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The Differences Between Chen Village Taiji and Chen Yu Taiji

I was the guest on a podcast recently and I was asked a question that was very difficult to answer.

What is the difference between the Taiji that I learned from Chen Village teachers versus the Beijing/Chen Yu Taiji that I have been studying for the past year-and-a-half with Nabil Ranne, a disciple of Chen Yu?

I tried to answer, but I was stumbling and stammering and quite frankly, it's a difficult question, and very often you have to be shown. It isn't easy to describe it in words.

I started studying the Yilu -- "First Road" -- form with Nabil in 2020. The class spent 17 months learning the form. Now, we are working on Erlu -- "Second Road" -- sometimes called "Cannon Fist."

A post like this is bound to be controversial, but it isn't intended to be. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about these two different branches of Chen family Taijiquan. A lot of the talk is negative, especially toward the Chen Village. In fact, someone online last week told me I am part of the "Chen Village cult."

Wait. What? 

Why in the world is anyone so inflamed over this stuff? And he's accusing me of being part of a cult, after I have tried to give all styles of internal arts teachers publicity through my podcast?

Okay, Ken, shake it off. Center yourself. Find your chi.

I will give you my perspective.

I have studied and practiced the Chen Village branch of Chen Taiji since 1998. Before that, I spent more than a decade practicing Yang style. 

My first encounter with Chen style happened when I sought out Jim and Angela Criscimagna, who had good experience learning from some great teachers including George Xu, Zhang Xue Xin (Feng Zhiqiang's disciple), who they were still studying with in 1998, and within a year from the time I started studying with them, they began studying with  Chen Xiaowang. They hosted Chen Xiaowang and Ren Guangyi for workshops after that.

I had no experience with Chen style, and it blew my mind. It was so complex compared with the Yang style I had learned that there was no comparison. I won a gold medal at the 1990 AAU Kung-Fu National Championships doing the Yang 24 form. I thought I knew Taiji, but I was wrong.

In the late 1990s I had been learning about the ground path and peng jin, terms that weren't used in the Yang style I had studied. I heard about them in Mike Sigman's online listserve, the Neijia List. That caused me to look for a Chen Taiji teacher. I started learning from Jim and Angie, and they helped me understand how those terms applied to Taiji movement, but there was much more, including Dan T'ien rotation, opening and closing the kua, silk-reeling, and whole-body movement. 

In Chen style Taiji, the body is alive. It is a martial art and I became fascinated with the body mechanics and how the movements contained so many self-defense applications, and how the body mechanics helped you deliver relaxed power.

I dropped Yang style. Between 1998 and 2020, I studied, practiced and taught Chen Village Taiji. I love it. If it is taught right and if it is practiced right, it is flowing, alive, solid and powerful.

Each time I studied with Jim and Angie, I made the two-hour drive home very excited about the new things I was learning. 

When I met members of the Chen family, including Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Bing, Chen Ziqiang and Chen Huixian, they seemed like Olympic athletes compared to me and other Westerners.

I still believe the performance Chen Xiaowang did in 1988, when he first visited the U.S. is my favorite Taiji performance of all time. The flowing, the mechanics, the power -- he really had it going on. Here is that performance:


In 2020 I did a podcast with Nabil Ranne, who lives in Berlin. He is a disciple of Chen Yu, who is a cousin of Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing, and they share a grandfather, the great Taiji master Chen Fake. So Chen Yu practices the family art, but in Beijing, it is practiced and performed a little differently than in the Chen Village.

In the Village, they call their two main forms Laojia Yilu and Laojia Erlu. They refer to the Beijing forms as Xinjia Yilu and Xinjia Erlu. Laojia is "Old Frame," while Xinjia is "New Frame." Xinjia is the art as it evolved through Chen Fake after he moved to Beijing in 1928, but his son, Chen Zhaokui and Zhaokui's son, Chen Yu, don't refer to their form as Xinjia. It isn't "New Frame" to them. It's simply the family Taiji. Yilu is known as the "First Road" form and Erlu is known as the "Second Road."

In 2020 and 2021, I spent 17 months working on the "First Road" form with Nabil in weekly group online classes. In January of this year, 2022, we began Erlu, the "Second Road" form. It was really cool because my first Chen teachers, Jim and Angie, were in the class with me and others from the U.S., UK, Europe and even Nairobi.

