A Lesson With The Great William C. C. Chen
By Robert Dreeben
While there are many teachers of Yang style tai chi, William C.C. Chen stands apart in his approach to teaching, contributions to the art, and his emphasis on actual fighting.I first remember reading about William C.C. Chen in Robert W. Smith’s classic book, Chinese Boxing—Masters and Methods, back in 1974 when I was a young aspiring martial artist. Even back then Chen was a famous tai chi teacher. Chen stands today as a predominant world figure in the art of tai chi chuan.
William C.C. Chen was born in Chekiang province, China, in 1935. Then after World War II he moved to Taiwan. In his book, Body Mechanics of Tai Chi Chen he writes, “As a teenager, I was very fascinated by all those imaginative martial arts novels, movies and kung-fu handbooks popular with my generation. My most ambitious dream was to learn martial arts from a great master.”
Chen went on to fulfill that dream by becoming a disciple of the great professor Cheng Man-Ching. Chen, who was one of professor Cheng’s youngest students, excelled in his study of tai chi. He even stayed in the professor’s house and would observe and assist Cheng teaching new students. Chen also learned special, internal training which was carried out three times a day; early morning, noon and late in the evening.
Eventually he developed the “iron body” ability to absorb full force blows to the body without injury. In Chinese Boxing—Masters and Methods, Smith writes about Chen, “He could take any punch on his upper torso and would let rocks be broken on and motorcycles driven across his abdomen. His relaxed punches and kicks were extremely fast and shook the recipient to the core.”
There are many teachers of Yang style tai chi, however, William C.C. Chen stands apart in his approach to teaching, contributions to the art as well as his emphasis on actual fighting.
It featured many esoteric martial arts that today we take for granted. Back then, however, few martial arts books were available to the general public. Most that were available were written by an American named Bruce Tegner.
In the beginning, tai chi was practiced by only a small select group usually related by blood. Chen’s style was the first and original system as practiced by Chen Geng Hsing. Often considered “old style” tai chi chuan, Chen consisted of both hard and soft movements of varying cadence coupled with deep stances. It was Yang Lu Chan (1799-1872), an outsider and non-family member, who learned the tai chi by entering the Chen household as a servant. Yang would then spy on the clan members as they practiced.
He was eventually caught. However, the grandmaster was so impressed with the skill he had attained he was accepted as a formal student. (As an historical note, up until the last couple of decades before the advent of video and public sharing of knowledge through open seminars, books and articles, many famous masters would not allow non-students to watch them run their kung-fu, let alone be photographed with moving film for fear their art could be stolen.)
Yang Lu Chan became known as “the unsurpassed Yang” for his exceptional fighting ability. Yang had three sons, the first of whom died during childhood. The second son, Yang Chain (1839-1917) passed on his tai chi to his two sons, most notably Yang Chen Fu. According to history, the Yang family was still essentially practicing Chen’s style tai chi chuan. It was Yang Chen Fu who evolved a softer, slower and gentler version of his family’s kung-fu which today is known as “Yang style”.
Professor Cheng Man Ching was one of Yang’s most famous students. In fact, Robert W. Smith devoted a whole chapter on Cheng and his exploits in his book. Cheng was called professor because he taught Chinese painting in the College of Chinese Culture and Art in Shanghai, China, while he was in his late 20s. Cheng also mastered poetry, calligraphy and traditional Chinese medicine as well as the tai chi.
Professor Cheng synthesized what is known today as “the short form” by distilling the 128-posture long form that he learned from Yang Lu Chan’s grandson into the 37-posture shortened version. Cheng’s shortened version made the tai chi easier to learn, yet retained the value of the long form.
According to William C.C. Chen, “I teach the tai chi short form I call 37 postures.” Chen, who prefers to call postures movements instead, explains, “The form is very close to the original, I just added a few movements and took out some repeat movements from what he had. It’s still pretty much professor Cheng’s version. Chen also offers classes in the long form, tai chi sword form and combat application.
