The students act like they are following my motions but I know if I mess up a move they will carry on and snicker quietly to themselves.
The ancient fighting forms of Taiji are a cultural norm in China. Most people know at least a few of the positions even if they do not practice regularly. It makes sense for a society this vast to engage in an activity that everyone can participate in regardless of job, money or caste. You will see giant groups of people moving in unison every night in perfect silence.
Sometimes it is eerie.
Taiji was started by two legendary figures Zhang Sanfeng from the 12th century and Wang Zongyue who taught in the 18th century. Various Daoists took this learning from antiquity into the modern age by combining philosophy and martial arts to utilize mind and body in harmony. Because it is so old, five different styles have evolved from a single method five hundred years ago.
They are the Chen, Yang, Wu Hao, Wu, and Sun styles. The Chen approach being the oldest of the five.
Philosophy is deeply ingrained in this art form. Taiji instructs you to meet hardness and force with pliability and softness. If both sides are violent, each fighter will be hurt, but if you absorb the attacks by moving with the strike you can control your opponent without force. In this way a person combines opposites Yin (empty, defense) with Yang (full, attack) to neutralize any threat.
The school that Krista and I teach English at offers free Taiji lessons every week. Not many of the foreigners participate but that is okay. This means that I have more one on one time with the instructor, Master Chuck.
For the last several months he has taught myself and another foreigner the basics — two move combinations and half of a third. The first two are easy. They are only about ten moves each, not difficult to remember. But now we are mid-way through learning a 42 pose arrangement that is actually 84 motions because each position has two parts. We have been studying it for the better part of a year. The combination is not easy, but we are trying.
For that the instructor decided to recognize our efforts.
It is rare to find foreigners in China and rarer still to have them study at Taiji. Master Chuck decided to use this novelty to the school’s advantage while at the same time rewarding us. We were asked to perform the second combination of moves in front of the entire school at the annual track and field day. We were reluctant but they were insistent. And so, that is how me and the other guy Dave ended up leading five hundred students in a five minute demonstration.
It was nerve wracking.
Having to place every foot perfectly, moving with confidence and grace are very difficult. Maybe two of the three but certainly not all of them, especially grace. That is one thing I definitely lack. We survived… somehow.
Now we are back to regular classes. It is a nice change of pace from focusing on practicing for the demonstration. And, if we are really lucky, he will start teaching us how to use swords.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 15, 2012