by Ronnie Robinson
Dan Docherty is one of the best-known taiji-players in Europe, and also one of the most controversial ones. In this in-depth Dan Docherty interview, he talks about fight training in China, and the subsequent winning of an Asian Full-Contact fight, the social and political aspects of teaching internal arts in the United Kingdom and Europe, and comments on the public perception of his personal character and work and his opinions on other approaches to the art.
When did you begin your taiji training and what attracted you to the art?
I’d studied karate since 1971, achieving a 1st Dan grade. I’d read a lot about taijiquan and found it very intriguing. I also met some French karate practitioners who knew a little taijiquan and this lead me to read more about the art. Although most the books available were full of great stories about the incredible feats performed by the great masters, the self-defence techniques illustrated, and the explanations given, did seem incredibly ineffective. I wanted to find out more and had a couple of lessons from a dancer in Glasgow but of course, she had no idea how to apply the self-defence techniques and I couldn’t figure it out from a book.
Dan with his Karate Certificate
Where did you go from there?
At that point in time (1975) there was no opportunity to learn Chinese internal arts in Scotland and I realised that I would have to travel east to find out more. I graduated from Glasgow University with a law degree but was more interested in martial arts than a legal career. This led me to join the Royal Hong Kong Police.
Was it easy to find what you were looking for in Hong Kong?
There were many things on offer but it was difficult to find someone who had both good character and a high level of ability in martial arts. Many martial arts clubs were recruiting grounds for the Triads and being in the police force I couldn´t work in these environments. I tried goju ryu1 and wing chun, but I didn´t feel either of these systems were right for me. The Chief Physical Training Instructor at the Police Training School was a high level aikido practitioner and he told me he´d learned some fighting taijiquan with a certain Sifu Cheng Tin Hung* in Kowloon.
How was your first encounter with the man and his art?
He was very cordial, very polite, but very alert. As he had no English and my Cantonese at that time was very limited, he spoke through an interpreter. He took us up to the rooftop where his students were training. No grades, no uniforms; all practising different things – weapons, pushing hands, hand form self-defence techniques – while some were just chatting. Sifu Cheng showed us some self-defence applications from the hand form after which he invited me to hit him as hard as I could in the stomach to demonstrate taiji neigong (internal strength). He absorbed some of my best gyaku-tsukis (karate reverse punches) with no sign of tension or pain. It was then that I began to suspect I had found the missing link that I mentioned earlier. A week later I had totally given up karate and wing chun.
Chen Tin Hung
What did your training routine consist of?
A lot of pushing hands, applications and wrestling, the school was very big on taiji wrestling.
Taiji wrestling is not commonly known; can you explain a little about it, perhaps how it differs from western wrestling?
Wrestling is a bit of a misnomer. It comprises shuaijiao which is mainly throwing, tripping and sweeping; qinna which literally means seizing and holding by using dimmak (pressure points) or to control the opponent to use dimmak strikes as for example in Single Whip or again simply to control and restrain the opponent – which was useful in my job as a police officer; finally there is diepu
– to make the opponent fall and then follow up with a strike. Of course the initial contact skill in all these involves some pushing hand principles. Don’t get the idea that these are separate compartments, when we were training in the beginning it was all just taijiquan and each type of training was enhanced by the other types.
You worked on these aspects immediately? How about form work?
The emphasis for the “fighters” was on neigong and fighting, not on form. However, the way of teaching form was quite different from other Yang lineage systems. Firstly we learned square form, which was developed by Wu Jian Quan when teaching at Beijing University. There were so many students that they couldn´t easily follow so he broke the movements down so they could see clearly where each technique began and ended, after this the regular round form was taught.
It is like learning writing at school, starting with block letters and then moving on to cursive script; if you started with cursive script most people would be very messy hence the simplifications of form made by other teachers such as Yang Cheng Fu. Starting with square form meant that the round form was very focused and exact in contrast to the insipid movements of many practitioners.
Can you explain a little about the neigong work?
This is a generally, but not quite accurately, considered to be a secret side of taijiquan which is only taught after the student has been training for some time (normally around six months to one year) and has gone through a ritual ceremony.
