Chen Fa-ke and the Highest Levels of Taijiquan
The name of Chen Fa-ke (1887-1957) is renowned in Taijiquan circles, particularly among the Chen stylists. One could ask ‘How truly proficient was Chen Fa-ke’s skill in Taijiquan?’ Some would reply they are unsure. Some would say he must have been very good as he was a famous Taijiquan master. As for querying how his skill compared with other Taijiquan masters of his generation, I believe few could answer this question.
This article is intended not only to reveal more about Chen Fa-ke as a famous master in the history of Taijiquan, but more importantly to provide a richer and more accurate picture of the heights attainable in Taijiquan as a martial art. Due to limited experience most people have a narrow view of the highest levels of Taijiquan. Their understanding is restricted to what their teachers have shown them and observing demonstrations by famous Taijiquan practitioners. They may believe they have seen the best in Taijiquan, whereas they have probably seen only a fraction of what is attainable. Once people become aware of the levels reached by Chen Fa-ke they are not as easily satisfied, but inspired to practice harder and pursue a greater degree of excellence.
Chen Fa-ke’s Family Background
Chen Fa-ke came from a long line of Taijiquan masters. His great grandfather Chen Chang-xing (1771-1853) was the teacher of Yang Lu-chan (1799-1872), the founder of Yang style Ta ijiquan. Only after studying for many years under Chen Chang-xing did Yang Lu-chan master the true martial art of Taijiquan. Chen Chang-xing’s father Chen Bing- wang was also very famous for his Taijiquan skill. Chen Chang-xing earned his living as a security guard transporting cargo through the Henan and Shandong provinces. He always made a safe delivery as the local bandits were intimi- dated by his martial prowess and left him alone. When Chen Chang-xing retired he opened a martial art school in his village.
Chen Geng-yun, the grandfather of Chen Fa-ke, lived to 79 years of age. From a young age Chen Geng-yun was trained in the martial arts by his father Chen Chang-xing. As an adult he also worked as a cargo transport guard. He once took part in a local battle and greatly contributed to its success. On one occasion he was delivering cargo to Lai-zhou town in Shandong province and defeated the notorious local bandit Tian Er-wang. The grateful townspeople donated money to erect a memorial in his honour. In the early 1900s a provincial government official Yuan Shi-kai, who later became the first president of the Chinese Republic, saw this memorial. Yuan Shi-kai was so impressed that he located the hero’s son Chen Yan-xi and brought him to train his sons for six years. Chen Yan-xi, the father of Chen Fa-ke, was a Taijiquan master in his own right and lived to the age of 81. He was also a famous master of tra- ditional Chinese medicine.
The following story was related by Chen Fa-ke to his student Hong Jun-sheng (1907-1996). When Chen Yan-xi returned home after several years of teaching the sons of Yuan Shi-kai he was very pleased to see that Chen Fa-ke had made great progress in Taijiquan. Chen Yan-xi walked to the centre of the courtyard, inserting his hands in the opposite sleeves of his traditional leather coat. He asked his son and several nephews to surround and attack him. As soon as someone touched him he would turn slightly and the attacker would be propelled to the ground. Chen Fa-ke, relating this story to Hong Jun-sheng, sighed with feeling ‘I’m not as good as my father. When I strike some- one I still need to use my hands’. This episode left a lasting impression on Chen Fa-ke and inspired him to greater achievement. Hong Jun-sheng once told me that Chen Fa-ke finally did reach this standard in the later years of his life.
Chen Fa-ke had told Hong Jun-sheng much about his early life and training in Taijiquan. Chen Fa-ke was born when his father was quite old, and was the only surviving son in the family as his brothers died in an epidemic. He was spoilt and lazy as a child. As a result of poor eating habits and lack of exercise, he was unfit and developed a lump in his abdomen which at times was so painful that he would writhe in his bed. Although he was aware that Taijiquan is beneficial to health, and would probably help reduce the pain and heal the lump, he had become so weak he avoid- ed training. Due to his ill health he was excused from practising, and up to 14 years of age he still had not trained very much.
