The village kids relaxing with their 'foreign guest' and their coach, after doing some chores around the school.
Tai Chi plays an important part in the lives of the people of Chen Village. A lot of kids learn Tai Chi at home, and those that don't learn it at the primary school there in the village. Yes, Chen Village is the only place in the world where Chen style Tai Chi old frame first form is a compulsory part of the primary school curriculum. Talking to people in Chen Village it is amazing how many people can't remember when they started training, they've been doing it so long.
Local kids that are more serious about Tai Chi training go to Chen Xiaoxing's school. While I was there, it had over a dozen local kids training full time, and more than half a dozen from out of town, though these numbers have increased a lot recently. They range from about 13 years old to about 20 years old. The school is also the venue for teaching adults, and there is usually about a dozen or two adults, mainly from distant places. It is quite common for adults to take out a sabatical, and go to Chen Village to train for a year.
Overseas students are especially welcome at the school, and they really roll out the red carpet for you. As an overseas student your fees are higher than the Chinese, but the attention you get from Master Chen makes up for that. I imagine the foreign exchange is used to keep the school from falling down or saved for some future project. Having lived in Master Chen's house for a year, it is clear that he likes the simple life and he doesn't have much need for money - the simple reality is that in the village there is literally nothing to spend it on.
As an overseas student you don't have to join in with all the chores that have to be done either, nor get whacked with a big stick because you haven't being doing them. Even so if you stay for a long time, as the months go by you are accepted more or less as fellow student by the rest of the school, and you might get roped into demonstrating to tourists. Chen Village is probably the only rural place in China where foreigners are not stared at or accosted by hotel owners. You can go to a shop and the price you are quoted is the same as what would be quoted to a Chinese. OK, so they might try to 'rip you off' a bit, but no more than they would try to 'rip off' a fellow Chinese person. You can't ask for more than that.
Although they can be naughty at times, it is amazing how mature and well behaved the kids are in general. They all practice their Tai Chi forms without being told to, and they have other chores to do around the school as well. Some kids go to the school because they are not doing well at school for whatever reason, or they dislike academic study. Its ironic that you send 'delinquent' kids to learn how to fight, but it seems to work well here. It may be something to do with positive role models, and there are plenty of them here.
Training at the school varies from being leisurely when there is no competition on the horizon to navy-seal like intensity when there is. Chen Xiaoxing leaves most of the training of the kids to his son, Chen Zhiqiang, and his nephew, Chen Bing, who has a degree in sports science from Shanghai Sports University. Chen Bing is particularly well known for his jin skills, including fajin, and he likes to take them through zhanzhuan training and silk reeling.
Chen Zhiqiang focuses on getting their cardio-vascular fitness to the level required by competition at provincial, national and international level. Because of the level of Tai Chi in their province, provincial competitions are not that much easier than national competitions, though there are categories for the younger kids to enter. Similarly, international competitions only tend to have foreign competitors in the heavier weight categories, so there is not much difference there either. The main difference is that the higher level competitions have more prestige and are taken more seriously.
All that and they also have to work in the fields when there is a harvest. Given the level of bitterness the kids have to endure, it is surprising that they don't skive off. Then again, the Chens are teachers that you don't want to cross. I should point out that life in rural China is hard. It is about survival. If you don't work you don't eat, consequently people there are able to sustain a much higher level of discomfort than we are used to in the west. You can also see where traditional family values, regardless of whether from China or the west, come from. You can't survive as an individual, you have to stick together as a family,
What the average local kid learns is slightly different to what the indoor Chen family kids learn. The Chen family kids start very young and are punished with ten years of old frame first form (laojia yilou) practice before learning anything else. After this foundation is complete they are taught the other stuff pretty quickly. Although the other kids are taught other forms and pushing hands a lot sooner, the emphasis is still always on old frame first form. New frame (xin jia) is generally not taught, except to indoor students. Because of the relatively high fees paid, foreign students are treated pretty much as indoor students.
Watching the kids train you get a very good idea about what real Tai Chi skills are about. A lot of misinformed people are impressed by low stances, but here in the village every one can do them. The kids squat down when they are having a rest. When their legs get tired, without getting up, they stretch a leg out into a 'Dragon on the ground' like stance. When they want to stretch the other leg, they shift their weight across, again without lifting their body up at all. When holding, say, the 'Lazy about tying coat' posture, the flexible kids drop into 'Dragon on the ground' for a rest when the teacher is not looking. It is not just the young ones who can do it. I once saw an old lady attending to a plot of land in the school grounds. She spend the whole time squatting down. When she wanted to move to the next row of vegetables, she too stretched one leg out, transferred here weight, and then pulled the other leg in, all with her bum a few inches off the ground.
The real Tai Chi skills are the body skills and jin manipulation skills, and the level that the kids can do them seems very much related to their analytic ability. I would say about a quarter of the kids is are able to grasp to an extent what is suppose to be going on inside when they do Tai Chi and can express some kind of jin skill to some degree. Most of them know that some thing is going on, even if they cant work out how to do it. As for the rest, maybe they will get it over time, after all they are all very young.
On the other hand there will always be some people who won't reach the higher levels. There are some people in the village who would be masters elsewhere who are just considered so so because they haven't got much jin skills. There is a very high level of understanding in the general village population of what real Tai Chi is, a higher level than in the general Tai Chi community in China. There are more Tai Chi masters in this village of 2500 people than there are in most cites, in China or otherwise, with populations of 5 Million.