Gerda Geddes was the first person who ever studied and taught Tai Chi in the UK, she began training in Shanghai at a time when very few women of any nationality were able to study the art. For nearly 60 years Tai Chi played an integral part in her life and she remained actively interested and open in her heart and mind right to the end. She passed away on Saturday 4th March 2006 at age 89.
Having studied tai chi chuan since 1981 I was, of course, aware of the name of Gerda Geddes although I’d never personally experienced her approach to the work. In early 2002 I was teaching a qigong seminar in the east coast of Scotland village of Anstruther, when, much to my surprise and curiosity, I saw her name on the list of participants. On arrival she introduced herself and quietly found her way to the back of the class where she practiced the exercises, blending into the background. Over lunch we chatted about her past experiences and I subsequently arranged to travel to her home in north-east Scotland to conduct this interview.
Over the years of our connection we, became friends and regularly exchanged several telephone calls and letters. She twice attended Tai Chi Caledonia as a special guest, where she enthralled the participants with her quit grace and dignity, epitomising inner qualities of tai chi.
Can we begin by looking at what led you to study Tai Chi?
At the time we moved to Shanghai in 1948 I had spent many years studying dance, working with exercise and movement on a daily basis. I worked with contemporary dance and I worked a lot with looking at the circularly quality of movement and also thinking about all the circles you had in your joints, and in your body; how it comes from the inside and outside.
Aside from the work I had done with dance I also worked with Wilhelm Reich as a psycho-analyst. I liked his way of thinking. He worked very much on a physical, as well as on a psychological level. Reich had talked about muscular armouring, how trauma and anger can create memory in the muscles which are held on to. He encouraged you to listen to yourself and try and find your own inner rhythm. He also taught a great deal about diagnosis: how should you look at a person, how should you judge somebody. He always said that what you say is not all that important but it is how you say it. What happens in your body, what happens in your face, does it get stuck in your diaphragm, or does it flow thorough? Reich was already into the same kind of thinking that you get in Tai Chi. I had also been working with patients for several years, using psychotherapy. When I had children I didn’t do this kind of work anymore as I felt that spending so much time and energy working with the sick and unbalanced took too much out of me. I really wanted to live more for my own good health to be as healthy and as balanced as I could be for my own children. This was what became most important for me. With this work and with my work as a dancer I very much looked at people’s bodies, and how they used their bodies. I also used the methods of Alexander Lowen who worked with Bio-Energetics which was a therapeutic technique to help a person get back together with his body and to help him enjoy, to the fullest degree possible, the life of the body.
I had also worked in theatre using this movement work with actors and dancers. So when I went to China, I went with this background of using, and observing the use of movement on a number of levels.
What kind of dance were you working with?
It wasn’t like ballet; it was more modern, expressive dance. I worked with a German dancer named Mary Vigman who worked with expressing your emotions through dance. We were looking at movements which expressed emotions like anger, happiness, sorrow etc.
At that time, which was around the beginning of the war, I was working with combining the works of psychotherapy and psycho-analysis with the work I had done with movement. Because of this combination of work I got a very good job at the National Theatre in Norway, when I returned after the war.
This was a very interesting period of time as we were working with very avant-garde and very forward thinking new authors like Kafka, Jean Paul Satre and Bertolt Brecht. My major job was to try to analyse each character, in the plays, and help the actors to get a sense of how their characters would be. I would go through each character with the actors, getting them to think about what their body would be like, how their postures would be, how they would move what might their voices sound like. This was fascinating work which gave me a very deep connection with the actors and the characters they had to play.
I later moved to London in 1947 to use the same work at the Old Vic. During this time I met my husband, who subsequently got a job in China. I was able to continue with my movement work in China and was also lucky to have a brief period working with the Peking Opera.
How did you find the system of movement the Peking Opera was working with compared with the work you had previously done?
What surprised me was that the Chinese were very good at improvisation. I would give a theme for a class and invite them to express what the role I gave them meant to them. They threw themselves into it which I thought was very surprising.
I would too. I would have thought that they were very structured in their training.
Yes they were so structured and so disciplined that it was extraordinary that they adapted to improvisation.
During this period in Shanghai I discovered Tai Chi. I saw an old man every morning going out into the field with his bird cage and then doing his daily practice. Seeing this felt like lightening coming down into my spine. However I had great problems finding a teacher. How Sophia Delza found Master Mah Yueh Liang I don’t know. It was after we had left Shanghai that she met and worked with him. We were the only western women who were at all interested in Tai Chi. Sophia was also interested in the theatre but as I had just had a baby I couldn’t devote the time I would have like to, to working in the theatre.
We later moved to Hong Kong, around 1955/56, when we developed a friendship with Chinese gentleman, who was a lecturer at university, and he regularly practised Tai Chi. I asked him if he would teach me but he told me that he couldn’t, as he wasn’t experienced enough, and that I should be taught by a Master. This idea of being only taught by someone who had a good knowledge always stayed with me. So often today you see people with very little experience teaching. It really concerns me greatly.
