a dubious history of Chen family taijiquan
Updated: May 18, 2021
This article is written in response to a series of three articles written by the author Warmond Fang, where he comments on some historical texts. I read these articles with great interest, they are fascinating glimpses into this difficult period in the history of Chenjiagou and Chen Taijiquan, and I appreciate the translation work that the author has done to make these texts available to English speakers.
Having said that, it is clear that the author had an agenda in writing this piece, rather than having the aim of giving a balanced account based on the content of the evidence. He draws far reaching conclusions that, in my view, are simply not supported by the evidence he presents. In this article I will outline my rebuttals to his major points.
The original articles can be found here:
I will now outline the main points made by the author where I feel he is reaching significantly beyond the evidence, with my own responses based on the documents used by the author with a few additional items.
1. The author states that “due to a multitude of factors such as economic, political, natural disasters etc. Taijiquan suffered from broken continuity”. He also claims that the reading of history that states that “Chen Taijiquan has no broken continuity and that what they call “old frame” in modern times is exactly what was practiced in Chen village since time immemorial... is incorrect and not supported by historical evidence.”
Very few would argue that Chen family Taijiquan wasn’t almost lost in Chen Village. This is historically accepted fact. Otherwise why would all of the ‘4 tigers’ publicly acknowledge that their main teacher was Chen Zhao Pei (CZP), who had to return after decades away to teach them. But there is a world of difference between an almost broken line of transmission and an actually broken line.
In actuality the continuity was not broken. CZP learned his taijiquan in Chen village, then left, returned again to improve his skill, and left again. He then returned later and taught the ‘4 tigers’ among others. A Chen family member who learned his Taijiquan in Chen village taught the next generation of the Chen family. So where is the broken continuity? Just because he left to live somewhere else for a period doesn’t break the line of transmission.
2. The author claims that what CZP taught in Chenjiagou (CJG) was not the traditional syllabus - “what is called “old frame” or “laojia” today in Chen Village is not the same Taijiquan that has always been practiced since the advent of Chen Taiji in CJG. More accurately it was the frame that CZP brought back to Chen Village after he retired”.
It is very unclear from where in these historical documents one would draw this conclusion. CZP learned from at least 4 different teachers in Chen village, at a time before all of the historical turmoil outlined in this article. So there is no evidence to suggest he got anything other than the full transmission of the traditional family art. Why would he then come back decades later, enduring huge personal hardship with the sole motivation to keep the art alive in its birthplace, only to teach something different? That’s a huge narrative leap that has no basis in the evidence provided here.
Further, the author states “it was not possible that the laojia that the 4 tigers practiced in Chen Village gave birth to “xinjia” as practiced by Chen Zhaokui. The point being that up to the point before Chen Zhaokui returned, the four tigers had at best an incomplete transmission of the Chen Taijiquan system so how could that give birth to Chen Zhaokui’s art”.
The author seems to be either confused or intellectually dishonest here, as his statement lacks logical coherence. As far as I'm aware, nobody suggests that the ‘laojia’ practiced by the 4 tigers directly gave birth to xinjia of Chen Zhaokui (CZK). The claim is that the ‘laojia’ that CZP learned from Chen Deng Ke, Chen Yanxi, Chen Xin, and Chen Fake was the same as the ‘laojia’ Chen Fake learned in the village from his teachers, in other words, the family art. Chen Fake then later developed this form into ‘xinjia’ which he then taught to his youngest son among others. Nothing in the evidence provided here gives any reason to doubt this version of history.
The difference in age, primary teachers, and place of learning between CZP and CZK would seem to support this version of history. CZP was 35 years older than CZK and learned his form in Chenjiagou from various family members and within the mileau of the traditional village art. CZK learned his form solely from him father, decades later in Bejing. So again Occam’s Razor would seem to point to the normal accepted narrative that ‘laojia’ was the traditional village form, and ‘xinjia’ was something Chen Fake developed later on, and then taught to his son and other students who started learning with him after the development of this adapted form.