We do not use the term qigong, because qigong tends to suggest that the qi is deliberately directed to different parts of the body; we never try to direct the qi. Instead we use the term neigong. Nei means internal and refers to the fact that the 12 yin and 12 yang internal strength exercises are designed to strengthen the body internally by enhancing the function of the internal organs and the qi and blood circulation. Furthermore they stimulate the central nervous system, forge the will and make the mind more tranquil.
The internal strengthening process trains the ability of the body to both withstand the blows of the opponent or even to take a jump onto the abdomen from head height and to strike the opponent with jin – focused power. The yin exercises are also particularly effective in improving health and easing cases of insomnia, muscle and bone injuries, nervous tension etc. The yang exercises are mainly for power. Most of the exercises have a self-defence application.
What is involved in the practice of neigong? I understand you may not want to actually describe fully what is involved but it would be interesting to know a little about the mechanics of the work.
The exercises tend to be multidimensional; some might focus on enhancing a particular organ, but also stimulate the autonomic and central nervous systems while the application of the movement may involve dimmak. The emphasis is always on correct practice not the breath and there is the concept of passing through three levels in training the ultimate one being that of “No me, no you” or “Heaven Earth and Humanity in unity”.
Did this involve particular study regarding learning about meridians, acupoints or vital point locations?
My teacher thought most acupuncturists were either incompetent or charlatans and in any case it had almost nothing to do with taijiquan. However when teaching Daoist qigong especially the more sexual exercises he did use Neidan (internal alchemy) terminology such as dantian2 and weilu3. He did teach me and a few other more advanced students how to use vital points, but his approach was direct and straightforward and he ridiculed those who taught that specific points should be attacked at specific times of the day. He also emphasized training the ability so that you could hurt your opponent no matter how or where you applied force. Conversely he showed ways of preventing or withstanding the opponent’s use of force. Furthermore he questioned why you would want to kill or maim someone.
After about 3 months internal strength training, when all the yin exercises have been learned, the average student should be able to withstand someone jumping on his abdomen from head height. This kind of training and demonstration should only be learned from a competent and suitably experienced teacher. My teacher was much sought after by teachers of other styles of both taijiquan and other martial arts for this very reason.
I’m curious about where the sexual exercises related to someone who was predominantly associated with teaching effective fighting techniques, is the work compatible?
I was one of only three or four people who were taught this, because a lot of the younger guys were mainly interested in taijiquan which this wasn’t and a lot of the health benefits from the Daoist exercises were already present in taijiquan. I usually teach the exercises to teachers or privately in a modified way for health and for me the neigong training is more important.
What about the fight training?
We placed heavy emphasis on footwork and evasion when using either striking or grappling techniques. The footwork is largely trained in the “Seven Stars”, “Nine Castles”, and dalu pushing hands exercises. The evasion is trained in the fooyang; “Four Direction”, Chansigong (Reeling Silk) and cailang (Gather The Wave) pushing hands exercises. I must emphasise pushing hands is not self defence but only a method of training skills that are useful in self defence.
Both Cheng Tin Hung and his students’ abilities had been successfully tested in full contact competition and in “duels”. He produced many South East Asian Martial Arts Champions. I am talking now about taiji fighters, training only in taijiquan, fighting opponents from other styles of Chinese gongfu as well as other martial arts. No other taiji master has produced a South East Asian Champion. This is why, in 1981, when they were thinking about introducing this type of contest to China, the Chinese authorities invited Cheng Tin Hung to Beijing to advise them on rules, training and holding tournaments. It´s also why the Hong Kong Government asked Cheng Tin Hung to examine taiji teachers for the Government´s taiji morning classes.
I have come across many students and teachers of other styles of taijiquan and have found them able to talk good taijiquan – stories about their teacher or their teacher´s teacher but when it came down to it they had only a rudimentary knowledge of basic pushing hands and self defence. No internal strength, no evasion, no ability to “fajing – strike” with focused power. They do not in fact practise taijiquan; they practise “dofuquan” – beancurd boxing. In other words, because they have only yin and no yang, their fists are like beancurd; soft and soggy.
What is obvious is that you were training in a fighting art. What percentage of people, at that time, in Hong Kong (or even elsewhere in China) were using taijiquan for this purpose effectively and how many were simply doing “health” taiji?
