The following series of articles describes what it is like to study tai chi in Chenjiagou (Chen Family Village), the birthplace of tai chi (taijiquan) with Master Wang Xi’an.
Miami to Chicago to Beijing to Zhengzhou to Wenxian, Henan Province, China – approximately 36 hours in flight, layovers, and taxi… Arriving at Master Wang’s school around 10 PM… No Master Wang! Back to Wushu Guan in Wenxian. At this point I am completely exhausted from travel, change of time zones, change of culture!
Then Master Wang appears out of the dark, as if stepping out of a cloud… he is followed by an entourage of about 8-10 Chenijiagou natives (Later I realized he always has a group of his village friends surrounding him wherever he goes…) Immediately I am escorted by him and his party to a restaurant down the street – a large tent filled with the scents of REAL Chinese food! It was some job explaining that I do not eat any animal food products (vegan)… but when Master Wang understood, he nodded OK. And this is how it was from the first moment meeting him. The supreme host, always concerned about everyone’s comfort and having their needs fulfilled.
The restaurant / tent was very busy with activity. Lively. Chaotic, but in harmony somehow… The delicious Chinese food kept coming as I thought, I will go home very fat and happy!
Then back to my hotel room, which was the old building behind Wushu Guan. I am sitting on my bed with 8 Chinese men all smoking, and Master Wang begins the interview (I didn’t know it, but this interview was step 1 in whether or not he was going to actually teach me – after flying literally half way around the world to study with this great master, it was still not sure if he would accept me as a student.)
First Master Wang asked me if the hotel room was OK for me. I found him always like this – thoughtful of my comfort and to make sure I was content and happy. He treated me as an honored guest from the first moment!
He asked (through an interpreter, he speaks no English and my Mandarin is pretty slim so…) a list of questions – what do I want to learn, who were my previous teachers, etc… and his last question I found quite odd – He asked me if I am a tai chi master! With this he was checking me out very closely, and I think my answer to this question would decide whether or not he felt I was worth teaching…)
My response was that I had been practicing tai chi and other martial arts for 30 years, but that the longer I trained, the more I realized there is to learn and that I always feel like a beginner… so to refer to myself as a master, of what purpose would that serve?
I guess I passed the interview, because the next words from the interpreter were that “Teacher Wang” will take personal responsibility for my training, and he will teach me privately every day for 5 hours. I was ecstatic when I heard this, like a dream come true. To study with such a great master is an extremely great honor – well, I was quite emotional about this!
I was instructed to meet Master Wang the next morning at 9 to begin my training with him. I awoke very early and walked around the grounds of the training facility. Very old and the buildings quite run down, but a feeling of intensity, probably from all the thousands of hours students practiced so wholeheartedly over the years…
I entered the training hall, a large sort of basketball gym setup with bleachers and a thick padded rug filled the terrazzo floor – green and white with a giant red yin yang emblem in the center. The building was in great disrepair… when the wind blew, you would think the glass doors would all shatter or fly away…
I entered from the rear of the building. Master Wang was standing with his ever present group of friends across the room, and the bleachers were full of young Chinese men and women and boys and girls, all in their tai chi training uniforms… and I thought, wow, I am gong to see a great tai chi demonstration!
Well, a minute later, I understood that I was the one who had to demonstrate my tai chi! Master Wang motioned me to the center of the floor and nodded his head as if to say, OK show all of us your tai chi now!
There were maybe 200 students filling the bleachers and there was not a sound! Unnerving did not describe how I felt… But somehow I performed for about 5 minutes the previous Chen tai chi I had learned in the states. When I finished, all the students stood up in unison and filed out of the training hall in silence… and I thought, this is my first day. I am going to have a nervous breakdown!
After the students filed out, Master Wang smiled and gently motioned where I should stand, behind him to the right side. And he very patiently and methodically began teaching me the movements of Laojia Yilu (Old Frame First Routine) step by step. He would do one movement together with me several times, then watch me, then make corrections, then motion that I practice what he just taught me for a while as he sat drinking tea… always watching me out of the corner of his eye… Occasionally Master Wang would place my hands on specific parts of his body as he did the movements so I would understand mechanics of movement and more important the internal connection. He would repeat “fangsong” which means to “let go”, to relax completely… over and over. I probably heard the term fangsong a thousand times a day!
Training took place twice a day every day in the morning and afternoon, 2 1/2 hours each session. Day by day I was learning his tai chi. It was like nothing I had learned before! I recognized early on that all the years of training I had were only preparation for study with Master Wang!
One day, he was teaching me a specific movement, Cover Hand and Punch. I was not getting it… Master Wang instructed me to grab his wrist to demonstrate the proper movement. The moment I grabbed his wrist, I felt a cannon ball hit my chest (his shoulder), and in the same moment my hip hit the ground so fast it was as if the two motions were one. As I was going down, I felt completely helpless to break my fall, and my body was moving so fast I felt nauseous. After the shock subsided, I looked up and Master Wang was smiling, extending his hand to help me up. I realized that he just barely touched me with his shoulder (relative) and began to recognize just how powerful this man was! All I could think was how thankful I was for that thick carpet on the floor!
The next article will describe my first visit to Master Wang’s school in Chenjiagou and his wonderful students!