Chen Zheng-Lei - Interview
by Herb Rich
Chen Zheng-Lei was born in May 1949 in Chenjiagou Village, Wenxian County, Henan Province, People’s Republic of China. The son of Chen Zhao-Hai (who died a year after his son was born), he has been practicing Chenstyle Taijiquan for over forty years. His teachers include the famed masters Chen Zhao-Pi (with whom he lived and trained) and Chen Zhao-Kui (both his uncles), masters of the 18th generation in Chenjiagou. He is known as “Taiji Jingang” – one of the top four practitioners of his generation in Chenjiagou. He received his degree in physical education from Henan University in 1985. He was twice the Taijiquan Grand Champion at the National Taijiquan Competitions, and has won over 10 gold medals at the Henan Martial Arts Competition. In 1987 he was selected as a National Martial Arts First Class Judge, and his team won three team first places from 1989 to 1991 at the National and Henan Martial Arts Meets. He has trained many great athletes, among them the celebrated champion Ding Jie. In 1995 he was awarded the title of Da Shi [da shr] or Grandmaster.
Master Chen is the author of Chen Shi Taijiquan Xie Hui Zong (Comprehensive Taijiquan Boxing and Weapons Manual), the first volume of which will soon have its first English language publication; and, “Taijiquan Nei Qi Qian Tan Yu Jing Luo Xue Shuo” (A Discussion of Internal Energy in Taijiquan and Theory of the Main and Collateral Energy Channels in the Human Body) among others. He is the author of an instructional videotape, “Shi Chuan Chen Shi Taijiquan Shu” and will shortly release a multi-volume video set dealing with Lao jia, Xin jia, Push Hands, Weapons and Qigong.
Master Chen is in great demand both in China and abroad as an instructor. He has trained over 15 of the coaches for the Beijing and Wuhan Physical Education Institutes, and is an advisor to Taiji organizations in Japan, France, America, and Italy. Master Chen currently teaches in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, PRC.
The following interview was conducted during Master Chen’s first visit to the US in August of 1996 in Fairfax, Virginia. (Special thanks to Sifu Christopher Pei of the US Wushu Academy for his translation and efforts to bring Master Chen to the US.)
Q. Chen style Taijiquan is becoming more popular in the US. What advice can you give to the person seeking a teacher of the style?
A. If you want to understand how to find a good teacher, first you must understand what Taijiquan is all about. Most people who seek out Chen Style specifically are already interested in Taijiquan, and have some basic knowledge about the art. A good teacher will embody the fundamentals of the art.
The most basic requirement is that when you practice, your body is upright; your footwork is very solid and steady, and the hips and kua are open and relaxed. Externally, the frame looks very big and comfortable, and the movement is continuous, without any hesitations, like running water or clouds passing in the sky. When you seek to release energy (fa jing), it goes from inside to outside, from the legs (or root) through the body to finally release in the hand.
If the footwork is solid and steady, and the body is light and natural, and, if after practicing a routine several times in succession one is not out of breath and drained of energy, and can breathe normally, laugh and talk, then this is the mark of a teacher with good skill.
Q. Due to the demands of work and family, many practitioners of Taiji are limited in the amount of time that they can train each day. What advice do you have for them?
A. Regardless of how busy you may be, you should make the time to practice for at least 20 minutes each day.
The most important aspect of your practice is “heart” – even if you don’t have time to practice formal exercises or routines, Taijiquan is in your heart, always. You are always thinking about it, using its principles. Everything you do, working, eating, walking – it is all a way to practice Taijiquan.
If I have the time and the space, I will practice the entire form; if I don’t, I will practice just a few movements. So, if you are at work, and it is difficult to practice routines, perhaps you can practice by reading documents in the “pile stance” [standing meditation posture]. If you are writing at a desk, don’t use your chair, stand in a low horse stance. When you feel tired in your daily doings, apply the principle of “fang song” to stay loose and relaxed. Therefore, Taiji must be put in your heart – it must be there with you all of the time – not just when you feel like practicing.
When we were growing up farming in the village, there was not enough time to practice due to our work; so, when we worked, we practiced – everywhere, all the time, in any activity. Digging with a shovel, plowing, doing carpentry, and lifting were all done using Taiji body mechanics. In my boyhood, all of that work was done by hand; now, much of it is done by tools and machines.
Q. In Chen Village, how is the art taught?
A. Because Chenjiagou’s location is so rural, so out of the way, there are not too many influences on the village’s culture from the outside. There is no other martial art in the village besides Taijiquan. So, the children of the village, as they grow up, are exposed to it and influenced by it because it is the only art they see. In the old days, they began training children at the age of about seven years; now, they begin training as early as five or six years of age.
