I am on the roof of the school, hidden by the privacy walls that surround that level of my building. Half of the second floor of my school is my apartment, the other half is my garden. I am often there, among the trees and plants in my container garden, practicing Qigong or forms or weapons. Today, I am doing the Yang Shi Taiji Lao JIa, known in English as the “Yang Family Taiji Old Frame Form”.
I move with the greatest degree of lightness I can muster without making it an effort. It is a form with postures that are distinct and precise; yet it is the movement between the postures, the transitions, that are so very important. The mind monitors the process; as breath, coordination of movement and posture occur in unity. This form and I have been together for so long now that I simply assume the right mindset and it emerges; an expression of a state of being. It was not always this way. I have grown into this place largely due to the influence of one man, Song Xujin.
Over the years, Yang family Taiji has evolved into several styles and variants. Among them are the Lao Jia, (Old Frame), the Da Jia, (Big Frame), the Shao Jia, (Small Frame) and others. Each were created by members of the Yang family of Kung-Fu practitioners.
Most masters study one of the styles of Yang Taiji for their entire life. However, this was not the case with Song Xujin. Master Song is one of the few people to have mastered three styles of the Yang Taiji. He is an amazing individual, recognized throughout China for his expertise.
Through the influence of my Kung-Fu family, I was able to meet Master Song. He is, of course, a gentleman and scholar. He was in his eighties and yet he was energetic, agile and powerful. We would train together with others during the day and then, each evening, he would invite me to come train with him privately.
I speak Chinese passably and have some knowledge of Chinese literary culture and he found this extremely satisfying as he could make references and I, even though a foreigner, would understand somewhat. He spoke of Kung-Fu as if it were the study of music. He said, “A Taolu, (form, routine) within a given style of Kung-Fu, is like a symphony. The quality of the symphony is dependent entirely on the composer. If the composer is capable, then the symphony will be adequate; if the composer is gifted, then the symphony will be a thing of meaning, elegance and beauty”.
He had me perform some of my Yang Taiji Taolu. I have a few, from different sources and teachers, gathered over the years. I have been a silver medalist in Taiji form competitions in China but to perform them for analysis by such a master was truly intimidating. Finally, he said, “Bu cuo”, or “not bad”. He then asked, “What would you like to know?”
I told him that I wanted a better understanding of Taiji theory as it related to combat. I had studied the subject over the years but the chance to get his perspective was something not to be missed. He held his hand out, open and flat. “This”, he said, “is my Dao, (broadsword). He then closed his little and ring fingers, leaving his middle and index finger extended. “This”, he said, is my Jian, (straight sword)”. He then made his hands into fists and put them thumb side to thumb side. “And this”, he suddenly pulled his hands apart and one of his hands had the thumb extended upward, “is my little knife”! He thrusted his thumb quickly into my neck, lightly striking a vulnerable point. He smiled broadly and said, “I will show you”.
We would train together for hours in the evening, drinking tea and having extended discussions about the nature of Taiji itself and then moving into the nature of Taiji in combat. I came to understand from him that, beyond the external appearance, the many schools of Yang Taiji were expressions of the same thing. It was a single idea being described in different ways.
Master Song was surprisingly quick. He would catch my limb out of the air with ease; applying either locking maneuvers or rending, that is hyperextending a limb so that it would be damaged by its own force. His striking was precise to vulnerable areas. He was agile; able to use his hands and feet seamlessly together. He had consummate control; never once did he “slip” and hit me too hard.
He was always enthusiastic and energetic. Once, when the hour had grown quite late, I said, “Venerable sir, I am sure I should leave and let you rest”. He smiled and said, “No, no, I am quite fine”. Then I said, “Venerable sir, I am tired”. He laughed and said, “You should do more Qigong”.
He did teach me a form. It was one that he had created himself, from his knowledge of the three schools of the Yang style he had mastered. It is extensive, elegant and challenging to perform. For Master Song to share his insight with me was a testimony to his generosity and true desire to preserve the art. His “symphony” is something I will always treasure.
I practice Taiji now with a different perspective, thanks to Master Song. There is still much to learn and much technique and body method to train. But, with what he gave me, I do so with greater confidence, understanding and appreciation. Many masters teach, few can inspire.