pic: Master Wang Hai Jun leads our group in practice in front of the Chen Family Ancestor Temple
In an unassuming rural village in Henan province, called ChenjiaGou, aka Chen Village, there is a long courtyard in front of the family temple. Here you will find 12 stone tablets, mounted onto the pillars of the buildings down either side of the courtyard, flanking the statue of the founder of Tai Chi Chuan, General Chen Wangting.
They stand proudly, like silent bodyguards, defending the tradition of Chen Family Tai Chi Chuan
Each one bears an exquisitely carved character, representing a precious concept.
These are the 12 Ethics of the Chen family, something all disciples of Chen Tai Chi Chuan would do well to learn and uphold if they are to embrace to true nature of Chen Style TaChi Chuan
Two characters, carved into tall steles, stand either side of the entrance to the Ancestor Temple, reinforcing the others: They are Wu De - Martial Ethics
pic: Cherry in Lan Zha Yi posture, in front of Chen Wangtings statue. Behind is the Ancestor Temple and the characters Wu-Martial (on the right of the pic) and De - Ethics on the left - Chinese was traditionally written right to left although nowadays left to right.
One of these 12 Chen Family Rules or Ethics is 'Zhong' which means Loyalty or Faithfulness. One aspect of Zhong is faithfulness to your Teacher , as opposed to skipping back and forth from one to another.
Of course, back in the old days a student would have to physically go to another teachers school, to be regarded as unfaithful, but nowadays, when so much is available on the internet, I believe it is possible to be 'unfaithful' from your armchair, via Broadband and Multimedia.
Therefore I would encourage SHTC students to surf no further than our own Lineage - that of Master Wang Haijun and his teacher, Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei,via their YouTube clips and articles, books and DVDs. We are extremely privileged to have such a direct link with Chen Village, rather than the 'around the houses' tentative type of connection that many other schools have, if any at all. So please do value it :)
Now, in order to be transparent and to illustrate how the practice of Tai Chi nurtures not only the body but also one's mind and spirit, my own views on this exclusive student-teacher relationship were very different when I started learning Tai Chi. Partly through ignorance of the nature of such a relationship and partly because, as someone who had been controlled for much of my adult life and being relatively recently freed from all that nasty stuff, I initially saw the 'one teacher rule' not as a privilege to embrace, but as a form of possessive control. I'd like to share how my opinion changed:
In 2008 I started studying Tai Chi with a local teacher who was a student of Master Wang Haijun), shortly afterwards, as a result of a redundancy, I went to China for a 6 month stay at a 'Traditional Martial Arts School'. It was my first solo trip abroad. I absolutely loved China I felt like I had come home. At the school where I stayed in Shandong, I did an hour of Tai Chi each morning before breakfast, followed by Shaolin Quan basics, form and applications and Qigong later in the day. It was a shock to the system and tough challenge for my 'old' body but it made me feel alive and gradually I found a self- belief that I hadn't experienced before - that if i put my mind to something, however hard, and practice, then I can do it.
Back home, I began training with Master Wang in 2009 and after i'd had about 9-10 sessions with him, the opportunity arose to go China for a second time. Without giving the matter any thought I jumped at the chance. In China training was very affordable - 5 days a week, 5 hours a day, living an uncomplicated life in the mountains, immersed in what I loved without the distractions of life in the UK. On my seond visit training was again in Tai Chi, Shaolin Quan and Qigong. Everything went OK for a few months until a rather 'cocky' student argued with the Shaolin Master during a training session. The next day training was cancelled and we were told to go to the classroom where we had our Mandarin lessons. The Shaolin master delivered a series of lectures on the subject of Shaolin Wu De - Martial Ethics: before breakfast, in place of morning training and again instead of afternoon training. He aadded another three sessions the next day. When the Shaolin master talked of Loyalty to one's teacher, unexpected pangs of guilt stabbed at me, as I thought of Master Wang, back in UK. There was still another 3 weeks of my stay remaining, but having got my flight via Airmiles I was unable to swap the return flight home, so I stayed for the rest of my term. But now things seemed differednt - I longed to get home. I frequently I felt remorseful, often waking at night with it on my mind. It amazed me that I hadn't even given it a second thought when I booked the trip. I realised that through my practice, my own ethics were changing.
