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“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”.

 

Agni Prijatelj

“Adopt the right way of thinking; be consistent in your practice; and continue to seek and learn”: An interview with Master Chen Ziqiang

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Master Chen Ziqiang at his workshop in Ljubljana, June 2013 (photo: M. Vorwerk)

Master Chen Ziqiang is a member of the twentieth generation of the Chen family, and his genealogy is truly impressive: his father is Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing, his uncle Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, and his great-grandfather was Chen Fake himself. Over the past two decades, however, Ziqiang has gained recognition in the world of Chen Taijiquan through his own merit alone. In line with martial arts tradition, he’s fought anyone who’s dared to spar with him in both official and unofficial settings since his twenties, and has won numerous tournaments, gaining the reputation of a fierce fighter.

Intent on preserving the true essence of his family’s skill, and totally dedicated to upholding the tradition, he now runs Chen Village Taijiquan School (Chen Taijiquan Xuexiao) in his home village of Chenjiagou, along with his father. He also spends two to three months a year travelling through Europe and the USA, disseminating his extensive knowledge on Chen Taijiquan to Western students.

It was during his 2013 tour that Chen Ziqiang held a workshop in Slovenia for the first time, offering a group of students from various parts of Europe an extraordinary opportunity to experience his qualities as a teacher. In the gym, guiding a group through vigorous warm-up exercises, countless repetitions of Taolu (forms), and dynamic (and always fun!) push-hand drills, Ziqiang revealed himself to be a strict and tireless teacher with a hawk’s eye for spotting mistakes. With his strong and inspiring presence he motivated all of the students to work harder and push their own boundaries further.

Chen Ziqiang supervising the group at his workshop (photo: J. Suhadolnik)

Chen Ziqiang supervising the group at his workshop (photo: J. Suhadolnik)

Being patient and generous, Chen Ziqiang agreed to share his experience and knowledge of Taijiquan outside the gym, too. In order to answer students’ questions, he sat down during the quiet hours of the evening and gave his own account of learning the skill, his teaching experience, and his views on specific aspects of Gongfu. During the conversation, he reminisced on his childhood in a village where Taijiquan is firmly embedded in life’s daily and yearly routines, and where old masters’ stories and legends spark children’s imagination. He also described the intensification, over the years, of his motivation and will to train, and his growing commitment to preserving his family’s skill in its true and original form.

When describing his teaching experience, he touched upon the daily tasks involved in running the school with his father, as well as the kind of future his students can expect once they have graduated and left their training behind. He also discussed distinct aspects of Gongfu, the diverse challenges of the learning and teaching process, and the differences between Western and Chinese students’ approaches.

Some of Ziqiang’s most significant answers were also the shortest and most concise, delivered with the same precision and accuracy that he employs in the fighting ring. Like many masters before him, Chen Ziqiang stressed that there are no short cuts in Taijiquan. Of equal importance and gravity was his statement that a student can succeed through diligence and perseverance alone.

Our conversation opened with a question for Ziqiang about his childhood.

On Learning the Skill

Master Ziqiang, how old were you when you started training, and what did your training incorporate at that stage? How did you feel about Taijiquan and training at the very beginning?

I was trained from the age of three. Mainly I was asked to do Zhan Zhuang (the Standing Pole). I had no particular thought at that stage of my training process, except to feel that it was impinging on my play time.

Who were your teachers over the years, and what was your path in Taijiquan?

Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing (Chen Ziqiang’s father) at home, making noodles. The rhythm, speed and accuracy of his movement reflect the principles of Taijiquan (photo: A. Christodoulou)

Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing (Chen Ziqiang’s father) at home, making noodles. The rhythm, speed and accuracy of his movement reflect the principles of Taijiquan (photo: A. Christodoulou)

My father, Chen Xiaoxing, was my teacher. Whenever he had time, he supervised my Zhan Zhuang and adjusted my position accordingly. He did the same with my form and weapons training.

As a youngster, did you witness any real-life events (not necessarily fights) that revealed the great skill of teachers from the village? If so, how did those events influence you?

In the village I saw many such events, and didn’t think they were anything out of the ordinary – it was all part of my normal environment. So in that sense, they didn’t have any special impact on me.

The world of Taijiquan in general, and Chenjiagou village in particular, is full of stories of legendary masters and their accomplishments. Is there a story that you’re particularly fond of?

Every generation in my clan has fantastic stories. I like them all, particularly the ones that portray real martial skill. Others, based on legends, are designed to inspire.

Master Ziqiang, what has motivated you in your training? Has your motivation changed over the years, and if so, how?

As a child, I wasn’t particularly motivated – I trained and practised because my parents demanded and expected it. But at the age of 13 I suddenly became very motivated and trained hard, as I wanted to be as strong as I was small in stature. I also began to realise that it was a matter of passing on a unique family skill that had been handed down from generation to generation [for centuries]. If I didn’t continue the tradition, my family would lose it. That sentiment has stayed with me, and has never changed – I have an obligation to fulfil.

Do you still train with your father, and if so, how often? Given your extremely high level of skill, how important do you find working with elder masters in order to further your own progress?

Of course I continue to train under my father. Although I no longer have him standing over me every day, I seek him out when I come across a point that needs clarification, or something I can’t understand. It will always be like that.

What’s your daily practice like these days – how long do you train each day, for example? When do you usually practise? What’s your typical training regime?

I train every morning, afternoon and evening. When I’m at home, that comes to about eight hours a day. I practise everything in the system – Taolu (hand forms), weapons and Tuishou (push hands).

Do you favour any particular aspect of training? If so, why?

I like to examine the common ground of Taolu and actual fighting. That’s the only way I can understand the reason behind Taolu movements and their functions and purposes.

On Chen Village Tajiquan School and Teaching World-wide

You now run a school with your father. What are your responsibilities? 

At school, my main responsibility is teaching. I’m responsible for training students for competitions.

Could you tell us a bit about your students? How many are there in the school? Where are they from? How long (on average) do they stay there? What is their path after they leave?

Every day, training at Chen Village Taijiquan School starts with a run, and warm-up exercises (photo: L. Marsh)

Every day, training at Chen Village Taijiquan School starts with a run, and warm-up exercises
(photo: L. Marsh)

There are around 300 registered students in the school. They are from Chenjiagou and all over China, and from other countries. Some are in the school as short-term students (for anything between a few weeks and six months), while others are long term (for between two years and ten).

Most of the long-term graduates who come as children go on to become martial arts instructors. Some go into security, or the police and armed forces. The short-term students are mostly mature people with a career or occupation, who come to learn Chen Family Taijiquan, or taiji instructors of other schools who come to upgrade or raise their standard.

Would you agree that teaching not only helps students to progress, but also allows teachers to improve their own skills? In your experience, which particular skills are further sharpened by teaching others?

Master Chen Ziqiang during a demonstration at Chen Village Taijiquan School (photo: A. Christodoulou)

Master Chen Ziqiang during a demonstration at Chen Village Taijiquan School (photo: A. Christodoulou)

If the teaching method’s correct, it will definitely raise the standard of both learner and teacher. A teacher should constantly research and examine the correct method and the correct route, and that’s invariably reflected in the learner. So both teacher and learner raise their level of practice and understanding.

How would you describe the learning process in Taijiquan?

Besides having a good teacher, a person should train and practise diligently, and persevere unremittingly.

When one trains constantly and has a good teacher, is progress in Gongfu always gradual and incremental, or can it sometimes be rapid and sudden?

