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Chen Style Taijiquan – History and Variants

Chen Style Taijiquan

by Arthur Rosenfeld

This article first appeared in Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine September 2007

Chen style Taijiquan is considered to be the senior branch of the five main Taijiquan family styles and the third in terms of popularity. Compared to the other main Taijiquan styles Chen style is known for its lower stances, so-called silk reeling technique, and bursts of power known as fajin. While there are many hundreds of schools teaching Taijiquan around the world, the five family styles are said to go the farthest in emphasizing the martial art style of teaching that has long defined Taijiquan.


The Chen family was originally from Hong Tong County, Shanxi Province. The village was known as Chang Yang Chun or Sunshine Village. Later, because of the number of Chen family inhabitants and because of the three deep ravines (Gou) besides the village, the village came to be known as Chen Jia Gou or Chen Family Gorge.

Some people claim the system was founded by first generation Chen family member, Chen Pu, who migrated from Shanxi to Wen County, Henan Province.  While no definite records exist, Chen Pu may well have been a martial artist, as the beginning of the Ming dynasty was a chaotic period in Chinese history and martial skills were critical for survival.  Interestingly, the next three generations of the family produced only one son so the line was nearly extinguished during that period.

The latest documented discovery is that the system as we know it today began with ninth-generation Chen Wangting (1600-1680).  In those days it was the custom to convey information in poetry.  While Wanting’s style had no name, it was put forth in a poem he titled “Long and Short Song.”

In creating the art he drew from a number of sources including Jixiaoxinshu (New Book Of Effective Techniques,) a military classic penned by General Qi Jiguang. But what is most significant about Wangting‘s contribution is his incorporation of Taoist philosophy into his martial system, drawing from Huang Ting Jing (Classic of the Yellow Court), a Taoist book of high-level spiritual training often confused with Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic) the foundation volume of Chinese medical theory.

Recent evidence credits the Li family, Wangting’s mother’s side, with the Taoist influence. There was a mythical figure, Wang Zhong Yue, author of the classic Taijiquan Lun.  We now know that Wang was a schoolteacher hired by the Li family. Interestingly the Li family also has their own martial art called Wuji system. Wuji is the word for the Taoist concept of emptiness, the state of the universe, pregnant with infinite possibility, before it organized into the harmonious interplay of opposing forces known as taijiWangting’s training partner was Jiang Fa, a rebel who hid with the Chen family after fleeing a government crackdown on Song Mountain.

In the generations since, the Chen village has since produced many Taijiquan experts. Perhaps their best-known-if not the best-was fourteenth-generation Chen Changxing (1771-1853). Chen Changxing taught Yang Luchan for a period of eighteen years during the early nineteenth century. Yang went on to become famous for developing Yang style Taijiquan, from which sprang a number of modern variants, including Wu style.

Chen style has been recognized as one of the prominent styles of martial art in China in recent decades, due mostly to the efforts of 17th generation Chen family member Chen Fake (1887-1957) who taught for many years in Beijing, and was regarded as an extraordinary and undefeated fighter. Today, Chen Fake’s direct students teach in Beijing, Xi’an, and Shandong Province, but not inside the Chen village. Chen Taijiquan inside the village now derives from Chen Zhao Pi, who was not a direct student of Chen Fake. Chen Zhao Pi’s lineage includes modern exponents Chen Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei and others.


(Lao) Da Jia – (Old) Large frame and Xiao Jia (Small frame)

The name “old frame” or “old style” arises from the fact that this form or sequence of movements is sometimes regarded as being older in origin than Xiao Jia. This view is especially predominant in Western sources, however no literature of Chen style before 1932 mentions anything about new, old, big or small styles. It is more useful to think of the descriptive names small and large as pertaining to training methods, lineage, and social dimensions, rather than differences between forms.

