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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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