Written by Foong Choon Sang & translated by Len Lee Nam
In June 1975 at the age of 65, Grandmaster Huang Sheng Shyan, accompanied by the former President of Sabah Tai Chi Association, Mr Kok Peng Fui, at the invitation of the former Chairman of Tenom Tai Chi Association, Mr Ng Kim Guan et al arrived in Tenom, Sabah to spread the tao and art of tai chi. From 5 June 1983 (aged 73) until 22 August 1991 (aged 81), Grandmaster Huang (GMH) conducted twelve International Instructors’ Training Courses. The respective venues were at Tenom & Kuching in Malaysia, Taiwan, and Kuala Lumpur & Seremban in Malaysia. I attended eleven out of twelve such courses. Of course, the number of training courses attended may not necessarily correlate and correspond with the level of understanding of tai chi. As GMH often remarked after each course “you see not and hear not”, hence I do not profess that what I am about to share with you is verbatim of GMH’s teachings. Although I have tried to recall as much as what was being taught by GMH, it merely represents my understanding during these courses.
Of the twelve Instructors’ Training Courses conducted by GMH, the emphasis was always centered on the basic training of ‘song’ viz HYZZ. Before attending the courses, many of the trainees having already attained high levels of expertise be it in tai chi or other martial arts, had reservations as to why they had to undergo the training of ‘song’ and were not taught the technique and secret of ‘fa jing’ i.e. expulsion of one’s opponent using trained internal forces. Such simplistic movements in the training of ‘song’ could have been easily learned within days; why place such great emphasis on it, so they thought.
As class monitor and GMH’s immediate assistant of the many training courses, in order to clear this doubt, I unabashedly asked GMH, “Master, could you teach us the secret of ‘fa jing’?” I was expecting a tongue lashing from GMH but to my surprise, he smiled and answered, “Your question represents those of all others. The only difference is you posed the question while others chose to remain silent.” He further added, “I have repeatedly taught all of you the secret of ‘fa jing’.” Everybody disagreed but none dared to dispute with GMH. He appeared to have noted our discontent and said, “all of you have learned tai chi for many years and each of you has attained a certain degree of expertise and level of understanding depending on your individual efforts. In terms of technique, especially in the external form of using hands and arms movements to deflect your opponent's attack and overcome him, all these I need not teach you. The reason I keep repeating and teaching you the basics is to instill in all of you internal training which encompasses inner understanding and internal articulation. With this, you are able to counter the hard with the soft, thereby allowing the weak to overcome the strong.”
GMH further said, “In tai chi, one has to progress from practicing the external form to achieving internal articulation and from internal articulation to external manifestation.” If one were to utilize mere hands/arms movements and technique without internal understanding and articulation, one will have no match against an opponent who is equipped with internal understanding and articulation. Without internal articulation, it is likened to a ‘flat’ battery which although has in it the physical form but without the capacity to generate electricity, thus is incapable of discharging the functions of a battery. In tai chi, if one were to practice mere external hands/arms movements, the form is an empty form and without substance. How then would one be able to develop ‘song’ thoroughly and have the ability to nullify and neutralize and simultaneously expulse instantaneously, automatically and naturally? If you recognize these linkages, you will not find it boring to practice HYZZ. With perseverance, what appears to be monotonous and uninteresting in a step-by-step way of training is in fact the most effective and quickest way to achieving ‘song’. Internal articulation includes internal mindfulness, internal ‘song’, internal mobilization, internal nullification and neutralization, and internal expulsion. How would one then train in internal articulation? The training requires full awareness and concentration to stimulate and align all the body parts to achieve thorough ‘song’ and relaxation resulting in the synchrony of internal articulation and external manifestation. Hence, every movement is not merely physical but premeditated as a result of internal articulation and yet executed naturally.
Internal Training – ‘magnanimity/tranquility’, ‘letting go’, ‘lack of confidence’, ‘arrogance’, ‘suspicion’, ‘jealousy’, ‘blame’, ‘vengeance’
In fact, ‘Song Wu Zhi Jing’ or Infinite ‘Song’ is never monotonous nor boring. It only appears boring when one has not discovered the joy of ‘song’. The joy of ‘song’ lies in the ability in letting go. One will be most happy when one is able to let go. When there is joy, life will neither be monotonous nor boring. Of course, letting go is a lifelong learning process and ‘song’ is an infinite process.
GMH related the teaching of tai chi to the knowledge of physiology, physics and psychology. If a student does not display magnanimity and attain tranquility, he will not even pass the initial physiological stage in tai chi. For example, the prerequisites of learning tai chi are mindfulness and total relaxation which every practitioner of tai chi seems to agree. However, when it comes to pushing hands, as a result of not being ‘song’ and in order to ‘save face’ of not being pushed over or thrown off balance, one will struggle and use brute force, and blame the opponent resulting in an ‘eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ situation and exchange of force. Time passes quickly; one may have been learning tai chi for five years, ten years or twenty years and yet still use brute force in attempting to outdo the opponent and lose sight of learning true ‘song’. With such attitude, GMH retorted that without being magnanimous and at peace with oneself, it is difficult to attain ‘song’ and progress in tai chi is thus limited. The greatest enemies of not achieving tranquility and letting go in a student are lack of confidence, arrogance, suspicion, jealousy, quick to blame and vengeance.
