The professor

I can’t let the new documentary on Professor Cheng Man Ching, one of the early pioneers of Tai Chi in the West, slip out without giving it a mention on this blog.

chengmanching_sword

Much has already been said about it, so there’s not too much more to add, except that I haven’t seen it yet, and I might blog again after watching it, because it will probably stimulate some thoughts.

Cheng Man Ching is one of those contentious figures who splits opinion. By being one of the very few people in the US publicly teaching Tai Chi in the 1960s, and thanks to the gushing endorsement in books by his student Robert Smith, and his ability to push big, heavy Westoners around with comparative ease, Cheng very quickly achieved a big reputation.

 

Cheng modified the Yang Tai Chi form he learned from Yang Cheng-Fu, creating one of the first short forms of Tai Chi. His Tai Chi also had a distinctive look compared to his teachers – in (I believe) an effort to stick as closely as possible to the writings of the Tai Chi classics, he changed some of the postures slightly, adopting a more upright body, and a softer hand and arm position. Some would say his Tai Chi was too soft, and his influence is responsible for the typical ‘soft like a noodle’ style of doing Tai Chi often found in the West. But if you watch  him do his form, you can see that he looks solid as hell. He exudes the ‘peng’ quality of energy rising upwards and outwards, and being rooted in the legs.

Undoubtedly he was an example of what happens when a small fish in a big pond suddenly becomes the only fish in a very small pond, but he was also a skilled practitioner of Tai Chi. Of that there can be no doubt. Was he also a world class martial artists? No, probably not. Did his students put him on an unrealistic pedestal? Yes, undoubtedly they did. But that’s what happens with human beings. We’re like that with people we admire.

You can watch the trailer here:

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3 thoughts on “The professor

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve seen this film three times and heartily recommend it to one and all — even non-tai chi practitioners.

    It should be pointed out that Cheng’s reputation as a martial artist long predated his arrival in the West. Robert Smith studied with him in Taiwan in the late 50’s, and a fair sampling of what Chinese martial artists had to say about him can be found in Smith’s book “Chinese Boxing, Masters and Methods.”

    I first heard about Cheng from Ron Taganashi, a well-known NY-based Nisei Goju sensei of the 60’s and 70’s. Taganashi told me of a famous Goju practitioner (whose name I will not repeat here) who visited Cheng in his Canal St. school in 1964, and challenged him. Cheng demurred but the fellow insisted, and so Cheng invited him to hit him in the arm as hard as he could. The man warned that he could break 10 inches of wood with one reverse punch, but Cheng only repeated the invitation, whereupon the karateka struck Cheng’s arm repeatedly. Cheng lifted his sleeve and revealed an intact arm with just a little reddening in the area that had been struck. The man went away thoughtful but on the whole unimpressed.

    The next morning upon awakening the karateka found that he could not raise his arm above his belt. He returned to the school and knelt before the Professor, asking to be accepted as a student. Cheng replied, “You would have to go all the way back down your road before you could start on my road.” He treated the man’s arm and sent him on his way.

    The interesting thing here is that this story circulated in karate circles, not among tai chi enthusiasts or Cheng Man-ching acolytes. The gentleman in question continued to visit Professor Cheng’s school through the years that he taught in New York, and told the story openly to his own students.

    Of course, stories, no matter what the provenance, can never be definitive. But a viewing of the documentary “The Professor” reveals one undeniable sign of Cheng’s greatness: his charismatic ability to bring and hold together as strong a collection of egos — many of whom had been champions in other martial arts (one was even a guard at Riker’s Island) — as have ever studied anything under one roof. Very soon after his passing, they scattered to the four winds, many becoming prominent tai chi exponents in their own right. But only Cheng had that mysterious something that could hold them together.

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