Please see the October issue of Tai Chi Magazine for an article about Master Dong Bin and his theories on “4 ounces deflects a 1000 pounds“ and other Taiji classic principles.
Translated by Mr. Wang Ming Bo and Rose Oliver
Story by Rose Oliver
One of the most famous places in Shanghai is People’s Square. It is considered the heart of Shanghai and from where every other place is measured in distance.
At the centre of People’s Square is a very famous landmark, the Shanghai Museum – a very beautiful and modern building dedicated to the exhibition of many of China’s ancient treasures.
And here just behind the museum, in a small alcove by a fountain, meet many dedicated and serious practitioners of Taiji Quan with a combined age of several centuries.
However, both young and old alike are drawn to this centre of Shanghai to study and play with the heart of their group – Master Dong Bin.
Master Dong, who is now over 85 years old, is a very sweet, old man, who at first sight looks nothing like the image of a great Taiji master. Many of those around him look strong and powerful, in complete contrast to his slight frame and stature, but he is the heart that binds us all together with his kindness, generosity of spirit, knowledge, expertise and love.
In Chinese, the word for museum is: “Bo Wu Guan.” “Bo” can be used to describe somebody who knows many things as in Doctor of Science etc, and “Wu” means many objects from everyday life. So literally the word “bo wu guan” means a large centre of knowledge, home to many objects of beauty taken from life.
This in a nutshell also very aptly describes Master Dong Bin.
I first met him in 2004, when I was introduced to him by my “Shixiong” (elder brother) Mr. Wang Ming Bo.
I had heard a lot about him already, as he was my then current teacher/shixiong’s (Mr Wang Zhi Qiang’s) teacher. (Also known to his friends as “Dr. Wang because of his interest and research into traditional Chinese medicine, although he isn’t a qualified practitioning doctor).
I had been told that his skill was of a very high level and for some reason I had a mental image of a powerful, big man. So when we arrived I looked around for someone who would fit my idea. But as I looked, I couldn’t quite pick out who it could be, until my Shixiong pointed to a small, wizened old gentleman, sitting on the ground. He stood up as we approached, and I felt amazement as I realized that this was Master Dong himself and then a sudden feeling of pleasure when the realization hit me that of course this was exactly the kind of person who would be a Taiji master. The last person you could imagine.
Master Dong welcomed me and after hearing that I was studying with his student “Dr” Wang, asked me to perform the first third of the Yang style form that I was studying.
I proceeded to do so, after which Master Dong said to me with a slight smile, “Do you want to hear politeness or the truth?”
Of course I replied that I would prefer the truth, whereupon he told me, in a kind and gentle manner in his broken English, “All is mistake”!
He went onto explain that there wasn’t even one correct thing about my form, and demonstrated for me what the movements should look like and why, so that I could understand what the functions of the movements really were and why my body in the form that I played couldn’t possibly make the movements work.
He also told me about how the body should feel when it’s performing and described the relationship required between the waist, the body movements, the energy and the intention (Yi).
Master Dong said nowadays many students, Western and Chinese alike, have unfortunately lost the real purpose behind the movements as well as the correct intention, as he said many of the “old” teachers have already passed away and there are fewer and fewer people who have caught the essence of Taiji, or understand the individual postures.
Many of these original postures were created at a time when people always worked with their hands and bodies, before machines and automation and when modern accessories like electric weaving machines, carpentry equipment, construction equipment etc, were not invented or employed. Thus, these “applications” within the form were all taken from everyday life and work, so their real “secrets” were tied to the knowledge of how to work, use or play these particular instruments.
Take for example, “Yu Nu Chuan Suo” or “Fair Lady Weaves the Shuttles”.
Master Dong explained that in the past many women or young girls, usually stayed in the house not going outside to work like farm hands etc, so that their skin would be almost white like jade (Yu), as it was not tanned by being out in the sun. They would work at weaving cloth and clothes.
