Category Archives: issue-28

Taiji Doyen an interview with Li Deyin

by Ronnie Robinson

Li family, Taiji Dynasty

Professor Li comes from a distinguished taiji lineage: His grandfather, Li Yulin studied martial arts since childhood and became a close disciple of Sun Lutang, his uncle, Li Tian Ji became a martial arts lecturer at Harbin University and coach for the Central Institute of Physical Education, and his father, Li Tian Chi combined his taiji, qigong and Chinese massage knowledge for the treatment of bronchitis and the elderly. His duaghter, Faye Li Yip carries on the family tradition and lives in the Midlands through her school Deyin Taijiquan Institute , The Longfei Taijiquan Assocation are also closely associated with Professor Li and can be found at: Longfei Taijiquan Association of Great Britain
Lideyin

You began training at 8 years old, can you tell me about the nature of your training detailing the progression through your first 12 years?
I was born into a traditional martial arts family. My martial arts teacher was my grandfather Li Yu Lin (disciple of Sun Lu Tang). He was the authority in the family and insisted that all the boys in the family had to practice martial arts regardless of their future career plans. Everyday after dinner, my brothers and I would train at home under grandfather’s supervision. Sometimes we would go to his martial arts school and train at the back of older, adult students.

For the first 4 years, my training mostly focused on Ji Ben Gong (foundation skills) which included kicks, body stretching, splits, handstands and somersaults as well as basic Shaolin training including Shaolin Fist, Shaolin Sabre and Staff etc. My grandfather used to say ‘Children need to get a good foundation in their legs and waist because these skills are difficult to train when you get older.’

When I went to secondary school, my grandfather would ask us to practice Xing Yi Quan which involved daily Zhan Zhuang (pole standing) and Wu Xing Quan (Five Element Fist). This training was repetitive and intensive. We would practice the same movements over and over for more than 20 or 30 repetitions. Grandfather said, ‘The simpler the movement, the more advanced skills can be developed’.

I started formal Taijiquan training before moving to High School. Although I had already learned the pattern of the form, I had to start again from Open Stance in front of my grandfather. Learning progress was at a snail’s pace as he advocated a ‘don’t bite more than you can chew’ method of training. It took me six months to complete the Yang Style (traditional) Taijiquan Form. However, this training method benefited me greatly in later years when I made a last minute decision to enter 1st Beijing University Wushu Competition without any training for 3 years and won a Gold Medal for Taijiquan.

You trained in Chen style Taijiquan with Master Li Jingwu and also trained in Wudang systems; both Chen and Wudang lay claim to being the originators of Taijiquan, what is your opinion on this?
The origin and birth of Taijiquan is an ongoing investigation for historians and martial art academics. It is perfectly normal to hear different opinions. To my knowledge there is more than the opinions of Chen Village and Wudang Mountain. For example recently I read a book written by a British Chinese Taiji enthusiast on Woo (Hao) Style Taijiquan. In his book, he suggested that Wang Zong Yue should be regarded as the father of ‘Modern Time Taijiquan’ because he was the first person in history to use the philosophy of Tai Ji and theory of Ying-Yang to explain martial art principles. He was also the first person to give the name of ‘Tai Ji Quan’ to this kind of martial skills. Furthermore his classic writings provided guidance on the concept of ‘softness overcoming hardness’ and to seek ‘stillness within motion’ which became fundamental elements of all Tai Ji Quan that we see today.

The ancient Nei Jia Quan (Internal Fist) from Zhang San Feng of Wudang Mountain and Chen Jia Quan –Pao Chui (Chen Family Fist – Cannon Fist) from Chen Village were different to today’s Taijiquan in both technique requirements and theory on which they were based.

I haven’t done specialised research in this area, but I respect and listen to all kinds of different opinions. They all give me something to think about. I feel any Taijiquan academic issue should be discussed in an open, free spirit where the facts are presented and the truth can be discovered. But we must be mindful of unfounded claims from any style or school out of self interest and self promotion.