More evidence to support this can be seen in the lineage forms of other students of Chen Fake. Li Enjiu’s form, who is the standard bearer for Hong Junshen’s practical method, is much more similar to ‘laojia’. Hong Junshen started training with Chen Fake in 1930, very soon after Chen Fake had moved to Beijing. Another early student of Chen Fake in Beijing was Pan Yongzhou, whose form is also extremely similar to ’laojia’. This seems to suggest that Chen Fake’s older students learned ‘laojia’, and ‘xinjia’ was something he taught later on after he had developed it, for example to students who started learning with him in the early 1940s such as Feng Zhiqiang and Tian Xiuchen.
Pan Yong Zhou
3. The suggestion that at the age of 65, CZP was akin to a 95 year old - “by today’s standards CZP at 65 years old in 1958 would be close to 95-100 years old”.
Evidence used to draw this conclusion is primarily the average life expectancy in China at the time of around 45: “The average life expectancy of that period in China was no more than 35 years old at around the beginning of the 1900’s and improving slightly to 45 years old by 1950’s.” This is a common misunderstanding caused by not fully grasping the statistical construct of ‘life expectancy’. Average life expectancies were so low in the past primarily due to high levels of infant mortality, not especially short lifespans of those that that lived beyond infancy. (1)
Another piece of evidence used by the author to support his claim is an old Chinese saying "A life to 70 years old is ancient and rare”. Certainly, without modern medicine, a higher proportion of adults would have died at a younger age, due to injury and/or infection, and it would have been rarer than in modern times for people to live beyond 70 or 80. But there is very little basis for the conclusion that otherwise robust and healthy people would become infirm and decrepit by the age of 65. In CZP’s case, the fact that he lived another 15 years after his 65th year, and indeed survived falling down a well at the age of 74, suggests he was probably in pretty decent physical shape into his twilight years.
Further evidence of this is seen in the same document that the author quotes, ‘My Father Chen Zhao Pei’ written by Chen Ke Shen. The author conveniently omits from his articles the following: “In September of 1972, after my father had finished participating in the Henan Provincial Wushu Meet, he stayed on in Zhengzhou for twenty or so days. After Taijiquan enthusiasts heard this news, they came one after the other to request that he teach them the methods of Taijiquan. On the whole, my father was full of spirit and taught enthusiastically without holding anything back. He gave demonstrations of the movements of Taijiquan all day without taking a break.” (2)
This is pretty clear evidence that a full 15 years after he moved back to Chen village, and only 3 months before his eventual death, he was still vigorous and full of energy to teach, and in no way decrepit. It seems hard to believe the author missed this passage in one of his own reference documents, so it’s difficult not to draw the conclusion that it was deliberately omitted because it did not fit with the predetermined narrative that the author had in mind.
4. The author also suggests that due to his age, CZP was too infirm to teach “CZP was well past his prime by the time he returned to Chen Village and... this has a direct bearing in understanding what limitations he might have had in terms of transmitting his Chen Taijiquan to the people in Chen Village” and “Again this should give some context as to what he could have taught as a cripple with only one functioning leg.”
On top of all the evidence above that CZP was still lively and vital until his final year. I would also question the level of understanding of anybody who thinks you need to be in your athletic prime to teach Taijiquan. Was CZP too old to engage in advanced / full contact push hands with his students in the village? Probably. But too old and infirm to ‘mould their form’? Absolutely not, as this requires only good eyes developed from good skill in Chen style, combined with light indicative touches to the body. And too old to demonstrate things, that the youngsters could then practice full contact on each other? There is absolutely no indication of this in the historical documents.
5. The suggestion that the 4 tigers didn’t have sufficient teaching time with CZP for a good transmission of the art - “the 4 tigers only had a short time of intense private training with CZP before he passed away in 1972” and “we know that the 4 tigers did not commence intensive private training with Chen Zhaopi until 1968”.
