to contact Marilyn Cooper, call 925.818.8155
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. As a young man, 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. 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.
Kuo was charismatic and uncompromising. Training there was invigorating, philosophical and cryptic. 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) and “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 annoyance at his lecherous advances, we all respected his commitment to the art.
“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. “Man Man Lai!” (Slowly!) meant not to rush the form, and to keep a slow, even pace.
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 ten 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). 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 Peter sought out Kuo when he went to him in Taiwan twenty years before. I knew this 64 movement form was extremely significant, 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 occasionally copying it, I learned the whole form in two lessons. However, truly understanding it has taken 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.
My best teacher and favorite master was Kuo’s student Peter Kwok. Peter had the most beautiful form of any teacher I had ever seen. Having begun his training as a child at his father’s knee, it was second nature for him. He had trained with his uncle, after which he sought out the most renowned masters of his era.
Peter trained to be a concert violinist from childhood. He asked his teacher if he thought he could be one of the best. His teacher said no, at which point Peter decided to drop the violin and focus entirely on his kung fu training.
Peter was already well-versed in kung fu when he went to Kuo for his Original Yang t’ai chi ch’uan form, but in typical fashion, had to learn his whole shaolin curriculum to get to it. He stayed until he learned it, and left for the West, first to Canada, and then to America, eventually residing in Wayne, New Jersey.
In his two car garage in summer and a chilly basement in winter (Peter didn’t believe in heating his home over 50 degrees), I learned 18 Northern Shaolin forms, from beginner to intermediate to advanced complete with applications, which included the primary Chinese weapons, a whole t’ai chi system and most of a xing yi system.
Peter was like a fish out of water in the suburbs of New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s. His yard was not a manicured lawn, but rather a vegetable garden. There was a small penned area for a few dogs which oddly would disappear regularly. He was dragged into court over keeping chickens.
Peter told me he bought his new, bland tract house because it had no ghosts from any previous owners. He had come there to work for Hoffman LaRouche, the giant chemical corporation, but hated it there.
After a disturbing, racist incident in which the racist ended up hospitalized, Peter quit to teach kung fu full-time. Once pointed his gun at the Chem Lawn man during my lesson from his garage window as he sprayed his neighbor’s bushes remarking, “They’re poisoning my children!”
He had organized his curriculum into beginner, intermediate and advanced levels based on the four main systems of kung fu; shaolin, t’ai chi, xing yi and bagua. Students trailed in and out of his garage in the summer and basement in the winter in their required uniforms, often carrying swords and spears, despite the complaints of the neighbors to the zoning board.
We all had to toe the line as students of the Peter Kwok Kung Fu Academy. I had come from California, the 1960s and art school, where freedom and individuality were encouraged. Now I had to wear a uniform with a sash of the proper color or pay a fine. The training was so fascinating that I would spend every cent I earned on my lessons and whatever else Peter had to offer (books, homemade dit dat jow, weapons). I began teaching only to pay for my own lessons, but eventually it became a calling.
I was finally learning the details and applications of the forms. It was as if I had come into the Renaissance from the Middle Ages, from darkness to enlightenment. Everything from the last digit of the pinkie to the angle of the foot was made clear and justified.
The only thing I balked at was his sale of guns, which I found distasteful in the extreme. Peter believed that even the best martial arts forms were severely limited against guns, and to be a complete martial artist, you needed not just to learn how to use one, but even carry it with you at all times in case you needed it.
The guns were illegal, bought cheaply in Georgia and driven across state lines by another student. Peter sold them at a considerable mark-up. Nothing good came of this.
Peter had lived through the Japanese occupation and I could see the trauma close to the surface, especially whenever Karate was mentioned. He described walking out of his apartment and not being able to see the sky because of the pile of dead bodies, and seeing a Japanese soldier throw a Chinese baby into the air and catch it on the end of his bayonet. Even while I took my lessons, his gun was nearby. Once he extracted it from his voluminous kung fu pants and gingerly placed it on a linen napkin the windowsill before strenuous instruction with low stances.
During the seven years of private lessons with him (and for many years after), I heard his voice teaching me as I trained, and even saw his form in my mind’s eye. During one lesson, I asked him whose form he envisioned when he practiced, and he replied, “I imagine the originator of the system, up in heaven doing the form.”