Certainly Hong Kong martial artists perceived there was a difference in approach between us and other schools because they referred to what we were doing as “practical taijiquan”. It was my experience then, and even now, that most taijiquan in South East Asia is for health, and even when it is supposedly taught in a martial way, the methods used are poor. This is mainly because most masters have rarely, if ever, been in a real fight. Mao Ze Dong rightly said, “No investigation, no right to speak”.
Tai Chi in Chinese park.
The full contact fighters were always a minority in the school but in those days everyone did at least some applications and some free pushing. Since 1976 with the opening of Government sponsored
taiji classes in the housing estates there are hundreds of thousands of people doing my teacher’s form in Hong Kong and doing it badly as they have little or no knowledge of any other aspect.
What other training exercises did you do to make it possible to win the South East Asia Open Weight Martial Championships?
Although internal strength training is the fundamental prerequisite for practicing taijiquan as a martial art, it is certainly not enough in itself. Once you’ve trained an ability, you have to learn how and when to use it, so regular practice of the hand form, pushing hands and self-defence techniques is essential. Furthermore like most styles of gongfu, taijiquan has many punching techniques. These include Golden Dragon Coiled Round Pillar, Embrace Tiger’s Head, Running Thunder Hand etc. If your fist is not tempered, you will injure the hand when punching any of the hard bones of the face. This is as true for taijiquan as it is for hard style martial arts. So you must restrict yourself to open hand strikes or you temper the fist by punching sandbags etc. It is also necessary to do some stamina training – this is particularly important when training for full contact competitions where your choice of techniques and targets are limited and you are facing a powerful, trained opponent rather than some street bum. The softness of the hand form and of the yin styles of internal strength balances this kind of yang training. If you only do yang training, you are not doing taijiquan and may as well go and practice shaolin boxing.
Winning the South-East Asia Open Martial Arts Competition.
The essential combat theory of taijiquan is to use softness or yin to overcome hardness or yang and to use hardness or yang to overcome softness or yin. So rather than blocking the opponent´s attacks we divert or redirect them using evasion and/or footwork at the same time. This is using softness to overcome hardness. The attack has then become “dead” force and has changed from yang to yin. At this point we must also change from yin to yang by striking (yang) the vital points of our opponent (yin). This is using hardness against softness. In order to train this evasion it is necessary to do a lot of practise on the pushing hands exercises I mentioned earlier.
During this time when you were doing a lot of physical work, how much time did you spend reading or learning about the art? Did your teacher talk much about the philosophical side?
I read books on taijiquan even while practicing karate and continue to do so. My teacher, though without a formal education, was a bookworm as I must also confess I am. We both loved books on history and philosophy. I liked the Legalists4 and Dialecticians5 in those days while he preferred the Yijing and Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. He would often talk to us about the links between taiji theory and Chinese thought.
When did the time come that you realized that you would make a profession of the art?
Two years before I went to Hong Kong, when I was still doing karate.
So you deliberately studied taijiquan with a view to making a living from it?
It seemed an agreeable and interesting way to spend my time and certainly beats working for wages though these days there is considerable paper work with the Tai Chi Union of Great Britain (TCUGB), Taijiquan and Qigong Federation for Europe (TCFE), etc.
How did you set up your first classes in the UK?
I read in a London newspaper that a centre in South London was looking for martial arts teachers so I went along. It was in fact at an old school which had been “occupied” by a group of Afro-Caribeans, unhappy about the lack of local facilities. The head of the centre, Michael Jacques, who had been a boxer and karate man, became my first student. He has now been teaching taijiquan professionally for many years.
Did you have much contact with other teachers at this time, if so which of them did you find interesting?
Bit by bit I began to meet people; I saw Nigel Sutton perform in 1985 when he had just got back from China and later got to know him quite well. I also met Gary Wragg, Chief European representative of the Wu family, and his students in 1986 when my teacher came over to do some seminars and we were both quite surprised at the extent of the differences in what we were doing. However, the teacher who impressed me most was my elder brother, Ian Cameron, who did everything so effortlessly it seemed.
