5.a.xxvii.-gaining-the-skills-part-c Section

Gaining the Skills of Taijiquan

Part C: Training in Level 1

The First Level of Chen Style Taijiquan Gong Fu

by Nick Gudge - Written in May 2012


1. The Transition to Level 2
2. Training in Level 1
3. Qi development and qi sensations in Level 1
4. Martial ability in Level 1
5. My personal experience of Level 1
6. Some numbers


Part C: The First Level of Taijiquan Gong Fu

1. Transition to Level 1

In Davidine Sim and David Gaffney’s book ‘Chen Style Taijiquan’ there is an interesting line quoted and translated from Chen Xiao Wang that says simply “The First Level thus begins with refining the postures to gradually be able to detect and understand jing.” SG The first level begins with this.

The transition into Level 1 is not a hard line to be crossed but an area to be traversed like the end of Earth’s atmosphere and the beginning of space. It can be reached within half a year of completing the process of learning the foundation form (yilu.) However, be very clear that most students never even approach this area. Many dedicated students practice for more than 10 years and do not reach the start of this area due to lack of understanding or inappropriate practice.

The transition itself is of little significance other than that practice is being maintained and that progress is being made.

It is common to mistake an increase in fitness, strength and athleticism for improved taijiquan gongfu. While these are all factors, they are not the important factors. If a student practices hard they will become fitter, stronger and more athletic, but so will any sportsperson. Grasping and improving the ability to practice the shen fa of taijiquan are the determining criteria. While determined practice following the guidance of a good teacher will undoubtedly result in success, many students simply follow their own path, ignoring the directions of their teacher. This way does not lead to success but to empty gong fu.

2. Training in Level 1

Training in Level 1, (like training to enter Level 1,) involves considerable practice. I was told by Wang Hai Jun that until the completion of Level 2, practicing taijiquan is like paddling upstream: As soon as the practice stops the student’s skill starts to diminish. Initially progress appears quite fast and others can see the improvement in the student’s balance in stepping, smoothness in movement and crispness of release. However, be warned, most of these can be obtained by becoming fitter and athletically more competent. They are not necessarily as a consequence of improving taijiquan skills. The importance of a good teacher cannot be over emphasised.

Initially the student feels motivated and positive. However the need for considerable practice with an ongoing investigation of the principles and refinement of understanding is demanding and unrelenting. Blind practice will not produce the progress required to graduate to Level 2. The legs will be constantly tired if the effort needed to progress in Level 1 is expended. Wang Hai Jun recommended training sufficiently hard so as to “go to bed with tired legs, wake up with tired legs!”

The emphasis is on comprehending the significant stiffness in the body and then loosening more (fang song). This loosening process, particularly in the hips and waist brings an unbearable workload to the legs and the legs’ strength increases accordingly provided the student practices like this. A loose upper body requires very strong legs. In my early days of training with Wang Hai Jun I asked him how long it would take for my legs to stop hurting. (They hurt so much I had difficulty standing up and walking.) He relied that the process takes around three years if I trained properly. If I didn’t train properly my legs would not hurt. This working of the legs (as indicated by pain in the thighs) will be well established or the student would not be in Level 1. In Level 1 the ability to get the legs to work almost unbearably hard as a consequence of loosening the upper body and hips is a very helpful training tool.

Practicing in Level 1 is a combination of practicing the form (lien jiazi) and correcting or moulding the form (nie jiazi). (These are two of the six learning stages described by various teachers.” DG This article is also recommended reading for those seeking gong fu.) It requires a good teacher to identify the necessary corrections. It takes good understanding to recognise those corrections. This understanding commonly requires repeated correction of the same posture. When the appropriate level of understanding is gained, then extensive practice is required to allow the body to reach the skill required.

These corrections must appear in a certain rough order. Trying to grasp a Level 2 correction while in Level 1 will not only be frustrating and pointless but may well impede progress and set the student back. At the risk of boring my reader I repeat, once a correction is given (and it may well need to given many times before it is properly understood,) the student must utilise their considerable practice to bring this correction and understanding into their body. The relative balance of correction and practice is more than a hundred parts of practice to one part of correction. Commonly students look for a new correction before their bodies have adopted and adapted to existing an existing correction. This leads to confusion and an increased time requirement to gaining gong fu skills.

This being said, all of the corrections made as the student begins taijiquan will need to be remade in Level 1. Partly this is because they are not fully ingrained in the student and newer corrections may cause the initial corrections to become distorted. (Imagine trying to flatten a large, thick piece of material. Initially pulling the top and bottom produce a flattening effect,. Then pulling from the two sides causes more flattening but the tops and bottoms will need to be pulled again because pulling the sides will have caused a certain distortion.)

