Mark Jay Langweiler
Dr. Mark J. Langweiler, DC, DAAPM is a board certified doctor of chiropractic. He has postdoctoral training in pain management and orthopedics. He also served as the Director of Integrative Services for Atlantic Hematology Oncology Group in Galloway, NJ. Dr. Langweiler has been studying Wu style Tai Chi Chuan since 1989, first with Ed Pedrick, and later with Grand Master Wu and Martin Kennedy.
“Once the time is Gone You Can Never Get it Back”
An Interview with Sifu Wu Kwong-Yu (Eddie Wu)
By Dr. Mark J. Langweiler, DC, DAAPM, BCFE
(Article previously published in the Journal of the Chenstyle Taijiquan Research Assn. Vol 3 / No 3)
Grand Master Wu Kwong Yu has been teaching Wu (Jian-Quan) style Tai Chi Chuan in Toronto for 30 years. Both his family and personal background make him more than qualified to discuss the origins and history of Tai Chi. Grand Master Wu began his own studies at the age of 4, being taught by his father, Wu Tai Kwei, and grandfather, Wu Kung Yi. Master Wu’s Tai Chi lineage can be traced back to Yang Lu-Chan, founder of the Yang style, and Wu Chien Chuan (Jian-Quan), Sifu’s great-grandfather and founder of the Wu Style. In addition to this active teaching schedule, Master Wu spends as much as six months of the year travelling to the numerous Wu Style schools flourishing throughout North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. On one of my trips to Toronto (July 31, 1993), Master Wu was gracious enough to set aside nearly two hours so we could discuss his Tai Chi, his family, and some important aspects of studying Wu Style.
Dr. L: Sifu, you have been involved with Tai Chi for your entire life, can you tell me the family history of the Wu Style?
Sifu Wu: The family history? I come from a martial arts family, my ancestors fought for the emperor, for the kingdom. In the old days Tai Chi Chuan belonged only to the emperor. It was kept as a secret. My family were the bodyguards, like a national guard. In the late Ching dynasty we had a teacher who taught us Tai Chi, Yang Lu-Chan, and his son, Yang Pan-Hou. We learned from the Yang Family. That would be about two hundred years ago. My great-grandfather, Wu Chien Chuan and the Yang Family created the Yang-Wu society in Beijing to teach Tai Chi (Wu Chien Chuan along with Yang Sho-Hou and Yang Cheng-Fu (founded the Beijing Physical Education Institute in order to bring Tai Chi Chuan to the public. This occurred in 1912).
Dr. L: That was in Beijing?
Sifu Wu: Yes, then Wu Chien Chuan moved south to Shanghai. The first Wu Tai Chi Chuan Academy was established in Shanghai in 1935. That school is still in existence and is run by my great-grandfather’s sister, my great-aunt, Wu Ying Hua, and great-uncle Ma Yueh Liang.
Dr. L: Are there many students at this school?
Sifu Wu: Oh yes, they are very active. From Shanghai, the Family moved to Kwong-chou (Guangzhou), Macau, to Hong Kong and from Hong Kong to Southeast Asia. There are now schools in Europe, North America and Israel. Wu Style is being promoted throughout the world.
Dr. L: How many students are there world wide?
Sifu Wu: I couldn’t give you a figure. There are many clubs and a lot of disciples are teaching. That is what we are here for, to teach the Wu Style.
Dr. L: How did you end up in Toronto It seems like a long way from home.
Sifu Wu: I was working as an aeronautical engineer in Singapore for four years during the 70’s (Sifu Wu has a degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Edinburgh). We have a club in Singapore. Unfortunately, my father, Wu Tai Kwei, passed away and I had to take up the Family business, promoting and teaching Tai Chi Chuan. I went to Hong Kong where I stayed for nearly a year and then moved to my father’s club on the Kowloon peninsula. My uncle was in Toronto at that time. He had come here because many students and disciples had migrated to Canada. They were always after my father to come and teach. Every month, before my father passed away, my uncle asked him to come to Canada and teach. While he wanted to come, my father was always too busy with the clubs in Asia. After three months my uncle called me and asked me to come over for what was supposed to be a short time; he wanted to go to San Francisco to visit family and students. I came over intent on staying only three months: (however) my uncle returned to Hong Kong. He called me from there and told me to “carry on”. I don’t blame him, he as in his 60’s, was in a new country and didn’t speak English very well. There were really only beginners here, nothing but beginners. It was very hard. That was 18 years ago.
Dr. L: So you found those early years difficult?
Sifu Wu: Hard, hard work. At the time, 1976, people in the US and Canada only thought of Tai Chi Chuan for health; but, we have a traditional form of training. We train the whole body, health and martial applications. When I took over we taught and worked very hard; I pushed them hard so they could become senior students. Then they could teach and demonstrate with me. They helped me demonstrate what Tai Chi Chuan truly is. We demonstrated at any festival or activity that would have us, even old-age homes. The Chinese were not confused (Toronto has one of the largest Chinese populations outside of Asia). But, if I only wanted to teach Chinese I would have stayed in Hong Kong. The reason I came to North America was to teach Tai Chi to the western world. I wanted to show the general public what Tai Chi Chuan is. I have students with me now who started at day one, they have stayed 18 years. That is a long time to stay. Something in Tai Chi has opened their eyes.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not here only to emphasize the martial aspect but the total art, health, martial and spiritual. The spiritual aspect I don’t push too much because I don’t promote any religion. But we do emphasize the whole art, and a subject so wide takes time to train in. But to answer your question of how I got here, in Toronto, it was to carry on the work of my father.
Dr. L: How does the Wu Style differ from other styles of Tai Chi Chuan?
Sifu Wu: We are very lucky. I am the fifth generation and I trained with my father and grandfather. My sons are sixth generation. Because it has remained in the family, the style has not been diluted; and I teach everything to my disciples, if their personality is right. In the old days the teacher hid secrets. My grandfather would close the door if outsiders were present or else he wouldn’t say anything until everyone else was gone; then, he would start teaching the family. Imagine that, in the old, traditional culture, if they weren’t family, they couldn’t be taught. I am very lucky in being of direct descent, I have been taught everything. It is up to me now, because I have been educated in the West, but my Tai Chi Chuan is traditional. If a person is good, I will teach them everything. I will not keep secrets.
My second uncle, who was here for a visit, saw me teaching “loose hands” in class. That is part of the 24 forms and is very important for relaxation. He saw me teach this in class; it had been a family secret. He was mad at me for a week, (and) wouldn’t talk to me. He told me that there are certain things that shouldn’t be taught to no-family; but, he finally went back to Hong Kong. As he was leaving he told me to do whatever I felt that I had to do. Friends and students who later went back to China told me that they learned many traditional things while in Canada which were not being taught in China.
We also had several guests here from the Chinese Wushu Society. They asked me to come back to China to teach. They have a beautiful form, but much of the traditional teachings have been lost. There was a ten year gap when they couldn’t train, when the Gang of Four ruled China. They couldn’t do any martial arts training, or they went to jail. My great-uncle, Wu Kwong-Cho, was sent to a concentration camp because he was knowledgeable in Tai Chi and had many followers. Imagine, after then years many of the older sifus died. Now the sifus at the Wushu Research Center in China are 28 or 30 years old. Their teachers died ten or more years ago. A lot of broken lines. These younger sifus had their forms, but nothing else.
Dr. L: How are the schools in China doing?
Sifu Wu: Our schools in China, in Shanghai are run by my great-aunt Wu Ying Hua and great-uncle Ma Yueh Liang. They have been in China by themselves for a long time, so things have changed a little bit in the form; but, what can I say.
Dr. L: Have you noticed any difference between students in North America compared to those in China or Hong Kong?
Sifu Wu: The form we do here (Toronto) is the same one that is done in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. My grandfather and father standardized the entire form. (They) cut off some of the rough edges. I would say that the form we do in Toronto is 95% the same as that in Southeast Asia. My great-aunt’s form is also like ours, she trained with my grandfather. Ma’s form is a bit different¸ he put different things in. But all the students, whether in China or North America, are enthusiastic.
