Nigel Sutton. The Wisdom of Taiji Masters: Insights into Cheng Man Ching’s Art. Tambuli Media. 2014. 167 pages.
Introduction: Remember a Master of Five Excellences
Zheng Manqing (Cheng Man Ching) may not receive the same attention in the popular press as Bruce Lee, but he was a central figure in the popularization of the Chinese Martial Arts in North America. His students, led by the sometimes pugnacious R. W. Smith, spread both his lineage and legend. While the construction of a hagiography around the beloved teacher is a fairly standard practice throughout the world of the Chinese martial arts, in this case it was not necessary. Zheng was already a giant.
His status as a student of the famous Yang Luchan ensured him a place in the Taijiquan community, and there can be no doubt about his dedication to the art. He was also an accomplished painter, educator and practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. While many have claimed that Taijiquan is a repository of China’s cultural treasures, Zheng, through his writing and teaching, demonstrated that this could be true.
On a couple of occasions I have thought about writing a biographical sketch of Zheng’s life. Such an essay would certainly make a nice addition to the “Lives of the Chinese Martial Artists” series. Yet every time the idea has come I have decided against it. I cannot shake the feeling that Zheng is simply too big a subject for a single post. There has been enough written about him by his numerous students and grand-students that it would be difficult to cover all of the stories and controversies.
More recently a number of individual have questioned Zheng’s standing as a “Master of Five Excellences.” Some have noted that his American students did not inherit his famed martial ability. Others have questioned the quality of his paintings (he was particularly well known for plant and flower themed pieces) or scholarship. Zheng’s political connections probably helped to spread his reputation. And as both Dr. Mark Wiley and Nigel Sutton point out in the Forward and Introduction to the present volume, Zheng’s rapid rise to fame in the west was influenced by the writings of R. W. Smith. Smith himself was far from a neutral observer, both in terms of who he included in his books and how he described and framed the discussion of the Chinese martial arts. One suspects that at least part of the current discussion is a reaction against this early spin.
Still, a desire to go back and critically engage with the work of the grandmasters is not always a negative thing. While Chinese cultural norms require a certain degree of generational deference, the constantly evolving (and highly contested) nature of the martial arts would almost seem to demand periodic reevaluations of tradition. When this leads to a richer discussion of practice, or a deeper appreciation of human potential, it can be very beneficial.
This is the task that Nigel Sutton took up in his recent book The Wisdom of Taiji Masters: Insights into Cheng Man Ching’s Art (Tambuli Media, 2014). This short work (about 170 pages including the end matter) contains edited transcripts of interviews conducted with various Taijiquan instructors within the Malaysian branch of the Zheng Taiji clan. Most of these interviews were conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and some of the subjects have since passed on. As such this book is an invaluable record of a specific moment in the (often neglected) history of the Malaysian Chinese martial arts community.
My own training is in other arts. While I am sure that Taijiquan practitioners will find many hidden gems in this work, my interests are more sociological and academic in nature. Specifically, while this volume centered on the memory of Zheng and his teachings, it departed from the often observed pattern of focusing only on the Master’s voice as the sole arbiter of authority.
Instead Sutton acknowledges the obvious (but seldom discussed) fact that martial arts institutions are by their very nature social enterprises. While the Master’s teachings provide a central focus that the community structures itself around, in truth these practices are neither self-interpreting nor self-replicating. Instead they require individuals to carry on the memory. They give it life through their own experiences, reflections and innovations.
The martial traditions of the past speak to us with many, sometimes contradictory, voices. These are in a constant state of dialogue and adjustment. Rather than seeing this as a failure of transmission of the one central “Truth,” we should instead consider the many ways in which this very positive adaptation allows the martial arts to evolve and move into a variety of new social environments. By focusing on a selection of voices emerging over the course of a few generations, Sutton’s work allows us to see how this fundamentally social process plays out.