What are the differences between the two styles (Wudang & Chen) of taijiquan? Wudang Taijiquan can be understood as two different things: one refers to Taijiquan that is popular at Wudang Mountain or around that area; the other refers to the Taijiquan styles (eg Yang, Woo, Wu & Sun) that believe Wudang Mountain is the origin. We can compare these styles to Chen Style Taijiquan and see the following similarities:

  1. all are martial arts disciplines
  2. all emphasise ‘softness’ and ‘internal’ aspects of training and are guided by Wang Zong Yue’s Taijiquan principle
  3. all contain a list of movements & structure in their traditional forms that is almost identical to Chen Style which suggests that they share the same linage.

The differences between them are:

  1. Chen style technique has a lot of silk reeling, overlapping, spiralling movements while other styles mainly focus on gracefulness, rooting and centring.
  2. Chen Style also has lot of power exertion and jumping movements. Chen Style forms require obvious changes in speed and power rhythm whereas the other styles tend to emphasise more the use of intention rather than power and have a more regular, unchanging speed.

How do you feel about the differences between traditional and modern styles of taiji – what are the main benefits (and downsides) of each approach?
I feel we must understand traditional taijiquan and traditional taijiquan forms are two different things. Once, I was invited to a ‘Traditional Taijiquan Competition’. Organiser told me that no forms created after 1950 should be called ‘traditional taijiquan’ and all competition forms that were compiled with the approval of Chinese Wushu Association during 1980’s were not allowed. However, to my amazement all the forms that were competed were parts of a ‘traditional form’ put together by competitors the night before (well after 1950)! What sense does it make if a self-invented short form can be described as ‘traditional taijiquan’ whereas competition forms compiled by a group of traditional Taijiquan masters on the invitation of Chinese Wushu Association are refused?!

24 Step Yang Style Taijiquan Simplified Form was introduced with the aim of promoting taijiquan to the general public under the leadership of the Chinese Sports Committee in 1956. It met with some difficulties in the early stages as some people felt it was not traditional, obviously confused with the essence of traditional taijiquan and the method (forms) in which traditional taijiquan can be studied. We can use an example here: traditional taijiquan is traditional beer, the ingredients of traditional beer in a barrel are the same as that in a bottle, only the packaging is changed for consumer’s convenience.

I feel Traditional Taijiquan is not a ancient antique as it evolves with the social, economic environment and cultural developments. It still offers great benefits to today’s society. The five main styles (Chen, Yang, Woo, Wu & Sun) are all traditional taijiquan and they should include the old long forms as well as simplified short forms and competition forms that were introduced later, because they remain true to the principles and characteristics of that traditional style.

Modern Taijiquan should refer to new styles of Taijiquan for example Hunyuan Taijiquan, Qigong Taijiquan, Zonghe Taijiquan etc. Although these new styles have observed the principles of traditional styles, they have new characteristics and new concepts. Many apparatus that has gained popularly in recent years, for the practice of taiji, like Taiji Ball, Taiji Ring and Taiji Fan are also considered to be modern styles.

In comparing traditional and modern styles, I think traditional taijiquan and forms are rich in theory, highly skilled, well structured and have stood the test of time. The downside to these is that they require dedication, time and practice that may not suit everyone’s need. Another difficulty associated with the traditional practices is that the slight variations created over the years, even from the same teacher, may make it more difficult for students to learn.

Modern styles, on the contrary, are developed in response to modern needs, and therefore tend to be more adaptable, accessible and usually have standardised teaching materials. But they may need to develop more in theory to become more accomplished systems.

Is it the case that most people who train in the standardised forms are more concerned with the competitive aspects and that the more traditional systems are now practiced mainly for health?
Not really. Some standardised forms are for competitions, like competition forms for each style and 42 Step combined Taijiquan & sword form. Some standardised forms are for beginner’s learning like the 24 Step form and some standardised forms are for Duan Wei grading like 8 Step & 16 Step form. You can see that many people who learn standardised forms are for a variety of reasons. Even people who train in competition forms are not necessarily more concerned with competitions than for the health. I feel that people choose to train in the standardised forms because these forms are compact in structure and precise in movements so it’s accessible, easy to learn.

There could be some difficulties with competition in traditional forms not least because of its complexity and diversity in styles. But this doesn’t mean people who train in traditional forms have given up on competitions. Many wish to enter Tuishou (push hands) competitions to put their skills to test and seek further improvement.