So who was the Master he introduced you to?
He was called Choy Hok Peng who had been a student of Yang Cheng Fu at the same time as Cheng Man Ching. Unfortunately I only spent about a year working with him before he died. After that his son, Choy Kam Man became my teacher. He eventually went on to move to San Francisco, where he taught and built up a school with many students.
Can you tell me a little about the structure of training you had? I’d also be interested in knowing about the fact that you were the only western women being taught and how you were dealt with in this context?
I never went to a class, I was taught privately and I know that he was very bewildered to begin with, probably thinking, “How on earth am I going to tackle this woman?”
He tested me out before he would accept me as a student. I had to show him the movement work I had done. I had choreographed a dance with, rhythm and sound, which was about my first impressions of China.
Once he had identified that you would be someone that was worth investing some time with, in teaching, what was the training schedule?
I worked with Choy Hok Peng for about two hours a day, every day for a period of six months. He taught me the Long Yang Form. The method of teaching was very unusual for me, coming from the background I had. There was absolutely no physical contact between us. When he eventually came to correcting me he did it with only one finger, keeping his body very far away from me. I got the feeling that we were sort of measuring each other during this time. I had to unlearn, which was one of the most difficult things for me, all my dance technique. My body had been very well trained in a particular way of moving and I had to re-thing everything. It was like learning to walk again and it took a long, long time to get accustomed to the method of movement. He wanted me to just to copy his movements and I remember him saying, “Look see Missy, look at my foot, see it.” I was very hard work but when I realised that I had to unlearn my previous patterns of movement I then realised that I just had to let go. This letting go and re-thinking my whole body was the best way for me to learn Tai Chi.
Before Choy Hok Peng died he instructed his son to continue teaching me. His son, Choy Kam Man, had a great interest in sports, which he performed with an influence from his tai chi training. When he first came to work with me he was very scared as I was an older Western woman.
Were there different methods of teaching between the father and the son?
The son had a much softer approach. The father was more trained in the martial side of Tai Chi. Comparing the father with his fellow student Cheng Man-ching I would say that Cheng was more intelligent and more cultured and scholarly. My teacher was more a fighter.
That being the case it’s quite unusual that he agreed to work with you, being a dancer and not primarily concerned with the martial side.
Well we worked with only the form. Whenever I asked him any questions like what the names of the movements were, or what the meaning of the movements were, which very much appealed to me, he said never mind that, the names are for memory only. He would say that the bird name was just to let you know to move in that manner, nothing else. I had to eventually find out all about that side of it myself. You have to remember that in those does it was very much like a closed book, it wasn’t like it is today. Tai Chi teachers very rarely opened up to other teachers, they were like clams, holding on to their secrets. The information just wasn’t available. I had to eventually work a lot on this side of things by myself. I wanted to find out about the symbols and what they stood for so I started trying to read more about it. However it was also very difficult to find literature on the subject. There was only one Tai Chi book which had been translated into English and I found it too difficult to learn Chinese at that time.
You worked with the son for how long before you returned to the UK?
I had spend around 2 ½ years working with the son and six months with the father when I returned to the UK. Nobody had the faintest idea what I was taking about, when I mentioned Tai Chi. However, as I had previously had done so much movement work with actors and dancers I knew that this work would be extremely useful for them. I travelled and performed Tai Chi demonstrations at all the big acting schools in London: RADA, Central School of Acting etc. At the beginning I had problems convincing these people that having knowledge of this system of movement would be useful for them. I was becoming very discouraged by their apathy and lack of response to this work. I eventually set up a class in a very small room and my first student was a man called Felix Mann, an Acupuncturist who had trained in China and who wrote and spoke Chinese. He told be about the Neijing – the classic texts on Traditional Chinese Medicine.
When I started learning Tai Chi it never entered my mind that I would start to teach me. A lot of people who start learning today come with the idea that they want to teach it. I always ask them how they can know that they want to teach it when they don’t even know what it’s all about. I practised for seven years on my own before I even contemplated teaching. I also had a very discouraging experience when a group of Cheng Man-ching’s students came over from America to demonstrate at the East West centre in London. I found the two men who came to be very, very arrogant. They didn’t want to talk with anyone who had experience in Tai Chi and were very single-minded in their approach to the art, presenting everything as being very precise and very ‘cut and dried.’ I told them that my experience working with the Chinese never reflected this single-minded precision and that one person did something one way whilst another took a very different approach.
The big breakthrough for me was that I became part of the staff at The Place at the School for Contemporary Dance. I was given all the dancers to train and they all had to do a foundation course in Tai Chi. That provided me with a good bedrock of people to work with. It was a very interesting time working with these dancers. I always had two different courses going: one for dancers, which was teaching tai chi in such a way that they could use it for themselves as a way of preventing injury. Working with the slow movements and increased awareness gave the dancers an improved sense of their bodies which helped them to prevent injuries.
