by Dr. Alan A.D. Peatfield published in TCC Magazine winter 2004
Rose Li died on 29th July 2001. Her name won’t mean much, at first, to most people who read this, but in her time Miss Li was an important person in the transmission of Tai Chi, Bagua, and Xingyi from China to the West and particularly to the United Kingdom. She was my teacher from 1977-1984. Miss Li first came to notice in the Bagua and Xingyi books, published respectively in 1967 and 1974, written by Robert Smith. In the Bagua book, Smith quotes from Miss Li about the subtle theory of Bagua and how few westerners could appreciate it. As for Xingyi, it was an open secret that Miss Li was the anonymous Xingyi teacher, who “taught Chinese at a mid-western university”, whose students had such little appreciation of Xingyi that she refused ever to teach it again. From such beginnings Robert Smith and Rose Li formed a friendship sustained mainly through correspondence and meeting occasionally. Robert Smith celebrated this relationship by devoting a whole chapter to Rose Li in his book, Martial Musings. It gives an accurate account of her personality, attitudes, and her art and should be read in conjunction with this memoir.
According to the accounts of those who cared for Miss Li in her final years, before her death she expressed the wish that her teachings would not die. Since her passing there have been some moves by her final students to collect her papers and perhaps produce some sort of book, but nothing has appeared apart from a short obituary in the Tai Chi Union of Great Britain magazine. Time is passing. In my own practice and teaching, I have always been open about the debt that I owe to Miss Li. Accordingly I have been urged by friends (particularly Dan Docherty) and students to commit to writing my own memories of Miss Li.
This memoir is therefore the result of that urging. I acknowledge from the beginning that it is partial. Inevitably it covers only the period that I spent as Miss Li’s student, from 1977 to 1984 (when I moved to Greece to pursue my archaeological career). Conclusions that I may draw are dependent on the information revealed by her during that time. Undoubtedly there will be some errors in this memoir. If so, I apologise in advance, and invite those students who continued to learn with Miss Li until her death to come forward to correct or add to anything I may say here. Nevertheless the period 1977 to 1984 was arguably the time at which Miss Li was at her most infl uential in the development of the Neijia in the United Kingdom. During that time Robert Smith’s charming hyperbole that she was the “greatest Hsing-I boxer” to come to the west may indeed have been true.
With those provisos in mind, I therefore dedicate this affectionate and respectful memoir to Rose S.C. Li as the teacher who firmly set me on the path of the Neijia, and whose teaching and insights continue to infl uence me.
[In the following analysis of Miss Li’s teaching, I have laid out each art in two sections: first, an overview of what she taught, and second, concepts she communicated to us, based on my notes from those days].
Tai Chi Chuan – overview
Tai Chi was the mainstay of Miss Li’s teaching. It was the art most students came to learn, and she more or less insisted that it should be learned even by those students who were more interested in Bagua and Hsing-i. It is perhaps a little ironic then that of the three arts she taught it was the one for which she had least affection.
A perennial question that arose from almost all students at one time or another was: what style of Tai Chi did Miss Li teach? In my time with her she invariably brushed aside such questions as irrelevant. Her answer was that in her time there were no distinctions between styles and Tai Chi was just Tai Chi, and you should just get on and practice. If pressed, she would occasionally reply that if you wanted to call it something, call it Beijing Tai Chi. Interestingly this was quite a revealing reply, though I didn’t realize it for some years.
As for the Form itself, she taught only a Long Form in six sections, though to beginners she would teach a shortened version consisting of sections 1, 2, and 5 before allowing then to progress to the full version. The Form itself was long, one of the longest I have ever seen. In most cases the postures were fairly orthodox, similar in appearance to Yang and Wu Style versions. But she did have some idiosyncrasies. For example, even in the standard forward stance, she favoured a more back-weighted upright posture than is normal in Yang/Wu Tai Chi. Part of this undoubtedly came from her main art of Xingyi, but it bears some similarities to Cheng Man-ching’s Tai Chi posture; in this she may have been influenced by her friendship with T.T. Liang, whom she acknowledged as one of the first to encourage her to pass on what she knew. More specifically she also modified certain postures, most obviously White Crane Stretches its Wings: in orthodox Tai Chi this has the left hand down by the torso and the right raised by the head. In Miss Li’s version both hands were down by the torso. I can only guess at the reasons for this modification. It may have been that she used this as a signature posture. Alternatively, this modified posture does focus a feeling of power coming from the back, which was a point she often emphasized.
