Zhu Tian Cai on Chen Style Training Methods
Zhu Tian Cai on Chen Style Training Methods
Abridged version of article by Marvin Smalheiser Translated by Dan Lee
Zhu Tian Cai, one of the famous four tigers of the Chen family village, is a vigorous man who views training in the dynamic Chen style Taijiquan as a combination of mental and physical methods. He feels they are literally built from the ground up and refined by the mind as it moves down and throughout the entire body.
Zhu, who grew up in the Chen village and trained from childhood under his famous Chen family uncles, teaches traditional forms that are based on developing central equilibrium, rooting, silk reeling exercises, and energy cultivation.
Now a resident of Singapore, where he emigrated in 1995, Zhu said the role of the yi, or mind, is of primary importance in Taijiquan training.
"Every movement is from the yi, which includes awareness and intent. When the yi moves, the qi moves and when the qi moves, the body moves. But everything starts with the mind. Before the movement manifests, the mind already has established the idea of the specific movement. And then the qi moves the body."
Throughout the entire Chen style, he said, the mind is always there, governing the execution of the movements. "The yi is basically your awareness of the internal sensations of the body, the whole body sensation." he said. It is also an awareness of qi flow. When you move, the mind is thinking about the intent of the individual movement. It could be defensive or offensive. The mind thinks it and the qi propels it.
"You have to be very concentrated on what you are doing. It is not about emotion or thinking about something else. You have to be absorbed in the precise movement that you are doing. So if you are moving your arm, it is not an arm movement, it's the mind driving the qi and the qi moving the arm along with the rest of the body connected to the movement."
Zhu said the whole body has the sensation of being under the control of the mind. "Whether you are going forward or going back, it is not just the arm, but the whole body has the sensitivity with the yi spread through the whole body. It is the whole body movement and sensitivity when you move any part of the body."
He added that this kind of Taiji practice helps to develop an individual's concentration, and this carries over into everything that he does in his daily life.
The development of yi and qi, Zhu said. evolves gradually through correct practice of the form over time.
The initial stage of developing the body awareness, he said, comes from learning the form correctly. "First, you get very familiar with the form and the correct practice of the form, then you begin to be aware. Then you become aware of the shoulder. elbow, and wrist and how they coordinate with each other and the rest of the body. The mind. itself, is always changing. but flrst you have to be totally familiar with the form, and the first stage emphasises practicing the form and getting it done correctly with good structure and loosened joints."
Most people who learn the form are lazy, he said. "They don't practice. so they never even get to the stage of real familiarity with the movements. You really have to have dedicated practice. Practice, practice, practice. Until the form becomes like second nature, you won't be able to incorporate all the other elements into it.
"If you don't practice, you can't really accomplish any higher level of achievement. You should follow your teacher's direction, stage by stage. And the first stage is to do the form correctly, define all the body movements, and practice and practice. Then, eventually, the mind, or yi, will become involved in the movements, and you will develop body awareness." The practice, said Zhu, also helps to develop the internal energy. When this occurs over time, he said, in each completed posture the qi will sink into the dantian, the energy center in the lower abdomen. And from the dantian, he said, the qi goes down into the feet and then up into the upper torso, arms, and hands. The body's original qi, yuan qi, he said, sinks down to the feet. The cultivated qi, controlled by the mind, is pumped through the body to the hands and arms.
Zhu said that a key aspect of Chen style practice is the rotation of the dantian based on the movements. However, in self defense applications, he said, "The rotation of the dantian is based on the external force applied by your opponent. So, then the dantian rotation is based on the external force applied.
"It is like an automobile. If it doesn't move, it stands still. As soon as the body moves, just as a car moves, then the dantian moves to match the basic body movement. This involves not only the knees but also the whole body. When executing an application based on an opponent's movement, the dantian rotates in response to that movement."
Zhu said that the way to cultivate dantian movement is to pick one or two basic movements and practice them repeatedly with chan ssu jin (silk reeling exercise). "At the same time that you practice the chan ssu jin, you will learn to rotate the dantian. This rotation really involves the whole waist and crotch area.
