A: Some people say that M Yao was conservative, that he didn’t teach openly, how would you respond to this?
C: It wasn’t like that. A lot of people learnt Yiquan from M Yao, both on the health and martial sides. Sometimes everyone was standing around M Yao asking questions about this and that. M Yao would answer all the ones he could divulge.
A: What kind of things could he not divulge?
C: Let me give you an example. There was a stretch of time when a bunch of friends trained martial arts with me. M Yao knew that I was a straightforward guy, if someone asked me something I’d be sure to tell them. M Yao told me a story: Once upon a time, there were two people who had been friends since childhood. Later on, one of them became a provincial magistrate and the other became a rich man. The rich man, who was a pigeon fancier, kept lots of expensive, rare pigeons in his house. One day the rich man bumped into the magistrate in the street, and not having seen each other for a long time, the rich man invited him to go over to his house. When the magistrate saw that the rich man kept so many pigeons in his house, he was lavish in his praise. After the magistrate had left, the rich man, thinking that his friend was also a pigeon-fancier, sent over two of his finest pigeons to the magistrate’s house. Not long afterwards, the magistrate paid the rich man another visit. As they got to chatting, the rich man asked the magistrate for his opinion of the two pigeons he had given him. To his consternation, the magistrate said “They tasted great!” – the magistrate had eaten the rich man’s prize pigeons! M Yao intention in telling me this parable was that if you give something good to someone who doesn’t need it or hasn’t reached the level where he can appreciate it, either he will abandon it or not cherish it. The end result is the same, that good thing becomes devalued or ruined. M Yao often said to me “Teaching someone martial arts is about character, it’s not like treating a friend to a meal. Say one of my friends was broke, of course I would lend him money; but martial arts is not something I would teach lightly.” It wasn’t that he was conservative, he was just misunderstood. As he said to me, “When people buy gifts for me, that’s just an expression of friendship. But, if that person asks me to teach him, and today he’s at ‘level one’, then tomorrow he will still be at ‘level one’. The problem is, tomorrow, he will want to ask me about ‘level two’, and then the day after that it will be ‘level five’. I really want to teach him, if he’s at level one then I can only teach him level one material, gongfu is something you have to achieve in your body, not your head. I can’t tell him too much, it would just confuse him. I’ve found that the really inquisitive ones are always the ones who practice the least. Even if I explained it to them they would not understand. He admonished me, saying “If you really want to train up a student, you have to always give him material just slightly beyond his current level. If he doesn’t ‘get’ it, you can’t keep on teaching him more stuff, that’s what a real teacher does, that’s how you really help someone ‘grow’ in the martial arts. In the years that I trained with M Yao, from 1972 onwards, you had to ‘digest’ what he taught you and ‘get’ it before he would move on to the next point. For example, there are a lot of variations in Yiquan’s ‘3 fists’, and it took me until 1975 before I really grasped them. The moment I did, M Yao stopped mentioning them. That was his teaching style, he would never talk about things you had already grasped, rather he would always talk about the ‘gaps’ in your Yiquan. He always wanted to turn your weakenesses into your strengths, that’s how he viewed progress. Take hunyuan li as an example: we should be able to express hunyuan li forwards and backwards, upwards and downwards, and to the left and right. Everyone will have one ‘strong’ direction and a ‘weak’ one.
As a student, you should focus on and strengthen the direction in which you are weakest. Unfortunately, it’s always the case that people focus on their strong side, and their Yiquan ends up polarised. The entire idea of hunyuan li is that it is a balanced power that can be expressed in any direction, if you can only express it in one direction how is that hunyuan li? It’s like when I was practicing ‘Advancing palm change’, I practiced it for a while until I thought it was OK, then started to want to practice something else – but M Yao just kept quiet. I ended up practicing ‘Advancing single palm’ for 6 months, by the end it had gotten to the point where I was sick of ‘Advancing palm change’, I had to force myself to practice it. One day, when M Yao finally said ‘That’s enough’, I felt so relieved! It was only later, when I was accepting challenges at home and abroad, that I realised the importance of the skills developed by ‘Advancing palm change’ in real combat. It was M Yao’s strictness that really hit home. He didn’t want you to just ‘learn’ a technique, he wanted you to practice material until it became unconscious, automatic.
