An Interview with Yang Yang
Can you give us a brief background on yourself?
I was born in Jiaozuo, Heman province in 1961. Jiaozuo is located about thirty (30) miles from Chenjiagou, where the Chen style Taiji originated.
When did you start Taiji and what were the circumstances that led you to begin practice?
I started Taiji when I was 12 years old. When I was young, it was a very turbulent time in China's history. Because of the very difficult economic conditions, there was a higher percentage of health problems among the children of my generation. You can imagine the difficulties for new born children at a time when there was not sufficient food for pregnant women. I was born with a heart defect and later developed asthma. In my small elementary class, two other children had a similar heart defect. I was extremely weak. The doctor had advised my family that I could die at any time, but my family could not afford medical expenses for the recommended surgery. It was a despairing time for me and my family.
In 1973 my uncle visited our home while on a trip to Chenjiagou. He was a Wu style practitioner, and had personally experienced health benefits from Taiji practice. He told me, "Why don't you try Taiji and see what happens?" So, with no other possibilities for improving my health, I began to practice Taiji.
Who was your first Taiji teacher and what was your early training like?
Wu Xiubao was my first teacher. He is currently the president of the Jiaozuo Chen Style Taiji Association. Wu Xiubao was a high ranking governmental official, and had done many things to help the Chen village and the teachers there. He learned Chen Taiji from Chen Zhaokui in Beijing and in Jiaozuo. I also studied from two other teachers: Yuan Shiming and Zhang Xitang, both of whom had also studied from Chen Zhaokui. My first teachers were all very generous, but they were also very strict. The classes and methods of instruction were very traditional. New movements would not be taught until one had showed the teacher that the previous lesson had been learned well. In preparation for each class, students would arrive an hour or more before the teacher. Often I would have to practice a single movement for several weeks. It was hard training, and was boring at the beginning. Admittedly, at times I had considered quitting, especially in the winter when it was very cold. My father, however, kept encouraging me to practice every day.
Besides Chen Style Taiji, have you learned other forms of Chinese martial arts?
My home town and the Chen village are on the north side of the Yellow River (Huang He). Just south of the river is the Shaolin temple. The Shaolin martial art is also very popular in my hometown, and I practiced it for about one year.
When did you come to realize that Taiji would become an integral part of your life?
One of the symptoms of my heart defect was that, during the winter time, I could not keep my body warm. At night time, I would have to stay with my father and brother. The Chinese doctors said that my Qi was not strong and could not reach the extreme of my body. After I began to practice Taiji, I could feel my body getting warmer and warmer. Such a big improvement is perhaps not so obviously manifest in those practitioners who begin the study of Taiji in relatively good health. Eventually, I became much stronger. Where before I was much too weak, I was now able to play sports with other children. I remember especially wrestling with larger boys, something that would have been impossible before. This made me more and more confident. In 1977, I passed a physical check up, which was a prerequisite for entrance into the university. By that time, all symptoms of my congenital heart defect were gone. This was quite fortunate for me. If the doctors giving me the physical exam had detected a heart condition, I would not have been allowed to attend college. Taiji practice is what cured my poor physical condition, and allowed me to pursue studies at the university. At that time I realized what a miracle Taiji is, and decided to devote my whole life to studying and sharing this treasure with other people.
You had many famous Taiji teachers. Can you talk a little about each of them and the special teaching that each one of them provided?
In 1979, I was attending engineering school in Shanghai. Gu Liuxin was the President of the Shanghai Martial Arts Association, and was a well known martial artist. He co-authored perhaps the most well known book about Chen Taiji in America, entitled Chen Style Taijiquan. Gu Liuxin had an impressive external and internal background, and had studied Chen style Taiji from Chen Fake. I visited him and expressed the desire to learn from him. He was a pretty strong old man, and a very knowledgeable teacher. He would teach on the weekends from his apartment. Usually the students would follow him in form practice, then he would make corrections. The last thing we would do was pushhands. He was a scholar and spent a lot of time doing research and writing. He could explain the classics very well. He was an excellent teacher in connecting theory with form and pushhands practice.
I also learned briefly with Chen Zhaokui. He was invited to return to the Chen village and my hometown area to teach during the late 1970's and early 1980's. Chen Zhaokui was famous for his Qin-na and applications of the form. While I was on summer vacation from the university, he was teaching at the municipal gym in my hometown. My first teacher was studying from him, and introduced me. After we met, I began taking private classes. His applications were very accurate and powerful, and he could explain the application of every form movement very well. One day while I was taking a private class his nephew, Chen Xiaowang, came to visit. We became acquainted, and later Chen Xiaowang offered me some instruction.