In the big cities, most people understand Taiji as being only for health, meditation, and exercise. In Chenjiagou, Taiji is understood as being foremost a martial art. So, you can see there is a large difference between the approach to training in the village and in other parts of the country.
Since this is the only martial art taught in the village, children are started young. The schools teach it as part of their physical education programs. In the old days, children would begin by learning forms right away, in the traditional manner of learning sequence, corrections to movement, and then developing internal energy. Now, things are more sophisticated; children begin training with flexibility exercises and “chan si gong” [exercises for training silk-reeling energy] but do not begin the forms for a while.
Traditionally, everyone begins with Lao jia, Yi lu [old frame, first routine] at first. From there, they learn the single-edge sword [broadsword]. After training in Yi lu for two years, the body is relaxed and the student begins learning pushing hands and Er lu [the second barehanded routine of Chen Style].
Q. When is a student deemed ready to learn Xin jia [new frame]?
A. First, one must be completely relaxed, and understand the true meaning of softness. The various parts of the body must move in a coordinated manner, for there are so many circular and spiraling movements in Xin jia that if the student cannot move in a coordinated way, they cannot express the true flavor of Xin jia at all.
Q. Do you feel it is a mistake for a student to begin their training with Xin jia?
A. Yes. The student doesn’t understand softness and coordination, and can’t produce the flavor of the style.
Q. What are the benefits of practicing Xin jia?
A. Xin jia uses the body in different ways; keeping loose, yet suddenly releasing power, and the snapping nature of the movements – these are all characteristics of the style. Xin jia movements are more demanding on the body than those of Lao jia, therefore, it is better for fitness. It develops the ability to release energy better. But, if a person does not understand the precise progression of study and the correct training methods, it is easy to get sidetracked, to lose one’s way, and make mistakes that are difficult to correct. It is easy for the qi to rise in the chest, and to lose one’s breath. As the saying goes, “The head is heavy, and the legs are light.” These are common mistakes that people experience.
Q. You have been practicing Taijiquan for over forty years. Could you tell us something of your experiences and recollections of training with Master Chen Zhao-Pi?
A. Although my teacher left us over 20 years ago, I will keep the memory of how he taught in my heart always. Chen Zhao-Pi was my uncle. I started training with him when I was eight years old. [Editor’s Note: Chen Zhao-Pi (1883-1972) was a student of Chen Deng-Ke (his father), Chen Yan-Xi, Chen Pin-San, and Chen Fa-Ke. His teaching and efforts to continue the legacy of Chenjiagou Taijiquan led to the spread of Chenstyle Taiji to the world outside Chenjiagou, as well as the establishment of the Wushu Training Halls in both Chenjiagou and Wenxian.]
In 1928 he went to Beijing to teach. During this period he asked Chen Fa-Ke to come to Beijing to teach also. After Chen Fa-Ke arrived in Beijing, Chen Zhao-Pi traveled to Nanjing. At that time, the Kuomintang was in power, and the Mayor of Nanjing invited him to come and teach a class there. [Editor’s Note: At that time, he also served as an honorary coach at the famous Central Martial Arts Institute.]
From 1928 to 1958, he taught Taiji outside of the village. Some of the cities he taught in were Beijing, Nanjing, Xian, Lanzhou, Luoyang, Kaifeng, and Zhengzhou. In 1958 he returned to the village. After his return visit, he realized that not very many people were practicing Taijiquan anymore, due to the stresses of the World War, and the war between the Nationalists and the Communists. Seeing this, he became very worried that the art would eventually decline. So, he returned to his job at the Yellow River Regulatory Commission (in Kaifeng) and requested an early retirement. He returned home to the Spartan life of the village to recruit a group of children for serious training.
There were about thirty kids who would gather in front of his door for instruction. He would lead the class in front while his wife would be in the back, making corrections. He was very patient, and took great pains to make corrections. He was never angry. During these years, there were three years of “natural disasters” (flooding, famine, etc.) as well as the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, Taijiquan was considered to be old-fashioned, and part of old religions and superstitions. It was forbidden to promote Taijiquan at this time. Also, because he was connected to the Nationalists in Nanjing in the 1930’s, he was in a lot of trouble. During this time, if you wanted to teach or learn, it was very difficult. [Editor’s Note: Chen Ke-Sen, Chen Zhao-Pi’s son, wrote of this period: “During the Cultural Revolution, my father was persecuted and subjected to public “struggle sessions”, but during the still of night, Chen Zheng-Lei and several others of his prized disciples secretly went to study under him. My father, demonstrating that he was not afraid of the persecution, bravely carried on with his teaching of Taijiquan.”]
