Luce Condamine : Fernando, I was delighted to meet you in Jasnieres where I really liked your approach to Tui Shou. You are Argentinean, and you spend some of your time teaching in Europe. How did Taijiquan come into your life? Who were your teachers?
Fernando Chedel : Taijiquan or Tui Shou, it’s the same thing, which one could categorize under the words “form and function”: the postures are the form, and pushing hands is a function
Taijiquan came into my life a little “accidentally”: I was studying physics at university, but then there was some political unrest, so I had to stop for a while… and because I had always wanted to do a martial art, I started studying Karate under Jorge Casella. This teacher was already a good fighter. And I did Yoga to provide a balanced training. One day he introduced a Chinese master to us, Ma Tsun-Kuen. First I said to myself, “What’s this then, another martial art?”, but when I saw this master, the way he could control us with two fingers (he was already aged 67, and my teacher was very skilled and a whole lot younger), then I said to myself “That’s what I want to do!”. I had to work really hard, because he had only a small group of students and they had started before me. But in a way it seemed easy to learn this martial art, because everything seemed very natural… There wasn’t so much emphasis on learning the postures, and I soon felt more “comfortable”: this went straight to the inside, it was as if there weren’t any “barriers”. It was more difficult to cultivate relaxation and to learn the names of the postures in Chinese…
To begin with my Master didn’t really want to teach, but the Chinese ambassador in Argentina told him he had to help spread Chinese culture. But after one and half years he no longer wished to continue teaching. Despite this we continued to train (often more than 6 hours a day) and we visited him regularly to get his advice (together with my old Karate teacher). After three and half years he told us he would accept us as students; it was like “entering the family”, without a particular Taoist ceremony, it wasn’t as strict as in purely Chinese circles, I think; he was also open to our Western culture, and the relationship was somewhere between these two poles. This relationship required a great commitment on our part, he became like our “father” and we felt obliged to him in certain ways. We really felt that he was teaching us from the heart, and thus we responded equally with our hearts.
So we set up a school (which allowed us to train with partners, important for practice and for learning), and he visited us once a month to see the class. I studied with him for 20 years, from March 197
3 to March 1993, the time he died. If you were to compare abilities… Well, I’m still very “little”, but I did have the time to learn something of the “internals”, and I continue to grow and to teach myself…
LC : Had you practiced other martial arts?
FC : Just a little Judo / Jujitsu, and one year of Karate before starting with Taijiquan. Then we tried to do the defensive movements of Taijiquan against Karate attacks. And this training was quite hard… To begin with we used Taijiquan defensively in “friendly fights”, and then after a while we were able to use Taijiquan offensively. We always continued to “exchange” with other exponents (other Kung Fu styles, Karate, Tae Kwon Do…) because if we want to know whether our training is good there is only one method: and that’s to test it.
LC : What was the best teaching you received from your Master?
FC : His best teaching was to permit me to touch him: in this way you realize that it really is possible to do something easily without using force. If you just read books then you don’t believe it, you don’t know if it’s really possible… But in physical contact it was so clear, this difference between “normal strength” and the quality of his power, receiving your force like a feather… I was able to believe it because I felt it… I said to myself, “If he can do it, then I can do it too…”.
LC : And now, what do you teach?
FC : A little like my Master: “just Taijiquan”! I spent several months not even knowing the name of what I was learning from him – to begin with we didn’t know it was Taijiquan. We just did it. But nowadays you need to put names on things, so I teach:
◦exercises for softness and relaxation
◦a basic form (which links up the movements, and is symmetrical left and right)
◦a long form
◦a fast form
◦a San Shou form
◦weapon forms: straight sword and sabre
◦Tui Shou, fixed and moving step, with pushes and with strikes
I have divided the school into two branches: one for health, with a type of Qi Gong that isn’t too difficult, no San Shou and just a little Tui Shou to give one a basic idea… and the other branch for Taijiquan as a real martial art, with a complete training programme.
In practice a lot of people simply want exercises for health, so I provide different classes for those who want this kind of easier training and for those who want a real martial training: people who really wish to test the form and the function need to do the applications, to repeat the movements many times and then to apply them when working with partners. My personal preference, I must say, is for teaching the complete martial art.
LC : For you, is there a difference between a martial art and a combat sport?
FC : In my view, there are several different things:
There are combat arts, in which you immediately practice fighting; then there are martial arts, such as Taijiquan, where you first need to learn the principles and techniques before fighting. And then there is sport: this means there are rules, and in particular competition rules, such as in Judo. In Judo, for instance, it used to be the practice of the art that was most important. But with the modern emphasis on weight and strong muscles, the “essence” has in some way been lost because now the most important thing is to score points. You can see the same thing happening in Tui Shou competitions: in fixed-step competition, for instance, where the idea is to score points by making the opponent move his foot, and so in practice the way you make him move his foot isn’t so important! In this way you can end up with movements that are “wrong” in the martial sense. In fact, the ideal would be to allow everything which makes real martial sense. But then you must train cooperatively, otherwise you get serious injuries. So to sum up I don’t teach Tui Shou for tournaments or competitions, I don’t teach Tui Shou where you let yourself be touched: neither as in caressing and cuddling [Kuschelerlebnis] nor as in wrestling. I teach Tui Shou in the sense in boxing, but we use pushes and not strikes (at least to begin with). And progressively we use all the true combat techniques, when we start practicing more strongly and at higher speed. But this training remains “friendly”, of course!
