Finding Sifu

I had joined the Taoist Tai Chi society at Age 16 after a few years of experimenting with meditation and yoga. I had read that Tai Chi was the supreme ultimate martial art. I wanted to be able to defend myself, and I figured that if I learned Tai Chi I would be able to defend myself against bullies, even if they knew another martial art — like Tae Kwon Do, or Karate. In fact I had initially gone to the local Tae Kwon Do school. However, it just did not sit right with me. My heart was set on learning Tai Chi so after the first month I went and joined.

As a matter of fact, some of my father’s co-workers were senior members of the club. This helped me get on the good side of the teachers in the club and I dedicated myself to it. I went to every class.

After the first year I moved to Winnipeg and spent the next two years volunteering in the Winnipeg Taoist Tai Chi Society. I would just go there after school and stay until 8 or 9pm when they closed. I would work at the front desk and when no one was around I would practice Taoist Tai Chi. Although I had avoided weapons forms and workshops until that point (as I was just a poor high school student,) I did try to learn some push hands from the senior members of the club. They were reluctant and showed me something, but with no one to practice and with no real interest from the club that idea died down quickly. I investigated the “Lok Hup” and “Hsing I” and sword forms that the club taught to advanced students, but found them wanting. Frankly, they weren’t very good. I began to feel something missing. I had been told by senior club members by that point that Tai Chi wasn’t really a martial art. I had heard tales of other styles of Tai Chi that had been corrupted, and that only the Taoist Tai Chi society had the real art. I didn’t really understand or accept these statements, being young, but I went with them, being young. But it was when Moy Lin-Shin himself sent a memo to all clubs which was posted to the wall that Taoist Tai Chi was definately not a martial art, and had no martial art in it — that I realized I did not belong in that club. You see what happened was, some schools in Toronto broke away from the Taoist Tai Chi society and Mr. Moy became very angry that his deception had been exposed. He sent out the notice that anyone who practiced any other style of tai chi was to be placed upder suspicion and maybe kicked out of the club. And he was very explicit that it was not a martial art.

Master Steve Higgins wrote an article explaining some of this as the events surrounding all this led to the reformation of the Canadian Taijiquan Federation (link 1) (link 2).

The growth of the CTF in those days was stimulated by the lack of alternatives to the TTCS. Happily, those alternatives exist today. The entire martial arts and Tai Chi landscape has changed. The continuing challenge for the CTF is to adapt to these changes and to continue to serve the needs of the Tai Chi community at large.

Things were a little different in Winnipeg. At least at that time, there was really only the one school of Tai Chi.

Sifu Patrick Kelly

I decided to look up Chinese Kungfu schools in the Yellow Pages. There were two; Temple Knights and the Ching Wu Athletic Association. There was also a Muay Thai club that a friend of mine was interested in, and a Tae Kwon Do school. In those days, Winnipeg only had 600,000 people living in it, so there were not many options. So the choice I made was easy, I went to the Ching Wu Athletic association. The first time I walked in, I saw Sifu David Cliffe practising a form in what you might consider a shuai jiao outfit — kind of like a karate gi on top but with kungfu pants. He told me to come back at a different time because as it turned out it was a holiday (or something) and the school was closed.

When I came back at the appointed time, I was the first one there. And up the stairs came Sifu Patrick Kelly, although I did not know it at the time. He was in a way unassuming and I didn’t realize he was a teacher there. He took me into the front room where there was a desk and I sat opposite him. He asked me why I wanted to learn Kung Fu. I told him I liked Jacky Chan and I wanted to learn how to defend myself. He had a binder with information on different styles. One of them was praying mantis, another was five elders. There may have been a few others. I told him I wanted to learn Tai Chi. He had also asked me if I learned martial arts before, so I told him about my time at the Taoist Tai Chi society. Well by this time other people had started to come in so he asked me to start along with the class. What followed was a pretty standard karate school warmup but then we did wushu line exercises. Kicks, punches, and so forth.

The two forms I was taught were Lohan Shiba Shou — the 18 hands of Lohan, and the Ba Bu Lian Quan — eight step linked fist. I was told these were the two foundation styles of both Eagle Claw and Praying Mantis — and were, overall, excellent beginner kungfu forms. I found the forms challenging but also exhilirating. The requirements of these forms — deep stances, strong endurance and leg strength, power and precision, were at once the same as and also completely unlike the Taoist Tai Chi I had been learning. Over the next several months Sifu Patrick Kelly explained many things to me such as, you must first learn to be hard before you can learn to be soft, lessons about “mothering”, and so on. Many guidance. But the one thing that struck me the greatest is that he expressed the fire of kung fu. There was something about him — something about the way he did his forms — which was special. Apart from others.