Chen Fa-ke had a cousin who was living with them while his father was away teaching the family of Yuan Shi-kai. The cousin kept Chen Fa-ke company, and assisted with farm work and looking after the family. He was a strong healthy young man of sturdy build, and he was one of the best of the young Taijiquan artists in the Chen village. One evening, during an after dinner conversation among the elders at Chen Fa-ke’s home, the subject was brought up about the traditional family martial art. Someone in the group sighed regretfully, saying ‘In Chen Yan-xi’s family line- age each generation has produced a highly skilled practitioner. It’s a pity to see this tradition end in Chen Fa-ke’s generation. He’s already 14 but he’s still so weak and fragile he cannot put in the necessary effort. It appears obvi- ous that it will lost forever.’ When Chen Fa-ke heard this comment he felt ashamed, saying to himself ‘No matter what the cost I won’t allow our family traditional skills to be lost at my hands. At the least I can catch up with my cousin.’
He then realised, ‘We eat, sleep, work and train together. I may train hard to improve, but so will he. How can I ever catch up?’ This problem disturbed him, and for days he couldn’t eat or sleep. One morning he and his cousin were walking to work in the fields. Partway there his cousin stopped, suddenly recalling that he had forgotten a farming tool. He said to Chen Fa-ke, ‘You hurry and retrieve it for me. I’ll walk slowly till you catch up’. Chen Fa-ke quickly complied. During lunch time Chen Fa-ke reflected upon his cousin’s chance remark, and was inspired to relate it to his plans for training in the martial arts. He concluded that if he trained harder than his cousin he would make speed- ier progress and eventually catch up.
From then on Chen Fa-ke resolved to practice much harder, without making his cousin aware of his extra efforts. In addition to training with him, he continued to train at midday when his cousin napped. He shortened his sleeping time to just over two hours, and would get up and train some more. Since he was afraid to waken his cousin by the noise of going outside to practice, he trained in the small space between their beds. He modified noisy movements such as stamping the foot and developed a gentler and more relaxed form.
Chen Fa-ke thus trained extremely hard for three years till he was 17, with his cousin completely unaware. Occasionally, Chen Fa-ke practiced push hands with his uncles, but dared not train with his cousin whose skill was superior. His cousin took push-hands seriously and often injured his partners. He would remark, ‘Martial art trainingshould be taken seriously. You cannot take it lightly just because you’re training with someone you know. Once tak- ing it lightly becomes a habit you will be disadvantaged when facing the enemy’. Even when training with family the cousin would not relent the tiniest amount, often throwing his opponents so hard they would injure themselves and bleed.
After training hard for three years Chen Fa-ke found that the lump in his belly had virtually disappeared and his fit- ness had improved. His health and strength had become normal for a boy of his age. Meanwhile his martial skills had progressed unnoticed. One day, in order to test how much progress he had made he invited his cousin to prac- tice push hands. His cousin laughed and said, ‘Well, all but one of the young men of our family have experienced my skill. Previously you were too delicate and dared not push hands with me. Now that you have become stronger and sturdier, you should be able to withstand my strikes and throws. It is now time for you to get a taste of my push hands skill’.
Following this conversation they took position. His cousin tried three times to advance and throw Chen Fa-ke using fajin. On each occasion he was instead countered and thrown back by Chen Fa-ke. Not until the third time did his cousin suspect that Chen Fa-ke’s skill had surpassed his own, yet he wasn’t fully convinced. He was upset at losing, and as he was leaving he grumbled, ‘Every generation in your lineage produces masterhand practitioners, probably by passing down secret techniques. Even hopeless ones like you who are not as good me can now defeat me. There is no point for any of my lineage to practice this art, for we don’t know the secrets’.
Chen Fa-ke informed Hong Jun-sheng, ‘In fact, my father had not been home those previous three years, so he could not have taught me any secret family techniques. My skill was purely the result of three years hard work’.
