Gianfranco Pace is based in Catania, Sicily where he runs his International Taijiquan KungFu Association, offering intensive taijiquan training, in full curriculum taijiquan, in the traditional way of total immersion in all aspects of the art.
The interview was conducted by Ronnie Robinson, Editor of Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts Magazine.
I first encountered Gianfranco Pace when we were both teaching at the Taijiquan & Qigong Federation for Europe’s Congress/Forum in his native Italy in 2011. During a heatwave of 36C I heard rumours of an air-conditioned room and rushed to find that the best spot was occupied by Gianfranco and his considerably larger group; he teaching applications, me qigong. Being the gentleman he was he offered to exchange workspace, which I declined and set about my teaching.
After some 5 minutes I lost concentration in my work being totally transfixed by his fluid quality of movement, softness and delicacy, coupled with his exceptional in skill displacing larger opponents who were not his ‘set up’ students.
Sometime later, through a translator, I expressed my regards for what I’d seen and we chatted a little more. From these short moments I established that not only was he an exceptionally skilled practitioner, but also a gentleman who was confident yet humble.
Through time I invited him to teach at 2012’s Tai Chi Caledonia which allowed me the opportunity of getting to know him a little more and thereby to arrange this interview.
Let’s begin by looking at your introduction to Taijiquan and/or martial arts in general: what came first, and what attracted you to these arts?
I started practising martial arts when I was little more than an adolescent; I was attracted by many oriental arts but kung fu held a particular fascination for me. The first school I joined didn’t have a very clear kung fu style, but it did offer very hard training. However, after a few months I read a book about a soft kung fu style where muscular strength was substituted by internal energy, where sensitivity and yielding made it possible for ‘the weak to overcome the strong’.
Around that time a Bagua Master (who had been a student of the famous Master Wang Sonfei) called Zhang Du Gan visited our school and I asked him if he knew a Taiji Master. He told me that a student of his friend, Liu Chang Ping could help me. He wrote a letter of introduction, which I personally brought to the man who ultimately became my first and most important Taiji Master, Shi Rong Hua. At that time Shi Rong was little more than a boy, who had come from China to work in his sister’s restaurant. He was a very good Chen style trainee, but he didn’t have any intention of teaching. However, because of the friendship between Zhang Du Gan and Liu Chang Ping, he couldn’t refuse my request. Training with him was not easy and there were many problems to resolve; I had to travel around 300 km to reach him, using poor public transport, at a time when I also had little money but I was able to involve three other trainees, so we divided up the travel costs. However they only came for two lessons, because they found the training very hard and boring. I remember that after 1 hour of Horse Standing he started to teach me the opening moves of the hand form.
I made the 300km journey every Sunday morning and I returned home every Sunday night – all for only three very hard lessons. Over the course of three years, In addition to Horse Standing I also learned the first four figures of Xinjia and gained considerable experience in pushing hands.
Year on year my respect and friendship for Shi Rong grew and I trained with him constantly for over ten years. He give me a clear way of teaching and I went on to gain further learning experience in both Europe and China, where I trained at the home of Chen Taijiquan, Chenjiagou, whilst maintaining my connection with my original teacher.
From that early training ‘Principles’ became my true Masters. I also worked with some good Masters, some famous and well-known, who gave me good training advice but they never became my true masters.
So my first martial art was Chen style Taijiquan which I have now studied for about 25 years.
Did you try any other styles before ultimately settling on Chen?
I attended some one or two-day workshops with Yang and Sun style Masters, out of curiosity, just to compare styles, but I never have trained in any other Taijiquan styles.
How do you feel about the general quality of taijiquan that is taught and practised in the various European countries?
Today Taijiquan is practised for many reasons: a soft exercise, a healthy, energetic activity, a philosophical practice, sport, martial art, or often as a combination of these. This is the wealth of Taijiquan everybody can find something and this is great but it also often means that many European Taijiquan teachers are focused only on one aspect. I started my Taijiquan practice in order to study a martial art, and I didn’t know how much more there was, but today I’ve also become interested in the many different ways in which this art can be applied and this drives me to a constant personal practise.
However, in my opinion Taijiquan has to be trained as a martial art – and it’s a martial art which offers a rich pool of aspects for individual growth.
I’m happy about the wide diffusion of Taijiquan in Europe, but I’m less happy about the general level of teaching, according to my personal perception of what Taijiquan actually is.
What advice would you offer to someone who wanted to train in Taijiquan as an effective martial art?