Sadly, after only perhaps five months I had to move away for my university. It was a very sad day for me. I won’t forget what he said to me when I left — that it was a pity I had to go because he was just starting to like me. It’s things like this that defined Sifu Patrick Kelly — an uncompromising, almost Killik flair, a precision and a lively energy that shone off of him. I have to this day never met anyone else with the same visible skill as his — except…

In any case, I had made friends at that school and I will always remember those times fondly, even though they are in the past.

The magic begins to fade

After I had left University I went back to visit Ching Wu for a while, but things had changed. They didn’t really teach Kung Fu any more the way they did previously. In fact the people there seemed to have changed their tune and were of the opinion that Kung Fu couldn’t really be used to fight. In stead I was asked to spar with boxing gloves. I did it, but it wasn’t my style, not really. I wanted to go back and continue my education there. But I could not. Also, as I had fallen upon some hard times, I had to give up my practice almost a year earlier. I was not in the best of shape, and when Patrick Kelly came to visit the club, despite my enthusiasm about meeting him and learning again, he was at best lukewarm. It was understandable, as I did not live up to his expectations. I was deflated but not crushed over that. It was more of a push to resolve myself to resume my practice.

Over the next three years I had found myself living in Toronto, struggling to survive as a 19 to 21 year old (or so). I had many adventures in Toronto in those days. I lived in many different places, made many different friends. I had resumed the practice of the two forms Patrick Kelly taught me, and to this day I retain a passing familiarity with them, and will not forget them — but as it turned out I would never meet him again. I do not know what happened to him. And now that I live in Taiwan I have finally given up on contacting him. But, someday, it would be nice to just be able to say thank you. It is important because he was my first real Sifu, if even only for a short time. I recognized his value, somehow, and that had an effect on me which lasted. And for that he does deserve many thanks.

It takes three years to find a master.

I had spent many years touring the Tai Chi clubs of Toronto. Li Lairen, Rising Sun, Andy James, Eddie Wu’s, Ji Hong — you name it — even some other clubs, like Augusta Hung Gar, Hong Luck, and basically everything. If it was taught I visited it. I even rooted out some special gems, like one of Wan Lai-Sheng’s students in Alexandra, and one of Feng’s disciples that was hiding out in Toronto at the time. I even met a monk that did a strange form of internal arts that was like a combination of Sun Style and Chen Style. Never seen it since. But no one ever really struck me as being a match to Patrick Kelly. This doesn’t mean they were not good. In retrospect I might have been better off just going to Eddie Wu’s school — There’s really nothing wrong with that! But it’s just not how things worked out. During this time I spent many long hours in the parks of Chinatown learning from the older generation, following various groups throughout the morning.

I had gotten involved in Taoism and Buddhism as a way to escape my depressing living conditions. I remember attending sunday lunch at the Chinese Buddhist temple near the park, because I did not have any money for food. They gave me some free books. Sutras, I think. I didn’t have a place to live at the time so I couldn’t really keep many things but I held on to those little books for a while. Some of the sutras really appealed to me and were very pretty to read.

I would spend hours in the Toronto Public Library AV section, watching Chinese operas and old martial arts performances. One of my favourites was the 1991 Canadian Taiji and Push Hands tournament which featured a performance by none other than Sifu Patrick Kelly. He was visibly above everyone else on the tape. It was astounding. I would often shed a tear of regret and wonder to myself, “What have I done?” as if all of it was my fault. It probably was, somehow. I could have practiced harder. I could have tried to stay. My life was a failure and I wondered aloud if I had only become a kungfu master instead my life would have been better. My education was a waste. I threw myself into practice even more and would often spend 3 or 4 hours in the park every morning with the seniors. I made progress but it was slow, and there was no one there to really guide me. I fell deeper into depression and almost lost everything.

Life was not working out very well for me. I had managed to graduate Humber College with honors but due to the 1999 tech bubble most people who were applying for the same jobs as I was had many years of experience and I did not. I stuck to my guns about it, and kept a stiff upper lip, but I never did find a job in the computer industry.

