Chen Style of Tai Chi Chuan

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The Chen family style (陈氏 Chen shi taijiquan) is the oldest and parent form of the five main tai ji quan or t’ai chi chuan styles. It is third in terms of world-wide popularity compared to the other main taijiquan styles. Chen style is characterized by its lower stances, more explicit Silk Reeling (Chan Si Jing) and bursts of power (Fa Jing).

Many modern tai ji styles and teachers emphasize a particular aspect (health, aesthetics, meditation and/or competitive sport) in their practice of tai ji quan.

The five traditional family styles tend to retain the original martial applicability of tai ji teaching methods. Some argue that Chen style schools succeed in this to a greater degree.

Origin Theories: The origin and nature of tai ji is not historically verifiable at all until around the 1600s when the Chen clan of Chenjiagou (Chen Village), Henan province, China appear identified as possessing a unique martial arts system. How the Chen family came to practise their unique style is not clear and irreconcilable views on the matter abound.

Sourced histories center around Chen Wangting (1600-1680), who codified preexisting Chen training practice into a corpus of seven routines.

Wangting is said to have incorporated theories from a classic text by General Qi Jiguang 戚继光, Jixiaoxinshu 继效新书 (new book of effective techniques) and Huang Di Nei Jing 黄帝内经 《黃帝內經》 (Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Chinese Medicine), which described martial arts from 16 different styles.

Some legends (i.e. unsubstantiated) assert that a disciple of Zhang Sanfeng named Wang Zongyue (王宗岳) taught Chen family the martial art later to be known as taijiquan. No mentioned of taijiquan was found in the book Biography of San Feng (三丰全传). On the other hand some in the Chen family claim that it was Wang Zongyue who learned taijiquan from them.

Less accepted explanations speak of Jiang Fa (蔣發 Jiǎng Fā). Reputedly a monk from Wudang mountain who came to Chen village, he is said to have radically transformed the Chen family art for the better when he taught Chen Changxing (1771-1853) internal fighting practices. However there are significant difficulties with this explanation: it is no longer clear if their relationship was that of teacher/student or even who taught who.

Chen Village (Chenjiagou): Historically documented from the 1600s, the Chen family were originally from Shanxi, Hong Dong (山西洪洞). First generation, Chen Pu (陈仆), shifted from Shanxi to Wen County, Henan Province (温县河南). Originally known as Chang Yang Cun (常阳村) or Sunshine Village, the village grew to include a large number of Chen descendants. Because of the three deep ravines (Gou) beside the village it became to be known as Chen Jia Gou (陈家沟) or Chen Family Village. Chen village has since been a center of tai ji learning. Ninth generation Chen Wangting (陈王廷) is credited as performing the first formal codification of Chen family martial art practice.

Perhaps the best known Chen family teacher was 14th generation Chen Changxing (陈长兴 Chén ChángxÄ«ng, Ch’en Chang-hsing, 1771-1853). He further synthesized Chen Wangting’s open fist training corpus into two routines that came to be known as “old frame” (老架) (lao jia). Chen Changxing, contrary to Chen family tradition, also took the first recorded non-family member as a disciple – the famous Yang Luchan (1820). Yang went on to develop his own family tradition (Yang style tai ji quan) and was hired by the Imperial court to teach members of the Aisin Gioro clan and their Imperial guardsmen. Tai ji proved very popular and the other three traditional styles of tai ji quan further sprang from Yang family tradition, some of these styles also borrowing from the Chen family “small frame” tradition (see immediately below). Chen family teaching remained hidden and was not officially “released” to the public until 1928.

Chen Youben (陈有本), of the 14th Chen generation, is credited with starting a mainstream Chen training tradition that differed from that created by Chen Changxing. It was originally know as xinjia (新架) (New Form) as opposed to Chen Changxing’s lao jia. It gradually became to be known as xiao jia (小架) or small form. Small Form eventually lead to the formation of two styles with Chen family influences – Zhaobao jia and hulei jia (thunder) which are not considered a part of the Chen family lineage.

Recent History: In recent decades Chen style Taijiquan has come to be recognized as a major style of martial art within China. In Western countries Chen style is rapidly growing in popularity for either martial art (interest in its neija skills) or healthy life-style (more lively than Yang style) reasons.