Through these incidents we can see the importance of hard training. Diligent and consistent practice is important to become stronger and make greater progress in our techniques. We cannot conclude from this story that there are no secrets in Taijiquan, but rather that secrets are relatively unimportant. It is true that for those three years his father could not have taught him any secrets. However, prior to this period Chen Fa-ke would have become aware of his father’s training methods and principles, he just had not put in the necessary effort to properly train them. Moreover, during the three years of his hard training he had also trained with his uncles, who would have reinforced the authen- tic principles of Taijiquan. To claim there are no secrets is simply to state that Chen Fa-ke did not know any principles or techniques unknown to his cousin. All martial artists in the Chen village were practising the traditional Chen style martial art. Chen Fa-ke had progressed quickly and achieved a great understanding of Taijiquan through his determi- nation to work hard, firstly by spending more time, and secondly by training with feeling. In contrast, once his cousin had achieved a certain level of skill he was satisfied with his ability. Unlike Chen Fa-ke he didn’t train as much nor did he truly put his heart into it, thus he was eventually surpassed by him. For the normal Taijiquan practitioner like one of us it is certainly not sufficient to train hard. It is first essential to learn the correct techniques, following with hard training will lead us to success. My Chen style teacher Hong Jun-sheng always said, ‘We have to train Taijiquan the smart way. We need to use our brain. First we learn to train correctly, then we put in the hard effort’.
The Martial Art Exploits of Chen Fa-ke
Many sensational combat tales have been passed down to us about Chen Fa-ke. These stories could provide materi- al for many excellent and exciting movies and television series. Yet, if we talk about something fanciful it may prove fascinating but we cannot learn much about real Taijiquan. We need to ascertain the truth about Chen Fa-ke to stim- ulate interest and lead students to pursue the true principles of Taijiquan. Also, if we try to emulate fictitious exploits we may lose confidence in our art and give it up from a falsely perceived inadequacy on our part. Only if we can dis- cern which of the stories are true can we be inspired to train hard in the right direction.
I will therefore introduce some stories about Chen Fa-ke which are not just fables. I have selected each story accord- ing to three sets of criteria to ensure a high degree of credibility.
The story has been passed down by a direct student of Chen Fa-ke or by a family member. This person must either have witnessed the events in person, or have had them directly related by Chen Fa-ke. Also, the person must be deemed a reliable and trustworthy source.
The martial art techniques depicted must all be consistent with the principles of Taijiquan. We can thus explain how they work and be able to learn from them.
The martial art skills demonstrated in the story are those we deem Chen Fa-ke must have possessed, because many different people have purportedly witnessed him using these same skills in different situations.
For each story I mention I will provide some explanation, to allow readers to decide for themselves if the story is believable. I will first mention a story in the next section which has been reported in many books and newspapers.
By analysing this story I wish to show that it cannot relate to true events. In 1928 Chen Fa-ke’s nephew Chen Zhao-pi was teaching in Beijing. Many people came to challenge him and test his skill in Taijiquan. Among these challengers were the powerful and famous ‘Three Heroic Li Brothers’ who were keen to try him. Chen Zhao-pi was worried he would lose against them and sully the reputation of the Chen family. He quickly sent for his uncle Chen Fa-ke to defend their family honour. When Chen Fa-ke arrived in Beijing he was taken to meet the brothers. It was a summer evening and all three brothers were at home. Chen Fa-ke was left waiting in the courtyard while Chen Zhao-pi went inside to speak to them. The eldest brother sat in an armchair drinking tea. Chen Zhao-pi suffered great fright and broke into a sweat when he saw the opponent, who looked tall and strong. He thought, ‘Uncle had better win this fight, for if he comes to harm I will be in deep trouble with the family’. When the Li brother saw Chen Zhao-pi hesitat- ing he demanded, ‘Do you come willing?’ Chen Zhao-pi replied, ‘Don’t you want to see the Chen family martial art?’ Li shouted in response, ‘Well!’ slamming down on the table and propelling the tea bowls and pot into the air. Li moved away from his armchair and stood waiting like an iron tower. At this point Chen Fa-ke dashed into the house. As Chen Zhao-pi was trying to move away, he heard his uncle shout ‘Hah!’, the sound he made when exerting inter- nal power. The next he knew the ‘iron tower’ was violently thrust away and thrown against the window sill, breaking the window. The other two Li brothers just stood in shock. As Chen Fa-ke was preparing to leave he asked, ‘Who want to try again ?’ The Li brothers slunk away like cats.
