You are currently viewing Excellent Reads The Tai Chi Philosophy of My Mentor, Chen Xiaowang / Li Wenkui
Chen Xiaowang

Excellent Reads The Tai Chi Philosophy of My Mentor, Chen Xiaowang / Li Wenkui

My mentor, Chen Xiaowang, is a renowned Tai Chi master of our times. His mastery of Tai Chi Chuan is intricate and profound, with a unique and deep philosophy. He is also a person of humility and high moral standards. I am fortunate to have received his teachings, which have greatly benefited me. Studying and researching my mentor’s views on Tai Chi, whether in relation to the art of Tai Chi itself or to work and life in general, can be immensely beneficial. My own understanding is limited, but I will attempt a preliminary exploration of his perspective on Tai Chi, hoping to enlighten Tai Chi enthusiasts:

1. The Yin-Yang Interaction: Seeking Balance

My mentor discusses Tai Chi from a holistic perspective, covering life, society, daily living, and martial arts techniques, presenting the principles of Yin and Yang in Tai Chi straightforwardly. He emphasizes that every aspect of Tai Chi, from theory to practice, embodies the balance between Yin and Yang. He often simplifies the complex ideas within Tai Chi, stating that Tai Chi Chuan captures the essence of Yin and Yang theory, integrating traditional culture with martial techniques. As Wu Ruching mentioned in “On Tai Chi Chuan,” Tai Chi is fundamentally about Yin and Yang, the tangible and the intangible. The concepts of “yielding to others,” “drawing in and letting go,” “not going too far or not enough,” “bending to extend,” among others in Tai Chi Chuan, are permeated with the philosophy of courtesy, going with the flow, illustrating the interdependent and transformative relationship between offense and defense. The principles of “central equilibrium,” “standing as steady as a balance, moving as freely as a wheel,” “still as a mountain, flowing like a river,” are about maintaining one’s Yin-Yang balance, protecting oneself, and overcoming opponents. In Tai Chi Chuan training, how can one always maintain this Yin-Yang balance? The following four aspects are crucial:

  • Zhan Zhuang (Standing like a post), establishing a foundation: Though Tai Chi standing exercises may seem unremarkable, their utility is boundless. Long-term, standardized practice not only nurtures vitality and enhances physical health but also solidifies one’s grounding.
  • Transition between solidity and emptiness, moving with the flow: Being solid when appearing empty and vice versa, measuring advance and retreat, and moving according to the situation, can lead to victory through subtlety.
  • Courage and sufficient Qi, stabilizing the mind: With courage comes boldness, with sufficient Qi comes strength, a settled spirit brings a steady heart, which in turn makes techniques more effective.
  • Neither too soft nor too rigid, embodying hardness within softness: Too soft and one lacks the strength to overcome a strong opponent; too rigid and one loses the ability to adapt. As Chen Xin said, “Yin and Yang are endless, embodying flexibility and strength in movement. Understanding this secret allows for the free manipulation of the great void.”

2. Five Levels of Progression

Precious achievements are hard-earned. Attaining the sublime skills and higher realms of Tai Chi Chuan requires dedication. To elucidate the various levels within Tai Chi Chuan, my mentor Chen Xiaowang once used a diagram for explanation. The progression in Tai Chi Chuan can be divided into five levels, depicted as a triangle with the lowest level being “one Yin and nine Yang,” and the highest “five Yin and five Yang.” The mentor further explained that the initial level represents imbalance between Yin and Yang, akin to a novice. As one progresses, the balance improves, leading to a more harmonious and effective practice. The journey of learning Tai Chi Chuan is gradual, with inevitable setbacks and challenges, resembling a wave-like progression toward mastery.

3. The Body as a Unified System

Tai Chi Chuan is a comprehensive martial art, integrating health maintenance, entertainment, physical strengthening, and combat techniques. Its gentle, flowing movements and profound philosophy attract numerous practitioners. However, misconceptions persist, affecting the overall advancement of Tai Chi Chuan. It’s crucial to recognize Tai Chi Chuan not just as a form of exercise for the elderly but as a profound martial art focused on combat techniques. True mastery involves understanding and integrating the principles of Tai Chi Chuan into both movement and personal character.

