James Hetherington of Olathe (left) and Lawrence Flick of Prairie Village followed instructor Chen Huixian. Chen is a 20th generation direct-line inheritor of the original form of tai chi. Susan Pfannmuller | Special to Ink

It’s not what you think: What serious martial artists want you to know about tai chi

Barbara Handy, 32, of Overland Park forms “xie xing” or “walk obliquely.” Susan Pfannmuller | Special to Ink
Meira Dozier of Kansas City and James Hetherington of Olathe form “xie xing” or “walk obliquely.” Susan Pfannmuller | Special to Ink
For most of a class, Chen leads students in “laojia yilu,” the original Chen family tai chi form that other styles have evolved from. This one routine has 74 postures and takes anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to complete, depending on how slowly you move. Susan Pfannmuller | Special to Ink
Tai chi instructor Chen Huixian leads a class in warm-up stretches. Susan Pfannmuller | Special to Ink
Chen Huixian demonstrates “zuo deng yi gen” or “kicking with the left heel.” Susan Pfannmuller | Special to Ink
Chen leads a class in “lan zha yi” or “tying the robe.” Susan Pfannmuller | Special to Ink
Donnie Quinn credits his tai chi practice with helping him become a competition-winning martial artist. Submitted photo |
Donnie Quinn (right) beat a German opponent at the Legends of Kung Fu World Chin Woo Martial Arts Championship in summer 2016. Submitted photo |

Chen Huixian is just as quick to laugh as she is to spar with her doting husband in the Roeland Park home they share with their toddler and preschooler.

Chen, 35, and her husband, Kansas City native Michael Chritton, met each other in China in 2004 while Chritton was attending a tai chi camp run by Chen’s uncle, a grandmaster. She was coaching a seminar when they fell in love.

The very tall, lithe tai chi instructor — her first name is pronounced hoy-shan; Chen is her surname — explains that she is a 20th generation direct-line inheritor of Chen family Taijiquan, the original form of tai chi.

She began learning the family’s techniques and forms from her father when she was 5 years old. After he passed away, she worked with her uncle.

Chritton returned to China for her uncle’s course a second time in 2005, then in 2006 could not afford to do so. Their separation was lonely, and he resolved to return in 2007 to propose to her.

After she finished her degree, they secured a visa. They married in 2009 and opened a tai chi school together, Chen Huixian’s Chenjiagou Taijiquan Academy, in Johnson County.

Chen and Chritton don’t have a building of their own, but they teach at 68’s Inside Sports in Overland Park, Mission’s Exhale Fitness Boutique and the Confucius Institute at the University of Kansas’ Edwards campus in Overland Park (that class is open only to instructors). They also offer private lessons.

Tai chi is the exercise regularly represented in movies as being practiced by a large number of seniors at a park. Can you picture it? Practitioners are typically shown in a toes-out squatting position, slowly moving their outstretched arms from one side to the other.

And that image is part of what tai chi is, but only a very small part.

Chen explains, “Tai chi is moving meditation. We have a sitting meditation, a standing meditation and a lay-down meditation, and we still have kicking, punching and all those kinds of movements — not just like a simple stretch.”

Chen and Chritton emphasize that the art is versatile and can function both as a stretching or meditation exercise and an actual fighting technique.

“A lot of what we see in America and in the West is a more health-oriented version, and there are a lot of different styles. There’s tai chi for arthritis and tai chi for Alzheimer’s — people have niches now that are all about holistic healing. But tai chi was originally a martial art and still is within her family’s teaching,” Chritton says.

He says that tai chi in its original form, and as the Chens teach it, is actually very brutal.

Practicing it slowly, as we see in the movies, is the same as working at any other skill slowly — a riff on a musical instrument isn’t learned at its intended tempo.

If a practitioner encounters a combat situation, Chritton says, the body reacts before the mind.

“If someone touches your body … her uncle says it’s like a beach ball,” Chritton explains. “If you spin a beach ball and you throw something at it, it just flings it away. The same thing happens in tai chi. If you grab ahold of someone …”

He reaches for his wife’s shoulder — she’s a couple of inches taller than he is. “If I grab ahold of her and try to do something, nine times out of 10, I’m across the room and looking at the ceiling before I can blink my eyes.”

They both laugh at the image — seems that the scenario has played out a few times.

The methodical nature of the training is part of what makes the art ideal for all ages. Chen’s students are between 20 and 80 years old, sometimes all in a single class. An aging person’s goal might be to easily step out of bed in the morning and make it through the winter without slipping on ice. A younger person, like student Donnie Quinn, could have a goal to win tournaments.

Quinn, a 29-year-old from Overland Park, started practicing Wing Chun when he was 16. He says Wing Chun was Bruce Lee’s first martial art and is currently in the spotlight because of the recent series of films about Wing Chun master Ip Man.

Though he’d been practicing the martial art for half of his life, it wasn’t until he started cross-training in tai chi that he began to see big results in tournaments.

“It’s changed everything in my life as far as daily focus, energy levels. … I’ve always been a very active person, but I’ve found that doing tai chi helps rejuvenate me and helps me recover from hard workouts. It’s almost like: eating, drinking, doing tai chi. You know, eating, you sustain the physical body. Drinking, when you’re thirsty. And then tai chi, it’s like, it feeds that inner part of yourself,” Quinn says.

So, over the summer when he went to Dallas to participate in the Legends of Kung Fu World Chin Woo Martial Arts Championship, he was somewhat surprised that he won several gold medals, a silver and a bronze.

Quinn says that it’s rare for a tai chi instructor to put on sparring gloves and get in the ring as Chen did to help him train for the tournament. “It helped me to sort of move in a different way and learn to train martial arts in a different way that rounded out the Wing Chun.”

If someone isn’t competing in tournaments and doesn’t really need help with daily stability, Chen says the practice is good for confidence-building. And, though China — and martial arts, for that matter — is patriarchal, women have a clear place in tai chi.

It hasn’t always been the case that women were officially recognized in tai chi, but Chen’s name, as well as some of her female cousins’, is on the list. Chritton said it was an 18th generation female ancestor’s dedication to the art that broke women into the official lineage.

Even before Chen women were formally acknowledged, they were practitioners. Chritton tells the story of a 10th generation Chen whose arranged marriage didn’t work out because she was in love with another man. It didn’t take long for the couple to get into a brawl.

By beating up her husband, the Chen ancestor shamed her family, and the Chen father forbade women to practice the art, But Chen and Chritton seem to think that was mostly for show.

Chen proudly tells the story of her mother chasing off some intruders with a tai chi spear years ago while her father was out of town.

“My mother stood in the yard yelling, ‘You think that because my husband’s not home you can come to my house and steal my stuff?’ Those guys never came back. ‘I’ll show you my spear!’ ”

Chen yells, laughing and imitating her mother.

She goes on to explain the feeling of security and self-assurance that comes with the practice. “Even if something happens, don’t be afraid of anything. You just make your energy go up and let them know, ‘I’m not afraid of you,’ ” she says. “And ready your weapon to do something.”

Contact Anne at akknigg@gmail.com or @annekniggendorf.