Ken van Sickle Taiji junzi

Interviewed by Ronnie Robinson published in TCC Magazine Winter 2005

I first met Ken van Sickle at Recontres Jasniers and was somewhat struck by his quiet unassuming manner. Later, on looking at some photographs by Loni Lieberman, where he was teaching sword I caught a sense of his intent and committment to the art – he was simply just ‘there.’ Over a few wines he told us a little about the times he was a student of Cheng Man-Ching, where he was also responsible for most of the photographs we see of the late Professor.

Since then I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Ken at a number of events, including his two years teaching at Tai Chi Caledonia. I took some time out at last year’s event to conduct this interview which I hope you will find as interesting as I did.

ken van s

I believe that before you took up Tai Chi you did a number of other things, so let’s begin with a little bit about your background, when you started with this kind of work etc.

As a kid I was always very interested fighting with a stick all the time but I didn’t get any real training until I was about 18. I then did some sabre and foil fencing but I didn’t get to do anything that was martial until I was in Korea where two friends of mine did judo. I practiced with them, but as one was a only brown belt and the other a green belt, I wasn’t very high level but at least I got an introduction to the attitude and ideas of the art. I always wanted to do athletics, but when I started to live in New York City it wasn’t so easy – it’s so expensive and was hard to fi nd. In 1960 I started Karate which I heard about when I was in Japan in the army but I wasn’t there long enough to learn it.

I guess there weren’t many people at that time teaching Karate?

In Manhattan there were probably only 3 people and luckily I found one – Peter Irvine who was teaching Goju Karate. I studied for 7 years until 1967 which was very good for me because I hadn’t previously respected any of the teachers I’d had in my life, until then, about anything. Peter was disciplined and strong and powerful and his stories were interesting and he ran a good class. I got really good at that and enjoyed it a lot, but then asI got more into it irealized that it was pretty crude and that Peter couldn’t take us much further than we were. By then I was a third degree black belt which was a little quick, but as he was unable to take us any further, we were getting better than he was because he had been only a 3rd degree black belt in Japan. When he came to the USA to teach they gave him a 5th degree, just so he could teach, and then he gave himself two more. There was no philosophy there that I could discern. He started saying that there was a lot of Zen philosophy in it but basically his philosophy was that if someone’s drowning, throw him an anchor, and that I was a little bit worried about. So I looked around all over, trying to fi nd my image of the old wise oriental man to learn some philosophy from and hopefully a martial art. I even went to some places where they were doing flower arranging – if any one was high enough, I would do it! I went to archery – that was pretty good, and I had done regular archery before for quite a bit.

Someone told me about this old Chinese man and I went to see him. Of course he was younger than I am now – he was 67 when I went there. He was born in 1900 and I went there in 1967, but he looked like an old man to me when I was only 35. He had the obligatory white beard but he didn’t have the bald thing – he was crew cut, he had all of his hair, he didn’t need glasses, he was amazing. He was short and a little heavier than medium weight and he wore that gown so it was hard to tell. But the first thing I saw was him – I was very impressed by just his demeanor, the way he moved, his voice – it had a very big range from big and deep to very high and he used the whole range. So I was watching what they were doing, and they were doing a class of the movements, and they looked really interesting to me, but I had no idea what they were about. Then I stayed and the next class was push hands, and in the push hands a lot of people walked in that I knew from the other martial arts – from Kung fu and Karate, and some of them were pretty high level, pretty good fighters and he just started throwing them up in the air and totally controlling them and I said, okay where do I sign? So I started studying in 1967 and I studied with him until he died in 1975.

How long had he been there then?

He had been there for about 5, 6 or 7 years. He was in San Francisco for a year, and then he came in around 1962. So he hadn’t been there all that long but he already had some good students. The first few people – Maggie Newman, Ed Young, Tam Gibbs, Lou Kleinsmith, Hermann Kauz were pretty good by then. Certainly for we, as beginners, they were marvelous. As I joined in 1967 there were getting to be a lot of people there. In my class there was Wolfe Lowenthal, Peter Learner, and Carol Yawasaki and quite a few who went on to become teachers.

ken van s

When you actually joined the class, were you taught hand form first or were you pushing?

