A Master Calls: The Dan Docherty Interview: Part Two

By A. D. Davies

Apart from the letters which have appeared in FAI, what reactions have you had to your interview in issue 46?

Well I had several hundred letters and calls from all over UK and from Europe and these were almost entirely favourable. It's fairly obvious that many people out there are interested in learning or at least in looking at Tai Chi which works as a fighting art. However, there were a couple of adverse reactions - from Tai Chi teachers of other styles. One incident in particular may interest readers.

You had a 'visitor'?

Correct. I was teaching my class in Covent Garden London, at about 8pm. on Friday, 22nd April, when a sturdy, balding Chinese gentleman of medium height came through the swing doors of the studio followed by a retinue of nine or ten persons. It was fairly evident they hadn't come to join the class. I recognised the Chinese gentleman from photos I'd seen in martial arts magazines both here and in Hong Kong. It was Chu King-hung. I also recognised one of his students.

Is that Master Chu King-hung of Yang Style Tai Chi?

None other. He told me he had some matters discuss with me, but that he could wait until after the class. After about 35 minutes watching me teach the class self defence, pushing hands and hand form, Chu gestured for me to come over. He told me that neither I nor my students had any internal power and that, in his 32 years of practising Tai Chi and his 15 years teaching it in Europe, I was the only one to say bad things about Yang style Tai Chi. I told him that I had never seen any Yang stylist here or in the Far East who could use Tai Chi effectively as a martial art and that I felt entitled to say so. Likewise he was free to express a contrary opinion.

He challenged me to do a `chi power' demonstration with my students and then he would do one with his. Now I've seen many of these so called `chi power' demonstrations where co-operative students are sent flying under carefully controlled circumstances. Some supreme charlatans even claim to be able to do this from a distance without touching! I said to him that this was no way to test skills, the traditional Tai Chi method was to have a pushing hands contest; student against student or teacher against teacher. He then demanded that I push hands with one of his students.

How did you feel about this?

It wasn't his place to tell me what to do, so I said it must be student with student. The senior student he'd selected was well over 6' tall and I believe his name is Bob Coleman. I knew him because in 1985 he'd attended one of my courses in Tai Chi spear. I nominated my student, Carl Burgess, to face him. Carl is considerably shorter than Bob and he has been studying Tai Chi for about 8 months.

Before they started, I told Carl the tactics to adopt. They made contact and Bob moved in with a strong push. Carl diverted it, twisted and threw Bob onto his back. There was a pregnant silence until Chu called, "Again!".

This time Bob came in a bit harder Carl gave way and turned him, pushing him into the wall. Bob thanked Carl and admitted he'd lost. He also said to Chu that Carl was good. I asked Chu what he wanted next. He looked at me and in a loud confident voice, he said, "I must have contact." At the same time he brandished his arm in front of him the way the hero does in the climactic scene in third rate kung fu movies, just before he beats the bad guy to a pulp and gets the girl.

So you and Master Chu pushed hands?

Three times. The first time he stepped in with a hard push. I diverted it thus destroying his balance. Instead of admitting he'd lost, he complained that I was bigger than him. I told him that he'd known this before he came and that he claimed to be a master with 32 years experience. He seemed to have forgotten that I'd got no internal power. So we pushed again, and again I destroyed his balance. After he'd lost balance he grabbed my neck for a moment, but still couldn't destroy my balance. I told him he'd lost again, but he denied it saying that the floor, was slippery. I pointed out that it was the same for both as we were both wearing trainers. Suddenly he shouted to one of his students to take a photograph as my neck was red. I intimated to this gentleman in dulcet Glaswegian tones that such action might not be in his own or the camera's best interests. No photos were taken.

Chu then demanded a third pushing hands bout. He adopted the same tactics and again I easily destroyed his balance. This time he said "Different method!" I pointed out that he'd known this also before he came. I told him that he was the one with no internal power, that I have students better than him, that he was a bullshitter and that I had just shown his Yang style to be useless for self defence.

How did your own students react to all this?

They were astonished that someone of Chu's experience and status in Yang style circles would make such a challenge in the first place. Obviously

they were pleased at the outcome and amused by Chu's excuses. He'd swaggered in like big John Wayne, but went out like Mickey Rooney. To lose once may be considered unfortunate; to lose five times doesn't leave much room for doubt.

What about Master Chu's students?

They were initially shell-shocked, but after I'd expressed myself in typically diplomatic terms about their style and their teacher, a couple of them tried to hit back at me, not by saying how good he was or by trying to turn defeat into victory, but by reproving me for my choice of adjectives and nouns. A young woman who was one of the strongest critics of my language ended up calling me an "arsehole."

