Internal Arts IA

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Chen Fake and Hong Junsheng, Lineage and Transmission (Tai Chi Magazine Article)

Posted by Editor on July 5, 2009

Readers might enjoy a revealing historical consideration, now appearing in the current issue of Tai Chi Magazine (“A History of Chen Fake and Hong Junsheng”, Vol 33, No.2, Summer, 2009).

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The author, Gordon Muir, and co-editor, Todd Elihu, report some very significant findings based on first hand interviews with He Shugan, who  trained for many years with both Hong and Chen Fake. This historical perspective might have important implications,

for those who value the structure of an unbroken lineage of a tradition of martial knowledge, and for those who seek the teaching of techniques and principles handed down via direct transmission from the most highly skilled exponent of that tradition, as in the case of the renowned Master, Chen Fake.

In modern society, questions about things such as “tradition”, “lineage”, and “secret transmission”, have taken on meanings very different from those of earlier generations. It has become common practice for countless “masters” to emerge with claims of possession of “secret transmission”,  of various forms or variations of martial arts styles, or claims of unsubstantiated titles as “lineage holder”. In many cases, titles have simply been self appointed, or “conferred” by means of political appointments, or assumed by virtue of family relationships, even though the “title holders” may have never trained or studied with the preceding generation’s representative.

In our internet generation, things can easily get really complicated, as questions of “authenticity” can be devalued to the extent that individuals without any first hand knowledge of any factual foundations, can advocate any position, voicing hearsay, or random or unsubstantiated opinions about anything and everything. These musings can nevertheless gain widespread acceptance by the uninformed. It can be perceived as accepted practice that such questions are simply a matter of debate, to be argued and settled by “logic”, (or worse, by literary or verbal “flaming”, or intimidation), rather than simple review of available historical evidence and testimony. (Unfortunately, in many cases, access to reliable evidence means it is necessary to travel to China, and then establish connections to obtain eye witness testimony. Many who like to argue never make that journey, or never get access to reliable testimony.)

In earlier generations, these issues were usually more apparent to public view. Masters often spent their lifetimes in one place, studying from their master on their home turf. Many martial styles were handed down in villages or other locales, for generations, in this manner. During the twentieth century, it naturally became more common for masters and their arts to “move around”, as societal changes, and means of transportation facilitated travel and relocation.

In cases where a master of some style of martial art would begin teaching in distant locales, away from home and family, naturally the master might choose to accept students and transmit his teachings to his top disciples, as the only option to preserve the tradition which was handed down to him.

Chen Fake was one of these masters who left his home in Chen Village, and relocated in the big city of Beijing. During the time of Chen Fake, it was still quite common for those who questioned the skills of acknowledged masters, to step up with a challenge to hand to hand combat. On the center stage of Beijing, from 1928 to 1957, Chen Fake was never defeated by any of these challengers. Therefore his mastery and the authenticity of his position as acknowledged lineage holder of Chen Style Taijiquan has never been questioned. The question is, how did he pass on his teaching?

The authors of the article relate some of the fascinating events surrounding Chen Fake’s humble beginnings and ascendancy to great fame for his Taiji skills. Of particular interest is the intimate relationship between Chen and Hong Junsheng, throughout Chen’s career in Beijing. During Chen’s early years of teaching, he frequently lived with Hong and his family at their home. During the Japanese invasion of 1937, as Hong’s family lost their wealth and home, and Chen had become quite successful with support from his large group of students, he gladly reciprocated with generosity, opening his home to Hong and his family.

The article recounts this history which is for the most part commonly recognized matter of public record of the close relationship of Chen Fake and Hong Junsheng. It is well known that Hong was among the first disciples of Chen Fake, and that he studied in a close day by day relationship with Chen, longer than any of the great Grandmaster’s disciples.

Beyond this review of history of the master disciple relationship of Chen and Hong, the authors went much deeper into an investigation of the details of Chen Fake’s transmission of the “indoor” teachings of his Chen Taijiquan traditional style to his closest disciple. What lends great import to this recounting, is that Gordon Muir and Todd Elihu gained this information by gathering first hand eye witness testimony from unbiased sources which are certainly worthy of the highest respect.

