Davidine Siaw-Voon Sim held out her hand to me. As I took it, her gaze settled on me and she said, “You’re taller than I imagined”. It was a dark, cold and wet Friday afternoon, early in 2018. Students were slowly trickling into the warmth and light of the yoga centre, where she and her husband David sat on the couch, sipping tea, amiably chatting to everyone before the start of their intense, four-day Chen Taijiquan workshop.
The feeling of familiarity between Davidine and me was mutual: for several years now, we’d been in touch, on and off, through occasional emails. Come to think of it, the feeling must actually have been stronger on my part than hers; she’d been the voice that had succinctly, methodically and poetically described the many entangled physical and philosophical facets of Chen Taijiquan: “It’s just as important to learn how not to be as how to be.” “Always have a beginner’s mind.” “Concentrate on one thing and lose everything”. “Change ten thousand times without departing the original state.”
Her texts, woven around paradoxical statements such as those, would go on to explore Taijiquan’s link with traditional Chinese philosophy, medicine and ethics; after reading her blogposts, I’d often find myself returning to them, poring over them, marvelling at Taiji’s simplicity and complexity. Here was a writer with the skill to succinctly express some of the things I experienced through my own practice; who was able to unveil and demystify core Chinese concepts such as Qi, Dantian and Xin Yi which are so often misunderstood in the West; and who was able to inspire me to think and reflect more on my own practice.
Davidine straddles many worlds: she’s Chinese, and has a strong sense of her own cultural heritage despite having lived in the West since childhood. She has an enquiring mind, and teaches a martial art. She’s also a woman, in the predominantly male-orientated world of professional teachers of Taijiquan. All these dualities offer her, I believe, a unique position and the deep insight needed to write engagingly about a number of diverse Taiji topics.
Yet Davidine has, as a matter of principle, given no interviews. I imagine the reason for her decision is associated with her primary interest in “the art of Taijiquan, rather than the peripheral things connected with it”, as she says in the interview. I’m still not quite certain what made her change her mind, but when she agreed to take the time to answer my questions, I took the opportunity to ask her about her personal journey in exploring Taijiquan, her views on some core Taiji principles, and her take on the relationship between mind and skill.
The personal journey
Davidine, whom do you consider your most important and influential Taijiquan teachers? How did you meet them?
Every teacher I’ve trained with has had an impact on my Taijiquan journey. Some good, some not so good, and some significant. As I’ve learned through the years, it’s just as important to learn how not to be as how to be. The path wasn’t smooth all the way, but I persevered.
At different stages of my own development, I gained different things from different teachers. For me, the primary thing has always been the art of Taijiquan, rather than the peripheral things connected with it, such as teachers’ fame, plush training venues, geographical distance…
My first-ever contact with Taijiquan was the renowned teacher Huang Sheng Shyan, who lived a few doors away from my then family home. His Taijiquan was different from the “old people’s Taiji” we were accustomed to seeing. He showed the martial capabilities of the art, as well as the slow, soft side. As I was very young, he’d ‘chase’ me away when the adults started to play the ‘hard stuff’. But it planted in me the seed that Taijiquan is exciting, and can be used for self-defence and fighting.
The first Chen Taijiquan Master I met was Chen Xiaowang, in 1996 (I’d like to explain here that by ‘Master’, I mean an exponent who has devoted a lifetime to study of the art, and has attained proficiencies). I followed and studied with him right up to 2015, when he retired and returned to China.
He introduced me to his brother, Master Chen Xiaoxing, in 2003, as he thought I’d benefit more from personalised hands-on instruction than from seminar teaching in large groups. I’ve had the same personalised teaching from Chen Xiaoxing ever since, having set aside training time every year, either in Chenjiagou or at my home, or when he’s taught in Europe. Although I’ve had input from other teachers with whom I’ve trained, in order to acquire a broad picture of the art, I’d credit my Taijiquan ability to him for the most part.
In my thirst for learning I’ve gone out of my way, over the last two decades and more – travelling far and wide in search of masters who could, I felt, enhance my understanding of the art. I trained with Master Chen Zhenglei on my first and two subsequent visits to China, in the latter half of the 1990s, and again each time he came to the UK (until 2012).
