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.