Anyone who believes taiji is a gentle exercise for old ladies to practice in the park before breakfast may have second thoughts after visiting Chenjiagou, the tiny village in China’s Henan province where the art originated in the 17th century.
In the taiji school at the center of the village, a group of thirtysomething students, Chinese and foreign, practice solo form. In graceful slow motion, they coil, then suddenly uncoil, unleashing punches that shake their entire bodies. Beside them, two linked figures spin as if in a dance, then one staggers, tumbles and bounces off the floor with a grunt.
Chen Zi-qiang, the thrower, walks off the mat with a smile.
“The idea of taiji as a slow practice is not entirely wrong,” says Mr. Chen, 30, chief instructor at the school and a 20th-generation master of the art. “But it is not the entire mentality to take toward taiji.”
He should know. Chen-clan taiji is the original style of the world’s most widely practiced martial art. It originated in this rural community of 2,000 souls at the close of the Ming dynasty when Mr. Chen’s ancestor, Chen Wan-ting, a retired warrior, blended breathing exercises and acupuncture meridian theory with martial arts. The result was branded taiji (grand ultimate fist). Its strategy, based on yin-yang, the harmonious blending of opposites, is considered the pinnacle of Chinese philosophy.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, taiji practitioners from the Yang and Wu families modified the Chens’ art, deleting the dynamic movements and slowing the tempo. The resultant substyles have been popularized widely as exercises for the elderly and are the most widely known examples of the art.
“There is a certain grace to Chen taiji, a certain drama to the forms,” says Joseph Davey, an enthusiast from the United Kingdom who has studied at the school for six months. “You can’t compare it to Yang-style taiji, like you can’t compare Rachmaninoff to Mozart.”
Chen taiji stances are tortuously low, and with every movement being a spiral, the entire body is wrung. The slow motions are interspersed with sudden fa-jing - explosive energy releases. The warrior heritage lives on in the weapons forms - swords, scimitars, spears, halberds - and the tuisau (“push hands” - a form of wrestling similar to judo or wrestling) in which Mr. Chen specializes. None of the approximately 130 residential students at the school recalls seeing anyone throw him, even foreign bruisers who outweigh him by 65 pounds.
However, there is a nurturing side to the art. Mr. Chen learned from his father, Chen Xiao-xing, 56, who runs the school. The senior Mr. Chen is a fair advertisement for his method: With his flowing black hair and ready grin, he resembles an Asian Anthony Quinn, but the late actor would have had difficulty emulating the low stances and toe-slapping kicks Mr. Chen performs with nonchalance.
Unlike many taiji teachers, who stress arcane concepts such as qi(intrinsic energy), yi (intention) and shen (spirit), the village coaches teach a demanding but logical biomechanical discipline.
“In my hometown, the taiji taught is not original and is always mysterious - I can’t understand it!” says Ding Da-hai, an English teacher from Jiangxi province. “Here, it is practical, and the theory is easy to understand, so you can improve.”
Taiji was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, but since the 1980s, as interest in the original style grew around the world, village masters dropped farming to teach the clan art professionally. In the center of the village stands a cluster of derelict houses - homes of masters who have left to teach taiji around China and the world.
Chenjiagou has three taiji schools, and a fourth is being built. Despite hefty fees - a month’s training for a foreigner costs about $1,000 - some students return again and again.
“This is the original site of taiji,” says Suh Myung-won, a Seoul-based taiji instructor who has visited a dozen times in the past decade to train.
The local county government, perhaps with an eye on the cash generated by the Shaolin Temple, a 40-minute drive away, is promoting the art to the hilt. A spiffy clan shrine, filled with statues and murals of legendary Chen warriors, costs a cool $6 to enter. A pagodalike taiji museum has been constructed, but is not yet open.
“There is certainly a wistfulness one feels for the nostalgic concept of the isolated rural village nurturing a centuries-old martial tradition,” says Herb Rich, a Massachusetts-based taiji teacher who first visited in 1990. “But you can’t expect people to embrace poverty when they realize that they possess a cultural commodity others desire.”
Chen Xiao-xing, who as a youngster never dreamed of the explosive popularity of his ancestral art - he has just added a new wing to his school - remains unsatisfied. “I want people all over the world to benefit from Chen taiji,” he says.