A View from a Tai Chi Summit
by James Healy
Thunder rumbled through Los Angeles this past spring as senior students and disciples of tai chi Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei gathered from around the globe for advanced training and a seminar on developing and promoting Chen style tai chi.
The seminar turned into a world summit, though, as devotees from China, South Korea, Iran, France, Britain, Peru, Canada and the United States - nearly 70 in all - were joined in heart and mind through training.
The event was to be a personal summit, too, of the mountaintop sort. At the beginning of four days of intensive training, lectures and meetings, nine people were initiated as indoor students, or disciples, of Master Chen. It was my good fortune to be among them.
"You've pledged to be a disciple, so now you're part of the family," he told us. "It's a big thing. Tai chi is what binds us together, a soundless language, shapeless. We came into this family and now we are obligated. You must have a very open heart."
Whatever did thunder have to do with it, though? Plenty, it turns out. A single loud clap of thunder in 1949 - the same year that the People's Republic of China was born - decided whether Chen Zhenglei, then just weeks old, would live to fulfill his destiny or perish in his infant's blanket.
An Unspoiled Wilderness
We trained in Arcadia, a Los Angeles suburb with a New World ring to its name. Wikipedia notes that the town's namesake, which is part of modern-day Greece, was once "an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness."
Our unspoiled wilderness was the Arcadia Badminton Club, where each day we marked our "territory" with benches and badminton nets. No matter the chaos outside those boundaries (on Sunday particularly the club was crazy with people), we maintained a sweat-drenched peacefulness within.
This became the forest clearing where Master Chen, still a farmer at heart, turned the soil for a new crop of disciples. He also sowed the seeds for his vision of global standardization of Chen taiji curriculum, teacher certification, ranking and competition judging. He said the standard should be inclusive as well as flexible enough to fit the needs of various cultures and regions.
In addition to six hours of training each day, we met for lectures at lunchtime and discussion meetings by night. Not since my long-ago college days have I encountered such depth and breadth of knowledge as in those long days of sweat and toil in Los Angeles.
Our international "university" boasted two very distinguished professors, too. Grandmaster Chen, a prolific writer, is one of the famous Four Diamonds of Chen tai chi and a direct descendent of Chen Wang Ting, the founder of tai chi. He was joined by Dr. Shin Lin, a professor and researcher at the University of California Irvine whose specialty is the study of mind-body connections. Dr. Lin has spent countless hours with Master Chen as his laboratory subject.
A Pressing Matter
We assembled at the master's bidding like an army of worker ants. With an iPad and digital camera at the ready, as well as my more-traditional journalistic tools (notebook and pen), I was ready to take copious training notes and record a bit of personal history. I ended up catching a sweeping look at the Chen family tree and one road to discipleship in the 21st century.
If knowledge is power, I was well-rmed, too. As an editor, I was privy to the English translation, not otherwise available yet, of Master Chen's recent 409-page autobiography (serendipity put the manuscript in my hands just a week after I was invited to join the Chen family). The often heartbreaking story of his life was my essential reading while I prepared to pledge, and I came away with a great appreciation for the steep price that the master and his contemporaries paid so we might learn this treasured art today.
His son, Chen Bin, noted his own link to the tradition and, speaking fluent English, made an urgent plea to his fellow disciples. "Tai chi is my art. It is my family's art, my ancestors' art. It's a pressing matter to standardize the many families, the many types. I see chaos in the tai chi world. The whole big cake is being divided." He said the pendulum is bound to swing toward standardization. "Just like in taekwondo, there will be an organization, something that can be accepted by most people. We have to have a standard. This is a historical trend. If we don't do it, someone will. We're the best qualified."
Grandmaster Chen made a similar appeal. "First, understand that we need a system. We have to have an organization. One person, two people, one small family. In China, maybe you cannot standardize. We'll use North America. They have already standardized many things. This is the soil they're doing it on. Let's do Chen style here. Let's make it happen. Then we can bring it back to China. At that moment, it's not me, it's the whole world. It's the Chen tai chi alliance. The task is set. The goal is set. Let's figure out how to finish the system. Let's not delay."
He urged his disciples to close ranks for the undertaking. "We want to build some kind of a strength, a cohesive power. When we unite, when we come together, we will have the ability to make this happen, make it big, make it strong."
Bridging East and West
The quest to build a bridge between Eastern and Western culture and science has a singular advocate in Dr. Lin, who conducts research at the Laboratory for Mind-Body Signaling and Energy Research at UC Irvine and is a teacher of tai chi and qigong.
