The Five Levels of Skill in Chen Style Tai-Chi (Taijiquan)

by Chen Xiao Wang

edited from a translation of Chinese text of unknown origin by Tan Lee-Peng Ph.D. and corroborated with an article by CXW on the same subject that appeared in May 1992 edition of Inside Kung-Fu magazine

Learning taijiquan is in principle similar to educating oneself; progressing from primary to university level, where one gradually gathers more and more knowledge. Without the foundation from primary and secondary education you will not be able to follow the courses at university level. To learn taijiquan one has to begin from the elementary and gradually progress to the advanced stage level by level in a systematic manner. If you go against this principle thinking you could take a short cut, you will not succeed. The whole process of learning taijiquan from the beginning to achieving success, consists of five stages or five levels of martial/combat skill (kung fu). There are objective standards for each level of skill. The highest is achieved in the fifth level.

The standard and martial skill requirements for each level of kung fu will be described in the following sections. It is hoped that with these, the many taijiquan enthusiasts all over the world will be able to 'assess' their own their current level of attainment. They will then know what they need to learn next and advance further, step-by-step.

The First Level of Skill - form and posture

Correct posture is the foundation of taijiquan. This is necessary before the qi can flow properly. In practising taijiquan the requirements on the different parts of the body are: keeping a straight body; keeping the head and neck erect with mindfulness at the top of the head as if one is lightly lifted by a string from above; relaxing the shoulders and sinking the elbows; relaxing the chest and waist, letting them sink down; relaxing the crotch and bending the knees. When these requirements are met your inner energy will naturally sink down to the dantian. Beginners may not be able to master all these important points instantly. However, in their practice they must try to be accurate in terms of the direction, angle, position and the movement of the hands and legs in each posture.

At this stage you need not place too much emphasis on the requirements for different parts of the body, appropriate simplifications are acceptable. For example with the head and upper body it is a requirement that the head and neck be kept erect while the chest and waist are relaxed downward but in the first level of skill it will be sufficient just to ensure that your head and body are kept naturally upright and not leaning forward or backward, to the left or right. This is just like learning calligraphy, at the beginning you need only to make sure that the strokes are correct. Therefore when practising taijiquan, at the beginning the body and movements may appear to be stiff or 'externally solid and internally empty'. You may find yourself doing things like: hard hitting, ramming, sudden uplifting and or sudden collapsing of the body or torso. There may also be broken or over-exerted force. All these faults are common to beginners.

If you are persistent enough and practice seriously every day you can normally master the form within half a year. The qi can gradually be induced to move within the torso and limbs by refining your movements. You may then achieve the stage of being able to use external movements to channel qi even though you cannot get it to flow smoothly. The first level kung fu begins by mastering the postures to gradually be able to detect and understand jin or dynamic energy.

The martial ability attainable with the first level of skill is very limited. This is because at this stage your actions are not well coordinated or systematic. The postures may not be correct. Thus the force produced may be stiff, broken, feeble or too strong. In practicing the routine your posture may appear hollow or angular. As such you can only feel the qi but cannot channel the energy to every part of the body in one go. Consequently you are not able to harness the jin from the heels, channel it up the legs, and discharge it through command of the waist. On the contrary the beginner can only produce broken force that 'surges' from one section to another section of the body. Therefore the first level kung fu is insufficient for martial application purposes. If you were to test your skill on someone who does not know martial arts then to a certain extent you can remain flexible. You may not have mastered the application but by knowing how to mislead your opponent you may occasionally be able to throw them off. Even then, you may be unable to maintain your own balance. Such a situation is thus termed "the 10% yin and 90% yang; top heavy staff".

What then exactly is yin and yang? In the context of practising taijiquan, emptiness is Yin, solidity is yang; gentleness or softness is yin, forcefulness or hardness is yang. Yin and yang is the unity of the opposites; either one cannot be left out; yet both can be mutually interchanged and transformed. When you can attain an equal balance of yin and yang in your practice, you are said to have achieved 50% yin and 50% yang. This is the highest standard or an indication of success in practicing taijiquan. In the first level of skill it is normal for one to end up with '10% yin and 90% yang'. Your quan or boxing is more hard than soft and there is imbalance in yin and yang. The learner is not able to complement hard with soft and to command the applications with ease. As such, while still at the first level, learners should not be too eager to pursue the martial application of each posture.

The Second Level of Skill – qi flow

The second level of skill involves further reducing shortcomings produced while practising taijiquan: such as stiff force or jin, over and under exertion of force, as well as movements which are not well coordinated. This is to ensure that the qi will move systematically in the body in accordance with the requirements of each movement. Eventually this should result in smooth flowing of qi in the body and good coordination of internal qi with external movements.

