by Abraham Liu
In May 1999, a picture in the local Chinese newspaper caught my attention: it showed a Chinese lady in silk taiji clothing with 10 medals hanging around her neck and a grand champion cup cradled in her arms. “She participated in 10 different events and won 8 gold and 2 silver medals, plus the only Internal Grand Champion Cup…competing against many masters and former grand champions…with just five years’ experience,” stated the article. I was impressed.
Most people think of taiji as a soft, graceful activity, more meditative than martial. Contrary to popular belief, however, taiji is a very demanding exercise; it requires significant degrees of balance, coordination, and stamina. People train for many years to master just a few taiji forms; but this woman, out of the blue, had just won an international tournament of over 700 competitors! In all of my 50 years’ experience in taiji, I had never seen anybody accomplish so much so suddenly. I wanted to meet this lady, Siu-Fong Evans.
I called the newspaper and left my phone number. The next day, Siu-Fong
called back, and then came to visit. Now, she is my goddaughter.
Siu-Fong started studying taiji in 1994, when she first took her family to Beijing. Her original reasons for going were to study ancient Chinese and to translate poetry for the renowned Beijing Normal University professor Zheng Min, but taiji rapidly took its place among her top priorities. For one year, she practiced taiji every morning, afternoon, and evening. In the beginning, she learned from a casual taiji group at a local park; before long, her enthusiasm demanded the employment of a professional coach, Master Xu Hong Ming, for daily private lessons.
However, one year is not a lot of time. What Siu-Fong learned in Beijing only served to draw her deeper in the study of taiji. So she hosted Master Xu in her home in San Diego for a month and bought a small library of taiji books and videotapes. She later found Master George Young in San Francisco, when she was studying for her Master’s Degree in Chinese, and is most recently studying under the world-renowned "Professor Li Deyin" of the People’s University in Beijing.
But, as the Chinese saying goes, “the master only brings you inside the door; success is the responsibility of the student alone (shi fu ling jin men, xiu lian zai  ge ren).” So I asked Siu-Fong how she attained her remarkable strength and grace in taiji. She replied, “When I teach, I tell my students that there are seven things we need in order to do taiji well:
“We need (1) books and (2) professional videotapes. From these, we can study both the specific movements of taiji and the personal styles of successful athletes. It is important to have clear instructions and moving examples.
“We need (3) a big mirror and (4) a camcorder. It is necessary to see yourself in order to correct yourself. Otherwise, you are practicing blindly.
“And we need (5) keen eyes, (6) a clear mind, and (7) good masters. The first two are essential to learning, and the last a tremendous boon.
“In addition to these seven things, we also need to practice. Even 15 minutes a day can make a significant difference.”
And Siu-Fong does practice, all day, every day. She practices in the
backyard and the dining room and the kitchen, at the breakfast table and the
television and the telephone, while she cooks and reads and brushes her teeth.
If you watch her while she is coaching her students, you will see her knee
gently lift and her leg slowly straighten into a “deng jiao” of surprising
height. Practicing taiji has become an almost unconscious habit with Siu-Fong.
Taiji and Poetry
At heart, Siu-Fong is both a poet and a martial artist. Through her deep study of both Chinese literature and taiji, she has made some insightful observations: “There are strong parallels between taiji and poetry.
“To begin with, I relate Chen style taiji to the poetry of Du Fu (712-770 AD). Both are beautiful, powerful, and not for the weak of heart. Chen style taiji is characterized by its ‘silk reeling power,’ numerous twists, turns, stomps, and spirals; slow, fluid movements; and sudden, jarring strikes (chou si chan rao, kuai man xiang jian). Du Fu’s poetry is famous for its deep historical context, poignant language, potent phrasing, and steely loveliness. In particular, ‘The Elegant Woman (Li Ren Xing)’ exemplifies Du Fu’s biting sarcasm: the moving poem efficiently details the leisure and opulence of the Concubine Yang’s family among the harsh, grim conditions of the hard-working populace. Chen style taiji and Du Fu’s poetry are both elegantly vehement.”
Then what about Yang style taiji? “Yang style taiji is very graceful, even, and continuous. I like to relate it to the poetry of Li Bo (701-762 AD). They are both very pleasant and sincere, graceful and leisurely, and absolutely entrancing. They flow smoothly and naturally, unrestrained and elegant (xiao sa zi ran ; shu zhan da fang). If you practice Yang style taiji or read Li Bo’s ‘Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon (Yue Xia Du Zhuo ),’ you will feel an easy relaxation and luxurious freedom.
“The poetry of Li Bo flows gently and meaningfully, while the poetry of Du Fu cuts deeply and elegantly. Similarly, Yang style taiji is soft but substantial, like liquid metal, requiring impressive concentration amid tranquility, while Chen style taiji is fluid but intense, requiring a formidable level of strength and skill for its punches, splits, and kicks.
“In taiji, we venerate Chen Wang Ting and Yang Lu Chan as the two greatest
taiji masters of all time; in literature, we revere Du Fu and Li Bo as the two
greatest poets. In taiji, most people practice Chen and Yang styles; in
literature, most people admire Du Fu, the ‘Sage of Poetry (Shi
Sheng),’ and Li Bo, the ‘God of Poetry (Shi Xian).’”
A Real Taiji Lady
As soon as Siu-Fong discovered that I was a senior student of the late professor Cheng Man Ching, she begged me to teach her Cheng Man Ching style taiji. Her humble manner and unbound enthusiasm were irresistible to the teacher in me, so we began lessons.
One year later, in May 2000, the Taiji Legacy and Kung Fu International Championship was held in Dallas, Texas. Siu-Fong registered to compete in 16 different events, including all the major styles of taiji: Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun, Wu (Hao), and the Cheng Man Ching I had taught her. But before she flew off to face the judges, I insisted that Siu-Fong perform for me.
She did perfectly. Her “clear mind” served her well: despite the fact that she was practicing multiple routines in multiple styles, she never became confused. Her every movement was clear, confident, and graceful. Siu-Fong has said to me many times that when you mew, you should sound like a cat, and when you bark, you should sound like a dog; on the same principle, we must capture the particular essence of each different style and radiate its distinctive qualities in our performance.
It was no wonder that she came home with 16 gold medals.
And in China…
Over the past two years, Siu-Fong has competed in almost every major taiji tournament in the continental United States. Taiji judges are familiar with Siu-Fong and have begun to object to her competing; they have requested that she join their ranks. Instead, in October 2000, Siu-Fong flew to China.
The “2000 Yong Nian China International Taiji Festival” was held in Hebei province, the birthplace of Yang Lu Chan. There were over 900 competitors, mostly Chinese nationals. The competition was fierce, and the media was extensive. Siu-Fong was at the home of taiji.
It is widely believed that unless a person trains intensely in China from a very young age, that person has very little chance in the eyes of Chinese judges.
And still, Siu-Fong won gold.
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