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 ~

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rose Li and Her Martial Arts

Rose Li was a remarkable female 20th century martial artist. Below is a portion of a biographical article on her, from a website created by one of her students. Some of her students continue her teaching as the Rose Li School. Please pay a visit. Enjoy.

Rose Shao-Chiang Li was born in Beijing around 1914. Her father was a relatively high-ranking civil servant and was for a time responsible for the Chinese coal industry, such as it was under the late Qing Empire. This brought him into contact with foreign engineers and he developed a great fondness for English culture in particular. He made sure that his daughter received the best western education then available in Beijing, which at that time meant church institutions: an Anglican secondary school and a German Catholic university. Meanwhile, because his first two girls had both died in infancy from a blood-related weakness, he gave this third daughter what would more normally have been a boy’s name, which might be translated as ‘continuing strong’. He was also keen that she should indeed be strengthened by access to the best forms of physical exercise then available, which naturally drew his attention to the indigenous martial-arts traditions then flourishing all across the capital. These, then, were to be the formative influences on the young Shao-Chiang: Han Confucian culture from her family, Christianity of the broad-church Anglican variety from her school teachers (from whom she also received the western name Rose), and the Taoist ways of what was to become her second family in the internal martial arts.

Later Miss Li used to tell her students that she was a Confucian in her personal relationships, a Christian in her social ethics, and a Taoist in her relationship with God and Nature. For them, then, working with her was more than just about learning physical movements: it was an exposure to a whole complex culture and history.

Rose Li was intensely involved in the study of the internal martial arts from the age of eight in the early 1920s until she was twenty-four in the late 1930s: her main teacher was Teng Yun-Feng (1873-1941) and through him she also had contact with an outstanding figure from the previous generation, Liu Feng-Shan (1852-1937). She was a regular attender at Master Teng's classes in the Temple of the Fire God by Coal Hill just north of the Forbidden City, but he also frequently came to give her individual lessons at her family home in the old quarter just west of the centre, where he would often stay to eat and chat with her father. Master Teng’s high level of martial-arts skill goes without saying: he had studied with central figures in the Tai Ji, Xing Yi and Ba Gua traditions, but his role as Rose’s teacher was an unusual one for an upper-middle-class family at that time, and he had been selected carefully by her father. For, although like most of his martial-arts colleagues he was a manual worker from the countryside and effectively illiterate, he placed a much stronger emphasis than most on the spiritual side of practice: he was keenly interested in Chan teachings, had a close relationship with the Taoist abbot of the temple where he held his classes, and was also a member of a western Protestant denomination. After Rose's father died, Teng Yun-Feng arranged financial help for her and her mother, indeed she regarded him as her second father and was present when he passed away.

All this had a strong influence on the distinctive approach Miss Li would later introduce in her own teaching. Though fully aware of martial applications, she deliberately avoided any extensive discussions of these in her classes and included very little pushing-hands or sparring practice. In part this was a reaction to the high profile of 'fighting' in the west, which she saw as a vulgar distraction from the real value of the oriental traditions, especially in the case of Tai Ji. For her these martial arts were indeed arts in the highest sense of the word: they were for self-cultivation and for health, and they should aim to make some wider social contribution. At the very least, practitioners should not make their living from them but should pursue conventional occupations and live as ordinary householders.

Meanwhile, the young Rose also became increasingly involved in Christian missionary social work and increasingly interested in western monastic traditions: she felt a particular affinity with Anglicans, above all her special mentor Miss E. Fisher. Both her parents and also her martial-arts teacher had died by the early 1940s so, as the situation in Beijing became increasingly unstable under the impact of the Japanese invasion, she left for central China with a group of Christian missionaries. She attended the Catholic University in Peiping for three years from 1944, and then received an MA in Ethnology from Furen University back in Beijing in 1947. During the Communist takeover it began to seem advisable for someone from her social background to leave China altogether, which she did with financial and administrative support from the American Church Mission, initially with the aim of attending the Catholic University of America in Washington. However, she lived for a time in San Francisco and then studied educational psychology at Teachers’ College, Columbia University, receiving a second MA in 1950. On graduation she moved for a while to Honolulu and Hawaii, teaching in church schools and discovering a special gift for working with young children. For the next thirty years Rose Li’s life was to be shaped by involvement with Episcopal monastic groups and educational work. For a period of seven years she was a member of the Community of the Transfiguration in Glendale, Ohio; and then, when she moved to England, was for five years a member of St Hilda’s Priory in Whitby, Yorkshire. She worked for a time in kindergartens in the Ohio area, then taught Chinese language, first at Ann Arbor University, Michigan, and finally in the Department of Oriental Studies at Durham University in England.


walt said...

"One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing out of the Unconscious … where the real kung-fu lies."I had not heard of this lady before. Very interesting! Her "take" on these practices is along the lines of my own ...

Rick Matz said...

By all accounts, she was the real deal.

Unknown said...

Li shao-chiang was my Grand Master, ie the teacher of my teacher. We were taught the forms in an agonisingly slow method that forced us to develop real core strength, skill and art very quickly. It inspired my entire life from then on.
Taiji has stood me in great stead and when 20 years later when I was diagnosed with a birth defect in my lower back my earlier struggles with health became understandable. My Taiji practice gave me a healthy active life and now 40 years on xrays show that most of the birth defect has healed and is regarded as normal. The three sets of xrays make wonderful viewing.
My eternal gratitude to Master Li.
Dr Rusel Last

Rick Matz said...

Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment.

It's wonderful that the legacy of these great masters continues on.