Luo Ji-Hong

A Life Through Tai Chi

My father was born on August 12, 1920 in the village of Xing Ning, Guang Dong Province in China. His people were Kejia (visitors) who had migrated from Central to Southern China over a hundred years before. When my father was three years old, my grandfather fell ill and died while away on one of his trading expeditions, leaving his family destitute. My grandmother worked tirelessly farming a small plot of rented land to feed and clothe her son.

Because the Kejia settled in the poorest areas of Guang Dong Province, life was a constant struggle just to survive. Consequently, they placed a great emphasis on education for their sons as a means of improving their lives. My grandmother was no exception. Through great effort and self sacrifice she was able to arrange for my father to receive a Classical Chinese education in the village. My father realized his only chance to improve his family’s fortune was through school. He studied intensely and advanced swiftly through the education system, even skipping a few grades. This early thirst for knowledge and self-discipline later enabled my father to study Tai Chi even when there was a scarcity of qualified instructors in his area.

After completing his Classical Chinese education, he went on to a secondary school where the emphasis was more towards the Western-style analytical approach. It was also at this time he began to study and learn English which became one of his two great obsessions in life. Upon graduation, he applied for a scholarship to attend university. At that time, the most prestigious university in southern China was Zhong Shan University in Guangzhou. Named after Dr Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Chinese Republic. Zhong Shan University had to turn away applicants every year because it could not accommodate them all. In 1944, he received a letter advising him he was awarded a scholarship to Zhong Shan University. Overjoyed, he moved to Guangzhou and began classes. He graduated in 1947 with a degree in Sociology.

He took a position as an English teacher at a junior college until the Revolution in 1949. In 1950, he became manager for a local state-owned enterprise. He remained there until, in 1956, he fell ill with kidney disease. Surgery was performed and his left kidney was removed. It was also discovered that his right kidney was deteriorating as well. My father has access to the best medical care in the city. He sought the opinions of several doctors but the prognosis was always the same. He also sought help through Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with no better results. His kidney was failing and he had only five months to live. Friends had recommended Tai Chi but his doctors advised against it fearing it would put too much strain on his already bleeding renal artery. In the meantime, his weight dropped from 65kg to 40kg! He was failing fast.

My father decided to go against his doctor’s advice and began leaving the hospital every morning to go to a local park and practice Tai Chi with the crowds. Although he had been living under a sentence of death by his doctors, my father found that practicing Tai Chi enabled him to shift his focus on something other than his failing health. Instead of dwelling on his problems, he focussed his attention on Tai Chi, thus, allowing his body to begin a healing process. This positive outlook on life and refusal to fixate on negative events helped my father through many difficult periods in his life.

Incredibly, after a month of practice my father began to feel better. He thought the internal bleeding was diminishing. When he went back to his doctor for a check up, they discovered the deterioration of his remaining kidney had stopped and there was no more internal bleeding.

My father contacted a Yang Style Tai Chi instructor named Zhou and began his formal studies in Tai Chi. Six months later, my father presented himself to his surgeon. The doctor was amazed! My father had begun to put weight back on his emaciated frame. He showed surprising strength and agility and gave no indication he had suffered from a serious illness.

When my father was released from hospital, he faced a dilemma. He felt he needed to continue his study of Tai Chi but his town was 50 kilometers away from Master Zhou. He eventually rented a small room on a rooftop in Shan Tou just to continue his training. He returned to visit us whenever he could afford, which was only once or twice a month.

My Father’s Tai Chi Training:

As his health continued to improve, my father’s fascination with Tai Chi grew. He became quite interested in Tui Shou (Push Hands) as the martial art aspect of Tai Chi Chuan. The senior students were reluctant to practice push hands with my father for fear of injuring him (he was still recovering from his illness and surgery). He insisted, however, and a few consented to practice with him, albeit gently.

At that time, the most common principal of Push Hands being taught was the concept of “relaxation” and “yielding”. Master Zhou stressed the commonly accepted principle: “If your opponent advances a foot, you should yield a foot.” My father did not understand how you would overcome your opponent if you continually yielded. Master Zhou was not able to offer a satisfactory explanation so my father turned to the Tai Chi Classics and the few contemporary articles he could find. Fortunately, his formal education enabled him to understand the meaning behind the formal prose of the Classics. Books on Tai Chi were very scarce so he had to borrow from friends and acquaintances. As he found relevant passages, he would copy them by hand (no photocopiers in those days). Often, on his visits home he would enlist my help with the copying. As I was still very young, I could only place a piece of paper over the page and trace the drawings without really understanding what I was sketching. These were my first lessons in the Tai Chi Form.