So, at times, he would see his students practice seriously, and at other times, not so seriously. I know that this made him angry, but he never showed it to us. Instead, he would tell us stories to make us understand why we needed to practice with determination. He told us many stories about heroes in history whose efforts led them from obscurity to success.
He told us the story of the famous ancient musician who was the inventor of the 5-tone style of Chinese music. Because he wanted so badly to develop this music, he rubbed salt in his eyes to blind himself and rid himself of the distractions of sight and thus could focus his attentions on his hearing, and his music. He also told us of General Yueh Fei who had his mother tattoo four characters on his back that read, “give yourself wholeheartedly to your country.”
He told us these stories because he wished us to follow in the example of these heroes, and so that we would be resolute and tough in our lives. Most importantly, he made us realize that we were the future successors of the art of Taijiquan, and that we must practice continuously to live up to this responsibility. If we did not, our generation would break the tradition of instruction passed down from our ancestors. Taijiquan comes from the Chen family. If we broke this tradition, we would not be able to stand before our ancestors, and our children would curse us. So, when we were very young, we were made to understand our responsibility. Regardless of how difficult our situation was at the time, we had to practice hard.
Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party decided to begin to promote martial arts. As a result, my teacher’s morale and confidence improved. His teaching began to increase. He would teach with great patience. If you did not understand a movement, he would repeat it over and over for you. Not only would he explain the movement, he would also explain the principles behind it and the applications.
At that time, he was in his eighties, but he would still teach push hands. In 1972, he died. He died as a result of overwork. He took Taiji teams all over China to compete. His living conditions were not good in the village, and could not sustain the energy he expended in teaching over those years. Before his death, he taught me all of the principles, techniques, barehanded routines, weapons and push hands that he knew. Chen Zhao-Pi has passed away, but he left a group of young people dedicated to Taiji. Teachers of the style, whether they are from Chenjiagou or not, are all in a way descended from him. He was the one responsible for promoting the art when it was in decline, and raising the next generation of teachers in the village.
Q. What can you tell us about the state of Taijiquan in China today?
A. In 1978, the Communist party began its Open Door Policy. The media began to report stories about Taijiquan, and as a result, more people became aware of it. International exchanges began to occur, and more people became aware of Taijiquan throughout the world. In the past five to six years, the Chinese government has become more interested in the promotion of Taijiquan.
Today, there are many different Taijiquan competitions that occur in China. The government spent several million Chinese Yuan to build a large martial arts academy in Wenxian, near Chenjiagou. So far, there have been four international Taiji Conferences held there. Over 33 countries have been represented, with over 300 competitors attending. There are over 90 international organizations that participate. There are three separate arenas for competition. All the major styles are represented. Events include barehanded routines, weapons, demonstrations and push hands (including “lei tai” in which the competitors meet on raised platforms). Whoever is forced off the platform loses. The pushing hands competition is not restricted like it is in the US, it is freestyle. Other than kicking, punching, grabbing hair, biting, using elbows, knees and head butting, it is “anything goes”.
Q. Do you have any impressions to share with us regarding your first visit to the US?
A. I am impressed by the cleanliness of the environment here. Everywhere I go, everything looks so clean; and the people are very friendly and welcoming. This has left a deep impression on me. The students I have taught here are very hard working. Everyone has such a strong desire to learn. This pleases me and makes me want to teach them more, and make their movements more correct. Hopefully these students will help spread the seeds of Chenjiagou Taijiquan in the US. As we say, “small sparks start a big fires.”
Wherever I travel to teach, I tell my students that although Taijiquan was begun by the Chen family in Chenjiagou, it belongs to all of mankind. It is my hope that people will work together to make Taiji very popular all over the world. It is my hope that Taijiquan, one of the precious pearls of the East, will become a tool for the benefit of everyone, regardless of nationality.
“My Father, Chen Zhao-Pi” by Chen Ke-Sen, “Henan Tiyu Bao” (Henan Sports Weekly Newspaper), 4/22/93, translated by G. Bissell in the Chenstyle Journal, Vol 3 No 1, Spring 1995.
Illustrations of Chen Zheng-Lei practicing the “Taiji 13 Action Polestaff” on the following page are from the Mainland China martial arts periodical “Wulin” (1988.1) #76 (inside back cover). Pictures depict, from top left to bottom (1) Ready Posture (2) Green Dragon Flies Out of Water (3)(4) Recoil Shaking (5)(6) Cover Forward (7) Dragging Polestaff (8) Burst Off Backward. Polestaff training is used in Chenstyle for increasing endurance, internal strength, and power issuing ability.
The document is from Internet sources