The Taiji Life of Hong Junsheng.

Yaron Seidman  interviewing Chen stylist Chen Zhonghua.

 

Y: Who is grandmaster Hong?

A: My teacher Hong Gongxiao was also named Hong Junsheng. He is the most prominent disciple of the 17th generation standard bearer of the Chen family, grandmaster Chen Fake. Hong’s ancestors came from Ningbo in Zhejiang province, yet he was born in 1907 in Yuxian County in Henan province. In 1996 my teacher passed away in Jinan of Shandong province. According to the Chinese way of calculating age he was 90 years old. Among some of the many commissions he received were: Advisor to Shandong Wushu Association, President of Jinan Wushu Association, Advisor to Shandong University Wushu Association, Highest advisor to Jinan Martial Arts Academy, Advisor to USA Wah Lum School, Superior advisor to USA Traditional Wushu Association etc.

  Hong from early childhood was a sickly boy, and thus was recommended the practice of Taijiquan. From 1930-1944 he had studied Taijiquan with Chen Fake. He is the only disciple of Chen Fake who had studied with him for 15 years. After receiving true and complete transmission from his teacher, Hong has never kept anything secret while pursuing his entire life the development and teaching of the art to others. His contribution to Chen style Taijiquan was stopped in 1996 with his passing away, where a whole life of Taijiquan came to a full cycle. His martial arts skill has reached a level rarely seen in human history. His teaching has now transmitted in Jinan, Shandong, whole of China and to more then 30 countries around the world. From an ordinary pharmacy assistant he became a world renowned Chen style Taijiquan grandmaster. For an ordinary man his story is an extra ordinary story. An old quite man that nobody heard of, living in a 72 square feet room, used 30 years of his life to compile one grand book “Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method”.

Hong was a simple extraordinary man. Why do I say that he was a simple and extraordinary man? That is because throughout his life all he had was very simple; he didn’t become an official, rich or famous and there was nothing fancy looking about him. In reality his life was even simpler then that. Every morning very early he would get out of bed and go to the park to teach Taijiquan, would come back home to eat breakfast, and some more students would knock on his door ask for teaching. In the evening there would be some more students who would come to learn Taijiquan. Day after day, year after year his whole life was like that. In my eyes with this persistence he was an extraordinary person. Evident with that is his legacy, which remains with us. After his departure, the legacy of Hong is rich, magnificent and invaluable to all practitioners of Chen Style Taijiquan. Even though his legacy has no physical shape, it is a legacy that ordinary man would have never accomplished. His whole life with no search for fame, he believed in his teacher teachings, and was determined to preserve this old art and its rules, a Taijiquan art that found its origins several hundred years ago in the Chinese philosophy. Hong was never talking about it, he always taught it with his body, showing his students and correcting them physically. Such a simple thing in today’s society is already extinct. This is why he is so extra ordinary. While taking a very complicated thing and teaching it in a simple way, he truly got to the simple essence of Daoism and at the same time to the highest level of it. In addition his Chen Style Taijiquan skill has transcended to a level, which no ordinary person can reach. This is another extraordinary ability he possessed.

Q: Who did Hong study his Taijiquan?

A: As I mentioned before, he studied with the 17th generation, standard-bearer, grandmaster Chen Fake. Mr. Chen Fake of the 17th generation was the one who wore the robe of his generation (the main representative of the art), as well as the grand grandson of the famous 14th generation Chen Changxin, who was the teacher of Yang Luchan. In 1928 Chen Fake was invited to Beijing to teach Taijiquan. He was the first out of the Chen village to be formally invited to teach this art outside of the village. Master Hong Junsheng was one of his main disciples as Chen started teaching. Hong has followed his teacher faithfully for 15 years. Among Chen Fake’s disciples he is the only one to have studied with him for such a duration.

Other then that in Hong’s life story was another mysterious teacher. One evening during the summer months Hong returned home through a dark narrow alley. As he was walking, suddenly a high level Taiji master hit him down to the ground. As he jumped back on his feet he shouted into the alley:” May I ask for your honorable name? Your Gongfu is higher then my teacher Chen Fake”. As no answer came back, he started searching with his hands in the dark at the place where he was thrown down. He searched back and forth until finally he found a wet and slippery watermelon peel.  Hong immediately told the watermelon peel:” Master Watermelon Peel! When I go back I will practice hard to learn the sweeping technique you showed me today. I will not disgrace your teachings”.