Woodgreen Community Center

One day I had heard tale of a Tai Chi instructor in Woodgreen Community Center. Whispers, really. I went to visit and I was utterly astounded. Now, how did I find out? I’m not really sure. It may have been, I was looking for community centers to teach the 24 form in, as a volunteer, as a way to try and build up references for work.

When I went to Woodgreen however, I met two instructors there who had the same if not more energy and liveliness as Sifu Patrick Kelly. They even knew who he was and were fond of him! Apparently he had moved to China and was learning from a master there. Well, that explained why I couldn’t find him.

I recognized the value of what I was being taught but I had a very hard life and I was poor. The fact is I simply could not afford to go to lessons all the time. Nevertheless I practiced hard and within six months I had achieved visible results. Sifu made me demonstrate the form in front of the class but I was mortified with embarrassment so I don’t think I did a good job. But it was experiences like that which defined my time with them. I look back at those days with a certain natsukashiikute — I had spent a long time in the martial arts community of Toronto, visiting various schools — Andy James’ school, Li Lairen’s school, Hong Luck, Augusta Hung Gar, and many others. Finding my sifus was like finally coming home, it was all such a wonderful experience.

Yet, meeting them showed me that in reality I was not yet ready to learn kung fu in the first place.

The Diary of a Failure

In the early years I had tried to learn from Sifu many times and I failed many times because of my karma. Because I was not ready, my life was not ready and needed to be fixed. For a long time I struggled to fix my life. After a long time I was able to return to my Sifus, variously over the years. Finally in 2017 and 2022 I was able to return and finally grasp the most important lessons and to achieve lineage in our family system.

I used to think the most important lesson I was taught was by Patrick Kelly, which is to have the fire to push yourself. Yet now I realize that fixing your life first and taking your time with personal development as well as kung fu development is the greatest lesson. Sometimes, pushing yourself too hard will cause you to hurt yourself. I had never really believed this or understood similar phrases like “reach for the cart before the horse,” but one day I decided that I would accept it even if I did not believe it. It was only then that I realized the truly most important lesson was that I had to fix my life before I would be able to learn kung fu.

Even if you feel sick and horrified that you are not yet good enough, it is no matter, you must relax and take things one step at a time. Panic will not help, it takes time. You can take solace in the idea that walking the road is 99.999% of the art, and as long as you are walking the correct road, does it really matter where you are on it?

“You do not choose a style, you choose a teacher…”

And so I did what I could to just accept the way in which I was taught by my teachers. After so many years, they had made changes to their form. The 20 postures became 24. Moves in Yilu were changed. In fact in the end, I had to learn many things I didn’t want to learn — only to realize later that I actually liked them and to see how helpful they were! It was only when I was able to accept this that I was able to understand everything and make real progress. Not just in Kungfu but in my life. And, I will carry on these important lessons to future generations.

Diary of a Failure (Part 3)

So I had this friend, and he worked hard. No, I mean, he really worked hard. He trained 4 hours a day, then after that he taught classes at his teacher’s kung fu school. In fact for a while I think he had his own school. This guy was in the zone. He started early, maybe around 9 or 10. He was basically a “master”, or in-the-running to become one. He should have easily baishi’d and gone on to carry the linage.

Then when he was 25 he just stopped.

I mean boom, ok, it’s over. No more kung fu.

Ya wanna know what happened?

Really? You want to know what was the big deal?

He realized he would never make any money doing kung fu so he quit and got a normal job somewhere doing something like a chef or bus driver or accountant. You know, adult continuing education. It worked out for him. he has money now. I think, for a while, he tried (like so many others) to cross-over into some kind of functional training/fitness instruction. But in the end he became something like an accountant or a bus driver.

So yeah that’s it. Another life destroyed. Dreams crushed. A lifetime wasted.

There’s no money in this game. There’s no hope.

Fixing your Life

I had a dream. I wanted to be just like my teacher. He was amazing. No, you don’t understand — there was a confidence about him — a strength, a power. When he moved the mountains moved. When he flowed it was the river flowing. I knew, I could see it. It was not like normal people.

One day I had to go away because I was young and I didn’t have any money. It was sudden. I wasn’t in control of my life. But I vowed to honor him, to never forget his teaching, and to remember him and one day to return and show that I was a good student. That I was worthy of being his student.

