Hi Jeff, Bamenwubu, Yuri, Stephen,
Thanks for starting a new topic. Jeff said: “Hopefully, Taijiquan won’t get left out. I have a sense of urgency in that currently there seems to be adequate technology for documenting many of the phenomena demonstrated by accomplished masters, but after this generation passes, this opportunity may be lost. I just don’t see many younger practitioners (under 60) carrying on the skills of the older generation.”
I don’t believe that anything is ever lost. If one person discovers the cure for cancer and then dies before publishing, I don’t believe that means it will never be found. There are just too many people looking for that to be likely. There are so many people delving into the complexities of tai chi chuan that I don’t believe it will die out or be lost.
I do hope that everyone will record what they can of the current masters—stories, footage, scientific recordings. The old stories are wonderful, but I suspect there are those out there with skill but much reticence.
I think tai chi is becoming more mainstream. I do see a lot of interest in the medical community for exploring the health benefits of TCC. The health industry has jumped on the bandwagon of TCC being good for the elderly—for preventing falls and stress if nothing else (the rest of the health benefits seem to be catching on more slowly, probably because it’s hard to test scientifically). I’m not saying that the benefits of TCC are impossible to test scientifically, just that it’s hard.
I would love to see a long-term study of a dedicated group of tai chi students. I want a well-designed, well-funded study that goes on for, say, at least 20 years. But there are so many variables! To get the sample size big enough you’d have to track people all over the world from different teachers b/c even the best teachers might only have a small core of students who manage to stick around for 20 years. And then there are all sorts of other variables that would be hard to control for.
But because tai chi is of such interest, I don’t see why a biophysicist, or whoever, couldn’t write a successful NIH grant to the Department of Alternative Medicine (or whatever it’s called) to study 1) the current masters and 2) that long term study of students. After all, complicated medical studies happen all the time.
With regard to the on-going loss of the accomplished masters, the Chinese have a saying that’s something like: every generation is a diminished version of the one before. I don’t know enough about the culture to say for sure, but there seems to be a way that longing and nostalgia for a lost Golden Age (the time of the Yellow Emperor) permeates the culture.
Every culture has its version of Eden and the Fall from Grace, but it doesn’t have to signify that everything is going to hell in a hand-basket. Saying that each present generation is worse than the ones before may be emblematic of a cultural pessimism, but maybe it’s also supposed to be inspirational and/or a geas on the current generation to work hard and not shame the ancestors. Sure this can be a major guilt trip, but it could also be saying: work hard, we know you have it in you to be great, greater than us, as great as the mythic heroes of the past.
Like Bamenwubu, I have hope for the future of tai chi chuan. Then again, America has a strong cultural metaphor about creating a future better than the past. This lends to hope for the future, but also a tendency to disregard the lessons of the past. There’s a great deal of enthusiasm about tai chi here and elsewhere in the world. I believe this enthusiasm for possibility, combined with greater numbers of more classically trained Chinese masters teaching outside of China, is going to yield some good results.
I think that tai chi chuan will exist for quite a while yet because it’s an art with depth enough (hoo boy!) to transcend barriers imposed by culture, distance, language, and time. It still speaks to people, and until it no longer does, it will have its adherents. And when I say art, I’m not talking about the kind of art that has connotations of “wussy,” “artsy-fartsy,” or tai chi as “mere dance.” I’m talking about gong fu, skill expressed as martial ability—the same physical, mental, spiritual discipline it takes to be great at any art.
I’ll agree that our information age schedules don’t leave much time for the average practitioner to practice—but there are still those who manage to find the time to advance. There are even those lucky few who have hours and hours to practice in the traditional way. It may take us longer to obtain skill because we may have less time for practice in this busy post-industrial world—but we also have more time on our hands with increased longevity. A couple centuries ago, one could expect to live to 30. Now three times that is possible, particularly when practicing tai chi.
It’s true that perseverance balances out talent in the end. But the word is balance: talent also balances out perseverance. So while it’s true that most people have difficulty putting in the long hours necessary to gain true skill, it’s also true that more people in the world practice tai chi chuan than ever before, so the art is reaching more talented people. Talented people capable of mastering the complex nuances of tai chi exist in all countries, and will have a hand in preserving and developing tai chi chuan.
In fact the sheer numbers of people practicing right now—from the people with no natural talent but high perseverance, to the highly talented people with lax practice habits, to every possible permutation in between—will preserve the essence of the art. There will always be people who dabble, or try it and say it’s not for them. Maybe for every 1000 people who take up tai chi chuan, only one will “get it,” by which I mean understand the true essence of the art and have a great deal of gong fu. But the field feels large and vibrant. So I’m not too worried about it finding that one in a thousand, because there are millions currently practicing.
It’s true that many accomplished masters are aging and dying. But many of them did manage to train their children, grandchildren, disciples, and students. It’s also true that many of those people and most of us don’t have/haven’t had as much time for practice as is necessary: but you said it yourself: we’re under 60. In tai chi years, we’re infants and still have plenty of time to improve.
I believe that a good teacher is essential—but there comes a point where instruction comes from within, from personal exploration of the internal energies and how to apply them externally. A dedicated student with a good grounding in the basics should continue to improve even if their venerable master has passed on, provided they have received good instruction in the first place, and are willing to practice.
