February 2001 (Part 3)


Taijiquan combat

Sifu Wong and Jeffrey Segal in a sparring session during the intensive Taijiquan course in December 2000.

Question 1

How is it that Yang Lu Chan used Chen style Tai Chi Chuan to beat all challengers when he used mainly “Grasping Sparrow's Tail” which is not in Chen style according to the Chen form shown in your book. “The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan”? Where did that pattern originate?

— Jeffrey, U.S.A.


Thank you for your perceptive questions.

What Yang Lu Chan practised was Chen Style Taijiquan. The Chen style patterns he used to beat all challengers were “Lazy to Roll Sleeves” and “Cloud Hands”.

Later when he taught Taijiquan in Beijing, he modified his Taijiquan to suit his students. All good teachers did (and do) this. For example, what I teach now is quite different from what I learned from my sifus. But the essence is the same.

During his time Taijiquan was just called Taijiquan, and neither the terms "Chen Style" nor "Yang Style" was known. But if modern persons were to see Yang Lu Chan perform his Taijiquan, they would probably call it Chen Style rather than Yang Style. Yang Style Taijiquan was formalized only after his grandson Yang Deng Fu.

"Grasping Sparrow's Tail" in Yang Style Taijiquan evolved from "Cloud Hands" and "Lazy to Roll Sleeves" of Chen Style. In the Pekinese dialect of the Chinese language, "Lazy to Roll Sleeves" and "Grasping Sparrow's Tail" sound quite alike, although the written Chinese words and meanings are different.

Taijiquan historians believe that originally it was called "Lazy to Roll Sleeves" but over time it was written as "Grasping Sparrow's Tail". The actual movements of the two patterns also gradually became different, although the essence was the same.

When masters reported that Yang Lu Chan used “Grasping Sparrow's Tail”, they were using language provisionally. We ourselves often do that too. The purpose is to convey meaning without being unnecessarily verbose. The meaning so conveyed may not be exact, but it is within a reasonable range of acceptability.

For example, I mentioned that Yang Lu Chan taught Taijiquan in Beijing. This is not exact, because the term “Beijing” was used only recently. Earlier it was called Peking. The term “Peking” is also not exact, because during Yang Lu Chan's time it was called “Jingcheng”, which means “capital city”.

Similarly the statement “Yang Lu Chan lived in China”, while true, is not exact, because there was no China during Yang Lu Chan's time. Even today, if you mention “China” to the Chinese people, most of them would not understand you, because they do not call their country “China”, but “Zhong-Guo”. And during Yang Lu Chan's time it was the Qing Dynasty, not Zhong-Guo.

Question 2

I have read a lot recently about Bak Mei. Various masters state that during the Qing dynasty the government hired Bak Mei stylists to destroy the Shaolin Temples. When the war was going on, 90% got killed by the Bak Mei people.


The Qing Army destroyed two Shaolin Temples. The first one was the southern Shaolin Temple at Quanzhou in Fujian Province. The Qing government hired mercenary Lama fighters from Tibet. These fighters used Lama Kungfu, which later developed into Tibetan White Crane Kungfu and Hap Ka Kungfu.

Among a few Shaolin masters who escaped were Ng Mui, Pak Mei, Chee Seen, Fong Tou Tak and Miu Hein, who were later known as the Five Shaolin Grandmasters.

Chee Seen built another southern Shaolin Temple at Jiulian Shan (Nine Lotus Mountain), which is also in Fujian Province. Pak Mei went to Ermei Shan (Swan Eyebrow Mountain), and Fong Tou Tak to Wudang Mountain. Ng Mui spent much of her time in Yunnan, and Miu Hein in Guangdong.

The style of kungfu from Chee Seen is now generally known as Southern Shaolin Kungfu, while that from Pak Mei as Ermei Shaolin Kungfu, and from Fong Tou Tak as Wudang Shaolin Kungfu, but usually shortened to Ermei Kungfu and Wudang Kungfu. The term “Pak Mei Kungfu” became popular only recently.

Unfortunately differences arose between Ng Mui, Chee Seen and Mui Hein on one side, and Pak Mei and Fong Tou Tak on the other. Politically, Ng Mui, Chee Seen and Mui Hein wanted to overthrow the Qing, whereas Pak Mei and Fong Tou Tak supported the government.

Pak Mei's distinguished disciple, Kuo Chun Chong, was the military commander for the two provinces of Fujan and Guangdong. Led by Pak Mei and with the help of Fong Tou Tak and their followers, Kuo Chun Chong and the Qing army destroyed the second southern Shaolin Temple at Jiulian Shan.

Shaolin followers were defeated in both Shaolin Temples at Quanzhou and at Jiulian Shan not because Lama Kungfu or Pak Mei Kungfu was better, but because of sheer number. The Shaolin followers were out-numbered by about one to ten. Moreover, they were trapped by fire and ambushed by arrows.

Question 3

They claim Bak Mei undefeatable by any other style. I wonder what your opinion is on Bak Mei Kung-Fu.


There is no such a thing as an undefeatable kungfu style. If it were so, all informed martial artists would practise that style. Of the Five Shaolin Grandmaster, the best fighter was Ng Mui, a woman, and not Pak Mei.

