When learning martial art, you will initially imitate the teacher closely, accepting the culture of the martial art style you are studying. Subconsciously you are influenced by the particular kind of discipline which not only changes you physically, but will also affect your personal qualities. “As you practice martial art, martial art shapes you.” After studying a considerable length of time, especially after departing from your teacher you will consciously or subconsciously infuse your own understanding of the martial art style into your practice. This understanding is limited by the depth of your learning, the level of your martial competence, your cultural heritage and your own personal attribute. At this stage, “as you practice martial art, your personality also shapes your martial art.” You might say you have not deviated from your master’s teaching. However this is not possible and is only your perception. In reality after a period of time everyone’s practice will consciously or subconsciously evolve in a particular direction, either for the better or for the worse. Even though the external performance of your practice routine has not changed much, the internal substance will definitely be different.
I am very passionate about Taijiquan, and through searching and investigating I have learnt and experienced many Taiji styles over the last fifty odd years. Among the contemporary Taiji styles, I would consider the Taijiquan of Master Hong Jun-sheng to be included in the highest category (of course not the only one). His style is leading the way in the development of Taijiquan. The many ideas and techniques that he had created are highly advanced, and are suitable for adaptation by all styles of Taijiquan generally. In future I shall write a separate discourse to discuss this aspect. Master Hong’s Taijiquan is no longer identical to that of his teacher the Grandmaster Chen Fa-ke, and can be said to contain new development and innovations. It is more scientific, easier to learn and to apply, and is able to alter a normal person’s habitual but inefficient application of strength. Master Hong could achieve this mainly because of his extraordinary intellect and his rich cultural background. He also had the good fortune of studying under the illustrious Grandmaster Chen Fa-ke, metaphorically to be able to stand on the shoulders of a giant. Another factor was the personal attributes of Master Hong, through whom we can see many of the traditional virtues of the Chinese people. These virtues were the enabler of his innovative development which I will attempt to discuss:
1. Perseverance and Optimism - Many people on a mission would abandon their commitment due to obstacles in life preventing continuation of their undertaking. We recognise that external conditions can sometimes have definitive impact on what we do. However more often than not it is our personal weakness that leads us to succumb to external factors. In the 1950’s Master Hong was under attack from political activists. His freedom of movement was restricted, and his source of income was discontinued. Subsequently in 1961 he fell paralysed and was bedbound. In Master Hong’s own words, he was under the weight of 3 mountains. Normal people faced with only one or two obstacles would be totally depressed and ineffective. However Master Hong utilised this bedridden period to complete a manuscript for the Chen Style First Routine. He had transformed a pressure into a source of strength. Compared with Master Hong’s difficult situation, how serious are the obstacles we face? If we could be a bit tougher and persevere until conditions improve, while our Taiji skills could also advance, then we would be glad to continue on our journey. With perseverance you can inherit, and by persevering you can innovate.
2. Kindness to Students, Caring without Reservation - I believe many of Master Hong’s students have the same feeling as I have, that Master Hong treated his students in a very close and caring way as though they were his close relatives. Would this sort of relationship with his students have anything to do with his Taiji attainment? Master Hong said, “A lot of my ideas are leant from my students.” This is only a manner of speech, and does not really imply that students taught the master. Rather it is meant that while learning, students would have a lot of queries and practices that required the teacher to explain, thus prompting the teacher to undergo new ways of thinking. The kindness of the teacher encourages students to boldly and freely raise questions and participate in experiments. This allows the teacher to experience numerous new approaches which, accumulated over time a new style would slowly form. For a master who closes up sitting on a high pedestal this process is beyond his reach. A master’s regularity of practicing with students and his relationship with them would affect the master’s practical experience and inventiveness.
