Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Five Levels of Taijiquan

Well, here we go again. The most recent rendition of The Five Levels of Taijiquan by Chen Xiaowang with commentary by Jan Silberstorff (2012) is not the first and most likely will not be the last. Let's take a look at all the ways this has appeared in the popular press...

Generations of Chen Style Taijiquan book cover
I believe the original writing appeared as Chapter 4 (pg 26-33) of the book "Generations of Chen Style Taijiquan" ( 世传陈氏太极拳 ) by Chen Xiaowang (陈小旺). Publication date: 1984. The title of Chapter 4 is, "Chen Style Taijiquan Five Levels of Gongfu" (陈 式太极拳的五层功夫).

(When this article was published, a scanned copy of this book could be downloaded from Subsequently, this site has become inaccessible.)

You can also find the Chinese text of this chapter on various Chinese websites by doing an internet search for:
For those of you who are learning Chinese, here's a word-by-word translation of the text provided above:
太极拳 (tài jí quán) a kind of traditional Chinese shadowboxing (tai chi chuan)
的 (de) of - possessive, modifying, or descriptive particle
五 (wǔ) five; 5
层 (céng) a measure word for layers; laminated; repeated; floor; story (of a building)
功夫 (gōng fu) skill; art; kung fu; labor; effort
The popular magazine, "Inside Kung Fu" ran an article titled, "Five Levels Of Tai Chi" in their May 1992 issue. As of this writing, I don't have a copy of this edition. However, at Nick Gudge's site you can find a copy of the material that appeared in this issue: Master Chen Xiaowang's Five Levels of Skill in Tai Chi Training By Howard Choy and Ahtee Chia. I have not been able to verify that this is the first appearance of this text in English.

In the book, Chen Style Taijiquan: The Source of Taiji Boxing by Davidine Sim and David Gaffney (2002), Chapter Three includes a section titled, "Chen Xiaowang's Five Levels of Skill" (pg 83-93) which provides their translation but no commentary.

Here is a video of a lecture given by Chen Xiaowang on the "Five Levels". This looks like it was filmed in China. I could not find a lecture date but the upload date is February 27, 2009. I found the subtitles difficult to read. (Video was subsequently removed from the site.)

Another apparent direct Chinese to English translation was done by Tan Lee-Peng Ph.D. and can be found at the following sites. (There may be other sites posting this as well.) Note that only the first provides a posting date of December 29, 2011. The remaining posting dates are unknown.

I wish the translation by Tan Lee-Peng was accompanied by a brief introduction of the translator and the date it was translated. And, who is Mr. or Mrs. Tan Lee-Peng? If anyone finds this, let me know and I'll include a reference here.

The Five Levels of Training in Taijiquan by Christopher Pei at the US Wushu Academy site has what looks like an adaptation of Chen Xiaowang's Five Levels without attributing this adaptation to Chen Xiaowang. Adaptations are bound to occur.

Which brings us to the most recent version of The Five Levels of Taijiquan, with commentary by Jan Silberstorff. But this one has a twist...

As you may know, Jan Silberstorff became the first Western indoor student and family disciple of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang in 1993. In March 2010, he published a German translation of the Five Levels with his commentary. And then two years later, in March 2012, an English translation of the German translation appeared.

Here are Jan's books in German and English. (I have not purchased the German version.)

Translated from Chinese into German Translated from German into English
Die 5 Level des Taijiquan
nach Großmeister Chen Xiaowang
kommentiert von Meister Jan Silberstorff
Jan Silberstorff (Autor), Xiaowang Chen (Vorwort)
Publication Date: March 2010
The Five Levels of Taijiquan
Chen Xiaowang (Author),
Commentary by Master Jan Silberstorff (Author),
Translated by Christina Schulz (Author)
Publication Date: March 2012

In Nick Gudge's review of the Five Levels, he says he knows of five translations including three on the web - I only know of the three I mention here: Sim and Gaffney (2002), Tan Lee-Peng (date unknown), Christina Schulz (2012).  Nick assumes the Chinese translator for Jan's German book is Michael Vorwerk and that Jan only provides the commentary. Nick also says a translation of the Five Levels in Chen: Living Taijiquan in the Classical Style by Jan Silberstorff (2009) looks to be the same translation as in this current book.

After reading this most recent English language version of the Five Levels a couple times, here are my thoughts....

First, with translations it can be difficult to translate the intended meaning of colloquial phrases and technical jargon directly from one language to another. In this case, translating from Chinese to German and then to English, I believe the opportunity for missing subtleties and introducing errors are compounded through this indirect translation.

