5.a.xxv.-gaining-the-skills-part-a Section

Gaining the Skills

of Chen Style Taijiquan


Part A: Introduction & Theory

(written by Nick Gudge - May 2012)

  • Summary
  • Preface                                        
  • Quotations, Translations & Editing 

Part A. Introduction

  1. The origin of the five taijiquan gong fu levels
  2. Cultural barriers to comprehension
  3. Linguistic barriers to comprehension
  4. Other factors for the readers consideration
  5. Gaining gong fu
  6. The learning process
  7. Choreography and form practice
  8. Chen style training frames


Chen Style Taijiquan is a martial art, originating in Chen Village, Henan Province, China. It is traditionally described as having five levels of skill (gong fu.). There are relatively objective descriptions for each although they are very prone to misinterpretation, particularly by those who prefer to believe that A can really means B. They have been described by various writers. Chen Xiao Wang’s various descriptions and comments on these five levels are widely available on the web. (Details of where these and other high level’s teachers’ descriptions of these can be found are provided at the end of the article.) This is a four part article which provides details of the training required to begin each level. It includes descriptions of the training in each level, the aspects to focus on, qi sensation and development, martial ability and a brief description of my personal experience of training in that level, along with relevant passages from the most skilled practitioners who have written about this and been translated into English. Before detailing these levels, some background information is provided.


This article arose from a series of questions that I asked my teacher Wang Hai Jun and his answers between 2005 and 2012. I began to write it after I read “The Five Levels of Taijiquan” by Chen Xiao Wang and Jan Silberstorff. CS I had been looking forward to the release of this book with some anticipation and I was quite disappointed in its contents. Given that the overwhelming majority of taijiquan students don’t reach Level 1 and that almost all of those that do reach Level 1 do not reach Level 2, I felt it was a wasted opportunity that most of the book was devoted to Levels 3 to 5. (At this time I know of no non-Chinese Level 3 practitioners and only a handful of non-Chinese Level 2 practitioners.) This piece aims to redress this shortfall by addressing reaching the first Level and training in the first two Levels..

The bulk of the information it contains arose from my study and conversations with Wang Hai Jun. It also includes as much details as I can feel confident about from senior taijiquan practitioners and so it includes relevant quotes from several other articles by senior Chen style masters.

Quotations, Translations, Editing and Honorifics

Frequent quotations are provided. I have tried to be uniform in spelling and all Chinese terms are presented in italics and in pin yin e.g qi not chi. Some spelling, grammar and syntax corrections have been provided where appropriate. As I do not read Chinese, all translations are as provided with details of the translator provided in the references at the end (if known!) This may be a problem but I have limited myself to those who I think have translated well on substantive issue. In some translations (particularly those from Chen Zheng Lei’s old website,) the translations were of poor quality and I had to resort to editing their English to make them readable. I have indicated where these re-edits have occurred in the references. All those taijiquan practitioners referenced in this article are master of this art and most of them are grandmasters. To avoid making the article overbearing I have avoided the use of all honorifics and titles. I would add that I have immense respect for the gong fu of all of these contributors.

Part A


  1. The origin of the Five Taijiquan Gong Fu Levels

Wang Hai Jun told me that the ‘Five Levels of Chen Style taijiquan are an old tradition of guiding and evaluating ability in Chen Village. He did not know exactly how far back into history they were first espoused. Chen Xiao Wang description of these levels was the first to be translated into English back in the early 1990’s and this translation naturally became ‘Chen Xiao Wang’s Five Levels.’ Unfortunately many people thought that these levels were a creation of Chen Xiao Wang’s which has led to some misunderstanding. However that they are not something of Chen Xiao Wang’s creation can be deduced from the evidence of other teachers similarly describing them. Chen Zheng Lei outlined the five levels in an interview / article with Alex Yao. AY Wang Xian lists them in his recently translated Push Hands (tui shou) book written back in the mid 1980’s.WX (see references at the end of this article for more details.)

