Tai Chi Interview – Li Deyin

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Professor Li Deyin in one of China’s most famous Tai Chi Masters and creator of a number of modern-day competition routines such as 24 Step Taijiquan, 48 Step Taijiquan, Taiji Kungfu Fan, Xiyangmei Taiji Kungfu Fan. He is also the highest authority on 24 step simplified Yang style taijiquan, 88 Step Traditional Yang Style Taijiquan, Wudang Taiji Sword and and 32 step Yang Style Taijijian. This Tai Chi interview was conducted with the help of his daughter, Faye Li Yip.

You began training at 8 years old, can you tell us about the nature of your training detailing the progression through your first 12 years?

I was born into a traditional martial arts family. My martial arts teacher was my grandfather Li Yu Lin (disciple of Sun Lu Tang). He was the authority in the family and insisted that all the boys in the family had to practice martial arts regardless of their future career plans. Everyday after dinner, my brothers and I would train at home under grandfather’s supervision. Sometimes we would go to his martial arts school and train at the back of older, adult  students.

For the first 4 years, my training mostly focused on Ji Ben Gong (foundation skills) which included kicks, body stretching, splits, handstands and somersaults as well as basic Shaolin training including Shaolin Fist, Shaolin Sabre and Staff etc. My grandfather used to say ‘Children need to get a good foundation in their legs and waist because these skills are difficult to train when you get older.’

When I went to secondary school, my grandfather would ask us to practice Xing Yi Quan which involved daily Zhan Zhuang (pole standing) and Wu Xing Quan (Five Element Fist). This training was repetitive and intensive. We would practice the same movements over and over for more than 20 or 30 repetitions. Grandfather said, ‘The simpler the movement, the more advanced skills can be developed’.

I started formal Taijiquan training before moving to High School. Although I had already learned the pattern of the form, I had to start again from Open Stance in front of my grandfather. Learning progress was at a snail’s pace as he advocated a ‘don’t bite more than you can chew’ method of training. It took me six months to complete the Yang Style (traditional) Taijiquan Form. However, this training method benefited me greatly in later years when I made a last minute decision to enter 1st Beijing University Wushu Competition without any training for 3 years and won a Gold Medal for Taijiquan.

You trained in Chen style Taijiquan with Master Li Jingwu and also training in Wudang systems; both Chen and Wudang lay claim to being the originators of Taijiquan, what is your opinion on this?

The origin and birth of Taijiquan is an ongoing investigation for historians and martial art academics. It is perfectly normal to hear different opinions. To my knowledge there is more than the opinions of Chen Village and Wudang Mountain. For example recently I read a book written by a British Chinese Taiji enthusiast on Woo (Hao) Style Taijiquan. In his book, he suggested that Wang Zong Yue should be regarded as the father of ‘Modern Time Taijiquan’ because he was the first person in history to use the philosophy of Tai Ji and theory of Ying-Yang to explain martial art principles. He was also the first person to give the name of ‘Tai Ji Quan’ to this kind of martial skills. Furthermore his classic writings provided guidance on the concept of ‘softness overcoming hardness’ and to seek ‘stillness within motion’ which became fundamental elements of all Tai Ji Quan that we see today.

The ancient Nei Jia Quan (Internal Fist) from Zhang San Feng of Wudang Mountain and Chen Jia Quan –Pao Chui (Chen Family Fist – Cannon Fist) from Chen Village were different to today’s Taijiquan in both technique requirements and theory on which they were based.

I haven’t done specialised research in this area, but I respect and listen to all kinds of different opinions. They all give me something to think about. I feel any Taijiquan academic issue should be discussed in an open, free spirit where the facts are presented and the truth can be discovered. But we must be mindful of unfounded claims from any style or school out of self interest and self promotion.

What are the differences between the two styles (Wudang & Chen) of taijiquan?

Wudang Taijiquan can be understood as two different things: one refers to Taijiquan that is popular at Wudang Mountain or around that area; the other refers to the Taijiquan styles (eg Yang, Woo, Wu & Sun) that believe Wudang Mountain is the origin. We can compare these styles to Chen Style Taijiquan and see the following similarities:

a)     all are martial arts disciplines

b)    all emphasise ‘softness’ and ‘internal’ aspects of training and are guided by Wang Zong Yue’s  Taijiquan principle

c)     all contain a list of movements & structure in their traditional forms that is almost identical to Chen Style which suggests that they share the same linage.