A quantum leap isn’t possible – it’s wishful thinking, a pipe dream! There are no shortcuts!

Is it true that when one becomes more advanced, each additional level of skill is harder to achieve, and takes longer? Why is that?

Not necessarily, but if one fails to learn the correct method or take the right path, it’s difficult to make further progress. Also, on reaching a certain level, it isn’t a matter of time. The key lies in acquiring the technical ability and skill to reach a higher level.

Practice (photo: J. Suhadolnik)

Practice (photo: J. Suhadolnik)

What are the characteristics of a good student, in your opinion?

A good student should have three qualities: intelligence, diligence and disposition. It’s rare for anyone to have all three, and diligence and perseverance are acceptable for the most part.

Comparing Chinese and Western students, are there any differences in their approach to Taijiquan and practising it?

It’s harder for Western students to grasp a concept that’s inherent in the Chinese psyche and its culture. At times it seems impossible, as Western students try to interpret the concept on the basis of their own beliefs and interpretations. In approach and practice, Chinese students do, while Western students question. Chinese students go by feeling and sensing movement, while Western students are concerned with the mechanics, or kinetics, of movement.

On Taijiquan and Gongfu

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

Training in core skills and Taolu (form); then Tuishou (push hands) and Sanshou (free hands). Each one’s built upon the last, and they’re all inter-connected.

You mentioned that there are three purposes for practising Taijiquan. What are they, and what are the relationships between them?

First: to maintain good health. Second: to build the body. Third: for martial skill. Regardless of one’s purpose, one must apply martial arts principles to one’s training. In that way, Taijiquan will help one to build one’s body and therefore maintain good health. Eventually one will also acquire practical fighting skills.

What are the stages and methods of Tuishou (push hands)?

Tuishou can be categorised by four stages, five methods and three patterns. The four stages are keep fit, study/experimental, applications and combat/fighting. The five methods are single hand, double hands, backward and forward stepping, low stance (da lu) and flexible steps. The three patterns are horizontal, vertical and oblique.

What are your hopes for the future of Chen Taijiquan?

I hope Taijiquan doesn’t lose its true essence in the process of expansion and propagation.

Lastly, could you please say something that will provide inspiration for others training in Taijiquan? Are there any particular concepts or methods you’d recommend to students to develop their skill (Gongfu)?

You need to have confidence, and to persevere in your pursuit of the skills required to achieve your ultimate goal. Have the right idea, be consistent in practice, and continue to seek and learn.

Master Chen Ziqiang, thank you.

Master Chen Ziqiang guides the group through Taolu (photo: J. Suhadolnik)

Master Chen Ziqiang guides the group through Taolu (photo: J. Suhadolnik)

 

Acknowledgments: This interview wouldn’t have taken place without many friends’ and Taijiquan enthusiasts’  open hearts and generous help. Firstly, I’d like to thank Master Chen Ziqiang for patiently answering many inquisitive questions from Chenjiagou Taijiquan Slovenia School students, rather than having a well-deserved rest in the evening. Secondly, I’d like to thank Davidine Siaw-Voon Sim, a brilliant taiji teacher who translated our questions into Chinese and the answers back into English. Without her help, the idea would never have been realised. I’d like to express immeasurable gratitude to a friend and editor, Claire O’Kell, who has to struggle with my English on a regular basis and who always manages to transform my writing through her subtle sense for language into an interesting read. I’m also very grateful to the photographers who generously allowed their beautiful pictures to accompany the interview and be published on our blog free of charge.
 
 Special thanks to professional photographer Jože Suhadolnik, who kindly agreed to document a workshop in Ljubljana, and produced an amazing series of photographs. The whole series can be seen in the Gallery section of this blog.
 I’d also like to thank professional photographer Androniki Christodoulou, very sincerely, for allowing us to publish two photographs from her Chenjiagou series in the interview. If you’d like to experience life in the village through her amazing reportage photography, please visit Androniki Christodoulou Photography.
 Thanks to Michael Vorwerk, who not only drove from Kasel (Germany) to Ljubljana in order to train with Master Ziqiang, but also managed to find the time – and the best light – to capture some beautiful portraits. A selection of the portraits can be seen in the Gallery section of this blog.
 Lastly, I’d like to thank my friend Lai Marsh, who visited Chenjiagou in spring 2013 and kindly allowed me to publish one of her photos with the interview.
 
Agni Prijatelj

“If you give more, you receive more” An interview with Wang Yan, head coach of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School

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Wang Yan - 1

 

Wang Yan at the Chenjiagou school, September 2017 (photo: Š. Kolenc)

Wang Yan was born in 1990. After a baishi ceremony to his teacher, Master Chen Ziqiang, he became a member of 21st generation of the Chen family. For a decade, he was continuously taught and guided by his master, and was not just a talented student, but also a very diligent and commited one, capable of putting relentless effort into his Taijiquan practice. Wang Yan became one of the best fighters of his generation. He is a national sanda champion, and International Taiji Tuishou champion, winning the greatest number of competitions in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School’s history. He is also a member of the Chenjiagou Taiji Boxing Organizing Committee, a national level referee, and one of the Chenjiagou “Nine Tigers“.

In spite of his young age he already has almost ten years of teaching experience – he became the assistant coach in Chenjiagou Taijiquan School in 2008, and since 2013 has undertaken the duties of head coach. In 2011 he started to teach on seminars abroad, travelling to France, Germany, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Uzbekhistan.

During my 6-months stay at Chenjiagou school in 2017, Wang Yan was my main teacher. From the very beginning, I noticed his exceptional dedication to the work and duties in the school. He starts teaching at 6.30 am, and finishes his work at 8.00 or even later in the evening. During his working day he is always ready to help anyone asking for his help.

As a teacher he is authoritative with the children and youngsters, and serious and demanding with the adult students. If he wasn’t satisfied with one movement, he wouldn’t show me the next one. At the same time, he was extremly patient and kind, correcting my posture and movements again and again in order to make my skill better.

I experienced him as a very friendly and positive person, who shows a sincere interest in people around him, and is open for new ideas. During breaks, he could be amusing and humorous, and was ever eager to learn some new English words.

His way of dealing with people so open-heartedly made a big impact on me. Working with him day after day for half a year, I did have an opportunity to make my physical skill better, but also to grow as a person. Wang Yan has, in my opinion, developed the characteristics of a warrior, which led him towards his achievements.

I introduced the idea of interviewing him in June 2017. He was surprised at first, almost embarassed, but at the same time happy about it. So three months later, this idea finally came true.

In the beginning of our conversation, Wang Yan talked about his first Taiji steps, describing his daily routine as a young student at the Chenjiagou school. He explained what motivated him during extremly hard training day after day, and what were for him the most difficult things to overcome.

He also shared some memories of competitions and his preparations for them, stressing the necessity for very hard work in order to reach good results. But he also insisted on another basic requirement for a success in a fight: keeping a calm and peaceful mind and not giving in to anger and aggression.

At the end of the interview he described his duties and role at the Chenjiagou Taijiquan school, and his current approach to practice, emphasizing the need for any teacher to practice on their own besides teaching. In conclusion he mentioned the importance of being knowledgeable of Taiji theory as well. His opinion is that thinking in Chinese traditional concepts could help Westerners to grasp the skill easier.

About beginnings…

You come from Wenxian, the town very close to Chenjiagou, so it was quite natural to come in touch with Taijiquan. How old were you when you started practicing? What and who inspired and supported you at the beginning?

