(frequently asked questions)

Copyright Malisa Ng Williams 2006
What is Tai Chi?
What is Chen style TaiChi?

Tai Chi is slow & boring isn't it?

What do I wear?
How old/fit do I need to be?
What does "Tai Chi Chuan" mean?
What is the Philosophy behind TaiChi?
What is "Internal"?
What are the health benefits?

World TaiChi Day, Auckland 2003.

What is TaiChi?
TaiChi is also known as Taiji, Tai Chi Chuan or Taijiquan. It is regarded as one of the more "internal" and subtle of the martial arts. It takes longer to become an adept practitioner but the skills and benefits are that much greater. It is less stressful on the body than is the case with the more "external" martial arts, less physical exhertion is required and a wider range of health benefits follow on.

What is Chen style TaiChi?
There are now five main styles of TaiChi: Chen, Yang, Sun and the two Wu styles. Chen is the original parent, martial form of TaiChi which originated from Chen village (China). It was kept hidden in the Chen family until very recent times because it was a highly prized and valuable defence skill for the villagers. It was also practised by young and old for health benefits.

Tai Chi is Slow and Boring - right?
Wrong, you may be thinking of "Yang style" (though many people do not find it boring) or the 24 Step Daily Exercise invented by China's Phys-Ed Department for nation-wide use during the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution.

The style that we teach is the lesser known parent, fighting form of all the Tai Chi styles and is known as "Chen style." It is explicitly energetic. It can of course be performed slowly if you desire.

Most people in Western countries have only ever witnessed the very popular Yang style (or the 24 Step). These two Forms together probably represent 95% of the TaiChi taught in clubs throughout European countries. Yang style is typically practised slowly.

What do I wear?
Anything light that doesn't restrict your movement.T-shirts, track-suit pants and soft soled gymn shoes are popular. Light coloured soles will avoid marking floors. If you really want to take it seriously specialised Tai Chi footwear can be purchased from any reputable Martial Arts store.

How Old or Fit do I need to be?
Tai Chi suits all ages and fitness levels.

TaiChi "exercise philosophy" is also very different from the usual Western idea of pumping up the heart-rate and thrashing the muscles of arms and legs. The goal of Chen Tai Chi is to be able to practice as vigorously as you desire without puffing because its goal is for stamina, flexibility and efficient muscles (rather than big muscles).

Chen style, because of its more energetic nature, is especially suitable for young adults. But there are also classes and routines very suitable for older folk too. Tai Chi "exercises" are low impact which is really good for those with disabilities or who are recovering from surgery (under doctor's advice)

You do not need to be fit to start. Tai Chi also contains very effective "Breathing Exercises."

Do advise your instructor so they can advise the best plan for you.

What does Tai Chi Chuan mean?
"TaiChi Chuan" literally translates awkwardly into English as something like "supreme ultimate fist". In the first two words, "Tai Chi", we find a much older expression. This expression has many layers of associated meaning at both everyday and philosophical levels (involving Tao-ist understanding of the Universe). It could be paraphrased as "the harmony of Opposites that is the basis of Being."

"Chuan" means "fist" - i.e. a fighting, or martial, art.

What is the older Philosophy behind "Tai Chi"?
The European language also has these sort of foundation-of the-universe type words (eg "Spirit"). However the basic idea (as relevent to modern day TaiChi Chuan) behind the very old phrase "Tai Chi" is that Nature is at its most creative, dynamic and powerful expression in anything that can harmoniously hold together things which we usually regard as opposites. Painting in very broad strokes we might say that the feeling evoked by this phrase in Chinese elicits much the same feeling a Christian European might get when they open the Bible and read, "In the beginning the world was Void and without form, darkness covered the waters and the Spirit hovered over the Deep."

Perhaps all this is summarised in the well-known Chinese image of the "Yin-Yang" Circle composed from two identical "teardrops". Long before it was used to represent the martial art of TaiChiChuan it signified the older "TaiChi" principle of the "harmonious harnessing of opposites held in tension.