The two most common methods of Push Hands were to either yield until your opponent overextended himself (at which time you could pull him off-balance) [Yin] or to root so firmly your opponent could not move you [Yang]. The problem with the first method is: what do you do if your opponent can extend farther or faster than you can yield? The second method implies that the physically stronger opponent will always prevail. My father’s studies led him to the conclusion that Tai Chi must have Yin and Yang in balance simultaneously. Instead of yielding from an advance, you should slow your opponent down, like applying a bicycle brake (“Peng” ward off). He also concluded that “spiral” force was the proper application of Tai Chi. No straight lines, instead you redirect your opponent’s force on a tangent. In order to succeed you must alter three things about your opponent’s attack: his pressure, his speed and his direction.

After one year of intense study and practice, my father was able to defeat his “Shi-Xiong” (Senior Classmates) in Push Hands. They were amazed and wanted to know his secret. As they were not as well educated, they did not understand my father’s references to the principle from the Tai Chi Classics. They went to Master Zhou and demanded he find the reason behind Ji-Hong’s remarkable progress.

Soon after, Master Zhou dismissed the class one day, but asked my father to stay behind. He invited my father to push hands with him … and lost! The next morning, he invited my father back to his house. Upon my father’s arrival, Master Zhou announced “I have studied Tai Chi for 30 years and have taught for 20. Yet, with less than 2 years training you have defeated me! As my student, I am proud of your achievement but, How is this possible?”

My father explained his conclusions from studying a portion of the Tai Chi Classics. He expressed his regret that he did not have access to more books. He offered to share whatever he had learning with Master Zhou and his fellow students. At that, Master Zhou summoned all his senior students and demanded they turn over all their books on Tai Chi to my father. As my father was fortunate enough to be one of the few educated students in the school, and probably the only one who could translate the classical Chinese literature, they were only too happy to oblige. He soon embarked on a period of intense study and practice. For the next seven years, my father read, theorized, practiced and wrote about Tai Chi on a full-time basis. He scoured second-hand bookstores for texts on Tai Chi. He was even able to place orders with stores in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjen. He eventually collected an extensive library of information on Tai Chi and related disciplines. As he studied each author’s theories and principles of Tai Chi, my father questioned everything. Because he was not the disciple of a famous master, he did not have the preconceptions and biases regarding one school or style versus another. Instead, he saw himself as a seeker of truth. He accepted the classical Tai Chi theories as valid, but wanted to discover their purpose and relationship to one’s daily practice. He felt it necessary to interpret these theories in terms anyone could understand.

In order for my father to consider a principal valid, he subjected it to three questions:

  1. Why? (i.e. Why must we “raise the head”?)
  2. How? (i.e. How do we “raise the head”?)
  3. Result? (i.e. If I “raise the head” correctly, what will be the result?)

As he studied different texts, he would highlight important passages. He would select one specific topic from all of his books and study each author’s viewpoint. Every source offered a different point of view, a different analogy and different explanation. He began to study Wu Style under a Master Cai to gain a new perspective. He had a small blackboard in his room upon which he would write reminders to himself about various aspects of theory and practice. I remember seeing it once with the words “Waist is the First Principle” written on it. This was a reminder for my father to concentrate on his Ming Men whatever he was doing.

The Tai Chi Classics state: “all movements begin in the waist“. My father felt a more complete explanation was needed. He decided that by “waist” the old masters meant the area encompassing the Dan Tian and the Ming Men. Why was this so important? Every aspect of movement (origin, frequency, direction, magnitude, intensity and speed) started in this area. It was therefore necessary to understand and coordinate the waist properly.

There were times, however, when my father’s research and experimentation were proven to be invaluable to the Tai Chi community. In one of the earliest treatises on Tai Chi, an author stressed the importance of developing a “monkey head“. Later publishers did not understand the meaning of “monkey head” and assumed it was a misprint. [Ed. In Chinese writing, the characters meaning Monkey Head look almost identical to the characters meaning Throat. The confusion is further compounded in certain dialects as both terms are pronounced the same.] They explained that the original author was referring to the neck or throat area. No one questioned the validity of this statement until my father read an original copy of the passage. He pondered the meaning of “monkey head” and how it related to the flow of internal energy for weeks. He delved deeper into the book hoping to find a clue as to what the author was really trying to say. One day, he took me to the zoo and we headed straight for the monkey enclosure. He observed the animals for a lengthy period and then it hit him! He noticed that when the monkeys were alarmed or cautious, they would stand up to better view their surroundings. My father noticed how they held their heads as they began to rise up on their hind legs. Their heads were held high with their chins slightly tucked in. He began to imitate this posture in this practice and immediately noticed an improvement in the flow of his Chi. This is what the old masters meant by “monkey head“!