We did hand form for almost a year – about 9 months to finish it and another 3 months for correction and that was his speed, I don’t know, I think Maggie takes 2 years and Donna ? takes 6 months, William (CC Chen) takes 3 months – everybody has a different speed where they finish the form and then they go on for correction and then he would start push hands in about a year after the beginning for most people, not all – some he would say wait. We did push hands for about a year and a half, and then he would start sword form, and then after another year and a half, fencing.

Did you attend once a week or more?

I went 2 or 3 times a week and all of us later kicked ourselves because we should have gone 5 or 6 times, all the time. We knew that it was something special to have this old Chinese person like that! The Mandarin there, the teaching, but we had no idea how special it was.

Was there anyone else around at that time teaching tai chi?

Shortly after that William (CC Chen) started to teach and there were a few people in Chinatown but they didn’t really welcome non-Chinese students. Sofi a Delza was teaching but she didn’t really know that it was a martial art. Some people were taught in China, especially women and they just thought it was an exercise, dance, health form, but she was very good and her form was quite good, but there weren’t many others, no.

Did she have any connection with your classes at all?

No, she was in denial about the whole thing being a martial art for maybe 10 or 15 years, and fi nally she realized it because everybody said so and she once came to a big tournament we were having in New York City and got a trophy, and I actually escorted her up and she got a trophy for her contribution for being the first – a nice lady.

So the logistics of the class – the first point, you learned the hand form – how much of a role did he play in the teaching – what was the kind of structure, how did it go?

Cheng Man Ching would almost always come in and start us off on the form, even when we were beginners and we didn’t know how lucky we were with that too. He would do the movements, and then he’d introduce the new movement, and then he would go out after about 20 minutes after he introduced the next movement, and then one of his instructors would take over the class.

So were you taught one or two movements and left to work on it and when it was reasonably satisfactory you would go on to the next, and so on through the form?

Yes, that’s right – about one movement a class if you were doing it once a week.

And how much refinement went on directly from him?

In correction he did pretty much the same thing – he’d come in and see, pick out certain people and go over corrections – push the coccyx down a little bit, or pull the head up or sometimes he would go in and say “feel my body”, so we’d feel what he was doing because you couldn’t always see through your own.

ken van s

Aside from the physical – correcting and showing the movements etc, how much of the work was him talking about the philosophy or other aspects of the arts?

In the beginning when we’d be doing the form, we didn’t hear him talking too much. If we only came for the form once a week we didn’t hear him talking too much, but as soon as we got into push hands which meant we’d be there for the form class and the push hands class and maybe hanging around a little more often, we’d start to hear him talking about things. With push hands what he would do was we’d all be one face the wall and one have the back to the wall and we’d be lined up and we’d all change partners, you know one to the left etc, and he’d be walking around and he’d see something that he wanted to address and he’d walk in so that he’d be one of the two and then everyone else would stop and come and see what he was doing and there’d be a big circle around him and that’s when we listened. There is a tape out with a lot of that stuff in it and it’s really priceless to see. Then he would give lectures frequently – they’d either be on Lau Tzu or Confucius or painting or calligraphy because he did all of these things.

How many tai chi or non-tai chi people would go to these lectures?

There would be big crowds for the lectures, especially if it were on Lau Tzu or Confucius, because he’d always talk about tai chi within those. Sometimes he’d lecture on the Classics. If it was calligraphy there would be less and if it was on painting there would be less.

The people from the hard martial background – were they also taking in the philosophical aspects as well?

