You cannot choose your parents, but in kung fu you can choose your style and your master. Choosing a lineage defines what you admire and what you want to become.
Kung Fu knowledge is passed down from master to disciple in a lineage that spans continuous generations over the centuries, and in some traditions, even millennia. Like natural selection, systems evolved and mastery was established through a process of martial challenges. Nearly ninety years ago, Master Wang Jiaoyu accepted my teacher Kuo Lien Ying as a student, after defeating him in a fight. I can’t begin to imagine this contest between one, over a century old, and the other, a young man of twenty-three, but perhaps it resembled the following story:
A t’ai chi ch’uan disciple and his challenger were instructed to put white chalk dust on their palms and fight in total darkness. After the fight, when the master turned the lights on, his student’s challenger lay on the floor. The disciple looked for signs of approval for having uprooted the challenger, but his master just shook his head and pointed to the hand-prints on the student’s black Chinese jacket. He had allowed his opponent to touch him.
Kuo Lien Ying, or Sifu as we called him, was born at the end of the 19th century in a China of women with bound feet, little industry or technology, and dynastic rule. Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and combinations thereof, had millions of adherents. Though this era was rich with kung fu systems and great masters, many of the ancient traditions and hierarchies were crumbling due to political unrest and cultural developments.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, China’s two thousand years of dynastic rule were being overturned. The corporations and governments of Britain, Germany and the United States were still trying to occupy and control imperial China, and collaborated in suppressing the nationalist Boxer Rebellion in 1900, while the Qing dynasty was collapsing from within. Through it all, kung fu forms and systems were being practiced in crumbling temples and ancient family compounds, guarded like military secrets and handed down only to trusted disciples.
Master Kuo began his kung fu training at the age of twelve, foregoing further academic schooling. To test his fighting skills and establish his reputation, Kuo went from village to village, declaring an open challenge in the town square and taking on all comers. To earn a living, he rode his horse alongside camel-trains loaded with merchants’ wares, his rope-dart skillfully tied under his jacket, ready to fling at ever-present bandits.
Siding with the Nationalists, Kuo was a general under Chiang Kai Shek. He fled the Communists in 1947, escaping to Taiwan, where he opened a kung fu school. In 1951 he issued an unanswered challenge to world boxing champion Joe Louis, and lived the life of an old-school Mongolian warrior. He was rumored to have killed a man in a tavern with the move called Wind Blows Through Ears. This foolish man had boasted that t’ai chi ch’uan had no real power. Kuo had been drinking, and would not countenance anyone questioning his art, so he demonstrated the move – with deadly effect.
There were many stories that flew around Sifu: that he had killed his jailer on the Mainland in order to escape to Taiwan; that he refused a personal request for training from Chiang Kai Shek himself; and that a student killed himself out of frustration from repeating a movement for three years without Kuo advancing him. Later, in America, after inviting the scholarly New York t’ai chi master Chen Man Ching to San Francisco for a friendly “t’ai chi demonstration,” he challenged Chen to serious combat.
The following story was told me directly by Grandmaster Peter Kwok: An investor gave Kuo $30,000 (quite a lot of money in the 1960s) to open and stock an herbal medicine shop in Taiwan. Kuo allegedly spent the money on wine, women and song. When the investor took him to court, Kuo compelled his young disciple Peter to perjure himself by testifying that he had indeed gone to Hong Kong and purchased the herbs for the soon-to-be opened pharmacy. Before they were found out, master and disciple fled to the West in a great hurry.
Kuo retained his secretive attitudes in America, teaching only the barest essentials to students while requiring endless hours of training. Training simultaneously under two other kung fu masters while in my first year under Sifu — Brendan Lai for Seven Star Preying Mantis, and YC Wong for Southern Hung Gar, I was spending my entire day practicing three different styles of Shaolin.
I loved all of it, but after a year, I chose Sifu for these reasons: his school was open full-time, seven days a week, from dawn till ten at night; to me that confirmed his commitment to kung fu training as a viable way of life. Kuo was charismatic and uncompromising, his training was invigorating, philosophical and cryptic, and primarily, he represented a whole different model of the aging process, with t’ai chi as the method. All the old people I had known before Sifu shuffled about gingerly, looking for an armchair next to a tv tray, while Sifu strode around as boisterous as a child, yelling and cajoling hid disciples.
Sifu stood out even in San Francisco’s Chinatown, with his regal bearing and strange Mongolian accent. He spoke only a few English words, which he reserved for what he regarded as the most important commands. These were Relax! Bend Down! (sink the weight) and Make Love!
Untamed and uninhibited, Sifu was a figure from another era, and a warrior culture to boot, so all the female students had to be on their guard. We learned to run away from, or hit him when we needed to fend off his crude advances. Yet he never forced himself on anyone that I knew of, and despite our annoyance at his gross lack of couth, we all respected his knowledge.
Ting Le! (Listen!), Sifu would say to us while we were pushing hands. He was referring to listening to the qi — energy – telling us to actively listen to our partner’s energy while pushing. Man Man Lai! (Slowly!) meant not to rush the form, and to keep a slow, even pace.