My father often used to practise Taijiquan on his own, and so I gradually got interested in martial arts. Also, in primary school at Wenxian I had a teacher of physical education, who taught us Taijiquan in a promotional way. I was then about 10 yrs old. Sometimes he would ask me to stand in front of the others, and to lead a group. That inspired me as well. Later, at the age of thirteen, I joined the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School, and from then I started practicing seriously.

 

Was Master Chen Ziqiang your only teacher since the very beginning at the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School, or were there other teachers guiding you as well?

From the very beginning Master Chen Ziqiang was my main teacher. At that time, he was not travelling abroad so much, so I was trained by him consistently and regularly. There were also other coaches besides him at the school, helping me with different aspects of the training. I was taught, for example, some external martial arts as well, particularly sanda and shaolin kungfu.

Wang Yan - 2Children training at the East ditch in 2004. Wang Yan is standing in the middle, wearing a sweater with stripes. (Photo: personal archive of Wang Yan)

 

Can you describe your training routine at the beginning, and how training changed in different periods of your development? Are there some basic training elements present throughout all those years?

Our daily routine started in the morning with running and warming-up excercises. In the first morning class we studied forms, in the second class we did strength excercices, in the third class we did push hands exercises, kicks, punches and other self defense techniques, and during the last evening class we were again doing push hands exercises, and sometimes weight lifting.

Tuishou training for children was play-like: we children liked playing with each other this way. Those trainings were not about learning the specific techniques or exploring the skill in any systematic way, but they were more like rough playing. Other types of training, on the contrary, were quite demanding: we did a lot of weight lifting, stretching, also other strength excercises to develop fitness and muscular abilities. When a student grows a little older, reaching his late teens and early twenties, then the school starts putting much more attention to learning taolu (forms).

The period between my 18 – 21 years was the most intense and demanding period for me: hard training, competitions, and on top of this, I became an assistant coach at the school.

 

What kept you persisting during this period of daily hard work? Did you have difficulties standing up to those standards?

During that period, I felt exhausted many times during and after training, and simply fed up. At those moments my motivation was shaken and weakened. I dealt with it by remembering the goals I had set to myself, I concentrated on a vision of my future, and that kept me persevering. And besides, quitting was out of question for me, as I did not want to dissapoint my family, especially my father, who was very interested in Taijiquan.

What were your goals at that time?

I set a goal to myself to be a number one champion.

Wang Yan - 3Wang Yan (in the orange suit) with grandmaster Chen Xiaowang in 2007. His father is in a second row. (photo: personal archive of Wang Yan)

Is training for children and young students different nowadays from the time when you were a student?

When I was a young student, the training was more strenous then now. The approach has changed nowadays towards a somewhat softer way. Students now come from more comfortable backgrounds and are, generally speaking, often more interested in computer games than in serious training.

Some of them, of course, are genuinely and seriously interested in learning Taijiquan, while the others are lazy and do not have a drive for learning. But methods of training have basicaly not changed over those years.

What was the most difficult thing in the learning process for you, and how did you deal with it?

The greatest challenge for me, as I said, were feelings of exhaustion, of being overwhelmed by strain. But, luckily, those feelings were just temporary, and passed after a good rest and after calming down. In those moments, I kept myself up by focusing on Taiji and on my wish to achieve higher Taiji standards. This challenge was actually more of a psychological than physical problem. I drew motivatation from the awareness that I had made a conscious choice to give the most I can. I was thinking to myself: “I have to go through this, if I want to win at the competition…”, etc.

In China we have a saying: “To do something halfway is the same as not doing it at all“. I didn’t want to allow this to happen to me and I wanted to complete what I had started. (At that time, I even named myself on social media »Carry On«.)

Wang Yan - 4Wang Yan training with his master Chen Ziqiang in 2016 (photo: personal archive of Wang Yan)

About fighting…

You are one of the most succesful Taiji fighters of your generation. Beside practicing dilligently under the guidance of a good teacher, which traits should a fighter develop in order to bring out the best of his/her potential?

You of course need talent, but you also need a good teacher. Every student, even those introverted or timid, can become good fighter – if he has a little bit of talent, access to a good teacher and if he works hard. So, it is not just about talent, but also about a commitment to very hard work! Maybe I am more successful then other fighters, because I am willing to give more. If you give more, you receive more…

Beside this, students with a calmer and more good-natured character are more likely to succeed, compared with students with volatile, overly ambitious, and revengful natures. Those who flare up and get angry easily, who are desperate to win in order to achieve fame, will – as a rule – not succeed. A peaceful and calm minded person, if he is also focused and dilligent, is more likely to have better results, than someone relying exclusivelly on agression.

Could you tell something about your experiences as a member of Chenjiagou “Nine Tigers“? How and why the group got this name?

“Nine Taiji Tigers“ is a name given to a group of the best students of Master Chen Ziqiang. All of us were guided by him since our childhood. We belong to a generation of students, who were regularly trained under his guidance, before he started travelling abroad extensively. Some of us developed more in the direction of Taiji fighting, while the others became the very best in various Taiji forms. The name was given to us in 2013, like some kind of award for reaching high standards of Taiji skills, and for being successful at competitions.

Wang Yan - 5Chenjiagou “Nine Tigers“ in 2014 (photo: personal archive of Wang Yan)

Was your preparation training for competitions different from your regular training? Did you have any special diet? And, generally, how did you prepare for a competition?

Two months before a competition the training was intensified for more talented and eager students. During those periods our shifu Chen Ziqiang would also pay more attention to us than to the rest of the students. To develop stamina we would practice frog jumps, running in a crouched position, running while carrying someone on our shoulders etc., until the point where I would be absolutely exhausted.

One method of practicing tuishou was, for example, being in a circle of about twenty students, who would challenge you one after another. When I knock the first one down, the next one would attack, and so on till the last one, after which the circle repeats itself. I also practiced the same circle exercise blindfolded in order to sharpen body sensations. Sometimes during wintertime, shifu would take us outside, dressed just in trousers, to train in the snow. One of exercises was to hold each other by the legs while ‘hand walking’ on the cold or frozen ground.

Before tuishou competitions I always have to control my weight, so during preparation time I would eat less and avoid spicy and very greasy food. Finally, after hard training, it is also important to have a proper rest.

Wang Yan - 6Winter training at Chenjiagou Taijiquan school, 2011 year (photo: personal archive of Wang Yan)

Could you share some memories from competitions?

In spite of our natural desire to win, we have always cultivated friendship and mutual respect. It was quite usual, for example, to share online video clips of some new opponent’s fighting style, especially if his abilities were of the same level as ours. In this way we could study his movements and fighting approach in advance…

As I have won at many competitions, I became very well known as a fierce fighter. So it often happened that when opponents realized they would have to stand up against me (before competitions students of different schools talk a lot about competition and news traveled around quickly), they either found an excuse not to challenge me, or changed weight class. Learning from this experience, later I did’nt share information about the weight class I am going to compete in, or – if being asked – didn’t give clear answer. Therefore, during the competiton it may happen that I meet again in the ring some opponent(s) I had fought against at some previous occasion(s) – and they would just back off out of the competition.

During the Henan Jimiao Sai competition in 2010 (or maybe the year before?) I was one point away from losing. Then, somehow, I managed to turn it around and in the end beat the opponent by fifteen points. This competition was a particularly memorable experience for me.