Even though this was a common story Hong used to tell us, his students, as a joke. This story has a very true Taijiquan theory within. When a person touches lightly the watermelon peel, the watermelon peel will not suffer injury and neither that person will. However when a person uses his whole body weight and stamp on the peel, adding to it speed and the right angle, the person will fall down to the ground. The more that person uses force the harder the fall will be. In reality the watermelon peel did not do a thing. This story gives us a peek into Hong’s research and study methods of Taijiquan.

Q: Could you sketch a chronicle of Hong’s Taijiquan life?

A: I can talk about the things I know. Hong’s life was a Taijiquan life. Only for this one pursuit, all the rest he didn’t want. I divide his Taiji life into 6 stages:

  1. Becoming a disciple of Chen style Taijiquan. 1930-1945 he followed Chen Fake studying Taijquan.
  2. Studying and realizing Taijiquan. 1945-1956 Hong practiced hard in Jinan, realizing the Dao (True Way), experiencing and reaching the Dao.
  3. Spreading to the world. 1957 as Chen Fake passed away, Hong established his own school and started teaching. At this time we can say that Hong was a local Taijiquan practitioner. At the martial arts circles on the outside world he was practicly unknown. Master Hong unremittingly plowed and continued to train hard. With his students he trained morning until evening, forgetting his home and the society around him. He lived as if he drank, ate and dreamt Taijiquan. Eventually producing a magnificent vibrant school of Chen style Taijiquan practitioners. Practitioners such as Meng Xuanpeng, Xu Guicheng, Li Xugong, Han Baoli, Zhang Lianan, Li Enjiu, Wang Zongxuan, Jiang Jiajun, He Shuqin, Li Xuegang, Xun Dingguo, Li Zongqing, Long Yuzhu, Bo Jingzhen, Huang Dongzhi, etc. The above time period was stretched to the end of the 1970s.
  4. Only until the 1980s that the Chen style Taijiquan received national and international recognition. Hong’s disciples began participating in national turnaments and to rise to national stage. Li Enjiu served as the principle of the Jinan Wushu Academy and master Hong as the advisor. Li Enjiu’s disciples won in national competitions 106 gold, silver and bronze medals. They are disciples from the second generation: Li Enjiu, Zhang Lianan and Chen Zhonghua; and from the third generation grandson disciples: Huang Kanghui, Xie Yelei, Du Lingong, Wang Hongping, Ding Mingye, Wu Fengtian, Ju Zepeng, Li Lu, Hao Ping, Fang Jie, Yu Shugang, Wang Tianyu, Ge Xuejun, Long Zhaoqin, Chen Hui, Chen Yuzhong, Xu Bingjian, Zhao Min, Zhao Weimin, Zhang Yang, Hou Deyu, Zhao Xuanxuan, Ren Yinlin, Zhou Rui, Bo Jingmin, Zui Bo, Chen Qiang and Wang Yuzhong etc.
  5. Hong expounding his ideas in writing. Master Hong wrote his book from 1961 untill 1988, 27 years long. During this period by life forces he had to stop his writing several times, however without giving up and with full vigor he continued forward. Another reason why his book was finished at such a late stage was “Mistaking self and others”. Hong believed that many Taijiquan books, including Taijiquan classics, were written at a period where the authors were not yet at their peak of Gongfu and understanding. The saying “missing a hair width, will miss the target by a thousand feet” is a characteristic flavor of these works. Hong wanted to perfect his book. He waited to the time where no corrections can be made (and also the time when he will depart from this world), to publish his book. In this way he could not have been untruthful towards other people. While I was studying with Hong at the Black Tiger Spring I witnessed several publishers who have come to discuss the publishing of his book. Every time it was promised that the book is fast done. Another story about this book is that in his tiny room, where at night the bed served to sleep on. During the day it became the table for meals and the bed desk for his writing. In this way one word after the other he has compiled his masterpiece “Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method”.
  6. The Final Sprint. Reaching the end of his years, master Hong was still thinking only of Chen style Taijiquan. In 1990 faith came looking for Hong again. He suffered a stroke. The result was paralysis of the lower body. From the waist down would not listen to his commands any more. An 84 year old man still wasn’t about to give up. He received the challenge of his faith. Within several months of hard work he was able again to practice Taijiquan. Yet this success was thank to his long years of practicing Taijiquan. Other then practicing Taijiquan he was not able to walk around freely. As the situation appeared he devoted his entire time to practicing Taijiquan. In 1991 I went back with my disciple Ronnie Yee to visit my teacher. I saw the situation and my heart was saddened. I did not want to disturb my teacher. In the evening …..as I went to see him, Hong complaint why I haven’t come to practice with him Taijiquan during the day. I searched for an excuse and said I went to practice with my Taiji brothers. He then told me that he still spends every day 6 hours of practicing Taijiquan. Every morning Han Baoli, Xu Guicheng, Li Xuegang, Li Xugong, Liu Xiuwen etc., all are going to practice Taijiquan. They all practice on the one hand, and research according to the principles on the other. They are making final changes following the principles taught by Chen Fake. In 1995 the students gave master Hong a 90 birthday party. His first request from his several hundred disciples and grandson disciples was to start practicing push hands. With two students supporting him at his waist to stand up, he pushed out with ease two students at their early 20s. For us, follow generations, this historical scene will remain forever in our hearts.