Tai Chi and Combat
Unlike many tai chi instructors who emphasize static chi kung postures, Chen “More or less concentrates on the postures as they relate to the martial arts, the body mechanics for combat.” Chen adds, “Many tai chi masters prefer to emphasize the health aspect and the mental relaxation but in reality tai chi chuan is a martial art. Maybe a lot of teachers don’t want to involve themselves in the combat aspect of tai chi and they’re just happy to teach the forms. They may believe eventually one day you build up certain coordination and chi flow, then you are able to combat. But to me, I can’t teach real combat unless we practice real combat. In combat you are able to analyze the effectiveness of the application.”
Chen teaches a standard format of progression. “Normally we wait until the students learn the whole tai chi form, then we explain how the movements are applied against an opponent.” Chen’s pragmatic approach may shock some tai chi purists. “Yes, push hands are part of the training for combat. For real combat, we put on the gloves and mouthpiece and fight freestyle.”
In training new students, Chen would often let them get the upper hand so their fear of fighting and fear of being hit would be reduced. Chen explains, “I’m the one who used to take lot of beatings. You can’t hit them too hard or beat up the students because the next couple of weeks they may say, ‘I can’t come because I have so many things.’ If they beat up somebody, they feel good. So I’m the one who’s always taking the beatings. All these years I’ve been doing the fighting and at 64 I’m still in fair shape.”
Some tai chi practitioners feel that using gloves would eliminate much of the tai chi sensitivity. Many also feel if you body build or practice hard-style martial arts, this will be counterproductive to your tai chi. Chen does not agree. “The real sensitivity is called reflexes. If you don’t fight, it is hard to know the real value of tai chi for combat, whether it’s really effective? I have many kung-fu and karate students that study tai chi. They apply the tai chi principles to their system. Tai chi has no conflict but compliments their style.”
Reflection of the Mind
Chen’s practical approach to tai chi carries through to advanced training and concepts based on physics and “body mechanics”, as he likes to call it. Chen is quick to point out though, “I always like to work the practical part if tai chi. I want to do it and see it through to reasonable results. My objective with tai chi is to try and make it simple, easy, natural, enjoyable and protective.”
The advanced training Chen teaches is based more on concept than technique, which Chen refers to as “reflection of the mind”. He explains, “When people think about tai chi chuan, it is a slow motion of movements and they move slowly and softly. In reality, once someone practices tai chi movements to reach maturity, the movements become part of their natural reflexes. All the movements are no moves, it is a reflection of the mind. The postures are created by the compression of the inner energy ‘chi’.
“The mind stimulates the energy from inside the body and slowly assembles to the shape—it is called a memory shape. The effortless flow of movements are the state of the art. The same as in ballet and figure skating. Professor Cheng always said that tai chi is not just moving your arms. If you move your individual arm muscles he considered it not tai chi.
“In 1962 on my way to the U.S., my student in Bangkok wanted to film the form for future reference, so I did the whole form. I kept balance, hands move slowly, giving careful thought to the movement. Years later I found out that I don’t have to do it this way. It seems all the postures have been stored in my heart, as my mind slowly visualizes the posture. The inside energy of chi flow moves my arms and legs to form the shape of the posture automatically and effortlessly, without any imitation and thought it comes simple and natural.
Chen, who frequently makes analogies to Western boxing, explains, “The good boxers do a jab or a punch that comes from the reflexes of the mind with out too much thinking. The jab or punch is part of his memory shape. I call this action a reflection of the mind. How to develop the memory shape is through years of practice!”
Chen also teaches that memory shape movement is adaptive to the situation. For example, the ward off movement can be changed at different angles according to the attacker’s position. Ward off can also be transformed to a strike with a closed fist. This ability to adapt must be implemented with all the tai chi postures.
Steel Wrapped In Cotton
In Chen’s tai chi application, the ability to hit hard and fast is most important. Chen breaks it down this way: “To me techniques are secondary, everybody does technique differently. From practical fighting you will learn the reality. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to off balance him,’ because if he’s good enough, you’ll never off balance him. First, you have to learn how to really give a good shot and also you have to learn how to take good shots. Once you are able to take good shots you will be more relaxed.”
