The Intention Force Way Learning the Yang family's Tai Chi Chuan
Despite his less than auspicious start in the family art Yang Chengfu did eventually become the most prolific Yang family master since his lineage has spread far and wide. This was in spite of the fact that he did not want anything to do with the family art in the beginning, preferring to take up another outside northern art.
Closed Door Art
Before Yang Chengfu assumed the mantle of responsibility for the family art's propagation it was his father, Yang Chienhou who steered the transmission of the art.
Under Yang Chienhou the family art did not spread far and wide. It was not unusual for a family art to be transmitted in a limited manner. The norm in feudal China was for many family arts to be taught to sons only as the first tier of transmission.
Second tier transmission was to relatives and third tier to close friends and outsiders vouched for by someone on the inside. If the master had no son to pass the skills to then he would adopt a son who may take the family surname to continue the art under the family name.
For the rest i.e. the ordinary disciples and students it is normal that they will not be taught the complete syllabus nor offered explanations of the keys to developing their skills to the highest level.
The Elder Brother
The elderly Master Yang was assisted by the elder son Yang Shaohou. Yang Shaohou was said to be an adept of the small frame form.
The art of Yang Shaohou, the elder brother of Yang Chengfu, is lesser known today due to its limited transmission. This was because Yang Shaohou was a teacher of short temperament, wont to dishing out beatings. Plus he had little patience for teaching. Hence, the scarcity of practitioners of his lineage today.
The Path Diverges
It was said that the family agreed to let Yang Chengfu to be the family art's standard bearer if he were to return to the fold, take up the family art and spread it. This was preferred to letting him run around practicing another art to the shame of the family name. In this aspect Yang Chengfu performed admirably and cultivated many disciples who went on to spread his art inside and outside of China.
Yang Chengfu propagated a version of the family art that is best described as large frame. There have been suspicion that this version of the Yang family long form is a watered down version of what was practiced behind closed doors.
Some have also put forward the theory that the Yang family masters actually practiced what is today known as Chen style forms, particularly the 2nd routine known as Cannon Fist, behind closed doors. Conspiracy theorists have claimed that the Yang family purposely created watered down, less complex and physically demanding forms to teach to outsiders particularly the royal family members.
Without concrete proof or knowing the true circumstances of the times it is difficult to say which claim or theory is more plausible. As such, we can only examine the facts and art before us and reach our own conclusions, believing what we want to believe.
Beginning the Journey
I started my learning of Yang style Tai Chi Chuan via the Cheng Man Ching lineage through Master Hiu. This style was very popular in my country of birth, Malaysia. I began my learning journey in the Yang style by not knowing or understanding the style or lineage of Tai Chi Chuan.
It was only years later when I had access to martial arts literature that I had a grasp of this lineage's position in the story of the Yang family Tai Chi Chuan and its transmission outside of China. In particular, there is a hint that the Cheng Man Ching lineage was not entirely Yang Chengfu-centric.
Nip Chee Fei
My next stop in the learning of Yang style Tai Chi Chuan was in the lineage of Nip Chee Fei who was also well known as a master of Choy Li Fut. Nip was exiled from China after the communists overran the country. He was invited to Malaysia to teach Tai Chi Chuan. My teacher, Master Leong, is the 2nd disciple of Nip.
I met Master Leong in a park in my hometown after returning from overseas education. Again I was not so much into lineage then so I never really asked indepth questions about Master Leong's line. But later from what I found out in brief was that Nip had invited Yang Chengfu to go to his home to instruct him in Tai Chi Chuan. Nip had learned and mastered enough to teach and later even earned a doctorate degree by writing a thesis on the art.
Master Leong was a teacher who could explain how to use the techniques of the Yang Chengfu long form of self defense. He could also hold his own in push hands against outsiders. I mentally took notes on the applications and later typed them up into a draft manuscript.
Yang Sau Chung
Whilst training with Master Leong I got to know of an elderly gentleman, Mr Wong, who practiced the Cheng Man Ching style of Tai Chi Chuan.
Mr Wong's son, Richard, had furthered his tertiary studies in the Queen's country. Whilst there he had lived with and later studied Tai Chi Chuan with Master Chu Kin Hung. Master Chu is one of the only three disciples of Yang Sau Chung, the eldest son of Yang Chengfu. Prior to learning from Master Yang, Chu was learning Yiquan from the famed Master Han, a senior student of Wang Xiangzhai who created Yiquan. Richard said that Master Chu went to try out Master Yang, lost and asked to learn.