Wang Yan - 7Wang Yan winning Chenjiagou competition in 2014 (photo: personal archive of Wang Yan)

 

Some students are, I noticed, overenthusiastic about the martial aspect of Taijiquan, and get emotionaly aroused very quickly. How much, in your opinion, does this affect their practice and actual fighting performance? How do you deal with your own emotions when practicing and competing?

It is good for people to be excited in a positive way, to be happy when practicing Taiji. But underneath the mind should stay calm and peaceful. As for myself, I tried to regard the competitions I participated in, as a kind of training, and this attitude helped me to stay calm. In this way I kept my emotions in check, as the most important thing during competition is to retain a peaceful state of mind throughout the fight.

During the preparation period for a competition I also avoided situations which could affect me emotionally. A day before the competion I would switch off my mobile, don’t go out with friends for a drink, etc.

Wang Yan - 8Wang Yan in combat training in 2016 (photo: personal archive of Wang Yan)

Do you think about possibility of getting injuried before going into the ring? Have you been injured many times?

Injuries are inavoidable, but this doesn’t affect my enthusiasm to enter the ring. I actually never think about that, because before the fight my focus is elsewhere. In the action, I am concentrating on combat tactics, on my fighting approach to the opponent…

I once injured my face and a finger, but those were not serious injuries. My ankle, shoulder and hip were twisted on another occasion, and that hurt quite badly. But, luckily, my injuries were never so serious to prevent me from practicing for longer periods of time. I remember very well one competition’s finals: my opponent was 4 kg heavier then me, and in an effort to throw him I overstrained my shoulder…

About teaching Taijiquan …

Although you are still young, you are already proficient teacher. When did you start teaching, and what is your present job in the Chenjiagou school?

I became assistant coach in the school when I was 18. Back then I was just one of the students, but I started to help in the school with some teaching as well. Three, maybe four, years ago, I became a head instructor. That means that I am, as far as my duties and responsibilities in the school are concerned, next to master Chen Ziqiang. He is in charge of training adult students, while I am coaching youngsters and children.

This job requires also travelling abroad to teach seminars. Usually, when Master Chen Ziqiang is abroad I am here, in the school; and when he is back, I travel. Also, my job involves managing and coordinating things to be done within the school. For example, to organize and coordinate groups of students to do some work. When our students attend competitions, my duty is to contact competition organizers, and to cover all the formal things to be done about that. My duty is also to organize and invent program(s) for different events in the school, to give interviews, to prepare information for the media etc…

Wang Yan - 9Wang Yan leading his group of students, September 2017 (photo: Š. Kolenc)

Would you agree, that teaching helps one to get to deeper understanding of Taijiquan?

Yes, definitely. Teaching is very valuable tool for reviewing what one has already learned. But the most important is to go on with your own practice, and reach a good level of Taijiquan performance yourself. In that way one is always keeping a higher level of knowledge than the students, and therefore can give them some valuable guidance. If you just teach and do not practice, there is a possibility that your students may become better than you. Teaching is a good supplement to practice, but is not a substitute for it.

You are teaching from early morning until evening. Considering this schedule, do you still find time for yourself to practice? As you have just limited time available for practice, what do you concentrate on in your practice?

As my job requires most of my time, and is quite dynamic, with a constantly changing schedule, I don’t have a specific time set for my own practice. I have to be flexible in that respect. Usually, when students are occupied training for themselves, or if some other teacher takes over the class, I find some moments for my own practice. There is a saying: “By missing one day of practice, your skill regresses for three days”. So, I make sure that I practice every day. That means that I go at least through forms. And when I have some more time, I do also some fitness exercises like running and weight lifting.

Wang Yan - 10Wang Yan giving instructions to students, 2017 (photo: Š. Kolenc)

What is your favourite discipline?

I like to practice all kinds of forms and techniques. But I enjoy the most demanding preparation training for tuishou competitions. Especially exercises for stamina and fitness, and practice of self defense techniques.

Do you find it important to study Taijiquan theory as well in order to improve the practice? How much do regular students of the Chenjiagou school study Taiji theory? Are they required to read some books or texts related to Taijiquan?

The theory is very important. It is actually essential for learning Taijiquan properly. But the children in the school are not expected to study the theory, because they are too young to really absorb it. This requirement may also diminish their interest in Taijiquan at that age. We have no theory classes organized in the school, but during my everyday teachings I explain to my students theoretical details relevant for their actual practice. Later, if some of them show more interst, they read some texts by themselves.

During my stay in Chenjiagou school, I noticed that Chinese students grasp techniques of Taijiquan easier and faster then Westerners. What is, in your opinion, the reason for that difference?

Many important requirements for good Taiji practice, like not thinking to much, moving in a natural and balanced way, etc., are already a part of Chinese culture: Daoism and Buddhism, for example, value the same qualities in one’s everyday life. So, these concepts are already part of the language, and of the collective subconscious mind in China. Maybe this is the reason why Chinese students sometimes grasp Taijiquan concepts easier then Westerners. In general, but not always, it is easier for Chinese people. In my opinion Chinese also have the responsibility to learn taijiquan and its concepts well in order to preserve our culture.

Do you think that adults and senior students should also put some effort into strength exercises like running, for example, in order to improve their Taijiquan skills?

Most adults and senior students have a limited amount of time available, so they don’t do a lot of running, or stretching or other fitness exercises. Taijiquan is already a very good excercise system on its own. But it is common sense, of course, that before one starts practicing some warm up exercises should be done in order to prepare and open the joints.

Wang Yan - 11A demonstration of Chenjiagou taijiquan school’s students in front of Chen taijiquan museum, August 2017 (photo. E. Dorfman)

What is the main quality of Taijiquan? What it means to you?

First, Taijiquan is a very effective martial art. It represents a highly developed system of excercises, based on ancient philosophy and Chinese culture. Taijiquan is neither a sport, nor it is a recreational exercise. It is a practical study of Nature itself, and principles which exist in Nature. That is why one’s practice never ends – there is no limit to how deep you can go.

Taijiquan is very practical and useful in modern world as well. It is valuable tool for dealing with stress, anxiety, poor health, high blood presure and for general improvement of one’s well being. It has beneficial and balancing effect on people living in modern society.

Do you have plans or wishes for the future? What would you like to do in years to come?

I simply want to continue with what I am doing now. Beside this, my wish is to travel some more abroad. It is a great pleasure and adventure for me to lead seminars in foreign countries. I have taught in several foreign countries. I liked environment in Germany the best. I would like to travel to the US once as well, as I have never been there.

Wang Yan - 12Wang Yan teaching at a seminar in Cologne (Germany), December 2017 (photo: personal archive of Wang Yan)

To end this interview, can you give one piece of advice that could help and inspire students of Taijiquan?

The most important thing is to persevere.

Acknowledgments:

This interview was taken in two sessions at the beginning of September 2017 at the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School, and later, some amendments were added to it through online communication with Wang Yan.

First of all, I would like to thank Wang Yan for his time, good will and patience in answering my questions, for kindly making available to me some of his personal photos, and for sharing additional information online with me, as I was improving the interview with some amendments.

A special thanks also to Joe Davey, a long term student of master Chen Ziqiang. Joe was at the Chenjiahou school in the summer of 2017 year as well, and he translated my questions to Chinese language, and Wang Yan’s answers into English. I am also grateful to Joe for his time and further translation work during my later online communication with Wang Yan, as I tried to get some more details for this interview.

Joe knows Wang Yan since his beginning at Chenjiagou school, and has been following his development for fourteen years, until now. During our interview sessions he helped Wang Yan to recall some past events. As a result, some answers in this interview are more elaborated and interesting. Withouth Joe’s help it wouldn’t be possible for me to make this interview.