Overcoming fear is a big part of Chen’s training as well. “It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to take shots, but if you do get hit, you are not afraid, the mind will relax and the body is more flexible. Then you can get in on the opponent easily.” Some students underemphasize striking in their tai chi, preferring to focus on push hands. In fact, their highest level in application is realized in free-form push hands contests. However, push hands, in reality, is part of training for combat, not an end-all. Push hands drills train for an attribute of combat, such as sensitivity, timing, coordination and off balancing and/or pushing down the opponent. If students do not practice striking fast and hard they are not utilizing the tai chi to its full potential. Plus, they are missing a practical and necessary component of real combat.
When Chen teaches a punching technique, he goes into great detail to make sure students understand all the principles of a strong punch. In the end, many students are surprised that tai chi’s “iron wrapped in cotton”, pounding strikes are not secrets of tai chi but actually applied physics of the human body.
The most important component a student must develop is speed of the punch. Paradoxically enough, this is initially achieved through practicing the slow form while learning how to lose muscle tension to decrease the friction between the moving pads to achieve velocity of the action. This is similar to an engine that will run faster and more efficiently if it has a good quality oil where the improved viscosity makes the parts run faster.
Once speed, coupled with a lack of friction and a unified body movement are perfected, the student learns how to impact for “knockout power” with his strikes. Again we see Chen’s unique approach to this concept. “Normally people use muscles to throw a strong punch to the target. Actually, you are extending your fist to meet the target. The arm is able to resist more force than by only a push outward. This is similar to a weightlifter who can hold more weight than he can actually press. This concept is the resistance of your punch impacting the opponent. I call this ‘punch no punch’.”
Using another boxing analogy, Chen notes, “When a boxer or martial artist is performing bag training to strengthen his punches, it looks like he’s punching the bag. Actually, the bag strikes his fist. Normally, he’ll push the bag away, and when the bag comes in, he quickly extends his fist to meet the bag. The quicker he extends his fist to receive the bag the stronger the impact force will be. Measuring impact power is done by combining body weight with velocity: double your weight and you get double the power; double the velocity equals four times the power. Once the impact power goes beyond what the punch is able to absorb, the fist or arm will be hurt. Usually the resistance of the fist or arm is limited.
“To build up both the fist and arm to absorb strong impact power, you need various training methods to add resistance,” he adds. This includes, punching the heavy bag, weightlifting, push-ups, punching the opponent in combat and pushing partners against the wall in tai chi push hands practice. The more impact force you receive, the more the density of inner energy increases.”
Punching Without A Fist
When Chen teaches a principle he leaves no stone unturned, “People think, the more you tighten your fist, the less you hurt your fingers. According to my experience, the more I tighten my fingers, the more I hurt my fingers. My fist is not soft, not hard—it depends on the resistance.” This is contrary to many hard stylists who feel the fist should be tight but the arm relaxed. However, any skeptic will be made a believer when he feels Chen’s power.
“Even boxers never punch from the fist (showing a semi-open hand as if invisible boxing gloves were on),” he notes. “Actually you don’t even have to hold a fist. (He throws several punches from this position into my raised palm that rock my body as I resist. It feels like a piece of iron hitting me.) See, I’m never tense.” As a sifu who never stops researching Chen is quick to point out, “It took me 45 years to understand these things, so when you punch you don’t have to be tense.”
Chen explains further how the mind and desire connect with the body during a punch. “How are you going to train for this? You have to lose the desire. If the desire makes you punch, that same desire will make you tense. Once you tense here (pointing to the biceps) what happens? You lose the velocity. So, I’m not punching from here. I’ll show you. (At this point he demonstrates by throwing multiple punches, striking me about the torso with blinding speed.) My high velocity is because I stay loose. When the velocity of the punch gets there, the resistance condenses my punch to be counter-resistance. All the movements are compression against the resistance—the more resistance, the more tension will be provided. With this principle we also may compliment other hard-style martial artists.”
