While studying tai chi chuan in the Philippines in the late 60's, I saw a form, slow, smooth, flowing, hypnotic, elegant. It did not look like it had any power but I saw and felt in the movement an energy that seemed to vibrate deep into the bones. A strange sensation to me, who, at that point, had been steeped in the hard, vigorous and physical southern Shaolin wu-shu style.
For several years, I had been taking private lessons with Johnny Chiuten, a Shaolin Kung-Fu master who was a student in the university like me. But when he left for the island of Cebu to manage his family's bakery on a tiny, dusty island called Bantayan, he became almost inaccessible. Before he left, he recommended me to his master, Lao Kim, a legend in the Philippine Kung-fu underworld who, at the time, was in semi-retirement from public teaching. They were both famous fighters -- tough and powerful practitioners of the hard Shaolin style. They taught me fist forms that emphasized toughening the muscles and bones, hitting the forearms and digits on hard bags.
The leap from hard Shaolin to soft tai chi was difficult for me to understand. So was the idea of deriving power from gentleness and the mystical Chi.
Tai Chi Chuan is an ancient Chinese discipline. Along with calligraphy, painting, and acupuncture, it is one of the priceless treasures of Chinese civilization. Tai Chi Chuan is an internal system of healing and energy work, a dance, a philosophy, a meditation, a spiritual quest, a way of centering, and a therapy.
But Tai Chi, as the art is sometimes called, is actually a martial art as well. It is indeed, despite its deceptively harmless movements, a sophisticated fighting system. Tai Chi can be used and was designed to immobilize, maim or to kill. It is therefore not an ordinary dance, or a relaxation exercise.
The basic movements must have been invented at least two thousand years ago but legends hold that the system itself was structured sometime in the 13th century by Chang Sang Feng, a legendary Taoist monk from Wu Dang Mountain in China. It was said that he learned the dance in a dream (shades of Tartini!); another story showed him devising the movements from the fight between a crane and a snake that he had witnessed in his backyard.
Different systems grew, some in temples (Wu Dang Mountain and the White Cloud Temple in Beijing are the most prominent) and others in families (Chen, Wu, Sun and Yang especially) around China.
Yang Family Style
Yang Family style Tai Chi Chuan is the most wide-spread system. Its origin, like ancient tai chi, is shrouded in mystery and legend. One story (considered apocryphal by authorities but perpetuated in thepopular literature) says that Yang Lu Chan studied the art by disguising himself as a servant in the Chen family household and spying on the practitioners at midnight. (This version has a couple of variations, one of which has him as a servant who could not speak; the other that he joined the Chen family as a servant when he was a child).
Another story has it that Yang Lu Chan was already an accomplished Shaolin Long Fist martial arts master who joined the Chen family to learn their system. Still another story (not necessarily the most reliable) has Yang studying not the Chen family style, a southern Shaolin style ("Cannon Fist Boxing") that later became known as tai chi chuan, but another style taught by a mysterious boxing master who was visiting the Chens. A story that crops up occasionally in the literature is that Yang also studied with a Taoist monk.
Whatever the truth behind the confusing claims, the Yang Family style, as it is known today, was developed by Yang Lu Shan's grandson, Yang Cheng-Fu, who revised the family style to make it more simple and accessible to the public. In the 20's and 30's up to his death in 1936, Yang Cheng-Fu propagated Yang style tai chi chuan as he traveled around China. Among the masters who learned the style from him were his oldest son Yang Sau-Chung (now deceased who was 28 years old when his father died), Tung Ying-Chieh (deceased), Chen Wei Ming (deceased), Tin Shao Lin (Shanghai) and Cui Yi Shi (Beijing).
