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Britain's Best Kept Secret
 
An Interview with Master Zhu
 
 by Gaynel Hamilton
 
(Published in Tai Chi Chuan Magazine, issue 10, Autumn/Winter 1998)
 
It may seem a bit odd that a great Chinese Master has been in this country for the best part of ten years without the rest of the Tai Chi community hearing about it. It’s not that we’re a possessive lot here in Leeds, it’s just that Master Zhu Guang, known as Grant to many of his friends, has never had the desire to build a reputation or to prove anything. He doesn’t have to.
 
Having founded the Tai Chi Hsing Yi Society at the University of Leeds in 1989 and established a centre of excellence in the teaching of Tai Chi, Hsing Yi and Bagua, he has continued to decline offers of wider fame and fortune. Although he is the most modest person I have ever met, I have never met anyone who comes close to him in terms of skill, understanding and power in Martial Arts, or in terms of the quiet strength and dignity in his daily life. I have had the privilege of being with him for most of the time he has been in England.
 
Before leaving Britain this year, Master Zhu was kind enough to share some of his thoughts about Martial Arts:

One of the striking things about your Tai Chi is the intricacy and power of the movements when compared with much of the Tai Chi one normally sees in this country and elsewhere. For example, the twenty-four step form world-wide seems very diluted in comparison with the way we do it here in Leeds. Why is this?
 
The twenty-four forms sequence is normally performed to the Chinese National Standard. Everyone tries to do it exactly the same way. It is simple so that it is accessible to many people. But if you were to go to the Martial Arts schools in Beijing, you would not see Tai Chi done that way. There, the forms are much more advanced. In the Beijing Martial Arts schools students learn the basics and then progress from there until their Tai Chi becomes very personal and spontaneous instead of sticking rigidly to prescribed sequences. You would see people there doing very complex movements, very powerful movements. Although the training is very disciplined, they have more freedom to experiment and to develop their own internal power. If a beginner saw Tai Chi done in this way it would not make much sense to them, it would be too complicated to follow. So most teachers stick to the simple, traditional sequences, at least until their students have developed their skills and understanding of Tai Chi and other Chinese Internal Martial Arts to the point where the higher skills can then be explored.
 
Many times, you have stressed to me the importance of Hsing Yi and Bagua in Tai Chi, and of the value of learning Chen style as well as Yang style. Would you like to explain this further for the benefit of other people learning Tai Chi?
 
If I didn’t study Chen style, my Yang style would not be so subtle. And if I didn’t do Tai Chi, Hsing Yi and Bagua together at the same time, I could never feel accomplished. If you only do Yang style from the beginning, practicing for many years without stretching your view and skills into Hsing Yi and Bagua, you might still not know what Tai Chi is. Even if you did some push hands as a supplementary exercise, you still might not know the Tai Chi essence, especially if you were unable to find good opponents in push hands who could explain it to you properly.
 
What do Hsing Yi and Bagua contribute to Tai Chi? How do they help?
 
I would like to give an analogy here. It’s like when you study Mathematics and gradually have to learn Physics and Chemistry. No one can say that he is a Physicist without knowing Mathematics. It’s the same with Chemistry, you have to be able to calculate so many things if you want to study Chemistry properly. It is the mathematical principles that lay as the corner stone to support all scientific and technological studies. You could learn some Mathematics for its own sake, but in the end, if you want to be a great mathematician and understand the workings of the natural world and universe, you have to apply your Mathematics to real situations, so you have to learn Physics and Chemistry.
 
These subjects are all interconnected and interdependent. You can’t pull one out and think of it as an entirely separate thing. The same is true of the Chinese Internal Martial Arts. They are all based on the Tai Chi principles; this is the underlying sense of them all.
 
Bagua makes your body more capable of twisting and so your movements become more stable, devious and powerful. Bagua can make you able to twist like a rigid rope that is ready to whip and stab at any moment. From doing Bagua, your body should become strong and flexible and difficult to break.
 
Hsing Yi gives you concentration and sharpens the explosive strength. If I had never done Hsing Yi, I would not be confident when facing some strong opponents. Hsing Yi makes you feel like a bullet that can penetrate into the body. Tai Chi, Hsing Yi and Bagua are not the only good Martial Arts in the world, but they are the ones that I have fortunately been involved with and benefited from for so many years and I am therefore aware of their great value.
 
Do you have any advice on how to improve push hands skills in Tai Chi?
 
Potentially, push hands can help a lot in terms of gaining understanding and skill in Tai Chi. However, if you always push with people of average skill, it will not help at all. But if you are fortunate enough to have the chance to push seriously for just one session with a real expert, then a huge jump can be made in your progress. Suddenly, all the experiences gained from years of practice can be connected and absorbed into your system and a great breakthrough can be made. Of course you need to make many such breakthroughs in you life in order to reach a very high standard. Pushing with great masters does not always help, because some masters would not really push with you, they just show you a bit of principle when they are giving a demonstration, so that you still don’t know how to apply it spontaneously.
 
