From Humble Beginnings.
Heathrow airport, terminal 2, departures, I was sitting with my cappuccino trying to get a signal on my phone to tell my wife I had arrived after my 3 hour journey from my home on the West Sussex coast. This was the start of my “trip of a lifetime”. I had been practicing tai chi for fifteen years and was running several classes in the village. This trip came about by the love and unselfish generosity of my wife, Anita . Some 20 years ago she contracted a severe form of arthritis which made a massive difference to our lifestyle as she became an occasional wheelchair user and I her carer . We had been on holiday in the Fuerteventura, a holiday in the sun to help with the constant pain my wife is in. We had talked about visiting China which we were going to do together in 2008 but prevented by the Beijing Olympics. I had mentioned the trip The Chi Clinic go on to train with the Masters in Beijing and the Wudang Mountain. I thought nothing more of that conversation.
A few days after our return from holiday there was an email from Vicky at the Chi Clinic advertising the China trip. I mentioned it to my wife and without hesitation she said “book it”. In order to finance it she would forgo her annual therapy trip to the sun. I felt humbled that my wife would, without a second thought, give up her trip for me. With humility and a great deal of gratitude I booked my place on the trip.
Vicky soon came back to me and mentioned that we had to learn the 12 movement health qigong before the trip. So I booked 5 half day seminars with her. Others who would were going on the trip also booked themselves on the seminars. I really enjoyed this new health qigong form. To help with my training I found Master Faye’s demonstration on You Tube so every morning I did my training with her. That, along with the seminars, I found to be a great form of exercise. An excellent exercise regime that I have continued to this day
About six weeks before departure it was mentioned that we would be doing some kind of demonstration or competition. I was a bit apprehensive as I had never competed before but as they say “the more you give the more you receive”. I wanted to get as much as I could from the trip so I asked Vicky if I could be part of the 24 form team and the 8 Treasures team. I confess I hadn’ t practiced the 8 Treasures in a standing position, for over a year and the Chi Clinic Team were Gold Medallists. So once again I looked to Master Faye and You Tube for help. Before the trip I only practiced once with the team both the 24 form and the 8 Treasures. A big ask for the competition.
As I drank my cappuccino others from the group started to arrive at the departures lounge. We introduced ourselves and booked our luggage through. This was the start of our pilgrimage.
Some 11 hours later we arrived at Beijing International. As we came out of arrivals Master Faye was waiting for us. This was quite surreal for me. I had attended an afternoon seminar with Master Faye in Cheam a year before but my only other contact was through You Tube. To me to be in the presence of and to be trained by Master Faye was, in football terms, like being a Sunday league player being trained by the England coach. Master Faye introduced us to Lily who was going to assist her with the tour of Beijing.
We were taken to our Beijing Hotel where I was billeted with Fernando, a young Argentinean who spoke very little English and I spoke no Spanish but we became good friends over the next two weeks. We settled into our hotel had our evening meal, which was like a banquet, and settled down for the night.
The following day was the beginning of something that will be etched on my mind forever. After an early breakfast, 6.30am, we boarded the coach and was taken to a cemetery. This was the start of our Tai Chi pilgrimage. Here we met Grand Master Professor Li and his wife, the parents of Master Faye. We were taken to a magnificent looking grave. It was that of Grand Master Li Tian Ji, founder of the Yang Style 24 Short Form. The most universal form of Tai Chi and the form I had been practicing for 15 years. Li Tian Ji was the uncle of Professor Li and the great uncle of Master Faye. Li Tian Ji was born in 1915 and headed the committee that created the 24 form in 1956. This was the purpose of our visit, to discover our tai chi roots. There was a spiritual realisation that I was in the presence of Tai Chi royalty. Over the next few days we would witness the impact the Li family had on this art.
