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.
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.
Children 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 (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 training with his master Chen Ziqiang in 2016 (photo: personal archive of Wang Yan)
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.
Chenjiagou “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.
Winter 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 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 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 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 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.
A 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 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.
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.