The most advanced Taiji Quan by Master Hong Jun Sheng
by Peter Shi-Zeng Wu
First I would like to clarify the title of this article. Some would say that it is rather strange to call an ancient traditional martial art form such as Taiji Quan to be ‘most advanced’. According to the dictionary, ‘advanced’ means ‘having the most modern and recently developed ideas, methods; at a high or difficult level; at a late stage of development; ahead of time and to be studied as an example in the time period’ . In the long history of martial arts, Taiji Quan, like any other system, has been constantly developing. Only some of such development has been forwards, some backwards and some gone astray. In my view, Master Hong’s Taiji Quan has gone down the most correct path for the development of this martial art form. Why do I say ‘most’? Because one of the key attributes of Taiji Quan, and its fundamental difference to all other martial art forms, is its ability to be able to Fafang (send opponent back with great control and not pushing using brutal force). Taiji Quan that is able to Fafang is correct and advanced. Out of Fafang, Tengfang (Fafang by sending an opponent flying/jumping back) is the highest form. Taiji Quan which can Tengfang is the most advanced. And Master Hong’s Taiji Quan was of such ability.
Regarding Tengfang, some people think it is when someone can force an opponent’s two feet to jump and leave the ground. In my view, this is not enough. One also must have the opponent in ‘full control’ before sending him/her flying/jumping backward. From the outside, one should seem to be ‘floating’ back. In pushing hands, you can see many people shovel an opponent from down then upward. This can also look like the opponent is being ‘jumped out’. But there is no control. This is like using a chopstick to shovel a beef meat ball. Sometimes the beef meat ball can also be bounced off the table. But this is not comparable to using two chopsticks to pick up and then move the meat ball. In the video where Master Hong used Tengfang with Doctor Cai, one can clearly see that Doctor Cai is ‘floated’ backward. This is the typical Tengfang. Apart from the fact that it demands more skill and manifests more artistic effect, good Tengfang should happen only after more control is in place, so that an opponent cannot hit back. So it’s a safer position to be in.
In the history of Taiji Quan, few have achieved this level of skill - from what I know, only Master Hong who learned from Chen FaKe and Hao ShaoRu from Hao Style whose skill is handed down from the family. I have seen many highly skilled Taiji Quan practitioners in their demonstrations and videos. They were very good in terms of sending an opponent very far and crisp. But they did not Tengfang. However, I think my knowledge may be limited as there could still be some I am not aware of who can Tengfang. But I think it would not be many.
On another note, I use the phrase ‘Taiji Quan by Master Hong JunSheng’ rather than ‘Hong Style Taiji Quan’ as, in my view, the measurement for accuracy and standards for ‘Hong Style Taiji Quan’ should be what Master Hong did in his Taiji Quan, not so much what a teacher does who practices Hong Style. Many people think they have perfected and inherited everything in Hong Style Taiji Quan and also evolved and improved on the style. In fact, they might have just learned half of what Master Hong did and might not be able to Tengfang. The so called ‘evolvement’ could actually be a regression. This is why I use just ‘Taiji Quan by Master Hong’ for discussion here, to clearly point out that Taiji Quan by Master Hong, as an individual, is the most advanced, not referring to Hong Style Taiji Quan by its practitioners, as their level, in my view, has not reached Master Hong’s height.
Below I shall discuss why Master Hong’s Taiji Quan is the most advanced from three aspects: 1. Jing (force) 2. Form 3. Breath
1. Most Advanced Jing
Taiji Quan is all about Jing. As a martial artist, a Taiji Quan practitioner overcomes their opponent by using Jing. Techniques are the form in which Jing takes place. It’s the fundamental: Good Yi (mind) and Qi (inner energy) can facilitate good Jing. But Yi and Qi by themselves are not sufficient. People who can fight an opponent without touching them are in negligible numbers, and we should not consider them, universally speaking.
So what is Jing? Jing and force can be understood to be the same. Through muscles and tendons working together, power is generated so that someone can hit. Chinese martial arts like to call force after being trained ‘Inner Jing’ and force by an untrained person is deemed to be brutal force. While they are all called the same, for different styles of martial arts, the philosophies and training methods all yield very different Jing. Even for the same style, practitioners can have different Jing after training.