From the grave side, after we had all paid our respects to Li Tian Ji , we were taken to a sports centre in Beijing where the elite martial artists train. We were met by Professor Li and his coaching team. Master Faye warmed us up and then passed us onto the coaching team whilst she took the Fan team for training. There were 30 of us fighting for space on the magnificent tai chi carpet. I must confess I found it difficult getting into the mental zone. Whether it was the jet lag or the lack of space I don’t know. We went through the 24 form and I learned a great deal about technique but I still could not zone in on the experience. After lunch we went outside and were put into our competition / demonstration teams. We went through the form to the competition music instructed by Madam Mao and Professor Li’s team. I was now able to zone in and by the end of training at 4.30pm I felt really good. The tuition was first class both technically supportive and fun. We had six hours of the highest quality training.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the White Cloud Temple and was met by the Holy Man in charge. He gave us a tour and Master Faye translated for us. This was such an emotional experience for me. The Holy Man was calm and had such an aura about him and I could not help but reflect on the selflessness and love of my wife which brought me here.
The following day after an early start we boarded the coach and were taken on our first cultural visit. The Great Wall. Lily, our guide, kept us entertained with the history of Beijing and how it extended. A fascinating explanation. After a few hours driving we arrived at the Great Wall. What a magnificent sight. Lily had chosen to take us to a remote part of the wall well off the general tourist route. We had another banquet meal in a restaurant which overlooked the wall. We were the only guests and the proprietor cooked a wonderful meal for all forty of us from scratch. It was a culinary delight. After lunch we attempted to climb the wall. We were escorted across land owned by the villages and onto the wall. That was a climb in itself. The wall was in extremely good repair and we followed it along the mountain ridges. Again it was steep and a good climb. Seeing the wall meandering along the ridge into the distance was an amazing feat of building. Some of the group practiced the form, I took in the scene and meditated. On our return to the coach we were met by the villagers trying to make a little income by selling post cards and material. The journey back to the hotel was long but it was broken up by a visit to a tea house where we had the experience of tasting various teas and given an explanation of their health benefits.
Day three was another training day. We used the grounds of the university next to the hotel. Master Faye took us for the training initially. After the warm up we started training the 8 brocades. After some initial practice Master Faye looked at the demonstration team. The team From the Chi Clinic. This was only my second training session with them. Naturally it was evident that I needed a lot more practice. Master Faye immediately recognised my shortcomings and replaced me with a more a experienced practitioner. Master Faye’s mother then came and took the group for training the 24 form to music. Another exceptionally good piece of training. Once again Master Faye took the Fan group. After lunch we were introduced to Madam Gao who had a unique style of training to beat the language barrier. We were again put into our competition groups and went though the 24 form to music. Madam Gao style was to sing to the music. This was great as it gave us a feel of the beat and what poses we should make to each musical phrase and most of all it was fun.
In the evening we were taken to a martial arts show in a theatre in central Beijing. The story was that of a Shaolin monk from admission into the order at a very young age through to him being in charge. There were some magnificent gymnastics and Kung Fu forms. A great evening’s entertainment.
Day 4 and 5 was to take us to the very roots of our art. After boarding our coach with our luggage we were joined by Master Tary, Master Faye’s husband, and two of their children. Then Professor Li, with a group of Japanese, also on a pilgrimage. The weather was making a turn for the worse as we were driving through the outskirts of the city and into the countryside. After a couple of hours driving we pulled up in a town, Xiong in Xiong County. We were led down a narrow road on foot. As we were walking a group of locals were hanging out of a window some two floors up and waving at us. We of course waved back. My initial thoughts were “What a friendly town”. To my amazement we entered the building where the locals were waving. Professor Li led us up two flights of stairs and out on to a roof courtyard. I was not expecting what came next. There was a guard of honour made up of local martial artists in their silks clapping and cheering the professor. As we followed behind the clapping and cheering continued for us. The welcome was overwhelming, warm and affectionate. We walked across the courtyard and into a small hall full of martial arts equipment and many more martial artists to continued applause
Everybody wanted to show their skills to the professor and their visitors. There were demonstrations and displays from grass roots practitioners to masters, local martial artists, the Japanese group and our own fan demonstration team. The final display was the most memorable. The coming together of all the groups, Chinese, Japanese, European, American and Argentina, all doing the 24 Form together in front of Grand Master Professor Li and the Li family, the decedents of Li Tian Ji, all taking place in a humble grass roots training room. Perfect.