The gross choreography should be mostly correct and during the training in Level 1 more subtle, choreographic corrections may be made as needed. In addition the student may be directed to stretch out more with their arms while maintaining loose joints and to feel the extension required to initiate the flow of qi to the limbs. This stretching process is in all directions (peng in all directions,) and an excess in one direction means a deficiency in another. If the body is thought of as a ball, when one part sticks out, another part must collapse. The Chinese saying relating to this is bu ding bu diu (no too much not too little.) This student will have a more refined understanding of this as they practice more and acquire more gong fu.

As new corrections and understanding are learned they need to be incorporated in such a way as to bring about a balance between the body requirement (shen fa). For example stretching too far or in the wrong way causes stiffness. Loosening the body too much or in the wrong way causes loss of peng.

The student’s attention will be drawn by the teacher to the correct formation of the dang (the arch formed by the legs and crotch.) This involves the feet direction, the position of the knees and the loosening and stretching of the hips which will all become more significant elements of practice. Perfection is not the gaol here in Level 1, rather sufficiency of accuracy to enable the internal processes of qi sensations and development and an understanding of jing to occur and be recognised.

Chen Xiao Wang says “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

While the student knows the routine they are still making mistakes in terms of movement principles. For example their shoulders and hips are probably not loose enough or their knees are collapsed. In Level 1 a good teacher carefully adjusts a student’s posture. Nie jiazi is translated as moulding the frame as the teacher carefully shapes and moulds the student’s body shape and movement until errors are understood and minimised. The student must be patient as every aspect of their posture and movement is considered and corrected as needed e.g. relaxing the hips, levelling the pelvis, loosening the shoulders, stretching out more with the hands etc.

About training in Level 1 Chen Xiao Wang says “In practising 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. When these requirements are met, one's inner energy will naturally sink down to the dantian. Beginners may not be able to master all these important points instantly. However, in their practice they must try to be accurate in terms of direction, angle, position, and the movements of hands and legs for each posture. At this stage, one need not place too much emphasis on the requirements for different parts of the body, appropriate simplifications are acceptable. For example, for the head and upper body, it is required that the head and neck be kept erect, chest and waist be relaxed downward, but in the first level of gong fu, it will be sufficient just to ensure that one's head and body are kept naturally upright and not leaning forward or backward, to the left or right.” TP

Chen Xiao Wang also advises “Do not aim for perfection. Your taijiquan form will be angular and disconnected. This is normal for a beginner. With diligent and proper practice, after six months you should be able to master the shape of the form.” CC

Chen Zheng Lei offers “So-called relaxation (fang song), is to say that with the legs supporting the body, each part of the body relaxes in a natural and concerted way, with the qi sinking to the dantian. In the beginning, because there isn't understanding of or attention paid to these few problems, and in addition, one's strength is meagre, therefore one unavoidably will experience the above mentioned defects. You can overcome the above mentioned defects through increasing the number of times you practice the set, increasing athletic capacity by making your postures lower to the ground, and performing some sing­le or double leg squatting exercises, and standing meditation training (zhan zhuang gong.) At the same time one should pay attention to relaxing the hips (kua), bending the knees, rounding the crotch, and maintaining an upright posture.”

He continues “As the strength of the legs increases, and in body mechanics a loosening up or relaxing takes place; this will cause the chest or thorax (xiong bu), the back (bei bu), the ribs (lei bu) and the diaphra­gm (ge ji) to naturally sink downward, coordinating with the rise and fall of the motive force of qi within the body. The breathing will be natural, the vital capacity of the lungs will be enhanced, and the defects will be eliminated.” CL

By the time the student enters Level 1 they will have gained the habit of committing themselves to training. As they progress through Level 1 their training habits will need to be developed in duration. Wang Hai Jun say “Five forms a day is a minimum, ten is good, fifteen is better!” As the process of calming the mind develops the student can gradually perceive what is happening inside their body and the corrections of their teacher make more sense. As a consequence of this the student’s understanding increases more quickly although progress can seem to be very slow.

In the second half of Level 1, contradiction in correction may become apparent. The teacher may want the student to take a longer step, then a few months later a shorter step and then later still a longer step again. Sometimes the arm needs to be stretched put more and then at other times the elbow drops down more. All of these apparent contradictions are indications that understanding is increasing and awareness is improving. However the student has still not reached the ability to effectively choose their own path. It is very important that the student follow the instruction of the teacher closely.

There are many ways to learn taijiquan gong fu. A good teacher sees their student’s requirements. The student does not see what the teacher sees because of both lack of understanding and lack of perspective. The teacher takes a basic method and personalises it to fit the needs of the student. One student might need stretching out, another less stretching.