I studied a version of the Yang style tai chi chuan solo form at the Hua Eng Athletic Club in Binindo, Manila's Chinatown. It was Yang style handed down through the famous master Han Chi Tang, who was visiting Manila from Taiwan in the early 60's. (I learned later that his daughter Han Linlin teaches martial arts in Cambridge, Ma.) Han, who taught tai chi chuan and northern Shaolin Boxing at Hua Eng Athletic Club in Binondo, Manila, reportedly studied the art with Yang Cheng Fu in Shanghai, possibly in one of those workshops in the 20's and 30's. There was no formal teacher when I joined the school in 1968, but there were veterans who assisted with class. A few advanced students studied the sword form with Han Chi Tang. I don't remembering seeing Han or any of his students doing any other form of Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan aside from the solo form and the sword form.
Han's interpretation of the solo form modified the original in a few places: the opening (his is similar to the Hsing-I), the "Wave Hands like Cloud" and "Needle at Sea Bottom" movements, among others.
Students went to the morning class and followed the movements the others were performing. If you had a problem with the sequence, you asked one of the other students. Push hands practice consisted of stationary one-hand and two-hands and moving two-hands. Chan Bun Te, who managed the school, made occasional but excellent corrections. After a couple of years, the class thinned out as many of us took tai chi lessons with Liu Yun Hsiao, the grandmaster from Taiwan who was in town for a year or so teaching various internal arts.
I also went to Rizal Park by the Manila Bay and joined a group of practitioners who met at dawn almost everyday. A few times I led the group -- perhaps the only Filipino who ever did.
Like many practitioners, I learned only the long empty-hand form, basic push hands, and read the classics of the art. At the time there wasn't as much information about Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan as there is today. Johnny Chiuten, who studied the solo form with me, became a serious practitioner of the art when he realized the possibilities of the style. What I learned and read was enough to give me an idea of the depth of the internal style. I was tantalized beyond belief. I fantasized about studying with Yang Cheng-Fu, who was said to be able to emit power from his body without the slightest movement. I thought about the possibility of learning with a real master for a few years, the idea of receiving the "secret transmissions" from an heir of Yang Cheng-Fu, of learning what the art is all about. From that time I tried to keep an eye open for such a master.
Coming to America
Newly arrived in the United States, in late 1970, I had no teacher. But I did the tai chi chuan long form on a regular basis along with my Shaolin fist and weapons forms. After learning tai chi, I began to understand its possibilities -- for health, longevity, relaxation and combat.
I observed the famous Cheng Man Ching, who had a school at the foot of Manhattan Bridge on the Bowery in New York City. Cheng had a reputation as a formidable fighter. His short form of 37 movements was derived from the Yang Family classical fist form of 108 movements. It was said that he studied with Yang Cheng-Fu, but I did not know what forms or for how long. At the time, there were articles that said he studied for a decade.
Later, a researcher estimated 3 years. More recently, Master Dong of Hawaii quoted his grandfather (Tung Ying Chieh) has saying that Cheng studied only for 6 months. Whatever the truth behind the different claims, back in the 70's, Cheng was the most popular and impressive master of tai chi chuan in the West.
His students did the short fist form, stationary push hands and, the sword form. I would stand on one side and watch the players do the form or push hands. I did not talk to anybody, I just watched. Most of the lessons I saw were apparently given by his senior students. Later, Cheng wasn't around when I went to watch. For no apparent reason, he went back to Taiwan.
Leung Shum, the Eagle Claw master, impressed me. I studied Wu Style with him for several months. He was an excellent teacher, but I never did finish the form, possibly because I thought it was the same as the Yang form. I dropped by to see a few Tai Chi masters in New York.
In San Francisco I observed a couple of instructors doing their forms.
I went to China in 1983 to take intensive training in contemporary Wu-Shu. I saw a number of tai chi chuan masters, but nobody who made a strong impression on me.
I started studying with Mantak Chia of the Healing Tao in late 1983 and learned his Tai Chi Chi Kung form -- a still more abbreviated version of the short tai chi form. Chia's form is a version of the original 13 movements. Master Chia places a lot of emphasis on analyzing the internal mechanism of the tai chi movement. His is a compact form, but very difficult to master. I also learned a short fast form from him.