"There are some simple movements and techniques to cultivate that chan ssu jin and at the same time, cultivate the sensation of the rotation of the dantian. When you get that sensation of rotation, then throughout the whole form, you cultivate the dantian rotation."
All movements, he said, initiate from the waist. This applies to all Taijiquan styles. Chen style has internal rotation of the dantian plus body motion, but the internal motion of the dantian must coincide with the body motion.
"Dantian turning starts with the legs and with energy going from the dantian into the legs. The qi in the dantian first goes to the legs, and then bounces back up through the torso. The rotation of the dantian can be left and right, up and down, in many directions."
Zhu told an interesting history of how Yang Luchan came to the Chen village and learned the Chen style. Yang, the founder of the popular Yang style, was orphaned when he was quite young. His family had lived in Yongnien County of Hebei Province, Zhu said. At that time in Yongnien County, a wealthy landowner, Chen Ge Hu, had a Chinese herb store named Tai He Tang. Chen adopted Yang, who was seven or eight years old, and made him a clerk in the herb store. Zhu said that Chen Ge Hu decided to close the store because he had no children to pass it on to. He did so and moved back to Chenjiagou. He brought Yang Luchan back with him to the village, where Yang worked for Chen's family doing household and farm chores. At that time, martial arts were very popular in the village and there were 10 training halls. Chen Ge Hu's family had one of the training halls. All of the training halls were taught by 14th generation Chen Changxin.
Zhu said that in Chen Ge Hu's family training hall, there were about 27 youngsters about the same age as Yang Luchan. As a worker, Yang didn't have the privilege to learn. But while other youngsters were training, he was able to stand on the side and watch them practice. Zhu said the training was not a secret. When Chen Changxin left the hall, the other youngsters called Yang, whose nickname was Fuquei, and invited him to practice with them.
Zhu said that over the years, Yang became quite good and after his daytime household chores, he would practice by himself in the evening. One day, Chen Changxin came to the hall a little earlier than usual and saw a shadowy figure practicing Taijiquan in the evening light. When asked who he was, Yang said, ''I'm Fuquei." Chen Changxin then started the class and Yang stood at the door watching. Chen Changxin then called to Yang, "Fuquei, come on in." That made him an official member of the class.
Zhu said that Chen Changxin did this because when he saw Yang practicing, he saw that his form was very good, his punches were powerful, and that he had potential. At that time. Yang was about 20 years old. Yang studied with Chen Changxin for seven more years.
Zhu said that later Chen Ge Hu died. His first wife had died previously, and there was only his middle aged widow left in the immediate family. People in the Chen family were concerned that Yang Luchan, who was then about 30, would be living alone with the widow. They wanted to prevent the chance of any gossip about the two of them now that Chen Ge Hu had died.
Zhu said the village people talked to Chen Changxin and decided that it would be a good time to send Yang Luchan back to his home district. Most people do not know about this particular family situation, causing Yang to leave the Chen village, Zhu said. When Yang left, Chen Changxin told him that he was skillful enough to teach Taijiquan.
Later Yang went to Beijing to teach and became famous. Zhu said that Yang later went back to Chen village to further his training, but by that time Chen Changxin had died. So Yang learned from his son, Chen Genyuan.
Yang already had an official title from teaching officials of the Ching dynasty in Beijing. entitling him to wear a special robe. Zhu said that when Yang returned to visit Chenjiagou, he dismounted from his horse and took off his expensive robe because he did not want to put on airs when he paid respect to his teacher.
Zhu said Yang Luchan was a very ordinary person and very humble. "He didn't want to come to the village on a horse and wearing a fancy robe."
International visitors that come to Yongnien to honor Yang Luchan also often visit the Chen village to see where he practiced, Zhu said. He said a seventh generation Yang style Taijiquan teacher in Taiwan donated $30,000 (US) to refurbish the place where Yang lived and trained so people could come and visit. There is a stone marker at the site. The memorial was completed in 1992.
