The Chinese Tai Chi Uniform -- Should You Wear One or Not?

Ken DemoHave you ever seen some of the snide comments made online by some internal arts people who slam those who wear a uniform when taking photos or videos? They refer to the uniform in a derogatory way as "silk pajamas."

I always wonder why people feel the need to do that. It seems a bit immature, and sometimes comes off simply as mean-spirited. It is not exactly the nature that Taiji is supposed to develop in people, is it?

I wear a uniform when I do photos and instructional videos. When I watch an instructional video by another teacher, it always looks more professional when they are in a uniform than when they are in a Budweiser t-shirt and sweat pants. But that's just my opinion.

Chen Village Uniform
Students of Chen Ziqiang wearing a uniform for a video in the Chen Village.

In recent years, I have worn a black and white uniform that was inspired by a wonderful documentary called Chen Village, by Jon Braeley. If you haven't seen it, and you are into Taiji, I highly recommend it. 

In the documentary, students of Chen Ziqiang are wearing a black and white uniform that I thought was strikingly beautiful -- a yin/yang design with the front half white and the back half black.

I had one custom made and that's what I wear in my videos and public demonstrations.

Chen Yu
Taiji master Chen Yu wearing a uniform.

It just looks cool, and isn't that why we got into martial arts in the first place? Three reasons -- to learn self-defense; to impress chicks; and because it's cool. Am I right? You're damn right I'm right. 

A lot of Taiji instructors wear uniforms in videos or in public demonstrations. Am I not to wear one because I'm not Chinese? Tell that to the Americans who practice Karate, Taekwondo, or Aikido and wear uniforms to practice.

When I practice with my students, we wear t-shirts and workout pants. A good Bruce Lee t-

Chen Xiaowang
Taiji master Chen Xiaowang wearing a uniform.

shirt always works. Sometimes, someone will wear a uniform and that's fine. My only rule is that my students do NOT wear an "I'm with Stupid" t-shirt.

In the end, to slam people for wearing "silk pajamas" in photos or public demonstrations is much more appropriate coming from a school yard bully than from a serious Taiji person. I expect better from them, don't you?

A Review of New Documentary DVD - Chen Village

ChenVillageDVD The new documentary by Jon Braeley, Chen Village, is a beautiful and fascinating journey inside the birthplace of Tai Chi. I bought the DVD through and eagerly watched it a few nights ago when it arrived. 

Shot in high definition, the documentary includes interviews with westerners who have traveled to Chen Village to study, and it shows a disciple ceremony in which Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang accepts new disciples.

Chen Village (Chenjiagou) is located in Henan Province. It's a very poor village with 3,000 residents. It's estimated that 2,500 of them practice tai chi, and 85% of them have the Chen surname. You see parts of the village here that you haven't seen before. When you think of the birthplace of Tai Chi, you might think of beautiful Chinese buildings, and there are a few that meet the description, but Chenjiagou is a dirt-poor farming community. It just happens that they are the best in the world at their art.

The documentary features Chen Xiaowang, his brother and principle of the Chenjiagou tai chi school Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Ziqiang (son of Xiaoxing) and Chen Bing (a nephew of Xiaowang and Xiaoxing). It's exciting to watch, considering I have met and trained with three of the four, and Chen Xiaoxing stayed in our home for a week. It's also fascinating to see the school since I received a certificate in 2005 as a recognized instructor connected to the school.

I didn't know until seeing this DVD that Chen Bing now runs his own school, and he has built it with foreign students in mind. Some students have been reluctant in the past to travel to Chen Village because living conditions are not very good compared with our standards. 

I was disappointed but not surprised to hear Chen Bing say that foreign students are usually trained differently than the Chinese -- not as tough because they can't take it, and most of them, he says, are interested in the health aspects more than the martial aspects. Are you listening, people? They don't consider us to be very serious because we focus on the wrong things.

Chen Ziqiang is interviewed, talking about how only one in a hundred students -- even those from the Chen Village -- are able to persist long enough to become really good at tai chi. I've been teaching now for a dozen years and that is something that becomes clear very quickly when you teach -- the fact that for every 100 people that come through the door, only one has the determination and passion to achieve their goals.

The interviews with the western students are very interesting. They find themselves in a very simple environment when they stay at the Chen Village -- a much slower and far less technological lifestyle. A few of the comments go a little over-the-top, as you can imagine from people who are dedicated enough to spend a year or two living there. One student actually breaks down and cries when he speaks about his devotion to Chen Xiaowang. I understand the devotion, but I tend to look at these masters as people who are the best at what they do -- like Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, all worthy of tremendous respect. I don't look at them as gods. Nancy watched the documentary with me and strongly objected to the disciple ceremony where the disciples were kneeling and bowing in worship before Grandmaster Chen. I didn't react as strongly because I understand why they're doing it, but it was fascinating to see a ceremony like this after hearing about it. When you become a disciple it's a very serious relationship, supposedly like being admitted to the family, and yet there is a master/student relationship that is very strict, and let's face it, the culture is not what we are accustomed to. Americans by nature don't like to kneel and prostrate themselves before anyone (we reserve that behavior for our relationship with invisible beings), but in the context of the situation and the culture, it's something that you do.

Chen Bing is shown at his school demonstrating a form, and as usual, he's breathtakingly impressive. There is a little video of Chen Xiaoxing practicing with some students, and Chen Xiaowang does a short demo, too.

As I heal from the lung problem that has plagued me this year, I have one goal -- to travel to Chen Village and give it my best effort to train like the Chinese. I've taken a week off of practicing as I gear up for this medical procedure at the Cleveland Clinic next week, but watching this documentary made me want to bounce off the walls. I just can't wait to get over this thing and start building my strength and practice HARD again. It's nice that Jon Braeley has produced such an inspirational film.

I highly recommend this DVD to anyone with an interest in Tai Chi.