The differences between them are:

a)     Chen style technique has a lot of silk reeling, overlapping, spiralling movements while other styles mainly focus on gracefulness, rooting and centring.

b)    Chen Style also has lot of power exertion and jumping movements. Chen Style forms require obvious changes in speed and power rhythm whereas the other styles tend to emphasise more the use of intention rather than power and have a more regular, unchanging speed.

How do you feel about the differences between traditional and modern styles of taiji – what are the main benefits (and downsides) of each approach?

I feel we must understand traditional taijiquan and traditional taijiquan forms are two different things.

Once, I was invited to a ‘Traditional Taijiquan Competition’. Organiser told me that no forms created after 1950 should be called ‘traditional taijiquan’ and all competition forms that were compiled with the approval of Chinese Wushu Association during 1980’s were not allowed. However, to my amazement all the forms that were competed were parts of a ‘traditional form’ put together by competitors the night before (well after 1950)! What sense does it make if a self-invented short form can be described as ‘traditional taijiquan’ whereas competition forms compiled by group of traditional Taijiquan masters on the invitation of Chinese Wushu Association are refused?!

24 Step Yang Style Taijiquan Simplified Form was introduced with the aim of promoting taijiquan to the general public under the leadership of Chinese Sports Committee in 1956. It met with some difficulties in the early stages as some people felt it was not traditional, obviously confused with the essence of traditional taijiquan and the method (forms) in which traditional taijiquan can be studied. We can use an example here: traditional taijiquan is traditional beer, the ingredients of traditional beer in a barrel are the same as that in a bottle, only the packaging changed for consumer’s convenience.

I feel Traditional Taijiquan is not a ancient antique as it evolves with the social, economic environment and cultural developments. It still offers great benefits to today’s society. The five main styles (Chen, Yang, Woo, Wu & Sun) are all traditional taijiquan and they should include the old long forms as well as simplified short forms and competition forms that were  introduced later, because they remain true to the principles and characteristics of that traditional style.

Modern Taijiquan should refer to new styles of Taijiquan for example Hunyuan Taijiquan, Qigong Taijiquan, Zonghe Taijiquan etc. Although these new styles have observed the principles of traditional styles, they have new characteristics and new concepts. Many apparatus that has gained popularly in recent years, for the practice of taiji, like Taiji Ball, Taiji Ring and Taiji Fan are also considered to be modern styles.

In comparing traditional and modern styles, I think traditional taijiquan and forms are rich in theory, highly skilled, well structured and have stood test of time. The downside to these is that they require dedication, time and practice that may not suit everyone’s need. Another difficulty associated with the traditional practices is that the slight variations created over the years, even from the same teacher, may make it more difficult for students to learn.

Modern styles, on the contrary, are developed in response to modern needs, and therefore tend to be more adaptable, accessible and usually have standardised teaching materials. But they may need to develop more in theory to become more accomplished system.

Is it the case that most people who train in the standardised forms are more concerned with the competitive aspects and that the more traditional systems are now practiced mainly for health?

Not really. Some standardised forms are for competitions, like competition forms for each style and 42 Step combined Taijiquan & sword form. Some standardised forms are for beginner’s learning like 24 Step form and some standardised forms are for Duan Wei grading like 8 Step & 16 Step form. You can see that many people who learn standardised forms are for a variety of reasons. Even people who train in competition forms are not necessarily more concerned with competitions than for the health. I feel that people choose to train in the standardised forms because these forms are compact in structure and precise in movements so it’s accessible, easy to learn.

There could be some difficulties with competition in traditional forms not least because of its complexity and diversity in styles. But this doesn’t mean people who train in traditional forms have given up on competitions. Many wish to enter Tuishou (push hands) competition to put their skills to test and seek further improvement.

I’m particularly interested in the many changes the art has gone through in the way it is taught and practiced and how much is authentic and how much is a modern approach.