We all left the training room on an amazing high and taken to a local restaurant, owned by one of the participants. Again we were treated like royalty, a magnificent feast and all the local martial artists wanting a photograph with the Professor.
After a very hospitable afternoon we boarded our coach and taken to our hotel. The hotel was magnificent in a country setting with plenty of outdoor space. In the grounds were several yurts and an abandoned Chinese fighter plane. After settling in and walking around the grounds we were fed again, another banquet with local dignitaries in attendance including the leader of the local Sports Council all wanting to spend time with Professor Li. There was plenty of wine flowing and toasting and the Professor was holding his own on that front.
After dinner we walked off excesses around the hotel grounds and practiced some tai chi and qigong. Our beds beckoned us after such an amazing day and before I went to sleep I reflected on the day and the realisation of the status of the Professor and the heritage I was being allowed to witness.
We were all up early the next day. At 6.30am a local tai chi group came to the hotel and we all joined in an hours training in the foyer. Can you imagine forty of our group plus ten of the Japanese group plus ten from the local club, sixty participants taking over the foyer all doing the 24 form, the universal form, the form that came into being because of Li Tian Ji. Other forms were also demonstrated but what struck home again was the warmth and companionship of our universal tai chi family.
After breakfast we boarded our coach again to go to a nearby harbour in order to take boats to the island situated in the middle of a lake to see the house of Grand Master Li Tian Ji. The rain was falling hard as we made our way to the harbour. As we alighted from the coach plastic rain capes were given out to each of us. We walked a very short distance to the landing stages where two boats were waiting for us. The wind and rain were raging as we boarded making the seats wet. We were given a warm cup of tea as we left the landing stages but the rain was coming horizontally into the boat. We left the shelter of the harbour basin and after about five minutes both boats turned around as the conditions were too bad to continue in these open boats Like all typical Brits in adversity we started up a sing song. It was like sitting around a scout camp fire and all joined in. The sing song continued when we left the boats and we’re waiting for the coach to return to pick us up.
We waited some twenty minutes for the coach with our spirits high. Once again we boarded the coach and returned to the hotel. As we alighted a convoy of about ten mini buses entered the hotel courtyard. Also waiting for us was a police car. We were all ushered into the mini buses. The police car left the hotel court yard with blue lights flashing followed by a convoy of minibuses each containing members of our group. We were taken to a small harbour where we were conveyed on a fishing boat to the island habitation of Li Tian Ji. Another amazing welcome awaited us. The villagers had put on a magnificent feast for us all but the best was yet to come. In the pouring rain young martial artists were so keen to show the professor and his guests their skills they changed their wellington boots for trainers and wearing their silks and in the rain they gave a performance full of conviction and pride. True warrior spirit. After the performance some of our group were permitted to visit the house of Li Tian Ji, now a photographic studio. From humble beginnings the 24 form was brought to the world and for me came a means of relieving the stress built up over thirty years of dealing with conflict. We returned to our hotel with humility, completely humbled at our experience.
The following day we returned to Beijing. A day’s training was needed before our competition on the Sunday. during the training my mind kept going back to the humble origins of the form and the pride the grass route practitioners had in demonstrating their art to the Li family and their guests. Inspiring. The competition day arrived. We were dressed in our silks and taken the short distance to Beijing University for the celebration and competition. It was if we were celebrities as we alighted from the coach. Cameras were flashing away at us and there was a buzz of excitement as we entered the university theatre. Teams in amazing coloured silks filled the room and along with them were the Grand Masters of various martial art forms, Tai chi royalty together in one room to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Li Tan Ji.
During the following two hours were demonstrations, speeches, presentations and anecdotes ending in a Master class by each of the Grand Masters demonstrating their own form with Professor Li’s demonstration being the finale. Where else and under what other circumstances would you see such celebrities in their field honour such a man. We, the only westerners present, were invited to be part of this unique celebration and treated with such warmth and hospitality as members of the global family of Tai Chi.