If you want to make progress in push hands, you must try the real push. A real push does not mean you get yourself into a violent and wild confrontation. You should still try to apply the Tai Chi skills into your push, but it means you give 100% of your concentration and effort to make it and, even more importantly, your opponent is also giving his best. If both of you are giving your utmost performance and you are then uprooted and thrown out suddenly, to fall on the ground without any control, that is a real push. This will make you think about that push for many years. You can learn a lot from this, but not from the sort of co-operative jumping back that some people do for an impressive demonstration.
 
I pushed with many people in Beijing during the eighties, and I experienced these situations. Fortunately, there were quite a few skilled people around and I really benefited tremendously from doing push hands and discussing with them. I have pushed with some very good people, including several old men who have been pushing hands every day from 6:00am to 11:00am for over 40 years in Dong Dang park, where the Beijing Martial Arts School of Eastern District was located from the late 1970’s until the middle of the 1990’s, on the Eastern side of Tian An Men Square in Beijing. I learned a great deal from them.
 
You obviously consider strength to be very important in Tai Chi. I understand that you are talking here about internal strength, rather than simply physical strength, but you have said that the body does need to be strong, like a rope. Other teachers, such as Cheng Man Ching, have emphasised the importance of investing in loss and relaxing to the extreme. What do you think of the highly relaxed state?
 
This is the very high level of the Art. If you are not relaxed, you cannot exert the real function of the Art. However, I think Cheng Man Ching’s teaching is not really suitable for beginners. If you only learn to relax from the very beginning, it’s not really practical in terms of teaching.
 
Besides, I have also been wondering if Cheng Man Ching was really teaching his students in the way that has been spread in the western countries nowadays. This doubt has been in my mind for a long time. From my observation, most of the foreign students who studied with him only stayed there for 2 to 6 moths and then came back to start teaching the next generation of students. Under these circumstances, little truly useful training could be experienced at all, which inevitably results in jumping to conclusions, they only see the Tai Chi relaxation appearance, but they don’t know how the great master has transformed into it.
 
What is missing if you learn Tai Chi this way?
 
Everything is missing! First you must develop strength, which does not appear with too much tension, it is the internal strength, reflected in the movement of your forms. The relaxation comes later.
 
Relaxation doesn’t mean looseness or sloppiness, with no precision in the forms. You can do it like that for 50 years and still not know what Tai Chi is. That’s OK if you don’t want to become good. If you just want to learn to relax or do Tai Chi as a kind of soft dance (as many people have understood mistakenly), it’s enough, but not if you want to be a real Martial Artist.
 
Relaxation comes gradually, after practicing for a certain period, which depends on the individual, especially if you do a lot of push hands with good skilled people, then your progress will be faster. Through push hands, you know what your concentration should be on. You learn the timing. You know when you should be in a state of tension and when you should be in the state of relaxation.
 
I don’t think several decades ago, when Cheng Man Ching moved from Beijing to Taiwan, he was doing Tai Chi in the way that he did it in his later years. Many subtle things could be hidden in his highly relaxed forms, but most people won’t be able to see it, if it is not interpreted properly. I know this from my master, Professor Wang Zhi Zhong, many years ago.
 
The best way to learn anything is to start from the state with a shape and gradually transform towards the state without a shape. Ultimately, Tai Chi becomes spontaneous. The shape becomes less important, because at any moment the state is changing and shifting, both internally and externally, mentally and physically. Cheng Man Ching’s forms look very loose and relaxed because he had reached a very high level and the shape is not important at all at that stage. But internally and mentally, it is precisely shaped.
 
I think that Cheng Man Ching in his later years got nearly to the spontaneous state. I think that his skill had reached about the same level as that of Professor Wang Zhi Zhong, but Cheng Man Ching’s health was not good. This is bad news for a Martial Artist. If your health is not good you can’t really issue your power. Professor Wang’s health at sixty years old was amazing. He looked very young physically, like a thirty year old. He is now about seventy. When I brought him to Leeds in 1991, he was sixty-two and still practicing for three hours every morning. I put him in the guest room at Boddington Hall and he used to get up at 5am and go outside and train until 8am. He could still jump up in the air and drop down into sideways splits, even then. Many famous masters in Beijing were overwhelmed by his skills. He is an amazing man. Remarkable. He can be called a true expert in Martial Arts. He has been the head of the China Mei Hua Zhuang Association in Beijing for many years.
 
