I can’t let the new documentary on Professor Cheng Man Ching, one of the early pioneers of Tai Chi in the West, slip out without giving it a mention on this blog.
Much has already been said about it, so there’s not too much more to add, except that I haven’t seen it yet, and I might blog again after watching it, because it will probably stimulate some thoughts.
Cheng Man Ching is one of those contentious figures who splits opinion. By being one of the very few people in the US publicly teaching Tai Chi in the 1960s, and thanks to the gushing endorsement in books by his student Robert Smith, and his ability to push big, heavy Westoners around with comparative ease, Cheng very quickly achieved a big reputation.
Cheng modified the Yang Tai Chi form he learned from Yang Cheng-Fu, creating one of the first short forms of Tai Chi. His Tai Chi also had a distinctive look compared to his teachers – in (I believe) an effort to stick as closely as possible to the writings of the Tai Chi classics, he changed some of the postures slightly, adopting a more upright body, and a softer hand and arm position. Some would say his Tai Chi was too soft, and his influence is responsible for the typical ‘soft like a noodle’ style of doing Tai Chi often found in the West. But if you watch him do his form, you can see that he looks solid as hell. He exudes the ‘peng’ quality of energy rising upwards and outwards, and being rooted in the legs.
Undoubtedly he was an example of what happens when a small fish in a big pond suddenly becomes the only fish in a very small pond, but he was also a skilled practitioner of Tai Chi. Of that there can be no doubt. Was he also a world class martial artists? No, probably not. Did his students put him on an unrealistic pedestal? Yes, undoubtedly they did. But that’s what happens with human beings. We’re like that with people we admire.
You can watch the trailer here: