Liang Tzu-peng

Liang Tzu-peng (梁子鵬, Liang Zi-peng (1900-1974) was one of the most important teachers of Chinese martial arts of the 20th century. He started learning martial arts as a boy as his father thought they would strengthen his body and spirit, and lay the foundations for a successful life. Born in the southern province of Canton (Guangdong), he moved north to Shanghai as a young man, starting work as a clerk in a western company. Here he joined the Jing Wu martial arts association, one of the first public martial arts institutes in China (immortalised in the Bruce Lee film “Fist of Fury”). All the best teachers were invited to teach here and Liang trained particularly hard in Eagle Claw kung fu which was taught by the “King of Eagle”, Chen Zi-zheng. Liang is said to have studied at least 30 styles of hard boxing as well as a myriad of Shaolin weapons forms, all to a high level, to the point where he could learn new styles just by looking at them.

Over time, Liang’s interest slowly shifted to internal styles. Liang heard about You Peng-xi, a man with a deep knowledge of tai-ji, ba-gua, and xing-yi, who had also studied Yi-quan from its founder Wáng Xiangzhai. Unable to obtain an introduction, Liang went to visit You, challenging him arrogantly. You invited Liang to grasp his wrist – the favourite technique of Eagle Claw practitioners – but Liang was unable to do so. Admitting defeat, Liang became You’s student, but after so many years of studying hard styles he found the standing training (Zhan Zhuang) uninspiring. Later he became addicted to it. Years later, Liang later told Mr Moy that he regretted having spent so much time studying hard styles as a young man.

As a youth Liang had looked down on Tai-ji but after he began training with You he began to see it in a different light. Liang studied Tai-ji from fellow martial artists, without having a formal teacher. He preferred yang style, which is what he later taught to Mr Moy.

In Shanghai Liang studied Liu He Ba Fa (Lok Hup) under Wu Yi-hui. Liang studied with him only a short time, leading to allegations that he learnt only the first half of the set from Wu and “made up” the second half, but it seems Liang told Mr Moy that Wu required people to adapt the second half of the set according to their knowledge of other styles (this statement should not be interpreted as a license to interpret Lok-hup in whichever way one wishes).

Wu nicknamed Liang “The lark” 百靈鳥 because of his lightness skills: Liang could jump a foot higher than his own height.

In 1946, seeing the situation on the Chinese mainland deteriorating under the communists, Liang decided to move to Hong Kong which was still a British colony. You Peng-xi, being a famous medical doctor, was not permitted to go with him but told him: You have to make my Yi-quan famous. In Hong Kong Liang did not join the Jing-wu but taught Lok Hup and Yi-quan at home in the evenings, and in the parks. Two of his students were Sun Di (孫秩 Sun Zhi) and Moy Lin-shin, who were martial-arts brothers. Sun Dit participated in the open fight competitions where he became known as “Sun the Unbeatable”, a testament to the martial efficacy of Liang’s teachings.

In Hong Kong Liang taught for free because he had a job. He asked his students to call him Mister Liang rather than Shīfu (師傅 (master)) because he wanted to change the relationship between master and student. Mr Moy continued this practice, saying “No more masters”.

What did Liang teach?

In Hong Kong Liang taught Lok Hup Ba Fa (六合八法)and Yi-quan. His main training methods were the “Three Treasures of Southern Yiquan” (南派意拳): the standing postures (Zhan zhuang) (站樁 – Stand like a Stake), the don-yu (蹲腰), and the tor-yu (拖腰), which includes Push Hands (Tui-shou 推手).

References

Most of the information in this article is contained in the book The Complete Book of Yiquan by C.S. Tang (2015). This contains lots of information about the standing postures of Yi-quan (with photographs) which I have never seen elsewhere.

Dragons are everywhere

Dragons seem to be everywhere at the moment. This is today’s Google doodle, celebrating the red dragon of Wales. There are many legends about it. One says that the villagers near its cave were frightened of the dragon until St David befriended it – it turned out to be vegetarian.

Another legend says that the red dragon saved the villagers from an ice dragon that was terrorising them. After the battle the red dragon returned to its cave to hibernate, and has not been seen since.

The Green Dragon on a Chinese tile. Photo credit: 沃德利成書畫院

In China dragons are always auspicious. The green dragon (qīng lóng) even has a constellation named after it. This constellation rises in the Eastern sky in the springtime (the dragon “raises its head”), signalling, or perhaps even bringing the spring. For anyone living in one of the big coastal cities on the east coast, the dragon would thus emerge from the waters of the East China Sea.

The Taoist arts are full of references to dragons; in Taiji sword there is a beautiful move called 青龍現水 “Green Dragon Appears on the Water”, whilst in the Lok Hup set there is even a move called 蟄龍現身 “Hibernating Dragon Shows Body” (Chinese dragons hibernate just like Welsh ones). Dragon energy is about lengthening the spine, often with a coiling motion; typically the head is lifted up.