For some people, due to their lack of understanding of the importance, richness and complexity of Jing, they regard it as merely the pursuit of speed and power, and in the context of Taiji the additional element of “weighted-ness”. What remain are then just forms and techniques. This is not quite true. In my experience in pushing hands with notable masters they all have unique Jing. Even with the several students of Master Chen Fa-ke their Jing also vary greatly. Their attainments in pushing hands differ significantly, and Master Hong’s level is at the highest. However Master Hong’s Jing was not the most powerful, and on the contrary possibly the mildest. Master Hong was fast, but likely not the quickest. His action was centred and balanced, but not the most weighted. Therefore Master Hong’s advanced Jing is not evidenced in speed, power and weight, but is manifested on a different plane. I shall elaborate this in five different contexts below.
i) Source of power generation
Biology textbooks teach us that human muscle power is generated through cellular muscle contraction. However, in Chinese martial arts, especially Taiji Quan, we see power being generated through extension (lengthening) of our limbs and torso. Such force tends to be more practically useful and hence better. Personally I think cellular muscle ‘extension’ helps to generate such Jing. To this point, because this concept has not been scientifically trialed or proven, I would say only that this is a hypothesis. I shall not put too much effort into discussing it in detail here and only call this ‘limb and torso extension’.
Master Hong’s Taiji Jing was rather special. When you first made contact you almost felt that he was softer than others, that this was an easy push and hence kept pushing. But only a little later you felt like you had hit a wall and been entangled and then you were Tengfang-ed up and out. It is very appropriate, I think, to quote Master Hong’s own couplet to describe such Jing:
“Who would think that a piece of steel, after hundreds and thousands times of hammering, it all turns into soft silk strings revolving around fingers.”
This couplet highlights the fact that such Jing is not only as strong as steel but also soft and gentle. An opponent will keep marching in his/her force and then suddenly be controlled, entangled, fail to balance and then Tengfang-ed. Almost any Taiji Quan practitioner knows that Taiji Quan requires force that’s both hard and gentle, but the result is most likely to be either too hard or too gentle. Master Hong’s Jing was extremely rare as it was fifty percent hard and fifty percent gentle. Many of Master Hong’s students have very good Jing, but none of them has achieved Master Hong’s level. This is not because their forms are inferior, as outer forms are not hard to learn. It’s because their Jing cannot be ‘soft silk strings revolving around fingers’.
So how can a person train such Taiji inner Jing, also known as ChanSi (revolving silk strings) Jing or Peng Jing? Master Hong in his book wrote:
“Taiji Quan’s movement takes place in spiral form. Such spiral movement does not only happen on one’s skin but also goes around the whole body. It makes your every joint and muscle to be utilized. Through ongoing and repeated twisting and extending, one’s body naturally generates a seemingly relaxed but actually elastic and resilient Jing. Such Jing is called Chansi Jing.” (The Practical Chen Style Taiji Quan p33. This is the book referenced in this whole article).
This is what Master Hong summarized from his training experience and this is how he developed Chansi Jing. So why haven’t any of his students developed such Jing? In my opinion, I think it is important to emphasize the word ‘extension’. When Master Hong trained he naturally developed such extension, as you can see by the fact that he kept emphasizing that the middle finger should lead Jing and point towards an opponent’s centre. If others only twist, but do not extend, such Jing will not be developed.
I have witnessed Master Hong pushing hands with his students. When the student pushed, Master completed deflection and control by slightly turning his body and angling his finger. Then he would Tengfang by either stepping forward or staying still. This hugely intrigued me. For many years after, I tried to work out how this worked but did not manage to understand. After another long time, I realized that it’s in fact not the outer form or technique that’s important, but rather how Jing can be extended and form ‘revolving silk strings’. I practiced this for some time. Although I might not have achieved one tenth of what Master Hong achieved, I think I finally found the somewhat correct path. Although I believe there are still a lot of details that can be explored and studied, it is my hope that this effort can be continued for the rest of the nine tenths in my generation and the generation after.
Once such steel like silk string Jing is developed, how such Jing from different parts of the body work together as a whole will be discussed in Holistic Jing (coming up next). How holistic Jing becomes Chansi Jing will be discussed in Spiral Jing. Once Spiral Jing is developed, how it can be used to deflect the incoming force and to control the opponent will be discussed in Three-in-One Jing. Once an opponent is controlled, how they can be Tengfang-ed will be discussed in the section Shoveling Jing. Now we shall discuss one by one.
ii) Holistic Jing
Chinese martial arts, especially the so-called inner styles, put great emphasis on holistic Jing. Although all refer to ‘holistic force’, each style has its own way of executing it. Holistic force means that by aligning different parts of the body and having them work together, the best combative effect is achieved. For many people holistic Jing means concentrating all force into one to make it the most powerful. This is right in some ways, but strength is not the only aim of holistic Jing. Just think how a train can be enormously powerful, but a slight change of its track can make it turn in an entirely different direction. In holistic Jing, it is more important to aspire to more effective execution methods than pure strength. For example, one practitioner generates power from his Dantian. The other shovels such force from the ground up. Which do you think is better? From all the methods of practicing holistic Jing, I think that again Master Hong’s method is the most advanced.