In 2000 I sought out Master Zhu Tiancai in Singapore, where he was resident at the time (I had family there), and trained with him each morning. In order to have more time to understand his take on Taijiquan, I later invited him to my home in the UK, and visited him again in Singapore.
In Beijing I met the late Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, whose kindness and openness left a lasting impression on me.
On separate visits, I trained with my only female teacher, Tian Jingmiao, in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park. She’s the only female disciple of Lei Muni, who’s an early disciple of Chen Fake.
I met Master Chen Yu, the son of Chen Zhaokui, in Chenjiagou and arranged to meet and train with him in Beijing. I wanted to explore his take on his father’s form, and the experience was illuminating.
Master Wang Xian came in much later on my Taijiquan journey. I wanted completion in the “Buddha’s Four Warrior Attendants” legend. I’m glad I met and trained with him in France and Spain, and also interviewed him; he has indeed earned his reputation as a great master.
I’ve also trained with Master Zhang Xuexin, a student of Chen Zhaokui and later disciple of Grandmaster Feng, who taught in Ireland and England in the late 1990s. He’s perhaps now less well known than the others.
I’ve also attended the classes of several developing teachers (such as Chen Ziqiang and Wang Haijun), as I feel it’s important to have as much input as possible, to “always have a beginner’s mind”, and to be open-minded to new ideas and approaches – provided they adhere to the traditional methods of Taijiquan practice. And it’s often beneficial to watch “unfinished products” at work, as subtleties less discernible in an accomplished master can often be seen more clearly; that can help to answer some questions. Younger teachers are often more able to show the route that needs to be taken to reach the destination, as they are within sight of you on the road.
That’s an astounding number of teachers that you’ve had an opportunity to learn from. I imagine their approches to teaching must be quite different?
My main teacher, Chen Xiaoxing, is a traditional old-school teacher. His method of teaching focuses very much on relentless training in the fundamentals, without which he says nothing can be built. Methodical, no frills, no excuses, no shortcuts, with an emphasis on self-motivation and self-realisation. He’s a man of few words during teaching; he guides with his hands, taking you through movements meticulously and patiently. The trust I’ve built up with him enables me to feel relaxed about my training session, knowing that he’ll do his best to guide me in the right way.
Chen Xiaowang emphasises the importance of establishing a solid structure, supported in every direction with the dantian as the core. To that end he focuses on fixing the frame (posture correction), in the hope that learners come to understand the feeling of what it is to be centred and balanced, and replicate it in their own practice. Unfortunately, many of his followers, as a result of not fully understanding his aims, tend to focus on the dots rather than the joining of the dots.
From the late 1990s onwards I’ve followed him in many of his UK and European teaching tours, and feel I can understand what he’s trying to do. To be able to communicate with him in Chinese is a definite advantage; his limited English, which he has in recent years insisted on using, often cannot fully explain the complexities of Taijiquan theories.
I had a few years of input from Zhu Tiancai, in the UK, where I invited him to my home; I also travelled with him to Europe, and trained with him in Singapore. I found him a lively teacher who provided more explanations of theories and principles than most, as well as relating stories and anecdotes. His style is flamboyant; but as he explained, “Your form reflects your personality; an introverted person will not exhibit the same form as an extrovert”.
Feng Zhiqiang opened my mind to the importance of the cultivation and nurturing aspect of Taijiquan, at a time when I perhaps placed less emphasis on that side of training. In recent years, I’ve come to appreciate and value what he taught. Words that appeared vague when spoken often become illuminating and relevant at a later stage.
For that reason I won’t dismiss anything a teacher says just because I don’t understand it at the time; also, I try not to miss anything a teacher says, whether to me or to someone else. One of my pet hates is seeing people having their own conversations when a teacher is speaking.
Chen Zhenglei, during my time training with him (from 1998 to 2012 in China and in the UK), made few hands-on corrections. However he explained practice methods and body requirements systematically, and therefore played an important role for me at that particular point of my development.