The need for individual correction becomes increasingly significant as gong fu develops. As the student progresses through Level 1 the corrections will become more refined. Someone observing the teacher making a correction to the student may see little or no discernable movement by the teacher but the student may feel that a large change has occurred in their body. A sudden flood of muscular work into the leg, or of qi down the limbs is impossible to observe from the outside. Consequently these corrections cannot be learned from a DVD or a book.

Studying with more than one teacher cause more problems than it cures. As gong fu develops the corrections rely as much on the teacher understanding the nature and character of the student (i.e the student’s mind) as on recognising the need for corrections in the student’s body.

3. Qi Development and Qi Sensations in Level 1

There are few definitive statements that can be made about qi development in Level 1 as there is a wide degree of variance in what students feel and in the ability to determine whether one person feels something the same way as another.

As mentioned above, 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. In Level 1 these sensations are sometimes there and sometimes not, getting strong and diminishing, not really under the control of the student.

With careful correction by a good teacher the student may find these sensations quite strongly at the time of correction. With time and practice, loosening and stretching the body correctly increases these sensations. By the end of Level 1 the student will be familiar with these qi sensations but not able to control the flow of qi or to send it through the body.

Chen Zheng Lei says very clearly “When the time comes, the body mechanics will have already been adjusted, the postures already basically correct; moreover, as the quality of the practice is raised, there will already be a perception of the movement of internal energy (nei qi).” CL

He further adds “We have already discussed above, in the later part of the "adjusting of body mechanics relaxing the whole body" level, (author’s note: this is roughly equivalent to the first half of Level 1,) that there is already the feeling within the body of the movement of internal energy (nei qi), and the practice of Taijiquan also becomes more interesting. However, this feeling is like the rising and falling of the waves, at times it is there, at times it is not, sometimes hidden and sometimes manifest. After a short period of time, it can even reach the point where it is completely gone. This is due to the channels and collateral channels not flowing freely, the moving force of qi is unsuccessful in getting through, and, one's not guiding the movement of internal energy. Because of this, at this level of practice it is necessary to pay attention to mentally guiding internal energy.” CL

Also “Under the direction of the conscious mind, using intellect to move the body, internal energy will penetrate throughout, segment by segment. If there is some part that presents difficulty, you can adjust your own body mechanics, with the obtaining of the free flow of useable energy (jing) as the criterion. It is advantageous to practice slowly and disadvantageous to practice quickly.” CL

Chen Xiao Wang says “You will also start to feel the qi in your body. At this stage, you are using the movement to generate the qi. As you become more familiar with the form, you will begin to understand the intrinsic jin, or dynamic energy. However, you will start to feel some movements of the qi even though you can­not get it to flow smoothly and join them up. During the first level, you will feel that you are making rapid progress.” CC

“By internal training this means we are training the qi. If there is no sense of qi then we cannot call it an internal martial art.” Chen Zheng Lei – AY – Page 16

4. Martial ability in Level 1

Many students in this level (and some even before they reach the start of Level 1) become interested in push hands and applications. Unfortunately their basic skill level is insufficient for the use of these with any meaningful martial result. If push hands exercise are introduced they are best used as an examination of the looseness of the practitioner’s body. They should be non-competitive, light touch and focussed on sticking and following with turning. They can be a helpful element in comprehending jin and recognising errors that need correction in the postures. Wang Xian suggests “Initially tuishou practice should be soft and modest. Follow the circling movements with the whole body, be relaxed, listen to each other’s energy flow and do not disconnect or oppose your partner’s energy.” WX

As Chen Xiao Wang offers “This stage is said to be one yin and nine yang. It is like a pole that is poked into the ground. Being shallow and lacking a proper base, it is easily pushed over. At this stage, there is too much yang and not enough yin. Sparring and push-hands are not recommended.” CC

Chen Xiao Wang also says “The martial skill attainable with the first level of gong fu is very limited. This is because at this stage, one's actions are not well coordinated and systematic. The postures may not be correct. Thus the force or jin produced may be stiff, broken, lax or on the other hand too strong. In practicing the routine, one's form may appear hollow or angular. As such one can only feel the internal energy but is not able to channel the energy to every part of the body in one go. Consequently, one is not able to harness the force or jin right from the heels, channel it up the legs, and discharge it through command at the waist. On the contrary, the beginners can only produce broken force that 'surge' from one section to another section of the body. Therefore the first level gong fu is insufficient for martial application purposes. If one were to test one's skill on someone who does not know martial arts, to a certain extent they can remain flexible. They may not have mastered the application but by knowing how to mislead his opponent the student may occasionally be able to throw off his opponent. Even then, he may be unable to maintain his own balance.” TP