Nevertheless, if all other things were equal, one particular style may be superior to another. For example, a style that employs internal force is superior to one that uses only mechanical strength. A style that employs all modes of attacks — such as strikes, kicks, throws and grips — is superior to one that mainly uses only one mode, like only throws or only kicks. However, an expert in an inferior style would be a better fighter than a novice in a superior style.

Pak Mei Kungfu is a superior fighting art. It was specially developed by Pak Mei to fight the Southern Shaolin Kungfu of Chee Seen, and its hallmark is the phoenix-eye fist for striking vital points. But this does not necessarily mean that a Pak Mei fighter is better than a Southern Shaolin fighter.

Personally I prefer Southern Shaolin Kungfu to Pak Mei Kungfu. There are many reasons for my choice, and one of the most important is my kungfu philosophy. While combat efficiency is important, other considerations are also significant. To me, Pak Mei Kungfu is mainly geared to fighting, whereas Shaolin Kungfu offers a complete programme for personal development.

Pak Mei Kungfu is deadly; it does not bother with those technique which do not kill or maim. Hence, its range of techniques is limited — very few holds or throws, for example, but its limited techniques, such as a strike to the solar plexus or throat, are highly effective and destructive.

In contrast, Shaolin techniques are marked by compassion. Instead of striking an opponent's throat, a Shaolin disciple would hold his neck under control but without seriously harming him. Instead of breaking an opponent's arm, he would press the arm to the ground.

Pak Mei Kungfu emphasizes internal force training, but it is tailored to destroying an opponent. In Shaolin Kungfu, besides its use for combat, internal force is used for enhancing vitality and mental freshness.

Pak Mei Kungfu

An old photograph showing the Pak Mei patriarch, Sifu Cheong Lei Chun, performing Pak Mei Kungfu

Question 4

I'm really interested in the fighting part of Tai Chi. Your writing helped me a lot. So my teacher said I had great techniques and they look very nice when I do my traditional form. But he can't see any energy behind the movements.

— Harry, Germany


To get the benefits of Tai Chi Chuan as an internal martial art, you have to learn from a master. If you learn from a book, even if it is a very good book, you will learn only the external forms, missing both the internal as well as the martial aspects.

Performing the techniques, even when you can perform them well, is performing the external forms. You may please spectators, including your teacher, with your beautiful forms, and you may get benefits like balance and elegance, but you will neither have internal force nor be able to fight. You are therefore practising Tai Chi dance, and not Tai Chi Chuan.

Question 5

Is Tai Chi Chuan also effective as a martial art without energy? I don't know how to produce the energy while doing the form. It's very hard!


Every effective martial art must have some energy management methods. This is only logical, otherwise how are you going to fight. Hence, any martial art, including Tai Chi Chuan, is ineffective if you have little or no energy.

Different martial arts use different methods and principles in managing energy. Most martial arts, like most styles of karate, taekwondo and kickboxing, use mechanical methods, such as jogging, skipping over a rope, push-ups, lifting weights, punching a sandbag and kicking a pole.

From the Tai Chi Chuan perspective these are low level methods because not only the energy attained is limited by physical factors like age and size, the methods themselves are also detrimental to health. It is detrimental because its underlying principle is to condition your body to endure excess work.

For example, let us say your body is capable of doing 150 units of work, but you condition yourself to do 180. Because of conditioning, you do not feel the strain although you are over-working.

Tai Chi Chuan manages energy by training directly on energy and on mind. Employing various methods, a Tai Chi Chuan exponent harmonious his internal energy flow, and increases his energy level, as well as attain a calm and clear mental state.

The underlying principle in Tai Chi Chuan energy management is to increase your capacity of work. Let us say your present capacity is 150 units. Gradually and systematically you increase your capacity to 250 units, but you are advised not to stretch to your limit in performing work.

With this increased capacity you can now perform 200 units of work more efficiently than when you performed 150 units before your energy training. Tai Chi Chuan methods are superior because not only the energy acquired is not limited by physical factors but it also promote health and vitality.

There are many methods in Tai Chi Chuan to manage energy, and performing the forms is one of the methods. One can develop quite remarkable internal force by merely performing Tai Chi Chuan forms. But you are unable to do so simply because you are not practising Tai Chi Chuan; you only perform Tai Chi dance. For you it is not just hard, but impossible.

Let us take an analogy. If you perform gymnastics but call it swimming, it is impossible for you to swim even though your gymnastics may be very beautiful to watch. People can tell the difference between gymnastics and swimming, and therefore would not be confused, but not many people can tell the difference between Tai Chi dance and Tai Chi Chuan. Hence, Tai Chi dance students and their teachers may be dancing beautifully but still wonder why they cannot defend themselves.

Question 6

What is your opinion of Yan Xin Qigong? My college has a club, and I would like to start, but only if you say that it is safe and effective.

— Jonathan, USA


Grandmaster Yan Xin is one of the greatest qigong masters of the world today. He has performed feats which many people would considered impossible, such as transmitting qi across great distance, changing the molecular structure of liquids, and helping patients overcome their so-called incurable diseases by merely talking to them!