In the summer of 1986 I visited Boston. I called up Gunther Weil and Rylin Malone, friends from the Healing Tao, who were teaching at Harvard University, for dinner. I had not seen them since the last Healing Tao Retreat in North Andover, Massachusetts in 1985.
We agreed to see each other outside the Copley Square Hotel. They took me a short distance in their car to a building near the Chinatown exit of the Massachusetts Pike to a tai chi school. Yet another tai chi chuan school, I said to myself.
There were students practicing earnestly in the courtyard behind the school on the first floor of the Mass Pike Towers. Sword and Saber, Two-Person Set, Staff, Long Form, Fast Form and a type of stationary two-hand maneuver that included grasping, pushing and trapping -- much of which I had not seen before anywhere.
A Karmic Encounter
I was introduced to the teacher, Gin Soon Chu, who smiled a lot but did not speak much. At the time I had read widely about tai chi chuan, but I did not see anything about him. He was, as far as I was concerned, just one of the many teachers that I had to include in my list. I sat down to watch the proceedings. Although the sequence of movements was similar to the Solo Form I had studied at Hua-Eng in Manila, theirs looked stilted, awkward. I was wrong; I realized that they were doing the postures differently. It was the first time I had seen Tai Chi postures done that way anywhere I had been -- in the Philippines, Hong Kong, China, California, and New York.
Afterwards there was a kind of Push Hands, using a maneuver that was basically stationary, from a "Press" position, until somebody was uprooted. It was called "Dynamic Push Hands" to distinguish it from its soft, yin counterpart. The teacher pushed too, showing an incredible strength that belied his age and size. He was bouncing people back to the opposite wall, 20 feet away, or up in the air with no visible effort. I was impressed. It was a power I had not seen before. I wondered if it had something to do with the postures of Tai Chi Chuan that I had initially thought awkward.
I knew instantly that he was the Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan master I was looking for, as good a manifestation as any of the spirit and abilities of Yang Cheng-Fu, the father of modern Tai Chi Chuan. Later, I learned that Gin Soon Chu studied in Hong Kong with Yang Sau-Chung, the first-born and heir of Yang Cheng- Fu. A lineage instructor, he knew the curriculum of authentic forms -- both fist and weapons -- handed down by the Yang family and had been authorized to teach. I decided I was going to study with him. But it was a long drive from Pennsylvania (where I was living at the time) to Boston, some 5-6 hours one way. Gunther offered his house for me to sleep in while I was in town. Nothing came of it, though, because I had too many things to do at the time.
Studying with a master
It was 3 years later that I finally had the chance to study with Master Gin Soon Chu. When I decided to study acupuncture, he was the reason I chose to relocate in the Greater Boston area. He was even more impressive when I saw him again in 1989. He was not only bouncing people, he was tying them in knots or stopping them cold WITHOUT TOUCHING them! I asked the advance students how this felt and they really could not explain, except to say that it was like something erupts inside or the muscles get stiff or a wall seems to have materialized in front. Just like that. You'll never know unless you experienced it, they said. I was told it was pushing on the level of Ching, beyond Chi. It was a release of vital energy. The alchemical change from raw Chi to primal Ching.
It is 1999 now. I've been through 4 corrections of the Solo Form and finished several other forms, including the Chang Chuan/Fast Form, Stick, 2 sets of the Knife/Broadsword, the Sword and have been working on the 2-Man Set. I am still receiving corrections to my forms, especially the Solo form and the Sword Form -- there doesn't seem to be an end. These forms are like heirlooms to me, received from a teacher who received them from his master, and on through the ancestral line. It has been a productive and happy education for me.
During the 6 years that I was studying acupuncture and herbology, the lessons with Master Chu helped give me a center, a sense of wholeness and focus. I have likewise felt a great improvement in my energy.
