Tai chi has become more and more popular as a mainstream exercise, usually practiced in slow motion to improve health. Research has shown that tai chi practice can improve our body coordination, improve balance, and reduce risks for falls, especially for seniors. Tai chi practice can also help to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress.

When practicing tai chi, you are more focused on deep breathing, good balance, and mind/body coordination of movements. As a result, regular tai chi practice can result in calmness, inner awareness, and stillness. As a beginner to tai chi, it is important to understand the differences of each style and choose the one that most fits your interest and condition. There are six major styles of tai chi widely practiced in the world, and they are Chen style, Yang style, Sun style, Wu style, Wu (Hao) style, and Zhau Bao style. Chen style is considered the oldest and therefore the root of all family styles.

All styles of tai chi share the same theories and principles. For example, they all use thirteen principles as their foundations. Thirteen principles are eight energies or techniques, plus five steppings or directions.

The eight energies are peng (wardoff), lu (rollback), ji (press), an (push), cai (pulling downward), lie (split), zhou (elbow strike), and kao (body leaning strike).

The five directions are advancing forward (前進),  retreating (後退), gazing or stepping to the left (左顧), and looking or stepping to the right (右盼). 

The following are some other essential principles that apply to all styles of tai chi:

  • Keep the body centered and upright (立身中正).
  • Sink shoulders and drop elbows (沉肩墜肘).
  • Arc your chest and round your back (含胸拔背).
  • Vitality of spirit leads to the top of the head (虛領頂勁).
  • Sink the qi or energy down to dan tian (氣沉丹田).
  • Loosen the waist and hips (松腰落跨).
  • Upper body and lower body follow each other (上下相隨).

Martial Arts Roots

Chen-style tai chi originates from Chen Village martial arts in the 1400s, and the forms still have their martial arts applications intact. It seems clear there is a relationship between ancient Chen-style arts and Shaolin kung fu, as many forms share the same movements, but these details are mostly lost to history.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Chen-style tai chi is silk-reeling power, sometimes called spiraling power. Silk-reeling exercise (chan si gong) is an important stand-alone training method for developing body awareness, coordination, unity in movement, strength, and internal energy. It is known as yin-yang sticking hands in Yang-style tai chi. In Chen tai chi forms, silk reeling allows you to enter an opponent's "open door" effectively. It allows you to "stick" to your opponent (attaching and adhering) and entwine him or her to redirect the movement and energy (coiling and neutralizing).

Another main characteristic in Chen style is power emission, known as fajin. This skill is trained and refined over time until you can express martial power with fast and sudden force, either whipping or penetrating with the effect of a shockwave. The art of power emission involves body alignment, momentum, timing, and increased qi (energy) circulation. With fajin, you are transferring your body's momentum over a shorter period of time. This is often used in coordinating with point striking, aiming at a small target, so the strike can penetrate and cause more damage to an opponent. Fajin movements can be seen repeatedly throughout Chen style forms and many other martial art styles.

Chen-style tai chi also includes jumping, combination of fast and slow moves, alternating hardness and softness, and steady footwork.

Beginner Chen-Style Forms

One popular Chen-Style form for beginners is known as the Standard 56 form. This form was compiled by the Chinese Wushu National Association in 1988 with many Chen-style masters and experts. The form was combined with movements from the traditional number 1 and number 2 routines, Lao Jia Yi Lu and Lao Jia Er Lu (sometimes called the first and second "roads"). The entire 56 form has four sections and totals 56 movements including commencing and closing postures. It takes about six minutes to complete the form. The 56 form is widely used for international competitions and demonstrations and is also called the Chen-style International Compulsory Routine. Chen style in general is not a simple form to start for beginners, but because the 56 form was compiled very beautifully, I have found that beginners are more motivated and try harder to practice, and hence prolong their tai chi learning longer. I believe a beautiful form is a key for beginners to be drawn into the tai chi world and enjoy practicing it. It is advisable for beginners to learn the form one section at a time and gradually add more movements. Practice step by step, take your time to learn correctly, and eventually you'll be able to perform the standard requirement of the movements.

I am who I am today because of practicing tai chi and Chinese martial arts, which are life-prolonging, mental, and spiritual training. I love both the external and internal sides of the art, not only the forms, but the applications, theories, and Daoist and Buddhist philosophies behind them.

Above all, what fascinates me the most is the universal truth we may discover through the training of this art. Chinese martial arts are so beautiful and profound. From its thousands years of history, we are able to see the wisdom of our ancestors. Although they originated from China, tai chi and Chinese martial arts belong to the whole world. Enjoy your practice.

Chenhan Yang is the author of the video Chen Tai Chi for Beginners 56-Form