“The slow way is the fastest way”: An interview with David Gaffney

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In front of the temple in Chenjiagou village (photo: D. Siaw-Voon Sim).

We had the opportunity to ask David Gaffney, Chief Instructor of Chenjiagou Taijiquan School (Manchester, UK), for an interview during his visit to Slovenia in October 2012. David kindly agreed, and during our conversation placed his main emphasis on two central aspects of Chen Taijiquan: the martial aspect of the system, and the necessity to deepen one’s knowledge both naturally and gradually.

David, how old were you when you started training in the martial arts, and what was it that inspired or motivated you initially?

I was fifteen years old when I started training in the martial arts. My motivation was entirely pragmatic. Living in Moss Side, a tough inner city district in Manchester where street crime was common, I initially saw martial arts solely as a means of self protection.

What styles have you practiced over the years, and what was your experience in each of these styles?

I practiced external martial arts for fifteen or sixteen years, training Wado Ryu Karate and then Shaolin Nam Pai Chuan (Northern and Southern Fist) and kickboxing. Since 1996 I have trained exclusively in Chen Taijiquan.

You now practice and teach Chen Taijiquan. To begin with, could you tell me a little about your background in Taiji? When were you first introduced to Chen style and what was it that you found in this system that you couldn’t find elsewhere? Who were/are your teachers and what did you learn from them?

I was first introduced to Chen Taijiquan in the mid 1990s and shortly afterwards met Chen Xiaowang for the first time. This was a pivotal moment for me. He gave a lecture in a cold hall in Manchester and when he finished talking stood up, took off his jacket and tie and unleashed a fantastic series of fajin. Up to this point I had seen many strong martial artists, but this was something else. From that moment I have only trained Chen Taijiquan following him since then in the UK, throughout Europe and in China. Over the years I have travelled to China many times to train with some of the foremost teachers of this generation. In 2003 our school took the first British group to train intensively in Chenjiagou with Chen Xiaoxing and have been back just about every year (sometimes twice) since then. In 2008 I was awarded an Instructor’s certificate by the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. In Manchester we have been fortunate to have a very good Chen style teacher Wang Haijun who has been resident here for the last decade. Our school has tried to bring the best Chen Taijiquan masters to the UK to raise the standard here. We are the only school in the UK to have hosted three of the “Four Buddha’s Warriors” of Chen Taijiquan. We organised the first UK visits of Zhu Tiancai, Chen Xioaxing and Chen Ziqiang. I have also met some great teachers who have had a valuable part in my Taijiquan development including Chen Zhenglei in the early years in China, Feng Zhiqiang, Tian JIngmiao… Each of these teachers perspective has helped me towards a holistic understanding of this traditional art.

Push hands with master Chen ZiQiang (photo: D. Siaw-Voon Sim).

Pushing hands with master Chen ZiQiang (photo: D. Siaw-Voon Sim).

What is your daily practice like; for example, how long do you train each day? When do you usually practise? What is a typical training regime for you?

My daily training varies depending upon my schedule. During the week I teach lots of classes and like to participate in these rather than standing in the front talking. On busy days I might have done seven or eight Laojia Yilu’s, Silk Reeling, Standing etc before I get round to my own personal practice. Generally I like to get in at least a few hours solitary practice – more if the day is not too busy. The bulk of this is Laojia Yilu, Chen Taijiquan’s “gongfu” frame – the traditional method of skill development practiced by generations of Chen village practitioners – supplemented by zhan zhuang and silk reeling exercises. I usually train push hands (both drills and sparring) a couple of times a week. Paocui (Cannon Fist), weapons, pole-shaking etc, when I feel like it, but usually at the end of training on days when I have more time.

As to when I practice, I have no set time. I know people look to the Chinese habit of training in the early morning, but as I say to my students – it doesn’t really matter when you practice, what is important is that you do practice.

What in your opinion are some of the most important aspects of Taiji study/training (also when compared to other martial arts that you trained in the past)?

In my opinion the most important factors in the study of Taijiquan are the motivation level of students and the knowledge, ability and willingness of teachers to pass on the skill. Training must be done in an ordered and systematic way. Really this is no different to other martial arts. To reach a good level of skill one must first master the fundamentals. In Chen Taijiquan we must train the essential aspects of body structure and movement. These must be trained into the body rather than simple learned and recited in a parrot-like way. People in a hurry to get to the “good stuff” rarely achieve good Taiji skill. This lack of patience to train the fundamentals can be a real problem. People may think that they must be ready to progress to the more advanced aspects of training if they have already practiced for ten or fifteen years. But if they (or their teacher) only meet their own teacher once or twice a year at a seminar then the true level of experience is actually very low.

Development of the frame starts with Zhan Zhuang (photo: D. Siaw-Voon Sim).