The afternoon was competition time. Outside the university sports hall teams dressed in vivid colours practiced before entering the arena. Our teams were no different. Dressed in our blue silks each of our three teams sought out a space to rehearse. Suddenly it was our turn to enter the fray. We lined up in our teams and marched in. There was a buzz going around the room and it felt like the room was filling up. The music started. I closed my eyes to focus. The music reached the part where we were to commence the form. I stepped to my left and my legs felt like jelly. I continued following Vicky’s lead. Step by step, movement by movement the team was in harmony. We reached that part of the form where we were to kick. Our knees came up together. We all kicked on the beat of the music. There was applause from the audience. They hadn’t applauded any other team. We kicked again, more applause. We finished the form and left the Arena to more applause. Wow! What a wonderful feeling, people from different teams congratulating us and wanting their pictures taken with us. The results came back. One of our teams received a gold medal and our other two teams received bronze medals. These medals were to show the standard we had reached in the Art. Initially I was disappointed in the bronze medal I received. I was disappointed because during the form I had made two mistakes. Mistakes I believe cost our team a gold medal. Mistakes I hadn’t made in rehearsal and was totally down to nerves. But it was an amazing experience, an experience in which I learnt a great deal about the art in general and about myself in particular. We returned to our hotel and our celebratory meal before leaving Beijing and the wonderful memories. Our next experience would be the Wudang Mountains the spiritual birthplace of Tai Chi.
WUDANG the holy mountain. The birthplace of Tai Chi. After a complicated journey where our flight was cancelled and Lily had gone beyond her duty to get us into another hotel for the night. A 4 am rise, a plane and coach journey we arrived at our hotel in the mountain. For me this was a very spiritual experience. I am a mountain man having taken young adults on mountain expeditions for some twelve years. This is my spiritual home. This is where I would be revitalised. Marihei Ueshiba, the Japanese martial artist and founder of Aikido said, “Now and again, it is necessary to seclude yourself among deep mountains and hidden valleys to restore your link to the source of life. Breath in and let yourself soar to the ends of the universe. Breath out and bring the cosmos back inside. Next, breath up all the fecundity and vibrancy of the earth. Finally, blend the breath of heaven and the breath of earth with that of your own becoming the Breath of Life itself”.
It is here that we visited the mountain temples and trained with Master Zhang and Master Tary. Master Tary delivered training sessions mornings and evenings. Here we concentrated on the twelve movement health qigong. This was a form I knew and was able to zone in more on the spiritual aspect, particularly because we were in the mountains. Around our hotel were various places designed for personal training. I often went to these places in the early mornings to be at one with nature. Perfect.
Master Zhang gave us two 2 1/2 hour training sessions where he taught the Wudang Tai Chi form. It was wonderful experiencing this new form under the direction of such a Master. We were taken right back to basics, repetition, repetition, repetition. Master Zhang punctuated the sessions by demonstrating the martial application of each movement. This took me right back to my Judo, wrestling and Aikido training 40 – 50 years previously and the good feelings I had doing that training. But it also triggered the 30 years of dealing with fights and conflicts, those unpleasant memories and the impact that had had on me. There was this nagging voice in the back of my mind saying “Concentrate on the health and particularly the spiritual aspects of this form”.
The time on the mountain went too quickly. Sunday arrived and our last day. We were all packed and ready to go but we were in for a final treat. Master Tary demonstrating the Sun style of Tai Chi, giving us an introductory lesson. Another wonderful training experience with a talented master.
During the pilgrimage we studied and trained 3 styles of tai chi and 3 styles of qigong. We were given demonstration Master classes in several other styles of Tai Chi but the experiences that really stick in my mind were those grass roots practitioners and the honour they showed to Professor Li and us. A global Tai Chi family.
Our journey home was a mixture of reflection and anticipation. Reflection on what we had learnt and experienced and the anticipation of returning home considering how we were going to use those experiences in our own teaching and training.
For me this was a trip of a lifetime, thanks to the selflessness and love of my wife Anita.
Thank you Masters Faye and Tary for allowing us to be part of this unique family celebration. A pilgrimage to the humble roots of Tai Chi.
Stephen J. Goulding