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 ~

Friday, April 26, 2019

Gerta Geddes and the Dawn of Taijiquan in the UK

Gerta Geddes was if not the first, one of the first westerners to teach Taijiquan in the UK. She was a contemporary of Sophia Delza, who was one of the first in the US. Below is an excerpt from an interview that was conducted with her at TaijiForum. The full interview may be read here.

Gerda Geddes was the first person who ever studied and taught Tai Chi in the UK, she began training in Shanghai at a time when very few women of any nationality were able to study the art. For nearly 60 years Tai Chi played an integral part in her life and she remained actively interested and open in her heart and mind right to the end. She passed away on Saturday 4th March 2006 at age 89.

Having studied tai chi chuan since 1981 I was, of course, aware of the name of Gerda Geddes although I’d never personally experienced her approach to the work. In early 2002 I was teaching a qigong seminar in the east coast of Scotland village of Anstruther, when, much to my surprise and curiosity, I saw her name on the list of participants. On arrival she introduced herself and quietly found her way to the back of the class where she practiced the exercises, blending into the background. Over lunch we chatted about her past experiences and I subsequently arranged to travel to her home in north-east Scotland to conduct this interview.

Over the years of our connection we, became friends and regularly exchanged several telephone calls and letters. She twice attended Tai Chi Caledonia as a special guest, where she enthralled the participants with her quit grace and dignity, epitomising inner qualities of tai chi.
Ronnie Robinson
Can we begin by looking at what led you to study Tai Chi?

At the time we moved to Shanghai in 1948 I had spent many years studying dance, working with exercise and movement on a daily basis. I worked with contemporary dance and I worked a lot with looking at the circularly quality of movement and also thinking about all the circles you had in your joints, and in your body; how it comes from the inside and outside.

Aside from the work I had done with dance I also worked with Wilhelm Reich as a psycho-analyst. I liked his way of thinking. He worked very much on a physical, as well as on a psychological level. Reich had talked about muscular armouring, how trauma and anger can create memory in the muscles which are held on to. He encouraged you to listen to yourself and try and find your own inner rhythm. He also taught a great deal about diagnosis: how should you look at a person, how should you judge somebody. He always said that what you say is not all that important but it is how you say it. What happens in your body, what happens in your face, does it get stuck in your diaphragm, or does it flow thorough? Reich was already into the same kind of thinking that you get in Tai Chi. I had also been working with patients for several years, using psychotherapy. When I had children I didn’t do this kind of work anymore as I felt that spending so much time and energy working with the sick and unbalanced took too much out of me. I really wanted to live more for my own good health to be as healthy and as balanced as I could be for my own children. This was what became most important for me. With this work and with my work as a dancer I very much looked at people’s bodies, and how they used their bodies. I also used the methods of Alexander Lowen who worked with Bio-Energetics which was a therapeutic technique to help a person get back together with his body and to help him enjoy, to the fullest degree possible, the life of the body.
I had also worked in theatre using this movement work with actors and dancers. So when I went to China, I went with this background of using, and observing the use of movement on a number of levels.


Can you tell me a little about the structure of training you had? I’d also be interested in knowing about the fact that you were the only western women being taught and how you were dealt with in this context?

I never went to a class, I was taught privately and I know that he was very bewildered to begin with, probably thinking, “How on earth am I going to tackle this woman?”

He tested me out before he would accept me as a student. I had to show him the movement work I had done. I had choreographed a dance with, rhythm and sound, which was about my first impressions of China.

Once he had identified that you would be someone that was worth investing some time with, in teaching, what was the training schedule?

I worked with Choy Hok Peng for about two hours a day, every day for a period of six months. He taught me the Long Yang Form. The method of teaching was very unusual for me, coming from the background I had. There was absolutely no physical contact between us. When he eventually came to correcting me he did it with only one finger, keeping his body very far away from me. I got the feeling that we were sort of measuring each other during this time. I had to unlearn, which was one of the most difficult things for me, all my dance technique. My body had been very well trained in a particular way of moving and I had to re-thing everything. It was like learning to walk again and it took a long, long time to get accustomed to the method of movement. He wanted me to just to copy his movements and I remember him saying, “Look see Missy, look at my foot, see it.” I was very hard work but when I realised that I had to unlearn my previous patterns of movement I then realised that I just had to let go. This letting go and re-thinking my whole body was the best way for me to learn Tai Chi.

Before Choy Hok Peng died he instructed his son to continue teaching me. His son, Choy Kam Man, had a great interest in sports, which he performed with an influence from his tai chi training. When he first came to work with me he was very scared as I was an older Western woman.

Were there different methods of teaching between the father and the son?

The son had a much softer approach. The father was more trained in the martial side of Tai Chi. Comparing the father with his fellow student Cheng Man-ching I would say that Cheng was more intelligent and more cultured and scholarly. My teacher was more a fighter.

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