The Great Journey
The lineage of Da Cheng Chuan Masters and students stretches over 27 centuries of China's rich cultural tradition.
This is the second of a two-part series.
Among the hundreds of people who fill Beijing's Yun Tan Park for morning warm ups, there is a loose circle of people practicing an exercise unlike that of any of the others. They are standing completely still.
Near them, in the clearing, is a large gentleman with silver hair, bright eyes and a belly like a laughing Buddha. This is Professor Yu Yong Nian, the world's leading authority on the art of Standing Like a Tree, known in Chinese as Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung.
As a young man in the early 1920s, he had faced a crisis in his life. He had completed his studies in Western Medicine and qualified as a dental surgeon. But long hours of work in the Beijing Railway General Hospital had drained him of energy and left him completely exhausted.
Following the advice of a friend, he joined a group of people who were spending time standing still under the guidance of a master who was advocating its benefits both for health and the martial arts. The energy restoring power of the system was immediately evident to the young dentist and he became one of his teacher's most diligent practitioners.
After nine years' training, he began using the system as a treatment for internal diseases at his hospital. His initial successes led three years later to a major medical conference in 1956 at the Beijing Shoudong San Hospital to introduce the system to hospitals throughout China. He then began teaching publicly in the mornings in Yun Tan Park, Beijing.
After the Cultural Revolution, Professor Yu published the first of four books on the Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung system. The first edition of Zhan Zhuang for Health (Educational Publishers, Beijing, 1982) came out in February 1982 with a print run of 20,000 copies. By April a second edition of 120,000 copies was issued. By 1987 a further 294,500 copies had been printed. A limited edition of his second book on the application of Zhan Zhuang for Health was published in Beijing in 1989 and in the same year his fourth book on the system was issued by Cosmos Books in Hong Kong.
Now in his seventies, Professor Yu is a member of China's National Chi Kung Research Council, consultant to the American-Chinese Chi Kung Research Group and to the Da Cheng Chuan Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung Research Groups (Europe).
The teacher to whom the young Yu Yong Nian went for help at the turning point in his life was Great Grand Master Wang Xiang Zhai.
Born in Hebei province, the young Wang suffered from poor health and was encouraged to improve his physical condition by taking up martial arts training under Master Guo Yuen Shun who lived in his village. After his master's death, he spent the next 10 years travelling throughout China meeting and studying under the great martial arts masters of his day.
By the mid-1940s he was ready to share the results of his research. He began teaching in Shanghai and quickly attracted a circle of students. Impressed by Master Wang's skill and martial prowess, his followers began calling his system Da Cheng Chuan, The Great Accomplishment. Several years later Master Wang came to Beijing, to teach in the capital.
The foundation of his system was Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung, about which he told his students:
Action originates in inaction and
stillness is the mother of movement.
He was fond of composing short verses to encourage his students as they persevered with the unusual demands of their stationary training. One of his verses describes the immense power generated by the standing exercise and hints at the subtle awareness that it awakens:
Propelled by natural strength,
You are as strong as a dragon.
Inhaling and exhaling naturally and quietly,
You perceive the mechanism of all movement.
Master Wang's influence was widespread. Several streams of his teaching have continued to this day. His daughter, Madame Wang Yu Fa, now in her late seventies, became an outstanding teacher in her own right, as did Professor Yu Yong Nian. Other distinguished teachers in the lineage included Professor Yu Pung Shi, a medical doctor, and Master Han Hsing Yuen, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.
Those streams came together at an international training seminar in Beijing in the summer of 1999, attended by Masters and students from 16 countries (see
of this series).
Students from the United States were led by their teacher, Sifu Henry Look, a disciple of both Professor Yu Pung Shi and Master Han Hsing Yuen.
Sifu Look's internal power, demonstrated in US Chinese Martial Arts competitions and NACMAF tournaments have won him a place among the most sought after martial arts instructors in the United States.
The European students were brought to the Beijing seminar by their teacher, Master Lam Kam Chuen.
Born in Hong Kong shortly after the Second World War, he studied under masters such as Lung Tse Chung and Yim Sheung Mo (both of whom were disciples of Ku Yue Chang, known throughout China as "The King of Iron Palm"). After studying Chinese Medicine, he opened a school and clinic in Hong Kong and travelled to Beijing to study Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung under Professor Yu Yong Nian.
Master Lam came to the West in 1976 and gave the first European demonstration of the art of Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung. Then came his ground-breaking work published by Gaia Books, The Way of Energy, introducing Zhan Zhuang to the West, foreword by Professor Yu.
Professor Yu has traced the development of Da Cheng Chuan from the "First Generation" to the present. His starting point is the history of the foundation practice, Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung, known as "Standing like a Tree".
This practice and the philosophy behind it date back some 27 centuries. As early as the 7th Century BCE, the Chinese Philosopher Guan Tse (730 - 645 BCE) perceived the fundamental nature of energy and saw it as the precondition for everything else in the universe. He wrote extensively about the "Natural Way of Life", which he referred to as "The Way" (Tao).
Guan Tse stressed the fundamental importance in the human being of vital power (jing) as the precondition for all other activity. He wrote: "In order to do anything in this life, we must first have energy." In Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung training, developing internal energy through prolonged stationary exercise is the basis of all other practice and must be undertaken first.