The ‘Five Levels’ are not the only way of describing progress in Chen Style. There are various other mechanisms used to assist progress in Chen Style. Several different teachers have provided other structures, (either of their own creation or provided to them by their teacher,) to describe the path to gong fu in a systematic way. Chen Zhao Pei describes ‘three stages of progression’.GS Chen Zheng Lei has ‘ten steps of his Method and Progression’ CL and a different ‘five steps to practicing well’.CN Wang Hai Jun has written about the ‘six stages of learning Chen style taijiquan’. DG Wang Xian enumerates ‘three stages’ in his push hands book. WX The source of these may be attributable to others further back in history. Each of these are of considerable interest in their own right and can be researched by the reader. I would particularly recommend the ‘six stages of learning.’ This article limits itself to the ‘Five Levels’ approach.

  1. Cultural barriers to comprehension

The culture that produced these descriptions was not Western in its orientation. There are considerable cultural and linguistic differences that make it easy to make mistakes in this area and misunderstandings abound. There is much room for confusion not only in the understanding of what it means to reach these levels of gong fu but even in something simple like how Western and Chinese cultures count them.

So the reader is clear about the scale of the potential for misunderstanding, I provide the following example. In Chinese the meaning of the number is context driven, as it is in English. Our expectation is that the context is the same but it is not. In China when a child is born they are in their first year and their age is described as ‘1’. This ‘1’ means they are in their first year, not that they are one year old. So in English and translated Chinese we use the same phrase “1” to describe a particular element of someone’s age, but we are actually referring to two different things. Equally in Chinese culture someone has their first ‘birth day’ when they are born, so being a year and a day old in China someone is described as being ‘2’ whereas in the West we would say they are one. The implications for describing 5 levels can be made by the reader.

  1. Linguistic barriers to comprehension

In addition to probable cultural barriers there are various linguistic barriers to comprehension and delineations that are likely to confuse. First there are the linguistic differences that are context derived. To illustrate this I will use the counting example provided above. We need to be clear what exactly we are counting, for example the difference between being in Level 1 and completing Level 1. These can be confusing even between people who were brought up in similar cultures but in different families. For example, when some is ‘in Level 1’ have they ‘reached Level 1’? Some people consider ‘reaching Level 1’ as starting Level 1 and others consider ‘reaching Level 1’ as having completed Level 1. The difference being the implied word: reaching (the start of a Level) and reaching (the end of a Level).

Can someone be in a Level without reaching it? However ‘reaching’ something implies having achieved the goal of it. Specifically:

  1. We could talk about ‘being in Level 1’ and mean ‘having not yet completed Level 1’.

  2. We could talk about ‘reaching Level 1’ meaning ‘to have reached the beginning of Level 1’, i.e. just starting Level 1.

  3. We could talk about ‘reaching Level 1’ meaning ‘to have completed Level 1’.

  4. We could talk about ‘being a Level 1’ also meaning “having completed Level 1.”

In the structure of the English language key words like ‘the,’ ‘a,’ ‘in’ provide most of the contextual meaning. Many of these words are not part of the Chinese language. In China these last two examples the person would be described as Level 2. If people who share the same language have this difficulty in discerning the meaning, then clearly the room for confusion is considerable between people with a language difference.

The second type of linguistic delineation is one more related to culture and character. For example is the writer or translator of an optimistic or pessimistic nature? This ‘character’ element has a significant effect on the language used. Combine this with Chinese culture that is Confucian in development and highly structured in its familial loyalties and a particular linguistic flavour may become a significant factor. Chen Fake is famed for providing three types of comments on someone else’s gong fu: ‘good gong fu; some gong fu; I don’t understand their gong fu.’

Generally speaking I would interpret the descriptions from Wang Hai Jun as process oriented not placement oriented. They are not an exam passed but are measures of gong fu (or time spent.) Places are not reached but areas of development are passed though. This type of subtlety can lead to significant confusion. Wang Hai Jun is much more likely to refer to “the end of level 1” rather than “starting level 2,” to the point of correcting someone in conversation, although in the West we would see these as the same and see no need for clarification. These are subtle definitions and delineations that need careful consideration and can easily lead to misunderstanding.

  1. Other factors for the readers consideration

With the best will in the world it is still likely that a writer will incorporate their own desires into their writing. Most articles contain opinions which are limited by the ability and understanding of the writer. Sometimes these opinions are flawed by an inadvertent or deliberate attempt to shape the world as the writer wants to see it. Memory is inherently flawed (as any crime scene investigator will testify to) and our desire to appear greater than we are usually infects all writing to a greater or lesser degree.

