Chen t’ai chi is an athletic martial arts system which provides excellent daily exercise. Its health benefits include lowering blood pressure, toning muscles, building strength, gradually opening tight joints, and improving circulation.
“The true meaning of a given movement in a form is not its application, but rather the unlimited potential of the mind to provide muscular and skeletal support for that movement.” Gregory Fong
T’ai chi chuan was originated by Chen Wang Ting of Wen county, Henan province, China in the middle of the seventeenth century as the Ming Dynasty gave way to the Qing. “The Genealogy of the Chen Families” of Cheniagou village has the following entry under the name of Chen Wang Ting, their ninth ancestor: “Wang Ting was a knight at the end of the Ming Dynasty and a scholar in the early years of the Qing Dynasty. Known in Shandong province as a master of the martial arts, he was a born warrior who favored the sword in combat.” The Chen families of Chenjiagou village handed down Chen Wang Ting’s t’ai chi routines and “push hands” techniques from one generation to the next. After five generations, what has come to be known as Chen t’ai chi chuan was passed on to Chen Changxing (1771-1853) who taught it to Yang Luchan (1799-1872), a native of Yongnian county, Hebei province. And from there it has been passed on to us in the present day.
The basic principle of training in Chen t’ai chi chuan is to practice with “a serene heart and a concentrated mind.” This allows the nervous system to recharge in such a way as to improve the coordinated function of the various parts — both internal and external — of the body. Relaxation of the whole body, deep and natural breathing, smooth arc-like actions originating in movements of the waist, and a training method aimed at conveying one’s inner force to the ends of the limbs by means of both mental and physical exertion all result in the harmonious function of the inside and the outside of the body: circulation of blood and lymph is facilitated, skeletal structure is enhanced, one’s musculature is toned, and metabolism becomes more efficient.
The spiraling movements of Chen t’ai chi alternately expand and contract the body. The ability to execute such movements demands that the student learn to control his or her muscles ever more precisely. One must know exactly when to tighten and when to relax those muscles, when to make the body firm and when to let it be soft. The student must learn to direct the chi — literally: the breath; more metaphorically: the inner vital energy–both mentally and physically. One’s chi in this sense should be both concentrated at one’s center and also spread throughout the entire body. It originates at the tan tien and is made to travel through the body by the gradual twisting of the waist. As the body turns on its axis in this way, each side alternately expands and contracts, thus allowing the chi to pass through the Du, Dai, and Chong channels. Thanks to the spiral movements of the arms and legs which keeps the joints open and active, the chi then travels out toward the fingers and downward toward the toes, at which point it travels back to the tan tien and begins the cycle all over again. Such practice improves the student’s offensive and defensive capabilities and enhances the distinctively explosive force of the movements of Chen t’ai chi chuan.
Finally, Chen t’ai chi requires as well that quick actions (strikes, kicks, and blocks) be both preceded and followed by slower movements. Indeed, one should train in such a way that one’s quick actions will be quicker than those of one’s opponent, while one’s slow actions will be slower. This emphasis on inner rather than outer force provides a valuable additional training method for raising the level of one’s martial arts skills. And in this way, one’s consciousness, breathing, and movements are more and more closely coordinated with one another.
Although the basic principles of most t’ai chi forms are similar, Chen is typically a more obviously “martial” form of practice than is Yang style, which tends instead to focus on the health aspects of training. More specifically, the emphasis in Chen training is on learning to express one’s inner force in external movements. This is why students of this style are taught to vary the speed and strength of their movements throughout the form, whereas students of Yang t’ai chi practice at an even speed and concentrate on making their movements as smoothly continuous as possible. The student of Chen t’ai chi can, of course, practice much of the form in this way, but as he or she passes from simpler to more complicated movements, the Chen form demands a greater level of skill so that “power comes from within” and “inner energy becomes outward power.”