Attaining Chen Taijiquan Gongfu & Character of Teachers

May 9, 2016 in Articles, Taijiquan Musings by Mo Ling

How does one go about getting through the door of the school (or teacher) which they have decided they want to learn from?  This can be a complicated territory for would be students of Chinese internal gongfu.  Due to cultural differences in some part, even achieving the proper perspective can be very deceptive.  In these times many people may (in the west) still believe in taking things at face value.  They often see their (usually Chinese) teachers as rather one dimensional.  Due to language barriers and lack of cultural understanding they view their teachers as only teachers of Taijiquan and have no way of viewing them as whole and complex people.  This is also in large part due to the fact that Chinese teachers often do not share much of a private nature.  We could say that many of them do not even share much of a Taijiquan nature but that is of course another subject.

We can look for a minute at how this situation looks from the Chinese perspective.  In Mainland China people who teach gongfu are generally seen as actual PEOPLE, because the pursuit is fairly commonplace.  Teachers are allowed to have their own character within the larger Chinese societal character.  It just happens that emotional, and even ideological openness are really not popular traits in China so even in Mainland among Chinese much of a teacher’s personal ideology and character may also be commonly hidden from students.  One difference here, is that students are familiar with this in every other area of life as well, so they often may know how to extrapolate about who this person may be, or at least have a path towards getting to know them.  Westerners who do not speak the language and know the cultural language will be without this path, or even the knowledge of its existence.

It is not popular for Mainland Chinese PEOPLE (before we even talk about gongfu) to appear to have any political ideas at all.  This is of course a learned survival skill.  Generally speaking, sharing social, political, and personal ideas openly in Chinese society is a great way to get into trouble, either with govt, family, or equally bad; BUSINESS.  If one is not hiding their true feelings for fear of political problems, they will often do so to avoid social problems.  If not for fear of social problems, then to protect future and current business opportunities, silence is golden.

Of course in some ways these issues may also show up in the west, but western and specifically American culture is different.  The U.S. specifically with all of its problems, is still a culture of active ideological debate, creativity and sharing.  It is still very common and accepted for people to have and express all kinds of views, whether they be political, social, artistic, etc.  In many cases the known Chinese teachers of gongfu in the U.S. and other western countries are known for their teaching of the arts, but completely unknown for their views and ideas.  Most western students have close to zero idea what their teachers think about politics, social issues, their own students, or their lives.  They really have no idea who these people are outside of their teaching of the arts.

On the internet (and even in person) in the Chinese martial art scene there is always discussion of the vaunted and mythical “wu de” or martial virtue idea.  Most often this term is thrown around by those who cannot stomach critical thinking and examination of those teachers they have placed on a pedestal.  Stymying critical debate is actually not the intended meaning of this term, but that is again another subject entirely.  We hear some number of westerners trying to use this term to justify shutting down critical discussions lest they hurt someone’s image, but we rarely if ever hear (in the west) of Chinese teachers being silenced for critical discussion.  This is actually not because they have such great ‘wu de’ that they never talk badly about others.  This is usually because they have a learned political fear, and/or they understand that for BUSINESS purposes they must be silent and one dimensional, rather than risk offending anyone and turning off potential clients.

Of course this is a sound approach to business whatever country or culture one comes from.  The question this should bring to many though, is how do you want to approach Taijiquan?  How do you want your TEACHER to approach Taijiquan? Not that you have any control over that, but you do have control over what kind of teacher you choose, or at least how you choose to approach THEM.

Many of the teachers I learned from were really difficult human beings.  They were all Chinese, but I was fortunate (or unfortunate) to learn their language/customs enough to actually get to know them to some degree that others might not have.  Some of my teachers of gongfu were highly skilled in their trained art, but morally, socially, and/or psychologically challenged in other areas of their persons.  In China, this is not at all a shocking situation, especially within practical gongfu circles.  There are many stories written into the history illustrating the ill temper and terrible vices and peculiarities of many very famous and legendary martial artists.  It is often celebrated how troublesome some of these historical characters were, perhaps DUE to their devotion to their arts, or their outsized human presence due to their practices and lives.  This, in some cases, was very much the situation with a number of my teachers.  I learned a valuable lesson early on in my training that one must learn to accept WHO that person is if one wants to learn from them.  One does not have to like them, or even approve of or respect every facet of their character to respect and learn their art.

As a student (in the Chinese way) one should be chasing that expert in the art they want to learn, and generally putting up with their peculiarities without judgement or critique.  I mean, one can have their ideas but one should keep them to themselves if they want to learn.  At a certain point in one’s development one may even attain the skill of learning without judgement, meaning one develops the ability to see an entire person, and accept their flaws and failings as just a normal part of their humanity while really appreciating their genius.  It is not easy at times, but this is a real skill and an actual bit of higher thinking.

