By Roger Cotgreave
Copyright © Roger Cotgreave 2001. All rights reserved.
Huang Shengxian was well known and respected in Chinese martial arts circles around the world for the subtlety and strength of his internal power and his ability to use it in the Tai Ji pushing hands. Unfortunately few Westerners ever experienced his abilities first hand and many disbelieved his skill and felt the need to convince others of their disbelief with rational arguments founded on lack of personal experience. I have never met one person who was lucky enough to get to practise with Master Huang, who had any doubt of his capabilities.
Some did argue that his 20 years of practising Fujian White Crane under some of the most famous masters of his time was a major factor in his later success at Tai Ji, and he never denied it. Nevertheless, while giving due credit to the three Daoist sages who taught him White Crane from the age of 14, he always attributed his Tai Ji skill to the late Cheng Man-Chiíng.
Huang met Cheng in Taiwan in 1949. He kneeled to and was accepted by him, the first Tai Ji exponent who had been able to deal comfortably with Huangís White Crane during a friendly test of skills. Ben Pang Jang Lo of San Francisco, a famous student of Cheng, was present in those early days and he told me that when Huang first attended Chengís school, he was already able to throw normal people ten metres using his White Crane hands. However, the relaxed students of Cheng could escape his push to some extent.
Because of this, at first Cheng refused to believe that Huang had not learnt Tai Ji somewhere before but then Huang showed Cheng the secret White Crane training manual handed down from his Daoist teachers containing on the first page the characters: Sung, Sung, Sung; meaning: Relax, Relax, Relax; and on the second: Yi, Yi,Yi: meaning: Mind, Mind, Mind. Cheng said he could see that the systems were similar and that Huang had already achieved the first ten years of Tai Ji through his training in White Crane.
Huang stayed with Cheng until 1959 when at Chengís injunction he emigrated to Singapore and later to Malaysia, finally setting up home in Kuching on the island of Borneo. There he remained for most of the rest of his life, steadily practising, teaching, experimenting, developing his training system and opening new schools as well trained instructors became available.
Huang was notable in his teaching in many ways, but one which I as a foreigner experienced was his insistence that it was not a personís race (being Chinese) or family lineage that had any influence on the learning Tai Ji. Instead it was the personís attitude, practise method and the help of a good master that led to success. He told me that in his experience neither the very rich nor the very poor would succeed in learning Tai ji as they were both too concerned with money.
In the form, while most teachers stressed the postures themselves, Huang stressed the changes that occur in the moving from one posture to another. Throughout the 70 years over which he developed his skills he constantly sought to refine and internalise them through hours of daily practise and original thought.
Over the last twenty years of his life, I saw the physical movement he used being withdrawn from his legs and arms, then being concentrated and minimised within the centre of his body. At the last it would appear to all but the most experienced eye that he would yield, neutralise and issue with no visible changes. This is the stage of pure mind intention (Yi) and all genuine internal masters achieve it to some degree.
But at the same time a more important refinement was taking place. As this subtlety was unnoticed by most, Huang occasionally attempted to explain this process. In his words, it involved removing the intention or "Yi" from the process of issuing energy so that the issuing phase appeared naturally and spontaneously during the sinking and letting go of the mind. The result was that it felt both to his mind (and to others involved) that the receiver of his energy threw him or herself. This paralleled the Daoist ideal in daily life of doing nothing yet all things still being done. (Which, it must be said, must not be confused with the elementary psychological method of splitting oneís attention while simultaneously doing and observing.)
Huang expected each student to go back to first principles and to study nature and the animals to understand and rediscover the Tai Ji principles, as this was how the old masters who founded and developed Tai Ji had learned in their time. This he had done for himself over the years and he often talked about the results of his own studies. He felt that Tai Ji was a living teaching, and that it must grow within each person rather than become stagnant and fixed.
Huang also acknowledged the individual contribution of all genuine practitioners of Tai Ji whatever their level. Knowing that I was involved in other internal disciplines simultaneously, he advised that all teachers have their strengths and their weaknesses, and to make sure that I learnt from each teacherís strong points and not their weak ones! This was what he himself had tried to do over his lifetime, and this was the open-mindedness that held me and so many others to him while at the same time leaving us free to find our own path.
Some of his Daoist sayings that I remember and that characterised his life are:
Thirteen Questions, with Answers by Huang Shengxian
Q: Are there different schools or sects of Tai Ji?
Answer: Tai Ji embodies a comprehensive set of knowledge. It was developed and handed down by our learned predecessors, and offers both mystifying principles and profound philosophical insight.
Tai Ji is not a martial art meant for bragging and antagonistic purposes. Our predecessors developed the art for improving human health, warding off sickness, slowing down the ageing process, achieving longevity and defending oneself. All this benefits mankind and society. Good character formation is promoted.
