The Yin and Yang of Everything: An Interview with Grandmaster Liu Chengde
Taiji Quan (pronounced “tie-chee chuan”) is an internal martial art that has been practiced for centuries in China as self-defense training as well as for health and longevity benefits. Also known as tai chi chuan, tai chi, taiji and other terms, its symbol is the yin/yang diagram, which represents a balance of yin and yang energies.
Practicing Taiji movements — called forms — increases circulation, flexibility, balance and immunity, which a growing population worldwide is now discovering, often with little or no interest in the martial aspect of the training. An impressive and growing list of favorable medical research results in the United States and abroad has allowed physicians to recommend Taiji as a medical therapy and preventive measure to their patients, further increasing its popularity.
Grandmaster Liu Chengde is a Taiji master from Shandong, China with many students worldwide and a lifetime of experience and teachings to share. He is the Master of Sifu Stan Tabor, founder of Mantis Kung Fu Institute in Millbury, MA. Stan has studied Chinese martial arts for over thirty years and has been formally accepted as Master Liu’s disciple. He arranged to host Master Liu’s summer visit to the United States for teaching, demonstrations and lectures, as well as for an interview with Spirit of Change at the Mantis Kung Fu Institute. Despite his great concern that some of the value and accuracy of his information might be lost through interpretation and translation from his native Chinese, Master Liu’s wisdom was readily communicated through his sincere and steady composure, as well as through the translating skills of Xin Xin, formerly a resident of China and now the president of Global Connect Forum in Shrewsbury, MA.
Carol Bedrosian: Thank you for coming to the United States and taking the time to talk to us about Taiji and your experiences in practicing, teaching and learning.
Master Liu Chengde: Taiji has a general concept of balancing yin and yang. My teacher, Master Hong Junsheng, was the disciple of Chen Fake, the seventeenth generation Grandmaster of the Chen style of Taiji Quan. Master Hong Junsheng’s form has some special personalities, which is shown in his logo. The Chinese character for last name Hong has water inside, and he is from Jinan, a city in Shandong province in China. The character for Jinan also has water inside, so his logo has a middle line between yin and yang that means “like water.” The theory is that if you find balance between the yin and yang then you will be healthy because the whole body will flow with Qi (chi). However there is no absolute balance between the yin and the yang in the body. That doesn’t exist. Taiji is about trying to find the balance, and at the same time you are finding the harmony of your body by simulating your meridians through the movements performed.
Carol Bedrosian: When did you begin studying Taiji?
Master Liu: It started when I got sick in 1964 with hepatitis and wanted to recover from that. I also worked in the mines that year and suffered severe injuries in my knee joints and on the lumbar area of the spine, so I had two problems at the same time in this year. Through the practice of Taiji, all of my problems disappeared.
Carol Bedrosian: So you have been practicing and mastering this art for over 40 years. Has a master learned everything about this art?
Master Liu: There is no top. It doesn’t exist. Today, although the technology and the science are very advanced already, we are still looking for the balance between the yin and yang all the time. Anything moving or anything quiet, something dead or something alive — even like the bench we are sitting on — anything will have yin and yang, two sides. For example the bench, the upper side can be considered yang and the lower side can be yin. In nature, the day will be yang and the night will be yin. Anything in the world has yin and yang. You can always pursue this, but you will never really reach the top. Even now, although people say I am very good as a teacher in China, I don’t even dare to say that I do the research of Taiji. I will always just do Taiji and always want to be better and reach higher levels.
Carol Bedrosian: When do you stop being a student and start being a master?
Master Liu: Officially I got a certificate from the government to teach Taiji. That is just something on the surface. That does not really mean I have become a Taiji master. In my opinion, others will be better than me so I am still a student. There is no date when you become a master. There is an old Chinese saying that if there is a group of three people, then there must be someone who can be my master or teacher that I can learn from. For example, I am a Taiji master and somebody else is a something else master. You can always learn something from somebody else so you cannot be too proud of yourself. You need to be modest and always keep learning.
The theory of Taiji is always to seek the middle, not to have too much or too little. If the whole world would follow the same rule of Taiji, then it would be a world of peace and harmony. If you can get to a level of balance between yin and yang, then you will be very calmed down and you will treat people very nice. Even some of the simple forms of Taiji, for example, guide you this way. When you are standing, you have to stand straight. It is not like that or like that. It is straight. So this will influence people in the way that they treat other people and treat the world. You have to be nice, honest, kind to people. This is balance.
