By Robert Amacker
I am occasionally asked how many styles of T’ai Chi Ch’uan there are. I confess that I don’t know what to say, certain that any answer would be wrong by someone’s reckoning. I used to think there were the Chen, Wu, and Yang styles. Then I was told that the Sun style was fully qualified for the title. Then I heard there were actually two Wu styles. When I studied with Cheng Man-ch’ing, he was very explicit in stating that he was not making a new style. Now there is a Cheng Man-ch’ing style. There is also, of course, the Ban-hou style, the Tung style, and a score of others.
One the one hand, it matters very little what we call what we do, in comparison with its substance. A closer examination of all this stylistic branching, however, can be instructive on several levels.
First of all, it is in the main indicative of a pathological condition that prevails in all the martial arts, namely, the tendency to force these arts into the functions of a religion, producing the inevitable pious sectarianism that grows out of that tendency. This is somewhat exacerbated by an old custom of teachers in the Orient, that of giving different students different “secrets,” in an effort to force them to cooperate and unify after the teacher’s death. Of course, usually the opposite effect prevailed, each student trumpeting his “secret” as superior to the others’, and each starting his own school.
Cheng Man-ch’ing was particularly adamant about withholding no secrets, saying that secrets were impossible even to give away, try as hard as he might. Years later, a “rogue student,” one who had passed through the school at one time, announced that he was given certain secrets by the Professor that no one else had received, and that he alone had the “true T’ai Chi Ch’uan.” This was particularly maddening for Cheng’s long standing students, all of whom realized that to recognize this character in any way, even by way of reproach, and certainly by way of fighting with him, would be to help legitimize his claim to importance. Emboldened by this, he challenged anyone who would dispute his claim, finally causing William Chen, who could take no more of this nonsense, to accept his challenge, but with the assurance that it would be no polite encounter, and that he would punish this guy for his impudence (William, if I’ve got any of this wrong I apologize). This fight never took place.
I was particularly happy to run across several years ago, in the precious translations of Mr. Douglas Wylie, a dictation from Yang Lu-shan himself decrying the well-known practice of keeping secrets as something indulged in only by second-raters, and one of the things that was contributing to China’s reputation at that time as the “sick man of Asia.”
All of this feeds the tendency to adopt an extreme point of view towards one aspect or another of one’s art and use this as a platform for pious condemnation of other “styles.” It leads to the definition of one’s art being couched more and more in negative terms, a litany of things that are “mistakes” because other “styles” indulge in them.
As far as I can tell, new “styles” are created in a kind of post-mortem by over zealous students full of misguided theological tendencies. I have been chided innumerable times by exponents of the Cheng Man-ch’ing “style” for my irreverent adoption of the “long” form as well as several other points of form that seem to me (in their umpteenth generation manifestation) such exaggerations of Cheng’s actual performance as to be parody.
In analyzing Cheng’s instruction, a few things seemed to become clear. One was that Cheng was the smallest and probably the least martially obsessed of all of Yang’s students, called, it was said, “little Cheng.” He was also a doctor, and I think realized that the martial emphasis of Yang’s students was a little out of the proper balance for health. The greatest real force in differentiating the practices of various schools, I have noted, is their emphasis upon one or another particular form of chin, or internal force. The three most important to understand are p’eng-chin, ch’an-su-chin, and t’ing or so called “listening” chin. When the Classics refer to internal force it is always a reference to ch’an-su-chin, giving rise to the Classic: “the ch’i is cultivated without harm by means of the straight; but the internal force is only stored by means of the curved.” By straight it is simply meant practices that do not include the winding movements of ch’an-su-chin.
In their real application, all of these forms of chin rely somewhat on one another in order to work, and so must be in balance. But in practice, they have a tendency to get in each other’s way. The conscientious practice of ch’an-su-chin, for example, gives rise to extremes of tension at the limit of movements, tensions considered on the level of sacrilege by those who would make t’ing-chin the highest goal.
I feel sure that Cheng was trying to push the practice in the direction of more t’ing-chin, and willing to accept the slightly less martial cultivation implied by the change. It was probably agreed upon and encouraged by Yang as well, who had the greatest respect for Cheng as a doctor. Even the extreme upright posture that is the hallmark of Cheng’s supposed “style” today was, I feel, not an adoption for the sake up “uprightness” as a particularly desirable condition (although it is, for several reasons), but the result of trying to actualize Yang’s most ardent teaching, the word that he was famous for repeating over and over, as the answer to almost every problem given by his students, “tsung.” This word, translated invariably as “sink and relax,” refers to the high proportion of ankle over knee flexation that is characteristic of T’ai Chi Ch’uan practice (or should be), which looks something like sitting back into a comfy chair (as opposed to sitting on a stool). This is an action that, in the context of the single movements, invariably causes the practitioner to assume a more upright position.
I don’t think that Cheng had any idea of starting a new style, but was simply emphasizing those points of instruction made important by his teacher. Certainly the “short form” was no attempt to improve the form in any way, but simply a concession to military time constraints and practices, as was his adoption of the military style position of attention preceding the first movement. His alteration of the roll-back of Grasp Sparrow’s Tail, where the hands are simply dropped rather unceremoniously, was not an attempted improvement of the form, but simply an attempt to save one of the most difficult movements until a later time, and to keep from getting bogged down. Cheng made many changes that were clearly for the purpose of streamlining the teaching process, some of which he rescinded, and many of which I think he might consider rescinding today, if only for reason of the unnecessary catechismic arguments they have stimulated. The truth is, T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a difficult study in its true form, and attempts to “simplify” it may be a bit misguided, like “simplifying” brain surgery. Even Cheng himself, for all his efforts to popularize the art, once made the remark that T’ai Chi Ch’uan was “too sophisticated to be useful to society.”
