Ch'an Dao Links:
Master Li Tian Ji and the Development of Simplified 24 Step Taijiquan
By Niu Sheng Xian (牛胜先)
Translator’s Note: This is an English translation of the original Chinese language text entitled; 你们毁了我的太极拳’, or ‘They Have Ruined My Taijiquan’. Master Li Tian Ji (1915-1996) was the martial arts teacher of the famous Niu Sheng Xian – the author of this title. In the late 1970’s, Niu Sheng Xian became famous throughout China for defeating a team of highly qualified Japanese martial arts experts during their visit to Beijing. Not only is he a renowned martial artist, but is also the son of Niu Jin Bao (牛金宝) who inherited the 1st generation Qianfeng Daoism lineage directly from the founder – Grandmaster Zhao Bichen (趙避塵). Niu Sheng Xian is the 2nd generation Qianfeng Daoism lineage holder, and continues to practice this path of self-cultivation, as well as various other martial systems. However, it is through the strict tutelage of Li Tian Ji that he became the push-hands champion of China in 1983, and a nationally recognised martial arts master in his own right. Li Tian Ji – the founder of the 24 Step Simplified Taijiquan Form – was a stern traditional martial arts practitioner who specialised in Shaolin Boxing, Wudang Sword, Sanshou (Full-contact Sparring), Shuaijiao (Chinese Wrestling), Short Weapons, Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang, and who trained with many eminent masters including his father – Li Yu Lin (李玉琳) – and Sun Lu Tang (孙禄堂), as well as Zhang Zhao Dong (张兆东), and Li Jing Lin (李景林). In this article, Niu Sheng Xian conveys Li Tian Ji’s opinions regarding certain modern attitudes toward Taijiquan practice, and how this constitutes a lack of authentic knowledge regarding genuine internal practice.
(Author’s Note: Niu Sheng Xian [牛胜先] is the author of this article, but the viewpoints expressed are those of his respected Taijiquan teacher - Master Li Tian Ji [李天骥].)
“They have already ruined my Taijiquan, and I cannot allow my Xingyiquan to also be destroyed in their hands.”
This is how my teacher – Li Tian Ji – addressed myself and another classmate who had visited his home in the late 1970’s. We visited the master’s house because we were preparing to travel to Beijing to attend the national martial arts competition, and had a question to ask. The competition rules stated that each martial arts school had to select five of their best students to attend. We had not yet made a definite decision about which five students would go to Beijing, and I wanted to ask Master Li Tian Ji’s permission to promote Xing Yi Quan (形意拳) or ‘Form Intention Boxing’ at the national competition. Hearing my request, Li Tian Ji bluntly replied:
“They have already ruined my Taijiquan, and I cannot allow my Xingyiquan to also be destroyed in their hands.”
Why did my teacher respond in this manner? At this time in Beijing the Swing Step (摆步 – Bai Bu), and the Bow Step (弓步 Dang Bu), were defined as having such and such a purpose here, and such and such a purpose there. A number of intellectuals offered superficial and differing opinions as to what exactly constituted correct martial arts practice, and as these ideas did not agree with the wisdom associated with traditional martial arts practice, there was much confusion caused. When Li Tian Ji heard of these many different opinions, he stated:
“According to the confused viewpoints of these intellectuals – I have never correctly practiced the true law of the martial arts!”
Good and in depth practice suffered as a result of this disparate intellectual environment and influenced some students to not bother seeking out the correct inner knowledge of how to strengthen the waist and legs, but instead only focused on the external teaching which emphasised the correct angle of a stance, or right positioning of the hands and arms, etc. In the practice of authentic martial arts it is vitally important that the waist and hips should be properly strengthened and in the Beijing of that time, many students lacked this basic conditioning. Shallow and differing opinions were being followed by students instead of correct martial knowledge, hence the deprivation in ability. Master Li Tian Ji explained that in the past, this is exactly how the correct technique associated with Taijiquan (太极拳) or ‘Grand Ridge-pole Fist’ went astray and developed in the wrong direction.
It was exactly this situation which led Li Tian Ji to agree (in the mid 1950’s) to assist in the development of a new Simplified Taijiquan (简化太极拳 – Tian Hua Tai Ji Quan). In modern times, good Taijiquan masters had developed competent students but many of these students had gone on to develop the art away from that of their master and the genuine path associated with traditional wisdom. This situation is described by the traditional Chinese saying which states that a ‘healthy dragon begets nine sons’ (龙生九子 – Long Sheng Jiu Zi), which means (within this context) that a virtuous martial arts teacher produces many good students that spread his art unchanged. However, Li Tian Ji was describing an alteration of this situation which states that ‘nine sons’ produce ‘nine variations’ (九子九样 – Jiu Zi Jiu Yang), or descendants who do not practice the correct technique. This observation implies that a deviating copy of a martial art produces an inadequate generation of practicing martial artists who are moving ever further from the correct method. To remedy this situation, Li Tian Ji developed the Simplified (24 Step) Taijiquan Form based entirely upon the traditional teachings as passed on within his family martial arts school. He suggested that those practitioners who were practicing in the wrong manner, should start their training anew, and learn the correct method for practicing Taijiquan. As a consequence, his corrective classes did not have a high number of students, as many refused to listen to the idea that their practice might be incorrect. Instead, Li Tian Ji focused on a small number of students who developed their skills to a very high degree. It was these students who eventually became recognised as the 2nd generation inheritors of the Simplified (24 Step) Taijiquan Form.
