A Conversation with Master Chen Zhenglei

By Dave Barrett, translated by Master Yang Jun

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Master  Chen Zhenglei was  born  in 1949 into a family with over 300 years of martial arts tradition. He is widely recognized as one of the leading  exponents  of  Chen  Style  Taijiquan  in  the  world today. His Uncle, Chen Zhaopei (1893-1972), was his main instructor   along   with   another    Uncle:  Chen  Zhaokui (1928-1981), the  son of Chen Fa-ke. Chen Zhaopei left his home village, Chenjiagou, in 1914 and established himself in Beijing as a martial arts instructor.  The story goes  that  he set  up  a platform  at  one  of Beijing’s main gates  and  for seventeen days  accepted all challenges,  either  single  or multiple, and  was victorious in every fight. Displaying his deep skills and magnanimous character  in victory made his reputation and for the next 30 years he taught in a variety of places  across  China. In 1958 he returned  to Chenjiagou to find the old training halls abandoned and his relatives engaged  in a struggle  to  survive a series  of natural  and political disasters that had devastated the surrounding farmlands and reduced  the villagers to a pitiful state. Recognizing that the future of his family’s illustrious traditions hung  in the  balance,  he  moved  back  to  Chenjiagou and began to revive the training regimens that had produced  so many generations of excellent  martial artists.  Persevering through famines and political upheavals gradually the next generation began to emerge under his careful guidance. Out of this group of students came “The Four Tigers of Chenjiagou”: Chen Xiaowang, Wang Xian, Zhu Tiancai, and Chen Zhenglei; all of whom have  gone  on  to  revive and expand the prestige  of Chen Style Taijiquan.

When we were in Handan this past September, Master Chen Zhenglei was kind enough to sit down with myself and Yang Laoshi for the following conversation. I began by asking him about  something  we had  seen  on  our  recent  trip  to  his ancestral  village, Chenjiagou.

DB: I’d like to start  by asking  a personal  question. Yang Laoshi told me that you used to be a farmer. When we were driving out to Chenjiagou yesterday,  we were surprised  to see  all  the  roads  completely  covered  with  corn  kernels drying in the sun. Did you work the corn harvest?

CZ: Yes!

DB: Is this done completely by hand?

CZ: Now we have some machines  but when I was a farmer we did it completely by hand.
DB: So then it is spread  out to dry?

CZ: Nowadays it is a little bit easier but they still dry the corn by hand and use it through the winter.

DB: How is it used?

CZ:  We’d use  it for food,  also  to  brew  alcohol,  feed  the chickens  and  pigs.  Also  corn  is  used   as  a  material  in medicine and it can be made into oil.

DB: The reason  I ask is that at that time it must have been very difficult to work as a farmer and also train in Taijiquan.

CZ: Yes, I paid double than normal people  in time, working as a farmer and training.

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DB: So how did this  work? Would you train  early in the morning or after work?

CZ: Generally we would practice at night. The village schedule   is  different  than  working a  factory  job.  At the factory your shift starts  at 8am, we however had to rise at dawn, go out to the fields, work hard and then come back for breakfast. After breakfast  again we would be out in the fields all day.

DB: So you would farm by day and train by night. Chen style is characterized by very tough and intensive  training. Your generation had to work the fields and then endure this diffi- cult study. In spite of this Chen Style has maintained its high standard of excellence.  Tell us how this has  been  accomplished.

CZ: My teacher,  Chen Zhaopei, would tell us of his training experiences  and his 30 years of teaching in different places. He gave me a lot of ideas about my practice. He’d look at our group and notice that some were not training quite so hard. He   would   tell   us   that    these    techniques   were   a treasure of our family passed through  eighteen generations. If this transmission stopped with the nineteenth generation and  could  not  go  on,  we  will be ashamed to face our ancestors and we will also disappoint future generations. So everybody would be let down if we did not work hard. Because Chen Zhaopei spoke to us in this manner,  our group, including me, felt a great  duty. From a very young age I began  to tell myself I must continue  our family tradition. It doesn’t matter how hard the work is, how tired I may be, everyday I cannot  stop.  In the early 1960’s even we farmers had a hard time feeding ourselves.  There was famine all across China. When I was young during those years many times we had not enough  to eat:  no meat,  no flour for noodles.  We ate wild vegetables and sweet potatoes. So my body  couldn’t get  enough  nourishment. When I  was  thirty I  weighed  only 58 kg. (127 lbs.). Very skinny.

DB: In spite of this you continued  to train and we can see clearly the  results  of your  dedication  when  you  perform today.  My question   concerns   the  next  generation  and international students  as  well, how  should  we  dedicate ourselves  to training?

