Works and Days

My Teacher: Tai Chi in China, Ian Connelly, Winter Fellowship for International Travel 2015

Ian Connelly, senior Chinese major and recipient of the Winter Fellowship for International Travel, reflects on his time in Beijing, China, practicing Tai Chi. 


My teacher’s name is Zhong Zhenshan. He comes from Handan in Hebei province, about 5 hours south of Beijing. He began studying taijiquan with his master Yao Jizu when he was thirteen years old and now he is one of the foremost lineage holders of Wu family style. He’s participated in many competitions, symposiums, and exhibitions both domestically and internationally and he has students all over the world.

Here’s footage of Master Zhong doing his thing

The morning I met Master Zhong, more than a week ago now, I immediately got a strong impression of just how gathered and with it he is, and this impression deepens with every subsequent visit. That morning I came in all afluster and more than an hour late because I needed to cross the whole city to get to him (more than 2 1/2 hours on various forms of transportation). On top of my tardiness, I had no means of contacting him because at that point I had no phone. He was fully understanding of all of this, and not the least bit impatient.

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For the most part, I study with Master Zhong from 9 to 11 in the morning. I will go through the choreography and he will pause me to correct my movement or remind me of what I should be paying attention to. We’ll stop for tea, and then continue. Teatime is a unique time. It’s easy while actively studying and practicing to enact the student-teacher relationship. It’s trickier, for me at least, to know exactly how to enact that when it’s teatime. He’s my elder by a couple of generations and there is a world of national and cultural difference between us… Small time chat doesn’t come easily to me in this situation, nor does it feel entirely appropriate. 

For this reason, there are often long stretches of silence during teatime. For me, this silence can be agonizing; but it doesn’t seem to be so for Master Zhong. He’ll talk if there’s something to talk about, but he’s not the type to talk about nothing just to push air around. The silence doesn’t make him uncomfortable, nor do my careful questions. He rolls with it and fully goes with what’s given. I know I can learn a great deal from that. Even our respective postures in our seats speak something to our respective states of internal quietude: While I’m teetering, attentive and erect at the edge of my seat, Master Zhong is relaxing deep in his chair.

Sometimes other students come announced or unannounced to call upon Master Zhong. If it were me as a host I would feel stressed about extending my hospitality in a handful of different directions at once. But he is unconcerned by the interruptions, and meets everyone’s needs at once… often without leaving the comfort of his chair. Pretty impressive.

For example, this morning I had barely been there for 15 minutes when a couple other students arrived, who as far as I could tell hadn’t called ahead of time. Master Zhong didn’t ask me to leave (for class to be over or cancelled), nor did he ask them to come back another time. In my mind I’m thinking conflictconflictincompatible, but it ended up being a great study opportunity. We sat altogether for a while drinking tea and then I was asked to get up and go through the forms while they watched. Afterwards, one of the new arrivals also went through the forms and Master Zhong sparred with him for a while. Before long, yet another student arrived. More tea, more practice, and then its lunch time and one of them runs off to grab groceries while another whips up four or more dishes in the kitchen in what couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes, whoa. What I’m trying to get at here was that a sort of fluidity and flexibility reigned all through the morning. My default is to be personally more at ease with order, boundaries, checklists. But to abide strictly to such things forecloses a great deal. Master Zhong’s attitude was to stay in balance but to let things develop as they would without interfering.

Balance is one of the fundamental principles of taiji quan. One learns how to concentrate a great amount of power and release it without losing one’s center of gravity. Likewise, one learns to parry and dodge a great amount of power hurled at oneself. Right posture is at the heart of mastering this; leaning even a few degrees too far forward or too far backward will cause a student to lose their sense of balance. Some taiji quan texts talk about how one makes a scale of one’s two legs, referring to the Libra-type scale with two platforms for measuring weight. One applies a different amount of force or a different ratio of their bodyweight to one foot or the other, but the scale as a whole is always kept in balance so long as the central pivot point remains correct. Wrong posture in the torso (a touch forward or a touch back) would be that crooked crux.

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This principle of losing one’s balance forwards or backwards can apply to social exchange as well. One offering to do something for someone when in their heart they don’t really mean it would be one losing one’s balance leaning forward (“yes, sure, you can crash on the living room couch for as lonnnnng as you want”). Accepting a gift which one didn’t really want or feel that they deserved would be an example of teetering backwards (amounts to being in more debt than one knows how to handle). I notice that in this respect, also, Master Zhong maintains his balance supremely. He has done a great deal for me already: offering to take me on as a student is huge; setting aside multiple hours of his day every day to teach me; offering to have his Chinese medicine doctor friend come and look at my chronically achy knee; offering to take me back with him to Handan for the last couple days of my trip, etcetera, etcetera.  But I haven’t once gotten the feeling that he has once offered something that he doesn’t truly want to offer. That is how social exchange should be, and thank you thank you Master Zhong.

Tags: winter fellowship, winter fellowship for international travel, china, tai chi, martial arts, sports, chinese, international travel