Here is Chen Yu performing part of Erlu:


So what is the difference between the two branches of Chen Taiji? It can probably be summed up with this phrase: Body Method.

The instruction I have received from Nabil is deeper and more complex than I expected. More is discussed regarding various "connections" through the body, the various "jin" that are happening in each movement, the Dan T'ien rotation, folding, openings and closings, including the kua, the crotch, and the chest and back. It isn't that some of these things were never taught to me before, but not in this depth.

One of the interesting differences is more of an emphasis on various connections, including the "elbow-knee" connection. When I watch my old videos, and videos of some of the Chen Village masters, it is clear that this is not something that was stressed. But taking a movement like "Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar" as an example, I have learned to keep my right elbow connected (aligned) with my right knee and my left elbow aligned with my left knee a little better throughout the movement. Maintaining the elbow-knee connection helps keep you within the power zone.

My stances are not as wide now. As I understand it, a wide stance might be good for training, but it is not what you do in self-defense, and that is correct. Also, it's easier to maintain the elbow-knee connection with a stance that isn't too wide.

For years, I was focusing the ground on the Bubbling Well point in my feet. Now, I focus it on the heel. Many movements are driven by "heel power." The spiraling, however, involves the entire foot. Even the toes.

When I watch many Chen people doing demos, I watch for two or three things. Are their knees "swimming?" Do the knees move sideways as they shift their weight? The knees should not be moving all over the place.

Another thing to watch is hip movement. If I shift my weight from the right leg to the left, are my hips moving in space too much or am I using the kua? I should be using the kua. The hips shouldn't be moving side to side very much, or at least not as much as many demos show.

Are my knees collapsing? I should maintain peng through the legs.

When I shift weight or step, am I loading too much stress into the knee of the supporting leg, or am I using the kua as I should be doing? 

And one more thing I look for when I watch Taiji performances. Is anything going on in the body? If you can't see obvious connections and a "wave" of internal strength going through the body, including the torso, I'm afraid something is missing. If I don't see Dan T'ien rotation, connected to the ground, moving through the body, it just doesn't do it for me. What I saw in the video clip of Chen Xiaowang above is rarely seen these days among Chen Village students. I wonder why not?

What I am pursuing now is the "dragon body," when your body is relaxed and grounded and opens and closes, Dan T'ien rotating and spiraling, moving like a dragon. Relaxed internal strength flowing through like a wave.

At my age, most guys don't have a dragon body, they have a dragging body. Ba da boom CRASH! 

Taiji movement is never easy to write about. It has to be shown. These are just a few thoughts. It is a delicate and political subject. I am not interested in arguing about it because I see value in all Chen Taiji.

I love what I have learned from Chen Village teachers. It is light years above what most people who study Taiji are learning. I have met many people over the years, mostly Yang stylists, who are not learning much at all about body mechanics.

Learning from Nabil is enhancing my Taiji, helping me to approach Laojia Yilu, Laojia Erlu, the Chen 38 and the Chen 19 with new eyes, and maybe a slightly more sophisticated and connected way of moving. 

In 2013, I attended a workshop with Chen Huixian, who is my favorite of all the Chen Village instructors. She corrected me and let me know that I was collapsing my knees. That simple instruction changed my Taiji. The year before Covid hit, she made a comment about the kua that changed the way I "sit in the chair." It changed my Taiji for the better. This is all part of my journey. I love where I have been.

Each teacher you study with should improve and change your Taiji. After 22 years studying the Chen Village version, I wanted to experience the Beijing/Chen Yu version of Chen Taiji to see what all the fuss was about. I believe very strongly in opening yourself to new information. I don't think anyone should narrow their learning to one style or one branch of a style. If it makes my art better, bring it on.

After a while, I adopted Nabil as my teacher. It was a great decision. I am still teaching what I learned before, but I am looking at internal movement in new ways and it is improving my Taiji. And isn't that the point of practicing and learning?