Decades passed and although I occasionally tried to look him up I was never able to find him again. From what I had heard he went to China to continue his training — not that I felt he needed to, but surely because out of everyone I have ever seen he was ready for it, he was capable of scraping together what little there was left for him to learn and reaching a new level. But over those decades the fact is I was never able to find him again, anywhere. There were whispers, here and there, but he was gone.

I tried to understand. This guy was good. He was better than most head instructors I’d met. But he had either failed, quit, given up or been forced into different waters. I couldn’t help but eventually make the connection between him and I, not in that I have any kind of skill, but that in the end life did damage to our dreams. It didn’t make sense that he wasn’t in the spotlight these days. That is who he was. If he wasn’t out there, it couldn’t have been his choice.

About midpoint, 15 years after I had met him (and a good 15 years ago) I ran into the former president of the New York Go Club. He and I became fast friends and he was a very wise man so he told me the real history of the club and he told me about the dreams, and the reality, of professional weiqi play in America. What he said struck a bell — it was all so similar to martial arts, to my experience and to the sad fate of so many others.

The old man teaching in the school gym. Clearly a master. So old, so unknown. When I looked twice, he was gone. Forced out financially, maybe, too old, maybe dead.

The school on augusta. So well known, so respected. But they’re just not there anymore. Finances. Maybe they are somewhere else, I don’t know.

You know what Mr. Go Club told me? He told me that it was dangerous to get stronger. Many people try and they end up destroying their life.

So I figured, what I had to do was fix my life first. First I needed money. A lot of money. I figured that out early on. What business do the poor have to learn martial arts? This is a truth not for us, but for them. Because you are not in control of your life.

This is the most important lesson I’ve learned. If you are serious about martial arts, stop training and go fix your life first. Otherwise it will only ever be a hobby for you. Then again, maybe that’s all you want. But if you want more, now you need to fix it as fast as possible. It takes a long time to align yourself to this. Personally I feel it was worth it. If I knew this lesson earlier I would have been able to start much younger. But I was always so poor and under-educated about money. I will make sure to teach these lessons to my students in the future, it is so important, not just how to throw punches and kicks!

Diary of a Failure (Part 2)

Almost “Getting it”

It was ten years ago today that my friend finally discovered his own Qi. Good for him. He had a quantum breakthrough understanding of his martial arts. That is good. But several strange things happened over the ensuing years which bothered me. He would complain of strange injuries he would get from forms and pushing hands. He would pull a muscle in his hand while kicking. He would have an inexplicable problem with his hand or arm joints in push hands. In hindsight I view this as a sort of “chi sickness”. My theory is that he was involved in too many arts. He probably picked something up, some sort of general understanding, but it was not deep enough and his familiarity with tai chi (etc.) simply was not there. Many key points of internal and neijia training were simply not there or were very unclear. For example, I remember once when we discussed the importance of forms. He did not understand the concept of why the form was so important. I recall reading the Tao Te Ching, chapters 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 17, and many others, speak of the way to practice Tai Chi. But somehow he did not seem to have learned these lessons, or lacked a teacher who was able to explain them — either in simple terms or from the classics. As a result, he had many troublesome points of understanding. Yet he worked so hard. I wondered, if it would be enough for him. But, the point here is that the basic understanding of theory doesn’t seem to have been taught to him.

No respect for Kung Fu

In retrospect I think I can sum up many of his problems from pulling one idea out of the part 1 post. He had very little respect for traditional ways. In Dai Family Xingyiquan there is a saying, “Three years of standing, and two years of walking”. This refers to the incredible amounts of time required to train the internal shenfa and come to properly express it in taolu. My friend would always say that was bullshit. That kind of attitude never sat well with me. I always felt we should respect the old masters — we owe it to ourselves to try and follow their guidance since we do not know enough yet ourselves. Some things cannot be rushed, and often even when one feels he is making progress, he is not. Sometimes it comes in waves and doesn’t mater what you know or what you trained. It is in those moments I myself have realized that the only thing that mattered is that I was training for a certain length of time, at a certain intensity. Hard work over time. That was the only factor. But before such a realization it always seemed so important what I was training. Perhaps it is a combination of both. One cannot leave out the kung fu or getting it is impossible.

