An English Rose in China

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING -

A BACK in­jury led Bri­ton Rose Oliver to tai chi, which led her to her hus­band and then took both of them to China. But three years af­ter mov­ing to Shang­hai to pur­sue their dream, Oliver’s hus­band died, leav­ing her alone to fol­low their shared pas­sion for tai chi.

Twenty years ago, Oliver’s back in­jury crushed her childhood dream of be­com­ing a bal­le­rina. But the in­jury did lead her to tai chi, a mar­tial art typ­i­cally prac­tised in slow mo­tion. Her ini­tial hope was to im­prove her health. She later mar­ried her in­struc­tor, Rey Nel­son, and founded a school with him, teach­ing the mar­tial art to more than 10,000 stu­dents over eight years.

The 49-year-old re­calls the in­jury that left her bedrid­den for six months when she was 21 years old and with con­stant pain for decades.

“I was ac­tive and could not bear rest­ing in bed,” she re­calls. “But the soft tis­sue in­juries were hard to heal. I thought I had to find some way to re­cover my health.”

Oliver saw a poster for a tai chi class and de­cided to try the “mys­te­ri­ous ex­otic sport”. She was struck by the beau­ti­ful move­ments and the “nice, pa­tient in­struc­tor” – Nel­son.

The cou­ple later opened a tai chi school in Bri­tain that at­tracted thou­sands. But they found them­selves in a bot­tle­neck.

“It was not enough for us to im­prove our­selves when we just learned from tai chi mas­ters for two or four weeks a year,” she says.

So the cou­ple moved to Shang­hai in 2000. They taught English in uni­ver­si­ties and hap­pily learned tai chi un­der var­i­ous gu­rus. Af­ter years of prac­tice, Oliver found her oc­ca­sional back­aches had dis­ap­peared.

But her great­est pain came when her hus­band died in 2003. She thought of giv­ing up. But she car­ried on to hon­our her hus­band.

“It was his dream to come to learn in China,” she says. “He mo­ti­vated me to come. Give it up to re­turn and not pur­sue what we came here for? That sounded easy. But it wasn’t easy at all.”

She says her tai chi “fam­ily” – the mas­ters and stu­dents – also pro­vided a great sup­port net­work.

Oliver’s spir­i­tual men­tor then was mas­ter Dong Bin, who died in 2009 at age 88. She says of their first meet­ing: “I had been told that his skill was of a very high level and for some rea­son I had a men­tal im­age of a pow­er­ful, big man. But my shix­iong (fel­low male stu­dent) pointed to a small, wiz­ened old gen­tle­man, sit­ting on the ground.

“I felt amazed as I re­alised that this was the mas­ter him­self, and then a sud­den feel­ing of plea­sure hit me. Of course, this was ex­actly the kind of per­son who would be a tai chi mas­ter - the last per­son you could imag­ine. I learned tremen­dously from him. He not only taught me the tai chi phys­i­cally, but also the phi­los­o­phy of how to be a bet­ter per­son, how to keep go­ing when you felt tired.”

The mas­ter was sent to a labour camp dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion (1966-76) be­cause he wanted to quit his job to prac­tise tai chi full time. He was not al­lowed to prac­tise in the camp. So, he se­cretly did the move­ments un­der the blan­ket when ly­ing in bed.

“He was treated un­fairly. But he was not an­gry or bit­ter or hate­ful, but just be­came sweeter, nicer and kinder,” Oliver ex­plains. “His ethos is that one should not pur­sue riches and fame but en­deav­our to be happy and share one’s knowl­edge and wis­dom with oth­ers.”

Fol­low­ing the mas­ter, Oliver learned to live a sim­ple life – one per­haps more tra­di­tional than many Chi­nese. She does tai chi in the morn­ing and brews kung fu tea for guests. Be­sides tai chi, Oliver spends her time teach­ing English and at­tend­ing cul­tural-ex­change events.

She founded the Dou­ble Dragon Al­liance in 2005. The or­gan­i­sa­tion en­ables Chi­nese kung fu mas­ters to teach mar­tial arts to Western­ers and or­gan­ises sem­i­nars and events for them to ex­pe­ri­ence Chi­nese mas­sage, acupunc­ture, tra­di­tional medicine, cal­lig­ra­phy and tea cer­e­monies.

Shang­hai Jiao Tong Univer­sity as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor Luo Jifeng has learned tai chi with Oliver since 2009 and of­ten joins her or­gan­i­sa­tion’s events. His home is now a site for for­eign visi­tors Oliver in­vites to ex­pe­ri­ence or­di­nary Chi­nese life.

Be­cause of her con­tri­bu­tion to cul­tural ex­change, Oliver was given the Shang­hai Mag­no­lia Award on Sept 30, 2013. The award, named af­ter Shang­hai’s city flower, is given to for­eign­ers who have made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the city.

And she has been in­ducted as a Mem­ber of the Or­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire in 2011 by Bri­tain’s Queen El­iz­a­beth II – one of the high­est tributes to a cit­i­zen.

“She (the Queen) asked me some ques­tions about China (at the cer­e­mony),” she re­calls.

“We talked about the cul­tural ex­change in build­ing friend­ship. And she said: ‘ This is very im­por­tant work. You must keep it up’. And I said OK.

“You see,” she says, jok­ingly, “now I have no other choice.” – China Daily/Asia News Net­work

rose Oliver prac­tis­ing tai chi with her stu­dents at a Shang­hai park. — China daily

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