How do the accidents of history, including both cultural and political factors, affect the evolution of a martial art? Zheng’s style is interesting to me in a sociological sense because it moves through both international and trans-national pathways. He himself is a product of the social forces that shaped life in the Republic of China. Then Zheng brought his art to a different sort of environment in Taiwan. From there some of his students spread it to Malaysia during a time of political upheaval. The Master himself eventually relocated to New York City which, during the 1960s, was facing a very different sort of social revolution.
Given the stark differences in these environments, should we really be surprised that something akin to a “national accent” can be detected even within a single martial arts style? By focusing on the Malaysian side of the story Sutton provides us with a laboratory to think about the many factors that govern the expression of the martial arts. Rather than seeing one approach as real and the others as defective or fake, this review seeks to remind us of the many possible social expressions inherent in any one martial tradition.
Eight Insights into Zheng Manqing’s Art
At about 150 pages readers could work their way through this book in an afternoon if they pushed ahead. Still, the text presented here will definitely reward a more thoughtful approach allowing sufficient time to digest the sometimes nuanced nature of the arguments being put forth.
Each of the eight main chapters of this book is structured around an interview with a noted instructor or master within the Malaysian Zheng Manqing community. These appear to be edited versions of longer conversations conducted using a semi-structured interview method. It is hard to confirm this as the author has eliminated his own questions from the record, and woven the resulting answers into something resembling a personal essay.
Still, most of the chapters follow basically the same format and address many of the same concerns. These include the respondent’s training history, instructional methods, thoughts on push-hands tournaments, weapons instructions, debates as to whether Zheng Taijiquan is a distinct “style” and numerous other subjects. This was then prefaced with a brief introduction by Sutton that might only be a few paragraphs in length.
The interviews move along at an engaging pace and there is enough continuity between the topics addressed by the various subjects that one could start to detect the tenor of the discussions that were happening within this community at that point in time. Sutton studied with a number of these individuals and was very familiar with the local community as a whole. As such he feels that he was able to achieve a high level of candor in the resulting interviews. I think readers will agree with this as the subjects were very open and generous in discussing both their personal teaching practices and more general thoughts on the nature of Zheng’s Taijiquan. Practitioners of this or related styles will find a lot to think about in these pages.
The book itself is nicely constructed. The cover design is attractive and the text layout makes for easy reading. Many photographs of the various interview subjects are included which complement the overall discussion rather than distracting from it. Readers will want to pay close attention to the volume’s Forward, Introduction and Afterward as these are the main places in which the author attempts to frame his project and discuss his motivations. Some of these insights, such as the issue of R. W. Smith’s connection with Zheng’s legacy in the West (discussed above) are important to bear in mind. Others, such as the brief explanations of the political and social situation in Malaysia and Singapore during the 1960s and 1970s, will be critical for readers who are unfamiliar with the region.
One of the really interesting things about this particular volume was the spontaneous emergence of shared themes between some of these interviews that did not appear to be a direct result of the questions that Sutton was asking. One topic that arose repeatedly was the nature of life within Malaysia’s competitive Chinese martial arts community in the post-WWII environment and the impact that this may have had on the development of the region’s Taijiquan tradition.
The question of what should be taught (what Zheng taught in various places, what the teacher includes in his classes, what happens in different styles) was also frequently discussed providing an interesting glimpse into the world of the working martial artist, as well as posing larger questions regarding the place of innovation and conservatism within a martial arts lineage. A number of anecdotes about Zheng and his career were also passed on, almost always as an attempt to explain some point or to justify a position. Perhaps my favorite of these can be found on p. 44 where we learn that as a young man Zheng did loose challenge fights, but he always learned something from the encounter and then returned to demonstrate the fruits of his hard won lessons.
Other commentators spoke at length about the role of “guts” in the making of a successful Taiji fighter. This discourse was particularly interesting and I was struck by the fact that so many of the teachers describing the critical nature of this quality did so in almost exactly the same terms. All of the martial artists interviewed by Sutton saw Taijiquan as a successful fighting method that needed to be approached and practiced as such.
