Putting Balls into Tai Chi

By Gene Ching with Gigi Oh

Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine March/April 2012When Professor Zeng performs taijiquan, it looks textbook perfect. There's a simple reason for this. Professor Zeng wrote the book. He was one of the editors of China's 1988 taiji compilation, an influential treatise for the development of modern taijiquan. Professor Zeng Nailiang (曾乃梁) is one of the founding fathers of modern taijiquan.

But what is modern taijiquan? It's almost oxymoronic as taiji is an ancient art. When "modern" is bandied about in Chinese martial arts, one can't help but think of modern wushu. Although Professor Zeng stands among the greatest modern wushu coaches ever, his notion of modern taiji is not at all limited to contemporary competition wushu. Zeng is on a mission to spread taiji around the world, not just to wushu athletes.

In Western pop culture, taiji is bunched with yoga as a new-age alternative-health regimen. Yoga has firmly secured itself as a fixture in health clubs, especially fashionable with the female demographic. Meanwhile, taiji has been quietly stepping into hospitals, physical therapy clinics and senior centers as a low-stress form of exercise. In this way, just like its yin nature, taiji has crept into America quietly like shadows growing at dusk.

The American view of martial arts is still very limited. When it comes to martial arts, America likes it yang. MMA has usurped the spotlight, and that's about as yang as martial arts gets. Taiji won't help you one bit in the cage. But once the average practitioner outgrows the tattooed fighters and the bikinied ring girls, MMA is impractical as a lifelong practice. Granny will never learn how to sprawl and deliver a rear naked choke. Our youth-driven culture doesn't consider martial arts as a form of recuperative therapy or a practice for the elderly and invalids, but there lies its greatest power. When it gets right down to it, it is this community that needs martial arts the most. Weaker individuals need martial arts, not just for self-defense but for general health maintenance. Facing a trained fighter is one thing. Only a select few will ever step into the cage. Fighting off the challenge of aging is another thing entirely. Most everyone will face the pitfalls of their autumn years.

Despite all the media attention, there are far more taiji practitioners than MMA practitioners. They just aren't as conspicuous. Taiji is the most practiced martial art in the world today. When you add up all those grass-roots practitioners in the hospitals and senior centers (a growing demographic as life expectancy increases and medical costs rise), then include all the students in adult education and junior college classes (as taiji is offered in almost every upper school catalog), plus factor in the millions of Chinese who practice it daily, the total sum of taiji practitioners may well be greater than all the other martial arts combined.

Southern Kung Fu Roots
At age 70, Professor Zeng remains an inspiration. He travels the world, sharing his taiji knowledge freely and joyfully, propounding the taiji way. "To teach," quips Zeng in Mandarin, "you must have a passion for the arts." Like many of the masters of his generation, his foundation was built with traditional kung fu. Modern wushu hadn't even been invented when he started training. Zeng began studying martial arts in junior high school at age twelve. He studied under Master Wang Yuqi (王于岐), beginning with taiji as well as several traditional southern styles including tiger (laohuquan老虎拳), white crane (baihequan白鶴拳), plum flower fist (meihuaquan梅花拳) and five ancestor fist (wuzhuquan五祖拳). Early in the morning, before school, Zeng would go to Master Wang's house to train. As a child, Zeng was enamored with wuxia xiaoshuo (武俠小說), which is a genre of martial arts pulp fiction. His favorite was one of the four classics of Chinese literature, the 13th century epic, Outlaws of the Marsh (Shuihu Zhuan水滸傳). Inspired by those legendary deeds of heroism, Zeng threw himself into his practice.

In the mid-1950s, shortly after the founding of the People's Republic of China, Zeng attended a small youth martial arts exhibition event. At that time, the communist philosophy frowned on competition, so competitive sports were replaced by athletic exhibitions. Athletes were still judged by panels of experts, but instead of awarding first, second and third places, all entrants were distinguished into levels. The experience motivated Zeng, not just because he earned first level accolades, but more so because of the distinguished guests in attendance. After seeing several noted masters firsthand, including Grandmaster Wan Laisheng, he was even more inspired.

