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, July 30, 2021

William CC Chen and Taijiquan in America in the 60's.

William CC Chen is a famous name among Taijiquan masters. He was the youngest student of Cheng Man Ching in Taiwan. He came to the US, set up his own school in New York and teaches to this day. If you look, you'll find dozens of schools tracing their lineage back to Master Chen all over the US (if not the world).

However, I've always had the sense that he was a little "off to the side" coming from a mainstream CMC lineage myself. It's not that he established his own school early on in NY, but he created his own long Taijiquan form, rather than continuing to teach CMC's 37 form. The "family resemblence" is certainly there.

My own teacher (a direct student of CMC in NY) once told me that she considered that Chen was doing CMC's form, but it was expressed differently. From what she told me, there was no conflict.

Below in an excerpt from an article that was published at Kung Fu Tea on WCC Chen's early days, demonstrating Taijiquan in the US. The full post may be read here.

Introduction: The “Barnum Brawler” Brings Taijiquan to New York

I recently came across a file that turned up in an estate sale. It appears to have been part of the archives of a now defunct local newspaper that covered events in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights and Riverside neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s. This particular file caught my attention because it contained two press photos taken at one of Master William Chen’s very first Taijiquan demonstrations in New York City, as well as a (partial) clipping of the article that covered this event.
Both William Chen and his teacher, Master Zheng Manqing, played a critical role in the introduction and spread of Taijiquan in American popular culture during the 1960s and 1970s. As such I was thrilled to run across a first hand account (with photos!) of one of Chen initial demonstrations during the summer of 1965. Perhaps a few dates will help to put all of this into its proper context.
Chen’s performance was not the first exhibition of Taijiquan in New York City. That honor goes to Sophia Delza, a professional dancer and student of the renowned Ma Yueh Liang and his wife Wu Ying Hua who taught Wu style Taiji in Shanghai. She first hosted a Taiji exhibition at the MOMA art gallery in 1954 and by 1956 was teaching classes at the UN. In 1960 she graced the pages of Popular Mechanics (which occasionally covered the martial arts) and gave the first televised demonstration of Taiji in North America. Later in 1961 she published one of the very first English language books on the Chinese martial arts. Still, outside of a relatively small circle of martial arts students in New York, California and Hawaii, very few Americans knew much about the Chinese fighting systems, including Taijiquan, in 1965.
This was more than half a decade before the Bruce Lee inspired “Kung Fu Fever” that would bring the martial arts into mainstream popular culture. And even within the martial arts world, actual information on the Chinese styles remained limited. Black Belt magazine first featured a Chinese master on its cover (Wong Ark Yuey) in January of 1965, and it only started to feature regular article about these systems in the next few years. Nor would Bruce Lee appear on national television until 1967. The account presented below captures an important early moment in the popularization of the Chinese martial arts in North America.
Yet something other than the date caught my attention as I reviewed the file. It was the sheer strangeness of the photos. Over the years a few standardized “scripts” have developed for how we discuss and think about the Chinese martial arts. Hard qigong feats (while quite popular in public demonstrations in China) never seem to have become a central part of the western understanding of the meaning of these fighting systems. Yet the very first photo in the group showed William Chen, face covered with a towel, having a large stone broken across his abdomen. Nor, as the attached article makes clear, was this exhibition incidental to his attempts to demonstrate what Taijiquan was to an American audience.

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