In Da Jia, the student begins with large movements and progressively refines the form as a whole. In the early days, Da Jia proponents tended to be farmers, bodyguards, and martial arts instructors-fit, strong individuals who made a living from their art or needed it for practical reasons. These early practitioners did not have time to polish their skills for pleasure; refinement came through application and repetition.  Da Jia practitioners lived on the south side of the Chen village. As a training method, Da Jia was practiced by Chen Changxing, and Chen Fake.

Many people misunderstand the term Xiao Jia to mean small movement.  In fact, the movements of today’s Xiao Jia are not small at all.  The word xiao refers to detail, not size.  In Xiao Jia training,, minute attention is paid to each movement as it is learned. Early Xiao Jia practitioners were scholars, businessmen, family chiefs, landlords, and government officials from the north side of the Chen village. Being individuals of means, they had more leisure time to perfect each move as it was learned. Because Xiao Jia emphasizes detail at the beginning, it is more challenging at the outset, and therefore not as popular as Da Jia.  However, historically, Xiao Jia also produced many famous masters.  In the Qing dynasty, the government predominantly gave titles to Chen family Xiao Jia masters.  Famous exponents include Chen Qingping, a wealthy merchant and teacher of Wu Yuxiang, founder of Wu Taijiquan, (which later led to Sun style) and Chen Xin, author of the classic Illustrated Chen TaijiquanChen Xin’s descendents are Chen Ke Zhong and contemporary master Chen Bo Xiang, who resides in the family village.

Xin Jia, or New Frame

Rather than a different standard form, the term Xin Jia refers to any of a number of form variants created by specific teachers. Chen Zhao Kui’s Xin Jia, for example, emphasizes forearm turning. Of course in the face of deeper understanding the significance of such emphasis vanishes because any part of the body can be moved according to silk-reeling principles. Silk-reeling refers to a particular concept of three-dimensional movement, given its evocative name after the elusive process of turning the thread of the silk worm into fabric. It is important to note that today the Chinese government’s Chen style Taijiquan competition form is based on Chen Zhao Kui’s version of Xin Jia.


Chen Fake’s student Feng Zhiqiang created Chen Style Xin Yi Hun Yuan Taijiquan based on Lao Da Jia with an influence from Shanxi Xingyi.

In Shangdong Province another group practices Chen style combat taijiquan, based on Chen Fake’s fighting movements.

Chen Qingping lived in Zhao Bao town and his students there developed a style today referred to as Zhao Bao, a Xiao Jia derivitive.

After 1980, many masters began to create their own shortened version of Chen Taijiquan.

Non-form Training

Before teaching the forms, the instructor may have the students do stance training such as standing-post (standing meditation) and various qigong sequences and silk reeling exercises. These are done to condition and strengthen the body for the correct frame and alignment before moving to the more complicated movements that comprise the forms. Other methods of training for Chen style use training aids including: Taijiquan ball, Taijiquan ruler, and pole/spear shaking exercises.

In addition to the solo exercises listed above, there are partner exercises originally known as ga shou (touching hands).  Nowadays less accurately called “pushing hands,” these drills are designed to help students maintain the correct body structure when faced with resistance. There are also a few rolling-arm patterns–now known as moving-step push hands-that students learn before they move on to the free-style exercises that are a prelude to free sparring.

Weapons Forms

Authentic, original Chen Taijiquan is limited to the unique weapons forms listed below, all of which are derived from battlefield combat.

  • Jian (Straight Sword) form
  • Dan Dao (Thirteen-Posture Broadsword single broadsword) form
  • Qiang (spear) form
  • Da Gan (Long Pole, an advanced version of the spear form) form
  • Guan Dao (Halberd) form
  • Langya Bang (Wolf-tooth mace) form
  • Shuang Dao (Double Broadsword) form
  • Shuang Jian (Two-section pole) form
  • Double metal club form
  • Zhan Jian (sticking sword – two person) form
  • Zhan Qiang (sticking spear – two-person) form