Before I started working at Taiji Zen, I was at my office in Beijing and received a phone call from my Sifu: “Eric, are you free tomorrow?”
“Well, I guess,” I answered. Being an actor in China, I’ve found that my schedule is only knowable in hindsight. “What’s up?”
“We’re going to Chen Village to film a documentary about Taijiquan; I need you to be one of the hosts.” And just like that, with no experience whatsoever, my career in Chinese journalism began. I was going to be the co-host of the CCTV 4 serial documentary Experiencing Real Kung Fu.
Chen Village is one of the Meccas of Taijiquan, and many people claim it’s where the style originated. We arrived there the next morning, and the crew dropped me off at the hotel, instructing me to rest. As I’m quite competent at resting, I promptly shifted into nap mode. Not long after, I got a call from the director.
“Eric. There’s a car outside to pick you up. We need you here immediately.”
Having no idea what they needed me for, I headed downstairs and got driven to the Taijiquan school of Grandmaster Wang Xi’an (who is the father of Wang Zhanhai, one of Taiji Zen’s master instructors). When I arrived, everyone was standing in a circle around one of Grandmaster Wang’s top students, Zhang Baozhong.
“Eric,” said my Sifu*, “Fight Mr. Zhang.”
Up until this point, I had never seen fighting applications of Taijiquan. I’d practiced in the parks in Beijing with some grammas and grampas, but that was the extent of my experience. My world was about to get flipped upside down.
More specifically, I was about to get flipped upside down. Repeatedly. Although I’ve got some martial arts experience, I was no match for Zhang Baozhong. The only difficulty Mr. Zhang faced was not injuring me.
While we were trying to figure out what would look best on screen, Grandmaster Wang would occasionally offer some guidance. “Try to punch me like you just tried to punch Baozhong,” he said.
With a great deal of reluctance, I threw a right cross at the Grandmaster. The technique he used was simple, but the way he executed was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It felt like punching a cloud. Except somehow, that cloud body slammed me. There was also an elbow stopped about two millimeters in front of my nose.
We spent the next few days exploring Chen Village and learning about Taijiquan. As a prerequisite, they bought me an all-white Taiji suit, which was a big hit in the gramma and grampa crowd.
While there was no shortage of elderly practitioners in the Chen Village, I was surprised to witness a side of Taiji I’d never seen before. A side that could really be used for fighting. At Wang Xi’an’s school, some of the training looked more like Cross Fit than the slow graceful combinations I was used to.
Kids of all ages were circuit training, alternating between sprints, weight lifting, and many strange exercises I’d never seen. “Are they practicing Taiji Quan?” I asked Grandmaster Wang. “Of course,” he said, “These are all my students.”
Over the next couple days, I got slapped around by a few more of Grandmaster Wang’s students, and came to understand that Taijiquan might seem very relaxing and gentle, but hidden within those graceful moves are some lethal techniques.
Have any of our readers heard any stories about Chen village? Or gotten beat up by 70 year olds? Share your experience in the comments section below!
Editor’s note: “Sifu” is Cantonese for master. Due to the popularity of Kung Fu movies in the West (which originated mostly in the Cantonese speaking Hong Kong), the Cantonese version is more commonly known than the Mandarin (Shīfu 师傅)