Many practitioners read Taiji Quan classical textbooks and know that Jing comes from the feet, through the legs and waist, until it reaches the hands. They all aspire to this goal. However, in my view, this is similar to how a normal person would use his/her force. So how did Master Hong do it?
This is what he wrote:
“Footwork is a very important aspect of upper and lower body coordination. According to Chen Xin, ‘Fafang loses its effectiveness if hand reaches opponent and foot has not. If foot comes together with hand, Fafang is as easy as weeding.’ In other traditional martial arts there is also a saying: two hands are like two gates, winning in a fight is all by leg. This should refer to footwork. However it is often mistaken to be that hands are only for defense, attacking must be from kicking. This is not the right understanding.” (p14) “If this refers to foot work then it makes more sense as the attacking Jing comes from foot and not hand. There is a traditional proverb in martial art called Hand Eye Body Methods & Footwork. It should really be Hand Eye Body Footwork Methods. I think the reason why they have put footwork at the last is because they wanted to emphasize the importance of footwork, and for all hand eye body movement to be correct is subject to footwork” (p349)
From this quote, one can see how Master Hong has put a huge focus on the importance of footwork. If you still do not fully understand this, let me tell you a story.
One year I travelled to a place to learn Taiji Quan and one of my training friends told me his story. During the Cultural Revolution, because he is a descendent of the Chen family from ChenJia Gou (where Chen Style Taiji Quan first started), he went back there. This was a blessing for him as he was a big fan of Chen Style Taiji Quan. One day, he accidentally ran into Chen ZhaoPi. As there was no-one around, he asked if Chen could show him some moves. Chen jokingly said: ‘You would not understand even if I showed you’, but he still then showed him. He moved with his feet but there was little movement with his hands. Afterwards he told him: ‘The better you are with Taiji, the less hand and arm you use. You use more and more leg and footwork’.
This is the same as what Master Hong focused on: ‘all about leg and footwork’. I had also learned Hao Style Taiji and so, together with this story, it became easier to understand and accept Master Hong’s principle and suggestion. We can see this clearly from Master Hong and Dr. Cai’s push-hand video, where Master Hong’s hand is not tensed at all and, indeed, he uses all leg and footwork. Usually in Taiji Quan, force starts from the feet and goes through the legs, body and hand to reach the contact point. However, this is still ‘by hand’. Master Hong did not explain the details of how the hand and foot co-ordinate. But from what I observed from Master Hong’s push hands, when an opponent pushed in through the contact point, Master Hong first deflected and, after controlling the opponent, he then FaJinged with his legs (he may or may not have stepped forward). What’s important is that his working (deflection and FaJing) was also through Jing that originated from the foot. When Fafanging there is no more ‘added’ force to the contact point. You can imagine that force which comes from the foot and leg is much stronger than force which comes from the hand and, because the starting point of the force is lower, it is easier to shovel an opponent up and TengFang. With regard to understanding how our different body parts work together, that takes different levels of training. I will not extend further discussion on that subject here.
Most people use hands for combat. You would think that using hands with added leg force would be better, right? If you watch a soccer game, the goalkeeper uses only his hands to put the ball into position and then drops it to let the leg kick. The ball often flies very far and sometimes lands in the goal of the other team. Do you think that if he uses his hands to throw with a combination of leg and arm force, it would be better? When you use hand force with added leg force, all that happens is that your leg and waist become the supporting frame and only your hand does the work. The starting point of the force also becomes higher. It also becomes easier to Ding Jing (your force against an opponent’s force in the opposite direction). Chen ZhaoPi’s ‘the better you are at Taiji the less you use hand and the more you use leg’ and Master Hong’s ‘all about leg and footwork’ are based on their practical experiences. It’s no exaggeration to say this is Jing’s Secret. I have benefitted greatly from this principle. Therefore, it’s just an ideal to say that holistic force is the combined whole force from different parts of the body. The practical effect is only a question of which part of the body one chooses to use.