Altogether I experienced six very famous Martial Arts Masters in Beijing, but I have studied with Professor Wang for the longest time. He is one of the best teachers around in terms of his understanding, skills and strength. For many years, he was a Professor at the university, in charge of Physical Education and he has written several books on Martial Arts. He has retired now from the university. He went to teach in Germany for three years and travelled to other parts of the world, but he is back in Beijing now.
 
As well as Chen, Yang and Wu style Tai Chi, and Hsing Yi and Bagua, he also taught Shaolin, and especially Mei Hua Zhuang (Er Mei School). I trained with him regularly while I was an undergraduate, from about 1978 onwards. I learned Hsing Yi first, then Tai Chi and Bagua. I also did Mei Hua Zhuang with Professor Wang. It’s another branch of Internal Martial Arts. It originally had eleven levels but Professor Wang developed it into thirteen levels and he is now head of this Martial Art in China.
 
How did you first become interested in Martial Arts?
 
I was growing into a teenager when the Cultural Revolution was proceeding towards the end. During that period I could not see many people practicing Martial Arts, but at that time, like many children in China, I did a lot of basic physical training such as Shaolin training. I was said to be very talented and therefore I was sent to join the Peking Opera School at the age of eight and stayed there until I was twelve. We did lots of exercises like that in gymnastics. I seemed to spend lots of time upside-down. Then, when I was in high school, one night I was walking down the street (as I usually did for relaxing my nerves and stretching my joints between hard working sessions) when I saw a man, one of my neighbours, through the gloom under the street lights. He was moving in a very strange way, his body was sinking so low that he was almost squatting down, yet he was walking so slowly, so evenly, but still with a rhythm! He seemed like a robot full of springs releasing their potential energy very slowly and evenly. I was so impressed and intrigued that I walked over to talk to him, but he was concentrating so much that I didn’t dare to interrupt. I kept waiting for about thirty minutes until he finished. I asked him what he was doing. He said it was Tai Chi. I was amazed. I had never seen Tai Chi done like this before. It was not like what I saw the majority of people doing every day in the park. In China most young people don’t pay much attention to Tai Chi. They say it’s for old people only. That’s because they don’t know the real Tai Chi. Once I had seen real Tai Chi I could never forget its charm. From then on, I always imagined that some day I could do this wonderful thing myself!
 
In your opinion, what is “real Tai Chi”?
 
Everyone has different levels of understanding about what Tai Chi is, but only a few people are brave enough to raise this challenging question, ”What is real Tai Chi?” In general, I think it’s unfair to say that this person is doing real Tai Chi and that person isn’t. I think everybody is practicing and progressing through different stages of learning the Tai Chi art, but when you come to the terms of what I would consider to be proper Tai Chi, I would like to define it according to these few points:
 
1  Any Tai Chi expert should be able to see the principles from your forms and your spirit, the attitude.
 
2. You must know yourself that you are doing Tai Chi. That means you should bear the understanding of the Tai Chi principles in your mind while you are practicing the Tai Chi routines. It’s not just copying other people’s movements, like dancers can copy the Tai Chi forms, very quickly without knowing any Tai Chi principles; this is purely a physical copying.
 
3. Every little thing that you are doing should follow the principles to your own understanding, which means that the physical and mental aspects must be combined together. You must combine the physical movements with mental understanding, the external appearance with internal strength.
 
4. The last point is also the most important: you must also be breathing properly. Very slow, very deep, very controlled breathing, combined with the movements, is Tai Chi breathing.

When you and I have watched many people doing Tai Chi on videos or at various demonstrations, you have always appeared to be largely unimpressed. Very occasionally you have said that a particular person had “spirit” or the “Tai Chi sense”. What do you think of the Tai Chi you have seen in this country?
 
Everyone is improving. I think some people are doing very well, but most of the people I have seen, even some of those taking part in demonstrations in international events, were not breathing properly. In particular, you can’t do Chen style without combining the breathing with it. You can’t do it. It’s impossible. You can’t generate the spirit, the explosive power. You need very sophisticated breathing exercises for many years to do Chen style properly. Just deep, slow breathing is not good enough, it should also be controlled to any extent that you want, this will give you good timing when issuing the power. Then you will benefit from the breathing significantly. If you watch a Master demonstrating forms, you should be able to see this.
 
In this country, there is something of a controversy about the nature of Chi and, in particular, whether or not it can be mysteriously issued through the air and used to push people over without physically touching them. As a Martial Artist and a scientist with a PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Leeds, do you have any thoughts about this?
 