Zhu said the correct execution of the Chen form involves the development of central equilibrium, or zhong ding.
In a stationary position, he said, it is a point of strength, a point of energy, and that energy has to be straight. While executing a movement, he said, even though it may involve some leaning, you should still feel upright internally.
"So, even in some postures like the sword form, there may be some leaning back. But you still have to find the alignment of the body internally and externally. This is a line to achieve balance and includes the hands, knees, and torso. Even though the body leans, there should be a line of equilibrium to maintain the balance."
To develop this, he said, you can take fixed postures and hold them and become aware of how the body feels in its central equilibrium, or dynamic balance. Or, he said, you can also do the form itself to develop this dynamic balance.
Achieving this central equilIbrium, he said, is related to learning how to root, since together they make the body strong enough to repel attacks from any direction. Rooting involves loosening the joints, sinking the energy, and getting rid of local tension in various parts of the body. The way we learned, Zhu said, is that we were told to use a lot of brutal, or external force, in our training as a way to get rid of that external force. "Eventually, you will get it out of the way and begin to learn to get song, relaxed, and sinking. When people are young, they have a lot of rough, tense force. The idea was to use it and exhaust it, to get it out of your system so you can then develop soft, relaxed, and sinking energy." Zhu said he once visited a sanitarium in the mountains for people who were psychologically unbalanced. "Their school technique was that if the patients want to scream, let them scream or do whatever movements they want to do until they exhaust themselves, even to the point where they were hoarse. After that, they become calm. "Rooting is the same way. Just get rid of all that other energy. When it is fully exhausted, then you begin to learn softness." To make good progress in Taijiquan practice, Zhu said, you have to have a good attitude and a good teacher with a good teaching method. "The teacher has to give you the starting point, and you want to have good co-students who are friends that can give you mutual encouragement. That builds up more interest in your practice. "When you practice, you want to ponder about the principles of Taijiquan and keep on thinking about them to understand them better so you can develop an intuitive understanding. You have to have the ability to practice by yourself. "As you practice, you gradually develop qi sensations. This involves, for example, swelling of the hands and over time you will feel your feet and heels are glued to the ground. It takes a certain amount of time to develop these inner feelings." Zhu said that one of the unique aspects of the Chen style is its emphasis on chan ssu jin, or silk reeling energy. "It is the practice of circular, or spiral, energy. When you move, all things move with reeling silk energy, which develops from circular energy. Chan ssu jin doesn't have straight line movement and doesn't have horizontal movement. It is circular in all directions and the entire body is connected."
Another distinctive feature, he said, is the combination of soft and hard energy. Chen style uses both hard and soft. "Chen style develops soft energy from soft movements, and it cultivates an exclusive kind of hard energy by training with soft movement. The soft energy is primarily used for neutralisation and dissolving other people's force. When you are able to dissolve and neutralise other people's force, this uses the soft energy of the Chen style."
He mentioned that in Chinese, the word used is never actually "soft." The word in Chinese means pliable, which is used for neutralisation, huajin. Hard energy, he said, is used for discharging energy, fajin.
"So softness is not what Western people think of as softness. The word in Chinese means pliable like a rubber band. It is an elastic energy, not the softness of cotton. This softness has elasticity and is a pliable energy."
The circular energy, he said, is used like a wheel. "When a wheel is turning and something is thrown against it, it is bounced away. Nothing can settle on it. When a turning wheel stops, it can shoot energy out." He gave an example using a basketball. "If someone throws a basketball at you, you can deflect it and let it go by. If a player is skillful, he can catch the ball and at the same time add force to its momentum, doubling the weight and speed of the basketball. This adds more force to the ball, doubling its force." Another distinctive feature of the Chen style, Zhu said, is that it combines slow and fast movement. "Just like in the Taiji symbol of Yin and Yang, you have hard and soft and fast and slow. Fast and slow follows the same principle of Yin and Yang, the two opposites that are combined." He said slow movements contribute to good health in the practice of the form, and in push hands the slowness contributes to the ability to neutralise. Fast movement is used to discharge energy with various techniques. In addition, Zhu said, Chen style does include jumping up, whirling, and double kicks, which are primarily for people who are younger and able to do these kinds of gymnastic movements.