In Chenjiagou it is often said that quantity begets quality. Master Chen Xiaoxing often talks about the necessity of grinding out skill, so it is obviously important that the student be motivated to train hard on those aspects appropriate to their stage of development. Students must have confidence in their teacher and in the method. Learners in Chenjiagou have a big advantage in this regard. They can see people at all stages of the developmental process from absolute beginners to grandmasters. In the West beginners often start off with great enthusiasm but then start to doubt the method, supplementing their training with other things they think will make them more effective. Ultimately the slow way is the fastest way to achieve real skill. First laying down the correct body structure, silk reeling movement and energetic sensation (Light at the top, heavy at the bottom, inward to outward expansion etc) means that when a person begins to explore the combat possibilities they can make the system work. Those collecting forms and techniques without first developing an adequate foundation are unlikely to be successful when tested under pressure.

With regards to the specific differences between Chen Taijiquan and the other arts I practiced – the main differences are Chen Taijiquan’s emphasis on the development of circularity and rootedness as the basis for martial effectiveness. The importance of understanding the body as a system rather than pre-set attack and defence drills. Central to Chen Taijiquan’s approach to combat is the need to accept the idea of spontaneity and to train with the goal of reacting in accordance to a situation.

What in your opinion is the real essence, the ultimate purpose of Taijiquan? Is the essence changing through time; was it different in the past compared to nowadays? 

Hexagram 11, Tai.

Hexagram 11, Tai.

The name of the system points to its essence: Quan is boxing or martial arts; Taiji is the core ideology of the Ijing. So we can say that Taijiquan is the adaptation of Taiji principles into a martial art form. Taiji is the search for balance. In Taijiquan: internally it is the balancing of the emotional mind (xin) which is considered to be yang and the logical mind or intention (yi) which is yin; externally it is the balancing of factors such as hard-soft, fast-slow, open-close, advance-retreat. This is as true today as it has always been.

Today there are Taiji classes everywhere but how many of those running the classes have even a basic understanding of the essence of the system.

What effect has the learning of Taijiquan had on your body and your mind?

It has had a profound effect on both! Taijiquan’s core training methodology revolves around the three characters, song, rou and man. That is training the body to be loose and pliant through the method of slowness. Slowness is required to pay attention to all aspects both physical and mental. Following this method inevitably brings greater mental quietness and focus.  When people ask me what I have got from Taijiquan, the first thing I always say is a feeling of comfort and ease within my own body.

Do you practice Qigong?

No. Taijiquan is a sophisticated form of energy work in its own right. As well as traditional martial arts, jingluo theory from Chinese medicine and yin-yang theory from the Ijing, the ancient methods of Daoyin (leading and guiding energy) and Tu-Na (literally inhaling and exhaling) were incorporated when Chen Wangting created Taijiquan nearly four centuries ago.

Do you think it is important for Taijiquan practitioners to have an awareness of the energy system, the acupoints and meridians?

First, we have to be clear that we are learning Taijiquan not studying to be Chinese doctors. That said, if we are to understand the teachings that have been left by past generations of masters it is important to be aware of the basic ideas of traditional Chinese medicine. It is helpful to be aware of certain important acupoints as they relate to Taijiquan practice.

What about the theoretical aspects of the system: how important is it for you to know and study theoretical works, such as Chen Xin’s Illustrated Canon of Chen Family Taijiquan? When would one need to start incorporating these aspects into one’s learning, if at all?

Illustration in Chen Xin's work, representing silk reeling principle.

Illustration in Chen Xin’s work, representing the silk reeling principle.

It is important to be aware of the relevant level of theory for your stage of development. For a beginning student it is enough to be aware of basic gross requirements – body upright, mind relaxed, arms and legs rounded. At this stage, too much emphasis on the more complex theoretical aspects can actually hold someone back. For instance, trying to incorporate more difficult requirements like storing the chest, when the body is still stiff and slanted will simply build more deviations into the body. Better to approach training in a logical step-by-step manner. Just like a child starting primary school would not benefit from reading Shakespeare, so a Taijiquan student must move through each stage, training the appropriate aspects. Chinese students have the advantage of understanding certain concepts more easily as they have clear cultural references. Words like qi, peng, lu, ji, an etc that seem mysterious to Western learners are commonplace to the Chinese. For this reason it is probably more important for Western learners to read around the subject. It is important then that they follow and trust the teaching of a competent teacher and do not become impatient or push for teaching that they are not yet ready for.

Would you agree with the saying that the skill of the next generation is always worse than that of the one before and that he skill of Taijiquan players is diminishing over generations?

No, I don’t think this is the case. Many things affect the relative levels of different generations of practitioners and even different practitioners within the same generation. A well known saying is that you cannot reach a high level of skill if you are to poor or too rich. At different times past generations were called upon to use their skills in real life or death situations: either as soldiers, guardians of merchant caravans or to protect their communities from bandits. This obviously provided great motivation to develop skills to a high level. At other times it was all people could do to survive during times of extreme poverty. It is well documented that when Chen Zhaopi, teacher of the current generation of grandmasters, returned to Chenjiagou he was dismayed to see that the art was in danger of dying out in its birthplace. Famine and natural disaster do not provide a great environment to develop skill. Today people are more educated and enjoy better living conditions than past generations, but they also have choices and distractions not available to past generations. At the end of the day as long as the training method is passed down correctly it is possible for great masters to emerge in any generation.

