An interview with Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei

Ronnie Robinson Chenzhenglei Silk

My first interview with Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei took place in Manchester, England, in 1998 over a Chinese dinner with translations by Aarvo Tucker. Nearly 10 years later an opportunity arose for me to interview him once more.

Having recently visited Chenjiagou and the Shaolin Temple I was struck by the way in which these arts were now being promoted and practiced in both China and abroad. With this in mind I decided to focus on these matters more than techniques, stylistic differences etc.

I’d like to talk a little about this lovely new book you’ve produced in conjunction with Liming Yue, called ‘Tai Chi for Health.’ Is this the 1st time that a book primarily aimed at the health market has come out of Chen Style Tai Chi?
Yes it is.

Why did you decide to do a book for the health sector?
It’s over 20 years now since China has been open and during my many travels, teaching in other countries, I realised that many people wanted the health benefits of tai chi, particularly in English speaking countries. The main work being done around the world today involved the use of the brain and tai chi, being a body-centred discipline provides a good method of exercise which is very useful in today’s society.

What are the main differences in teaching your system for health against what you normally teach?
Although the book is focussed on health aspects it contains many of the essential elements of our style, Silk-Reeling Exercises, Foundation Training Exercises, qigong training and a simplified hand form. These Chan Si exercises, when practiced properly, are not only good for your health; for the tendons, joints and internal circulation, they also provide a solid foundation for martial arts training. We provide a graded education system which can progress as the student develops, depending on where they want to go. This book provides good basic foundation exercises, whether you want gong fu or health training. We teach according to the student.

I assume you have many, many students around the world. I’m interested in how many of your students are working in depth at a serious level and how many are working mainly for the health aspects?
I started teaching in 1970 and from the 70’s – 80’s the majority of my students were Chinese. From the 80’s I started teaching Japanese and Asian people. Between 1980 & 81 I received the first western groups in Chen Village, students from Canada, America, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, England (a Chinese English guy), Italy & France. Within that year we had 30 groups of students coming to train. Before this time westerners were mainly familiar with Yang Style Tai Chi. Since that time the Chinese government began to take more notice and I became connected to the Chinese State Council for Sports, in the martial arts department, promoting Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan. Today I’m working directly with around 100,000 students around the world. That, of course, doesn’t include people learning from books, DVDs or working with students of students. I also have over 200 close indoor students worldwide who are carrying on the tradition.

And these 200 are teaching all aspects very seriously?

Do you intend to develop another category of teachers just teaching then health aspects?
Around 80% of the people who practice tai chi do so for health reasons and little more than 10% really want to learn the gong fu aspects. The rest is made up from people who come just for health reasons but end up training in all aspects.

Do these 200 indoor students have set criteria for training or do they just teach what they want and you come and visit from time to time?
Firstly they all have certain rules to adhere to before they can come in, they must be of good character, train to a high level with good quality movements. I also need to have known them for a few years and then we have an official acceptance ceremony (Bai Shi) with different rules and procedures. The student must be smart, intelligent, hard-working and have good potential for the future. I would also consider someone who hadn’t competed successfully in competition but were dedicated and could bring other skills to the promotion tai chi chuan. They may also be involved in research or serious academic study of the art. I have a number of indoor students that are professors at universities or in a high position in the Chinese government and are in a good position to promote the work. Another category I’m working with is rich businessmen who are looking for something to reduce stress. They can all support the promotion of Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan.

Over the past 10 years I have worked to standardise the syllabus so that all of these indoor students have a clear, comprehensive system to work with. The teachers are also divided in different level for teaching beginners, intermediate and advanced students, up to international standard.

Is there a cultural aspect to the teaching, the philosophy, the Tai Chi Classics etc.?
Normally we start with the physical and once you gain something from the exercise in physical improvement we start to guide you through the philosophical aspects. The theory of the principles provides guidance for applying them to the physical work. We provide a very good understanding of what ‘tai chi’ means, how it works and where it applies to their practice. This also includes the history and background knowledge too.