For an untrained person, the natural reaction to an incoming force is to push back in the opposite direction. Some martial arts use linear footwork for stepping forward and back combined with some pulling and pushing by hand to solve the issue. Usually in standard Taiji Quan, turning (by the waist) is added, which is more developed when compared with moving straight forwards and back. However, this is still only two dimensional. Spiral Jing, which is three dimensional, (as there is the spiral up and down) takes this further. We all know now that Taiji Quan asks for ChanSi Jing and that spiral movement is more advanced. But there are only a few who do it well. Many use only the arms or upper body to spiral. This is only ChanSi movement, not ChanSi Jing. ChanSi Jing must be holistically spiraling. Some spiral from ‘Dantian turning’ but this makes the initiating point too high and hence unstable. The strength from turning the waist is not as powerful as from the leg. I have seen many different versions of Chansi Jing. I personally think the methods from Master Hong are the best.
As I have mentioned, the better you are, the more you use your legs. This refers to when not only using FaJing but also deflecting and controlling. In order to do this well, one must extend the ‘soft but steel like silk string’ Jing and use power from the feet and legs to spiral. There are two main features of Master Hong’s spiral Jing. One is the rise and drop of the two knees. Second is the ‘small top, large base’. Only by following these two principles can you maximize the spiral Jing. Now let’s discuss these two principles in detail.
a) Rise and drop of the two knees
For an untrained person, when turning, he/she has little up and down movement with their two knees, only turning on the same level (height).
‘ChenStyle Taiji requires one knee to be rising and one knee dropping when turning body’ (p8 and pp333-334).
The centreline of the body must be maintained and not lean one way or the other. The dropping knee needs to drop slightly outward, causing the same side pelvis, chest and shoulder to drop slightly too. The other knee makes an apparent rise, but the pelvis on that side maintains its position. Looking from the outside, you can see that the dropping side’s shoulder, pelvis and knee is lower than the other side, but again the centreline is maintained. All this is not easy to do and takes practice. An untrained person is only able to turn with both sides at the same height and is not able to isolate the two sides from the centreline to do different things. If you can master the rise and fall of the two knees when you turn, it naturally becomes a three dimensional spiral. I must also stress that the ‘extended’ Jing needs to be maintained for the spiral to work.
b) Small top, large base
“ChanSi method for the torso requires small top and large base i.e. Keep eye on opponent and do not move. Head can turn slightly in the direction of where body turns, and lean very slightly forward (lower forehead). Turn chest but less than 45 degree. From under the chest to crotch, you can turn bigger than 45 degree if required in order to Lu” (p316) “When turning, one shoulder can be slightly higher and the other slightly leaned. And this forms the main body for spiral Jing. But do not overdo it, as this might cause Jing at waist level to be broken.” (p14).
Many people follow the idea that the ‘body must be upright’ and the ‘shoulder and pelvis should work as a pair’, so they do not dare to have two sides of the body at different heights. When turning, they do not dare to try to feel the upper body (top) ‘smaller’ and the lower body (base) ‘bigger’. “Our body method should be dynamically upright and stable and feel comfortable in movements, not just upright by itself”. (p13) The benefit of small top and large base is that power from the leg is better utilized. There is little or no movement at the contact point. The lower part of the body forms the base and does more turning. This is like a wrench holding a screw - you have longer momentum to turn to generate more power. An untrained person tends to use more hand and hence has a big top and small base. When this happens, legs are used only as support, so power from the legs is not fully utilized. Therefore, practice using the principles of rising and dropping of the knees, and top small base large is essential in forming effective spiral Jing. I have learned this only bit by bit from Master Hong in order to improve my Taiji Jing. I believe that only a person like Master Hong, who received teachings from Chen FaKe, had a wealth of practical knowledge and experience and was also good with theorization, was capable of putting forward such principles.
iv) Three-in-one force
A normal person can use the hands in different directions when empty handed. However, when grabbing an opponent’s arm, they seem to work only in one direction. In combat, when two hands work in one direction, it is easy to be deflected and counter attacked. For example, in push hands, if your hands are only one directional when using Lu or Cai, it becomes easy for people to Ji and get into your centre.
A good Jing method should allow it to achieve its combative purpose while not being easily deflected and counter-attacked. For example, in Master Hong’s Lu and Cai methods, initially two hands follow an opponent’s incoming force in one direction, coming close to the body. Then, while still traveling back, the directions diverge – the rear hand pulling back and the front hand traveling (slightly pushing) away from the body. In this way an opponent is pulled forward and away at the same time and is not able to close in. If a third force is added, this is even better, giving more control of the opponent. This third force is a stringing force into an opponent’s centre. This is done so that when the rear hand pulls back, the opponent cannot just lower their centre to pull back. Rather, when I am pulling, the stringing force goes into an opponent’s centre and all his/her body parts and joints become ‘connected in one’ (one piece), making Tengfang possible. All three forces are not completed in three moves, but all come from one spiral Jing, and spin out the three forces. These three forces help to complete one combative movement. Of course, if one can add the turning of the two hands, the possibilities to Jing become even more diversified and sophisticated.