‘Personality and way of life as a function of tai chi learning’, ‘rid one’s weaknesses and adopt others’ strengths’, ‘guidance to the route and door of tai chi’
Following the above discussion, the greatest enemy is oneself. On the other hand, letting go is the best method of achieving tranquility and training in ‘song’. GMH always reminded us to be mindful of the fact that arrogance will bring calamity whilst humility will bring benefits. He also advised us to be cognizant and get rid of our weaknesses, adopt and benefit from other people’s strengths and the fact that one’s level in tai chi is a reflection of one’s personality and way of life. These words of wisdom aim at directing us in becoming ‘song’ and the proper route to tai chi. Indeed, the learning of ‘song’ is the learning of becoming a better human being. Hence, one should avoid being arrogant, suspicious, jealous, quick to blame and revengeful. By getting rid of these negativities and developing a positive outlook in life, one will be on the right path to becoming ‘song’. GMH cited that if one places self at the centre of the universe and is self-righteous, biased, prejudiced and jealous even to the extent of demeaning others, with false pretence of understanding/knowing but is in fact ignorant, or with little knowledge and understanding but holding out as an expert, it is likened to building a castle in a vacuum and defeats the adage of ridding one’s weaknesses and adopting others’ strengths. With such negative attitudes, how would one be shown the route and the door to tai chi? GMH compared the relationship of a student and teacher with that of husband and wife. He reckoned that if there is no mutual understanding and if there is lack of feelings and trust in a teacher/student relationship, it is impossible for the teacher to teach nor for the student to learn.
GMH used to remark that what he has said or demonstrated, we probably ‘see not, hear not’. Some students felt indignant over the remark and a blow to the ego for they had listened intensely to the master and observed him attentively. Here, the ego of a person plays a major role in the learning process. Every student has his or her own notion and is usually self opinionated. The way we see and interpret things is influenced to a large extent by our own prejudices and level of comprehension and preconceived ideas resulting in misinterpretation of actual situations. Most students thought that after being shown by GMH and asked to repeat the same steps, they could achieve at least 70% accuracy but due to the degree of ‘song’ and the level of comprehension, they were unable to decipher the fine movements that go with the steps. Upon correction by GMH, they soon discovered that there was a big gap or difference between what they first thought and what was required of them. If a person is egoistic and too proud and embarrassed to be corrected, then he will never progress. If his mistakes are not pointed out by the teacher and fellow colleagues for fear of him ‘losing face’, then according to GMH, “I’m sorry, you are ‘running on the spot’.”
‘In the eyes of GMH, you are forever wrong’, ‘your every practice is wrong’, ‘with every correction, you are still wrong’
In the eyes of GMH, you are forever wrong. Since you are wrong, you would have taken steps to correct yourself. Hence, your level of expertise is raised. If you are prepared to be corrected, obviously you will face more challenges and continue to make mistakes along the process. With further correction of the mistakes made, you continue to upgrade yourself. That is why GMH remarked that your every practice is wrong and with every correction, you are still wrong. From my experience with GMH, I have come to the conclusion that he rarely paid compliments to his students. The reason being it may backfire. According to GMH, he had come across many students with good potential. However, after being praised or being awarded in some championships, some have become arrogant or complacent or could not accept defeat so much so that they ended up ‘running on the spot’ i.e. not progressing. GMH would place great emphasis on students who are sincere and conscientious as he reckoned that success cannot be achieved without sincerity and knowledge will not be obtained without effort in learning. With sincerity and perseverance, a student will not leave any stone unturned which is a prerequisite to success in tai chi. Hence, the emphasis by GMH on the quality of students rather than the quantity in the Courses conducted by him.
In olden days, a student has to travel thousands of miles in search of a teacher. But GMH even travelled more extensively in search of his students. Great Grandmaster Cheng Man Ching once said, “You would have failed in the tao if you come across the right candidate and had not taught him properly; you would have done an injustice to society if you had taught someone with bad character and ill intentions”. Obviously, a teacher would like all his students to be of good character. With changing times and society, the aim of propagating tai chi is now focused on fostering health and well being among mankind. Therefore, GMH’s teachings had cut across boundaries and were not limited to selection of candidates but rather spread across all levels of society and to all who would be interested in learning. GMH further commented that in olden days, hermits seldom disseminate their expertise to those who were interested to learn as they felt that if the latter were not absolutely determined, they would be wasting not only their effort and time but that of their teachers’. It would then be better if these potential learners spent the equivalent of time and effort to pursue other endeavours which were more fruitful.