The great sage Lao Tse described "Standing alone and unchanging" in his classic, the Tao Teh Ching. This was his way of describing this practice of standing meditation, through which we come to understand the great power of the universe.
Chapter 25 of the Tao Teh Ching tells us: "By standing alone and unchanging, you will find that everything comes to you and the energy of the universe will never be exhausted."
In the period 450 - 350 BC, the world's most influential medical text appeared: The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine (Huang Ti Nei Ching). It, too, speaks of the vital internal energy of the human being.
The court physician tells the Emperor: "The sages were tranquilly content with nothingness and the true vital force accompanied them always. Their vital spirit was preserved within..."
In the works of the great Taoist philosopher Chuang Tse (369 - 286 BC) we find a chapter on 'The Great and Most Honoured Master'. It too expresses many of the essential qualities inherent in the practice of Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung.
Chuang Tse tells us that the sages of old were "still and unmoved". "Their breathing came deep and silent." Their "minds were free from all disturbance", "forgetting everything". They were "open to everything and forgot all fear of death".
In the text, a disciple tells his master, "I am making progress". "What do you mean?, asks the master. "I sit and forget everything...becoming one with the great void in which there is no obstruction."
In the first century CE the practice of exercises for the cultivation of internal energy were developed as part of Taoism (Do Jiaw). These included the practice of remaining completely still in fixed positions. Emphasis was then placed on using the mind to control the movement of internal energy (Chi) within the body and then to project it outwards.
The practice of Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung as developed by Great Grand Master Wang Xiang Zhai leads to exactly this enhanced circulation of Chi throughout the entire body without the risks created by mental tension.
A further influence on the Zhan Zhuang tradition was that of Buddhism, whose arrival in China from South Asia is usually attributed to the figure of Bodhidharma (Ta Mo).
Ta Mo himself is said to have attained enlightenment through silent meditation in a cave near the site of the Shaolin Temple. It is the development of "one-pointedness" of mind (or the ability of the mind to be clearly focused) in the Buddhist tradition that Professor Yu sees making a major contribution to the development of Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung practice.
The harmony of body and mind is central to the practice of Zhan Zhuang. Take a simple example - at the very beginning we are taught to stand still. We begin in the Wu Chi position, with the hands loosely at the sides, feet pointing forward, knees unlocked. We just stand there. "What should we do with our mind? and what about our breathing?" students often ask. "Shouldn't we be doing something special?" The answer is simple: "No, nothing special. You are standing in a natural way. Breathe in a natural way. Let your mind just do what it wants to."
At a later stage in the practice of Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung, in the same way that students learn to develop their bodies and hold certain positions, so the mind starts to be trained naturally too and is able to direct movement and energy. This is mind-body harmony.
This same principle is embodied in a form of martial art known as the "Six Harmonies Form" created by General Yueh Fei (1103 - 1142), the famous General of the Southern Sung dynasty.
History says that he developed this form, along with other exercise systems such as "The Eight Fine Treasures" (Ba Duan Jin), in order to enable his soldiers to fight against invading Manchurian forces.
In "The Six Harmonies Form", as in Chinese health systems and philosophy, the "mind" is said to reside both in the heart and in the brain. This acknowledges the powerful ruling force of the emotions in our being and their central role in our vitality. The concept of "mind" also includes the aspect of mentality that is usually meant by the term "mind" in the West - brainpower - deliberate, rational thinking, often associated with what is called mental control.
Linked to both these aspects of our inner life is the control of physical movement. The Chinese phrase is always understood to imply a unity of mental and physical activity.
By the 12th Century CE, particularly under the influence of General Yueh Fei, this understanding of energy was employed in the development of internal martial arts . Harmony of the energy of both mind and body was seen as central to both health and strength.
Viewed from this perspective, in fact, there could be no fundamental distinction between mind and body. We can see this deep unity symbolized by the popular figure of the Laughing Buddha performing the first of the eight Ba Duan Jin exercises !
Professor Yu singles out the importance of these aspects of "mind" in Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung because of the importance of inner relaxation and the use of timing and energy rather than muscle - whether standing still, moving or applying the martial techniques.
The next stage in the historical development occurred in the period from 1600 to 1680 when Master Ji Ji Ho developed his style known as Shin Yi Ba. He was a Kung Fu master who is said to have developed his form after watching two roosters fighting. The system he created was then used at that time at Shaolin Temple.
Around 1750, Master Tai Lung Bai developed a similar system which he called Shin Yi Chuan. Master Tai's teachings were committed to writing by his student Ma Hock Lee.
A century later Master Lee Lock Lung entered this tradition in Shanxi Province and then returned to his home in Hobei to teach, where the system came to be called Hsing Yi Chuan in the local dialect.
Next in the lineage came Master Guo Yuen Shun who died in 1903. Master Guo is said to have been "a boxing master of great attainments enjoying a country-wide renown." It was from this master, in his native county of Shenxian in Hebei Province, that the young Wang Xiang Zhai - who was destined to revel the secrets of the lineage publicly for the first time in this century - first studied, beginning at the age of eight.
Summing up this rare system of energy cultivation, the US quarterly "Internal Arts Journal" told its readers: "These deeply spiritual and mysterious exercises contain the seeds of real internal power. In Zhan Zhuang Chi Kung one learns to return to the source of all power, to enter back into the very womb of universal energy and to experience the truth of the power of the void, the still point, the wuji".
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