In theoretical terms perhaps the most interesting question was whether Zheng Taijiquan should be thought of as a separate style even though Zheng himself seemed to have demurred on this point. Was he really practicing a simplified form of Yang style Taijiquan? Or should his statements to this effect be taken only as showing respect to his teachers? If so, how many generations needed to pass (two? three?) before “Zheng Taijiquan” could be considered an independent style? And how should attempts by other martial artists to place it within the boundaries of the Yang school be met? Given the amount that I have written on the creation of new brands and traditions within the martial arts, I found this very practical discussion of the subject to be particularly interesting.
Another overriding theme throughout this book is the perception that Zheng Taijiquan is practiced differently in Taiwan, Malaysia and North America. If this is the case, why? Most of the respondents in this book seemed to be uncomfortable with the idea (sometimes heard elsewhere) that Zheng withheld or changed his teachings when dealing with American students. While not outright rejecting the role of secrecy in Taiji instruction, this seemed to go too far for their understanding of Zheng and his approach to the art. They instead looked elsewhere for answers.
Of course this is also one of the main questions that readers of the book will be forced to confront. I am at something of a disadvantage here as I do not practice any type of Taijiquan and have no basis for making personal judgements of the quality of the various martial artists who are referenced. Nor do I generally find this level of lineage politics to be all that theoretically interesting. Instead I noted the number of times that individuals pointed to their own social history, and the violent nature of life in Malaysia during the post-WWII period, as an explanation for the different “national accents” seen within the Zheng Taijiquan style.
Another factor may also be worth exploring. Rather than emigrating from Taiwan, most of the martial artists interviewed by Sutton were either from Southern China (Fujian or Guangdong), or were born into ethnically Chinese communities within Malaysia that hailed from those areas. A number of these individuals also had backgrounds in the Southern Shaolin arts (including styles like Dragon, Five Ancestors and White Crane) before taking up Taijiquan.
One of the more interesting sub-themes of this book is to compare the various ways that the different masters understood their previous practice of external styles. The transition from the Southern Shaolin methods to Zheng Taijiquan could be a challenge. Still, one wonders how the distinctive cultural background of these individuals (both geographic and martial) affected their subsequent approach to Taijiquan.
I am not a universalist in my understanding the martial arts, nor do I believe that when properly understood all styles lead to the “same place.” Still, when listening to the discussion of fighting tactics given by the respondents, or the ways in which some of them approached the instruction of students (at times even encouraging them to test principals in actual fights as opposed to simply “taking the Sifu’s word for it”) I was struck with the similarities to what I have seen in other southern style schools.
This geographic factor adds an additional layer of complexity to our puzzle. How do we account for the distinct accent of Malaysian Zheng style Taijiquan? Is it an indication that different techniques were introduced in the beginning? Is it instead a reflection of the political and social situation that these martial artists found themselves embedded within? Or is this a result of the translation of Zheng’s Taiwan based school of Taijiquan to the more southern communities of the diaspora? One suspects that multiple factors are at play. Thus the emergence of different national approaches even within a single tradition is likely overdetermined.
Conclusion: Oral Culture in the Chinese Martial Arts
Bernard Kwan, at “Be Not Defeated by the Rain,” has also posted a thoughtful review of this book that is well worth looking at. In it he details some substantive disagreements with the content of the various chapters. My own criticism of this work is slightly more theoretical in nature.
Specifically, I was left slightly uncomfortable with the degree of “self-erasure” that Sutton exhibited throughout this volume. Consider for instance his very fine account of Lee Bei Lei’s career and teaching style outlines in Chapter 4 (pp. 87-101). While I enjoyed all of the chapters of this book, this one was probably my favorite. My reasons have little to do with Lee’s colorful personality.
Rather, the subject’s taciturn nature forced Sutton to step in and provide a much more substantive introduction and discussion of his personal relationship with Lee than any other interview in this volume received. As I read this I became aware of the degree to which Sutton was actively taking himself out of the picture.