These women would be soft and very gentle and unused to heavy manual work. So, naturally their touch would be light and very sensitive as they plucked or threaded the wool or silk and not grab or grasp at the threads in a “strong grip”. They would also be so familiar with the movement of threading, that the action would be entirely natural and smooth, without the need for conscious thought when doing the movements and therefore completely relaxed without the need for strength.
Thus, a practitioner must keep this mentality in mind when executing this movement and not try to use force or strength in the application against an opponent, as this is not real Taiji.
He went onto add that this doesn’t mean that you are weak or cannot use the application against a strong opponent, but that your own hands and energy must be light and relaxed, reading and listening to what the opponent is doing, but without giving him the opportunity to “hear” what you are going to do through heavy-handedness.
Plus your own action must be honed by familiarity, so that you can execute the movement with ease.
Master Dong began his own studies in Taiji Quan when he was about 13 years old.
He was born in the countryside in Ningbo, (which is a coastal city not far from Shanghai), to a poor family; and at the age of 13, he came alone to Shanghai to study carpentry.
This was also when the Japanese were occupying Shanghai, at around the time of the 2nd World War, and it was a period of great chaos and confusion, as well as being one of unpredictability.
He took an exam to enter work as an assistant in a small shop and began working, but because of the situation in Shanghai at that time, business was extremely unstable and prices were constantly rising. Consequently, many shops were forced to close down, and if you could sell goods, the money raised was not enough to buy new merchandise, as inflation was rampant.
Because of these circumstances, many shops didn’t open their doors until much later in the day, so Master Dong often had free time in the morning in which to go to the local “French” park to watch others practicing.
He saw many old people in the park playing Taiji, who although obviously very advanced in years, looked very young and supple when they played Taiji and he admired them very much.
This led him to start practicing Taiji, as he felt that it would be a good way to protect his health and keep from getting ill, which would have been a disaster in those days.
At first he watched from a long distance away and tried to imitate their movements; he was afraid to come closer as he never knew from day to day how much time he would have to play in the park and didn’t want to embarrass himself or inconvenience a teacher, but more importantly he had no money, so was worried about affording any fees that might be charged.
However, one teacher Mr. Chen, who worked for the same company as Master Dong and who was also from Ningbo, was not worried about collecting money for his teaching, and after observing Master Dong over a long period of time and seeing that he was very serious, offered to teach him.
Mr. Chen’s speciality was a particular style of Shaolin kicking form, and he began by teaching him some very basic Shaolin movements, namely 4 kinds of kicks.
Master Dong though, felt that his stamina was insufficient for this kind of training and asked Mr. Chen if he could learn Taiji instead. Master Dong believed that because Taiji was performed slowly, it would therefore not be tiring! Thus, he commenced learning Taiji.
On his way to the park, he would also see another master Tian Zuo Ling, who practiced Tong Bei Quan (like the style practiced by Master Wu Mao Gui). Most other people didn’t dare to challenge him, but one day Master Dong saw another practitioner dressed in white practicing alone very closeby Mr. Tian.
Intrigued, Master Dong stayed to watch, and when the opportunity arose he asked the man what he was playing and why Mr. Tian didn’t object to his proximity. He also commented on the difference in his style to others. The man (Mr. Xia Ming Zhang) laughed, and in a Ningbo accent asked Master Dong to demonstrate his Taiji. After doing just “Lan Que Wei” (Stroke the Bird’s Tail) he laughed again, and said that it was all wrong and of no use.
Master Dong questioned him as to why it was of no use, to which he was invited to push Mr. Xia.
Dong pushed at him with all his strength but couldn’t move him, but when the roles were reversed Dong fell to the ground.
He immediately asked to study with Mr. Xia, but Xia replied he could only give him advice on a few movements, like Single Whip (Dan Bian) and “Luo Lu” or circles made with the hands and waist in three different planes, to train how to change the hand position correctly in order to dissipate incoming force and strike simultaneously, but without using strength.
Mr. Xia who was a student of Mr. Dong Shi Zuo, told Dong Bin to practice these two movements for a month and then after that they would see.
