RAISING A CORPSE FROM THE DEAD
"The Way that can be explained, is not the true Way" Tao Te Ching
Bob Engel told me about a fellow who visited his class. He told Bob that he worked out with Grandmaster Cheng Man-ch'ing in New York. From his statement it was unclear to me if he actually was a formal student with Cheng or not. Bob told him, "I am not interested in dead men. What can you do? I only care about what you can do and what I can do." Bob then demonstrated his art to the fellow, bouncing him off the walls. The lesson is beware and listen closely to what people say about their training, talk is cheap. The man clearly did not have any martial skill, but through association with a big name he thought he could impress Bob, as he probably did others, but he was wrong.
There is an old Chinese ploy called "Raising a corpse form the dead", i.e., using an old master's name to give groundless credibility. Talk of "Special styles", "Traditional Forms", "Hidden Styles", "Secret Styles", "Old Styles" are fascinating, but skill is all that matters. As Bob said, "What can you do?" Having a specific lineage shows credible training, BUT it doesn't mean the person learned anything. For example according to Bob, Cheng had many students and some of them who claim his knowledge but clearly did not learn very well from Cheng; and others who are very skilled. The use of an old masters name may show that the student is part of an authentic system, but it has nothing to do with skill. You may have learned form a highly skilled teacher, but were you a good student?
Another pitfall is authoritarian thinking. Some say that only "My school has the right teaching, everyone else is wrong" or "My style is the only correct style." I think these are foolish statements. This rigid, judgmental and authoritarian thinking is symptomatic of magical thinking, falling for "Raising a corpse from the dead" or maybe even mental illness. Often this occurs when one thinks only one master has the real information, and of course it happens to be the one you found. Unless you traveled around a lot looking for a school, How come you were so lucky? This type of thinking is fraught with problems and limits ones experiences, closing ones eyes to other possibilities.
I had the opportunity to study with several well respected masters and each was a true expert. They were top-level masters of the art even though their styles and methods were very different. One was made a national treasure in China. Another went back to China to teach masters there how to do pushing hands, as that skill was lost to many in China. These top masters all used the concepts correctly and held to the basic ideas of the art. Yet, they all had their own perspective. It was an art to them and they were real artists. And even though they did different versions of t'ai chi ch'uan they appreciated each other's art as well. (Thought they always liked their own art best, go figure) There is no one best style for everyone. One style may be good for you and another may be good for me, the same goes with teachers. Sometimes you really click with a teacher and other times you don't, such is life."This is my way. What is your way? The way does not exist" Dwyer
In favor of the lineage concept, a teacher who does not have a reasonable lineage, i.e., studied with a reputable school or master, probably doesn't have much of depth of skill either. Maybe they never really learned the real art at all and maybe just made up what they teach? I have seen several of those. Lineage is important in one way for you to know that what you are learning is real tai chi chuan and not something someone made up, then taught to you. Then maybe one day you start teaching this secret style to others and a new style is born, without a foundation. There are teachers who do that and several have books on the market that show what appears to be made up arts. Sometimes they have some training in another martial art and may be a teacher of that art, and use that status to just make claims as to their tai-chi skills.
It is very common for karate or tae kwon do teachers to teach tai chi so to make additional income for their schools, but they themselves have little formal training in the art. Some martial art teachers just took a little training, a few workshops, and use their credentials in the other art to claim they know tai chi ch'uan. T'ai chi is conceptually very different than hard styles and take several years of formal training to reach the level of understanding. There are some karate teachers have taken years of t'ai chi formal training and do very high level t'ai chi. But. Doing karate slowly is still karate it is not t'ai chi.
SKILL IN SHAOLIN OR KARATE DOES NOT MAKE ONE AN EXPERT IN TAI CHI CHUAN
T'ai chi is very different from karate or Shaolin. Skill in karate or hard style kung-fu does not automatically make one a master of tai chi chuan. It is too different of an art conceptually. Unfortunately for the novice it is hard to know the difference. As Grandmaster Tchoung said it is hard enough to master one art, then how can they (teachers) master many conceptually different ones?
For example, thousands of people trained with Cheng, Tchoung, Kuo and other well-known instructors. Only a handful of students really learned their art at high level. Some were very good, but not excellent, and many were average. In the case of Grandmaster Tchoung after teaching over 3000 students in the Pacific Northwest, only a few of his students were told they could teach the art because they had what he considered the correct technique and ability to teach (see instructors list).
In his Seattle 1986 demonstration and Grandmaster Tchoung made a Public Announcement of whom could teach his system in the United States. Grandmaster Tchoung made it very clear, in his presentation, that some people could do tai-chi by themselves as exercise (highly recommended), but they did not have the skill, knowledge or ability to teach others. He said that only four people (in the US) had the competence to teach his system, later another was added. Of that group all just stuck to the training and practiced hard with Tchoung for many years. Some other of Tchoungs students who left the training early, actually started to teach even though they were not officially sanctioned.
All the certified teachers in Canada and the United States were the persistent, highly motivated and somewhat gifted students, only a few could be considered elite athletes. It was the persistence and years of dedication that mattered the most to get full certification. Thought there are several advanced students who dropped out who I think could have been decent teachers as well and some who did teach. Unfortunately one of the students who was an exceptional tai chi athlete stopped his training early. He could have been one of the top athletes, his pushing hands was tremendous and much better than those with many more years of training. His giving up the training was a loss to the art.
Tchoung was very clear in that he said he could teach us the system but it was up to us what we did with it, i.e., how hard we trained and if we studied diligently. It was our experience that he could teach the class "everything" but only a few would really learn it and of those only a few were exceptional athletes. Practice, persistence and perseverance were the most important concepts to learning the art.
WHAT IS A SYSTEM ANYWAY?
We also find that most of the masters students who were not qualified to teach the arts, were not because they did not stay with the training long enough and finish learning the system. This is an odd concept because in some other schools a student may only have to learn the simplified form to be called a full blown teacher, and some even call themselves grandmasters. Basically learning just a simplified (24 movement) form is like getting a yellow belt in karate.
Compared to these simpler systems, Tchoungs "drop-outs" had many more training hours and technical knowledge than those learning just a simplified calisthenics form, e.g., they learned a 6 section long form of over 240 movements and pushing hands which gave them a great deal of intensive technique practice. Some even learned the San Shou, two person application form and a few studied the fast "fajin" form before dropping out. While many teachers of other schools only know a 24 or 37 movement short form or at most a 108 movement "Long form", and few other teachers studied pushing hands to any depth nor learned the two-person san shou form. Some only know the modern "Wushu" forms and no traditional forms at all. Then many of Tchoungs dropouts also studied the chin-na, sword and stick forms that Tchoung taught. It is hard to compare systems.