I also thank Elana Dorfman, who was training in Chenjiagou in the summer of 2017, and kindly allowed me to publish one of her photos in this interview.

In the end, I thank Biljana Dušić for revising the English text of the interview, and Davidine Sim, who edited it.

Špela Kolenc

“Če daš več, prejmeš več.” Interjvju z Wang Yan-om, glavnim inštruktorjem Chenjiagou Xue Xiao

Standardno

Wang Yan - 1Wang Yan v Chenjiagou šoli, September 2017 (foto: Š. Kolenc)

Wang Yan je bil rojen leta 1990. Po baishi ceremoniji, s katero je bil sprejet v krog “notranjih učencev” svojega učitelja, mojstra Chen Ziqiang-a, je postal član 21. generacije družine Chen. Celo desetletje ga je njegov učitelj poučeval, usmerjal in bedel nad njegovim razvojem. Wang Yan namreč ni bil samo talentiran, temveč tudi zelo marljiv in predan učenec, sposoben vztrajnega napornega dela pri taijiquan vadbi. Postal je eden izmed najboljših borcev svoje generacije. Je državni prvak Kitajske v sanda borilni veščini, mednarodni prvak v taijiquan potiskanju rok in je dosegel doslej največje število zmag na tekmovanjih v zgodovini Chenjiagou taijiquan šole. Je tudi član organizacijskega odbora Chenjiagou Taiji Boxing, sodnik na državni ravni in eden izmed tim. Chenjiagou ˝devetih tigrov˝.

Kljub svoji mladosti ima že skoraj deset let izkušenj v poučevanju; v Chenjiagou taijiquan šoli je leta 2008 postal inštruktor – asistent, od leta 2013 dalje pa je prevzel dolžnosti glavnega inštruktorja. Leta 2011 je začel poučevati na seminarjih v tujini. Potoval je v Francijo, Nemčijo, Poljsko, Španijo, na Portugalsko, v Italijo in Uzbekistan.

V času mojega šestmesečnega bivanja v Chenjiagou šoli leta 2017 je bil Wang Yan moj glavni učitelj. Že od samega začetka sem opazila njegovo izredno predanost delu in dolžnostim v šoli. S poučevanjem je začel zjutraj ob 6.30, z delom pa zaključil zvečer ob 20.00 ali celo kasneje. V času svojega delavnika je bil vedno pripravljen pomagati komurkoli, ki ga je prosil za pomoč.

Kot učitelj je strog do otrok in mladostnikov, ter resen in zahteven do odraslih učencev. Če, na primer, ni bil zadovoljen z enim gibom, mi ni hotel pokazati naslednjega. Istočasno pa je bil zelo potrpežljiv in prijazen, saj je vedno znova popravljal mojo držo in gibe, da bi izboljšal raven moje veščine.

Doživela sem ga kot zelo prijateljskega in pozitivnega človeka, ki se iskreno zanima za ljudi okrog sebe in je odprt za nove ideje. Med odmori je bil zabaven in šaljiv ter se je vsakič želel naučiti nekaj novih angleških besed.

Njegova širokosrčnost do ljudi je name naredila velik vtis.

S tem, ko sem delala z njim pol leta, dan za dnem, nisem dobila samo priložnosti za izboljšanje veščine, temveč tudi za osebno rast. Po mojem mnenju je Wang Yan pri sebi razvil karakterne lastnosti bojevnika in te lastnosti so ga popeljale proti njegovim dosežkom.

Idejo, da bi z njim izvedla intervju, sem mu predstavila v juniju 2017. Najprej je bil presenečen, skorajda mu je bilo neprijetno, vendar je bil istočasno vesel. Tri mesece kasneje se je ta ideja končno uresničila.

Na začetku najinega pogovora je Wang Yan spregovoril o svojih prvih taiji korakih in opisal svojo dnevno rutino, v katero je bil vpet kot učenec Chenjiagou šole. Razložil je, kaj ga je motiviralo v času izredno težkih vsakodnevnih treningov in katere stvari je najtežje premagoval.

Prav tako je delil nekaj spominov na tekmovanja in na njihove priprave. Poudaril je, da je nujno potrebno trdo delati, da bi dosegli dobre rezultate. Poleg tega pa je vztrajal tudi na drugem temeljnem pogoju za uspeh v borbi: ohranjanju umirjenega uma, ki se ne prepušča nagnjenju k impulzivni jezi ali napadalnosti.

Na koncu intervjuja je opisal svoje dolžnosti in vlogo v Chenjiagou taijiquan šoli ter kakšna je trenutno, zaradi zasedenosti, njegova individualna vadba. Poudaril je, namreč, da je za vsakega učitelja nujno potrebno, da se poleg poučevanja posveča tudi lastni vadbi. Zaključil je s sporočilom, da je poleg vadbe prav tako pomembno poznati teorijo taijiquana. Njegovo mnenje je, da bi razmišljanje v okviru kitajskih tradicionalnih konceptov lahko zahodnjakom pomagalo, da bi lažje osvajali veščino.

O začetkih…

Wang Yan, prihajaš iz Wenxian-a, najbližjega mesta vasi Chenjiagou, torej je bilo zate zelo naravno, da si prišel v stik s taijiquan-om. Koliko si bil star, ko si začel vaditi? Kaj oz. kdo te je najbolj navdušil za vadbo in tudi podprl na samem začetku?

Moj oče je pogosto vadil taijiquan sam zase in tako sem tudi jaz postopoma dobil zanimanje za borilne veščine. Poleg tega sem imel v osnovni šoli v Wenxian-u učitelja za športno vzgojo, ki nas je poučeval taijiquan bolj v smislu promocije. Takrat sem bil star deset let. Večkrat me je prosil, da se postavim pred skupino ostalih učencev in jo vodim in to me je prav tako navdihnilo. Kasneje, ko sem bil star trinajst let, sem se pridružil Chenjiagou šoli in od takrat naprej se je začelo moje resno učenje, oz. vadba.

Ali je bil mojster Chen Ziqiang od samega začetka tvoj edini učitelj ali so bili prisotni še drugi učitelji, ki so te prav tako vodili?

Od samega začetka je bil mojster Chen Ziqiang moj glavni učitelj. V tistem času ni potoval toliko po tujini in zato me je lahko treniral dolgoročno, redno in dosledno. Poleg njega pa so seveda bili na šoli tudi drugi inštruktorji, ki so mi pomagali z različnimi vidiki vadbe. Učili so me na primer tudi zunanje borilne veščine, zlasti veščino sanda in šaolinski kungfu.

Wang Yan - 2Trening otrok v Chen vasi leta 2004 (vzhodni del kanala, Dong gou). Wang Yan stoji na sredini, oblečen v črtast pulover. (foto: Wang Yan-ov osebni arhiv)

Ali lahko opišeš svojo vadbeno rutino na začetku in kako se je vadba spreminjala v različnih obdobjih tvojega razvoja? Ali so kakšni elementi vadbe bili prisotni skozi vsa ta leta?

Naša dnevna rutina se je začela z jutranjim tekom in ogrevalnimi vajami. Potem smo na prvem jutranjem treningu vadili forme, drugi je bil namenjen vajam za moč, tretji potiskanju rok (tui shou) in vadbi brc, udarcev in ostalih tehnik samoobrambe. Na zadnjem, večernem treningu pa smo ponovno vadili potiskanje rok in včasih dviganje uteži.

