—— We’ve all seen people practicing the slow graceful moves of taiji, but how would you describe it?
One way to describe taiji is a mental-spiritual exercise. taiji is extreme…in that it is all encompassing. It is something without end…without borders. It has been around for probably 300 years, somewhere around the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Ching dynasties. It reflects the natural state of the world and the balance between everything, the yin and the yang, like the day and night, the light and dark. There are always two sides to every thing, opposites … conflicting and yet they are one and the same. taiji as an art is the embodiment of that. Students of taiji have different goals to compete, to transform theirs bodies, to transform their minds and spirits; you can do all of these through the pursuit of taiji while bringing a balance to your life. Through practice and understanding you will grow and increase your ability to remain centered physically and emotionally, no matter what you confront in life.
—— You’re the most celebrated taiji champion ever, with over 30 gold medals for taiji quan and taiji sword, in addition to being the Chinese Men’s Champion from 1991-1997, so how did you get started?
My grandfather, Chen Xiu Ru, was very passionate about wushu. He was a teacher in the community and as he grew older, he wanted someone to follow in his footsteps — so he decided to start training me when I was 6. It was a very traditional form of wushu, but to be honest with you if I had my choice I would’ve pursued a career in singing or music. I didn’t really have that choice though—I was told to do it. I was interested in the arts, but I thought this was probably the best way for me to help my family and make some money.
—— How was it that you came to be chosen for the FuJian professional team?
When I was 10, some of the coaches were traveling through my province scouting talent and they came to our practice. I’d already been studying recreational wushu for a few years, which greatly helped me with my postures, and they thought I might have some talent and potential as a competitor. They looked at each of us and evaluated us, both physically and mentally. I had longer arms and legs compared to most other students and that made my movements seem more graceful and expansive; I was also relatively coordinated, so they gave me a chance.
—— What’s the life of a professional taiji athlete like?
It wasn’t a very glamorous life; all of our time was spent between the dormitories, showers, the cafeteria and the gym — that’s it, nowhere else. There were a bunch of us and we didn’t know who was going to succeed or who would fail, but I was determined. When our teacher asked us to do something 10 times…I’d do it 20! As a professional, I trained a minimum of 5 hours a day and our entire life was centered upon taiji. We had to know how to do everything and compete in everything; taiji Quan, taiji Sword, Spear, Ba Qua Zhang, Zui Jan Chang Sui Jan etc. Life was very routine; there was no time for anything else. Everyday it was the same thing, 6 days a week. We didn’t know what day it was, if time went by fast or slow—that was our life.
—— You started competing at a very young age, do you remember your first major success?
I started competing from the age of 11 and my coach was Zheng Nai Liang, one of the top coaches in all of China. At just 14, under his guidance, I placed 3rd in the China National Wushu Demonstration (now Wushu National Championships). That was the beginning of a career filled with many ups and downs. As a professional, your goal is to compete and to win gold medals. When we didn’t win we’d be frustrated, our coaches would be frustrated, and they’d put even more pressure on us. Early on I wasn’t consistent; it took years to develop that. When things didn’t go my way, I’d work even harder. I didn’t want to let my setbacks defeat me, but there were times I thought about giving up…many times. In competition the odds are always against you and the pressure to succeed is great. Even when we did well they’d find fault with us. There’s a Chinese expression, “They could find a bone in an egg!” You know it can’t be done, but that’s how strictly they watched us, finding errors, no matter how small. Add to that the fact that every year they added younger talent to the team, just made the competition tougher and tougher.
—— What kept you going?
My coach. I had a great coach and he never gave up on me. I always had the support of my family too. I’m a very determined person and so I persevered, otherwise I would have been throwing away all the years and decades of training. Looking back, if I hadn’t persevered I wouldn’t be here now and I’d have never known the success and acceptance I enjoy today.
—— They say behind every great man is a woman. Is that true?
Yes, very true. My wife LinSu has always supported me.
—— Was there a turning point?
I feel the 1990 Asian Games was a turning point for me, after that I was able to win more consistently. I had the right physical tools and I practiced and practiced and never gave up; that’s why I was able to make it to the top. Then, after I made it I didn’t let it go to my head—that’s what helped me stay there. If you’re presented with an opportunity you have to grab it.
—— Did your coaches ever pass on any words of wisdom?
Always. “It’s better to have just one great peach than to have many rotten ones.” Another was, “If you want to standout — to do something outstanding—you have to be willing to ask more from yourself and to endure more than anyone else to get there.” I always kept those words in the back of my mind as I practiced. Another Chinese proverb that I’ve lived by is, “ The teacher can teach, but it is up to the student to learn.” From this I learned responsibility and to take responsibility for everything that I do. Professionally you are judged strictly by your performance, but a person’s character is revealed by how they face failure. Are you resilient? Do you take this as an opportunity to learn or do you quit when confronting hardship? The key is to learn from your failures. Ask yourself “Why?” and find the answer. You have to believe in yourself.
—— After watching your demonstration here at the Jing Institute I’m amazed by how your taiji flows...like water, so naturally.
When you look at my taiji now it looks very natural, but when I started it wasn’t natural at all. It only became this way after many years of systematic professional training. It’s like playing piano; there are many steps. If you repeat them over and over you develop a memory in your body—not just your mind! Now after all that training, I feel my taiji and I can express my thoughts and feelings through the form. It’s like a diamond or piece of jade…if you don’t do anything it’s just a stone, but when you polish it, work with it—over time it becomes a thing of beauty.
—— Are you bothered by your mistakes?
Perfection is an endless pursuit. All you can hope for is that today you are better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today. To hold that thought is never ending. The longer you can keep reaching and holding that thought the better. The moment you get content, lazy, you will lose.