In 1959, Zeng aspired to college. In China, college is a privilege only accessible to the academic elite. If you don't perform well in school or lack superior entrance exam scores, you don't get in. Zeng had always been a top student and was confident he could make the cut, but he was split between pursuing a career in martial arts or traditional Chinese medicine. At the time, China's leading sports and medical schools were in Beijing and Shanghai. To be admitted to a sports college, there are two exams. First is a scholastic exam akin to America's SAT. There is also a physical exam.

Zeng was accepted by one of China's most prestigious schools, Beijing's Tsinghua University (Qinghua Daxue 清华大学), but he shocked everyone by declining the offer. He was tipped off that he had been accepted by the Beijing Sports University (Beijing Tiyue Daxue 北京体育大学) before the results were publicized, and opted to go in that direction instead. All of his high school teachers were stunned. They knew he was an excellent student but had no idea he was into the martial arts. Many still encouraged him to go to Tsinghua instead, but his father supported his decision, so Zeng pursued his dream of martial arts mastery.

In college, Zeng began studying under two great luminaries of the martial arts, Li Tianji and Zhang Wenguang. Li authored two of the fundamental textbooks of modern taiji, Simplified Taiji and 32-Step Taiji Sword. He was also the uncle of another noted master, Li Deyin. Zeng had to borrow a bike and ride for two hours to train with Li. He could only do that on days when there were no classes. Zhang Wenguang was among the first people to show Chinese martial arts to the world. He demonstrated at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Zhang was a master of the three major internal styles, taijiquan, xingyiquan and baguazhang, as well as an accomplished sanshou fighter and shuaijiao champion. By his sophomore year, Zeng decided to follow Zhang and studied diligently under him for the next five years.

Coaching the Prince and the Goddess
Upon graduation, Zeng was accepted to graduate school. Only one candidate out of ninety-seven applicants was accepted. For the Sports University, this meant a full government-supported scholarship for Zeng, which was important as his family was not affluent enough to afford the tuition. But disaster struck only three years into his graduate studies. The Cultural Revolution banned martial arts practice. Like most academics, Zeng was sent to the countryside for reeducation. He spent two years in Tianjin, quoting Mao's little red book and doing menial labor. After things cooled down, he was told to coach athletics or take a desk job. He accepted a coaching position at a youth school in Anyang City in Henan. Zeng coached women's volleyball for a year.

In 1972, Zeng took a major step that helped restore the martial arts following the Cultural Revolution. When the Youth Track and Field Games were held in Anyang, Zeng organized a mass demonstration of a basic kung fu form known as lianhuan quan (连环拳) for the opening ceremonies. He hand-picked the best local students he could find and coordinated an unprecedented synchronized recital with a thousand participants. The opening ceremony was a huge success. It earned Zeng the platform to tell China that the martial arts traditions must be preserved. Chinese martial arts are a cultural treasure and a source of national pride, not to be discarded for political reasons.

For the next half decade, Zeng served as the coach for the Anyang professional wushu team. While he stood watch, the team always placed first in Henan. Slowly, the martial arts began to grow back, and professional coaches became in demand. After his success with the Anyang City team, Fujian Province asked him to coach their pro team. At the time he accepted, Fujian was placing last in national competitions. After another half decade of hard work, Zeng pulled that team up to China's top five.

It was during the '80s that Zeng dominated as one of the leading coaches of modern wushu. He produced two of the top modern taiji competitors ever, the "Prince of Taiji" Chen Sitan (陈思坦) and the "Taiji Goddess" Gao Jiamin (高佳敏). They both topped the podium at each of the "triple crown" competitions of wushu: the China National Games, the Asian Games, and the World Wushu Games. Zeng had a special connection to Chen as he was the martial brother of his grandfather, Chen Xulu (Chinese).

Beyond taiji, Zeng fielded champions in nanquan (southern fist 南拳) and changquan (longfist 长拳), most notably Lin Qiuping (林秋) and Wu Qiuhua (吴秋花). Zeng garnered more fame as a taiji coach because his taiji athletes took the triple crown and had longer records. It is uncommon for a coach to have champions in taiji, nanquan and changquan.

