5.a.vi.-a-step-towards-gaining-skill Section

A Step Towards

Gaining the Skills of Taijiquan        

by Nick Gudge - 2007 - Last Updated in April 2008

I believe that in the minds of many (if not most or almost all) serious practitioners are three questions. They are, in reverse order of importance, ‘What is Taijiquan?’ ‘How does Taijiquan work?’ and perhaps most important on reflection, ‘How can Taijiquan be trained effectively?’ In some respects the first question underlies the second and the second underlies the third.

Despite 50 years of contact with English speaking students and scholars, in my opinion there are still no authoritative answers in writing, in English, to these questions. Why this is might be worth a brief examination.

I understand the reason for this to be singular: that there simply have not been any English speaking practitioners who have reached sufficient proficiency to understand those of their teachers who had reached sufficient proficiency. (There have been plenty of dedicated English speaking students of teachers with some skill. However that is not the same thing.) Lack of skill and lack of understand are two sides of the same coin. Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Zheng Lei, Zhu Tian Cai and Wang Hai Jun all state that to gain gong fu a student needs three things: a good teacher, good understand and good practice. (I think we might possibly better substitute the word excellent for the word good if an excellence of skill is intended but in this article attaining good skill is my focus.)

There are excellent taijiquan teachers around though necessarily fewer than the number of excellent taijiquan practitioners. Being an excellent practitioner does not imply being an excellent teacher. The skill sets of ‘taiji skill’ and ‘taiji teaching’ are not the same skills sets although there is clearly significant overlap. Conversely, not being an excellent practitioner does prevent someone from being an excellent teacher. Clearly if there is a lack of understanding then it will be impossible to teach. Some of these teachers have travelled to English speaking countries over the past decade or more. I would guess that there are more than a dozen regularly available sometime during the year within a short plane journey of millions of practitioners. So in recent times access to “An Excellent Teacher” has been a little less of an issue for the serious student.

This being said, in my opinion there are very few additional good teachers living in the west to add to these excellent itinerant teachers. These excellent teachers / excellent practitioners have not managed to produce a generation of good western teachers. Many have been inspired but none have reached the level. Why this is will be addressed further on.

Opportunity to practice is harder to come by. Those few of each generation who have attained a high level of gong fu speak of quantities of daily training that would make some Olympic athletes think twice: Training five, six and seven hours or more per day, for a dozen years or more. As in most sports, most taiji practitioners simply do not practice sufficiently to get to the point where significant proficiency of even basic skills is likely. Please note that I am only talking here of a level of proficiency that can be acquired in less than a year with significant training under a good teacher. This being said, there are a few, among the many millions of Western practitioners who have been willing to endure and invested in a sufficiency of practice. Of these few, some of these practitioners have been training with excellent teachers for over twenty years now. (I think CXW first visited the USA in 1983, some 21 years ago.) However, the results have not been what might have realistically been expected given the quality of the tuition and the investment of time. Why is this?

The answer again in my opinion is singular: lack of understanding. Early training with teachers who did not know what they were doing or who only partially knew what they were doing created a significant degree of mis-understanding. This mis-understanding, still widely held today creates a barrier. When teachers did begin to appear from China from the mid 1980’s they were stifled by the poor understanding already existing in people’s mind. It is somewhat ironic that so much money is spent on improving understanding (magasines, books, DVD’s etc.) yet the return on that investment has been so slight. There is a saying that Taiji is easier to learn than to correct. I think this particularly applies to understanding.

So, we arrive back at the three questions postulated earlier. Getting answers that are as close as we can even if we know they are flawed may prove helpful.

As mentioned above, much has been written on taiji, most of which ranges from ill informed through mis-leading to frequently just inaccurate. Many English writing authors have given “their take” on what taiji is and how they got it, even though they didn’t get it! The general poor level of skills existing in the West have allowed three generations of poorly informed and under training individuals to assume the mantles of teachers of teachers. This has set ongoing generations down a path of respectable awe for their relatively inept teachers and propagation of future generations of would be teachers and students with a severely limited or inaccurate understanding of taijiquan. This process continues at a fierce pace, growing more quickly than the base provide by those teachers who have teaching and proficiency excellence.

Things have changed a little over the past ten or fifteen years, but not nearly as much as they might have. It would appear that corruption of understanding is endemic in Taiji in the English speaking world. As an aside I got to wondering whether this was also true in Chinese, so I asked Wang Hai Jun (as one of China’s notable teachers and practitioners) what his thoughts were. He replied that generally it was also true in China, His initial recommendation for a book was Chen Xin’s (recently translated and published in English in 2007.) After I had read the translation (and I cannot in all honesty make a recommendation of it for reasons I have given elsewhere and which may be due to lack of understanding in the translator.) I talked further with him. He offered a second book by Gu Luxien and Shen Jiazheng, Chen Style Taijquan, which I understand has not been translated into English. So whether detailed written answers to these questions exist in Chinese remains a mystery to me.

