The Art Among the Clouds
By Jonathan Bluestein
Some background on how this tale came to be
It is not every day that a person is lucky enough to be offered a tempting proposal by a world-leading authority of one’s profession, hobby or art of choice. It had been my lucky day, then, when I was contacted by my friend, master Chen Zhonghua, on March 2013. The purpose of his faithful email – to deliver an offer one cannot refuse…
My name is Jonathan Bluestein, and I am an Israeli martial artist and author. I practice Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang. Over the last year, I have become acquainted with master Chen Zhonghua. For quite a few years, I have been writing a lengthy book – a broad research of martial arts. I had made contact with master Chen originally to interview him for my book, and he was very kind and helpful in this regard. With have maintained an email correspondence since.
Master Chen Zhonghua is the inheritor of a very special martial art – Chen Style Taiji Quan (Tai Chi Chuan). He is the grand-student of late master Chen Fa’ke – one of the most famous Chinese martial artists of the 20th century. By the time I had come to know him, he was already a well-known master, with established reputation and many schools and students worldwide.
Chen leads a very interesting ‘career’ in the martial arts. Most teaches would be bound to one or two schools in which they teach, that would also normally be close to their own homes. Master Chen has developed a different model for teaching. He instead is constantly on the move, teaching intensive seminars worldwide, remaining for up to 3 months at a given place to teach. He would then later return to where he taught, correct his students, teach some more, and move somewhere else. While being very mobile is this regard, Chen still retains a few locations which he usually visits and stays at every year – in China, Canada and the United States.
Back in 2006, master Chen had begun building what would undoubtedly become his greatest legacy – the Taiji resort on Da Qing Shan (Great Green Mountain) in Rizhao, Shandong province, China. On this relatively secluded mountain range, Chen had set up a school for those dedicated to their dream of learning the art of Taiji Quan. Perhaps, a ‘school’ is too small of a word to describe what had become a complex consisting of several hotel buildings and villas, a gym and a few huge courtyards, and would shortly even have its own lake. But this is no modest enterprise – to begin with, it was meant to make Taiji accessible to as many students as possible who might arrive from afar to learn in all seriousness. There, master Chen is committed to spend 3 consecutive months every year, teaching several classes every day.
Then in April 2013, came along that surprising email from master Chen, roughly stating as follows:
I remember and have been thinking of your work and research (the book I was writing). I will be hosting an international martial arts seminar on Da Qing Shan in May. I wish to invite you over, and will even be willing to cover some of your living expenses for the purpose of helping out with your research. Please let me know if you’d be interested…”
Being such a generous offer from that nice of a guy, who also happens to be a great master, I could not possibly consider refusing. I started booking flights the next day, and by May 23rd, I was on the mountain.
On Great Green Mountain
A long and winding road – a 3 hour drive, took us new visitors from Qingdao International Airport to the resort on Da Qing Shan. Past 21:00PM that night, the entire area was pitch black – reasonable for such a remote place, where a ‘city’ is the size of an average neighbourhood elsewhere. One could barely see 10 meters ahead, and by the time we had arrived, all my eyes could detect was the vague silhouette of a tall building, with quite a lot of stairs. By early morning though, it had become apparent that we had arrived at a sort of paradise.
The Daqingshan resort had been designed with great care and attention to the implementation of Chinese cultural symbols. The place had been filled with traditional Chinese art of all kinds – statues, paintings, carvings and more. The training grounds outside were no different – adorned with Daoist floor mosaics, decorated with large stones painted on with calligraphy and furnished with hillside wooden pagodas.
The roads splitting from the resort led one atop fabulous peaks and fantastic cultural monuments, including some impressive temples, towers and caves. Among these roamed beautiful and graceful animals – goats, rabbits, lizards and birds of prey among them. The mountain itself was from all sides overlooking valleys which seemed to stretch endlessly into the horizon, shimmering away through their countless rice fields as the sun smiled unto them once in a while, from within the fog-bound sky.
The Place and the People
During my stay, master Chen was holding the first International Taiji Festival on Da Qing Shan. The festival was attended by over a 1000 people over the course of 5 days (I have myself stayed for 10 days). Most of these people were visitors from all across China, who came to compete in form demonstrations and push hands. The rest amounted to several dozen students of master Chen, who came from all over the world. One such delegation from the United States was lead by Sensei Mike Calandra – a veteran martial artist who, after decades long practice (of over 5 different martial arts) decided to become master Chen’s student after watching him perform for 5 minutes at his (Mike’s) school. Since then, for 15 years now, Mike has been part of the Practical Method family, and have also been master Chen’s disciple for quite some time.
We were all dining at the local restaurant, which featured tasty traditional Chinese cuisine. There were a wide variety of dishes served every day, which varied from the common (beef and chicken of all sorts), to the strange (fried silk worm cocoons), to the very tasty (sugary fried bananas and special Chinese pancakes). Whatever one’s culinary inclinations were, it seemed that everyone’s appetite was pleased by the end of the day.
