In his in-depth interview in Nigel Sutton’s new book, Wisdom of Taiji Masters, Sifu Koh Ah Tee talks about the history, practice and secrets of Cheng man Ching’s Taijiquan. The whole of Taiji can be reduced to one word, song (“alert relaxation”), says Koh. That is the essence, the root, everything. Relaxation is the most important thing, for without having achieved this gongfu then you cannot acquire jing (Taiji’s whole body power). Without jing you cannot reach a high standard in Taiji.
Taijiquan is without shape, without form. It is on the inside, not the outside. If you look at external martial arts they seem to be easier to use, easier to apply. Taiji, on the other hand, appears more obscure. This is because it is concerned with the internal. If you’re not clear on this then you will be unable to see to the heart of how Taiji may be applied. In Taiji the outside is soft, the inside is hard. If you look at the exterior it looks like it can’t really be used but if you look deeper you will see the real usefulness of Taiji. So to answer the question of how to acquire Taiji’s fighting skills, this is a matter of continuous, diligent practice of the form and pushing hands. No special training, just Taiji training.
Grandmaster Cheng Man Ching was a very strange old man. He was secretive about his training history and was supposed to have had over 20 teachers. One of his teachers told him that if he met a monk he was to bow his head and treat him as his Shifu and this he did right into his old age. Some people called him crazy because of his eccentric habits.
From when he was very young, Shiye (teacher/grandfather, a term used by Cheng stylists to refer to Cheng Man Ching) studied external martial arts for a short time. He was sick, that’s why he did this. After that he studied with Yang Cheng Fu for seven years, learning Yang style Taiji. How he gained access to Yang Cheng Fu’s secrets was like this: Yang Cheng Fu’s wife was sick and Cheng Man Ching cured her, so of course Shifu Yang was grateful.
Through Yang, Grandmaster met Zhang Ching Ling, who was also a student of Yang’s. Zhang went on to become grandmaster’s Shifu in the Zuo system of internal strength. It was when Cheng Man Ching started teaching himself that he became a disciple of the Zuo system, under Shifu Zhang Ching Ling. Although in one system they were martial arts brothers, in the other they were Shifu and disciple.
With Shifu Zhang he studied the neigong xinfa (internal strength heart method) of qigong. These methods are important to the practitioner of Cheng Man Ching style. It is not to say that they are absolutely essential but they are a component of the method.
In Taiwan there is a well-known master, Wang Yen Nian, who also says that he learned from Zhang Ching Ling but his methods are different. Why? I don’t know. I am not clear as to how long Wang Yen Nian studied with Zhang Ching Ling—his training history is not clear. Grandmaster always talked about his Taiji consisting of gong (training), quan (fist), jian, neigong, form, straightsword, as well as pushing hands. These he definitely taught. As far as other things are concerned I’m not sure. One hears many stories about him teaching this and that but I can only be certain of the elements I’ve already listed.
Grandmnaster Cheng had a great deal of experience in actually applying his art. On one occasion he took on several British soldiers at a demonstration. They were all much bigger than him but had no chance to better him. Six soldiers, but they had no chance!
He was, however, not a common brawler. He was a man of considerable self-cultivation. There are people who say that what Grandmaster taught in America was not the same as that he taught to his Chinese students. My feeling is that he did not teach two different methods with the level of self-cultivation that he had reached as he got older; I don’t feel that he would have felt morally justified in doing so. Apart from which it would be very difficult to teach one method here and another method there. I know I couldn’t do it. No, I think for moral and practical reasons the teaching of two systems is impossible.
Men of Shiye’s generation definitely regarded tradition as being of great importance, especially the relationship between Shifu and disciple. This was especially true in the 1950s when Grandmaster Cheng was first in Taiwan. Then he was more secretive. By the 1970s, the latter few years of his life, he opened up. I think this process was inevitable because in order to prove the art’s effectiveness, he had to teach the secrets so that people could use the art. After all, he sought to promote Taiji.
Over his life I think he eventually taught more or less everything openly. I believe that all his secrets were written in his books, but notice that while the books might reveal the secrets, they do not tell you how to acquire the skills. What he wrote down, he himself had achieved but that is not to say everyone can achieve the practical application of these secrets. It depends on your own level of development, both moral and physical. Some people read his books and don’t understand; others read and understand but can’t apply the knowledge in practical terms. So, in fact, they are still a long way from having acquired the secret, although on one level they “know” it.
Throughout the years that I have been practicing, I have met many famous Taiji teachers and yet not one of them has demonstrated for me skills that match either the written or film records of Grandmaster Cheng’s skill. My personal opinion is that even as an old man, Grandmaster Cheng had a high level of refined, clear skill that few of the younger generation have been able to achieve.
I have heard that at one point in his training career he studied dian xue (the art of attacking vital points) but in later life he repeatedly stated that Taiji is a higher level of skill than all other forms of martial art he had studied. After all, if your Taiji skill is of a high level your opponent will have no opportunity to use his dian xue. In the end he gave dian xue up for Taiji. He had absolute faith in Taiji, that’s why he practiced that and nothing else.
In his youth Grandmaster really liked to fight; his gongfu was based on the realities of fighting not on theoretical knowledge. There is no doubt that he could apply what he knew. There is a story about how he used dian xue on one challenger. I believe that Grandmaster was a man of great moral cultivation and that his challenger really wanted to damage him. So he was forced to “show him a little color.”
Very often in his early days he lost his fights but he had a very strong character and he would always come back for more until he won. Always after a loss he would say “two weeks” or “one month” and then he would go away, analyze why he had lost and when the stated time limit was up, go back to try again.