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Taiji in the Park

May 23, 2012

Meet John.  This is a picture of a man who, until last semester, worked with me at a university in Sichuan, China.  He is, one might say, at the downward end of a down-on-his luck downward trend which began pretty much as soon as he arrived last September.

But don’t feel too sorry for him.  The guy was an alcoholic, and aggressive drunk, threw up on a teachers’ floor, started fights, harassed the female students and generally made a nuisance of himself from the get-go.  He messed up his work visa, couldn’t pay the fine, got kicked off mainland China and is now begging outside the McDonald’s on the waterfront in Kowloon, Hong Kong.  How are the mighty fallen.

It’s not that I don’t feel sorry for the guy, but China has a funny habit of showing you who you truly are – you get out of this place what you bring to it, and I can’t help but think that the dark place he lived in dictated his course of events.

You get out of China what you bring.  For me, that was always Kung Fu.  That was what I came for, my head filled with silly romantic images from the movies and idealistic expectations of meeting some kindly grandmaster in cave who would teach me the secrets of life whilst standing on the tip of a bamboo tree on one leg.  China has been a lesson in managing expectations.

That is not to say it has been unfulfilling though – far from it.  The secret is to keep your cup empty – remove the expectations and open yourself up to whatever life brings you.  And it has brought me Tai Chi (I am returning to China with the Yang 24, 36, 40 and 42 fist forms and the 42-move sword form) and Qi Gong (the Shaolin Yi Jin Jing, Ba Duan Jing and the medicinal Wu Xing Chi forms specifically).  And for those of you who don’t speak Tai Chi, I have learned to wave my arms and legs about in slow motion in at least seven different ways.  Yep.

The more martial ‘Chen’ form, though, has thus far eluded me.  The Chen form was the original Tai Chi, named after the village it originates from and a very far cry from the slow, graceful serene movements that are instantly recognisable to many people around the world.

This is not the Tai Chi your granny does at the old people’s home on Wednesday evenings after bingo.  I’ve caught glimpses of it every now and then, being practised by some of the old masters lurking around the university.  It is fast, it is fluid, and it is punctuated by lightning quick snapping punches, kicks and leaps – bodies and limbs sliding through the air like a leaping snake.

But whenever I ask if I can learn this I am met with a brick wall. The Chinese way is not to lose face, so they cheerfully agree to teach me but cunningly evade ever actually having to do so.

I had resigned myself to this fact, until one recent Saturday morning.  Under a hot, thick yellow sky and a gentle, sticky rain I had wandered round to a nearby running track at half seven in the morning to practice my sword forms and saw, in the opposite corner, a group of old men in their Tai Chi silks, doing their thing.  I watched them for a few minutes, sipping coffee from my flask, then turned my back and set about my own practice.

Thrust, twist, turn, roll, lift, slice and thrust again.   Unlike the Japanese Samurai swords I am used to, the Tai Chi  sword is straight and double edged and the movements are, accordingly, different – large, circular motions designed to deceive and distract, to create an opening for a killer thrust with the tip of the blade.  The entire body is involve in the movement as you lunge forwards, lean back, rise on to one leg, twist, twirl, drop to the ground and spin in the air.

After two or three forms I glance up and saw one of the old men standing over me, a frown of concentration on his face.  He pointed at me, nodded, and watched.  I took this to mean show him, so I dutifully ran through the sword form I had been learning, as far as I had figured it, and looked over to him, grinning nervously.

“Bu Ji Dou” I said: I don’t know any more.

“Hao” – ‘good’ he grunted at me, nodding.  He held my gaze for a few more seconds, and appeared to make a decision.

He pointed at me, then down to a space on the ground beside him. “Chen” he said.

That was the last word he spoke but, for the next hour, we began to go through the original Tai Chi Chen form.  He would show me two movements, twice, then turn and expect me to copy.  Every time I made a mistake he would waive his hand, point at the mistake I had made, silently correct me, then nod for me to repeat.  Every time I thought I was correct he would drill deeper, perfect some tiny miss-step of body position.  I had no idea how many tiny details could exist in sixty seconds of movement, how complicated and physically holistic every movement was.  Nothing worked in isolation; at every step, every part of the body was engaged, doing something.

I finished exhausted and elated.  “Duo Xia” I said – all of my thanks.  He nodded, and silently turned and re-joined his group.  I returned the following morning, and found the same man at the track.  Over another hour, he showed me the next twenty seconds of movement.

So, there you have it.  Tai Chi Chen.  At this rate, if I am lucky, I will be able to return to the UK with the whole graceful, beautiful, lithe form and my cup will have been well and truly filled.

  1. How cool is that? Good luck!

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