Q: How did you begin your study of Taijiquan with master Hong?

A: I began my study with Hong by an accident. At that time I was a student in Shandong university. At my free time I was learning Cha Quan and other external martial arts. As I heard stories of master Hong, I was little impressed by the stories, and decided to go to the Black Tiger Spring and check it out for myself. I went there every time to see Hong practicing Taijiquan. It was in this unconventional circumstances that I have learned Taijiquan from him. There are some interesting stories I have told  you already, so there is no need to tell them again. However one point I want to make clear. At that time I was a young guy, and like all the young students today, I was little impressed by anything. Yet master Hong’s ability to startle an opponent with his gongfu, without a doubt has caused me to practice onwards with determined heart.

Q: Where do Master Hong’s methods of Taijiquan differ from other Chen style teachers?

A: For people who do not understand Chen Style Taijiquan, the external appearance of the forms does differ. When you observe closely there is no difference in the forms. Yet in the small details there is a difference. Generally speaking in Hong’s methods of Taijiquan, as soon as you move it is fine and smooth. It is hard but not abrupt, it is soft but not collapsed,  and in a laudable tolerant spirit it is preserving the principles of Chen Style Taijiquan.

Q: What are the key points of Hong’s Practical Methods?

A: The key points of master Hong methods of Taijiquan are the same as the original Chen Style Taijiquan methods. Here I will discuss just a few of these points.

  1. State clearly the “Guidelines” of Taijiquan. A saying goes “If there are no guidelines a circle and a square will not form”. In the martial arts world the main problem is that there are no clear guidelines. In this way, the teacher’s forms can change back and forth. The students can only guess back and forth what is right and what is wrong, while following blindly the teacher with any guidelines. To an even worse degree, under these circumstances, following mistakes can even become “A Secret”. Master Hong followed Chen Fake’s teachings and summarized the rules of Taijiquan into clear categories. Hong’s students had a solid and unchangeable method to follow as they learned. Japanese students used to say “We study with master Hong for many years. Yet looking at video tapes from years later, it seem as if the master’s form has remained exactly the same. Even his foot lands on the same spot it did years ago”. Even though this statement seems exaggerated, it does encompass truly the spirit of master Hong’s teaching. Here I would like to bring some examples of Master Hong’s guidelines: 1. The foundation of Taijiquan is positive and negative circles. When a student begins his learning, he first must learn well these two circles. These two circles resemble the building bricks of a house. If there are no bricks a house can not be built. If these two circles are learnt wrong, the building that was built will end up collapsing. 2. When you stretch your hand out the hand leads the elbow, and when you withdraw your hand the elbow leads the hand. Taijiquan circles, already know Master Hong’s guidelines to the bigger part. There are some principles though, that are unknown to outer circles. The importance is not in the contents. It is rather in the ability to carry out the theory into practice.
  2. Strengthening the practical applications of the movements, and not “Empty Talk” about things like essence, Qi and Spirit. Things that there is no way to prove right or wrong.
  3. Realizing the concept of “Revolution and Self Rotation”.
  4. Solving the problem of “Double Weight”.
  5. Differentiating the Yin and Yang relationship of the eyes.
  6. Yin and Yang contain each other. This is the main point that differentiate Taijiquan from other martial arts. Different schools all have different views about the issue of Yin and Yang. Some say first Yin then Yang, some say 1 part Yin and 9 parts Yang, while others say when the Yin is exhausted then the Yang comes, or even some explain the it is half Yin and half Yang. For people who have pushed hands with master Hong it was easy to understand that the above explanations, if they were good or bad, right or wrong all didn’t have any significance. When you have met master Hong, to the first touch you felt you had no way out. That feeling was not Yin and it was not Yang, yet at the same time it felt like Yin and it did feel like Yang. Absolutely there is no way to describe it clearly.
  7. Sink down and expand outwards, coming in is letting go, and letting go is coming in. Chen style practitioners from ancestral times already knew “Sinking Down and Expanding Outwards”. Yet this wasn’t meant as dropping down and floating upwards and not pushing outwards. Looking from outside at it, it looks like a conflict, yet measuring from the inside it makes sense. This is exactly the clever point. Master Hong’s art has embodied this point of the Chen style Taijiquan in every move. This point of seemingly conflict is for the disciples of the Chen style Taijiquan the basic foundation in the learning of the art.
  8. Spiraling Silk Reeling. The idea of this method is to increase length and increase power. It is absolutely not a movement of back and forth spiraling and turning, as if in a mysterious way. You can not pull, separate or break. If you know that you understand the true theory. If you do not know that, then you know a theory. Spiraling has very fixed rules. The center doesn’t move, not leaning sideways, up or down, exert power at the feet, and the body is spiraling by itself. If it is not in this way, the body can only float, swing and swindle.
  9. Courageously straight forwards. As soon as you move, it is a spiraling reeling rolling forwards. One move is one gain. You can not gain and then lose again. This is the essence of silk reeling.
  10. Follow the opportunity with no inclinations. This is like a lever scales. Its secret of success is entirely in its sliding weight. It does not matter if the item is heavy or light, big or small the key for balancing the weight is the distance short or long (of the sliding weight on the scale).
  11. Striving for path and changing axis. This is the essence of Chen style Taijiquan martial applications. One of Chen style requirements is “I am smooth and the opponent adverse”. How can my path of power be smooth then? The key for that is to catch the opponent’s path as soon as I move, hindering him from getting to a correct posture and to its power. When you pushed hands with master Hong, to the touch there was a feeling as if your hands and feet were not agile, as if the floor was slanting, the shoes were not right or there was not power and other similar feelings. When I started learning with master Hong I disliked pushing hands with him, because of all of the above mentioned reasons. In Chinese history there is a saying that described this special ability “In a conflict, to the touch you will know if the opponent has it or not”.