CZ: Of course,  because China’s situation  has changed,  not many people are willing to work this hard. On the one hand, I  use  the  same  methods   as  my uncle  to  encourage my students.  I  tell  them  about   my  training  experiences.  If I hadn’t worked this hard at Taijiquan I would probably still be a farmer. Now I travel all over the world and have many students. Also today we have many more convenient aids to our study: books and videos. It’s much easier to study than before.  In the past,  the training was limited to only males inside  the  family,  very  restrictive.   My feeling  is  that all  people   should   be   taught   openly.   Before,   these techniques were used  to protect  your life in a fight. Now it doesn’t matter how good you are, anyone can use just one finger to pull a trigger and kill you. Today this is a cultural art which I  would like to share  with the  world. I  meet  many foreign students and I can see  their love of Taijiquan and many wish to learn. I feel a duty to develop and share these traditional  arts.  In the past  fifteen years  I have had study materials   translated  into  eight  languages.  My foreign students have helped with this work. What one teacher  can do  is  limited,  with  these   study  resources  the  effect  is greater,  and anyone can buy them and study.

DB: I think no matter what language  or culture, the student of Taijiquan  is  faced  with  a  problem:  if we  practice  by ourselves  sometimes the practice can be very dry, empty of content.  Can you offer any suggestions as to how we can make our practice richer, having more content and feeling of purpose?

CZ: What you have mentioned  about  other students, I also have this problem, this same feeling. We want to create  an ongoing interest that leads to regular practice without stopping.  At the beginning one learns the basic forms and motion  sequences. At that  time if you don’t have  a good teacher  to give you corrections and guidance it’s difficult to continue  your development. It’s easy  to  drop  out  of the practice. On the other hand, with a good teacher this is less likely to happen. But if every day you practice in the same way it is natural to become bored. So what can you do? You can pick up your sword or saber, different weapons, practice a little push hands. If you eat the same meal every day you’ll lose your taste for that dish. When your teacher can lead you to the level where the external techniques are combined with internal intent, when the Qi can permeate the whole body, when you have that feeling, then with each practice there will be improvement. When this feeling improves with each practice you can spend less time with your teacher and more time in self study. It will be easier to continue because you have this feeling. Without this rich feeling during practice it is easy to lose interest and drop out.

DB: My first teacher always encouraged us by saying, “Catch the feeling!” Sometimes the feeling is there for just a small part of a sequence, but maybe with the next practice a little bit more.

CZ: In my experience with western students I know that sometimes they only practice once a week, sometimes twice or three times a week. Because they don’t practice every day this kind of feeling develops very slowly. In China we say that if you practice for one day you get one day’s benefit, with daily practice you can steadily improve. If you don’t practice for one day you lose ten days of development. So practice every day without stopping! Western students must understand this clearly. Practice every day! Not once or twice week.

DB: This is great  advice. I don’t want to take  too much of your time,  but  I  do  have  one  more  question. When you practice  today  and  you hear  the  voice of your teacher  in your mind, what is he saying?

CZ: In my younger years when I practiced I was quite serious about my work. My whole life I have followed the teachings of my uncles, Chen Zhaopei and Chen Zhaokui. When they taught I always watched very carefully. At that time my deep feeling was that I wanted to grow up to be like them. I listened to their voices and watched their motions closely. A t that time there were no recorders or video cameras. My eyes were the camera and my mind was the recorder. If I needed to check something I would sit down, close my e yes and review. If I was not satisfied with my practice I would check my memories and think about my Uncles. Sometimes I would hear them criticizing my efforts, using r ough language to spur my practice onwards.

DB: So you still hear this?

CZ: Yes, even now when I may not want to practice I hear my Uncles’ voices pushing me, giving me energy to practice. It doesn’t matter what difficulties I’ve been through. In the 1980’s when I met people who wished to challenge me I’d hear my Uncles giving me confidence to win these challenges. Throughout my career I have been through five stages. Firstly, when I was a farmer up to the time I was 25 years old I was studying with my Uncles. The next ten years I was working in a factory while continuing my martial arts training. I was traveling around as a salesman and I made contacts with other teachers and I was able to benefit from these friendships and improve our factory sales. During these ten years I would often represent our village at competitions. The third stage found me working with national sports officials and I became a professional coach. I continued my training and began to teach a large number of students, some of whom won many competition honors. In the fourth stage I began to organize regional and national competitions. Now at the fifth stage I’ve got a job I really like, traveling internationally and sharing my family traditions. When I was living in Chenjiagou I focused on my own training and my individual duty to our family. At the second stage I began to travel and see that perhaps there might be a career in the martial arts. In the third and fourth periods because I met many other teachers and was working as a player, coach and manager, I began to realize this could be a very good family business as well. Now that I travel internationally meeting many people who have a love of this art, now my focus is on how we can spread Taijiquan. I’ve been working on books and videos and I feel a true calling to this work, it is more than just a business. I’ve been fortunate to receive recognition within China as one of the top ten Masters and I’m getting a lot of support from my students and no longer have to work a factory job.

DB: Let me close by saying I think your career may have come a full circle. Again you are a farmer and you are planting seeds around the world and cultivating your family’s art. I predict that you will have a rich harvest!

CZ: Now that China is open I wish to spread traditional Chinese arts throughout the world so that more people can enjoy Taijiquan practice. ☯

Reprinted from Journal 25 10th Anniversary Issue

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