5.a.iii.-good-practice Section

Good Practice

by Nick Gudge - 2010

According to Chen family tradition and its current senior practitioners, the acquisition of gong fu requires three elements. These are: a good teacher, good understanding and good practice. In this the third of a series of three articles, I explore the third element, Good Practice.

Gaining good gong fu in taijiquan is dependent on significant practice. This practice needs to be extraordinary both in quality and in quantity.

Quantity of Practice

Very few people are willing to put in the quantity of practice that is required to gain the first and most basic level of skill in taiji. Chen Zheng Lei states simply (in his Laojia Yilu, Sword and Broadsword book) that when learning the form ‘practising ten forms per day is sufficient’, without missing a day. (Wang Hai Jun has mentioned on several occasions the Chen village aphorism, miss one day’s practice lose ten days progress.) How many people practice ten forms per day without missing a day for the six months or so it takes to grasp the basics and complete Level 1?

For most people we spend perhaps a year, sometimes several years working on absorbing the basic choreography. Usually we spent many years learning lots of choreography of many forms. (In my opinion this is a sure route to stagnation and indifferent practice. While variety does sustain interest, it also inhibits depth of understanding.) All of the high-level practitioners I have spoken to (and read of) spent at least a handful of years and mostly around a decade simply practising one form, the Laojia Yilu. They spent many hours, each day, for many years training in this one form. With a minimum of ten forms per day, for 350+ days per year for at least five years, this means an excess of fifteen thousand forms completed before considering doing another thing.

The volume of repetitions means that something can be studied and embedded into basic physical mechanics. These include figuring out how to hold the body (structure,) figuring out how to move the body and figuring out how to connect the body: In short, grasping a set of principles. For most people, who are training perhaps one form per day or less, the absorption of these principles by the body will come significantly more slowly. (If I practice riding a bicycle for 30 minutes per day if might take me 60 minutes – i.e. two days to master. If I practice it for three minute per day it is more likely to take me 120 minutes – i.e. 40 days to master.) So we might say that if I train one form per day that it may likely take forty or fifty thousand forms to master, or more than one hundred years. That is not including the lost progress due to missed days.

So I would conclude that after learning the principal training form, (yilu in Chen Style,) then perhaps two thousand forms completed in a relatively short time (say 10 per day over 6 months or 6 per day over a year) would likely put a taiji player into Level 1. How many taiji players have actually done this? Remember, this is just referring to attaining the basic, foundation level of skill.

To gain serious gong fu (i.e. reaching Level 2) is beyond almost everyone’s willingness. This requires an investment of at least two hours per day for perhaps two to five years provided one’s understanding is sufficient. Many teachers, Chen Fake, Chen Zhao Pei, Chen Zhao Kui, Chen Xiao Xing, Chen Zheng Lei, Chen Xiao Wang, all talk of a minimum of 10 forms per day providing at least two hours training per day. In addition, the practice is gruelling. Chen Zheng Lei spoke of wringing out his shirt several times per training session in winter with temperatures of minus 15.  Wang Hai Jun says the training must be sufficient to go to bed with tired legs and wake up with tired legs for three years.

To gain significant gong fu (i.e. reaching Level 3) then a degree of dedication of practice similar to that of a professional athlete is required. Wang Hai Jun regularly practiced 5 hours per day and sometime 7 hours while he was still in school. The time required is considerable and beyond the capacity of most people in full-time employment. Chen Xiao Wang says he practiced 20 forms every day and he attained Level 3 around the age of 30. Chen Zheng Lei is similarly reported to have achieved this level shortly after him with somewhat less practice (due to his weaker constitution) but perhaps with better understanding.  

Quality of Practice

While quality of practice is less of an issue to attain Level 1 (though still of importance), it becomes a much more significant issue at Level 2 and a compelling necessity to reach Level 3. Quality of practice is a function both of understanding (see the separate article Good Understanding) and focus, intensity and  attention during practice.

This being said, Wang Hai Jun has described six steps to training gong fu in Taijiquan. These are:

  1. Xue jia zi – learning the postures
  2. Lien jia zi – practicing while making gross corrections
  3. Nie jia ze – teacher correcting (molding) the postures
  4. Shun jia ze – Making the postures smooth
  5. Pan jia ze – show your sweat / practice harder / building the lower part of the body
  6. Chai jia ze – pull apart / examine / learn how to use / application

(These have been written about more fully by David Gaffney in an article written by him for Wang Hai Jun and  expanded by myself in a another article so I will not duplicate those efforts here.)

The term gong fu (which can loosely be translated as mastery) is a comment on the amount of time, effort and efficacy spent in training. The more time spent training, the greater the effort made in training and greater the efficacy of the training all increase the gong fu achieved.

In Chen village there is a saying that ‘the slow way is the quickest route.’ This directly refers to the patience needed in approaching taijiquan practice and skills acquisition. There are no shortcuts while there are innumerable detours and delays. A student needs a teacher to lead them through the steps until the third level is reached – only a few (perhaps 100 to 150 alive today) have reached this level.

From the six steps above, first of all there is learning the postures. This is the step everyone starts with. The problem arises in they start to learn something more before they have practiced what they know. Many people who put in sufficient effort to become good practitioners and reach Level 1, do not because they are trying to practice too many things. Learn one form, then move to the second stage – practice.

Practice is where the skills are gained. Practice until the body understands as well as the mind. Then practice more until the mind can be used in other ways. Then practice more so that within the movements the principles can be explored. Then practice more until the body understands the principles and not just the choreography. Then practice some more. Chen Zheng Lei  says in his book, that having learned the choreography, ‘ten forms per day is sufficient’ to reach Level 1 in 6 months. That is around 2,000 repetitions of the laojia yilu. Then the efforts of a good teacher will reap their rewards in step 3.

By step three the student is no longer a beginner. It is the step beyond beginning, though all too few people actually make it here, many fewer than believe they do, perhaps only a few percent of all practitioners. So be warned: it is easy and most common to make this mistake. In Step 3 the teacher moulds the student. The student must have practiced sufficiently so that

1. They can recognise the changes the teacher is showing and how they are different from their own conception of the movement.

2. They have sufficient leg strength that the corrections made by the teacher do not cause tension to override the balance of the body and simply negate the correction.

For most students, although they present themselves for moulding, they have not practiced enough. Though the teacher may try to impress the corrections on them, their body is not loosened enough and their mind cannot grasp the subtlety of the moulding / correction.

Good practice cannot be reached without good understanding. Good understanding cannot be reached without good practice. Good understanding requires the attention of a good teacher.

A good teacher will be looking at the big picture of a student’s training as well as the momentary detail. When training with a good teacher, trust in their judgement. A good teacher will need to understand more than the student in all aspects of taijiquan. (For more details see my article “A Good Teacher.”) The student probably will not have the perspective to understand the why of a particular instruction. Over time (and considerable practice) it will become clear. A good teacher will help a student avoid the detours and encourage them to persevere even when the road ahead looks like a dead end but the teacher knows otherwise. This is part of the role of a good teacher. By following their instruction and practicing diligently and with considerable effort the student will arrive at understanding.

If you are a serious student wishing to make progress and attain gong fu then consider this: The quantity of practice required is a minimum of 2 hours per day and more if possible. The quality of practice must be such that your legs are constantly tired, even after sleeping. With a good teacher, good practice and good understanding are a guarantee of success.

Remember: Sweat is never wasted.


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