I have made many new friends on the mountain. There were father-son duo Roy and Lance from Canada, with father Roy being a young-spirited 75 year-old that have outdone many of the younger folk in his performances. There was a lovely German delegation, with wonderful and gentle people who were all into art, with some performing at the event. Perhaps most I liked Master Bon and Massimo, too older gentlemen who came all the way from Italy. True to the Italian spirit, they were warm, charming and fun-loving to the utmost. Frankly, there were just too many nice people for me to mention…
Some of them had more than one Phd. We had a construction-business professional, a chemical engineer, a medical doctor, and many other talented and interesting individuals sharing one common love for Chen’s Practical Method Taiji. One of the brighter minds that attended the event was Yaron Seidman – a veteran disciple of master Chen, who is a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor. Having recently released a fine book on Chinese Medicine (called Hun Yuan Xin Fa), he gave a long public lecture on his field of expertise, which had been fairly enlightening (the picture below is from the lecture, which had many more people sitting in the back).
The tournament itself had drawn many excellent fighters and practitioners. One delegation came over from and in the name of Chen Village – the birthplace of Chen style Taiji. These guys did well in the various competitions, and made a good name for themselves. Other guests were of different styles of Taiji Quan – Hun Yuan Taiji (of Feng Zhiqiang), Yang style, and the exceedingly rare Wu-Hao style.
An elderly master of the latter style made a performance of his traditional form, and then followed by showing a method of making his bones noticeably twist and make cracking sounds – one which I have never in my life seen before. Other Wu-Hao masters also showed great ability and skill, and it was obvious from the minute and profoundly accurate movements of their body that they possessed serious gong fu. Master Bon from Italy gave some great demonstrations of both the Chen style form (of Chen village) and of Shaolin Northern Mantis, which in my opinion were even more impressive considering he was already 57 years of age. But most impressive of all was the form demonstration of one of master Chen’s older gongfu brothers, who at age 82 was featuring some of the best Taiji I have ever seen. Firm as a mountain and yet flowing like a river creek, and going through the lowest postures with perfect precision, he had been a living proof to the health benefits that are possible to garner from the dedicated practice of Taiji Quan.
The Man who is Master Chen
Personally, I do not believe is such predicaments. I see Chen as an ordinary human being – not even of a special talent. Rather, I believe that Chen Zhonghua, like my own grand-teacher Zhou Jingxuan, is a man who had gradually developed his skill level in a certain art to a degree that most other people cannot comprehend – to a level of mastery; and Chen Zhonghua is, indeed, a true master. That, he had achieved through a quality that is far more impressive than talent – that of decades-long dedication.
Even back when I only knew master Chen through online video chats and email conversations, it was evident that he had a unique element to his personality. That attribute turned out to be an exceptional calmness, patience and peace of mind. I recall that when I first met master Chen on Da Qing Shan, it had been at about 5AM, just prior to his regular morning class. The weather was cold and the air misty, and master Chen’s hand was very soft and quite warm as I was shaking it. The feeling of his hand alone could give one a clue to his personality, which was reflected in that simple physical action as it had been in every other
Chen’s inner serenity was evident throughout my stay, especially as he was organizing his large international event on the mountain. The event called for the arrangement of housing, food, changing schedules, competitions, demonstrations, special dinners, speeches, ceremonies and such for over a thousand practitioners and guests. Beside Chen’s loyal disciple and close assistant, ‘Walrus‘ Tim from Canada, Chen had to handle the whole ordeal by himself, all the while still teaching and practicing. Though at times things turned out to be slightly chaotic, as one could expect when a Typhoon hits the place for 24 hours, Chen remained very focused and at ease. This is where one could see best his mastery of the martial arts as he applied it to daily life.
Like his martial arts skills, his attitude seemed out of the ordinary, and somewhat counter-intuitive. For instance – he is very generous, and would appear to be more so when under stress. One night before I came to the mountain, he told his students: “When I am in adversity, I try to give more to others”. That kind of Daoist mindset would be incomprehensible to people who had been brought up in Western culture, but this is actually the same sort of attitude that makes his Taiji Quan so efficient.
In class one time, master Chen said: “All people live by two standards of morality and action. For instance – you have one standard for your family, and another for the rest of the world. In martial arts, this is true as well. When a stronger, bigger opponent attacks, your mind knows that the right thing is to become smaller and weaker – too much so for him to handle. But nonetheless, you act by your other ‘standard’ – the wish to try and become as big and strong as him to match him, so you expand, enlarge and stiffen-up, which in turn fails your efforts”. In so saying, master Chen was illustrating how a Daoist principle was not only relevant to martial arts, but also to daily life. That enabled me to see how his personal path was one with his martial arts, and how these two aspects were in fact one, and required mutual development.
