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Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan's Secret Weapon: the Rotation of Dan-Tian

By Tu-Ky Lam

Chen Tai chi is the original style of Tai chi chuan from which the other four major styles (Yang, Wu, Sun, and Hao) have evolved. With its soft and strong intermingled movements, slow and fast intermixed speed, clear martial applications, and explosive power discharge (fa jing), Chen Tai chi does not look like a low impact exercise for the elderly, but, instead, is really a branch of the Chinese martial arts.

Training for Chen Tai chi involves the two routines (Kata) with their martial applications, push-hands, strength training, and finally free sparring. Afterwards, people can learn the sword's, saber's, and other weapons' routines. Whenever Chen stylists train, they use their dan-tian (lower abdomen), and breathing is naturally incorporated into the movements. The way they use their dan-tian was kept secret for a long time. Chen Fa-ke, the famous 18th generation master of the Chen family, taught in Beijing from 1928 to 1957 but not many of his students knew this breathing method. His son, Chen Zhao-kui, was also a renowned master. Chen Zhao-kui taught a lot more students than Chen Fa-ke, but he only began to teach the rotation of dan-tian to his senior students during the 1970s. From then on this breathing method began to spread.

Rotation of dan-tian

The rotation of dan-tian is actually reverse abdominal breathing, plus the turning of the dan-tian, which is our lower abdomen. The Taoist monks consider dan-tian the most important area in the human body and so working on it can maintain good health and slow down the aging process while the martial artists consider dan-tian to be the source of internal power, training on it can produce explosive power. And they both have been proved correct.

Our ordinary breathing only involves the use of our lungs, especially the upper lungs. When we inhale the air goes into our lungs, and our chest expands. In abdominal breathing, we breathe deeper. When we inhale, the air goes into our lungs, but we imagine the air goes deeper into our stomach as well. (This happens only in our imagination.) As a result, our stomach, as well as our chest, expands. When we exhale, the carbon-dioxide goes out, and we imagine the air goes out of our abdomen as well. So our chest and abdomen contract. This is normal abdominal breathing.

In reverse abdominal breathing, we divide our abdomen into two parts, using our navel as a dividing line. Our abdomen from our navel up is the upper abdomen, and the part below is the lower abdomen or dan-tian. When we inhale, we imagine the air goes into our lungs and upper abdomen, and at the same time there is 'chi' or air goes up from our lower abdomen into our stomach as well. Therefore, our chest and upper abdomen expand, and our dan-tian contracts when we inhale. When we exhale, the air goes out of our lungs, so our chest contracts. We imagine the 'chi' that moves up into our upper abdomen now goes back down to dan-tian. Therefore our upper abdomen contracts but our dan-tian expands. The reverse abdominal breathing have been used by many Tai chi practitioners of all styles to good result. This was the abdominal breathing I learned and practiced fifteen years ago. Then I was so energetic that I felt I was ten years younger.

The rotation of dan-tian is slightly more complicated than the reverse abdominal breathing. Chen stylists compare dan-tian to a ball (which contains the muscles and all the internal organs in the lower abdomen). When they inhale the ball contracts. When they exhale, the ball expands. They also consider dan-tian to be the source of the internal force which can drive all the movements of their arms and even legs. Each time they move their arms (or legs), their dan-tian has to move first. The rule "If the inside (dan-tian) does not move, the outside should not move either" is always observed. As all the movements in Chen Tai chi are always spiral and circular, dan-tian has to move in the same manner as the arms (and sometimes the legs) in order to have better control of them.

For example, in the first move of 'Pounds the Mortar', Chen stylists move their arms up in a leftward curve (in a curve to the left and up) and then down in a rightward curve, thus drawing a vertical circle (from left to right) in front of the chest. Their dan-tian turns in a vertical circle as well. In 'Move and Hinder with Elbow', their dan-tian moves in a horizontal circle to the left and then to the right in conjunction with the movements of their arms. In 'White Crane Spreads Its Wings', their dan-tian moves diagonally up with their right arm. In 'Left Partition of the Wild Horse’s Mane', their dan-tian moves diagonally up to the left. In short, their dan-tian moves in horizontal, vertical, and diagonal circles in conjunction with the movements.

