Looking For Yang Cheng Fu

Studying Tai Chi Chuan in the Philippines in the late 60's. I saw a form, slow, smooth, flowing hypnotic, elegant. It did not look like it had any power but I saw and felt in the movement an energy that seemed to vibrate into the bones. A strange sensation to me who, at that point, had been steeped in the hard, vigorous and physical Southern Shaolin Style.

For several years, I had been taking private lessons with Johnny Chiuten, a Shaolin Kung Fu master who was a student in the university like me. When he left for Cebu, southern Philippines, to manage his family's bakery on a tiny island called Bantayan, he became almost inaccessible. Before he left he recommended me to his master Lao Kim, a legend in the Philippine Kung Fu underworld who at the time was in semi-retirement from public teaching. They were both famous as fighters, tough and powerful practitioners of the hard Shaolin Style. They taught me fist forms that emphasized toughening the muscles and bones, hitting the forearms and digits on hard bags.

The quantum leap from hard shaolin to soft Tai Chi Chuan was impossible for me to understand and so was the idea of deriving power from gentleness and the mystical Chi.

Tai Chi Chuan is an ancient discipline, one of the priceless treasures of Chinese civilization, along with calligraphy, painting and acupuncture. It is an internal system of healing and energy work, a dance, a philosophy, a meditation, a way of centering and therapy. But Tai Chi, as the art is sometimes called, is actually a martial art as well. It is therefore not an ordinary dance, or a relaxation exercise as many contemporary teachers have tried to present it. It is indeed, despite its deceptively harmless movements, a sophisticated fighting system. It can be used and was designed to maim or to kill.

The basic movements must have been invented at least two thousand years ago but the system itself was developed sometime in the 12th century by Chang Sang Feng, a legendary Taoist monk in Wu Dang Mountain in China. It was said that he learned the dance in a dream; another story showed him devising the movements from the fight between a crane and a snake that he had seen in his backyard. Different systems grew, some in temples (Wu Dang Mountain and the White Cloud Taoist Society in Beijing are the most prominent) and others in families around China.

I studied the Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan solo form at the Hua Eng Athletic Club in Manila's Chinatown. It was handed down through the famous Master Han Chi Tang who was visiting from Taiwan in the early 60's. (I learned later that his daughter Han Linlin teaches martial arts in Cambridge, MA) Han, who taught Tai Chi Chuan and Northern Shaolin Boxing at Hua Eng Athletic Club in Binondo, Manila, reportedly studied the art with Yang Cheng Fu in shanghai, China possibly in one of those workshops in the 20's and 30's. There was no formal teacher when I joined the school in 1968, but there were veterans who helped. You went to the morning class and followed the movements. Chan Bun Te, who managed the school, made occasional but excellent corrections. After a couple of years, the class thinned out as many of us took Tai Chi Chuan lessons with Liu Yun Hsiao, another grandmaster from Taiwan, who was in town for a year or so teaching internal systems.

Like many practitioners, I learned only the solo fist form and basic Push Hands. But it was enough to give me an idea of the depth of the internal style. I fantasized about studying with Yang Cheng Fu, who was said to be able to emit power from his body without the slightest movement. I thought if I learned with a real master for a few years.....The idea of receiving the secret transmissions from a master, of learning what the art is all about....Since then I tried to keep an eye open for a master. I looked at several masters, some of them famous, but I was somehow not happy with them.

In the summer of 1986, I visited Boston. I called up Gunther Weil and Rylin Malone, friends from the Healing Tao who were teaching at Harvard, for dinner. They took me a short distance in their car to a building near the Chinatown exit of the Mass Pike to a Tai Chi Chuan school.

There were students practicing earnestly in the courtyard on the first floor of the Mass Pike Towers. Sword and Saber, Two Person Set, Staff, Long Form, Fast form and a type of stationary two hand maneuver that included grasping, pushing and trapping, much of which I had not seen before anywhere. I was introduced to the teacher, Gin Soon Chu, who smiled a lot but did not speak much. I sat down to watch the proceedings. Although the sequence of movements was similar to the Solo Form I had studied at Hua Eng in Manila, theirs looked stilted, awkward. I was wrong, I realized (but only later on) that they were doing the postures differently. It was the first time I had seen Tai Chi Chuan postures done that way anywhere I had been.

