There are five major Taijiquan styles: Chen (陈式), Yang (楊式), Wu (吴式), Sun (孙式), and Wu (武式, a different Chinese character from the other Wu Style). The two most important styles are often considered to be the Chen Style and the Yang Style. The Chen Style was the original Taijiquan style that gave rise directly or indirectly to all other Taijiquan styles. The Yang Style is the most practiced style in both China and the world today.
All Taijiquan styles share many common characteristics. They include:
- They all originated as a martial art.
- They are all good exercises for health.
- All Taijiquan styles employ slow, soft movements that have low impacts on the body, resulting in Taijiquan being an excellent exercise for people of all ages, including senior citizens.
- They all emphasize that the practitioner must relax his mind and body (all parts) so that he/she can more easily sense the opponent’s intentions and at the same time does not telegraph to the opponent his/her own intentions.
- They all emphasize the importance of constant change so that appropriate counter measures can be taken in response to the opponent’s motion.
- They are all based on the Yin-Yang principle of not opposing an opponent’s force head-on, but utilizing the opponent’s momentum to get him/her off-balance or to counter-attack.
- The upper body is kept essentially erect throughout almost all the forms.
- They all emphasize that the root of martial power is from the feet, and that power is controlled by the waist, and manifested in the hands (fists or fingers).
- Beyond the beginner’s level, all Taijiquan styles emphasize breathing and qigong to build up internal strength.
- They all emphasize using the mind to lead the bodily movements.
Nevertheless, there are some differences between the various Taijiquan styles. In this article, we will provide a brief discussion of the differences between the Chen Style and the Yang Style. There are basically three differences between the Chen Style and the Yang Style: Speed of movement, force of movement, and the “Silk Cocoon Reeling” (纏絲功) feature of the Chen Style.
As previously mentioned, all Taijiquan styles involve slow movements. In the Yang Style, essentially all the movements are basically at one speed, slow. This is not the case in the Chen Style. Even though the Chen Style still mostly involves slow movements, there is a mixture of fast and slow movements. It should be clear to the spectator that the speed is not constant, but fast movements are scattered throughout the form set. For example, in the First Lu (or Form Set) of the Chen Style, about 20% (or roughly 20) of the 83 forms involve some degree of fast movements. Sometimes, it may be only part of a form that is fast, i.e., even within one form, there could be a mixture of fast and slow movements. So some of the roughly 20 forms are not necessarily totally fast, but sometimes only a portion of a form is fast.
Again, as previously mentioned, all Taijiquan styles involve soft movements. In the Yang Style, essentially all the movements are basically soft. This, again, is not the case in the Chen Style. Even though the Chen Style still mostly involves soft movements, there is a mixture of hard and soft movements. Again, it should be clear to the spectator that the force of the movement is not necessarily constantly soft, but hard movements are scattered throughout the form set. For example, in the First Lu of the Chen Style, about 30% (or roughly 25) of the 83 forms involve some degree of hard movements. Just like in the case of fast and slow movements, it may be only part of a form that is hard, i.e., even within one form, there could be a mixture of hard and soft movements. It is important to emphasize that hard and soft as described in this paragraph refer to the external appearance of the form movement. Through Taiji qigong practice, a form movement may appear to be soft externally, but internally it may be very hard.