One of the things that set master Chen apart from other teachers is that he does not back off from public challenges of his skill. In fact, he welcomes them. Chen is adamant on the importance of this approach. He believes that a true master should be open and honest about his skills, and not shy away from physical conflict when it is important to make a point and prove one’s method. A common line of thinking in the martial arts community in our time is that one has not proven anything unless one goes about to compete in a setting like professional mixed martial arts. I do not hold that view. In any case, I have myself witnessed master Chen easily handle people who were over twice his size, casually tossing them into the air or bouncing them into the ground, whether they try their best to strike or grasp him in any way. Surely, master Chen is not a professional fighter, and does not pretend to be. However, at over 50 years of age, he has a skill set that enables him to effortlessly overcome the vast majority of martial artists.
His circumstances were that he nearly died as an infant (and carries damages from that experience), is short of height and weighs little. But had his skill set been in the hands of someone who is 6’3 and weighed accordingly, with no health issues, then I doubt that there would have been anyone in the world that could have handled such a person. For his size, his health background and the likes of these, it is no short of a miracle that very powerful people cannot withstand the skill of this soft, little man.
I myself had the honor of being on the receiving end of master Chen’s technique many times during my stay on the mountain. Frankly, there was no way whatsoever that I could have resisted his will. Gripping any part of his body, I found myself high in the air, landing several meters away. Trying to pull on him sent me via an uncontrolled spiral to the ground. Such things were on the nicer side of him, too – he had been taking it easy on me and on his students, so we would not get hurt (he certainly can cause an excessive amount of damage at will, either with locks, throws, take downs or strikes). The first picture below has Chen in one such moment, about to get a student tossed sideways by accurately manipulating the student’s center of gravity. The student, while trying really hard to push master Chen, couldn’t do anything to resist. The second picture has master Chen about to send another student flying up the air vertically. That student, too, was helpless against master Chen’s skill.
A common pattern was emerging before my eyes, of Chen really being able to prove any of his skills against anyone on the mountain who wished to test him (and he was challenged in one way or another on a regular basis – though not to the extent to all-out fighting). During the international event that took place while I was attending the place, there were a few Chinese martial artists who tried to do just that, and like the others, found themselves easily manipulated into helplessness. The event also included a very serious and tough push hands competition, which at times borderlined Greco-Roman wrestling. The day after the competition was done with, master Chen was teaching competitive push hands. At one point, he saw the winners in the competition were not performing as well as they could have. He then approach them a few times, sparred with them, and tossed them around like ragdolls with incredible precision, using the exact same movements as in the Taiji long forms, and afterwards taking the time to show the moves as they’re performed solo, so the students could see the connection. That by itself I have found to be very impressive, as very few people are capable of executing such complicated and large movements so successfully and accurately against resisting opponents.
The lineage of Chen style Practical Method is very different to other lines of Taiji Quan. Getting into the specific mechanics of the art would be too much for this article, so I would rather summarize its unique characteristics in a simpler language. It would appear that most martial arts focus on developing ways of dealing with momentum – one’s own and that of the opponent. The Chen Practical Method focuses instead on the creation of superior alignment, which enables one to generate a lever at any given angle, which would enable one to gain full and effortless control of a resisting opponent. The principle of generating a lever through a fulcrum point is the most important aspect in the mechanics of this art, and is incredibly difficult to manifest. Master Chen attests that it takes up to 7 years of dedicated work to achieve a high level of proficiency in that skill. However, once the skill is attained, it can be applied to any movement the art utilizes, and multiplies one’s power and ability many times over. Given, the development of this principle and method is a worthy long-term investment.
The Open Gate
As of today, master Chen is with no doubt one of the leading internal martial arts masters in the world. Even more rare than his own existence as such, is the fact that he teaches openly, to whoever wishes to come at his doorstep. Making things even more comfortable – he had students, branches and schools scattered all across the globe. During my lifetime, I have rarely encountered or heard of such a great, inviting opportunity for martial artists to acquire real, traditional and authentic skill. Yet, master Chen still remains one of the lesser known teachers in the worldwide martial arts community, familiar mostly to a ‘select group’ of a few thousand people in the West, who are ‘in the know’ of the Internal Martial Arts community. Never before in our age, have the stereotype of the bearded Chinese master up the magnificent mountain have been so ironically accurate in describing a living person. To me, he is the real deal. But more importantly – he is a good man, with a caring heart for his students and traditions.
Myself, I am already committed to the practice and teachings of my teachers and arts, and have been so for many years – otherwise, I would have definitely become master Chen’s student. It is my hope though, that through reading this article, people who are interested and have the opportunity, will make the effort to seek out the tutoring of Chen Zhonghua. They will not be disappointed.
Master Chen teaches in the U.S., Canada, the Da Qing Shan resort in China, and in seminars throughout the world. He can be reached via is official website, at: http://www.chenzhonghua.com/
Shifu Jonathan Bluestein is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. His list of published articles, most available for free reading with links (and on this blog), can be found at the following link:
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Please visit the Research of Martial Arts website: http://www.researchofmartialarts.com/
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