Master KOH AH TEE on Cheng Man-ching s teaching
Interviewed by Nigel Sutton
Zhong Ding Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Association

"Cheng Man Ching tai chi chuan is a school in its own right just as the Yang style is. The first and most obvious reason is that if the old gentleman himself had not thought of it this way he would never have allowed his book to be entitled 'Cheng's Tai Chi Chuan Thirteen Chapters'. Can a publishing company publish a book under a title that is not authorised by the author? If he didn't approve of this title, of the association of his name with the tai chi chuan that he described why was this title used? This is the most elementary reason."

Cheng Man Ching himself was of the opinion that his own art was different from that of the Yang's. But going back to to the reasons why Cheng style is different from Yang style we only have to look at the way in which it is regarded by Yang stylists. The majority of them do not accept Cheng's form as having any legitimate connection with the Yang style. This is very important; the Yang style does not accept Cheng style as its own.

"Cheng Man Ching's repeated statements that his tai chi prowess was due to the teaching of Yang Chengfu were due to Chinese politeness, the respect of a student for his teacher, of the younger generation for the older generation. This old gentleman could not deny his own roots. According to Chinese politeness and the customs of the Chinese martial arts world he could not say that he had started his own style. He always stated that what he had came from the Yang family and that he practised the Yang style but we are already the third generation of students. We can quite clearly see where the differences lie between the art of Grandmaster Cheng and that of the Yang family."

"For example the 'Fair Lady's Hand', the Yang style does not talk about this. 'Swing and Movement', where are they mentioned in the teachings of the Yang family?"

"Look at the way in which the Yang style form is performed. Little attention is paid to the width of the stance, often it is less than shoulder-width. Yet this is something that in Cheng style is regarded as being very important, not only to help the exponent become more relaxed but also to use their waist as fully as possible so that they can clearly discriminate between substantial and insubstantial."

"Furthermore, in Yang style, adjustments of the back foot are made by turning on the ball of the foot but in Cheng style we turn on the heel. When turning the front foot out to advance, this is done while the weight is still on that leg, while in Cheng style we take the weight off the leg before turning it."

"Compare pictures of Yang Chengfu doing the form with those of Master Cheng. You will see that Yang not only leans forward slightly from the waist but also that his back leg is almost completely straight. Grandmaster, on the other hand, has an erect posture and the back knee is kept bent and relaxed."

"Although in the Yang style there is the same requirement that the back should be rounded and the chest hollowed, many of the Yang style experts that I have seen seem to have a less-hollowed chest than we require in Cheng style. The emphasis, perhaps, is different."

"We could best describe the difference in appearance as being a matter of Yang style being a more extrovert style, Cheng style is more introvert. Here I am not referring to internal and external as in schools of martial art but rather to a quality in their appearance."

"Yang style has a little of the feeling of 'killer qi', a martial air of danger about it. A spectator can see the applications of the movements when they watch the form."

"Cheng style is introverted, shy even. When looked at it appears very simple. In fact if you look at it appears as if there isn't really any gong fu involved in its practice. All the gong fu of Cheng style, however, is on the inside, it's not on show. The inside is trained so that ultimately it will affect the outside, change occurs from the inside out."

"Cheng's tai chi chuan is really a separate style in its own right? Those who have undertaken in-depth research into this matter will be absolutely certain that Yang style is Yang style and Cheng style is Cheng style. But we cannot ignore or gloss over the fact that Cheng Man Ching was trained in the Yang family style; his art originated from that of the Yang family as did Yang Luchan's from that of the Chen family. People, and things, however, change. Never mind whether we are talking about martial arts or anything else things move forwards not backwards. Even remaining static is a kind of decline."

Cheng Man Ching's oft-repeated statement that he had not half the skill of Yang Chengfu is respect. It is our Chinese kind of traditional polite saying. This is the normal way that a Chinese would speak out of politeness and humility. No one in this situation could say that they thought their own shortened method was better. So he said he was eager to promote the art so that it would not hurt the feelings of the Yang family.

In order to be clear on this matter then we have to have an understanding of Chinese culture. Therefore if you want to be clear about Cheng style taijiquan you must understand the character and behaviour of gentlemen of Cheng Man Ching's generation. He was a real traditional Chinese man. This is why I say that he could not declare that his art was anything different from what the Yang family taught. He could not say that it was Cheng style taijiquan. But for us in the third-generation we have good reason for saying that Cheng style is different from Yang style. Grandmaster Cheng had a saying which he was fond of repeating: "Taijiquan is not mine, it was also not my teacher's; taijiquan is something passed down from the Ancestors."