LC : What is specific about Taijiquan? And about your teaching?
FC : Many people think that the specific thing about Taiji is the slowness, but actually the slowness is just a method of learning! Slowness and speed are the two sides of one coin, you can’t really have one without the other…. We practice an art based on the principles of yin and yang, but if you always practice slowly and always with fixed steps, and always stressing relaxation, then you learn only one side and it’s not in balance.
The opposites must work together in Taijiquan, meaning that one must be rooted and at the same time capable of moving one’s position rapidl
y. True relaxation is not a question of softness, in fact it is “the minimum effort required to accomplish a task”. You can compare it to a cat which is about to catch a rat: the exterior seems calm, but on the inside it is ready to spring. Another thing specific to Taiji is that you don’t defend yourself frontally and that you develop your “sensitivity” which allows you to avoid attacks, even strong and fast punches. Taijiquan is an art that is applied at medium and short distance. The one thing that is constant (as in life) is continual change. It’s good Taijiquan when you don’t know, don’t see where it’s coming from!
There are two sources of power: one part is the energy of the opponent which you return to him, and the other part is my own energy: this latter energy is contained in the breathing, in the relaxation, my spirit and of course in the techniques, which have to be perfect. But this doesn’t come from tensing the large muscle masses. You should move more like tentacles, or an elephant’s trunk: there are no bones on the inside, it’s strong without being hard or stiff. We work hard at clearly separating yin and yang (not double weighting in the hands, feet or elsewhere in the body) and then finding a synthesis of these energies. It’s often talked about but not so easy in practice!
This is what characterizes my teaching, which is primarily about how to move in Taijiquan. Even if you want to do fixed-step pushing hands, you need to learn how to move. This is “combat moving”, we apply some basic methods of stepping which of course also exist in other martial arts. But the way we do this can be different. Then there is Fa Jin, which isn’t present in all schools, and our work here is a little different to that in Chen style… Then we also have Qin Na, seizing and controlling, pressing on certain points, etc…. All these are done in a round manner, in the “Tai Chi” way. In the art I pass on, the form postures resemble those of Yang style, but there are more kicks, everything is more direct and more explicit (because in the normal Yang form the techniques are more hidden). But still relaxed, of course. And besides this, knowledge of Taoist principles is contained in the work.
LC : How did your Master gain his Taoist knowledge?
FC : In his case, too, you could call it “coincidence”, or maybe “destiny” would be better: it was during the time when he was governor of a province, during the war against Japan, I think. He had gained much honour and status, but felt the need to change his life… One day, quite unexpectedly, his people brought him an outlandishly-dressed man whom they had arrested because he had a “strange manner”. Actually this person should have been taken to the police, and then Master Ma would never have met him… But for some reason they took him to the governor! And it turned out that this man was an authentic Taoist…. and so my Master became his pupil .
LC : What relations did your Master have with China?
FC : At the end of his life he was planning to return to the land of his ancestors, and I would certainly have travelled with him… To Taiwan and to the mainland of China… but he died before being able to make the journey. Now in China there is a lot of highly standardized official Wu Shu, which more resembles gymnastics than a martial art. But traditional Taiji is still alive…
Everything and everybody has its place and we should develop respect for others…
LC : What are you current projects ?
FC : Continuing the work of my Master and, as part of this task, continuing to build up his school. I have to give others the same opportunity, the same chance, that my Master gave me… I teach in Argentina and also in Europe: Germany, Spain, Bulgaria… And for the last two years in France, too, I have given workshops at the Rencontres Jasnieres: there are high-standard people here, but many participants are more interested in training for tournaments.
LC : There are also exponents who are seeking to progress on the martial way. I would like to organize such a workshop at Paris-Tai Chi if you are willing.
FC : I’d be happy to, and I have time at the start of June. The title will be “Taijiquan / Tui Shou: Form and Function”. It would also be a pleasure for me to return to the land of my ancestors (my grandfather was French)!
LC : To conclude, a few words about your philosophy of life.
FC : For me, the principle question is “who am I?”, and the greatest power is contained in yourself, not in others… I have never been interested in other forms of power, and I have never wanted anything except knowledge… In fact, ever since I was young I have known that knowledge is a means of achieving freedom.
LC : Thank you for the quality of your teaching, not only in Tai Chi but in life in general. You are a little like a Taoist sage, with a free spirit and an open heart.