How this " harmonious harnessing of opposite principles" applies to "Chuan" (meaning "fist" - ie fighting art) and what these contrary forces are is another story. Nevertheless that is how TaiChiChuan works and this Art sees the whole human body, in harmony, as the single most potent weapon of defence.

What is "Internal"?
"Internal" has a number of meanings. At a very basic level "Internal" refers to the particular way in which physical force is generated. This force is produced by skillful use of the whole body in harmony.

In Chen style this force is not only generated from the outer muscles but also from deeper muscle tissue (especially the muscles around the spine, hips and diaphragm), whole body movement and the energy that can be stored in the rubber-like elasticity of joint tendons/sinews. With correct alignment and movement this force can be built up in muscle/joint groups and transferred cumlatively around the body. It can be released in powerful or even explosive-like movements of considerable, focused force.

"Brute force", on the other hand, tends to rely simply on outer, localised muscle strength (and often only a few local muscles at that) and is considered "external".

Internal arts take longer to master because joints must be loosened up, seldom used muscles must be strengthened, very subtle body movement skills must be aquired, "involuntary" muscle group movements must gradually come under the control of the mind so that they can be "discharged" at will. The end result of course is greater force for same amount of exhertion.

This Internal/External dichotomy is in fact a sliding continuum and no martial art is purely one or the other. More experienced practicioners of the "External" martial arts will more than likely exhibit a greater use of internal force as the years go by. Conversely the Internal martial arts have some movements that make little use of internal energy and only after many years of dedicated training will the disciples of these Internal martial arts manifest useful internal energy.

Some historians suggest that "internal" refers to those martial arts that are taught privately and thus kept hidden - as was the case with Chen style TaiChi (known only to the families in Chen village until the early 1900s.)

There is also a suggestion (Japanese influence?) of an historic association of the Internal Arts with the ruling classes and care for the body; while the External Arts are associated with "commoners" and indifference to the body. The reason is somewhat pragmatic. Commoners needed to be trained quickly for war by their rulers. Also, the rulers didn't mind too much if these effective fighting systems actually damaged the commoners body's over time because their lives were often considered short and unimportant. The nobles and rulers, on the other hand, had plenty of spare time to learn and practise the more difficult Internal methods which were ultimately superior systems - at both martial art and bodily health levels. The External arts had the better "bang for the buck."

What are the health benefits? (see Health Benefits page)
There are numerous health benefits for joints, balance and coordination, respitory, circulatory and immune systems to say nothing of mental health benefits for complaints ranging from depression and insomnia to stress and anxiety. The greatest health benefits come from the cultivation of "internal energy" techniques and skills. Traditional Chen style TaiChi was devoted to this goal primarily for martial art purposes (great stamina, very efficient muscle tissue, very high "impulse" power) but the secondary long term health benefits have always been recognised as well.

Health benefits acquire to the body from these Internal Skills due to the special technique and the high percentage of body tissue that is engaged. Huge amounts of muscle tissue is uniquely exercised, lungs and diaphragm are intimately integrated ("Breathing Exercises"), abdominal organs are gently massaged, joints are mobilised and stretched. This whole body "exercising" is responsible for the unique health benefits at a systemic level as mentioned above.

This skill is based on a training philosophy of low-impact exercising of extremely relaxed muscle tissue. It results in a completely different muscle tone from that obtained by "pounding the footpath" or working out in the gymn (which actually tightens muscles).

Be aware that a lot of TaiChi is only taught "externally" (so-called "loudspeaker Tai Chi") - ie more as a calisthenic exercise pattern with no real regard for the traditional techniques/guidance needed to learn the Internal skills. Greater health benefits aquire from practising the internal skills. Many traditional teachers maintain that it is only through the verifiable internal, self-defence teachings that the health benefits present themselves.

Why is Chen style TaiChi virtually unknown in N.Z.?
The martial art now known as "TaiChi" was developed in Chen village, China, for the self defence of its inhabitants. Obviously it was not in their interests to teach this effective martial art to those outside of Chen village.

