Hiding the art in plain sight?


How often do you suppose applications or the essence of movements are purposely obscured in forms?
Considering that knowledge was prized beyond objects in Chinese culture, I'd imagine this to be fairly common. What has been your observations?

There is also a likely chance of critical aspects being lost from a simple game of telephone, form copy/paste that seem to be common as well.

I find that a lot of my practice is in trying to decode puzzles within the form and trying to reconstruct what might have been practiced in the pre-mass market workshop formats.


I believe that secrets do exist within a system, and by tradition, are disclosed to the disciples. However, frequent practice does bring about insights. I suppose it's no different than the process of learning to operate a car with manual transmission, lots of practice, no real secrets unless one wants to engage in auto racing and learn to shift gears to manage energy. There are techniques such as heel-toe shifting to maximize efficiency, etc...

I have witnessed a teacher with an honest desire to share the Art, but in order to meet the overhead of running a school, had to lower the teaching standard to accommodate the "weaker" students. Of course, a noble beginning can be changed by fame and fortune. Sadly...


Lao Tou
Staff member
I wrote something before that may have been better but I ran over it with my internet by mistake and killed it so I have written a second much more verbose version that expresses the same idea much more laboriously and awkwardly. I am going to leave it to Chris to let me know if this sucks more than the first one?

How often do you suppose applications or the essence of movements are purposely obscured in forms?
I cannot speak for other teachers or lines but I can speak from my own experience in both learning from known experts as well as successfully taking the practice to a fruiting level such that I can understand the mechanism, process and result. In my view and experience there are two different paradigms here:

1) Arts/styles that have applications hidden in forms.
2) Arts/styles with no hidden applications

1) Arts/styles that have applications hidden in forms.

There are essentially 2 types of arts within this category:
A) fake
B) misrepresented

Arts with hidden applications (in Taijiquan) of the A) fake type are simply arts with no functional forms and no real applications. Basically what they are doing is moving around, waving their hands and attaching a lot of philosophical meaning to it while it really refers to specifically nothing. Then attached to those movements is the IDEA of applications, that in fact are just imaginary. It is hidden because it is magical and useless, and they are non functional in any real usage

The second type of 'hidden' approach B)-misrepresented (not what it claims to be) is a method that does contain actual applications but they are neither connected to nor developed by the forms and movements in question. In some cases these applications are not even from the specific styles/forms in question but just tacked on later. This is actually quite common in commercial varieties of Chen Taijiquan. The idea here is to SELL an appealing martial arts package to the audience, whatever that audience is, that revels in the belief in a mystically (obscured) secret martial arts style. Plenty of poorly educated, charlatan or just commercially ambitious teachers of Taijiquan have and do employ this approach. In many cases this is employed to cover up for such poor education or losses of curriculum over generations (
critical aspects being lost from a simple game of telephone
) and to re-infuse one's empty form with meaningful associations.

Even though applications may be functional (may not even be from Taijiquan at all) this basically a performance situation, since the form is for show and not for function. Practice (and your study) of this form will NOT result in any martial abilities, since the form does not develop them, only (allegedly) associates with them.

2) Arts/styles with no hidden applications
An example of this type would be my method/line. There are *some* others but they are very few and far between amongst all the commercialism. Our method, the way I learned has absolutely nothing hidden in the form. When I say it is not hidden, that does not mean it is visible, nor that it is not present. In this case applications are plentiful and staring right at you. The issue is one's ability to recognize them.

To be able to recognize applications in this older practical approach to practice, one has to first understand that for each movement the associated applications are numerous so if you are searching for one specifically you will often be confused. Secondly, one has to know what the applications are in order to recognize them and for our method and any authentic method of Chen family gongfu many of those application methods are a bit style specific in appearance. If you have not learned them, you won't recognize the shapes and actions. Thirdly, the application approach of the style is generally such that the application itself is rather a container for applying various type of powers (jin) in myriad shapes and dynamic actions. This means that the appearance of the application is very much constantly changing and fluid adapting to the needs of the situation, compared to what in many other styles might be a much more obvious shape and dynamic limitation.