Zeng claims the secret to his coaching success was cross-training. He used his traditional southern style kung fu and taiji methods to coach changquan. He constantly applied taiji theories to each student's training regimen, no matter what style they practiced. And he pushed them constantly. Once, on a train trip from Fujian to Kunming, he made his students get out and practice at every train stop. The trip took five days and made a lot of stops.

In 1993, Zeng Nailiang was named among the top five coaches of China, alongside Wu Bin, Pan Lingtai, Deng Chanli (Chinese) and Nan Chankai (Chinese). That year, he was also recognized with a lifetime achievement award which grants him a State Council-sponsored special allowance of "Outstanding Experts."

Zeng now stands in the ranks of China's most celebrated masters, the ninth duan recipients (duan 段means level). In ancient Chinese culture, the number nine was reserved for the emperor. Today, it is the highest level of martial arts excellence in the People's Republic of China. China has only recognized 40 grandmasters worthy of this honor.

As further testament to his teaching skills, he met his wife, Wei Xianglian (Chinese), at the Beijing Sports College. She was a basketball champion, but he brought her into the martial arts in the '90s. Wei is already ranked a seventh duan.

Taiji, T'ai Chi or Tai Chi?
As taiji expands westward, it faces plenty of cross-cultural challenges. Most westerners only know martial arts by the media images: fighting in the cage, in the movies or on the street. In the East, martial arts are cultivated as an art and a discipline. It isn't just about results. Winning belts and starring in films are only for the top exponents. It's not only about surviving a street fight. How many street fights do you get into exactly? If the number is high, you should reconsider your life. Martial arts are about personal refinement. Taiji is a way of life.

"Taiji is a martial art," states Zeng emphatically, "but it also has health benefits. It's good for social exchange and a great preventative. Most people practice now for health. They still want some combat skills. We cannot omit the combat applications. If you take out the combat, it's more like dance or gymnastics. But in modern times, performance and health are on the rise and combat declines."

Being form-based, taiji doesn't break up into easily-digestible components for classes like most other health club fitness programs like aerobics, weight training or even yoga. Taiji must be studied from beginning to end. While there have been some reformations to simplify taiji, it still takes time. There are no shortcuts. The word "cultivation" comes from farming. It takes time to till the land and produce a harvest. From fast food to Twitter, American culture is speed-oriented. Time is a commodity in short supply, so who has the time to practice taiji?

Even the taiji moniker is mystifying. T'ai chi ch'uan is the old Wade Giles Romanization; modern English drops the apostrophes. The more prevalent Pinyin Romanization has changed this to taijiquan. In Pinyin, the "q" is pronounced like "ch," but just try to explain that to Middle America. Both romanizations derive from the same Chinese characters (太極拳). This Romanization conflict has people wondering whether tai chi and taiji is the same thing. Tai chi gets the most hits on a Google search, some 50.5 million. Add the apostrophe and it expands to 56 million. Taiji only gets 9.6 million, but that also refers to a town in Japan which has become notorious for dolphin slaughter. This magazine uses "tai chi" for our title, as well as in the title of this cover story, but we went with the pinyin within the body of this article as it is the international standard for Mandarin translation. As a Kung Fu Tai Chi reader, you are either familiar with this conflict, or if you weren't before, you are now.

Pearls of Wisdom and Healthy Balls
To propagate taiji even further, Professor Zeng has developed a variety of new training forms (ironically, he has opted for the "tai chi" spelling in his materials). Six-hand Tai Chi Exercise (liu shou taiji gong 六手太極功) is a health and fitness routine, useful for those working high-stress desk jobs. It has a standing and sitting version. Zeng created a strictly therapeutic method titled 6 ∙ 6 Cervical Spine Exercise (liu liu jing zhui gong 六六颈椎功) which combines principles from taiji, bagua, and changquan for a treatment of cervical spondylosis. Hua Wu Tai Chi Rod (hua wu taiji gan 華武太極杆) is a staff form with a 24-form and a 52-form version. Zeng also developed three two-person taiji training forms. The 28-form and 52-form are based on the creation of Zhang Yanlin (Chinese) and Sha Guozheng (Chinese) with Zeng's reformations. For the 70-form, Zeng tapped his pupil Chen Sitan for assistance and incorporated baguazhang and Chen style taiji elements into the routine.