This more recent popularity can be seen to be grounded on “promotional” efforts made by leading Chen style masters at two major periods during the 1900s:

In the late 1920s the legendary Chen Fake (陳發科, 陈发科, Chén FākÄ“, Ch’en Fa-k’e 1887-1957) and his nephew broke with Chen family tradition and began openly teaching Chen style – providing public classes in Beijing for many years. Chen Fake’s influence was so great that a powerful Beijing Chen style tradition survived his death; it was centred around his “New Frame” variant of Chen Village “Old Frame.” His legacy spread throughout China by the efforts of his senior students (e.g. Hong Junsheng, Feng Zhiqiang, Li Jingwu, Chen Zhaokui, Gu Liuxin, Lei Muni, Tian Xiuchen, Xu Rusheng, and Li Jianhua).

At this time mention must also be made of the first in-depth book ever written on Chen style. It was written by a 16th generation family member Chen Xin 陳鑫 (Ch’en Hsin, 1849-1929) called Taijiquan Illustrated 太極拳圖說 (see classic book) and proved very popular but was not actually published until 1932, well after Chen Xin’s death.

A second significant “promotional wave” in Western countries began in the 1980s. It can be traced to changes in Chinese foreign policy and the migration of Chinese Chen stylists around the world. On a more organised level mention must be made of Chen Village’s international “roaming ambassadors” known as the “Four Buddha Warrior Attendants.” These specially trained sons of Chen Village are Chen Xiao Wang (Chen Fake’s direct grandson), Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xian and Zhu Tiancai. They are extremely well known internationally on account of their many years of relentless global workshops and talks.

Other well known 19th generation Chen teachers active in China or overseas include: Chen Yu (grandson of Chen Fake), Li Enjiu, Zhang Xuexin, Zhang Zhijun. Growing in more recent popularity are Chen Zhonghua, Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Xiang.

Chen style schools with links back to Chen Village and Beijing have blossomed rapidly in Western countries in the last twenty years – offering a significantly different alternative to Yang family style (effectively the only tai ji known in the West before that time). Such countries with strong links back to Chen Village include USA, Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia.

Chen forms:
Chen Wangting’s Corpus of Seven Routines:
Chen Wangting (9th generation) is generally credited with codifying less structured practices of his family’s art into a corpus of seven training forms/routines. In addition to these “open fist” sets there was also practise of weapon forms and a two person combat “form” called tui shou (Push Hands).

Big frame/small frame split: Around the time of the 14/15th generation Chen Village practice appears to have differentiated into two related but distinct practice traditions which are today known as big frame (sometimes called large frame) and small frame. The various practise routines embodied in big/small frame traditions modified and assimilated Chen Wangting’s seven set corpus and the original practise routines are now said to have been lost. (Though recent claims are being made that Chen Wangting’s 108 form has been rediscovered from two possible sources: senior Beijing disciples of Chen Zhaokui; Chen relatives back in Shanxi Province)

There are conflicting claims about which of these two traditions came first. Western theories and most of the famous masters from Chen Village (see Chen Zhenglei’s English language book) tend to favor the view that big frame tradition came first (noting that “small frame” tradition was originally called “new frame”). There is a minority view from outside of Chen Village that tend to favor the reverse view.

There are also conflicting stories about the reason for the differentiation into these two traditions. Zhu Tian Cai comments that small frame tradition routines tended to be practiced by “retired” Chen villagers (and mimicked by younger children). It seems this was because the more demanding leaping, stomping, low frame, and intensive Fa jing of the advanced big frame tradition routines have been eliminated and the retained movements emphasize the training of the soft internal skills. Keep in mind that this is only a tendency and a master of the principles may use them to add fa jing, leaping, stomping, and low frame back to the small tradition at will. Just as a master of the large frame can perform the set small, large, smoothly, with fa jing in every movement, low, middle, or high. The traditions are only significantly different because the elder practitioners tend to focus on longevity and may develop injuries if they practice in the same manor as the younger practitioners.

Other authors, however, say that “big” does not simply mean large exaggerated outer movements and nor does “small” simply mean confined/close outer movements. They argue that in small frame both large and small motions are used – with the smaller motions considered to be more advanced. It is also useful to frame the discussion in terms of human physiology. The large and small frame traditions have similar training methods and are training the same tai ji principles (clear movement of qi, shifting the weight, relaxation, etc.) it is only the external presentation that confuses beginners.

Keep in mind throughout this discussion that no literature of Chen style before 1932 appears to mention anything about New, old, big or small styles. As with so much of Tai Ji history complete comprehension and certainty is hard to find.

Big frame tradition: Chen family traditions were kept secret from the public until around 1928 when the big frame routines were taught openly for the first time. This was started in Beijing by Chen Fake’s nephew and then by the legendary Chen Fake himself.