I knew who Master Chu was as I first heard about him as the teacher of Erle Montaigue, a noted columnist for a martial arts magazine in Australia. Later Richard mentioned that Erle had left Master Chu before he started his learning so he only knew him by name. I missed meeting Master Chu when he flew over to Malaysia to attend Richard's wedding. By then I had already moved to the Lion City.
After reading of Master Chu through Erle's writings I was keen to learn from Richard. Class was in the morning at his father's home where he was then living the life of a bachelor. There were only the three to four of us in class depending on the schedule.
We practiced in the porch area. Each session would commence with half an hour of zhanzhuang. Thereafter, we would move to practicing the form before ending with a short session of push hands.
During the time I was there I got to hear of the fantastic skills of Master Chu, some of which Richard had witnessed personally. There was the story of how Master Chu could drop students on the ground leaving them spinning like a top. The other one I can recall is the one whereby Master Chu jumped onto a stage to land on a stick balanced on two objects without breaking them. I must admit that if I were the one reading this I would be skeptical because it sounds too fantastic to be true. Anyway, who was I to doubt Richard.
Now if all Richard could do was to tell the tales of the prowess of Master Chu then it would have been too bad. But Richard had some interesting things to show. There weren't demonstrations of fighting skills but could be considered as factors that could assist one's combat skills.
I stayed with Richard for a little over a year when economic factors pushed me to leave Malaysia for Singapore in search for work.
Life can take strange turns. The early years of the start of a new life in Singapore was also the period when famous Chen style Tai Chi Chuan masters visited for the Lion City to give seminars and to spread the art.
Some of the schools teaching Chen style were located in Geylang which was about half an hour's drive away. But to someone jobless and without wheels the schools might be an eternity away. Nevertheless, I managed to visit a school but economics-wise the time was wrong so I left it at that.
For the next few years the idea of learning Tai Chi Chuan remained on the shelf. It was only after I attained some measure of job stability that I revisited the notion. I knew there would be a number of schools out there but which was right for me? Then I had an idea.
Years earlier I had found a book store specializing in the sales of martial arts books and magazines. Since the proprietor, Mr Loh, looked like he knew a lot about the local martial arts scene why not ask him for advice. Mr Loh knew me as a Wing Chun practitioner, the style I was focused on then rather than for Tai Chi Chuan which I actually took up way before Wing Chun.
So when I posed the question of where to learn Tai Chi Chuan that was oriented to combat Mr Loh had two recommendations. The first was a school located in Chinatown and the second was not a school but a teacher.
I made plans to visit the school and also contacted the second recommended teacher for a meeting. On a week night I went to visit the school which was in a clan association. The class was on the rooftop and quite packed. I was not taken by what I saw and left.
Discouraged by the visit to the school I did not feel like meeting up with the other teacher the next day. After all the second teacher was also from the same style as the school I just visited. I incorrectly made the association that the quality of one would be similar to the other just because they are of the same style. As it would eventually turned out I was wrong. In the meantime I decided to press on with the appointment since it would have been rude to cancel at the last minute.
Dong Style Master Yap
One of the first books I bought in Singapore was this book with a red cover written by Tung Ying Chieh (or Dong Yingchieh in Hanyu Pinyin). Little did I realize that I would soon step into the Tai Chi Chuan world of the Dong family.
I took a stab at answering, carefully phrasing my sentences. But as soon as the words were out of my mouth I earned a smile from Master Yap. He had gotten me. My ignorance was plain for him to see. He said that real Tai Chi Chuan was not only a rare sight but also a rare scent! I was intrigued but what he said didn't really enlighten me further other than to let me know that I had dived into a deep lake. At the end of the short meeting Master Yap invited me to meet with his senior, Master Dong Zhenchen, who was then in town on a visit.
Meeting Master Dong Zhenchen
Shenton Way at night is a quiet place, more so on the fringe area where the YMCA is. This was where I'll be meeting Master Dong, 3rd generation master of the Dong family style of Tai Chi Chuan which was founded by his grandfather, the very same Dong Yingchieh whose red book I mentioned earlier.