In working with these people, in helping them to increase their body awareness, I’m curious that you never used push hands which I often find to be a good place for people to discover where they are ‘holding’ themselves which, for me, provides a good lesson in body awareness. I’m just interested in what your feelings are on this side of Tai Chi?
Well I don’t have any feelings with Push Hands because, to begin with, I wasn’t really interested in it. When we were in Shanghai I went to endless performances and competitions where I spent hour after hour watching all those experts trying to uproot each other. I found it extremely boring because there was such a strong competitive side to it. I found myself taking a step back from it. For me, I was more concerned with a kind of spiritual connection through my Tai Chi, and that’s always been my strong point of interest. In my own personal experience this side of Tai Chi has always proved itself. So many of my students have actually ‘found’ themselves or found that by working with Tai Chi they have discovered other aspects of themselves which has perhaps made them more creative. Accessing the creative source in somebody interests me a whole lot more than how far I am able to push somebody.
Within this creative source that you refer to do you have a sense of the ‘inner cultivation?
That’s the important thing for me and it always starts with the breathing. I used to have four different breathing patterns that I worked with. In the beginning there wasn’t much Qigong and I worked at it through becoming aware of oneself through paying attention to the breathing. With these exercises you very often discover where the breath doesn’t flow through your body, where you’re holding on to things. I found this to be very comparable to Reich’s work which I already felt very much at home with.
The Orgone Energy he worked with had parallels with Qi energy?
Absolutely. It’s the same thing but with a different name and a different way of expressing it. He refers to it as the ‘lifeforce’ and he had no knowledge of connection with the Chinese systems. Both Reich and Carl Jung had a belief in people’s potential. They both knew that people had special potential but said that people were very lucky if they could find it. Reich said that there were two things that people had to aim at in life. One was to have a harmonious sex life (He was largely responsible for opening up this area but the pendulum swung to the other extreme as it always does.) in which love played a vital part. If you could find a partner that you loved, who you could have a healthy sex life with, then that was the most important thing. The other criteria which he emphasised, was your working life. He felt that if you could find something that you could work with, with your heart, and cared very deeply about, then that would be personally fulfilling. I absolutely agree with that completely.
I’m struck by many things: firstly you are in China when very few Western people are there, you not only find a good Tai Chi teacher, but persuade him that you are worthy of being taught, you continue to work and train, you teach in a time when people had no awareness of Tai Chi and now, after over 50 years, you still continue to practice, what keeps you interested and inspired?
I always feel that whatever you do, wherever you put your interest, if you see for yourself that there is a gross potential. If there is a potential where I can work and can get better at it, and if I get better at it, will I become a more fulfilled human being, because after all that’s why we’re here isn’t it? For me Tai Chi has been an endless discovery of finding new growth. If there hadn’t been new growth I would have stopped it. There was a point when I did stop it when I got thoroughly bored it with it and thought, “Why on earth am I doing this all the time, it’s very boring? I keep myself fit but that’s that.” Then I gave it up. I then got ill and very nearly died and that’s when the Tai Chi came back to me. I thought that there is something more here and I have to find out what it is.
One of the things I find that many people who are new to learning Tai Chi find is that it is often difficult to get a real sense of their development, once they have learned the basic movements of the Hand Form. I’m wondering if, for you, there has been a sense of where you have gone with Tai Chi or where it has served you for the past 50 years.
Well as you go on doing it, you discover more and more things in yourself. There is a wonderful quotation by this famous Chinese actor called Mei Lang Feng who has Chinese supreme female impersonator. They didn’t use women in Chinese theatre until 1928, they always used men for these roles in Peking Opera. He wrote a book about himself and his development within which he wrote, “When I was a young man I was filled with enthusiasm and I acted with my whole body and I threw my whole self into everything I did. Now I’m an old man and am nearly 70 years old. I still act with my whole self but the difference is that now I actually know what my little fingernail is doing. This is refinement. When you can work both internally and externally, when you have contact with your organs, your breath and your whole self. That is a lifetime’s discovery and I think that’s what one works towards, so that when you finally die, it isn’t really going to be much different between being here and being on the other side. When you’re at this stage, you’re here but you’re also connected with the other side too.
I no longer have a desire to teach Tai Chi anymore. That came to me last year when I was 84. One day when I had finished teaching and I drove myself home I suddenly thought that I don’t want to teach anymore. I feel I can teach by not teaching, teach by being. And that’s actually how it is for me now. The old Taoists say that when you become a sage you can decide when the time is right for you to leave this life. I hope I can live to prove that – there will always be a mystery. We can’t know everything because we’re not supposed to know everything, but what we do know is that we’re going to die. As we get older we isolate ourselves more.
Images: Ronnie Robinson