‘Improve with every fall’
‘Neutralization by arms is inferior to neutralization by body’, ‘neutralization by body is inferior to neutralization by changing of stance’
‘Learning tai chi is difficult enough while teaching tai chi is even more difficult’
GMH’s emphasis of push hand in tai chi is to yield through non-acceptance of external force and to be able to ‘song’ thoroughly. It follows therefore that in push hand competitions, the judging should be based on the student’s ability to be ‘song’. When a student used force to push over another student, GMH would tell the former that he has a lot of strength and to the latter that he is still not ‘song’ enough. On the surface, the praise seems to have been given to the former student who used force. In actual fact he has failed as he has gotten the right answer for the wrong question. The emphasis here is to learn to become ‘song’ and not use force. No matter how forceful or how far apart his opponent has been thrown as a result of the use of force and not the result of ‘song’, his score was still zero.
GMH added that neutralization by arms movements was inferior compared to that of neutralization by the body and neutralization by the body is inferior to that of neutralization by changing of stance. If a student falls every time he is being pushed but once he is able to neutralize such force, he will not be pushed over any longer. The person who uses force who initially was able to push over his opponent soon realizes the ineffectiveness of using force and would then decide to practice ‘song’. However, it is important to realize that it will take some time for the same person to unlearn his method before he can start learning to practice ‘song’. In this respect, it would be better for him to learn to practice ‘song’ at the very onset. The above incident indicates that there are three methods in learning tai chi: (1) method with little effort but with resounding results (2) irrelevant method (3) method with much effort but with meager results.
The standard of placing ‘song’ as the main criteria in tai chi by GMH could be illustrated in an incident when I was accompanying him to one of the functions. A fellow compatriot asked GMH why he was not hosting a tai chi pushing hand competition. GMH merely shook his head. When probed further, he sighed and said, “If I am made an umpire, I would judge the one who used force and remained upright as the loser, while the one who nullified and neutralized but fell onto the ground as the winner. Could you then picture the consequence?” GMH continued, “Learning tai chi is difficult whilst teaching tai chi is even much more difficult.”
When one is able to achieve tranquility and being magnanimous when dealing with others, then one is ready to learn tai chi starting from the physiological standpoint. With the various training undergone in loosening and relaxation of physical body joints, muscles and ligaments as well as the right mental attitudes, one is thus conditioned to the prerequisites of the practice of tai chi. Armed with the knowledge and theory of physics and psychology, one would then be able to put tai chi into application. GMH said that while in training, the body has to be first conditioned to be “relaxed and soft” and then to be “‘song’ and nimble”. Both these sets are interdependent and interconnected for tai chi to be in application. If one is “‘song’ and nimble” but not “relaxed and soft”, it is impossible for simultaneous neutralization and expulsion to take effect, as without being “relaxed and soft”, it is then ‘hard’ and hardness causes blockage in mindfulness concentration and chi flow along the meridians. On the other hand, when one is “relaxed and soft” but not “‘song’ and nimble”, it can only result in neutralization without expulsion as being soft is likened to dough with only absorption property. Concentration, mindfulness and chi do not reach the fingers and the toes and there is no expulsion property in this situation. Thus, being “relaxed and soft” and “‘song’ and nimble” are interdependent for successful execution. Equipped with these attributes, the whole body will be able to react and yield through non-acceptance of external force and be able to neutralize and expulse simultaneously and have the capability of countering hardness with softness. When one has reached this stage, one’s learning in tai chi becomes relatively easy.
Once a person is thoroughly ‘song’, the human body will naturally possess ‘song’ and springy properties and the ability to absorb (neutralize) and release (expulse), extend and retract naturally. With the aforementioned properties, one must look for the right time for execution which can be achieved through the knowledge of physics. GMH did not speak English yet he was able to utter a few words like ‘spring’, ‘automatic’, ‘timing’, ‘one & two’. At the right occasions, such words came out of his mouth naturally. Thus, one can appreciate the importance these words meant to him and his ability to relate these words in the practical approach to tai chi.
‘Spring’ refers to the ability to yield through non-acceptance of external force with elasticity.
‘Automatic’ refers to natural reaction.
‘Timing’ refers to the right opportunity in commanding position.
‘One & two’ refers to time lag and delayed action. GMH reckoned that you should have only ‘one’ which means neutralization and expulsion is done simultaneously and instantaneously.
The above explanation fulfills the prerequisites of tai chi in conformance with the Law of Nature. The ability to counter hard with soft in a commanding position and simultaneous neutralization and expulsion instantaneously whilst reacting in totality were the results of the application of the theory of tai chi.
GMH had certainly achieved a high standard in the tao and art of tai chi. He was also far sighted, as back in the 1970s he mooted the vision of “Tai Chi As One Family”. With this vision, it has successfully united many followers with the setting up of many branches and association buildings throughout Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Australasia and other parts of the world for the spread of tai chi; a feat which few can match. It is with the hope that followers of Huang Tai Chi will uphold the cardinal precepts of “when one drinks water, never lose sight of its source” and together in unity continue to propagate and carry on with the legacy of GMH towards a healthier, more harmonious and peaceful world.