The Five Levels of Taijiquan

By Chen Xiao Wang, with commentary by Jan Silberstorff

Singing Dragon Books, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-84819-093-1

cover image of 'The Five Levels of Taijiquan' by Chen Xiao Wang

Let me start with a caveat, if you buy this book expecting a book, you will be disappointed. It is in fact an article. That being said, it is an excellent article, written by one of the great contemporary grandmasters and you will find more practical and useful information crystalised into this one article than in many books, so by reading this you will save yourself both time and money.

‘The Five Levels of Taijiquan’ is basically a route map for the study of taijiquan.

Chen Xiao Wang is the nineteenth generation lineage holder of the Chen family, one of the major family styles of taijiquan. He began training with his father, Chen Zhaoxu, at the age of eight. After his father’s death he continued training with his uncles, Chen Zhaopei and Chen Zhaokuei. During the 1980s he won a series of gold medals at national level including winning the push hands competitions in the heavy weight division. Not only is he a highly esteemed master of taijiquan he is also a tried and tested fighting master. In 1989 he was one of the first people to be awarded the rank of ‘Guojia Gaoji Jiaolian’ (Senior National Coach).  Over the last twenty years he has taught almost continuously, all over the world.

Very few people have travelled as far down the way of taijiquan as Chen Xiao Wang, so whether you are just starting out or have come some distance, I cannot think of anyone better qualified to be a guide.

The book is divided into six sections – an introduction and a section for each of the five levels. Each section begins with the text in Chinese (the whole Chinese text is about 6 pages), followed by an English translation (about 13 pages). Then the English translation is repeated with an interspersed commentary by Jan Silberstorff.

Although this may sound like the article has basically been repeated and padded out, the structure actually works very well as you read the article. Then you are forced to re-read it, but with pauses for commentary to reflect on what you have just read. The act of re-reading is an important and valuable investment of time. The repetition allows the text time to work on you. The words gain weight, clarity and give insight, rather like the practice taijiquan. Knowledge can only be arrived at after many repetitions.

The article is suitable for people of all levels. Very little specialist language is used and beginners will have no problems.

The article is very clear and rigorously thought through. In some ways Chen Xiao Wang’s approach could be termed materialist. He gives clear guidance about what the expected goals are at each stage of the way, how to achieve them and how to evaluate how you are doing. Some of this is about straightforward physical alignment, some of it is about co-ordination. As you develop further it becomes more about removing ‘unnecessary movements’.

Chen Xiao Wang is also very clear about the importance of understanding and training taijiquan as a martial art. From level two he emphasises the importance of push hands, saying that the training of taijiquan and the training of push hands ‘cannot be separated from each other’ and that by level four, every movement of the form should be connected with the idea of an attacking opponent. Push hands is important because it provides feedback.

Just as you learn to relax and co-ordinate the movements of the form between level one and level two, so this relaxation also extends to push hands between levels two and three. Between level three and four you add the skills of issuing to those of dissolving and this martial understanding infuses the forms.

At a philosophical level ‘The Five Levels of Taijiquan’ also outlines  Chen Xiao Wang’s approach to yin yang theory. Although it is an immensely practical article, the words are carefully crafted and if you let them sink into your consciousness you will find that they are like depth charges. There are resonances at different levels. The practical advice is also a philosophical approach. This is a refined article by a sophisticated teacher. It will help you find your way, but you still have to make the journey yourself.

Glenn Gossling, 2012

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