Tai Chi And Tradition In South East Asia

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Traditions, however, come and go, and when we are talking about a culture that is shared by such a
numerically large and ethnically diverse group as the Chinese, it is plain to see that there can be no such
thing as a single tradition. What we can talk about, however, is tradition in a particular context, whether it
be social, political, historical or geographical.

In this article I shall be examining the traditions surrounding the practice of Tai Chi in Malaysia. As I practise the Cheng style my observations will generally be restricted to this school.
In order to understand how the art is regarded, taught and practised it is first important to know something of the background of the practitioners in this region. There have been Chinese here for over five hundred years but the largest mass immigration occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Sucti migration took place due to the turbulent conditions in China and the work opportunities available in the Federated Malay States under British colonial government.

The majority of these immigrants were from the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Fujian and could be divided into four major ethnic groupings according to dialect spoken: Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka and Toechew.

Since the majority of these migrants were in effect economic refugees they came from the lowest strata of society and had little or nothing in the way of education. Having left behind the clan associations that
formed the focus of their lives in China they grouped to~ gether in dialect associations, organising the
building of meeting halls and temples.

In adjusting to their new life the migrants saw themselves as being under threat, not just from the
indigenous population but also from members of other dialect groups. Indeed the latter were often more
of a threat as clan wars raging in southern China often over spilled into Chinese communities abroad.
In order to better protect themselves the dialect associations recruited experts in the particular style of
martial art favoured by their dialect group. These masters were brought over from China to train members to defend themselves, should the need arise.

Thus it was that the practice of Chinese martial arts was a very real and functional part of the fife of the
Chinese in Malaysia. It was to these people, steeped in a martial tradition that was of necessity pragmatic, the arts were used for fighting, that Cheng style Tai Chi was introduced in 1956. It is also fair to note that the general interest at the time, in the Chinese community, was still in the concrete demands of economic betterment, as such there was no interest in abstract philosophising or intellectual investigation which sometimes characterises the present day study of Tai Chi.

The first two teachers to bring Cheng style Tai Chi to the region were Huang Hsing Hsien and Yue Shu Ting who had both come from China via Taiwan. In pro-Communist China they had both served as Guomindang officials and it was Yue who took Huang to meet Cheng Man Ching in Taiwan. Both Yue and Huang had originally studied Shaolin arts and owed their faith in Tai Chi to having been bested by Cheng in challenges, Huang was the first to arrive and he settled in Singapore, while Yue arriving a year later, started teaching in Penang in the north. Both teachers established their reputation not by extolling the health benefits of the art, nor by engaging in intellectual discussion, but by convincing the local martial artists that Tai Chi was a viable and effective art. It is worth noting that nearly all of Yue’s leading students came from a background in other arts and all gave them up to practise Tai Chi.

Many of today’s master teachers who started training in those early days recount how hard the training was. Master Lee Bei Lei tells how at the end of a day’s training he was so stiff that he could not climb the stairs to his room. Master Lau Kim Hong tells how his teacher Lu Tong Bao would ‘spar’ with his students, inviting them to attack him One at a time, whereupon he would punch, kick and throw them to the ground. In these sessions students would suffer strains, sprains and even broken bones. Thus it was from the time of its arrival in the region, Cheng style was established as an effective fighting art fit to rival the arts already popular. A tradition was also established of hard, physical training. The curriculum taught by those early teachers consisted of form, applications and pushing hands. Weapons were also taught. Then after Cheng’s visit in 1958, when he taught a set of qigong exercises designed to develop internal strength, these too became an important part of the syllabus.

Pushing hands training was very much focused on the intricacies of close-quarter fighting with holds, locks, throws and strikes all being included at times.

Making use of the skills developed from qigong training, it became a tradition for Cheng stylists to
demonstrate their internal strength by allowing teams of students to ram a log the size of a telegraph pole into their abdomen while another assistant broke a stool over the performer’s back. Volunteers were also invited up from the audience to kick and punch the expert.

As regards the way the art was preserved and passed on both Yue and Huang brought with them the
tradition of ‘bai shi’ or discipline initiation whereby students possessing the right character underwent a
quasi religious ceremony and thus became eligible for access to the body of teachings deemed to be ‘secret.’

Another tradition that existed amongst some o4 the early exponents was that of ‘school closing,, whereby schools purporting to teach Tai Chi would be visited and the teacher challenged to fight with the understanding that if he lost he would take down his sign and close the school. Of course this process worked both ways and many well-known teachers recall visits from practitioners of other systems of Internal Chinese martial arts.

To summarise then, some of the traditions surrounding Cheng style Tai Chi in its early days in the region
included an emphasis in the art’s efficacy anytime, anypiace; an adherence to the traditional master-disciple relationship. and finally a willingness to challenge and defeat those who taught incomplete, that is martially ineffective Tai Chi.

All of those traditions have had their effect on the way the art is taught and regarded nowadays, although
with there being less demand for the practical aspects in daily living and with the opening of diplomatic
relations with the People’s Republic of China, Tai Chi exponents here have embraced both a more
philosophical approach to the art and an appreciation of the aesthetics of movement represented by some of the new varieties of Tai Chi.

What light does all this throw on the way Tai Chi is understood and practised in the West? One of the
attitudes prevalent in Britain is a kind of intellectual fascism which argues that Tai Chi is a refined art that
should have nothing to do with force or strength. Adherents of this philosophy decry the holding of
competitions or even in some cases spurning the practice of applications altogether. This attitude, however, does little to further the progress and development of both the art and the individual practitioner. Tai Chi as a martial art cannot function in a vacuum. Fighting requires an opponent and it cannot be expected he will forgo the use of strength. Tai Chi as a philosophical concept embraces the duality of yin and yang that constitutes a whole. To focus entirely on the yin means that it is no longer Tai Chi. it has to be felt to be appreciated. Critics of competition point to the muscular grapplings of participants and make statements like, “That’s not Tai Chi”, but to those participating in the encounter, the interplay of soft and hard, the preservation of balance and the use of the opponent’s force are all vital. The difference between this and ephemeral and soft form practice or prearranged pushing patterns is that this is the real world where form has to bow to the requirements of function.

Form practice is an essential part of Tai Chi but it is only part. The art’s application must also be practiced in as realistic a manner as possible. Strength and fitness must be developed through the use of equipment and partner training.

Although the majority of us no longer live in a world where fighting for our lives is a daily activity we must
not become so mired in the examination and d cussion of abstract philosophy that w is e lose sight of the
roots of the art To really appreciate all that Tai Chi has to offer we should continue to practice in a realistic manner otherwise we run the danger of reducing a truly functional art to, the level of a sort of martial joke:

“Tai Chi, oh yes that’s the deadly art of waving your hands in the air!”

Unfortunately Cheng style in Britain is well on its way to becoming this kind of emasculated practice.

That is not the case here in Malaysia where practitioners of the art are proud to practice a real and realistic martial art.

Nigel Sutton is the author of Applied Tai Chi Chuan (A&C Black 1990) and Tai Chi Chuan Roots and Branches
(Tuttle 1996).
This article was originally published in “Tai Chi Chuan”, (The Journal of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain)
in 1994.