An interview with Wang Yen-nien, fourth generation master of the Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan lineage, by Thomas W. Campbell. Our talk took place on July 13, 2002 in Madison, Wisconsin and Julia Fairchild provided the translation. The workshop was produced by Don and Kathryn Coleman. Originally published in the Journal of AYMTA (American Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan)
When I finally sat down with Wang Yen-nien to conduct an interview the festival was over and we had only a short amount of time. It was early Saturday morning and obvious that Master Wang was tired and in need of more green tea than he had probably consumed so far. But we settled in, with Julia Fairchild translating, and started right up. Within minutes Master Wang became attentive and inspired, looking back on his life and discussing it with deep interest. His responses were carefully considered and spoken with emotional authority.
TWC – Master Wang, you have practiced and taught taijiquan from many years and trained many students and teachers. Would you discuss why you have dedicated yourself to the practice and teaching of Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan?
WYN – It was a time when the world was changing, when eras were changing, from the end of the world war, of arriving in Taiwan, and retiring from military service and into private life. Having been in the army I realized how little life was worth, during the war. [Wang Yen-nien was a Colonel, fighting with the Nationalist Army in the Chinese Civil war.] So, considering all of my experiences in the war, I decided after stepping down from military service to dedicate myself to something that would be of use to people’s health and to mankind. In Chinese there is saying that once you have seen so much disaster and death you are able to let go of all attachments because you have been to zero and now you can only go up. Also I realized that once you teach taijiquan it is a benefit to oneself, but also a benefit to others. So taijiquan is something meaningful to do with oneself. Something that is meaningful to oneself and meaningful to others. So that’s why I chose this route to continue the development, and to spread and expand the practice of Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan.
TWC – Can you discuss how the different elements of Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan are interconnected? For instance how do we benefit from each part of our practice, meaning form, weapons, tuishou, etc., and what are the benefits that we discover in training the complete system?
WYN – In the practice of Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan, in the beginning Yang Luchan did not openly teach his very effective style. He only taught something that we could think of as “openly,” hoping that this could be for better health. In what we call the “hidden tradition,” there are places in the forms that are not the same [as the “open form”]; the path he began to take was a Daoist path. Many people say where did this Yang family hidden tradition come from, there is no such thing, But it’s not that it didn’t exist, it’s that these people did not know about it. Because Yang Luchan kept it hidden. He did not transmit it openly. Each generation was only allowed to transmit it to one person.
Even though Yang Luchan had three sons, he only transmitted this Yang family tradition to Yang Jianhou, and not to his other sons. “Transmit to one, and not two”- because when you transmit to one you can be more assured that the tradition can remain hidden, and maintained. But when you transmit to two then the likelihood of this secret getting out will be greater.
Then this [Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan] was transmitted from Yang Luchan to Yang Jianhou to Zhang Qinlin to Wang Yen-nien.
The overall benefit of practicing the entire system of Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan is, of course, for better health and happiness. Today, most other styles of taiji that we see also have this as their goal better health and happiness. But because some other traditions miss this longevity aspect, they are missing part of it. They might find the health and happiness but the goal of longevity will be missing. In Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan the emphasis is not only on health and happiness but also on longevity, and that is the Daoist aspect.
Sometimes other forms will add in a practice of “Qigong.” But what is already a part of Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan is called “neigong.” That’s as far as the form goes.
The benefit of neigong – it is an internal Daoist alchemist art. Those who are interested in continuing a practice of self-cultivation and internal alchemical arts begin with the practice of neigong. This idea of neigong is to cultivate and nurture the internal organs, to strengthen the inner. In addition there is what we call tu-na, the Daoist art of breathing technique. And once we practice this Daoist art of breathing technique, the internal organs become stronger and healthier. The three treasures that we have, our inner elixirs, are Jing, Qi, and Shen. Ordinarily we have these inner elixirs, but if they are not taken care of, cultured and nurtured, they will slowly dissipate over time. When we practice an internal alchemical art, using neigong to develop and strengthen ourselves, and use the Daoist art of breathing, we will be able to develop, strengthen, and augment these three naturally occurring inner elixirs, Jing, Qi, and Shen.
Jing, Qi, and Shen will become full and plentiful, and not dissipate over time.
So this is where, in addition to the form, we also have included in our system neigong that we say adds to longevity. So the idea is to have a long healthy life, a goal that may be missing form other schools. That comes from the benefit of practicing neigong, as it is included in the system of Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan practice.