Dr. L: Let’s talk a little bit about the Tai Chi itself. The Wu form we have been discussing is the standard 108 long form. Is that the only form you teach?
Sifu Wu: This is the 108 slow round form. We do have a fast form that is the same number of movements, the sequence is the same, but the movements is not as detailed and it is faster.
Dr. L: Why would somebody want to do a faster form?
Sifu Wu: Why? Because it is much harder, much harder. You must have great concentration and truly know the movements. It is a form by itself.
Dr. L: We do the form in a set pattern. Why is that? Where did this patter come from?
Sifu Wu: That is how the form was invented, and we teach it that way. Like all other martial arts, it is a set of movements used for training. You don’t have to use it in sequence. Every move has a purpose and can be used itself. It is your knowledge in how to use it that is important. Let me tell you the truth. My great-grandfather would say (though I heard this from my grandfather), “If you know three forms (out) of the 108 movements you could walk across China.” That means you know them so well that you don’t have to think about them: if that’s the case, you are good.
Dr. L: What is the idea behind neutralization? We hear about it a lot, what is it?
Sifu Wu: Neutralization is the specialty of Tai Chi. We don’t block, we neutralize. In simple English, we go with the stream of the force.
Dr. L: I know your attitude about the martial aspects of Tai Chi Chuan. What do you say to those who don’t teach the martial aspects or teachers who claim there never was one?
Sifu Wu: People who say so don’t know Tai Chi; this is true. Either they don’t know, haven’t studied, or simply don’t want to teach it.
Dr. L: If someone wants to learn Tai Chi Chuan, what should they look for in a school or instructor?
Sifu Wu: I would say read all you can about it; but, part of it is luck. In China they would say fate; but, you should do some research, decide what style you want to learn. If you are lucky a teacher will be nearby; hopefully, a knowledgeable teacher. Anyone can read a book and open a school. If you don’t know (more than) this teacher, he can label it Wu or Yang or whatever. The only difference is (that) he read the book six months before you. But no matter where you learn you will go through a period where you learn coordination, basic training.
Dr. L: What about someone who just doesn’t know? They walk in off the street. How can they tell if it’s a legitimate school?
Sifu Wu: They must depend on their own senses. Watch how classes are taught. Does what the teacher says match the practical aspects? If not, reject it, find another school.
Dr. L: Another crucial aspect is push hands. Why is this so important?
Sifu Wu: Push Hands are important, after the form, to learn to use the hip, to improve your balance, improve your hand form. Then, if you are interested in the martial aspect you can enter into the element of stickiness, sensitivity, and (the) neutralization that we spoke of earlier. You start with the hands only, but eventually you move into free style; and, stickiness, sensitivity and balance become important. Then you learn applications, what each move can be used for.
Dr. L: Why is training the hip so important?
Sifu Wu: Because the hip is the drive shaft. Read the classics, they say the hip is the drive shaft. (It is) the source of power; movements without the hip are weak.
Dr. L: Is there any difference between Wu family push hands and that of other styles?
Sifu Wu: Okay, we open up more by allowing the push to actually reach the body, then we move. Other styles let people come in only so close, in a defensive way.
Dr. L: So you let your partner come in close?
Sifu Wu: Yes, we let our training partner come very close. This is the only time you can train so openly; on the street you would get hurt. But in the club you can be open and improve each time.
Dr. L: I assume that in Wu Style there are a variety of push hands practiced.
Sifu Wu: Yes, but no matter how fancy you get you always rely on the basics.
Dr. L: Are there any weapons practiced?
Sifu Wu: Oh yes. Each is a separate set of movements. Of course, we don’t carry them around on the street; but, you could use things found around. If you picked up a stick from the ground you would use it in the same way as a sword. By practicing (with) weapons you also preserve the art in a traditional manner. Learning these forms will improve your coordination since you are moving with an additional weight at the end of your hand...
