A Master Passes
A Tribute to Cheng Man-ch'ing
By Robert W. Smith, 1979

On hearing that Cheng Man-ch'ing had died suddenly in Taiwan on March 25, 1975, my reaction was one of disbelief. Even knowing that he was 75 and that he had energetically graced several fields of endeavor for so long couldn't dull this edge of disbelief. But a fact is a fact: Cheng has, as old Taoists say, 'changed.' He may even have had a premonition of the approaching change. I have been told that he had been working twenty hours a day on his study of the I-ching, (The Book of Changes) treating patients, and teaching T'ai-chi. His teaching style had changed. Where earlier he guided tersely, slowly, and sometimes by indirection, recently he had expedited the training and taken a more active part in it. The hectic pace of these activities - so like him - suggest that he was aware of the limited time remaining to him.

Life is anything but even. Yang Sen, the old Szechwan warlord, is now 94 in Taiwan, full of years, with many wives, and reportedly, 43 children. Yan has nothing to teach (despite his purported yang/yin powers) and is alive. Cheng who had much to teach is dead. And yet it seems to me that the Professor's greatest teaching is that each of us has to do it for himself. He always said that there were no secrets; he couldn't give us a pill. There was only the work of relaxing and sinking (and we know how hard that is), or 'investing in loss' and thereby winning by losing. And these are better than the fact I spoke of above: These are truths.

During the week in which the tiny 12-line notice headed 'Artist Cheng Dies at 75' appeared in the Taipei China Post two other stories were given full treatment. One, headlined 'Local Kung-fu Fighter Overpowers U.S. expert' told of a local screen boxer who outpointed a young American none of us had ever heard of. The Chinese, of course, claimed he could beat Muhammad Ail. In the other story, Chinese martial artists were deriding two Americans who spent 18 months studying, labeled themselves 'Masters of Kung Fu,' and returned to the USA One now had over 300 students in California. Do you wonder why I cringe from commercialism? Our 'kung fu' heroes today with their trampolines, sound effects, trick cameras, and public relations prostitutes have so little knowledge that most would not even recognize the high skill Cheng possessed. But we knew it. Put it this way: there was not only nobody equal, there wasn't even anyone second to him.

The sadness of all this is that one of the last of the giants is gone. Each generation sees more of the brilliance of real ch'uan fa die. It is not nostalgia that puts Yang Lu-ch'an far above Cheng-fu, and he superior to Cheng. There is much credible evidence establishing this sad decline. Professor Cheng acknowledged this. He wanted to advance but circumstances when he arrived on Taiwan from the mainland prevented it. Perhaps his genius in other fields also impinged on his desire. He did not have the skill of the Yang's but he was a more complete man that any of them. Maybe he knew what Bizet meant when he said of music: 'What a glorious art; what a hideous profession.'

Cheng wanted to be more than a T'ai-chi master. And was. When I met him in 1959, Professor Cheng was already on the wrong side of 60, but not showing it. I had been told that his eyes were very high, that he was independent almost to a fault, and that he was a Chinese traditionalist. So that I shouldn't expect much from him. Add to the difficulty, I, too, was fiercely independent. But what I got from the outset and down more than fifteen years was the quality Mencius made so much of - jen, loving kindness. He could be impatient; he was never with me; he sometimes could not suffer fools; he smilingly suffered me. And all this for a man who wanted no guru except love. He knew I was studying not only his system of T'ai-chi but he himself. I used to ask the same question (how my questions must have tired him!) from a different vantage on different occasions. He would smile (probably thinking: "Smith and the same old question!") and answer.

The main thing I wanted to elicit from him was simply: what can T'ai-chi do for character? This it seems to me is the toughest question of all. He had waffled on this I thought in his Thirteen Chapters by saying that it depended on the person. I sought to draw him out on it and was able over the years to establish that Yes, T'ai-chi, by relaxing not only the muscles but the organs themselves, would quiet a person. That once quiet and secure (sinking into rooted centered-ness) a person should be in a position where anxiety could make no inroads. This should then out in jen. In Thirteen Chapters he was only citing reality: many do T'ai-chi as an exercise which, even if they become very skillful at it, is never carried over into their workaday lives. His message was that this is incomplete T'ai-chi. Of course that wasn't the only question, merely the most important. I asked him endless questions on the postures and on pushing-hands (how I wish we could term this 'sensing-hands!'). And he was always forthcoming. I never got all my questions asked. As I tried to level out the mound atop my desk today I found a note to myself to ask the Professor. It concerned some words written in 1939 by Theos Bernard, the yoga adept:

"The body is most vigorous, active, and strong and the spirit is most brisk and lively when the sky is serene and unclouded and the wind east, north-east, or southeast. Warm dry air is superior to cold moist air. Humidity causes morbidity. Intense cold is bad - it obstructs vessels." unasked question that there's no one left to answer. I wanted to ask him how important these climactic conditions were for us in practicing T'ai-chi. Life is essentially an existence of unanswered questions.