Vadba potiskanja rok za otroke je bila zamišljena kot igra. Mi otroci smo se med sabo na ta način radi igrali. Tovrstni treningi za otroke niso bili namenjeni učenju specifičnih tehnik ali sistematičnemu raziskovanju veščine, temveč so bili bolj kot groba igra.

V nasprotju s tem pa so bile nekateri druge vrste vadbe zelo zahtevne: delali smo veliko dviganja uteži, raztezanja, prav tako pa tudi druge vaje za moč, z namenom, da bi pridobili kondicijo in razvili mišično moč in prožnost. Ko učenci postanejo malo starejši in dosežejo svoja pozna najstniška in zgodnja dvajseta leta, pa začne šola posvečati več pozornosti učenju form (taolu).

Obdobje med osemnajstim in enaindvajsetim letom je bilo zame najbolj intenzivno in zahtevno: težki treningi, tekmovanja in povrhu vsega sem v šoli postal še inštruktor – asistent.

Kaj te je vzpodbudilo, da si vztrajal v tem obdobju težkega vsakodnevnega dela? Ali si imel težave s tem, da si zadostil zahtevam vadbe v tem obdobju?

V tem obdobju sem bil med in po treningu velikokrat zelo izčrpan in preprosto naveličan. V teh trenutkih se je moja motivacija zamajala. To sem prebrodil s tem, da sem se v teh težkih trenutkih spominjal ciljev, ki sem si jih zadal. Osredotočil sem svoje misli na vizijo prihodnosti in to mi je pomagalo, da sem vztrajal. Poleg tega zame sploh ni bilo sprejemljivo, da bi odnehal – nisem želel razočarati svoje družine, še posebej ne svojega očeta, ki je verjel vame in imel taijiquan zelo rad.

Kaj so bili tvoji cilji v tistem času?

Zadal sem si, da bom postal prvak.

Wang Yan - 3Wang Yan (v oranžnem kimonu) z veliki mojstrom Chen Xiaowang-om leta 2007. Njegov oče je v drugi vrsti. (foto: Wang Yan-ov osebni arhiv)

Ali je trening za otroke in mladostnike danes drugačen, kot takrat, ko si bil ti učenec?

Ko sem bil mladostnik, je bil naš trening bolj naporen, kot je sedaj. Pristop se je danes spremenil – trening mladostnikov je postal nekoliko mehkejši. Današnji učenci prihajajo iz razmer, kjer vladajo udobnejši življenjski pogoji kot nekoč, in jih, na splošno rečeno, bolj zanimajo računalniške igrice kot resna vadba taijiquana.

Nekateri izmed njih se seveda iskreno in resno zanimajo za učenje taijiquan-a, med tem, ko so drugi leni in brez želje po resnejšem učenju. Metode vadbe pa se v osnovi skozi vsa ta leta niso spremenile.

Kaj je bilo v procesu učenja zate najtežje in kako si se s tem soočil?

Kot sem že omenil, so bili zame največji izziv občutki izčrpanosti in preobremenjenosti zaradi naporne vadbe. Ampak na srečo so bili ti občutki samo začasni in so minili, ko sem se po počitku umiril. V teh trenutkih sem se ‘držal pokonci’ tako, da sem pozornost osredotočil na svojo željo, da dosežem višjo raven veščine taijiquana. Zgoraj omenjeni izziv je bil pravzaprav bolj psihološke kot fizične narave. Motiviralo me je zavedanje, da sem sprejel zavestno odločitev, da dam od sebe največ, kar zmorem. Mislil sem si: ˝Moram iti preko tega, če bi rad zmagal na tekmovanju…˝ ipd.

Na Kitajskem imamo rek: ˝Narediti nekaj na pol je tako, kot da ne bi naredil nič.˝ Nisem hotel dovoliti, da bi se mi to zgodilo. Hotel sem zaključiti, kar sem začel. (V tistem času sem celo na družabnih omrežjih poimenoval samega sebe “Vztrajaj”.)

Wang Yan - 4Wang Yan med treningom s svojim mojstrom Chen Ziqiang-om leta 2016 (foto: Wang Yan-ov osebni arhiv)

O borbi…

Si eden izmed najuspešnejših taiji borcev svoje generacije. Poleg marljive vadbe pod vodstvom dobrega učitelja, katere lastnosti naj bi borec razvil, da bi bil sposoben izraziti največ svojih potencialnih sposobnosti?

Seveda potrebuješ talent, poleg tega pa tudi dobrega učitelja. Vsi učenci, celo tisti, ki so introvertirani in plašni, lahko postanejo dobri borci – če imajo malo talenta, dostop do dobrega učitelja in če trdo delajo. Torej, ne gre samo za talent, ampak za predanost trdemu delu! Mogoče sem bolj uspešen kot ostali borci, ker sem pripravljen dati več. Če daš več, prejmeš več…

Poleg tega imajo učenci, ki so po karakterju bolj umirjeni in dobrohotni, več možnosti za uspeh, kot pa tisti, ki so neučakani, ‘hitro vnetljivi’, pretirano ambiciozni ali maščevalni. Tisti, ki so vzkipljivi in nagnjeni k jezi, ki se na vse pretege trudijo za zmago, da bi postali slavni, praviloma ne bodo uspeli. Umirjen človek osredotočenega uma, ki je sočasno marljiv, ima več možnosti, da doseže boljši rezultat kot nekdo, ki se zanaša izključno na agresijo.

Ali nam lahko poveš nekaj o “Devetih taiji tigrih” Chen vasi? Kako in zakaj je skupina dobila to ime?

˝Devet taiji tigrov˝ je ime, ki je bilo dano skupini najboljših učencev mojstra Chen Ziqiang-a. Vse nas je mojster vodil od otroštva dalje. Smo generacija njegovih učencev, ki jo je redno treniral, preden so se začele njegove daljše odsotnosti zaradi potovanj v tujino. Nekateri smo se usmerili bolj proti taiji borbi, medtem ko so drugi postali najboljši v različnih taiji formah. Ime smo dobili leta 2013, kot neke vrste priznanje za doseženo visoko raven v veščini taijiquana, in ker smo bili uspešni na tekmovanjih.

Wang Yan - 5Devet tigrov˝ vasi Chenjiagou leta 2014 (foto: Wang Yan-ov osebni arhiv)

Ali so bili pripravljalni treningi za tekmovanja drugačni od rednih treningov? Ali si takrat imel kakšno posebno dieto? Kako si se na splošno pripravljal za tekmovanja?

Dva meseca pred tekmovanjem se je povečala zahtevnost vadbe za tiste učence, ki so bili bolj talentirani in zagnani. V tem obdobju se je mojster Chen Ziqiang več posvečal nam kot ostalim učencem. Da bi razvili vzdržljivost, smo vadili žabje poskoke, tek v sključeni drži ali tek s sošolci na ramah – do točke, ko sem bil popolnoma izčrpan.

Ena metoda vadbe potiskanja rok je bila na primer, da sem bil v krogu s približno dvajsetimi sošolci, ki naj bi me izzvali, eden za drugim. Ko sem podrl prvega na tla, me je napadel naslednji in tako dalje, vse do zadnjega in potem se je vaja ponovila. Enako vajo sem vadil tudi tako, da sem imel čez oči povezo, da bi še bolje izostril telesne občutke. Včasih nas je v zimskem času mojster odpeljal ven, da smo, oblečeni samo v hlače, trenirali v snegu. Ena izmed vaj je bila ta, da je eden učenec držal drugega za noge, medtem, ko je drugi ˝hodil˝ z rokami po mrzlih ali zamrznjenih tleh.