The different forms emphasize and reveal different aspects of the art. Each form also sheds light on the form before it so that as one progresses, the different techniques acquire a deeper and larger dimension. While it is true that the Solo Fist Form is a self-sufficient form for some people, it is also true for me and many practitioners that the other forms complement it and bring it a step or two further.
Master Chu has been a joy to study with. Completely childlike. Very gentle and serene. And unbelievably awesome. When he does a form, almost everybody stops to watch.
His school, founded in 1969, is observing its 30th anniversary, and is the oldest Tai Chi Chuan school in Boston's Chinatown and in the Greater Boston area.
Some of Master Chu's students have been around for 10-20 years and they still come to study. A number of them, like Linda Sugiyama, Sarah Freed, Hyo-Won Kim (who operates his own school in NYC), and John Conroy (who has been teaching for sometime in Providence, Rhode Island) have developed powerful techniques, too. One could see this in the way they do their forms and in the impact of their techniques.
I am still a child learning the rudiments of an art. Pushing 60, I don't know how much time I have to learn all the forms Master Chu teaches and how deeply I can delve into the them. There are still Yang Cheng-Fu's personal Sword and the Spear forms, among others. And there are, I heard, the secret Yang Family forms -- reportedly the basis of the modified Solo form that Yang Cheng-Fu introduced in the 20's to make tai chi chuan more popular and easier to learn.
I see the other students, especially the veterans, and I wonder if I'll ever be able to develop their abilities. A couple of them would often give me advice on my movements or general Tai Chi Chuan development. The training is quite tough and demanding, the Push Hands routines especially so. With Vincent Chu, Sifu Chu's son, or Fong as we fondly call him, who is a master in his own right, Push Hands is a serious business; it is the crucible for developing high level techniques. Fong subjects most everybody to an unforgettable treatment that goes right to the bones.
The Push Hands training is no doubt the most difficult of all. The Yang Family techniques as transmitted by Sifu Chu, are the most varied and most challenging I have seen in my long search. Techniques include a wide repertoire of energy discharge, a combination of yielding and power, softness and hardness. It is a perfect example of what the classics call "Steel wrapped in cotton" because it is so effortless but so explosive, so soft and yet so hard.
Sifu Chu has an obvious mastery of Push Hands. On a few occasions, he would demonstrate different aspects of it, including maneuvers with the elbow, shoulders, hands, fingers and Chi manipulation from a distance. I've seen him do Push Hands many times and I am always fascinated by it all.
Often Sifu Chu ties me up in knots, too. While Pushing, he would reach one or other part of my body and something happens, a burst of energy it seems, and my breathing pattern changes. Something inside moves me to assume a posture or do a movement. I twitch, I feel like choking, a rush of energy moves through me. When asked how it feels, all I could say is, It is difficult to explain; you have to experience it to know it.
Both father and son have incredible Jing power and the legendary "Empty force" that we often associate with the Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan masters.
Gin Soon Chu is Sifu to his students. I never heard anybody call him a master and he never demanded it, although he is definitely that. You'll find him at his school, eyes shining brightly. He is childlike and playful and gentle. A genuine master of the art. The fulfillment of a personal quest that began 30 years earlier 10,000 miles away in another continent.
Master Gin Soon Chu's school is at 33 Harrison Street (2nd floor), Boston, MA 02116. Tel (617)542-4442.
About the Author: RENE J. NAVARRO is a licensed acupuncturist and herbologist in the state of Massachusetts, USA. He is a faculty member of the New England School of Acupuncture teaching healing arts, qigong, and meditation. Among his teachers are: Kiiko Matsumoto in Japanese acupuncture; Lu Weidong and Yao Zhang in Chinese herbology; Mantak Chia in Taoist healing arts; Ondo Caburnay and John Chiuten in lapunti arnis de abanico; and of course Gin Soon Chu in Yang family classical tai chi chuan.