Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Notes on Fajin…

Chenjiagou street art...
I came across an old notebook filled over the course of a training camp in China’s Hebei province during one of our early trips to China in the 1990s . The camp lasted ten days with training focused on Xinjia Yilu and Tuishou.  One evening a number of coaches gave presentations on different aspects of Chen Taijiquan that included contest push hands, the health benefits of Taijiquan, TCM and Taijiquan and understanding Taiji philosophy and culture. One young Chinese coach gave a short presentation of his research into Chen Taijiquan’s fajin method.  Below are some notes I took during his talk.

“If you want powerful fajin the most important thing is the development of Chen Taijiquan’s “shaking elastic force””
There are three keys to developing fajin: 

1.       Practise with the aim of getting rid of stiff energy (fang song):

-          relaxation/looseness is the foundation of fajin

-          absolute softness  leads to absolute power/strength and is the way to achieve complete release

-          get completely relaxed – rid of any stiff energy released en route

-          all muscles and joints relaxed, stretched and sunk

-          limiting/resisting muscle that prevents energy release should be reduced

-          by shortening the resistance of muscles speed and power is greatly increased

2.       Energy route is transmitted from  feet – legs – waist - extremities    - this is a fundamental requirement 

-          Intent and consciousness most important in fajin – use spirit and consciousness to manage qi and qi to manage body. This cannot be over-emphasised – to get to a high level you must rely on intent

-          jin must start from both feet -  if not from rooting  it’s the same as water with no source

-          if there is no resistance force (rebounding energy) from the floor then energy cannot go through and cannot form a complete system

-          waist and dang must be coordinated in a rapid shaking/thrusting movement leading to elastic force

-          aim is to concentrate all the body’s energy onto a single point

-          penetrating force - energy is focused on the contact point and when releasing energy maximum power should be concentrated at the end point before instantly relaxing

-          if you have the energy and thrust without a focused contact/end point it is useless so the target point must be exact.

-          Shaking energy ceases at the point of contact – shaking the body without this focused endpoint is worthless nonsense! 

To summarise:
i.                     energy starts from both feet
ii.                   waist and hips shake and spiral
iii.                  must have an exact target point and direct energy to it
3.       Approach training in a step-by-step manner with the idea of working  from the “least to most”

-      prolonged practice leads to ease of movement 

-      movement that is under one’s own self control
The explosive fajin of GM Chen XiaoxingAdd caption

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Real Taijiquan Can’t be Simplified…

A few years ago we were training in Chenjiagou when one of our group posed the question "what is the most important element in determining whether a person would develop a meaningful level of skill"? The answer - "discipline and the capacity to work hard for an extended time". But is the willingness to "eat bitterness" enough? An old Taijiquan saying suggests that "Taijiquan can only be taught orally" - that is from person to person. The aforementioned "oral transmission" refers to a close, long-term interaction between teacher and student, and assumes that the teacher understands Taijiquan theory and is capable of and willing to impart it to another person and that the student has the intelligence and ability to understand the teaching as well as the diligence to put it into practice.
Chenjiagou street mural - Chen Zhaopi passing on his skills to the next generation
So, simply training hard is not enough. We must understand and train in line with Taijiquan's principles and philosophy. If a person does not learn the correct method or take the correct path, it is difficult for them to advance to a higher level of skill.  On reaching a certain level, it is not a question of time whether someone can further improve.  The key is whether he has acquired the technical ability/skill to enable him to take his practice to a higher level.
Modern  society tends to emphasise "hustle", "efficiency" and "life hacks" - "five steps to a perfect relationship"... or "the one thing you must do to be in the top one percent" etc etc. Taijiquan is a subtle and multi-dimensional discipline that cannot be simplified in this way. In a beautiful passage taken from Dr. J: The Autobiography, basketball great Julius Erving talks about the dangers of confusing rhetoric with high level experience. Specifically he was referring to the difficulty of conveying the reality of playing on court through the second hand medium of commentating from the sidelines:
"It is remarkable to me how we can fill hours, days even, of television talking about basketball, and yet I always feel that we are failing to communicate the truth of the game. ...I worry that I am not up to the task of explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or to describe a painting through text. You can give a feeling of the work, or compare it to something else, but you can't re-create the actual feeling of being on the court, or making that move, of imposing your will, of the precise moment that you realise you can reach the front of the rim… Because it is not a moment, it is a sense, an instinct, a flicker of insight and nerve so sudden that you have to act on it before it is a thought. What do you see? A subtle shift of weight, a lowering of the hands, a leaning forward, a glance, and that is enough to set off a chain of events. They are actions that set off a thousand instincts. But from where we are sitting above the court, we are unable to explain the game through these small moments, and instead talk about the Bull's second chance scoring and the Rocket's bench production. I understand the need to do that...but I also know that we are simply describing a simulation of the game, rendering a three-dimensional activity into two dimensions".
The parallel with Taijiquan is clear. Where the spectator or lower level player gets caught up in the obvious manifestation of a particular action, skilled exponents act from a deeper place. From a training foundation that considers every aspect of physical and mental harmonisation they reach a place where every "action sets off a thousand instincts".
Chenjiagou street mural - "Everyone in Chenjiagou knows Jin Gang Dao Dui" 


Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Chinese Folk Religion and Taijiquan...

Four famous generals from China's distant past, including Yuchi Gong and Qin Qiong now worshipped as "Door Gods" 
A couple of weeks ago I broke the journey home from Chenjiagou, making a stop in Kota Kinabalu on Borneo island for a week to visit relatives. One afternoon we took a drive to the small settlement of Tuaran to eat the noodles the town is famous for. A couple of streets from the restaurant was an
Calligraphy reads- "Jing Gang Subdues the Demon
unexpected bonus - replete with a colourful ten storey pagoda, the splendidly named "Temple of Dragon Mountain"! While the Malaysian-Chinese locals I travelled with described it as a Daoist Temple, puzzlingly a large sign painted on a wall next to it described it as Ling San Buddhist Temple?

Temple of Dragon Mountain
In the West it is often assumed that there are clearly demarcated lines between China's different philosophies. However, in the day to day lives of the Chinese the lines are in reality more blurred. Walking through the temple the philosophies of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism co-exist harmoniously: statues of the Daoism's iconic Eight Immortals and various deified warriors from the China's distant past; a giant smiling golden Buddha; figures from the Buddhist classic Journey to the West including Tripitaka and his companions the Monkey King, Sandy and Pigsy; and a statue of a benevolent looking Confucius sitting solidly in a prime spot. These are accompanied by many images and figures from fearsome Jing Gang subduing demons to murals of various dragons and other colourful beasts, deities and young maidens. 

I read an article recently by Chen Jinguo, a scholar of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society, who suggested that folk religion represents a core element of Chinese cultural self-awareness. While Professor Han Bingfang of the Institute for Research into World Religions at the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing went so far as to call Chinese folk religion the "core and soul of popular culture". 
Chinese martial arts, including Taijiquan, being an important component of Chinese culture have inevitably been influenced by these forces. Taijiquan is often simplistically referred to as a Daoist martial art. A cursory examination of its names shows that it too draws from this common culture: the Chen Family Rules are typical Confucian standards of idealised behaviour adopted by many clan groups; the underlying philosophy of naturalness and of using softness to overcome hardness are clearly drawn from Daoism; while the postures in the form such as Jing Dang Dao Dui (Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar) show the influence of Buddhism. What all three philosophies have in common is the idea of an integrated universe balancing the three components of "heaven, earth and man". 

and the Monkey King!

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Through realisation not speech...

Chenjiagou's facelift
In November Chenjiagou is quiet. I've been coming to the village for over twenty years now, training in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School with GM Chen Xiaoxing since 2003. The changes in the village year on year have been quite remarkable. That said, I was unprepared for the difference in the last twelve months: the centre of the village has become a green pedestrianised oasis; on one end of the village a new "mountain" has appeared; even the small dark room two doors down from Chen Xiaoxing's living quarters within the school has had a facelift, with a coat of paint, a mirrored wall and a pair of calligraphys hanging opposite to each other. That aside it remains the place where he teaches day in day out. 

One thing that never changes is Chen Xiaoxing's demanding training regimen. Each morning the first session is scheduled for 8am and always begins with zhan zhuang (standing post). As Chen Xiaoxing likes everyone to be standing when he comes in, people usually start five or ten minutes earlier. The floor is paved with stone tiles each about a metre square. As students come into the room they fill up the squares on the floor with one person to each, lining up from the back of the room. By the time he enters everyone is already training. Student by student, Chen Xiaoxing then systematically adjusts the posture of everyone in the room. 

