Master Chen Ziqiang is a member of the 20th generation of the Chen family. He was born in 1977 in Chen Village (Henan, China) and is the oldest son of grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing, nephew of grandmaster Chen Xiaowang and great-grandson of the legendary taiji master Chen Fake.
In his twenties, he became very well known as one of the fiercest fighters in the village. He competed in many national competitions throughout China and won numerous gold medals in every division he competed in, including open hand forms, weapon forms and pushing hands.
He is the chief coach of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School he runs with his father in his home village and has aready been teaching for more than two decades. For the last thirteen years, he has been conducting seminars abroad as well. He spends about six months every year travelling around the world spreading his family’s knowledge and skills.
I met master Ziqiang for the first time in 2014 at one of his seminars in Slovenia. He immediately made a big impact on me with his abilities, teaching as well as his character. I was impressed by his strong and agile body which allowed him to express his abilities in such an efortless and natural way. Moreover, I perceived him as very calm and introverted person, but at the same time as very focused and fiery in his depths.
What inspired me the most was his commitment, accuracy and hardworking nature. He is a living proof of how powerful and skillful a man can become through dedicated and continuous life-long training.
In 2017 and 2020, I got the opportunity to train with him at Chenjiagou School as well. Upon his return home after his travelling season abroad in 2017, the atmosphere of hard work intensified at the school and I could feel that he established great authority among all of the instructors and students. Regardless of his position, he always exuded calmness and never used force.
I got the impression that master Ziqiang enjoys the school life very much. He likes being surrounded with students, his family and friends who come for a visit. Every day when I spent time in his office (which seemed to be his favourite place), I felt like I was in his living room. The atmosphere during classes was always serious and hard-working, but relaxed at the same time.
Sometimes he was entirely focused on teaching, other times he was also busy with many other school activities, or he was just having a break and enjoying his tea and people’s company. In the meantime, if there were students training around, he still found moments to correct them. He was fully commited to teaching. When I went to train with him for a month during the last Spring Festival, he offered classes on every single day, even on the first day of the Chinese New Year.
In the learning process, he insisted on the basics and went into details. If I showed willingness to hold a certain posture for a period of time, he also persistently corrected me. At other times he asked me to do some repetitions of the form. At first he just watched me with no interruption and later on he focused on the details.
Each time he demonstrated the movements, it was an amazing experience for me, especially when I stood very close to him. While practising a form in a group, althought there were other students who were at a more advanced level than I was he sometimes asked me to stand in front and lead a group. His purpose was very clear; he wanted me to get the experience and to learn from it.
Despite his introverted nature, I find master Ziqiang very sociable. He likes having fun and making jokes. There were beautiful moments when he radiated such happiness that people around him consequently became happy too. Due to his generousity, I got the impression that he has a strong sense of community and really enjoys taking care for others. This came to the fore not only during classes, but also during breaks when he regularly invited the whole group of students to his office for tea, fruit and snacks. He was a very good host and sometimes left me speechless as to how he personally took care of the practical things I needed during my stay. Despite his position, he still remains a very simple man and perhaps this simplicity was also the quality that led him towards his mastery.
In the wintertime, during my last stay at Chenjiagou School, master Ziqiang agreed to give an interview. After lunch before the afternoon training session, he sat down at the tea table in his office and generously offered me an hour of his time to answer my questions.
At the beginning of our conversation, he talked about his attitude towards taiji and the environment in which he grew up. He mentioned what the essence of taijiquan is and how training methods at Chenjiagou School have changed over time.
He shared some of his thoughts about taiji as a martial art and why there are many misconceptions in this regard. Additionally, he gave some tips on succesful training, stressing the importance of sticking to the basics and letting go of the preoccupation with one’s own progress.
Lastly, he mentioned how important it is for students to keep their minds calm while training and how taijiquan can help people in today’s world. He stressed the neccessity for all beginners to persevere with their taiji training.
About training in the past…
- Master Ziqiang, you were inevitably linked to taijiquan from your early years. What was your attitude to it when you were a child, a youngster and later on an adult?
In my early years, I didn’t like practising taijiquan at all, I was obliged to do it. But from the age of thirteen, I suddenly started to like it very much. At that time, my motivation was more or less to train for myself. When I got older, I also started to feel a sense of responsibility to pass on the family tradition and a sense of giving something back to my children.
- As a child and youngster, did you have any other specific interests besides being involved in taiji?
