An Interview with Masters Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun
Conducted, and translated, by Jeremy Blodgett
JB: At the Taiyuan competition this summer we got to see many Yang style practitioners, but some practiced quite differently than we do. Why are there so many different types of Yang style Taijiquan now?
YZD: In looking at it now, there is a lot of Yang style Taijiquan. But, all of the Yang style Taijiquan appearances are not the same. You are Yang style, she is Yang style, and that one is also called Yang style, but they all are practiced differently. Why are they different? I think this is related to the history of Yang style. My father in his middle age had long standing top students such as Beijing's Chui Yi Shi and Hangzhou's Niu Chun Ming. These senior students were accepted by Yang Cheng Fu in his middle age. The completion of Yang style Taijiquan was when my father reached the time of his old age. If you look at my father's pictures, the postures of his youth are different from the postures of his senior years.
The students that he accepted in his middle age didn't just practice Taijiquan; they had also practiced external martial arts. But don't say that later his senior students where different from Yang Cheng Fu because of their external martial art foundations. Yang Cheng Fu was himself different in his middle age and senior years. So in looking at it now, his top students have had many students themselves, compounding the differences resulting from Yang Cheng Fu's personal development during this time difference of several decades. So in arriving at the explanation for the differences in Yang style in this way, it is very obvious and very objective. Because Yang Cheng Fu himself was different, can the senior students he accepted in his middle age and senior years be the same as him? It is not actually possible. For example, Zheng Man Qing and Dong Yin Jie are both old students of my father. You say who is correct and who is incorrect? To say who is good and who is bad is very difficult.
Because you all practice traditional Yang style and may have not seen other styles, we invited many different people to the competition allowing you to see how people from other styles practice. Representatives of Chen style, the two Wu styles and Sun style were all present so that everyone could open their eyes. Chen Long Xia, Li Ming Di, and Li Ya Xuan's son-in-law all came to represent other styles. Li Ya Xuan was my father's disciple. Also, Niu Chui Ming's nephew from Hangzhou and Niu Chui Ming's disciple attended. Zheng Man Qing's student from Taiwan came. Some of the invitees were not able to come such as Ji Hong Bin who is over eighty years old, but his student and association representative came. Also, a group of Xu Ri Zhong's students came. So you were able to come here and see that even though all are Taiji and many are Yang style, they are all not the same. We could learn from them and broaden our horizons. But it does not exist who is good and who is bad or who is right and who is wrong because history has created this condition. The purpose for the 20th anniversary was to further widen our outlook. We are all friends and were able to increase our knowledge of Taijiquan through being together and observing.
We need to understand that regardless of how you look at it, all Taiji practitioners are of one family. It should not be as it was in the past when people were suspicious of each other and would create trouble. This is not good. We need to support one another. Through exhibitions like the one just held in Taiyuan we can see that each kind of Taiji has its advantages. For example, if you like Li Ya Xuan, you can practice Li Ya Xuan's style of Taiji. Whichever kind you like then practice that one. Our goals are all the same: conditioning the body and improving health; and further developing the cause of Taijiquan.
In looking at the Taijiquan cause now, why has it been able to receive the great attention and encouragement from the National Sports Ministry? It is because Taiji benefits mankind, with many people using Taijiquan as a method for maintaining health. This is a very meaningful thing. So we work today in order to better develop this activity. It is easy to understand why it has been able to develop so well already. Not only do people practice, but after a certain time of practice they also teach. Through this way Taijiquan scope gradually increases with more and more practitioners.
We hope that the overall skill level can continuously develop. In looking at it now, it has developed relatively well and we hope it can be even better. Now there are many Taiji hobbyists. But with the increase in practitioners, teachers are relatively lacking. People who practice really well are still not that many. So now we have a duty to better disseminate Taiji technique, allowing even more practitioners to improve their practice and make their bodies even healthier.
JB: What is the current overall state of Taijiquan in China?