  1. Gaining Gong Fu

While the term ‘gong fu’ has historically been mistranslated into English and used as a generic term for martial arts, it is now more commonly used in the sense of mastery or skill achieved. Wang Hai Jun likes the translation of ‘gong fu’ as ‘time spent in practice’. There are many factors involved in gaining taijiquangong fu. These factors include calmness, understanding, skill, strength, qi development, flexibility, agility, rootedness, etc. The process of gaining gong fu is a summation of these factors. In a particular person some factors might be their particular strong point and others weaker points. To gain gong fu a certain standard, (meaning a quality or level,) must be achieved in all these factors. Like running, the foot may lead, the arms may lead or the head or chest may lead: nevertheless whichever part is leading at a particular moment, the whole of the body must move forward or there is no running. A body builder may be both exceptionally strong, flexible, calm and agile but still not have taijiquan gong fu.

  1. The Learning Process: Good Teacher, Good Understanding and Good Practice

Many of the most senior living taijiquan practitioners have explicitly stated that to gain gong fu in taijiquan three factors are needed. These are a good teacher, good understanding and good practice.  I have written about these three factors elsewhere so I refer the reader to these pieces.(Good Teacher, Good Understanding, Good Practice) All three factors are required. There is a saying in Chen village about learning: ‘First with the eyes, then with the mind, then with the body.’ The eyes watch the teacher to gain the initial understanding. After many observations and corrections the mind gains an understanding of what is required. Then with extensive practice the level of skill required to progress is attained.

The first of these is a good teacher, without which attaining taijiquangong fu has not been possible. It is very difficult to know whether someone is a good taijiquan teacher. Careful analysis and strenuous efforts to retain objectivity are recommended. Caveat emptor! A good teacher is a rare person in my experience. Many teachers think they are good teachers but this does not make them so. Many students study with these teachers, thinking they are good teachers, but this does not make it so either. It would help if students would consider both what taijiquan is and what makes a good teacher. Both of these considerations are difficult in themselves. Few people make these considerations. It seems most people come across good teachers by chance.

Chen Zheng Lei advocates “First of all, understand clearly. The first step to practicing taijiquan well is that there is a comprehensive knowledge of taijiquan. It is hard to practice taijiquan well if you do not thoroughly understand what taijiquan is.” CN

  1. Choreography and Form Practice

Choreography is an essential element in learning taijiquan. It is the primary teaching tool and consequently is of enormous importance in the learning process. The first physical step in learning taijiquan is usually learning the choreography of your particular teacher’s form.

There are as many variations in choreography taught as there are teachers. Not all choreography is correct. 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 more likely path to reach the beginning level of gong fu. The best option is to understand what taijiquan is and then try to copy a good teacher, following closely their instruction and advice with considerable practice.

So what is it in the choreography 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’ WJ; the first level of Chen Xiao Wang’s “The Five Levels of Skill in Chen Style Taijiquan’ CC; 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.” CL Their advice is clear, consistent and unambiguous.

In conclusion Wang Xian say “Single form practice is of vital importance. Significant gains may be attained by practicing the single forms step by step.” WX

  1. Chen Style Training Frames

There are three well recognised training frames or methods in Chen Style Taijiquan, the old frame (laojia), the new frame (xinjia) and the small frame (xiaojia.) Each is a proven method of achieving taijiquan gong fu. They each follow the same set of fundamental principles and all derived from Chen Village. There are many debates with the Chen system about lineage and originality but these are not relevant to this article.

(There is another method recently developed by Chen style master Feng Zhi Qiang which developed from Xinjia (he primarily studied with Chen Zhao Kui, the son of Chen Fake,) and it is commonly referred to as Hun Yuan Chen Style taijiquan.)

In his Push hands book Wang Xian outlines the exceptional abilities of masters of each of these Training Frames and concludes “Though widely differing in style, these masters have attained their expertise through a shared and unwavering focus in Single Form practice.” WX

It may or may not be significant that the majority of high level practitioners still come from Chen Village and trained in laojia yilu, despite the tiny population.

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