4. Revering Masters, Seeking Personal Enlightenment

While it’s essential to respect and learn from masters, it’s equally important to find one’s path based on individual differences and personal experiences. Tai Chi Chuan practice should be adapted to one’s unique physical and mental conditions, guided by the principles of Tai Chi Chuan but personalized to fit individual needs.

5. Embracing the Essence, Mastering the Core

To truly grasp the essence of Tai Chi Chuan and avoid detours, my mentor emphasized starting with the core principles. The vast array of Tai Chi Chuan techniques all revolve around the movement of the Dantian, the core of Tai Chi Chuan’s movement principles. Mastery involves the coordination of the entire body around this core, leading to a harmonious and effective practice.

6. Supreme Goodness Resembles Water, All Things Are Thoroughly Understood

The cultivation of Tai Chi Chuan is not only reflected in the martial art itself but is also intimately connected with personal character, both mutually enhancing and complementing each other. This principle is evident in the exemplary conduct of my mentor:

  1. Humility: My mentor, a world-renowned Tai Chi master, is admired globally for his remarkable achievements. Yet, he remains modest, treats others with kindness, and speaks gently. His soft demeanor reveals his resilience, maintaining gravity amidst amiability. This is the accumulation of Tai Chi cultivation, the fusion of softness and hardness. Whenever praised for his divine mastery of Tai Chi to the point of perfection, he humbly responds, “My skills are far from those of my ancestors, and even further from the realm described by Tai Chi Chuan. I have not reached the pinnacle you speak of, and perhaps no one ever will.” From him, disciples feel the care of an elder and the guidance of a good teacher. He never prides himself on his unparalleled skills or fame, embodying the true cultivation of a Tai Chi grandmaster.
  2. Broad-mindedness: Tai Chi’s transformation can generate all things; like the vast ocean, it embraces hundreds of rivers. My mentor’s life journey has been full of twists and hardships, enduring the bitter aspects of studying Tai Chi Chuan. Facing injustice, he remained calm; confronted with adversity, he stayed composed; and in dealing with people, he was generous. He resolved conflicts with flexibility and pursued his goals with firmness and strength. Since the 1980s, many countries and regions have invited my mentor to visit. However, all such invitations were declined by the relevant departments aiming to attract more foreigners to China for economic gain. Despite finally getting a rare opportunity to visit abroad in 1985, only to be sent back midway for unforeseen reasons, my mentor showed great understanding without any complaints, leaving officials to remark on his genuine kindness.
  3. Persistence in Pursuits: My mentor has two major hobbies that occupy most of his leisure time: Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan and calligraphy; a blend of literature and martial arts, softness and hardness, perfectly embodying the harmonious transformation between Yin and Yang, the ideal combination of martial and literary arts. Born into a Tai Chi family as a direct descendant, he had unique advantages in practicing Tai Chi Chuan, yet he never became arrogant because of this. In exploring the mysteries of Tai Chi Chuan, he thought deeply and practiced rigorously, enduring decades of hardship far beyond what most can imagine. Despite being fatigued from long periods of intensive training, he persevered. To uncover the true essence of Tai Chi, he traveled across the country on a tight budget to visit renowned Tai Chi masters; even now, in his seventies with profound mastery, he continues to practice diligently. Calligraphy was not his forte, yet valuing the preciousness of time, he practiced calligraphy alongside his martial arts training. Since the early 1980s, my mentor has closely integrated Tai Chi Chuan with calligraphy, using writing to adjust his breathing and open his meridians, saying, “Writing is like practicing Tai Chi with a pen in hand, and practicing Tai Chi is like writing without a pen.” Over time, his martial arts and calligraphy have complemented each other, achieving considerable skill in calligraphy. To this day, he remains devoted to the interplay and integration of practicing Tai Chi and calligraphy.

The profundity of Tai Chi Chuan eludes complete mastery within a lifetime. Its subtleties challenge practitioners to constantly refine their skills to reach the pinnacle. Yet, as the saying goes, heaven rewards the diligent. With perseverance, substantial rewards are assured.

Leave a Reply