An adherent imbibed with the Dao (or philosophy as a way of life) of Tai Ji would contribute towards proper governance of the country and universal peace. A Tai Ji exponent must understand the principles and philosophy. No one should deviate from these principles and philosophy. The movements can be developed and modified but the principles are eternal. The external forms may differ from person to person but the principles are standard and unvarying. Because of this, there is no basis for differentiation by schools. Instead a spirit of a single family should prevail. Common interest of the art should take precedence over personal interest. An open attitude should emerge, bearing in mind the spirit of the founder and predecessors to propagate the philosophy of Tai Ji throughout the world so as to improve the health of mankind.
Q: How should we practise Tai Ji in order to reach accuracy?
Answer: The gap between accurate and non-accurate achievement is wide. Remember the words of the old master, Wang Tsung Yueh, that the body must be naturally and vertically balanced. Bear in mind the principles of being relaxed, rounded and aware of the various parts of the body. During practise of the set movements, one must be careful, conscious and alert, and observant; one must feel where one is moving. Otherwise there is form without substance and deception to people.
To achieve accuracy, the principles of Tai Ji must be followed in addition to correct methods of practising. A good master is necessary coupled with oneís own constant research. The art must be learned progressively; one must be on firm ground first before advancing to the next step.
Personal discipline is also important. One must be determined, confident, persevering and motivated. A secure means of livelihood and having normal environment coupled with single-mindedness, constant learning and practise, and a thorough understanding of the principles -- all this will lead to achievement of accuracy.
This is in contrast to those who want to learn fast, who concern themselves with the external forms, and who practise sporadically. These people hope to learn first and be corrected later, not realising that it is worse than having a new person learning from scratch.
Others take the principles of Tai Ji lightly or superficially and liken the art to a common exercise, drill or dance. This has form but no substance.
Oneís body may be likened to a perfect machine where a wrong spare part will affect the operation of the machine. The founder of Tai Ji said, "Achieving the Dao is important, acquiring the skill in the art is secondary. Not learning my Dao, he is not my student." Therefore also important are honesty and righteousness, and a good moral character.
Q: There are different forms of Tai Ji. Are their principles different?
Answer: The founder created the art. But through the years, the forms of Tai Ji have differed. Some have 24 basic movements while others have 37; some have 64 set movements and others have 72, 108, or even 124. There are long sets and short sets. Movements have been large and expansive and have been small and compact. Some teachers emphasised high postures; others opted for low ones. Some practise slowly; others practise at a faster pace. This divergence was written by men, so it is not important. What is important is that the principles remain the same.
Different masters with different temperaments have been following the basic principles through the ages. They have engaged in continuos research and training. They have reviewed and improved the art until the ultimate objective is achieved, where form becomes formless, limbs are no longer important, brute force becomes non-existent, and stiffness has given way to being fully relaxed. Harmonisation is achieved between the upper, middle and lower parts, and between the left and the right body. Youthfulness and longevity are attained. And most importantly, character formation has advanced to the stage of "non-self."
It is easy to master correct forms once the Qi and the principles of the art are internally harmonised. No matter how difficult learning forms may seem, it is comparatively easier to master correct forms than to acquire skill in the principles of the art.
During training or practising, there are a number of normally undetectable parts of the body that are difficult to keep under control from the aspects of speed, timing, rhythm and balance. Because of this, skill in the art is difficult to acquire. But then as the founder says, "Understanding one portion of the art would mean being enlightened on all portions or parts. Then all schools and sects become one."
Q: Is it better to practise Tai Ji more frequently or less frequently?
Answer: There are no extremes in Tai JI. The essence is in the training method. If the method is not correct, it is no different from ordinary drills with a lot of time spent but relatively little achievement. So it is not a question of practising more or less frequently but practising correctly. That is, the central equilibrium must be vertically maintained. Every movement must be disciplined so that the posture is vertically balanced. The principles remain unchanged: there is straightness in a curve and vice-versa. There must be constant learning and practise, understanding the principles and the less obvious points. Mastery of this will produce skill naturally.
Thus there is no question of practising too much or too little but rather of practising correctly.
Q: Is it correct to practise the art fast or to practise it slow?
Answer: The earth rotates at a constant and specific rate. Similarly, Tai Ji should not be practised too slowly or too fast but should be practised comfortably. The human body must be moved naturally otherwise there would be weaknesses. If the practise is too fast, breathing is affected resulting in uneven respiration, breathlessness, and the heart pulsating too fast. If the practise is too slow, then the limbs and the joints become stiff. Qi is blocked and becomes locally stagnant: intent or consciousness is employed but the Qi is not flowing.