I had the opportunity to train with Wang XiAn recently; I also interviewed him about his approach to Taijiquan training. He’s a thoughtful man, and is approachable and hands on. He constantly emphasises the importance of relaxation – “song” – and urges people to place their hands on his body, so that they can identify the points where their bodies should open or close. He talks about intentions and functionalities of movements, without which Taijiquan is non-existent.
Each person I train with has provided a piece, or pieces, in the great puzzle of Taijiquan, or has simply facilitated an insight into the big picture.
What about your own approach to training? Did it change over the years?
I was a fully committed learner from the beginning. I’ve travelled widely, and spent a lot of time in pursuit of Taijiquan, and in my search for good teachers. My quest has been relentless. For me it never mattered how many times I repeated the same basics; if I knew there was a class or workshop somewhere I’d be there, no matter what was being taught, as long as I believed the teacher had something to teach me. In the early days I feel that’s crucial; without it, such a complex and sophisticated discipline cannot be grasped.
That I have the cultural background and the language is a definite advantage. I never asked what the programme was, or told my teacher what to teach me. Every time I stood in a class, if I learned just one thing I was happy. I left it to my teacher to tell me what I needed to learn at any given time of my development. I showed respect to my teacher, by practising what had been taught, so that he didn’t feel his time was wasted, and by reading as widely as I could around the subject, so that I could understand what he was trying to tell me, and could ask appropriate questions. After a time, the teacher is there to fill in the gaps of one’s own knowledge.
At the beginning of one’s training the learning curve is steep, and many things are new and exciting: new form, a dynamic weapon form, challenging push-hand techniques. The curve gradually evens out, then reaches a plateau. That’s when many learners leave; they either feel they “know everything now”, “are not motivated any more”, or decide there’s still so much they don’t know that the task is insurmountable. Perseverance at this stage requires deep interest and commitment, as well as self-reliance and self-motivation.
Then the next layer: one that is just as challenging and fascinating. Taijiquan is much more than knowing movements and remembering forms. One comes to appreciate the fundamentals more and more, as everything is built upon them; and to understand that everything is inter-related. That wider Taiji philosophy is in every aspect of life: one has to look beyond the kicks and punches, to understand Taijiquan’s philosophical roots.
Taijiquan practice naturally changes and adapts over the course of a lifetime; it has to be age-appropriate, and is a demanding physical discipline. Yet relatively young people often train as if they were already old – afraid to stretch out, or make dynamic movements. Just as bad are out-of-shape middle-aged learners who fixate on fajin and applications, when they’d be better served by concentrating on improving their level of health and fitness first.
People establish a relationship with Taijiquan on different levels. What aspect of Taijiquan is the most important for you personally?
Taijiquan has allowed me to connect in a very real way with my Chinese heritage, particularly as I’ve lived in the West since my teenage years. The Taiji philosophy is the bedrock of Chinese culture and world-view. A lot of that has been eroded through political upheavals in China itself, and through years of separation for the Chinese diaspora.
The philosophical/cultural side of Taijiquan, and matching its various elements to the physical discipline, are important to me. As Professor Yu Gongbao [a renowned Taijiquan researcher] has explained, “Taijiquan culture operates within a system that cannot be divided or isolated, but can be understood from many angles… the main focus is Taijiquan’s social element, as well as Taijiquan’s link with philosophy, the military, art, literature, medicine, religion, folk customs, and ethics.”
Your husband, David Gaffney, is, like you, a Taiji teacher and a prolific writer on various Taiji topics. What is your dynamic as a couple, when it comes to training, teaching and writing? For example, do you train together, and do you correct each other while training? And your writing commitments: do you split those between the two of you?
We travel together, to train with various teachers. While we do discuss different aspects of practice, we almost always train individually. Taijiquan is a discipline that requires you to engage your intention and pay close attention to your own posture, movements and energetic state. Tuishou is the exception; we’re fortunate we have a training partner whenever the need arises.
It works well with us as a couple, because we both have a deep interest in the art and everything that goes with it. We read widely on the subject and related topics, and often discuss what we read. We each have our separate blogposts, but collaborate on larger projects such as writing our books. We feel the collaboration has worked well.
