By Anita Hamilton
We’re back from yet another trip — this time to a tai chi boot camp. Seems that we’ve repeatedly changed plans from travelling to Cambodia and Viet Nam for years now and this year has been no exception. I’m starting to doubt we’ll ever get there ….
After taking up tai chi at the beginning of 2016 here in Germany, we decided to study it intensely for a month in China at the same school where our teacher studied. Intensely meant six days a week, six hours a day. When we left, we’d reached the point of basically knowing the 75 moves of the old-style Chen tai chi, first form; however, we were not yet able to do the whole routine all on our own at that point.
Chenjiagou, the village where we studied (it translates as Chen Family Village), is the birthplace of Chen tai chi and the Chen family who were the originators of it. The 19th Chen generation is now running the school. This is the most famous Chen-style tai chi school in China and has mostly children in attendance, though adults also come for instruction (from beginners to well-trained people who want to improve their technique or learn another form). Here and there are also international students, such as we were. The entrance to the school is shown above.
We were impressed at the number of hours and the intensity at which the students at the school trained. Compared to them we had it pretty easy. Their day starts at 6 in the morning with jogging (yes, some of them are dragging tires along as they jog) and warm-ups.
Breakfast is at 7 and then they have a break until 9 am, when the day begins with more warming up and some heavy-duty training: from tai chi in its various forms to weightlifting to tai chi boxing to academic studies. Lunch is at noon, then there is another break and the afternoon session begins with more of the same (with groups rotating to varying activities). Dinner is at 6, followed by a break, and then there is an evening session as well, ending at around 9 pm for the older ones. The youngest student is 6 years old and the ages go up into the late teens. There are about 200 young students at the school and I’m guessing about 50 adults. The adults have either individual teachers or work in small groups at their desired activity.
The students are expected to do chores around the school, from which the adults are excused. Academic work is also part of the program. Everything takes place outside whenever the weather allows it, which is most of the time. What one doesn’t see is unruly kids — not that there’s no misbehaviour here and there, but it’s certainly not commonplace. One also doesn’t hear complaints or whining from them: hard work and long hours are standard everywhere and for everyone in China. We think we work hard but, truly, we’re lazy in comparison.
The poles held up by the tripods that you see in the shot above are planted tree trunks. Hard to believe that they would grow, but they actually sprouted leaves and branches in the time we were there. These trees will provide needed shade in the very hot summers, when temperatures are in the 40s Celsius.
Each session ends with the kids lining up and then counting down the lines, beginning with one and continuing to the end of the line. I expect it’s to make sure they’re all there. They thank the teachers, both orally and with a hand gesture that signifies thanks, before they’re dismissed. We found it a lovely way to end a workout and began to adopt it ourselves.
Sunday is the only day off. There are classes even on statutory holidays. Students who live in the area go home on that day, while others catch up on their laundry – all of which has to be done by hand. Many of the students will head off into the army or the police force when they’re done here. Both of these occupations, along with street cleaning, seem to offer the greatest opportunity for employment from what we could see.
But back to us (who also did our laundry by hand). We were lucky enough to have the head instructor at the school as our teacher. He divided his time between us and his students. When he wasn’t instructing us, one of his better students went through the drills with us, over and over and over again. I expect it was an honour for the students but we laughingly saw it more as a punishment for them. The little 6-year-old was a master compared to us!
When we first started our tai chi lessons here in Germany, I really only wanted to learn the moves, thinking that was about all there was to it. I could then just keep on practising after that. I thought it was a lovely, slow-moving, dance-like thing that looked nice, was good exercise and worked all the joints in the body. Tai chi is actually an internal martial art. Yes, it has mostly smooth and slow movements, but Chen style also incorporates bursts of energy and power. And takes more leg strength than I would ever have guessed. Learning the moves is only the beginning. It takes a lot of effort to learn this “outer” work and then, after one has got that out of the way, the real work of doing the routine from the core or the “inside” begins, a stage we haven’t reached yet.
Our lessons started with standing. That’s it. Just standing, though not up straight: knees slightly bent, hips relaxed as if to sit back on a stool, backbone relaxed and curved in its natural position. Well, more than a month later and I still can’t stand properly and certainly not for any great length of time. One needs to build up the quads big time. Without strong quads and the proper stance, it’s tough on the knees. In the first week we had Jello legs that wobbled every time we went into the standing position and our knees gave us no end of problems. We spoke no Chinese and our teacher, Wang Yan, very little English; however, “relax, change weight and relax hips” along with his hands-on corrections were more than enough. Here’s Stephan getting his standing corrected by Wang Yan. Looks simple, eh?
One of the times when we were practising our standing, I asked Stephan whether he thought I was standing correctly. He asked me if it hurt. When I said “yes,” he answered that I probably was. I dreaded Wang Yan’s corrections as it always led to more pain. It’s good to know that once one can stand correctly, it’s actually a very relaxed stance that one is in and the energy in the body can flow freely. I’m looking forward to that day, if it ever comes.
