5.a.xxvi.-gaining-the-skills-part-b Section


Gaining the Skills of Taijiquan

Part B. Beginning Taijiquan

(Written by Nick Gudge - May 2012)

1. Beginning taijiquan
2. The initial principles / laws / requirements of Chen style taijiquan
3. Qi development and qi sensations
4. Training required to begin Level 1
5. My personal experience of beginning training Chen taijiquan
6. My Advice to Beginners
7. Some numbers

Part B

Beginning Taijiquan

1. Beginning Taijiquan

In the West we often tend to think that when we begin something we are in Level 1 or the first level. This is certainly not true of the Five Chen Style Taijiquan Gong Fu Levels. We can easily recognise this if we see it from the perspective that we have just begun so we have no gongfu. Wang Hai Jun stated that when students begin to practice taijiquan they are not in Level 1. They begin level 1 when they have learned and practiced the foundation form (in his training method the laojia yilu) and the basic body requirements are met. He informally commented, in his estimation less than 5% of practitioners enter Level 1.

To begin training in Level 1 a student will have completed several learning processes. They will have learnt the choreography of foundation form. (This process may have be preceded by learning a shorter form e.g. one or more of the 18, 19, 24 or 38 step Chen style forms as a stepping stone to learning a foundation form.) In modern times the process of learning the foundation form will have included learning various ancillary exercises like standing (zhan zhaung) and silk reeling (chan si) exercises (gongs or qigongs.) This learning process is then followed by a period of practice when that which has been learned by the eyes and mind is understood by the student’s body. This includes knowing and performing the choreography correctly. In this process the various laws / principles or requirements of chen style taijiquan will become part of their practice.

2. The requirements of Chen Style Taijiquan

Generally speaking and for the purposes of reaching the start of Level 1 we can consider that there are two categories of requirements. These are
a. quietening the mind and
b. paying attention to the body-mechanics (shen fa) of Chen style taijiquan.

a. Calm Down or Quietening the Mind

Taijiquan requires that initially the mind take conscious control over the body to eliminate errors. To do this the activity of the mind must be reduced to a minimum so that the subtle errors of habit can be recognised and corrected. If the mind is distracted or busy then the required control of the body will not be achieved. Also the subtle effects of qi will only be recognised if the mind is paying appropriate attention. The process of training the mind to stay calm and not response to internal pressure, (e.g. pain due to muscular effort,) takes time, practice, experience, determination and perseverance. This process begins with quietening the mind.

Many teachers use a standing practice (zhan zhaung), sometimes called meditation, as the framework to help students quieten their mind. This is an understandable stepping stone if one considers that quietening the mind in stillness is easier than quietening the mind in motion and it is likely that one precedes the other. The additional benefits of zhan zhaung are that the student:
a. becomes aware of tensions held inside their body. When the teacher corrects them it is then more likely that they will recognise the correction and be able to adopt it effectively.
b. recognises some of the basic physical balance requirements of their body
c. begins to ‘listen inside’ and creates the mental framework for recognising the effects and sensations of qi inside the body

While the use of these exercises has become fairly common, particularly among those teachers who have reached Level 3, most of them say that they did not begin to utilise these exercises until they reached that Level.

Chen Zheng Lei says “practicing Chen style Taijiquan you must keep your thoughts quiet, getting rid of all internal and external disturbances. Only in this way will you benefit, by restraining your internal energy (nei qi), and by guiding the rising up and movement of internal energy (yin dong gu dang).” And “only when your conscious­ness is in a state of peace and quiet is it of any benefit.” AY

Zhu Tian Cai “teaches qigong in his own classes for beginning students and to help students calm down before doing the forms.” DL

b. Basic Taijiquan Body Mechanics (shen fa)

Shen fa is the Chinese phrase for body mechanic’s. These describe how to hold move and use the body in Taijiquan practice. There are many descriptions of these (some of which are given below.) Although they all vary slightly, all these various descriptions effectively address the same things. In my estimation they are a combination of two separate requirements, namely to loosen the joints and to stretch lightly with as minimal an effort as possible. In many respects the practice of taijiquan is about finding the correct balance between these two requirements.