I think so, yes, some were and some weren’t. One of them, the most martial of those was Herman Cows. Herman had studied Shotokan or some other very hard Karate, and he was well known because people used to do the upper block and he was so powerful that they had to stop doing that because he could go straight through them. He adopted the philosophy quite well and being a very intelligent man and he started to talk about the philosophy in his own teaching. There were other things that he (CMC) would do that he wasn’t even known for, – the five excellences that he was known for – a doctor of TCM, painting, calligraphy, poetry and tai chi, but he also, every day, would sit there and arrange the flowers that Natasha brought in and we’d go and watch because he’d talk about it as he was doing it – he’d say – okay I put this in over here and this in here, is this too much, does it balance? And he’d go through the whole thing talking to us about what he was doing and it was just marvelous. And if he’d go to visit your house, I remember when we went to Ed’s house once, as we all walked in, it was close to a church and he said that the energy from that was coming in hard and he’d have to put up a fence here, and a mirror there. So he did Feng Shui as well – he just knew all this stuff. He was an educated man, in the old European sense of the Renaissance man and he knew everything. You could ask him questions about anything and he would usually have an answer for it. That’s one of the things I really missed when he died. Being the doctor as well, people would go in and he’d read their pulses and he’d tell them things that they didn’t tell him – he could read it and just tell it from their pulses and then he would cure it. And I missed him because you could ask him anything – he was the answer man.

I’m getting a sense of the awe of him.

That’s another interesting thing about him – the awe. A lot of people would look at him and would be in awe – he was the great guru etc, and he’d say that that’s not what it was all about – he’d be embarrassed about it and would laugh at it.

ken van s

I also get a sense that he obviously loved pushing hands and sword work a lot.

Yes he loved the sword and fencing but he was more serious about pushing hands – he was very attentive and really wanting us to understand what was going on. With the sword he seemed to be more having fun – he wasn’t giving us as much information with the sword as he was in the pushing hands, because that’s the basis, that’s what we needed more, and the sword he would just have fun with running around the room and chasing us and laughing.

Was he teaching beginners push hands himself, or were his instructors doing that and he was correcting?

No everybody pushed together and he’d pick out something that he knew was going to be a good lesson. He’d be watching the people and if someone would make a certain kind of mistake he would break and address that and we’d all stand around and Tam (Gibbs) or Edward (Young) would translate what he was saying, not always perfectly as Ed would always be the first one to admit, because how could he translate something that was over his head, but they did a pretty good job. Then sometimes a guy Howard Goodstadt would be putting it on tape so we’d have 6 hours of stuff – and that hopefully will be coming out soon.

I’m thinking about the perception for many people, in looking at the hand form in particular, is that he was a sophisticated gentleman who was educated and who had an affinity for the arts, the finer arts should we say, I’m wondering about the sense of the hard martial artists or the guys who would be looking for the brute fighting or whatever – what I have a sense or a feeling of is that (I was discussing this with Mario (Napoli) the other night) is that many people that are now 2nd or 3rd generation down from Cheng Man Ching or even 4th or 5th generation from his students – they didn’t have access to the information, they’ve seen some films, or someone’s done a bit, or they’ve got a bit, and from looking at the films sometimes, it really doesn’t look like there is much going on at all and I’m wondering… obviously you are saying at pushing hands he was very effective, but by looking at the films sometimes it’s hard to discern this, and I’m wondering just how it felt, particularly for the strong guys and guys like yourself who’ve come from Karate or whatever, just what you felt from him

Yes I can understand people feeling that way and some of them feel that way when they see William Chen’s form, even though it’s not as sloppy and slurry and CMC’s was. William Chen’s form it just doesn’t look like you can do anything with it, but he can really do something with it you know, and CMC was like that. As far as I’m concerned, when I tried to get him I couldn’t find him and then when he pushed it really felt like a giant wave was lifting me up and pushing. But there are even people in China who were his contemporaries who feel that way about him, that he was a wimp. I don’t know if anyone who actually fought with him thought that way. I know that he was beaten by Zhang Qinlin, but he had studied with Zhang Qinlin and he said okay lets push really hard and Z.Q. was better than him at that time, but I don’t know if there was anyone who challenged him that could say that they beat him. He was challenged in San Francisco by a hard old Chinese general and he wouldn’t do it – and I can understand that – you go to a new country and someone challenges you to a life and death fight, I wouldn’t do it either – so who knows. But he was also philosophically against fighting at that point – he said try not to hurt anybody, that was his main concern – take care of your brothers. Even if you are going to cut – just cut the wrist a little and go home. The other thing about it is that if you take Maggie (Newman) and Stanley (Israel) who were both part of the first six, they saw what he was doing entirely differently. They did it with him at first as much as anybody else and they saw it entirely differently.

You mean they both had very different perceptions of what they saw?