Sifu’s standards always felt both ephemeral and unattainable. One could never practice enough. The first wave of kung fu movies at the cinema in Chinatown, no matter how fanciful, fueled our youthful zeal. We were dogged by the epitaph: Skip one day, lose a hundred.
I studied Mandarin so I could understand what Sifu was saying, and he told me that he used to practice the ten row form (his had ten rows, others have twelve) called Tan Tui, or Springing Leg, for a full li (a mile or so) per row across the Gobi Desert. This form, consisting of continuous strenuous movements, uses every muscle in the body to propel itself forward. Each morning in Portsmouth Square Park, I imagined myself on the high plains of Inner Mongolia, drilling each line merely a city block long, between Clay and Washington.
I first experienced t’ai chi during my second year of kung fu training. I had read Sifu Kuo’s little white book, which he sold to students at his kung fu academy. The principles in t’ai chi are wondrous, and crucial to making sense of the forms. For example, “A divergence at the center is worth one-thousand miles at the circumference” and “The body is like a wheel. The waist is like the axle.”
The timeless sayings of t’ai chi ch’uan’s early creators have since been recounted prodigiously, but at that time, when t’ai chi was a relative newcomer to the US, I felt I had discovered a great secret — unearthing a hidden treasure and entering new realms that had been privy to only a few people in the West.
I still never tire of reading one or another colleague or predecessor’s writing on the subject of t’ai chi ch’uan. Basic t’ai chi concepts are all readily available online these days, where they are explained both in the ancient texts, and in more current terms by native English speakers. Applications to the movements in the forms are in plain view on youtube. Dim mak, or death touch is documented explicitly in books. There are no secrets.
During the mid 1960s, the art was just emerging in the United States, and Sifu was simply the one of the first to present the teachings in the original, ancient nomenclature. I would practice anything he told me, no matter how painful or tedious. In those early days, when I was a devotee of Shaolin, I indulged in t’ai chi and push hands as a relaxing cool-down only after strenuous kung fu work-outs.
Sifu had taught us a rudimentary, one-handed push hands exercise, at which I was terrible. Even though I could touch my chin to my toe, as was required by Sifu (he called it the hundred day stretch, but as a sixteen year old girl, I got there in three days), sit in Horse stance for an hour, and bounce in and out of tiger-squats endlessly, I felt unable to put the higher ideas I was reading about into action. No matter how hard I worked out, how many punches or double-jump kicks I did, those lazy t’ai chi people would move me around effortlessly, and once I moved to New York, especially the students of Sifu’s old rival, Chen Man Ching.
When I was leaving San Francisco to move to New York, I went to Chinatown to say goodby to Sifu. Outside on Brenham Place, gazing off into the distance as if seeing ten thousand other young kung fu students before me go off on their quests, Kuo Sifu gave me Peter Kwok’s number, and also called him to tell him I was coming. Sifu seemed suddenly much older, and I felt this might be the last time I would see him.
As soon as I moved to New York City, I contacted Peter Kwok.
Since I had trained under his teacher since the age of sixteen, Peter wanted to start me with advanced forms. But when he asked me to perform the forms I had learned from our Sifu, he said that my footwork was sloppy and asked if I would consider starting all over from the beginning.
At the ripe, old-for-kung-fu age of twenty-seven, I immediately emptied my proverbial teacup and enthusiastically said, “Yes!”
I began this new training under Peter Kwok with much more scrutiny than I had ever experienced. While he watched me perform my forms, every detail was examined by Peter’s constant gaze, to the point where I thought he was just picking on me! Peter gave me so much information that, after each lesson, I used to stop my car to practice in any passing field, alley, or parking lot before I got home so I wouldn’t forget all I had just learned. I had learned only two and a half forms in the five years spent under Kuo.
Kuo taught at five am in Chinatown in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s. When we arrived at 4:30 am, he seemed annoyed that we were coming at such a late hour! His teacher (Wang Jiao Yu) had learned by watching his teacher (Yang Ban Ho) from three to five am, considered a magic time for qi cultivation. Today’s classes begin later and later, at health clubs and adult-ed classes — whenever people can fit it into their busy schedules.
To t’ai chi’s credit, people still have good results from practice no matter the time of day. In Kuo’s era, training powerful forms full-time was the bottom line for a real kung fu devotee. Rising and training before daybreak was considered critical for developing qi.
The t’ai chi ch’uan style Kuo brought to this country combines hard and soft techniques. The slow, relaxed continuous movements are intricately connected to planetary forces. They all generate an inner heat that rises up through the legs and torso from the ground and bubbles up in sporadic outbursts of power out of the arms and hands into the atmosphere. This was the only form Peter wanted form Kuo when he went to him in Taiwan twenty years before. I knew it was significant, especially as he assimilated and interpreted it over the decades.
The sixty-four movements of the Orignal Yang form result in a twenty-minute session. Twenty minutes is a goodly amount of time for sustained concentration. Done as prescribed, on both left and right sides, this form provides a deeply fulfilling training experience that moves stagnant energy, builds qi and a great root for push hands.
