Grandmaster Zhu Tiancai is the oldest among the Chen Style Tai Chi (Taiji) Four Warriors (Zhu Tiancai朱天才, Wang Xian 王西安, Chen Xiaowang 陈小旺, and Chen Zhenglei陈正雷). Grandmaster Zhu is well respected worldwide. He has retired from regular teaching at home for a few years; however , he is still busy with visitors, media, and projects as well as traveling domestically and internationally to give lectures and workshops. I visited Chenjiagou (or the Chen Village) in October 2016. Fortunately, Grandmaster Chen had just returned home from a national conference. He graciously accepted my request for an interview even though I did not make an appointment with him weeks ahead.
Grandmaster Zhu’s school has an impressive façade with a traditional Chinese design. A large stone carving on the wall greeted me as I entered the foyer. As I turned to the right, there was a sizeable display with words and photos to provide a brief introduction of Grandmaster Zhu and his lineage. Turning to the left, I stepped into a narrow hallway and saw a large calligraphy of Chuan (or Boxing) written by Zhu, which fully exhibits his Jin (essence and strength), Qi (life energy), and Sheng (spirit). At a second left turn, I walked into a beautiful rectangle Chinese courtyard with buildings all around it. The corridors surrounding the courtyard have large red pillars and benches with potted plants sitting on them. Large frames of calligraphy written by Zhu hung on the long-side walls of the courtyard. All the writings are about Tai Chi theory and fundamentals save for one wall hanging that has a brief introduction of Master Chen Ziming 陈子明, an expert on the Small Frame Chen Style Tai Chi, along with Ziming’s Tai Chi posts. Passing through the small living room full of antique Chinese furniture and a dining hall, I strode into a large Chinese courtyard with a small Chinese fountain at one end. Corridors with large red pillars and benches surround the courtyard. Memorabilia were hung on the corridor walls. It was a sunny day, but not too hot. I smelled the light fragrance of sweet olive carried by the breeze. Students were learning Tai Chi attentively and a couple of them were from overseas. I imaged that it would be a cool experience to practice the ancient Chinese art in such an authentic environment.
Zhu welcomed me into one of his studies, which had a large rectangular solid wood table for large calligraphy writing. There was a row of orchids placed on the opposite long narrow table against the window. I imagine that he occasionally raises his head and glances the flowers during his writing. He apologized that he could not brew tea for me due to a power outage.
People who practice Tai Chi normally are aware of that General Chen Wangting, a 9th generation Chen Family descendent, infused the ancient Chinese philosophy and meridian system into the traditional martial arts and created Tai Chi Chuan approximately 400 years ago in the Chen Village. The 14th generation Grandmaster Chen Changxing taught the Yang Style Tai Chi creator Yang Luchan Tai Chi. In the Chen Village, you can see the little creek that Chen Wangting created Tai Chi and the place that Yang Lu-Chan spied on Tai Chi practice before he was accepted as a student. In the Chen Family Temple, statures of Chen Wangting and other Chen family Tai Chi heroes are erected for Chen family members, Tai Chi enthusiasts, and visitors to worship. There are tombstones of Grandmaster Chen Zhaopi and other Chen family grandmasters. The four-story-tall Tai Chi museum contains important Tai Chi related artifacts. The impressive Tai Chi plaza and the sculpture garden of Tai Chi Thirteen Posture are favorite tourist spots. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Tai Chi enthusiasts make a pilgrimage to pay homage; millions of tourists from China and overseas also visit the Chen Village. There are restaurants and shops in the village selling Tai Chi outfits, shoes, swords and weapons, fans, books, DVDs, and other items. International Tai Chi Chuan Culture Exchange Center, which houses a few halls and a state-of-art stadium was build in recent years. There is Wangting Hotel right in the village. The village streets used to be either asphalt top or dirt roads. Now the newly laid bricks enhance a nostalgic feeling to it. Antique-looking walls, entrances, and arches were also added. Workers were putting up trees and grass patches while I was there. The passage along the creek that General Chen Wangting created Tai Chi Chuan was under remodeling. The entire Chen Village is soaked in an atmosphere of prosperity, optimism, and energy. I could not help but ask Grandmaster Zhu his view of the past, present, and future of Chenjiagou.