Let’s look at the third move of ‘Buddha’s Guardian Warrior Pounds Mortar”. The out-facing side of my right hand wrist contacts my opponent’s out-facing side of his/her right hand wrist. The inward-facing side of my left hands wrist contacts the out-facing side of my opponent’s right arm just above the elbow. My two hands follow the opponent’s incoming force until his/her hand is just about to reach my body. I turn right. As my two hands both travel backwards, they turn in different directions. This is because if the opponent sinks his/her elbow, it is very hard to control and pull simply by horizontal pulling. Therefore, my right hand needs to pull up and backwards, and then turn inwards slightly (towards head). My left hand must pull not only backwards but also downwards, through pulling in (towards body) and sinking my elbow, and then turn slightly outward. In this way the opponent’s arm is stiffened and becomes hard to relax. Also, while my left elbow pulls back, the middle finger of my left hand needs to point at the opponent’s centre and generate force in another direction into his/her body, making it a connected whole. Then we can use the leg’s power to Tengfang.
Once you have become familiar with this one move, you will be able to use this three-in-one force in all other seven moves. When even more familiarized, it is possible to do this with one hand.
This holistic spiral Jing, generating three forces in different directions, takes a lot of practice, and will develop bit by bit over time. Master Hong could do this rather easily.
v) Shovel Jing
Shovel Jing refers to force going low and shoveling upwards to cut underneath an opponent’s centre of gravity and then Tengfang. After coming to Australia, I invented this name for the convenience of teaching. This type of Jing exists in Hao Style but does not have a formal name. Some people call it ‘Shoe Knife’ Jing i.e. Jing that goes down and then shovels up. Mr Hao ShaoRu only mentioned that Jing at the front knee should be like the bow of a ship - always facing upward. Master Hong’s Taiji Quan also has this Jing, but no name either, although he had Chen Style’s Knee Principle - Front Fa(fang) Back Sink. This is how to FaJing. In fact, this Jing is spiral Jing. The only difference is that it is pointed forward at the opponent. So why do I list this separately? Firstly, because it’s important and, secondly, because it is not easy to do. Such Jing cannot be easily performed by an untrained person. Even many Taiji Quan masters struggle to do this. In many cases Chen Style masters who stress ChanSi Jing repeatedly, do this incorrectly.
When pushing forward, people tend to lean forward. They use the rear leg as the pushing leg and the front leg only as a support. So the rear leg is straightened and naturally the rear side of the pelvis is raised (higher than the front side of the pelvis). Such move generates Jing that pushes downward. If two people have the same type of force, they will become opposing forces meeting head-on. I have seen videos of two Taiji Quan masters. Both of their rear legs were very straight. They even boasted of how their legs were as straight as a post and very strong and stable. This is the same as saying that Taiji Quan is like bull fighting. I see many Taiji Quan masters like this – the rear leg straight and the rear pelvis higher than the front. In this position it is not possible to generate shovel Jing. No wonder they cannot Tengfang and only Fafang forward at best.
So how is shovel Jing performed? This goes back to Master Hong’s reference of ‘Front Fa Rear Sink’. “Chen Style requires the rear leg to be slightly relaxed and not straightened” (p348) to generate Jing. Two knees must be working the same way as two hands shoveling an iron shovel - rear hand (knee) drives forward and down, while front hand (knee) drives forward and up - so that one can shovel up the soil. This is in line with what I mentioned earlier about how spiral force is performed by the rising and dropping of the two knees. When applying FaJing facing an opponent (forward facing), the rear pelvis and knees must drive downward and Jing from the front knee must be forward and upward driving.
There are two key benefits of having great shovel Jing. One is being able to avoid using force against an opponent’s force head-on. If your opponent’s force is horizontal or going downwards and your Jing is shoveling from the ground, you are able to destabilize your opponent’s centre of gravity so that he/she cannot impose a counterforce. The second benefit is that you are able to Tengfang the opponent.
Once this concept is clearly understood, a lot of practice is required in order to be able to do it. A person needs to change habits and learn how to gradually lengthen the muscles and tendons.
