May 14, 2020

Book Review: In the Presence of Cheng Man-Ch'ing


In the Presence of Cheng Man-Ch'ing: 
My Life and Lessons with the Master of Five Excellences
by William C. Phillips
Hardcover, 236 pages
Floating World Press, 2020, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0648283126

 Professor Cheng Man-ch'ing (Zheng Manqing, 1902–1975) was a noted painter, writer, herbal doctor, and taijiquan teacher. His last decade was spent in New York City. This brought him into contact with numerous young American martial artists, such as Bill Phillips, the author of this delightful memoir. Phillips, now the head of Patience T'ai Chi, describes the setting of the mid-to-late 1960s, during which numbers of skilled karate, judo, aikido, and taekwondo practitioners, after hearing about Cheng, came to study with him. Even skeptics left impressed.

In this book, we sit at Philips' side listening to Cheng's spontaneous insights about taiji. We hear the formal lectures on Laozi, Confucianism, health, morals, and art. We witness the public and the private encounters, the snapshots of Chinatown of fifty years ago. While much of the book is about Cheng Man-ch'ing and the ideas he imparted, it is told through Phillips' own life course: growing as a martial artist, seeking out a master teacher, maturing and attaining insight with age, and, following Cheng's model of sharing knowledge, becoming a teacher.

Phillips' book joins the ranks of memoirs written by direct students of Professor Cheng Man-ch'ing; in particular Wolfe Lowenthal and Robert W. Smith. All of these paint a picture of a skillful practitioner, revered by many, yet very human.

Bill Phillips does not spare himself in this look back. One year, he willingly took on the task of driving Cheng and his assistants to class, even though it was far out of his way. On one trip to the studio, Cheng and assistant conversed in Chinese, and Phillips heard his name and the word "kung fu" (gongfu) mentioned.

Naturally, I got excited. Was he preparing to tell me a secret of kungfu? Was that to be my reward for driving him? Did I know something about kung fu that he was praising? So I quickly and impolitely interrupted and asked. I was told that [Professor Cheng] had said that I should use more discipline in my driving. What about the words kung fu that I had heard, I eagerly wondered out loud. The answer was: it means discipline, as when American martial artists say, "He studies the art," and we know they are referring to a martial art, when Chinese refer to "discipline," they are referring sometimes to a specific discipline—martial art. However, in this case Professor was not. He was referring to the lack of self-discipline in my driving. I was hitting far too many potholes as I drove. My chest feell, my ego deflated.... It was the first time, but not the last time that I embarrassed myself in front of the Professor.
Those who studied with Cheng often point out that Cheng did not keep secrets. Phillips explains,
I think that many of those people [who doubted Cheng] were too stiff and strong to get a lot of what he was trying to explain. Of course, those who could not seem to get it with their first effort, rahter than redouble their efforst, chose to think there must be a secret he was not sharing.
Taiji people from all styles will enjoy this view of one of the leading taiji figures of the late twentieth century. Those of Cheng's direct lineage will gain more insight into his teachings and the great impact he had on a wide variety of students.

April 25, 2020

World Tai Chi Day 2020

Join in the annual international Taiji and Qigong event, April 25th, 2020, celebrating these wonderful health-giving practices. This year, many events are online due to coronavirus. Taiji and qigong can play an important role in promoting health by boosting the immune system strength.

Visit World Tai Chi Day for further information.

December 26, 2019

Book: Sunzi's Art of War

 A new, landmark translation is now available of the ancient Chinese Art of War by Sunzi, translated by Michael Nylan:

The most venerable of these, alongside “On War” (1832), by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, is Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” written some 2,500 years ago. There have been many translations of “The Art of War,” and a new one, by Michael Nylan, will not be the last. It’s a book that seems perpetually useful because it’s a work of philosophy as much as tactics. Doves and hawks (even vultures) can approach it for meaning. The book suggests that the real art of war is not to have to go to war.

Read the entire New York Times review here.