At the moment we’re putting the final touches to our third book, “Chen Taijiquan: Masters and Methods”, which is a series of interviews with some members of the most accomplished older generation of Chen Taijiquan whom we have been fortunate enough to meet, train and speak with, including the late Feng Zhiqiang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Xiaowang, Wang Xian, Chen Zhenglei, Zhu Tiancai, Chen Yu and Yu Gongbao. It’s important to have their insights, as they trained at a time when there were no incentives of fame and fortune to motivate them.
A few years ago you started a blog, “Chinese whispers”, where you write and discuss diverse topics such as the transmission of the essence of Taijiquan; water and the big dao of Taiji; and identifying errors in one’s own practice. How do you select the topics for your blogposts? What effect should a good Taiji blog aim to achieve in its readers, in your opinion?
I read a lot around the subject, and of course I have access to the Chinese Taijiquan community’s articles and discussions. My blog posts usually arise naturally from a topic I’m looking at; or I might comment on an aspect being taught or discussed in class, or address common misperceptions of Taijiquan and Taiji theories.
My aim with these short posts is not to fully answer all the questions, but to highlight certain areas in a way that encourages people to do further research of their own, or inspires them to go out and practise. Taijiquan is a multi-faceted art, and one that appeals to different people in different ways. My blogposts therefore include technical and training aspects, as well as Taijiquan’s philosophical and theoretical aspects.
Teaching and Taiji principles
You initially came to Slovenia in 2015 and are now, along with David, a regular guest here. In terms of your Taijiquan path and teaching, what has left the greatest mark on you over the last three years?
The best reward for a teacher is the commitment and progress made by students. There are students who have attended from the outset, and who always turn up for the workshops and their regular classes. Some have challenges in their lives, often difficult ones, but have not lost motivation and focus.
It’s easy to tell which students have been training on a regular basis, either because they’ve noticeably improved, or because they’ve acquired fluency and familiarity. We have many beginners, but only a few stay; that’s the case everywhere, though. We’ve gradually built up a core group, which provides continuity and progression.
You spend part of the year travelling around the world, conducting workshops for people with different levels of Taiji knowledge and understanding. What essential principle or lesson would you like those attending your workshops to retain in their daily practice when you’ve left their country?
First of all, that students actually maintain a consistent training regime. Generally speaking, only a minority actually commit to daily practice. We constantly tell our students to do just a little Taijiquan every day. The aim is to make it a habitual part of their daily routine; more focused training may follow.
Many people have only a superficial interest in Taijiquan, and only practise in class; they rely on the teacher to motivate them. The teacher imparts the theory, and shows the practice method; but sustained, regular practice outside class and workshop/seminar time is vital, to reinforce learning.
We must all train step by step. The first stage is to learn the foundation form, because everything one needs to know about movement principles is within it. Familiarising oneself with sequences of movement, and adhering strictly to requirements, is essential.
Taijiquan postures are often complex in nature, and require the mind to be focused on several areas at once. Students must concentrate on coordination of upper and lower limbs; coordination of hands, eyes, body and feet; on body and structure being in the intended position; on the functionalities of every action and posture; on keeping the whole body relaxed and supple; and on coordinating movement with breathing and energy. In practical learning and training, determine the meaning of each action, its key points and specifications, and its yin-yang (complementary opposite) principles.
A new learner of Taijiquan doesn’t yet know how to work in concert, and tends to focus on one aspect and lose another. The key is in the slow practice method: don’t be in a hurry, and don’t be impatient. Be exact. Don’t be careless and settle for an approximation. Start from the simple, and work towards the complex.
How does one train correctly and efficiently, then, in order to achieve a good end result?
In the early stages, lay down a solid foundation and build upon it. The sequence of training is important, and familiarity is the stage of laying down a foundation; this is learning the taolu (form). Every move must be clear and exact, and not deviate from principle – because once a mistake is made it’s difficult to correct, and can lead to further mistakes. A good teacher will enable you to make progress.
Realisation and improvement depend on the dedicated practice of each individual. You need to slowly and gradually examine and feel the actions. First, intellectually understand the action (which may not take very long); then work it into the body (which will take longer). To achieve a good “end” result is a matter of allowing the skill that has been learnt to develop, and internalising it. It takes as long as it takes.