A: A lot of people ask why, if it only took M Yao 3 years to be able to fight with Yiquan, why did it take the third generation of masters much longer?
C: M Yao actually discussed this with me, he said “Ruibin, you can’t compare this generation with our generation. When I was young, all I did all day except eat and sleep was practice Yiquan. I didn’t think about anything else, I certainly never thought about money. Nowadays, if you don’t find work you won’t even have the money to eat. As an adult, you can’t keep on relying on your parents to provide for you. If you have a full-time job as well as having to practice Yiquan, then of course the process will more drawn out. It took me 3 years, so I’d say it will maybe take you 6 years or so, maybe a little bit longer. That’s why in this art your willpower and determination are so important, if you can’t grit your teeth and stick it out, then you’ll never make it.
A: You previously talked about how you came to study under M Yao in general. Could you go into a little bit more detail about how he taught pushing hands (Tuishou) and sparring?
C: Back in the day, apart from training with M Yao I also sparred with a bunch of people from my factory. One time, M Yao was watching me spar with another student at his house, when he said “What’s with all the flashy stuff? Just stick to the basic structure…”Later on, after he considered that I had the basics down pat, he let me experiment a bit. At the time, he said “At first, you’ve got to be resolute. If you see that you can hit him, go for it; worry about not hitting him when it happens. As for the details, they can come later, when your basics are solid enough.”
A: What exactly are the details he was talking about?
C: The details he was referring to were feints and ‘tells’ – both with the hands and feet, and mentally too. Of course, there’s also shen guang long zhao (‘enveloping aura’?). When you have these elements at your command things get more detailed, richer and fuller. M Yao taught me how to spar under different circumstances: what to do when you’ve got a lot of room, when you’re cramped, when your opponent comes at you full throttle, or how to force him to make a move if he hangs back. Before 1981, M Yao pushed and sparred with me a lot. After 1981, every so often, he would push or spar with me, then explain what was going on inside. There was a period when, in order to train my footwork, shenfa and ability to spot attacking opportunities, M Yao decreed that, in sparring, I was only allowed to launch 3 punches in each 3-minute round.
A: When M Yao pushed and sparred with you, were you really trying to beat him?
C: Yes. As soon as I detected an opportunity, I would fa li, hoping to launch the old guy for once (chuckles). The folly of youth, I guess. As I launched my attack, M Yao would contract, leading me to feel as if I had crushed something really heavy. The moment I had this feeling, it was replaced by a feeling of that ‘thing’ having been blown away by the wind. I guess that’s why they say ‘Power like the sea overflowing, body moving like a mountain in flight'(li zhang ru hai yi, shen dong si shan fei). His control over tension, motion and fullness was a marvel to behold. And in sparring as well, I gave it my best shot, but I still couldn’t hit him! Many times, I would feel as if my fist had already made contact, but it was like my fist just brushed him, there was nowhere to apply my force. The strange thing is that he didn’t even have to move very fast, but his two big hands were always in front of your face. It didn’t matter how had you tried to duck and dive, it was as if he was psychic, his two big hands would always be there waiting for you.
A: [Wang Xiangzhai’s disciple, now deceased] Ao Shi-peng once told me an anecdote that took place while China was in the thrall of ‘Qigong mania’ [in the 80s]. Ao asked M Yao about the ‘fa gong’ [external release of qi], and asked whether Yiquan could produce this kind of ability too. At first, M Yao was reluctant to talk about this kind of thing, but eventually, seeing that Ao wasn’t going to drop it, sighed and raised his hand. Bear in mind that Ao and M Yao were separated by a dining table at this point. M Yao lifted his hand and made a very small fa li motion towards Ao’s face. Ao felt as if a large mass of paper had hit his forehead, it scared him witless. Have you ever come across this ability?