The applications are NOT at all hidden, they are directly trained by the actions and jin in the forms and they make themselves quite obvious over time and teaching. They are certainly hidden to the casual observer. This is not intentional however, but the result of the complexity and nature of the training method. Training applications without their engines would probably be a lot more obvious, a lot less interesting entirely useless.

I believe that secrets do exist within a system, and by tradition, are disclosed to the disciples.
There are different type of alleged 'secrets' and then a number of reasons why they are kept secret.
First as to secret types:

1) Mystical/magical keys:

This is the idea that there are "secrets" and keys to learning without which one cannot pass through the gate. Without these special keys (methods) one will never understand the essence etc. Usually these things are somewhat esoteric, or in some cases they may be more tangible but still elusive, as in hard to understand or employ in practice.

2) Philosophy:
These are philosophical concepts which apparently if you can understand, or understand deeply enough you will pass through the gate. Perhaps more deeply understanding these will allow one to practice correctly or attain "Taiji".

3) Drills and practice methods:
This is the idea that a teacher reserves specific developmental or martial drills and practices without which one can never understand usage or develop gongfu. I remember some self promoting half-baked student of Feng Zhiqiang in the late 90's was promoting this idea that the real gongfu was in the drills, that one could learn all the forms but 'master Feng" reserved his special practice methods for the special students and was the only way to learn the Jins etc etc.

4) Structure and method basics:
This is the idea that the "secrets" are basic structural and methodological details.

Why are they kept "secret"?
There are several reasons why "secrets" may be kept secret.

A) Trade secrets:
In the old days Chen Taijiquan like many other arts provided a career opportunity in the security industry, caravan escorts, bodyguards etc. Nowadays the career opportunity is more in the teaching, health and hobby sales industries. In the past teachers would have kept special elements close within the family and school to prevent the competition form out-competing them. This is the same today yet in (workshop) sales as opposed to security. Additionally in the old days there was also the added concern of local enemies and bandits understanding too much about the strategic capabilities of village or clan practitioners. This reason for keeping things secret would apply to of the above "secret" types, however type 1) (mystical) has no practical value other than specifically teaching and hobby sales.

B) Respect for one's efforts:
The practitioners/teachers who have authentically trained and succeeded have undoubtably invested years of very hard work, money and often social efforts as well to achieve their result. Many such people (and there are not many) would very keenly seek to keep their hard won learning away from charlatan, self promoting, would-be exploiters. Just like the lion that exhausts himself chasing down an elusive prey for 5 miles prefers not to lose it to 5 jackals (who did no work to catch it) when he turns his back. Many such self promoting ego-driven individuals (and there are MANY in this scene) would be very happy to take what they could, even not understanding it well, soiling the art with their mis-presentation of it if that got them status and money.

C) Respect for one's art and teacher(quality control):
Those who have walked the traditional path know the dedication and sacrifice that is required to learn such an art. The level of respect they hold for their teachers (Shifu usually) and the reasons why are hard to understand by outsiders. I think most people think it is a kind of fake drama that we all inherited from the movies, yet it is in fact real. For those who maintain this level of respect for their teachers and their art the idea of sharing, teaching revealing methods to those who are not
is an uncomfortable idea. To some degree number 2) philosophy, and to a much higher degree numbers 3) Drills/methods and 4) Structural/basics all apply here.

D) Manipulation of followers:
This one is not complicated, many teachers whether legit or charlatan will seek to use the leverage of "secret" materials to either entice, attract, control and manipulate their students. Either on the promise of something being revealed or a kind of fake pay-to-play scheme. Usually you don't get what you pay for. This is prime territory for type 1) Mystical keys, but can be employed for all types.