In 1982, Gu Liuxin organized the first and biggest ever Taiji event in Shanghai. The best masters from many styles joined the event, including Feng Zhiqiang, Hong Junsheng, and Chen Xiaowang from the Chen style, Yang Zhenduo and Fu Zhongwen from the Yang style, Sun Jianyun from the Sun style, and Wu Yinghua and Ma Yueliang from the Wu style, among others. The Masters toured around Shanghai doing demonstrations of forms, weapons and pushhands. It was the best demonstration I have ever seen. Chen Xiaowang introduced me to Feng Zhiqiang during this event.
Usually, the Masters would use one of their students when demonstrating push hands. Master Feng, however, had traveled to the event without a student. When he demonstrated push hands, he selected one of the best and most well known Shanghai martial artists as a partner. Everyone understood the mastery of the art that he showed during this demonstration. After the demonstrations, Feng was invited to stay in Shanghai and teach. I joined his large classes at that time and began to learn his form. Feng is most well known for his pushhands, but not many people know that he emphasizes a holistic training method including qigong, form and application, silk reeling, pushhands and weapons. (Is not push hands, anyway, a measure of one's achievement in qigong and form training?) Later, I enrolled in the law school in Beijing and continued to study from Feng while a student there.
As you know, Taiji is very popular nowadays. It seems, however, that a great number of people practice only the form. Do you feel that any real benefits can be derived from this kind of practice?
People practice Taiji for mental and physical health and self defense. Taiji training is a system. It should cover qigong, forms, silk-reeling, pushhands, and weapons. For different reasons, some only receive or practice a part of the complete training. A good example is those who only practice forms. If practiced correctly, forms can build the connection between mind and body, improve flexibility and balance, and cultivate internal energy to a certain degree. However, form practice is much more efficient when combined with other parts of the system. We are living in a very fast-paced society. Our time is limited everyday. To get the most from the time we have to practice, we need a better training package. A Chinese saying illustrates this point well: "Shi ban gong bei", which, roughly translated, means if you practice something the best possible way, you need only spend half the time to learn it well. This is my goal in my workshops around the country: to introduce the whole training system to Taiji practitioners. It has been well received.
Would you talk about Yi, Qi, Li and their integration in practice?
First, let's translate the meaning of these three Chinese words. It is a controversial issue. Literally, yi means intent, qi (for our purposes) is internal energy, and li is physical force. There is a famous saying about the relationship of these three: "Yong qi bu yong li, Yong yi bu yong qing; Yi dao qi dao, qi dao li dao". It means when we practice, it is better to use yi than qi, and better to use qi than li; when your yi arrives your qi will arrive, and when your qi arrives your li will arrive. From this saying we can see that it is important to practice yi. But we should also know another saying. "Quan wu quan, yi wu yi, wu quan wu yi qiu Taiji," which means in order to search the true meaning of Taiji, you should forget about forms (quan) and yi. This is for those who are studying Taiji at a higher level.
Can you offer some insight on the concept of Yang (nourishing vital energy)?
Nurturing vital energy is a very important aspect of Chinese martial arts. It means a lot of things. In simple terms, to nourish and increase our energy, we need to both generate more and consume less vital energy. We can increase our energy by correctly practicing forms, qigong, and push hands in a balanced curriculum, maintaining a balanced and healthy diet, getting good quality sleep, etc. To consume less energy, we should maintain a peaceful mind, have moderate amounts of sex, maintain a moderate work schedule, etc. In our form practice, we should not do too much fajin. So you see, nourishing is not limited to our martial arts practice, but includes all aspects of life. Martial arts practice helps us learn to nourish our vital energy in our daily activities. For example, to manage stress and keep ourselves happy, we need to be able to control our mind. Form and qigong practice helps us become aware of our mind and learn how to control it. In nourishing our vital energy, we are improving both our physical and mental health. It is easy to say, hard to do.
Here I want to mention another thing I have noticed in America. People often debate about the purpose of practicing Taiji: is it for health or fighting? Actually, we cannot separate these two things. (This is a living example of the meaning of the saying "disputation is proof of not knowing," or Chuang Tzu's observation that the this and the that are really the same thing.) If you practice correctly, nourishing your vital energy all the while, you will have strength and good health and will be able to defend yourself even if you don't know many techniques. If you train the wrong way, it is still possible to get some power and be a good fighter, but it is not going to last long. Sooner or later, you are going to become sick or injured. How can a person fight if he is sick? I mention this because some have already paid a high price for not paying attention to Yang.
Much has been written about Jing, Qi, and Shen as they pertain to martial arts practice. However, little information is available on the concept of Ling. Please provide an explanation of Ling and how to achieve it.
Ling has very rich meanings. It may mean quickness, spirit, soul, effectiveness, agility, sensitivity, anima. In its highest form, ling is the ability to perceive another's intention. It is a high level skill which comes only through consistent practice over many years. In Taiji's practice, it basically means two things: physical flexibility and mental agility. Practitioners have to start with qigong and then combine qigong with form, silk reeling, and push hands training to grasp ling.