YZD: Looking at the present state, Chinese martial arts, and especially Taijiquan, are developing quite well in China as evidenced by the development of the Shanxi Association. The Shanxi Association is broad in scope with over 30,000 members and 80 branches. At the Shanxi Association annual competitions, there has been a clear increase in the number of participants each year. Not only is the growth in the Shanxi Association related the members' hard work, but also to the general growth of Taiji in Shanxi Province and throughout China. Taijiquan is precisely in accordance with the needs of society and therefore the country has called upon everyone to practice Taijiquan, creating many opportunities to do so. The National Sports Ministry has attached importance to Taiji and it organizes events like the ten thousand person demonstrations. Especially after the appearance of Fa Lun Gong, everybody practices Taijiquan in order to boycott Fa Lun Gong. Not only are middle-aged people practicing, but also now many youth practice Taiji, especially Yang style.
Another reason that Yang style has developed well in China relates to the creation of the nationalized forms. The origin of these forms is Yang style, with some fa jin from Chen style and hand techniques from other styles added in later. Generally speaking the foundation still is Yang style. All these reasons contribute to the successful growth of Yang style Taijiquan in Shanxi. Shanxi Province is the birthplace of xingyiquan and there should be a lot of xingyiquan practitioners, but in Taiyuan it is seldom seen as most people practice Taijiquan. So, the development of Shanxi's Taijiquan, when looking at the whole country, has been quite good.
The overall development of Taijiquan in China can best be exemplified by recent ten thousand man events. In China there have been three different ten thousand-man events. The first time this kind of large exhibition was held was in Beijing's Tian An Men Square in the late 1990's. The second one was in Sanya and the third was in Hong Kong.
In March 2001, the "First World Taijiquan and Health Congress" was held in Sanya (a city located on Hainan Island in the south of China). This congress, organized by the Chinese Martial Arts Association, was the grandest in scale ever held in China with over four thousand athletes alone and over ten thousand total participants. For just the Japanese there were over three hundred, with many people from other countries as well. The National Sports Ministry invited Yang Jun and I to demonstrate, give lectures and hold classes. We were warmly welcomed by everyone.
In Hong Kong in December of 2001 the "Ten Thousand Man Taijiquan Assembly" was held. The Chinese Martial Arts Association and the National Sports Ministry sent people to participate in this event. I and people from other styles, including Chen style's Chen Zhen Lei, served as the representative members. At this time, the Chinese Martial Arts Association specifically established a representative team for Chinese martial arts. Once in Hong Kong, Yang Jun and I also demonstrated and taught classes.
At the Sanya meeting Li Jie, the Chairman of the Chinese Martial Arts Association and Director of the Center for TaiJiQuan Events, declared that China should make Taijiquan activities more widespread. And, two years ago the month of May was proclaimed "Taiji Month". At this time there was an even more widespread calling on everyone to practice Taijiquan, resulting in the recruitment of even more students. So, at present, the condition of Taijiquan is very good, with many practitioners.
JB: The National Sports Ministry has been so active in the development of Taijiquan. Why did they decide to implement a ranking system?
YZD: The ranking system is new and has just been put into place. It was assimilated from foreign experience, possibly Japanese judo and karate. Through it you have an evaluation of your gongfu. From rankings athletes have an appraisal and a comparison. It is good for the athletes as well as for the people who work in the martial arts field. Not only is it based on the martial arts aspects, which are concerned with conditioning and health, but it is also based on the requirement to produce written works, leaving behind your experiences for future generations. Advancement is step by step, finally arriving at the highest realm. Your skill improves, and your knowledge of theory improves as well. The goal of rising to higher levels creates a stimulus and generates an impetus to improve. These are the basic principles of the ranking system.
JB: In the old days in China, was it not the custom of people with talent to conceal their skills? Therefore, is the ranking system for Taiji not in accordance with the traditional customs?
YZD: I feel this does not matter. It is not at all like the Daoists. Mainly it is a way to provide a promoting function enabling athletes to improve. The problem is not that great.
JB: What hurdles does the International Association still have to clear?
