A Wide-Branched Family
By Dietmar Stubenbaum (first published in the Taijiquan & Qigong Journal/2000)
The evolution of the different lines within the Chen family
There are many different theories about the origin of Taijiquan. Dietmar Stubenbaum has put together essential passages from the Chen clan chronicles, in which relevant information about the family members can be found. In Addition, his teacher Chen Peishan clears up some misconceptions about Taijiquan at the end of the article.
The different terms for forms and styles in Chen Taijiquan leads often to confusion. Not enough, the use of some terms in different contexts is also misleading. Dietmar Stubenbaum, who studied different kinds of the Chen style and who met a lot of famous masters in China and Taiwan tries to explain the classifications of Dajia and Xiaojia, Laojia and Xinjia as well as Zhaobao-Taijiquan and Huleijia.
The founder of the basic martial art of the Chen clan is probably Chen Pu (Bo), born in the prefecture Zezhou, Shanxi province (today Jincheng). Chen Pu moved from Zhezou to Hongon county, which he left in the year 1372 to move to a little town twenty miles south-east from Huaiqing, Henan province. The inhabitants respected Chen Pu because of his generosity and his great martial art skills. Chen Pu moved once again (because the town was often fleeted) to Changyan, six miles east from the city Wen.
The mountains of Qingfeng were not far away and thieved used them often to hide from the police. From what place the bandits started their assaults, so the people of Changyan were often attacked and it became hard for them to live a normal live. Not willing to accept this, Chen Pu founded a martial arts school to instruct the younger people in boxing and weapons forms. His motivation was to save the town´s goods. Most inhabitants were named Chen and because of a ditch crossing the town from north to south, the name of the town was changed from Changyan in "Chenjiagou" (Jia - family, Gou - ditch).
Chen Wangting (ca. 1600 - 1680), also named Zouting, ninth generation of the Chen family, lived at the end of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty. Even as a child he practiced the martial art of his ancestors very hard. He was a well educated man, virtuous in calligraphy and was called an adept of the pen and the sword. The following story is written in the family chronicle from 1754 (supplemented in 1822):
Chen Wangting passed the state examination as an official in civil law at the end of the Ming dynasty and the military examination at the beginning of the Qing dynasty. He was an expert in martial arts, founder of the Chen sable and spear forms, became famous in Shandong because of his several successful fights against bandits. In calmer times he studied the classical texts and practiced Taijiquan. Chen Wangting is the founder of the Chen style Taijiquan; he took his skills in boxing and military strategy, the principles of yin and yang from the Yijing (Book of change), the Jingluo theory of Chinese medicine and the daoyin qigong to put it all together as Taijiquan.
Chen Yousheng and Chen Youben, 14th generation of the Chen clan, were both sons of the famous Chen Gongzhao. Chen Yousheng passed the state examination as an official in civil law between 1820 and 1830. He was very skilled in Taijiquan and died unfortunately by drowning in the sea. His younger brother Youben also very skilled in Taijiquan was a man of modesty and well-mannered. Both brothers were leading Taijiquan experts of their time.
Chen Changxing (1771 - 1853) also called Yunting and 14th generation, learned from his father Chen Bingwang. He is the author of "Zehn besonderen Merkmale des Taijiquan", a document about the boxing and a guide to find the key points for martial application in the form. He worked in the security business as a bodyguard and escort in Shandong and was teacher of a martial art school in the house of Chen Dehu, where Yang Luchan probably learned Taijiquan from him.
Chen Xin (1849 - 1929), 16th generation of Chen family, other name Pinsan, was the third son and fifth child of Chen Zhongshen. He learned Taijiquan as a child with his father and studies later literature. He is the author of "Chen Shi Taijiquan Tuishou" (Illustrated Explanations of Chen Family Taijiquan), "Chen Shi Jia Sheng" (chronicle of the family), "San San Liu Quan Pu" (336 Boxing Manual) and other publications. He wrote twelve years on the manuscript of the "Illustrated Explanations of Chen Family Taijiquan" trying to give a complete description of the Chen style Taijiquan for the first time ever. He had no children and was afraid that his work could get lost, so he gave his writings to the son of his brother, Chen Chunyuan. He told him to rather burn them, if he couldn't find a good success or if they get in the wrong hands. "Chen Shi Taijiquan Tuishou" was first published 1933 in Kaifeng. Copies of "San San Liu Quan Pu" which were in the hands of Chen Lixian and Chen Kezhong were getting lost during the war.
Chen Peishan, who is a passionate in researching his ancestor's history, gives the following advices to clear up some errors, which are unfortunately well-known:
"In the times of Chen Wangting the Chen family had many boxing and weapon methods. My father and the older members said different things about the quantity of the forms. I cannot confirm the existence of seven boxing forms (which is often said). There are no documents to prove that Chen Changxing rearranged the boxing forms of Chen Wangting to the nowadays practiced forms Yilu and Erlu (Canon Fist) in Chenjiagou. The claim that Chen Youben created the new frame Xinjia cannot be proved by the historical documents of the Chen family of by oral traditions. An author of our time wrote a wrong claim (unfortunately used and published in books around the world) which was not critically checked by the author. The today existing Dajia and Xiaojia of the Chen family should be seen as equal evolutions, which gave birth to Zhaobao, Yang, Wu, Wu (Hao) and Sun style Taijiquan, indirect or direct.
Necessary descriptions of Taijiquan terms.