Thanks to the good grounding we had here at home in learning the various moves, we moved through the 75 forms in the first three weeks of our stay and were able to keep practising the whole routine in our final week in order to make it “stick” and to keep getting fine-tuning corrections. We do our tai chi quite high — watching a master do it in a low stance is amazing. Knowing how difficult it is even in a high position, one can appreciate what it takes to do it in what looks like almost a squat and to take long steps when moving between the forms.
Living at the school is quite spartan. We had it cushy as we had our own room with a bathroom. As foreigners we also paid way way more than Chinese students pay. There are only a few of these luxury rooms at the school. The kids all share rooms and even most of the adults attending had up to six in a room. Bathroom facilities are otherwise in one common area for the whole school. I’m quite sure that this extra money from foreigners is used for needed services, renovations and construction at the school, as the Chen family also lives there and very frugally at that. The young students pay very little and some of the local ones apparently nothing at all.
Three meals were served a day and you had better be on time or you missed the meal. The kids ate in one dining room (from which there emanated a lot of noise – they may be well behaved, but they’re still kids), the adults in an adjoining one. You clean and look after your own dishes, which consist of two bowls, chopsticks and a spoon for those of us who like to eat their soup with one. Here is the lineup to get served and the little window at which the food is dished out, military style – hand your bowls in through the window, the food is ladled in and handed back to you.
Food wasn’t great but enough to sustain one. We started to go out to eat in local restaurants for a change of fare. This shot isn’t from Chen Village but gives an idea of how we ate away from the school.
China held many surprises for us. We had to change quite a few preconceptions that we had. First of all, we felt no oppression, something we had expected. Quite the contrary. While we had read that there were restrictions on what we could access on the Internet (no Facebook, no Google, etc.), this turned out to be a problem with our phones, not with accessibility. Our Chinese friends had no problem with access on their phones, nor did they have any qualms about voicing their opinions on any subject.
And speaking of phones, everyone, but everyone, has a smart phone – and uses it for virtually everything, even for making payments of a few cents. Tiny little street vendors selling fruit, vegetables or a stuffed sandwich-type thing have the little black square that reads a net location (whatever it’s called – you can see it at the top of the shot between the light and my head), through which payment is made. I think we were the only ones walking around with cash.
Work days are also long — from early morning into the night, seven days a week for many occupations. Construction work continued on a Sunday as on any day. Another thing that amazed us was the large number of buildings going up: multi-storey apartment complexes in our village, much larger versions in the cities, and skyscrapers one beside another in the largest cities. Cranes are to be seen everywhere. We have no idea who is going to live in all these buildings and many of them, when finished, looked empty. Added to that, on a small scale, we didn’t see a single street on which there wasn’t some sort of construction happening, from renovations to additions to existing homes. Piles of sand and stacks of bricks line every street.
While we’re mostly talking about electric cars here in the west, in China they’re driving them. Electric motor cycles and electric cars abound. One has to take care crossing a street as one can’t hear them coming. Three-wheeled vehicles as shown below are regular mode of transport – and happen just as the shot portrays: no safety protection of any sort. The mother drove in like this — one hand on the handle bars, one holding the child (who is holding her smart phone) with a second child sitting in the back.
The driving style is another thing to get used to. Motorcycles and cars don’t seem to follow too many of the rules of the road that we would expect. Toot your horn and pass on the left, the right, the shoulder or in the opposing lane with oncoming traffic. We started to think that in order to qualify for your driver’s licence, you only had to show that you could use the horn frequently and exuberantly and you’d pass the test. We later found out that you didn’t even need to have a driver’s licence to drive the electric motorcycles or the three-wheeled vehicles. There are also no rules as to what vehicles are allowed where, including on large thoroughfares in the city.
What we did expect was air pollution, and we did get some, though not all of the bad air was from pollution. The province of Henan has low rainfall and a lot of agriculture, which makes the air rather dusty. Some months are worse than others and when there has been regular rainfall, the air quality naturally improves.
After our time at the tai chi school, we had planned on spending a couple of days in Beijing and then taking the Trans-Siberian Railway through Mongolia to Moscow. After months of planning, this portion of our trip fell through shortly before we were to leave. One couldn’t book any seats on the train until 45 days before departure and when our agent went to book the tickets at the 45-day deadline, ALL the tickets were sold out. Every single one. Obviously there’s wheeling and dealing that happens behind the scenes that we weren’t a part of. We had to make some quick changes to our plans, which all worked out well in the end.
I’ll just end by saying that we enjoyed our time at the school so much that we’ve decided to go back for another month next year in order to learn the second form of the old-style tai chi. Piece of cake — only 46 moves. And maybe we’ll have learned to stand by then.
I’ll attach one last photo here of the kids putting on a show in the neighbouring city, Wenxian. It must be obvious that we’re besotted with the kids at the school. That’s the little 6-year-old in front, with whom I fell in love. Stephan wouldn’t let me bring her back home with us!
Cambodia and Viet Nam in 2019 perhaps?
Photo credit: Stephan Kettmus and Anita Hamilton