Chen Taiji is well known for its Chan Si Jin (silk reeling force) exercises. How important are they in daily practice, and what can they add to our skill?
Chen Xin (1849-1929), 16th generation of the Chen family Taijiquan, very succinctly stated, "Taiji is the art of silk reeling." Also in his book Opening the Door to Chen Style Taijiquan, Feng Zhiqiang lists ten (10) principles essential for the correct practice of Taijiquan. The eighth principle states, "the silk reeling force must be present throughout the form." From these sayings, we can see how important silk reeling is in everyday practice.
Silk reeling movement is extremely beneficial to health. It will promote circulation and lubricate the body's eighteen "small balls." (The 18 small balls are: shoulders, elbows, wrists, hip joints, kuas, knees, ankles, neck, chest, waist, and abdomen.) It will also exercise and increase the "elastic force." Correct practice will nurture the internal energy and gradually and steadily increase internal power. It is essential to push hands, because Chen Si Jin can express the hard and soft character of Taiji internal force. With softness, we can reel wherever other people touch us making it difficult for them to come in or withdraw. With hardness, we can Fajin wherever we want to issue our energy.
One application of silk reeling is qinna and counter/qinna. Many of the qinna classes offered in the States teach people how to do Qinna without telling people how to get out of qinna. Silk reeling is extremely effective in countering qinna. It is one of the favorite subjects in my workshops.
The Taiji principle of four ounces deflects a thousands pounds is well known. You have attended numerous tournaments, both in the U.S. and China, and you have often judged push hands competition. Do you feel that this principle is being sacrificed for the sake of seeking victory?
There are many sayings which were not meant to be and cannot be interpreted literally. Mathematically, there is no way four ounces of force can deflect a thousand pounds of force. This saying can be understood to mean that technique is important. By using better technique, people with less energy can defeat someone with stronger energy. Also, some explain that the four ounces refers to internal energy. An old saying combines these explanations very well: "li bu di fa, fa bu di gong." This saying means that li cannot overcome technique, and technique cannot overcome internal power. (Gong is an overall foundation, mainly referring to qigong or internal energy.)
Most people get tense when they join tournaments, so they forget about technique and use only external strength. It is understandable. It is a stage people have to go through. They should not be blamed. The important issue is this: win or lose, one should think about the reason. Is it li, fa, gong, or all of them? This way, after the tournament we can work to improve ourselves. Winning is not the only goal of joining the tournaments. Another purpose is to learning something from other people. Learning Taiji is a process of improving ourselves.
Please talk about the correct method of practicing and applying Fa Jing.
First let's look at the meaning of the word. In China, there are many different dialects. In some areas of southern or eastern China, jin is pronounced as jing. Jing, however, means a completely different thing in the standard Mandarin dialect. To avoid confusion and misunderstanding, people using Chinese terms should pay attention to dialect and pronunciation.
Fa means quick release or issue. Jin means energy, mainly referring to internal energy. So Fajin means quick release of energy. First, we must nurture and build our energy before we can release it. Our input from nurturing must always be greater than our output consumed by Fajin. If you do not have surplus energy, what will you release? If you emphasize Fajin too much in your practice, it will hurt you instead of helping you. Some have paid a very high price for overdoing Fajin practice.
It is true that Taiji is powerful. The word Taiji, however, means the interaction of Yin and Yang. One aspect of Yin/Yang in Taiji practice is hardness and softness. The classics tell us to accumulate softness, and transfer it to hardness. Clearly, accumulating softness is our first or primary task. After nurturing our energy and reaching a level in our practice where our bodies can "listen to" our minds, we can quickly release energy from any part of our body, in any direction, at any time. Fajin can be practiced in form or individual exercises.
A misunderstanding of the correct approach to hardness can give the wrong impression that beginners cannot learn the Chen form. By approaching hardness through a gentle way, anybody can begin with the Chen style form.
Do you feel that the martial application of the form is important and, if so, why?
Yes, it is important. It can help beginners to remember the form. For those who have practiced for a while, it can help them to understand the purpose of each movement. There is a specific intention to each movement, but the application or result is virtually unlimited depending upon the circumstance. Focus on the primary intention and application of each form, and later on practicing other applications of the same form.
Can you share your understanding of why some Taiji practitioners develop knee problems?
The knee problem may or may not be caused by Taiji. Correct posture is essential. One should always feel natural. If you feel discomfort because of twisted ankles or knees, you must correct your posture. Also, you should never practice the form in a posture than is lower than you physically can handle.
In closing, can you summarize the essentials of proper Taiji practice?
First find good teachers who really know the art and are willing to share it with you. Read good books with discussions of theory. Understand that Taiji training is a system; it is not only forms or pushhands. Study the different aspects of the art closely. Qigong, forms, silk reeling, pushhands, and weapons are not isolated subjects; they are closely related.
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