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May 4, 2015

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The ‘prince’ of slow-motion techniques

IN the woods of suburban Beijing, the grandmaster catches a flying bird and lays his hand open to let it know it is not a prisoner. The bird flaps its wings to escape, but it cannot take to air.

The well-known tale encapsulates the legacy of grandmaster Yang Luchan, born in 1799. He demonstrated and taught the principles of tai chi to many court officials, including one scholar who in turn coined the term “tai chi” in verse praising Yang.

“To fly off, the bird needs to step onto a firm plane to lend force,” says Fu Qingquan, a modern-day master of the Yang family of tai chi. “Master Yang sensed that as the bird tried to step onto his hands and then he withdrew his force to give it no ground. Tai chi is very much about the ability to sense and destruct the opponent’s force at its roots.”

“The Invincible Yang,” as he was known, is credited as the creator of one of the biggest and most influential of all tai chi styles.

“It isn’t mysterious,” explains the 44-year-old Fu. “It showcases one of the quintessential concepts of tai chi — ting jin (听劲) — and what it’s like when you reach an advanced level.”

Ting Jin, meaning “hearing the force,” refers to the ability to read the when, where and how of an opponent’s force. By learning that, it is said, one can defeat hardness with softness or a ton of force with just a few kilograms.

Fu’s grandfather, Fu Zhongwen (1903-94) was considered the best disciple of Yang Chengfu, grandson of Yang Luchan. The younger Yang is credited with popularizing tai chi in the 1920s.

Carrying on the legacy of the Yang family for the sixth generation, Fu Qingquan has come to be called the “tai chi prince,” an honor he values.

Today, tai chi is one of the best-known kung fu styles, with five major schools that all originated from the same philosophy and fundamental concepts. They differ only in the number, scale and speed of the movements. Because the Yang school is noted for its slow-motion movements, the exercises are popular among the elderly.

“Of course, it is very good for elderly people for obvious reasons, but the Yang school wasn’t developed to address the elderly in particular,” says Fu, who gets very animated when talking about the subject.

“Tai chi is an efficient kung fu style with defending and attacking strategies in every move,” he says. “It is supposed to be practiced slowly.”

Using the example of riding a bicycle, he adds, “It gets increasingly more difficult as you ride it more slowly and still try to keep the bike going. That is the same with tai chi boxing forms.”

Such boxing forms, he says, help unblock energy channels and enhance the strength of the lower body. For those who want to maintain basic health, that’s all they need. For those who want to practice tai chi as a combat skill, it is only the first of four steps.

“When you apply force on anything, you will also be hit by the anti-force, so without a firm base of strength, it is easy to get hurt in kung fu training,” Fu explains. “The boxing forms are to help build that layer of base strength.”

With the base, one is ready to start weapons training, notably with a tai chi sword. That helps strengthen the upper body.

A third step involves combat between two persons, often in the form of pushing hands. That gives an understanding of where and how the force is applied. To excel in ting jin, you also need to develop the ability to hear force.

“The last step is the training on learning how to apply force in every move, and one may well practice a single movement thousands of times,” Fu explains.

The “tai chi prince” started learning martial arts from his grandfather at the age of six. Even as a child, he was imbued with the responsibility of carrying this family heritage forward to future generations.

He recalls how many people came to visit his grandfather when he was old, seeking advice or even trying to challenge him. When senior Fu pushed hands with them, the visitors often fell to the ground, hitting a wall in the lane on Tanggu Road in Hongkou District, where the family lived.

“So many people crashed there that the brick wall caved in at the center,” young Fu says. “The property management company had to come and fix it several few times.”

Older disciples often stayed late into the evening to practice with the old man. After they left, the master would start doing his own practice.

“He always tried to help all of those who came to seek his instruction and didn’t charge them anything,” says the grandson. “He appreciated their passion and wanted to promote the style. All that time, I knew I would also be doing that one day.”

The family of the “tai chi prince” moved to Australia in the 1980s. He says assimilating into a new country was difficult at first.

Tai chi was little known overseas at the time. But gradually, a following built up and tai chi became popular in Australia and other Western countries. Celebrities and even heads of states have sought out family members to ask them about tai chi.

The younger Fu moved back to Shanghai in 1994, after his grandfather died. His father stayed in Australia to continue to operate an overseas base for tai chi.

“We were doing very well overseas,” he says, “but our roots are in China, and so, too, the roots of kung fu.”

In Shanghai, he established the Yang Family Tai Chi Club, where training sessions and events are held regularly. He has published several training manuals, videos and articles in order to reach out to those who are interested but can’t attend meetings.

Fu and his father created a series of simplified versions of the tai chi boxing forms.

“So many people, young and old, want to practice tai chi for its health benefits, but for young people, especially those in big cities like Shanghai, it is very difficult to commit to daily practice,” Fu says.

“You don’t have to. Even if you practice just a few moves whenever you have time, you will still get benefits,” he adds.

To further popularize the style, Fu uses technology to post tai chi moves and information online (WeChat account: sstj58).

“Bearing the weight of the family name and legacy on my shoulders, I still have lots to do,” he says. “And I hope my child will one day carry on this tradition.”


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