Dr. L: What weapons are practiced?
Sifu Wu: Sword, saber, spear, Tai Chi rule, and even long spear which is practiced on horseback. (The Tai Chi) rule is not a ruler, it’s a stick.
Dr. L: Let’s talk a little about the health aspects of Tai Chi Chuan. I understand that it is difficult to separate this from the martial, but what are some of the healthful practices in Tai Chi?
Sifu Wu: The health aspects of Tai Chi are always there, from day one until the day you retire. Obviously, no health, no martial. Circulation is emphasized.
Dr. L: Do you mean chi, life energy?
Sifu Wu: No, blood …. and chi, not circulation like jogging. In Tai Chi we increase the heart rate but not like western exercise. We don’t let the heart beat go to the extreme.
Apart from circulation, there is a lot of stretching (of) the muscles and tendons. This lets the internal energy, chi, flow freely inside you. Another beautiful part of Tai Chi is its effect on the mind; it really relaxes the mind. Mind is important in lifestyle, control over it allows us to control our stress – (our) tension. You do the forms and relax. In the Western world this is known as meditation in motion. Also, as we age our coordination deteriorates, but with Tai Chi Chuan this doesn’t happen. Tai Chi practice trains your mind to relax and your body to be coordinated. These are two of the fundamental aspects.
Dr. L: I know that this school is involved in competition. How do you feel about that? How does this relate to Tai Chi as a whole?
Sifu Wu: Competition is an incentive to the ego. I emphasize competition, but don’t emphasize winning. I don’t like the schools that stress winning. I personally don’t care if my students win so long as they work hard. Remember, all tournaments are sport. There are certain things you can’t do – not like real self defence. So you follow the rules and are limited in what you can do; we use maybe 70% of the techniques. We also go to the tournaments to let the students see what other styles are, what other people do. We also get a chance to spar with hard-style people. This gives us an opportunity to learn how to deal with incoming force. You can see what will happen if a Karate guy gives you a kick or a Wing Chun guy gives you a punch.
Dr. L: And how would you react?
Sifu Wu: I don’t label it as a kick or punch in a particular style, but simply as an incoming force that must be dealt with. Then I will deal with it using Tai Chi Chuan techniques. The style doesn’t matter, I treat it only as an incoming force. So again, I like the students to taste a little bit of different styles and see other people. If they win something, find, if not, there is no pressure.
Dr. L: Tai Chi Chuan competition has developed only recently, am I right?
Sifu Wu: Oh yes. I think more and more schools are entering competitions, and many are promoting tournaments. There are big ones in Houston and Virginia every year. We hold one every year also. Dr. L: And each succeeding year it has been getting larger? Sifu Wu: Yes, and not only adults, but little kids. Every year they come, having grown up a little, and you can see that they have worked very hard during the year. They also learn something about the Chinese culture, not just the martial arts. They learn respect to their teachers and seniors, and ultimately, their parents. I think it is good for children, it builds up their confidence.
Dr. L: Do you teach children here?
Sifu Wu: Yes, from ages 5 to 15.
Dr. L: How do they respond to the training?
Sifu Wu: They like to play. They don’t learn the 108 movement form, but we teach them some Push Hands.
Dr. L: Sifu, what are your future plans.
Sifu Wu: The school is doing fine. The reason I took on disciples about ten years ago was so that they could teach beginners and take care of the school. That way I could travel and take care of the other clubs. We have clubs all over the world; England, the States, Europe. I have to travel around and see how they are doing. Half the year I am in Toronto; when I am away the disciples are in charge of the school.
Dr. L: Do you have any final thoughts or comments you would like to share?
Sifu Wu: I see the quality of Tai Chi Chuan improving around the world. New students should read and research and find a quality teacher. When I first came to Toronto 18 years ago, I saw some poor guys spend 10 years learning something that wasn’t right. I wish people would investigate their teacher before studying with them. Invest the time to learn and research Tai Chi. Once the time is gone you can never get it back.
Dr. L: Sifu, thank you for your time.
Sifu Wu: Thank you.