World Chen Xiao Wang Taijiquan Association

Chen Xiaowang - Chinas Living Treasure

Chinatown - The Magazine

In March 1981, a group of Japanese taiji practitioners descended upon Chenjiagou, a small rural village by the Yellow River in China. Insignificant as the village may seem, this is the place where taijiquan has its roots. The village, which had changed little over the centuries, was hardly ready for the visit, and certainly not ready for the intense onslaught of the media that came with it. But ready or not it was dragged into the modern world. Chen Xiaowang's amazing taiji skills were exposed to an international audience for the very first time. In dramatic footage from the original preserved film, he can be seen dealing effortlessly with the best efforts of four Japanese experts.

Chen Xiaowang was born into one of Chinas most famous martial arts aristocratic families almost sixty years ago in Chenjiagou (Chen Family Village) in Henan Province. Today he is the gatekeeper of the current generation of Chen Family Taijiquan, president of the Chen Xiaowang World Taijiquan Association, with an estimated 60,000 students throughout the world and has been designated as a living treasure of China.

He relates to Chinatown the Magazine some of the influences that led to him becoming one of the most travelled and famous
Chinese martial artists in the world today. He also talks about his efforts to give something back to his birthplace, which has remained largely a rural impoverished village.

Preserving a Legacy

Half a century ago, the pace of life in rural China was unhurried. The days were always the same. If anything, long. Nothing much of note ever happened growing up in the Chen Village in the early 1950s, Chen Xiaowang noted. Then an incident occurred which made him realised the importance traditionally placed on family name in Chinese society.

I remember when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I was on a bus on a rare occasion that required me to go to a place 10 kilometres away. I was still small in size and children didnt go places very often. People on the bus asked me where I was from, I said Chenjiagou. They asked if I knew Chen Fa-ke. I said Chen Fake was my grandfather, whereupon everyone on the bus stood up to look at me.

Chen Fa-Ke had left the village in the 1920s and was a living legend in Beijing for his superior skill and integrity.

That incident had a big impact on my development, as I was made acutely aware of my legacy and my responsibility towards it; that this legacy should not end with my generation. That motivated me to train hard and well.

To accept the responsibility of continuing this legacy is one thing. To actually live up to it, however, was no easy task.

In my family, every generation has produced famous and skilled individuals and that cannot stop with my generation. But aspiration is just that aspiration. You can see people have aspirations and start to practise very hard but after a while they lose the drive. Also life is not consistent. You cannot plan to live to 100 years old.

Chen cites a Chinese expression mo shi zai ren, chen shi zai tian as the guiding principle of his life.

He elaborates: whatever you plan to do in life, whether you succeed or not, if during the process you become ill or die, this is beyond your control. You have to set your heart on doing something and then try your utmost to achieve it. And if it doesnt succeed, you will have done your best and will have nothing to reproach yourself for it wont be because of lack of effort. In his early years, times were hard. The diet was meagre and Chenjiagou, being a farming community, involved hard physical labour that left little spare time. Despite this Chen persevered with his taiji training. At that time I trained very hard, my clothes would invariably be soaked through. Even in the winter my woollen coat would be saturated with sweat.

Taiji Revival

The Cultural Revolution was a time fraught with difficulties. All things traditional were frowned upon and Taiji practise was banned as a decadent and worthless pursuit. A family whose name carries a martial arts system was particularly problematic. Training had to be hidden and secretive.

After the dark years of the Cultural Revolution and following Mao Zedongs death, there was a revival of martial arts and it was seen again as something worth preserving in the country. In 1980 Chen was selected by the Henan Sports Council to go to its capital citys Zhengzhou Sports Academy to be hothoused (alongside other elite participants from other sporting fields, such as basketball, volleyball etc). Chen remembers this time fondly: All we had to do was train in our own chosen fields. These were specially selected people who were there to take part in competitions. He won gold medals three times from 1980 to 1982 in National Martial Arts and Taijiquan Competition and was elected as the chairman of Henan Province Chen Style Taijiquan Association in 1984.

In 1989, in a government effort to streamline the teaching professions in the arts and sciences, three main categories were instituted. The highest level was "Guojia Gaoji Jiaolian" (National High-Level Coach). This official title accorded instant recognition of achievement for the holder in his or her field of endeavour. In the first year of its establishment, the awards were restricted to two for each province. Henan Province, the most populous province with over 90 million inhabitants, was allocated two such positions in martial arts; one was given to a Shaolin master in Luoyang, and the other to Chen Xiaowang.

A Category One Individual

Chens lifelong goal is to spread the benefits of Taiji throughout the world. However, for some time his movements were severely restricted. He explains, Between 1980 and 1985 I was not allowed to go anywhere. I was considered a Category One individual, which meant that I should stay in the country to attract foreign visitors in. The thinking of the government at the time was that if he were to go out, foreign visitors would not come. He was eventually permitted to visit Japan to share knowledge only after many attempts by the Japanese martial arts contingent to invite him. In 1990 he made the controversial decision to emigrate to Australia so that he can bring the Chen Family Taiji to the world. This ambition, Chen Xiaowang believes, has come to fruition now. He travels around the world for ten months of a year and has taught in every continent except Africa. In each place I visit, I support and coach the facilitator, so that he or she is able to promote Taiji in that particular area. It is not possible for one person to do everything. Its the method of duplication that has led to the expansion of Taiji.

Chen Village Restoration Project

At almost 60, Chen Xiaowangs life has come full circle, and he is now feeling the pull of his birthplace Chenjiagou again. Although I have visited more places in the world than Ive ever imagined as a humble boy in the village, I have never forgotten my roots. My heart remains in Chenjiagou. He has now thrown his weight behind an effort to preserve the heritage of Taijiquan through the restoration of Chenjiagou. In China there is a saying that North of the Yellow River there is the Shaolin Temple (birthplace of Shaolin Kung Fu) South of the river, Chenjiagou (source of Taiji). This Chinese New Year (Feb 2005), the local Wenxian Government arranged a special meeting to discuss fundraising for the regeneration of the village including: building a new temple; erecting a 3 metre bronze statue commemorating the creator of Taiji, Chen Wangting; new roads etc. The meeting was well represented present were a number of famous taiji masters, the village head, mayor of Wenxian, Wenxian Sport officials and representatives from China Tourism.

The first project will be the erection of a statue of a sitting Chen Wangting, which will be paid for by Chen Xiaowang. I have spent so many years away from home and its only right that I should contribute something towards the village. So I said that I would foot the bill solely and theres no necessity to discuss fundraising further for this project. The statue will cost 250,000rmb ($30,000),and another 10,000rmb for the gold plate.

Chen would also be willing to donate money in order to raise the living standard of the villagers; many of whom the village head said continue to live in poverty. Projects include turning the west ditch of the village into a market place, to be named after Chen, which will cost in the region of 300,000rmb. There is also a plan to rebuild the house of Chen Changxing, Chens ancestor who was responsible for all taiji styles today.

I took on the task of fundraising for these projects. I donated the first instalment of 50,000rmb and the rest would be raised, for example, by selling my calligraphy. Every person who buys the calligraphy or donates directly will have his or her name listed in the clan temple, so that everything is open and transparent.

As for his plans regarding the future development of Chen Taijiquan and whether he would continue to travel the world he concluded:

The Chinese government would like me to go back to start up an academy. Im still considering this matter. Im weighing up the options and am giving it serious thought. At the moment Im still undecided which direction to take. Ive travelled abroad for over ten years now, and have realised my ambition to establish myself in all the places I go to.