Tai chi still attracts students of all ages and physical abilities and I guess you teach all levels from the young child who is seriously training to become a martial artist, the teenager who wants to learn a practical fighting art to the busy business executive who is seeking some health/life-enhancing benefits, and lots more in-between, how does your training system allow for this wide range of requests?
Teenagers are very active and not easy to calm down so we teach them a lot of stretching and kicking, acrobatic exercises and Wushu training. Initially they begin working with high postures then through time go lower and then they get the same results, they start sweating. The main difference this time is that they aren’t out of breath and then they realise that the slower movements aren’t so easy but they begin to learn that the whole body is connected, external and internal. The whole body comes in harmony and works together.

Would this be in addition to learning a hand form or instead of?
In addition to; they would also learn warm-up exercises in a different way with a lot of martial training, jumps, kicking and punch training. They get a chance to sweat things out and train in stamina, energy work and strength development. After this vigorous training the start to settle down and then train in form work. They then get an understanding of the relationship between movement and stillness.

I’ve always assumed that to do serious justice to Chen style tai chi one should train from an earlier age when the body can be developed with the training. Someone like me, who is in their 50’s for example, would have more difficulty in coming to the training in this later stage.
This is not necessarily the case. I have one student who started training at the age of 48 and now he is an international champion. He teaches on a TV programme in Hong Kong and is now President of the Hong Kong Chen Style Association.

I know that Zhan Zhuang training is an integral part of your work and more practitioners are realising the value of this work, can you tell me what is going on physiologically during this process?
During the stillness of this practice you are able to gain a deep sense of the internal movements in the body. Once the body has really relaxed and settled down you can then begin to coordinate the external movement to the internal movements. The practice creates and stimulates the internal energy movements. To begin with you connect to what is happening and then you are able to follow the natural internal movements externally. The stillness helps concentration and increases awareness whilst calming the central nervous system. The body becomes completely relaxed whilst developing strength in the legs. Standing for a long time also allows you to build up your level of internal energy.

So through this stillness you are discovering, on a really deep level, the natural process of internal movement which, when realised, allows you to move externally in a more centred, coordinated manner.
Yes, in the stillness we can identify it more. When practicing form we should maintain this inner stillness but without really sensing the stillness it is harder to attain, Zhan Zhuang can assist this process.

I’m a little confused about the history of tai chi: I’ve visited Wudang Shan which claims to be the birthplace through its association of Change San Feng and I’ve visited Chen Village which also lays claim to be the original tai chi system, do you see any connection between the two places?
Chenjiagou is also not too far from the Shaolin Temple, which of course is Buddhist, and a lot of movements from Chen Style Tai Chi have Buddhist terms, is there any connection there? What is the Buddhist element and what is the Taoist element?
The Chinese government, in conjunction with martial arts bodies did research with the aim of clearing up the confusion and they have finally accepted that Chenjiagou was the birthplace of tai chi chuan. They have granted an official plaque to declare this to the world and the official ceremony will take place in about a month’s time.

Wudang martial arts, which also includes tai chi chuan, contains a different set of exercises. There are many stories concerning tai chi and Wudang Mountain but after spending over 100 years researching they could find no concrete evidence of tai chi there. They have also established that all styles of tai chi that have emerged over the past 100 years can all be sourced back to Chenjiagou. This set of exercises was named tai chi only 100 years ago, before that it was just called Chen Family boxing. So we now call it tai chi chuan, but where the exercises actually come from we don’t really know.

It’s very interesting: Around seven years ago I visited Wudang Mountain and saw many schools training in Chinese Wushu and something they referred to as Tai Chi Chuan however, what we actually saw in one of the schools was not traditional tai chi. They broke a lot of principles; straightening the legs, not completing postures etc. but people believe they’re doing tai chi.
I mentioned earlier the proximity of the Shaolin Temple to Chenjiagou and the fact that there are many Buddhist terms in your system; could there be a connection between the two?
The Shaolin Temple and Chinese martial arts has existed for a very long time but Buddhism only came to China around 1,500 years ago from India. When you talk about Chinese Gongfu and Buddhism you have to separate the two. Many different skills have been practiced under the Shaolin Temple but they just use the collective term of Shaolin Martial Arts. Because Buddhism came there later many people consider the arts to have a Buddhist connection but they existed well before that. There was a sect there well before Boddidharma came. For the purposes of having somewhere to spread Buddhism the Shaolin Temple, which was already there, provided a good base.