Here is a description of their training in their early years from an article about Zhu Tian Cai: “Besides Zhu Tian Cai, Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Zheng Lei and Wang Xian, there were Chang Guan Cai, Chen Xia Sung, Chen Chun Lei and others. Chen Qing Zhou who lived in a nearby village, also joined the group whenever he came to Chenjiagou.
Those were wonderful years, where life centered on taiji. Weekends and daily right after school, they would gather in the Master's house to practice or hang-out. They lived in neighboring houses in the south side of the village. Sharing chores in communal living, the mothers were particularly close to one another. At about seven, they would call out for dinner… The meals were always quick and they would be back again at the Master's home. The Master would teach them new things and review their progress. They would practice more, staying into the nights, literally burning the midnight oil lamps.” (3)
This seems like a more or less traditional training regime, where practice was fitted in around village life. It’s already relatively intense training of multiple hours per day. Cheng Zheng Lei (CZL) has also stated that he practiced for “three or four hours each day” (4) in his young years.
The fact that 4 of these youngsters then commenced more intense and private training with CZP in 1968 does not in any way suggest that nothing of note had been learned in the preceding 10 years. In fact it seems a quite normal/traditional approach to teaching and passing on the family art to the next generation: there was a larger group of youngsters being taught, and after 10 years of training, the most dedicated students with the most potential were given additional investment of time and energy to ensure they developed fully and the entire system was transmitted. Again, CZP returned to Chen village with the sole intention of passing on the art to the next generation, so why would he then sabotage this mission by wasting 10 years not properly teaching his students?
6. The author next states that when CZP died, the 4 tigers knew only the forms and had no gong fu. The main source used to demonstrate this point is a quote from Zhang Weizhen (ZWZ) “the main reason that he invited Chen Zhaokui back to teach in Chen Village was because the 4 tigers did not have any real gong fu skills and only learned the forms as taught by CZP” This is one of the few occasions in these articles that the author does not extend significantly beyond the source material in the conclusions he draws. It does seem to be a direct translation from ZWZ saying the 4 tigers had no gong fu. However there are a number of points to make in regard to this seemingly simple statement.
First, it does not appear from the documentation that ZWZ practiced Chen family Taijiquan to a good level of skill. His assessment of their skill was therefore likely to be solely from conversations with CZP and there may have been much scope for him misinterpreting or over-interpreting CZP’s statements.
It is worth noting at this point that it is the normal and traditional way of learning to spend years building the ‘body method’ (shen fa) into the body through form practice, and only later start practicing cooperative push hands, and even later still competitive push hands, strength training etc, and thus the development of real gong fu. Thus it is to be expected that a practitioner with good skill and many years of practice may not yet have full ‘quan’ or fighting skills. Indeed Taijiquan is famous, even within internal arts, for the path to fighting skills being particularly long. CZL has stated they practiced only the ‘laojia yilu’ form for the first 10-12 years of training “Up to the age of 18 or 20 I was just taught the Old Frame first form” (4). And again, there is no reason to presume that CZP was teaching his students in any other than the traditional way.
Given that CZP was likely too frail to engage in strong push hands, it is very probable that the 4 tigers had not fully transformed their shen fa learned through form practice into fully applicable gong fu by the time of his death. Indeed, CZW readily acknowledges as much: “Chen Zhaopi had told him that to progress further in the art he would need his uncle, Chen Zhaokui, to check his "quan" (meaning boxing skill in this context although its transliteration is fist).” (5)
In 1973 when Zhang Weizhen arranged for CZK to come and teach in Chenjiagou, the '4 tigers' were in their mid-20s and had been training consistently for 15 years under the tutelage of a higher respected practitioner and teacher. Still their gong fu was not fully developed as they had only started the transition to ‘quan’ a few years previously after 10 years of building the shen fa through form practice. So quite probably CZP had concerns that they would need some more instruction to reach the higher levels of gong fu, building on their previous 15 years of work. He may well have shared this concern with his friend ZWZ.