After Hong had studied with Chen for 15 years, he had attained a high degree of skill. Encouraged to do so by his master, Hong embarked to Jinan, where he could refine his abilities by taking on his own students and working within the framework of a teaching role, to rise to higher levels of mastery.

He Shugan was one of Hong’s earliest students in Jinan, and he was serious enough to become a disciple, training with Hong for 2 years. Then when He Shugan was accepted for university studies in Beijing, Hong gladly granted his request for a formal letter of introduction, to study with the Grandmaster, Chen Fake. He Shugan studied with Chen and became a disciple, eventually attaining high level skills.

In 1956 Hong returned to Beijing and trained with Chen Fake, in what can be seen as the framework of a true master, studying with the Grandmaster. Building upon the strong foundation of so many years developing under the tutelage of the great Grandmaster, with 13 more years of intensive training, with hundreds of students, and many challenges, Hong had risen to a level of great eminence in his own right.

During the following months, the two close friends, Chen and Hong like reunited father and son, worked closely together for hours every day, going over every detail of the form and practice. Chen observed and corrected or refined each and every move and posture of Yi Lu and Er Lu, push hands, applications, until he could pronounce that Hong had “everything correct.”

It is very significant that He Shugan, as a disciple of Hong and long time advanced student of Chen Fake, accompanied them during these sessions and therefore can report as to the exact details of the events which transpired. HE Shugan is now recognized as a master in his own right and is very clear about his recollections during his training with Chen and Hong.  When interviewed by Gordon Muir, He was asked if there was any difference between the forms as taught by Chen Fake, and the forms as taught by Hong Junsheng. He Shugan has stated clearly that “There was no difference, the forms were the same.”

This article can be seen as a very convincing clarification of recent historical events which have somehow become somewhat clouded by misguided speculations of the past few decades. There have been some “analysts” who have suggested that Chen Fake had “recreated” his forms in his last years, into the New Frame forms. Yet here we have eyewitness testimony of  Grandmaster Chen’s corrections of Hong’s forms, at the time very close to the end of Chen Fake’s life. And according to close observation from a well educated, knowledgeable expert in the teachings of both great masters, attending all the daily sessions, of this final transmission of the full range of the traditional teaching—– Hong’s form was the same as Chen’s form.

In the Tai Chi Magazine article, Gordon Muir is pictured in a photo with He Shugan. So we know He Shugan is alive and well, and we can be comfortable in the integrity of the author’s research. Actually, everything reported by He Shugan corroborates what Hong himself documented in his own writing in his classic major work, Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method .

This wonderful survey and well documented research can be appreciated for its illumination of the traditional process and mechanics of  transmission of indoor knowledge, as a great master hands down the treasures of his lineage. As we review this process in the case of Chen Fake, with his longest term disciple, Hong Junsheng, we can draw some conclusions which illumine the simple, natural aspects of this hallowed tradition.

We see that Hong was in the position to receive this treasure from his master, not because he was born into any particular family, or because of some political expediency. It almost seems there was not any matter of choice about the whole thing, by Chen Fake or by Hong. It is just that Hong was there from the beginning, from Chen’s arrival in Beijing, and spent the most time with the Master, almost in a devoted father son relationship, and worked diligently perfecting what he had learned, even training hundreds of his own students during the process. The days of final transmission were the sealing of the process, the grand refinement which Hong would subsequently evolve into his own legendary degrees of mastery, and teaching thousands of students, in the ensuing decades.

Once again, when we consider the life and teaching of the man who brought us the “Practical Method”, we can see through a window which reveals the “practicality” and a common sense view of the nature of the teaching and learning of Taijiquan. This view of lineage and transmission demands that the titles are earned, rather than merely “inherited”. It really should be about how long, and how hard, and how effectively you study and practice. It most likely will come down to whichever student works the hardest, for the longest time—–that student will shine, and the master will not fail to recognize the most deserving disciple.

When the student reaches a level of more deserving, then the hands on corrections from the master will be available. It is only natural that the teacher wants to share as much as the student can possibly absorb. And the student can only absorb more, when the student has reached higher levels of skill which allow further understanding and experience. So from whatever level we aspire, hopefully we can draw some inspiration from the beautiful story of Chen Fake and Hong Junsheng, and keep making progress towards the lofty goals. For those who want to connect directly with this particular  tradition, they can study The Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method as taught by Chen Zhonghua.

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