Don't you think you were a bit too abrasive?

Not at all. The whole thing was a total surprise to us. They'd come along unheralded and uninvited. They'd disrupted my class. It was obvious they'd planned the whole thing and come well-prepared with a camera to record my humiliating defeat at their hands. Chu had issued and insisted on persisting with the challenge despite defeat after defeat and had then come up with pathetic excuses. I felt some sympathy for Bob Coleman, because he was very honest and sincere throughout, but I don't feel the least bit apologetic for anything I said either then, now or in FAI 46. You know the Edith Piaf song 'Je ne regrette rien.'

How did it end?

I said I'd heard enough bullshit for one night and I told them to go home. They left and we left. Outside I saw Bob go up to Chu and shake hands. He apologised for losing. We felt thirsty rather than apologetic so we went for a few drinks.

Have you heard anything since?

Chu called me on the Monday morning and wanted to talk to me. I told him I'd done all my talking on Friday night, and I would send him a letter about the incident and about arranging a pushing hands contest between our students if he so wished. That remains the position.

In `FAI' 48 there was a very angry letter from John Eastman of Yang style Tai Chi in which he is strongly critical of you and of many of the things you said. Do you accept his criticisms?

In the Hong Kong police force we had a term for people like John, 'Chocolate Policeman.' This refers to the kind of officer who was useless on the street, but had a nice nine to five job shuffling paper. If they left their air conditioned offices to go out in the hot sun they'd melt - just like chocolate. John's fairly typical of Yang style Tai Chi people; the kung fu is in the mouth not the hands. The best answer to his letter is to ask readers to compare it to what I said in the interview in `FAI' 46.

Are there any specific points you'd like to deal with?

Yes. He criticises photos that were used in the article, but these were selected by `FAI' from a wide variety of photos, also the first thing most people mentioned to me about the article was how good the photos were.

Again John, a self-confessed professional journalist and Yang style Tai Chi instructor, mentions conversations he had with me. He asks what 'differentiates my Tai Chi from other external styles which also utilise and demonstrate nei kung." This suggests that I am a hard stylist. However, then he says he put it to me that much of what we taught was similar, that I agreed with this, saying with a smile that the reason I emphasised the difference was business. This is untrue, except maybe for the smile and it belongs to the "Freddy Starr ate my hamster" school of creative journalism.

On the subject of internal strength, it was John who asked me about learning it and about the possibility of private lessons in pushing hands and self-defence techniques. He shows his ignorance of it when he suggests that the feats shown could be replicated by hard stylists. I don't recommend this as

He says that a tofu hand can't do much in a fight, but that water under pressure can?

The analogy is incomplete. Your opponent is a man, not water. This is a further example of the prevarication's Yang stylists come out with when confronted with uncomfortable issues such as how a Tai Chi man can temper the fist so it can hit the hard bones in the face. Their maxim seems to be, "if in doubt, waffle!" I know if I was in trouble I'd rather have someone like the redoubtable Mr. Gary Spiers on my side than any five of these jokers. I saw Mr Spiers give one of his inimitable demonstrations up in Glasgow about 16 years ago. These clowns are equally inimitable but in a different way!

John also has interesting and wonderful ideas about the Chinese language, despite the fact that, as he admitted to me, he is unable to read Chinese. He suggests that the character `Chuan' of Tai Chi Chuan is not really a fist in a martial arts sense but is "a fist with which we should pound ourselves into better, healthier more accomplished human beings." This is doublespeak, where defeat is victory, the truth is a lie and so on. Presumably practitioners of all other 'Chuan' such as Shaolin Chuan, Hung Chuan etc. are also not really practising martial arts. Maybe Kendoka should be cutting themselves with their swords. Sado-masochism is both a novel and unusual reason for practising martial arts.

But surely the health side of Tai Chi is important?

I don't deny it, but I'm not old and I'm not sick. There are five short passages which together compromise the Tai Chi classics. Certainly some contain references to health, but each of them has references to the use of Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art. Because our Tai Chi follows the theory outlined in these passages, because our Tai Chi is a proven fighting art that is why we claim the connection with Chang San-feng. Our Tai Chi is at least as good for health as any other Tai Chi, where it differs is in its proven fighting capability.

Aren't you just stirring up trouble in 'knocking' other styles?

