Chen style tai chi chuan, is regarded as the oldest known form of tai chi in China. It is also considered to be the parent form of the five traditional family styles of tai chi. Chen style tai chi chuan is characterized by ‘silk reeling’, meaning alternating speeds of fast and slow motion with sudden bursts of power.
The Origin of Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan
The true origin of tai chi is not known. However, documents from the 17th century indicate that the Chen clan settled in Chenjiagou (Chen Village), in Henan province in the 13th century, and that Chen Wangting (1580–1660) was the founder and creator of Chen style tai chi chuan after he retired there following the fall of the Ming Dynasty. How the Chen family began to practise their unique martial style is not clear, but what is known, is that the other four traditional tai chi styles; Yang, Sun, Wu and Woo all trace their teachings back to the Chen village in the early 1800s. Whether Chen Wangting did in fact create the earliest form of tai chi or not is uncertain. Traditional folklore and many lineages state the semi-mythical figure of Zhang Sanfeng, a Taoist monk, who lived somewhere between the late Song Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty or Ming Dynasty, was the creator of the art of tai chi. It is said that Wang Jongyue, a famous discipile of Zhang Sangfen, taught the Chen family the art.
Chen Village (Chenjiagou)
According to the family history of the Chen village, the martial arts tradition within the Village was started by a skilled martial artist called Chen Bu. Chen Bu, considered to be the founder of the village, moved from Shanxi where the Chen family originally lived, to Wen County, Henan Province in 1374. The new area was originally known as Chang Yang Cun or Sunshine village. The village grew to include a large number of Chen descendants. The village came to be known as Chen Jia Gou or Chen Family creek or brook, because of the three deep ravines (Gou) alongside the village. The Chen Village soon became known for its martial arts which continued for many generations right up until the present day.
The creation of Chen style tai chi chuan, is generally credited to the ninth generation Chen Village leader, Chen Wangting (1580–1660). He organized pre-existing Chen training practice into a body of seven routines. This included five routines of tai chi chuan, 108 Long Fist form and a more rigorous routine called Cannon Fist. Chen Wangting combined different elements of Chinese philosophy into the martial arts training and created a new approach that today we know as the internal martial arts. He added the theoretical principles of Yin and Yang, the techniques of taoyin – respiration therapy, and other theories rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine that were described in texts such as the Huang Di Nei Jing – The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Chinese Medicine. Chen Wangting also incorporated the boxing theories from sixteen different martial art styles described in the classic text, Ji Xiao Xin Shu; New Book Recording Effective Techniques (1559-1561) written by the Ming General Qi Jiguang (1528–1588).
The 14th generation Chen Village martial artist, Chen Changxing (Chén Chángxīng, Ch’en Chang-hsing, 1771–1853), combined Chen Wangting’s open fist training routine, into two routines that came to be known as ‘Old Frame’ (lao jia). These two routines are named individually as the First Form (Yilu) and the Second Form (Erlu; more commonly known as the Cannon Fist). Contrary to Chen family tradition, Chen Changxing took the first recorded non-family member as a disciple, Yang Luchan (1799–1872). Yang Luchan went on to spread the art throughout China. He did this however, under his own family name, to form what is now known as Yang-style tai chi chuan.
Another 14th Chen generation martial artist named Chen Youben (1780-1858), is credited with starting another Chen training tradition. Also based on two routines, this system is known as ‘Small Frame’ (xiao jia). The Small Frame system of training lead to the formation of two other styles of Tai chi chuan that contain Chen family influences, Zhaobao jia and Hulei jia (Thunder style). These are not considered a part of the Chen family lineage however.
Yang Luchan (1799–1872) and his family formed a reputation with Yang-style tai chi chuan throughout the Qing empire during the second half of the 19th century. Very few people were aware that Yang Luchan first learned his martial arts in the Chen Village from Chen Changxing. Even fewer people visited the Chen village to improve their understanding of Tai Chi Chuan. Only Wu Yu-hsiang (1812–1880), a student of Yang Luchan and eventual founder of Wu style tai chi chuan, was known to have briefly studied the Chen Family small frame system under Chen Qingping (1795 – 1868), a 15th generation descendant and 7th generation master of the Chen family style. Chen Qingping was considered to be an influential martial artist and teacher of Chen style tai chi chuan.
In 1928, Chen Zhaopei (1893–1972) and later his uncle, Chen Fake (1887-1957) moved from the Chen village to teach tai chi in Beijing. Their Chen style tai chi chuan practice was initially perceived as radical and different from other established martial art schools, including well known and widely practiced tai chi traditions of that time. It is understood that both Chen Zhaopei and Chen Fake had to prove the efficacy of Chen style tai chi chuan through personal challenges from other martial artists, including a series of Lei Tai matches. It is maintained that they were undefeated in all contests. The Beijing martial arts community was soon convinced of the effectiveness of Chen style tai chi chuan and before too long, a large group of martial art practitioners started to train and openly promote Chen style tai chi chuan. Before 1928, the Chen family system was only taught within the Chen village region.
