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Chen Man Ching -- the Birth and the Marketing of Tai Chi Chuan in the U.S.


ChengMan-ching-rooting
Chen Man Ching demonstrates rooting, probably in the 1930 or 40's.

Chen Man Ching was one of the first notable people to bring Tai Chi to America. He was born in 1902, studied some Tai Chi before meeting and becoming a student of Yang Chengfu, historically known as the most famous early teacher of Yang Tai Chi. Chen studied with Yang Chengfu for six years.

By 1946, Chen Man Ching had developed his own short version (37 movements) of Yang Chengfu's long Tai Chi form. He performs it in the video below.

He moved to New York City in 1964, no doubt causing quite a stir since Tai Chi was mysterious at the time. In 1967, he teamed with Robert W. Smith and T.T. Liang to write a book about Tai Chi. He died in 1975, but by that time, as Tai Chi teachers are bound to do, he became a legend.

I am grateful that he was a pioneer who helped to bring the internal arts to America. When I watch video of him performing, or one of his more famous students, William C.C. Chen, I am always disappointed. I see a version of Tai Chi that is much more appropriate for older people than for martial art purposes. However, considering the lack of Tai Chi instructors in the U.S. in 1964, he was considered to be the best in America at the time.

Perhaps this is a reason why, after studying Yang Tai Chi for over a decade (and winning a gold medal in the 1990 AAU Kung Fu Nationals doing the Yang 24 Form), I switched to Chen style within an hour of meeting my first Chen style teachers. It was more alive and the relaxed body mechanics could deliver power. From being involved in sports, and now experiencing the body mechanics of Chen Tai Chi, I knew that what I had been studying was empty.

But we all know how students can inflate a legend. Before I studied with my first teacher, Sin The of Lexington, Kentucky, I heard stories from his students who said he could jump up and kick a basketball goal (pretty impressive in Wildcat country) and he could cut himself and control his bleeding. None of it was true (not even his Shaolin background).

In Tai Chi and other martial arts, the truths of marketing are true just as in any industry. You don't have to be the best as long as you are the first in the market. That's why, when you ask people if they know about Tai Chi, those who do will usually say, "That's a slow motion health exercise for the elderly."

Coke was the first major soft drink. In parts of the country, when you walk into a store, whether they serve Coke or Pepsi, you say, "Give me a Coke." That's why Pepsi started demanding that their restaurants and fast food joints say, "Is Pepsi okay?" Decades after Pepsi beat Coke in taste tests (people think Pepsi tastes better) Coke still beats Pepsi in sales.

It is better to be first than it is to be best, even in Tai Chi. Here is a video of Chen Man Ching performing his 37-movement form. We owe him a tip of the hat for making Tai Chi well known in the United States. But we know more about Taijiquan than we did in the Sixties and early Seventies. We have moved deeper than the health level and have seen the martial art. And it is a good one.

 

If you practice Yang style and would like to see 108 self-defense applications that are hidden in the Yang 24 Form, this Kindle ebook shows you all of them and explains them in detail. Read more about it on Amazon. If you are not in the U.S. and reading this, visit your own country's Amazon Kindle Store.

 

Comments

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Dante Gilmer

Sifu Gullette,

I am a Cheng Man-Ching style practitioner and I have bought and been enriched by your DVDs.

I would like to add my perspective on your comments regarding Cheng Man-Ching.

Seeing Master Cheng later in his life doing his form does not scream martial content. But the way I learned Cheng Style Tai Chi was very martial - from applications, push hands to free sparring. My teacher was a student of Robert W. Smith. I have won gold medals in push hands and I post regularly on my facebook page showing the martial applications of the Cheng Tai Chi form.

Chen style has a different body politic than Yang style and I see why students would be attracted to it over Yang styles.

I guess my point is that there can be richness in any style which can be overshadowed by focusing on a particular moment in time.

This has happened in my journey more than once. I study pressure point fighting as taught George Dillman - one of the best martial artists I have ever met. There is a youtube video that puts him in a poor light. If I hadn't already studied with him, I would never have started. But having trained with him and his organization for many years now, I believe I am better for the training.

I included a video of a basic Cheng Style application.

http://youtu.be/L1XokB3jjiI

Respectfully,
Dante Gilmer

Ken

Good application, Dante. Thanks for the comment! It is true that it isn't completely fair to judge a martial artist on film or video as an old man (or old woman). Chen Xiaowang is also an example of an artist who is -- from a movement perspective -- not the same as he once was.

The problem is this -- of the Chen Man Ching lineage students I have seen on video doing forms, I see a real lack of the basic internal mechanics that should be there to the trained eye. After reading your comment, I did a YouTube search and found a guy who is from the lineage and calls himself a master. I was almost shocked at how weak it looked. There may be some good individuals out there, and you may be one of them, but I'll keep looking and point someone out if I find them.

Dante Gilmer

Thanks Sifu Gullette. You make fair points. Yang styles including Cheng style seem to rarely show jing. They wind up sometimes coming across as just waving hands.

I will look at my own practice with a different critical eye. I don't think of myself as one of the good practitioners out there nor do I consider myself one of the worst. I'm learning and open to improvement and enrichment regardless of the source. I'm not going to start doing Yang style like Chen style. Just keeping an open mind.

That's why I like your teaching style, because it's not arrogant and it doesn't deify teachers or styles.

Yours in training,
Dante

Evan Yeung

Something else to add regarding Cheng Man Ching...

A book by Nigel Sutton called Searching for the Way talks about his training under Cheng stylists in Malaysia (I think), with instructors who were very much into the martial aspects, and could use "Cheng" style very, very effectively.

I think one of the major issues is that Cheng was so good at sensitivity and neutralizing that he rarely had to resort to anything else. The problem with his emphasis on 'relaxation' is that many students concentrated on that without sufficient grounding and structure. The result is like spaghetti that has been boiled for an hour. Very relaxed, but completely lacking in substance...

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