I liked spending time in nature. I climbed trees, caught birds and snakes. In the winter I played with snow, in the spring I collected grass and wild flowers on my way through the meadows and in the autumn I picked and ate fruit.
- Could you tell us a little bit about the environment in which you grew up? Where did you live and practise in your youth?
I was born in a house where my great-grandfather Chen Fake lived, nearby the place where my cousin Chen Bing’s school is today. The remains might still be there. The place where I used to live and study was in my grandfather’s house, which was located exactly at the place where Chen Bing’s school is now. A few years later, the house fell to pieces, so our family had to move to a sort of grass hut. We started building a new house at the same place where the old house had stood and we moved back there when it was built.
The things that my father did most of his life, beside practising and teaching taijiquan, were building houses and raising children. The first building of his present school was built in 1980s. But at that time I didn’t come to school very often. I was still mainly training at home under his guidance. I finally moved to school in 2003.
- You were (and still are) guided by your father Chen Xiaoxing. When did you start discovering and establishing your own way of doing taiji? How much freedom did you have in your learning process?
I have had my own independent thinking about taijiquan since my early years. My father never required me to do the movements exactly the same as he did, but if something wasn’t clear to me, Ialways asked him for advice.
Taijiquan is not about studying external appearance. It is about studying methods, motion, its morality and the principles.
- Has your approach to movements changed over time and is it still changing in line with your development?
It didn’t change much because the principles are still the same. My thinking on these principles, however, has slightly changed. For example, there are two versions of ´Shan tong bai´ (the movement ´Flash with back´ from Old form I.). My father taught me the first one and my uncle Chen Xiaowang taught me the second one. I use them both in the form, maybe I changed them a little bit. That is how I avoid repeating the same movement again and again.
- When did you start learning your first form and how long did it take until you began to learn the next one?
I could perform Laojia Yilu (Old form I.) at the age of five. I used to practise Zhan Zhuang (standing pole), but I was always forgetting the form because it was too long. I had practised Laojia Yilu until the age of seventeen and only then I started with Laojia Erlu (Old form II.).
When I was a child, there was no silk reeling, no 19 Form, no 38 Form – they were all developed later by my uncle Chen Xiaowang.
- Did you at any time have difficulties with persisting in your practice? What motivated you to continue?
As I already said, before I was thirteen, I was forced to do it. After that I developed an interest in it and training became the most important thing for me. I never experienced any huge obstacles.
- Have the methods of training in the school changed over the years? If yes, in which way?
Yes, the training methods have been changing a lot. From 1996 to 2000 I never used to make much distinction between different ways of training. There was a bit of weight lifting, running, tuishou and a bit of form practice. It was more flexible, relaxed and organic in a way. From 2000 to 2008 I began introducing clearer instructions on when to train weight lifting, when to train forms and when to train tuishou (pushing hands).
Therefore, students who were trained at that time (for example Chenjiagou nine tigers) developed slightly different thinking. Through time the methods of training have become more and more standardized. Now you have quite specific training in forms, specific tuishou techniques etc. Because people are different and have different bodies, they also need to be given different kinds of training.
From 2008 onward, the methods have gradually become more scientific in a way. Since I spend more time travelling abroad, there is less time to run the school the way I used to. Thus, training has to be more standardized.
About learning the skill…
- Although taiji is basically a martial art, this aspect is still quite unknown in the West. Anyone who hears terms such as kung fu and karate knows it is a martial art. With taiji, however, many people still have the idea of a “dance” meant just for relaxation and well-being. Why do you think it is like this?
This misunderstanding about taiji does not exist just in the West, but in China as well. There is no absolute, definite attitude, every single person has a different attitude. Perhaps one of the reasons for the misunderstanding is that there are a lot of movies involving martial arts, where actors perform many fast movements. People like to see jumping very high in the air etc., so this kind of mentality comes just from misunderstanding and ignorance about martial arts.
For example, traditional kung fu actually does not involve gymnastic movements either. Spinning in the air and similar activities are mainly for performance and for practising gongfu. That is why I have no interest in defending taiji as a martial art. People who are genuinely interested in martial arts will recognise and start to understand that principles of taijiquan represent an excelent and effective system.
Beside this, if people regard taiji just as a health exercise, they don’t understand taijiquan. If you want to learn real taiji, there is no distinction between methods of training to develop the martial aspect or to improve your health. The two are one and the same. If people think taiji is something other than a martial art, it just shows that they misunderstand the whole concept.
- According to Chinese medicine, the lower dantian is treated as the ´central point´ of the body system. Why is it so important in taijiquan?