On the surface this might seem like an admirable thing. Sutton is obviously trying to focus attention on the masters (where it should be) and to let them “speak for themselves.” That is certainly appreciated. By taking himself out of the picture he also ensured that this work will not read like yet another martial arts travelogue. As I have noted elsewhere, that is not my favorite genera, so I am glad that he chose a different path.
To pinpoint the problem we need to take a step back and ask what is the actual contribution of this work? I would argue that Sutton’s volume is remarkable because it has managed to recapture the importance of oral culture in the martial arts.
The actual experience of the martial arts is a complex phenomenon that begs for elucidation and analysis. Traditionally this has happened in innumerable tea houses, food courts and restaurants across China and South East Asia. It is there that martial artists gather to discuss what has just happened, how they are being transformed and the ways in which this can be understood within the vast chain of “tradition.” Indeed, the name of this blog references this time honored institution of social discussion and reflection. Martial techniques are transmitted on the training floor, but martial culture is passed on over a late dinner.
It is worth reminding ourselves of this fact because while our understanding of the technical and historical aspects of these fighting systems has increased over the last few decades, this more social element is quickly vanishing in the west. Almost every “old time” martial artist I have spoken with over the last year has had the same complaint. We used to be more than just a class. Now we never go out after training. Everyone is just too “busy.”
Sutton’s book works not just on a technical but also an emotional level. The easy flow of the interviews brings us back to the realm of oral culture and reminds us of why it has been so essential to the creation of identity within the martial arts. Increasingly within the field of martial arts studies our attention has been drawn in two competing directions. A number of students have been approaching hand combat as a type of “embodied experience” capable shaping identity at an almost pre-verbal level. This suggests important ways in which the practice of the martial arts might help to build new types of identity.
Other scholars have instead demonstrated the need to thinking more carefully about the growing body of media (film, TV, novels) that surrounds these fighting systems. Such discourses have a critical impact on what we are likely to find in these hand combat systems. Indeed, in the modern world almost everyone is introduced to the martial arts, and forms their first impressions of them, through media encounters.
Yet embodied experiences are never self-interpreting. Nor do media discourses always speak with a single unified voice. The intensive oral culture of martial practice is critical as it provides students with a social space in which they can negotiate, contest, translate and assign personal meaning to the myriad of physical and cultural forces that have always surrounded the martial artists. All of this points to the continuing importance of participant-observation ethnography so that the evolving place of this oral culture can be better understood.
The central strength of this work is that Sutton remembered that social knowledge is always plural in nature. It is negotiated and contested within communities. And he has become part of that community. Of course we must expect that informants will treat Sutton somewhat “differently” because of his dual insider/outsider nature, or even the fact that he is conducting interviews and doing research. These conversations were always framed by the specific nature of this relationship.
Lee’s chapter was in many ways the most important as Sutton began to come into focus. This allowed the reader to understand how the discussion of the martial arts taking place throughout the volume was a function of an actual set of similar relationships. This enriches the discussion of the Zheng Taijiquan lineage as it enables us to see how the art presents itself, not in some abstract platonic sense, but within the actual confines of an evolving and expanding social institution. That is where the traditional martial arts have always been at their best.
Sutton has done a great service in releasing these interviews. Practitioners of Zheng Taijiquan are likely to find engaging, fresh, perspectives on their practice. Readers more interested in martial arts history will walk away with great stories about the traditional Chinese martial arts community in Malaysia. Indeed, we need to pay much more attention to the strong hand combat traditions that exist throughout the diaspora communities. This book nicely illustrates why.
Finally, within these pages students of martial arts studies will discover raw data on a surprisingly broad number of questions. Whether one is interested in the martial arts as they relate to the construction of tradition, the transmission of identity or the perils of transnational translation, we all might have something to learn from the wisdom of the Taiji masters.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Ritual, Tradition and Memory in Singapore’s Chinese Martial Arts Community.