“Its Not Magic, its True”: Cheng Man Ching And His Mehtod

by Don Ethan Miller


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I have recently had the good fortune to spend several hundred hours with Cheng Man Ching, the great Tai Chi teacher and “Master of Five Excellences.” Not in person of course (Cheng died in 1975), but while editing 6 or 7 hours of previously-unreleased footage of Prof. Cheng, shot in the late 1960s at his Shr Jung school in New York City. The tapes show Cheng teaching form, sword, pushing hands; fencing with his students; teaching calligraphy and flower arranging; answering questions, telling stories of his life in China. Although I have been studying Tai Chi for over 30 years, primarily from senior students of Cheng and others in his lineage/tradition (T.T.Liang, William Chen, Chern Chyu Kuan, Tao Ping-Siang), it is only from this intensive encounter with him through the tapes that I believe I have come to some deeper understanding of the method—and the man.

To begin at the beginning: the structure and posture(s) of the body. Most people both within and outside the Cheng tradition mistakenly believe that the Cheng ideal is a very deflated, almost limp, completely sunk posture, much as the body adopts when, exhausted, you slump into a chair after a hard day’s work, or some other exertion. It is absolutely true that Cheng’s form emphasizes sung, or release of tension—a quality Bruce Kumar Frantzis describes as the feeling of rice spilling downward from a cut sack of grain. However, there is a yang which balances this yin in Cheng’s posture, and it is
the raising of energy through the back and (especially) the back of the neck to the top of the head. Many who are familiar with the classic Tai Chi adage, “han sung bai bei” (loosely,” sink the chest and raise the back”) will recognize that Cheng is definitely embodying this ancient tai chi principle, but the specific method he uses—to hold the back,head and neck in such a way that there is a clear “postural strength” there, balances the sinking/releasing/downward forces elsewhere in the body, so that it is open, loose, and relaxed yet structurally strong, like a tent or other structure
built around a central column or pole. Cheng repeatedly admonishes that if this component (the energy passing through the"gate” of the neck area to reach the crown) is not grasped, “even thirty years of practice will be wasted.”

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