For me, personally, I am scared that if I put in the hard work it will be fruitless. This is because I am older now and if I fail in this try I only will have one more chance, at best. It is different for me than for someone younger. Perhaps being younger my friend had a more careless attitude. Perhaps this youthful reckless carelessness was the culprit. At least, a contributor. For me, to have youth again would be a great comfort because I would have time to devote myself to a wrong path out of love for my sifus — should for any reason I make a mistake in my understanding of their teaching — and would have more time to correct myself.

The Fall

Looking back I can identify the first major fall he took. He began filling in the blanks. Once it became acceptable to him to make judgements about how past masters trained, and the time and effort they put into their kungfu, it became also acceptable to start making things up about how internal arts worked and how they were supposed to function. Since he could apparently “feel his qi”, this made him an expert on almost everything, and he closed himself off from future learning.

I remember one event in particular when we were discussing how jing and shen was taught in taijiquan and he told me that you absolutely must be taught the specific visualizations for the particular series of jings at every stage of the tai chi form. This, obviously, is rubbish to anyone who knows taijiquan at a higher level. There are no such visualizations which are required for anything. There are visualizations, but they are not always specific and not always required. They likely come from other arts like xingyi and were added in later — I’d always known this to be bleed-over from other arts and qigong sets. But he believed it and felt that any tai chi that didn’t have visualizations of jing and so forth was a waste of time. He also didn’t believe in practicing the form for more than one hour a day. It was difficult to talk to him at this point because he was more interested in just spewing out whatever came into his head about tai chi and internal martial arts. It was already too late to reach him. I wasn’t skilled enough to show him either. This was my failing, a failing I one day hope to recover from. It will be a difficult task. One of the things he began doing shortly before the end is criticizing multi-decade Tai Chi lineage holders for how they practiced. I knew then it would not be too long before he gave up. He had lost his connection to the source. Maybe he would land safely in xingyi — maybe he would catch some Dai family and it would shake him up a little. I didn’t know, but I had hope.

Missing the point

My friend began to miss the point. Why was he doing the form? What was it supposed to do, exactly, Why train sword? Why do push hands? It’s just wrestling right? Look at all these people pushing and shoving. This is the way to get what works? Soon he became so disillusioned he had to take a break. I didn’t see him for about a month. When he came back he confided something in me which I will never forget. He told me he didn’t really get it. He told me he didn’t really understand the internal arts. That whenever he got frustrated in push hands against someone who was far above him in skill he would try to win with external techniques — roughing it up a bit so to speak. But strangely, this admission was not an admission of sorrow, regret, or guilt. He had embraced it. He felt he had found the secret. I could not believe how far he had fallen.

There is another thing that struck me about him. Throughout all of this time he would give a running commentary about why people didn’t get internal arts, how they didn’t have a good teacher, weren’t introspective enough, how certain people were no good because of x y or z, how Western people could never understand kungfu and why, and so on. But all of it applied to him. Read another way it was almost a confession. I began to feel sorry for him. If only he would listen to me. I could teach him everything. It was so simple. So easy. All he had to do was trust me. But he had already made his decision, and it was not my place to speak up. I could tell in his heart he was preparing the way for him to admit he did not believe that IMA were even real. And then quit. Probably for BJJ.

The Reprise

My friend surprised me. He began an in-depth study of past masters. He read everything he could get his hands on. He talked with people. He went and met people. Through this he met a sifu he eventually baishi’d to a year or so later. He gave it one last shot. I was relieved. I thought this time, he would do the work, this time, he would listen to his teachers, this time would be different. But shortly after he had begun with his new teacher he began telling me many stories of Chen Man Ching’s secret teachings, secrets of the Yang family, Tai Chi secrets and so forth. Facepalm. Now he was being led down the garden path in an entirely new way. I knew if this continued, when he fell flat on his face he would finally break. This time he would feel lied to, defrauded, and perhaps rejected. Now that he had been let in on some lineage’s “secret” qigong (oh boy… eyerolls extreme…) there was no turning back. If he didn’t “get it”, then it must not exist. Or worse, that the Chinese would never teach their secrets to an outsider.

He really bit in hard. He reversed his position on science being applicable to CMA and qigong, he idolized past masters, and he searched for wisdom wherever he could find it. After all this time he had finally been taught the very basic push hands exercises for ting jin in a somewhat proper manner. No bullshit. But to him it was new, an eye opener. Perhaps because of this he was unable to accept it’s importance.