Do the Taoist arts have references to red dragons also? They do. One of the last moves of the Lok Hup set is called 赤 龍 攪 水 “Red Dragon Stirs Waters”. It was Mr Moy’s favourite move: a smile always appeared on his face when he played this move.

The five animal forms

Sometimes in Taiji we hear talk of the Five Animal Forms and the Eight Animal Appearances. What does this mean?

The animal appearances are attempts to mimic aspects of an animal’s movement, for example, the rounded back of a bear. An old example of this is the 五禽戲 Wu Qin Xi or Five Animal Frolics, said to have been created by Hua Tuo during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). This qi-gong sequence is still popular today.

Mr Moy brought with him a later system which spoke of eight animal appearances and five animal forms. What are the forms? These are attempts not to mimic the movement of an animal, but to embody one of its qualities, such as balance. Talk of the Five Animals in Chinese martial arts is not confined to Taiji or the Taoist arts. The place one most often hears them mentioned is in Shaolin Kung-fu. But Kung-fu and Taiji both work with the same five animals: the tiger, the leopard, the crane, the dragon and the snake. The term used in Chinese is wǔ xíng 五 形 which means five forms.

The first animal is the tiger . Tiger stands for the strength of the bones, and in this regard we should remember that healthy bones are flexible. In Taiji the tiger particularly references the pelvis, and the opening of the pelvic bowl.

The second animal is the leopard bào. The leopard pounces on its prey, sometimes springing from trees. This requires springiness in the tendons: the leopard stands for the elasticity of the tendons. The tendons rest on the bones – the first animal.

The third animal is the crane . The crane has balance and stillness. It conserves energy. Its long limbs, like those of the gibbon, enable it to “gather” more qi, because long limbs lead to a greater separation of ying and yang.

The fourth animal is the dragon lóng. The dragon embodies presence and clarity; its movements are majestic. It stands for the lengthening of the spine. It is vertical. In taiji, it references the don-yu, which is sometimes called the dragon squat, and the circulation of energy along the mid-line.

The fifth animal is the snake shé. The snake stands for flow. It especially manifests in the snaking of the spine.

The order of the animals is significant. In taoism the animals are trained from yang to yin. The tiger is the most yang, and is trained first; the snake is the most yin and the most difficult, and is trained last [1].

Eliot Kravitz MD, who worked for many years alongside Mr Moy, points out that all animals are present simultaneously. In Chinese culture, this is implicit in the term wǔ xíng, which has two different meanings. Here it is 五 形, the five (animal) forms, but it could also be 五 行, often translated in the West as the Five Elements (because it reminded us of the Four Western Elements). In Chinese it’s often hard to tell if a character represents a noun (a state) or a verb (an action). Translations which emphasise the latter are the Five Agents or the Five Processes; a compromise translation is the Five Phases.

Credits:
[1] 5 animals, 5 appearances on shaolinwingchun.com
[2] images: Shaolin Wahnam Institute, Vienna

New Wednesday morning beginners’ class

We are starting a new beginners Tai Chi class after Easter at the Silver Road Community Centre on Silver Road (the old Silver Rooms), beginning on Wednesday 26th April 2023. The class runs from 10am – 11:30am – please get there around 9:45am the first time you come.

There is some 2 hour free parking on Silver Road and Silver Street, but not much – you may have to go up to the top of the hill and park on Crome Road (near George White School), which is outside the controlled zone.

Classes cost £4 and you can pay-as-you-go. Existing students are welcome to come to this class as well.

You don’t need any special equipment or clothing. Some people change into a pair of light training shoes.

Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West

西王母 Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, was the mother of the Weaving Maiden 織女 (zhi-nu). In older texts however, it is Xiwangmu herself who weaves. Wang-mu can also mean grandmother or ancestral mother; Xiwangmu is an ancient mother goddess. She lives in the far west on the mythical Mount Kunlun (after which a real mountain was later named). This mountain is an analogue to the Garden of the Hesperides of Greek mythology. Like the golden apples of the Hesperides, the peaches which grow on Xiwangmu’s sacred tree confer immortality, and are the gift of Xiwangmu. The Jizhingshu or “Bamboo annals” – an ancient chronicle of China which describes events up to 299 BCE tell how King Mu visited Xiwangmu on Mount Kunlun, where she made him immortal. Xiwangmu confers immortality.

In the image at left we see her riding a tiger. However, the Shan Hai Jing (“Classic of Mountains and Seas”), which dates to the 4th century BCE, describes her as having a human face but a tiger’s body and teeth, and a leopard’s tail – a fierce, shamanic figure. She is attended by fabulous creatures such as a nine-tailed fox and a three-legged crow.