Can you talk a little about the differences and your views on how they came to be?
Cheng Wing Kwong, my teacher´s uncle was the best-known Hong Kong disciple of Wu Jian Quan, but didn´t really know how to fight – he was a businessman turned taiji teacher. He brought a man called Qi Min Xuan of Hebei Dao in Henan to Hong Kong to teach his sons and nephews. Qi´s father had trained with Wu Jian Quan´s father and Qi had also trained with a Buddhist monk taught by Wang Lan Ting who was a direct student of both Yang Lu Chan and Chen Keng Yun (son of Yang´s master).
Weapon application demonstration.
The hand and weapon forms (except for the spear) were 80% the same as the Wu´s with differences in technique and sequence; the spear forms were completely different. Applications and pushing hands were quite similar though I am not sure if the Wu´s retain esoteric techniques such as “Flying Flower Palm”, “Running Thunder Hand”, “Pioneer Arms” etc. or pushing hands such as cailang (The Uprooting Wave). As for the neigong, the Wu family practice the same exercises but nowadays they don’t seem to have the idea of a yin set and a yang set or of doing the exercises on three levels.
In my teacher’s school he also taught 3 or 4 people (including me) a Daoist qigong learned from his uncle who in turn was taught by a wandering Daoist. I am sure there are more differences on both sides, but Eddie Wu in a recent interview conceded for some time that Cheng Tin Hung had been the leader of the Wu style due to the situation in China amongst other factors. However, Cheng never actually made this claim and referred to his art as Wudang taijiquan (after the mountain).
Did you ever have any interest in working with other instructors or styles?
Did you consciously promote the martial art side from the start or did you have many students for the “health” or “personal growth” side?
I figured those areas were already being covered by the competition, and while I was then, and still am, willing to teach all-comers, the martial aspect is what I was, and probably am, best known for.
How do you feel about all the different approaches we now see for the art?
Most people don’t want taijiquan – that is a martial art; they want qigong, even to the extent that they don’t want pushing hands but two-person massage qigong. Now we get business people wanting half an hour of “taiji” before the start of a conference. It makes money for teachers and might actually help a little, so fine.
At a competition
When did you first stage a competition and what prompted you to do so?
It was in April 1989 during the so-called “taji wars” – a little local difficulty between me and a prominent taiji teacher. Essentially I did it for publicity and to make money.
Care to talk about the “taiji wars?”
Basically it comes down to people making claims and either being able to back them up or not. In the latest version of the taiji wars in 1997 I almost got kicked out of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain for pouring a large bottle of Evian water over an empty force grandmaster. To their credit Epi van de Pol and others supported me in what I had done. Anyway I am still around so maybe the “wars” weren’t such a big deal.
I remember very much that your actions divided people into very distinct camps – those who felt that you acted in an ungentlemanly manner and regarded you as a heretic because of it, those who felt that you exposed a side of the art which left people open to exploitation and those who were, in a way, pleased that you did the action to challenge the bold claims of the master, but also pleased that they could have a reason to attack your character too. Do you have any regrets about the situation and would you handle such matters any differently today?
No real regrets, though it is regrettable that it came to this. As for today, like a politician, I refuse to answer a hypothetical question.
Many believe that you do not fit the traditionally expected profile of a taiji master who, for some, is generally considered to be (at least on the outside) calm, serene and extremely gentlemanly in nature however, being as you are, and holding positions of great responsibility how do you respond to such criticisms.
The “many” and the “some” must live a sheltered life. Cheng Man Ching, a staunch member of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) for example was a noted drinker who taught calligraphy and painting to the third wife of Kuomintang leader, Chiang Kai Shek, a former bank robber and member of the Green Gang triad society, who collaborated with the Japanese and gave his second wife gonorrhea.
The former president of a South East Asian Tai Chi Association embezzled funds from the association. The president of the International Tai Chi Chuan Federation in Taiwan in 1994 presided over cheating at the second Chung Hwa Cup competition that was so blatant that in consultation with fellow coach, Dick Watson I withdrew the team and I publicly smashed and threw to the ground the present with which we were meant to be placated.
Back to the competition, did you have much of a response to the 1st event?