"Do you understand what he meant by this? He meant that the art was not the creation of one person. What we understand today as being taijiquan is something that has slowly evolved over the generations. This old gentleman said that the art was not his, his teacher's or his teacher's. To really understand taijiquan we have to have an extremely open mind. We can't fall back on fixed opinions :"

"I think this is right so it's right!" Such an attitude will not help us in our research. In learning taijiquan we constantly find that the closer we seem to be getting to the heart of the art the further away it is.

If you think that your own understanding of the art is very good you are like a frog at the bottom of the well who thinks that what he sees is the whole of the world!

Cheng Man Ching was a product of refined Chinese culture. His taijiquan did not come from one source alone. He took many different aspects and elements of Chinese culture and included them in his understanding of the art.

"To say this more plainly and less nicely: Yang Chengfu was not Cheng Man Ching's only teacher. Yes we can say that Cheng learnt his taijiquan from Yang Chengfu, that's not wrong but his neigong came from Zhang Qinglin and a lot of other things came from other teachers, so the final result, Cheng's taijiquan did not come from only one source."

"While on the subject of neigong, some people claim that Cheng never taught this, others say he did. This is because Grandmaster Cheng was selective in what he taught to whom. He didn't simply teach everybody. Another thing is that this set of neigong is not easy to learn; it is subtle and not easy for the average student to study. Because the old gentlemen was selective in whom he taught there are those who claimed he never taught it and those who claimed he did. He didn't teach everybody. But it is certain that this set came from him. The proof lies in the calligraphy he wrote detailing his lineage from Zhang Sanfeng, Xu Shihui, Zuo Laifeng, down to Zhang Qinlin. This is documented. Why would he write down the lineage if there was no such training?"

"Although this Zuo Laifeng method was separate from his taijiquan, as both Lo Bengzhen and Wang Yennian aver, Grandmaster Cheng himself made the connection between the two. This he did in one of his books when he said that he had not understood the difference between 'jing' and 'li' before he received the Zuo transmission. Although the teaching he quoted about 'li' coming from the bones and 'jing' from the sinews (translator's note Cheng Man Ching's Advanced Form Instructions Sweet Ch'i Press 1985 p.148 translated by Douglas Wile from Book Two 'On Calligraphy') is actually a teaching of the Yang family. Despite this the proof is there that he himself connected his knowledge of the Zuo transmission with taijiquan and used one to illuminate the other."

Because of his integration of all his areas of knowledge and its distillation into the 37 posture form we call him the founder of Cheng's method of taijiquan.

"What are the special characteristics of this method, let me repeat: the 'fair lady's hand', rotation of the back foot on the heel not the ball of the foot, an emphasis on movement designed to facilitate the circulation of qi together with a deemphasis on the application of individual techniques. This was in contrast to his early teachings which included more explanation of applications. By the time he wrote Cheng's Taijiquan New Method of Self-Study he was at the level of 'no shape no form' when it came to application."

Grandmaster's taijiquan in the later days followed the natural Daoist way. It was natural.

"In the early days his movements were bigger and more open, his wrists were far more bent and there was more obvious power in his palms. But as the form became more natural it became more subtle, the wrists were flattened the circles became smaller."

"The ""fair lady's hand"" was something that he emphasised both to aid in qi circulation and to help the student feel the qi in his fingertips."

The concept of dong dang (movement and swing) was also something that the old gentleman emphasised whereby the momentum from each move carried on into the next one.

"Every movement has swing at the end and this swing is translated into the next movement. The motivating force for this movement is the qi in the dantian, hence the necessity of always sinking the qi to the dantian."

"Another point of great emphasis in Cheng's taijiquan is that of the yongchuan point having root. Grandmaster said that if your root was not in the yongchuan then you could train until you died and still achieve nothing! ('Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treatises on T'ai Chi Ch'uan' translated by P.J. Lo and M. Inn North Atlantic Books 1985 p.217)."

"To take as an example of an obvious difference let us examine one movement - 'step back and repulse monkey'. Grandmaster was adamant that the feet should be on parallel lines with the toes facing forward. In the Yang style the toes of the back foot face outward. Grandmaster taught the movement this way to promote improved qi circulation. he also referred to this as a secret that those who knew would understand. (Cheng Man Ch'ing's Advanced Form Instructions translated by D. Wile Sweet Ch'i Press 1985 p.81)."