These days, with all the sugar coated mythology doled out by the commercial Taijiquan franchises, one would think none of this history and humanity even exists.  These teachers are pillars of moral living and purity, retaining great philosophical enlightenment within an expressionless face save a well practiced smile.  People are paying well for that lullaby, but that is -business-.  Their close tudi (disciples) know better.  Generally speaking, people who’s lives are surrounded by gongfu still need buddies for smoking, gambling, hard drinking, whoring, carousing, shady business deals, and other assorted bad behavior. Those buddies will often come right from their inner circle.  As mandarin-mute westerners many of you will just have no idea.

If you are just a business opportunity for a Chinese teacher, then none of this should matter to you.  You will never see who they really are, and they will never care who you really are.  You will also never really see real gongfu either most likely, as that is often specifically reserved for the partners in crime who can accompany their vices.  If you are one of those who pays, does not understand, learns the outer shell, keeps paying, and would be offended or judgmental if something ugly were visible, then most likely you would never be admitted to the inner circle with that person.  Lately at least, many such Chinese teachers have learned great international business skills.  They are very careful to never show this side of their very Chinese lives to paying, moral, judgmental, and sensitive westerners.  They have learned more about you, than you have about them!

When it comes to learning real gongfu, and really gaining access to the inner circle of a teacher who has that, Chinese are not at all fragile flowers.  People who seek such training are generally speaking, ready to accept and take whatever abuse, and bad behavior their chosen teacher may present.  Often the teacher may put them through a series of subtle tests to see what they can tolerate.  In the area of sensitivities, if they start to twitch and show disapproval at minor examples the teacher will know right away that this person cannot go through the door, and they will return to being the pillar of moral purity that many paying students want maintained for them.

The new problem, especially in the west now is Facebook and the internet.  Many people will contact teachers they want to learn from via these mediums, by becoming ‘friends’ with those want to learn from. In fact they are not friends at all of course.  Although many of the famous Chinese teachers really do follow the very functional business model of “show prospective clients nothing of who you are” they still are actual people.  As a prospective (or even continuing) student one needs to make a choice of how to approach them.  For my own part, having lived something of a Chinese life for a time, I chose NOT to try and BE Chinese as I really appreciate the openness of the west.

What I have noticed is that the modern (recent) Chinese business (and political model) has come to permeate the shared consciousness of the Taijiquan scene online.  It is now expected that teachers will be rather one dimensional, only appearing as beacons of Taijiquan.  Since most of you will never know who they are as real people, you will expect that teachers of Taijiquan are NOT real people, that they do not have other facets to their character.  Most often, accomplished (Chinese) teachers of gongfu will have no opinions on politics or social issues (which of course facebook is known for) and not even any of their own expressed ideas or debates on Taijiquan.  The areas of debate, discussion, critical thinking and opinion will all be reserved strictly for ‘students’ of the arts.  These areas are absolutely life-threatening to the reputation of many famous names.  So it is not that they don’t HAVE opinions, it is that they are scared.  In many cases that fear will be sold to you as “virtue”.

Now, for me this is really a case of “other people’s problems”.  I don’t mind, but myself I chose to live in an open society and freely express my opinions, ideas, critiques and feel comfortable being a whole person.  I have pledged myself entirely to traditional gongfu that is not directed by business concerns so I am actually not afraid of offending people by just being myself.  Among those interested in Taijiquan there are already so very few who are suitable to learn my bitter gongfu in it’s natural form that it would be absolutely futile to start worrying about losing potential students by just being myself and saying what I think.  I lose more potential students by actually trying to teach people stance basics than I ever could by being a free thinker.

What I am encouraging though, to those who seek the real art, is that you work on suspending judgment of people’s character in this gongfu scene until you actually know them.  Facebook is not an accurate way to get to know someone or even make much of a judgement of their character.  If you believe you are a serious seeker of traditional gongfu, to really understand and get access to it one is best served by respecting the desired teacher’s art first then learning to tolerate their entire person after.  If they are just intolerable, that says something either about how far afield they have drifted as a human, or how sensitive you are.  Some people are really intolerable, but some others are really intolerably fragile and uptight, and worse, overly moralistic. It is up to each person to determine where they fit on this scale.  What I know is that many great gongfu geniuses are not the easiest people.  The ones that appear to be easy and perfect are usually not even in that category, or they are just doing business.  How you choose to approach the personality side of learning gongfu will greatly affect what kind of access and progress you can make in authentic gongfu.  Whatever path you set will be the one you walk.

My advice: decide what you want to learn and from whom, and then let them be just who they are without your judgement.  Judging them is not what you are there for.  If you cannot tolerate them, then move on, but if you really want to learn, then learn to tolerate.  In the long run you may learn something valuable about tolerance, and even about your own previous parameters for judging others, and maybe some actual gongfu as well.