Big frame encompasses the classic “old frame” (lao jia) routines, one & two, which are very well known today. It also includes the more recent “new frame” (xin jia) routines, one & two, which evolved from the classic Old Way/Frame routines thanks to the work of Chen Fake in Beijing in his later years (1950s).

Xin yi hun yuan tai ji is an offshoot of the new frame (xin jia) tradition and blends in material from Feng Zhiqiang’s Xing Yi]] background.

Lao jia – old frame 老架: The Chen lao jia consists of two forms yi lu (1st routine) and er lu (2nd routine) It was taught privately in Chen Village from the time of Chen ChangXing – the 14th generation creator of these routines. These were the very first Chen tai ji routines to be publicly revealed. This happened in Beijing from 1928 onwards – being taught by Chen Fake and his nephew.

Yi lu (the first empty hand form) at the beginner level is mostly done slowly with large motions interrupted by occasional expressions of fast power (Fajing) that comprise less than 20% of the movements, with the overall purpose of teaching the body to move correctly. At the intermediate level it is practiced in very low stances (low frame) with an exploration of clear directional separation in power changes and in speed tempo. The movements become smaller and the changes in directional force become more subtle. At the advanced level the leg strength built at the previous level allows full relaxation and the potential for Fajing in every movement.

The second empty hand form, “er lu” or “cannon fist” is done faster and is used to add more advanced martial techniques such as advanced sweeping and more advanced fajing methods. Both forms also teach various martial techniques.

Xin jia – new frame 新架: This style was first seen practiced by Chen Fake in his later years (1950s) and many regard him as the author of the style. Credit for actual public teaching/spread of these two new routines probably goes to his senior students (especially his son, Chen Zhaokui).

When Chen Zhaokui returned to Chen Village (to assist and then succeed Chen ZhaoPei) to train today’s generation of Masters (e.g. the “Four Buddhas”) he taught Chen Fake’s, unknown adaptation of old frame. Zhu Tian Cai recalls, as a young man at the time, they all started calling it “xin jia” (new frame) because it was adapted from classic old frame.

The main difference from old frame (lao jia) is that the movements are smaller and more obvious torso twisting silk reeling and twining of the arms/wrists is employed. This form tends to emphasise manipulation, seizing and grappling (qinna) rather than striking techniques.

Zhu Tian Cai has commented that the xinjia (new frame) emphasises the silk reeling movements to help beginners more easily learn the internal principles in form and to make application more obvious in relation to the Old big frame forms.

In Chen Village xin jia is traditionally learned only after lao jia. Like lao jia, xin jia consists of two routines, yi lu and er lu (cannon fist). The new frame cannon fist is generally performed faster than the other empty hand forms, at the standardized speed its 72 movements finish in under 4 minutes. [citation needed]!

Small frame tradition (xiao jia) 小架: This style was until recently not publicly known outside of Chen Village. DVD material has been made available in more recent times though authentic, public teaching is still hard to find. The reasons for this may be more to do with the nature of small frame tradition itself rather than any particular motivation of secrecy (see below).

Although it recently had the term “small frame” attached to it “xiao jia” was previously known as “xin jia” (new frame). Apparently the name change occurred to differentiate it from the new routines that Chen Fake created (from big frame tradition’s “old frame” routines) in the 1950s which then became called “Xin Jia” (by the young men of Chen Village).

Even today some people confuse Chen Fake’s altered routines (from big frame tradition’s “old frame” routines) with small frame tradition and believe he revealed the secret teaching of small frame tradition as well.

Zhu Tian Cai comments that small frame tradition routines also used to be practiced by “retired” Chen villagers. It seems this was because the more demanding leaping, stomping, low frame, and intensive fa jing of the advanced big frame tradition routines have been eliminated and the retained movements emphasize use of the more subtle internal skills, which is a more appropriate regimen for the bodies of elder practitioners. He also observed that young children used to imitate Small Frame routines by watching older villagers practicing and this was encouraged for health reasons.

Xiao Jia is known mainly for its emphasis on internal movements, this being the main reason that people refer to it as “small frame”; all “silk-reeling” action is within the body, the limbs are the last place the motion occurs.

The current lineage successors (20th generation) are Chen Peishan and Chen Peiju, founders of the International Society of Chen Taijiquan. They continue to travel and teach small frame Chen taijiquan around the world.

Closely Related Chen Forms: Zhaobao Taijiquan has just very recently gained recognition within the Western tai ji community, and as such many misconceptions surround the style. While it claims Chen style influence and is often mistaken for Chen tai ji when demonstrated it is not a facet of Chen family tai ji. It was said to have been created by Small frame practitioner Chen Qingping.