He stated that it was a totally different picture more than a half century ago. When the 18th Generation Grandmaster Chen Zhaopi came back to the Village, few people were practicing Tai Chi. To revive the family art, Grandmaster Chen pushed to have a Tai Chi school established. In 1962, the government of the Wen County set up an athletic academy right across the street from Zhu’s current school. It was located in a building that belonged to a County Governor in the Qing Dynasty. Grandmaster Chen Zhaopi taught Chen Style Old Frame (Laojia or Large Frame) while Grandmaster Chen Kesen taught Chen Style Small Frame. Unfortunately, the school was shut down during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but they resumed teaching in 1972 at Chenjiagou Elementary School. Zhu recalled that he was a teacher at that school and volunteered to serve as Zhaopi’s assistant. The aging Zhaopi tirelessly trained the young generation of Chen family members and promoted Tai Chi whole-heartedly. However the exhaustion from the hard work took a toll on the Grandmaster’s health. After his death, another 18th generation Chen Family Grandmaster Chen Zhaokui came home around 1973-74 and taught New Frame (Xinjia). During the day, Zhaokui would teach everyone in a group setting and give private tutoring to the Four Warriors in the evening.
In 1982, the County formally established Chenjiagou Tai Chi School. Zu Tiancai and Wang Xian were the first to be in charge. Afterward Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang陈小星was at the helm for a while until he immigrated. The youngest Warrior Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei then became the principal. The school was later purchased by Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing and all four Warriors also founded their own schools in China as well as overseas. In recent decades, the younger generations of Chen Family also own their schools. While I was in Chenjiagou, I toured schools owned by the 20th Generation Masters Chen Bing, Wang Zhanjun, and Chen Chong.
Grandmaster Zhu delegated the administrative work of his Chenjiagou school to his youngest son Zhu Xianghua years ago when he was traveling extensively globally. Today Zhu Tiancai still teaches overseas, but no longer at his school in the Chen Village except occasionally when he shares Tai Chi philosophy and techniques with students at home and teaches his grandson the art. Xianghua has officially become the principal of the school now.
According to Grandmaster Zhu, there are three kinds of languages being expressed in Tai Chi practice, namely body language, verbal language, and the language of the mind. For the most part, people learn how to express the body language from their teachers. He mentioned his students have a different body language than the students of the other three Warriors. However, a teacher can only teach forms and techniques; students have to work hard to gain Kung Fu or the actual skills. For example, the principle of Tai Chi Chuan teaches people how to use four ounces of strength to deflect a thousand pounds but unless practitioners practices diligently and internalizes the art, they cannot employ the technique. The verbal language is the ability to articulate the art in-depth. The language of the mind is the highest language of all. One must be fluent in both the body language and the verbal language while also reflecting the art in one’s daily life. Recently, the most expensive Tai Chi book “Tai Chi Chuan Lun Shou Shu” (朱天才太极拳论手书or “The Hand Written Tai Chi Chuan Principles”) was published. This gracefully designed book has two volumes and packed in a unique Yin Yang box. It contains 300 articles not only authored by Grandmaster Zhu but also hand written by him. It took him five years to complete the writing to reflect his perspectives on how to live one’s life, how to manage things, how to practice Tai Chi Chuan and Kung Fu, and how to enjoy tea. This hard covered book costs approximately U.S. $3,000 and has a few hundred printed. Grandmaster Zhu’s specialties in Chinese calligraphy are cursive and running styles. The book is a treasure.
There are many 20th Generation Chen Style Tai Chi masters. Grandmaster Zhu considers many of them to possess great skills and knowledge, but overall they must continue grow to reach the level that the 19th Generation has established. Unlike other Tai Chi styles, Chen family’s Zhangmengren (掌門人or lineage holder) is not necessarily the Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan Zhangmenren. Currently the Four Warriors are the Zhangmenrens for Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan. Grandmaster Zhu did not comment whether each of the Warriors would have their own Zhangmenren.
A large stone with three large characters of Chenjiagou was recently placed on top of two huge stone posts at the entrance of the Chen Village right before I arrived. Master Chen Bing was celebrating the 10th anniversary of his school, which has 69 branches in China and associations in 14 countries. Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei was hosting the largest event in the Chen Village with 2,000 attendants from all over China and 22 different countries. Grandmaster Zhu is planning to sponsor the first Zhu Tiancai’s Tai Chi Symposium in the Chen Village in December and doubling his school size next year. There are events continuously taking places. There is no doubt that the Chen Village is growing.
(Edited by Doc Luecke.)
You can get a peek of Grandmaster Zhu’s Tai Chi School in the below video:
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