It still doesn’t address my earlier question, is there any connection between the Shaolin Martial Arts and Chen Style Tai Chi?
From Tai Chi philosophy came the start; academics taught the philosophy long before the practice of tai chi chuan and this was a big part of Chinese culture. The next aspect connected to the tai chi philosophy was the Tao, which was written in the Tao Te Ching. Another branch was Traditional Chinese Medicine, which was also based on the principles of the tai chi and then came the Chinese Martial Arts. A lot of Chinese Martial Arts included the principles of the tai chi in their practice. So any consideration of tai chi chuan in relationship to Taoism comes through the same source which is that of the tai chi principle, which is the mother of all these skills. They all come under the same umbrella principle.

Shaolin Gongfu also has an influence from Buddhist philosophy, tolerance and how to behave, so the behavioural system came from Buddhism but the physical practices had there roots in Taoism.

The Tai Chi philosophy is 6,000 years old and the more modern interpretation is 3,000 years old. Buddhism in China is 1,500 years old, so compared to the ancient Chinese philosophy which the martial arts are based on it’s a very new influence.

But is it not possible that people from Chenjiagou connected to people from the Shaolin Temple?
The first generation of Chen styles moved to Chenjiagou from another province called Shan xi and they brought the martial art from that province to Chen Village. It is possible that after training here for some time that they encountered other martial arts and there could have been a cross-fertilisation but the dominant aspects came from Shan xi. The first generation would have ultimately passed their art to the 9th generation – Chen Wang Ting, who was a military general who had also learned training methods in the army. He then created Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan which would have contained influences from other arts. They may have taken something from the Shaolin Temple but the main components were already in place.

You are listed as one of the top ten martial artists in China, what is the criteria for this honour – are you like gunslingers fighting at dawn (laughingly)?
This award was created in 1992 and voting starts at a county level, to a state, then a province through to national level each nominating the best martial artist in their area. They have 3,000 candidates, down to 1,000, then 100 and finally the top 10. They have also created four different categories: 1. Top Martial Actor (currently Jet Li), Top Instructor, Top Martial Artist. The lists are published in the martial arts magazines and readers vote. The youngest one on the list of martial artists, other than I is 20 years older than me.

In Chenjiagou, along the road from the Chen Family temple, some distance away, there is the house where Yang Luchan trained. It is not an impressive place and not too interesting to visit. I also believe, and I may be wrong, but if it wasn’t for this gentleman, it is possible that Chen Style tai chi would not have been known. Yang was responsible for spreading tai chi everywhere. If he hadn’t moved out of the village and gone to Beijing tai chi would have remained in this small village and ultimately would have disappeared. I’m curious as to why he has not been given a little more place as one of the most influential people in tai chi. I feel he deserves more respect.
The tai chi village isn’t properly developed as yet. Much of the development is done by people from the west and the locals aren’t really aware of the significance of the place. With the new developments being planned in the village there will be more information regarding Yang Luchan’s place in the development of tai chi.

I can see that there are clearly big plans for future development. When we travelled there last year, from Zhengzhou, we spent 3-4 hours driving through back roads and dirt tracks to get there. Before we returned the taxi driver asked the locals if there was a quicker road, and we then returned on a major highway which had a bridge with hundreds of tai chi symbols along its 4 – 5 mile length. What is very clear is that the area is being developed. Will it be like the Shaolin Temple in 20 years, where thousands are now being trained in what is now a major tourist resort?
The Chinese government have started a new project there. They are planning a 20 square kilometre site which will have hotels, training schools, and a holiday resort. They have employed top experts to work on the scheme.

Is it the same expert who created the paintings on the walls of the temples in Chen Village? These paintings look like they are supposed to be old but are not.
A real estate company has bought over the whole area for future development.

And what will happen to all the local people?
They will no longer have to do farm work; they will be employed at the resort. Things are rapidly changing in China with more education and more people looking to make a better living.

Does your own training system fit in with the training criteria for Duan Gradings?
Yes, we’re almost running in parallel with them.

These Duan gradings are becoming increasingly important and I think they’ll become more important. What about poor people like me who have trained for 20 – 30 years but have no access to this grading system?

From the 1st – 6th Duan they are dealing primarily with Technical issues, above the 6th Duan we are no longer dealing with just technical matters, they have to consider your contribution to martial arts, what publications you have produced and how you have promoted the arts.

You hold a competition in Chen Village, how is it attended? Do many western people participate and if so how to they do?
Around 20 – 30 countries attend, the majority of whom are there mainly to just visit. There are usually between 2-300 foreign participants.