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I’m particularly interested in the many changes the art has gone through in the way it is taught and practiced and how much is authentic and how much is a modern approach.
Traditionally Chinese martial arts, including Taijiquan was taught as a trade skill to make a living from. It was passed on mainly through family members or chosen disciples. In Chinese history, the professional Taijiquan teachers faced worrying competition not only from fellow martial artists but also from their indoor disciples. Therefore absolute loyalty and strict protocols had to be adhered to by the disciples before they could be accepted. Masters would only pass their complete skills to disciples when their relationship was as close as father and son.

Today Taijiquan is taught and practiced for a variety of reasons. Many people enjoy Taijiquan as a recreational activity, or a way to live a healthy lifestyle therefore the approach to teaching can be divided into commercial or voluntary, educational or entertainment. However, there are still some martial artists in China who choose to teach their art by accepting disciples, although the number of such teachers is not great.

Can you talk a little about the different ways taiji is taught and practiced by perhaps comparing what we see practiced in the parks and what is trained in professional classes and educational establishments?
There are different students with different reasons and aims. Taijiquan in the public parks is about participation for all, aiming to give everyone an opportunity to try the art. Social inclusion is very important in this kind of teaching/practice.

Professional clubs and team training is mostly for Taijiquan Competition. The training is about improving techniques, endurance, and skills to gain victory in competition.

Taijiquan in educational establishments is to give young people a balanced development (both externally and internally) and increase their awareness of cultural values. This training is very interactive, motivating and scientific.

Another important kind of teaching is rehabilitation for the ill and frail. My father devoted all his life to teach Taijiquan and Qigong to patients at Harbin University Hospital. His teaching was highly individualised and patient focused with highly effective results.

How much of a part do the health elements play in the wider teaching of taiji today. Is it considered an effective health-prevention system and do the health authorities actively want it promoted as such?
Over 200 years ago, when the Great Master Wang Zong Yue taught us the principle of Taijiquan is based on Tai-Chi, Yin-Yang theory and the strategy of ‘softness overcoming hardness’ & ‘bending and extending in accordance’, he also talked about the value of Taijiquan: ‘Ask what do we do it for? – it is for prolonging life and staying well’. Clearly, he knew the ultimate purpose and value is to improve one’s health.

In China, about 90% of people who practice Taijiquan do so with the aim of improving their health and about 10% are training Taijiquan to achieve competition results and higher fighting skills.

Since 1949, the Chinese health authorities and the Chinese government have given a high priority to support the promotion of Taijiquan. This is evident not only from the wider channels in which Taijiquan is taught, but also from the open and direct speeches by many Chinese Leaders like Mao, Deng, and Premier Zhou. It’s with the central and local authorities’ support that Taijiquan has truly spread and become accessible to all.

I can recall that in early 1950’s I didn’t want to practice Taijiquan at college because I’d be stared at, but ten years later practising Taijiquan had become trendy in campus.

Are there many professional taiji teachers who make a living from the art in China?

I am one of them! Although I graduated from University with an MBA and had ambitions of doing great business, I was headhunted to become a full time Taijiquan coach. Since 1960 until my retirement in 2000, I taught professionally for 40 years! I don’t have any numbers as to how many others there are, but in Renmin University in Beijing, we had another 4 professional Wushu/Taijiquan teachers.

It is generally believed that most people who practice taiji in the east train everyday whereas the majority of westerners probably attend one class a week with some little training in between. Do you notice this and do you think they can still gain benefit from so little training?
There are cultural differences between East and West. In the West competitiveness is a crucial element in all sports. The spirit challenges the human body to be faster, higher and stronger. In China many sporting activities stress harmony, calling for the unity of people and nature, mind and body, stillness within motion. The idea of getting the right balance and harmony is essential. Therefore, it may be easier for people from the East to accept the concept of Taijiquan and more difficult to Westerners. This is a natural process of understanding and adopting.

In a way, how many times a week Westerners practice Taijiquan is not that important, what matters is how many westerners are doing it, and how many of them keep doing it. My personal experience is that Taijiquan is becoming very popular in the West. I remember in 1989 I sent my daughter to the UK for further education, it was difficult to find Taijiquan schools and clubs. But over the years I came to the UK and travelled to several cities giving seminars where the number of students increased each year. I am very pleased that my daughter, Faye Li Yip is carrying on the family tradition, actively promoting Taijiquan in the UK. I hope one day Taijiquan in the UK can be as popular as English Football in China.