After acquiring the first level of skill, you should be able to practise with ease according to the preliminary requirements of the movements. The student is able to feel the movement of qi. However, the student may not be able to control the flow of qi in the body. There are two reasons for this:

Firstly, the student has not accurately mastered the specific requirements and coordination of each part of the body. As an example, if the chest is relaxed downward too much, the waist and back may not be straight or if the waist is too relaxed then the chest and rear may protrude.

As such you must further ensure that the requirements on each part of the body should be strictly resolved so that they move in unison. This will enable the whole body to unite in a coordinated manner (which means a coordinated internal and external harmony). Internal harmony implies coordinated union of heart and mind, of qi and force, and of tendons and bones. External harmony of movements implies coordination of hands with feet, elbows with knees and shoulders with hips. There should simultaneously be an equal opening or closing movement with the opposite corresponding parts of the body. Opening and closing movements come together and complement each other. It is only then that the external is unified with the internal, where the open exists within the closed and the closed exists within the open.

Secondly, while practising you may find it hard to control different parts of the body all at once. This means one part of the body may move faster than the rest and result in over-exertion of force; or a certain part may move too slowly or without enough force resulting in an under-exertion of force. These two phenomena both contradict the principle of taijiquan. Every movement in Chen style taijiquan is required not to deviate from the principle of the 'spiralling silk reeling force' or chan-si jin. According to the Theory of Taijiquan, 'the chan-si-jin originates from the kidneys and at all times is found in every part of the body'. In the process of learning taijiquan, the spiralling silk-reeling method of movement and the spiralling silk-reeling force can be strictly mastered by relaxing the shoulders and elbows, chest and waist as well as crotch and knees, while using the waist as a pivot to move every part of the body.

When rotating the hands inward (closing) the hands should lead the elbows which in turn lead the shoulders which then guide the waist or the part of the waist corresponding to the side of the body that is being moved (the waist is still the pivot). Conversely, if the hands move in an outward direction (opening) the waist should move the shoulders, the shoulders move the elbows and the elbows in turn move the hands.

For the upper half of the body, the wrists and arms should appear to be gyrating; whereas for the lower portion of the body the ankle and the thigh should appear to be rotating; as for the torso, the waist and the back should appear to be turning. Combining the movements of the three parts of the body we should visualise a curve rotating in space. This curve originates from the legs, with the centre at the waist and ends at the fingers. In practising the form if you feel awkward with a particular movement you can adjust your waist and thighs according to the sequence of flow of the chan-si-jin to achieve coordination. In this way any error can be corrected. Therefore while paying attention to the requirement on each part of the body, to achieve total coordination of the whole body the mastering of the rhythm of movement of the spiralling silk-reeling method and spiralling silk force is a way of resolving conflicts and allowing self-correction for any mistake in your practise.

In the first level of skill, you begin by learning the form and when you’re familiar with the form you can feel the movement of qi in the body. You may well be very excited and thus never feel tired or bored. However on entering the second level of skill you may feel there is nothing new to learn and at the same time misunderstand certain important points. You may not have mastered these main points accurately and thus may find that their movements are awkward. Or you may find that you can practise the form smoothly and express force with much vigour but cannot apply the principles while doing push-hands. Because of this you may soon feel bored, lose confidence and may give up altogether. The only way to reach the stage where you can produce the right amount of force (not too hard and not too soft); can change actions at will; and can turn smoothly with ease, is to be persistent and strictly adhere to principles. You have to train hard in the form so that the body movements are well coordinated and with 'one single movement can activate movement in every part of the body' thus establishing a complete system of movement. Correct your posture and move the whole body as a unit. When one part of the body moves, the whole body moves. There is no excess or deficiency; flow with the changes and rotate and move naturally.

There is a common saying, 'if the principle is not clearly understood, consult a teacher; if the way is not clearly visible, seek the help of friends'. When the principles and the methods are clearly understood, then with constant practice success will eventually prevail. The Taijiquan Classics state that, 'everybody can possess the ultimate only if they work hard' and 'if you persist, ultimately you will achieve sudden break through'. Generally most people can attain the second level of skill in about four years. When you reach the state of being able to experience a smooth flow of qi in the body you will suddenly understand it. When this happens you will be full of confidence and enthusiasm as you go on practising. You may even have the strong urge to go on and on and without stopping!

At the beginning of the second level kung fu the martial art skill attained is about the same as in the first level and is not sufficient for actual application. At the end of the second level kung fu the martial skill acquired may be applicable to a certain extent.