Many people describe zhan zhuang as a type of standing meditation. In contrast, I remember Chen Xiaoxing joking some years ago that the thing his students feared the most was the standing. His corrections lead students into a deep and very demanding position - always sitting further back and deeper than their assumed position. Over the course of forty minutes or so the group do their best to maintain the posture. Within a short time some people's legs are shaking uncontrollably, other stronger and more experienced practitioners on the surface seem to hold their shape, but everyone imperceptively moves out of position. After ten or fifteen minutes Chen Xiaoxing returns and repeats the process again leading everyone to a place that tests their limits. The training is painful and mentally challenging and the results come millimetre by millimetre. Chen Xiaoxing brings the standing to a close with a clap of his hands and there is a palpable sense of relief as everyone moves about, some going out into the winter sun to bring some life back their aching  legs.

Disciples and students of GM Chen Xioaxing
After five or ten minutes' respite the class continues, now lining up facing the mirrors. For the next three quarters of an hour the training focuses on silk reeling exercises designed to instil Chen Taijiquan's spiralling movement. Chen Xiaoxing doesn't specify which drill students do and most stick to the single front reeling silk exercise or the double hand front to back exercise. Again he moves from person to person carefully moving students through the movement route - always holding the hips down and back so there is no respite  for the legs. Correcting each person through touch, individually addressing their shortcomings: relaxing the chest, back or shoulders; ensuring the body doesn't lean in any direction; fixing any inconsistencies of coordination between upper and lower body; anything that doesn't conform to the standard he requires.

Shaolin fighter Yi Long feels the burn
Altogether this first part of the class training zhan zhuang and chansigong lasts about an hour and a half. Throughout the process the students do not talk or ask questions. Their job is to "listen" to and try to feel and understand the posture and movement method and to replicate it as closely as they can. On a blackboard fixed to one of the training room walls some previous student has written the phrase "through realisation not speech". This method of transmission through direct experience is fundamental to a true understanding of Taijiquan. In China there is a saying that to experience once is better than to hear a thousand times. Like the difference between someone describing a dish and actually tasting it for yourself. No matter how articulate the person, words can give some idea, but they can never transmit the experience of actually eating the dish. The same holds true for Taijiquan's method and expression. A short film last year featured Yi Long the Shaolin "Fighting Monk" during which he visited Chenjiagou. Delong is one of China's most famous and colourful fighters who last year lost a close decision in a bout with Thailand's famous Muay Thai boxing champion Buakaw. When his posture was adjusted by Chen Xiaoxing you could see him gasping in an effort to maintain the position.

Drilling single movements...
During the next hour and a half of the class the group separate to train whichever aspect each person wants to, either in the training room or in the yard outside - some training the different handforms, a few training push hands drills. This part of the class is more informal as Chen Xiaoxing wanders around often joking, sometimes offering pointers to the faults he inevitably finds. Now people can ask if there is anything they are not clear on - bearing in mind his lack of patience for stupid questions. One less experienced and over-eager student would often spend this time doing the forward and backward stepping push hands drill. Frantically bobbing up and down as he trained, ignoring the advanced students who laughed at his efforts and advised him there were no shortcuts and that gongfu couldn't be laid down in this way, prompting Chen Xiaoxing to say "don't tell people that I have taught you to do that"!  Another often quoted expression is that "If you train quan without training gong,  a lifetime of training will bear no fruit". They, for the most part, trained individual movements from the forms or carried on training the fundamental exercises. Slowly and systematically embedding the required shape, energetic state and movement method until it becomes the default state of the body. Without following this path an individual can fool themselves gaining false confidence by collecting a large number of applications. However, at the time their skills are needed, ultimately they will not work optimally when tested under  pressure. The session finishes at 11am when everyone breaks to eat and rest. At 3pm the process is repeated...

Western students  often find this approach problematic, as they are educated through a school system that values and rewards students who constantly raise their hands and ask questions. The paradox is that while seeming to ask fewer questions, most of the students in Chen Xiaoxing's class have a far greater awareness of Taijiquan's underlying theory and principles. While it may be difficult to put into practice, this theory has never been more readily available to students than it is today. One of the most frustrating part of teaching is the constant need to reteach people the choreography of forms that they simply don't train enough to become genuinely familiar. The preliminary stage of Taijiquan training requires students to drill the forms repetitively until the form is completely familiar. The next stage then  is to dismantle the form, training each movement to conform to the requirements. This can only be done in a slow, meticulous and mindful way.