This tale of Chen Fa-ke seems to be very facinating. One day when I was chatting with Master Hong Jun-sheng he told me it is just a fable. Master Hong was a practical person, yet he had no doubts about Chen Fa-ke’s skill and abilities. He believed it is sufficient for us to learn from Chen Fa-ke’s example of self-discipline in training, without recourse to fantastic stories. According to Master Hong there are several unreliable aspects to the above story. Firstly, Chen Fa-ke was invited to Beijing by Chen Zhao-pi for totally different reasons (more on this later). Secondly, Hong and other students of Chen Fa-ke had never heard of this story. Thirdly, there is no record of any persons called ‘The Three Heroic Brothers’ in Beijing during that time. Finally, Chen Fa-ke was a friendly person, he did not behave like a rogue and get involved in street-fights. Hong was a very practical person. He did not like others to make up the story about Chen. Hong felt the decent Chen Fa-ke was good enough for us to model and there is no need to add on other unreal stories. I will begin to depict some of the more reliable deeds of Chen Fa-ke below.
Defending Wen-xian Municipality
Chen Fa-ke once told Hong about the time he was invited to defend his district. Although he did not say which year it occurred, it must have been before 1928 when he went to Beijing. Some of the materials I saw indicates that it was probably around 1926. In those years, China was then suffering a period of disintegration. Districts were dominated by different warlords, bandits were everywhere, and security of life and limb was at its lowest level. A bandit group called the “Red Spear Club”, a heretical organization, captured several towns and their surrounding environs. The Wen-xian city district was also under the threat of being overrun. The district administration requested Chen to lead his students to join protecting the district. The Chen village where Chen Fa-ke lived was under the administration of Wen-xian local government. After arriving at their City, Chen succeeded in seizing two of the bandits. (Several books describe this incident in detail, but their reliability is unknown). There are, however, two reliable stories of this time.
A martial art instructor had been hired by the district administration prior to Chen. When he heard Chen had arrived, he went to challenge him. Chen was sitting on the left side of the ‘bashen table’, a Chinese table enabling 8 people to seat around it, which was inside the main chamber of the house. In his left hand Chen was holding a bag containing tobacco and in his right a paper fire-lighter. The martial art instructor entered the house, stepped forward and punched Chen with his right fist while at the same time shouting, “See how you deal with this!” Chen had seen him entering the house, and was half way standing up to welcome him, when the punch reached his chest. Chen inter- cepted the fist with his own right wrist and pushed slightly forward. His opponent was sent flying backward out of the door and landed on his back. Chen returned to his room, packed up and left with no farewells.
When Hong Jun-sheng heard this story, he certainly believed it was within the capability of Chen’s skill, but he could not understand how Chen could counter so explosively at the instant of contact with his opponent. When Hong skill eventually improved, he was also able to make his opponents fly at the instant of contact with his opponents. He understood that this is achieved by channeling the chansi jin (‘spiral force’) of the whole body into the hand with smaller circles while at the same time speeding up the movements.
The “Red Spear Club” was an evil religious sect. Its members would utter spells and use magic charms, and by inscribing talismans on their bodies before any battle they believed they would become bullet-proof and impervious to knife thrusts. They would thus charge bare-chested into battle. When their gang had encircled Wen-xien, all but one of the citadel gates had been closed, and the drawbridge was lifted. Chen Fa-ke was standing on the bridge holding a bailagan pole (an extremely resilient tree branches for making spears). Holding the pole without a spearhead he awaited the gang’s attack. One of the “Red Spear Club” leaders rushed in with a spear and stabbed at Chen who instantly repulsed it with his wooden pole. The enemy’s spear was sent flying out of his hands into the air. Chen’s pole immediately followed through and shot forward, piercing the enemy’s torso. Seeing their leader killed, the other gang members fled in a panic. Thus was the town saved.
