Whatever style of Kungfu, Qigong or Taijiquan we may study, from observing live demonstrations to the immense video content available today through the worldwide web, we cannot fail to observe fellow practitioners and teachers in the very same field. Invariably, the first thing we may notice is just how their forms and applications differ to our own understanding and how we were taught. This is bound to create some confusion amongst more inexperienced students, leading some to wonder if they are even “on the right path”. In reality, there is more than one “right path” that can lead to the summit, but there are also, in greater number, many paths that lead nowhere.
Differences are not really the issue. In fact, they are inescapable as no two teachers are nor ever will be exactly alike, even under the same branch of a lineage, and even studying directly under the very same teacher! For example, 18thgeneration Chen Taijiquan master Chen Zhaopei had four disciples (pictured above) considered the very best of the next generation. They came to be known as “The Four Jingang” (Buddha’s Warrior Attendants) and “The Four Tigers (of Taijiquan)”. They are Chen Xiaowang (my Sigong and 19th generation lineage-holder of the Chen family, second from left), as well as Chen Zhenglei, Zhu Tian Cai, and Wang Xian. They all could not be more different from one another in their style, expression of the energy and approach to the art, even though they learned the same skills from the same teacher at the same time. So, if they are all so different can they all be right? The answer is Yes! A son’s movement and form can differ vastly from his father’s, even when that son is a master, coach, and lineage-holder in his own right! Their Sifu’s (and Sigong’s) energy and spirit undoubtedly lives within each of them, but different facets of that teacher’s personality are absorbed and manifest, and then filtered through and combined with the student’s own essential Qi.
It is the same in the case of world-renowned Wing Chun master Ip Man. He had many highly accomplished and respected students including his two sons, Ip Chun (my Sigong) and Ip Ching (1936-2020) as well as Chu Shong Tin, “The King Of Talking Hands” Wong Shun Leung (1935-1997), William Cheung, and the last student he formally accepted, Bruce Lee, among others. Their styles and approach also could not be more different from one another. One may place greater emphasis on posture, physical structure and Gung Lik (internal strength), or softness and footwork, while another may disregard all this in favor of fast hands and attack. Regardless of differences, the highest level of this skill lies in using the least amount of energy or effort to overcome the opponent.
More important than mere differences lies in whether the principles of the skill are being maintained at all times or whether the essence of the skill has become diluted and corrupted as a result. Aside from the highest levels being spiritual training/ enlightenment, Chinese skills from a purely practical point of view must be for health and/ or martial arts first and foremost. When the principles are overlooked then real progress in either goal is impossible to attain. There is “different” and then there is “erroneous”. Knowing and applying the principles is paramount, and as long as whatever differences do not contradict the principles then there is no real “wrong”. However, not every student/ practitioner really knows and understands the principles, and some despite having been taught and reminded, consistently fail to apply them. Simply remembering the form is not sufficient as all skill lies in using the right energy.
What accounts for all the discrepancies? There are many factors to consider. Firstly, our external physical bodies are all very different. Some of us are short and some are tall. Some are stocky and powerful, and some are wiry and lithe. Some are naturally more rigid, and others are more supple and relaxed. So, naturally, with a multitude of physical differences, then the way people move and express themselves physically will vary vastly too. Then, there is the mind, mental state, internal processes and attitude that exerts influence on the body, and its Qi and functions, which vary person to person. The state of mind is subject to change in the short term by the emotions which fluctuate through life changes. (Through regular internal stillness/ meditation practice and attainment the mind and emotions become more balanced and stable, and thus less changeable or erratic.) One’s nature/ heart is more permanent, but this can change and evolve over time too. Attitude is the result of a combination of genetics, background and upbringing, education level, the impact (positive or negative) of the teacher, and life experiences. Naturally, these all vary vastly from student to student, practitioner to practitioner, teacher to teacher. The sensitivity and awareness to one’s own Qi and subtle body (which can and should deepen with experience over time) also play a significant role. And, teachers all devote different quantities of time to daily personal practice yielding different levels of experience and standards. So, in reality, all teachers will be quite different from one another because they have to be! Human beings are not clones. We are all individual and unique. Kungfu, Taijiquan and Qigong are, after all, “human skills” so personal forms must differ too.
Internal health and martial arts, as the name clearly suggests, are “arts”. They are forms of human expression and so they manifest from inside out. They are reflections of the individual soul or spirit. The higher degree of accomplishment is whereby internal (Qi/ Spirit) and external (body) are One, and is the result of countless hours of study, practice, correction, and refinement. The beginning stages of learning forms (Taolu) is like learning chords and scales in the pursuit of studying a musical instrument. In this case it is the body that is the instrument. The early stages of the process are more repetitive than self-expressive, though even the beginning of the journey can and should nevertheless be highly enjoyable, rewarding, and nourishing as we come to know more about ourselves: our bodies, minds and internal Qi. Before true unfettered artistic expression can occur spontaneously, the rudiments must be mastered so the skill will be correct. Freedom of expression without any framework creates only haphazard, uncoordinated, careless movement, resulting in the disorderly flow of internal Qi, which can create imbalance and, over time, impact health.
If you were to hand a group of artists the exact same paints and colors, the exact same brushes, the very same subject (a nature scene, a “still life” basket of fruit or a model), in the same lighting conditions, every single one of them will produce a completely different painting, in a different style. This is due to how they see and process the external phenomenon and how they express their internal condition, and also how they were taught various brush techniques from their teacher who would have his or her own experience, perspective and intrinsic energy. Cezanne, Monet or Picasso would all naturally produce entirely different students. Another factor to consider, of equal importance, is the point in time in which the student is present with a particular artist; for example, Picasso had his “Blue Period” whereby everything he painted tended to be in monochromatic hues of blue and green. So, similarly, like the fine artists, some may not consider the fact that the teacher (who is or should be continually developing and not stagnating) himself will change over time, quite noticeably from decade to decade, too. Not only does his (or her) physical body change, as it naturally matures and ages, which will influence physical movement, but also his internal Qi and mental attitude changes too, which exerts a direct influence on how his energy, essence, or spirit is expressed.
A young master has boundless energy and skill, but less experience, wisdom and philosophy. He may focus more on the fighting aspect of the art, and when older be more concerned with health as he becomes more internal. This is nature: more Yang when young, like Springtime, and more Yin when older, like Fall. So, the experience of studying with a teacher will be somewhat different from the beginning of his life than towards the end. Students may need to “leave the nest” eventually, in order to spread their wings and develop as teachers, but the best situation is for students to remain connected with their teacher, and continue to visit him or her, if there is a good relationship, so they tend to grow and develop together along a similar path.
Practitioners really should continue to improve right up until the end of their lives, so they can end up being quite different from when they began their own journeys. When my Sifu first arrived in UK, I was awestruck with his movement, and he was only twenty-six years of age at the time. Over three decades plus his forms have only become even clearer and smoother. In the case, of my Sigong, Taijiquan grandmaster Chen Xiaowang, his “progress” can be charted (through chronological video evidence) from a young man in his early 30s, when he moved like a sleek, graceful panther, with low postures, big leaps, and loose explosive power, to his forties and fifties, when his body changed to become fuller and denser, like an oak tree. His thighs and trunk became visibly larger, as his bone Qi became more condensed. His movements became more compact, and his explosive power even more concentrated. Into his 60s, and now 70s, his posture sits a little higher (though he is definitely more than able to sink lower than practitioners half his age when he is so inclined!), and while he may have lost some looseness, his form is even smoother than ever.
Physical movement is like handwriting or calligraphy. Everyone’s penmanship is unique. Some may be looping and flowery and quite beautiful, just like a work of art. Others can be precise and rigid or a scribbled, unintelligible mess. Some is powerful and expansive while some is inhibited, tiny and constrained. It all reflects the individual’s personality, subconscious or psyche. In spite of the myriad styles we see, all that really matters is that the writing is legible!
Differences in Chinese skill are just like the dialects within the same native language. Consider even a tiny island like The United Kingdom with its numerous regional dialects. Within the six hundred square miles and thirty-two boroughs of the capital London alone there is Received Pronunciation (The Queen’s English which very few aside from the Queen, and BBC World Service speak), Estuary English, and Cockney for example. Then, over the length and breadth of the country there are at least thirty-seven(!) dialects between north and south, east and west, including Scottish (with its own dialects like Glaswegian that is so heavy that even the Scottish themselves have a hard time comprehending), “Brummie” (Birmingham), “Scouse” (Liverpool), and “Geordie” (Newcastle) to Cornish (from Cornwall) etc. George Bernard Shaw once claimed, “America and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language”. Many times, in the two countries, the very same word has entirely different meanings or the same meaning, but different pronunciations and spellings.
It should be noted that every time we see a Sifu demonstrate it is just a moment frozen in time. For example, you may see a master demonstrating a form and he may do so almost entirely in an internal manner i.e. slowly and gently. This is then recorded and posted on social media for posterity. The next time he practices for himself or performs for an audience he may do the routine very differently, for example at a faster tempo, or employing explosive power and jumping, the gentle movement punctuated with Fajing (issuing power). To the untrained eye it could even appear like an entirely different form while it is the exact same form. It is only the energy that has been expressed differently.
Some masters, during live demonstrations, or impromptu performances, may even create a form spontaneously for the audience or deliberately change the order of the form or combine movements from different forms within their system. This is like a sand painting: art never seen before and never to be seen again once the wind takes it! Those observing can consider this is the way the master practices and teaches his form which is different than the way in which they have been taught, when this is not the reality at all.
While we can claim to be learning a particular style, it is nevertheless our teacher’s skill and his or her perception and interpretation of that skill which we are ultimately learning as much as the style itself. All the skill we learn from the teacher is a matter of our interpretation of that teacher’s interpretation and the interpretation of the teacher before him, and so on. Naturally, those more closely connected to the source of the skill have an advantage of the information coming through less “filters” and misinterpretations and is therefore clearer and more accurate. The further away we go from the source the more it becomes like an increasingly faded photocopy.