The biggest problem for the beginner is to recognise stiffness in the body and eradicate it as much as possible. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that almost all the initial joint stiffness is a function of physical habit which we neither recognise nor can easily change despite the enormous value to be derived from changing. Also beyond the initial stiffness, when we put our bodies to work we most commonly resort to stiffness to reduce the workload in some part of the body. The various descriptions address the most common physical errors.

Wang Hai Jun offers the following as the most important skills for beginners:
1. Fang song - loosening the shoulders and hips, relaxing the waist so it can turn, keeping the elbows down and calming the mind
2. Peng - brought about by stretching the body and the limbs with the minimum of muscular effort
3. Ding - keeping the upper body and head stretched up / upright
4. Chen - stretching or sinking down, particularly sinking the hips, elbows and shoulders
5. Chan si - beginning to understand and move with silk reeling

Chen Zheng Lei states “In the beginning of your practice of taijiquan, with respect to body mechanics, you are only required to keep your head naturally upright, stand straight, and don't lean over too far in any direction (bu pian bu yi). In your footwork (bu fa), you are only required to perform the bow and arrow stance (gong bu), empty step stance (xu bu), step out (kai bu), and draw back step (shou bu) well. If you know the position and direction of each it is acceptable.” “As for those errors that unavoidably crop up, like raising your shoulders or sticking out your elbows, filling your chest with unrestrained qi (heng qi), panting when you breathe, your hands and feet trembling, etc. - it is not advisable to delve into these phenomena too deeply. But, the direction of motion, the angles, and proper sequence must be absolutely correct. You should do everything you can do to make the movements (zi shi) soft (rou ruan,) natural and balanced (da fang shun sui).” CL

In the Choy & Chia translation Chen Xiao Wang offers “Correct posture forms the foundation of taijiquan. This is necessary before the qi can flow prop­erly. To adopt the correct posture, keep the body vertical, the head held as if suspended from above, the shoulders and chest relaxed, the waist supple, the knees bent, and the groin open. Let your intrinsic qi settle and sink to the dantian, or lower abdomen. You may not be able to do this straight away, but aim for gradual correctness in relation to direction, angle, position, and movement of the limbs to attain the right postures.” CC

Zhu Tian Cai states that “The initial stage of developing the body awareness, he said, comes from learning the form correctly. First, you get very familiar with the form and the correct prac­tice of the form, then you begin to be aware. Then you become aware of the shoulder, elbow, and wrist and how they coordinate with each other and the rest of the body. The mind itself is always changing. First you have to be totally familiar with the form, and the first stage emphasizes practicing the form and getting it done correctly with good structure and loosened joints.” DL

In the Tan Lee Peng translation of Chen Xiao Wang’s description he says “In practicing taijiquan, the requirements on the different parts of the body are:
- keeping a straight body;
- keeping the head and neck erect with mindfulness at the tip of the head as if one is lightly lifted by a string from above;
- relaxing the shoulders and sinking the elbows;
- relaxing the chest and waist letting them sink down;
- relaxing the crotch and bending the knees.

3. Qi Development and Qi Sensations

All of the major practitioners of chen style taijiquan talk about the development of gong fu in terms of qi. For example Wang Xian say “the purpose of form practice is to ‘get qi to reach the tips of the four limbs.’ WX Zhu Tian Cai states “As you practice, you gradually develop qi sensations. This involves swelling of the hands and overtime you will feel your feet and heels are glued to the ground. It takes a certain amount of time to develop these inner feelings.” DL

I have written separately about Qi and its importance in taijiquan as expressed by the major Chen style teachers so I will not repeat that material here, N1 other than a comment from Chen Xiao Wang: “Some things can only be felt and cannot be described. You should be feeling "hot water", pouring through your arm and to your hand. Even at low levels, people can feel this.”