In 1956 Hong traveled from Jinan to Beijing to study further with Chen. He arrived to find two agents from the new local government questioning Chen about the incident mentioned above, which they treated it as a ‘man-slaughter case’. After he fare-welled the two government agents Chen told Hong that a good deed done for the people had become a troublesome matter. Fortunately, the new government did not bother Chen again, because the “Red Spear Club” was a reactionary group soon to be eradicated by the new government.
A Martial Art Demonstration before Leaving His Hometown
Chen Fa-ke had spoken about how he came to teach Taijiquan in Beijing. His nephew Chen Zhao-pi (1893 - 1972) was in the business of transportinnng herbal drugs from their hometown to Beijing (then called Beiping). Yang style was most practiced Taijiquan in Beijing, and it was widely known that it is originated in the Chen village. Several members of the Henan community were very happy to learn that Chen Zhao-pi was from Chen village, who also prac- ticed Chen style Taijiquan. They took it as an honor for the Henan people and invited him to teach Ta ijiquan in Beijing, where there were many students began to train under him. When Wei Dao-ming, the mayor of Nanjing (which was the capital at the time), discovered this he sent a large monetary incentive for Chen Zhao-pi to go and teach Taijiquan in Nanjing. Chen Zhao-pi was undecided between the option of more money or maintaining the newly established relationship with his students who had only been learning for a short period of time. He solved his dilem- ma by telling his Beijing students that he had learned Taijiquan from his third uncle whose skill was far greater than his, and who was currently available. He then invited Chen Fa-ke to teach Taijiquan in Beijing.
My ‘small-frame’ Chen style teacher Chen Li-qing (born in 1919, of the 19th generation of the Chen family) has told me of an incident related to Chen Fa-ke. Chen Li-qing was the only daughter in the family, and was nick-named Sai- nan (‘competes with males’). As a girl she would climb up trees, over walls, and onto roofs. She possessed more audacity than most boys. Her father Chen Hong-lie was one of the leading figures in Chen small-frame Taijiquan. Although he was one generation junior to Chen Fa-ke in the Chen family, in age he was about two to three years older. Both of them had been born in the same month, on the same date, and at the same time! In the year when Chen Li-qing was about nine years of age she and her father happened to meet Chen Fa-ke in the street. Chen Fa- ke mentioned going to Beijing, and his plans to gather students and some relatives in the evening at the Chen family Shrine for a farewell party, and also practice Taijiquan. Knowing she was too young to be allowed to attend, Chen Li- qing used a tree at the back of the shrine to help climb over the wall and hide herself under the altar table before the adults were due to arrive at evening. She came out to watch when the Taijiquan demonstrations commenced. After a number of students had finished their performance Chen Fa-ke also performed. When he stamped his foot, dust and sand fell from the roof with a cracking sound. His fa-jin made the flames of nearby lanterns to flicker and crackle. As a finale Chen Fa-ke practiced push-hands with his students. His fa-jin threw some students flying up the wall and falling down. This was the only Chen Fa-ke’s demonstration that Chen Li-qing saw but was very impressed. She had never seen his ability demonstrated as normally everyone practiced Taijiquan in their own courtyard. Chen Li-qing has described her father’s skill to me. He practiced ‘small-frame’ Taijiquan with very good skill, but he was not as good as Chen Fa-ke who practiced ‘large-frame’ Taijiquan. The two styles are come from different streams. I believe that Chen Li-qing would have no reason to be biased in favour of Chen Fa-ke. She told me that Chen Fa-ke was the most skilled of his contemporaries at the Chen village. She also said that from the generation of Chen Chang-xing to that of Chen Fa-ke, their particular lineage was the most prominent in Taijiquan skill as well as having a high moral standard!