When I returned I was happy to get back into monthly training with Master Wang. I had been home for about 5 months when I attended my first residential (5 day) training camp with him.
At the end of training one day, Master Wang sat us all down in the training hall and talked at length to everyone about students having the opinion that the grass is greener over the next hill and looking at what other teachers are doing instead of focusing on what they already have.
He told us that a teacher is like a sculptor and a student is the clay. Before starting work, the sculptor has an image of what the finished work will look like in his mind, and he knows which piece of clay he has to cut away or how to mold it into shape in order to create his finished work.
If another sculptor happens across this 'work in progress', he may not see the same vision and he may change the work that the original sculptor has done.
Now, when the original sculptor comes back to his work he has to correct what the second sculptor has done before he can continue from where he left off. If a student continuously goes from one teacher to another, the work will never be finished (and probably the sculptor will become quite frustrated and maybe even ditch the work- my thoughts)
This was a moment of pure clarity for me, the pangs of conscience and guilt I had felt in China returned with force and I knew that I wasn't going to want to learn Chen Tai Chi from another teacher again. Although there was/ is no written agreement of loyalty, it was clearly written in my heart. I didn't feel this was as a result of a strict doctrine but rather a very natural expression of my heart-mind.
This is just one aspect of my life to change. Tai Chi's 'Nei Gong' (internal work) really does have a transformational power.
Chen Zhenglei explains this by saying that 'Tai Chi practice creates a state of peacefulness, which nourishes Kidney Qi which in turn refines ones Spirit'
I returned to China in 2013 but this time travelling in a group with Master Wang. I had a wonderful time there -visiting Chen Village, Wudang Mountain, Shaolin Temple and taking part in the Jiaozuo Tai Chi Competition.
I stayed home in 2014 but in 2015 I got a strong yearning to return to China to study the Chinese Language, and to further my understanding of Qigong and Chinese Massage. I discussed my desire to go back to China with Master Wang before arranging the trip, assuring him that I would never study Tai Chi with anyone but him, and he consented, provided it didn't impact on my own practice or mean that I miss any training with him - which of course, it didn't. So that time I made the trip with my teachers' blessing and a peaceful heart :)
Nowadays, with greater understanding and an open heart and mind, I firmly believe that the 'one Teacher' ethic Zhong - 忠 is a precious gem which offers many benefits.
Firstly it prevents the student from being confused with aparantly conflicting information. Actually, the information may not be as different as the inexperienced student assumes, but he / she is not 'awakened' enough in their own practice to realise this. EG: there are many ways to skin a cat... however if one tries to learn all the many ways at once there will be confusion: What is the 'right' knife to use, what cuts to make, whether the start at the head or the tail, etc and the student may become so confused and demoralised that they give up. If they had stuck to the one way their one teacher was showing them, by now they would most likely be a very good skinner of cats...
PS: No cat was harmed in the taking of this photo- it's my pet, Suki, catching some rays of winter sunshine. It is my rather sick sense of humour that had me place the knife and chopping board next to her... ;-P
Secondly it provides a secure learning environment for the student - the teacher will always act out of the students best interests and will never ask more of a student than they are capable of - even if you think it's too hard, a good teacher will urge you on to achieve your full potential.
I believe that a good Tai Chi Teacher, in my case, Master Wang Haijun, can be fully trusted to know what is best for a student: The traditional title for skilled person in China is 'Shi Fu', it can refer to taxi drivers as well as a respected older gentleman. However, in Martial Arts, there is a different character for Fu which means Father, suggesting a paternal influence. So in this second way of writing Shifu we have something like Teacher - Father, representing the way a father will teach his children, with authority, leading by example and with a strong element of care, but if necessary, reproach. Therefore a student can feel nourished and safe in the traditional Chinese Student- Teacher relationship, trusting that 'Dad knows best'! This is definitely how I feel in Master Wang's classes and it applies as much outside of the training hall as it does inside it. If he asked me to fly to New York next week to pick up a bag of his favourite potato chips i'd be first in line at the boarding gate, with a roll of bubblewrap to protect my precious cargo on the return flight ;-P
The Teacher also gains from the relationship by having loyal and moral students whom he can trust to dilligently and faithfully carry forward what he has taught to them and spread Chen Tai Chi, preserving it for future generations, whilst acting in a way that reflects positively on their teacher.