On a personal note for 20 years I tried to avoid this subject as unnecessary or at least unscientific and thus undesirable and a barrier to development. In recent years I have come to see that the use of the idea of qi is as good or better than any other theory in helping students in the development of taijiquan gong fu. Once the sensations of what are referred to as qi can be clearly felt in the body then discussion of their existence becomes somewhat moot. While these sensations were made evident back in 1996 by Chen Xiao Wang’s corrections I largely ignored them because I could not reproduce them. The realisation of the effective training use of qi sensations was something that did not become clear to me until I was in Level 2. (What exactly these feeling are physiologically is a distraction. They are probably an interaction of the nervous system with the loosening and stretching of the muscles and fascia but it really does not matter.)

The initial place that qi is felt is usually in the palms and fingers. A tingling sensation, numbness, electricity or some other faint sensation in the hands becomes clearly recognisable as the level of gong fu increases. Some people feel these sensations from an early stage, even their first class, others not at all. At this ‘Beginning Taijiquan’ stage whether a student feels their qi or not is largely irrelevant. It may even prove more beneficial if they do not so there is one less distraction.

In beginning taijiquan it is not advisable to concentrate on qi development or qi sensations. Concentrate on calming the mind and performing the appropriate body mechanics. While qi sensations may occur at this stage they are best simply noticed. If the student’s intent is to gain taijiquan gong fu then, until there is sufficient understanding and practice undertaken to progress to Level 1, trying to understand or build qi development will not lead to increased taijiquan gong fu.

4. Training required to begin Level 1

There is not a high skill barrier to the entry of Level 1, but it does take significant practice time. Almost anyone who puts in sufficient time to practice and practices correctly according to the principles of taijiquan can enter Level 1. Collectively this process can be thought of as the ‘foundation’ or ‘frame’ of taijiquan learning. However the requirement for practice is much higher than almost everyone thinks it is. It is generally translated as ‘achieving familiarity with the forms’, meaning to reach a certain degree of skill in the body mechanic’s of taijiquan (shen fa) in performance of the postures (forms) of the foundation form.

Since the early 1980’s, (when silk reeling exercises became prominent,) many if not most students begin with learning how to move in the manner required by taijiquan with silk reeling exercise while learning where to move by learning the choreography of a form. The better the teacher the more likely the student will make progress provided they practice what they are taught and they practice sufficiently. For the students who practice with a good teacher the overwhelming number of them simply do not practice enough.

The initial stage of memorising the choreography is followed by correction of the student’s gross errors. Simply learning the foundation form (yilu) is not ‘achieving familiarity’ with it. Neither is being able to perform it unaided. The student must practice hard and long to gain this familiarity. Corrections in this process of trying to reach the beginning of Level 1 are not refined or subtle. They are aimed at getting the student into the correct general area to improve the quality of their practice. These errors exist because the student is not aware of them. The student must both rely on the teacher for those corrections and trust the teacher.

When a student trusts the teacher they are less likely to second guess their teacher: a major problem in learning taijiquan is the student practicing what they think they should do rather than what the teacher suggests they do. While probably every student does this to a certain degree, there is a huge range of it between students. Practicing hard without the appropriate understand can cause many problems and ultimately be the barrier to the student achieving any gong fu.

Trying to grasp subtlety of principle is counter productive at this stage. Looking to understand applications, gain power or compete in any way will all cause the process to take longer. Many students begin the process of push-hands too early and with too much strength and vigour. This is because they do not understand the process that taijiquan training and practice lead the student through. Find a good teacher that you trust and place your development in their hands. Most beginners ask too many questions. They already have enough knowledge, what they most probably lack is practice.

The advice from the most experienced, skilled practitioners and teachers is unequivocal. It is simple, straight forward advice. It is ignored by almost everyone that reads it in their search for something more interesting or something that better fits into their own view of what they think taijiquan should be.