Some people may have one, two or three of the different components of Master Hong’s Taiji Jing. They might also have different versions of these Jing. But none has mastered them all like Master Hong did, so the result is not as complete and has not reached such a great height. The pursuit of Taiji Jing is a lifetime task - there is no end. The subject is detailed and your understanding can evolve forever. It’s like people who pursue monetary pleasure; they never think they have enough.
I very much believe what Mr Li QingJia said in the article ‘Collection in Memory of Master Hong’s 100 Year Birth Anniversary’, edited by Ms Liu XiuWen, that “Master Hong’s speed of improvement in Taiji Quan accelerated immensely after he was 80 years old. I could clearly tell from pushing hands experiment with Master Hong.” One’s absolute speed and strength clearly deteriorates with age. But for someone who tirelessly pursues the ways of working with and the quality of Jing, his rate of improvement could offset and even surpass his deterioration in physiological capabilities with age. This was what happened with Master Hong and this proves in yet another way that his direction and practice were correct. Also, the possibilities of evolvement and improvement on the co-ordination of Jing are limitless. When there is a good foundation it takes only a glimpse of enlightenment to take one’s practice to a whole new level.
Taiji Jing is the soul of Taiji Quan. When good Jing is paired with good form the result is like the Chinese saying: A tiger now has wings to fly.
2. Most advanced Xing (Form)
Many Taiji Quan practitioners who reach a certain level often like to talk about Yi(Mind) Qi (Energy flow) and Jing. They seem to disregard or not care so much about forms in Taiji (ways of movement and outer stances etc.). Some teachers demonstrate with students by asking a student to use practical movements they would use in combat. The teacher does not use a corresponding countermove but only some Jing to hit away the student, proving that forms are useless. This, in my view, is not entirely wrong, nor entirely right. When the teacher’s level is far beyond the student’s, the student’s outer movement is surely useless.
However, when the two have a similar level of skill and experience, good form would make a big difference. For example, take a world champion in running. Even if he wore leather shoes and I wore running shoes in a race, there is no chance I could beat him. But it would not be a good idea for him to wear leather shoes in a race with the current runner-up of the world. Therefore, while form is not the most important thing, it is rather useful. In my many years of experience in martial art, those who disregard the usefulness of forms are most likely the ones who have not learned the good forms. They have not tasted the sweetness of forms; hence can only brag about YiQi Jing. Good forms facilitate and enhance the effectiveness of good Jing.
Something else I have learned from experience is that when there is a lack of good form which can express the YiQi Jing, such Jing becomes very hard to grasp and improve. It becomes a bit ‘floating in the air’. One does not know how to start. In such cases, Jing can hardly be applied in practice, although the theory can be understood. In reality, good Jing is like good steel and form is like the shape of a knife. When there is no good steel it doesn’t matter how good the shape of the knife. On the other hand, when good steel is shaped into a good knife style, it results in good application rather naturally. Good blunt steel does not cut things either.
Someone wrote an article quoting Mr Xu Yusheng commenting on a Chen Style practitioner who only talked about form. The author was basically saying that Chen FaKe only knew forms and hence wasn’t good. We can set aside whether Xu was really talking about Chen FaKe (someone argued this is not the case). Even if it was Chen FaKe, this does not say that Chen FaKe’s level of Taiji Quan was not high. We all know Xu Yusheng learned many styles of martial arts and also specialised in Yang Style Taiji. But we also know Xu was Tengfang-ed when pushing hands with Chen FaKe. When Chen’s son Chen Zhaoxu went to Beijing and pushed hands with Xu YuSheng, they were at a very similar level. But when Chen Zhaoxu practiced hard for some time, Xu became no competition for him. In this sense, who do you think is better? Xu who talked about YiQi Jing or Chen FaKe who talked about form?
Chen FaKe was highly skilled in Taiji Quan. He was capable of sending people over a wall and onto the roof. Master Hong could quite effortlessly TengFang opponents. Both were real masters at a high level in the art of Taiji Quan. Chen FaKe talked little about theory or principles, but more demonstration through practice. Master Hong was skilled in both literacy and martial art, so he added many good theorizations. But most also offered practical guidance and not only talk. In fact, his practical guidance included both Jing and form, and hence was very precious. Unfortunately, most people treat them as mere forms and neglect the fact that by grasping the principles in these moves one can also gain guidance to all the other moves. My personal experience is that understanding the moves taught by Mater Hong shed much light on the way to use Jing and gradually I came to understand how they are applied in practice. This is like having a local guide who is highly familiar with the area to lead your way when climbing a mountain is much better than having someone who only knows the latitude, longitude, altitude and average winter temperature etc. (only theory) to give you guidance.
