by Dan Docherty
The ability to understand and to apply new information depends on the knowledge, experience and innate physical and mental powers of the individual. Knowledge begets knowledge - sometimes. As practitioners of Chinese martial arts, we have to have secrets - our "inside the door training". For secrets to be secrets, there must be a possibility for those who don't know them to become members of the chosen few and to learn them one by one.
As with any elite, the chosen few are not keen in having their numbers increased. When my master and I taught students of one of his students in Australia in 1988, I was impressed with the serious attitude of the students, but we found that their Tai Chi had severe technical defects. However, not only were we (particularly yours truly) resented especially by some of the teachers amongst them, but some of the teachers were heard to say that they would keep the new stuff for themselves, while continuing to teach the old stuff in their classes.
My teacher's attitude was always to teach or not to teach, rather than to mislead. In this at least he had sincerity. His uncle on the other hand deliberately taught many people certain techniques wrongly. I consider this criminal.
I greatly liked the 60's cult series, 'The Prisoner'. Every programme opened with The Prisoner (Number 6) asking, "What do you want ?"
Number 2 replies, "Information."
Only to be told by The Prisoner, "You won't get it!"
Number 2 cackles, "By hook or by crook we will! Ha! Ha! Ha!
The present situation in Chinese martial arts between East and West is somewhat like this. When I left Blighty for Hong Kong in 1975 there was a very limited amount of Tai Chi Chuan around, although some of the pioneers of those days such as Rose Li, Paul Crompton, Danny Connor and Ian Cameron are still going strong and have inspired many of their students to become teachers. Now in the West we have many highly experienced instructors who by hook or by crook have, like Number 2, obtained the information which they sought.
There is a lot of speculation in books and magazines about secret forms and techniques which Yang Lu-chan and his sons did not want to fall into the hands of the alien Manchu rulers. And yet a number of their students who were famous as fighters such as Wan Chun and Quan Yu were not ethnic Chinese. So I don't buy the speculation; what I suspect is that the first two generations, wanting to be successful and to secure their reputations, did teach a number of students to a very high level, not based on whether they were Chinese or not, but on their personal ability to perform the art at a high level. A good student is the best advertisement for a teacher.
Not everyone got everything from Yang Lu-chan. I suspect for example that Wu Yu-xiang went to learn from Chen Qing-ping for this very reason. So how do you get this "information", these secrets ? It's partly by revelation and partly by osmosis and intuition. Revelation is direct and obvious, the master or somebody else shows or tells you or you read it in a book or see it in a video. Very often you learn of secret knowledge through the indiscretion of those proud to be amongst the chosen few - after all what's the point of knowing secrets unless others know that you know. I'll talk of this another time, perhaps.
Let me give two examples of osmosis and intuition. Sixteen of the Tai Chi Nei Kung exercises have direct martial applications. We repeat each of these exercises dozens or even hundreds of times in one session of Nei Kung, many times more than any movement in the form. Twice while in charge of the Kowloon Regional Vice Squad I used Nei Kung techniques. I used 'Swallow Piercing the Clouds' to break a soldier's grip on one of my team and in another case 'Boatman Rowing the Boat' to disperse a crowd of lowlife in a raid on a mahjong school. In both cases I did the technique without thinking, they had become second nature to the extent that my teacher had never shown me how to use the techniques in the way that I did.
Secrets and arcane mysteries have their place, but they are no substitute for practice. I have students who have been doing Tai Chi for three or four years, who are better than some who've been practicing for three times as long and who know more secrets.
In May 1998's Combat, Aarvo Tucker, whom I first met with his Ba Gua brother Ed Hines in Taiwan in 1994, related how he lived with both his Tai Chi master and his Ba Gua master and actually taught for the latter. In a similar way my teacher got me to show push hands and fighting applications to his sons. As foreigners we were without family ties in the Far East and had left home, friends and family to learn the art. We got close to our teachers because we gave everything for the art we went eating with them, drinking with them and doing other things (at least in my case) over which it is better to draw a discreet veil.
A good account of this type of life though in an Aikido setting is given in Robert Twigger's book, 'Angry White Pyjamas'. Through this type of direct personal contact inevitably listening to and watching your teacher inevitably you learn and perceive things that you never could by just attending classes a few times a week. However, many people see, but few observe and fewer still are able to analyse or synthesise these observations. A simple example. One of my senior students who had many times seen me put students through the Tai Chi Bai Shi (ritual initiation) ceremony attempted to help me at one such ceremony by lighting the joss sticks; he lit the wrong end.
As Mr. Twigger points out it is considered an honour to be selected as the master's uke (the person on whom the technique is performed) because only in this way can you learn the feel of the technique at a high level. The greater the pain the greater the honour. Because of this close contact between earlier masters and non-family members, including non-Chinese, famous Tai Chi families have been forced to invent more secrets to make more changes in the Tai Chi which they teach, though not necessarily the Tai Chi which they practice. They want it back, but it's too late. I strongly suspect that the Tai Chi Chuan of the famous families has changed maybe even more than the Tai Chi outside the families and not always for the better.
Let me sign off with a quote from Mencius, "I refuse, as inconsistent with my character to teach a man, but I am only thereby still teaching him."