SINGING DRAGON PUBLICATIONS are fast becoming the most interesting publisher in the UK dealing with ancient wisdom traditions for health and well-being. Two recent publications that confirm this: The Five Levels of Taijiquan by Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang – which comes complete with commentary by Master Jan Silberstorff – and Yi Shih Tzu‘s classic Taoist journal on “the theory, practice and benefits of meditation” – entitled Tranquil Sitting.
It was a combination of Kung Fu films and health issues that led me to begin practicing taijiquan three decades ago. As Bruce Lee said of taijiquan, “The idea is running water never gets stale… you just keep on flowing.” My initial teacher, John Kells, was based in Wimpole Street in central London and taught Yang Family taijiquan. There was a school curriculum but I had no real idea of where it was leading. We started of with Master Chen Man-ch’ing’s classic short form and progressed to Yang Cheng Fu’s long form which we learned on both sides, left and right. Push hands was an integral part of each class. There was also Da Lu and, for some senior students, a 2 person routine called the “dance” which Master TT Liang was renowned for. Basically, there was a lot to take on board but it was underpinned by all too little theory and a dangerous belief that somewhere along the line you’d be able to toss an attacker aside with out even touching them.
Above: Master Cheng Man Ch’ing demostrates Yang style Tui Shou / Push hands
Call me disrespectful to my teacher, call me an anorak, but I was always looking for stuff on taiji whether in Kung Fu magazines or books. Compared to now there was very little written material on taijiquan. Books, like Taiji Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions, Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s Advanced Form Instruction and TT Liang’s Tai Chi Chuan For Health & Self Defence rooted one in the history and methods of this mysterious martial art and as such were treasured possessions. The only book that covered the full spectrum of styles – Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun – was The Dao Of Taijiquan – The Way of Rejuvenation by Tsung Hwa Jou but as I was young, foolish and dedicated to Yang taijiquan I instinctively blocked out the bigger, more relevant, picture.
Unlike other martial arts taught in the West, taijiquan has no gradings, no belts etc. Most people seem to just train and gradually take on more and more forms etc. and it’s inevitable that one encounters periods of doubt. As I was constantly diggin’ and doing my own research, I gradually becoming more and more knowledgeable about the origins, concepts and essence of taijiquan and Chinese martial arts in general. Inevitably, I became dissatisfied with my own school and what seemed to be a portion of blind faith, on the part of my fellow students, that the teacher would help them attain that elusive high level of skill.
After incuring a serious illness I put taijiquan on hold and went off to explore xing yi quan – another more directly aerobic and martial discipline within the so-called internal or neijia schools of Chinese martial arts. I took lessons with various teachers and found each had different things to offer. They introduced me to the complementary art of bagua zhang which is built on walking the circle or the bagua itself. Basically, it opened me up to a wonderful world of possibilities and while that’s all good it’s also easy to get lost. I also recognised I still needed to find a teacher, a home, where I could build a solid foundation through guided practice.
It was during a trip to Japan in the mid 80s that I met a couple of young taiji practitioners who had trained with Master Chen Xiaowang. They gave me a video of him performing the 38 form on NHK TV. It was impressive and explosive. Once back in London, I chanced upon demonstration by Master Chen. It was his first time in London and as with the tape I was impressed with his demonstration. Here was the root of Yang taijiquan and it was very different.
Above: A young Chen Xiaowang demonstrates Pao Chi – Cannon Fist
It was some years later, after training in xing yi quan, that I met Kinthissa – a student of Master Chen. I signed up to learn Chen taijiquan. Kintissa provided me with a solid grounding and from there I progressed to Shifu Liu Quan Jun’s classes at Taiji Circle in Camden. Though shifu is currently a disciple of Master Chen Xiaowang, he studied longest with Master Chen Zhenglei – also one of the Four Tigers of Chenjiagou village. At Shifu Liu’s I have learned the value of structured learning and continuous practice, and have an overview of how they train in the home of chen taijiquan. However, the nature of progression remains something of mystery and begs one to ask questions like “How important is Chansi jin – the twining silk exercises?” or “Is it beneficial to practice Qigong to develop power? If so, what kind if qigong?” or “What do you need to practice in order fight effectively?”.
This is where Master Chen Xiowang’s The Five Levels of Taijiquan comes in and it doesn’t matter what style of taijiquan you practice, or what level you are at, this book is must read. I have read another translation of Master Chen’s 5 Levels on the web but this book seriously benefits from the commentary on each section by a long time student of Master Chen, Jan Silberstorff. In order to master taijiquan you must begin with the most fundamental steps, and systematically work up to the advanced levels, slowly building up your knowledge and technique as you go. Trying to skip levels is not a good plan. This small book explains and guides us through the five levels of Chen taijiquan from complete beginner to highest level practitioner. It is the perfect companion to David Gaffney and Davidine Siaw-Voon Sim’s book ‘The Essence Of Taijiquan’ and it gives the practitioner an insight into how to assess your current ability and what is needed to reach the next level. There’s no real mystery here. The text is accessible and motivational and the blueprint Five Levels Of Taijiquan provides is a valuable bridge between you as a student and your teacher.
The other book I mentioned earlier is the re-print by Singing Dragon of the extraordinary Tranquil Sitting – which was written in 1954 by an 82 year old Taoist master. I chanced upon this book about 15 years ago and it’s content illuminates the remarkable experiences of one Yin Shih Tzu, while cultivating his own own practice of Tibetan Mahamudra.
“On the seventeenth day of June I entered into meditation, my whole body emitted light, and I felt it illuminate my mind and eyes. This was so bright that my entire body top, bottom and sides , was surrounded with a light which expanded into a large circular shape”
To find out what happens on the eighteenth day you’ll have to check the book. If you are in any way interested in Taoist and Buddhist meditation this is a inspirational text – a journey that once read you will never forget.