What about sword, fan, pole, tuishou? These are supplementary things. We have the form, which is fundamental. To supplement that we have fan, sword, (Kunlun and Wudang), and tuishou. These are all to help increase the elasticity and strength in the body. For example tuishou can help to open up the meridians and cultivation areas in the body that are needed in neigong. They also help to increase and benefit the circulation, moving qi about the body. These supplemental parts of our study, for example tuishou, are designed to open up meridians and blocks and barriers in the body that in a solo practice of a form, or neigong by itself, our qi may not be strong enough to open.
So we say that the foundation, the base of our practice, is form and the neigong. The other parts, weapons and tuishou practice, are designed to supplement in either a solo or two-person way, to further open up meridians in the body.
TWC – We encounter students and teachers of Cheng Man Ching’s lineage who know little or nothing of your relationship with Cheng Man Ching. Would you please discuss this relationship?
WYN – I call Cheng Man Ching my older martial art brother. Why is that? That’s because he was a vowed student of Zhang Qinlin, who was also my teacher. What he studied with Zhang Qinlin was tuishou and neigong. And so because of this relationship with Zhang Qinlin we became martial art brothers. He was older than me so I call him my older martial art brother. At that time, in China, at the time he became a vowed student of Zhang Qinlin, my teacher, Cheng Man Ching was already a practicing a Yang style, not Yangjia Michuan, but another style. So because he only knew taijiquan at that time and not tuishou, he found Zhang Qinlin and wanted to practice tuishou.
In the beginning Cheng Man Ching invited Zhang Qinlin, who had been living in Shanzi province, to Nanjing. He arranged for him to teach for three months. Then, in Nanjing, with Zhang Qinlin, Cheng practiced and studied tuishou for three months; the most important things that he asked Zhang Qinlin to teach him were tuishou and neigong.
In those days, whether you were a martial artist, or whether you were a Daoist, the relationship between the teacher and the student was a very very important one. When I became a vowed student of Zhang Qinlin, my relationship with Cheng Man Ching was established. And you can never erase this relationship. Because he bowed and became a vowed student of Zhang Qinling and this created a relationship between the two of us.
The difference, though, is that not only did I practice tuishou and neigong but I also learned Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan. And Zhang Qinlin taught me the complete system, and not CMC.
This is to state once again that my relationship with Cheng Man Ching is due to the fact that we are both vowed disciples of Zhang Qinlin. (There are a few more phrase that do not get translated)
TWC: How do we, as students and teachers, continue to practice Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan accurately when we are not with you?
WYN – I cannot be everywhere in the world, that’s why I published the first book, Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan, volume one. I hope that all teachers and students will use the book as a standard reference. If you can stay in accordance with the book, with the same spirit, teachers can’t go too far wrong. Then I also published a second book that covers applications. The first book, volume one, is how to practice the form; the second is to explain why the form looks like it does. So it’s the second book that aids in keeping the form looking the same. It’s in book two that teachers can teach in accordance with volume one and, with the second book, teachers can be assured that they are not going too far off. I’m afraid that teachers do not pay as much attention to volume two, but it is the second book that will be of the most help to teachers in keeping the integrity of the form. The two books, together, I hope, will be the reference for the future. With these two volumes I hope that Yangjia Michuan teachers will work in accordance with what they contain as standard references. And the applications will not change, the form will not change, and we can all be working together towards one goal.
TWC – Master Wang, you have spoken of being challenged in tuishou in the past. Was there a time when you participated in tuishou tournaments? Can you discuss these experiences in relation to you thoughts on the evolution of tuishou and competition?
WYN When I was practicing taijiquan with Zhang Laoshi, (Zhang Qinlin), he often said to me that I shouldn’t completely show my gongfu outwardly, that I should keep myself looking ordinary, and not special, vis a vis, the others. He told me that there would be two benefits to keeping humble like this. One, you won’t have enemies around you, and thus you won’t be in conflict with others. Secondly, you wont hurt anyone and others will not hurt you. And so, for those of us practicing Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan, we must keep, as our highest goal, self-cultivation. Our purpose in practicing is not to show that we are superior in competition with others.