The encompassing qualities and therefore training approach is song (relaxed and devoid of stiffness), rou (pliant and elastic), man (slow and unhurried).
Is there a single most important thing we need to pay attention to while training?
I’d caution against looking for a “single most important thing”. One thing and all things are of equal importance; it’s simply a matter of understanding the Taiji philosophy of inter-relationships and co-existence. “Concentrate on one thing and lose everything”.
At different stages of one’s Taijiquan journey, a certain aspect may take temporary precedence: for example, in the beginning, movements must be big and expansive (to let the joints stretch and let the Qi flow), and then at a certain point movements must be reduced and contained, and Qi gathered. It’s important to recognise that Taijiquan has no absolute.
From the outset, establish the “taiji modus operandi”: Taijiquan is a complete theoretical and operational system which has two objectives: first, to reform our usual way of thinking about our body; and second, to replace it with a Taiji body – by transforming the quality of the body, freeing the body of stiffness and rigidity, discarding physical strength, stabilising the root, and becoming soft and pliant.
Have a general understanding of the many facets of Taijiquan: first from a wide knowledge, and then through specific learning. That way you won’t lose your direction and succumb to misconceptions. Find a good teacher to help you understand and follow the right principle and method.
You summarised the training approach in Taiji as “song, rou, man.” What happens in the body when we achieve the state of fang song?
Fang song is translated as the act of letting out the body’s looseness and pliancy – a releasing of tension. It’s one of the most important and fundamental elements of Taijiquan, and is the ongoing goal of every Taijiquan player. Even with guidance from a good teacher, the state of song can be achieved only after a long period of self-discipline and correction, in which there is no end point. A multi-layered understanding of essential principles is required. Almost all the essentials of Taijiquan are directly or indirectly associated with fang song.
Song enables the body to settle and sink (chen). This sinking facilitates softness and pliancy, which in turn leads to lightness and agility. Lightness and agility results in extreme sensitivity of the whole body, which develops the neutralising skill that’s considered the highest level of Taijiquan.
No part of the body should have any trace of unnecessary musculoskeletal, mental or energetic tension. This is an extremely difficult thing to do. Any action that does not adhere to principle will affect the quality of song to some extent. For instance, if the body is not balanced and stable, the muscles and joints contract in order to restore balance during movements, using unnecessary strength as well as creating musculoskeletal tension. The mind becomes anxious, and attempts become frustrating, affecting mental calmness. Therefore, achieving balance and correct structure is one of the methods for achieving song. Addressing mental imbalance such as worry, stress, impatience etc. is another.
Song also leads to rootedness, as Qi sinks down into the ground through the heels and feet. This sinking must not be confused with bending the knees and lowering the body. It requires guidance, practice and experimentation. Rooting skill enables an incoming force to be directed down the legs to the ground, and an outgoing force to be generated from the ground.
At the beginning, we try to establish the state of song in a static exercise of Zhan Zhuang. We then progress to maintaining this physical and mental relaxation when the body starts to move. One of the fundamental exercises helping a beginner to achieve this is chan si gong. How would you explain the purpose of this exercise in Chen Taijiquan?
Chan Si Gong exercises were devised for the purpose of understanding and training in the fundamental movement patterns and basic energetic route of Chen Taijiquan. In the past, people in the Chen village trained full time, and came to understand the movement system through sheer repetition; in more recent times, on the other hand, it was deemed necessary to devise some kind of basic exercises that would enable learners to grasp the spiralling and rotational movement principles of the system.
Through a set of repetitive and relatively simple exercises, learners are able to grasp the essential points, and then transfer them into training. For the same reason, they’re able to feel the energetic flow more quickly, which helps when they progress to the long form. The energy and power that result from Chan Si Gong (reeling silk exercises) is known as Chan Si Jin (reeling silk energy).
The eighteenth generation master Chen Zhaopi said that Taijiquan is in fact Chan Si Jin, without which it is not Taijiquan. Achieving it isn’t easy; it requires many repetitions and considerable focus. Hence the logic of the creation of the sets of exercises. However, many learners fail to appreciate their purpose, and view Chan Si Gong and the Taolu as separate entities.
What are the essential requirements to execute Chan Si Gong movements correctly?