Zhu Tian Cai has said that “Most people who learn the form are lazy, he said. "They don' t prac­tice so they never even get to the stage of real familiarity with the move­ments. You really have to have dedicated practice. Practice, practice, practice. Until the form becomes like second nature, you won't be able to incorporate all the other elements into it. If you don't practice, you can't really accomplish any higher level of achievement. You should follow your teacher's direction, stage by stage. And the first stage is to do the form correct­ly, define all the body movements, and practice and practice." DL

Chen Zheng Lei offers “By keeping up with the practice of around ten sets a day, you can become familiar with the set of forms (tao lu). At this time, you should make progress in taking into account the requirements of the movements; from head to foot, undertaking correction of every form and movement. You should do as much as you can to slow down the speed of the movements in order to benefit the thought process in determining whether the movements are correct or not.” CL

Chen Xiao Wang states “Therefore, when practising taijiquan at the beginning, the body and movements may appear to be stiff; or 'externally solid but internally empty'. One may find oneself doing things like: hard hitting, ramming, sudden uplifting and or sudden collapsing of body or trunk. There may be also be broken or over-exerted force or jin. All these faults are common to beginners.” JS

The time that it takes to progress from beginning taijiquan to transitioning into beginning Level 1 varies enormously, from 1 year to forever (given that most students never begin Level 1. It can be split into two parts. The first is completing the initial process of being able to perform a foundation form unaided (whether loajia, xiaojia or xinjia.) The second is practicing sufficiently to change the physical processes used to move the body so they approximate the requirements of taijiquan.

Completing the initial process of being able to perform a foundation form unaided can take as little as 6 months if training daily with a teacher or as long as 3 or more years if intermediate exercises and forms are used as training tools, classes are limited to a few tens of hours each year and practice is limited.

From the point of being able to perform a foundation form unaided to the point of beginning Level 1 is a process that is more open-ended. Chen Zheng Lei states simply (in his Laojia Yilu, Sword & Broadsword book) that when learning the form ‘practising ten forms per day is sufficient’, without missing a day. (Wang Hai Jin has mentioned on several occasions the Chen village aphorism, miss one day’s practice lose ten days progress.) This totals around 2,000 forms in a six month period.

Chen Xiao Wang states “If one is persistent enough and practices seriously everyday, one can normally master the forms within half a year. The inner energy, qi, can gradually be induced to move within the trunk and limbs with refinements in one's movements. One may then achieve the stage of being able to use external movements to channel internal energy'. The first level kung fu thus begins with mastering the postures to gradually being able to detect and understand jin or force.” TP He also says “the first level of gong fu begins with mastering the single stances, so that step by step we may discover and understand the internal and external forces of the body.” JS

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 five forms per day that it may likely take 5,000 forms or nearly 18 months to reach the beginning of Level 1, adding 10 days for each day of training missed. (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.)

For most people when they learn their foundation form they do not train 10 repetitions during the learning period. (If the student wants and intends to gain taijiquan gong fu, the most efficient and quickest way is to being practicing what they know right from the start, a minimum of ten times.) Having completed the initial ‘learning the form’ process they need to build up to training a couple of hours per day which performing 10 foundation forms takes. This building up process takes time itself to develop. How many people practice sufficiently to build up to a period where they practice ten forms per day (taking around 2 hours in total) without missing a day for the six months or so it takes to grasp the basics and attain Level 1?

For most people we spend perhaps a year, sometimes several years, working on absorbing the basic choreography. Then, instead of practicing and correcting this choreography, bringing a physical understanding into the body, usually we spent many years learning lots of choreography of lots of 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 moving on to another focus within taijiquan.

So I conclude that after learning the principal training form, (the 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, or 5 per day over 18 months) under the tutelage of an adequate teacher, would likely put a taijiquan player into the start of Level 1. Wang Hai Jun frequently mentioned that 5 foundation forms per day is a minimum. How many taijiquan players have actually done this? For those training less than 5 forms per day the time required to put a taijiquan player into the start of Level 1 becomes determined by too many other factors to be stated with any reliability and I suggest that it is overwhelmingly likely that the student will never reach even the start of Level 1.

