You cannot choose your parents, but in kung fu you can choose your style and your master. Choosing a lineage foretells what you admire and what you want to become. I had the unique experience of learning extensively from both Kuo Lien Ying and his student in China, Peter Kwok.
Kung fu knowledge is passed down from master to disciple in a lineage that spans continuous generations over the centuries, and in some traditions, millennia. Close to a century ago, Master Wang Jiaoyu, 112 years old, beat and accepted Kuo Lien Ying, 28 years old, as a student, after defeating him in a fight. Wang Jiao Yu had learned tai chi from Yang Ban Ho (son of Yang Luchan, our style's originator). Wang himself taught very few disciples.
Kuo Lien Ying, or Sifu as we always called him, was born at the end of the 19th century in Inner Mongolia. Dynastic China was in its final throes, in an era of little technology, women with bound feet, rickshaws 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 disappearing. Kung fu forms and systems were taught in crumbling temples and ancient family compounds, guarded like military secrets and handed down only to a few trusted disciples.
Kuo began his training at the age of twelve, dropping academics entirely. He told me that he practiced Tan Tui, the Springing Leg form of the Hui people, for nearly a mile - one li each line (there were ten) across the Gobi Desert. 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, killing a jailer and escaping to Taiwan, where he opened his "Kuo Lien Ying Kung Fu Academy." Mao Zedong wanted to eradicate the old traditions, including power-centric kung fu masters. There in Taipei, In 1951, still living the life of an old-school Mongolian warrior, he taught openly. He even issued a (unanswered) challenge to world boxing champion Joe Louis.
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 as they sat down to dinner. 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 has been retold and revised for commercial purposes. Even the Bruce Lee vs Wong Jackman story (David Chin was there for that too) was Hollywood-ized beyond recognition.
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, even though his books describe very detailed forces.
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 all day practicing three different styles of Shaolin, after moving to San Francisco from a year of kung fu training in L.A.
I loved all of it - Hung Gar for power, Preying Mantis for speed and Northern Shaolin for agility. After a year, I chose Sifu because 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 fascinating book that was translated into English with cryptic passages that I could ponder while standing in martial postures.
Kuo was charismatic and uncompromising. Training there was both invigorating and philosophical. Additionally, Kuo presented a whole different example 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, exclusive for what he regarded as his most important commands. “Relax!” “Bend Down!” (sink the weight), Màn man de! (slowly! - he always said that in Chinese) and lastly, whispered in your ear suggestively, “Make Love!”
Sifu was a figure from another era, and from a misogynistic, warrior culture, so all of the young, 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. He never forced himself on anyone as far as I knew, and despite the perpetual annoyance at his relentless lecherous advances, we stayed because we really wanted to learn.
“Ting Le!” (Listen!), Sifu would say to his students while they were pushing hands. He was referring to listening to the Qi, telling you to actively listen to your partner’s energy while pushing. Sifu’s standards always felt unattainable. You could never practice enough. We were dogged by his epitaph: “Skip one day, lose one-hundred.” The first wave of kung fu movies were at the cinema in Chinatown, complete with out of synch voice-overs and our Sifu was a living, breathing entity with a far more commandeering presence than any of the Sifus in those movies.
I studied Mandarin so I could understand what Sifu was saying. After Sifu told me about how he practiced his Tan Tui in China, I would imagine him practicing on the high plains of Inner Mongolia as I drilled each line between Clay and Washington, the width Portsmouth Square Park.
I read Sifu Kuo’s little white book, called "The Thirteen Postures of Tai Chi Ch'uan" which he sold to students at his kung fu academy. The principles in t’ai chi are crucial. “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.” I would try to apply those ideas to my Shaolin and even copy the elders doing their tai chi forms, but only after I finished the far more strenuous Shaolin. It was so relaxing!
The timeless sayings of t’ai chi ch’uan’s early creators have since been publicized many times over, but then, when t’ai chi was a relative newcomer to the US, we felt we had discovered a hidden treasure and were entering new realms of consciousness that had been privy to only a few people in the West. Basic t’ai chi concepts are all readily available online these days, where they are explained both in every language. 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, when the art was just emerging in the United States, Sifu was simply one of the first to present the teachings. We would practice anything Sifu said, no matter how painful or tedious it might be. Everything was precious and rare. Sifu was one-in-a-billion, a link to a bygone era when kung fu not just for recreation, but a matter of life or death.
As a youth, I was totally devoted to Shaolin and indulged in t’ai chi and push hands as a relaxing cool-down only after strenuous, external work-outs. Sifu had taught us a rudimentary, one-handed push hands exercise. 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 easily 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.
In my mid-20s, when I was leaving San Francisco to move to New York, I went to Chinatown to say goodbye to Sifu. Outside his school 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 journeys, Kuo Sifu gave me Peter Kwok’s number, and also called him to tell him I was coming. Suddenly Sifu seemed much older and more subdued, and I felt this might be the last time I would see him ... and it was.
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 off with advanced forms. But when he asked me to perform the forms I had learned from 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 the 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, and system after system, as much as I could swallow. Once I completed all the Shaolin, there was a whole tai chi curriculum, from beginner to advanced, complete with application forms, all the weapons, in-depth push hands drills for developing root and sensitivity to directional force.
Kuo taught at five a.m. in Chinatown in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s. When students arrived at 4:30 a.m., he seemed annoyed that they 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 a.m., 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, and 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 inTaiwan in the early 1960s. Peter had already trained since early childhood, with his father, uncles and then with the top masters of his era. I knew this 64 movement form was extremely significant, especially Peter Kwok's nuanced, detailed version.
After I completed Peter’s required 18 Northern Shaolin forms and all the primary Chinese weapons, my learning curve was very steep. Because I'd spent 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, slightly back-weighted stance. Harkening back to its Northern Shaolin origins and generating a fierce, fighting spirit, this 64 movement t’ ai chi form doesn’t rock back to receive force. Force is absorbed and emitted 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. Historically and energetically, the 64 is the integration of Wudang, Chen and Yang styles - universal and earthbound, soft and hard, slow and fast.
The Qigong aspect is most apparent in the broad, deep movements. The deep L stance stimulates femoral arterial flow. The open arm position of the single-whips stimulate brachial arterial flow. The twist in the core moves stagnant Qi out of the organs and glands and pulls in renewed blood-flow when the torso untwists. Therefore, all aspects of Qigong are realized - relaxation, detoxification, deep-breathing, energy stimulation, balance, circulation, mental clarity and metabolic regulation with the extra added benefit of martial skill.