Hunyuan World 2004 gave participants access to an enormous wealth of essential knowledge on taijiquan. One of these gems of information relates to peng, a topic of great interest to camp participants. As an example of the teaching available at Hunyuan World events, I share Master Chen Zhonghua’s response to students’ questions on peng, which also led to more general comments on his interpretation of taiji.
Grandmaster Hong, the late teacher of Master Chen, described Chen Taiji as “the art of peng.” When asked for an explanation of this statement, Master Chen responded by explaining that the effects of peng could be, to a certain point, easily described. First, it is a kind of energy that “comes out of a spiral type of motion.” This fact, he notes, can be backed up by the many years of experimentation that produced what is now called Chen Taiji. Second, peng is an expanding type of energy: “You can create the feeling on your opponent that you are expanding.” But, he continued, “to attempt to explain peng any farther is not necessarily helpful.”
Why does the explanation stop here? Master Chen states that what is normally described as peng energy is in fact what our opponent feels, not what we feel as we practice taiji:
The person who does taiji feels nothing. So when you feel something it means you are on the path of doing taiji, but you are not there yet. If you are there, there is nothing. When you do taiji, or when you do peng, you don’t know it, you don’t feel the expansion. Your opponent will feel it.
Thus peng is something that is felt, but not by the practitioner doing the movement. So, Master Chen asks rhetorically, why should we seek simple explanations on such practice from our teachers?
We cannot, according to Master Chen. He agrees that the ability to generate peng is an essential quality of every accomplished taiji player, “It is the special energy you achieve through the practice of taiji that is very powerful, but very unique.” However, similar to other difficult questions humans ask, there are no easy answers. He compares the question “What is peng?” to the question “What is the meaning of life?”: “When I started learning English I was very puzzled because I was reading a lot of English books and got in contact with a lot of foreign visitors, teachers, students, tourists, and I was very amazed by their obsession with the quest for the meaning of life.” That question does not have an easy and straightforward answer, Master Chen observes. In fact he notes that it is in a way meaningless to answer it for someone because it is up to everyone to resolve that question. That is not to mean that peng can be different things to different people, but simply that one can truly display peng only through experience. For this reason Master Chen says, “For the people who are looking for it, what is it? It’s not one thing. It’s like for me the meaning of life; it is best left unexplained.”
So if peng cannot be explained in words, how is it found or developed? Says Master Chen, “The entire curriculum of taiji will help you bring out peng. And for people to define peng as this, they miss the picture. […] There is no way anybody can define it. So my approach is this: let people know, but don’t define it.” Peng is a type of energy that is not necessarily useful to try to understand intellectually. This does not mean that peng is unimportant, after all, “It is the essence; it is the most important thing in taiji.” Master Chen is willing to discuss the relevance of peng, but finds that attempting to define it for us is useless to a student’s learning process. In fact, the whole system of Chen Taiji is meant to develop this energy. He is emphasizing how there is only one way to truly understand peng and that is to be able to manifest it in our own bodies.
While peng cannot be defined, at the very least it can be described as coming out of a spiral type of motion. What is particular about a perfect spiral is that “every move goes all the way down, […] nothing is trapped on it.” Master Chen often uses an image to describe the effect of the expansion of peng energy: “it’s like a spinning tire. You touch it and it will spin you out.” One of the requirements of the body when it is moving properly is that it must spin like a tire. However, if the axle of the wheel is bent, the tire cannot spiral properly and the energy cannot come out. This is, according to Master Chen, the mistake of most students of taijiquan:
Nobody has the patience to wait and spin. If I am reacting and someone is pushing, and I wait until he has enough friction, I spin and it works. But if I’m too impatient, he pushes and I move forward or backward instead of spin; it becomes a toss, because I go too early. That’s why you have to be patient, and you have to follow the rules. Following the rules is very difficult because when we see an opportunity we want to fight. And in taiji, the rules say you can’t. Even if he’s not blocking […] you have to wait until he comes in and then you can spin him.
Here Master Chen warns of overextension caused by reaching forward too far with the arms. In such a position, there are two grave dangers. The first is to lose the structure of the arm. The arm is meant to be one of the parts of the body where the peng energy can come out, but in the case of overextension, it becomes a dead and useless limb. Second, by overreaching there is the risk of losing the straightness of the spine, and thus the integrity of the central axis of the body. Therefore instead of spinning we end up wobbling. He elaborates:
So everything has to be connected to the body. In that regard, your opponent’s energy has to come into your body. And it’s very simple. Just wait. And nobody wants to wait. […] So if I push with you, you think I am pushing. That special energy of taiji is that you feel I am pushing but I am not. But you swear I am pushing you, but I am not. So when you can do that, then you are in a better position. So I am not pushing but you think I am so you push back and you fall into emptiness because I was not pushing. So create that illusion, and it does not come very easily. It is effort, but it’s a very different kind of effort.
Contrary to what many would believe, Master Chen is in fact claiming the problem is not speed, but timing. Rather than moving too slowly, most students of taijiquan will in fact move too soon. This point stresses the importance of push-hands training which develops the kind movement and timing necessary to be able to receive the energy of your opponent and then to send it back out like a spinning tire.
This is just one example of Master Chen’s knowledge, his style of teaching, and his rare ability to teach the complex art of Chen Taiji as experienced by students at Hunyuan World 2004. Here the message is clear: it is not useful to have a teacher define peng, for it is only through repeated practice that a student can understand what was meant by Grandmaster Hong when he referred to Chen Taiji as the art of peng.
Jean-Philippe Ranger, Hunyuan World 2004 Participant