This topic has been debated for many years in China. I think QiGong is still on the borderline between a mystery and a true science. In China and elsewhere over the last twenty years, there have been many scientific experiments to prove the existence of QiGong. By using very sensitive equipment, a variation of electromagnetic field can be detected when a QiGong master is releasing his power. You can even measure the intensity of a Chi field. I believe in the research results. I think it is just a sort of energy generated from the human body. The QiGong master has got the skills and, after a certain period of practice, then he is able to concentrate his energy and release it through his system. A true expert can really issue his own power through his system and use this power to gather the outside energy, including that of his opponent, so that his power can be amplified in order to function and to manipulate the opponent. This idea has been accepted in China for many years. There are people who can use this energy to heal people and eliminate illness from the body. The energy can be concentrated intensely enough to burn the illness out, somehow like a laser.
 
What about throwing people around without touching them?
 
If the energy of the subject that you are working on can be manipulated by you, mostly by your mental energy, then the work can be done, otherwise it is doubtful.
 
When you talk about energy in this way, it sounds a bit like hypnosis, more of a mental influence over people’s behaviour than a physical force. Do you think that there is a difference between Eastern and Western concepts of what is meant by the word “energy”?
 
Exactly! Hypnosis can be thought of as a sort of QiGong. If you have a very strong, charismatic, dominant personality, you know the skills and, more importantly, the people that you are working on are very receptive and easily manipulated, then you can control many people’s minds. In that case it is easy to make them fall over, even when several of them are standing one behind the other (but usually the people have to connect with each other physically).
 
They say there’s no gain without pain. That’s certainly been true of my training with you over the years. What advice would you give to people learning Tai Chi in terms of training?
 
I would firstly like to say that you have to keep your enthusiasm for a long period, because Tai Chi is the subtlest art, it takes many years to really understand the principles and get the skills into your body, even when you have been following a really good teacher.
 
Secondly, always try to get a good teacher, and try to learn from different teachers, it will help you to recognise what is good and what is not. Once you have found a really good teacher, you should respect his arts, his skills, and cherish what he has taught. The sense of family (in martial arts) link can always develop a better relationship between the teacher and students, so that the teacher can be more inspired by the students. Consequently, the students can get more useful instructions.
 
A good teacher can always be inspired by his students to generate many sparkling ideas and develop the skills, develop the arts. Conversely, a good student can always raise good questions for the teacher, even though sometimes it is challenging! A good teacher should have a high enough standard in his arts for his students, and should be open-minded. Being orally-expressive would be an advantage in teaching, but not many students really enjoy listening instead of doing!
 
Now let us come to the point of practical training. I do not think that the more hours you practice, then the more progress you make, and the harder you train then the better you become. It is not necessarily true! But people usually prefer to say that, “I f you train harder then you get better”, especially those people who are successful. Actually, a lot of technical know-how is hidden in the word “harder”.
 
I do agree that diligence and working hours are basic requirements which lead to improvement but, in terms of improving the Martial Art skills, the most important thing is understanding. Just standing there doing meditation without knowing the principles is silly practicing; just trying to remember more and more forms without learning the Tai Chi essence is also being a silly practitioner! If people are doing Tai Chi in this way, no matter how diligent they are, their progress must be slow. Sometimes, you might even get yourself injured, and for most people, because they cannot make progress after a period of practicing or hard training, then they become disappointed and quit training.
 
I would like to suggest that people learn Tai Chi in a scientific way, without training too hard physically at the beginning. I suggest that they read more books, Tai Chi stories, biographies and Tai Chi history and theory. These readings will raise their interest in Tai Chi and will give them more of a profile about what Tai Chi is. If you do this, then gradually you will feel you are a Tai Chi person and you will feel you are linked with the Tai Chi family, so that every time you practice Tai Chi you feel a sort of affection! From Tai Chi stories, you know that other ordinary people become Tai Chi masters, you know what they did technically, and you can learn some techniques from their stories.
Finally, I would like to summarise my advice in one sentence:
 
“Hard training with know-how,
under the instruction of a really good teacher,
is the way leading to a high level Tai Chi master.”
 
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank my masters: Professor Wang Zhi Zhong, Professor Yi Xian Jun in Beijing Physical Education University, Master Zhu Bao Zhen, Master Luo Da Cheng, and Master Zhang Bao Zhong, in the Beijing Mrtial Arts School of Eastern District, and all those people who helped me improve my martial skill during those years in Tsing Hua University, Beijing Martial Arts School, Beijing Physical Education University, and Dong Dan Park.
 
My special thanks also extends to those students and friends who helped me carry out the various Martial Arts workshops, seminars and weekly classes over the last ten years in the UK.
 
And on behalf of all the students of Yiheyuan and the University of Leeds Tai Chi Hsing Yi Society, I would like to thank you, Master Zhu, for everything you have done for us. We’ll miss you boss. Wherever you go, our love goes with you and your spirit lives on in us.