But he added that Chen style is suitable for all age groups. When people are young, they can do all the more vigorous martial art movements; but when they are older, they can do them a little softer. "So, you can still practice Chen style by eliminating some of the high jumps and kicks and modify them for your personal condition."
He said this applies to how low the movements are done. "Chen style can be practiced at three levels: high, medium, and low. Practice does not have to be restricted to a low stance, so people of all abilities can practice it."
Regarding people who have knee problems from doing low postures, he said that it depends on the teacher's teaching techniques.
"When a person has knee problems or is not ready for a low stance, he should not practice a low stance. The teacher should decide for a person based upon that person's physical condition. It is not really a matter of technique; it is a matter of the teacher's understanding and how he teaches students. Not all people must practice low."
Chen style, he said, is very specific and precise in terms of hand, feet, and body movement. "There is a very specific way to do the movements. There are special rules for doing the forms." He also said there are a lot of minor adjustments made during the form. "Normally, in a big stance, your body never turns more than 45 degrees in either direction. These minor adjustments are made to move the body in a very balanced and stable way."
Zhu said there are different aspects to the skill of neutralisation, or huajin. He gave the example of learning Ward Off energy, or peng jin. At this time, the body must be rounded. "During the entire Taiji sequence, you develop this Ward Off energy. As you get more familiar and work with someone in push hands, you develop neutralisation skills by practicing with a partner who exerts energy against you.
"But before developing neutralisation, you have to be very accurate in practicing the entire form and you have to be accurate in your postures. If you have a good foundation, you should be able to maintain a good posture and neutralise their energy."
In the Chen style. he said, the Ward Off energy has within it soft energy, but it is not entirely soft. "It still contains the strength of Ward Off energy. So neutralisation still has soft energy and Ward Off energy, as opposed to being totally soft and yielding. Within dissolving energy, there is still Ward Off energy. Using your pliable neutralisation, you also still have the sensation of qi and Ward Off energy. But no tension in the body is used to achieve this.
"In push hands, being soft, you never separate and never resist. So this soft energy is a kind of adhering energy. Soft energy consists of not separating and never giving in or losing contact or resisting. In push hands, with two people working together, one is feeding energy and one is receiving energy. Within this kind of practice, the partners can feel both the weaknesses of their own and their partner's."
Zhu said that push hands' first criteria is a good, precise posture. As one gets more advanced, each person can put more force into their partner. "The other person, based on his understanding. of Taiji, can see If he can deflect the force. He may be able to do well when the force is not strong, but not when there is more force. So, it is a learning problem to adjust to greater force."
Zhu teaches qigong in his own classes for beginning students and to help students calm down before doing the forms. He feels that Taijiquan is one of the highest kinds of qigong practice. He said that since 1970, at a national athletic meeting in China, qigong was defined not as a martial art but as a separate practice. But he said qigong is actually a kind of cultivation for martial art training and is one of the most important training methods for martial arts. "You develop the internal energy in qigong, but it does not develop fighting skill. That's why Taiji is not only a kind of qigong practice but also a martial art. Taiji contains qigong and can take it to a higher level."
He feels that qigong can nurture the body and make it stronger. It also helps to speed up the feeling of the sensation of qi in the body and hands. "Practice of qigong movements can help you to understand chan ssu jin. Once you get qigong sets correctly, it can be easier to learn a Taiji form. So, it can help to speed up the learning process."
Zhu said there are three stages of qigong. One is static standing, or wuji; a second is Taiji qigong involving Yin and Yang hand rotating positions in standing postures; and the third is chan ssu jin movements.