YZD: The International Association needs to do the organizational work well. The organizational aspects are very important. During these years Yang Jun and I have continuously worked on the organization of the Association and it looks pretty good now. In only a few years it has developed to 24 centers, which is not very easy. To be able to have today's success is due to everyone's support. This is to say that without a common language, it would not be possible. Because everyone has the same aspirations of wanting to practice and explore TaiJiQuan, it has been able to develop internationally.
YJ: Now, one of the main problems for the International Association is organizational in nature. How can everyone gather together in order to better develop Taiji? The task is to coordinate the centers and the Association. Because everyone is so far apart and people have different ways of thinking, occasional conflicts arise. Another main problem is how can the Association better popularize and develop Taijiquan, allowing even more people to participate in its practice?
In general, the Association has developed fairly well in its first few years with many people applying to open centers. We are even more diligent than before as we have some experience now. In the very beginning, we did not have much experience and developed too quickly making it impossible to immediately deal with all the problems. Now, we are gradually maturing but we still don't have a lot of experience. We must depend on each other's support and help because one person cannot do the work alone. In order to work well, everybody must come together.
JB: Why did you decide to establish the International Association in America?
YZD: From the facts, we selected America for the headquarters of the International Association because it is large and TaiJi has developed well there. It is a comparatively democratic country with better overall conditions, including economic and geographical factors. It is not very convenient to travel to China from some countries but is convenient to travel to America from both Europe and South America. Using America as a base for the International Yang Style Taijiquan Association is good for the development of Taijiquan.
JB: What are your plans now after the 20th anniversary celebration?
YZD: My age is gradually increasing. There is a Chinese saying to the effect that the mind is willing, but the body is not strong enough. That is to say my spirit is not as plentiful as it was in the past. Now, from many aspects, my physical strength is lacking. But, I still need to try my best. Both at home and abroad, I still need to participate in some events when necessary. But, my strength is not full as it once was.
JB: Do you think you will ever retire?
YZD: Regarding my work I retired early, but regarding this Taiji undertaking, it still cannot be said that I have completely retired. For example in the Shanxi Association, even though I am old and my energy is limited, I still need to manage some things. But, I try to do less and try to let the younger people do more. And for the International Association I still need to travel to other countries to help develop it.
JB: When you look back on your career, what are the highlights for you?
YZD: For many years now I have frequently traveled to Europe, North America, and South America, but I still feel the deepest impression of all is from the recent events in Sanya in Hainan, and in Hong Kong. China has organized three ten thousand-man events and I have been able to participate in two of them. And, for both I have been fortunate enough to serve as the representative head of the Yang family. I feel very honored and happy to have participated in them, especially the Sanya event. There, of all the different representatives of Taijiquan selected by the National Sports Ministry, I was the eldest.
Time has not overlooked me and my life has passed extremely fast. Regardless of how you look at it and how much time you say is left, I have already lived over half my life and it is not possible that I have a lot of time remaining. In the past children called me "uncle". Later they called me "uncle" using a term which meant older than their father. Then later they called me "grandpa". Now, when some kids see me they call me "old grandpa". All this illustrates that my age is becoming advanced. At seventy-seven years old, I was the eldest among the teachers in Sanya. To have seen the great development of Taijiquan at the Sanya event, my heart felt immensely grateful and happy.
JB: One last question. Everyone knows you have provided a great contribution to Taijiquan. How do you feel about this?
YZD: Regarding Yang style Taijiquan, my great-grandfather created it. But, up until my father's time, no one in the family had traveled to foreign countries. Later, some disciples took Taijiquan abroad, but actual members of the Yang family were not able to travel abroad. From the bottom of my heart I feel very happy to be doing this work, to disseminate it. But, in my generation, I have been able to travel to many countries, providing a contribution to mankind. So when I think back on this point, I see that we serve as the representatives of the Yang family, taking what my great-grandfather created and introducing and spreading it to the peoples of the world. I feel that this is very meaningful. We popularize what my grandfather created.
(Special thanks to Jeremy Blodgett for his excellent work on this interview. Look forward in our next issue to part 2 of his conversation with the Masters, wherein Master Yang reminisces about his early days of training and offers his insights into developing skills and improving one's practice.)
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