While dan-tian circles in this way, it contracts when the practitioner inhales and expands when he exhales. When exhaling, dan-tian expands to all sides: to the front (the lower abdomen protrudes) and the back (the 'ming-men', which is a point on the spine opposite the navel, moves out to the back); and to the left and the right. It is worth mentioning in here the rotation of dan-tian should be done in a very relaxed manner and not with force so that no harm can occur. It will be easier if you start with the reverse abdominal breathing first and move into the rotation of dan-tian later on.

The benefits of the rotation of dan-tian

From the martial point of view, dan-tian is the source of internal power. When we want to throw a punch, if we just bend our arm and then straighten it to do the job, the power of the punch is only partially from our arm. It is far less powerful than being executed from dan-tian with the twist of the waist and chest (our legs will have to turn as well), plus the bending and the rotating of the arm. The Chen family knew this, and they used dan-tian to great success and the rotation of dan-tian was born. The result was explosive power in their fa-jing (power discharge).

The rotation of dan-tian also helps to neutralize the incoming force more efficiently. The spiral movements generated from dan-tian play a great part in achieving this. So does the breathing. That is why the Tai chi classics say, "When you inhale, you should be able to uproot your opponent (by neutralizing his force); and when you exhale, you should be able to throw him far and away."

From the view point of health, the rotation of dan-tian is the best of the three different kinds of abdominal breathing mentioned above as it exercises the internal organs more than the other two. It gives a good lift to not only the organs in the abdomen but also those above it such as the heart, the lungs, the spleen, the liver, the stomach, the kidney, and the large and small intestines. As a result, it is of great help to our circulatory, respiratory and even nervous systems. (From my own experience, it is a good weapon against chronic fatigue which makes you feel tired all the time.) This is the reason why practicing Tai chi chuan can rejuvenate our energy and delay the aging process.

In the lower abdomen, there exist glands that produce hormones. The rotation of dan-tian can stimulate these reproductive glands and make them work to their full potential and enhance sex life. In China, at least two doctors use this breathing method as treatment to impotence with great success.

The co-ordination of breathing with movements

The co-ordination of breathing with movements is such a difficult task that most practitioners would like to avoid discussing. Most instructors will just tell their students to breathe normally in their Tai chi practice. Some have said that the late master Gu Liu-xin of Shanghai, China, who put in his books when to inhale and when to exhale, was wrong in doing so. They say this is not achievable because movements in Tai chi chuan are so complicated.

I have always taught my students abdominal breathing and how to co-ordinate breathing with movements. My reasoning is that if I do not teach them there is no way they can learn it themselves.

The co-ordination of breathing with movements is difficult but not unachievable. Practitioners in the past have left us with some guidelines. We inhale when we move our hands up, and exhale when we move them down; we exhale when we move our hands away from our body (opening movements). We inhale when we bring them closer to our body. We exhale when we attack, and inhale when we neutralize an attack.

These are supplemented by some other rules. For example, when there are two or three opening or attacking movements in a row, we may inhale at the beginning of each move and exhale near the end. When there are two or more closing or neutralizing movements, we may inhale in one and exhale in the other (this rule may be applied in the two or three attacking movements as well).

There should also be some brief, normal breathing in between our inhaling and exhaling to regulate our breathing so that is can be smooth and natural.


When Tai chi chuan was invented some three hundred and fifty years ago, breathing and the rotation of dan-tian were incorporated into the Tai chi form to make it a unique kind of martial art which is both practical (useful for self-defence and good for one’s health) and artistic (looking graceful and beautiful). Therefore, we can say they are inseparable components of Tai chi chuan.

My experience tells me that practicing Tai chi chuan with the rotation of dan-tian can more that double the benefits of doing Tai chi chuan with normal breathing whether it is for health or for martial purposes.