Second, there is no preface to this English edition. Nothing is mentioned in the English version about Christina Shultz's qualifications to understand and translate such a work or other notes. According to the Taoist Sanctuary in San Diego, California, "The translation from German to English was done by Christina Schultz a student at the Taoist Sanctuary." (The site to which this quote was originally linked, was subsequently removed.)

Christina may be perfectly capable but I would like to have read about both her translating and Taijiquan experience. In a world where the reader's understanding hinges on the translator's selection of words, these experiences can be important considerations.

What I liked about Jan's book is that he seems to be speaking from his heart in the Introduction. The Introduction spans the first 20 pages and in it he talks about some of his own experiences in the first four levels. I think this material could be valuable to many readers. As for me, a lot of what he said in the Introduction resonated with what I have written in this blog about my own Wujifa training.

After the Introduction, which I assumed was a teaser of things to come, I was hoping to find many, many more details about how he trained at each level, how his training changed at each level, what were the kinesthetic shifts or changes that he noticed in his body, what challenged him at each level, and specifically, how all this relates to Chen Xiaowang's descriptions. I did not find what I was hoping to find.

His comments in the Level 1-5 sections seem rather cerebral. In some places it seems like he simply re-iterates the translation and in others, it seems like he says what anyone who has spent many years reading similar material could say. For a guy who's been an indoor student of Chen Xiaowang for nearly 20 years, I wished he would have written more about this unique experience which would have made this book a real treasure!

I hope my research has provided some perspective on how this work continues getting recycled. It's kind of like how a popular tune gets covered by many different bands across the generations and each audience thinks they are hearing it for the first time... In the case of "Chen Style Taijiquan Five Levels of Gongfu", this one is an oldie but a goodie...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Back To Where I Was Six Months Ago: Journal Notes #107

Notes from my October 2012 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* Note for October, I'm still not fully back to practicing my Wujifa zhan zhuang training on a daily basis. I am doing some stance maybe 2-3 times a week for 10-20 minutes a session and I continue doing the Wujifa adjunctive exercises and my Tai-chi form.

October 7 class:
* Question: It's tough to get back into practicing stance. I can get "tuned up" in class and this will last a few days and then I go numb again. I've been in a numb place for a while. It seems I've got a fear or anxiety about feeling and I retreat to data to avoid feeling. I see philosophy as data and not as a basis for behavior, a way of experiencing life. What's up with this?
Answer: The instructor turned my question over to our school brothers to answer. Here's some of their responses:
  • Do you want security or growth? There is security in not addressing your fears.
  • The Cro-Magnon sense of responsibility, of keeping the clan safe, can trap you too. What works for you can also become a trap.
  • Consider your intention vs the compromises you're making.
  • Adhering to an identity is secure. Developing gongfu changes your identity.
  • Sometimes you need to do the uninspiring just to stay in the game. Practice isn't always inspiring.
  • I found something in Wujifa that I can do for the rest of my life. There's no urgency to achieve something so it's easier to practice every day.
  • Starting out is always inspiring but after a while, it's easy to get bogged down in the drudgery of the details especially as you dig deeper.
  • People get caught in circular thought and rationalize dysfunctional behavior. How do you get out of the loop? Identify what you never do and do that. Do something a little different. Start with something small, almost insignificant.

* Question: I'm practicing the rubberband-hands exercise. I think I'm feeling fascial stretch. How's this look to you?
Answer: You're still making the mistake of using muscular tension. All you're creating is a tension stretch. You're fooling yourself by forcing it. Some people mistake tension for stretch. It feels like stretch but in fact it's tension. Feel the bicep as a force pulls down on the forearm. (Slowly allow the arm to extend.) It feels like the bicep is stretched. With this bicep example, you feel stretch but this is tension stretch not relax stretch.

bicep tension vs stretch

* A note on observing my school brother receiving a postural correction. Head back and up, if done wrong, can create tension in back of the neck. Rather, first start with pointing the chin to the ceiling. Then, rotate on a point under the ear lobes by raising back of head, not by pulling the chin down. Use mental tricks to "trick out" which muscles are engaged and how to achieve the desired posture with minimal muscle use, with the most relaxation.

* A teaching note. Only work on the part of the body that the student asks about even if you see problems in other parts. Why? Because this is the area that the student is ready to work on.