My father’s desire to test every principal in his own training would manifest itself in some strange ways. For example, some books compared the feeling of “lift the head” to holding a bowl of water on your head. My father carried a bowl of water on his head for a full day as part of his training. As a result, he had a very stiff neck the next morning.

As a reminder to himself to “sink the elbows“, he began carrying an umbrella in the crook of his arm at all times, even on hot sunny days. My mother used to walk behind him in public because she was so embarrassed.

To test the theory of “spiral force” and “reacting to external force like a coiled spring“, he would ride the public transportation all day long standing in the aisle. As the bus would drive along the bumpy roads, and hit a pothole, my father would allow the motion of the bus to force him to “compress” and then “expand”.

One time, he stood on a bridge for two hours watching the waves roll in. He was visualizing his Dan Tian moving with the rhythm of the waves. Unfortunately, some passersby thought he was about to commit suicide and called the police.

By studying and questioning, my father was able to relate the principles and theories to his everyday practice. He felt books could be helpful if you studied the appropriate level text at the correct stage of your abilities. There is a danger of misinterpretation if you study a passage too advanced for your level. My father had many false starts because of this.

As he shared his discovery with others, he began to develop a reputation as a Tai Chi scholar. While he accepted the principles passed on from the old masters, he saw them as pieces of a giant puzzle. He attempted to gather as many pieces as possible in order to develop a complete picture.

He developed a four-point method of research:

  1. Collect
  2. Understand
  3. Analyze
  4. Develop

He often referred to himself as an ox with four stomachs. In his first stomach he collected all the information he could. In his second stomach he “regurgitated” the information until he understood what the author was trying to say. In this third stomach he “digested” or analyzed the information retaining all the valid points. Finally, in his fourth stomach he analyzed all theories, not limiting himself to any one style or school. Neither did he limit himself to just the stated principles but, rather, he postulated how they were interrelated. For example, many books on Tai Chi instruct the practitioner to “lift the head“. Another author would advise one to “pull out the Ming Men“. A third book might direct a student to “curve the pelvis under“. My father discovered that all three concepts were related and must be developed together to achieve a straightened spine and, thus, the correct posture. (A side note: as he developed the correct posture for the practice of Tai Chi, his height increased from 172 to 174 cm.) He determined that many other separate concepts such as “sink the elbows“, “relax the shoulder“, etc were also related and must be considered as part of the overall puzzle.

This was my father’s major contribution to Tai Chi literature. He took diverse viewpoints and vague references from many sources and combined them into a set of principles that could be understood by the average person in his daily practice. He understood the concept of Yin/Yang and was able to apply it to his Tai Chi training. At the same time, he appreciated the Western scientific method of analysis and was able to use it to explain many of the principles of Tai Chi. This rare gift of reconciling traditional Chinese philosophy with western methodology helped my father progress rapidly. All his life he demonstrated a total commitment to his studies. He had the ability to focus on the subject at hand and did not allow himself to become distracted by wrong turns or small failures. Once he decided to pursue a course of study, he never gave up. At the same time, he kept a careful record of his progress in the hopes that students after him could progress even more quickly.

Many authors had written dozens of volumes on Tai Chi. The biggest limitation of these texts, however, was they only described the level of the author at the time of writing. Few, if any, described how to get to that level. For example, one of the earliest books ever written about Tai Chi Chuan was “The Manual of Taijiquan” written by Wan Zong-Yue in the early 19th century. Master Wang wrote about the “9th Heaven” level of Tai Chi and the abilities of masters at that level. Unfortunately, he did not describe how one attained the 9th Heaven level. This is common in most Tai Chi books. My father attempted to take various concepts, merge them into an understandable philosophy, and describe a path for others to follow to help them to reach these concepts.

As this knowledge increased and his ideas were proven in his own daily practice, my father began to write articles on his discoveries and submit them to various journals for publication. They were well-received and often started lively debates in the sports newspapers. He often reviewed other authors and their writings in his articles. It was one such article wherein he reviewed a book by Gu Liu-Xin that began one of the most important relationships in his Tai Chi career.

Luo Hong-Yuan
(transcribed by David Ward and Bosco Yiu)
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