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Kuo Lien Ying
GM Peter Kwok
Marilyn Cooper, Brooklyn, 1981
Lineage – Kuo Lien Ying, Peter Kwok, MC and …
You cannot choose your parents, but in kung fu you can choose your style and your master. Choosing a lineage defines what you admire and what you want to become.
Kung Fu knowledge is passed down from master to disciple in a lineage that spans continuous generations over the centuries, and in some traditions, even millennia. Like natural selection, systems evolved and mastery was established through a process of martial challenges. Close to a century ago, Master Wang Jiaoyu accepted my teacher Kuo Lien Ying as a student, after defeating him in a fight. I can’t begin to imagine this contest between one, over 100 years old, and the other, a young man of 23, but perhaps it resembled the following story:
A t’ai chi ch’uan disciple and his challenger were instructed to put white chalk dust on their palms and fight in total darkness. After the fight, when the master turned the lights on, his student’s challenger lay on the floor. The disciple looked for signs of approval for having uprooted the challenger, but his master just shook his head and pointed to the hand-prints on the student’s black Chinese jacket. He had allowed his opponent to touch him.
Kuo Lien Ying, or Sifu as we called him, was born at the end of the 19th century in Inner Mongolia. Dynastic China was in its final throes, but still an era of no technology, women with bound feet and warlords. Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and combinations thereof had millions of adherents. Though this era was rich with kung fu systems and great masters, many of the ancient traditions and hierarchies were eroding from within. Kung fu forms and systems were maintained in crumbling temples and ancient family compounds, guarded like military secrets and handed down only to trusted disciples. Master Kuo began his kung fu training at the age of twelve, and dropped academics entirely at that point. He was bested when in his twenties by Wang Jiao Yu, who was 112! Wang Jiao Yu had learned tai chi from Yang Ban Ho (son of Yang Luchan, our style's originator).
To test his fighting skills and establish his reputation, Kuo traveled from village to village, announcing a challenge in the town square and taking on all comers. To earn a living, he rode his horse alongside camel-trains loaded with merchants’ wares, his rope-dart skillfully tied under his jacket, ready to fling at bandits. Siding with the Nationalists, Kuo was a general under Chiang Kai Shek. He fled the Communists in 1947, escaping to Taiwan, where he opened a kung fu school. This sounds entirely plausible due to realpolitik on his part. The goal of Mao's cultural revolution was to eradicate the old traditions, including power-centric kung fu masters. In 1951, still living the life of an old-school Mongolian warrior, he issued an unanswered challenge to world boxing champion Joe Louis.
We heard he killed a man in a bar with the move called Wind Blows Through Ears who stated that t’ai chi ch’uan had no real power. There were many stories that flew around Sifu; that he had killed his jailer on the Mainland in order to escape to Taiwan; that he refused a personal request for training from Chiang Kai Shek himself; and that a student killed himself out of frustration from repeating a movement for three years without Kuo advancing him. Later, in America, after inviting the scholarly New York t’ai chi master Chen Man Ching to San Francisco for a friendly “t’ai chi demonstration,” he challenged CMC. My senior brother David Chin was there at the time and can tell you exactly what happened. Like so much else in this field, the story, like the Bruce Lee vs Wong Jackman story (he was there for that too) has been retold and revised for commercial purposes.
The following story about Kuo’s journey to the West was told me directly by Grandmaster Peter Kwok. An investor gave Kuo $30,000 (quite a lot of money in the 1960s) to open and stock an herbal medicine shop in Taiwan. Kuo allegedly spent the money on “wine, women and song.” The investor took him to court, so Kuo compelled his young disciple Peter Kwok to perjure himself by testifying that he had gone to Hong Kong and purchased the herbs for the soon-to-be opened pharmacy. Before they were found out, master and disciple fled to the West in a great hurry.
Kuo remained secretive in America, teaching only the barest essentials to students while requiring endless hours of training. He showed how to do the moves, but not to use them. He only taught rudimentary push hands.