Chen Xiaoxing's 65th Birthday

Afternoon training was suspended on the 23rd to celebrateChen Xiaoxing's 65th birthday. One of the things I love about him is his aversion to pomp and show. I remember celebrating his 60th birthday not in some fancy hotel, but in the main training hall of the school. This wasn't possible this time, as the hall now houses a full size boxing ring and a permanent raised tuishou platform. Instead we decamped to Chen Ziqiang's training centre. Like before students of the school waited on the tables and the food was cooked on the premises by instructor Wang Yan's father who is a chef and restaurant owner.  The participants were an intimate group of disciples and close friends with not an official to be seen. Some of these guys have trained with Chen Xiaoxing since the 1980s and have their own schools being renowned teachers in their own right. But when they come back to Chenjiagou they still line up in the small dark room to train the fundamentals...

Pre-party photo: L-R: David Gaffney, Chen Xiaoxing, Davidine Sim  

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Why train weapons?

Chen Wangting, creator of Taijiquan with his favoured weapon
Weapons training has always played an important part in the Chen training curriculum. At the time of its creation, Chen style Taijiquan was practiced essentially to develop the martial and military skills of the villagers of Chenjiagou. Without a doubt the training would have greatly enhanced the health of the Taiji boxers but this did not provide the main reason for practicing the skill. In Chen Wangting’s day guns had yet to make an appearance; traditional weapons were still being carried onto the battlefield and used in actual combat.
Today, the weapon routines of the assorted Chinese martial arts are considered by most people only from the perspective of demonstrating or exercising in the park. Viewing the Chen weapon forms in this way shows a superficial appreciation of their fundamental nature. Preserved within each of the Chen weapons routine is a complex martial training manual. As well as the flexible sinuous movements, the forms include numerous dynamic actions, swift changes in tempo, and fierce chopping, slicing or thrusting movements.
Viewed in the light of the whole system, weapons training add to the barehand training of the Chen Taijiquan exponent by magnifying certain requirements. For instance, the mind and intention must be extended all the way through the length of the weapon; movements must stay relaxed, agile and efficient at the same time as controlling a weighty object; and footwork must be lively and responsive to permit rapid changes in the actual fighting sequence. Within the training curriculum of Chen style Taijiquan numerous weapons are still practiced today, including sword (jian), broadsword (dao), spear (qiang), halberd (guandao), pole, double-sword, double-broadsword and double iron mace.
Short Weapons
The sword is one of the most ancient weapons in Chinese martial arts history. Archaeologists have uncovered swords from as far back as the Bronze Age. When the Terracotta Army was unearthed in the early Chinese capital Xian, a find dating back to the Qin dynasty more than two thousand years ago, the officers and generals were found carrying swords.
In Chen Taijiquan, the sword used is generally light in weight, with a flexible blade. For the Chen Taiji swordsman, success on the battlefield depended more upon skill, precision and speed. Chen Taijiquan contains one single straight sword form consisting of forty-nine postures. The forty-nine postures can be sub-divided into thirteen basic techniques: thrusting downwards (zha); level or upward thrust (ci); pointing by flicking the wrist (dian); chopping (pi); slicing levelly or obliquely upwards (mo); sweeping (sao); neutralizing in a circular path (hua); circular deflection with point uppermost (liao); hanging (gua); pushing up (tuo); pushing (tui); intercepting (jie); and raising opponent’s weapon overhead (jia)”.
The sword’s flexibility allows the proficient swordsman to inflict injury from a great range of angles utilizing many diverse techniques. Its great versatility has led to the saying that there is “no gap the sword cannot enter, and no gap that another can enter”.