—— Is the pursuit of that work or joy?
Originally it was just getting gold medals and that was my job; that was my purpose. Now that I’ve achieved so much and reached the pinnacle of the competitive taiji world I’ve got a new perspective on taiji and my life, which is actually a lot of fun. Now instead of it being a chore, taiji has become a vehicle for promoting health, well–being, personal growth and the beauty of Chinese culture. I like to think of taiji as a high-art, not just an exercise. I get to travel all over the world meeting all these nice people and promoting this part of Chinese culture. It really is an art, not just something that old people do in the park. It always makes me so happy to hear people say, “ I saw your taiji and it’s so beautiful; now I want to do it too.” Because of that when I perform I don’t like to do it just any old place…if I’m going to perform I want to perform in the right environment, a place with a proper stage and dressed in the proper attire. This way when people watch they are actually seeing it as a high-art, like the ballet!
—— What’s the best way to for a beginner to approach the study of taiji?
Start with the basics. From my experience, when many people start learning taiji they are too concerned about breathing; they want to know all about the breath. While it’s true breathing is vital—everyone has to breath or else we die. I don’t worry about breathing in the very beginning. I want to concentrate on the basics, the accuracy of each movement, the way to move and the proper stance and postures…the basics. You want to know the proper stances, where you want to be, where your hands should be facing, where your elbow should be, how close to your body your hands and arms should be. Then you know what you are trying to achieve.
Breathing is important, to know and understand how to coordinate your movements and breath, but that comes later. Once you know the basics of breathing, know that certain movements lend themselves to inhalation and others to exhalation, always remember these are just guidelines, not some absolute rule carved into stone. Don’t hold your breath until the rules allow for it…breathe. Breathing is natural—don’t complicate it. In taiji you need to combine your breathing your movement and intent together. It is these three things together that really make taiji. So now when I practice I’m never actually thinking about my breath—I’m thinking about the coordination of every part of my body…all my movements, to make them clean and complete and full.
—— Is the breathing more of a physical training or is it more of a mental exercise?
Both of course! taiji is the flowing of energy and chi is the word for air and the word for energy. The breathing starts from here (pointing to his abdomen) Place your hand there …is it moving? In taiji we talk about the flow of energy through the body and the breath happens to be an integral part of that. A lot of these things come together…your breath, energy, spirit, intent, timing and accuracy…they cannot be broken down. That is taiji — the coming together of everything as an integrated art.
—— How do you determine accurate postures for people of all shapes, sizes and degrees of motion?
For the most part taiji postures is determined relative to your own body size, shape and ability. They are going to be about the same across the board with individual variations but some things, such as which way a hand faces, up or in, are constant. Positions are relative to the size of the individual so there are differences. Some movements are large and expansive, others are subtle, but there is no set height or length rather, everything is in relation to your body.
—— What is the difference between good taiji and great taiji?
Well, excellent taiji includes the good, the accuracy, the cleanliness, the fluidity of the movement the feeling and rhythm of movement. The key is putting something of your self into it. Judges look at the form and see everybody is doing the same thing, but when your competing at the highest levels there a certain intangible quality that you can see and that makes all the difference. It is the same as a pianist; most people cannot hear the mistakes, but a professional can.
It’s kind of like watching a master actor versus some kid in a high school play. The master actor just sits there and looks at you and it’s just perfect. You totally believe everything he does, but the high school student is busy jumping around, talking a lot, trying too hard and looks really unnatural, while the old pro can just raise his hand and your mesmerized—that’s the difference! My personal opinion is that when you watch a taiji competition you should see a beautiful performance and be able to feel the spirit of the performer so that together they become one. Recently, in some modern taiji competitions they are requiring more and more difficult movements. The athletes’ skills and technique are great, but I don’t feel anything from them—it’s empty. They are missing the inner art. Their art has not yet matured to the point where they put enough of themselves into their performances.
—— Is your approach to leading classes different than how you were trained as a professional?
Completely different! As a professional on a team there is only one kind of person, training from a very early age, and they have only one goal—to compete and win gold medals. Outside of com petition there are so any different people with different goals and different backgrounds, so I have to teach in a different way than I was taught. My training was for competition and as a professional ... we were never just taiji athletes; there are six separate events and taiji is only one of them. We may have focused on taiji, but we could never forget the others; we had to compete in all of them. I never practiced for fun-it was as a professional athlete. People who start later have an interest in the art or culture or do it for their health, so I don’t recommend using the same methods that my coaches used for me. You don’t need the technical skills I needed for the other disciplines. So my students can concentrate solely on taiji, the art, the culture and the inner skills that will help you in all areas of your life. They have the benefit of pursuing taiji as a form of personal growth and exploration. Life shouldn’t be boring, it should be very colorful and you should enjoy whatever you can.
—— What kind of feeling do you get when someone your teaching really gets it?
Achievement. That’s the moment you wait for.
—— Now that your competitive career is behind you, what is your mission?
I’m like archer shooting my message. Since my background in taiji, I use that as the entrance point, a bridge to the Chinese culture for my students. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Every three sentences, you go back to what you are good at.” It’s pretty natural, I think, to use what your good at to teach and build relationships. That’s what I’m doing. I can talk about anything, I like to talk about many different things, but for me the conversation always comes back to taiji. I think if you really want to learn taiji well, it helps to understand the background, which is the culture and history of China. If you like it, people are naturally going to inquire to find out more. For me the more bridges I can build the better. When people want to find out more about Chinese culture, want to understand my culture and country and where I’m from — I’m very proud of that.
(10-16-2005 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)