Another characteristic of her Tai Chi was that she encouraged students to do (or at least did not discourage them from doing) the Form extremely slowly. Her senior students could take as long 45 minutes to complete the Long Form. I have to say that trying to do this was extremely painful on the legs, but it did also strengthen them rapidly. But this slowness may also have contributed to a negative aspect of the Tai Chi of Miss Li’s students about which Robert Smith comments. In Martial Musings (page 254), he comments that on one of his trips to London he observed that the senior student that Miss Li chose to demonstrate her Tai Chi was stiff and hard, quite the antithesis of what Tai Chi is supposed to encourage. Remembering the senior students of that era, probably the criticism is justified, but I do think it was the consequence of this excessive slowness.
As soon as China opened up to visitors around 1980, Miss Li was one of the first to return, to renew contacts and to find out what had happened to her family property, classmates etc. Soon after one of her visits I met her in London’s Chinatown, where I had also just bought Wang Peisheng’s now famous book on Wu Style Tai Chi. When I showed the book to Miss Li, she commented that Wang was a Tai Chi nephew, and she had met him recently in Beijing. This was a clue to her origins within Tai Chi. Until his recent death, Wang Peisheng was well-known as one of the standard bearers of the Northern or Beijng Wu Style, that of the non-family students of Wu Quanyu, father of Wu Chienchuan. Indeed she did eventually reveal that her Tai Chi teacher was Liu Fengshan (a.k.a Liu Caizhen) a direct student of Wu Quanyu (this is confirmed by Smith, page 252). Liu taught Tai Chi at the school of Deng Yunfeng, Miss Li’s Xingyi teacher, but Miss Li certainly never had the affection for Liu that she had for Deng. This means that Miss Li’s Tai Chi can be firmly identified as deriving from the Northern or Beijing Wu Style.
Other aspects of her Tai Chi may also be worthy of comment. She taught a preparatory exercise to do before the Hand Form, which she called Tiger Rolling the Ball. This exercise was a variation of Bagua’s Lion Rolling the Ball, and was the only Chi-kung exercise that I recall Miss Li teaching. She would also never demonstrate the complete Hand Form or indeed even large sections of it in class. She would only ever demonstrate the movements she was teaching. Her stated reason for this was that she wanted her students to develop their own way of doing the Form, and not to try and simply copy her mannerisms. Over the years I have seen so many students judge their own ability with their Form on how well they can merely mimic their teacher. Thus I have to say that I think Miss Li was correct on this point. In the years I was her student Miss Li only ever taught Hand Form; there were promises of teaching Pushing Hands and Sword Form, but nothing came of these.
Tai Chi Chuan – concepts
Eight powers – Miss Li certainly used the conventional expressions of Peng, Liu, Ji, An, Cai, Lieh, Zou, Gao, but she also gave some additional nuances. E.g.
- Cai – hand moves
- Lieh – knees move
- Zou – elbow moves
- Gao – hip moves
Contained within these are nuances derived from the Three External Harmonies (hand/ foot, elbow/knee, shoulder/hip). They do also express the idea that the potentiality of power is continuously maintained in those body points irrespective of particular Posture. Kai/He (open/close) – this was an especially favoured principle. Miss Li found various ways of expressing it. She also used the terms shen and tsoer (I am uncertain of the actual Chinese) translated as expansion/going out and contraction/coming in. In our attempts to express this Miss Li was concerned that we were able to use the expansion/ contraction not just into our bodies and arms (“from the centre”), but also in our hands and fingertips. She often complained, especially of those of us who had done external martial arts, that our hands were stiff, wooden, dead; thus she often exhorted us to have hands that were alive. My notes of this period include a quote from Chang Chung-yuan’s book Creativity and Taoism (page 9), which for me expressed well what Miss Li was trying to communicate to us: “where things grow and expand, that is kai; where things are gathered up, that is he. When you expand you should think of gathering up, and then there will be structure; when you gather up you should think of expanding, and then you will have inexpressible effortlessness and an air of inexhaustible spirit”.
Reeling Silk – again, this was another favourite concept. Sometimes, when she talked of this, she would show us the famous drawing of the human figure with spiral lines around it, taken from Chen Xin’s Chen Tai Chi book. I presume that book has been preserved in her papers. “6 Points: 2 hands, 2 feet, head/neck, waist/ dantien”. These were points to concentrate on to create an effective whole body co-ordination. “Tai Chi uses hsin chi ” – I take this to mean that Tai Chi uses (or should try to use) chi from the xin (heart mind). This is a profound and difficult traditional teaching in Tai Chi. Miss Li only occasionally mentioned it. More often she talked of Yi (mind-intent), and how that would help us to use chi in our movements rather than li (brute physical strength). “Purity, Truth, Accuracy, Sincerity, Regularity, Totality” – these precepts were to govern our practice.
The following passages are given verbatim from my notes. They speak for themselves (more or less!):
“In Taoism the earth is flat, and heaven is round. The Tai Chi step feels the earth flat – the shoulder presses heel, the heel pushes the knee, the knee pushes the palm.
