Last month I went to Chen Jia Gou, just outside of Zhengzhou, Henan, to visit the birthplace of Chen Style Taiji Quan. I went with Chen Jia, a young lady who studies under the style’s current, most famous master, Chen Xiao Wang. She also opened her own school in Shanghai.
Every year in March, Chen Xiao Wang takes time out from his travels around the globe to return home and pay respects to the temple, school, and village where he was born and raised. Students from around the country – and the world – come to Henan during the last week in March to join him, participate in seminars, and train with other taiji enthusiasts.
My primary interest in traveling out here was to learn more about Chen Jia, more about her master Chen Xiao Wang, and to take a good look at a “birthplace” of a style. I know Chen Jia, and consider her to be a very sincere and talented martial artist, and in conversations we had we often spoken of the level of “realness” in martial arts these days. We talked of the rise of Wushu – the competition style Wushu – and the decline in students of what we both understood to be real kungfu.
It’s easy to agree on a definition when you agree with the person you speak to. So much can be left unsaid. Hence the trip: I wanted to see what was real in Zhengzhou and what Chen Jia considered to be real kungfu.
I was, in all, pleasantly surprised.
The village is a dusty, poor country village like many others in Henan. The earth is more sand than soil and the Yellow River flows listlessly, like an obese serpent with advanced cancer. Henan was once the breadbasket of China and the core of many a great kingdom, but as with the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, China’s breadbasket has fallen on dry times.
Henan in China has, in modern times, become synonymous with poverty, AIDS villages, backwards farmers, and hilarious accents. The Shaolin Temple is a bright spot, as are some of the ruins that still attract tourists to the ancient Shang and Xia Dynasty capitals along the stretch of the Yellow River that flows through Henan.
Chen Jia Gou is a pretty good example of a left behind village. It would be completely unremarkable if not for the taiji practitioners going through their slow movements in the brown, garbage strewn gullies of the village. As with much of Henan, history has to be dusted off and brought out to the light in order to give the modern, blighted landscape a bit of shine.
The Chen Style
Chen Style Taiji is usually described as a “hard style” as opposed to the softer Yang Style. By “hard” people tend to point to movements within the Chen Style frames that exert force, or in Chinese 发力. So while many taiji movements look like slow dancing, Chen Style incorporates quick, powerful punches, thrusts, and kicks that disperse the accumulated qi, and stimulate the 丹田, the core qi generator within the abdomen.
I like it. It seems to make more sense to me than the Yang Style, but I am no expert and practice very little taiji.
I wrote about the style and village briefly for the South China Morning Post, here in an excerpt:
“The first master, Chen Bo, emerged in the early Han period. Bo was from Shaanxi and he developed a style of martial arts that he passed down to his sons. Nine generations later, the father of Chen-style tai chi, Chen Wangting, developed a system that incorporated the local martial styles into what is known today as the “old frame” of Chen-style tai chi. Chen Wangting, who lived in the early 17th century under the Qing dynasty, passed on his knowledge and from that point the forms took on a life of their own, spawning several different versions and spreading out across the country.”
The style attributed to Chen Bo was a fighting style, meant to deter bandits and defend villages.
[An interesting geographic side note: the landscape that I saw in Henan alternated between flat, dusty fields and shallow, winding gullies. According to some of the guys traveling with me, the gullies were formed (and re-formed) by the flooding Yellow River, and provided perfect little attack paths (or gangster hideouts) for bandits. So villages built around or within these features had to find ways to defend themselves. Not only that, but as the breadbasket of China – and the geographic heart of the ancient Chinese empires – Henan was a prize for any army. So that’s why kungfu was born here and that’s why it still flourishes here, so they say.]
The school was very interesting for a number of reasons. The first being the buzz of activity. There are several hundred students studying here at any given time. Most are from the surrounding area, but many come from other regions around China. There are also a few foreigners who stay for a month or three and then leave. The low-level instructors – the guys teaching out in the public courtyard – all have pretty good kungfu. I always judge by a person’s stance. If it’s low, stable, and flexible, then the person has pretty decent kungfu.