Dong Bin did so, and to this day feels that Mr. Xia put him on the road to learning the real essence of Taiji, as well as giving him the opening to meet and study with Master Dong Shi Zuo, student of Mr. Dong Ying Jie.
Dong Bin says that everyone has their own destiny, and often fate gives us chances to change our lives or meet new people when the time is right for us to do so, and this is how Dong Bin feels about his meeting with such great masters as Dong Shi Zuo and Mr. Ye Huan Zi (also a student of Dong Ying Jie) came about.
Dong Bin got the chance to begin training from Dong Shi Zuo through another friend Wu Zhen Pei, who also studied with a student of Mr. Dong’s.
Dong Bin and Wu went to the school building where Dong Shi Zuo taught Taiji after leaving church on Sundays.
They peeked in the windows to watch the classes in secret, as neither had been given an introduction.
The students would practice 200 or so different basic training exercises together, after which they would play the form. This they did, not in the traditional way that we usually see groups playing, that is one person in front and others following behind, but they would face each other and be at diagonals from each other. This way the teacher could walk between them and be able to see their mistakes more easily and comprehensibly from the different angles they stood at.
Following form practice they’d then push hands. During this, Mr. Dong would allow the students to strike his face, but surprisingly the students would be bounced away by Mr. Dong’s face or knocked down!
Dong Bin was very impressed and perplexed at how this could be, and so went to watch Mr. Dong secretly for over six months.
Again fate took a hand when the school where Mr. Dong taught posted a notice to say that all students wishing to study Taiji had to supply a photo and address.
Dong Bin desperately wanted to register, but was worried about whether he’d be accepted and the assistant went to enquire if he could enroll. Dong Shi Zuo told the assistant that as it was the same man who’d been peeping in at the windows for the last six months, he was welcome to start training!
So, Dong Bin again thanked the forces that gave him this lucky chance.
He said that Mr. Dong was extremely kind and sympathetic to Dong Bin’s financial situation and whenever they all went out with some of the bosses and people in high positions; which happened quite frequently, as Mr Dong was an extremely highly respected martial artist, he often invited Dong Bin to accompany them. Dong Bin says he now feels very embarrassed to think back that his teacher never let him pay for a meal!
At these meals, Dong says, most of the “real” teaching took place. They would discuss Wushu principles and their own understanding of them and occasionally put them into practice too. When eating (and drinking) people often open up and freely discuss many “secrets” that they wouldn’t normally talk about in class.
Mr. Ye Huan Zi, who was Mr. Dong’s Shixiong, kept in close contact with Mr. Dong and they often shared information, as well as students.
Dong Bin got to meet him because of circumstances where he and another student were practicing “Kong Jing” or Empty or Invisible Force.
They started experimenting with this and pretended to “grab” the spiritual force of somebody walking past and use it to “hurl” at the other as they pushed hands, which each felt made the other seem very powerful.
Mr. Ye heard about this through mutual contacts and worried that they were going down a wrong path and misunderstanding the essence of the practice of Taiji jing (energy or essence) invited them to his home.
Dong Bin entered the house and saw an oldish, slender man dressed in white casual clothes sitting on the floor. He looked nothing like what Dong Bin had expected or what a great master might look like.
Dong Bin said underneath his garb he was a very sweet and humble man, without any pretensions, and in fact a very great man who knew some wonderful information but was unchanged by the wealth of knowing it. Dong Bin said he immediately felt like a young child with his favourite uncle.
Mr. Ye was very modest, saying that here they didn’t practice; they just played Taiji for fun.
Often Dong said the students would practice “jumping”.
They would stand in front of a mirror or wall and reach their hands out in an “An” or “Push” posture, and then lean backwards, but to keep themselves from leaning back too far and to remain straight and keep in their original posture, would jump backwards and stamp their foot down to regain their equilibrium.
The idea was to “borrow” the energy from the reflection or the wall, and most important was that the body should stay relaxed to let the qi flow evenly through.