Nevertheless one very talented "visitor" (in the 1800s) managed to learn this Chen style. It appears that his changed/adapted version spread rapidly throughout China - becoming what is now known as "Yang" style TaiChi. This is the style that most Kiwis associate with "TaiChi" (often practised in our parks by Chinese Kiwis). The other main styles seem to have split off from Yang.

Finally, in the late 1920's, Chen village began to open up their art and by 1928 it was being taught in Bejing by the renowned Chen Fake. It still took time for this parent Chen style to become widely known and understood both inside and outside of China. The Chinese governmental agencies of the early 1900s may have regarded provincial based martial arts groups as an obstacle to their centralising efforts and so these arts were driven underground. This appears to have had two contradictory effects on TaiChi. It limited the spread of Chen style inside China yet encouraged the spread of Yang style (already well established throughout China) outside of China as individuals relocated to other countries.

The "Four Tigers" of Chen Village were significantly responsible for its spread outside of China from the late 1970s when they began their international teaching circuits. In Singapore and Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), for example, Chen style instruction was only publicly available from the early 1980s under the influence of Master Zhu Tian Cai (from whom Malisa learnt her TaiChi). In New Zealand it appears that a few individual Chinese, proficient in Chen style, have dwelt here since the late1980s. However it seems that publicly advertised Chen style instruction was not initiated until the early 1990s (Wellington?). Presently it is still difficult to find comprehensive Chen style instruction in N.Z.

How is Chen style different? (see video clips)
Chen style is characterised by its more vigorous, energetic and uniquely graceful "silk-reeling", spiral, twist-like actions. Also by its contrary gentle/explosive, slow/fast, hard/soft style in its leaps, kicks, skip-steps, blocks, and strikes. And again by its "stamping" and "shaking" like actions. Chen style is ideally suited to younger adults but of course all ages can practise and adapt the movements to as vigorous a level as desired.

Is Chen style a real Martial Art - can it be used for self defence?
As indicated above Chen style is in fact the original fighting form of TaiChi and is widely regarded as amongst the foremost of the Martial Arts. It is a genuine and effective martial art for self-defence for experienced practicioners. However if a "quick fix" self-defence strategy is sought then the more "external" martial arts are better suited as they provide the best short-term results.

How do I recognise a good Chen style teacher?
Please go to the separate article, click here.

How is Chen Style taught? (Also see Teaching Method)
Chen style internal skills are traditionally taught by means of two classical routines: Old Frame One (Lao Jia Yilu) and Old Frame Two (Lao Jia Yilu). The classical routines are single person sets of movements that are joined in a continuous flowing manner. These Routines are practiced by beginners and seasoned Masters alike as, like layers of an onion, one searches for ever greater depth in their exercise.

The purpose of these Routines is at least threefold:
(a) First, its about aquiring the more mechanical basics (eg balance; flexibility; muscle/cardio strengthening/toning; correct postures and low-impact techniques for turning/twisting/weight-change; training the mind to move the body in a certain way and to use muscles in a relaxed manner). This is the "outward form"

(b) Secondly it is also about Martial Art Discipline. Each of the movements in the set, even if you don't know it, is in fact combative based (either of defence or attack) despite the soft beauty. Other TaiChi styles (and sometimes less experienced "Chen" teachers) may minimise or stylise out this martial element to the point of extinction - but not so Traditional Chen style. Particular emphasis on this element in Traditional Chen style TaiChi is known as "Applications." It is usually only taught informally by more dedicated teachers or at specific workshops. Not all Clubs have this emphasis but it is implicit in Chen Style all the same.

(c) Finally it is also about the longer-term project of developing internal energy. This internal energy is what gives TaiChi its prowess not only as a fighting skill but also as a true Art Form (of the human body). This aspect of TaiChi movement is known as the "internal form." Some who have achieved excellence in its ways are legends because of the wonderful feats their skills enabled. Like any Art form, excellence requires a combination of raw gift, good teaching, lots of regular disciplined practice and the intelligence/ability to self-learn and experiment/discover under guidance. Some would say this skill cannot really be "taught" - one can only be placed in a situation where there is a good chance it may be "caught". This is what constant practice (and a good teacher) of these traditional forms is recognised as providing.