The first printed publications of the Chen family are from Chen Xin ("Chen Shi Taijiquan Tuishou") and Chen Jiju ("Chenshi Taijiquan Ru Men Zongjie"). They describe the featured form in illustrations and texts as "13 sections" of Chen family Taijiquan. This means that they didn't use the today known terms Laojia (old frame), Dajia (large frame), Xiaojia (small frame) and Xinjia (new frame) to describe the Chen style. The Dajia - line today hast got two original old (Laojia) and two new (Xinjia) forms. It is said, that the Xinjia forms of Chen Fake (1887 - 1957) were developed by himself. Xinjia emphasize the outer spiral movements more than Laojia, which looks more calm and simple on the outside.
The Dajia-line is very popular and has got many followers. Chen Xiaowang is the official representative of the Dajia line of the Chen family. The traditions say that the Xiaojia line (small frame) comes from Chen Wangting, Chen Youben and Chen Xin. Their successors are the family of Chen Lixian (1922 - 1983), represented by Chen Peishan, Chen Peilin and Chen Peiju. Chen Lixian´s sister Liqing is the first woman officially named in the Chen family tree as martial artist. Other representatives of Xiaojia are the families of Chen Boxian (he died 1989) and Chen Boxiang. One of the most obvious difference between the old forms Dajia and Xiaojia (besides different movements in the form) is that the large frame rises the elbows horizontally from the dantian and the shoulders up to the height of the shoulders during the spiraling movements.
Xiaojia avoids this completely; the opening of the spiraling movements of the arms is always done with a compact elbow which is hold in a position between horizontal and vertical. This specific point could be the root of the terms large frame / small frame, because these principles were emphasized during the whole set. The claim, that Dajia uses big while Xiaojia uses small movements, is not correct. Both forms use big circles in the beginning (in their own specific way) to stretch the ligaments and tendons and to open the joints. While advancing and understanding more and more of the art, the spiraling movements can decrease more and more, just until nothing is to be seen on the outside.
Chen Qingqing (1795 - 1868), 15th generation of the Chen clan learned from Chen Youben. He is a representative of the Xiaojia line. He married and lived in the town of Zhaobao, where he had many students. This Taijiquan was named after the town name, "Zhaobao Taijiquan". Sometimes this name was extended by the name of the teacher, for example "He Jia Zhaobao Taijiquan" (He = family name and Jia = term family) or by some specific characteristics of the styles, for example "Dajia Zhaobao Taijiquan" - large frame of Zhaobao Taijiquan. The representatives of the Zhaobao Taijiquan maintain that the Chen family got their Taijiquan from Jiang Fa, who came from Zhaobao. This seems questionable, because many Zhaobao representatives don't agree with each other. The most confirm that Chen Qingping teached Taijiquan in Zhaobao.
Chen Qingping had a highly skilled Taijiquan student named Li Jingyan. The successors of Li Jingyan call their style in mainland China Huleijia (sudden thunder). Huleijia-Taijiquan is nowadays mainly practiced in the village of Wanggedun near Chenjiagou. The most important characteristics of Huleijia are the expressive vibrations of the movements, like shaking the whole body with electricity. These characteristics are often explained in Chenjiagou in a funny way as followed: due to his age, Chen Qingping had little shaking in all his movements, so his students did not only copy his Taijiquan, but also his old-man-shaking.
Huleijia and Zhaobao Taijiquan were both established by Chen Qingping, after his death his students changed the forms and divided them more into the different styles Huleijia and Zhaobao Taijiquan. Huleijia and Zhaobao have both the compact position of the elbow like in Xiaojia. In Zhaobao Taijiquan, the outer spiraling movements of the arms are not visible. In Zhaobao there is also no second routine. (Erlu or Paochui), while there is in Huleijia. The close relationship to Xiaojia is obvious because of the familiar outer form and especially the position of the elbow. Please note that all differences in outer movements don't mean different principles of inner development and processes like the chi flow. The outer form (Taolu) can be expressed differently while still using the same basic principles on the inside. The most important thing is that there is only on Taijiquan, like it is said by many, many Taiji masters then and now. But this means to know the theory of true Taijiquan.
Chen style in Taiwan
After the arrival of Chang Kai-shek and his regime on Taiwan, Taijiquan quickly grew since 1949. 1.200.000 Chinese people followed Chang Kai-shek, and many of them were masters of Taijiquan and the northern martial art styles. So it is clear that Taijiquan has been instructed by a little group of Taiji men in a high quality way. Some of them should be named here.
Du Yuzhi (1886 - 1990), son of the government official Du Yomei, learned his Taijiquan from Chen Yanxi (16th generation of the Chen clan, father of Chen Fake). Chen Yanxi worked as a bodyguard and martial arts teacher for the Du family. As he quit his job because of his age, Chen Mingbiao took his place. Du Yuzhi was very lucky to learn from two different Taiji experts of the Chen clan. He learned Dajia from Chen Yanxi and Xiaojia from Chen Mingbiao. When master Du became a teacher himself, he instructed both lines to his students.
Pan Yongzhou (1905 - 1996) learned from Chen Fake in Beijing, before he emigrated to Taiwan to build up a Taijiquan association. He had many students. Wang Jinran was student of Chen Yingde from the line Chen Qing-ping - Li Jingyuan - Yang Hu. He practiced Huleijia which is called Xiaojia Taijiquan on Taiwan.
Tradition and modern-times development
A final comment of Chen Peishan makes the difficult situation of the traditional lines of the Taijiquan clear: "Traditional Taijiquan or the traditional martial arts as a whole don't have many chances to demonstrate for the public. Most events and competitions are held in the modern Taijiquan forms. These modern forms get often support by the Chinese government. This is the main reason why Taijiquan is known by these forms outside of china. By practicing these modern standard-forms one will often just train an outer form to get points from the judges. But in this process, the true meaning of Taijiquan gets obviously lost. Don't forget, Taiji is a martial art, a field of scientific research and al complete life-philosophy."