Pred tui shou tekmovanji (tekmovanja v disciplini prostega potiskanja rok) sem vedno moral nadzirati svojo težo, zato sem v času priprav jedel manj in se izogibal začinjeni in mastni hrani. Po težkem treningu pa je bilo navsezadnje pomembno tudi to, da smo imeli dovolj časa za dober počitek.

Wang Yan - 6Zimski trening v Chenjiagou šoli leta 2011 (foto: Wang Yan-ov osebni arhiv)

Ali lahko podeliš z nami nekaj svojih spominov iz tekmovanj?

Kljub naši naravni težnji po zmagi, smo sošolci med sabo vedno gojili tovarištvo in medsebojno spoštovanje. Bilo je popolnoma običajno, na primer, da smo preko spleta med seboj delili videoposnetke borbenega sloga novih nasprotnikov, še posebej, če so bile njihove sposobnosti na isti ravni, kot naše. Potem smo vsi lahko preučevali njihove gibe in borilni pristop že vnaprej…

Ker sem zmagal veliko tekmovanj, sem postal zelo dobro znan kot ognjevit borec. Tako se je pogosto dogajalo, da ko so nasprotniki ugotovili, da se bodo morali v ringu soočiti z menoj (pred tekmovanji so učenci različnih šol poskušali izvedeti čim več o tekmovanju: o vrstnem redu borb, o določenih parih nasprotnikov – in novice so se hitro širile), so ali našli izgovor, da so se temu izognili ali so zamenjali kategorijo telesne teže v kateri bodo nastopili. Te izkušnje so me naučile, da kasneje nisem več govoril o tem, v kateri kategoriji bom tekmoval, če pa so me že vprašali, nisem dajal jasno določenih odgovorov. Med tekmovanjem se je lahko pripetilo, da sem v ringu ponovno srečal nasprotnike, s katerimi sem se že boril na preteklih tekmovanjih – in nekateri izmed njih so se preprosto umaknili iz tekmovanja.

Med tekmovanjem Henan Jimiao Sai v letu 2010 (ali mogoče leto prej?) sem bil eno točko pred porazom. Potem pa mi je nekako uspelo narediti preobrat in na koncu sem ˝potolkel˝ nasprotnika s petnajstimi točkami razlike. To tekmovanje se mi je vtisnilo v spomin kot nepozabna izkušnja.

Wang Yan - 7Wang Yan-ova zmaga na tekmovanju v Chen vasi leta 2014 (foto: Wang Yan-ov osebni arhiv)

Opazila sem, da so nekateri učenci pretirano navdušeni nad borilnim aspektom taijiquan-a in so hitro čustveno privzdignjeni in vznemirjeni. Koliko, po tvojem mnenju, to vpliva na njihovo vadbo in rezultate v borbi? Kako se ti soočaš s svojimi čustvi med vadbo in na tekmovanjih?

Dobro je, da so ljudje navdušeni v pozitivnem smislu – da so veseli, ko vadijo taiji. Vendar, pod tem mora um ostati umirjen. Sam sem poskušal gledati na tekmovanja, ki sem se jih udeleževal, kot da so neke vrste treninga in ta drža mi je pomagala, da sem uspel ohranjati notranji mir. Svoja čustva sem na ta način vedno nadzoroval, saj je med tekmovanjem najpomembnejša stvar, da skozi celotno borbo ostaneš miren.

V obdobju priprav na tekmovanje sem se zato izogibal situacijam, ki bi me lahko čustveno vznemirile. Dan pred tekmovanjem sem ugasnil mobilni telefon, nisem šel s prijatelji ven na pijačo itd.

Wang Yan - 8Wang Yan med treningom borbe leta 2016 (foto: Wang Yan-ov osebni arhiv)

Ali pred odhodom v ring razmišljaš o možnosti poškodb? Ali si bil velikokrat poškodovan?

Poškodbe so neizogibne, ampak to ne vpliva na moje navdušenje nad borbo v ringu. Pravzaprav nikoli ne razmišljam o tem, ker je pred borbo moja pozornost drugje. Osredotočam se na borilne taktike, na borbeno delovanje, na svoj pristop do nasprotnika…

Enkrat sem si poškodoval obraz in prst, ampak ti poškodbi nista bili tako resni. V nekih drugih situacijah sem si zvil gleženj, ramo in kolk, to pa je kar bolelo. Ampak na srečo moje poškodbe nikoli niso bile tako resne, da bi moral za dalj časa prekiniti z vadbo. Zelo dobro se spomnim finala nekega tekmovanja: moj nasprotnik je bil štiri kilograme težji od mene in ko sem ga poskušal vreči po tleh, sem si pretegnil ramo…

O poučevanju taijiquan-a…

Kljub temu, da si še mlad, si že usposobljen učitelj. Kdaj si začel s poučevanjem in kaj je tvoje sedanje delo v Chenjiagou šoli?

Ko sem bil star osemnajst let, sem v šoli postal inštruktor-asistent. Takrat sem bil še vedno samo eden izmed učencev, vendar sem začel pomagati v šoli s poučevanjem. Pred tremi, štirimi leti, pa sem postal glavni inštruktor. To pomeni, da sem, kar se tiče dolžnosti in obveznosti v šoli, najbližji sodelavec mojstra Chen Ziqiang-a. On je odgovoren za trening odraslih učencev, med tem ko jaz treniram otroke in mladostnike.

To delo zahteva tudi potovanja v tujino in poučevanje na seminarjih. Ponavadi imava z mojstrom razdeljene obveznosti tako, da sem jaz prisoten v šoli, ko je on v tujini in obratno: ko on pride nazaj in prevzame dolžnosti v šoli, potujem jaz.

Moje delo prav tako vsebuje upravljanje in usklajevanje vsebin in dela, ki morajo biti narejene v šoli. Na primer, organiziram in usklajujem učence, da opravijo neko potrebno delo ali – ko se naši učenci udeležijo tekmovanj, je moja dolžnost, da navežem stik z organizatorjem in da poskrbim za vse formalnosti, ki morajo biti urejene v zvezi s tem. Prav tako je moja dolžnost, da organiziram in sestavim program za različne dogodke, ki potekajo v okviru šole, da dajem intervjuje in pripravim informacije za medije itd…

Wang Yan - 9Wang Yan vodi svojo skupino učencev, september 2017 (foto: Š.Kolenc)

Ali bi se strinjal s tem, da poučevanje pomaga posamezniku doseči globlje razumevanje taijiquan-a?

Da, definitivno. Poučevanje je zelo dragoceno orodje, s katerim lahko posameznik preveri, kaj se je že naučil. Ampak, najbolj pomembno je nadaljevati s svojo lastno vadbo, da sam dosežeš dobro raven taijiquan-a. Na ta način učitelj vedno ohranja višjo stopnjo znanja, kot njegovi učenci in zato jim lahko nudi verodostojno vodstvo. Če samo poučuješ in ne vadiš, obstaja možnost, da tvoji učenci postanejo boljši od tebe. Poučevanje je zato lahko dober pripomoček pri vadbi, ne more pa biti njen nadomestek.

Poučuješ od zgodnjega jutra do večera. Glede na ta urnik, ali lahko najdeš čas tudi za vadbo? Ker si časovno omejen, na kaj se osredotočaš v svoji vadbi?