"Push Hands" (Tui Shou) and various ancillary exercises such as "Silk Reeling" and the Standing/breathing postures (Zhan Zhuan) are also used to focus and advance the learning process. "Push hands" is a subtle, two-person training system where partners link wrists in various circular patterns as they seek to detect loss of balance and harmony in the other so as to exploit their weakness and off-balance them.

When sufficient progress is made in the "open fist" routines there are also Chen style weapons routines which are useful in developing various aspects of the "internal form."

Be warned - if you seek proficiency in the internal skills of TaiChi it takes time and cannot be gained without disciplined and regular training.

Are there other Chen Style Routines?
There are many other Routines invented by more recent Masters and even National Institutions. These often have different purposes and Beginners need to have a good idea what they really want out of Chen Style Taichi before choosing. Like painting, success comes from the preparation so sort out exactly what you want from TaiChi, research well the different Routines/Forms available to you and then stick to it. Chopping and changing is no way to become adept in anything. Hopefully the few words that follow will help you in the right direction.

Broadly the different Routines can be divided into Traditional and Contemporary.

(a) Traditional:
These are the forms/routines that derive from the long evolutions in Chen Village. Recorded history show that original TaiChi learning in the Chen Village centred around a comprehensive set of Five groups of routines of which only two have survived. These surviving forms evolved into two distinct Chen traditions: Large Frame and Small Frame.

Large Frame eventually evolved the two surviving forms into what is now known as Old Frame One and Old Frame Two (aka Pao Choi). Small Frame's origin is disputed, some say it is the oldest surviving form from which came the Large Frame (a more exaggerated form to help beginners more quickly learn the internal form) while others say the reverse. In any case Large Frame was for serious beginners and Masters while Small Frame (less vigorous and no Fajing) was used by the very mature artist (maintenance) or children (for health).

Apart from the above "classics" there are also the New Frames. Renowned Chen Master, Chen Fake, adapted the Old Frame routines and created these New Frames. He was the one who first revealed Chen style to the Chinese public when he taught these forms in Bejing in the 1930s. A minority opinion believes this "New Frame" is also very old but had been kept secret until Chen Fake publicly taught it for the first time. See here for a discussion on the matter.

Be careful with the terminology - some authors refer to "Small Frame" as "New Frame" (because they say it came from Large Frame and is relatively new). Chinese to English translations and paraphrases don't help the matter!

There are other traditional Chen Routines as well. There is the Thirteen Postures/Powers/Movements which is not really a flowing set of movements (ie a routine) but rather 13 essential basic principles/stances to which any system calling itself TaiChi must conform to be considered effective and comprehensive. Remember that TaiChi is not the routine. The original TaiChi had no set routines at all and indeed TaiChi used to be called simply "The Thirteen."

The routines teach the internal form/skills which, in real combat, should issue from any situation or simple movement. Of course the "external" routine teaches effective KungFu "moves" (adapted from the Shaolin Long Fist tradition) which further increase prowess. You may be interested to note that "Long" means coiling and forever flowing (as in the Long Yellow River). TaiChi inherits much of its flowing external routine from the ancestor of present day Shaolin Long Fist tradition (especially the Taizu and Red Fist forms).

Mention must be made of "variant strains" of the Chen tradition at around the 15th/16th generation Masters (the present "standard bearers" are 19th Generation). These are the non-mainstream Zhaobao and "Thunder Style" variants which can be found exhibited by a much smaller group of families still within the Chen Valley area.

Finally there are those forms which are in the process of becoming traditional. The "innovation" by Chen Fake (mentioned above) is now considered traditional in Chen Village not only because it was adapted by such an acclaimed Chen master but also because it has stood the test of time.

There are also other very recent "innovations" that may be well on the way to becoming "traditional." For example, the 38 Chen Form (adapted by Chen Xiao Wang) or the 19 Chen Form (Chen Zen Lee) or the 4 or 13 Chen Form (Zhu TianCai's abbreviated Old Frame One based on the ancient Thirteen Postures mentioned above) as these Masters are all members of the respected "Four Tigers" group of Chen Village.