Master Hong’s Taiji Quan is such that outlines requirements in most detail regarding every part of the body. It is indeed these details that make up the high level Taiji Quan of Master Hong’s. If you pay attention to all the details and practice and experiment, you will soon understand how precious they are. There are three main areas for the forms that Master Hong taught.
One is general body principles which outlines how each part of the body should be like. Some principles are enjoyed by all styles of Taiji Quan such as lifting head; relaxing and sinking the crotch area; relaxing shoulder and sinking elbow etc. Some are rather special or only taught by Master Hong, such as Jing led by middle finger; root of the middle finger bent inward; elbow curved inward etc. Secondly, movement or coordination principles such as extending out hand rather than elbow; rising and dropping of two knees; front knee Fa rear knee sinking down etc. Many of such principles are not included in Taiji Quan of other styles. Third is combat techniques and its principles. Techniques of Peng, Lv, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, Kao from Master Hong are very different from other Taiji Quan forms, in respect of both the movement and its effects. They are very ingenious - compact and detailed and very practical. These three types of principles can take a whole book to write and would still be insufficient. So I can only give three examples to give a taste.
When we look at Master Hong’s martial art poses we notice his fingers are curled outwards in a rather unusual fashion, leading to people asking if he had practiced some martial arts for women and hence these feminine shaped fingers. This outward curved hand was the result of protruding the base of the middle finger. When Master Hong taught me the requirements of the hand, he emphasised that the Jing should be led by the middle finger. The five finger tips needed to be slightly parted while the bases of the fingers should be drawn together. The hand should resemble a curved roof tile. The base of the middle finger should protrude inwards in the direction of the palm. Here we should discuss the requirement of protrusion of the base of the middle finger. It has some very important combative implication. Our hand is very intriguing in that when you bend your wrist back too much you tend to curl you middle finger and hence not able for it to lead the Jing. However if you only half bend your wrist, and half bend the base of your middle finger (telling my student this is sitting of the second wrist) , the middle finger is easily extended and thus the Jing in the hand can be deployed. When pushing hands, say the opponent presses on your wrist and pushes; if your wrist is bent too much the integrity of your wrist is lost and your opponent can follow this broken structure to advance into you. However if you only half bend your wrist and half bend the base of your middle finger, then the connection between your forearm and you hand becomes a continuous curve and would remain intact. This would allow your legs and torso to initiate movement for deflecting the incoming force. Moreover if this is executed well, it would help to gradually and eventually develop the revolving finger soft internal Jing. Nowadays most people have neglected this topic.
I will give another example to illustrate another movement principle. When Master Hong was teaching me footwork he said that, when stepping, the body also needs to be turned. When stepping with the left leg, for example, you would turn right and vice versa. In his book, for every foot move, he would point out whether the body is turning right or left. An untrained person would not turn when stepping. I have seen many Hong Quan practitioners who also do not turn. Only after a long period of training would they gradually develop this. If one does not turn when stepping forward, it becomes easy for an opponent to ‘seal’ you (block the way forward). If you turn, then you are deflecting as well as using Kao (lean and bump with your shoulder). This saves effort while delivering good effect. Only when you learn turning (not swinging) can you develop your spiral Jing and have the power initiated from your leg and foot.
Another example is Master Hong’s Lie method. First, using the feet and legs to turn the hips and waist, ShunChan (spiral inward) to have the rear hand controlling the opponent’s hand close to my chest and bring the hand back and upwards. At the same time, the front hand ShunChans to collapse and bring Jing down and forward on the outfacing side of the opponent’s upper arm close to the elbow. Then turn your Jing downward and further forward and the opponent will lose his/her balance and fall back. (p318) When an untrained person is pushing an opponent, their front and rear hands tend to push forwards together. This same-direction force can be easily deflected and it is hard to string into an opponent’s centre. Master Hong’s technique, instead, is to lift the rear hand and pull back while the front hand pushes down. When two hands have opposite forces, such Jing, which comes from the one spiral from the feet and legs, makes it easy to go into an opponent’s body and hence have more control. This type of turning/spiral, which spins out two forces in opposite directions, also takes a lot of practice, but the result is surprisingly good.
