Spiralling or coiling movements coordinated from and together with the (lower) dantian is called silk reeling (chansijin, 纏絲精) in Chen style Tai Chi Chuan. This method of body coordination though might not be as unique as some people claim.
But is the term even something specific to Chen style, was it coined the first time in the Chen village? And then there’s another, following question: Why the name of reeling silk? Why not naming this body movement after something much more obvious and common, as the dragon or the snake? How did someone get the idea to name it after collecting a thin thread from a little bug?
Well, I suppose that you have heard about that silk is something they make in China. But shouldn’t there be some kind of connection between silk and Tai Chi, or maybe some connection between making silk or silk clothes and the Chen family? You might be surprised that there’s something tangible here. There’s a certain relationship. If you are interested in Chinese culture and history, I suggest you should keep on reading. As a hint, I will tell you that there might be an Indian Boddhisattva called Aśvaghoṣa that could the very reason for the name of silk reeling. Are you surprised?
On silk reeling in Chen style Tai Chi Chuan
But let us start from the beginning and try to create a consensus on what silk reeling means in Chen Tai Chi Chuan. There’s no other Tai Chi style than Chen style that makes such emphasise on the coiling quality of body movements or defines it as detailed as Chen style. Today silk reeling energy, or chansijin, is mostly known as a set of exercises that will teach especially beginners how to coordinate the dantian and limbs through whole-body spiralling movements. Those drills, well known by those who practice the Chen village, was originally created by Chen village head Chen Xiaowang on the request of the government as they wanted to standardise Chen Tai Chi by using Chen village Tai Chi teachers. Other teachers developed their own sets and variations.
This Chen style term, Chansijin, was introduced to the larger Tai Chi community by Chen Xin in his book Illustrated Explanations of Chen Family Taijiquan, which was the first book on Chen Style, which was a book based on small frame Chen style. However, the book was edited and published posthumously. Chen Xin had in fact not at all intended to write a book specifically about Chen Tai Chi or small frame Chen tai chi. Instead, he wanted to write a general book about Chinese thought and cosmology in Tai Chi Chuan and related arts from a general philosophical perspective.
What Chen Xin described is not a specific movement. Originally, I would presume that Chen Xi described a more general principle. What he wrote is that “Silk reeling is all over the body”. (Maybe it would be appropriate to compare silk reeling with Baguazhang’s whole body spiraling and coiling, though Chen style does not do it as explicit and extreme as in much Bagua.)
So to understand what the original meaning of silk-reeling actually was, we should not associate this term too much with a specific single hand or double hand exercises in the Chen style practice of today, but a more general body movement, a coiling, spiralling movement of, and coordinated by, the whole body. Or as Chen Chenglei put it:
“”What is Chen Style Silk Reeling Energy? The requirement of the entire routine is that there is no flat surface, there is no straight line, no broken links or points [in the energy line], the whole body is round [and] it moves in arcs and spirals.” Whether it is the hand, the leg, the waist, the body, whatever, it moves in spirals, […] So, the whole body is a spiral.”
On the Chen village and trading silk
So now the real question is: From where does this name come from? The analogy of silk reeling is very clear and precise. In silk production, the silk threads are pulled out from the cocoon and wrapped in a circular manner around a rack. When you hear the description, or watch someone actually do this, the analogy becomes apparent. But still, why does someone come to think about reeling silk from a silk cocoon? In other styles, the movements of the spine especially is often compared to the dragon’s body. How did someone even come to think about silk?
To answer this question we need some background. First, many people believe that Chenjiagou village is the birthplace of Taijiquan. Even if there is maybe an equal amount of evidence to suggest otherwise, Chenjiagou and the Chen family certainly is still a very important place for the development of what today is called Tai Chi Chuan or Taijiquan. The actual geographical location and local culture has something to do with how Tai Chi, and especially Chen style of Tai Chi Chuan, took shape and how it is perceived today.
The distances in China are great. Some people would say that the Chen village lies in the middle of nowhere though it’s said that it lies close to the Shaolin temple. In fact, it takes more than eight hours to drive between those two places. The fastest way is by fast train which takes about five hours. So it’s still a bit of distance. Close or long are both relative and subjective terms.
What we need to know, is that the Chenjiagou village lies close (and as said above, it depends on what you mean by close) to the classical Silk Road. Silk was was a hard currency in the old days, something both sold and bought, as well as traded with. Luoyang is a city that was very well well known for its production of silk and silk trading is a great part of its history. The Chen Village is located between the cities of Luoyang and Zhengzhou, which was two of the biggest and most important trading cities, though the silk road never reached Zhengzhou. Chenjiagou lies east of Luoyang, near a place where the silk road split into two directions: One to Beijing and one to Shanghai. Compared to the distance to Louyang, the Chen village lies even closer to Zhengzhou, very close actually, and to the east of Chenjiagou.
Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan where the Shaolin Temple is located, was also an important trading center and lies close to the road that leads the silk road from Xi’an towards Shanghai. Though the silk road itself never crossed Zhengzhou, in the latest few years, China has developed a new silk road, with this very city of Zhengzhou, a city also known as the cradle of civilisation, as the very center of the new silk trade.
The silk road
(Take look at the place to the East or right, after Xi’an where the road divides. The Chen village is located close to this point. )
On the Buddhist influence in Chen Tai Chi Chuan
The silk road, with all of its merchants trading from and to India and the Middle East, also means that a lot of Buddhists came into China by travelling the same roads. Luoyang for instance had a very early meeting with Buddhism and was an important place for the development of Chinese Buddhism. Here in Luoyang, you’ll find things as the famous Buddhist Longmen caves. And all around these roads there are a lot of Buddhist temples.
Many believe that Chenjiagou always has been a very poor village. But this is far from the truth. Before the cultural revolution, throughout centuries, the Chen village had a lot of big mansions and was inhabited by very wealthy land owners. And also, there were many buddhist temples around this area. But most of this, both the mansions and the temples, was destroyed in the cultural revolution and the land owners were replaced with common peasants.
To conclude the geographical information so we can start looking into the interesting part of the equation: in this large area where the Chen village is located, we have two very prevalent things: Buddhism and silk. But I will tell you this: there’s a fundamental problem with this picture, combining Buddhism and silk.
Do you see where the problem lies? There’s a problem because Buddhism teaches that you should not kill. But producing silk means killing silkworms. If you already didn’t know this, boiling water is poured over the silkworms, so that the fine silk threads can be pulled gently out from the cocoons.
Solving the ethical problem with silk production
So how do you actually solve this problem? In an area where buddhism had a great influence on the local population, how can you produce and trade with silk? Well, it’s here where the Boddhisattva I mentioned in the beginning of the texts come into the picture, Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa, or Maming Pusa (馬鳴菩薩傳), in Chinese.
Already a long time before Buddhism in ancient times, rites and ceremonies were prevalent to to keep the worms in good health and produce silk of high quality. Daoism and local folk religion, was mixed into silk production.
The earliest written evidence of sericulture in China includes invocations of a certain ‘‘silkworm deity’’ (canshen 蠶神), as seen in oracle bone records dating to the Shang 商 period (c. 1600–1100 BCE).6 Over the centuries this canshen would be associated with various semi-mythic figures, patron saints of sorts, who were seen to have played important roles in the development of sericulture. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) the ‘‘silkworm deity’’ was identified with a legendary ‘‘first sericulturist’’ (xiancan 先蠶), also known as either Lady Yuanyu 菀窳 or Princess Yu 寓, and imperial sacrifices were made in her honor before the first ceremonial feeding of the imperial silkworms.
Source: “An Indian Silkworm God in China“
As Buddhism came to China, the very process of killing silkworms became an ethical problem. Therefore, much of earlier Daoist mythology was gradually replaced by Buddhist rituals and sacrifices to Boddhisatvas. The Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa was not only known as a sericulture deity in both China and Japan, but in China Aśvaghoṣa became known as the Silk God, the most important diety for anyone who handled and traded with silk.
The ethical aspects of silk making became more in focus than ever before as Buddhism entered China. People prayed to the Silk God and performed rituals to get his permission to produce silk. How to nurture the worms, and to keep them healthy became more important as ever, as well as making sure that they produced as much silk as possible. In production of silk-ware and clothes, wasting silk was looked upon as a sin and everyone tried to make sure that no silk should be wasted. Not even one silk worm should be unnecessarily killed.
The famous Longmen caves in Luoyang. Here you can see Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa, known as the Silkworm God.
Tracing the name “silk-reeling”
Now, I don’t believe that the name of “silk reeling”, or “silk-reeling energy” was something invented by any Tai Chi specialist or that it was originally a Chen style Tai Chi concept. Rather it should have been adapted from a Shaolin Changquan art, a Long-fist style. As the Chen family practice several Shaolin Chanquan arts as well as Tongbeiquan, Chen Tai Chi has a lot of influence from these arts. And again, this is another thing that suggests the Buddhist influence of the area of the Chen village, or what is today called Chenjiagou. Because some Shaolin styles have taken names from Buddhist practice and was practiced mostly by Buddhists. And again, some of these traditions were exact what was practiced by the Chen family.