The hall was packed out – standing room only. We only had moving step pushing hands on a 60cm high platform. Of course there were injuries.
I guess you probably raised a few eyebrows in the taiji community because of it?
There were the usual complaints from the usual suspects about it being sumo but the answer is very simple; show us how to do it properly, so far they haven’t taken up this challenge. Indeed given the high level of skill and dedication exhibited by Sumo exponents in contrast to that exhibited by most taiji people I am proud of this comparison. Indeed the best Yokozuna (Sumo Grand Champion) of the 1980s, Chiyonofuji was also one of the smallest competitors.
When did you begin to work extensively across Europe and what was it that made you so much in demand in the various countries you taught?
In the late 1980s, there was a gap in the market and a lot of people wanted to do taijiquan as a complete art but couldn’t find what they were looking for. Epi Van de Pol once called me the “Enfant Terrible” of the European taiji scene and perhaps that was what was needed.
Do you think he made this remark because of his “softer” approach to the art, or because of your “challenging” ways?
Maybe it is a bit of both.
Are there many cultural differences in the various countries you teach in with respect to their interests and approaches to the art?
Well you need to accept that Northern Europeans like the Germans march to the beat of a different drum than Mediterranean people like the Greeks. Hungarians, Russians and Bulgarians are different again, excellent students and I love that part of Europe. I guess it´s like the old joke that in Heaven the British are the police, the French are the cooks, the Swiss are the bureaucrats, the Germans are the technocrats and the Italians are the lovers, whereas in Hell …
Let’s look at the political side of things; you were a founder member of both the TCUGB and the TCFE, why did you want to create, or be involved in such organizations and what did you see as the purpose of the respective bodies?
The TCUGB was the idea of Nigel Sutton who had his own political agenda, but I knew immediately that based on my experience with the Hong Kong Tai Chi Association that this was the right thing to do as governments and other large bodies prefer to deal with other large bodies rather than a lot of individuals. As for the TCFE I have always loved the idea of one Europe and was happy to support our French colleagues many of whom are now friends and allies in their idea of creating a pan-European federation for taijiquan and qigong. On the practical side such an organization can help us to represent our interests with bodies such as the European Union and we can support one another and preserve our independent right to practice our arts without interference from China, Taiwan or anywhere else.
You’re probably one of the most controversial characters in internal arts and I know there are mixed feelings about you in a number of circles. I’ve no doubt you’re aware of these opinions and feel that in some way you enjoy the notoriety, in a kinda mischievous way. Anything you’d care to say on these matters?
Firstly life is not a popularity contest. Beautiful words are not true and true words are not beautiful. Most people are physically and intellectually lazy; I try not to be, if people find that uncomfortable that is their problem. I can tell you that there were mixed feelings about me in my teacher´s school and even I imagine amongst my own students. Oscar Wilde once said that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.
I know you´re well read and have spent much time studying Chinese to allow you to get a first hand sense of the material written about internal arts. Have you come across many inaccuracies or misunderstandings of the information that has been reported concerning the arts?
I think one of the basic problems is that many of the educated intelligent people who translated the taijiquan Classics and wrote many of the books, though perhaps better linguists than I, didn´t know enough about taijiquan practice either in the field of Internal alchemy or martial arts for them to understand or explain correctly what they were writing about. So everything whether jin or qi or jing or shen is “energy” and the “dashouge”, literally “Hit Hands Song” is the “Song of Pushing Hands”.
Over the years you have met a number of the “bigger” names in internal arts, are there any which have particularly impressed or disappointed you?
I was impressed a few years ago at Rencontres Jasnieres to see William Chen pushing hands in a humorous way with anyone that wanted, as against this, his forms are disappointing. Bruce Frantzis has some genuine knowledge and experience especially, but I don´t think much of his approach to taiji applications. He´s the kind of guy that if you told him you´d been to Tenerife, he´d reply that he´d been to Eleven-erife.
On the European scene, Aarvo Tucker and Luigi Zanini do some real good baguazhang. I also like the vitality of a lot of the French instructors. Anya Meot and Christian Bernapel for example, do terrific forms while Serge Dreyer can push a bit. In Germany I have been impressed with the intelligence and dedication of Jan Silberstorf, while I find Cordyline Bartzs knowledge of Yang family form variations to be fascinating.