Push-hands and practising taijiquan require the same skills. Whatever shortcomings you have in the form will show up as weaknesses during push-hands thus giving the opponent an opportunity to take advantage of you. Because of this, in practising taijiquan every part of your body must be well coordinated with the rest; there shouldn't be any unnecessary movement. Push-hands requires peng (ward-off), lu (rollback), ji (press), and an (push) to be carried out precisely so that the upper and lower bodies move in coordination and it is thus difficult for opponents to attack. As the saying goes: 'No matter how great is the force on me, I should mobilise four ounces of strength to deflect one thousand pounds of force'.

The second level of skill aims to achieve a smooth flow of qi in the body by correcting the postures so as to reach the stage where qi can penetrate the whole body, passing through every joint as if it (qi) is sequentially linked. However, the process of adjusting the postures involves making unnecessary or uncoordinated movements. Therefore, at this stage, you are unable to apply the martial skill at will during push-hands. The opponent will concentrate on looking for these weaknesses or may win by surprising you into committing errors such as over exerting, collapsing, throwing off and confronting force. During push-hands, the opponent's advance will not allow you to have time to adjust your movements. The opponent will make use of your weak point to attack so that you will lose balance or will be forced to step back to ward off the advancing force. Nevertheless if the opponent advances with less force and in a slower manner there may be time or opportunity to make adjustments and you may be able to ward off the attack in a more satisfactory manner.

At the second level of skill, whether you are attacking or blocking an attack, much effort is needed. Very often it will be an advantage to make the first move, the one who moves last will be at a disadvantage. At this level you are unable to 'forget' oneself but 'play along with' the opponent and are unable to grasp an opportunity to respond to change. You may be able to move and ward off an attack but may easily commit errors like throwing-off or collapsing and over-exerting or confronting force. Because of this, during push-hands, you cannot move according to the sequence of warding-off, rolling-back, pressing and pushing down. A person with this level of skill is described as '20% yin, 80% yang: an undisciplined new hand.'

The Third Level of Skill - moving from a large to a medium circle

'If you wish to do well in your form you must practice to make your circle smaller.' The steps in practising Chen-style taijiquan involve progressing from mastering big circle to medium circle and from medium circle to small circle. The word 'circle' here not only means the path resulting from movements of the limbs but also the smooth flow of qi. In this respect the third level kung fu is a stage in which one begins with big circle and end with medium circle.

The Tiajiquan Classics state that 'yi and qi are more superior than the forms' meaning that while practising taijiquan you should place emphasis on using yi (intent). In the first level of skill, your mind and concentration are mainly on learning and mastering of the external forms of taijiquan. While in the second level of skill you should concentrate on detecting uncoordinated limbs and body, and of internal and external movements. You should adjust your posture to ensure a smooth flow of qi. When progressing into the third level skill you should already have the qi flowing smoothly: what is required is yi and not brute force. The movements should be light but not 'floating', heavy but not clumsy. This implies that the movements should appear to be soft but the internal strength is actually strong and sturdy or there is strong force implied in the soft movements, while the whole body should be well-coordinated and there should be no irregular movements. However you should not just pay attention to the movement of qi in the body and neglect the external actions or you will appear to be in a daze and as a result the flow of internal qi may not only be obstructed but may be dispersed. Therefore as stated in the Taijiquan Classics, 'attention should be on the spirit and not just qi, with too much emphasis on qi there will be stagnation (of qi)'.

You may have mastered the external forms between the first and second level kung fu but not have attained coordination of the external with internal movements. Sometimes, due to stiffness or stagnation of the actions, full inhalation is not possible. On the other hand without proper coordination of the internal and external movements it is not possible to exhale completely. Thus when practising form you should breath naturally. After entering into the third level kung fu there is better coordination of internal and external movements. As such the actions have generally become synchronized with the breath quite precisely. However it is still necessary to consciously synchronise breathing with movements for some finer more complicated and swifter actions. This is to further ensure coordination of breathing and actions so that it gradually becomes natural.

The third level of skill basically involves mastering the internal and external requirements of Chen-style taijiquan and the rhythm of the exercise as well as the ability to correct oneself. You should also be able to command the actions with more ease and should have more qi. At this level it is necessary to further understand the application and combat skill implicit in each movement. For this you have to practise push-hands and check on the form to understand how to express your jin. If you can withstand confrontational push-hands then you must have mastered the important points of the form. You will gain more confidence if you continue to work hard. You may then step up your exercise routine and add in some complementary practice like practising with the long staff, sword, broad sword, spear and pole as well as practising fa-jin (expression of explosive force) on its own. With two years continuous practise in this manner you should normally be able to attain the fourth level of skill.