The third difference between the Chen Style and the Yang Style is the most complex and the most difficult to explain. It is called the “Silk Cocoon Reeling” feature (纏絲功) of the Chen Style. First let me explain a little bit about the name. Although not popularly known today, Silk Cocoon Reeling is an ancient Chinese art (about 5,000 years old) that pulls silk threads from silk worm cocoons (those that came from mulberry trees) to make silk clothing. Pulling the silk threads from a silk worm cocoon is a very delicate process containing two key ingredients. One key ingredient is that the thread must be pulled with a gentle but firm force. If the force is not firm, the silk thread cannot be pulled out from the silk worm cocoon. If the force is not gentle, the thread will break while it is being pulled out. The other key ingredient is that the thread is pulled out in a circular motion because the silk is wound around and around the silk worm cocoon. In terms of Taijiquan, this means that the movements must be gentle and firm, and the movements must be circular. For example, in Taiji Push Hands, when you are executing the Wardoff movement, the arm must expand outward with a force that is firm; otherwise, the opponent’s attacking arm will collapse on you. At the same time, the extending arm cannot be too stiff; otherwise, you will not be able to lead the attacking arm into a trap for a counter-attack, such as a Rollback movement. The circular movements refer to the rotation of the body, not just the arms, but the whole body, especially the waist.
The Silk Cocoon Reeling motion is sometimes referred to as the “screw rotation” motion. An analogy from astronomy is that while the earth is rotating around the sun, the earth is also rotating around its own axis. This means that when the arms are moving in a circular arc motion, each arm is also rotating around an axis along the direction of the arm. Let’s illustrate this concept with a couple of examples. When throwing a punch at an opponent, say a right punch, instead of moving the right arm straight out from the body, the right arm shoots out while rotating counterclockwise (or clockwise depending on whether the fist at its starting position is facing upward or downward) like a screw around an axis along the direction of that arm, and at the same time the waist and the legs (and therefore the body) rotate in a counterclockwise direction so that the right part of the body is also rotating and moving forward toward the opponent. This maximizes the force of the punch because the rotating body provides an additional force to the punch.
Another example is during the Rollback motion while doing Push Hands with the right hand in front, while the right arm is blocking downward and moving backward and the left hand is pulling downward and backward, the right arm is also rotating clockwise around its own axis and the left arm is rotating counterclockwise around its own axis. At the same time, the waist and the legs (and therefore the body and the arms) are rotating counterclockwise. This again maximizes the Rollback force because the rotating body provides an additional force to the Rollback.
One way of describing the Silk Cocoon Reeling motion is to say “when one part of the body moves, the whole body moves.” A strict Chen Stylist may even claim that “since you want your hands and head move as part of the body and not independently, if you move your hand arbitrarily, not following the body well, you are just doing exercise, not really practicing Taijiquan.” One of my Chen Style teachers has repeatedly emphasized to us that when we do the Rollback motion as described in the previous paragraph, besides the rotation of each arm around its own axis, the arms are just following the rotation of the waist in moving through their circular arc motion. In other words, it is the waist or body that moves, since the arms are attached to the body, the arms therefore also move. The screw rotation motion is such an integral part of the Chen Style that some degree of it is manifested in most of the 83 forms of the First Lu.
When applied as a martial art, Taijiquan does not always implement its actions in a slow and soft way, although it always delivers them in a relaxed way. Because of the mixture of fast and slow movements, and hard and soft movements, Chen Style Taijiquan may be considered to be closer to its actual usage as a martial art. However, one should not conclude that a Chen Stylist is always a better martial artist than a Yang Stylist. My own personal opinion is that how one perfects the skills is probably far more important than the particular style one deploys. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, a form that appears to be soft externally may be very hard internally.
In summary, there are three major differences between the Chen Style and the Yang Style. The Chen Style has a mixture of fast and slow movements, a mixture of hard and soft movements, and frequently exhibits the Silk Cocoon Reeling motion (also called the screw rotation motion). As one of my Chen Style teachers told us, if you are practicing Chen Style Taijiquan correctly, then a knowledgeable spectator should recognize that you are practicing Chen Style Taijiquan without your telling the spectator so.
For anyone who has experienced only Yang Style Taijiquan, I highly recommend taking some lessons in Chen Style Taijiquan.
 For a discussion of Taiji Push Hands and the Wardoff movement, see the article “The Essence of Taijiquan – Part 1: Perspective from Taiji Push Hands“.
 See the reference in Footnote #2 for a discussion of the Rollback movement.