Has there been many westerners competing in tui shou and, if so how have they fared?
There has been between 30-50 overseas competitors. Some of them have done quite well but the majority not.

Are they all Chen stylists?
All styles.

Some people say that when it comes to push hands competition often the tai chi disappears, does this also happen at your competition and, if so how do you deal with it?
The rules are very clear, if both sides remain statically stuck together for more than three seconds they are split apart. It used to be 2 seconds but that was too short and harder to monitor.

The most common images, that is people’s first awareness of tai chi is that of films of the Chinese parks in the early morning where many styles of Chinese internal arts can be seen; it is my impression, particularly since my last visit 8 months ago, that the standard of tai chi in the parks has greatly deteriorated. Do you feel that this is so and, if so, why is it like this? My feeling is that those who are doing more serious stuff are either teaching professionally in dedicated schools or else what is being taught in parks has been more regulated and simplified because of the Falun Gong situation.
I’m also aware that there are proposals for introducing a Duan grading system for Health Qigong and that there have been moves to rationalise and simplify what is being taught in this field. I wonder how these developments will impact on what we consider to be traditional Tai Chi Chuan.
These are all signs of how China is now developing. In the past people would go to parks and train with a Master who would have his own regular students who didn’t pay anything for tuition, maybe the odd meal or bottle of wine, but no money was exchanged. Each Master would have a small group of dedicated students who were very close to him. Now everything is much more commercial with classes in indoor facilities. All the good teachers have moved from the parks to studios, sports centres or universities and have totally disappeared from the parks. That is why you can only see very basic tai chi in the parks where they are doing simple, basic routines on a more social level. So if anyone really wants to work with something serious they have to find a proper centre.

Do you feel this is a healthy development?
I would say it’s better because it’s easier to find what is serious. Also in moving from outdoors to indoors good teachers get work in a better space with more people.

I note that you’ve done the calligraphy for the Tai chi for Health book and the quality is very good; I wondered how long you had being doing this and if it has been part of your training.
I’ve been doing it since I was a child; it was taught within my family but as I spent more time on my tai chi studies I didn’t develop in as much.

I’m aware that many qigong practices have been curtailed in China because of Falun Gong has their work also impacted on the teaching of tai chi?
It’s true that qigong practices have been restricted but tai chi has actually benefited from these limitations on what is allowed to be taught. The Chinese government has realised that physical exercises are very good for people’s health and they are now even more supportive of tai chi. They are also very aware that there have never been any problems of any nature, through the teaching and training of tai chi. Tai chi is not only good for yourself but also for your family as it calms people down and makes them better people.

I was interviewed on television in America when they asked me why the Chinese government were so against Falun Gong when they were so popular with the people, having more followers than the government. I told them that were far more people practising tai chi than there were practising Falun Gong and perhaps they should ask why the government doesn’t stop them.

I’ve said this all along, nowhere in the history of tai chi or qigong has the government come down on one person.
China is changing dramatically, people are becoming more affluent, working in more stressful jobs, and cities are springing up at an alarming rate, what role do you think tai chi can play in 21st century China?
Tai chi will become even more important and more and more people will participate in the practice. This is one of the reasons I want to train more teachers to cope with the increasing demand.

Well the ones you can’t cope with send to me.
I started my company in 2000 and created my training centre in Zheng Zhou with an emphasis on training instructors; to deal with the demand for quality tai chi. My company also offers a back-up service for continued training. I am creating a franchise system with its base in china and branches throughout the world. Currently we are running some test centres with a view to expanding.

I’ve always assumed that to do serious justice to Chen style tai chi one should train from an earlier age when the body can be developed with the training. Someone like me, who is in their 50’s for example, would have more difficulty in coming to the training in this later stage.
This is not necessarily the case. I have one student who started training at the age of 48 and now he is an international champion. He teaches on a TV programme in Hong Kong and is now President of the Hong Kong Chen Style Association.


This interview was conducted with the aid of Chen Zheng Lei’s close associate Liming Yue, who provided translation and the images of his Grandmaster.

Liming based in Manchester also assisted in the production of the Tai Chi For Health book and organises regular training trips to Chenjiagou.

Liming can be contacted at the Chen Style Tai Chi Center in Manchester