For any fellow enthusiasts out there planning on undertaking a similar trip to China, I would say the following:
1) Language. Bear in mind that even if you speak decent Mandarin (putonghua), you may not be able to understand the teacher. This is because most Chinese people, especially the older generation, speak their local dialect (often radically different from putonghua) in daily life, and only speak Mandarin as a ‘second language’. As such, the degree to which martial arts masters can speak putonghua varies wildly. The rule of thumb is: the younger and better-educated someone is, the more likely they are to speak clear putonghua.
2) The method of teaching. Most teachers of the neijia arts are still passing them on in the traditional way, where the the teacher teaches for free, and the learning takes place either in a park or at the teacher’s home. There is still a big difference between being a student (outside the door) and a disciple (inside the door), with disciples being provided with more information but also subject to much higher expectations than ordinary students. Commercial martial arts schools that teach the neijia are still few and far between. Chen village is very unusual in this respect, in that it has several schools teaching taiji on a commercial basis.
3) The clear distinction between ‘inside the door’ (men nei) and ‘outside the door’ (men wai) information makes it very difficult to ask about aspects of the art that are considered ‘men nei’. An example in xingyi would be asking about Pan Gen, or in taiji asking about ‘heart methods’ (xin fa) – neither are likely to get you anywhere if you are an outsider.
Lastly, two general observations I would make are that:
1) I made sure to ask each master I met about how sparring was practiced in their system. None gave a specific answer as to how they trained their students to bridge the gap between structured pair work to full-contact free sparring, or indeed whether they practiced sparring at all. This can be interpreted in 3 ways: either (a) I was using the wrong word (I used ‘san shou’), (b) the schools/branches I met do not practice free sparring; or (c) that information is considered ‘inside the door’.
2) Even before this trip, I had the impression that very few young Chinese people (on the mainland at least) were learning and practicing neijia arts (or any traditional chinese MA). Comments by various masters and my own experience on this trip have reinforced that view.