The first step would be to find a Taijiquan master who has effective competence. It’s not sufficient just to talk about Taijiquan as a fearful martial art, their skills must be able to be put into action, with effective application in partner-work, which must also go beyond just pushing hands. My advice is to follow a complete and clear program which enables the student’s step by step progress, first in a clear comprehension of the style’s particular features, and then in the clear training of these features. The didactics; fundamental exercises, forms, partner-work training must all have a uniquely clear conductor wire, a clear central thread which enables the student to increase their energy and develop their awareness. If you want to study Taijiquan as a martial art you must ensure that your teacher is available to work with you in every fighting context, not only with trials or with set-up techniques but also in a free context. This is the only way in which you can really test the ability of your teacher. This is very important because Taijiquan skills are transmitted and acquired through the ‘sincere touch’, and in this way the Master’s skills are passed on the student. It’s also obvious that in addition to that, the teacher has to be able to train the student in all of the fields of practice.
How do you feel Taijiquan can stand up against other martial systems?
Taijiquan has a huge sphere of activity, a big range of methods of application. There are infinite reasons for its practise. Although it is a complete discipline (more so than most common fighting sports) if Taijiquan wants to obtain the respect of other martial arts, it has to be able to effectively demonstrate effective martial application capabilities. Far too often the main aspects we see demonstrated relate to pushing tests, which of course are very limiting. In my school a number of different methods of fighting are studied. Young people who have an interest, have an opportunity to test themselves, in official matches in Boxing, Sanda, and different Kick Boxing techniques, K1, and in traditional Kung Fu matches. With every victory, respect grows for Taijiquan as a martial art – a realistic fighting art capable of adapting to any kind of match regulation. In these areas Taijiquan (which I’ve described above) is often not very well known, and the few people who do know it, believe it is an exercise for old people. Street-fight training is also provided in our school. I can understand that some readers may think: “But this is not Taijiquan.” However, in my opinion we should concentrate on what Taijiquan is, in its martial application, without worrying about what isn’t Taijiquan. Only in this way is growth possible, trying, verifying and revising. I’d like to underline that all of what I’ve said above must be founded on traditional work, through the study of essential, basic, style fundamentals which need to be built before, and cultivated beyond, the fighting.
As for Tui Shou Tournaments, I believe they contribute to Taijiquan martial training, underlining the student’s level. My school has taken part in only a few Tui Shou competitions because there have been only a few competitions around, so it’s not been easy to gain a true comparison. However there are now more competitions going on around Europe, but with the current economic situation it’s not so easy for young people to travel to them.
How important to do feel it is for practitioners to study the Taiji Classics or other related texts?
I believe it is fundamental. To understand Taijiquan theory means to understand its essence. Its study provides clear guidelines to practise and the deeper one comprehends the Classics, the deeper the level of practise will become. Personally I prefer to explain and to deepen my student’s understanding of the Classics during my practical lessons, whilst working on both fundamentals, and form, or through partner-work. Whenever it’s appropriate I refer to the Classics when teaching.
This is only one way, and obviously there are other ways, but I prefer this method because often I encounter people who want to understand them more with the head but less with the belly…
Do you have a view on the overall purpose of Taijiquan?
Taijiquan practice is harmony research. It permits us to understand the harmonisation of opposites to such an extent that it’s possible to acquire the ability to solve difficult problems by looking at unbalance. The more we concentrate on the harmony, knowing its mechanisms, the more we are able to manage when there are failures. Life is ‘unbalanced’. This understanding is better achieved through personal experience, developing knowledge and skills – it’s not enough to just rationally understand, it’s necessary to ‘digest the principle’ through the practice. With this, I believe Taijiquan can help us to live a better life.
Can you provide an outline of your training regime, personally and for your students?
In the time I have strengthened my practise, I’ve taught each part of the program as ordinate teaching moments, in this way I was able to practise every day each fundamental part of the program. In the morning I start with a Qigong system which allows me to focus my mind on the different aspects (or elements) involved in the movement: Static exercises in the search of releasing/rooting, alternate to exercises of expansion, swing, spiral movements, single point movements… In conclusion, I study and practise the fundamentals. I continue with form practise. I don’t practise every form of the system, every day, but I concentrate on Laojia line or Xinjia line with cycles that vary from 3 to 5 years. I find this more useful for my personal practice and also for systemising things for my students. I say always to my students that we practise Laojia in order to be released, natural and open, and we practise Xinjia in order to be sharp, spiralling and powerful. In fact all these elements must be continually present, but it can be useful to focus your practice by varying the structures, in order to obtain better and clearer results. The morning lesson ends with partner-work, which can vary day-by-day or week-by-week. For instance, for a period we practise fixed-step tui shou, and for another period we practise moving step, we practise fighting with protection or without, we focus on projections or on aspects such as sensitivity, coming in the opponent’s space or on the principle of ‘to seem far but to be close’ and vice-versa… so we’re training partner-work over 360 degrees. Generally the morning lesson lasts three hours. After training I like (and I believe it is important) to relax and rest. In the evening the lesson lasts about 2.5 hours, starting with partner-work, which is normally more intense than the morning sessions. This work is followed by more refined or ‘Sharper’ work in the latter part of the evening sessions. In some way this is the opposite of the morning practice, where we the practise the forms, or very soft pushing hands. However the main focus is still on relaxation, and deep listening to ourselves (solo exercises) or our partner. In our school we also gain a lot of energy from our visiting students, many of whom come from far away, staying for periods of between 5 to 15 days. We also have local students who attend the weekly classes. Outwith the normal classes, there are always students who meet at the school in order to study together. A couple of mornings per week I practise alone and at the weekends I teach and practise for 10/12 hours. I like to repeat the saying that we need to practise like a wolf, in a pack, and like a tiger, alone. Obviously my students work and study so they have less time, but many of them are able to practise daily for two or three hours with more intensive practise at the weekends, which I’m very happy and proud of.
