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March 6, 2016

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Keep calm and practice taichi

BRITON Paul Roberts disembarked in Beijing after a flight from London, then took a train to Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province. From there, he traveled by bus to Wen County, capping his long trip with a tricycle cab over dusty roads to the village of Chenjiagou.

What could possibly be so interesting to warrant such an arduous journey? Chenjiagou is the “hometown” of Taichi, an internal martial art form typically, but not always, characterized by slow-motion movements.

“Taichi maintains my strength and fitness,” said Roberts, 32, an IT freelancer who started doing Taichi in the UK for health reasons and then decided to come to China to learn the authentic art.

“I tried other methods to improve my strength, but they always led to other problems.”
Roberts said he suffers from high blood pressure and rapid blood circulation that cause him headaches. He has been studying at the Chen Bing Taichi International Academy in Chenjiagou.

Taichi is practiced both as defensive training and as a health exercise. It originated in Chenjiagou, which means “Chen family village,” more than 400 years ago and eventually developed into five major schools that all trace their roots to the town.

Taichi is now practiced worldwide.

Though Chenjiagou remains small, it is home to dozens of Taichi training centers. Last year, about 1,000 foreigners were among those studying in the centers. Some stay weeks; some stay years.

The Chen Bing Taichi International Academy, where Roberts studies, is the one of the largest schools in the village. Its founder Chen Bing is a direct descendent of the Chen family.

In the past two decades, he has traveled the globe to give Taichi demonstrations and lectures to foreigners. His academy hosts hundreds of people from abroad every year.

One of them is Mike Moore from the US. After attending Master Chen’s seminars in the US for four years, he decided to come to the village for more serious study.

“The combination of intense study and physical transformation fascinated me,” said Moore. “It is about personal growth, in the mind and body.”

Roberts become a student of Master Chen a year ago, and while in Chenjiagou he met his girl friend Spaniard Alicia Del Rio Cervera who studying kung fu for three years and Chen-school Taichi for one year.

“My mind becomes calm and my body feels good when I do Taichi,” she said. “The feeling does not only occur when I practice but stays with me all day.”

Master Chen said foreign disciples tend to focus on the spiritual aspects of Taichi, while Chinese practitioners seek its healing and bodybuilding properties.

“Taichi makes people relax, both in body and soul,” Master Chen said.

While most physical activity makes the heart beat faster, Taichi slows it down and prolongs the time for each breath.

The academy gives lessons mainly in Chinese. Foreign students help each other with translations.

Chen Bing’s uncle, Chen Xiaowang, is also a well-known Taichi master. He runs an association that operates branches in more than 50 countries and has trained more than 300,000 people.

From disciple to master

Some disciples became professional Taichi tutors in their own right. Alberto Catalan “graduated” as a Chen Bing student to become the founder of a Taichi training center in his native Chile. During the recent Chinese Lunar New Year, he brought six students to Chenjiagou to study with his old master for a week.

“More people in the world want to learn Taichi ,” said Catalan. “I think it is because Taichi is not just a martial art. It’s a therapy that improves body energy and a philosophy that clears the mind.”

It’s a rigorous schedule for those who study in Chenjiagou. Students rise at 6am and practice Taichi up to eight hours a day, with small breaks for meals and rest. In the village, there are no bars, cafés or even decent restaurants. All students eat ordinary local food, served in a canteen. They wash their own dishes and they sleep in austere dormitories.

About a two-hour drive from Chenjiagou is the Shaolin Buddhist Temple, which attracts a lot of foreign martial arts fans. It is the birthplace of Shaolin kung fu, one of the oldest institutionalized styles of Chinese martial arts and one of the largest schools of kung fu.

Around the temple are a dozen Shaolin kung fu schools taking students from at home and abroad.

One of them is the Yuntai Mountain International Culture and Martial School, which last year hosted about 300 foreign students. It is a school patterned on military discipline and serious training.

Students there start the day by jogging, then doing stretching, and kicking exercises. They are taught the “fist method” and the “weapon method” of martial arts. Classes in Chinese and Buddhism are also available for foreigners.

Frenchman Jonathan Ripoline, a pizza chef, has studied there for 17 months.

“When I was a kid, I read about Shaolin kung fu monks, and it was my dream to come here,” he said.

“I really wanted to learn kung fu after I watched some documentaries about it years ago,” said Loan Drouard, also from France.

Drouard has spent a month at the school for each of the last seven years, and she has won three first prizes in competitions held nationwide.

Yuntai Mountain school actively seeks to recruit foreign students. Its website is in English, French and German.

Xie Dong, an instructor at the school, said students come from all walks of life. Their common trait is a passion for kung fu.

“A German girl who planned to study here two months stretched that to two years,” he recalled. “Then there was the American who kept practicing while others took breaks.”

The daily schedule is rigorous. Students rise at 6:20am and jog before breakfast. There are three hours of classes in the morning, three in afternoon and one in the evening. Students eat in the school. It’s lights out at 10pm.

Costs at these schools vary. At the Bing Taichi International Academy, it costs US$600 per person every month, without accommodation.

At the Yuntai Mountain school, students need to pay US$505 per person every month, including the accommodation.


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