In Chen style Taijiquan there is a beautiful saying “When the clever hand is empty, even the spirits will not know about it”. How to have such a clever hand it is only described with two words “Changing Axis” (Zhuan Guan). Well understanding “Changing Axis” and not understanding it, where is the difference? Pushing hands with master Hong “Changing Axis” was there at all times. We students experienced it on a very deep and profound level. Every time when we felt that we were in full control of the situation and tried to exert power, all of a sudden realized that it was too late. His center and power path was already changed to a different direction aiming at our weakest spot. We were startled by this odd skill and so very often were breaking in cold sweats.

Q: What are the contents of master Hong’s Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method?

A:

  1. Theory.
  2. Skill Methods.
  3. Forms.
  4. Push Hands.
  5. Health Preservation.

Q: We have all read and heard stories about the abnormal Gongfu skill of great Taijiquan masters as Yang Luchan, Chen Fake etc. Today we don’t have anymore an opportunity to see great masters of this caliber. Master Hong was the greatest disciple of Chen Fake, in which case he must have had a skill that regular people do not have. Could you discuss your knowledge of master Hong’s Gongfu?

A: This issue is a somewhat difficult to answer. We normally can understand high Gongfu that we are used to see, yet such high Gongfu which is abnormal is harder to understand. So to explain such mysterious level of skill our normal language will not suffice. Master Hong beside having an extraordinary Gongfu, had an even higher moral standards. His superior martial art skill was never used to display himself, as he never aspired to rise above others. His attitude towards life was of non conflict with the world, always wanting to stay hidden from glamour. Because of that for us, the students, it was always a snap opportunity of glimpsing into our teacher’s Gongfu, and in reality forever being exposed to only the tip of the iceberg. Since I have studied with my shifu for relatively short years, and when becoming a disciple my teacher was already in his older years, I have continuously asked my senior Taiji brothers and sisters for stories about our teacher’s Gongfu. I have always looked for stories from my brothers about the early years of master Hong, as I was on the quest to understand his skill more profoundly. Following I will only tell some of the stories I have personally heard from my senior brothers and experienced myself.

In January 1st 2003 in Jinan Jiang Jiajun told me “There are no words that can describe our teacher’s Gongfu. I have seen many masters around the world. Nobody can we compare to our shifu Hong. The first time when I came to Jinan master Hong, without having big fancy theories, every time he stretched his hand, he got me thrown from inside the room to the yard outside. This experience made me understand instantaneously that Taiji Gongfu is like mountains, where each mountain is higher then the other. Master Hong threw me out through a small door skipping a sofa and several other people on the way without hitting anybody or anything. I did not suffer any injury as well. The Gongfu of master Hong cannot be measured how high it is, instead its sophistication got to the extreme.