Chen shares another secret. “Where are you going to focus the punch? As Jack Dempsey once said, ‘I punch with the upper two knuckles.’ We impact with the upper two knuckles but we focus on the three fingers (the thumb, forefinger knuckle, and middle knuckle). With my tai chi I emphasize the three fingers to keep the biceps loose because if you punch with the (focus on) your whole arm, your biceps tense and hold you back. Punch this way and energy comes from the triceps.”
Chen says the three-finger focus goes beyond punching and extends to natural perfected movement in all actions. Chen shares this relevant saying: “The fingers are called ‘the engine of the jet’, the arm is the ‘body of the jet.’ We punch with the fingers, the knuckles take the resistance.”
The 3 Nails Mechanics of Rooting
I learned early on in my martial arts studies that an individual who is referred to as being a “grandmaster” is given such a title because he is recognized as the leader of a system. Along with that title comes the responsibility of contributing something back to his system via a better way of teaching or sharing new discoveries.
William C.C. Chen is more than worthy of the title “grandmaster” through his arduous study, research, success and most of all, his willingness to share knowledge for the betterment of tai chi. The three nails method is a simple concept that will provide a better connection to the earth, which better helps the body relax and generate more power. This technique is not exclusive to tai chi; it can be applied to any kung-fu.
“The three nails should be in command of the body not the waist. Although the waist is named in the Tai Chi Classics as being in command of the body, it was only from an external, outer body’s viewpoint.” When one observes a tai chi player, it appears that the waist turns and the body follows. In fact, this is what most tai chi students are taught. Therefore, many tai chi players feel that the waist is in command. Chen found the waist movement was not an end all to tai chi’s applied physics of the human body.
“In the early 1960s I sensed the turning of the waist was controlled by the thigh muscles. At that time I thought the thigh was in command. As I practiced the slow movements, it appeared that the thigh muscles helped make possible the turns and moves.” Twenty years later, Chen found the secret.
“It was not until the middle 1980s that I began to realize that the thigh itself has no ability to make any moves or turns without the help of the foot, which is firmly rooted on the ground. Therefore, the rooted foot and specifically the three active nails are in control and command of the body to make turns and moves in the tai chi form.”
The three nails mechanics is a means whereby you improve and refocus your psycho-physical imagery of rooting your energy and body weight through your feet. Chen also refers to this as the three “active” because these are not dead weight points of focus, but rather active and sensitive. Common instruction for tai chi players is to root at the “bubbling well” single point meridian which lies just lateral to the back of the ball of the foot. According to Chen, “It is good for energy circulation, but not necessarily for physical actions or movements.” “The first point is the big toe,” Chen adds. “The other two points are on the inner part of the heal and the inner part of the ball of the foot. When you root the foot, these three points grip like three nails penetrating the ground.”
“In the movements of tai chi chuan, these three points are aligned with the weight-bearing center of the upper body, but they are also very active and play a crucial role in our everyday movements,” Chen notes. “As we walk, the root foot propels the other foot to make a step. The feet assist in serving a cup of coffee or tea, they even help our fingers to turn a door key.”
Conclusion Studying with William C.C. Chen is like capturing a piece of history of the direct tai chi lineage. An open and giving man with worldwide charm and manners, Chen’s main concern is his students’ progress in tai chi and the passing on of knowledge. In this article alone, Chen has shared concepts beneficial to all martial arts students.
Chen’s emphasis on results remains his first priority. “We’re all guessing: what is real tai chi? Nobody knows. Tai chi is powerful, we have the tradition. Tradition gives us the guidelines and we have to apply it to make it work. I try to open my students’ minds. I always talk about reality.” You can contact William C.C. Chen at, 12 West 23rd St., Second Floor, New York, NY 10010; (212) 675-2816 or check out his website at http://members.aol.com/tcc60moves. His e-mail address is: TCC60moves@aol.com
reprinted with permission from CFW Enterprises