October 21 class:
* Question: Would you check my rubberband-hands exercise? I feel like my breathing is creating a little stretch and I'm not using muscle to stretch the rubberband. Is my breathing driving my arm movement or am I still muscling it?
Answer: You're chest is frozen so your breathing, your upper chest, is expanding forward and upward but not sideways. First, look at how your arms hang at your side. Your shoulders are rolled forward. Now, raise and lower your arms like the first Tai-chi move. You are contracting your rhomboids and pulling your scapula in and back. You don't need to engage all those muscles just to raise your arms.

Me: I''m not even aware that I'm doing that.
After more discussion, my school brother Trevor, who passed his first level of Rolfing certification and my instructor gave me an unprecedented three hours of body work just to get my shoulders to lay down. A lot of work on a tense and shortened pectoral minor. During this time, Trevor noticed a link between the tension in my scapula and my kua. When I can roll my scapula out flat and do so without pulling them down, that is by relaxing, then this creates length down the back for the femur heads to roll forward achieving a closed kua.

(When I got off the massage table, I was really jittery and confused. So much of my body had changed. A lot of stuff was worked free. I could barely stand. I could barely speak a coherent sentence. It took a while to get oriented and my posture was much better.
Note that the body work I describe pertains to my body. You may or may not share all or part of the muscular usage and tension patterns that I have. Do not assume that what is therapeutic for me will by therapeutic for you. Even though generalities may apply, each body must be addressed on an individual, case-by-case basis.)

October 28 class:
* Same question as last week. I can feel the inside of my upper chest area moving but it feels like there's a hard covering over my heart/chest area that isn't moving. After the three hours of body-work last week and a week of practice, am I doing the exercise any better or any less wrong?
Answer: What did you notice after having all that body work in the last class?

Me: (Gazing unfocused into space - up and to right, I said in a data tone) I noticed I could feel and breath more fully into my upper chest in the area under my shoulders.

Instructor: Look at me and say that. Associate.

Me: (Repeating what I said.)

Instructor: You're disassociating.

Me: What do you mean?

Instructor: You're giving me data. Where's Mike? Tell me again.

Me: When I'm paying attention to my practice and I notice the feeling of my breathing...

Instructor: Stop! Notice how you said the word "and". A little bit of feeling showed up. Go back and say that again and really emphasize and put a lot a feeling into the word "and".

Me: (Repeating with emphasis)

Instructor: What did you feel?

Me: Expansive.

Instructor: This is the process you want to bring into your practice. You have the data but the data is not helping you progress. Discovery is the biggest part of gongfu practice. Most people either just want the data or they take their discoveries and turn them into data - their purpose for discovering was to get data. If you want to progress to the highest levels, you've got to stick with discovery and don't get stuck in the data.

Instructor: You need to have emotional connection with kinesthetic feeling. Going to data is disconnecting. Real masters are connected with their emotions. Conversely, you can see "masters" with blank, lifeless, dead-pan faces. These folks have disconnected or disassociated from their emotions. The admonition about emotions is to not get attached to emotions. Many people make the mistake of interpreting this admonition as meaning you should disassociate from emotions. Not getting attached to emotions is vastly different from disconnecting or disassociating from emotions.You've got to practice connecting emotions and kinesthetics.

* Instructor demonstrated lying down stance and how the movement of lying down stance appears in various other exercises like squatting monkey and silk reeling.
(I was really amazed how he was able to see how this kind of internal whole-body movement quality shows up in other exercises and how this one simple exercise, lying down stance, is a foundational exercise for all these other movement patterns.)

* Question: Going back to the bicep curl exercise... As one side contracts (bicep), the other expands (tricep)...
Answer: Only focus on the expanding side. In Wujifa, there is no such word as "contract". There is only expand, extend, elongate, stretch.

Me: But if I focus on the bicep, it alternates between contract and expand as I close and open my arm.

Answer: Always change your point of reference and focus on the side that is expanding and stretching. Find and feel the expanding feeling in every movement. A postural move may appear to be withdrawing and contracting but in this you can find the expansion. Sometimes the expansion is "hidden" in a twist.

If you put your attention on contraction, then you become tense and stop noticing expansion. When you stop noticing expansion, then you lose peng.

* If you're working in a yin-yang paradigm, you are trained to look for balance. If yin is contraction and yang is expansion, and you look for balance, what do you have? Nothing! Peng is a function of relaxed elongation and expansion. This is where a lot of Tai-chi people get screwed up and never get peng.

* On a related note, the kua never closes. Yes, we talk about opening and closing the kua, and this is to help beginners develop basic movements. However, once you develop a level of movement through the hips, then remember how Bagua talks about the kua wrapping. So if you are closing in the front, the back is expanding and wrapping around the front. Always focus on the side that is expanding!

