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."
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