I was taken to a guest room by Master Yap. I forgot which floor it was since two decades must have gone by. I do remember that the room was gloomy but Master Dong welcomed me with a smile that could well lit It up. My perception of high level, famous masters was that they are aloof, stern and unsmiling but here was Master Dong really friendly and approachable.
Master Dong was in the midst of playing push hands with his students in the small room when I entered. He went back to it, giving me a close look at how a top master did it against resisting partners and boy were some of them really putting up a strong resistance.
One slim, dark and tough looking gentleman (later I found out he was working as a contractor) tried his best to resist Master Dong's strokes. In one instance Master Dong took advantage of his resistance to apply a powerful Pluck which sent the training partner hurling forward. Fortunately, they were pushing hands next to the bed (that's how small the room was) and the dark chap crashed headlong into it.
In the second instance when Master Dong tried to unbalance the dark chap forward he sat back firmly into his stance to resist being pulled forward by the master. Master Dong quickly changed tactic and pushed him downwards instead. This caused the dark chap to land hard on his tailbone on the carpeted floor. The pain made him jumped up with a howl.
Master Dong then turned to me and invited me to demonstrate a Tai Chi Chuan. I did a short sequence, thinking I must suck big time. However, Master Dong generously smiled and applauded. Then he asked me to try pushing hands with him.
In the learning of Tai Chi Chuan there are certain moments that would made such an impression that it's impossible to ever forget them. Touching Master Dong's hands was one such memorable encounter.
Master Dong held out his right arm and I moved to connect with my right arm. The very next moment I found myself sailing backwards into the wall. I didn't see nor felt how Master Dong had done what he just did. It was truly magical to the then ignorant me.
Next Master Dong asked me to try out Master Yap. I was more prepared the second time. Or at least I thought I was. It was a wrong assumption because the moment our arms contacted Master Yap neutralized my resistance quickly and counterattacked. Tried as I did I could not get away from Master Yap's attack and found myself being backpedalling and pushed against the wall.
The night ended with Master Dong performing the Fast Form which his grandfather had created. No words could truly capture the performance I witnessed. Master Dong's movements was hypnotic like a cobra gently swaying its body to mesmerize its prey before suddenly lunging with its deadly fangs.
Learning the Dong Method
I was excited to have discovered the Dong style and would have loved to jump right in and start my learning. Alas, the heart was willing but the pocket empty. The economics of demand and supply is that a good teacher does not come cheap. With a lowly paid job lessons were temporarily out of the question.
I would hook up with Mr Yap now and then to see if I can get some free information. But seriously, whatever information he would give freely was pretty useless without having the method to practice it. In Tai Chi Chuan the primary method for the training of skills lies in the long form. Until I took up formal lessons I was simply not going to be taught the form for free. So I waited until my financial situation improved.
A year later, a new job and I could at least barely afford to pay for lessons. This took place by the swimming pool in a condominium in Tanglin, an area where the well off lived.
A typical lesson revolved around learning form and push hands. I spent the first three months learning the first section of the form. The way of practicing the long form was different from the methods I had learned previously. For more information the reader can refer to the TaijiKinesis Vol 2 : Learning the Taijiquan Form.
For push hands training since I was taking private lessons Master Yap worked with me personally. Each session we would easily have spent up to an hour doing just push hands. Instead of going through fixed patterns we worked on flow, responses, tactics, etc in an informal manner. In this way my push hands improved a lot faster in a much shorter period of time.
Later lessons moved over to the lobby of the condominium where Master Yap was living. This was in the Cairnhill area. The condominium was later sold to a developer and demolished. By then I had begun the next stage in my Tai Chi Chuan learning journey.
Before the learning journey was over I also spent a little time at the Dong Yingchieh association in Chinatown. Master Yap was the president of the association but having problems with some of the senior elderly members. Soon I stopped going for lessons as politics was not my cup of tea.
I walked away not just with a much better understanding of Tai Chi Chuan but also an instructor license for which Master Yap had sponsored me to take. At that time anyone who wanted to teach martial arts in Singapore has to be sponsored by his teacher and governing association on top of taking part in an examination overseen by a panel of masters appointed by the Martial Arts Control Unit which was under the purview of the Singapore Police Force. It was an honor to be the first student put forward by Master Yap for instructor status. Who knows how my learning path would have turned out if I had stayed on.
4 Aug 1993. That is the postmark of a letter from my senior from Down Under. A letter in which I first heard about Wang Yongquan and his student, Wei Shuren.