Ah, the memories. . . In Taiwan my wife went with me once to a Sunday practice. After watching a while, she asked the Professor to push her. He compiled by lightly maneuvering her off the wall. She came back to me smiling by unawed: 'It was OK,' she murmured, none too enthusiastically. He watched well. And he was watching then, sensing her indifference. Walking over, he asked me her reaction, and truthful to a fault, I told him. Whereupon he took her by the hand back to the wall and pushed her again. This time she ran back to me (one of life's sweetest pleasure is to have a comely woman run to you), her eyes sparking, her words tumbling over one another. 'It was so strange,' she said, 'when he touched me I felt an electricity-like surge go throughout my body but without the shock.' He had followed her over and laughed at what she said. 'She felt that because she was relaxed,' he explained. That bothered me. 'But I've practiced for two years and I can't feel it,' I complained. He laughed again, 'Women,' he said, 'have an advantage over men. They are inherently more relaxed. You must work hard to get where they start from.'

Once I made the mistake of taking an American nidan in Okinawan karate to meet the Master. The American was singularly unimpressed by what he saw. He wanted a test. So the Master signaled to a student who faced the karateka. He faked a high kick, the student's arm started up; the foot flashed down, the student slapped it lightly while stepping inside and touching the American's heart. Dead, he failed to realize it, for he went away scoffing at T'ai-chi. I apologized to the Master later and he waved it aside: 'One must be kind to blind men.' The inevitable sequel: I took the lad to a Shaolin friend of mine and left him to his ministrations. A week later I saw him. He had discontinued. Why? "Damn it, those guys wanted to fight!" Unappreciative of the "soft," afraid of the "hard," this one doubtless is still thrilling them at cocktail parties with his dance. Fighting it is not. The Master was strong on a sound foundation. A good teacher, a good system, and a healthy body could not but equal success. Lacking any of these, the results would be less.

He had told me that T'ai-chi develops a tenacious strength quite different from the force associated with most fighting arts. This tenacity may be likened to a strong vine which is pliable; force, to a stick which is rigid. Tenacity comes from the sinews: force from the bones. Tenacity is always to be preferred over force because it springs from the ch'i. He said all this. but often my Western boxing background would obtrude, my faith would flee, and I would dub all of it as exquisite nonsense. Sensing my unbelief at times he would flesh out the skeletal theory with techniques which stunned. The most recent time this happened may be of interest.

A few years ago in my home in Bethesda, Md., I had a couple of my students on hand: typical rational, skeptical, clever, ignorant attorneys. They kept insisting on a demonstration and he couldn't have been less interested. But when I spoke of his fight on the mainland with the famed Wu Meng-hsia, he warmed a bit. We spoke of this in the context of tenacious energy. He asked me to attack him. I did, he dodged in, deflected, struck me lightly. He had done this before. But this time he didn't stop the attack. Both hands were in my eyes, on my throat, all over my midriff and at the same time his feet peppered my legs. It was so beautifully orchestrated that I couldn't turn from it. I backed frantically until I came to the wall where, after taking his finger from my throat, he desisted. Informal and friendly it should have been but frightening it actually was. Against that there was no defense. I told my two students later that it was so quick, so concentrated that I actually felt fear during the onslaught: I wanted nothing other than to get out of that room. It must have been contagious: they both said they too wanted out. Strange. I am convinced that no one has ever been struck more quickly and often in a short space of time. Fortunately, he put little energy into the strikes.

He had on other occasions. One such that I have never before told occurred in Taiwan. A well-known mantis boxer surnamed Liao from Hong Kong once came to Taiwan to try conclusions with the locals. He traded punches (the accepted challenge method) with a leading pa-kua/hsing-i teacher and his free punch put the local man down to his knees. The local boxer did not hurt Liao with his punch so the affair had to be adjudged in Liao's favour. Strutting out of the park where this occurred, Liao asked if Taiwan had any other boxers. Someone mentioned Cheng's name. So Liao accosted Cheng at a party. Cheng resisted the challenge, saying that the place and time were inappropriate. Liao persisted until Cheng invited him to his house a day or so later. Liao came and watched demonstrations of T'ai-chi dynamics. But he wasn't satisfied. 'This is interesting, Liao said, 'but what would you do if I attacked you?' Cheng replied that he would attempt to push him away. Liao, by this time convinced that the small man before him was afraid to fight, retorted that it would be well to get ready for he was about to attack. At this point, Cheng said 'Very well, but if you even see my hands move I'll never call myself Cheng again' (to give up one's name is a serious thing which most Chinese would commit suicide rather than do.) Liao attacked him from 15 feet with a combined foot-fist action. Those watching did not see what happened, only its results. Liao first was on top of Cheng striking, next he was propelled backward by an unseen force, and bounced off the wall unconscious. Those who were there will never forget it. Liao himself took it in good grace. Revived, he stayed on and studied T'ai-chi for a time. But before he went back to Hong Kong he returned to the park to see the man he had defeated earlier. That one casually told Liao that he was getting ready to challenge Cheng Man-ch'ing (the same - he had not heard of the Liao-Cheng confrontation). Liao said: 'Don't bother. I've already been there and lost.' I tell this not to romanticize the Master but to show that the art has both body and function.