  1. One morning in the spring of 1982, after finishing our morning practice, I accompanied master Hong back to his residence. As we neared the Blue Dragon Bridge a bicycle came pouncing at us. The rider on the bike seemed to have lost control over his bike and looked helpless. As we were crossing this very narrow stone bridge there was no escape for us. I only saw master Hong in a very calm way stretching his arm forward and catching the front wheel of the bicycle. The bricks carried in the basket on the bike were all tossed out. The bike rider stared at master Hong puzzled. At the time I didn’t think much of it. In later years I got to realize that catching a wheel of a bicycle rushing towards you in a high speed is not an easy fete.
  2. In 1979, while studying at Shandong university in Jinan, I was still very young and fund of external martial arts. Even though I have started learning Taijiquan I never considered it seriously. The reason I have decided eventually to pursue this art in earnest was as follows; One Sunday morning I was in the Black Tiger Spring park with my younger Gongfu brother Li Chongliang. That morning I got exposed for the first time to master Hong true Gongfu. Following that I was determined to pursue Taijiquan. The story goes as follows. As we got to the park we saw a sixth degree black belt Karate master challenging master Hong. Off course the Karate master verbally claimed he just wanted to experience master Hong’s skill. Master Hong agreed to his request. The Karate master asked Hong what method of attack should he use, and master Hong replied: “whatever”. The Karate master went into good Karate posture, aligned his body and thrusted a full powered punch towards Hong’s chest. I only saw Hong reacting with no fear of the danger, opened his eyes looking at the opponent. At the same time the opponent’s feet departed the ground and he flew backwards around 10 feet in distance. The Karate master came back to try again, flew back and landed on the exact same spot. After the third time the Karate master gave up and stopped. Me and my friend Chongliang stepped back several feet shaking our heads in disbelief. We were only able to see master Hong sinking his shoulder slightly, other then that he didn’t do anything. In this fashion to defeat an opponent over and over again, really exerted the high level and true essence of such an extraordinary art.
  3. In Jinan I have a senior Taiji brother who originally have learned Shuai Jiao. After suffering an injury he had started his study of Chen style Taijiquan. He was really a quick learner and within a short period of time he became one of Jinan’s best Chen stylist. At one occasion at Hong’s house unintentionally he had bragged about his great ability. Master Hong questioned “is there really so much power in your move”. This Taiji brother happily came over to try with master Hong that movement he was talking about. As he touched Hong’s wrist Hong only rotated his wrist slightly. This disciple sprung upwards instantaneously hitting his head against the ceiling, and landed on Hong’s bed, which was 2 inches thick and 5 inches high of solid wood, crashing the bed to pieces. After that day this older Taiji brother never dared to brag about his great skill again.
  4. In the early 1970’s Xu Guicheng used to go with master Hong to Heroes Mountain to practice Taijiquan. One evening Xu brought one of his friend with him. This friend was 5 foot 10 and was a famous Bajiquan master as well as a member of Shandong Wushu team. As he watched Xu Guicheng and Hong push hands he felt it was interesting, but it didn’t seem as if master Hong had any Gongfu. He asked to try it as well. While Hong pushed hands with him, it was not really pushing hands. The friend was just testing master Hong’s skill. That evening the night was very dark with no moon. The friend felt as if Hong didn’t have any force in him. He thought that Xu Guicheng probably didn’t have any Gongfu, and that was the reasong why he was tossed back and forth by master Hong as if he was a little kid. As he was thinking that he exerted great force pushing towards Hong’s shoulder and arm. As he did that he sprung upwards. At that time he didn’t say anything and later went to his home. The next morning Xu Guicheng met an old friend and neighbor Mr. Li. Mr Li was a famous TuiNa (massage) practitioner. Mr Li asked Xu: ”Your teacher what does he think for himself for hitting people so hard? Last night Mr. Liu came to me and his hand was completely broken”. Xu replied “that’s incorrect. I took Liu with me and I was there. I saw that nothing happened to him”. Mr Li continued: “At the time he didn’t feel anything, but after he came back home, the pain aggravated. At around 3:00 am he couldn’t take the pain anymore. He ran over knocking on my door. I couldn’t sleep all night because of that”. When Hong heard about this he saddened truly. He asked Xu Guicheng to go and look after Mr. Liu. From that day on Hong determined that outsiders who come to push hands have to announce first their intentions to apply force, or else they can suffer an injury. Even this story is somewhat amusing, it does reflect the high martial arts ability of master Hong. I have followed master Hong for so many years. I have never heard that master Hong hurt anybody, or made claims for his high level of martial arts for his own benefit.