"Tai chi is riding a high wave in the United States," he told us. "I want to share the most current research."
Over the course of three lectures, he outlined his laboratory findings and those of academic colleagues regarding how and why tai chi and qigong benefit the human body. The evidence, he said, shows that "the mind-body connection is in fact a two-way street."
The veteran scientist offered what might seem like an unscientific conclusion, too: A person's belief in the mind's powers - faith, if you will - is crucial to unlocking their effective use. Scientists even documented the mind's power to sway the body. Dr. Lin told of an experiment in which gains in muscle strength were recorded in laboratory subjects who repeatedly imagined, but did not actually perform, physical exercises.
The most curious results were from an experiment that considered whether the act itself of smiling or frowning can influence the emotions. "This is a breakthrough," Dr. Lin said. "Can emotions be activated in reverse? Make a face as though you're angry or tense. What happens? For an angry, fearful or sad face, the heart rate goes up, even though there's no reason for (making) the face."
He also said there's good news for a typically American problem. "When two out of three Americans are overweight or obese, the most important question of all is, can tai chi make you lose weight without burning a lot of calories?"
The answer is yes, he said. "There are clinical trials that prove tai chi does have an effect on losing weight. This is because tai chi increases the body's level of the protein Interleukin-6, Dr. Lin said. "IL-6 helps digest fat and carbohydrates and helps the insulin reactors work better. IL-6 is important for getting rid of fat. IL-6 will help you lose weight - it doesn't matter how many calories are burned."
Additionally, Dr. Lin said, he and his colleagues found that tai chi is "far superior" to yoga and Transcendental Meditation for reducing blood pressure, and that while falling accidents increase among the elderly, they decrease among those who practice tai chi regularly ("Tai chi movements train leg muscles important for balance," he said), and that Chen style's unique, repetitive silk-reeling exercises contribute to the body's sense of well-being as measured by serotonin levels.
He said evidence of tai chi's benefits has caught the attention of the U.S. government. As a member of the National Advisory Council on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Dr. Lin gives advice to the federal government on where to spend research money and has helped draw up a strategic plan to distribute about $300 million.
Master Chen, meanwhile, said the U.S. government can be a strategic ally. He used the analogy of a fragrant but concealed blossom: Just as Japan in the 1980s detected the scent of the long-hidden blossom of Chen tai chi, leading to a surge in popularity, so now the United States has noticed the fragrance. He said it's his hope that America's growing interest will spur China to swifter action on standardizing.
The fragrance of the Chen tai chi blossom might never have drifted to Western shores, however, save for storm clouds and one fateful clap of thunder in 1949.
Grabbing at Clouds
Okinawan karate Master Morio Higaonna once remarked that practicing his art was like grabbing at clouds. At day's end, there's rarely anything tangible to show for it. Tai chi practice is like that, too, but we still chase the clouds.
A former weather writer, I chased real clouds, menacing ones, in the Midwest where I grew up. I saw the deadly Omaha tornado of 1975 sweep down from a black, swirling sky, and in 2003, while crossing the South Dakota prairie at night, I encountered a freakish three tornadoes at once. With no shelter in sight on the open prairie, I jumped from the car and into the storm, whooping it up as the twister-driven raindrops hit me like hundreds of needles.
Chen Zhenglei is a kindred spirit. He tells in his autobiography of a cathartic moment as a young man when, beset by the hardships and injustice of the Cultural Revolution, he found emotional release while training - and shouting - in a howling storm. Is it any wonder he's named Lei ("Thunder")?
Like a storm cloud, Master Chen has generated much electricity over the years, along with the others known collectively as the Four Diamonds of Chen tai chi: Chen Xiao Wang, Zhu Tiancai and Wang Xi'an. These were the star pupils of the great masters Chen Zhaopi and Chen Zhaokui. These six worked single-mindedly to save Chen tai chi from extinction during the Cultural Revolution. They hid their treasure out of sight of Red Guard spies, making today's global spread of Chen tai chi possible.
So when friends and acquaintances ask me what it means to become a disciple of Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei, I might as well answer, "Everything."
It was a modern-day path, the traveling-workshop format, that opened doors of opportunity to countless others like myself across the Western Hemisphere and beyond. Not so long ago, the serious Chen stylist had to brave rustic conditions in China to learn. Discipleship might result, if at all, after rigorous and lengthy in-country training.
Then the "Four Diamonds" began traveling the world to teach. China in effect had come to the United States, its tai chi treasure and tradition intact. The way that I once traveled America by car to see the Rolling Stones on tour, I now crisscrossed it by train, plane and automobile to study with several of the Chen luminaries, logging more than 150 hours of workshop training with Chen Zhenglei alone.
The disciple's path, today as ever, is anything but accidental, though. A would-be disciple might have to wait for the door to open, much like the young Kwai Chang Caine at the temple gate on the TV series KUNG FU. I trained with Master Chen for nine years before being invited in. One of his disciples eventually approached me out of the blue, took me aside and said, "Master Chen has noticed your diligence in training. He wants to know: Would you like to have a lineage?"
To this longtime traditionalist - nearly 40 years of taekwondo, 30 years of tai chi and 20 years Goju-ryu karate training - those words were sweet music indeed.
My path probably wouldn't have led to Arcadia, though, if not for pilgrimages I've made to Chenjiagou to properly pay my respects, kowtowing at the tombs of the Chen ancestors. It was on my second such trip, while in the feverish grip of a grueling illness, that I composed a prayer to Chen Wang Ting from my room overlooking Chen Village's main gate. As if an otherworldly door cracked ajar in that instant, my life ever since has been inextricably tied to Chen tai chi.
Master Chen, who cut back his workshops in America this year as part of what he called "early retirement," told his disciples that tai chi has brought him much contentment - a far cry from his harsh struggle to survive the Cultural Revolution.
"For me personally, I'm satisfied," he said. "I was a farmer in Chenjiagou, like many of my people. Step by step I became a government official. I was given a house to live in. I have a son and daughters. Now I'm retired. Look at my life. I'm very satisfied and contented."
He said 2011 is shaping up to be a good year for tai chi, describing a trend that is putting Chen tai chi in the spotlight (including a movie in the works about Chen Wang Ting and the dawn of tai chi).
He also said a plan is afoot to expand Chen Village nearly fivefold. "There will be four main parts: the old city, the new city, the industrialized area and the Chenjiagou cultural tourism area," he told us. "So this is the trend in the next five years. Chenjiagou will really change. It doesn't have any land anymore. People in the village now see that when you grow up, you can go teach tai chi - they go around the world. How exciting this trend is."
Huge opportunities loom for tai chi teachers worldwide, he said. "Many years I have taught in China and abroad. (Countless) students have learned directly from me. There are about 2 million all over the world in our system. This doesn't include the students of other masters in Chenjiagou. Two million people. Are you still scared you won't have food?"
A Fateful Moment
Although he now enjoys hard-earned comforts, Master Chen himself often went without food during his youth. Rigorous training on an empty stomach took its toll, too. He writes in his autobiography that tai chi was his only prescription as he struggled with poverty, malnutrition and a host of problems related to his family's "landlord" status (a no-no during the Cultural Revolution).
So when Master Chen grew solemn and announced during our bai shi (disciple ceremony) that he was about to call forth his ancestors, my thoughts and emotions followed the thread of the Chen tradition to when it frayed and nearly broke. It was 1949, and Chen Zhenglei, then a frail newborn, had taken ill. His condition quickly deteriorated, he writes in his book, and despite doctors' efforts, he eventually stopped breathing and died.
His grief-stricken mother wrapped the lifeless infant in a blanket and took him to a nearby graveyard on a hillside where many unnamed babies were left in those desperate times. No sooner had she set the bundle down and turned to leave than a tremendous clap of thunder, on what had been a clear day, knocked her off her feet. As she rose to stand again, huge raindrops now falling, she heard a faint cry that grew louder until she realized it was her baby - alive!
This is why his father named him Lei, or Thunder, Master Chen writes in his book. It's an apt name, too, since he was to endure such a tempest in his youth. He saw how Chen tai chi teetered near extinction in his own village. He and his cousin Chen Xiaowang, in order to avoid detection and persecution during the Cultural Revolution, had to steal away at night to practice on the bank of the Yellow River. Their dedication and perseverance gave new life to Chen tai chi, just as thunder revived Master Chen.
Now I stood before the master to swear my allegiance, to become a new link in Chen tai chi's strong chain. Much work lay ahead, and added responsibility. My new kung fu brother C.P. Ong of Maryland, also a disciple of Master Chen's, remarked, "Now you know the big load I was telling you about."
But it's a small one, really, compared with what Master Chen and his cousins and uncles hefted at great sacrifice onto their own shoulders. As indoor students, it is our sworn duty now to uphold, protect and promote the Chen legacy and the wonders of tai chi - wonders that Western science now marvels at, too.
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