This training method was to make sure that the practitioner should right their central equilibrium when an opponent’s incoming force threatened to upset their balance or to help dissipate their force. Dong Bin said that this also increased sensitivity or “Ting Jing”.
This jumping is a vital part of Taiji study, and something often overlooked by practitioners as both a way to protect oneself from being thrown or knocked down by incoming force and as a way to reconfigure your own structure to put you back into a correct posture again, so as to be able to deliver a counter attack of your own.
Many people when they’re struck or pushed just tilt at the waist or wobble. They appear not to move their feet, so feel that the opponent hasn’t really “beaten” them, but in fact Dong says the opponent’s force has actually entered their body, and they are unable to feel the force coming in or be able to ground it through the feet by jumping.
Jumping he says, lets you allow the force to pass through you, rather like electricity passing through an object without letting it stay in the body as an electric shock.
Many people view this jumping or stamping of the feet as phony or false, but Dong Bin says that it’s a very important aspect of learning Gongfu.
Over the years Dong Bin continued to study with both Dong Shi Zuo and Ye Huan Zi.
At Mr. Dong’s, he says he also acted as the “protector” for students pushing hands with the teacher.
Dong would “catch” those sent flying backwards by the teacher, but he had to try and remain soft and relaxed and anticipate just the exact amount of effort necessary to help “right” them.
As there were both male and female students, large and small, being pushed around, Dong would also have to be sensitive to holding or touching the students appropriately and not allow them to fall down and injure themselves, so this he feels also helped to develop his “Ting Jing” or listening sensitivity.
Mr Dong also told him that a very important aspect of learning is to constantly check ones own practice.
Dong says you must always question why you are doing something, or why something isn’t working.
There is a constant need for research and self-analysis. In order to understand the principles one must keep asking questions:
Why is it called Taiji, why are the movements so slow, why should you use Yi (intention) not Li (strength), why should one appear to yield to or to flow with the opponent instead of resisting him, why shouldn’t one be self-centered when one is practicing, why in push hands does this action not work, why was I uprooted?…. to name but a few.
In Taiji, he said, you should always see yourself as “the weak” and not use your innate body strength to defend yourself. Only by following this principle can you truly master the idea of “Si liang bo qian jing”, or “4 ounces deflects a 1000 pounds”, or the idea of “If the opponent doesn’t move, then I don’t move, but if he moves then I move first.” One can never become one with the opponent or master Taiji’s requirements, if you think you are the strong one.
Every person has physical strength and it is both unavoidable and natural to want to defend yourself using this. However if you want to learn Taiji, you must follow a different way.
If you see yourself as “the weak”, how can you still aimlessly defend yourself with strength? The two concepts are contradictory.
One must attempt to reduce one’s physical strength to “zero”, and reach a state of “emptiness” or “Wu wo!” This literally means “No me!” This way allows an opponent to grasp nothingness or no physical entity or strength and the more he tries the more off balance he will become.
Master Dong embodies this concept, and constantly stresses to his students to forget themselves and their muscular or structural strength.
In push hands he says, this concept of “No me” forms part of the essence of “Four ounces deflects 1000 pounds.”
Here when an opponent strikes or attempts to grab you, you must be able to remain in this state of emptiness, or “No me”; this way his complete physical force is exposed and allowed to manifest, in contrast, he finds nothing in you to grasp or manipulate as you are “empty”. Once his physical force is completely spent without you manifesting your own strength, you can “dissipate” or “Hua” his force using the minimum of effort on your part and taking full advantage of his weakened state.
To reach this level though, requires a long period of time in practicing being empty and of forgetting the self.
This is a mental state that the practitioner must learn to achieve and one of Master Dong’s long term students, Mr. Ren Gang, has achieved this level through constant practice and through his own research into Buddhism, which teaches one to forget the self.
Pushing with him, one feels that one touches nothing, but what is returned to you is like a fierce wave that literally blows you off your feet and gives one a very frightening feeling, as well as a sense of being winded deep within!