The dantian is important because it gives the body a feeling of direction and unity. Every movement has a starting point just like a school has a headmaster. The running of the whole school depends on the decisions of the headmaster. It is the same with the dantian, it serves as the ´headmaster´ of the body.
- Do you have any advice on how students can cultivate their dantian?
Students should not try too hard to cultivate their dantian. This is something that comes with practice and cannot be done just through their conscious will. If you practise taiji regularly, your awareness of the dantian will gradually appear with time. For example, the sun and the moon rise naturally every day without your effort. If they don’t appear, you shouldn’t make yourself exhausted or worried about it. It should always happen naturally.
- During my previous stay at Chenjiagou School, I was very impressed with the challenging physical training you conducted for children and youngsters. Do you think adult students should also pay more attention to physical preparation, in order to achieve a higher level of skill?
Every age group needs a different style of training because requirements differ. Of course, doing some extra stretching, running, weight lifting can help students. Every form of exercise has its own advantages.
- At what stage does it make sense for students to start practising tuishou? How to start and what are the most important things to pay attention to?
Students practise tuishou at different levels. It makes sense for them to practise basic tuishou when they are learning basic skills. But of course, they need a good grasp of the foundation to practise at the more advanced levels. For example, before you can read Chinese poetry, you need to have the basic grasp of the Chinese language. It is all about the basics and the foundation.
- Would you have any advice for teachers? How can they become even better?
Teachers shouldn’t think too much about the skill. They should respect their own abilities and limitations.
- Is there any traditional family rule of how much taijiquan we should practise every day?
If you want to learn well, you should do Laojia Yilu at least twenty times every day.
- Movements in forms have their own names. Where do these names derive from?
The names of the movements were created by Chen Wangting and they mainly came from nature, society, daily life and culture.
About effects of taiji…
- How should students use their mind while practising? What is your experience in regard to that in the process of practice?
When you practise, you just need to keep your mind calm. Most people will practise taiji to become peaceful, but I am already peaceful the moment when I start with practice.
- Taiji is about the balance. How do we find balance in training?
You find balance in training by finding balance in all aspects of your life.
- In case people cannot practise physically for some reason (if they are injured, while travelling etc.), is it, in your opinion, valuable to practise in your mind? Do you ever practise like this?
I think practising in your mind, if you are injured for example, is a good thing. But personally, I do not use this method. It is simply not my habit.
- Can taiji help people recover mentally and physically? If so, can you give some actual examples of people, who have been recovering from a serious illness or injury using taiji?
I saw taiji practice helped people to recover many times. For instance, there is one older student in the school, who used to have problems with his knees. But since he has been studying taiji, his knees are much better. Another student had a very bad spinal deformity, a kind of arthritis. Now, after a certain period of practice, he is able to jump on to table. There was also a little boy who always played computer games. Since he joined the school, he hasn’t played computer games any more (laughing). Overweight people lost weight and became fitter by practising taiji.
- What advice would you give to students who love taiji but are too busy with work and children?
Are you trying to tell me that they do not have five minutes? They can do some silk reeling or some standing.
- How can taiji help the modern man?
Taijiquan is a perfect system. It is very good for your health, muscles, bones, joints etc. and of course, it has many other benefits for the modern man. It can especially help people who suffer from a lot of stress. It lowers your blood pressure, increases the immune system etc.
- Do you have any advice for people who want to start practising taiji? What should they pay attention to?
All beginners should make a decision to stick to it. There is no point in starting if you are not going to continue doing it.
This interview was conducted at the beginning of February 2020 in Chenjiagou School. I asked master Ziqiang some additional questions via online communication and inserted them into the interview afterwards.
Firstly, I would like to express my great appreciation to master Ziqiang for his time and willingness to answer my questions, to allow me to take some photographs during our practice together and to use a few photographs from his personal archive.
Special thanks goes to master Ziqiang’s long-time student Joe Davey. He was also present during my winter training at school and without his assistance, I could not have done the interview. Joe translated my questions to Chinese and the master’s answers back to English. I am very grateful to him for helpful suggestions regarding the content of the questions as well as for all his patience and readiness to translate the additional questions I sent to the master online. He also provided me with photographs from master’s personal archive.
Lastly, I wish to acknowledge the help provided by Sara Štefančič, who reviewed the final version of the interview and offered her personal opinion on the content; and by Ines Rajgelj, who proofread the original English text and translated the last part of the text from Slovene into English.