And they teach entirely different things

So in some respects the people are maybe seeing what they want to see?

I would say that exactly. Stanley was a powerful man with high level Judo and a national competitor and he became the head of the corrections officers unit – a tough guy all the way down the line. He saw that, and I’m not saying that he was wrong. Maggie is a dancer and someone who is trying to get rid of her negative feelings, someone who wants to see goodness everywhere and she only calls a punch a punch, she doesn’t even talk about anything else, she doesn’t say what it is, she doesn’t want to know and yet she is also very good at what she does. And so what happened when the break up came was that Maggie and Lou and Stanley and all those they went off their separate ways and they all taught something a little bit different and people got to chose who they wanted to study with so I think that was okay, because they didn’t get along when they were together anyway!

I guess that over the relatively short time that he was teaching there, no one was able to get what he really had – people would get bits – this stuff takes decades and not a few years. aside from form, pushing hands and sword, did he ever do sparring or anything like this?

I never saw him do any sparring. If you attacked him in certain ways he would do hits, but they would be very light and you would hardly feel them. iremember the first time I said well what if?, and he said well you have to have contact, and if I have contact with you, he said, then you can’t touch me, you can’t do anything, so I said can I try this, so I contacted the wrist and what I did at first was to load it to hit but as I drew to load he hit me and of course, and I said Oh – I had no idea that that was going to happen.

Did he teach specific applications for the form?

No, but he would occasionally show you one, or just do it when it was happening

The part that seems to have interested you most from the work you’ve done is probably push hands and the fencing. When I’ve been around you’ve been teaching fencing all the time but I’m sure you’re teaching pushing hands quite a lot too.

Well the thing about pushing hands is that I’m not very good at it – there’s something there that still stops me from getting really better at it.

Do you know what that is?

Well it probably has something to do with my father having been a violent man – he wasn’t violent to me but he was violent, and there’s something about when iget my hands on somebody and they get their hands on me that there, I’m not as free as I need to be. I’m very good at teaching it, I understand it and I enjoy teaching it but as soon as iget against somebody who’s good and strong, then I lose a little bit. I continuously do push hands and I teach it, but I do it a lot because I know there is something I haven’t learned from it that I need to. And in sword I do it just because I love it and I’m good at it.

You say you’re not good at it and you have a sense of what’s stopping you being “good at it”, but what is it that you get from it?

I’ve thought about this so much and there are so many ways to choose to answer. It’s the most interesting part that I’ve ever been involved in because the possibility of gain is higher, and the possibility of loss is higher. Any inter-personal relationship can be enhanced by doing tai chi – you learn about your buttons, and other people’s buttons and you are able to get off your ego, because if you keep your ego then you are not going to be doing it well either. There are so many things to learn, besides being a repository of martial art techniques, it’s a repository of opportunities to understand yourself through your association with another person, physical dialogue you are having with another person and I think that’s its highest value. The form itself has a great deal to give without doing the push hands. The push hands connects to your legs and it gets you down there and it tests. That’s the problem with the form, the form gets you to root, relax, align, centre, and all these wonderful things, but how do you know you are really doing this, or do you just think you are? So then you do push hands and in that the other person is going to test to see if you doing all those things, or if you are not then you are going to know it and then you are going to have to keep doing it until you do, so that’s why push hands is so important. The health aspects are in the form, but if you’re not doing it relaxed then they are not in it, so you have to do push hands to find it. And then some people say you have to do the fighting too, because otherwise you don’t know if the push hands is right, but I don’t really believe that you know.

Is there something that you encounter in push hands that stops you, or that you are not interested in? We all have different interpretations of it, but I’m trying to get a sense of, and it’s difficult for me to put the question, and maybe difficult to answer it, but what do you feel is the essence, what represents push hands in your world, and how do you perceive it in other worlds – does it agree with your ideas?