-- by Ken Gullette


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Hermann G. Bohn

So you didn't hurt any village people, right, but your arguments on Yang do bother me. That you didn't have any good Yang teacher (24 Beijing, I even don't consider Yang), is probably due to the fact, that Yang is commercialized much longer. That will happen to Chen in 20,3 0 yrs as well, or has it happened to the village already, no? Anyway, trad. Yang is equally sophisticated, and I know that, because I studied old Yang varieties in Taiwan for nearly 30 yrs. I have looked intensively into different Chen traditions (PRC and RoC) as well, and since 2004, I also train in Hulei Taijiquan of Zhang Suisheng. It is closer to old Yang, assumingly Small Frame Chen and Beijing Chen. I got to that conclusion thru exchanges with Ditmar Stubenbaum (Xiaojia) and Nabil, both of them I do respect immensely. So in my view, treasures can be found in any style, it is always a question of the teacher's quality and the student's willingness to eat bitter.

Ken Gullette

Thank you, Hermann. I was just watching a video of a Yang family member last night, noticing the stress he was putting in his knees and a lack of kua usage, and he was leaning back in a few movements, making his root very tenuous. You do have a point. Some Chen taiji might be headed down this road already. When I mention Yang taiji, I am primarily talking not about the Yang family, but the many thousands of people who teach at YMCAs or in fitness centers or other places who focus on things such as chi cultivation instead of body mechanics. I have met enough of them to know that they represent the majority of Yang practitioners in the world. If you do Yang style, I would love to do a private Zoom session with you and we can go over some of these mechanics. It would be fun. Contact me if you would like to do that.

Hermann G. Bohn

Thanks for answering!
Zoom? Never used that, I'm also an older guy, but not into the internet that much. Besides, I'm retired and closed my door (Biguan 閉關), no more teaching, no more crossing hands, not even digitally. If you want to know more about me, please ask Nabil, he knows me well.
Concerning the many YMCA like Yang teacher, you are very correct. Doesn't mean, there are no good Yang teachers. And I have seen strange super short forms, for a weekend of hand waving (remember Chansi is a very new product) in Chen style as well.
BTW, I was the only Caucasian in Gaoxiong, southern Taiwan, when CXW had his infamous encounter with Liao Bai.

Mike Sigman

Ken, in answer to the primary question about the difference between the Beijing contingent versus Chen Village, a lot of people in Chen Village have learned the Xinjia and they don't see any difference between the styles. It's the same body mechanics. How could it be different? There may be some slightly different emphases in some places, but the basic body mechanics are the same. In fact, it becomes more of a question of who can move correctly using the dantian: if someone has learned how to connect the body with the qi tissues, controlled by the dantian, then that "correct movement" will carry over between Chen Village, Beijing Xinjia, good Bagua (think of Tian Hui's movement, etc.), good Xingyi, and so on. There's only one way that a connected body is wound and twisted by the dantian, even though it may be hard for a layman to see.

Chen Yu's Taijiquan moves (OK, "moved") exactly the same as the way they move in Chen Village, despite the muttered competition remarks that I hear coming from some of the western students of Chen Yu. Politics.

Incidentally, it's hard for most westerners who have "done Taiji before", "done karate", etc., to totally change their movements to moving with the dantian, using jin and the connections of the body. I'm always hopeful to see some westerner prove me wrong, but so far I haven't really seen it, even among the various 'disciples' who have paid the red envelope, "studied in Chen Village", and so on. All we can do is keep working. ;)

Justin Garcia

“. . .a lot of people in Chen Village have learned the Xinjia and they don't see any difference between the styles. . . “

This statement is correct when looking at how “xin jia” is taught in the Village. In Beijing, as you probably know, it is referred to only as YiLu and ErLu. The differences in methodology, mechanics and emphasis on connections, folding, rolling, even the spiraling has more of internal aspect rather than external “swimming knee”.

The difference is great IMO but you can not look at Lao Jia and “Xin Jia” as taught in CJG for comparison.

Mike Sigman

You just said a lot without saying anything. There is no difference in the body mechanics between the Xinjia and Laojia (both of which have Yilu and Erlu, as do all the other factions). Even Chu Yu says the body mechanics are the same, so I have no idea where you're coming from, Justin.