Chen Xiaoxing training sword

The different weapons help to train the many diverse qualities essential in honing a “Taijiquan physique.” Practicing the Chen sword form allows an exponent to develop the ability to project energy in a relaxed manner to the tip of the sword. It also helps to create an efficient Taiji body, with repeated practice loosening the large joints such as the hips and shoulders, as well as helping to increase the suppleness of the wrists and hands.
Chen Family Temple mural - Broadsword
Another of Chen Taijiquan’s short weapons is the Broadsword. Easily distinguishable from the sword, which is double-edged and light, the broadsword is single-edged and heavy. The resultant strength of the broadsword led to cutting movements that are large, expansive and powerful in nature. In appearance, using the broadsword is said to be “like splitting a mountain.” In character, the Broadsword is traditionally compared to a ferocious tiger, with each movement being more direct and easily understandable than the straight sword. This is reflected in the Chinese martial arts saying “Dao like a fierce tiger, jian like a swimming dragon.”
The Chen Taijiquan Broadsword form is short in length and dynamic in nature. Although classified as one of the system’s short weapons, the broadsword can cover a surprisingly long distance by utilizing explosive leaping and jumping movements. Movements can be performed in different ways depending upon the ultimate objective of practice. Often the routine is executed with long, low stances as a way of conditioning the body, increasing one’s power and speed. As a means of overall body training, the explosive leaping and jumping movements much in common with modern plyometric training exercises used by many of today’s elite sports performers. Simply put the combination of speed and strength is power. For many years coaches and athletes have sought to improve power in order to enhance performance. Throughout the last century and no doubt long before, jumping, bounding and hopping exercises have been used in various ways to enhance athletic performance. In recent years this distinct method of training for power or explosiveness has been termed plyometrics (Flach, 2005: 14). In Chenjiagou, Taijiquan exponents have long understood this method of training to enhance the explosive reaction of the individual.
When training for combat use, however, using very low stances, prevents the dexterity and fleetness of footwork required in a real conflict. The Taiji boxer focusing on training the applications within the broadsword routine would usually practice in a higher posture to enhance mobility. Consequently, to achieve both martial and conditioning benefits, practitioners in Chenjiagou have traditionally trained over a range of heights.

Chen Taijiquan Spear
Long Weapons
As well as its short weapons, Chen Taijiquan also has a number of weapons for long range combat, including the halberd, long pole and the “King of Weapons” – the spear. An often-cited phrase -“one hundred days to practice broadsword, one thousand days to practice spear” – reflects the intricacy and level of difficulty contained within the form.
Also known as the “Pear-Flower Spear and White Ape Staff” (Li Hua Qiang Jia Bai Yuan Kun), the Chen Taijiquan spear is trained through a form that includes the functions of both spear and staff. The routine dates back to Chen Wangting, making it one of the earliest Taiji forms. In his comprehensive review of Taijiquan, The Origin, Evolution and Development of Shadow Boxing, Gu Liuxin cites the evidence gathered by historian Tang Hao, who came to the conclusion that the texts of the famous Ming general Qi Jiguang had a profound influence on Chen Wangting’s creation of Taijiquan. Qi’s military training text, in turn, documented the spear techniques of the Yang Family 24-Spear Form. The Yang family in question refers to a renowned female warrior of the Song dynasty, who used the form to avenge the slaying of her male relatives, so should not be confused with the Yang Taijiquan family.
The earliest version of the Chen Taiji spear form followed the sequence of the Yang 24-movement
Ming General Qi Jiguang
form in both posture and name. Its uniqueness came as a result of the application of Taiji movement principles to the existing method. In the ensuing years, the Chen spear form has increased from 24 to 72 movements with the addition of a variety of staff movements.
Watching a skilled exponent performing the, its martial roots are immediately apparent. The overall tempo is forceful, direct and rapid with few movements being done slowly. Today it is highly unlikely that anyone would need to use the spear for its original combat purpose, yet the Chen family spear form remains a highly practical training tool. Spear practice enhances barehand skills by improving balance through the use of intricate and rapid stepping movements as well as developing upper body strength and overall flexibility.
Variously known as the “Spring and Autumn Broadsword,” the “Green Dragon Crescent Moon Broadsword” or simply the “Big Knife,” the halberd is one of the oldest weapons forms in the system. Characterized by strong and powerful movements, the halberd is a large and heavy weapon requiring a high degree of upper body strength and a stable root if it is to be manipulated freely. The Chen Taijiquan halberd trains the practitioner to move and be responsive in every direction. The halberd provides today’s practitioners with a tangible link to the earliest days of Chen Taijiquan. The favored weapon of Chen Wangting, it is recorded in the Genealogy of the Chen Family that:

Guandao training - Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
Wangting, alias Zhouting, was a knight at the end of the Ming dynasty and a scholar in the early years of the Qing Dynasty. He was known in Shandong Province as a master of martial arts, once defeating more than a thousand bandits. He was the originator of the barehanded and armed combat boxing of the Chen school. He was a born warrior, as can  be proved by the broadsword he used in combat.
While the individual names of the weapon or hand forms describe the movements, the halberd form is unique. Each of the thirty movements of this form is given a seven-character song or poem. When taken in their entirety, they recount the story of General Guan, a famous warrior from the turbulent Three Kingdoms Period (A.D.25–220) of Chinese history. Consequently every time the form is practiced, his exploits are re-enacted.
Contemporary practitioners should not overlook the importance of the weapons routines as they offer a tangible link to past generations. The forms are at once practical and aesthetic. Artistically pleasing to watch, the weapons routines are physically complex and demanding to complete. Many of the weapon forms have changed little since the time of Chen Wangting. Consequently they provide a window to the origins of Taijiquan and represent an important legacy to today’s Taijiquan practitioner.


