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Lessons from a Grandmaster

(In memory of Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, who passed away on May 5, 2012)

In 2000 I met Grandmaster Feng Zhizhang and my taiji practice changed forever. He came to the U.S. to teach a workshop sponsored by Master Yang Yang, one of his top disciples. At that time, I had practiced taiji for 25 years, and I though I knew a lot about taijiquan. Well, a lot maybe, but not enough. In those four days, I learned a few things that were crucial to my taiji improvement. This is the story.

What is a grandmaster?

Before I begin to tell my story, let’s define “what is a taiji grandmaster?” In the old Chinese tradition, there is only one grandmaster per martial art style, because in the old days people usually didn’t travel outside their province. This is no longer true. In modern times, practitioners of many Chinese martial arts live all over the world. Popular styles like taiji, wing chun and hung ga kungfu claim millions of practitioners, spreading over the world. Naturally there should be many grandmasters as a result.

So, what is a grandmaster?

A grandmaster should have the following qualities:

  1. Skill level – must have an extremely high skill level of the art.
  2. Knowledge – must have deep knowledge of the art.
  3. Seniority – must be high in the lineage, therefore quite old.
  4. Contribution – must contribute something to improve the art.
  5. Dedication – must dedicate much of his time and effort to the same art.

These are the qualifications of a grandmaster. Nowadays, we have a prolific amount of grandmasters showing up in magazines and seminar ads. Most taiji teachers coming from China to teach seminars are labeled as grandmasters. Anybody with the correct last name automatically becomes a grandmaster. Surely, anyone born into the house of a grandmaster has certain advantages, such as early tuition from a great master and inside secrets. However, a grandmaster is someone very special; he or she is the supreme teacher of the whole style or branch. Just name one superstar in the sports world such as baseball, football, boxing, tennis, etc., who also has a son or daughter as great as him. People inherit money, not talent.

Many western taiji students have been led to believe that the title of taiji grandmaster is an inheritance thing, like royal families inheriting titles. This is not a Chinese tradition, but rather a new trend. The truth is: it is all about money. As the world becomes global, grandmasters attract more people to their expensive seminars. In the old days in China, grandmasters did not make lots of money by teaching their art. To prove my point, let’s look at some taiji grandmasters in history.

Grandmaster Cheng Man Ching was a disciple of Yang Ching Fu. It’s obvious he was not from the same family. Cheng’s three top disciples are: William Chen, Tao Ping Siang and Huang Sheng Shyan; none are family members. All three are of grandmaster caliber.

Let’s look at one of the oldest taiji styles in China – Zhaobao style. I’ll list a taiji family tree of nine generations to illustrate my argument.

The Zhaobao style originated from a town called Zhaobao, thus the name. The founder Zhiang Fa (born 1514) learned from Wang Zhong Ye. There was no blood relation, obviously. And here are the nine grandmasters in proper order:

*Zhang Mu was the nephew of the 5th grandmaster Zhang Zhongyu, who appointed his favorite disciple Yuan Fakong as the successor of the title. When the grandmaster passed away, his nephew Zhang Mu disagreed and challenged Yuan to a duel. Zhang won the fight and became the next grandmaster.

** He Qingqi was the grandson of the grandmaster. Please note that his father was not listed as a grandmaster.

The message is clear: descendants of any grandmaster can also become grandmasters; they have a better chance. But there should be no inheritance on titles.

Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang

Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang was born in 1928. He began training in martial arts at a young age, learning Shaolin, Tongbi and Xinyiquan. At age 20 he was accepted as a disciple by the famous Chen style grandmaster, Chen Fake. In his book “Entering the Threshold of Chen Style Taijiquan”, Grandmaster Feng talked about 12 guidelines for taiji students to follow. These 12 guidelines are great principles for all taiji styles, not just Chen style. In my opinion, this book is a great contribution to the art of taijiquan. I have studied this book carefully and have benefited greatly from it.

When I met Grandmaster Feng, he was 74 years old. At five feet seven and 150 lbs, he looked healthy and happy. There was a childlike quality about him. He was always curious about things that were new to him, and he kept asking simple questions. “What is this? What is that?” From housekeeping carts, coffee machines, to cars and foods, he wanted to know anything that was new to him. It was obvious fun for him to learn about new things. Another thing is that he was always at ease and could improvise at any time. Once when Feng was teaching a workshop in Japan, he told the hundreds of participants that when they practice holding a standing posture with the taiji ruler, they should do 10 minutes on each of the high, middle and low standing postures. There was a hush in the crowd, as people are adding the total minutes of standing qigong they had to do. Stopping for a few seconds, Feng raised his taiji ruler to show the three postures. He said, “Five minutes, five minutes and five minutes. That is okay too.”

Grandmaster Feng’s two days workshop (July 28 -29, 2001) was held in Champaign, Illinois, at the Hawthorne Suites Hotel. Master Yang invited me to join the workshop and help with interpretation.

Before the two day workshop began, Master Yang sat down with Grandmaster Feng to explain the curriculum of the entire seminar. Yang said, “Shifu, we want to do three two-hour lessons each day. We should work on the 48 form (a form created by Feng), since most students have learned this routine. Then we should work on gong training, push-hand and anything else that you want to teach. Above all, I would like you to expound on the twelve essential guidelines for taiji training from your book. Mr. Sit will do the translation while you’re lecturing. Shifu, do you think this is good?”

Immediately Feng agreed that this was a good plan and he would follow the curriculum. Well, the curriculum went smoothly. Feng did the lectures on the 12 essential guidelines in details, and he led the gong training and taught some push-hand methods. But he never taught the 48 routine, not even a single posture. He didn’t seem to have a lesson plan; instead he just taught whatever came into his mind. But for some reason there seemed to be order in this chaos, and every two-hour class ended in a comfortable pace. And the Grandmaster was always in complete control of the workshop, without even trying. It was wu wei (non doing) at its best.

