In May of this year, we had the great opportunity to interview Master Ma Hong, of Chen Style Tai Chi, while he was visiting from China.
This is our first official foray into the other internal arts to appear in the Hsing I Journal pages. We intend to make an effort over time to include representatives from all the other internal arts possible, as we believe them to be truly inseparable. Although our primary focus shall remain Hsing I.
We would like to extend our gratitude to Master George Xu, for allowing us to conduct this interview in his home while Master Ma Hong was visiting. And for helping with his comments during the interview process.
We hope you enjoy this truly lucid man and his thoughts about internal practice. This interview was translated from the original Mandarin.
HJ: Could we trouble you to take a moment and relate your history of study? Your Shr Fu?
One of the most famous practitioners of Chen T'ai Chi Ch'uan is Chen Fah Ke. I studied with the son of Chen Fah Ke, Chen Dao Kuei. Chen Fah Ke was a seventeenth-generation master. Our teacher then was eighteenth generation.
HJ: And you?
George Xu: He isn't just an ordinary student. He is considered to be an "inner-door" student, more valuable. He is a nineteenth generation master. His teacher is representative of the whole Chen style in China. Very, very famous. He wrote three books.
HJ: You wrote three books about... T'ai Chi Ch'uan?
HJ: Do you still have a lot of students?
HJ: How long have you been teaching?
Let's see... No earlier than `76. Because before then, I wasn't teaching. What was most important to me was studying with my teacher. I felt that there was so much to study, one couldn't study it all. T'ai Chi Ch'uan is very rich in content.
I always felt there was just so much to study. I still feel that I am a student! (laughter). I still feel that I am making progress, growing.
HJ: About when did you begin studying?
I started in... with T'ai Chi Ch'uan... I started in 1962. Thirty three years. With this most recent teacher, I started in 1972.
Yes, I started with Chen Dao Kuei in 1972. Originally, I was studying with some of my friends. But what we did wasn't very standard. In the end, I wanted to study Chen T'ai Chi more precisely, more deeply, so I joined with Chen Dao Kuei.
HJ: What in your opinion are some of the most important aspects of study?
Hsing I, Pa Kua, T'ai Chi: they all have one thing in common. And that is the most important thing: gang ru hsiang ji. (Hardness and softness in close succession) Pa Kua is also this way. I understand this, but I don't practice it at all. The same with Hsing I: I know a little bit about it, I learned a little bit. But for the most part I studied T'ai Chi Ch'uan.
Now, as to the T'ai Chi that is popular these days, there are two kinds: one kind is too soft.
HJ: What kind is that?
I'd rather not say. If I say, people might get upset. Without my saying, people should know which kind it is. Very slow, very soft. It has lost its martial aspects. Its basis. Originally, T'ai Chi Ch'uan was a martial art.
HJ: So, in your point of view, there's... what we do, Chen T'ai Chi, which is like the main stream, and there are also off-shoots from Chen T'ai Chi which are, in your opinion, too soft, placing more emphasis on health, holistic benefits rather than martial benefits? You are a firm believer in the martial aspects of the art?
Now there are many different types of T'ai Chi which are very popular. Yang style, Wu style, Sun style, Chang style; many different types. But the character of each of these is different. Different in what way? In my opinion, there are some that tend to be too soft, and others which tend to be too hard. This is my opinion. I believe that which was taught by my teacher was just the right combination of hardness and softness. He spoke of Yin and Yang, T'ai Chi Yin Yang. He said that T'ai Chi must have hard, soft must have fast and slow, have insubstantial and substantial, open and closed. Also it must have... oh, there's just so much..., "I, Ch'i, Li", all of these must be combined together. That which is closed must be opened, and that which is opened must be closed. Entirely open is not good, and entirely closed is not good. (Demonstrates posture examples) Therefore I believe that which was transmitted by my teacher was more fitting to what was the original face of T'ai Chi Ch'uan.
So, in addition to benefiting health, T'ai Chi must also have its martial worth. Our teacher taught not only each posture, but broke down the function, the martial use of each posture.
HJ: So, do you believe that form follows function, or does function follow form? Do you first learn the movements, and then the functions?
The two are one and the same.
HJ: But which do you study first?
The movements, the forms. At first the teacher does not talk about the use of the postures. Slowly, after your movements are very correct, then the teacher can discuss why they are the way they are. How to use them. First achieve precision in movement.
HJ: When you teach students, in the beginning, do you first teach form?
HJ: You teach them to be soft?
Gang ru hsiang ji. (Hardness and softness in close succession.)
HJ: At the same time.
Yes. The student has some movements... how do I explain... which are soft, but not truly soft. Do you understand?
HJ: Could you please elaborate a little?
For instance, a certain movement may look soft, but there is still force in it. But this force, this strength is not a hard strength; it is a "soft" strength. It is a flexible strength. You can expand it, or you can contract it. It is a spiral force. So here, there is both strength and relaxed softness. Only in this way can you have gang ru hsiang ji. If it is all hard, then it is not T'ai Chi. If it is completely soft with no strength, this is not good either.
HJ: How are your students able to study this kind of softness?
The first step: allow them to be too soft. Let them concern themselves with precision in movement. Where does this hand go? Where is this foot placed? Let them become very clear on these points. From where to where? From what point to what point? After that, you can teach the student to relax, and teach them the meanings, the applications of the movements. Step by step. You want to break things up into different steps. The first step, copy the forms, the appearances. The next step, teach him the internal aspects. Where is the strength in this movement? Is it here? Is it there? Where is the strength? This is the internal aspect. Next, you can teach application. Why am I hitting this way? What is the purpose behind this movement? The fourth step is to teach strength, power.
HJ: And how do you teach that?
There are several different ways. Solo single form, Twi shou, Long pole, Standing postures, many more methods.
HJ: Could you please explain?
When you practice solo form, you must practice every posture, every movement with fah jing. It is soft, yet instantly hard. When you practice fah jing, like these (demonstrates a strong issuing force while exhaling sharply). There is another part; that is, teaching how to transmit power. You must understand this, must understand power. T'ai Chi is about yin and yang; this is its underlying theory. Besides that, you must also study medicine, anatomy, military strategy..., Also, when you practice, the forms must look good artistically. When other people watch you, they must feel very comfortable. All of this is important. The end goal of practice is that your strength be relaxed, lively and springy.
With the whole body, you must be flexible. You have to utilize your whole body, use proper body kinetics, and you have to be loose... It has to come from your legs, your waist, your spine, your shoulders, point by point. Even though sometimes you have to strike with your elbow, or the forearm, the whole power is still there, extending all the way. Like a spiral.
HJ: When you teach your students, at first, you teach them section by section...?
Posture by posture, movement by movement. Our teacher taught in a very detailed manner. Because every movement has its hidden meaning. There is nothing that is empty.
HJ: In your opinion, as to those styles of T'ai Chi which are now very popular, why do they not fah jing in their solo forms practice?
Originally, in Yang style and Wu style, they also used to practice fah jing. When Yang passed the style on to his son, they still would fah jing. But then, from the third generation on - Yang's third generation, Wu's second generation - they no longer practiced fah jing. After the Manchurians unified China, the nobles who practiced were unwilling to expend that kind of energy; they were interested purely in the "health" aspects of the art. So they got rid of these stricter requirements and softened everything.
But the Chen style is the oldest, the most ancient. So it still contains a richness of martial content. Hsing I ch'uan is the same. Some people practice it very softly and cannot fah jing. Then there are others who practice it very hard, with a lot of strength. That just comes from different practitioners, different lineages.
HJ: Discuss with us if you will what you think the key components are that make a good internal boxer.