5. My experiences of beginning training in Chen style taijiquan

Initially I began training in Yang Style in Jan 1986. I began my training in Chen style taijiquan with Chen Xiao Wang in 1997 and I trained with him for 6 years in London and in Donegal until 2002. I learned his 19 Step form, his 38 Step form and his laojia yilu, the old frame Chen style taijiquan.

In 1999 I began training with Zhang Xue Xin, a senior student of Feng Zhi Qiang and a master of xinjia or new frame Chen style. I trained with him from 1999 until 2002. My ability to train with him was seriously disrupted by the 9/11 attack and their effects on flying.

I spent 8 days training with Zhu Tian Cai in Jan 2002 revising silk reeling and laojia yilu, learning some sword (jian) and some of the xinjia yilu. .

All of these teachers helped me to form an initial understanding of what Chen style taijiquan is.

I began my training with Wang Hai Jun in November 2002. I was 40 years old and had been training under various teachers in taijiquan for almost 17 years. In retrospect those years were at best a poor and limited beginning. After my first full days training with him (a Saturday) I could hardly walk downstairs on the Sunday morning. I recall my then young children laughed at my efforts to climb upstairs. This was a refection of the intensity of his training and the inadequacy of my training that preceded it.

We trained approximately 5 hours on one Saturday each month for 15 months. Occasionally I would travel to London to train when his seminars started there. Although I thought I was training hard and constantly, in retrospect I was not training hard enough or constantly enough. It took our training group of 20 or so people 15 one day classes (15 months) to complete the laojia yilu for the first time with Wang Hai Jun.

I recall one particular class where, having done about 15 minutes of warm up exercise we practiced some basic silk reeling. At the end of it there was an oval wet mark on the floor where the sweat had run down my elbow onto the floor. My legs were shaking like I was on a fast moving train. In this 5 hour class we covered three postures, Six sealings & four closings, Single whip and Forward trick backward trick, two of which were revised from previously.

I had little or no grasp of the overall format of progress or how well I was progressing. I placed my trust completely in my teacher and simply tried to do as he asked. I can see with hindsight I neither practiced hard enough nor frequently enough.

I have contemporaneously written about my initial training with him elsewhere in an article titled ‘Commentary on Training with Wang Hai Jun’s Silk reeling Exercises.’ N2

I am not clear exactly when I entered into Level 1. I am certain I was not in Level 1 when I began training with Wang Hai Jun. (When he mimics what I looked like when I began training with him it is quite funny to watch.) I suspect I entered Level 1 after 2 and a half to three years training with him, in 2005 - by which time I had been training in taijiquan for 19 years - but this is speculation on my part. When we had completed the laojia yilu we then started revising it. Some time into this revision process he began to teach us the straight sword (jian). I always felt this was a distraction from correcting the laojia yilu but it was Wang Hai Jun’s choice and I have no doubt it was the correct one. Mostly we trained silk reeling and laojia yilu with only a small part of each class being spent learning the sword.

(Chen Style taijiquan straight sword (jian) relies on the skills being developed in the laojia yilu, while stretching the student farther and requires some jing control to move the sword correctly. I never practiced the sword much beyond learning and correcting it although I have studied it with my teacher from beginning to end 5 times including over a five day summer camp. My teacher has said practicing it once per week is fine to ensure it is not forgotton.)

From 2004 onwards Wang Hai Jun was teaching on a second day so it was possible to be trained by him for two days in a row. Training with him was always demanding. There is a phrase in Chen village “to eat bitter.” This describes the training process very well. The training is bitter and for optimum results (i.e. to achieve results in a short time frame,) must be consistent and dedicated. During my first year I spent 10 days training with him. In my second year this increased to around 18 days and by my third year this had reached 20 days.

In this three year period I estimate that I missed around thirty days practice each year, ten days through my own lack of dedication and another twenty days through illness. Wang Hai Jun told me that one day’s loss of practice equals ten days loss of progress. Consequently my progress was much less than optimum. Constancy really is important.