However I am not sure of Yan Xin Qigong taught by other people. Understandably there is a great gap between qigong taught by Grandmaster Yan Xin and the same type of qigong taught by his followers. This is quite inevitable, and the situation is applicable to all other great masters. It is not because the masters did not share their secrets, but because very few people put the same amount of time and effort to their training as the masters did.

Yan Xin Qigong is a very high level qigong. It is safe and effective if you learn from qualified instructors. Any high level qigong can be dangerous if you learn from unqualified persons. To overcome this problem so that the public may practise it, such qigong is sometimes taught at a much lower level. The benefits obtained are of course of a much lower level too, but at least the students are safe.

Clubs teaching Yan Xin Qigong have produced a lot of useful, scientific writings on qigong, and their members include highly professional people, like top scientists and professors. They are leaders in sincerely hoping to bring the wonderful benefits of qigong to the modern world.

Three-Circle Stance

Some students employing the Three-Circle Stance for Zhan Zhuang training during the intensive Taijiquan course in December 2000.

Question 7

I have practised Karate for 3 years. After reading a book on Zhan Zhuan Chi Kung, I became interested in the idea of using this art to help me relax in my fighting as I have the habit of becoming rigid like a robot when sparring.

— Kevin, Suomi


Becoming rigid when sparring is a common problem with most martial art students, irrespective of their styles. Practising chi kung is an excellent solution to your problem, but in my opinion, zhan zhuang chi kung is a wrong choice, especially if you learn on your own.

Even students learning from qualified instructors become tensed after remaining stationary at their stance for some time. Although the instructors are qualified to teach, they may not be experienced enough to notice their students' tension, especially emotional and mental tension.

Even if they notice the students' tension, the instructors may not be skilful enough to guide their students to throw the tension away.

The instructors may tell their students to relax, yet the students cannot relax. But when a master tells them, they would be able to do so. Why? Aren't the instructors and the master doing the same thing? Apparently they do the same thing, but actually they are not.

Although the verbal instruction may be the same, giving it at just the right time, in the right tone, and with the right force and conviction make a great difference. Instructors do not have the masters' skills and confidence.

Question 8

Now, however, I feel that chi kung is an end in itself, and I would like to pursue it purely for the purpose of enhanced well-being, increased energy, and such benefits this art offers.


Speaking relatively, chi kung is an end itself, i.e. you practise chi kung for its sake and not just for relaxing or sparring well. Yet you will be able to be relaxed in your sparring — this is a bonus.

On a higher level, chi kung is not an end itself, but a means to make your life and other people's lives more meaningful and rewarding. In other words, you do not end at having well-being and increased energy, but these benefits enable you to get more from your daily work and play.

Question 9

However, the book I read showed the standing exercise first, hands by the sides, followed by hands in front of the chest. Both techniques are to be followed for at least six months to a year before the student may begin the Ba Duan Jin exercises. I read in one of your previous articles that the latter should come first, followed by the standing exercises.


It is inadvisable to learn zhan zhuang from a book or a video. You should learn from a good teacher who himself demonstrates the benefits that zhan zhuang is reputed to give. If you learn without personal supervision from a qualified teacher, you are likely to develop harmful effects.

Different masters adopt different approaches in chi kung training. I would strongly recommend practising Ba Duan Jin before attempting zhan zhuang. This is not only safer, it will also enable you to get better results in shorter time. The presumption, of course, is that you practise both types of chi kung correctly.

Question 10

For a month now I have been practising the first standing exercise for 5 minutes every day, trying to focus on dan tian breathing. After about six weeks I am supposed to stand for ten minutes and so on until I can stand in this position for 20 minutes without difficulty after approximately 6 months to 1 year. I don't expect any quick miracles, but I do wonder if I am doing things the right way.


You are doing things the wrong way. I do not know which book you follow, but if there is nothing mentioned about dan tian breathing in zhan zhaung, and you add it thinking that it would enhance your training, you are trying to be smarter than the master who described the zhan zhuang instructions in the book.

Both zhan zhuang and dan tian breathing are advanced exercises which should be practised under supervision. But because there is little external movements involved, many people mistakenly think they are easy. They are actually difficult exercises, and it is easy for students to make mistakes unknowingly.

If you are a beginner practising zhan zhuang on your own, you should leave out dan tian breathing. Even when you practise just zhan zhuang, you should proceed cautiously. If you attempt these two exercises at the same time, you are asking for trouble, and when trouble comes you may not realize it is due to your wrong training.

What is the trouble like? It may manifest in numerous ways. You may feel more tensed instead of being relaxed, more agitated instead of being peaceful. You may have pain in your chest, back or legs. These are the lesser trouble. More serious trouble include distortion of hormone production, being excessively aggressive, and vomiting blood.

If you proceed methodically, such as accompanied by spontaneous chi flow, you should be able to stand at your stance, especially the Three-Circle Stance, which is one of the most popular zhan zhuang exercises, for 20 minutes after 6 months of training. And when you spar with your friends, they will find you surprisingly powerful. But if you practised wrongly, you may be a physical or emotional wretch after six months.



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