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

UFC legend Anderson Silva meets Chen Taijiquan...

Chen Taijiquan Chen Xiangin meets MMA's Anderson Silva
I saw this interaction between UFC legend Anderson "The Spider" Silva and Chen Xianglin one of the branch instructors of the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School and a member of its fighting team and thought some of you might enjoy it.
Mixed martial arts website reported recently that "the UFC is headed to Shanghai in November with Anderson Silva expected to headline in a bout with Kelvin Gastelum. The UFC is finally headed to mainland China five years after their first event in Macau, back in 2012".
Brazilian mixed martial artist Anderson "the spider" Silva holds the longest title streak in UFC history, which ended in 2013 after 2,457 days, with 16 consecutive wins and 10 title defences of the UFC middleweight crown. He was described by UFC president Dana White and a number of mixed-martial-arts publications as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.

Silva and Gastelum are currently in China promoting their upcoming bout. One of the most dominant strikers the sport has ever seen Silva's main martial art is Muay Thai, but he is a black belt in Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo.

After the press conference yesterday (25th Sept) for the upcoming fight the "Spider" met with Chen Xiangln for dinner and for a friendly exchange of skills. Chen Xianglin is one of the guys we've watched over the years emerging from the ranks of students and developing into an accomplished martial artist.

In the short clip of their meeting Silva's jaw  visibly dropped at the explosiveness of Chen's short range fajin. What's the chance he'll add Chen Taijiquan to his repertoire?
Legendary MMA champion Anderson Silva experiencing Chen Taijiquan


Monday, 25 September 2017

On Taijiquan, weightlifting and a shared world view...

Unveiling Chenjiagou's new statue of Chen Wangting
Chenjiagou is buzzing at the moment with the unveiling of a new and bigger statue of Chen Wangting. At the same time, coming across the following quote by Wang Xian made me chuckle: “What’s the biggest secret in Taijiquan – train, train, train and train again. If you just look and don’t practice even Chen Wangting couldn’t teach you”! A simple and unmistakable message that nobody could fail to understand! Everybody gets the idea that superior skills require bitter training. Ultimately every person makes a decision how hard they are going to work and, by definition, the elite level is built on a commitment that the masses cannot commit to. As bodybuilding legend and multiple times Mr Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman puts it: “Everyone wants to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody want to lift no heavy-ass weights”!

Joking aside, a serious obstacle faces many western students of Taijiquan that cause many students to get a disproportionately small return in real Taijiquan terms for their hard efforts. The various internal martial arts systems share many training methods and theories which practitioners, while sweating and knocking out the reps, often pay lip service to. Requirements such as:

Chen Xiaoxing - "without understanding China's
traditional culture you cannot go past a basic level"

Head held as if being suspended by a string
Eyes kept level
Tongue against the upper palate
Shoulders relaxed and elbows sunken
Chest relaxed and contained
Qi to dantian
Kua relaxed
etc. etc...

These are the core requirements. The problem is that the benefits of training these aspects are not at all obvious. Many students are able to quote these rules, but lose confidence in prioritising their attainment in their daily training. The average Chinese student has less internal conflict when their teacher asks them to follow these requirements. Not that there are no lazy or impatient Chinese students, or that all Chinese students pay strict attention to these details and don't get distracted by the more dynamic side of Taijiquan. But these ideas are shared throughout Chinese culture.  Many of the same requirements underpinning Taijiquan are also central to the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine,painting and calligraphy etc. Even the ultra stylised medium of Beijing opera requires performers to keep their kua level, to sink qi to the dantian, lift the crown of their head etc. In an interview with Chen Xiaoxing he went as far as describing the lack of understanding of traditional Chinese culture as one of the most significant barriers for non-Chinese students. Without this, he believed a person could never get beyond the basic level of imitating the outside shape.

During the London Olympics I watched the weightlifting event. As one of the Chinese contestants prepared to make his final lift his coach quietly said "chen qi" or "sink your qi". At this pivotal moment he for sure wasn't looking to make some kind of obscure philosophical point. The advice carried a clear and understandable message to his lifter. The lack of understanding this shared world view is a barrier that western Taijiquan students must overcome if they are to be successful in their practice.
Chinese weightlifters understand what is meant by "sinking the qi"