The only other people I've 'knocked' as you put it are other Tai Chi people. You'll note that in the original interview I didn't criticise any current teachers by name. I only do so now because they have now come forward to take issue with me physically and verbally. Furthermore, I believe my criticisms are valid ones. Some Tai Chi teachers charge more than twice what I charge for classes. You need to pay whether or not you can make the class. The teacher is hardly ever there himself and even when he is he has nothing of value to teach. If 'knocking' these guys stirs up trouble, I am only too happy to continue 'knocking'.

What about the anecdotes that John relates about Cheng Man-ching's fighting ability and his criticism that if you need to enter a contest to find out how good you are then your ability is not very high?

I heard the same fairy tales about Chu King-hung and other Tai Chi teachers - all this rubbish about their fantastic 'chi power'. John was modestly reticent about his own fighting ability and in this regard he has much to be modest about.

Secondly, Yang stylists rightly boast of the fighting ability of Yang Lu-chan, who first brought Tai Chi to Peking and who took on all comers. This led to his appointment as martial arts instructor to the Manchu Imperial Guard. Presumably he was not very good either.

Another point, since well before Yang Lu-chan came on the scene Tai Chi, though still a Taoist martial art, was no longer exclusively taught by Taoists. By that I mean that, though Tai Chi Chuan retained the Taoist philosophical principles on which it was based and though a thorough knowledge of these principles was and still is necessary to practice the art, the teacher's themselves were no longer Taoist hermits. For the most part from Yang Luchan onwards they have been professional Tai Chi instructors not Taoist sages, and that includes the long time Kuomintang member, Cheng Man-ching.

As regards Cheng Man-ching's knowledge of the martial aspects of Tai Chi, I would advise those interested to study his books and compare what he says and what he shows to what is in our book 'Wutan Tai Chi Chuan' Furthermore anyone is welcome to come to watch any of my classes and compare the methods.

Another Yang style teacher who learned from Tung Ying-chieh, one of Yang Cheng-fu's senior students, told me that as far as they were concerned Cheng Man-ching was nothing special.

I would have to endorse that view.

John Eastman also refers to using acupressure where, by use of Chin force, Chi energy is extended into the patient and says that similar methods using a fist at high speed rather than a finger at slow speed would cause damage rather than healing.

In the 17 years I've been practising martial arts, both here and in the far East I have met many seemingly normal, rational, intelligent people who, as soon as the word `Chi' is mentioned, abandon all their critical and analytical facilities.

You don't need to be a doctor to know that using a fist on someone at high speed can hurt them, but that is nothing to do with Chi. Also striking nerve centres or pressure points of a compliant patient are one thing, but trying to do so to another trained martial artist who is turning, twisting, attacking and defending is another matter.

You seem very dismissive of Chi energy.

I'll tell you a story. Last summer I attended two lectures in London given in Chinese to a Chinese to a Chinese audience from a Chinese gentleman, Professor Lin Yun. The story goes that at the age of six, in Peking, the professor was recognised by the lamas of the Yung-ho Temple as an emanation of a Bodhisattva, so they taught him the secrets of the Black Sect of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism.

The lectures were respectively about Chi and about Feng Shui (geomancy) which the professor claimed to be interrelated and about which, according to the literature provided, he is an expert. The professor must be in his early fifties.

The first lecture was about Chi. His argument was that you could tell how the Chi flowed in individuals by looking at their posture, behaviour etc. He got a couple of members of the audience to come out, he made some general remarks about their Chi, then gave them advice on certain exercises to practice to improve the flow.

In the literature provided many awe inspired disciples of all nationalities told anecdotes about the professor. One even claimed that during one of the professor's lectures that she had seen a huge and brilliant white face hovering above him!

The second lecture was to be on Feng Shui and was scheduled for late at night, so Chinese restaurant workers could attend. I got there half an hour early and waited outside the cinema where it was to be held. However, when this master of the secrets of the Black Sect of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism arrived he had to be supported by his two extremely attractive female assistants, one holding each arm to help him into the cinema. He could barely walk. I don't want to speculate as to what had happened to the professor's Chi flow.

But why do so many people Believe in Chi energy?

Maybe they've been reading too many 'Fantastic Four' comic books. Also it gives the promise of an easier way than actually training or striving. The thing is some teachers of the Chinese martial arts deliberately use jargon like `chi energy' in the wrong context to mislead students into thinking that there is some mystical key which one day they will somehow acquire and then they too will become Taoist sages.

What have been some of the more positive responses to the original interview?

Owing to the response I received, I've had to start organising seminars on a regular basis both in London and elsewhere. Also it has made me realise the poor quality of much that is written about Tai Chi and has stimulated me to try and put together some articles for 'Fighting Arts International'.


A. D. Davies is a freelance writer who has been practising martial arts, including various Chinese systems, for the past 15 years.