Meet Lay Seng Chng

Lay Seng Chng

How many years have you been practicing Tai Chi?
I started learning Tai Chi Chuan in 1972 in the state of Johor in Malaysia at the age of 28. In 1974, I moved to Penang I have the honour to receive direct instructions from Master Tok Sing Gim of Penang who was one of the first students of Grandmaster Yeh Siu Ting who in turn is the student of Professor Cheng Man Ching (Details on website). I Joined the Penang Tai Chi Association in 1975 as a life member. I was appointed to join the group of instructors at the Association in 1981 and in 1997 I was elected as the Chief instructor of the group of instructors of the Association.

What does Tai Chi Chuan mean to you?
TCC has saved me from the misery of having to suffer the worries and torture of the migraine and heart problems my young age. It might even have saved and prolonged my life!
To me TCC is one of the most interesting hobbies I have ever enjoyed. It is a treasure of my life. It has helped me to lead a more secure life in the sense that I am relieved from worries from health problems many people face; and more important, to be able to impart to others this privilege.
It has not only helped me in my health, it has taught me to live a better life physically, mentally, and socially by adopting the principles of TCC.

What is the most important aspect for you?
Generally TCC is one of the best forms of martial arts/calisthenics/sports/excercises(or whatever one may call it) especially in its ability to help people to recover from chronic health problems and maintain good health and to be free from various health troubles many people face.
It is not just healthwise that TCC is known have benefited people. I am very sure people who have practiced TCC in the right way will agree that one will feel more secure in ones? movements regardless of age race or gender and enjoy benefits leisurewise, sportswise, socialwise, workwise…. In life health comes first, then comes financial stability, d social/communal integration.

Do you have any personal goals in Tai Chi?
My personal goals is to try to improve myself so that I can improve others; help others to achieve what I have not achieved, and to discover what I have not discovered. I believe there is still very much to be achieved, very much to be discovered.

Who or what inspired you?
My poor health and hopelessness (in the ability to get it cured)in my younger days made me give TCC a try and when it proved to me that it helped, I was intent to go in search for a deeper understanding of the art.

What do you make of Tai Chi Chuan’s current popularity?
TCC’s current popularity is a good trend, but there is a danger and be counter productive if it goes on the way it is developing. Instead of studying further into the art people think that they have mastered the art and are good enough to start to develop what they think to be better sets and forms. Before one clearly understands what it means people have tried to teach what it can mean. This will lead to shallow knowledge and thus retard further research into the art. To study an art it is not just to learn to know the forms and to create new ones to give oneself a name for that form he/she has created. Example I can easily create my own set and call it LSChng’s Tai Chi and LOOK! HOW GREAT I AM!!! MINE IS BETTER THAN THE ONE I LEARNT!!! This may make new learners feel disillusioned for they have been given a wrong impression of what TCC is. It confuses the beginners. There has been in existence so many forms of TCC and people are making more sets of forms. In this sense they may retard the growth and progress of the art.

As a Teacher, how do you feel about the Martial aspects of Tai Chi?
Martial applications of TCC is not as simple as one thinks. TCC will not be called an internal art and the name ?Tai Chi Chuan? if it is just to apply this form this way and that form that way. It can be one of the best forms of self defence but it needs much training and understanding, especially in sensing and qi cultivation.
It is strange to many if I say that martial aspect of TCC can lead to prevention of direct clashes in every sense of our daily life, like avoiding direct clashes with people at home, at work, in the community. So, to train martial applications does not mean training to fight but it is as beneficial in our everyday life.
Let us not forget that while TCC is one of the best forms of self defence, what is the use of martial applications when faced with present day weapons? The Opium Wars of China is a good example of the illusions of martial arts.

What are your views on competition? and What direction would you like to see Tai Chi Chuan going in the future?
As TCC is a good form of sports, competitions should be encouraged with proper rules. It helps to develop TCC into a healthy sport which people can benefit. So TCC needs to be presented in a different approach. We have to try to think of a way to popularise TCC as a sports especially to the younger generation, but in doing so TCC as an art for health must not be compromised.
I belief, and to me it is a fact, that TCC is not just for health or as a sports, it can calm and nourish the brain, for the brain is a very powerful creation which most practitioners may not have experienced or may have experienced but not voiced out for individual reasons. In conclusion, I would say that TCC can be a very fascinating art which needs to be researched to much greater depths.