3. Indifference to Fame and Fortune, High Aspirations - A person’s time and energy is limited, and what you value could consume much of your time and effort. To gain, one must let go .Your attitude towards fame and fortune can reflect your mindset and determine your attainment in martial arts. Although Master Hong endured austere and difficult conditions for a long period of time, he never changed his mind set and passion. In one correspondence he told me that at the time, several places in China had established Chen Style Taijiquan Research Group. A local official suggested to him to follow suit. Master Hong’s response was “Who would have time to organise it.” He said in reality it was no more than a few people wanting to add some titles behind their names, and had nothing to do with research. Prior to that Master Hong had been under political suppression and remained anonymous while other students of Chen Fa-ke had attained fame in and outside China. It would have been reasonable for Master Hong to seize any opportunity to make his name known, but he would not stoop to that. After a long period of correspondence, in 1984 I finally arrived in Jinan to visit Master Hong. I had requested him to seek out some close-by accommodation for me, but he allowed me to stay in his home. In the evening after everyone had left I took out some money and food coupons to offer to him, but he refused to accept, saying “do we need to do this?” I was very touched, but insisted that I needed to eat too. Only then that Master Hong accepted the money and coupons. At the time his living conditions were not good, nevertheless right from the beginning he treated me like family and would not consider charging me. For that reason even now I consider Master Hong as my family, motivating me to live up to his teaching and expectation and striving for higher ideal. In today’s impetuous and shallow era, a lot of people also claim indifference to fame and fortune. But for the slightest attraction of name and wealth they will change their feathers and reveal their true selves. How many would stay the course and do something of substance? Many claim to promote Taijiquan, but have not raised their voice stressing properly inheriting their masters’ skills. If you have not inherited your master’s fine skills, then what you are promoting are fakes and meaningless. Can it be a good thing? To be able to inherit the high level skills of the master, it requires a very considerable length of time to concentrate on experiencing and practicing, gradually achieving the goal. It is better to put one’s limited time to Taiji practice, for only then is it possible to succeed.
4. Respect and Empathy for the Opponent - Has this got anything to do with innovation? Actually showing respect and compassion for the opponent is a true reflection of one’s noble martial character. It is also indicative of one’s level of attainment in Taijiquan. In combative display, it is only on very rare occasions of life and death that one has reason to injure the opponent. Ordinarily in a test of skill there is no need to cause harm. The way you treat your opponent is a revelation of your mental state. Some practitioners without fine martial qualities will seek to display their skills by injuring or flooring their opponents in ordinary matches, regardless of whether the competitors were beginners or their own students. Grandmaster Chen Fa-ke’s skills were superb, and in contests he could very definitively reveal his superior skills by ejecting the opponents without injuring them. Many of his students were very able combatants, but few had attained his high level of Taiji. Master Hong was one who had inherited this skill. The ultimate level of skill that one reaches is not only differentiated by what one achieves at the end, but is determined also by what one chooses to strive for at the beginning. To learn to eject one’s opponent without injury is much more difficult than hurting or knocking out the adversary. If overcoming the opponent is your priority, then you would not have chosen the more difficult skill of preserving your opponent’s wellbeing. Once one is set in the habit of hurting the opponent, then it is very difficult to raise one’s skill level to that of defeating without injury. The latter requires much higher level martial art, and without years of dedication is not possible to attain. Taiji practitioners of inferior character who are insensitive to others are likely malicious to their opponents. Those who are considerate in nature are probably quite good in their martial skills. However it is those with noble character who could attain the realm of superlative martial artistry.
If you practice Taijiquan because it is truly your passion, and you wish to reach the peak of the Art, then you will need to be prepared for perseverance. Taiji like other Chinese traditional arts such as calligraphy, painting, Peking opera, etc., is only possible to be comparably better, but can never be the absolute best. You can devote a lifetime pursuing advancement.
If you are really passionate about Taiji, then you should be kind to those who learn and practice with you, especially your students, for they are the ones who will be by your side the most. You will spend 30, 50 years to sharpen a sword, and they are your best whetstone.
If you are really passionate about Taiji, then you should disregard fame and fortune. If elements of status and wealth can distract your focus, then you will be misled on the wrong path and never reach your destination.
If you are really passionate about Taiji, then you will respect your opponents. It is only with this sentiment that your Taiji will not be reduced to merely a combative skill that maims or kills, but will flourish into a noble and elegant martial artistry.