Chen Zheng Lei offers “The first level - one yin and nine yang, means that you have learned the routine already, and after the teacher gave you corrections, and tells you to "song, song and song again" ("song"-relaxed, loose]). You then manage to achieve one part "rou" [supple­ness] and nine parts "gang" [stiffness]. At this stage, when you push hands, you are still easily pushed down. Why is this so? You know that you are now already practicing Taijiquan, and you don't want to use brute strength, but your body has not yet been aligned, that is why you are easily pushed down.” AY

Chen Xiao Wang adds “The learner is not able to complement hard with soft and to command the applications with ease. As such, while still at the first level, learners should not be too eager to pursue the application aspect in each posture.” TP

5. My experiences of Level 1

As I said in Part A, 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. I think I entered Level 1 after around 2 and a half or three years training with him, in 2005, but this is speculation on my part. Mostly we trained silk reeling and laojia yilu with only a small part of each class being spent learning the sword and then the broadsword and then the laojia erlu (pau chui – cannon fist).

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. In 2006 he had his first European Summer Camp where we studied the Cannon Fist and it was the possible to spend five days in a row training with him. These longer training periods allowed me to concentrate more fully on the correction process offered by Wang Hai Jun. On average I spent around 20 days each year in training with my teacher.

One of my favourite aspects of training with Wang Hai Jun is his willing not to overload my mind. Commonly I would receive only one or two corrections on each days training, though these corrections might be repeated on several occasions and in several posture. This helped me reduce the confusion I entertained in what I should concentrate on in my practice. In this period I began to ask him as I would drive him to the airport or when with him before his flight left, exactly what he thought I should try to concentrate on between then and the next time I would see him.

Always when I trained with him I would repeatedly reach a state of physical exhaustion in my legs. My recovery period shortened as my practice improved in intensity and duration.

In my personal practice I missed probably 10 or so days of practice each year through lack of persistence and another 20 day each year through illness. I was practicing an average of 5 laojia yilu forms each day, with occasionally only one and equally occasionally up to 10 in the early part of my training. Around 2005 I put more effort into my training and began to regularly practice 10 forms per day. By the spring of 2007 I had a reached the point of consistently practicing 10-15 laojia yilu each day and in the lead up to that year’s summer camp my records show an average of 13 forms each day from February to August.

I found it very hard to start practice but once the first form was underway then continuing was much easier. I would convince myself to practice when I did not feel like it (most of the time) by saying I’ll just do one form. Once I had begun practicing more would follow.

Mostly I would practice 3 to 5 forms in a session and occasionally I would do ten forms. For me the major problems were:
a. finding time in my busy life to spend two hours training and
b. calming my mind.
It helped that I did not have a television but family, work, building a house, writing and playing on my computer, reading and teaching all competed effectively for my time. It was only when I chose to make taijiquan my highest priority after my family that my progress became significant

In 2007, over breakfast one morning, Wang Hai Jun told me that I was now entering Level 2. At this point in time I was largely unaware of the five levels, though I must have read about them in a couple of articles and two books. I could not discern the exact criteria for this transition from Level 1 to Level 2. The only thing of curious note was that the previous day during training he had commented that now I had developed ‘dang jin,’ (the correct formation of the legs and crotch.) While I recall this observation clearly to this day I’m not sure that the two things were necessarily connected.

When I asked Wang Hai Jun how he knew when someone was now a Level 2 rather than a Level 1, he said he could see it in their body.

6. Some Numbers

How many people practice sufficiently to build up to a period where they practice ten forms per day (taking around 2 or more hours in total) without missing a day, for the six months or so it takes to grasp the basics, so they begin Level 1? For those practicing 5 foundation forms a day this six months will probably need to be extended to two years. For those practicing 3 foundations forms per day the time frame to enter Level 1 is more likely to be 5 years or more. Wang Hai Jun says, for health one form per day is normal, two forms is good, three is unusual, while for gong fu five is a minimum, ten is good and fifteen is better.

As mentioned earlier 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 150,000 to 250,000 practitioners who reach Level 1.

While relatively few people enter Level 1 only a few percent of these conclude Level 1. (There are perhaps a few thousand Level 2 practitioners from the tens of millions of taijiquan practitioners in the world.) This might equate to the number of people in a sports like football (soccer) who play for a national team.

The endurance and constancy of practice is a price that few are willing to pay for substantial gong fu. I think more people in the west can reach it and while some of them lack good teachers and the knowledge they impart in the main the lacking is sufficiency of practice.


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