The strength from within

Prac­ti­tion­ers in Shang­hai talk about the beauty of the mar­tial art that en­ables in­di­vid­u­als to lev­er­age their in­ter­nal power to over­power larger ad­ver­saries

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - In Shang­hai

While most peo­ple would grab a bite and re­lax dur­ing the lunch break ev­ery day, Zhang Jian and a few col­leagues choose to prac­tice tai­ji­quan in­stead.

For nearly eight years, th­ese of­fice work­ers have been con­gre­gat­ing at a small out­door area near the build­ing to do tai­ji­quan, an ac­tiv­ity which they say makes them feel “re­laxed, re­freshed and recharged”.

The an­cient mar­tial art, which is also known as taichi, is widely prac­tised across China in parks and com­mu­nity squares. Though there are no for­mal sta­tis­tics re­gard­ing the num­ber of taichi prac­ti­tion­ers in the coun­try, the mar­tial art can be side to have en­joyed an en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity through time.

Taichi has since the 1960s been a part of China’s Na­tional Games, which like the Olympics only takes place ev­ery four years. The mar­tial art is also widely rec­og­nized as one of the coun­try’s most iconic ac­tiv­i­ties.

Ac­cord­ing to pop­u­lar fic­tion and movies, the mar­tial art was cre­ated by a Taoist monk named Zhang San­feng in the 12th cen­tury. How­ever, many peo­ple don’t know that this monk was only re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of taichi — the chan­nel­ing of one’s in­ter­nal power — and not the var­i­ous move­ments of­ten as­so­ci­ated with the mar­tial art.

Based on Tao Te Ching, the clas­sic Chi­nese text writ­ten by Lao Tze in the late 4th cen­tury BC, the essence of taichi lies in the con­di­tion­ing of spir­i­tual and men­tal as­pects. The book also says that taichi is best il­lus­trated by the sym­bolic Taoist pat­tern: a half black-half white cir­cle that rep­re­sents yin and yang re­spec­tively.

The mes­sage within this sym­bol is that what seems op­po­site may be in­ter­change­able, that good may be­come bad, and that the pow­er­ful may lose to the weak.

Ex­pe­ri­enced taichi prac­ti­tion­ers, such as Cheng Wei, the men­tor of Zhang and his col­leagues, can eas­ily take down big­ger and heav­ier ad­ver­saries. How­ever, the goal of prac­tic­ing taichi is not to solve con­flicts, said Cheng. In­stead, taichi is all about stay­ing healthy and happy.

Cheng, 55, was once a taichi na­tional cham­pion who had rep­re­sented Shang­hai in com­pe­ti­tions across the coun­try. He has been ac­cept­ing stu­dents in Shang­hai for the past eight years and will by the end of this year launch a new club house in the Xu­ji­ahui area that teaches the mar­tial arts, tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine and how to live a whole­some life­style.

Cheng was only 10 when he be­gan to learn mar­tial arts. He would join dozens of other chil­dren in the Con­fu­cius Tem­ple in down­town Shang­hai be­fore and af­ter school to prac­tice kungfu. He later joined a mar­tial arts school and be­came a mem­ber of the Shang­hai Mar­tial Arts Team.

In 1983, when China’s mar­tial arts scene un­der­went a ma­jor re­form, taichi was rec­og­nized as an im­por­tant dis­ci­pline. The Shang­hai Mar­tial Arts Team then in­vited the fa­mous Fu Zhong­wen (1903-1994) to teach the mar­tial art to stu­dents.

Fu was the nephew-in-law of Yang Chengfu (1883-1936), also a taichi master. The grand­son of Yang Luchan (1799-1872), the found­ing fa­ther of Yang-style taichi, Yang sim­pli­fied the tra­di­tional move­ments and suc­cess­fully taught them to roy­alty and aris­to­crats in Bei­jing. Yang later reg­u­lated and sys­tem­ized the move­ments to es­tab­lish a rou­tine known as Yangstyle tai­ji­quan.

Yang-style taichi con­sists of 85 move­ments. Ac­cord­ing to Cheng, it is im­por­tant to learn the use of strength and un­der­stand the flow of en­ergy in one’s body af­ter mas­ter­ing the pos­tures and move­ments. He added that though the move­ments seem slow and re­laxed, per­form­ing one com­plete set is as ar­du­ous as go­ing through a gym­nas­tics rou­tine.

Cheng said that with the cor­rect use of strength, one can ig­nite the en­gine within the body and “draw strength from the ground”. This, he said, is the gist of in­ter­nal train­ing, the main fo­cus of taichi.