Even the Yang style itself, as far as I can determine, was a rather accidental result of a particular coincidence of history, rather than a conscious divergence by Yang Lu-shan. Of course, Yang was a Shaolin Boxer first, and his adaptation of T’ai Chi principles to Shaolin movements certainly generated new forms, a definite qualification for the status of a new style. But the Yang style diverges from that of the Chen family in much deeper ways than this, ways that define it much more than any historical formalism.
From my study I conclude that Yang’s teacher was himself a sort of anomaly in the context of his own family. He was nicknamed “straight-jacket Chen,” because of his habit of keeping his spine straight, a practice not generally followed in the Chen style, either then or now. He also was said to possess a particularly unusual secret, that of making people “go up,” rather than being discharged laterally across the floor (“long discharge”). In fact, keeping one’s spine straight leads directly to the modern Yang signature discharge in which both feet leave the floor. It is my contention that if anyone started a new style, it was Yang’s teacher, not Yang himself, and that Yang was much more faithful to the Chen style, as he had learned it, than is generally thought.
In fact, the defining characteristics of T’ai Chi Ch’uan are much deeper than those that are subject to stylistic contention. Stylistic arguments are, I have found, invariably based upon semantic misconceptions or matters of relatively little importance. Beyond this, they indicate an emphasis upon a particular form of chin, an emphasis that, in the last analysis, must always be brought into balance with the others. To be somewhat simplistic, we can say for example that the Chen Style stresses ch’an-su-chin, the Dung Style p’eng-chin, and the Cheng Style T’ing-chin. Nearly all of their major differences in technique and practice can be traced to this fundamental difference.
The Chen Style, with its emphasis upon winding movements, encourages a kind of subjectivity with regard to their implementation. When playing with Chen practitioners (and by this I do not mean real adepts or experts, who by my definition have achieved a balance of chin in their practices), one frequently has the feeling that they are doing a lot of wiggling around that seems relatively unprovoked. Their ch’an-su-chin must be mitigated with t’ing-chin (listening chin) in order to make their movements more responsive. I think that this is somewhat descriptive of the situation in Yang’s school when Cheng was a student, and led to his emphasis upon t’ing-chin. Cheng Style students are extremely soft, but their yielding frequently seems to lack any sort of organizing principle, giving the impression of being without any sort of potential martial effectiveness. Again, this is completely belied by true masters of the art, such as William Chen, who have brought their “style” to a complete level of integration.
Students of the Tung Style are concerned with p’eng-chin, which emphasizes circularity in the external geometric sense (as opposed to the spiraling internal circularity of ch’an-su-chin), and are literally trying to give their opponents the impression that everywhere they touch they encounter a surface that seems like that of a ball, one that freely rotates under the slightest pressure. In fact, the practice of this quality is more easily maintained, at least in the early stages, if the practitioners entertain a relatively high level of pressure between them, giving rise to easier perception and clearer determination of its production. Tung students always think that everyone else is “too soft,” and are of course generally thought by others to be “too hard.”
This has given rise to the regarding of pressure of contact in t’ui-shou to be stylistically definitive, and sometimes assuming an almost religious imperative. Such enshrining of peripheral elements of practice is deadly for future development, locking, as I have indicated, the practitioner into an unbalanced practice.
Two other elements of t’ui-shou are prime candidates for such criticism. One is the size of the movements. Every school seems to have decided upon one particular magnitude in their practice and are quick to criticize others for being too large or too small. Each seems to base their criticism upon the presumption that whatever size is “correct” must be practiced exclusively, and this will of course lead to the neglect of whatever the other size might cultivate. The idea that different modes of practice could be deliberately attempted seems to elude them.
The other element is speed, which is of course directly connected to one’s reaction to pressure, and will be complicated by disagreement about this point. I try to get my students to master a complete range of behavior in regard to each of these elements, and to try to utilize the differences thereby obtained for their proper developmental purposes. Higher pressure, for example, naturally leads to cultivation of P’eng-chin, because at such pressure the consequences of losing circularity are immediately disastrous. Greater speed will lead to the more immediate manifestation of steps. Slower speed will tend to give rise to bigger movements, and to the feet remaining more fixed in place.
My point in all of this is that the artificial manufacturing of stylistic differences can impede the progress of everyone concerned. Even the differences implied by whole categories of boxing are, to my mind, misleading. I have seen karate experts who are “softer” than T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioners who have devoted their entire life to this concept, and masters of Judo and Kali who seem to understand the T’ai Chi principle, at least in the way in which they manifest it, as well as I do. T’ai Chi Ch’uan does not own the principle, nor many of the other isolated qualities upon which some would try to base its definition, and further, a definition of their own style. It is a complex technique that is defined by the way in which it organizes and uses these elements, not by their cultivation alone.
This leads naturally to the question of exclusivity in one’s practice. It is common in the Orient to forbid students to practice or even to observe the teachings of others, for fear of contaminating the early stages of cultivation. In defining our practice too narrowly, through, for example, this artificial manufacturing of styles, we only err on the other side of the coin from dilettantish philandering. This problem I will address in my next article.