I recently found a fantastic video clip online of the great tai chi legend Cheng Man-ching. Credited with the year 1976 (Cheng died in 1975 so it may be have been released or copyrighted after his death), it's 6 mins and by an unknown videographer. With a bit more googling I found that according to a George Chiang of Long River Tai Chi, which was set up by Wolfe Lowenthal, Ken Van Sickle is the film's author, filming Cheng at w115th street in a tree by Riverside Park, New York. Check it out for yourself at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8162222609571015204
Cheng Man-Ch’ing was born on 19th July 1900, and died on March 26th, 1975. He is regarded as a grand master of tai chi and was hugely influential in the twentieth century in bringing tai chi to the West.
One of the aspects of his reputation was the cultural side of his work. He was a recognised master of poetry, painting, calligraphy, medicine as well as tai chi chuan. These areas were the traditional skills of a Confucian scholar in ancient China, and so he became known as the ‘Master of Five Excellences’- an unusual and fairly rare title in the twentieth century.
When Cheng was 9, he was hit by a falling brick and suffered from loss of memory and a virtual vegetative state for a period of time, during which he studied painting which enabled his health to improve bit by bit. At fifteen he was introduced into Poetry at Hangchou where he learnt this aspect and calligraphy. By the age of 18 he received an invitation to teach poetry at Yu-Wen University. Through the association of many of China’s finest academic poets and calligraphers, his qualities improved. At 24, he taught at the National Chi-nan University and then was invited to be director of Chinese Painting at the Shanghai School of Fine Arts. At 29, with others he founded the College of Chinese Culture and Art, and at 30, he retired from teaching and went to Yang-hu in the Chiangsu province to study the classics under Ch’ien Ming-Shan.
His medical career is just as auspicious, much of which happened at the same time, but I in this instance will put that to one side as it is the tai chi chuan that we are most interested in. He was a weak youth, so studied Shaolin Chuan to strengthen up his body, but when he was 27 he suffered from a very serious bout of tuberculosis and studied tai chi from Yang Cheng-Fu, which helped him get through the illness. A year later he in turn cured Yang’s wife from a life-threatening illness, and in gratitude Yang taught him all he knew, or so the story goes. From there this aspect of his career took off, and twenty years later he created his own shortened form of the Yang style, known as the 37 posture form. This differed from the traditional style because it took much less time to practise, the hands and wrist were much more open, the width of the stance is more scrutinised and there was more of a rounded look to the form.
When he was 48 he took this all to Taiwan, and at 63 he went to America and opened a School in the Chinatown district of New York, taught, wrote and collaborated on many projects. Even as an elderly man he was virtually unbeaten in tai chi chuan, until his gradual decline in health (some say aided by his fondness for a tipple) and his death. It is estimated that over 100,000 people have studied directly or indirectly Cheng’s style of tai chi.
Gary can tell you about Cheng’s influences upon him and why the style of Yang Form that Gary practises is still Long Yang, but has flavours from Cheng’s teachings, and this will be the subject of a future newsletter (I hope, I haven’t asked him yet). Ads for me, Wolfe Lowenthall wrote a fascinating book on Cheng entitled ‘There are no Secrets’, and I remember reading it and coming across something which has stuck in my mind ever since. In Wolfe’s book there was a story where a new student arrived at the School in New York, who was already a martial artist in other forms. Eager to please, he asked Cheng which of the postures would be most appropriate when starting a fight – a proper fight, not a sport, and proceeded to go through a series of combatitive moves. Cheng just stood in front of him, with balanced in a relaxed state on both feet slightly apart, with his hands clasped loosely in front of him and stated that this was the best posture. When the confused student asked him why, he replied that to go into a combative stance at the beginning of a fight is to signify that you are entering into a contract with your opponent which will result in violence, possibly injury or maiming or even death. This (his) relaxed and non-combative stance meant that no contract was obvious, and therefore there would be a good chance of avoidance of violence altogether, which was the real desired outcome…
Cheng Man Ch’ing, http://www.wikipedia.org
Cheng Tzu: Master of the Five Xcellences A life Biography of Chneg Man Ching by Tam Gibbs. http://www.sinobarr.com/cheng/cheng_life_bio.htm