I know you work a lot with children, how do you manage to engage them in these arts and what age do you think it is good for them to start Taijiquan?
Children are sponges and they learn by imitating things so they don’t need so many explanations. In 2003 I created a technical program for children called ‘Chenjiagou’s Kung Fu’. With this program, in addition to training loosening and strengthening exercises which makes them more agile and elastic, we also train the fundamentals of Chen style through the basic work of punches, kicks, projections and so on. They also learn short forms, which are extracted from standard Pao Cui forms. I have found that this way of working is stimulating for the children, who get more involved and never get bored. We have created ma ny courses to train teachers in this system both throughout Italy and also in Spain, with many requests coming from other countries too. I think it’s essential to have a technical program that is clear and progressive in these subjects. This is important generally, but particularly for younger people. I believe so much in teacher training because their didactic and technical qualification is essential for the correct diffusion of Taijiquan. To be able to transmit the art to younger people ensures, a higher Taijiquan ability level in the close future. In my experience children can start at around 5-6 years old and if the teacher is competent he can use the right parts of the program that enable him to communicate with students of that age. In the time many adult students have asked more and more to study some parts of our ‘Kung Fu di Chenjiagou’ program, especially the study of basic dynamics of punches, kicks, knees or elbows hits etc. This indicates to me, that many teachers have an incomplete Taijiquan training system, where some subjects are completely neglected. We have to wish for the on-going continuance of our art so that Taijiquan will find more and more approval, even amongst younger people.
Are you able to provide 10 key essential points for training?
1. Choose a Taijiquan style that is congenial to you.
2. Choose a teacher, a school and follow it with respect, devotion and with due care and attention.
3. Know the basic principles of Taijiquan in general and of the chosen style in particular.
4. Practise with sincerity and without approximation.
5. Be disciplined in the practice.
6. Have a clear view of the progression in the study subjects.
7. Periodically research everything you do: (forms, couple exercises, etc. etc.), ensuring to apply the same essential principles in your training.
8. Regularly compare yourself.
9. Don’t get too focused on achieving results and don’t become obsessed with results to be achieved.
10. Regularly review and verify the choices you’ve made, about your teacher, your school and your personal practice.
I know you also have a lot of girls and women in your class, do you train them differently from the boys and men and do they have differing goals or interests in the training?
During a normal morning of study/practise there are many different classes, and some of these include older women and men. These students like to practise Taijiquan for health/energetic reasons and the teaching we provide tends to satisfy these requirements. I believe that it’s normal, because older people are naturally more interested in this aspect of Taijiquan. However, in my opinion this single-minded vision of Taijiquan is very misleading and creates a single side of what is a very complete and multi-sided practice. In my school the different courses are constructed to allow every student to find what it is they really need, hence we offer different courses that have different starting points; mature (experienced) students have the possibility to practise in different courses all the aspects of the art. For this reason we created a programme we call ‘the five areas of study or interest’: Qi Gong, ‘Classic’ Taijiquan, Chenjiagou Kung Fu, TSD (Taijiquan Self Defence) System, Taiji Match. At the initial stages students, women and men, come to Taijiquan and practise in the ‘area of interest’ that they find more congenial, but after that the school stimulates them to go across the other areas. This stimulates them to have a more complete vision of the art. Hence, in order to summarize, I don’t teach to women any differently from men, and I believe generally that it isn’t possible to a differentiate their objectives. Generally the difference in the approach of the students who attend courses in my school come from their vision of Taijiquan, from their interests, ambitions and other things. It’s like coming in a room from different doors: the directions are different, but the room is the same.
What are the most common errors that you see that inhibit the learning process in students?
In my experience the most common errors concern their own approach to practise and their lack of discipline in following a systematic order of progression in their study. Many times a student’s approach to study, not only with Taijiquan, but also in other disciplines, is done without really thinking about what they are studying. This closes the door to the possibility of developing a clear understanding of the art.