"The appearance and feeling of Cheng style is far more 'song' than that of the Yang style and although Yang is reputed to have said over and over again that his students should relax who reported this? Cheng Man Ching, so we cannot be sure if these are his words or words put into his mouth. This we can never know."

"This greater emphasis on 'song' must have come from the Zuo transmission for as the old gentleman said it was this that enabled him to understand the difference between 'jing' and 'li' and the difference is surely a matter of 'song'. He wrote this late in his life and even said that Chen Weiming, his older brother had not understood this. To openly state this and to criticise a senior shows how his art had evolved by this stage of his life. (Cheng Man Ch'ing's Advanced Form Instructions Sweet Ch'i Press 1985 p. 148)."

"Although Grandmaster Cheng learnt from the Yang family he emphasised only the straightsword and not the spear or broadsword. This was because the straightsword is the king of the weapons. It is the weapon of the scholar, the gentleman. Furthermore the straightsword has special significance in Daoist lore. From the time of Zhang Sanfeng and the first development of the Wudang school, the straightsword has been closely associated with Daoist practices. Wudang straightsword is famous."

"That old gentleman took the straightsword that he learnt from the Yang family and changed it, made it more natural. Again like his form the movements became more internal more subtle. Another practice that he developed was that of the straightsword sparring."

"There is a contention that Grandmaster Cheng taught some aspects of his art to some disciples and not others but the old gentleman regarded taijiquan as a form of self-cultivation and as such I don't believe that he could have had favourites to whom he taught ""secrets"" that he did not reveal to others; but he was selective in whom he taught. Why? Because he chose those who had the greater potential, who were ready to accept what he was teaching. This was to prevent wasting time. I am certain, that is it is my opinion, that Grandmaster chose who he would spend more time teaching."

"Taijiquan is a form of Daoist boxing. But this is not the Daoism of gods and spirits (Translator's note: folk Daoism with its pantheon of gods and spirits). This was the Dao of Laozi and Kongzi, philosophical Daoism."

"Grandmaster said that taijiquan had its origins in Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism; not from one place alone. Sixty percent was from Kongzi, thirty percent from Laozi and ten percent from Buddhism."

Taijiquan represents and encapsulates the best aspects of real Chinese culture.

"One of the most obviously Daoist aspects of Cheng's taijiquan was his emphasis on 'investing in loss'. Investing in loss means that the taiji student has to rely on 'song', avoid hardness. It is important, however, that you pay attention to the whole of this teaching. It is not just a matter of investing in loss. Grandmaster said that you invest in loss in order to make a profit. A large investment in loss results in a large profit; a small investment in loss results in a small profit."

"In practical terms this means not being afraid to let people attack, just rely on 'song'. This is the natural Daoist philosophy in action. This is Laozi's 'wu wei', non action overcoming action."

"You must be clear that the purpose of investing in loss is to eventually make a profit, not simply to lose for the sake of losing. Follow the opponent until he defeats himself."

"Although as I mentioned earlier there are those who argue that Grandmaster taught different things to different people, even saying that he taught nothing to his American students I think his teaching was more or less the same. The problem lies in who best understood his teachings. Perhaps one set of students understood more clearly than another, this is where the problem lies. It's not a question of where he taught what but of who understood what."

"For example the Chinese in Taiwan who were Chinese educated could understand directly the words that he was saying. In America he was talking to people who spoke English as their first language so an interpreter was required. But this matter is not as simple as it first appears on the surface. Those Chinese students hearing the words and understanding them might immediately think that they understood what Grandmaster was trying to teach; no need to think carefully about what he was saying or search for meaning. Foreign students, on the other hand, when not at first understanding the meaning would have to question and keep on questioning until they were clear about what they were being taught. The difference between understanding the words and knowing the real meaning of those words is great, particularly in a subject like taijiquan where the subject is very deep and with a teacher like Grandmaster who possessed such a deep understanding."

"Foreigners are not as accepting as Chinese, they want to ask questions, to examine, to experiment. In my own teaching experience I have also found this to be the case. Many Chinese students listen to what you say, tell themselves they understand and think nothing more of the matter. Foreigners are not the same. They listen and then ask themselves whether what you have said is really the case. Can what you say be put into action? Then they ask questions, then they want to see it for themselves."

"For example foreign students always ask how can you use a ""song"" fist to hit people? They want it to be proved to them. They have to eat before they talk about the flavour. Chinese students often simply accept and will think they know the flavour without ever tasting the food."

So perhaps those who heard and understood Grandmaster's words did not understand their meaning as well as those foreigners who at first didn't understand but had to question and experience before they really understood. This is my own feeling about what he taught and whether it was understood.