I trained simultaneously under two other kung fu masters while in my first year under Sifu; Brendan Lai for Seven Star Preying Mantis, and YC Wong for Southern Hung Gar. I was spending my entire day practicing three different styles of shaolin. I had come to San Francisco from a year of kung fu training in L.A. to learn from the real Chinese masters.
I loved all of it, but after a year, I chose Sifu becuase his school was open full-time, seven days a week, from dawn till ten at night. I was enrolled in art school and training could only be early morning or at night. And besides, Sifu had written a book that was translated into English with cryptic passages that I would ponder endlessly while I stood in stationary postures.
Kuo was charismatic and uncompromising. Training there was both invigorating philosophical. Plus Kuo represented a whole different model of the aging process, with t’ai chi as the method. All the old people I had known before Sifu shuffled about gingerly, looking for an armchair next to a TV tray, while Sifu strode around as boisterous as a healthy child.
Sifu stood out even in San Francisco’s Chinatown, with his regal bearing and strange Mongolian accent. He spoke only a few English words, which he reserved for what he regarded as the most important commands. “Relax!” “Bend Down!” (sink the weight),Màn man de! (slowly, he always said that in Chinese) and lastly, whispered in our ears, “Make Love!”
Sifu was a figure from another era, a warrior culture, and all the female students had to be on their guard. We learned to run away from, or hit him when we needed to fend off his crude groping. Yet he never forced himself on anyone that I knew of, and despite our perpetual annoyance at his relentless lecherous advances, we all respected his commitment to the art. He was inadvertently teaching us how to defend ourselves against his own kind!
“Ting Le!” (Listen!), Sifu would say to us while we were pushing hands. He was referring to listening to the qi – energy – telling us to actively listen to our partner’s energy while pushing. Sifu’s standards always felt unattainable. One could never practice enough. The first wave of kung fu movies at the cinema in Chinatown, complete with out of synch voice-overs, fueled our youthful zeal. We were dogged by his epitaph to us: “Skip one day, lose one-hundred.”
I studied Mandarin so I could understand what Sifu was saying. He told me that he used to practice the ten row form (his had ten rows, others have twelve) called Tan Tui, or Springing Leg, for a full li (a mile or so) per row across the Gobi Desert. Each morning in Portsmouth Square Park, I imagined myself on the high plains of Inner Mongolia, drilling each line merely a city block long, between Clay and Washington.
I first experienced t’ai chi during my second year of kung fu training. I had read Sifu Kuo’s little white book, which he sold to students at his kung fu academy. The principles in t’ai chi are crucial to making sense of the forms. “A divergence at the center is worth one-thousand miles at the circumference.” “The body is like a wheel. The waist is like the axle.”
The timeless sayings of t’ai chi ch’uan’s early creators have since been recounted prodigiously, but at that time, when t’ai chi was a relative newcomer to the US, I felt I had was discovering a hidden treasure and entering new realms that had been privy to only a few people in the West. To this day, I never tire of reading one or another colleague or predecessor’s writing on the subject of t’ai chi ch’uan. As the art has spread, discussions and debates on the subtler aspects trail on ceaselessly.
Basic t’ai chi concepts are all readily available online these days, where they are explained both in the ancient texts, and in more current terms by native English speakers. Applications to the movements in the forms are in plain view on YouTube. Dim mak, or death touch is documented explicitly in books.
There are no secrets, but during the mid 1960s, the art was just emerging in the United States, and Sifu was simply the one of the first to present the teachings. I would practice anything he told me, no matter how painful or tedious. Sifu was one-in-a-billion.
In those early days, I was totally devoted to shaolin. I indulged in t’ai chi and push hands as a relaxing cool-down only after strenuous kung fu work-outs. Sifu had taught us a rudimentary, one-handed push hands exercise, at which I was terrible. Even though I could touch my chin to my toe, as was required by Sifu (he called it the hundred day stretch, but as a seventeen year old girl, I got there in three days), sit in horse stance for an hour, and bounce in and out of tiger-squats endlessly, I felt unable to put the higher ideas I was reading about into action. No matter how hard I worked out, how many punches or double-jump kicks I did, those lazy t’ai chi people would move me around effortlessly. Once I moved to New York, this was especially true of the students of Sifu’s old rival, Chen Man Ching.