Traditionally Chinese martial arts, including Taijiquan was taught as a trade skill to make a living from. It was passed on mainly through family members or chosen disciples. In Chinese history, the professional Taijiquan teachers faced worrying competition not only from fellow martial artists but also from their indoor disciples. Therefore absolute loyalty and strict protocols had to be adhered to by the disciples before they could be accepted. Masters would only pass their complete skills to disciples when their relationship was as close as father and son.

Today Taijiquan is taught and practiced for a variety of reasons. Many people enjoy Taijiquan as a recreational activity, or a way to live a healthy lifestyle therefore the approach to teaching can be divided into commercial or voluntary, educational or entertainment. However, there are still some martial artists in China who choose to teach their art by accepting disciples, although the number of such teachers is not great.

Can you talk a little about the different ways taiji is taught and practiced by perhaps comparing what we see practiced in the parks and what is trained in professional classes and educational establishments?

There are different students with different reasons and aims. Taijiquan in the public parks is about participation for all, aiming to give everyone an opportunity to try the art. Social inclusion is very important in this kind of teaching/practice.

Professional clubs and team training is mostly for Taijiquan Competition. The training is about improving techniques, endurance, and skills to gain victory in competition.

Taijiquan in educational establishments is to give young people a balanced development (both externally and internally) and increase their awareness of cultural values. This training is very interactive, motivating and scientific.

Another important kind of teaching is rehabilitation for the ill and frail. My father devoted all his life to teach Taijiquan and Qigong to patients at Harbin University Hospital. His teaching was highly individualised and patient focused with highly effective results.

How much of a part do the health elements play in the wider teaching of taiji, today  is it considered an effective health-prevention system and do the health authorities actively want it promoted as such.

Over 200 years ago, when the Great Master Wang Zong Yue taught us the principle of Taijiquan is based on Tai-Chi, Yin-Yang theory and the strategy of ‘softness overcoming hardness’ & ‘bending and extending in accordance’, he also talked about the value of Taijiquan: ‘Ask what do we do it for? – Iit is for prolonging life and staying well’. Clearly, he knew the ultimate purpose and value is to improve one’s health.

In China, about 90% of people who practice Taijiquan do so with the aim of improving their health and about 10% are training Taijiquan to achieve competition results and higher fighting skills.

Since 1949, Chinese health authorities and Chinese government has given a high priority to support the promotion of Taijiquan. This is evident not only from the wider channels in which Taijiquan is taught, but also from the open and direct speeches by many Chinese Leaders like Mao, Deng, and Premier Zhou. It’s with the central and local authorities’ support that Taijiquan has truly spread and become accessible to all.

I can recall that in early 1950’s I didn’t want to practice Taijiquan at college because I’d be stared at, but ten years later practising Taijiquan had become trendy in campus.

Are there many professional taiji teachers who make a living from the art in China?

I am one of them! Although I graduated from University with MBA and had ambitions of doing great business, I was headhunted to become a full time Taijiquan coach. Since 1960 until my retirement in 2000, I taught professionally for 40 years! I don’t have any numbers as to how many others there are, but in Renmin University in Beijing, we had another 4 professional Wushu/Taijiquan teacher.

It is generally believed that most people who practice taiji in the east train everyday whereas the majority of westerners probably attend one class a week with some little training in between. Do you notice this and do you think they can still gain benefit from so little training?

There are cultural differences between East and West. In the West, competitiveness is a crucial element in all sports. The spirit needs to challenge human body to be faster, higher and stronger. In China, many sporting activities stress harmony and natural, calling for the unity of people and nature, mind and body, stillness within motion. The idea of getting the right balance and harmony is essential. Therefore, it may be easier for people from the East to accept the concept of Taijiquan and more difficult to Westerners. This is a natural process of understanding and adopting.

In a way, how many times a week Westerners practice Taijiquan is not that important, what matters is how many westerners are doing it, and how many of them keep doing it. My personal experience is that Taijiquan is becoming very popular in the West. I remember in 1989 I sent my daughter to the UK for further education, it was difficult to find Taijiquan schools and clubs. But over the years I came to UK to travel several cities to give seminars and more and more people seem to join in each year. I am very pleased that my daughter Faye Li Yip is also carrying on the family tradition, actively promoting Taijiquan in the UK. I hope one day Taijiquan in the UK can be as popular as English Football in China.

Faye Li Yip

Deyin Taijquan Institute