* The opposite of anger is sadness. People can armor through anger. Crying releases the armor and leads to genuine feeling which is the basic requirement to develop internal connection.

* Question: If sadness is opposite anger, then what is the opposite of data?
Answer: Connection! Feeling!
*When even a little bit of genuine feeling shows up, is expressed and connection is felt, I get overwhelmed and withdraw to data and become Spock-like, emotionless.

* I've developed an ability to express emotion as and through data. It is really difficult for me to be genuinely me and connect and remain associated. I learned to shut down feeling and exist in data.

* Question: Those few moments in class when I do open to feeling, it feels amazingly fantastic but when I get to the uncomfortable feelings, then I close down to block them out. How can I remove the plate over my heart, open my heart, feel the connective tissue moving across my chest, feel and not freak out and shut down?
Answer: When you practice your zhan zhuang stance at home, attach some emotional feeling to your standing practice. Being emotionless is limp. Remember, "Relax is not limp." And so, relaxed is not emotionless. Always stand with an emotional feeling. Being intensely focused can be emotionless which does not help.

There's always some emotionality to kinesthetic feeling and that's the point. Connect with that emotion!
Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: What I'm Not Doing: Journal Notes #106
Next article in this series: - Habits, Patterns, Blockages: Journal Notes #108

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Kung Fu Quest: Tai-Chi Chuan TV Show

How much Tai-chi Chuan can you master in three months? Not much. But suggesting this is possible makes for an entertaining "reality" documentary-drama television show.

This 48 minute RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) TV show on Tai-chi Chuan documents two martial arts students through three months of learning Tai-chi Chuan as a martial art. The Chen and Wu styles are highlighted. (Unfortunately, the original Tai Chi segments referenced here were subsequently removed.)

If you aren't aware of how Tai-chi Chuan is a martial art or if you don't have much exposure to Chen style, or if you are curious about how Tai-chi Chuan is portrayed in China, then this is an interesting show.

First, a few short comments...

What I consider contestable:
  • Part 1 begins with the narrator repeating the popular and polarized belief that external martial arts are hard, tough, fast, powerful and the internal martial arts are soft, meditative, and restrained with a inference that internal martial arts train with Qi.
  • Most of what I see demonstrated in this TV show is "muscle movement". The techniques and applications may be from Tai-chi Chuan, but the techniques and applications are not being executed with the unique quality of "internal" connectedness. And so for me, what they are doing is not really Tai-chi Chuan.
  • In the fifth part, they have practiced Tai-chi Chuan for three months and are now going to compete amongst themselves to test how much they've mastered. And as you'll see, with only three months of training and practice, they haven't mastered much at all.

What I like:
  • The first lesson is learning to do zhan zhuang stance practice.
  • A comment in Part 4: "The Standing Exercise and Silk-Reeling force in Chen Tai-chi Chuan are not necessarily exclusively for Tai-chi movements. When you understand the dynamics behind them, after practicing you may apply them to any movements."
  • A comment in Part 5 by Prof. Yuen Keiching, speaking about Tai-chi Chuan, "It's original foundation is the same with the foundation of all martial arts."
  • Another comment in Part 5, by the narrator who apparently also learned something on this journey, says, "Chinese martial arts are not defined by internal and external styles. External styles also have internal practices. Internal styles are not just about gentleness."

You can purchase the entire Hong Kong version of Kung Fu Quest DVD with English subtitles from YesAsia. "Kung Fu Quest takes viewers inside the amazing worlds of Wudang, Shaolin, Wing Chun, Hung Fists, and Taichi to see the truth about Chinese kung fu.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Silk Reeling Secrets and Levels of Seeing

The irony of learning silk reeling is that you cannot see the level which you have not yet manifested and demonstrated in your own body. In the vein of the classic, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" conundrum, what you train is what you develop the ability to see. And as you develop your ability to see, you refine the focus of your training.

I've passed through many levels of training and seeing. A few of these are well defined; the development of specific skills. While some transitions are dramatic, most are nearly imperceptible. As my skills have developed, so too has my focus changed. Through the Wujifa training process I've refined my ability to see with greater depth and clarity.

For example, the more I train "relax and let go", the more I move away from where I was - tense and holding. In this way, I develop the ability to see the tension and holding in others that used to exist in me. Some of this ability to see is developed through this process of relaxing and letting go and some is developed by my Wujifa instructor repeatedly pointing out various muscular tensional patterns as we train at the School of Cultivation and Practice.