To trace the name “Silk-reeling” in Chen family boxing, we need to trace the whole exercise as well. What I got to know quite recently, is something that makes the puzzle fit all together, namely that exact movements of what is taught today in Chen Tai Chi as silk-reeling exercises is identical to what is taught as Chanyuangong 禅圆功 in Shaolin arts. Mostly, this exercise is connected to “softer” or more internal Shaolin arts, as Rouquan (Soft fist/boxing). Sal Canzonieri, who has studied the links between Shaolin arts and Chen Tai Chi Chuan kindly showed me the simple movements, or drills, of Chanyuangong. All of them are remarkable close to Tai Chi Chuan movements and Chen silk reeling drills. In my own opinion, it’s absolutely clear that these much earlier developed drills have a very strong connection to both silk-reeling exercises and Tai Chi practice in general. (For more information about the relationships between Shaolin arts and Tai Chi Chuan, read Mr. Canzonieri’s articles or take a look at his book: The Hidden History of the Chinese Internal Martial Arts )
But this is not all, according to Mr. Canzonieri who has made extensive research into these arts, noticed that in some dialects, Chanyuangong is pronounced exactly as Chansigong. The “Chan” in Chanyuangong is the same character as Chan in Chan Buddhism, or “Zen” in japanese, and today the character is pronounced exactly as the Chan that means twisting or coiling. In Mandarin or Putonghua it’s even pronounced with the exact same tone. But also the two first characters in Chanyuangong, Chanyuan, 禅圆 is the exact same pronunciation as 纏圆, which means coiling circularity, or circular coiling, as in spiralling. So somehow, the name of the exercise Chanyuangong was understood as “coiling gong”, or “coiling exercises”. This might has been transferred to Chen family martial arts and changed to Chansi gong by a dialectal influence. If this change happened before the exercise was brought to the Chenjiagou or afterwards is a question that needs more study.
The direct influence from both Shaolin arts and Buddhism in Chen Tai Chi should not be hard to understand as the Chen village lies close to the highly Buddhist city of Zhengzhou where the Shaolin temple is located. Local Buddhist rites and exercises could be traced in Shaolin arts residing there. Chen style’s strong connections to this city and local Shaolin arts can not be disputed. As an example we can mention a Shaolin art called Xiequan which you find in Zhengzhou and has a history of at least 400 years. This art does not only follow the same sequence of movements found in Chen style Tai Chi, but it also has “the missing pieces”, the exact movements that are missing in the other four big Tai Chi styles. (Source: Calzoniere, see links above. Or take a look at a list of Xiequan movements in this forum thread created by the same person. )
There might be many different connections between Shaolin exercises and Buddhist rituals. But in this case, body coiling exercises does have some connection with the rituals for worshipping the Silk God, Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa.
But there is more that connects these rituals to not only silk-reeling exercises, but to Tai Chi Chuan in general. There’s a very strong symbolism in the Buddhist Silk God rituals that is occurrent in Tai Chi Chuan as well. If you examine the names of the Tai Chi movements, whether they come directly from earlier Shaolin arts or developed later, at least many of them have a relationship to the symbolism of the silk rituals. Especially horses was something that has always been associated with silkworms. Even the Chinese name of the Silk God, Maming, has the character of horse in the name.
The compiler of the Record of the Search for the Supernormal attempts to explain this association through a number of astro-, cosmo-, and ontological links between the silkworm and horse, offering rather opaquely that ‘‘chen is the horse star’’ 辰為馬星 constellation and that when the moon is in ‘‘great fire’’ 大火 silkworms must be culled and graded.
Source: For a Compassionate Killing: Chinese Buddhism, Sericulture, and the Silkworm God
The Horse Star, also known as the “heavenly team of four horses.’’ refers to a constellation of stars the farmers looked after. It represents the time in the year when the sericulture season began. And the season usually started by culling and grading of newly hatched silkworm larvae. Throughout history, the association between horses and silkworms resulted in many stories and myths. One of many results is a mythological figure, the Horse-head maiden that is worshipped even now today, in the present day China in its silk producing regions.
To give you a more direct example of this connection to silkworms analogies in Tai Chi Chuan: Maybe you have asked yourself why the Tai Chi movement of “Yema fen zong” or “Parting the wild horse’s mane” looks nothing as combing a mane (which you hardly do one a wild horse) or a wild horse shaking its mane? One of my teachers thought that the name had gone through some changes, and that the original meaning of the name was: pulling two horses apart by using their manes. This explain the physical action much better. But if you look at silk production, you will notice that this physical action of this very Tai Chi movement is practically identical to the movement you use to pull the silk threads out of the cocoon. So the name of the Tai Chi movement “Yema fen zong” might in fact have started out as an analogy used in silk production.
The art of Xiequan mentioned above also has the movement with the same name: Yema fen zong or “parting the wild horses mane”. But here, it is really performed much more as the same way you would pull two horses apart. The Chen style version is much closer to the movement in Xiequan than to the Yang Tai Chi variation. The Yang style movement should have been taken from Hongquan, a Shaolin Long Fist art that Yang style founder Yang Luchan was very well versed in even before he started studying Chen family boxing.