Since the early 1980s, each prov­ince in China has been train­ing its own mar­tial arts ex­po­nents for the pres­ti­gious na­tional games.

“Al­most all of the mar­tial arts ex­po­nents who acted in kungfu films in the 1980s came from China,” Cheng re­called. He too had his fair share of ap­pear­ances on the sil­ver screen, with one of the movies be­ing Shao Lin Tem­ple, which started a na­tional craze for kungfu in the Chi­nese main­land.

The lead­ing ac­tor in that show was the 19-year-old Jet Li, a na­tion­alcham­pion who later rose to fame in Hong Kong and Hol­ly­wood.

With the change in au­di­ence ex­pec­ta­tions and the evo­lu­tion of fight chore­og­ra­phy, the mar­tial arts that peo­ple see in to­day’s films are un­re­al­is­tic, al­most sur­re­al­is­tic, and are of­ten be­yond the lim­its of hu­man ca­pa­bil­i­ties, said Cheng.

“I am from the bridg­ing gen­er­a­tion. We were per­son­ally trained by the masters. We know it is hard enough to pass on what we learned from them, let alone come up with such in­no­va­tions,” said Cheng.

Back in the 1980s, the Shang­hai Mar­tial Arts Team con­sisted of no more than a dozen mem­bers, and four of them stud­ied taichi, re­called Cheng. Train­ing ev­ery day spanned six hours and the stu­dents of­ten had to adopt a horse stance for an hour. Even on cold win­ter morn­ings, they would be cov­ered in per­spi­ra­tion be­cause of the gru­elling train­ing rou­tine.

Cheng lived in the same dor­mi­tory room as Fu, as­sist­ing the then 84-year-old teacher with his daily chores.

“He was like a fa­ther to me. I learned a lot not from the classes we had, but from liv­ing to­gether with shifu (men­tor),” Cheng re­called.

The two men of­ten chat­ted for hours over cups of tea in the sum­mer evenings. They would talk about ev­ery­thing un­der the sun, from life to what­ever ideas they had.

Decades have since passed and Cheng still finds his teacher’s ideas in­spir­ing. In the liv­ing room of his home in the south­west­ern sub­urb of Shang­hai, a photo of him­self and Fu hangs on the wall as a re­minder of the good times.

Un­der Fu’s guid­ance, Cheng won sev­eral na­tional com­pe­ti­tions in tai­ji­quan as well as sword fight­ing. In 1991, Cheng bid farewell to his men­tor and left the team for Tu­nisia. He said that he was ex­hausted and sim­ply needed a break from the decades of train­ing and com­pe­ti­tion.

For five years, Cheng worked in Tu­nisia as a Chi­nese kungfu coach. He re­called how there was great in­ter­est in Chi­nese mar­tial arts in the African coun­try thanks to movies star­ring peo­ple like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

Cheng ini­tially only made his stu­dents re­peat mar­tial arts move­ments. When he later be­came pro­fi­cient in French, he started to ex­plain to them the the­o­ries be­hind th­ese move­ments.

He still vividly re­calls of the time when a lo­cal on the street had in­sulted him and his friend by call­ing them “arush”, which means “sheep”. Cheng took no more than a minute to bring the big­ger-sized man down to the ground. It was only then that Cheng found out that he had just as­saulted a plain clothes po­lice­man. Cheng and his friend man­aged to get out of the in­ci­dent with­out much trou­ble, but not be­fore spend­ing some time at the po­lice sta­tion.

In 1996, Cheng de­cided to start a Chi­nese restau­rant in Tu­nisia but an at­tor­ney ad­vised him against do­ing so, point­ing out to him that China and Tu­nisia were not on the best of terms at that point in time. He then moved back to China and started a dec­o­ra­tion com­pany in Shang­hai.

About eight years ago, Cheng started to con­duct taichi classes for cor­po­rate lead­ers in Shang­hai. Some of th­ese in­di­vid­u­als have since been so in­trigued with the mar­tial art that they have con­tin­ued with their train­ing and can to­day be con­sid­ered ad­vanced prac­ti­tion­ers.

“One day they will be teach­ing oth­ers. My job is to pass on to them ev­ery­thing I know to be right, as I’ve learned from my men­tor,” said Cheng.


Taichi prac­ti­tion­ers take part in a class held in a stu­dio in Shang­hai.


Cheng Wei (right) and his men­tor Fu Zhong­wen.

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