by Nigel Sutton
Shifu Tan Ching Ngee was born in the small town of Muar in Johor state Malaysia. His father, an immigrant from Chaozhou, China was poor and the young Ching Ngee had to leave school to go out to work to help support the family.
Then the family moved to Singapore where Ching Ngee began his lifelong involvement with the martial arts. He started off training in Southern Shaolin before meeting Shifu Chen Yu He who had, in his youth, trained at the Nanjing Central Martial Arts Academy, and who was employed in Singapore as an instructor at the Jing Wu association. It was Shifu Chen (aka Tan Geock Ho) who introduced Ching Ngee to the internal arts and started him on the road which led to Taiwan and Shifu Cheng Man Ching.
Shifu Tan’s approach to his art is systematic and carefully thought out and he is intent on developing a method by which his skills and those of his Shifu may be passed on to future generations. Here is an excerpt from an interview I conducted with him 20 years ago. The full interview and many more are featured in my book, Wisdom of Taiji Masters.
I teach a complete curriculum which if you practice once or twice a week will take you about six years to complete. First you learn to relax the body and turn the waist. Next you learn the 12 joint-warming exercises which open and loosen all the joints. Stepping comes next— forwards, backwards, left and right.
Cheng Man Ching’s 37-posture form is then taught with the learning process being divided into four stages. The first is to follow the teacher, using small stances, just Tan Shifu at Chen Man Ching’s tomb trying to copy the teacher’s movements. The next is to pay attention to getting all the arm movements correct. Stage three is to get the legs right; while the final stage is getting the body correct. There are a lot of components that fit together to make the form correct and unless you understand this you cannot successfully teach the art. To facilitate this training process in my school we have come up with a grading syllabus divided into basic, intermediate and advanced student grades followed by a series of instructor grades.
During the first six months of practice the beginner also learns auxiliary exercises such as the xiong jing (bear exercise) and niao shen (bird exercise). At the intermediate level pushing hands methods and applications, the pushing hands fixed step form (si zheng tui) and moving step form (da lu) as well as the san shou are all taught. As far as weapons are concerned I teach sword, broadsword, spear and staff in both solo and two-person forms. I am also careful to teach all my students how to avoid locks and escape from holds. The final stage in the training process is learning aspects of Chinese medicine aimed at curing problems that might develop during practice.
Every aspect of this curriculum is important. You have to learn the alphabet before you can read words; and you have to be able to read words before you can read sentences and so on. Everything is important but you may not realize its importance until you have completed the curriculum. If you know the form but don’t know broadsword then your understanding is lacking and this is true of every aspect. But if you were to ask me what was the most important aspect of form practice then I would have to say that it is a matter of jing, hua and qi.
How To Emphasize These 3 Aspects In Practice
All of these are related to an understanding of the key role of raising the energy to the top of the head, moving the waist, and swing and movement. When you understand swing and movement you will understand fa jing. The waist’s importance lies in the role it plays in attacking an opponent. Thus, by lining up waist and head you train these three elements: jing, hua and qi. If your form movements are correct then when you apply them in pushing hands you will be successful. If your form is not correct then when you want to apply the movements, you will not be able to do so; you won’t be able to hit your opponent or he will be able to hit you.
In Taijiquan, qi is vitally important, but when you first start training the most important thing is that you get the movements right. When they are correct then you can start to consider qi. In considering qi, however, it is the yi or intention that we must actually pay attention to; for when you use your mental intention then the qi follows it. If this is not the case, then you will simply be using li (or brute strength). Li and qi are vastly different. If you are using li, in pushing hands, for example, then you will find that your ability to use ting jing (listening energy; sensitivity) will be virtually nil. When you are using yi and qi your sensitivity is enhanced so that your responses are much faster.
As far as qigong is concerned, there are many methods that promise special powers and extraordinary skills—this is nonsense.
Beginners in Taijiquan pay attention to placing the mind in the dantian; when this becomes habitual then the qi naturally sinks to that area. After this has happened it becomes natural for the qi to gather and accumulate in the dantian region. When this has happened you no longer need to pay attention to the dantian for the qi will move as it should. If at this time you continue to pay too much attention to the accumulation of the qi in this area then your gongfu will stop at this level. You will no longer improve. This is because once you have gathered and stored the qi it must be allowed to spread throughout the body and to enter the bones.
There is no point in simply slavishly following any new qigong system that you come across. You must understand that Taijiquan is in itself a system of qigong and you must understand exactly how this is so; which is as I have detailed above.
As I said earlier, in Taijiquan we do not use li, rather we use jing and jing is developed through the use of qi. In order to develop jing you must understand the difference between the use of qi and of li. There is a saying in Taijiquan that when you use qi there is no li. There is a difference between using qi to push and using li to push. When you use qi, which depends on having a focused mind, the result is jing not li. When we say that you mustn’t use li it doesn’t mean that you use a flaccid softness; not at all. In Taijiquan we talk about the importance of having a root. The root is the foundation for jing. Some people practice their pushing hands, as they say, without using li, but they also throw away their root so that they fall all over the place. This is wrong and can lead to no improvement. If we take another example and look at the practice of Chinese calligraphy; if you use a brush in a soft and flaccid manner, the result will be an ugly piece of work. If, however, you use your intent, your focus, your qi, then naturally the result will be that you use the brush with jing and you will produce a fine piece of work. When a master calligrapher writes he appears relaxed; you cannot see his jing, but you can clearly see the result. Perhaps if you have reached his level of gongfu you might see the manifestation of jing as he writes.
You cannot see the air in a tire but you can feel it when you touch it. Similarly, the tire does not seek to deliberately use the air it contains; it is just there. This is true of the Taijiquan practitioner who has accumulated “In Taijiquan, qi is vitally important, but when you first start training the most important thing is that you get the movements right.”
Editor’s Note: This interview is a very brief excerpt from the deeply insightful interview with Tan Shifu in Nigel Sutton’s book Wisdom of Taiji Masters. The rest of the interview includes insights on Chian Jing Li Jun Lun, personal training with Cheng Man Ching, weapons training, teaching methods, push hands, applications and competition. This “Must Have” book also contains in depth interviews with all the disciples of Cheng Man Ching from Malaysia and singapore! Grab your copy today!