At the start of each class, we pay our respects to the masters of our taijiquan tradition who have passed away. Here is a brief description of some of these remarkable people so that you know something about them when you take part in the simple ritual.
Chen Wangting (1600 - 1680) is widely considered to be the originator of Chen-style taijiquan. A soldier during the turbulent period at the end of the Ming and the beginning of the Qing dynasties, he would have had practical battlefield experience to draw upon, but combined this with ancient breathing techniques and medical theory to formulate seven routines of what would later come to be known as taijiquan.
These were later synthesized into the two routines of Lao Jia (Old Frame) Chen taijiquan that we practise today by Chen Changxing (1771 - 1853). He went by the nickname of "Mr Ancestral Tablet" because of his perfectly upright posture. His other claim to fame is that he taught Yang Luchan (1799 - 1871) who went on to develop his own version of taijiquan and which subsequently transformed into the soft, open Yang style which is popularly practised today.
Up until this point, the Chen style was a closely guarded secret - as were most family and village martial traditions; in an essentially medieval society such as China, the survival of one's family and neighbours depended on maintaining fighting skills which had the edge over any likely opponent. However, Yang Luchan went to Beijing to teach, to be followed in 1928 by Chen Zhaopi and later Chen Fake. These last two masters brought awareness of Chen-style taijiquan to a wider audience. Chen Fake developed his own version of the family style, making it somewhat more elaborate, a style which has been called Xin Jia (New Frame), while Chen Zhaopi returned to the Chen family village when it became clear that the style was dying out in its place of origin.
Chen Zhaopi endured much during the Cultural Revolution, being harshly persecuted, as were many who tried to maintain any sort of traditional activity, but many of the leading figures of today trained with him, frequently in secret during those appalling years. Chen Fake's son, Chen Zhaokui, took up where Chen Zhaopi left off upon his death in 1972 and since the 1980s his students have taken Chen family taijiquan onto the world stage.
Thus, at the start of each class, we pay tribute to these extraordinary individuals, as well as all the others who have, down the centuries, sustained this fine tradition and have helped to make it available to us.
I have been a birdwatcher ever since I was a kid and, although it is not a very fashionable activity, people are often interested and one of the first questions they often ask me is about how often I go out birdwatching. The expectation seems to be that I will go off every weekend chasing rarities (or “twitching”, as it is known in the trade). My standard answer is usually that I never manage to get out quite often enough, given the need to fit the activity around work and family life until very recently. However, my second answer is actually nearer the truth: the fact is, that I am almost always birdwatching in some way, in that I am (during daylight hours at least) alert to the birds that are around me. As I write this, a Song Thrush is tuning up for spring in a field behind the house; yesterday, there were two pairs of Red Kites engaging each other in a territorial dispute as we drove out to do some shopping; later, a family party of Long-tailed Tits may pass through the garden on their relentless hunt for food on these cold days. (Parents, young and related adults work as a team, both over the winter and during the breeding season, in a living demonstration of the old saying about birds of a feather flocking together.)
In the same way, although I train my Tai Chi regularly, almost every day, in some sense I am actually always “doing” Tai Chi. The basic principles of physical alignment can be worked almost anywhere (suspend the top of the head, open the back of the neck, drop the tailbone, etc…). Standing in the queue at the supermarket, doing the washing up at a basin that is slightly too low (bend the knees, squat into the kua…), following my wife around as she chooses yet another pair of jeans (breathe to the dantian, relax…) - daily activity is an opportunity for virtually constant awareness and practice.
As beginners especially, partly perhaps because you have not yet developed the level of engagement (or is it addiction?) to carve a daily practice time out of a busy schedule, thinking in this way about your training seems to me to be very useful. Although working through the Tai Chi form is an endlessly fascinating experience and yields tremendous benefits in terms of physical development and mental concentration (as well as giving you some precious “me” time), Tai Chi is at its most useful if it makes a difference to our everyday existence.
So by all means, when you start coming to our classes, try to find short periods of time during the day when you can practise some of what you learn (the Eight Pieces of Brocade or Silk-reeling exercises, for example, can be done in a few minutes in a very small amount of space), but also try to think of Tai Chi as something that can be integrated into everything that you do. But maybe avoid performing “Pound the Mortar” in the supermarket queue.
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.