How do you feel about the planned development of Chenjiagou?

I first went to Chenjiagou in 1997. Since then there have been many changes, some welcome, some not so welcome. The plans for latest development reminded me of the commercialisation of Shaolin Temple. But last I heard the development had ceased due to funding issues.

Have you ever practiced full contact fighting or participated in competition? What was your experience of that aspect?

Over the years I competed many times in traditional Karate and later in semi and full contact kickboxing. I would consider this a valuable experience in terms of being tested under pressure. It’s okay to talk about this or that technique, but can you continue to fight after you have been hurt? Can you control your emotions when facing a strong opponent? Do you realise how much punishment you or another person can take, without even being aware of it, when your adrenalin is flowing? Answering these questions gives confidence and a sense of realism to your training. In Taijiquan I was successful in a number of push hands competitions, including taking first place in the UK Internal Arts International Atlantic Cup  – a competition featuring competitors from Hong Kong and the USA amongst other countries.

Is Silk Reeling Power (Chan Si Jin) the feature of Chen style only or other styles of Taijiquan have it too?

All the major schools of Taijiquan have certain shared principles and ideas. I have only studied Chen style, so would not like to comment on the details of the other schools of Taijiquan.

What do you consider to be the most important part of Taijiquan practice, most useful in building “gongfu” (skill)?

Chen Changxing, father of Laojia forms.

Chen Changxing, father of Laojia forms.

It is vital that you pay strict and careful attention on the development of correct body structure. In Chenjiagou Laojia Yilu is called the “gongfu form” and training the form is often referred to as “training the frame”. When we talk about structure we mean both the correct positioning of all the body’s joints and from this the emergence of awareness of the dantian as the body’s centre. Correct structure must be present not just in a static positions but in movement so that you can fulfil the requirement of being  “supported in eight directions”.

How would you describe Peng Jin?

Peng is usually described in two ways. First as one of Taijiquan’s eight primary jin (along with lu,ji, an, cai, lie,zhou and kao). In this sense peng describes a type of “warding off” technique. It also describes an overriding quality without which we cannot really claim to be doing Taijiquan. The body in this state can be compared to an inflated ball, filled with elasticity and brimming with a physical feeling of inner to outer expansion and strength. Peng is the core jin or trained power of Taijiquan and is always present when moving, neutralising, striking, coiling etc. All of Taijiquan’s primary jin must be supported by peng. So it naturally follows that if you do not have peng jin then you cannot have any of the other jin.

How should a student build and enhance Peng Jin?

Peng jin can only be built through a prolonged period of internal training. Many factors are necessary to build and enhance peng jin. We must cultivate a mental state where the mind is quiet yet alert. The body must be trained until there is acute lightness and sensitivity in the upper body and at the same time a sense of extreme weightiness and connection to the ground in the lower body. By carefully adjusting the body we can break through blockages in the energy paths until qi energy becomes fuller and stronger, and fills the dantian.  Then we use spiraling “silk-reeling” movement to circulate this energy throughout the body.

If you had the opportunity to meet any practitioner of the martial arts, living or dead, who would that be and why?

It would be fascinating to meet any of the legendary past masters from Chenjiagou to see how what we are doing today compares to the way they practiced Taijiquan. If I had to pick one it would probably be Chen Changxing. He was the first to teach a non-clan member and reclassified the original forms of Chen Wangting into the Laojia routines we practice today – it would be interesting to see what he would make of today’s spread of his family art throughout the world.

Do you have any hopes or aspirations regarding your own development?

The entrance to the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School (photo: D. Siaw-Voon Sim).

The entrance to the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School (photo: D. Siaw-Voon Sim).

Really Taijiquan is about the journey rather than the destination. I just want to carry on training with great teachers, following the traditional village method and continue to develop naturally.

Is there anything you can say which would provide inspiration for others training Taijiquan? Are there any particular concepts or methods that you would recommend to students  to develop their skill (gongfu)?

From your first contact with Chen Taijiquan the whole process should be approached in a systematic way and logical way. The various aspects of the Chen Taijiquan syllabus are all interrelated and necessary. It is important to approach your training journey with confidence. Adding skill naturally – moving from the simple to the complex and from the superficial to deeper levels of skill. By training consistently year-by-year we can progress through different levels of gongfu having new realisations in each level. Everybody starts from a different point, but all can make significant progress in this way. A famous Malaysian Taijiquan master advised: “don’t be content to be the student of a successful teacher, make a success of your own practice”.

 

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