The cultivation of qi, he said, helps to improve the energy in the body and jin, internal strength, is the acceleration of qi. Jin, he said, speeds up and manifests qi externally.
He compared qi to a basketball filled with air. "The air is like qi: static. It does not do anything on its own. If a skilled basketball player taps the ball and bounces it correctly, the ball can bounce up. Through acceleration and tapping the ball, the ball bounces up. That is jin."
A person can develop jin, he said, by practicing slowly and softly, and one day he will reach the point where he will be able to discharge it. "The mind and body must be united. It takes time to mobilise the jin and unite the mind and body. That is accomplished through practice."
In his own practice, Zhu, who is highly regarded for his Taiji accomplishment, is not trying to reach some high and unreachable goal. He just wants to practice. He likes to feel the warmness and energy moving, guided by his yi. to be able to concentrate and distribute energy at will. That is what he constantly works on.
Zhu started learning Taijiquan when he was about I I years old from his uncle Chen Zhaopei. Also in the group were Wang Xian. Chen Xiaowang, and Chen Qingzhou. Chen Zhenglei joined later.
Zhu was born in 1944 in Xian and his family moved back to Chenjiagou in 195I where Taijiquan was a regular household activity and the only recreation. He always heard about his grandfather and great-grandfather and their skills, as well as the benefits of Taijiquan.
When he was seven or eight years old, he was able to follow the movements of others just for fun without any idea of what it was about. When he was about nine years old, a teacher came over and Zhu and Chen Xiaowang practiced with the teacher. They had watched adults practicing and were in awe of their skills at discharging people.
When he was 11 years old, Zhu began studying with Chen Zhaopei,his uncle, and continued studying with him until he died in 1972. Zhu then studied with another uncle, Chen Zhaokui, son of the famous Chen Fake.
Zhu described Chen Zhaopei as a very gentle and upright person. He was very affectionate and attracted a lot of students because he was not strict or mean, but very easy-going, even though he was serious in his practice and teaching. Chen Zhaopei's skill level, Zhu said, was very high. He told the story of a conflict with a local martial artist who had a lot of students. Chen Zhaopei went to visit a theatre owned by the martial artist, but when he was still a block away, he couldn't get any further because of the crowd. He had to push his way forward to visit the martial artist.
When he met the teacher, the martial artist tried to apply qinna, a grappling technique, to Chen Zhaopei. But Zhaopei relaxed and yielded and was then able to control the martial artist without embarrassing him. Others couldn't see it, but both knew who was the better. Immediately, the martial artist respectfully bowed to Zhaopei.
When Chen Zhaokui came to the village in 1973, he had a reputation for skill in qinna. “He could have three or four people grab him and pin him down, and then he would say, ' Now I am ready to release.' Then he came right out of the holds. Nobody could pin him down. But if he grabbed someone, no one could get out of that because he was so powerful"
Zhu first went to Singapore in 1983, when he was sent by the Chinese government to teach. In about six months, he taught about 360 students and then returned to China. In 1984, he went to Japan to teach and returned there seven times.
In 1993 he taught in Korea and in 1994 he went to Malaysia to teach for six months. From Malaysia, he went to Singapore and subsequently emigrated there in 1995. He will soon be opening a school in Zhengzhou, not far from the Chen village, while retaining his school in Singapore.
Zhu is a traditional teacher in that he teaches only traditional Chen forms, no shortened forms. In his classes he teaches breathing exercises and related exercises to calm students down and to get energy going.
Initially, he wants students to breathe naturally and not to try to match their breath to the movements. When a student is very familiar with the movements, he will teach how the breath can be coordinated with the movements.
He teaches what is called reverse breathing, which involves contracting the abdomen when inhaling and expanding the abdomen when exhaling. He feels breathing this way makes it easier to feel the sensation of qi.
Zhu said that a student has to have a good attitude in his practice and constantly think about the principles of Taijiquan and how to understand them better in order to develop an intuitive understanding.