How I began to study taijiquan as a young boy
With a student of Tian ChaoLing and with Tian ChaoLing himself
One Sunday morning in 1952 I went to HuanPu Park, where master Tian ChaoLing was teaching. There was a big group of students doing the form with him, and then they would do pushing hands, first with the master and then amongst themselves.
Tian ChaoLing was one of the most important students in the Yang family. He had studied with Yang ChenFu's uncle and had reached a very high level in the field of Taiji. There is a Chinese saying that a very good teacher also has very good students. This was certainly true of Tian ChaoLing and some of his students.
After he went home, his students used to continue practising pushing hands. I loved watching them, and sometimes I became so excited that I started giving uninvited comments and advice.
One of the students who saw me doing this asked me if I did any pushing hands. I enthusiastically said yes, and he challenged me to try with him. Until then I had only done pushing hands with Professor Yao's students, but I did accept the challenge. For more than 20 minutes we did pushing hands and tried to find a way to uproot the other, but neither my opponent - a big man of 40 - nor myself -13 and weighing about 40 kg- succeeded. Afterwards he asked me who I had learnt from and admiringly said I must have a very good teacher.
Later I got to know his name, Zhao TongFan. He had been working with Tian ChaoLing for more than 20 years, and had been doing meditation for the same amount of time. Another very advanced student of Tian ChaoLing was Fu ZhiJian, a dentist. He also wanted to try out pushing hands with me, and after that, there were others. They liked the fact that I did not use any muscle power and hardly touched them.
The only student of Tian ChaoLing who was allowed to teach in the same park was Shen YunPai. The other students asked him to test me. Shen YunPai was technically very skilled and was able to control me, but found it extremely difficult to uproot me with normal forces. All of a sudden, he used the 'Hen-Ha' force, directed straight from his lower belly to my centre of gravity, and I flew back about seven metres. This proved to me that Tian ChaoLing was a grandmaster. A few months later I started studying with him and joined the practice group of Shen YuPai, Zhao TongFan and Fu ZiJian. We often used to practise at Fu ZiJian's home.
Another incredible thing happened one evening, something only be possible in Shanghai. I was going home very late, when passing through a small street I saw someone practising WuSu. He moved as in Taijiquan, but much quicker. Getting closer, 1 realised it was Master Tian ChaoLing. What he was practising here was very different from what he was doing in the park! This small street, next to his house, was not far from where I lived, so from then on I would go there every evening. As I was still a child, he was not disturbed by my presence. So every evening I saw different techniques, sometimes like a dragon, other times like a snake, or a tiger, a monkey, a rabbit, a shark, a deer, a bear or a rat. He would also use different traditional weapons, such as a sword, a sabre, a long stick, a short sword or a double hook.
I realised how lucky I was to live close by so that I was able to witness all these things that the other students had never seen.
Tian ChaoLing was very quiet when he was teaching in the park. They said he was unhappy because one of his students had betrayed him. Master TianChaoLing had written a book, Taijiquan sword, sabre, stick, pushing hands and partner form, together with his assistant Chen YiLing. The latter published the book under his own name. Afterwards he felt so ashamed that he hid himself for over 20 years.
When people asked Tian ChaoLing how many students he had, he said 'none'. And when they mentioned all those people who followed him in the park, he answered that they only saw it as playing a game. I do think it is true that one cannot get deep knowledge of Taijiquan just by following a master and doing his form in the park. In that sense Tian ChaoLing's observation was true.