There is always something magical to observe a real master at work. For example, when Feng said that any movement performed with tension could only be action from parts of the body, but not the whole body, I immediately understood what he meant. I had come across this concept many times. But this time it clicked. Another time when Feng demonstrated push-hand with my friend Bob, he sent Bob jumping up and dropping down without any visible motion. Bob was six feet two, with over 20 years of tai chi practice and a solid push-hand background.

At one lesson, Feng had me come to the front for an internal force demo. I stood in front of him in a casual stance. Feng raised his right hand and tapped my chest lightly with his fingertips. I felt no force but I stepped back without knowing why. I didn’t feel the fajin of internal power. Instead, it was a common tap that somehow caused me to move. It’s very mysterious. This was the first time I had encountered the ‘ordinary force’ from a great master.

The second encounter came after the seminars. On Monday, Marvin, the editor of Tai Chi Magazine, did a photo session with Grandmaster Feng and his assistants. At one point when Marvin was photographing Feng’s daughter and Master Yang, Feng told me to come to him. “Come and push with me.” He said. So I went to him and we made contact with our hands. “You push me.” said Feng. I complied and pushed, but I didn’t push hard. I was very careful. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “I’ll push you then.”

“Here it goes.” I thought to myself, “the moment of truth, at last.” Much to my surprise, I sensed only a common touch. There was nothing special about his hands and touch. In fact, if I didn’t know who he was, I would have been convinced this person did not know taiji or any martial art at all. And then he pushed me. Again it was a common push. But it worked. I was pushed backward without knowing why or how.

“Ni dong ma?” asked Feng, “Do you understand?”

“Wo dong.” I replied, “I understand.”

Of course I didn’t understand. But I figured that even if I asked him to explain more, I still wouldn’t understand anyway. It took me several years to figure out the truth. That was the shortest tai chi lesson in my life, less then a minute. And what a lesson!

Feng was confident of himself as a grandmaster. And he also had a great sense of humor. He would make fun of himself. One time when we were getting back to the hotel, he stopped in front of the lobby and gestured to my wife, Mary Ann, that he wanted to arm-wrestle with her. My wife did not speak Chinese, nor did Feng speak English. But they communicated quite well. Anyway, as Mary Ann raised her arm and wrestled against Feng’s arm, he stumbled back and faked losing balance. Then he laughed joyfully, like a child.

Many western taiji students think only China has high level in taiji practice. Somehow they believe that there is Chinese taiji and then there is American taiji. And Chinese taiji is good and authentic and American taiji is not. The following story will prove this false.

On the first morning of the two-day seminar, Master Yang arranged a group practice of Chen 48 form in front of Grandmaster Feng. Over 100 practitioners joined the performance. Most of them were American students. Then Yang invited Feng to critique the group.

Feng went up the platform and said, “Taiji friends, how are you? I’m happy to stand here and observe your taiji practice. When I was traveling from China to the United States, I thought that maybe the skill level of taiji practitioners in USA are slightly below those of Japan and Korea. But, today after I have watched your performance, I realize the taiji standard in America is very high. I consider you people are as good as those in Japan and Korea, if not better. In fact, you are as good as practitioners in China. I am very happy about this.”

There is only good taiji and bad taiji. Nations and races make no difference in the art. Students become good at taiji through hard work and true understanding of the principles behind the art.

Grandmaster Feng was famous for his push-hand skill and fighting ability. But I think the most important contribution is that he gave us the direction of a straight path towards mastering the art of taiji.

Grandmaster Feng’s important teachings:

Standing gong practice

Feng greatly emphasized the standing gong practice. He pointed out that this simple training method holds the key to taiji power and energy. He said students should do a lot of standing gong, and they should do it in a calm and relaxed manner. In other words, standing gong is the soul of taijiquan.

Slow form practice

Feng believed slow form practice is better than fast practice. He said, “Slow practice nurtures your qi, improves your health and increases your power in self defense.” According to Feng, too much fa-jin and fast form training actually can have a debilitating effect on your health and energy. You should practice your taiji form as slow as possible, but without struggle.

Looseness in Chen taiji

“Looseness, or “song” in Chinese, is an important aspect of Chen Style.” Feng said. “Some people think “song” is unimportant in Chen Style. This is a wrong concept. It is not easy to be “song” while practicing the form, but students should try very hard to relax. Without the element of “song”, it will be impossible to enter the threshold of taiji.”

About turning – silk-reeling

Silk-reeling, or turning, is crucial to good Chen taiji practice. All parts of the body should have silk-reeling property. This is the key to what the classics called “to use 4 oz to move 1000 lbs”. Silk-reeling exercises are the high-level of gong training in Chen style. The ability of rotating any parts of one’s body like a ball is the key to avoiding double heaviness, or fighting force with force.

Nurturing

Feng placed the concept of nurturing at the top of his list. Once while being interviewed by a Chinese magazine, he said. “After decades of taiji practice, I finally realize one word – nurturing.” He also said, “In a ten years practice, you should nurture your qi and body for ten years.” Nurturing is good for both health and martial art.

Conclusion

There are many roads to mastering the art of taiji. Some are straight paths that take less time. Others are crooked roads that take forever. Master Feng once said, “Famous teachers might not be illuminating teachers.” An illuminating taiji master leads students towards a straight path. And a straight path is the path with the least detours. In this sense, I can say Feng is a real grandmaster and an illuminating teacher.

And he helped me understand one thing: A real taiji master can also be happy and funny.

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