What I am most interested in now in push hands, at age 73, and a little past the fighting part, I’m not as interested in it any more, I used to be and I learned a lot about what the form means for fighting, and what push hands offers us for close fighting, and I can punch and kick and do all those things, and I’m quite happy with it, but now I think that handling any kind of bad vibes that come towards you can be dealt with in other and better ways. But I think that the people who are interested in that, well they should be, and they can learn a good deal about it and how it works, exactly in that way. But when I see people doing it in that way when they shouldn’t be, pushing hands with somebody when they are just trying to have a little bit of a relationship physically, then I say why are they doing that, why are they grabbing them and turning it – you know there are two different games in a way and so I now enjoy finding out, exploring the personality, finding out how the principals of the thing work in a more evolutionary way, that’s what I’m interested in now. And when Maggie has her big meets, where all of her students from all over get together she always says, when people come who aren’t her students who want to learn, she asks me to introduce the concept of push hands to them because I like to do it. So they understand exactly the principals of it, how they should do it, and the tough guys, well they can go to the tough guys to do it.

This is what happened last night – I tried to split it up to help the beginners who could work slower and the tougher guys could do their thing, but somehow the advanced ended up with the beginners and the beginners weren’t learning anything. It’s the not accepting the dialogue that stops you from learning. You know people get caught into this thing all the time and they start to resist and can’t let go.

Yes, everybody learned when they were beginners, but then they don’t want to give it back – it has to be reciprocal. I saw some good things last night – some good push hands, and then I saw some things that you see all the time – people who are trying not to get pushed and who are trying to push the other person, and egos are being hurt and it’s not getting any body anywhere. If they are doing real rough push hands and they are doing it right then that’s fine.

Yes I kind of got caught into this thing where this guy pinned me down and wanted to push me, and I thought I’m not going to let you push me just because you want to do it, but in a way I should have said yes, fine.

Well you weren’t in his house so it’s fine. If I’m in someone else’s house then I want to feel as much as I can and see as much as I can but I’m not going to … My friend in New York he went to a Kung fu studio and the guy said what do you do – oh I do push hands and he says what’s that, so he showed him and he pushed him and the guy took it badly and came back at him and took his leg out – he’s now got to wear a brace for the rest of his life – don’t fuck with people in their own studios you know.

No, I once was pushing with someone, and he was a strong guy andI got him, and when he went over he put his leg in and pulled me over in a Judo hold and I felt that’s not the game we agreed to play.

That can be really dangerous and you don’t know what’s going to happen

So the sword – what is it you like about it?

CMC never actually said what he liked about it, he just demonstrated it within, if you look at the pictures of him – he’s always smiling with the sword. He’s not smiling in the push hands all the time – he was occasionally – but in the sword he was just having such a great time because we had no idea what to do when he was chasing us around the room. He’d say don’t back up and then we had to because we couldn’t get away from him, even if we went in a circle we couldn’t get away from him. But his level of sword was two levels up from what I’m doing. What I’m teaching is what gets you there, but there’s a certain point when you just have to do it and maybe following the principals and paying a lot of attention, you’ll jump to that level, I call it the water level, the level I’m doing is feather sword. I’m sort of developing a system from what he taught me and what I’ve learned from what he taught me since and from what I’ve learned from other things and from doing the form, and from doing the sword, I’m developing a system which was little more than what he taught us, but he was only teaching us the first level and he was doing it at obviously another level – it was just different.

I heard it said one time that it takes 100 days to learn a hand form, 1000 days to learn a sabre form and 10000 days to learn a sword form

I like that.

They say that the tai chi sword is a gentleman’s instrument

It’s for personal use, like a rapier or sword – the peasants couldn’t afford those sorts of weapons, they cost a fortune, they had to use their sticks and clubs and whatever else they had. It was always the nobility and the gentlemen, so yes, the double edged sword was used. You didn’t want to use it in combat or in armor – it was the curved sword and the very strong sword. I used to think that the Japanese sword, the samurai sword, was a combination of a straight sword and a curved sword that they said well let’s modify it and we’ll use that one sword for both our war and our… but now I know that the Chinese had so many different swords and there was one that looked exactly like a Samurai sword and they just took it and said this is the one to use.

So given that the sword was permitted as a weapon for people to use, and we are not in such a society today – you can go and fight somebody, or shoot them with a gun or whatever, so what is it that the sword offers us today?