Internal force and Qi must be synchronised. Internally, there is the harmony of the libido energy and spirit while externally, the mind, consciousness (or intent), and body are harmonised. In turn, both the internal and external harmonies are synchronised.
Muscles must be relaxed and all parts of the body must be held naturally without tension. Therefore it is not possible to say whether practising fast is correct or practising slow is correct. Fast and slow are based on the standard or level of achievement of the student.
Basically, one must practise until the whole body is relaxed and comfortably balanced. Once there is internal and external synchronisation, then the question of slow and fast in practise is unimportant. At this stage, one gets the feeling that the upper portion of the body is like the drifting of clouds and the lower portion is like the flowing of water. Consciousness is continuous and is harmonised with movement. All parts of the body are natural and are unified. There is no question of being fast or slow.
Q: Which is correct, high or low postures during the set movements of Tai Ji?
Answer: The art of Tai Ji does not distinguish high and low postures. Instead it is based on the idea of four "balances" or equilibrium:
Consciousness is used to lead the muscles in relaxing. Joints, muscles and ligaments must be loosened, relaxed, and "thrown" open, but remain linked. This way the body is erect and comfortable.
Consciousness is also used to "move" Tai Ji principles to parts of the body. Having achieved the "four balances and eight steadinesses," the question of high and low postures is then answered individually.
Q : How can substantiality and insubstantiality be distinguished between left and right or between top and bottom parts of the body?
Answer: The muscles, skeleton and nerves are parts of the body system. When practising the movements, the use of consciousness to sink and relax the body is most important. The centre of gravity is moved while preserving the uprightness of the central axis of the body.
Focus on steadiness, tranquillity, relaxation and rootedness, and use inner force to propel external movements in a continuous or uninterrupted fashion. Internal force is generated using turning movements. After many practises, the whole body is in balance.
Be aware of "cross alignments." When left and right or top and bottom are distinguished, one is substantial and the other insubstantial. For instance, when the left upper part of the body is substantial, then the left lower part is insubstantial. Similarly, when the right upper part of the body is substantial, the right lower part is insubstantial. This pattern of cross alignment is used in shifts of the centre of gravity from one leg to the other, and is analogous to the "cross-roads" of the nervous system. When moving Qi along these alignments, one must separate substantial from insubstantial; one must step without moving the body or move the body without moving the hand. If during the step the body also moves, then you are not separating substantial from insubstantial. If in moving the body, the hand also moves, then the shoulder and the hands are not relaxed.
It is important to follow the principles of using consciousness to propel movement. The top and bottom, left and right portions of the body must be co-ordinated!
The rim of a grinding stone may move but the centre does not move. So, like the centre of the stone, all parts of the body must become one system characterised by lightness and agility, roundness and smoothness. Even during respiration, alternate opening and closing. Think of the sea, where with movement from one part of the sea, all parts are also moved. The movements are guided by consciousness and are properly regulated, just like the regular movements of the waves in the sea.
Q: How could the movements be practised in order that they could be usefully applied?
Answer: Take the five loosening (or relaxing) exercises as an illustration. These exercises are based on Tai Ji principles, so during practise there must be full concentration, as any distraction will nullify any effects. Bear in mind the three points of non-mobility: the head which must be locked on to the body, the hands which must not move of their own volition, and the soles of the feet which must be still and rooted to the ground.
Consciousness (or intent) will lead the Qi along, so steps are made without affecting or moving the body. Turning movements start from the waist and hips with hands propelled from the waist and hips in accordance with the principle that all movements originate from the waist. Principles must be understood and no movements are separated from the principles.
Once you do the forms internally you are also "through" externally. Once you are fully relaxed, you can change according to circumstances and can therefore neutralise an oncoming force. You will have reached that position of "non-self" where the whole body is the weapon and the hands are no more used as hands. If you are not able to usefully apply your movements, then you still have not understood the basics of the five relaxing exercises. If you have not mastered the essentials, then there is no point of talking about application of the movements.
Q: What is the rationale for relaxing the abdomen and withdrawing the coccyx (or tailbone)?
Answer: Qi is stored in the Dan Tien [internal centre of the body], so use consciousness to sink the Qi to this point. From the Dan Tien, Qi should circulate to the whole body. If Qi just remains in the Dan Tien, then the abdomen will have the sensation of being stuffed. Only when Qi circulates throughout the body will the abdomen be relaxed and pliable. After a time, the abdomen will acquire some "bouncy" or "springy" effect, and Qi will circulate to the whole body. However, Qi can be occluded or absorbed into the backbone, and the Song of the Thirteen Postures says, "If the abdomen is thoroughly relaxed, then the Qi will rise." So do not just store the Qi in the abdomen, otherwise it will simply bloat.