Painting lines as pulling silk
However, the correlation between actual silk reeling as in the production of silk and Shaolin might be still more complex. There should be an influence from Buddhist rites via older Shaolin traditions, which some things indeed point at. Still, there could be a another, a direct influence, into Tai Chi Chuan coming from elsewhere, as silk analogies are to be found everywhere in Chinese culture. They are in fact quite common. In Yang style Tai Chi Chuan, the expression silk reeling or “Chansijin” is not used, but there is another related term, “pulling silk” , or Chousi, which is used to describe a perfectly even movement performed at the same pace without interruption.
But the same expression is used in Chinese calligraphy and painting as well. “Pulling silk” is indeed a very good description of how you need to handle your brush, as well as your own body, when you make a brush stroke using Chinese ink on rice paper. (Or on silk, which was actually used to paint on even before rice paper was invented.) Chinese calligraphy needs an incredible amount of control and sensitivity, which is something you need to experience yourself and can hardly be believed watching those calligraphy masters.
Two early artists from the Tang dynasty (618-906) Gu Kaizi and Wu Daozi, developed two very different styles of making lines. Their way of using lines were completely opposite to each other. The first used “very fine but tough lines that seem to float without breaking, called “floating silk-thread lines” and the other using strong “iron wire lines” to impart a sense of muscle mass and energy to his figures.” (source: Brushstrokes: Styles and Techniques of Chinese Painting )
If the second description rings a bell, you have probably heard it before. Iron wire, or maybe Iron “thread” would be an even better translation, is the exact same expression found in the Southern Kung Fu style of Hung Gar uses as a name for the most important form, the original Hung Gar Form, the Iron Wire set or Tit Sin Kuen. It is most likely that both of these two old and throughout history very well known expressions, describing famous line styles in painting, were adapted into Shaolin arts to describe two different types of body movement. And later, at least one of these names, followed the spread of Chinese Martial Arts and was integrated into so called Hakka styles of martial arts and Hung Gar Kuen.
Ink lines or a semi-God – What had most influence?
What has had the most influence on Chen style Tai Chi Chuan: Buddhist rites or Calligraphy? This a matter of what social class you believe that the art was born in. If we speak in terms of Buddhism, we should consider the influence of Buddhism in Shaolin rather than in Tai Chi. But if we speak of other arts, as Calligraphy or painting, there might be a more direct influence.
Merely by examining the names and analogies that are common in Shaolin and Chen family martial arts, we can rule out that a lower, illiterate class could have anything to do with the development of Tai Chi Chuan. Therefore we can also exclude that it was created through performance and theatre traditions, which is a quite common belief and theory of today. It is much more likely that the development started in higher and middle classes through a mix of religious traditions, martial arts and exercises that was common in literati classes.
But the silk trade itself is also something interesting to take into the equation of the development of Tai Chi Chuan, as several Chen Masters, including Yang style creator Yang Luchan‘s teacher Chen Changxing in fact worked as body guards. The geographical location of Chenjiagou, not very far to the point were the silk road splits into the roads to Beijing and Shanghai, was an ideal place for body guards and security personnel. They protected the roads and the merchants and were of utmost importance to maintain safety on those roads.
In my own opinion there is no reliable source that suggests that the Chen family had anything to do with the original invention of Tai Chi Chuan. However If Tai Chi Chuan started to develop much earlier in history than the years of Chen Wangting, it is still likely that the martial art system was fully developed through a higher class family or in an upper middle class, and that it was something kept there as a family style for a long time. Regardless where it originated and when it started, the development in a higher class should be the very reason why the art of Tai Chi Chuan started to become publicly known and practiced very late, and first in the early 20th century. (Please also keep in mind that the name itself, Tai Chi Chuan, is a modern, 20th century name.) I would also suggest that influence of Buddhism and Shaolin happened several times. But if a direct Buddhist influence occurred after Tai Chi Chuan already had taken shape as a Martal Art system, this should have happened quite late in history.
I won’t offer any absolute conclusions, which might leave you with a feeling of not being perfectly satisfied. Most people want to find out an inventor or who started the art of Tai Chi. The most truthful answer is a dissatisfactory one. Tai Chi Chuan is too complex, it could not possibly have been developed by one or even a few people. Instead it developed gradually throughout the centuries, through very complex events and it is an art that represents a fusion of many different traditions.
However, if you want to believe that Taijiquan was solely created by the Chen family in the village of Chenjiagou, which lies in a Buddhist area of China, then you might need to accept that Tai Chi Chuan is likely a much more Buddhist art than a Daoist one. And when you practice your Chen Tai Chi and silk reeling exercises (or a form, which integrates the silk reeling movements), you should be aware that you are in fact, performing a spiritual ritual meant to worship the silk God, Boddhisattva Aśvaghoṣa.
(F.Y.I, if you didn’t get it, that last thing was meant a joke.)
©David Roth-Lindberg 2020