Some part of him just didn’t agree. Ultimately I think he decided deep in his heart he just didn’t “believe” — whatever that even means. And he said so. He was calm and cool about it. He confided to me my worst fears. All along, he thought the IMA and it’s training methods were complete bullshit. I asked him what he was doing baishi’d into a lineage that did all three major IMA. I’ll never forget his answer:

This (what we do in his school) is real Tai Chi, we don’t go in for any of that “secret” bullshit.

We use force as well as emptiness. It’s yin and yang. Not all yin like those other Tai Chi people. We spar in push hands and we spar using valid techniques from many CMA. (This was a repeat of the embrace of failure mentioned above.)

I was dumbstruck. In one fell swoop he threw out all the traditional training methods, all of the word formulas and songs, the concept of qi, proper relaxation, nurturing the small, mind intent, qigong, and so forth. And what did he replace it with?

Basically? Wrestling, shuai jiao, judo, I guess, in a word. Basically his practice was to mimic the external forms and go through the motions in push hands, until he felt some opening and then use hard, external force to apply technique. He would take moves directly out of shuai jiao or judo and use them with or without the opponent’s consent. He had no idea of “leader” and “follower”. He would just resist, and use the shock of it to distract (feint) and set up a throw. This was ‘fa jing’. He was at this point beyond reach and beyond help because although he had some experience with qi and sensitivity, his tai chi had become permanently corrupted by what he knew from other arts. In a sense he was unable to let go of his other knowledge and learn the tai chi way. He wanted to learn HIS way, which was picking and choosing whatever move, shape, form, or energy he could from everything he knew and putting it into push hands like it belonged there. He didn’t even understand the point of push hands. It was a total train wreck. About this time, we stopped talking. That was many years ago. I haven’t seen him now for many years.

From what I remember he lost a lot of friends over his decision, actually. A lot of the more traditional people he hung out with began to stop talking to him. About this time he would start to go more and more back to judo, aikido, and finally MMA classes. He had made a strange decision, despite being baishi’d, to leave his lineage and study Judo and MMA. Hey whatever works. I am not calling him a traitor and I don’t think he made a mistake necessarily. I don’t want to paint it like that. But I did notice that after a while he stopped blogging and posting about his martial arts. He started blogging about other stuff. MMA, fitness. Playing musical instruments. Going out with friends. After a while like this the blog disappeared. I guess he took it down, didn’t see the point anymore.

Why did he Quit? Why didn’t he get it? Why couldn’t I help him? Am I a fool for believing? Did he know something I didn’t know?

Ultimately as I look back on his life and the things he was involved with I come to three very distinct conclusions about why he quit IMA after being so deeply involved with it. Why he felt it was useless. Why he made a switch.

  1. The culture of IMA, Tai Chi in particular, is not appealing. Frankly it is difficult to find good push hands partners. Many tai chi people do it for health. Etc. Not conductive to your average martial artist.
  2. He simply did not put in the required effort. Unfortunately this is more true than he and even I would like to believe. The fact is, money matters to a lot of people. And as it is said, it is dangerous to try and become stronger. If you fail, can you support your family? Not everyone can train six or even four hours a day. We have jobs and families. For some it is possible but they would rather play their videogames, have their guitar or their piano, or have their friday nights our with the boys. Some people just like drinking and smoking. Some people just don’t really want the kung fu. They would simply rather do something else.
  3. He did not specialize. Kungfu requires specialization and true honestly not just with oneself but a with a deep understanding of the theory and practice of the art. How much history did he know? How deeply did he understand Tai Chi (or any one of the literally 10 different arts he was interested in)?
  4. I was not good enough to demonstrate traditional skills and thus gain the credibility I needed to teach him the proper way. This is entirely my fault and a result of my own poor attitude and poor practice.

In the end I believe these were the three greatest contributions to his failure as an internal martial artist.

Within a year or so after getting involved with MMA he quit MMA and closed his blog. He doesn’t come around here anymore. I don’t even know if he lives in Taiwan anymore.

I wish I was strong enough to help him or to show him a better way. But I am not strong, I am just a beginner.

Diary of a Failure (Part 1)

A certain friend of mine, who started on down a similar path of honest exploration and development in world of Chinese Internal Martial Arts, shall remain nameless.

He had studied under several people who should have otherwise known what they were doing.

It certainly seemed as if he was checking all the boxes. Doing all the forms. Pushing hands with all the right people.