In the beginning I did not agree with what Zhang Qinlin said. Then, after having come to Taiwan, and after having been in the war and seen so many terrible things, then I truly understood our human route in life… I discovered after coming to Taiwan, that many people, after noticing that my gongfu was good, wanted to challenge me. All the time, one by one, they wanted to challenge me. So many people came into my environment and constantly wanted to challenge me. And not only people form the taijiquan world. They came from all different styles of martial arts. They all noticed that my gongfu was good and wanted to test me. I felt a very big pressure because of this. Because if I showed my gongfu and won, then I would have an enemy. He would feel unsatisfied and continually come back to challenge me. But if I lost, then I would have no name and nobody would come to study with me.
So I took Zhang Laoshi’s words to heart, to keep self-cultivation as my goal and sought a higher level of human consciousness. When people did come to challenge me I wouldn’t make it into a competition. I would make it more the idea that we were cooperating and showing one another our skills, without making the others to lose face. It doesn’t mean that we don’t come together, that we avoid the situation. No. It means that I was able to establish a rapport in tuishou. Because no matter what type of techniques the challengers used, they weren’t able to push me over. And so it was as if I was able to protect the truth without attacking. I didn’t ever feel that it was necessary to return energy in an attack, during tuishou. But I defended the truth about my own gongfu.
The partner, or the person who I was working with, or who had challenged me, would feel that I had great gongfu, but that I was of good character … He saw that I didn’t return an attack. In this way, by protecting the truth, without attacking back when challenged or attacked, not only did I not create any enemies, but I created great friends. And so anyone who encountered me, and their students, would all say how wonderful Wang Yen-nien is, what a great person he is, and what great gongfu he has.
So this I can attribute to the fact that even Zhang Qinlin encourages one not to go to competition, not to make a competitive situation between people. In this way you create enemies and conflict, rather than friendship. Not only that, but while I was in Taiwan in the early days there were four international competitions, not for taiji only but for all martial arts styles. And the persons who won each of these four competitions gained great fame. But they shortened their life span. Each one of the four people who won these international events died within five years. So I felt even more deeply that we should not compete. It goes against every Daoist principle of moving towards longevity. Also, it is possible in this competitive situation to hurt somebody. So if we do not compete we are not going to hurt anyone and we certainly will not hurt ourselves.
It is possible to not compete, and yet to still learn about the situation, each other’s techniques, very easily but also it is possible to make it competitive and make enemies. Or you can choose not to make it competitive, to learn and teach within a situation, and to make a friend. It’s not necessary to say whose gongfu is better than whose. We can become unattached to the need to win at a loss to others, to the idea that someone wins when another loses. To have a trophy or medal to prove that your gongfu is great, and then to die a few years later; this is meaningless. It’s not only meaningless; it is stupid that in order to attain fame and honor you lose your life.
Personally I have never been in a competition. I welcome anyone to work with me, to practice with me, to make an investigation together. I will never return an attack with an attack.
TWC – Thank you the time you have given. Is there anything else you would like to say?
WYN – I hope that no matter what style of taijiquan we practice we do not get into blaming, criticizing, saying that “this” is real and “that” is not real, that “this” is true and “that” is not true. Because the people who originally created the different styles are all dead now.
And so each generation and what is transmitted from each generation may not accurately reflect what the founders of a particular style truly created … So how can we know what is real, what is not real, what is real Yang style, what is not real Yang style? It is not meaningful to be in conflict. The real meaningful question is this – is it of benefit to the health? And if we can say that it is of benefit to the health, and that there is healing involved, then this is the only true taijiquan. So that’s why I want to reinforce what I have said – that competition [in tuishou] is not for better health. Especially if you ruin your own health just to get first place. This is not real taijiquan. So I hope that we can get rid of emphasizing our differences and work more towards emphasizing our similarities. We should investigate together our similarities, to investigate together what is good about our particular forms and particular styles. And then it becomes a benefit to society, and is meaningful to society as a whole. We don’t want to waste our energy and time on “who is better” etc. It is not a meaningful question. We need to stay focused on our goal.
I try to ignore criticisms that people might have of me – or of our style. And I am only concerned with whether the students and coaches that we are training are working towards better health and peace of mind, longevity. That is my only concern. This is what I have learned as I have endured over time in my practice of taijiquan. We want to avoid creating separation and conflict, to be divisive. We want to move towards being unified, to be one. With the world in such a mess, we need to emphasize the idea of peace, peace of mind, inner peace, without inner conflict. That is what I would personally like to say. And no [tuishou] competitions. We don’t want to harm others, and we certainly don’t want to harm ourselves.