The interesting part for me was the fact that local kids who go to school here are also taught “Chinese culture” class and their P.E classes are actually Chen Taiji classes. Pretty much every kid in Chen Jia Gou has practiced a bit of martial arts. Naturally only a few go on to be dedicated kungfu guys, but everyone is exposed to it.
The masters that I saw, Chen Xiao Wang and his two sons, are bona fide. The father has a complex relationship with his hometown, I believe. He lives for the most part outside of China, and only comes back briefly for seminars like the one I went to. I got the impression, based on interactions with him and his eldest son, that they prefer foreign students to their own, local students. But not completely.
Based upon my gut, my interactions with other masters, and what I saw at Chen Jia Gou, I would say that masters enjoy the prestige of having foreign students, and appreciate the sincerity and respect that foreign students give their masters, but when it comes down to passing on the secrets, then only a Chinese (and preferably a local kid) will suffice.
I met one of those local kids, a 23 year old named Chen Xiang Lin. Full of piss and vinegar, this one. But very respectful, very well spoken, and his kungfu is pretty tight. Chen Jia also represents the next generation of Chen Style masters.
In general, the trip gave me hope that even in the poor conditions of a run down village in Henan, real kungfu survives and flourishes. Amongst locals, foreigners, old and young. They could do a lot more in this village to promote their style and increase the skill level of those that are here, but a lot of that depends on local political conditions and the greed that usually drives decisions in China.
I did travel with a group of Cultured Men, and they were an interesting bunch for me. They paid to come on this trip, and they represent a type of person I see a lot in China. People who have an intense love and knowledge of Chinese culture, but next to zero knowledge about the outside world. They tend to brag constantly about their cultural experiences and pedigrees, and love to slap each other on the back and compare rare teas. Studying taiji is part of the image that these men cultivate. They are similar to hipsters in that they collect cultural signifiers like magpies, and obscure their true selves under layers of aggregate identity.
They bought the privilege to be students of Chen Xiao Wang, and I found that to be weird but completely Chinese. There is nothing wrong about it here … its mutual patronage in a way. I will pay you and praise your kungfu, you will accept me and allow me to add another layer to my mantle of culture. I found that interesting because it seems to be a common thing in modern Chinese martial arts circles, and from what I have read, has always been a part of the society.
Very strange report. It sounds like you have been there in the early 80s, when nothing than dust was to be had in Chenjiagou. Didn’t you see how wealthy they got, the big schools and hugh gates into them? A Wang Xi’an in about 4m hight on the walls of his own school, like a god?
Well, I know the place since autumn 1982, and I don’t see it as anything special or real.
Only a good connection to the party, that’s all.
Well there is a picture above of the billboard of Chen Xiao Wang and his sons. The village did not seem rich to me at all, but there are some things I left out in this post.
1) the temple to Chen Style Taiji, recently renovated
2) the musuem, 5 levels of Chen Taiji lore and history, looking out over a massive plaza with a yin-yang symbol
3) the two massive hotel projects being built up around the museum to “accommodate visitors”
# 3 is where the connections to the Party are most evident … the projects are obvious graft construction, overbuilt and horrid and completely detached from taiji. but that is also part of the 1980s vibe in Henan.
“They could do a lot more in this village to promote their style and increase the skill level of those that are here, but a lot of that depends on local political conditions and the greed that usually drives decisions in China.”
Great write-up and nice pictures. I was just wondering what you were up to!
I was very interested in your discussion of the “men of culture” and their consumption of Taiji as a cultural identifier. In your experience does that ever happen with other traditional Chinese martial arts and, if so, where are you most likely to see it. How does the intimate link between Taiji and the perception of “Chinese identity” play into the larger narrative of declining interest in the traditional martial arts that you have been documenting?