Afterwards, there was Push Hands, using a maneuver that was basically stationary, from a Press position until somebody was uprooted. It was called Dynamic Push Hands to distinguish it from its soft, yin counterpart. The teacher pushed too and surprisingly showed an incredible strength that believed his age and size. He was bouncing people back to the opposite wall, 20 feet away, or up in the air with no visible effort. It was a power I had not seen before. I wondered if it had something to do with the postures of Tai Chi Chuan that I had found awkward.

I learned that Gin Soon Chu studied with Yeung Sau Chung, the eldest son and heir of Yang Cheng Fu, in Hong Kong. A lineage instructor, one of the three teaching the style in the West, he knew the authentic forms handed down by the Yang Family and had been authorized to teach. I knew instantly that he was the master I was looking for, as good a manifestation as any of the spirit of Yang Cheng Fu, the father of modern Tai Chi Chuan. I decided to study with him. But it was a long drive from Pennsylvania to Boston, some 5-6 hours one way.

It was three years later that I finally had the chance to study with Gin Soon Chu. When I decided to study acupuncture, he was the reason I chose to relocate to the greater Boston area. When I saw him again in late 1989, he was still the same smiling and quiet presence, but he was even more impressive. He was not only bouncing people, he was tying them in knots or stopping them cold without touching them. It was a demonstration of the more mystical facet of the art that I had only read about. I asked the advanced students how this felt and they really could not explain, except to say that it was like something erupts inside or the muscles get stiff or a wall seems to have materialized in front. Just like that. You will never know unless you experienced it, they said. I was told it was pushing on the level of spirit, beyond chi. It was the discharge of vital energy. The alchemical change from raw chi to primal chi.

It is 1996 now. I have studied with sifu for more than six years, a relatively short training period in the traditional discipline. I went through four corrections of the Solo Form and finished several other forms, including the Chang Chuan (Long Form), stick, knife and sword forms and have been working on the two man set. I am still receiving corrections to my forms, especially the sword form, and there does not seem to be an end. These forms are like heirlooms to me, received from a teacher who received them from his master, and on through the ancestral line.

During the three years that I was studying acupuncture, the lessons with Gin Soon Chu helped give me a center, a sense of wholeness and focus. I have likewise felt a great improvement in my energy. The different forms emphasize and reveal different aspects of the art. Each form also sheds light on the form before it so that as one progresses, the different techniques acquire a deeper and larger dimension.

Gin Soon Chu has been a joy to study with. Completely childlike. Very gentle and serene. And unbelievably awesome. When he does a form, most everybody stops to watch. His school, newly relocated at 33 Harrison Avenue 2/F, across from the old address in Chinatown, is celebrating its 27th Anniversary with a traditional Chinese banquet. Many martial artists and community leaders attended. I am sure, to honor a master who is already an institution in Boston Chinatown, whose influence on Tai Chi Chuan is as deep and far-reaching and whose credentials are impeccable.

some of his students have been around for 10-25 years and they still come to study. A numbers of them have developed powerful techniques too, one could see it in the way they do their forms and in the impact of their techniques. Looking at these disciples, I feel how deeply Master Gin Soon Chu has touched their lives.

The training is uncompromisingly tough and demanding, the Push Hands routines especially so. With Vincent Chu, Sifu's son, or fong as we fondly call him, who is a master in his own right, Push Hands is a serious business; it is the crucible for developing high level techniques. The Yang Family Style Push Hands Techniques, as transmitted by sifu, are the most varied and most challenging I have seen in my long search. Not your garden variety but potent discharges of energy. As taught by Master Chu, Push Hands is a perfect example of what the classics called "steel wrapped in cotton" because it is so effortless but so explosive, so soft and yet so hard.

Sifu has an unquestionable mastery of Push Hands. On a few occasions, he would demonstrate and elaborate on different aspects of it, including maneuvers with the elbows, shoulders, hands, fingers. I have seen him do Push Hands many times and I am alway fascinated by it all.

Often sifu ties me up in knots too. While Pushing, he would reach one or other part of my body and something happens, a burst of energy it seems, and my breathing pattern changes. Something inside moves me to assume a posture or do a movement. I twitch, I feel like choking, a rush of energy moves through me. When I am asked how it feels, all I could say is, it is difficult to explain, you have to experience it to know it.

Gin Soon Chu is sifu to his students. I never heard anybody call him a master and he never demanded it, although he is definitely that.

You will find him at his school, eyes shining brightly. He is childlike and playful and gentle, but very strong. A Smiling Dragon.

By Rene Navarro
Copyright © V. Chu. All rights reserved.