But this is very different to the notion that they had essentially developed no skill at all in those 15 years of training. These were the four best and most dedicated students in the village, who had by this point done probably 15,000 - 20,000 hours of practice. So to think that they had only the external choreography of the forms after 15 years of training is somewhat far fetched.
It is readily acknowledged by CXW that his gong fu did not fully develop until his early 30s: "Of mastery, Chen Xiaowang... said that it was only in his early thirties that he allowed himself attainment of the level" (5). He also states that he was actively seeking teachers who could help him: "Before 1980 I spent a lot of time looking for what teachers were left, to find out what the standard was after my father’s generation. I couldn’t find anything so I just practised very hard myself. After many years of training, after lots of trial and error, practising hard every day, trying this and trying that and always asking questions but not being happy with the answers I eventually discovered the Taiji principle myself during the year 1979-1980.” (6)
Next the author states “If Chen Zhaopi had transmitted everything to the 4 tigers then there just wouldn’t be an urgent concern to bring Chen Zhaokui back to teach in Chen Village”
Here the author seems again to be somewhat confused or disingenuous. As is clear from the above nobody, least of all the 4 tigers, claim that they had completed their gong fu development at the time of CZP’s death. It is doubtful whether it is even possible to do this with 15 years of training, even in an ideal situation. So this is something of a strawman argument.
The author continues "but we know from the historical record that Chen Zhaopi’s task of bringing Chen Taijiquan back to Chen Village was not completed by the time he died. It would take Chen Zhaokui to more fully complete this task and one could make the argument that even Chen Zhaokui was not able to finish this task as Zhang Weizhen would invite Feng Zhiqiang back to teach in Chen Village 3 times with the last time being in 1997.”
It seems entirely rational and sensible that, given how close to extinct Taijiquan came to in Chenjiagou, they would want to get all highly skilled masters to come and share their knowledge as each high level practitioner has their own insight and understanding of the art.
Did Chen Zhao Kui have different content to teach to the 4 tigers? Quite probably. He was famous for his qinna, and may well have added to and developed the traditional qinna techniques further. Also he was in his athletic prime and so would have been able to demonstrate his skill in a way that CZP probably could not. And of course, he practiced and taught to them a different form than the one they had learned from CZP. So certainly the 4 tigers would have had much to learn from him.
Similarly Feng Zhiqiang probably had some different content and understanding to teach as well. But to suggest that the Chen village practitioners wanting to bring in older and highly skilled practitioners to share their knowledge is proof of them having no real skill themselves is once again a big narrative leap.
For some historical context on how long it takes to develop the highest level gong fu we can look at some other practitioners. CZP left Chenjiagou at the age of 21, but then returned again around the age of 28 and continued to develop his skills. He then didn’t leave for Beijing until 1928, around the age of 35. Chen Fake didn’t leave Chenjiagou and perform his famous demonstrations of skill in Beijing until he was over 40. This is just to illustrate again that it takes a very long time to develop full gong fu in Chen style, and no practitioner in their 20s is likely to be so skilled that they would not benefit from further teaching. It is simply not possible to receive the full transmission of the art in a truncated time period, as it takes decades to develop the highest levels of skill, and before this the body and mind are not yet capable of understanding.
Given this, combined with the less than ideal learning situation of the 19th generation, it is widely acknowledged and accepted that none of the Chen family 19th generation have attained the same level of skill as that of previous generations: "The 19th generation is not as good as the previous generations" (6). Anybody who claims otherwise is either misguided or dishonest. None of them had the perfect learning environment of previous generations where they grew up surrounded by and immersed in the family art for their entire development. None of them had their teachers for as long as would have been ideal. All Chen family members of the 19th generation (at least within the Dajia lineages) lost their main teacher at a relatively young age, and were left to figure out some aspects of their family art on their own.
7. The author then claims that two years of training with CZK was not sufficient to pass on a good amount of content: “one should think about how much content the Chen Village people could have absorbed in 2 years time and not 2 years of continuous instruction but broken up over a period of time.”