Chen Style xin yi hun yuan tai ji 陳式心意渾元太極 (陈氏心意浑元太极) This style is much like xin jia with an influence from Shanxi Xinyi. It was created by Chen Fake’s senior student Feng Zhiqiang 馮志強. Specifically, the style synthesizes a large amount of Xin Yi Qigong and to a lesser degree fighting movements of Xin Yi. When performed the style appears similar to other Chen style set forms. In Feng’s own words: “Our style of tai ji is called Chen style hun yuan taiji. It belongs in the big frame family. Why is it called hun yuan? Hun yuan symbolizes the orbital path of the sun, the moon, the constellations, the earth; when everything is moving together, it is hun yuan. For example, bicycles, it spins; automobiles, the wheels spin; ships, steamboats, airplanes, rockets; it’s just that they have different directions of spin. Airplanes with rotary propellers, they spin like this. Bullets from guns they also spin. When everything is spinning, it’s hun yuan. In our own body there is circulation of qi and blood, and they follow particular meridians. For example, up the inner leg and down the outer side. Same thing with the arms, and also around the belt meridian. When everything is circulating and spinning together, this is hun yuan. Nothing can leave this basic foundation. Even when we’re walking, there are also curved lines involved. Curved lines are better. Everything moves in the orbit of curved lines.” [citation needed].

Modern Chen forms: Similar to other family styles of tai ji, Chen style has had its frame adapted by competitors to fit within the framework of wushu competition and to accommodate the contemporary trend towards shortened forms that take less time to learn and perform. Prominent examples of these include Chen Xiaowang’s 19 and 38 posture forms (synthesized from both lao and xin jia) and the standard 56 form developed by the Chinese National Wushu Association from lao jia yi lu and er lu.

In the last ten years or so respected teachers of traditional styles have also realized that beginners in large cities don’t always have the time, space or the concentration needed to immediately start learning old frame (75 movements). This proves all the more true at workshops given by visiting grandmasters. Consequently shortened versions of the traditional forms have been developed even by the “Four Buddhas.” Beginners can choose from postures of 19 (1995 Chen Xiao Wang), 18 (Chen Zheng Lei) and 13 (1997 Zhu Tian Cai). There is even a 4 step routine (repeated 4 times in a circular progression – returning to start) useful for confined spaces (Zhu Tian Cai).

Weapons forms: Chen Tai Qi has several unique weapons forms.

  • the 49 posture Straight Sword (Jian) form
  • the 13 posture Broadsword (Dao) form
  • Spear (Qiang) solo and partner forms
  • 3, 8, and 13 posture Gun (staff) forms
  • 30 posture Halberd (Da Dao/Guan Dao) form
  • several double weapons forms utilizing the above-mentioned items

Additional training: Before teaching the forms, the instructor may have the students do stance training such as zhan zhuang and various qigong routines such as silk reeling exercises. These stance training and qigong exercises are done to condition and strengthen the body to have the correct frame and alignment so as to be able to develop the subtle feeling of silk reeling energy (Chan Si Jing) before moving to the more complicated movements that are in the forms.

Other methods of training for Chen style using training aids including pole/spear shaking exercises, which teach a practitioner how to extend their silk reeling and Fa jing skill into a weapon.

In addition to the solo exercises listed above, there are partner exercises known as pushing hands, designed to help students maintain the correct body structure when faced with resistance. There are five traditional phases of push hands in Chen Village (see External Links) that students may learn before they can move on to a more free-style push hands structure which begins to resemble sparring.

Martial application: In contrast to some tai ji styles and teachers, the vast majority of Chen stylists believe that tai ji is first and foremost a martial art; that a study of the self-defense aspect of tai ji is the best test of a student’s skill and knowledge of the tai ji principles that provide health benefit. In compliance with this principle, all Chen forms retain some degree of overt fa jing expression.

In martial application, Chen style tai ji uses a wide variety of techniques applied with all the extremities that revolve around the use of the Eight Gates (Bafa) of tai ji quan to manifest either kai (expansive power) or he (contracting power) through the physical postures of Chen forms.

The particulars of exterior technique may vary between teachers and forms. In common with all Neijia, Chen style aims to develop internal power for the execution of martial techniques, but focuses especially on cultivating fa jing skill. Chen family member Chen Zhenglei has commented that between the new and old frame traditions there are 105 basic fajin methods and 72 basic Qinna methods present in the forms.