Having coccyx withdrawn means there is no protrusion of the buttocks while ensuring that at the time the hip joints are not "sliding" forward. This action must be combined with relaxing the abdomen and both requirements must be met at the same time. Otherwise, there is no rootedness and the waist is stiff, which in turn results in vertical imbalance or disequilibrium.
To achieve equilibrium, it is important to maintain the uprightness of the central axis of the body. A simple test to see whether all this has been done correctly is to press a thumb against the abdomen and then release the thumb suddenly. There should be a bouncing or springy effect of the abdomen. At the same time, the buttocks should be very soft to the touch.
Q: What is true spirit of Tai Ji?
Answer: Good and famous masters of Tai Ji teach the same stuff but students learn differently. This is because students differ in natural endowment and physical make-up. The real acquisition of the art is not in just mastering the external forms but also in mastering the principles and philosophy. The learner must be a man of reason, someone who has learned, practised and understood the art successfully. He applies those principles and philosophy to his daily life. He will not take unfair advantage or be selfish. He is wholeheartedly devoted to Tai Ji. He shares the founderís spirit of striving for mankind to be physically and mentally healthy. This is the true Tai Ji spirit.
Q: How many times a day must we practise the set movements?
Answer: Some people say you must practise the whole set of movements ten times a day with each set lasting about 25 minutes. But while this emphasis on quantity may succeed in making you lose weight, it runs contrary to the basic principles of Tai Ji. Moderation is key, and excess is not beneficial to the development of the internal force, internal organs or the body in general.
Also, no matter how much or little you practise, the practise must be correct. Grandmaster Cheng Man-Chíing said, "I practise the mobilisation of the internal force and Qi using the 37 basic movements every day. One set of movements lasts only seven minutes." Based on my experience and following my method, students are encouraged to practise every morning and evening for about five minutes. During this time, they should divide a particular movement or posture into its component parts, and practise it over and over again. Students who do so are likely to succeed.
Q: Some students have been learning and practising Tai Ji for several years and yet remain unstable. Why is this so?
Answer: A lot of students are using wrong learning methods and therefore practising technique instead of the Dao. Students must start with understanding the Dao, which starts with philosophy and progresses to principles. After that comes the correct method, and finally there is the effort. The student must understand the relationship of Man and his surroundings or the universe, use Qi, and be humble and persistent. Over time, rootedness will result and the method of practising understood.
Understand the principles and you also become aware of less obvious aspects of acquiring skill. Being rooted and having internal force can never be observed externally. However, they can be achieved through correct method.
In practising the movement and developing the internal force, the joints of the body must be loosened and yet linked. The whole body must be relaxed yet not easily pushed over by an opponent. Substantiality must be distinguished from insubstantiality.
So aim to be flexible and pliable like a snake whose tail will come in to help if someone attacks the head, or whose head and tail both assist when the centre is attacked.
If responsive to consciousness (or intent), then this pliability can be achieved. It is easier to lift off an iron rod weighing 200 catties [about 220 pounds] than an iron chain weighing 100 catties. This illustrates the principles of thoroughly relaxed joints.
Students also must understand and apply Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang encompass the universe. Movements, whether divided according to upper and lower, right and left, front and back, internal and external, correspond to the principles of substantiality and insubstantiality. Moving and stillness alternate continuously: Yin does not depart from Yang and vice-versa. When Yang moves, Yin also moves and vice-versa.
This principle must be understood when practising both push hands and set movements. The body and the character are trained together as is the acquisition of the Dao and the art. Dao is likened to Yin while the art or skill is the Yang. Yang evolves from Yin at Yinís completion: Rootedness becomes flexibility, strength becomes no-strength.
Neutralisation of force is the principle behind no-strength. No-strength is not weakness, but instead the stillness of a mountain. No change is seen but much changes. The founder has said, "Dao is the basis, art is the consequential." One learns the Dao by learning not to resist the irresistible, and by teaching the rebellious mind, body, and spirit to be obedient.
When defending, one must understand the method of the attack. To achieve this, one needs outward insubstantiality and inner quietude. Meanwhile, when attacking, one must be confident, almost comfortable.
Finally, during pushing hands exercise, one must learn stickiness. Having achieved stickiness, then one can achieve the ability to neutralise force. With adequate reserves, the neutralising ability is applied with an involuntary exertion of internal force.
Q: How should a student relate to his teacher?
Answer: Present day science is very advanced and affects all aspects of human endeavour. There is also stress and keen competition in business, and together these have a telling effect on the spirit. Injured spirit is a common malady. This is why Tai Ji, an ancient art, is popular: It has no secrets. It is equitable to all as it discriminates against no student.
Unfortunately, students often commit errors in practising the art. Students should bear in mind the following pointers:
Roger Cotgreave practises and teaches taiji in Australia. Websites featuring
his photography include http://www.xaraxone.com/html/featured_art_2001.html