The arms feel heaven round, so movements and gestures are never linear. And to balance the hands, they must move together. Movement must be total: 10 fingers and 10 toes. Sung : loose, but strong, even in standing.”
“If the legs wobble, chi has not gone down into them to make them steady (a bad unhealthy life affects chi). Chi is for health (not fighting) to feel light, but not floating when moving”.
“Tai Chi theory says that chi flows through the marrow. P’i-erh (flat) if you turn the arms and elbows in too much (e.g. in circling to cross the arms) then an obstacle is created and chi cannot flow – broken elbow. Tui ch’o – movements, arms rounded”.
Alan Peatfield lives & teaches in Dublin. Tel: 0035 31068243
How many years have you been practising Taijiquan? 8 years.
What stimulated your interest? I was looking for a good fighting style and my research drew me towards Baguazhang, Xingyiquan and Taijiquan. I also studied some Eskrima, Silat, and a little Seven Star Praying Mantis, but for me the Daoist styles were the most suitable because I am a Daoist. These arts make sense to me philosophically, intellectually and spiritually.
What does Taijiquan mean to you? It is a martial art, pure and simple. I interpret the words Tai ji quan to mean Great Polarity Boxing. So to live up to its name, Taijiquan has to be practised as a boxing style and it must also have differentiation between hard and soft, fast and slow. The Taiji symbol is 50% yin and 50% yang, so I don’t think Taijiquan should be considered as being limited to a single tactic – that of soft overcoming hard. Zheng Manqing stressed the importance of looking to the Taiji Classics for guidance. Chen Wangting wrote about ‘charging back to reclaim the victory’, Wang Zongyue wrote about ‘crowding a retreating opponent all the more.’ So it’s clear to me that Taijiquan must have yang as well as yin methods. The most crucial thing is learning how to fight: you can work on refining your power when you have some power to refine. The motto of my school is ‘Safeguarding Oneself, Defending Others.’
What is the most important aspect for you? Chen Xin emphasised the importance of reeling silk power. Taijiquan has really helped me to get to grips with the reeling silk movement method as well as teaching me how to be soft sometimes. Before I studied Taijiquan, I only really knew how to advance.
Do you have any personal goals in Taiji? Yes. It is my personal mission to try to help to restore Taijiquan’s martial credentials in the public eye and elevate it from the quagmire of new-age fads and so-called ‘Alternative Therapies.’ I will feel like I have succeeded when I start getting a few more phone inquiries from actual martial artists and a few less from new-age pagan Buddhist shamans looking for the fountain of eternal youth without ever having to break a sweat. As it is, most potential students are put off when I tell them about the martial emphasis of my classes or that I use a compulsory grading syllabus. ‘What you mean you actually have to learn this stuff?’ If anyone ever does ring me to inquire about martial arts classes, they are usually put off by the fact that I teach Taiji, so the current situation is very bad.
Who or what inspired you? I resisted studying Taijiquan until I encountered the work of people like Dan Docherty, Nigel Sutton and Feng Zhiqiang. They convinced me that Taiji could actually be practised as a martial art. Although I mostly teach the Zheng Manqing style, aesthetically I’ve only ever really liked the Chen style because it is powerful as well as graceful. My desert Island book would be My desert Island book would be “The Sword Polisher’s Record” by Adam Hsu, I always find something useful in that. I always find something useful in that.
What do you make of Taijiquan’s current popularity?
Well I don’t think that real Taijiquan is at all popular. I wouldn’t actually call most of the popular stuff that’s around Taijiquan.
As a teacher, how do you feel about the martial aspect of the art? Taijiquan is a martial art, so there is no separable ‘martial aspect.’ If you’re not practising it as a martial art, you’re not practising Taijiquan.
What are your views on competition? I’m not particularly interested in competitions because I prefer to emphasise the mutual benefits of practising real martial applications with fellow students. Getting hit or thrown around can be as educational as doing the hitting or throwing – it teaches you how to root and helps you to develop fearlessness. I don’t think it is possible to be relaxed in a combat situation and ‘move second, arrive first’ unless you’ve had plenty of martial experience. I don’t have anything against competitions, but I don’t think Taijiquan should become too stylised away from actual combat.
What direction would you like to see Taijiquan going in the future? More fighting, less fluff.
http://www.reelingsilk.co.uk Tel: 01422 881 587
How many years have you been practising Tai Chi? 18 years, plus 7 years other martial arts.
What stimulated your interest? My interest was stimulated by Bruce Lee back in the early 70s. In my early days I learned everything I could and met many interesting people who knew many interesting arts. A friend told me about Tai Chi Chuan but knowing that my interest was primarily martial warned me not to learn from anybody who did not teach the art primarily as a martial art. What piqued my interest was the mention of the Nei Kung training, something that I had not come across in all the other arts I had practised. Another friend told me that Dan Docherty, a South East Asian Martial Arts Champion, was teaching Tai Chi Chuan in Covent Garden and the rest is history.
