5.a.i.-good-understanding Section

Good Understanding

 by Nick Gudge - 2010

According to Chen family tradition and its current senior practitioners, the acquisition of gong fu has three requirements. These are: a good teacher, good understanding and good practice. In this the second of a series of three articles, I explore the second requirement, good understanding.

Practice and training without understanding lead to empty forms or no gongfu. Form with no substance. This is very common. Many people practice taijiquan forms but few have taijiquan skills. Thirty years ago understanding as to ‘what taiji is’ was made difficult by there being little or no written material in English to consult and no putative teachers who spoke any language other than Chinese, all of whom were resident in Asia. Now in 2011 it is made difficult by the plethora of taiji books and magazines, most of which are filled at best with peripheral understanding and at worst are simply incorrect.

(For the beginners it is difficult to know where to look and who is correct. It is difficult but not impossible. I would suggest identify those who have attained the highest practitioner skills (e.g. those who won the Chinese nationals in the years they were running.) Try and identify those who have attained the highest teaching skills (e.g. those who trained the most winners of the Chinese nationals.) I would suggest not to be fooled by the results of lesser competitions either inside China or of any competition in the rest of the world. The skills required to win these are not significant taiji skills as frequently the rules used are poorly thought through.)

Good understanding comes from good teaching coupled with a willingness to research and consider whether what I am doing is incorrect. In my opinion ‘thinking I am correct’ is the second most obstructive barrier to understanding (after insufficient practice). Hence the need for a ‘beginner’s mind.’ Taiji is full of people with an erroneous idea of what taiji is - myself included.

It is simply best to ask a good teacher. Listen to their answer carefully. Then understand that the answer will have been simplified by that teacher so it can be grasped. Then understand that the answer will probably be doubly distorted by both a translation process and the listener’s conception of what the answer should be. Good understanding is more difficult to reach than a good teacher is. However it is within the grasp of considerably more people than do grasp it..

Good understanding must be sought first in the mind and then in the body. A good teacher first helps a student grasp understanding mentally. Then, with extraordinary amounts of practice, the student’s body also understands. Good understanding cannot be reached without good practice. Good practice cannot be reached without good understanding. They build on each other. Initial understanding allows for initial practicing, which provides the foundation for subsequent understanding which must underlay subsequent practice if progress is to be made. I think of it like climbing a ladder, where my left foot is like by mind understanding, and my right foot is like my body understanding. I can only climb up so far with one foot before the other foot become necessary. For almost everyone, small steps are best. Inevitably, good understanding requires the attention of a good teacher.

Chen Zheng Lei suggests that before beginning to practice taiji, a student should first seek to understand what taijiquan is.

It astounds me just how much disagreement there is in understanding what taijiquan is. There is a famous story still quoted by some Wu stylists of Wu style taijiquan practitioner and government official Wu Jin Quan asking Chen Fake whether what he was practicing was taijiquan. Chen Fake replied by asking Wu to explain what he meant by taijiquan. Wu reportedly explained taijiquan as the 13 elements held by Wu style. These 13 elements are not the 13 elements Chen style recognises as the last 5 have been mis-recorded by the Yang family who subsequently taught their cousins the Wu family. So he replied that if that was how taijiquan was to be defined, then no, he did not practice taijiquan. Yet in the recent past I have been told by one of the UK’s leading Wu style taiji teacher Dan Docherty, that Chen Fake said he did not practice taijiquan. Despite the overwhelming evidence of living practitioners of Chen Fake’s high level taijiquan gong fu, it remains for some an inconvenient truth.

Understanding must arise from facts and not fantasy. There are many different martial arts in China, and several internal martial arts, of which taijiquan is just one. Being a good fighter does not make one good at taijiquan. However being good at taijiquan will mean the attainment of good martial skills. However, initially these martial skills need to have a good foundation. It is the foundation skills of taijiquan that are in greatest dispute. They are the least well understood, despite repeated writings by many of the world’s most senior practitioners.

What are these basic skills? Even today there is still a large degree of misinformation and ill informed opinion as to what beginning students should best pay attention to. Much is made of correcting and perfecting choreography. While the choreography of forms is the primary teaching tool of taijiquan, it is not the primary skill of taijiquan. The skills of taijiquan are to be discovered within the forms. A ‘good teacher’ will use the process of learning the forms to instil and distil coherent and comprehensive understanding in the student. This does rely on the teacher themselves both having that understanding (when in truth frequently they do not) and understanding how this process works (which almost invariably they do not.)

Simply mimicking the choreography of incorrect movements will provide no significant benefit.

Mimicking the choreography of correct movements without a good teacher to lead the student to the internal body mechanics, (which are an essential part of taijiquan understanding,) is only marginally better.

Mimicking the choreography of correct movements with an adequate teacher who understands the principles and primary skills of taijiquan does provide a possible path to reach the beginning level of gong fu.

The simple staged improvement described in the steps above is one of improved practice, invariably bought about by improved understanding and teaching.

So what are these skills that beginners might most productively concentrate on? Rather than give my view I direct the reader to the view of those teachers who have succeeded in producing high level students. See Wang Hai Jun’s three articles on “The Five Most Important Taiji Skills for Beginners”; the first level of Chen Xiao Wang’s “The Five Levels of Skill in Chen Style Taijiquan”; and Chen Zheng Lei’s first step in his “The Method and Progression of Chen-style Taijiquan Training - 1. Familiarity with the set of forms, postures clearly executed.” Their advice is clear, consistent and unambiguous.

There are now many good articles to aid the understanding of taijiquan, many if not most of which can be found in the articles section of my website. However arriving at any understanding beyond the beginner’s stage does require practice. I do not believe it is possible to acquire an improved level of understanding without putting in an appropriate amount of practice.

The six stages of learning chen style taiji and the five level chen style taiji skill give some clues as to the nature of the foundations of taiji understanding and how they can be attained. I would also recommend Wang Hai Jun’s three articles on Beginner’s Taiji Skills.

Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Zheng Lei, and Wang Xian, arguably the three most skilled taiji practitioners alive today, have all commented that there is a progression in learning that can be likened to academic learning. There is an order and progression to this study: Primary school is follows by secondary school, then undergraduate study, post-graduate study, doctoral study and post-doctoral study. Teaching undergraduate material to those in primary school will in all probability lead to failure. There must be a basis for subsequent understanding. This understanding must be in the body before the mind can grasp the subtlety of the next stage. While some small degree of overlap can and does occur, it is much less than most people accept.

Find a good teacher. Ask for and follow their advice. Lay a solid foundation in basic skills. (In Chen Style this means several years of silk-reeling and first form practice at the rate of 10 forms (2 hours) per day. If you practice less then expect to take longer.) In practicing at the first stage of learning (xue jia zi,) focus solely on first stage understanding. In practicing at the second stage of learning (lien jia zi,) practice, focussing on second stage understanding i.e. the gross corrections of the stationary postures and silk reeling movement provided by you teacher. Do not be distracted trying to understand the higher levels of study e.g. applications or usage. It will not simply waste your time, it will set you back and may permanently undermine your progress.

For most people understanding must be worked hard for. While the concepts can be grasped fairly easily by the mind, they are less easily grasped by the body. An idea that is only grasped by the mind is an idea not sufficiently understood. In taiji the body must understand. Usually the language of the mind only approximates the language of the body. Only when their body can do it can a student say they have truly understood. The third and final article on’ Good Practice’ explores this requirement.


Nick Gudge is a student of Wang Hai Jun and teaches Chen style taijiquan (tai chi) classes in Limerick.