Ken Gullette

As someone with a heavy interest in Chen Village taiji, and now with 18 months studying the Chen Yu lineage, I agree that the body mechanics are the same. Or, at least, they should be the same. I learned Xinjia Yilu the Chen Village way. I'm not the only student of Nabil's who began their study of Chen style through a lineage involving a Chen Village master. Even Nabil began that way. So the body mechanics should be the same, but the depth of instruction, I have found, is very different, and the movements are performed very differently. And that could be a matter of semantics. Others who are involved in both Chen Village and Chen Yu versions may put it a different way: the principles are the same but the body mechanics are very different. The way of shifting weight, the way of applying peng, the connections, the Dantien rotation, the spiraling, the closings -- are the body mechanics different or are they just taught in more depth? However it is described, what Nabil is teaching has given me a new and satisfying perspective that feels more complex, more sophisticated, and, well, different. And yet, Chen Yu is Chen family.

As I wrote, I respect both versions. I could see for years that there was a difference in the movement, but until I began learning from Nabil, I didn't know what I didn't know. And it is still hard for me to put into words. I am still a newbie in Nabil's taiji, but he is easy to contact if you want more information.

Justin Garcia


Maybe the use of term mechanics was used a little too loosely above.

Let me just say in response to your statement of “a lot of people in Chen Village have learned the Xinjia and they don't see any difference between the styles.”

I have learned all forms LaoJia 1 & 2 as well as XinJia 1 & 2 as taught in the village and have been to the village on several occasions to study. Now I am studying ChenYu YiLu and I see a world of difference.

The XinJia I learned from the Village is not the same YiLu that I have been learning with Nabil.

Not to argue that one is better than the other but just to state my observation and opinion and say that they are not the same and there are obvious differences.

I don’t practice my Village material anymore since I started learning ChenYu YiLu maybe for me ChenYu’s YiLu has more to offer me than what I had learned in the Village. No disrespect to my teachers who came from the Village as the learning experience and memories of the Village are very dear to me.

Mike Sigman

Ken, by "body mechanics" I meant the mechanics of how the body moves. Various emphases during the movement are not what I meant by "body mechanics". For example, I can post a video of Chen Xiaowang doing "Repulse Monkey" (Step Back and Whirl Arms) during the mid-1980's and you can see his legs unwinding smoothly as his body twists backwards ... yet a current video will show a hesitation prior to each step backward and a lay person will say "different body mechanics", but it's not. It's simply CXW utilizing the elastic store prior to each step, so the basic body mechanics are exactly the same, despite the disparate appearances.

Anyway, I just wanted to make the point that the Beijing style via Chen Zhaokui - Chen Yu is really no different from the Chen Village style because the basic body mechanics are exactly the same. And I think you'll find that even Chen Yu agrees with that. What is unfortunate is that a number of downstream students of Chen Yu are no different than downstream students of CXW: they didn't show those students enough for them to really get it. As a general rule, the people of Chen Village only teach 'outsiders' a limited amount of information, whether those outsiders are native Chinese, westerners, Koreans, or whatever. You can usually spot it right away because they obviously don't really move with the dantian.

Matt Malone

The body mechanics are the same from the perspective of we all have a human body but the karate people are not moving like the tai chi people. As a general rule the ymca teachers and tai chi fit teachers are not moving like the coaches from Chen village and Chen yu was practicing something different from the village coaches. Yes there is a resemblance between “xinjia” and the 83 form of Chen yu, the villagers learned it from his father after all, but it is practiced exactly like laojia by the village coaches. The differences are details that change the ground connections of the stances in subtitle ways and when the stances are different the other connections are different too. I believe this qualitative difference is the result of the amount of time they had access to his father and how invested they were already in the laojia method. Face is given all around no one is worse or better in the Chen circles and no one would want to interrupt the martial arts money machine either. So I would not take anything Chen yu says publicly at face value just what comes from his inner circle of students. Very few people want to take on the juggernaut that is the Chen taiji political machine. You are correct that the villagers hold information back so what we have to judge them by is their bitter basics. I was tutored once in laojia low frame and it was not nearly as painful as Chen yu’s much higher basic stance work. I also throw out the question to the aspiring student what exactly is the practical difference to you between someone who doesn’t have the application skills and someone who is unwilling to teach the applications? The applications that I have tracked down we’re always more impressive and more plentiful from Chen yu and his students.

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