Master Dong also advised that one way you can teach yourself to not resist the opponent’s force, is to imagine that you are an egg.
He said that as the person touches you, you think of your own arms and body as being as fragile as an eggshell. You mustn’t let the opponent rest or lean his force on you or push back against him as this will break your shell. This idea that you are so fragile and delicate lets you foster a sensation that your body is empty and teaches you not to resist force.
At first one may feel that one becomes “diu” or lost and weak, but over time one can begin to be aware of the natural energy force (Shen qi) that surrounds our own bodies and which we should maintain through awareness and relaxation.
Master Dong talks a lot about the correct intention or “Yi”, and says that the lack of the correct Yi is one of the main problems in today’s practice of Taiji.
The movements of the hands in Taiji superficially look separate and disconnected, but in fact these moves are a continuous flow of interconnected movements governed by the waist and “Yi” or intention.
For example, if the hand first moves forwards and outwards and then backwards and inwards, as in “white snake sticks out its tongue”; it might at first appear that these are two movements.
But actually, when the hand is drawn back inwards towards the body, your yi still remains outwards, forwards and surrounding you, filling the empty spaces between you and your opponent.
In this case the movement of the hand going back outwards again is a natural extension of the first movement and NOT a separate one.
The application is to mimic the fast and constant flicking out of a snake’s tongue, which tastes the air and the surroundings such as you are tasting/striking the opponent continuously without pause or loss of contact with the “prey”.
Therefore, each movement in Taiji is as a natural consequence of all the others. They are interconnected and cannot be separated, just as the “o” cannot be separated from the “k” in the word “ok”.
Your physical body can sometimes pause between movements or even appear to stop according to the situation you are in, but your intention must never stop or break.
This is called “mian mian bu duan” in Chinese.
When one sees Master Dong performing the form, you can clearly see this principle in evidence; his movements flow smoothly but it is his “yi” that is continuous and one can see the individual applications become faultlessly woven together in a constant, smooth flow.
Master Dong also talked about the “Dan Tian” in Taiji and push hands practice.
Many people separate the Dan Tian into an entity below the navel and restrict its movements to this one centre, as is often the case in Wu Style Taiji.
But he says in Yang Style Taiji we should think of the whole body as the Dan Tian and not just within the body itself.
The energy or spiritual and energetic force surrounding the body or “Shen qi” is also part of the Dan Tian.
If we only think of the Dan Tian as a small part of our abdomen, then we cannot utilize the full potential of our own body and the energy around us. We minimize our own force and create tension in the mind and body.
When executing the movements, we should be aware of our connection between the earth and the sky and make use of the full force of our intention.
When the opponent pushes us, we should think of ourselves as the sky. This is the “Xu Ling Ding Jing” (or the energetic force that connects our body to above). This makes the opponent feel that I am too big to push, bigger even than a mountain, because the sky is all around, so my intention is enormous.
But when I strike, then I am the earth, “Qi Chen Dan Tian” (the energy sinks to the Dan Tian). The opponent will feel that my force is irresistible, like the earth coming at him to force him away.
Master Dong clearly demonstrates this by crouching right down onto the ground with his face on the floor, and allows you to grasp his arm behind his back to help keep him in that posture.
He then smoothly and effortlessly stands up – sending you flying away.
I have seen him do this with strong, young men too, not just myself, and he says that the secret is his intention (Yi).
He doesn’t think about the opponent’s force grasping him, if he did he would certainly not be able to move with someone very strong holding him down. Instead he imagines their force becoming diffused with the space around and through him so that he doesn’t “feel” their pressure anymore, then he “forgets” the opponent and imagines his “Yi” shooting up into the sky as he gets up. He never focuses on the opponent’s strength.
Dong says that practitioners usually limit their own power because of their inability to either understand or use their intention correctly, rather than because of mistakes with their structure. (Although he says of course beginners do need to work on their structures too).
He said one needs a teacher to nurture this understanding and to help the student to cultivate their own potential. Somewhat like a parent raising a child in the rights and wrongs of what to do and the whys.