(b) Contemporary:
The newer contemporary forms tend to be "invented" by Wushu Organisations under the patronage of the Chinese Government often for competitions. These forms tend to emphasises the beauty of the external form and are very popular amongst Asians themselves. The principles behind these forms may not come from traditional Chen style alone or at all. These forms are not really intended for long-term assistance in developing internal energy. However they are quick to learn, look good, have health benefits and are very popular in competition TaiChi. The 56 Chen Competition Set is popular amongst Chen style enthusiasts because it has the approval of Chen Village for use in competitions.

Sometimes lesser known, individual masters feel they can improve on the traditional routines and they adapt/invent their own which they believe conform to the principles. A beginner needs to be careful here. It can be a frustrating experience to join a club and learn their form only to find it is very different from anywhere else and may well die with the master. Of course this is not to say it isn't a valid evolution - afterall the Traditional routines were once innovations. It is perhaps better to adopt a club whose "unusual" forms have stood the test of time and critique for a generation or two. At best make sure you are well grounded in the traditional Old Frame One before experimenting in this way.

Free video clips of some of the above Traditional Forms are available here.
More info on Traditional Forms here.

Why should I learn Chen style?
Of course you don't have to do anything! But what are you looking for?
Chen style TaiChi has some very particular attractions that may appeal to you:
(a) Exercise/Flexibility/Relaxation:
At a very basic level Chen style TaiChi is useful an enjoyable and low impact way of exercising and body conditioning. This is not the slow-motion exercise seen in the parks (probably Yang style). It can be a real workout. And its interesting because you learn and practice with a group and all the social contacts and activities that go with that (if you want). As you learn the routines you gain the freedom to exercise at home by yourself. You will also find a peace and tranquillity that comes from the "mindless", disciplined and graceful coordination you have achieved. And as practitioners are always improving their skill (if you want to) it only gets better with the years. If you are too unfit to start? Don't worry, there are breathing exercises to ease into it.
(b) Other Health Benefits: (see Health Benefits page)
There are numerous health benefits for joints, respitory, circulatory and immune systems to say nothing of mental health benefits for complaints ranging from depression and insomnia to stress and anxiety.
(c) The Traditional Internal Skills:
Here resides the traditional wisdom and the high learning that gave TaiChi its prestige as one of the foremost of the martial arts before the invention of the gun. These internal skills are also the deepest source of TaiChi's health benefits. If you are serious about learning one of the deepest and most subtle of the Martial Arts then you won't run out of depth with Chen style.
(d) A Wonderful External Art Form:
If whole body movement and harmony is what you seek Chen style is wonderfully graceful in its exotic, lively liquid movements. There are not only the challenging "empty fist" routines for you to master but there are also excitingly beautiful sword routines as well. There is no shortage of opportunty for entertaining the public (as club demos are in high demand) if that appeals to you and you are of sufficient proficiency. And this is not a skill you will ever stop improving, especially as you observe others and get involved in overseas conventions.
(e) A Great, Non-Contact, Competition Sport: Apart from friendly city based conventions there are significant trials, competitions and conventions at overseas venues such as China, Malaysia, Singapore, USA. These events broaden a students knowledge and experience.
(f) Club Teaching Opportunities:
If you like coaching or helping others then there is lots of opportunity for you to help out within the Club as you become a senior student - receiving further personalised training in return. There are also numerous Community opportunities as well. Presently the Club is receiving numerous requests for Chen style instruction at Retirement Villages, Community Centres, Senior Citizens Groups for various Ethnic Communities and from health related Government Departments.
(g) Social Contact/Overseas Travel:
Clubs are great places for meeting new people and expanding your horizens and experiences. Chen style taichi is no exception. In fact you may like to travel with members to overseas Asian and US venues for the exciting conventions, competitions and trials that take place every year. And even if you aren't heavily into the TaiChi you can still come along as a tourist and watch your club members compete!

Where can I find out more?
Check out our Chen style Links page or write in a question to our Egroup Discussion Forum run by Tu-Ky Lam in Wellington.

Inaccurate ...?
If you believe any info here is inaccurate or in need of expansion please let us know!