The primary distinction from Yang style is the deeper and more centered stance, harkening back to its Shaolin origins and connoting a more fighting spirit. Original Yang doesn’t rock back to receive force, it merely absorbs and emits without perceptible, external movement, or moving in space. Contained within the modern Yang style if you dig for it, Original Yang truly represents the transition of Cotton Fist to The Grand Ultimate Fist.
My best teacher and favorite master – Kuo’s student Peter Kwok — had the most beautiful form of any teacher I had ever seen. Having begun his training as a child at his father’s knee, it was second nature for him. He had trained with his uncle, and then the most renowned masters of his era.
Peter was already well-versed in kung fu when he went to Kuo for his Original Yang t’ai chi ch’uan form, but in typical fashion, had to learn his whole Shaolin curriculum to get to it. He stayed until he learned it, and left for the West, first to Canada, and then to America, eventually residing in Wayne, New Jersey.
Peter was like a fish out of water in the suburbs of New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s. He had come there to work for Hoffman LaRouche, the giant chemical corporation. He told me he bought his new, voluminous, bland tract house because he had no ghosts of previous owners. Students trailed in and out of his garage in the summer and basement in the winter in their required uniforms, often carrying swords and spears, despite the complaints of the neighbors to the zoning board.
We all had to toe the line as students of the Peter Kwok Kung Fu Academy. I had come from California, the 1960s and art school, where freedom and individuality were encouraged, and now I had to wear a uniform with a sash of the proper color or pay a fine. The training was so fascinating that I would spend every cent I earned on my lessons and whatever else Peter had to offer (books, homemade dit dat jow, weapons). The only thing I balked at was his sale of guns, which I found distasteful in the extreme.
Peter believed that even the best martial arts forms were severely limited against guns, and to be a complete martial artist, you needed to learn how to use one, and carry it with you in case you needed it.
Peter had lived through the Japanese occupation and I could see the trauma close to the surface whenever even Karate, the Japanese martial art, was mentioned. He described walking out of his apartment and not being able to see the sky because of the pile of dead bodies, and seeing a Japanese soldier throw a Chinese infant into the air and catch it on the end of his bayonette.
During the seven years of private lessons with him (and for many years after), I heard his voice teaching me as I trained, and even saw his form in my mind’s eye. During one lesson, I asked him whose form he envisioned when he practiced, and he replied, “I imagine the originator of the system, up in heaven doing the form.”
Peter was an atheist, a man of science, a PhD in Chemical Engineering with a specialty in Magnetic Resonance Imaging, quite a different type of master than Sifu, but still quite respectful of our old teacher. Peter was very cognizant of the universal powers of spirit, imagination, and qi. His response to my query has remained with me throughout the years and served as my own point of departure with my own training after he left.
Masters, Students, Senior and Junior Brothers and Sisters
The master/student relationship in kung fu is a lot like the parent/child relationship. Students often possess a deep reverence and filial loyalty to their teachers. Sensing that the knowledge is a life-line for survival and longevity makes the seeker very grateful, bordering on reverent. The relationship is symbiotic, too; teachers need good students to give ongoing life to the form so it can be passed down to subsequent generations, and of course to support them in their chosen profession.
There is a messianic aspect to t’ai chi – more than just wanting others to feel good too, as we do with sharing a good recipe or health tip. Non-professional practitioners will even teach for little or nothing in the way of money. Free teachers are a good thing in some ways, of course, as even a little t’ai chi is better than no t’ai chi, since it makes people feel better, but like any other serious discipline, it is better if you are serious to go out of your way to learn directly from a professional. The effort put into finding a good system and a good teacher is one of the best investments you can make if your long-range goal is t’ai chi proficiency.
At the other end of the spectrum are the few teachers who know the art well and use their skills to dominate and subjugate others. These teachers are truly destructive, because they damage their students’ psyches, and may turn them off to kung fu forever. So when you are looking for a teacher, it is very important that you make sure the teacher is healthy, both physically and mentally, and never seeks to overstep the boundaries of a wholesome teacher-student relationship.
When showing the applications, it is also important that your teacher does no bodily harm to you. The power of t’ai chi can be transmitted without committing or enduring injury. Adepts at t’ai chi can deflect an aggressive attack without inflicting pain and suffering, and easily move their students without smashing them into a wall. Teachers who injure their students lack self-control at best, and at worst, have a violent nature that should have precluded exclusion from learning kung fu.
In Africa, roving bands of young elephants who were moved from their normal habitat and separated from the older elephants were killing rhinos. Once the older elephants were brought on the scene, the killings stopped. Clearly, animals as well as people need the guidance and influence of elders in order to be settled and civilized.
Kuo returned to his native Mongolia to die in 1984, and oddly, Peter Kwok disappeared without a trace that same year, leaving his students and schools with no way to contact him. I felt like a fatherless child, and shed some tears while practicing t’ai chi. But I knew I had what I needed to progress, despite my grief over his loss. Over the years and decades of practicing, I internalized Kuo and Kwok’s teaching. Now their knowledge lives on through me, with the addition of my own insights and life experiences.