When I was leaving San Francisco to move to New York, I went to Chinatown to say goodby to Sifu. Outside on Brenham Place, gazing off into the distance as if seeing a thousand other young kung fu students before me go off on their respective quests, Kuo Sifu gave me Peter Kwok’s number, and also called him to tell him I was coming. Suddenly Sifu seemed much older, and I felt this might be the last time I would see him.
As soon as I moved to New York City, I contacted Peter Kwok. Since I had trained under his teacher first, Peter said I was his junior sister and wanted to start me with advanced forms. But when he asked me to perform the forms I had learned from our Sifu, he said that my footwork was sloppy and asked if I would consider starting all over from the beginning. So at the ripe, old-for-kung-fu age of twenty-seven, I immediately emptied my proverbial teacup and enthusiastically said, “Yes!”
I began this new training under Peter Kwok under much more scrutiny than I had ever before experienced. Peter’s constant gaze while he watched me perform my forms was like being under a microscope. Sometimes I thought he was just picking on me! Peter gave me so much information that immediately after each lesson, I would stop my car to practice in any passing field, alley, or parking lot before I got home so I wouldn’t forget any part of what I had just learned. In the five years spent under Kuo, I had learned only two and a half forms! Now I was learning form after form, as much as I could swallow.
Kuo taught at five am in Chinatown in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s. When we arrived at 4:30 am, he seemed annoyed that we were coming at such a late hour! His teacher (Wang Jiao Yu) had learned by watching his teacher (Yang Ban Ho) from three to five am, considered a magic time for Qi cultivation. Classes of today at health clubs and adult-ed classes are whenever people can fit them into their busy schedules. They are a primary focus for only a rare handful of people.
To t’ai chi’s credit, people still have good results from practice no matter the time of day. In Kuo’s era, training powerful forms full-time was the bottom line for a real kung fu devotee. Rising and training before daybreak was considered critical for developing Qi.
The t’ai chi ch’uan style Kuo brought to this country combines hard and soft techniques. The slow, relaxed continuous movements are intricately connected to planetary forces (center, left, right, forward, back, the four cardinal and four corner directions). Peter told me that this “Original Boxing” (as Sifu called it) or “Guang Ping Yang T’ai Chi Ch’uan” (as renamed by YC Chiang) was the whole reason he sought out Kuo when he went to him in Taiwan twenty years before. I knew this 64 movement form was extremely significant, and especially the way Peter assimilated and interpreted it.
I had just completed Peter’s required 18 shaolin forms and all the primary Chinese weapons. My learning curve was very steep. So after five years of watching it in Portsmouth Square Park in Chinatown and copying it as a cool-down, I learned the whole form in two lessons. However, truly understanding it takes a lifetime.
The movements of the 64 form result in a twenty-minute session. Twenty minutes is a perfect amount of time for sustained concentration. Done as prescribed, on both left and right sides, this form provides a deeply fulfilling training experience that moves stagnant energy, builds up the qi and provides a great root for push hands or any other martial art.
The primary distinction from Yang style is the deeper and more centered stance, harkening back to its shaolin origins and connoting a more fighting spirit. This 64 movement t’ ai chi form doesn’t rock back to receive force, it merely absorbs and emits without perceptible, external movement, or moving in space. Contained within the modern Yang style if you dig for it, Original Yang truly represents the transition of Cotton Fist to The Grand Ultimate (T’ai Chi) Fist.
Alex Bechtold, Little Creek Kung Fu, Chester, MD.
Little River Kung Fu School, Stbg, PA.
Sheldon Callahan, Shaolin Lohan, Oakland
Pat Brady, low tiger
Sheldon & Kevin, Maui Qi Fest
Angel Negron, Beijing, China
Mindanao tan tui
Little River, Mindanao
Webb Phillips, kick in stream
Edgar Chan, Shaolin Broadsword, Oakland, CA
Erik, low tiger stretch
Sosha Young & Matt
Pat Brady, 1st of 6 consecutive lei tai championships for Little RIver Kung Fu