Carol Bedrosian: You have been teaching Taiji, both in China and in the United States, and other countries too. What are the differences that you see between teaching Taiji in China and in other countries?
Master Liu: Taiji represents 5,000 years of Chinese history. That is something very deep and complex. The major difference between teaching in China and in America is that in China, the students there do not have the problems of understanding the language. Also because of their Chinese background they may have an easier time understanding Taiji so, of course, they may learn faster. It is also much easier for them to accept Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is more natural. They don’t really need to study it, understand it and then believe it. They just believe it. In America, the backgrounds are different so the students will understand it, but it may just stay on the surface for some of them. It cannot really get to the inside, not deep enough.
The advantage of teaching in America, I see that all of the students here have very strong interest in Taiji. In China they are taught that they are doing it just for their health. So they have to do it if they want to be healthy. Here, I see a stronger interest from the students because they want to study. Taiji has two parts: one is the theory and the other is the practice of the forms. You have to know the correct way for doing them to make sure that you get results. The only way to improve Taiji is to practice, go to classes and to keep practicing.
Carol Bedrosian: How many people in China practice Taiji?
Master Liu: I believe that more than 80% of the Chinese are practicing it. However, Taiji has a very wide range of meaning. There are many forms and styles of Taiji and related activities.
One of the reasons that Taiji is so popular in China is because of the support from the government. In the 50’s, during Mao Zedong’s time, he was trying to promote Taiji in China with slogans. Also in the 70’s with Deng Xiaoping. He put up billboards saying, “Taiji is good.” That is two generations of Chinese leaders.
I have also been trying to promote Taiji in China in Shandong, the province that I come from, and also the city, Jinan. They are actually paying a lot of attention to this and supporting it too. They have interviewed me many times for the local newspapers and magazines, TV and radio stations. In 1986 I went to Japan to set up a Taiji organization, began teaching there and attracted so many people. So Taiji is not only increasing in China, but also in other countries.
Carol Bedrosian: What are the health benefits for the body in doing Taiji?
Master Liu: I got very sick again in 1972, in a hospital. I kept doing Taiji everyday, which is important. Taiji does not treat any disease. It is to improve your health condition and make your immune system stronger. You cannot just do it today and then take a rest tomorrow. You have to keep doing it everyday. I did benefit from that a lot because I didn’t want to bother other people. Now I am 68 years old and not giving any trouble to my children or family because I am healthy.
Carol Bedrosian: Do you have any observations on how we can increase awareness of chi, energy medicine and yin/yang balance in this country?
Master Liu: The students here at Mantis Kung Fu Institute have to practice Taiji and exactly follow the rules. For example, before you start to do anything, put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth. That is the original position for babies’ tongues when they are in the mother’s belly. After the babies are born, this reflex becomes weaker and weaker, so now you have to strengthen the most natural thing. You have to put your tongue there like when you were in your mother’s belly. Another reason for doing this is the two important points under a person’s tongue. One means “golden liquid” and the other means “jade fluid.” So if you curl your tongue upward, it will simulate those two points and you will have more saliva, which is good to improve general health and your digestive system.
Students should pay attention to one method. You need to exactly follow the rules, such as some very small details like the tongue. Each of the rules has their own reason. When you sink your Qi down to an area called dan tian (in the lower abdomen), this allows better circulation and supplies oxygen to the body and its organs. There is always a reason to exactly follow the rules.
Some people think that Taiji is just like a dance you perform, moving your arms and legs or something. That is only about the outside you see, but Taiji is actually internal. From the outside you can see it is moving, however, on the inside it is very calmed down, very peaceful. That is also the yin and the yang. It is easy to say it, but not so easy to do it, even those small details.
There is also another way we are speaking of here. Inside you can move your mind to adjust your moods to happy, cheerful, sad and mad. This is also the yin and yang.
Carol Bedrosian: In closing, I would like to thank you, Master Liu, for over 40 years persevering in this art, traveling, learning and teaching in other places.
Master Liu: Many thanks to you and your magazine to allow me to introduce this internal martial art to the American people. Taiji lovers can actually get the information and the benefit from it through your publication. I hope you have gotten and the information you need and that the answers were translated correctly from the original Chinese language. I also hope that sometime in the future there will be some capable persons who can translate this information to many different languages and make this communication process work more smoothly. Through practicing Taiji in different countries, the governments will improve the connection, the communication and the friendship between many people in many nations.
Carol Bedrosian is a student of Qigong and the publisher and publisher of Spirit of Change Magazine.