One visit to New York City in 1964 was especially instructive. The Professor, Mrs. Cheng, and I were alone, muddling along in a linguistic wilderness; between her inadequate English and my inept Chinese, getting about fifty per-cent of what was said, but all of us hugely enjoying the experience. After practicing we spoke of breathing. It should be natural, the Professor said, and must not be forced. He placed my hand on his abdomen (he had a small pot there that he continually tried to erode with his circular massage but to no avail) and I felt it expand as he inhaled. Then he took the index finger of my other hand and placed it under his nose. As his belly contracted he exhaled. But I didn't feel the exhalation. Or put it this way: I think I felt an extremely light and wire-fine beam of air emerging, but to be truthful I may have imagined it. That is why I can't really say I felt the exhalation. I don't know which is more astounding: the crystallization of the exhalation or the absence of it. Either way, it was an impressive performance.

Next we moved into tien hsueh (the art of attacking vital points, which normally he wouldn't talk much about. I had known that, preparing for an anticipated return and challenge from Wu Meng-hsia, he had gone into special training in tien hsueh from two teachers in Nanking. So starting from there we got a good discussion-cum-demonstration session going. This part of our discussion that day, however, is best left unelaborated. But what stands out in my mind about that day even more than the breathing and tien hsueh was what happened at the end. I had been doing some postures and asking about rooting. From his couch he motioned me over to sit beside him. Then he told me to push him against him in any way I wished. So I pushed his wrist, elbow, shoulder, waist - in fact, wherever I could find a vacancy. He neutralized all my efforts without a root, that is with both feet off the ground. He had a root, of course, but it wasn't the feet. He simply rooted another part of his anatomy through the couch to the floor and was thus able to pivot and neutralize from that point. This revealing demonstration was one which started me believing that he was nearly invulnerable.

What capped this ideas was an afternoon very recently when after a Szechuan luncheon with copious drafts of cognac and stories of Tu Hsin-wu being done in by Shorty Tzu we repaired to the Shr Jung Tai chi chuan Study Group Head-quarters. He led me back to a wall and we pushed-hands for ten or fifteen minutes. If anything. his touch had more authority then in 1974 than it had fifteen years before in 1959. Later that night he did some pushes with other from disadvantageous postures with explosive trigger force. I was standing, watching him push with a Shr Jung lad and talking to Stanley Israel and suddenly where there were two pushers now the Professor was alone and his partner was hurtling at us, seeming to gain speed the further from the Professor he got. We jumped out of the way in the nick of time and this boyo sailed past. We quit talking and paid closer attention. (My typist had just read this and asked 'Why didn't you catch him?' I told her that that is the point of the story. We scurried out of the way because he looked to be coming to hard and fast to do anything for him except get out of the way.)

He left us a lot of himself, his teaching and philosophy. And he left us guidelines, a way to gauge our development. (I almost wrote 'progress.' But there's a problem using that word in T'ai-chi lexicon. T'ai-chi is a circle: how do your progress in a circle? You see the problem.) In the chapter 'The Process of T'ai-chi' in Thirteen Chapters he delineates these bench- marks. He used nine levels grouped in threes under three divisions: MAN, EARTH and HEAVEN. Encapsulated, they were as follows:

MAN relaxes sinews, vitalizes blood.
1. Relax shoulder to fingertips
2. Relax legs by single weighting
3. Relax sacrum to scalp

Earth sinks, nourishes, moves the ch'i.
1. Sink ch'i to tan-t-ien
2. Move ch'i to legs and arms
3. Move ch'i past sacrum to scalp

HEAVEN is a state of sensory and spiritual functioning.
1. Ability to hear partner's inner strength
2. Ability to understand partner's inner strength
3. Ch'i transmuted to pure spirit

Now, before we ask the two most pressing questions - at which level was Professor Cheng, and where am I? - let me expand the shorthand above and summarize as best I can what he meant at each step.

In MAN (1) we relax the sinews in our arms in this sequence: wrist, forearm, shoulder. If we become soft, it will improve our blood circulation.
In MAN (2) we differentiate the weighted and un-weighted foot and coordinate the opposite hand to the weighted foot. This weighting involves the pelvis and is the only way to relax the lower body.
In MAN (3) we soften the waist and relax the joints so that the relaxation goes past the sacrum, softens the spine, and rises to the scalp.

