YMAA proudly presents Sun Tai Chi: 73 Form, another instructional video from Master Chenhan Yang.
The Sun Tai Chi Connection
It is challenging for me to be unbiased about Master Chenhan Yang's Sun Tai Chi DVD. Firstly, obviously, I am a Staff Writer for YMAA, so it doesn't behoove me to write a poor review (all the YMAA products that I've been tasked to review have been extraordinary, so that's not an issue). Secondly, and on a more personal level, Chenhan is my friend and we're martially related. His son is a disciple of the same Shaolin monk that I took vows under, Shi Decheng. What's more, I have a third allegiance with Sun tai chi because it is part of my personal practice. In 1995, I had the honor of training with Grandmaster Sun Jianyun (1913-2003), the daughter of the founder of the style, Grandmaster Sun Lutang (1860-1933). I took private lessons under her during several of my trips through Beijing. Consequently, I'm intimately familiar with the subject and personally connected to Master Chenhan.
Sun tai chi is the youngest of the leading five styles of tai chi in China now (the other four being Chen, Wu (Hao), Wu, and Yang). Our founder, Grandmaster Sun Lutang was a master of baguazhang and xingyiquan, as well several other styles of tai chi like Yang and Wu. At the beginning of the 20th century, Sun fused these methods together to form his own unique style of Sun tai chi.
The Birth of Sun Tai Chi 73 Form
Master Chenhan propounds a different form of Sun tai chi than what I practice. I learned the classical 98 form as taught by Grandmaster Sun Jianyun. Chenhan teaches the 73 form, a competition routine created in 1988 by the renowned Professor Men Huifeng of the Beijing Sports University. Professor Men worked with Grandmaster Sun Jianyun to develop the 73 form as part of a post-Cultural Revolution movement to reform and rebuild all styles of tai chi into compulsory forms. The intention was to develop a standard of consistency so tai chi could promulgate uninhibited by superfluous division.
Professor Men and his wife, Professor Gan Guixiang, formed one of the greatest power couples in Chinese martial arts. Both have been awarded China's highest rank, the coveted ninth duan. They are the only martial couple to achieve that status so far. Together, they were instrumental in standardizing many forms that are now practiced all around the world. Professors Men and Gan even created their own unique style – Dongyue tai chi. Dongyue tai chi has the unique honor of having been the first tai chi practiced in space. In 2013, Chinese astronauts recited Dongyue tai chi when the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft was docked with the Tiangong-1 module. Today, their daughter, Master Men Ganhong, is a leading proponent of Dongyue tai chi. She is a highly decorated tai chi champion, having won first place awards in both Chen and Sun tai chi.
Master Chenhan learned Sun from his illustrious father-in-law, Grandmaster Liang, Shou-Yu. When Professor Men was developing his reformations, there was a tremendous amount of exchange between masters and grandmasters as they strove to preserve and refine the arts. Grandmaster Liang was privy to many such exchanges as a stalwart practitioner whose exemplary reputation was well established. It boggles the mind to imagine what some of those historic and pivotal martial gatherings must have been like.
Competition versus Classical
Of all the competition tai chi forms, Sun style is the longest. Other competition tai chi forms only retain half of the moves from their classical forebearers. Many competition forms reduce the repetitions because classical tai chi tends to repeat themselves. The Sun tai chi competition form is only 25 moves shorter. It contains all the movements in the classical form, only subtracting some repetitive sequences.
The Sun tai chi 73 is a more versatile method; It has a high level of difficulty for competition but can be easily modified for general practice. Other modifications aspire towards more balance. For example, the 98 form recites cloud hands in only one direction where the 73 is more ambidextrous. The competition form begins just like the classical form, and then changes directions with cloud hands.
Some 'traditionalists' reject modern standardization of classical forms. I was part of that camp when I was younger (and there are still a few of the modern compulsories that don't work for me personally). However, Sun tai chi is still relatively young as martial arts go. I'm only two generations from the founder himself. It has taken some forms generations of development to evolve into what they have become today. Perhaps Sun style is in its prepubescence.