What was it Master Yang Zhen Duo said? Something like, “For myself, I want you to be better than me. Practice more.” He seems to be suggesting that one could gain such deep understanding through dedicated practice that one could, conceivably, surpass even his skill as the lineage holder of the Yang family. The lineage has plenty of stories about masters who train diligently on their own after having learned some basic skills and come back with great skill. Those may be apocryphal, but all legends contain some measure of truth.
On a different track: somewhere in Bamenwubu’s previous discussion about necessity being the mother of invention, the idea of art for art’s sake was left out. There are certainly martial artists (emphasis on artist) who practice religiously because they feel drawn to in the same way that painters must paint, and writers must write.
I practice because the art speaks to me, and I can spend hours and hours mulling over the proper way to do this movement or that…I suspect we all do, and it’s not about personal survival, financial survival, or tradition. While I wish to survive, I could buy a gun; there are easier ways to make money, and in fact, I have a day job; and tai chi is not the tradition of my ancestors (though I do wish to honor the ancestors of my tai chi lineage). I practice because of the joy it brings me.
As for the attitude, held by some, but not all, Chinese that Westerners cannot get “it”—well, I think we must look at that attitude in a greater historical context. After all, for millennia China, quite rightly, considered itself the center of the civilized world. The majority of the Chinese people have been politically isolated for centuries and the 20th was no exception. Their government, like all governments, has an interest in telling its people that they are the best and everyone else is not.
The American government also has a history of encouraging jingoistic beliefs about moral superiority. Just look at the way most Americans have no conception of Iraqi or Middle-Eastern history or our country’s long involvement there. The President spouts stuff about the “Axis of Evil” and the media tells us repeatedly how bad and evil those foreigners are. Can individuals be criticized for what they are spoon-fed by their government? Can we criticize Chinese tai chi practitioners for buying into a deeply held cultural myth of superiority, one that is actively encouraged by their government? Where Western influence is considered “contamination?”
You’re right, most Chinese have never met a Western tai chi practitioner. And even if they have, the Westerners who the means to fly to China and visit, much less pull up stakes and go live there to study, are not necessarily the ones who are the most skilled or have the greatest potential. But I think that tai chi practitioners are trained to have an open mind. And if a Westerner who’s “got it” visits, I don’t doubt they’d revise their opinions—at least so far as to say “Here’s an anomaly: a Westerner who gets it!” But where one anomaly exists, more are possible, and so there’s a wedge inserted in the idea that Westerners can never “get it.”
Those Westerners who started studying in the 70’s and 80’s are something of an anomaly because they started their studies so much earlier than most. The rest of us have a lot of catching up to do. The Chinese who meet the visiting tai chi practitioners who’ve been practicing for one year or five can honestly say, “They don’t have it.” I agree. Most of us don’t have it—YET.
Stephen said: “I do think it is very possible that their culture can conspire to condition them in such a way that they have a head start….But I also believe that I am not limited in any way culturally to what I can achieve in the art.”
I agree with this too. I think that cultures do tend to shape people, and can certainly influence things like body shape, how well people move their bodies, how they think, how they use their chi, how flexible they are, what parts of their bodies tend to be restricted, etc. There are always exceptions, of course.
For example, I’ve heard that people who still work the land, or spend a lot of time walking really know how to walk: how to stay rooted at all times, how to keep their center of gravity low, how to maintain balance, how to shift weight quickly so the don’t fall if they hit a slippery patch. I’ve spent time in parts of Asia where flip-flops are the main footwear. Just learning to walk so they don’t fall off all the time is a trick, much less mastering the arts of not-splashing-mud-on-one’s-calves, and maintaining-tracktion-when-acending-and-descending-muddy-hills-with-wet-feet.
When I look around where I live, I can tell that most people keep their chi up higher, around the solar plexus, and don’t sink it down. But then, Americans drive around more. We don’t move a lot compared to people who walk to work every day. I think some cultures just have more practice moving, and that bodies get trained in different ways according to the needs of the culture.
But like Stephen, I don’t think anyone from any culture is limited. Some cultures may have a head start in one aspect or another, but all people carry tension and need to practice “song.” In America we don’t have great models of people who just walk around with their center of gravity low. Sometimes if you go to your local Chinatown (assuming you have one), you can spot the martial artists among the old men b/c they have a particular shuffling gait, that’s lower and has more of a knee-bend to compensate for keeping the torso relatively still, centered, and upright. They don’t lean forward as much when walking b/c each step is not a controlled fall. It’s more cat-like—testing the water first. This is close to the “flip-flop walk” I’ve seen.
Some cultures also get more practice using listening energy. All cultures have unspoken body language, but some cultures use it more than others, and train their people to read it more carefully. Americans really like things spelled out: if you want something, say so. If you don’t want to do something, say so. If someone’s bothering you, tell them. This works pretty well until they run into someone from a culture that thinks those sorts of behaviors are the height of rudeness and relies a lot on body language—then we see all sorts of crossed wires and misunderstandings.
Well, that was really a lot! Sorry for being long-winded. I’m looking forward to your responses.