In 2013, I studied Mandarin in Beijing for a month before meeting Master Wang for a training tour of China. In the mornings before Chinese class I would meet with a group of locals and do some Tai Chi & qigong practice in a park near my hostel. One morning when I was about to leave for my class, they said I should wait a while and they would introduce me to their teacher, suggesting that I might like to learn from her. I politely refused, saying that I have a teacher back in the UK, Master Wang Haijun. They exclaimed, 'Ah, ta jie hun le!' which means, Oh! she's 'married', which rather surprised me as i hadn't heard that term used in the student-teacher context before.
Bai Shi & Tai Chi Generations
I think the phrase my friends used above is probably more appropriate when a student has received 'Bai Shi' from his teacher and was certainly rather over-generous in my case! Even so, that phrase added a new weight to the degree of commitment I already felt to my teacher.
A Bai Shi ceremony, mentioned in the previous paragraph, is sometimes held by a high level teacher for students he has selected to become his official 'apprentices' in order to further their skills and carry on the lineage. I feel this must be the greatest honour that a student of Tai Chi could receive. At the ceremony, after certain terms are agreed to and I expect, vows or promises made, they will bow to their Teacher and the lineage Ancestors and take the next 'generation' number following on from that of their teacher.
Confusingly in the Chen lineage, masters often have two generation numbers. The higher of the two is the generation of family, and the lower number is the Tai Chi generation, since the physical family line pre-dates the Tai Chi line. So, for instance, you will see my Teacher's Teacher, Chen Zhenglei, described as both 19th Generation (family) and 11th Generation (Tai Chi). Master Wang's Tai Chi generation is therefore 12th Gen, and when he takes disciples they will be 13th Gen.
The ceremony would be held in the Ancestors Temple, or possibly the training hall. The students will bow to pay respects to their teacher and their Tai Chi lineage ancestors. At this point they will be considered 'Men Ren' or Door People - meaning one who has entered from outside to inside. From what I have been told, at this point they will receive a direct transmission of Tai Chi Chuan and have a stronger connection to the Past Masters.
Of course, complete loyalty would be required from the student, and any straying from that promise I imagine would be regarded as infidelity. Naturally this would bring shame on the student and embarrasment for the teacher, for having chosen someone of such low ethics.
This is why a teacher will have personally known a student for many years before the possibility of taking them as a 'MenRen', so that they can judge their moral standing in how they conduct themself, includng their commitment to the Teacher. Master Wang told us that a student in Chen Village would train daily and spend a lot of time / live with a teacher over a 3 year period so that the teacher could evaluate them as a person and how well they upheld the Chen family ethics, as well as their dedication to their practice of Taiji If after this time the teacher felt the student was one that they could trust and bring on, the student would be accepted as a 'men ren' by the teacher. If after 3 years the teacher was not happy with the student, the student would leave. I asked Master Wang if this happened to students during his time in the village, he said that it did.
Of course, the majority of people learning Tai Chi today won't go on to become indoor students but nevertheless, I feel that the Ethics are valuable for us all, to highlight areas where we may not be acting from a place of 'skilfulness' in our lives. I think this is important because when we act from a place of low morality our spirit (Shen) will scatter and there is no way we will find the tranquility of heart-mind required to develop true Tai Chi.
EXERCISE:Try going through each of the Ethics in turn and ask yourself these questions- Did I have an opportunity to act in a ...... way today? In what situation did I FAIL to act in a .... way today? What would have been a more ..... response in that situation? WARNING! It can be quite an eye opener :)
A full list of Chen Family Ethics (in no particular order) is:
Duan - Dignified
Ren - Kind & Benevolent
Gong -Fair /Impartial
Hao - Broadminded
Xin - Trustworthy
Zheng - Upright
Cheng - Sincere
Zhong- Faithful / Loyal
Yong - Brave
Jing - Respectful
De - Moral