"To return to comparing Cheng's method with that of the Yang family, while the movements might appear the same the major difference lies in the fact that Cheng's style does not really appear to be a form of martial art. It looks very simple. Indeed it looks as if there is not very much skill involved in its practice. It's something you'd walk past and not notice? It's like when you first learn to drive, you have to pay careful attention to every action and to all that is going on around. After a time, however, it becomes natural. That is what Cheng's taiji is like - natural. There's nothing much to see. It was Grandmaster who came up with the idea of taijiquan being swimming on dry land. This is not a concept found in Yang style teachings, the idea of making the air feel as heavy as iron."

Yang's style is not the same. There is more to see. An exponent performing this style catches your eye. His skill is obvious and you stop to watch. Afterwards you will applaud loudly but if you see Cheng's style done properly there will be no applause. People who do not know anything about taiji comparing Yang style with Cheng's would always choose Yang's as being the superior martial art. If you look at Cheng's style it appears as if it couldn't even crush an ant.

"What Grandmaster developed was a truly internal method. Look at his 'New Method of Self-Study'. This book was published, I think, in 1970, so he had worked and refined his art for twenty years in between the publication of the Thirteen Chapters and this work! If what he had to teach was the same as the Yang style what was the point of bringing out this book? Indeed why publish the Thirteen Chapters? The Yang family had already published books on the art. Indeed people say Grandmaster was responsible for one of the books written by Yang Chengfu. Wasn't that enough?"

"Cheng's method looks like Yang style on the surface but if real in-depth practice and research is undertaken it becomes obvious that the inside is very different. You can copy the outer form without getting to the inner essence, which is what Cheng's style is all about."

"Another point, if his method was the same as that of the Yang family why the need to ask Chen Weiming to write a foreword?"

"I know a lot of my martial arts elder uncles, including Huang Hsinghsian, said and say that there is only Yang style and that Cheng's method is not different. This is a result of their opinion based on their own level of development and research. Recently some of the late Master Huang's senior students asked me what the differences were between Yang style and Cheng style and I outlined all the things I have already told you. They had nothing to say."

"Cheng style pushing hands is different from Yang style. You only need to look at the si zheng tui. In Cheng's method the pattern is carried out more on the horizontal with a clearer expression of each of the four forces, peng, lu, ji and an. Despite this, however, the emphasis in Cheng's pushing hands is more on principle than methods."

What then about the argument that later in his life the changes in Cheng's taijiquan simply reflected the fact that he had reached the highest levels of Yang style ability; that differences between his form and those of other Yang stylists reflected his high level and their failure to reach the same level?

"Let me tell you in the early days no book or publication about Yang style listed or recorded Cheng Man Ching as having anything to do with the Yang family. He was not well-known although he had already devised his 37 posture form. Then in more recent years once he had already become famous, then the Yang family started claiming him as one of their own. When Yang Zhenduo came to Singapore he said that Cheng was his older brother."

More recently an article came out in a Mainland Chinese martial arts magazine about Grandmaster Cheng's taijiquan (Hai Wai He Lin 1990 but I can't remember which edition). In this article it talked about Cheng's role as the founder of his own method of taijiquan. So even in China they recognise that Cheng's style is not the same as that of the Yang family. Cheng's 37 posture form now has almost sixty years of history as this article recorded.

"The article pointed out that many of Grandmaster's leading students were already experts in external martial arts. For example Huang Hsinghsian was an expert in white crane boxing. Ji Hongbing was an expert in bagua and xingyi. The article also recounts how Cheng Man Ching had a sparring match with a French fencing expert. This Frenchman had won fencing championships. Cheng was advised not to enter such a contest because it was felt that taiji straightsword methods could not compete with western fencing. Cheng, however, insisted, he had no fear. The first time he crossed swords with the Frenchman the Grandmaster cut his wrist. The second time he placed his sword tip on his heart and the third time he was also successful. The Frenchman was very impressed. This is all in this magazine article."

When I spoke to Huang Hsinghsian about his experiences training with Grandmaster he said that the old gentleman did not like his students using his name when they started teaching. But why was this I ask myself. Was it because so many of his students mixed in their own ideas with what the Grandmaster had taught them? Was it that none of them had really come up to his standard?

"If you are really researching Grandmaster's art then your appreciation will reflect your own level of skill. Someone who is a taiji primary school student will see primary school standard, secondary school student will see secondary school level, a university student will see university level and so on. The more you learn the deeper the art gets. "