This increased interest in Chen style tai chi chuan urged Tang Hao (1887–1959), a modern Chinese martial art historian, to visit and document the martial lineage in the Chen Village in 1932. During his research, he discovered a manuscript written by the 16th generation family member Chen Xin (Ch’en Hsin 1849–1929) detailing Chen Xin’s understanding of the Chen Village heritage. Tang Hao then helped Chen Xin to publish his work titled Taijiquan Illustrated in 1932.
Chen Fake or Ch’en Fa-k’e (1887–1957) was a famous Chen Style tai chi chuan teacher. He was born and raised in the Chen Family Village and was the 17th generation lineage holder of Chen style tai chi chuan. The famous Chen style tai chi chuan grandmaster, Chen Changxing, was his Great Grandfather. His grandsons include Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, the 19th generation standard bearer for Chen family tai chi, and Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing, who is the head of Chen family tai chi instruction in Chenjiagou (Chen village).
When Chen Fake went to Beijing in 1928 following his nephew Chen Zhaopei, he made Chen style tai chi chuan a known and distinct commodity, and opened the Zhongzhou Institute where he taught.
For nearly thirty years, Chen Fake diligently taught the art of Chen style tai chi chuan to a select group of students. Consequently, a strong Beijing Chen style tradition formed around his ‘New Frame’ style which was a variant of the Chen Village ‘Old Frame’ style. After his death in 1958, Chen Fake’s legacy was spread throughout China by the efforts of his most senior students.
China saw a decline in Chen style tai chi chuan during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). The Chinese government’s policy during this time was to suppress all traditional teachings. This included martial arts practice. Training facilities were closed down and practitioners were prosecuted. Many tai chi teachers, including Chen masters were denounced in public. Chen Zhaopei was apparently pushed to the point of attempting suicide, and Hong Junsheng was left malnourished. However, Chen style tai chi chuan training was continued in secret to ensure the continuation of the tradition. This was to the great credit of the Chen style tai chi chuan practitioners at that time, as this came with great personal risk.
The policy of repression of traditional Chinese culture was reversed during the Era of Reconstruction (1976-1989). During this time, Chen style tai chi chuan was once again allowed to flourish openly. A series of government sponsored meetings, and a variety of provincial and national tournaments, allowed Chen style tai chi chuan to regain its once highly respected position as an important branch of Chinese martial arts. Those meetings also created a new generation of Chen style tai chi chuan teachers.
1981 saw the beginning of the internationalization of Chen style tai chi chuan. During this year, a tai chi chuan association from Japan went on a promotional tour to the Chen village. This trip was very successful which created an interest in Chen style tai chi chuan both nationally and internationally. Thereafter, tai chi chuan enthusiasts from various countries travelled to Chenjiagou, the birth place of Chen style tai chi chuan. The increasing interest led all levels of the Chinese government to improve the infrastructure and support of Chenjiaguo, including the establishment of martial art schools, hotels and tourist associations.
1983 marked a significant year for Chen style tai chi chuan, as the Chen village received full government support to promote Chen style tai chi chuan abroad. Some of the best Chen stylists became international ‘roaming ambassadors’ known as the ‘Four Buddha Warrior Attendants’. The four Chen stylists traveled relentlessly, giving global workshops in Chen style tai chi chuan, thus creating an international group of Chen style practitioners. The Four Chen stylists included Chen Xiaowang – Chen Fake’s direct grandson, Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xian and Zhu Tiancai.
Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang
Chen Xiaowang – born 20 October 1945, is a famous present day Chen style tai chi chuan teacher. He was born and raised in the Chen Family Village – Chenjiagou, and is the 19th generation lineage holder of Chen style tai chi chuan. His grandfather was the famous grandmaster, Chen Fake.
Chen Xiaowang began his study of Chen style tai chi chuan at the age of seven under the guidance of his father, Chen Zhaoxu. He later studied with his uncles Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui. He was recognized as one of four outstanding exponents of the 19th generation in Chenjiagou. Chen Xiaowang was chairperson of the Henan Province Chen Push Hands Tai Chi Chuan Association. deputy head of the Wushu Academy of Henan Province, and technical advisor and official assessor for the standardized competition routines for the Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun styles of tai chi chuan.
Chen Xiaowang became the Chinese National Wushu Tournament Tai Chi Chuan gold medalist for three consecutive years from 1980. In 1985, he was crowned The Tai Chi Chuan Champion at the First International Wushu Competition in Xian. Apart from Chen Xiaowang’s martial art ability, he is also a carpenter by trade, a calligrapher, and an author of three tai chi chuan books.
Chen Xiaowang has created two condensed forms of the laojia and xinjia forms; a 38-posture form and a 19-posture form respectively. When interviewed by Inside Kung Fu Magazine in 1991, he said “I have tried to do away with all the repetitions and simplify the very difficult moves without destroying the characteristics of Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan, with special emphasis on attack/defense and the chansi technique.”
Chen style tai chi chuan remains widely practiced today throughout the world. It has become recognized as a major style of martial art in mainland China, and is rapidly growing in popularity in Western countries for both its martial applications, as well as its health enhancing benefits.
Chen style tai chi chuan schools with links back to the Chen Village and Beijing have grown quickly in Western countries in the last twenty years. They offer a distinctly different alternative to the more popular and well known Yang family style of tai chi chuan. Countries with strong links back to the famous Chen Village include; Britain, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.