As to perception, it has been said that if you take two eye-witness accounts of the same accident you may wonder how history could ever have been written. Perception is very subjective, and our minds can only absorb a limited amount of visual information presented to us at any one time. We can never process it all at once. This is why the Sifu demonstrates countless times for our benefit, and every time he does so we may (and should) notice something new, even after years of study! Most likely, he will have been showing the same details all the time, but we may have been busy concentrating on other factors. Additionally, he may have changed something organically or deliberately over time from his own experiences.
We may be focusing on some aspect of his movement while another student may notice or be looking for something entirely different. The key is to keep seeing more and more until we are closer to completing the jigsaw puzzle. Some students stop seeing more detail after a short time, like a horse with blinders on, even though the Sifu continues to demonstrate. And, so, their learning, understanding and development in effect becomes arrested, stuck in past perceptions, unable to adapt and keep up with the changes, like failing to update the software program on our computer.
Many years ago, in New York City‘s Chinatown Columbus Park, where many traditional martial artists (as well as traditional singers and mahjong players) congregate on the weekends, I observed a young man practicing a martial art that was completely unfamiliar to me. After he finished, and walked past me, I asked him what he had been practicing. He answered, “Taijiquan”. I asked him which style (as it was unlike any of the five major styles I could recognize). He replied, “Chen Style. Have you heard of it?” I concealed my surprise. At the time I had already been practicing for twenty years the original Chen family style as it has been taught in Chen village for hundreds of years, and under the lineage of the 19th generation standard-bearer. I have seen the various offshoots of the original Chen family style that are quite different and yet still very recognizable. Enthusiastically, he proceeded to produce from his backpack his family tree of Chen family lineage showing from 14th generation to his current teacher in Spain. Of course, some students are simply nothing at all like their teacher and the teacher may not be the one at fault in this regards. But, this encounter reminded me of a story told to me by my good friend from New York. He had been a close student of a famous “old school” Taiji master up until his teacher’s passing. He recounted how they both attended a martial arts expo one time and during one performance his Sifu leaned in, pointing to the demonstrator, and said softly, “He doesn’t know Taijiquan. His teacher doesn’t know Taijiquan. His teacher’s teacher’s teacher doesn’t know Taijiquan”. So, differences through misunderstanding and misinterpretation can go back many, many generations!
Some differences manifest for other reasons. Certain movements in traditional forms can prove impossible or just too difficult for some students, especially those with a physical handicap and those over a certain age, perhaps lacking the required strength, agility or flexibility, and so an easier version may be adopted. If this change becomes passed on to the next generation of students then they will be learning a modified version, perhaps still only slightly different from the original.
A good skill is continually evolving. Nothing remains exactly the same, especially over generations. Most of the skills today will have been refined and improved upon from what they were centuries ago, as long as the following generations worked even harder on the skill than their predecessors. Under a careless and lazy teacher, a skill will not remain the same either. It will deteriorate.
From a place of deep knowledge and experience, a master may arrive at the conclusion there is simply a better way of executing certain movements in the form or technique application, for the Qi to be smoother, and will consciously implement a change. This should never be undertaken lightly, randomly or habitually, but judiciously, meticulously and sparingly. Traditional skill is like a trusted recipe. A chef may add and eliminate some ingredients to improve upon the original, but once he becomes obsessed with tinkering and tweaking the formula, with no self-restraint on when to stop, then what emerges is nothing resembling the original. However, some masters want to make their own contribution and like to leave their own indelible mark on a form, like an artist signing his name to a painting. They may retain and follow the blueprint, floorplan and method of the original skill, maintaining the integrity and essence of the skill, then add their own flourishes/ embellishments or create their own abbreviated form. While it may still be recognizable as belonging to the lineage, and upholds the principles, it nevertheless becomes unique.
Lastly, some changes can creep into the form unceremoniously through lack of conscious awareness and become permanent. One day the student, during practice, experiences a wandering mind moment, and unconsciously changes the movement. This causes the body to adapt, in the moment, and may continue to do so because it “feels” right. This is why a good teacher is needed for many years, at least in the beginning stages, to instill right practice, and correct repeated mistakes to prevent bad habits.
Regardless of the myriad differences, if we are fortunate enough to study a skill with lineage from a good teacher then none of this really matters, and it is best not to be overly concerned about what others happen to be doing. Just let them do their thing, while we concentrate on ours. It is distractions and doubt that cause us to lose focus and direction and prevent us from attaining anything. Junior students tend to notice small differences more, as if they are momentous and irregular, while senior students tend to see more the principles and flow of Qi. Instead, they notice the similarities more and regard differences as inconsequential and to be expected.
At the end of the day, the subject of differences within the same styles of martial art and internal training can be distilled and equated to the answer given by Duke Ellington (US pianist, composer, and bandleader) when asked about the various strains and subcategories of Jazz. He simply stated, “There are only Two Kinds (of music) – Good and Bad”. As far as good skills are concerned, then the more the better. Greater diversity makes the world a far more interesting place, and, as it is said, “Variety is the Spice of Life”.
By Adam Wallace