The requirements are the same as that of the form, except that you are making a single movement repeatedly. Maintain a correct posture throughout, by fulfilling the rules for each part of the body: head suspended, shoulders relaxed, elbows sunk down etc. Know the exact time when weight shifts should take place. Know the positions of the arms and legs as they rotate within the parameters of your body.
The guideline is strict: the upper hand should be in line with your eyebrow, and the lower hand at the dantian level (fulfilling the functions of guarding the head and protecting the crotch and knees). The centre line of the body determines how far the hands should rotate inwards; at no time should they cross over (that is to say, the wrist shouldn’t pass the centre line). Identify and maintain the body’s core (dantian). Keep the mind and mental state calm and focused, in order to use intention rather than strength to execute the movements and feel the sensations of each action.
Thus, based on correct body posture, the spiral and rotational movements of the whole body are trained to move through different sets of chan si gong, which cover basic directions, angles and dimensions: front, side, left, right, up, down, in, out etc., until the movement system – with dantian as the core, supported in every direction, a continuous sequence of actions linking joint to joint – becomes natural and spontaneous (the default way to move).
Do you believe it’s important to continue practising Chan Si Gong once past the beginner’s stage, and if so, why?
As I mentioned earlier, the set of Chan Si Gong as practised today is a fairly recent addition. It was devised in order to offer a systematic introduction, a jibenggong (fundamental set of exercise) in line with other Chinese martial arts to people new to Chen style Taijiquan. In the past, the taolu (form) was the only medium through which to train in Chen Taijiquan’s movement system, Chan Si Gong, and its end product, Chan Si Jin.
With that in mind, it’s vitally important for practitioners not to deviate from the movement principle of Chan Si, even if they’re not doing the set pieces. If a movement in the form doesn’t feel right, examine it and decide whether it conforms to the fundamental principle. Single movements of the form have always been taken out and practised repeatedly, until they have the same end result.
Could you elaborate a bit on the energy we’re cultivating by training in Chan Si Gong?
Chan Si Gong is translated as “reeling silk exercise”; the energy that’s cultivated as a result is Chan Si Jin, or “reeling silk energy”. It’s an idea derived from the silk-gathering activity of silkworm farmers, in which movements are soft, so that the silk strands don’t break, while at the same time firm enough to prevent the thread from becoming entangled.
So the energy is the presence of both soft and hard strength. It’s a little difficult to translate Jin and Qi by a single word, so the term “energy” is used; they can, however, be viewed as something esoteric or metaphysical. Jin is trained strength, a state of instinctively knowing the appropriate strength to use for a given situation, based on practice and experience. The opposite would be inappropriate, uncontrolled (either excessive or deficient) strength, used in response to a situation (using a sledgehammer to crack a nut comes to mind). Eighteenth-generation master Chen Zhaopi, the teacher of most of Chenjiagou’s 19th-generation masters, explained Chan Si Jin as a state in which “all movements are circular, with no sharp angles or flat surfaces, no deficiencies or excesses”. Actions are smooth and flowing, the outward gentle movements disguising a latent strength (as in silk gathering).
The rotational and spiral Jin cultivated from Chan Si Gong is the core power of Chen Taijiquan; its accuracy and usage are based on practice and experience, for example in Tuishou, Sanshou, Sanda. Its effectiveness has been seen when earlier generations used it in actual life-and-death situations.
We’ve talked extensively about the art itself, but I’d also like to ask you about your experience as a teacher. Comparing male and female students, have you noticed any differences in their approach to Taijiquan, their practice and/or their relationship with the skill?
I’ve observed that more women start, but more men stay. That may be because women are more sociable, and feel less intimidated about starting a group activity. At the same time, they’re generally more distracted by life outside practice, once it becomes more than just a casual pursuit.
The distraction is largely, in my opinion, a result of the demands placed on women at a societal level. Although much has been said about the equality of the sexes, women still shoulder more home responsibilities and child care, as well as holding down jobs. They tend to put family obligations first when it comes to the time that must be set aside for practice, attendance at classes and seminars, and travelling to deepen their skills, etc. They’re often faced with time constraints and financial limitations, through responsibilities for caring for children, elderly parents and dependent husbands/partners etc. This is a fairly universal situation, although more pronounced in some parts of the world than in others.
