I had a great visit last week with my first (and best) Chen taiji instructors, Jim and Angela Criscimagna, at their home in Escondido, California. Nancy and I went to San Diego to attend the Social Media Marketing World conference, which I used as an excuse to see Jim and Angela and get some input on taiji.
I began studying with them in 1998 when they lived in Rockford, Illinois, and continued until around 2004, when I met and became a student of Mark Wasson. This is the second time I have seen Jim since 2004, and the first time I've seen Angela since then.
Jim and Angela became disciples of Chen Xiaowang, but Jim was drawn more and more to the Beijing style of Chen taiji, which was taught by Chen Fake and handed down by students such as Feng Zhiqiang (teacher of Zhang Xue Xin), Chen Zhaokui (father of Chen Yu), Chen Zhaoxu (father of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing), among others.
Jim and Angela have had several martial arts teachers over the years, including Zhang Xue Xin, who they studied with before training with Chen Xiaowang. I met Chen Xiaowang because they sponsored his workshops in Rockford.
Around 2005, Jim and Angela met Chen Yu while in China. The quality of his art and his body method caught their attention, and Jim began exploring the differences between the Beijing way and the Chen Village way.
When I studied with Jim and Angela, we were primarily doing taiji the way Chen Xiaowang was teaching it. Last week at his home, Jim coached me on some of the differences between the Chen Village way and the Beijing way.
I returned home on Sunday. Last night at practice, a student asked me what I had learned. I had to tell him that I really wasn't in the position of showing much because I am still processing the information. It will take some time and some dedicated practice, and some followup questions, before I will be able to translate it into movement. In general terms, it involves slight changes in stances, in the shifting and placement of weight to establish root, in the way the inside leads the outside, and other coaching that involved openings and closings and sinking. It is very difficult to explain.
In recent years, the debate has risen about the differences between the Beijing way and the Chen Village way. Did Chen Fake take the highest quality of the art to Beijing when he relocated there from Chen Village, leaving the art in the Chen Village to decline in his absence? Did Chen Xiaowang's generation learn as much as they really needed to learn from Chen Zhaoxu, Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui? Since most of my training has been in the Chen Village way, this is an important question for me. And I have never been afraid to change my viewpoint when new information comes in; that is true in religion, politics and martial arts. I have changed beliefs, parties and styles based on new information. I have changed my beliefs about psychic phenomena and "alternative" medicine. When new information arises, you have to change and evolve if you are going to be intellectually honest.
From the explanations and coaching I received last week, I believe there are differences between the Chen Village and Beijing styles of Chen taiji that are worth exploring. Is one better than the other? That's an individual decision.
These are complicated and political issues. Let's face it, those of us who did not grow up in the Chen Village or Beijing can learn from both camps. We can't touch any of them in the quality and power of their taiji. My philosophy is simple -- I can learn from anyone. About three years ago, I was at a workshop with Chen Huixian and her husband Michael, and they gave me some input that had a profound change in my movement. Huixian is the niece of Chen Zhenglei, of the Chen Village. So there is quality throughout.
Some people make this debate out to be a much more negative thing than it should be (more about that on my next podcast, which features an interview with Dan Djurdjevic), but the goal here for all of us should be knowledge. We should learn what we can from everyone who can teach us. From there, we develop our own taiji.
In the meantime, I deeply enjoyed our visit with Jim and Angela. The time went by way too fast, and I was bummed when Nancy and I left their home last Tuesday to drive back to San Diego. Good instructors are hard to find. I always appreciated Jim and Angela because they asked questions and looked under the hood. They were not content to just follow along with their instructors. And what they learned, they passed along to their students. That attitude of sharing and teaching continues, even though Jim has officially retired from teaching, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn.