An Article by Mark Waldman, Ph.D.


Discovering Yang Zhenji's Traditional Taiji

In August of 1998 Christopher Pei and his wife Zhang Guifeng, senior instructors at the U.S. Wushu Academy in Falls Church, Virginia, took a group of students to Beijing to study at the Beijing Sports Academy. Some of us studied Wushu and others studied traditional Yang family Taiji with Yang Zhenji and his wife Pei Xiurong. The Taiji group included Charles PetersPat Wilson, Richard Carnes, Mark Walters, Carol Breitner, and Mark Waldman.

We viewed the trip as an historical opportunity to learn about the roots of contemporary Yang style Taiji. Yang Zhenji is the eldest living son of Yang Chengfu, who standardized and spread the Yang style of Taiji. The Yang style, in a wide variety of versions, is the most popular style in the U.S. today. Yang Zhenji studied with his father longer than did any other surviving son, starting at age six and continuing for nine years. Yang Zhenji was fifteen when his father died.

Yang Zhenji has been determined to continue teaching the same form his father taught. He has not changed it or embellished it in any way. He feels that he is a source of transmission of his father's pure Taiji. He is seventy-seven, lives for Taiji, and regrets that in these times people have to work for a living and cannot study Taiji all the time. He says, "I will either teach seriously or not at all, and I will follow my father in teaching truly and not to the students' desire."

We were well aware of the opportunity offered by our time with Yang Zhenji and Pei Xiurong. We knew we were facing a rare opportunity to get as close as possible to Yang Chengfu's original form. As time takes from us those who had the opportunity to study with him, we believe it well worthwhile to make a special attempt to preserve his teaching.

We also wanted to compare Yang Chengfu's form to the form we had been studying and others of which we are aware. Taiji has changed as it has spread around the world, and not always for the better. Elements of different martial arts have crept into some versions of the form. Teachers have added or removed postures. Other teachers have modified or embellished various postures. Still others have stressed one or more of the principles of energy and movement in Taiji and have placed less emphasis on, misinterpreted, or even ignored others.

Everyone does not have to do the same form, of course, and trying to enforce uniformity in Taiji certainly seems un-Taoist. Nonetheless, we felt that studying with Yang Zhenji offered us a priceless opportunity to experience "original" Yang style Taiji. We believed that we could gain a deeper understanding of our practice. We were not disappointed.

Beijing was extremely hot and humid when we arrived. The gym at the Beijing Sports Academy was not air conditioned, and temperatures inside were over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit as we trained seven hours a day, five and a half days a week. Under the stress of this schedule all considerations other than learning as much Taiji as possible dropped away. We all tried to maintain "beginners' mind," that state of open awareness that allows the development of a broader and deeper learning gestalt.

Yang Zhenji is a humble but direct person with a no nonsense attitude. Although he had a difficult time during most of the Communist period in China, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution, he never criticizes or complains. He and his wife live in Handan City in Henan Province, about a nine hour train ride from Beijing.

We found that Yang Chengfu's original form differs in some important ways from some of the versions of the Yang style currently taught in the U.S. These differences can be put into two different categories: the physical characteristics of the postures and the nature of the emphasis on the nonphysical, or energetic, content of the art.

Yang Zhenji's form is compact, direct, and very powerful. There are no flourishes of the hands or feet, and no expanded circling of the arms. Compared to some Yang versions that have descended from this form, his is smaller, more powerful, and more functional in a martial sense.

One source of these differences is his identification of the location of the waist, which will be discussed below. They also result from the smaller circles of the arms and legs. To the extent that a movement of the arm involves a large circle, or a flourish of the hand, the opponent is given more time to act while the practitioner is performing this attractive but useless movement. Yang Zhenji's form has no embellishments which might make the form more attractive, but which would also detract from the martial function of the form.

One example of this is the often-recurring move, Grasp the Bird's Tail. As the weight shifts into the right (front) leg, the body moves forward and the waist and arms turn to the right. In Yang Zhenji's form the arms do not move out past the right shoulder, and the hands do not perform a flourish at the end of this movement. They simply turn, right hand down, left hand up, as the transition into Rollback begins.

A second example is the movement of the hands in Brush Knee and Step. The striking hand does not perform a large circle, partially in back of the body. The hand simply moves out and up from the side of the body without circling behind it. This smaller movement allows greater coordination of the entire body and greater force in the movement, while giving an opponent less time to react.

Yang Zhenji applies the same principle to foot movements. Some versions of the Yang style lift the front foot, withdraw it towards the body, and then step out when shifting into some of the postures in the form. Yang Zhenji simply lifts the foot, turns it to the appropriate direction, and puts it down. As with flourishes of the hands, this avoids telegraphing one's intention and giving an opponent more time to react.

To some Western practitioners, Yang Zhenji might appear to overemphasize the martial aspects of the form. This is not the case. It is rather that, as Taiji has spread in the West, its nonmartial aspects are often overemphasized. This imbalance leads to a major difference between Yang Zhenji's Taiji, as learned from his father, and what is often taught today.

Taiji is often taught in the West purely for relaxation and stress management. Some versions of the Yang style stress the principle of relaxation far more than the martial functionality of the movements. The body is relaxed almost to a state of limpness. Practitioners are told to "put their mind in the tan tien." Performing Taiji in this way can produce the relaxation and reduced stress that practitioners desire. However, this overemphasis on relaxation can also create an imbalance that makes it very difficult to penetrate to the deeper levels of internal energy that have been the traditional goal of Taiji.

Taiji is an art of chi, or internal energy. While chi can manifest on its own, without effort by the practitioner, simply relaxing while performing the movements of the form is an insufficient mode of practice. Remember the old Taiji maxim, "the Yi (mind) moves the chi, and the chi moves the body."

How is it that the mind moves the chi? The answer lies in the practitioner's intention during the movements of the form. Each movement has a particular martial function, and the practitioner should place his or her intention (Yi) in the proper place in the body: the arm, hand, foot, shoulder, etc. This placement of the intent shifts as each movement proceeds. It is this movement of the mind that creates a circuit, or path, for the chi to follow. At higher levels the practitioner visualizes the flow, path, and changes of the energy rather than the movements of the physical body.

This means that even if one has no particular interest in Taiji's martial application, but is rather interested in learning the esoteric or energetic aspects of the form, one must still understand the martial function of each movement and place one's intention accordingly. Failure to do so can close the door to the inner levels of the art.

Even at the purely physical level it is possible to see how overemphasizing relaxation can impair the functionality of the form. Many versions of Taiji taught in the U.S. result in a completely relaxed hand, almost limp. Yang Zhenji suggests keeping the thumb active throughout the form, with the "Dragon's Mouth," the joint between the thumb and the rest of the hand, open without being rigid. This brings much more energy to postures like Ward Off Left. Practitioners can verify this for themselves by having an "opponent" push on their ward off with the thumb first collapsed to the hand and then active. The difference will immediately become apparent.

Yang Zhenji learned from his father that the waist is located just above the hips. Because of this it can turn while the hips and knees remain fixed in place. Stable hips and knees provide a strong foundation for the posture and add power to Ward Off, Rollback, Press, Push, etc.

This is easily experienced in Grasp the Bird's Tail. The waist turns slightly to the right as the weight shifts into the right (front) leg. At the beginning of Rollback, the weight shifts to the rear but the waist turns by itself, leaving the hips and knees facing front. The press will be delivered with considerably more focus and power than if the hips and knees had rotated to the left with the rollback and then back with the press.

Yang Zhenji maintains that this location of the waist strengthens one's push hands as well. "In push hands you move forward and back with the legs and move the waist, not the kwa (hip region). As soon as you sit down and move the kwa, you are wrong."

Yang Zhenji points out that many Taiji practitioners complain of knee pain. This flows mostly (but not entirely) from the misuse of the knees in improper rotation. Keeping the hips and knees stationary in these postures helps avoid these difficulties.

This identification of the location of the waist produces a very different transmission of energy from the lower to the upper part of the body. Because these waist movements are usually less pronounced than movements of the hips would be, they fit with the smaller arm and hand movements described above. The entire form gains compactness and power. The torque of the body produces explosive "Fa Jing" energy without large movements.

With this compactness comes an increase in the speed of the form. We were used to taking 25-30 minutes to perform one long form. Yang Zhenji suggested that 18 minutes is ideal, although a slower form might be useful when one is working on one aspect of one's practice.

The Taiji principle of "separation of substantial and insubstantial," sometimes rendered as "separation of yang and yin," illustrates another way in which contemporary Taiji often differs from what Yang Chengfu developed. This principle is most obviously manifested in the placement of the weight in one leg or another, and the shifting of the weight between the legs. These shifts generate the energy for the movements, which is then directed by the waist to the extremities.

Modern variants of the Yang style often perform the hand movements of a posture while the weight is shifting. In Brush Knee and Step, for example, the deflecting and striking hands move while the weight is shifting forward. In Separate and Kick, the hands and leg move at the same time.

Yang Zhenji suggests that all deflections and blocks should be completed before the punch, strike, or kick begins. "Block first, then kick," he says. We tried it both ways, and found that blocking first added to the power of our kicks, particularly in Separate and Kick. The same principle applies to Brush Knee and Step. The deflecting hand should clear the knee before the weight moves forward, carrying the strike with it. This adds to the energy of the form because it represents a more clear separation of substantial and insubstantial.

Yang Zhenji says that correct practice is required to produce the benefits of Taiji. "During practice training the mind is the first step. Practice over and over with the correct intent and you become part of the movement and it becomes part of you. Then there is no thought. The intent arises, the chi is strong, the energy is strong. It is hard to reach this level. It takes a great deal of practice. Understanding what the hands are for makes learning easier."

We asked Yang Zhenji what it was like to study with his father. "I was my father's favorite, " he said. "He had a car, which was rare in those days, and I would ride underneath his legs as he drove around. He was very serious and not easy to get along with, because he didn't like casual socialization. He was gentle and soft, however, and did not have a quick temper. He never criticized others or built himself up at others' expense. All his true students have the same attitude, they never say 'my form is better than yours.' My father always said, 'I'm not good yet, I need more practice,'"

"Yang Chengfu treated all his students equally, regardless of their background. Some of them were quite wealthy, and some were in important positions. He rented a house in Shanghai with a large living room. Each morning he taught and in the evenings students gathered at his house to discuss Taiji and learn more. The room had a table, a chair, and two long benches for the students to sit on. My father would talk and my older brother Yang Sozhong would demonstrate movements."

"While my uncle, Yang Banho, was known for his explosive force and temper in teaching, my father had an entirely different temperament. He never struck his students because his hands were too heavy. My uncle would tell you once and then strike you if you were incorrect."

We asked Yang Zhenji about an aspect of practice that some of us had learned while studying different versions of the Yang style in the West. Placing the mind in the tan tien, or energy center of the body, is one of the major principles of practice stressed in some schools. Yang Zhenji disagreed with this as an overemphasis on one of the principles to the detriment of the rest. He felt that this would lead to a distortion in the form and in the energy of the practitioner. "Sink the chest and the chi falls to the tan tien on its own. Keep the intent in the proper place in each movement. Don't over stress one of the essences (principles). Don't force the chi. It will move on its own."

I have found this difference between the earlier and more recent versions of Taiji to be extremely important. Having practiced for some years placing my mind in my tan tien, and now having practiced for two years applying the use of intention in each movement, I agree with Yang Zhenji that this is a more balanced approach that more rapidly opens the door to the internal energies of Taiji.

Yang Zhenji and Pei Xiurong are a precious resource. They are the source of what is probably the closest form to that originally taught by Yang Chengfu. As I have shown, that great master still has a lot to teach us. Yang Zhenji makes no claim to superiority, however, saying only, "If you like my form, come." We plan to return to China soon.