Meet Alison Gardiner

Alison Gardiner

How many years have you been practicing Tai Chi?
11 years. I went along to a 10 week adult learning class, got hooked and have never looked back.

What stimulated your interest in Tai Chi Chuan?
I’d long had an interest in Chinese and Japanese art but I knew very little about T’ai Chi when I started. I was at a low point in my life, depressed, in a job I hated and with no self-confidence. I needed something to help me relax and switch off and when I read a about T’ai Chi in a college prospectus it seemed like the perfect solution.

What does Tai Chi mean to you?
Quite simply – everything. If you had suggested to me in those first weeks of learning T’ai Chi that in a few years time I would have the confidence to teach a class of complete strangers I would have thought you were insane. T’ai Chi has given me self-belief, stability and a sense of peace when times are hard, new friendships and new opportunities. It has completely altered both the path of my working life and my priorities. I count myself immensely lucky to have found T’ai Chi and my two main teachers, who were exactly what I needed at different points in my T’ai Chi journey.

What is the most important aspect for you?
T’ai Chi’s accessibility and its adaptability. Its accessibility through some of the Chi Kung systems which are relatively simple to follow and can be practised seated or standing by people of all ages and physical abilities. Its adaptability in that practitioners can gain some benefit mentally and physically purely by concentrating on the health aspects of T’ai Chi but, if they wish a deeper understanding. they can explore the martial side of the art in so many different ways (weapons, applications, pushing hands, etc.) and to whatever level they choose.

Do you have any personal goals in Tai Chi?
None, other than wanting to continue to develop my own skills, both in my own form and push hands practice and in my teaching.

Who or what inspired you?
Like most people I would have to say my teachers. As I mentioned earlier I was very fortunate in finding the right people at the right time but also, through a ten year association with T’ai Chi Caledonia, I have been lucky enough to have met and worked with many exceptional instructors from all over the world. I’ve also been inspired by T’ai Chi itself – the way it makes me feel and the benefits it has brought myself and many others of my acquaintance.

What do you make of Tai Chi Chuan’s current popularity?
As someone who would love everyone to benefit from T’ai Chi the way I have, I can’t be anything but happy that it is increasing in popularity. I do regret, however, that some recently developed and hugely popular exercise systems, which protect their own trade names so carefully, feel its okay to claim to be teaching aspects of T’ai Chi when I’m sure the vast majority of the instructors they produce have never been to a T’ai Chi class in their life!

As a teacher, how do you feel about the martial aspects of Tai Chi?
I think they are extremely important. Even if your main interest in T’ai Chi relates to the health aspects I don’t believe you can get the full benefit of practising the form without some knowledge and understanding of what the moves are for. The quality of a movement can be transformed simply by knowing and acknowledging its true purpose, even if you have no desire whatsoever to put it into practice.

What are your views on competition?
Hmm – difficult one. I certainly didn’t come into T’ai Chi wanting to enter competitions and I don’t see the advantage in practicing a form to perfection if it means you loose the enjoyment and physical and mental benefits you get even when it’s not quite right.
However, it does introduce participants and spectators to styles other than their own which I think is always a good thing. As far as Pushing Hands is concerned I have discovered over the last few years that I do have a distinctly competitive streak (particularly when pushing with the lads for some reason!) so I can’t really knock anyone who wants to compete. That said I do feel I’ve learnt the much more about this aspect of T’ai Chi when I’ve been “co-operating” with my partner, either accepting that I have a lot to learn from them and letting go of my pride or helping someone less experienced that me so I’m not convinced that formal competition will necessarily make you a better Tai Chi player.

What direction would you like to see Tai Chi going in the future?
Onwards and upwards! I hope more people take up T’ai Chi, standards of instruction continue to rise and opportunities for students to experience the full gamut of the art increase. I would also love to see more press coverage which doesn’t only emphasise the health benefits, important though they are, but which shows younger people that T’ai Chi is for all age groups, can teach some valuable life lessons and can be part of your life for many, many years and you still won’t run out of aspects that intrigue you and inspire you to continue to learn and explore.