been born in the same month, on the same date and at the same time!
In the year when Chen Liqing was about nine years of age, she and her father happened to meet Chen Fake in the street. Chen Fake mentioned going to Beijing, and his plans to gather students and some relatives that evening at the Chen family shrine for a farewell party, and also to practice Taijiquan. Knowing she was too young to be allowed to attend, Chen Liqing used a tree at the back of the shrine to help climb over the wall and hide herself under the altar table before the adults were due to arrive that evening.
She came out to watch when the Taijiquan demonstrations commenced. After a number of students had finished their performances, Chen Fake also performed. When he stamped his foot, dust and sand fell from the roof with a cracking sound. His fajin made the flames of nearby lanterns flicker and crackle. As a finale, Chen Fake practiced push hands with his students. His fajin threw some students flying up the wall and falling down.
This was the only demonstration by Chen Fake that Chen Liqing saw but she was very impressed. She had never seen his ability demonstrated as normally everyone practiced Taijiquan in their own courtyard.
Chen Liqing has described her fathers skill to me. He practiced "small frame" Taijiquan with very good skill, but he was not as good as Chen Fake who practiced "large frame" Taijiquan. The two styles come from different streams. I believe that Chen Liqing would have no reason to be biased in favour of Cheen Fake. She told me that Chen Fake was the most skilled of his contemporaries at the Chen village. She also said that from the generation of Chen Changxing to that of Chen Fake, their particular lineage was the most prominent in Taijiquan skill, as well as having aa high moral standard!
Lui Musan Studies Chen Style Taijiquan with his Students
When Hong Junsheng was young, his health was not very good. In 1930 he studied Wu style Taijiquan from Lui Musan, following an introduction by his neighbours. Lui Musan was the senior student of the Wu style Taijiquan founder, Grandmaster Wu Jianquan (1870-1942). After practicing Taijiquan for more than 30 years, Lui was prominent in Beijing. He was then about 50 years of age and worked as service supervisor of the Department of Telegraphs in Beijing.
About 20 to 30 of his students would study Taijiquan every morning at his house. Lui had studied in France and was well educated. He valued theory, was skillful in lecturing and demanded a high standard from his students.
Lui's skill at the time was considered to be of an extremely high standard by his students and by Hong. His body was stout in appearance, but his movements were very swift and light, steady and elegant, when practicing Taijiquan and the sword. His push hands skill earned great esteem from the students; his opponents could not stand firm when he utilised either "light" or "heavy" jin.
When he taught nian jin (sticking energy), he would tell the student to hold a firm stance and he would push forward with a burst of fajin, but pull back just before reaching the opponent's torso. The student would lose his stance with a feeling of being dragged and toppled. It was the skill of taking advantage of his opponent's reaction.
Lui preferred to practice Taijiquan as slow as possible, to enable improvement to the level of "slow but continuous" motion. In 1982 Hong encountered Ma Yueliang (1901-1998) in Shanghai. Talking about Lui, Ma said he knew of him as a fellow student under the same Taijiquan master. Hong joked with Ma and said, "I should call you student uncle" and Ma laughed.
After Hong had been learning Wu style Taijiquan for 6 months, an article in the Beijing newspaper caught the attention of Hong and Lui: "Yang Xiaolou, a prominent actor of the Beijing opera, practices the Chen style Taijiquan from Chen Fake of the Chen Village."
They were very interested and wanted to learn more about Chen style, as they knew that Yang style was derived from it. They resolved to let Lui invite Chen Fake to Lui's house to negotiate teaching Taijiquan.
Chen Fake was then 42 years old. After greeting them he took off his coat and commenced a demonstration in the courtyard. With the perception being the better the skill the slower the movements, Hong and the other students were prepared to spend about one to two hours watching the demonstration of this prominent Taijiquan master. They were all astonished to see that it took less than 20 minutes to finish both routines. Not only were the movements swift, but there was also stamping of the feet, jumping around, and expressing fajin with sound when striking.
Once Chen had gone home, there was uproar among the students: "Taijiquan requires the footwork of stepping like a cat and channeling jin should be like drawing silk fibre from a cocoon. Such quick movements would surely break the silk fibre. With such heavy stampings that dust and sand falls off the roof, there is nothing like the stepping of a cat."
As Lui's knowledge and skill were much higher, so was his understanding. He replied to them "Although there were fast movements, they were turning in circular motion. There were many fajin performed, but they were executed in relaxation. Looking at his arms, his muscles did not tense up. This would appear to be an internal art. Since we have already invited him to come teach, we better learn from him once. Once we finish the forms, I will then practice push hands with him. If his skill is greater than mine, we will continue studying, otherwise we won't waste any more money."
Henceforth, each person contributed two dollars per month; with 30 people this amounted to sixty dollars per month, allowing Chen to teach them three times per week.
Master Lui always instructed his students learning Taijiquan that a straight and upright torso is essential. Leaning forward or backward should not be allowed as this will break apart the jin in the waist. Footwork should be changed between substantial and insubstantial in a swift and steady manner.
Their first push hands session was conducted after Lui had completed learning series one of the Chen style routine. Hong and other students expected that Lui's high level skill should equal Chen's. Unexpectedly, the difference between them was so great and obvious that they were all astonished. Lui was like a two year old kid in Chen's hands and was totally unable to control himself. His body would lean forward when pulled by Chen, and lean back when pressed.
The waist jin was totally broken and his footwork was completely wrong in order. Lui's elbow joint was sprained in a pull drill by Chen and the pain lasted over a month even after applying medicinal paste.
The students were so intimidated that they dared not practice push hands with Chen. Chen laughed and said to them "The injury was caused by my inadvertant mistake of not being aware of Lui's slight ding jin (resistant force). Just relax and follow the movements. I will pay more attention and it should be all right. It is unaccepatable to hurt people when teaching push hands."
Lui and the students were mollified and continued their study.
This is part one of a three part article. If you have enjoyed this part, please speak to us in class to see the next instalment...
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