There are a few good books in all the major styles in English. In my opinion, the best are translations of the writing of the excellent practitioners of taijiquan who were also noted teachers. My personal preference is that by Chen Zheng Lei which contains around 28 pages of “the good stuff” as I like to call it. There have been solid publications like “Chen Style: the Source of Taijiquan” written by “westerners” although none in my opinion have reached the standard of excellence to be found across other arts from painting to business which have a broader and wider written body of work.

Perhaps one significant problem for the student lies in the discrimination between practitioner skills and teaching skills. Within teaching skills lie communication skills. Within communications skills there are writing skills which, I remind the reader, are considerably different from spoken skills. Finding a practitioner with sufficient skill to know the answers to these questions, who also has sufficient skill to communicate those answers, who can write in English is a problem, probably with no current solution.

So perhaps accepting a still imperfect answer, I wondered if, as in modern theoretical research, a comprehensive search of the existing literature would be productive. As in academic research, I felt it was important to ensure that if the answers were to be as accurate as they could. This meant two things.

The first was limiting use of the extensive literature to those composed by people who had exceptional level of taiji skills. These are living and dead taijiquan masters of irrefutable high level skills. I’m not discussing mythical figures here. I refer to those whose skills were recorded contemporaneously by first hand observers, who were themselves skilled in martial and skilled in understanding. In the current generation this means those who proved their skills outside of their students and who gained the respect of the broader martial arts community. Generally this meant including the founders of taijiquan, their top students and then the leaders of each generation and their top students to the present time.

Secondly, as none of these speak English, it also meant limiting translators to those who had an ongoing and close relationship with those whose work they were translating. Acceptable material for inclusion needed to satisfy both of these requirements. This meant excluding perhaps 95% of the existing literature. In compiling these answers from various sources, even within the limited area of acceptability there was still significant variation of answer to these three questions. However there remained considerable agreement in principle. In summary, these materials provided the following answers:

(In passing I would note that over the past twenty years I have had opportunity to read more than fifty books written in English or translated to English on Taijiquan. In my opinion most of them were not worth the time taken to read them, despite the probable good intentions of their authors. I have also read most of the issues of all the broad based taiji magazines published which, in the main, were simply gloss over substance, with the rare occasional article every other year which proved the exception to this rule.)

What is Taijiquan?

Simply put, it is a martial art whose modern roots all come from Chen village in Henan province in northern China. Its type of movement is distinctive from external arts. Someone with sufficient skill will recognise immediately whether the taiji they are watching is high level or not. Its core skills are self evident in motion. In addition, its training and fighting strategies are distinctive from other internal arts.

How does Taijiquan work?

The body mechanic’s or shen fa of Taijiquan are not intuitive. They must be carefully conditioned or trained into the body at considerable cost in time and pain. They require a looseness (song) and a strength (peng) that distinguishes it from external martial arts. In addition there are the eight key strengths (ba fa) peng, lu, ji an, cai, lieh, jiu, & kao as described in many places. Beyond this there are differences between the styles. Understanding and being able to execute these eight skills is a fundamental stepping stone towards taiji skill.

How can Taijiquan be trained effectively?

There is no single answer to this question, with each style providing some alternative training methods. However, training the body to move with song and peng is core to all of the styles. Much more is also required. The development of internal strength, physical strength, body conditioning, sensitivity etc. These are not unique to taijiquan. They are however required elements without which the skill would be significantly deficient. These latter skills are derived by training which lies within that which provides the core skills. Training them separately is likely to detract from their effectiveness overall. Common with all martial arts is the understanding that “eating bitter,” (or practising in such a way that the body is driven to endure the pain the results in tissue growth,) is a fundamental element without which the discipline and endurance of training are wasted.

While more detail can be provided, its sheer volume might be best set aside for another place. Better still, find a good teacher and ask them to train you seriously. (I would strongly recommend Wang Hai Jun in teaching ability, temperament and availability. He is the only high level practitioner living in the UK who has trained a significant number of Chinese national champions in all categories. His teaching ability is such that Chen Zhen Lei entrusted him with training his son. That is a recommendation!)

There remains the fundamental truth that all the high level practitioners today were trained by high level practitioners. So training with a teacher of exceptional quality appears to remains a requirement. Gaining understanding requires letting go of previous probably falsely based understanding and doing as the teacher instructs.  Thirdly train harder and more consistently. Sayings like “one day’s loss of practice is ten days lost progress” address this explicitly. Also, if it does not hurt your thighs then you are not training correctly. I once asked Wang Hai Jun how long it would take for my legs to stop hurting. He said that if I trained correctly, going to bed with tired legs and waking up still with tired legs, then around three years. If the legs don’t hurt then I was not training correctly. It is a bitter, unpalatable truth. Don’t take my word for it, ask an excellent teacher (assuming you are willing to find one), see what they say. Better still, ask several.


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