In 1996 my teacher passed away and the founder of the Simplified (24 Step) Taijiquan Form was gone. However, the sophisticated structure of the Simplified Taijiquan Form serves as the developmental basis for the 88 Step Taijiquan Form, the 66 Step Taijiquan Form, the 48 Step Taijiquan Form, and the 42 Step Taijiquan Form, and so on, with each version developing in its own in depth, distinct and correct manner, a process that is continuing today. However, as many do not know or fully understand the 42 Step Taijiquan Form, nor the Taiji Sword (太极剑 – Tai Ji Jian), these systems have been added to the educational syllabus of the National Sports Commission. The emphasis is upon the correct practice of Taijiquan and the development of soft power, whilst avoiding the errors of scattered thought, laziness, chaotic practice, and superficial standardisation. In reality, Li Tian Ji breathed new life into the correct practice of traditional Taijiquan, and in so doing developed a completely new method of slow practice Long Fist (长拳 – Chang Quan) that emphasises the building of a strong waist and firm legs. Expanding, opening, and rounding the chest (and upper back) area (含胸 – Han Xiong), relaxing, extending, aligning, lifting and gathering-in the musculature of the pelvic girdle (the lower abdomen and back) area (敛臀 – Lian Tun), are amongst the correct techniques associated with authentic martial arts cultivation. These are the most important factors for Taijiquan training. However, many either know these techniques and give-up the correct practice, or have never been made aware of their existence in the first place. This is why many practitioners are flat-chested, their pelvic-girdle sticks-out at odd angles when practicing their forms, and their posture is too squat and is neither correctly extended nor appropriately aligned, etc. Given the fact that these principles are well known, why do Taijiquan practitioners still ignore their study?
The problem appears to have stemmed from the over-intellectualising of Taijiquan theory that had no direct historical connection with the developed body of correct traditional knowledge, and that possessed no genuine understanding of Taijiquan as a subject. It was a disconnected intellectualism produced by individuals who were academics, and whom often served as the referees and judges in modern martial arts tournaments. These people did not understand what they were watching, and so awarded points to practitioners whose forms looked ‘eye-catching’, but who had bad hip and chest position and alignment. This led to the situation of competition participants mimicking these errors in the hope that they would score high points and win the prize! The problem originated with the academic professors who had knowledge of the theory and practice of Long Fist (长拳 – Chang Quan) – that is the martial arts associated with the Shaolin Temple (少林拳 – Shao Lin Quan) – and who adequately understood its foundational principles. The theory and principle of Long Fist Style martial arts which are associated with Shaolin Temple Boxing, is that they are very different to those principles which govern the correct traditional teachings associated with the authentic and genuine practice of Taijiquan. These so-called ‘experts’ seemed to spring-up over-night, and thought that they could ‘transfer’ the principles of Shaolin Temple Boxing onto the practice of Taijiquan – this is exactly why some modern students get confused about what is the ‘right’ way, and what is the ‘wrong’ way to practice Taijiquan. What gave these professors the moral right to do this?
A superficial understanding of Long Fist spread through China’s academic system because this style was favoured at the time to be a good example of a ‘national’ martial art suitable for all to practice. Virtually every physical activity from athletics and gymnastics, to refereeing tournaments and competition, as well as the practicing of the internal martial arts became enthused with this Long Fist thinking. It is no wonder the pelvic girdle sticks-out, the chest remains flat, and the posture remains squat in as much as it is non-extended, non-rounded, and non-aligned. This misrepresentation of Taijiquan is nothing but a very bad joke. A German leader once said that ‘If a lie is told enough times, it becomes the truth’ – this is exactly the situation described here, as truth has been obscured by lies. Taijiquan cannot become just a version of Long Fist practiced slowly. Education and dialogue is the key to remedying this situation. Knowledgeable experts representing all martial arts styles need to communicate more in a meaningful manner and exchange genuine and authentic martial knowledge. In this way it is possible to make known all the correct knowledge so that the confusions surrounding the different approaches associated with Long Fist, Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang (八卦掌) practice can be resolved. If this path is not pursued, then there is a risk that the people of China will lose knowledge of their own martial culture and commit a grave error. It is similar to the famous story entitled ‘Roasted Chestnuts’ (糖炒栗子 – Tang Chao Li Zi), where delicious roasted chestnuts are replaced by marshmallows! It is obvious that the latter cannot hope to replace the former. Therefore, not understanding the correct Taijiquan techniques of expanding the chest and aligning (and lifting) the pelvic girdle, is no excuse for practicing what amounts to a cheap and ineffective imitation. The old saying states:
‘The slightest error, and there is a divergence of a thousand miles!’
When Taijiquan is not practiced correctly, then there is a divergence of a thousand miles away from the correct and beneficial technique that is designed to generate and refine qi energy as it flows through and around the body. Such a deviation from the correct path is nothing more an absurdity.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2014.