Ker za delo v šoli porabim večino svojega časa in je le-to precej dinamično, z nenehno spreminjajočim se urnikom, nimam določene ure za lastno vadbo. Glede tega moram biti prilagodljiv. Ko so učenci zasedeni s svojim treningom ali pa, če nek drug učitelj prevzame uro, najdem nekaj trenutkov za svojo vadbo. Obstaja rek: ˝Če zgrešiš en dan vadbe, bo tvoja veščina nazadovala za tri dni.˝ Zato poskrbim, da vadim vsak dan. To pomeni, da grem vsaj skozi forme. Ko pa imam nekaj več časa, delam tudi vaje za moč in kondicijo kot sta npr. tek in dviganje uteži.

Wang Yan - 10Wang Yan daje navodila svojim učencem, september 2017 (foro: Š. Kolenc)

Katera je tvoja najljubša disciplina?

Rad vadim vse oblike form in tehnik. Ampak najbolj uživam v zahtevnih pripravah za tekmovanja (iz) potiskanja rok. Še posebej v kondicijskih vajah, ter v vadbi samoobrambnih tehnik.

Ali se ti zdi pomembno preučevati tudi teorijo taijiquana, da bi izboljšali raven vadbe? V kolikšni meri redni učenci Chenjiagou šole preučujejo taiji teorijo? Ali se od njih zahteva, da berejo kakšne knjige ali besedila v zvezi s tem?

Teorija je zelo pomembna. Pravzaprav je bistvena za pravilno učenje taijiquan-a. Ampak od otrok v šoli se ne zahteva, da bi preučevali teorijo, ker so premladi, da bi jo razumeli. Pri teh letih bi ta zahteva lahko tudi zmanjšala njihovo zanimanje za taijiquan. V šoli nimamo posebej organiziranih teoretičnih ur, vendar pa skozi vsakodnevno poučevanje učencem razložim tudi teoretične podrobnosti, ki so pomembne za njihovo dejansko vadbo. Kasneje, če kdo od njih pokaže več zanimanja, sami berejo besedila.

V času mojega bivanja v Chenjiagou šoli sem opazila, da kitajski učenci osvajajo tehnike taijiquan-a lažje in hitreje kot zahodnjaki. Kaj je, po tvojem mnenju, razlog za to razliko?

Nekatere temeljne lastnosti, ki naj bi jih taiji vadba razvila pri vadečih (in ki so hkrati tudi osnovne značilnosti taijiquan-a), kot so: omejiti pretirano razmišljanje, gibati se naravno in pri tem ohranjati ravnovesje itd., so že del kitajske kulture. Daoizem in budizem, na primer, poudarjata enake vrednote v posameznikovem življenju. Tako so na Kitajskem ti koncepti že del jezika in kolektivne podzavesti. Mogoče je to razlog, da kitajski učenci osvajajo veščino lažje kot zahodnjaki. Na splošno, ampak ne vedno, je to res lažje Kitajcem. Po mojem mnenju Kitajci tudi nosimo odgovornost, da osvojimo taijiquan in njegove koncepte, da bi ohranili svojo kulturo.

Ali misliš, da bi odrasli in starejši učenci prav tako morali vložiti nekaj truda v vaje za kondicijo in moč, kot je na primer tek, da bi izboljšali svojo veščino taijiquan-a?

Večina odraslih in starejših učencev ima na voljo le omejeno količino časa za vadbo, zato ni nujno, da bi se dodatno posvečali teku, razteznim in drugim kondicijskim vajam. Taijiquan je že sam po sebi zelo dober in popoln sistem vaj. Seveda pa zdrav razum narekuje, da se vsak predhodno ogreje in s tem pripravi telo na vadbo, še posebej sklepe.

Wang Yan - 11Demonstracija učencev Chenjiagou taijiquan šole pred muzejem Chen taijiquan-a, Avgust 2017 (foto: E. Dorfman)

Kaj je glavna kvaliteta taijiquan-a? Kaj pomeni tebi?

Taijiquan je v prvi vrsti zelo učinkovita borilna veščina. Predstavlja visoko razvit sistem vaj, ki temelji na starodavni filozofiji in kitajski kulturi. Taijiquan ni niti šport, niti rekreacijska disciplina. Je praktično preučevanje Narave same in njenih principov. Ravno zato se posameznikova vadba nikoli ne konča – ni omejitev, kako globoko lahko greš na poti razumevanja taijiquana.

Vadba taijiquan-a je tudi koristna in uporabna v modernem svetu. Je dragoceno orodje, ki nam pomaga, da se spopademo s stresom, zaskrbljenostjo, slabim zdravjem, visokim krvnim pritiskom in lahko izboljša posameznikovo splošno dobro počutje. Ima dobrodejen vpliv na človeka v sodobni družbi, lahko ga duševno in telesno uravnoveša.

Ali imaš kakšne načrte ali želje za prihodnost? Kaj bi rad počel v prihajajočih letih?

Preprosto bi rad nadaljeval s tem, kar že počnem. Poleg tega pa si želim, da bi malo več potoval po tujini. Poučevanje na seminarjih v tujih državah me veseli, je zame pustolovščina. Poučeval sem v nekaj tujih državah in najljubše mi je bilo okolje v Nemčiji. Enkrat bi prav tako rad potoval v Združene države – še nikoli nisem bil tam.

Wang Yan - 12Wang Yan med poučevanjem v Kölnu (Nemčija), december 2017 (foto: Wang Yan-ov osebni arhiv)

Ali lahko za zaključek tega intervjuja daš nasvet, ki bi lahko bil popotnica in navdih učencem taijiquan-a?

Najbolj pomembno je vztrajati.

Zahvale:

Ta intervju je bil izveden na dveh srečanjih z Wang Yan-om v začetku septembra 2017, v Chenjiagou taijiquan šoli. Kasneje sem preko spletne komunikacije z Wang Yan-om intervjuju dodala še nekaj podrobnosti.

Najprej bi se rada zahvalila Wang Yan-u za njegov čas, dobro voljo in potrpežljivost, ko je odgovarjal na moja vprašanja, ker mi je prijazno odstopil nekaj svojih osebnih fotografij in delil dodatne informacije preko spleta, da sem lahko intervju dopolnila.

Posebne zahvale gredo tudi Joe Davey-u, dolgoletnemu učencu mojstra Chen Ziqiang-a, ki je bil v Chenjiagou šoli med poletjem 2017. Vsa moja vprašanja je prevedel v kitajščino in Wang Yan-ove odgovore nazaj v angleščino. Joe-u sem prav tako hvaležna za dodatne prevode dopolnitev intervjuja, ki sem jih pozneje pridobila z komunikacijo z Wang Yan-om preko spleta.

Joe pozna Wang Yan-a od njegovega začetka v Chenjiagou šoli in je zadnjih štirinajst let spremljal njegov razvoj. Med našimi srečanji je pomagal Wang Yan-u priklicati v spomin nekaj preteklih dogodkov in posledično so tako nekateri odgovori v intervjuju bolj izdelani in zanimivi.

Brez Joe-ove pomoči mi tega intervjuja ne bi uspelo izvesti.

Zahvaljujem se tudi Elani Dorfman, ki je prav tako trenirala v Chen vasi med poletjem 2017 in mi prijazno dovolila, da objavim eno izmed njenih fotografij v tem intervjuju.

Na koncu se zahvaljujem še Biljani Dušić, ki je popravila angleško in slovensko besedilo intervjuja, in Davidine Sim, ki je lektorirala angleško besedilo.

Špela Kolenc