Humility is one of the fundamental elements that students must possess if they really want to reach a high level in the art. They need to be humble from the first day of their training, and the more this characteristic is maintained, the more their practise will be successful. A good Master should display confidence and humility at the same time. With respect to the order of progression in their studies, after ensuring they can work with a teacher who has a valid technical approach to teaching, they need to follow their teachings with due attention, to develop an understanding of both the theory and practice before moving on to other subjects. The Master has a duty to follow the diligent student, and to instruct them in a way that allows them to develop a clear understanding along with the ability to cross obstacles that come up during their training. The student has to also practise with constancy, to follow their Master’s advice without being superficial in their study. It’s important to be conscious of one’s own limits in order to extend them, and good discipline is a fundamental requirement in order to achieve this. Today, in my opinion, in general, practice is too weak and superficial, and often students have developed bad habits of working softly, doing as little as possible. Students don’t sweat anymore, and in this way the art of Taijiquan will not find anyway to shine (prestige). In my opinion it’s necessary to re-create the school concept, a material and spiritual place where both student and master meet together, where their interests become the interests of the school, where students develop concrete skills and these students’ skills, in turn, pay the work of the Master giving prestige to the school and to the art. Some may think that I am a romantic but really this is what I deeply believe.
Could you outline the thought process you go through when:-
a) Practising hand and weapon forms?
b) Doing tui shou
During practice you are focused on different aspects of the discipline: in the beginning you are concerned with trying to memorise the sequences, then to the correct structure, making the movements natural and fluid, considering the principles of the art, and to many other elements which are not easy to list. So the processes are different and they are directed towards different aspects at different times, and over the course of time you go through different cycles. At the moment I’m more interested in the mental aspect of the practice: when I do the form my mind flows and with it also my body, the flow has to be clear, the mind has to be clear and sensitive and the body rooted, elastic and powerful, and all of those things can be improved and are the subject of ongoing personal development. In the same way when I practise pushing hands or fighting, the skills I’ve listed above are also analysed. In this context mind has to remain calm so that the emotions cannot get the upper hand. The body trained to move and react spontaneously when sparring , it absorbs and emits force without any thoughts connecting to the other (the opposing). Strengths and weaknesses have to be clear to be able to adapt myself to the practise, enhancing the good skills acquired and studying more to overcome weaknesses. Irrespective of who is confronting me, my thought is this: everything you do, whatever power you have, my Taiji will find the way to overcome you. I apply this same certainty to every situation, without any anxiety to lose or win.
Can you briefly outline what you believe are the specific benefits of the various aspects of Taijiquan, i.e. forms, meditation, weapons, partner-work etc.
All of these aspects are the treasure of Taijiquan and I believe the same of any martial art which is practised seriously. These aspects help us to acquire the skills to grow, skills which contribute to becoming more balanced, better people. They enhance our awareness, enhancing the quality of life for every serious and diligent trainee. The form is a means (a tool) to exercise the body and mind in the Taijiquan principles: powerful legs support sensitive arms, elastic tendons and the use of deeper muscles eliminate rough movements, strengthening connected movements, done with entire body, spiralling movements help with transmitting force, and loosening the body increases sensitivity. A calm mind is transparent and able to generate, and perceive a harmonic energetic flow. The form is a rich source for innumerable contents. Meditation makes our mind clearer and more conscious, and our body stronger, meditation can help our practice a lot. The form can also be a means to practise meditation. Weapon training refines our ability and forges the body, It trains precision whilst refining the movement of the whole body. Some weapons strengthen the body, others contribute in the important task of integrating the inner and the outer. Sincere partner-work lets us confront our limitations, and allows us to work, in a very deep way, on many levels. Training in martial arts has the potential to help us to confront and deal with our fears and a good student worries only about winning with himself, only in this way the quality of our practise can rise.
Do you have particular goals or ambitions you’d still like to fulfil in your Taijiquan work?
I continue enthusiastically with my personal practice and sometimes I read in the eyes of my students some wonder for this. I’m satisfied with my practice and it’s my fixed intention to continue in my practice with sincerity, discipline and devotion. I’m sure that in this way the quality of my Taijiquan will be able to increase. So I don’t have any ambition in this sense.
One clear aim of mine is the growth of the school, I’m working in order to train Masters who are more and more competent in all aspects of this fascinating art. I’m continuously committed to stimulating constant practise in my students, I try to instill in them, anyway I can, what I believe are the most important values of the Wushu/Kung Fu. I believe in our school as an environment of growth and harmony. Since 2009 I realised an important dream for me, I built a structure conceived for the practice and study of Taijiquan, where students can live and work in an environment expressly designed for this, a structure that represents the central base of the school. In the last few years people have come from all over Europe and the Americas, and I hope that these students will study seriously and bring to their own countries the concept of our school and of our practice, a concept for which I take great care of.
I’m also developing an ambitious project, in conjunction with my closest students, that is a ‘Taiji College’, which will permit students who will join the project to live comfortably at the school and train effectively.