In summary, the mystical keys type of "secret" in what we call gongfu is just plain old fake. There are no mystical keys to gongfu. There is nothing special outside of proper method and long and dedicated practice that will result in anything other than bullshit, high level bullshit.

"Secret" philosophy is not really secret, since you cannot really learn any gongfu from it. It is mainly secret due to A) trade secrets and B) respect for one's efforts (in attaining that info) relating to any real gongfu training, and D) manipulation for the fake schools and teachers.

Drills/methods "secrets" are real secrets and can be withheld for all 4 reasons, but again they are not the "keys" to gongfu, but one of the steps on the path for sure. As far as secrets go these things are cool but if your gongfu is mediocre or just plain garbage learning these will put you on the fast track to practicing a bunch of mediocre or garbage drills. I don't want to watch it but go ahead. ?

Structure/basics are what I would consider the actual secret, but humorously, the least valued and promoted one. This is of course because they are so rarely held. Of course that is how it is with secrets. If everyone knew them they would not be 'secrets'. The problem is everyone does want to sell them, so they must come up with something if wide knowledge of actual secrets is rare. The problems with the secrets of structure and basics besides not being widely held is that they are neither easy to teach, nor easy to learn, nor are they they magical keys to anything. In fact they are rather boring and on their own are completely useless. They only function in any way over a number of years of tedious employment during all the normal daily practices and exercises. This is simply not glamorous at all.

When people say the 'secret is practice practice practice' this is also an empty platitude. Practice, or practice x 3 is still just a useless exercise without proper method. The secret "secret" is the proper part of "proper practice".


Qinglong OG
Staff member
Related to structure / basics - there are more advanced methods that slow progress if seen too early. Without the foundation they become a distraction to what you're working on and even lead you in the wrong direction. For example, trying to practice fajing early on is not only a waste of time, it leads to slower and improper development. Another type of secret is - "I didn't develop this for your entertainment, so I refuse to be your carnival bitch." Sort of like wearing nice silky underwear: none of your business unless I know you'd both sincerely like to borrow them, and they would fit.


Thanks for the detailed explanation, Marin. I'm also not a fan of practice enough and you'll understand. I've seen people who've practiced for 20 years and they look like they haven't made progress in at least 18 of those 20 yrs.

Where I am in my TC journey is related to your description of "Arts/styles with no hidden applications". In the 8 short years of study, I've come to see the forms I learned as a short-hand or a notation - so point #1 that each movement has many manifestations is right in line with what I've seen/feel within the form. For #2, knowing the application to recognize its various flow, shapes, and manifestation is where my practice is fuzzy - namely because my previous teacher did not know most of it. So it could not be demonstrated to me as well as have the variations be shown. For #3, the different jins I've started down this journey through push-hands - though again, my path has been cloudy and murky due to limited knowledge of my previous teacher. In all fairness, it was not their interest in learning/knowing the applications. For me, however, it is critical to know it in order to test the theories & philosophy of the art - in order for me to know whether I'm heading in the right direction.

So I was stuck in a school that was happy to practice for mostly the "spiritual" aspects and health benefits. Sadly, no one else in town - as far as I can tell - knew any better than the current teacher I had. The reason I posted the above is more that I suspected certain teachers either only had a fuzzy idea of the real form (and either didn't know it or was waiting for their teacher to show them more). I also suspected that certain branches of the family kept things fuzzy on purpose so that they retain the authority of the art over the global community.

I eventually left the school as it felt like a waste of time to put effort into copy/pasting fuzzy choreography. There were promises of something deeper as we developed fa song, "qi" cultivation, and the different jins - but none of these were really tested in application (even mild cooperative exercises) - namely due to what I suspect is the teacher's own lack of progress over the years.

I'm very much looking forward to learning the structure/basics/fundamentals.
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When people say the 'secret is practice practice practice' this is also an empty platitude. Practice, or practice x 3 is still just a useless exercise without proper method. The secret "secret" is the proper part of "proper practice".
As computer geeks say, "garbage in, garbage out" :)