In EARTH (1) we take the relaxed body and sink the ch'i to the tan t'ien. This is done by slow breathing and 'perching' the mind (i) at the tan t'ien with the breath. It takes a long time and much perseverance.
In EARTH (2) the ch'i which has been gathered and nourished at the tan t'ien is moved down the thigh to the knee and foot, then down the shoulder to the elbow and wrist.
In EARTH (3) we become able to move the ch'i through three gates up past the sacrum to the scalp. Don't force it or illness will ensue. At this stage a knowledgeable teacher is indispensable.

in HEAVEN (1) we are able to 'hear' our partner's inner strength - that occurring in his sinews. His external strength can be managed at a lower stage, but to hear and act on his internal strength takes much longer. Only by soft 'sticking' hands can we detect this supremely subtle strength.
HEAVEN (2) is a giant step in which we not only hear these inner changes, we 'understand' them before they occur and can act appropriately. (1) is tactile but reactive (2) is sophisticated and initiatory. In a real sense we hear our partner's mind before he actually uses it. At this level we go beyond his sinews and tap his membranes and organs. When blood is detected surfacing or when his ch'i is detected being withdrawn from the liver area we know that he will act or withdraw, respectively. This level is so profound it is as difficult to discuss as it is to comprehend.
In HEAVEN (3), the acme of the art, mind depends solely on spirit, no on ch'i. In a preface to Yang Cheng-fu's book (issued by his son Yang Shao-chung) in the late 1940's, Professor Cheng told now he learned from Yang the meaning of the enigmatic phrase from the Classics, 'Without ch'i, your inner strength is steel.' This seemed a paradox: after all, was not ch'i the basis of T'ai-chi? Yang taught him that there was no paradox, only a great change. Ch'i is necessary - without it there can be no change. At this level one looks 'spongy and spiritless; but has everything. Your spirit guides you where you look, there your ch'i goes.' But, Cheng said, a beginner will fail if he attempts this; it is like trying to 'wring water from a flint.' This is the ultimate stage of spiritual mastery and knows no limits.

Professor Cheng ended the chapter by saying we must follow process step by step without deviation. By following the rules laid down by Chang San-feng and Wang Chung-yueh, he said, he hoped he could outdo them and thus help others. Did he succeed? Clearly by his own admission, no. Family responsibilities and the claims of painting, medicine, and his other arts prevented him from going as far as he wished. But he did quite well. I would put him at HEAVEN (1), that is, level 7. Others might not agree. He put himself lower in the 1950's, but he continued to develop and I believe he told me in 1962 that he was at level 7, thought the remembrance is too vague for me to assert it as fact. For that reason, I leave it as my estimate. Yang Cheng-fu I would put at level 8, and Cheng admitted having only one-tenth of his ability. Because the differences in levels are geometric rather than arithmetic, this assessment seems to jibe with my estimate. What about us? It breaks my heart even to think about it - so I won't. In fact it may be a good idea to forget the steps and simply continue our regular practice. It's all there, needing only us. When we add ourselves to it, the synthesis produces an alchemy. Let the alchemy take you in a couple of decades, if you like, look at the chart again. But don't let it look large now.

This, of course, is written primarily for a T'ai-chi audience. Beginners and others may not understand some of it. Some will scoff at the description of the upper levels. Let them. Poor souls, they never knew Cheng Man-ch'ing. The Master brought me to a new art form, a new life style (to use Adler's term) by which I could rediscover my body as a tool of expression. It is as no other. Other fighting arts brag they are defensive: T'ai-chi asserts that it is yielding. When others miscall their systems soft, T'ai-chi responds that it is softer - it is nebulous. When others with fire in their eyes say theirs is masculine and powerful, T'ai-chi is off somewhere doing its postures, breathing in life, its mind turned toward something infinitely greater than fighting: namely, living. But it pursues its "meditation in movement" blithely unafraid. For no one will attack.

I mentioned above he had been cut down in full bloom of his creative process. And this quality - creativity - he was able to keep and improve right up to the end. Simon Magus, the great mystic, said that all of us have the latent powers of the high gods and by creating we grow like them and into their being. Cheng did that all his life. In turn, we must be creative. We must learn not only the T'ai-chi exercise but also that which lies beyond- the T'ai-chi life. We must heal all wounds and welcome back those who grew away. We must reduce our egos and our desires. In this way we can be creative and energizing. Professor Cheng would have smiled on this first step we take without him. For, masterless man that he was, he knew that there is no creativity without love. . . As I write, an old line rampages: 'I would not have you monks of whom there are many, but men of whom there are few.' Number in this latter lot Master Cheng Man-ch'ing.


----Retyped by David Chen, 1999