To illustrate this point,here is randomly selected, short video of a silk-reeling seminar. Let me say that I did not attend this seminar. I've never met nor touched hands with Grandmaster Wang Jinxuan. For me, this video simply provides an opportunity to talk about levels of seeing in silk reeling.

What do you see as you watch this video? Make a few observations and then continue reading below.

So what did you see? Here are a few of my observations based on where I am at now.
  1. Grandmaster Wang appears to be really strong, grounded, and connected because he can throw around men half his age.

  2. The audience participants look like "willing participants". They don't appear to be very well grounded or connected nor do they offer any peng. They appear to be exaggerating the effect of his techniques.

  3. Body positioning and body mechanics are important in executing technique when the other person cannot render your technique ineffective by being more grounded and connected.

  4. Beginning at time 00:30, his right arm movement looks disconnected from the rest of his body. I'm seeing a break at the shoulder.

  5. At time 1:30-1:45, his knees swivel horizontally with his hip movement suggesting to me that there may be tension through the hips.

  6. Beginning at time 5:08, there appears to be movement in the front kua but the rear kua looks stuck; the rear femur/knee rolls with the hip movement.
For me, these are examples of seeing at different levels. If you haven't worked on releasing tension in the kua or noticing how tension creates certain patterns of movement and non-movement, then these "more subtle" points may have eluded you. Of course, those with more training and deeper skill than me can see even more.

In the end, the only secrets in silk reeling are those that you cannot yet see. And not because instructors are deliberately hiding "secrets" from you. It's more the case that you are simply blind to seeing. Once you can see to a particular level, then that level can no longer be hidden from you. The formerly invisible becomes subtle and the previously subtle becomes obvious.

As my Wujifa practice has deepened and my body has changed,I have developed the ability to see at a different level from where I started. And as my focus has changed and refined, I find myself naturally seeing more specific kinesthetic qualities, seeing more internally.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

What I'm Not Doing: Journal Notes #106

Notes from my September 2012 Zhan Zhuang Training Journal. I train with The School of Cultivation and Practice which practices Wujifa zhan zhuang. (My current reflections are added in italics.)

* I haven't done any Wujifa zhan zhuang training since April 3rd. I've only been doing some of the Wujifa adjunctive exercises and my Tai-chi form making this six straight months of not doing any core zhan zhuang training.
(It sure is embarrassing to post that I'm not training. What then is there to post about? Where's the conquering your fears, eating bitter and all that jive? For me, it's not always there. There's highs and there's lows. I'm in a stretch of being on the low side now. Just saying... Speaking honestly... )

* Pretty depressed. No mood for class. I attended class but since I haven't been regularly practicing  zhan zhuang, I had no questions and I wasn't in the mood for taking notes, so no notes. Don't know why I even bothered going to class, maybe just to stay in touch and not run away entirely.

* We had a long discussion regarding Rolfing, fascia and connective tissue systems and models and we looked at some really amazing videos of fascia.

* The model must match the purpose or else the model is useless.
(This discussion later became my blog article, How Beliefs Can Inhibit Internal Martial Art Skill Development, and so I won't re-write these notes here. Go read this article.)

* I hung back and listened to a class discussion about a couple different ways that people walk in reference to the motion of the lower spinal vertebrae, L1-L5, and the pelvis. If the muscles are free to move (no chronic tension and no fascial adhesions 'gluing' the muscles together), then L1-L5 tends to remain on a vertical line and twist horizontally while the pelvis moves in a figure eight motion. However, if the muscles around the L1-L5 vertebrae and the pelvis are chronically tight resulting in fascial adhesions 'gluing' these tense muscles together, this effectively makes the pelvis and L1-L5 a single unmovable unit. When this happens, then  the pelvic motion during walking is transmitted up the spine and the lower spine moves more like a pendulum, swinging from side-to-side with the motion of the pelvis.
(Because everyone thinks that their way of standing or moving is normal, a frequent comment is that structural/postural adjustments range from feeling weird to feeling mildly painful. Some people embrace the discomfort and others fight against it and yet others withdraw from it.)

* My instructor talked with me about this withdrawing phase I've been going through. He helped me examine how and why I get stuck and shut down and how noticing these "sticky points" can lead to change. He again suggested that I read the book Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth by Brad Blanton (2005). He insisted that this is required reading for all Wujifa practitioners to understand where and how we are hiding from being fulling present, connected and engaged.

Further reading:
Introductory article explaining this "Journal Notes" series: Zhan Zhuang Training Journal
Previous article in this series: Working the Lower Back: Journal Notes #105
Next article in this series: - Back To Where I Was Six Months Ago: Journal Notes #107