As for Taijiquan practice, it’s generally harder for men to realise song as they’re inherently less supple, again due to cultural expectation and socialisation. A female practitioner often needs to be encouraged to have more gang, as her postures and movements lack the base energetic quality required. So a male student should generally focus on removing stiff, hard strength from his musculature; the female student on developing more energy. Eventually, the quality of hard and soft, in combination, is reached by both men and women.
Is there a particular female practitioner/teacher whom you greatly admire? If so, why?
I’ve been almost exclusively taught by male teachers. The only female input is Tian Jingmiao, whom I met on separate visits to Beijing. She’s known to be the only female disciple of Lei Muni, a disciple of seventeenth-generation Chen master Chen Fa-Ke, who’s still teaching and actively promoting Chen Style Taijiquan. She has continued her practice without a break since she first started 40 years ago, through life-threatening illness and other challenges in life. She pointed out several aspects of training that apply only to female practitioners: placement of the upper limbs, due to anatomical differences between men and women; and approach to training that can be used during pregnancy and menstruation. (for Davidine’s interview with Tian Jingmiao, please see T’ai Chi: The International Magazine of Tai Chi Chuan: Vol. 30. No. 4, 2006, or Slovenian translation of the interview).
There are not enough female Chen Taijiquan “masters”. An old clip of a few very able Chen female practitioners was shown in a film about Chenjiagou in the 1980s; unfortunately, none were awarded the publicity and accolades enjoyed by their male counterparts, many of whom had gone on to become world-famous masters and grandmasters. An old decree in the Chen clan stipulated that transmission should only be through the male line. Although this no longer applies, the challenges for women practitioners are still very real, given expectations of a woman’s role.
In his interview for our blog, Chen Ziqiang described the main characteristics of a good student as intelligence, diligence and perseverance. What, then, are the main characteristics of a good teacher, in your opinion?
There’s a well-known saying, “it’s easier to find a good teacher than a good student”. Also, “when a good student is ready, the teacher will appear”. Essentially, that means it’s very much a two-way thing. A good match between teacher and student depends on what the Chinese call yuan fen (natural affinity; predestined relationship; the luck that brings two people together).
Most students meet their teacher through a set of circumstances, the chief of which is the desire to learn a skill the teacher possesses. Whether the teacher is able to transmit the skill depends, on the one hand, on the training attitude of the student, and on the other, on genuine skill, and a willingness and commitment to teach, on the part of the teacher.
It’s not easy to determine a teacher’s or student’s aptitude at the start; that’s why, in Chinese martial arts, it’s said that anybody can teach a beginner. Traditionally, a teacher takes a disciple only after many years of contact and observation; if the disciple is accepted through introduction and connection, the teacher will first establish his or her commitment to learning, again through observation.
The position of a Shi Fu (“teacher father”) is based on the Chinese philosophical concept of the “mandate of heaven” (the circumstances under which a ruler rules: good rulers are given a mandate to rule, while despotic, unjust and unworthy rulers will have their mandate revoked). The social relationship of the teacher and student is based on the family unit: the student is a child to the master, two whom he/she owes respect and obedience. The teacher, as the parent, is responsible for the learning, wellbeing and development of his “children”. In this system of relationships, the teacher only has authority as long as he fulfils his duties and upholds his responsibilities to his “children”, through continuous development of his own skill, and by living a virtuous and moral life. So there are demands on both student and teacher.
Taijiquan and the mind
How important is it, in your view, to train one’s mind as part of the Taiji routine?
Correct Taijiquan training calls for precise, accurate movement, and the fulfilment of movement rules and exact and changing requirements for every part of the body. Approximation is not acceptable. The mind must therefore be focused and engaged at all times; not on any single thing, but on the relationship between the different parts, and on their integration into a coherent whole. Taijiquan is a completely mind-driven discipline, and the inevitable result of training is the development of qualities such as calmness, perseverance and attention to detail.