This person clearly does not understand the nature of learning Taijiquan. First we are not talking about 2 years of training as a beginner, this is two years of additional training for practitioners who already had 15-20 years of dedicated training. With a good level of understanding and skill already acquired, they would be able to absorb a lot of content in two additional years.
Secondly, as anyone who practices Taijiquan to any level of skill would know, 2 years of contact with a teacher spread out over a period of years is much more advantageous compared with 2 years all at once. This is because the body and mind need time to integrate the new learning. So after receiving something from the teacher, the student can practice for a period before receiving more. This is even more true, as was the case here, that this was after a full 15 years of practice. In this case a good understanding of Tajiquan is already present and the student is much more capable of ‘being their own teacher’ with less frequent input from an external teacher required. It seems that CZK went to Chen Village in 1973 and 1974, and then again in 1978. (7)
I will now state what I feel are reasonable conclusions to draw from the historical documents:
There was no broken line of transmission in the village, as CZP returned to teach there.
There is no reason to presume that CZP taught his students in any way other than as close as possible to the traditional way of learning passed down through the generations.
CZW, CZL and ZTC had 15 years of training with CZP from around the age of 8-13. WX who started a bit later had 10 years with CZP.
CZP was lively and vital until his final year, so certainly would have been able to teach them the Chen style body method or ‘shen fa’ as well as the beginnings of transitioning to the full ‘quan’
This was then followed by a further 2 years of teacher contact with CZK between 1973 and 1978 where they could develop their skill further with a teacher in his athletic prime and after 15 years of training the shen fa, when their bodies and minds were capable of receiving the higher level understandings.
While this is not an ideal training situation, it still means that with an average of 3-4 hours per day training, they would have accumulated between 20,000 - 30,000 hours of practice by 1978 when they lost their second teacher and would have had to continue their development largely self directed.
In conclusion, I feel Warmond Fang's collection and translation of the historical documents is a valuable piece of historical research. But unfortunately he then goes far beyond the evidence to draw highly questionable and frankly far fetched conclusions. To be generous to the author one could say he was misguided and blinkered in his interpretation of the historical texts, at worst he appears disingenuous and lacking intellectual integrity. Either way it is very shoddy and biased scholarship. It seems pretty clear that the author had a preconceived narrative, and then cherry picked and interpreted the evidence to fit this. A good historian Warmond Fang is not. In this article I aim to have provided a fairer interpretation of the evidence, and a counter balance to some of Warmond Fang's more outlandish claims. I hope I have offered readers a fuller, more balanced perspective from which they can make up their own mind as to their view of the history of Chen family Taijiquan.
As I final note I would like to state that much of Warmond Fang's bias seems to derive from his attachment to a particular narrative about the history of Chen Taijiquan. This is a political and tribal argument that goes on in Chen style circles about which form is older and/or better. My aim in writing this article was not to argue or prove that my lineage is the only authentic one, only to provide some balance. Personally I don't really care. It may be that laojia gave birth to xinjia, or it could be the other way around. Or it maybe that aspects of both were always practiced and each individual practitioner had their own flavour and interpretation.
Based on the evidence I've seen, to me it makes more sense that laojia is the older form, but if I saw convincing evidence that it was the other way round I wouldn't have a problem adjusting my position. This is because I can see that they are essentially the same, with only minor differences. And it's clear that high level gong fu can be reached whichever form is practiced. So much more important is innate talent, dedication, and of course having a good teacher. And with that thought, I better get back to training!
1. Do we really live longer than our ancestors?
2. My Father Chen Zhao Pei by Chen Ke Sen
3. Grandmaster Zhu Tian Cai – Chen Taiji’s Quiet Keeper by CP Ong
4. Tai Chi Interview – Chen Zhenglei
5. Carrying the Burden of Taiji Legacy by CP Ong
6. An Interview with Grandmater Chen Xiao Wang
7. Chen Taijiquan Tradition. Who is Talking by Nabil Ranne