Initially I would do warm-up exercises and I practiced a lot of silk reeling, at least 20 minutes each day and then perhaps 3 or 4 laojia yilu in each practice session of just over an hour. Mostly I would practice early in the morning before going to work. Sometimes I could practice at work. Then I would practice in my classroom in the hour before teaching. Around the time I believe I entered Level 1, Wang Hai Jun recommended just practicing the loosening exercises and silk reeling exercises in the classes I taught and to just practice laojia yilu during my practice time.

I did not practice zhan zhaung except in the classes with my teacher and then this only occurred occasionally. During this time I did very little push hands and what I did was very light pressure and practicing sticking and following to learn the patterns.

Finally I would add that most of what I thought taijiquan was, its requirements etc. has subsequently proved to be inaccurate. The early teachings I received and the many books I read, discussions I had on taijiquan and so on were significantly misleading. I am extremely grateful that my teacher had the patience to see through my ignorance and self-importance and still remain willing to help me. Ignorance and confidence make a poor combination.

6. My Advice to Beginners who want to attain taijiquan gong fu

Read about the basic body mechanic’s (shen fa) of taijiquan.
Find a good teacher who is a student of an excellent teacher or practitioner. Stick to one teacher / excellent practitioner. (In my opinion the only reason to leave a teacher is that they have lost your trust. If you do not trust your teacher, find another one you can trust. Recognise that when you do this you will need to start at the beginning again.)
If your teacher is an unknown quality, check regularly with an excellent teacher e.g. by attending seminars. (Do this anyway if you can afford it.)
Practice as if you know nothing, doing what the teacher suggests, concentrating on the body requirements (shen fa) not on strength or how it looks, practicing the skills of taijiquan not the martial techniques
Practice as much as you can, aiming to build up to a couple of hours each day.

In retrospect I think it helps to aim appropriately. Don’t aim for Level 5 - this is irrelevant and a distraction. Simply aim to try and reach the beginning of Level 1 by consistently practicing what a good teacher recommends you do at your skill level. Strength, martial ability, power, quickness, application and qi movement are all distractions and an inappropriate focus of attention at this stage. If you can reach the beginning of Level 1 you will have achieved something that the vast majority of taijiquan students have not.

Cautionary Note: Most students think they have reached Level 1 when in fact they have not yet moved a significant part towards that goal. This ability to self-deceive is a major problem in taijiquan if a student is not under the consistent guidance of a good teacher.

7. Some Numbers

It is difficult to estimate with any real accuracy the number of people who claim to be taijiquan practitioners around the world. Estimates vary by an order of magnitude, with conservative estimates of 20 to 50 million and more enthusiastic estimates of 200 to 300 million. Despite much searching on the web I have not seen one shred of statistical or survey data to support any of these estimate. In my own community the population size is approximately 150,000 with approximately 300 practitioners, providing a rate of around 0.2%. (This figure also approximates for the other two cities closest to Limerick with similar population sizes.)

Looking at the sports participation survey done in 2002 by the UK government the taijiquan population was too small even to appear on it. I will not presume to provide even another guess at the size of the taijiquan practicing population. However, for the purposes of this article let us assume it is at the lower end of these estimates, around 50 million, this being 0.5% of the world’s population.

It is more difficult to estimate how many Chen style practitioners there are. Any number I can provide would be based on guesswork.

It is more difficult still to estimate how many people achieve a certain standard of skill. There are no definitive assessment qualities. There are discrepancies between high level masters of taijiquan as to exactly where an individual’s skill level lies. Nevertheless in the translated interviews and written works of the major high practitioners there is wholesale agreement about the general skill levels required.

I would estimate significantly less than 5% of all taijiquan practitioners reach the beginning of Level 1, perhaps even as few as 2 or 3%. If there are 50 million taijiquan practitioners world wide, this would mean there were approximately 100,000 to 250,000 practitioners who reach Level 1. This might equate to the number of people in a sports like football (soccer) who play for a national level league club as a part-time or full-time professional.


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