Taijiquan’s mental training (xin yi) mainly trains the spirit, the mind intention, the energetic quality and the state of the body. It’s not easy to do! And it can’t be seen as a casual pursuit. Through a disciplined process of mental and physical adjustment, the conscious state which governs focus and intention progresses from the chaos of a chattering mind and scattered thoughts to a state of quietness and focused consciousness. And the physiological state which controls movements and actions progresses to enable blood and Qi to flow unobstructed, and the physical body to become free of tension and stiffness.
How can this be achieved? First and foremost, by accepting that it is a long-term cultivation of the body and mind: the student must continuously amend, modify and repair physical and mental states that don’t meet the requirements of Taijiquan principles. Also, constantly cultivate, nurture and breed the mental and physical requirements that are in accordance with Taijiquan principles. These processes must be implemented at all times, without exception. Physical and psychological adjustment are the prerequisite for internal mental cultivation. These are not tasks that are easy to achieve, but we must strive for these ideals.
In what ways is the cultivation of mind inherent to Taiji practice?
If trained in the correct way, cultivation of the mind is inherent to Taijiquan practice. Taijiquan theory states that movement arises from stillness. Each time one trains the form, the starting point is a state of mental calmness and physical balance. Practitioners are often in a hurry to get on to form practice, and don’t give mental preparation the same importance.
Zhan zhuang training represents a state of “movement within stillness”. To an observer, nothing may appear to be happening; and many misinterpret standing training as a kind of spaced-out self-indulgence. However, an experienced practitioner simultaneously maintains a deep sense of calmness, and an acute awareness of the internal sensations of his or her body and his or her environment.
How important a role do moral character and spiritual development play in one’s progress in a martial arts skill?
All Chinese martial arts emphasise the dual approach of training the physical skill and cultivating the character.
In the past, when martial skills were used to defend oneself, the home and the clan (community), the moral character of a person was carefully observed before a skill was taught, in order to preserve the art and, more importantly, to ensure that it was not abused (i.e. not used against the community).
The downside was that many ancient martial arts were too closely guarded, and disappeared. Most martial arts systems, including Chen Taijiquan, have a moral code that has been written down, and transmitted through the ages, for the purpose of guiding the morals and ethics of its practitioners. Most of the codes can be observed in a practical way, and applied to one’s practice: impatience and arrogance must be curbed; acquired martial skills must not be used to bully and exploit; modesty and magnanimity are key; etc. This is the much-talked-about but often overlooked wu de (martial virtue), without which one will fall short of the highest level of attainment.
Many Taiji teachers speak of applying Taiji principles to everyday life. Can you give us some examples of how you yourself use these outside the gym?
As far as possible, incorporate the wider Taiji principle into every aspect of daily life. First of all, we need to ensure our lifestyle and habits don’t contradict or conflict with the rules. For example, Taijiquan requires looseness, suppleness and calmness; in life, therefore, try to avoid tension and using unnecessary strength. Practise Taijiquan all the time – not just in the classroom. You can train when you’re standing in a queue, walking, driving, reading or chatting etc… Never be too far from your practice.
As Taijiquan trains both the body and the mind, anything that’s detrimental to the physical body and mental health is bad for its development. In traditional Chinese medicine, which is a big part of Taijiquan, external factors that cause physical weakness are excessive or untimely exposure to conditions such as wind, cold, heat, humidity and dryness. Also, habits such as unregulated food intake, irregular lifestyle, personal uncertainties, overwork or too much idle time. Mental stability is affected by extreme emotions such as anger, anxiety, brooding, grief and fear, as well as negative thoughts such as arrogance, envy, greed and pride etc.
Human nature is such that we fall constantly, but insight and mindful cultivation do help us to be aware of the pitfalls.
Do you have any aspirations in terms of your own personal development?
I hope that Taijiquan and the Taiji philosophy, the idea of complementary opposites to gain balance and harmony, will be a guide for how to lead my life.
It’s a matter of constantly being mindful, and not letting myself deviate too far from Taijiquan. The physical exercise will keep my body pliant and elastic, fit and free from injury, into the future as I age. I hope I’ll always keep a learner’s mind, and continue in my pursuit of its complexities.
It’s my wish to continue to study, translate and write about the subject, so that the wider Taijiquan community understand the true nature of Taijiquan.
Davidine, thank you.