But over the years, I began to notice a serious problem developing. And then came the end. He gave up Tai Chi and began practicing what might otherwise be called external martial arts.

Without getting into too many details I will record my general impression of what happened based my observations and conversations we had over the years.


One, this post isn’t finished yet. Two, this is not about one person in particular. Three, the purpose is to shed light on my own failures in life. I wouldn’t call it autobiographical, but rather a cautionary tale. An Aesop’s Appledog’s Fable.

Did not recognize the value of learning more than one form of Taijiquan.

No biggie. But I noticed it. I personally know three different styles of Taijiquan and within that I know at least two different forms in each style. I can tell you that I have received incredible value in each style. When I initially went from Yang to Chen I thought I could leave Yang style behind forever, but I was wrong. I now see value in some of the moves that merit practice. Then when I learned Sun style I thought it was next to useless, but as I learned it I realized how valuable it was. I also have learned variations of several forms, especially in Chen style and moreso in Yang. I see incredible value in these experiences. However, this person did not at the time see any value in more than one or two long forms. I will also point out that this person showed a strange lack of awareness and appreciation for the history and development of Taijiquan as it was passed down through the Chens, Yangs, et cetera, through the Japanese invasion, Cultural revolution, etc.

Even if you do not concurrently practice more than one style of Tai Chi, don’t sell yourself short; don’t get stuck in a rut. Sometimes, perspective is everything.

All over the place in other arts.

Perhaps most striking considering the above was his willingness to explore non-taichi arts; practices such as Yoga, Xingyi, Bagua, whatever. You name it! He eventually found himself baishi’d into a lineage that practiced a series of different martial arts as well. Not suprising. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, it can be done. But based on what I was able to glean from his forms, he did not have a firm foundation in the theory and practice of the basic shenfa of the arts he was practicing. I would say he had a wide but not deep experience with the arts he did. The lack of depth began to show in strange and unexpected ways. Several of the things he commented on showed a lack of experience and knowledge one would expect from someone who had done a lifetime of research into the available material. For example, he apparently was one of the “doesn’t believe in qi” people. I am certain the amount of cross-pollination he was willing to do was limiting his development in any one style.

Fundamental lack of information and knowledge of Qi.

One of the most striking things I picked up on was that this person talked about the arts like they had absolutely no idea what Qi was, even going so far as to give a throw in of support of sorts with the Martial Tai Chi/Joanna Zorya crowd. This was the first major red flag that something was up. Someone in this person’s position should have already reached that level of development. The confusion over it told me something was very likely wrong with the training regimen. The funny thing is that he told me that he has felt qi before, but with the caveat that qi is subjective, and that what he has felt he doesn’t want to explain because it’s different for everybody. In a way I am still undecided on his qi experiences, but remaining unsold in this case would be a strike against him here. The final weight was the way in which he would ask questions and puzzle over certain topics as if he didn’t know the answer and then, in the end, fail to provide a clear and strong answer to that same question. When I see people doing this I call it “puzzling”, or “fishing” for answers. I feel that they do it because they feel unsure about what they know, which tells me they haven’t put in the time and effort to figure it out, or haven’t been taught properly, or both. Of course, I can’t see into his stomach so I don’t know what he really ate. Just an impression.

Strange Fascination with applying Western Science to Chinese Martial Arts

Over and over I noticed that a lack of knowledge of the traditional way was being replaced by (or fueled by) a desire to re-examine the traditional way and understand it in the manner of western scientific thinking, Western sports-medicine knowledge, and so forth. I will explain another time why this is a damaged approach in order to keep this post short. Remind me if I forget.

Promotion of “Free-form Shoving Hands” in the guise of Push Hands

Several times he would comment that what amounted to yanking, bracing, clinching and and shoving was good push hands. A second major red flag. This is particularly ironic since he claimed to have some skill and success in push hands when practicing vs. various people (despite his inability to produce or feel qi). However again I will caution that when pressed he seems to give an explanation of push hands which is in-line with what it says in the classics. It’s odd, that there seems to be a sort of blind inclusiveness to his writings on push hands — as long as it isn’t direct force against force with tension supporting the force, it is useful.

Fascination with Technical Details

One thing which popped out at me was a repeated over-analysis of technical details, which showed me he was stuck at a clear-force / obvious expression stage.

See: part 2 (next)