Liu Mu-san Studies Chen Style Taijiquan with his Students
When Hong Jun-sheng was young his health was not very good. In 1930 he studied Wu Style Taijiquan from Liu Mu- san following an introduction by his neighbors. Liu Mu-san was the senior student of the Wu Style Taijiquan founder, Grand Master Wu Jian-quan (1870-1942). After practicing Taijiquan for more than 30 years Liu was prominent in Beijing. He was then about 50 years of age and worked as service supervisor of the Department of Telegraphs in Beijing. About 20 to 30 of his students would study Taijiquan every morning at his house. Liu had studied in France and was well educated. He valued theory, was skillful in lecturing, and demanded a high standard from his students. Liu’s skill at the time was considered to be of an extremely high standard by his students and by Hong. His body was stout in appearance, but his movements were very swift and light, steady and elegant when practicing Taijiquan and the sword. His push-hands skill earned great esteem from the students, his opponents could not stand firm when he utilized either ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ jin. When he taught nian jin (‘sticking energy’), he would tell the student to hold a firm stance and he would push forward with a burst of fajin, but pull back just before reaching the opponent’s torso. The student would loose his stance with a feeling of being dragged and toppled. It was the skill of taking advantage of his opponent’s reaction. Liu preferred to practice Taijiquan as slow as possible, to enable improvement to the level of “slow but continuous” motion. In 1982 Hong encountered Ma Yue-liang (1901-1998) in Shanghai. Talking about Liu, Ma said he knew of him as a fellow student under the same Taijiquan master. Hong joked with Ma and said, “I should call you student uncle”, and Ma laughed.
After Hong had been learning Wu style Taijiquan for 6 months, an article in the Beijing newspaper caught the atten- tion of Hong and Liu: “Yang Xiao-lou, a prominent actor of the Beijing opera, practices the Chen style Taijiquan from Chen Fa-ke of the Chen Village”. They were very interested and wanted to learn more about Chen Style, as they knew that Yang style was derived from it. They resolved to let Liu to invite Chen Fa-ke to Liu’s house to negotiate teaching Taijiquan.
Chen Fa-ke was then 42 years old. After greeting them he took off his coat and commenced a demonstration in the courtyard. With the perception of being the better the skill the slower the movements, Hong and other students were prepared to spend about one to two hours to watch the demonstration of this prominent Taijiquan master. They were all astonished to see that it took less than 20 minutes to finish both routines. Not only were the movements swift, but there also stamping of the feet, jumping around, and expressing of fa-jin with sound when striking. Once Chen had gone home, there was an uproar among the students, “Taijiquan requires the footwork of stepping like a cat and channelling jin should be like drawing silk fibre from a cocoon. Such quick movements would surely break the silk fibre. With such heavy stampings that dust and sand falls off the roof, there is nothing like the stepping of a cat.” As Liu’s knowledge and skill were much higher, so was his understanding. He replied to them, “Although there was fast movements, they were turning in circular motion. There were many fa-jin performed, but they were executed in relax- ation. Looking from his arms, his muscle did not tense up. This would appear to be internal art. Since we have already invited him to come teaching, we better learn from him once. Once we finish the forms, I will then practice push-hands with him. If his skill is greater than mine we will continue studying. Otherwise we won’t waste any more money”. Henceforth, each person contributed two dollars per month, with thirty people this amounted to sixty dollars per month, allowing Chen to teach them three times per week.
Master Liu always instructed his students learning Taijiquan that a straight and upright torso is essential, leaning for- ward or backward should not be allowed as this will break apart the jin in the waist. Footwork should be changed between substantial and insubstantial in a swift and steady manner. Their first push-hands session was conducted after Liu had completed learning series one of the Chen style routine. Hong and other students expected that Liu’s high level skill should equal Chen’s. Unexpectedly, the difference between them was so great and obvious that they were all astonished. Liu was like a two years old kid in Chen’s hands and was totally unable to control himself. His body would lean forward when pulled by Chen, and lean backward when pressed. The waist jin was totally broken and his footworks were completely wrong in order. Liu’s elbow joint was sprained in a pull drill by Chen, and the pain lasted over a month even after applying medicinal paste. The students were so intimidated that they dared not prac- tice push-hands with Chen. Chen laughed and said to them, “The injury was caused by my inadvertent mistake of not being aware of Liu’s slight ding- jin (‘resistant force’). Just relax and follow the movements. I will pay more attention, and it should be all right. It is unacceptable to hurt people when teaching push-hands.” Liu and the students were mollified and continued their study.