C: M Yao was always reluctant to talk about this kind of thing, even in his books he denied it existed in Yiquan. His intent was not to lead Yiquan students astray. Actually, the practice of Yiquan can develop this ability. M Yao told me about it in 1978. That year, in order to study Yiquan with M Yao, I took sick leave dozens of times. I gave up a lot of other things to practice Yiquan.
A: Later on, you quit your job to train full-time, didn’t you?
C: That happened in 1981. At that point in time, none of us could have imagined that we would be able to make a living from teaching Yiquan. M Yao taught me fa gong so that I would have another way to make a living (besides teaching martial arts). As he said ‘It’s alright for you to fight now that you’re young, but do you still want to be fighting when you’re 60?’And so he told me that fa gong could help cure people’s illnesses. I had already come across this before. At that time there was a woman in my factory called Zhang Qingchun who had gastroptosis (prolapsed stomach). I said to her, Ms Zhang, let me try and heal you: so she stood there while I did fa gong for her. At first,I hadn’t mastered the changes inside. I used a very high frequency, and after 5 minutes she started to sweat and her legs started to buckle. After I asked her to sit on a sofa and slowed down my frequency, she felt much better. At the moment I have several friends who have illnesses that I have tried to cure with fa gong, so far the results have been very good.
A: You’ve mentioned that M Yao was extremely strict, did M Yao ever bawl you out?
C: Yes. There was one time when I was sparring with Guangzi (Yao Cheng-guang) at Xian Nong Tan stadium, M Yao was watching from inside the room. As we were sparring, M Yao pushed open the window and shouted “Ruibin! What the hell are you doing?!”As soon as I heard him shout, I stopped sparring – I couldn’t understand why M Yao was angry with me. M Yao walked out of the building and scolded Guangzi. Guangzi tried to make excuses, but that only made M Yao more angry, so he said “If Ruibin won’t beat you, then I will!” Later, M Yao agitatedly said to me, “Ruibin, do you want to see Guangzi get beaten in the future?” From this, one can see M Yao’s strictness, not only towards his students but even towards his own son. Actually, he was strict with Guangzi exactly because he felt responsible for his future. During those years that I studied Yiquan with M Yao, even though he didn’t scold me very often, every time he scolded his sons, I treated it as if he was scolding me: I instinctively understood that M Yao didn’t want to have to correct the same mistake a second time, that I could not allow myself to make the same mistakes as Guangzi. In 1982, after an intensive at Xian Nong Tan, M Yao said to me, “Ruibin, come back to my house with me.” I said that I had stuff to do. M Yao said “It can wait till tomorrow!” As soon as I heard that, I knew that M Yao had something to tell me, and went back with M Yao. At that point, M Yao had moved to Ma Dian. As we were eating dinner, M Yao mentioned a few people who practiced Yiquan with me. He knew that I was a straight-up guy, if someone else asked me about something, I’d be sure to tell him. But from M Yao’s point of view, those people talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk, they didn’t put in the effort, so I shouldn’t tell them everything. He said ‘You’d better toe the line! [re: not telling people everything]”. Following which, we moved on to the training at Xian Nong Tan, at which point he raised his voice and said “From now on, you’re in charge of the training at Xian Nong Tan!” I said ‘But you’re there…” M Yao said “If anyone tries to get uppity, just say that it came from me!” And so, from then on, I was in charge of leading the training at Xian Nong Tan. Later, M Yao went to Henan; before he left, he said “Ruibin, after I leave you’ll be in charge here. You’re the one I expect to accept any challenges that come our way.” As M Yao expected, after he left, a boxer came to Xian Nong Tan and issued a challenge. That day Bo Jiacong (another of Yao Zongxun’s disciples) was present, and acted as the referee. Because the boxer was pretty skilled, I hit him pretty hard. Unfortunately, this resulted in Hou Zhihua (from the Yiquan Research Group) criticising me; he said “You shouldn’t have hit him so hard, he’s still lying in the infirmary you know!” What can I say, I was young and reckless, back then challenges were commonplace.