What does Tai Chi mean to you? I have always been interested on Eastern Philosophy as well as Western Philosophy. If you read Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, the way of the intercepting fi st, you will come to the realisation that it essentially follows the martial theories of Taijiquan, and of course its theoretical background in the LaoZi DaoDeJing and the SunZi Bing Fa. Tai Chi means to me the essence of water. Try to grasp it and it cannot be held. Try to contain it and it will eventually break free. It can be a tidal wave, but can also be a muddy pool. Within strength there is weakness, within weakness there is strength. Softness can overcome hardness but also hardness can overcome softness. The Tai Chi symbol is a profound one. The answer is to seek the middle way between the two extremes which contain the seeds of their own downfall.
What is the most important aspect for you? The most important aspect is the understanding of self. Ultimately through understanding self one will understand others. This requires rigorous testing on one’s physical, intellectual and psychological being. It is necessary to push oneself to the limits of intellectual understanding, physical endurance and the extremes of the subconscious emotions of fear, desire and lust. The intellectual limits are challenged by first having to learn a fundamentally different language system and then attempting to interpret the arcane language and poetic codes used to describe the art. The physical endurance is tested by the Nei Kung, internal strength exercises, that never get any easier no matter how long you practise them. Fear is exercised by using the art in fi ghting contests where you know you can get hurt but accept that. Ultimately it is about transcending these emotions and realising that desire to win gets in the way of winning, being afraid of getting hit makes it more likely that you will be, and that the powerful emotion of lust gains strength if you try to fi ght it but will dissipate if you let it go.
Do you have any personal goals in Tai Chi? My goal is to test my understanding of the art. If I can pass on what I know to others then I will be satisfi ed that I understand the art to some degree. If my students cannot do what I do then I am either a poor teacher or I my understanding of the art is insuffi cient to be able to pass it on. The theory of the art is relatively straightforward, the practise of it is not so easy, the transmission is even harder. I would like to continue the work of my teacher in spreading the Taijiquan martial system.
Who or what inspired you? Being a relatively small person I was always disturbed by the idea that large, powerful untrained people could beat trained highly skilled martial artists. I was dissatisfi ed with the martial arts training that I had been doing up till then as they lacked balance and artistry and did not have a coherent framework. This is still true today as it is rare that complete traditional systems are taught. This has led many fi ghters to abandon traditional arts and concentrate on Kick boxing, Mixed Martial Arts etc.
What do you make of Tai Chi’s current popularity? Tai Chi for health is very popular, Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art is far less so. The problem for me is that most people come to my classes looking for a soft gentle relaxing exercise and are surprised to fi nd that within the softness there is hardness, within the gentle there is the tough, and the relaxation is a special form called Song, which is diffi cult to attain. Training Tai Chi Chuan is a hard tough process. It is not possible to learn how to fi ght by reading books, practising forms and doing special exercises. To be able to effectively apply the art in combat it is necessary to practise a combative way.
As a teacher how do you feel about the martial aspect of the art ? To gain a proper understanding of the true realisation of the concepts of the art it is essential to practise the martial aspect. It is essential to understand the applications and how they can work in real situations. The Form is a sequence of martial arts applications performed in a very specifi c way to develop very specifi c skills that are the basis for the usage of the Taijiquan martial system. To perform the Form properly knowledge of the applications is essential because this will give the proper focus and meaning to the postures. The Tui Shou (Pushing hands) exercises are the bridge between the Form and the San Shou (Self Defence), so I teach these from the first lesson.
What are your views on competition? Competition is an imperative. Without being tested in unfamiliar situations against unknown people with unknown abilities one cannot say that one can act according to the situation. I have seen many seemingly highly skilled individuals whose perfect form, and beautiful technique has disappeared when confronted with the unknown. The mental side is equally important. Being able to remain calm and relaxed in a stress situation will allow the art to manifest itself. Without putting oneself in this stress situation in a relatively safe manner it is not possible to know how one would react if a more immediate danger presented itself. Tui Shou competitions reveal if one has internally understood the concepts of Taijiquan, if one is easily defeated by the muscular and the quick, or have to revert to overpowering one’s opponent then one really does not know it.
What direction would you like to see Tai Chi going in the future? I would like a better recognition of Tai Chi Chuan as a legitimate martial art. For this to happen there needs to be greater awareness amongst the general public and practitioners alike of the nature of the art. This will of course only happen when there are a suffi cient number of Taijiquan practitioners competing in full contact and other fi ght format competitions. Taijiquan is seen mainly as a soft exercise suitable for the old and infi rm hence does not attract many people who would like to participate in these kinds of activity.
website: http://www.shadowhand.com email: taichi at shadowhand.com Tel: 078986 951 411