Certainly when is teaching the form, he constantly describes the correct feeling or intention behind the movements, in addition to occasionally acting as “dummy” for you to try out the applications, so that the students can get a real sensation of what they are doing, not just have a rudimentary idea about which way the hand points or where the weight is.
The most important movements, Dong says, are actually the linking moves, the ones in between the postures. Many people just concentrate on the end posture, for example in
“Lou Xi Ao Bu” or “Brush Knee”. But this is where the application has already finished and the energy spent and applied. The journey of how you get to this position is most important; this is what makes the application work.
In Master Dong’s form, which mirrors that of Dong Ying Jie, there are many circular and spiraling movements, or hidden applications, just as in the late Master Wang Hao Da’s form there were lots of small “Fa Jing” or “issuing” movements. Dong says these are the important steps to dissipating the opponent’s force and putting him into a weakened position whereby you can strike him, without them the form’s applications become useless.
That is why in many cases people’s form and push hands skill seem to have no correlation, because they cannot use their form in push hands practice and rely more on strength or “tricks” to catch someone off balance.
If the middle of the application is missing, then the energy of the movement is incorrect and although the end posture looks good in a photo, it cannot be used.
He said in the past, masters like Dong Ying Jie, Dong Shi Zuo and Ye Huan Zi, paid great attention to these linking moves, and never simplified the form. Through simplification, the real essence is lost, and without this one cannot perform real Taiji.
These linking moves are all about “Lu Shun Mao” or “stroking the fur the right way”.
Just as one would stroke a cat’s fur the right way to make it feel comfortable, we should treat the opponent the same way. We don’t use force or resistance against him, that way he is unaware of our attentions, and he just feels “helped” into the position we want, then we can either strike effortlessly or simply brush him aside.
In Taiji, there is never the intention of a blocking movement, always this smooth stroking aside or away of the incoming force, and there is never a cessation of our strikes/movements, just a continuous flow of defence, attack and counter-attacking moves.
With Master Dong, one feels that one is with a living encyclopedia of martial arts.
I have been studying with him for over two years, and I feel the same excitement when I see him now, as when I first met him.
He has a timeless, magic quality about him, and despite his years and hardships, (he endured many years of hard labour during the cultural revolution for his love of martial arts) he has a true heart and a love for his fellow beings, especially the serious student who is prepared to “eat bitter”.
He respects those who sincerely want to learn the essence of Taiji Quan, and even though my studying with him caused both he and myself a great deal of heartache and unpleasantness, (when his student Dr Wang, who was angry that I was studying from him, tried his best to put a stop to it) he refused to give into the pressure; saying that if a student loves Taiji and seriously wants to learn, a teacher should help them. Teaching and studying is not about money, it’s about the mutual love and respect both have for the art, and the effort, endurance and sacrifice that a student is prepared to make.
He has been exceedingly generous and kind to me as to many others; treating us as members of his family and welcoming us to his home.
He sincerely hopes that those who love Taiji as much as he does, can truly get a helping hand along the way, just as his teachers helped him.
He said that fate played a hand in his meeting and studying with such great teachers of the past, and I too, feel that it was fate that brought me to this “heart” of Shanghai, and gave me the chance to study with one of the last of their kind.
A truly great person and teacher, somebody who maintains the same integrity, generosity of spirit and love for their art as the masters of the past, and someone who is a teacher of life not just martial arts.
To all Master Dong’s students he is an example of how to behave and conduct oneself, of valuing kindness and sharing, not fame and money, and of searching for the truth inside Taiji, not being content with superficial appearances.
To me he is one of the kindest people I have ever met, and someone for whom I will always be eternally grateful to have the privilege of knowing, let alone studying with.
And for all his suffering and hardships in life, he really does embody the concept of “No me”: true humility and calmness of spirit.
He is a teacher, a friend, a role model and inspiration; a genuine Chinese treasure.
by courtesy of www.doubledragonalliance.com