I've already witnessed some divergent interpretations amongst my generation of Sun practitioners. There's some comfort in having a standardized form that is only a few steps different than what I learned traditionally. For dedicated practitioners, it's important to know how the competitive form was modified, and also why.
Young Master Yang
When I studied under Grandmaster Sun Jianyun, she was in her eighties. Nevertheless, she still had remarkable skill. Her baguazhang was something to behold. She was so astonishingly quick and agile that could slip behind me before I could blink.
Master Chenhan Yang is in his physical prime, so his expression of Sun tai chi is more powerful. His stances are deeper, and the solidity of his tai chi kicks is impressive on their own. Anyone who practices tai chi knows how difficult slow-motion kicks can be. It's a demonstration of strength, flexibility, and balance. I was in my 30s when I first met Grandmaster Sun. Due to my youth, I was physically stronger than Grandmaster Sun and could do all her moves, at least on a surface level. Master Yang has several moves that I can't do physically. It gives me more to aspire towards. While I may never be able to stick my slow-motion kicks like Chenhan does, I can benefit from the attempt. Certainly, scrutinizing his form by replaying the video provides me with clues to how my single leg stances might become more stable.
Grandmaster Sun only spoke Mandarin, and I'm still far from fluent. I relied on a translator who didn't know martial arts and a lot was lost in translation. Chenhan teaches in English, deftly darting between his lessons and the Chinese terms. Here, I appreciate the quanpu. Quanpu means 'fist lyrics', these are the poetic names of Chinese martial arts movements. In tai chi, its terms like 'cloud hands,' 'hold the ball,' and 'white crane spreads wings.' As a writer, I've always had a profound love of quanpu. As Chenhan teaches, he says the names in English and Mandarin, and hearing his pronunciation is helpful. This is accompanied subtitles in Chinese characters and pinyin romanization.
Learning Sun Tai Chi as a Complementary Style
Master Yang Chenhan knows the other styles of tai chi, as well as xingyiquan and bagua. Acknowledging that many Sun tai chi beginners might have a background in one of these other styles, he adds comparative observations for students to bridge that gap. When demonstrating 'hold the ball' in Sun tai chi, he explains how it compares to 'hold the ball' in Yang tai chi. He points out how Sun tai chi expresses the tai chi energies like peng and an, which is informative for those who understand those principles.
Sun tai chi has a smaller stance than Yang or Chen tai chi. Much of the footwork is derived from xingyiquan, which deploys a shorter stance known as santishi. For this reason, Sun tai chi has been promoted as a more conservative form that is good for teaching to seniors. Tai chi has become popular among the elderly for exercise and fall prevention. While the competition form has some extreme moves like that slow-motion kick, Chenhan explains how to modify the form for those less agile. If the requirements for Sun tai chi demanded that everyone be able to execute a slow-motion kick to face height, most practitioners would be disqualified (including me). Once those difficult competition moves are removed, Sun tai chi is attainable by most anyone.
One of the unique aspects of Sun tai chi is its 'open and close' movements. It's so distinctive that some dub it 'open and close' tai chi. It's a simple gesture, inserted like a comma with the sequence sentences and it is like a pump that stokes your qi. In this way, the qigong aspect of Sun tai chi is particularly powerful. That's good for anyone, young or old.
While I'm still attached to the classical form, I can see the benefits of the competition form and can absorb some of Master Chenhan Yang's lessons to further my own practice. I treasure my short time studying under Grandmaster Sun Jianyun, so I'll continue to practice what she taught me. I stopped practicing Sun when she passed away but watching Chenhan's video rekindled my interest. I'll work to incorporate his teachings into reinvigorating my practice.
I'll never see Grandmaster Sun again. But perhaps, the next time I see Chenhan, I'll ask him for some corrections.