Lessons from a Grandmaster
By Chun Man Sit
In 2000 I met grandmaster Feng Zhizhang and my tai chi practice changed forever. He came to the US to teach a workshop sponsored by Master Yang Yang, one of his top disciples. At that time, I had practiced tai chi for 25 years, and I though I knew a lot about tai chi chuan. Well, a lot maybe, but not enough. In those four days, I learned a few things that were crucial to my tai chi improvement. Here is the story.
What is a Grandmaster?
Before I begin to tell my story, let’s define what is a tai chi grandmaster? In the old Chinese tradition, there is only one grandmaster per martial art style. That was 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. Some popular styles like tai chi, 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:
- Skill level – must have an extremely high skill level of the art.
- Knowledge – must have deep knowledge of the art.
- Seniority – must be high in the lineage, therefore quite old.
- Contribution – must contribute something to improve the art.
- 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 tai chi 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 a 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 sport world such as base ball, football, boxing, tennis, etc., who also has a son or daughter as great as him. People inherit money, not talent.
Many western tai chi students have been led to believe that the title of tai chi 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 tai chi 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 tai chi styles in China – Zhaobao style. I’ll list a tai chi 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:
• Jiang Fa(born 1514)
• Xing Qiwei
• Zhang Zhucin
• Chen Jinba
• Zhang Zhongyu
• Zhang Mu *
• Chen Qingping (1795 – 1868)
• He Ziuyuan (1811 – 1890)
• He Qingqi (1857 – 1936)**
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 Zhizhang
Grandmaster Feng Zhizhang was born in 1928. He began training in martial art 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 tai chi”, Grandmaster Feng talked about 12 guidelines for tai chi students to follow. These 12 guidelines are great principles for all tai chi styles, not just Chen style. In my opinion, this book is a great contribution to the art of tai chi. I have studied this book carefully and have benefited greatly from it.
When I met Grandmaster Feng in the fall of 2000, he was 73 years old. At five feet seven and 150 lbs, he looked healthy and happy. There’s a childlike quality about him. He’s 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 understand. 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 tai chi ruler, they should do 10 minutes on each of the high, middle and low hand 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 tai chi ruler to show the three postures. He said, “Five minutes, five minutes and five minutes. That is okay too.”
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 hours 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’ll like you to expound on the twelve essential points of tai chi 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 points, 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. (Photo A –Feng demonstrated the “ordinary force” to Sit).
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 compiled 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 convinced this person did not know tai chi or any martial art at all. And then he pushed me. Again it was a common nothing 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 like most serious masters, Feng 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 Maryann 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 Maryann 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 tai chi students think only China has high level in tai chi practice. Somehow they believe that there is Chinese tai chi and then there is American tai chi. And Chinese tai chi is good and authentic and American tia chi 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 tai chi 48 form in front of Grandmaster Feng. Over 100 of 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,
“Tai chi friends, how are you? I’m happy to stand here and observe your tai chi practice. When I was traveling from China to the United States, I thought that maybe tai chi practitioners in USA are slightly below those of Japan and Korea. But today after I have watched your performance, I realize the tai chi 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 tai chi or bad tai chi. Nations and races have no meaning in the art of real tai chi.
Grandmaster Feng is famous for his push-hand skill and fighting ability. But I think the most important contribution is that he has given us the direction of a straight path towards mastering the art of tai chi.
Grandmaster Feng’s important teachings:
Standing gong practice
Feng emphasizes the standing gong practice greatly. He points out that this simple training method holds the key to tai chi power and energy. He says students should do a lot of standing gong, and they should do it in a calm and relaxed manner. According to Feng, standing gong is the soul of tai chi.
Slow form practice
Feng considers slow form practice as better practice. He says 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 tai chi form as slow as possible, but without struggle.
Looseness in Chen tai chi
Looseness, or song in Chinese, is an important aspect of Chen Style. Feng says 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 tai chi.
About turning – silk-reeling
Silk-reeling, or turning, is crucial to good Chen tai chi practice. All parts of the body should have silk-reeling property. This is the key to what the classic called “to use 4 oz. to move a thousand 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.
Feng puts the concept of nurturing at the top of his list. Once while being interviewed by a Chinese magazine, he said. “After decades of tai chi 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.
There are many roads to mastering the art of tai chi. 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 teaches 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.
[Chun Man Sit - born in 1950s in southern China, his family moved to Hong Kong when he was six years old. He lived in Hong Kong for twenty years and in 1976, he moved to the United States. Master Sit began his martial arts training in 1969 and has studied and practiced continually for forty years; learning many styles such as Karate, Tai Chi, Qigong and Kungfu. He is the expert on Wu style Taiji, Tai Hui Six Elbows Kungfu, and many Qigong methods, including 6 Healing Sounds, Drifting Cloud Moving Qigong, Nei Gong, Silk-reeling Gong, etc. Master Sit has been a chief judge in many national Tai Chi and Kungfu tournaments in the United States of America for the last 18 years and has taught Tai Chi, Qigong, and Kungfu workshops. His articles appear regularly in Tai Chi and Kungfu magazines and he is currently writing a book on Tai Chi. Master Sit and his wife Mary Ann, live in Overland Park, Kansas.]