A lot of people learn how to be a good fighter, you know, bare hand fighters, full tai chi, bagua, anything like that, and they’d start to feel superior about their fighting skills and it’s the same thing with that. I do a lot of different martial arts and one of them is shooting. I can shoot a pistol and a rifle and if it came down to the martial thing and I was defending my life, that’s what I’d use! The sword has very obvious movements and it teaches you exactly the same lessons that you need for push hands but it is very broad and easy to see. So there it is re-informing you – it’s on another stage and it’s giving you more information. The other thing is that you have to get your energy, your listening energy and your chi, your outgoing energy to go out through an instrument – through two instruments basically in order to absorb the information and to give the information, and that requires you to be more sensitive and to extend more and to receive more, plus it teaches you how to put your energy into any instrument that you are working with – whether it’s a shovel or an axe or a violin, everything gets more sensitive, and your personal space, the space that you own gets clear when you have a sword.

I know that you’ve done quite a bit of film and photography work and I’m wondering whether the tai chi practice has played any part in it.

Yes. I started tai chi in 1967 and was making films, from 1965. The first time I discovered that tai chi was helping me was interesting because I was walking around with a light meter in my hand which has a strap hanging down from it, and it happens to people occasionally when they are walking around with cameras that it gets hooked on something and ripped out of their hands. Well I was walking by a light stand andI got caught on the thing, and when it came to it my hand yielded, and I said – ah, if I hadn’t been doing tai chi the light meter would have …. But principally it was the camera movement, there is a thing called a dolly grip, you put the camera on a dolly and you wheel it around. For a while I was a dolly grip, and I was able to push the dolly really easily, and stop slowly and perfectly, and then whenever I did hand-held camera work, walking around, it was perfect, and that was from my tai chi mostly. Otherwise it’s, every movement I think we do is imbued with it, as soon as you start doing tai chi it just gets better and better and everything gets better and better. Your legs get stronger, igo skiing and I always had to work out a couple of weeks before I went skiing, but with tai chi, I was already doing it.

You are in very good health, and I hope I’m half as healthy when I’m your age, are your family all relatively healthy?

I had good genes, my father abused himself so much that he didn’t stay healthy, but that wasn’t because his genes were bad, it’s because his habits were bad, my mother didn’t eat too much and she stayed pretty healthy, so yes my genes are good. It’s a combination of having good genes and doing exercise and playing sports and stuff like that, but igive most of the credit to tai chi, because people can be very fit but not healthy, and the health part igive to tai chi. There are people who are body builders, and incredible looking but they can have very bad things wrong with them, die young, come apart.

And I’m sure where you were living in America, in New York, there was plenty of opportunity for distractions away from being healthy.

Oh yes, I did some of them, because if you are really healthy, you can do some of these things, I took some drugs, and I drank too much alcohol, but I never had a problem with it. If I have to I can drink a lot of alcohol and feel fine the next day, I know lots of people get terrible hangovers.

Do you have any hopes left for your tai chi or any final things to say that could help or inspire people in what you’ve got from it and why you keep going with it?

I hope that some day I’ll be able to get it – you know some people talk about it where I can respond perfectly well to whatever any one’s doing, where my ego isn’t involved in it, so that iget it! That I can stop my ego from getting involved and getting in my way. And its getting there, because I had a lot of ego when I was younger, so I’m glad about my progress so far. I love that I can inspire other people, ireally really enjoy doing that, and what I don’t like too much is that when I first came to Europe and to some of the workshops, and I was introduced as someone who had worked directly with CMC and they started to give me looks like we used to give to him, and I don’t like that so much, it puts me off a little bit

It seems you have a good and balanced approach to it!

Yes, well here when students come up to you at the end of a workshop, and you watch them get better; I just feel that I’m contributing something.

I think that there are few people who have the ability with sword work that you do.

It’s so clear – when I see people holding it like a piece of stick, like they don’t know what to do with it, well they do learn to do things with it because they aren’t dumb, but other people you see straight away it’s like they are on fire with it! A couple of them maybe a little too much on fire!

Ken van Sickle lives in New York and travels regularly to Europe. He has produced an excellent DVD on CMC Sword Form, which also includes rare footage of Cheng Man- Ching, and is soon to release a DVD on sword sparring. You can visit his website at