In Master Hong’s Taiji Quan these techniques, while looking like outer form, are closely linked to Jing. They look simple, but to change our habitual movements takes a long time of practice. This is what I did, bit by bit. Although many techniques are still not quite fluent yet, I can clearly see my improvement in the applications in terms of their effectiveness. For every bit that I come to understand, I give great respect to Master Hong’s wisdom - how prior generations could develop and summarize all these seemingly trivial but, in fact, very effective methods and principles.
If you really love Master Hong’s Taiji Quan you must spend real effort and heart in order to follow these principles and requirements, do them well and change yourself. When Master Hong was teaching me, he never repeated himself and only mentioned most things once. We must pay close attention and treasure all these experiences. This magnificent skyscraper of high level Taiji Quan is made of a countless number of trivial details. We must do them well. Our efforts to perfect them are also the times we can enjoy Taiji Quan.
3. Most advanced breathing
I used to ask Master Hong about how some Taiji Quan practitioners mentioned making the ‘Heng’ or ‘Ha’ sound when using FaJing and how to use correct breathing techniques etc. Master Hong replied that Teacher Chen (Chen FaKe) said to use only natural breathing. If it is just natural breathing, then anyone can do it. There is nothing to discuss. However, when I watched Master Hong pushing hands with other students, I realized that Master Hong’s natural breathing was not the same as just natural breathing.
An untrained person breathes naturally most of the time but when using force they tend to hold their breath and tighten the abdomen. The torso becomes the support so that the arms and hands can do the work. When people start doing Chinese martial arts, they look for better breathing techniques so that more powerful Jing can be exerted. Some details might be different but they all use the same type of breathing: Abdominal rapid breathing out i.e. the diaphragm is lowered to increase abdominal pressure so that a more power force can be generated. I have learnt that different lineages of Chen Style Taiji Quan use more or less similar abdominal breathing.
Once I was teaching in a large city in Europe and lived in a student’s home. This student used to invite a Taiji Quan master who was famous for his FaJing. I asked him how it was done and he showed me. I asked him whether it hurt the abdomen. He replied that he had stopped exactly because of this issue. His technique was abdominal rapid breathing out. When talking about this technique, some people use the metaphor of hitting oneself first before hitting the opponent, as it requires rapidly pressurizing the abdomen and this affects the inner organs. Although this might provide a temporary increase in strength, in the long term it is harmful for health.
I don’t know whether Master Hong, when young, was making sounds when using FaJing, but when I saw him practicing with his students, he took it very easy. You could neither hear him breathing nor using a lot of strength. This is because, for one reason, he deflected very well with a great FaJing angle and no head-on force against force. This is why he needed to use only a little force and could FaJing with ease. Someone told Master Hong that Yang ChengFu, in the later part of his life, did not like to FaJing as he would feel uncomfortable for a couple of days afterwards. Master Hong said that was because there was still some extent of head-on force against force. The other reason is that he used mostly his legs to generate power, unlike others who used mostly hands, which required a strong torso to support. In order for the torso to have more strength and power, they tended to use the rapid abdominal breathing out technique. Master Hong, on the other hand, used legs to generate power. Hands were only for the necessary control. The torso does not need to be hardened, but only to be relatively extended to provide some tension. Therefore, when applying FaJing, Master Hong still used natural breathing and seemed to be very relaxed.
Holding the breath is not as good as trained abdominal breathing out, but Master Hong’s natural breathing was even better - good for combat and good for health. However, to fully grasp this type of natural breathing is only possible after grasping all the correct principles of Taiji Quan and even then it cannot be achieved without training. But one can do so by practicing Taiji Quan correctly which will, in time, bring relaxation of the unnecessarily tensed muscles.
After hundreds of years of development, Taiji Quan has a variety of styles and every practitioner of every style has their own contribution to make. However, the direction of such development also varies greatly because different people have different levels of understanding. Some go back to its true essence, marching on at high level. Some people stay the same. Some people retrograde and go astray.
Master Hong inherited Chen FaKe’s high level Taiji Quan and also theorized and innovated from his own practice, allowing his Taiji Quan to become increasingly mature or, so to speak, more advanced Taiji Quan. His body, movement and combat principles can be widely used as examples for those Taiji Quan practitioners who are after ongoing development of the style. Master Hong’s Taiji Quan is the most advanced in this era but, of course, from the perspective of the whole history of Taiji Quan, there is no best, only better. Master Hong frequently encouraged latecomers to Taiji Quan to study and train hard so that they could not only inherit but also contribute to development of the style. I believe that as long as Taiji Quan practitioners with real passion work together with unremitting efforts, Master Hong would be comforted. Taiji Quan, like a real gem, will be allowed to shine and to benefit people around the world.
June 30th 2019