I love your comments Ben … you always get to the heart of the matter. In my experience the men of culture tend to gravitate to the “soft martial arts” for what I like to think are obvious reasons. You don’t see too many cultured guys paying kungfu masters to get a shot at kicking a wooden dummy, and although there are certainly patrons within kungfu circles, there are differences.
With Wushu and Taiji in particular, you will find the educated, tea drinking, calligraphy writing, poem quoting guys hanging around. And they are, actually, awesome in many ways. There is an aura of the charlatan about them sometimes, but it’s due in part to their overeagerness in explaining and demonstrating their “cultured credentials” … Many of them really can quote good poems, know a lot about tea, and maybe are handy with a brush.
And in their relationship with Taoism, Buddhism, taiji and even Wushu, there is a synergy. But with Sanda and kungfu, they stick out like sore thumbs. I found it very interesting how they respond to my tiny bit of physicality, as opposed to Chen Jia’s soft taiji. They were def. a bit wary of me, but the irony is that Chen Jia would stomp me into the dust 🙂
But enough about that …
how does this relate to identity, martial arts, and shifting numbers (as i think decline is a bit one-sided)? Well these guys represent the modern version of the traditional cultured gentleman really, and I believe in previous epochs when you had this class of people, kungfu was a part of it – 文武双全 – so *perhaps* this epoch has a preference for the less martial of the martial arts e.g. taiji is more popular than southern fist; wushu more attractive than sanda. I haven’t given it too much thought yet, I just recorded it and am digesting.
These guys tend to frown upon violence and praise the ideas of longevity and balance … which is what Chen Sui Bian is all about too, and these ideas are making headway among China’s new middle class, who are more interested in living forever than weaponizing their bodies.
Thanks for your very detailed reply. Your description was interesting to me because economic class plays an important role in many academic discussions of martial arts history. Most of our studies focus on the relationship of working class people with the martial arts, but they often neglect the fact that there have always been more affluent individuals who have been sponsors, collectors or practitioners for their own reason. I was wondering how similar the behavior and tastes of these “Men of Culture” might be to their predecessors from the 1930s? Regardless, the close association they are making between the traditional arts and national identity is interesting and implies some hope for the future.
I previously try to post comment at the lastmasters.com contact page, but to no avail.
So if you received the comment twice, cause I just want to make sure, I’ll have the opportunity to meet you in chengdu, during my trip on June 9th till 11th 2013, before leaving to dengfeng.
I’m opening an International Kung-fu School here in Indonesia. Its a boarding school with english and mandarin as the second language. And what we mean by Kung-fu is not only the “wushu”, but its original meaning and philosophy, “self betterment through practices and work hards”. The school located in a beautiful area with surrounding mountains, plantations, with fresh mountains air. if you send a private message, i will email you the picture of the school building and its surrounding area.
My trip to chengdu, as i travel with my 10yo son, is to see the panda, but also to find a candidates for a lady kungfu teachers, as legends and populars stories says, emey styles were created and most practices by women.
While we already have long relationship with Shaolin Temple, I believe the Emey styles will be a great complement for female students.
Please let me know if you’re in Chengdu on the dates, and if available for relax meeting at a cafe, I’ll stay at a hotel near tianfu square, and you must have a favorite place there.
absolutely, please contact me via sascha.matuszak -at- gmail.com before you get in, and we will meet up for sure
[…] back in April to visit Chen Jia and her Taiji studio, as well as catch up with a few old friends. Here is a link to a post about Chen Jia and her school, and below are two pics. One is the breakfast of champs for […]
[…] other day I wrote a story for Fightland about an interaction I had had with Chen Jia, the Taiji Princess I’ve mentioned here before. It was about a fight her master’s […]
[…] or at least my personal idea of what this beautiful, almost accidental Kungfu Woman was like, is Chen Jia. The Chen Taiji disciple with a school in […]
[…] For my take on Chenjiagou, the village where this style originates, check out “The Birthplace of Chen Style Taiji.” […]
Yeah, I was with them when they were doing taichi at dusk silhouetted against the grey sky. Then when they started using the power of taichi to beat people up, I checked out pretty quick…