With the third level of skill, although there is smooth flow of qi and the actions are better coordinated, the qi is relatively weak and the coordination between muscle movements and the functioning of the internal organs is not sufficiently established. Your mind-body coordination is not yet perfect though while practising alone without external disturbances you may be able to achieve internal and external coordination. During confrontational push-hands and combat if the advancing force is softer and slower you may be able to go along with the attacker and change your actions accordingly; taking any opportunity to lead the opponent into a disadvantageous situation or avoiding the opponent's firm move but attacking when there is any weakness and manoeuvring with ease. However on encountering a stronger opponent you may feel that your peng-jin is insufficient and there is a feeling that your posture is being pressed and about to collapse resulting in a loss of central equilibrium and that you cannot manoeuvre at will. You may not achieve what the Taijiquan Classics describe as 'striking with the hands without them being seen, once they are visible it is impossible to manipulate'. Even in leading-in and expelling-out the opponent, you may feel stiff and much effort is required. As such the skill at this stage is described as '30% yin, 70% yang, still on the hard side.'

The Fourth Level of Skill - moving from a medium to a small circle

At this level you progress from the medium circle to the small circle. This is the stage nearing success and thus is a high level of skill. You should have mastered the effective method of training; be able to grasp the important points in the movements; be able to understand the martial/combat skill implicit in each movement, to have smooth flow of the qi, and the coordination of actions with breathing.

During form practice each step and each movement of the hands should be carried out with a confronting opponent in mind; that is to say you have to assume that you are surrounded by enemies. For each posture and each movement, every part of the body must move in a linked and continuous manner so that the whole body moves in unison. 'Movements of the upper and lower body are related and there should be a continuous flow of qi with the control being from the waist.' So that when practising a form you should carry it out 'as if there is an opponent although no-one is around'. When actually confronted you should be brave but cautious, behaving 'as if there is no-one around though there is someone there' so that your movements are swift and natural and you will maintain your composure.

The training content is similar to that in third level of skill except that the circle is smaller. With perseverance generally the fifth level kung fu can be reached in three years. In terms of martial skill the fourth level differs much from the third level kung fu. The third level kung fu aims at dissolving the opponent's force and getting rid of conflicts in your own actions. This is to enable you to play the active role in forcing the opponent to be passive. The fourth level kung fu enables you to dissolve as well as express force. This is because at this level you will have sufficient internal jin, flexible change in yi and qi, and a consolidated system of body movements. As such during push-hands the opponent's attack does not pose a big threat. On contact with the opponent you can immediately change your action and thus dissolve the oncoming force with ease, exhibiting the special characteristics of going along with the movements of the opponent but yet changing your own actions all the time to counteract the opponent's action; exerting the right force, adjusting internally, predicting the opponent's intention, concealing your own actions, expressing precise force and hitting the target accurately. Therefore a person attaining this level of skill is described as '40% yin, 60% yang; akin to a good practitioner.'

The Fifth Level of Skill - from a small circle to no circle

The fifth level skill is the stage in which one moves from commanding small circle to commanding invisible circle, from mastering the form to executing the form invisibly. According to the Taijiquan Classics, 'with the continuous smooth flowing of qi, with the cosmic qi moving your natural internal qi, moving from a fixed form to invisibility, you realises how wonderful nature is.' At the fifth level the actions should be flexible and smooth and there should be sufficient internal jin. However it is still necessary to strive for the best. There is the need to work hard day by day until the body is very flexible and adaptable to multi-faceted changes. There should be changes internally alternating between the substantial and insubstantial but these should be invisible externally. It is only then that the fifth level kung fu is achieved.

At this level of martial skill the hard complements the soft and movements should be relaxed, dynamic, springy and lively. Every move and every motionless instant is in accordance with taiji principles, as are the movements of the whole body. This means that every part of the body is very sensitive and quick to react when the need arises, so much so that every part of the body can act as a fist to attack whenever it is in contact with the opponent's body. There should also be constant interchange between expressing and conserving of force and the stance should be firm as though supported from all sides.

Therefore the description for this level of skill is that it is the 'only one that plays with 50% yin and 50% yang without any bias towards either and the person who can do this is termed a good master. A good master makes every move according to the taiji principles which demands that every move be invisible.'

After completing the fifth level kung fu a strong relationship has been established between the coordination of the mind, contraction and relaxation of the muscles, movements of the muscles and functioning of the internal organs. Even when encountering a sudden attack, such coordination will not be hampered as you are flexible to change. Even then you should continue to pursue further so as to achieve greater heights.

Development in science is beyond boundary and so is practising taijiquan; you can never exhaust all its beauty and benefits within a life time.


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