The Six Stages of Learning in Chen Taijiquan Practice
By Wang Hai Jun
Written by David Gaffney
The process of learning Taijiquan must be approached systematically if the student is to achieve the best results. Chen Taijiquan training has traditionally been divided into six stages, each laying down the foundation for the next. These stages are learning, practising, correcting, smoothing, examining and dismantling the frame. Each stage is necessary and none should be omitted.
The first stage is called xue jiazi or “learning the frame”. In the initial period of training, students must learn the movements of the form. In Chenjiagou the conventional foundation form is the Laojia Yilu (Old Frame First Form), this being the vehicle through which all the subsequent higher level skills are built. During this stage the requirement is simply to become familiar with the sequence of movements and aspects such as where one’s weight should be, what direction the body should be facing and so on. This first phase is sometimes referred to as “plotting the route”.
Once the movements have been learned, the student must practise diligently until they are completely familiar with the form. This second stage is known as lien jiazi or “practising the frame”. At this stage the learners, in accordance with the principles taught, train the form until the sequence of movements become very familiar .
The third stage is nie jiazi or “moulding the frame”. Now that the learner is very familiar with the sequence and basic requirements, more detailed corrections are required from the teacher. While the student now knows the routine, at this point he is still making mistakes in terms of postures and movement principle. Perhaps the shoulders are tight or the elbows are lifted. During this third stage the teacher carefully adjusts a student’s posture in line with Chen Taijiquan’s strict requirements. Nie jiazi is translated as moulding the frame as the teacher carefully shape and mould the student’s body shape and movement until deviations are taken out.. The student must be patient as every aspect of their body, movement and posture is carefully rearranged – “drop your elbow, relax your shoulder, push out more with your hand etc...”
The fourth stage is shun jiazi, which can be translated as “smoothening out the frame” or making the form fluid, natural and flowing. After the posture has been corrected in the previous stage a person’s body still holds stiffness. Movements may be like a machine that is not well-oiled. Now the training emphasis must be upon becoming very smooth and very natural. After correction, one should practise until one’s whole body becomes coordinated and flowing. Whether slow or fast, your movements should maintain the same quality. You must not let your movements become scattered and dispersed if you speed up, letting the shoulders lift or allowing your qi to rise up. Your breathing is similar. For example, if we consider a sequence of movements where we breath in as we close and out as we open or, where we breathe in as we turn left and out as we turn right, there should be no change in this pattern whether you go fast or slow. This fourth stage, therefore, requires you to become very fluid and smooth in your form.
When this has been achieved, we enter the fifth stage of pan jiazi or “examining the frame”. Now the form is very standard in terms of movements and postures you must go deeper and train gongfu into your body. Through careful and meticulous study you must examine every posture in turn. By taking a lower stance you can develop strength in the lower body (xiapan) and increase stability; ensuring that you fulfil the requirements of Taijiquan gongfu. Other aspects to be examined and trained are, for example, in whatever posture you take, make sure you are supported in all directions; the lower body is strong and the upper body light; whole body moving in unison and so on.
The sixth stage is called cai jiazi or “dismantling the frame”. Dismantling the frame entails training until the function of every posture can be brought out optimally. Taijiquan is a martial art, so with every posture we should start learning the application. Training one movement at a time, this is the time when you should start to work on the different body methods and applications contained within the form. Many teachers begin to teach applications straight away, before the student is ready.
Teaching applications in this manner gives a student little chance of being successful. For example, even if you show him a lock, he cannot use it effectively because his body is not working in unison and his movements are not coordinated. It is simply not ready. First your movements must become smooth. Your qi must be be flowing and unblocked. Then you start to think about bringing every posture out, learning the applications of the movements in the form. At this stage when you practise, even thought there is no actual opponent, you train every movement as if there is an opponent in front of you.
If all of these stages are completed one comes to a point where applications against a real opponent can be brought out at will. In a serious encounter they do not have to pause to think about their responses. Instead the most appropriate and effective reaction will naturally come out. This level of skill is the ability to yong jiazi, or “using the frame”.
You must have a clear picture of how to train correctly to achieve a good end result. Often students simply have the wrong idea of how to train and in their minds they are not convinced of the method. When you practise you should make sure that you follow these six steps. Throughout the learning process you must have patience and not be in a hurry. First try to discard your hard strength. In the early stages of learning a student is repeatedly told to fangsong (let go of stiffness in the body). Many people genuinely feel that they are relaxed, when in taijiquan terms, they are still quite tight. The result of this tightness is that their body movement is very stiff and is not led by the waist. Ridding yourself of your hard strength allows you to develop a very strong root, to co-ordinate your breathing with your movement, and to improve your qi and blood circulation.
A common problem is for people to be in too much of a hurry to learn the martial applications contained within the form. Whilst being taught the details of a particular movement or posture, all they want is to learn the applications. However, their postural and movement principles are not correct. It s not useful to teach applications until all the stages are passed and Taijiquan principles are imbued within the body. You should reach a stage where everything feels very comfortable and natural as if it is part of you. Once this feeling is achieved consistently, it sends a message to your brain that everything feels correct, comfortable and balanced. You should first find this sensation.
To achieve this you must be prepared to discard your old habits and learn to use your body in a new way. Throwing out your hard strength allows you to grow a new type of strength. If you use your hard strength, there is no place to grow this new strength. Those unwilling or unable to give up their hard strength will not be able to realise Taijiquan’s unique method of releasing power (fajin). Without giving up this hardness they cannot reach a level where all movements follow the silk-reeling principle, with every part turning, generated from the waist and from the dantian. First the dantian moves, which in turn move your body. This is very important, to move in this new rotational way.
A Taijiquan saying is “to learn slowly is also to learn fast”. At first glance, this seems contradictory but training slowly gives you time to think about the rules. In Taijiquan every part of the body is governed by its own rule. After you have trained these rules into your body you no longer need to think about them. Whether you move fast or slow it is the same, the rules should remain the same whatever speed you adopt. At the beginning when you move, mindfully control the turning of your body, the turning of your knees, which subsequently turn the ankle, thus rotating the whole leg. In time you do not need to think about it anymore, because your body is able to execute this movement instinctively. But this distinctiveness needs training. When you train for a long time you will get this. This is when you can begin to learn the applications.