The head-dress she wears is a sheng. Whilst the sheng was a common object in ancient China, only Xiwangmu is ever depicted wearing one: it is her “attribute” (just as St Peter is always depicted with the keys of heaven, or Saint Catherine with a broken wheel).

Sheng is also the horizontal axis of the old Chinese loom, around which the warp threads were wound – the oldest depictions of the head-dress show such an axis. Sheng thus marks Xiwangmu out as a weaver. She is a weaver of fate, like the three norns of Norse mythology: a cosmic weaver; the magpie (crow) is one of her familiars.

A woman wearing a hua-sheng (flower sheng) in a Chinese costume drama

The connection of the head-dress with a loom seemed a bit far-fetched until I stumbled across this image of a Dutch girl in traditional dress in the KLM in-flight magazine. The form of the head-dress is far too particular to be purely decorative, and its resemblance to the sheng is very striking.

Laurelle, Zuid-Beveland NL – photo © Jimmy Nelson 2021

The text in the Shan Hai Jing is difficult to translate, but Xiwangmu controls constellations, including the “Grindstone” – a reference to the Pole Star, about which the sky turns. Her tree is thus a world tree, and she is its guardian.

Xiwangmu is also herself associated with the 7th day of the 7th month. A tale from the Western Jin period (266–316) tells how Xiwangmu visited the emperor who was on a quest for immortality. She took with her seven peaches, and gave five to the emperor. He ate them but kept the stones, which he wished to plant. Xiwangmu just laughed, telling him that the tree only bore fruit once every three thousand years. In these legends we see how the Weaving Maiden’s attributes as a weaver and her connection to the Festival of Sevens were originally aspects of her mother, who is a much older goddess.

You can read more about Xiwangmu in an excellent article on suppressed histories.

A modern image of Xiwangmu by 白树是我呀 showing her splendid sheng (head dress).

Just one thing

Dr Michael Moseley is well known as a TV presenter and more recently for his radio programme “Just One Thing”, which suggests simple things we can do to improve our health. In a recent episode, The surprising health benefits of Tai Chi, he explored Tai Chi! Dr Moseley looks at scientific evidence for the health benefits of Tai Chi and concludes that “Tai Chi can significantly enhance the activity of our immune system… [and] was as effective as conventional exercise for reducing body weight and visceral fat!”

The programmes are just 15 minutes long – which was also how long he asked his volunteer to practice for every day (students please note!). Listen to it on BBC sounds.

How do you say that? China’s many languages

Chinese characters

Chinese characters are not symbols like our letters, but pictograms – line drawings. Here for example is a person, rén, which shows a person standing (on two legs):

And here is the character for a king or emperor, wáng – the three lines representing him joining heaven (the upper line), earth (the lower line) and the human world (the middle line):

Being pictures, these characters (unlike words in Western languages) don’t tell you how to say them. You just have to learn them, character by character.

Mandarin and Cantonese

China is a huge country with a population in excess of one billion people. Whilst everyone uses the same characters, different peoples within China say these words differently. Sometimes it’s just a small change in pronunciation – a dialect – but sometimes the difference is so great that the word can’t be recognised. In other words: China has different languages, and there’s no such thing as “Chinese”.

The language of government, spoken in the capital Beijing (in the North), is Mandarin, although it only became the official language in 1930. But our teacher Mr Moy came from the south of China; he mostly spoke Cantonese. His most important teacher, Liang Tzu-peng, lived in Hong Kong and also spoke Cantonese. Most of the words they used when teaching were Cantonese and not Mandarin.

So how do we write down Cantonese pronunciation in English? Cantonese has some different sounds to Mandarin, and pinyin doesn’t even work. The Cantonese have therefore developed their own Cantonese Pinyin but most people use an older system called Yale (because of a link to Yale university in the US).

Here’s an example, a word Mr Moy used a lot: yao in pinyin but pronounced yiu in Cantonese. Normally translated waist, the closest word in English is midriff – it refers to the whole area of the body at waist level, including all the insides, especially the kidneys and the lumbar spine. How did Mr Moy write it? He didn’t. His students wrote it down the way it sounded to them; they wrote yu. We’ll talk about the yiu more when we discuss the two most important foundation exercises of Mr Moy’s Tai Chi, 蹲 腰 the don-yu, and 拖 蹲, the tor-yu.

Resources:

Tai Chi, T’ai Chi or Tai Ji?

There’s no simple way to write Chinese sounds in the characters we use in the west (a process called “romanization”, a reference to latin and the Roman Empire).

For a long time the most widespread system in the English-speaking world was one created in the 19th Century by two British diplomats, Thomas Francis Wade and Herbert Giles – the Wade-Giles system. This relied on a mark resembling an apostrophe called an asper to show whether or not a sound was aspirated (made with a breath, like the beginning of the word ‘happy’).