In 26-Form Tai Chi Bagua Zhu (ershiliu shi taiji bagua zhu 二十六式太極八卦珠), Zeng offers a novel permutation on the art. Zhu means "pearl" and refers to health balls (jianshen chou 健身球), which Zeng has incorporated into this form. More commonly known in English as Baoding balls (because Baoding City in Hebei is famous for them), these pearls have been used for circulation and acupoint stimulation. When President Nixon went to China in 1972, he received a set of health balls as a ceremonial gift. Health balls are typically used for qigong, and have some arcane uses as a throwing weapon. They are used in Mulanquan (木蘭拳), which is a martial arts style fused with dance, inspired by the ancient legendary cross-dressing heroine. "Mulanquan is a little too feminine," says Zeng. "Although adding taiji pearls have attracted a lot more women into taiji. It looks good and is easy to combine. I started integrating taiji pearls about three years ago. I fused it with some baguazhang, so it's a little faster. The pearls with the movements enhance circulation, similar to the way some taiji practitioners use a taiji ruler (taiji bang 太極棒 a small stick used in some forms of taiji for training). It's not used as a weapon. Nevertheless, taiji cannot deviate from combat applications. The taiji pearls reach new markets. The real purpose is to spread taiji. Taiji needs more variety to open the market more. We started with the fan, and then added staff. Now, we're adding balls."

The Movies, the Theme Park and Tomorrow
A big boost for taiji is coming to a theater near you. What drives martial arts into the public eye is the media, especially the movies. From Bruce Lee to the Karate Kid, and Crouching Tiger to Kill Bill, martial arts films have a tremendous impact on the popularity of martial arts. This year, the camera is focusing on taiji.

In 2012, Keanu Reeves begins filming his Man of Tai Chi. It will be Reeves' directorial debut and features Tiger Hu Chen, stuntman from the Matrix franchise, Charlie's Angels and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Reeves will play the villain and claims to already be in training with legendary kung fu choreographer, Yuen Woo Ping. The buzz mill has Reeves courting several of the A-list Chinese stars to join the project, including Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Zhou Xun, Crystal Yifei Liu and Simon Yam.

Meanwhile, the most influential Chinese movie studio has its own tai chi film in the works a trilogy, in fact. In May 2011 at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, the Huayi Brothers Media Corporation (华谊兄弟传媒集团) released concept posters for Taichi 0, part one of the Taichi Trilogy, which will also include Taichi Hero and Taichi Summit. Directed by Stephen Fung and produced by Jet Li, the first two Taichi Trilogy films are already in production. It is the first time a Chinese studio has embarked on a trilogy project like this. Taichi 0 has already been sold to thirty-one countries in the American Film Market.

If that's not enough, China is building a taiji theme park in Wudang. Wudang, a venerated bastion of Taoism, is considered by many as the birthplace of taiji. The project is in cooperation with an American developer, Landmark Entertainment Group. Landmark Entertainment Group CEO Tony Christopher has stated that over $100 million will be invested in the theme park.

Culture follows fad, and over the last several decades different styles of martial arts have come in and out of fashion. Many wonder how much longer MMA will retain the spotlight. It's clearly here to stay, but will it remain the most popular expression of martial arts in the ever-fickle public eye? Or might the popularity pendulum swing in the other direction, towards the yin, towards taiji? For Professor Zeng, the slow and steady rise of taiji corresponds to its intrinsic nature. Taiji skill comes gradually over time. It's a quiet, reflective art that treads softly in the shadows, foregoing the spotlight of today in hopes of a brighter tomorrow.

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine March/April 2012


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Grandmaster Zeng Nailiang currently resides in Fujian, China. He may be contacted at htsanwa@126.com.

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