The Journal of Asian Martial Arts Magazine has long been regarded as the most intelligent publication on the traditional arts of Asia. It also attracts some of the most knowledgeable writers in the martial arts that set very high academic standards. The articles and writing are very well researched. We are pleased therefore whenever Empty Mind Films finds itself inside their pages. Chen Village was reviewed in the current edition of their magazine which is available in print by subscription as online digital download at their website. You can download the review by clicking the image above.
Review by Michael A. DeMarco, Journal of Asian Martial Arts Magazine.
Taijiquan. The word itself conjures up many images, from imperial bodyguards to octogenar- ians cultivating long life amid trees in parks. The art has affected millions of people during the past century and all owe Chen Village a dept of gratitude for preserving this national treasure. As the birthplace of taijiquan, scholars have a strong interest in Chen Village. Practitioners think about it as an inspirational local where spiritual, medical, and martial traditions were blended into a unique art named after the pro- found philosophical idea of taiji and associated with the Chen family name.
Many will never have the opportunity to visit Chen Village and can only guess of its physical layout, social atmosphere, and to what degree taiji is practiced there. Jon Braeley pro- duced and directed this film about the village, providing us with an experience second only to being there ourselves. A camera close-up shows two young men engaged face-to-face in a two-person practice. They hold a ball between them that’s designed with the yin-yang symbol. While delicately holding the sphere, their hands turn, roll, and flow in unison. The camera slowly backs away, showing the shifting of weight from leg to leg, with waists turning to direct their movements. There is no commentary. The director lets you watch as if you were there to see for yourself how taiji is actually practiced. The camera backs further away and you can now see there are at least six pairs of practition- ers in uniforms designed with white fronts and black backs. However, the flair does not distract from the fact that they are mutually moving, shifting, and stepping atop posts at a height roughly three feet off the ground. They are developing skills.
The main instructors of the village are introduced individually and then they can be seen together visiting large tombs housing Chen Family ancestors. Perhaps this is “Tomb Sweeping Day,” a national holiday where family members pay respects to their deceased relatives. Offerings are made of fruit, drink, “spirit money” made for the ritual, and incense. These gestures express gratitude for what all the ancestors have done to benefit their offspring. In this case, part of the heritage is taijiquan. You can imagine the feeling of entering Chen Village for the first time. The film shows its rural setting as the road bypasses fields on flat land and the first buildings at the village’s edge. About 2,500 of the 3,000 inhabitants practice taiji. Most are surnamed Chen. About 200 are masters. What role does taiji play in the lives of the residents and the visitors who have come here specifically to study? Only so much can be seen from strolling down the streets. Producer Braeley goes beyond the superficial by interviewing leading masters, plus Chinese and foreign students. In addition, he provides many film sequences of taiji prac- tice. All age groups are shown practicing, usually in groups of similar age range.
The interviews provide insights of what it is like for foreigners to live and study in Chen Village. Small, rural, farming villages in China are usually quite poor and lack modern conven- iences. Foreigners often choose to stay in large hotels outside Chen village, and only come to the village to study. Village life is not exciting, but those who stay in the village can find it very peaceful compared with big city living. The simple lifestyle is conducive to introspection. It also lets one stay focused on daily taiji practice, which leads to rapid development in knowledge and abilities. Chen Village provides a unique location for meeting like-minded people from around the world. Foreigners meet other foreigners, locals, and also others from all parts of China. Many are knowledgeable about taijiquan’s history and practice. Interviews with leading masters give an overview of the art. They say that Chen Wangting (陈王庭, 1580–1660) started the family style by creating what is now called the Old Frame barehanded sets. Chen Changxing (陳長 興, 1771–1853) categorized practices into what is called Old Frame’s first and second routine. Later, Chen Fake (陳發科, 1887–1957) embellished these two main routines, thus making the New Frame’s first and second routine Throughout the film, commentary and visuals indicate the breath and depth of Chen Family Taiji barehanded and weapons practices. Straight sword, broadsword, halberd, double- swords, spear, push-hands, staff, and other practices are at least shown in part.
Tidbits of local history adds background for bettering understanding the village and its inhabitants. The Chinese name for the village is Chen Jia Gou, which actually means Chen Family Ditch. There are three rather large ditch- es within the village area. There’s a temple, small local stores, and a regular street market. For most of its history, Chen Village was a rural farming community. It just so happened that it gave birth to taijiquan. The art was passed down over generations only to family members. A rare case when an outsider actually learned the art is the story involving Yang Luchan (楊露禪, 1799–1872), the founder of Yang Style Taiji. Politics influenced the village, such as the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) during which practicing traditional marital arts was forbiden. Government officials humiliated some gongfu masters, and some were killed. Chen Taiji con- tinued to be quietly taught within the village.
Chen Xiaowang (陳小旺, b. 1945) is the leading representative of the family art today. In the film, he states that his parents’ generation was in destitute poverty. Life in Chen Village started to improve during his generation, after the government became more stable and laws changed. He worked hard and can be credited for raising the standard of living for all living in Chen Village today. He feels the next genera- tion has both the opportunity and the responsi- bility to further improve their lives and to help others in Chen Village. It is obvious in the film that taiji is the lifeblood of Chen Village. The old masters would teach in their homes, but a few decades ago the government decided to promote taiji and constructed a school. They hired masters such as Chen Xiaowang and Chen Xiaoxing as “trainers.” The school was not a great success because of poor management. Xiaowang and his brother Xiaoxing bought the school in 2000, which is the main place for taiji study in the village today. It covers about 10,000 square meters and includes a dining room and new housing. More schools were founded by other leading masters, including Wang Xi’an, Chen Bing, and Chen Zhaosen. Some simply teach out of their homes. Class time in the main schools is about six hours per day for adults, and longer for juveniles. Anyone born in Chen Village can study for free. As an example of costs, Chinese from outside the village pay about $90 USD for one routine. Foreigners pay three times more, or $270 for one routine. There are longterm students, studying for many years, but there are short-term courses of one to three months too. Out of the hundreds of students, a few become disciples. The change in status from student to disciple indicates a high level of skill, and great commitment to the family art. Braeley films a traditional ceremony where students kaotow to their master and become adopted Chen Family members. The social bond is strong as all now share a special heritage in the art, the lifeblood of Chen Village.
Under Braeley’s direction, the film catches a great deal of life in Chen Village as it revolves around taiji. However, this was an art taught in secrecy from generation to generation for hundreds of years. The essence of taiji is that it was created for survival as a fighting art. It’s logical that, traditionally, the highest levels of instruction be strictly reserved for those who would enter the “closed doors” that separated disciples from what was presented publically. Nearly extinct decades ago, taijiquan is an art form that is now flourishing in Chen Village and around the word. As this generation’s leading representative, Chen Xiaowang is largely responsible for this rise in popularity. He stands solo, rooted between tradition and modernity. With a highly sensitive touch, he manages to balance the two, just as he blends yin and yang in his taiji and vibrant calligraphy. The interface between traditional and modern need not be conflictively stressful. It resembles the lucid harmonious interaction between two young men dressed in yin-yang uniforms, moving unison atop posts while delicately holding the taiji sphere.
In Chen Village, director Braeley has captured taijiquan’s history, recorded valuable interviews with masters and students, and lets all observe the art performed with high levels of skill. For researchers, the film serves as a superb documentary of today’s practice at taiji’s birth- place. For Chen Style practitioners, it is a treasured family photo album.
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