The big problem of this system is that some people were too lazy to use the asper. For example, 太 極 T’ai Chi, has become Tai Chi. What could be wrong with that?

The problem is that we now can’t tell the difference between chi, and an even more important character for Tai Chi players: c’hi, which means energy or vital breath – the Chinese equivalent of the sanskrit prana, the greek pneuma or the hebrew ruach.

These problems were overcome in the 1950s by a system developed by the Chinese themselves called pinyin. The new system re-purposed the letters q, x and z, which hadn’t been needed in the Wade-Giles system, to represent some of the different sounds. T’ai chi became Tai ji, and c’hi became qi. (On this blog, words written in pinyin are coloured teal).

It’s a brilliant solution, but it was too late for us: 太 極 is still written (and pronounced) Tai chi in English, rather than Tai ji, meaning that the confusion with qi (, energy) may last forever. Personally I try to pronounce it Tai ji, when I remember.

This isn’t even the only confusion that we face: there is actually no such language as Chinese – the country has many different languages. We’ll talk about this in the next post.

Resources:

  • on Zhendic, an online Chinese (Mandarin) dictionary

As precious as jade

The movement 玉女穿梭, Fair Lady Weaves Shuttles literally describes the lady not as fair, but like jade. Jade refers to inner qualities as well as outer ones, and to describe a woman as like jade is to say that she has both beauty and grace. The character for jade, is very similar to the character for emperor, . Jade is a royal stone, known as the Stone of Heaven. It was more highly valued than gold (“Gold has a price; jade is priceless”) and was said to have mystical powers, such as the power to ward off evil.

Two different gemstones are known as jade: jadeite and nephrite. Jadeite has the subtle green colours which we associate with jade today. The first jadeite arrived in China from Burma only in the 18th Century. The Qianlong emperor became fascinated, some might say obsessed with this material, importing tons of raw jade to be worked on by stone carvers and engravers (lapidaries) who often inscribed chinese characters directly onto the stone. The emperor’s collection is said to have run to a million objects!

Nephrite on the other hand has been known in China for thousands of years. It too was highly valued: imperial seals could be made from jade nephrite, but not those of court officials. When Qin Shi Huang unified China and established the Qin dynasty in 221 BC, a seal was carved from a sacred piece of jade nephrite called the Heshibi. The Heirloom Seal of the Realm served as the imperial Chinese seal for the next millennium, until it was lost; its possession was seen as a physical symbol of the Mandate of Heaven.

A jade nephrite seal from the Qianlong period which sold at auction in Paris in 2022 for €914,400. The Qianlong emperor had 1800 such seals.
A 3000 year old jade ring disc or Bi which the Qianlong emperor had inscribed with a poem.

You can learn more about the Qianlong emperor (but not about jade) in an episode of Radio 4’s A History of the World in 100 Objects.

In the next post we’ll explore the famous Chinese story behind the name of the movement Fair Lady Weaves Shuttles.

Plum blossoms

Prayer of Japan (Cherry Blossoms), © Reiji Hiramatsu 2012

In the Far East, cherry and plum blossoms are highly appreciated not just for their beauty but as harbingers of spring. Japan is known for its special appreciation for cherry blossom (sakura). The viewing of cherry blossom has such importance in Japanese culture that there is a special word for it: hanami. Emperor Saga held the first cherry blossom viewing party in 812, over a thousand years ago. For the common people, the appearance of the blossom was a sign that the god of rice had come down from the mountain and that it was time to plant rice.

Of course, the blossoms soon fall and for the Japanese cherry blossom is a symbol of the transience of all things. The viewing of the blossoms is thus bittersweet, evoking a feeling they call Mono no aware, the “pathos of things”.

Before Emperor Saga’s hanami the Japanese used to view plum blossom (ume), which bloomed earlier – a custom they are thought to have adopted from China. Unlike cherry blossoms, the plum blooms whilst it is still winter. Plum blossoms are thus a symbol of hope.

This is all very well, but what does it have to do with Tai Chi? Take a look at the photographs below.

Like cherry blossoms, plum blossoms have five petals but the petals have a rounder shape. For Tai Chi players the shape of a plum petal reminds them of the end of a finger, viewed end on, and the plum blossom is thus the image of the whipping hand in the move Whip to one side. The five petals are arranged evenly around a centre, presenting a model for the shape of the hand. For Taoists, being in harmony means being in harmony with nature and the movements are full of references to animals, birds and plants. Tigers, lions, dragons, snakes, eagles, cranes, swallows, water lilies and blossoms all make their appearance, together with the sun, moon, and stars, inviting us to draw inspiration for our practice from nature.