Despite this allusion to Heaven, Peter was an atheist, a man of science, a PhD in Chemical Engineering with a specialty in Magnetic Resonance Imaging, multi-linqual and articulate. When I would injure myself during training (a frequent occurrence since my teen years), Peter would sell me his homemade medicine with one of two remarks. “You must be weak and tight.” “The Gods become jealous.”
Although Peter was quite a different type of master than Sifu, he was still quite respectful of our old teacher. We always saluted Sifu but Peter dispensed with that and asked to be called by his first name, although in all documents was referred to as Grandmaster Peter Kwok. From Kuo’s era to Peter’s, Chinese history had been overturned, but a great master is still a great master.
Masters, Students, Senior and Junior Brothers and Sisters
The master/student relationship in kung fu is a lot like the parent/child relationship. Students often possess a deep reverence and filial loyalty to their teachers. Sensing that the knowledge is a life-line for survival and longevity makes the seeker very grateful, bordering on reverence. The relationship is symbiotic, too; teachers need good students to give ongoing life to the form so it can be passed down to subsequent generations, and of course to support them in their chosen profession.
There is a messianic aspect to t’ai chi – more than just wanting others to feel good too, as we do with sharing a good recipe or health tip. Non-professional practitioners will even teach for little or nothing in the way of money. Free teachers are a good thing in some ways, of course, as even a little t’ai chi is better than no t’ai chi, since it makes people feel better, but like any other serious discipline, it is better if you are serious to go out of your way to learn directly from a professional. The effort put into finding a good system and a good teacher is one of the best investments you can make if your long-range goal is t’ai chi proficiency.
At the other end of the spectrum are the few teachers who know the art well and use their skills to dominate and subjugate others. These teachers are truly destructive, because they damage their students’ psyches, and may turn them off to kung fu forever. So when you are looking for a teacher, it is very important that you make sure the teacher is healthy, both physically and mentally, and never seeks to overstep the boundaries of a wholesome teacher-student relationship.
When showing the applications, it is also important that your teacher does no bodily harm to you. The power of t’ai chi can be transmitted without committing or enduring injury. Adepts at t’ai chi can deflect an aggressive attack without inflicting pain and suffering, and easily move their students without smashing them into a wall. Teachers who injure their students lack self-control at best, and at worst, have a violent nature that should have precluded them being excluded from learning kung fu in the first place.
All culture is passed on to youth via elders. That is self evident. What happens when youth are misguided or led astray? In Africa, roving bands of young elephants who were moved from their normal habitat and separated from the older elephants began killing rhinos. Once the older elephants were brought on the scene, the killings stopped. Clearly, animals as well as people need the guidance and influence of elders in order to be settled and civilized. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/642731.stm
Kuo returned to his native Mongolia to die in 1984, and oddly, Peter Kwok disappeared without a trace that same year, leaving his students and schools with no way to contact him. A note was posted on the double glass doors of the student’s school (he had since sold his home in New Jersey, brought his whole family and lived with me and mine on the four acre property in another region of New Jersey, but that’s another long story …) he had been teaching us from: “Grandmaster Kwok is on an indefinite leave of absence. All classes discontinued until further notice.” His “chop” or official Chinese signature gave it the final blow.
I felt like a fatherless child, and shed many tears while practicing t’ai chi, but I knew I had what I needed to progress, despite my grief. The truth was contained within the forms and my emotions had nothing to do with their validity and integrity. I knew I must persist to find the inner core of truth for myself.
I practiced like a fiend, partly out of fear of forgetting, partly out of habit and mostly because training was the one and only time and place I could completely lose myself. All my anxieties and negative emotions about my past would dissolve, replaced by a pure and rarified energy called “Qi.” This abundant energy and the methods for obtaining it could only be passed onto others. I could not keep it. It was too good not to share.
I had always tried to teach others. My mother made kung fu pants for my little sisters who still remember me drilling them in the driveway to do horse stances, a trauma they won’t forget. Kung fu is not for everyone, but my enthusiasm was boundless. Out of the thousands I’ve taught, a few took it quite seriously.
Students and students’ students have started schools, hence my upgrade to “Grandmaster.” Karl Phlumm has a Little River Kung Fu school in Mindinao, Pl., where I hope to someday visit and bring the Peace Games. William Bechtold and son, who I taught from the time this son Alex was a toddler, now runs Little Creek Kung Fu in the Baltimore, MD region, (specifically, Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay). I currently teach my own son Dr. Webb Phillips, and his training partner, Sheldon Callahan, who runs the Shaolin Lohan Institute in Oakland. Hopefully the forms will live on to enrich many for generations to come.