Are there any practitioners you would have liked to meet, either living or dead?
Song Shu Ming is a little known master who was the secretary to General Yuan Shi Kai. He fetched up in Beijing in the early 1900s, claiming to teach a taijiquan from Wudang Mountain, handed down in his family. Wu Tu Nan, the famous historian wrote that his own master Wu Jian Quan and other famous Beijing masters were so impressed with Song that they studied with him though they were all well-established teachers. It would be interesting to compare Song´s art with what people are doing now.
You have probably seen number of changes in the art over the years; how they are taught and depicted in the media, how things like competitions and other gatherings have played a part in the promotion and ultimate understanding of how things now are, compared to how they were taught when you first began training, are there any surprises for you anymore?
Though I did compete and some of my students compete and though I run competitions I don’t really like them. However, they can be a test under pressure of a student’s character and technique. Furthermore I think people realize that to do well in competitions they can’t expect to get away with practicing for an hour in class once a week. Competitions are also a test for teachers both as coaches of competitors and also as judges to identify what is good and not so good about the technique of competitors. Also it is a chance to meet other instructors. However, I’ve seen the downside of this twice in Taiwan where the locals systematically cheated lied and manipulated against foreigners, especially in 1984 when I withdrew the British team and publicly smashed and threw on the ground the present given us by the president of their taiji federation. Other gatherings such as Recontre Jasniere, Tai Chi Caledonia and the European taijiquan/qigong forums of the TCFE are as important as places where there can be exchanges of ideas on a cultural, technical and pedagogic level.
Teaching weapon applications
Do you feel any personal responsibility to the art?
Albert Camus said, “None of us is guilty because we did not begin history; none of us is innocent because we continue it”. We who are teachers have a certain responsibility for how, what and who we teach. What I do believe is to treat people as individuals; I believe people cannot and should not always be taught the same things in the same way.
When publicly asked why you taught taijiquan you once replied, “To make money and meet interesting women”. Do you still feel this way about it?
Marpa, the translator, was asked by one of his students, “You said that if one does not enjoy meat, liquor and women, it is a disservice to oneself. It appears to us that this is no different than what we do”. Marpa replies, “Though I enjoy sense pleasures, I have these confidences I am not fettered by them”. And later, “While enjoying sense pleasures, I meditate on the deity …”. I do meditate in my neigong practice, though not on any deity.
Finally; as a young man you entered the world of taijiquan to learn how to fight effectively, are you still fighting the same battles or do you get something else from the art?
There are always more battles though not necessarily against the same opponents. I have a responsibility to taijiquan and the Chinese internal arts in general and to my own school in particular to act to further and to protect our interests. Serge Dreyer and members of the French taiji federation have encouraged me in different ways through some of my contacts in eastern Europe in particular to try to help make a truly European Chinese internal arts movement so that there can be an enriching exchange of ideas and culture. I believe that this is a Holy Grail that is worth questing for.
1. Goju Ryu – “Hard Soft school” of both Okinawan and Japanese karate.
2. Dantian – Cinnabar Field.
There are said to be three Dantians located in the body at the centre of the forehead, the middle of the chest and just below the navel. However most references to the Dantian generally refer to the latter point in the abdomen, which is also seen as the centre of gravity.
3. wei lu – tailbone/coccyx
*Cheng Tin Hung
Sifu Cheng Tin Hung was born in San Xiang in Guangdong province in 1930. He first learned taijiquan from his uncle, Cheng Wing Kwong, who was one of three Hong Kong “inside the door” students of Wu Jian Quan. Cheng Wing Kwong brought Qi Min Xuan from Henan Province to teach his sons and nephews. Cheng Tin Hung was the only students who persevered with the training due to its severity. For almost three years Cheng Tin Hung went everywhere with Qi, as his sole student. In 1957, he participated in the Martial Arts Contest sponsored by Taiwan and defeated he middleweight champion of Taiwan, Yu Man Tung. Sifu Cheng Tin Hung founded and was president of the Hong Kong Tai Chi Association.
Dan Docherty’s web site is: www.taichichuan.co.uk