Wow, what a statement, huh?
I spent the last 2 weekends with Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing at his San Diego and Phoenix seminars. Both experiences were so valuable for me – he is a superb teacher with a huge breadth of knowledge about theory and application. I have learned so much from him in the past year. I have been lucky enough to work on a variety of things with him, and probably the one thing that made the most difference for me in terms of my skill level was the time spent on silk reeling with him on my trip to China last October. Let me be honest – it wasn’t my favorite part of the training. It was brutally hard, 30 minutes at a time, twice daily, without a break, mind bendingly boring at times, and low low stances that seemed to get lower with every correction. And it went on for 9 days in a row. But it made all the difference in terms of my own improvement.
Weekend workshops are difficult, I think. It’s hard for the organizer to pick an agenda that will please everyone. If you don’t have enough variety, people get bored. If you dabble in too many things, people don’t get anything substantial out of it. If you pick something too advanced, not enough people can come. Many people want to learn forms, especially people who haven’t had much exposure to Taijiquan. Teaching a form in a weekend workshop is a superficial exercise, at best. The lucky ones who already know the form may get some great deeper corrections during the workshop, but the people who are learning the form for the first time will only get that, the form. And sometimes that’s fine, it’s a great way to introduce beginners to Chen style Taijiquan, and it’s a chance for exposure to a high level martial artist.
This topic came up at the Phoenix workshop because one of the attendees wondered why year after year GM CXX spent so much time on the first section of the form. Everyone knew that section already, the attendee said, so why don’t we start with the second section, or the third, and are we EVER going to finish this form?? It was a heated discussion (it actually started when GM CXX was in the bathroom), and some of the teachers in the room defended this method, including myself. Personally I could work on the beginning over and over, because some of the hardest moves are in that section, and if I can do that section well, applying the principles to the moves, I can do the rest of the form well too, because it’s all about the principles. But to have that insight, you have to know the principles. And if you don’t do the first section well, and clearly don’t understand the principles of Taijiquan, what is the point of moving on, except to gather forms so that you can say that you “know” them?
When GM CXX came back from the bathroom, he told a story about a group of students who came to the village and paid for a month of lessons. They picked up forms easily, and quickly learned laojia yilu and sword. Then they wanted more – they didn’t want to practice what they already knew, they wanted more forms. GM CXX tried to tell them that they needed to learn how to apply the principles to the forms they had just learned, not just learn more forms. The students insisted that they would only get their money’s worth by learning more forms. GM CXX said “ok, if you want forms, I will teach you forms”. And he taught them all the forms! Broadsword in 2 hours! Er lu in 2 days! They went away happy with all the forms they had learned. Some months later, one of the students returned to the village. He said to GM CXX “you were right, we have now forgotten all the forms. It’s the principles that are important, like you said. Will you review the silk reeling with me now?”.
GM CXX said to us “if all you want is forms, I will teach you forms. Learning the form is easy! But if you want to be a martial artist, all you need is the silk reeling”.
And there you have it. Think about your goals – find a balance of working on the basics and applying the principles to the forms. A good dynamic workshop will offer a combination of things – basics, forms, push hands – but the emphasis will always remain on the basics. There is nothing wrong with being a forms collector. I am, I know all the forms in the Chen system. But I think when you have access to one of the greatest taiji practitioners of our time, you should soak up all the basics that you can. This is where these Grandmasters excel – hands on corrections, putting you in the right positions, kinesthetically moving you through the postures while explaining the principles. Why would I pass that up to learn another form? Honestly, I’d work the whole weekend on Dan Bian if given the chance