Review of New Tai Chi Documentary DVD - Chen Village

Published: 10th February 2010
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Tai Chi is surrounded by mystery and mysticism, but it is a martial art that was created in the Chen Village in China. A new documentary by producer Jon Braeley takes us on a fascinating journey to meet the key members of the Chen family who keep the family art alive.

Shot in high definition, the documentary includes interviews with westerners who have traveled to Chen Village to study, and it shows a disciple ceremony in which Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang accepts new disciples.

Chen Village (Chenjiagou) is located in Henan Province. It's a very poor village with 3,000 residents. It is said that 2,500 Chen Villagers practice tai chi, and all but 15% are named Chen. You see parts of the village here that you haven't seen before.

Most of us would think of beautiful Asian buildings if we thought of the birthplace of Tai Chi, but we would be wrong. Chenjiagou is a poor, third-world community. It just happens that they are the best in the world at their art.

The documentary features Chen Xiaowang, his brother and head of the Chenjiagou tai chi school Chen Xiaoxing, Chen Ziqiang (son of Xiaoxing) and Chen Bing (a nephew of Xiaowang and Xiaoxing). It's exciting to watch, considering I have met and trained with three of the four, and Chen Xiaoxing stayed in our home for a week back in 2006. It's also fascinating to see the Chen Xiaoxing's school since I received a certificate in 2005 as a recognized instructor connected to the Chen family school.

I didn't know until seeing this DVD that Chen Bing now runs his own school, and he has built it with foreign students in mind. Some students have been reluctant in the past to travel to Chen Village because living conditions are not very good compared with our standards. Chen Bing decided to build a school that is more welcoming to Westerners.

It didn't come as a surprise when Chen Bing talks about how foreign students are trained differently than Chinese students -- much easier because foreigners (Americans included) are more interested in health and meditation and the martial aspects. Are you listening, people? We focus on the wrong things, and as a result, the Chen family doesn't take us as seriously. Despite what you've heard and read, real tai chi is a martial art -- it's about fighting and not about meditation. It also requires a lot of sweat to achieve skill. If you're not sweating, you're not practicing right.

Chen Xiaoxing's son, Chen Ziqiang was interviewed and said that even among students from the Chen Village, only one student in a hundred manages to hang with it long enough to become really good at tai chi. I've been teaching now for a dozen years and that is something that becomes clear very quickly when you teach -- the fact that for every 100 people that come through the door, only one has the determination and passion to achieve their goals.

The interviews with the western students are very interesting. Students find a different world in the Chen Village, as if they have gone back in time when technology was much simpler and the pace much slower. A few of the comments go a little over-the-top, as you can imagine from people who are dedicated enough to spend a year or two living there. One devoted student breaks down and cries when discussing Chen Xiaowang. I understand the devotion, but I tend to look at these masters as people who are the best at what they do -- like Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, all worthy of tremendous respect. I don't look at them as gods. My wife watched the documentary with me and strongly objected to the disciple ceremony where the disciples were kneeling and bowing in worship before Grandmaster Chen. My own reaction wasn't as strong because I understand that -- even though discipleship isn't one of my goals -- I was fascinated by seeing a ceremony I had only heard about in the past. When you become a disciple it's a very serious relationship, supposedly like being admitted to the family, and yet there is a master/student relationship that is very strict, and let's face it, the culture is not what we are accustomed to. Americans by nature don't like to kneel and prostrate themselves before anyone, but in the context of the situation and the culture, it's something that you do.

Chen Bing is shown at his school demonstrating a form, and as usual, he's breathtakingly impressive. There is a little video of Chen Xiaoxing practicing with some students, and Chen Xiaowang does a short demo, too.

One of my top goals in life is to travel to Chen Village and train in the "hard" class with the local students. It's nice that Jon Braeley has produced such an inspirational documentary.I highly recommend this DVD to anyone with an interest in tai chi.


Ken Gullette has studied tai chi with members of the Chen family and their disciples and students. He has students around the world who study his instructional DVDs and belong to his online internal arts school. Ken is a 36-year veteran of the martial arts and a tournament champion.

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