Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, May 13, 2021

A Tribute to a Taijiquan Master

Below is an excerpt from a tribute to Prof. Cheng Man Ching written by Robert W Smith a few years after Prof. Cheng's death. The entire text may be read here.

A Master Passes
A Tribute to Cheng Man-ch'ing
By Robert W. Smith, 1979

On hearing that Cheng Man-ch'ing had died suddenly in Taiwan on March 25, 1975, my reaction was one of disbelief. Even knowing that he was 75 and that he had energetically graced several fields of endeavor for so long couldn't dull this edge of disbelief. But a fact is a fact: Cheng has, as old Taoists say, 'changed.' He may even have had a premonition of the approaching change. I have been told that he had been working twenty hours a day on his study of the I-ching, (The Book of Changes) treating patients, and teaching T'ai-chi. His teaching style had changed. Where earlier he guided tersely, slowly, and sometimes by indirection, recently he had expedited the training and taken a more active part in it. The hectic pace of these activities - so like him - suggest that he was aware of the limited time remaining to him.

Life is anything but even. Yang Sen, the old Szechwan warlord, is now 94 in Taiwan, full of years, with many wives, and reportedly, 43 children. Yan has nothing to teach (despite his purported yang/yin powers) and is alive. Cheng who had much to teach is dead. And yet it seems to me that the Professor's greatest teaching is that each of us has to do it for himself. He always said that there were no secrets; he couldn't give us a pill. There was only the work of relaxing and sinking (and we know how hard that is), or 'investing in loss' and thereby winning by losing. And these are better than the fact I spoke of above: These are truths.

During the week in which the tiny 12-line notice headed 'Artist Cheng Dies at 75' appeared in the Taipei China Post two other stories were given full treatment. One, headlined 'Local Kung-fu Fighter Overpowers U.S. expert' told of a local screen boxer who outpointed a young American none of us had ever heard of. The Chinese, of course, claimed he could beat Muhammad Ail. In the other story, Chinese martial artists were deriding two Americans who spent 18 months studying, labeled themselves 'Masters of Kung Fu,' and returned to the USA One now had over 300 students in California. Do you wonder why I cringe from commercialism? Our 'kung fu' heroes today with their trampolines, sound effects, trick cameras, and public relations prostitutes have so little knowledge that most would not even recognize the high skill Cheng possessed. But we knew it. Put it this way: there was not only nobody equal, there wasn't even anyone second to him.

The sadness of all this is that one of the last of the giants is gone. Each generation sees more of the brilliance of real ch'uan fa die. It is not nostalgia that puts Yang Lu-ch'an far above Cheng-fu, and he superior to Cheng. There is much credible evidence establishing this sad decline. Professor Cheng acknowledged this. He wanted to advance but circumstances when he arrived on Taiwan from the mainland prevented it. Perhaps his genius in other fields also impinged on his desire. He did not have the skill of the Yang's but he was a more complete man that any of them. Maybe he knew what Bizet meant when he said of music: 'What a glorious art; what a hideous profession.'

Cheng wanted to be more than a T'ai-chi master. And was. When I met him in 1959, Professor Cheng was already on the wrong side of 60, but not showing it. I had been told that his eyes were very high, that he was independent almost to a fault, and that he was a Chinese traditionalist. So that I shouldn't expect much from him. Add to the difficulty, I, too, was fiercely independent. But what I got from the outset and down more than fifteen years was the quality Mencius made so much of - jen, loving kindness. He could be impatient; he was never with me; he sometimes could not suffer fools; he smilingly suffered me. And all this for a man who wanted no guru except love. He knew I was studying not only his system of T'ai-chi but he himself. I used to ask the same question (how my questions must have tired him!) from a different vantage on different occasions. He would smile (probably thinking: "Smith and the same old question!") and answer.

The main thing I wanted to elicit from him was simply: what can T'ai-chi do for character? This it seems to me is the toughest question of all. He had waffled on this I thought in his Thirteen Chapters by saying that it depended on the person. I sought to draw him out on it and was able over the years to establish that Yes, T'ai-chi, by relaxing not only the muscles but the organs themselves, would quiet a person. That once quiet and secure (sinking into rooted centered-ness) a person should be in a position where anxiety could make no inroads. This should then out in jen. In Thirteen Chapters he was only citing reality: many do T'ai-chi as an exercise which, even if they become very skillful at it, is never carried over into their workaday lives. His message was that this is incomplete T'ai-chi. Of course that wasn't the only question, merely the most important. I asked him endless questions on the postures and on pushing-hands (how I wish we could term this 'sensing-hands!'). And he was always forthcoming. I never got all my questions asked. As I tried to level out the mound atop my desk today I found a note to myself to ask the Professor. It concerned some words written in 1939 by Theos Bernard, the yoga adept:

"The body is most vigorous, active, and strong and the spirit is most brisk and lively when the sky is serene and unclouded and the wind east, north-east, or southeast. Warm dry air is superior to cold moist air. Humidity causes morbidity. Intense cold is bad - it obstructs vessels." unasked question that there's no one left to answer. I wanted to ask him how important these climactic conditions were for us in practicing T'ai-chi. Life is essentially an existence of unanswered questions.

Ah, the memories. . . In Taiwan my wife went with me once to a Sunday practice. After watching a while, she asked the Professor to push her. He compiled by lightly maneuvering her off the wall. She came back to me smiling by unawed: 'It was OK,' she murmured, none too enthusiastically. He watched well. And he was watching then, sensing her indifference. Walking over, he asked me her reaction, and truthful to a fault, I told him. Whereupon he took her by the hand back to the wall and pushed her again. This time she ran back to me (one of life's sweetest pleasure is to have a comely woman run to you), her eyes sparking, her words tumbling over one another. 'It was so strange,' she said, 'when he touched me I felt an electricity-like surge go throughout my body but without the shock.' He had followed her over and laughed at what she said. 'She felt that because she was relaxed,' he explained. That bothered me. 'But I've practiced for two years and I can't feel it,' I complained. He laughed again, 'Women,' he said, 'have an advantage over men. They are inherently more relaxed. You must work hard to get where they start from.'

Once I made the mistake of taking an American nidan in Okinawan karate to meet the Master. The American was singularly unimpressed by what he saw. He wanted a test. So the Master signaled to a student who faced the karateka. He faked a high kick, the student's arm started up; the foot flashed down, the student slapped it lightly while stepping inside and touching the American's heart. Dead, he failed to realize it, for he went away scoffing at T'ai-chi. I apologized to the Master later and he waved it aside: 'One must be kind to blind men.' The inevitable sequel: I took the lad to a Shaolin friend of mine and left him to his ministrations. A week later I saw him. He had discontinued. Why? "Damn it, those guys wanted to fight!" Unappreciative of the "soft," afraid of the "hard," this one doubtless is still thrilling them at cocktail parties with his dance. Fighting it is not. The Master was strong on a sound foundation. A good teacher, a good system, and a healthy body could not but equal success. Lacking any of these, the results would be less.

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