How a Taijiquan Student can Get the Most out of a Visit to China

China may or may not be the best place for you to learn taiji; the ideal situation for learning a sport or an art is not always the country where it originated.  My most valuable training in Chinese martial arts was not when I lived in China, but when I was in Tokyo, and the best learning I ever did in Japanese martial arts was in an informal practice group at the University of Massachusetts.

Nevertheless, a trip to the place where your art developed is a great idea.  Experiencing the culture first-hand will broaden your horizons significantly: most Westerners are surprised when they get to Japan or China and realize how silly many of their assumptions were.  You may not discover that silver bullet of a secret technique that catapults you into mastery, but you will at least gain a much larger perspective of your art.

You may also encounter opportunities to learn distinctions that will significantly increase the quality of your practice.  This is not guaranteed, however, as there are challenges that Westerners may face when pursuing training opportunities in China.  There are ways of responding to these challenges that will help you learn, and ways of responding that will just lead to more frustration.

The time I spent living in China was among the most challenging and also the most rewarding and enjoyable adventures I’ve had so far. Here are my recommendations for how to enjoy a training adventure in China, based on my 4 visits to China, the most recent of which lasted 2 years:

Get Out There and Practice in Public

The instruction I received when I was in China was almost entirely from highly competent teachers who taught me very generously, who had only Chinese students, never asked to be paid (I paid them anyway) and took personal interests in me having a positive experience while in China.  I met these people while practicing what I already knew on my own in parks in Beijing.

Trust Your Instincts

China, just like any other place on the planet, has all kinds of people.  My favorite people to practice with are the warm and friendly experts with really great characters, but there are also arrogant experts and then some joker-loudmouths.  I met people offering to teach me everyday that I went to practice in Beijing parks, and for the most part, I said “sure,” even when I didn’t find the person completely likable.  There were two cases where I started practicing regularly with teachers that I didn’t find likable in the name of seizing a learning opportunity. In both cases,  I ended up deciding not to continue training with them.

I remember one night walking to the park to practice on my own, feeling disappointed that I hadn’t yet found a good teacher in China.  I took a spot near where a kid was practicing his xingyi, and got into a stance to do some zhanzhuang.  A few minutes later, his teacher showed up, and without even introducing himself to me, approached me and adjusted my posture.  A little while later, he showed me another posture to practice.  I felt good around him, and felt good following his instructions, so I showed up at the same place, the same time the next day.  I continued following his instructions for a couple weeks before we introduced ourselves to each other and I ended up practicing with him for the following 2 years that I lived in China.

The material that he taught me never became the nucleus of my practice, but there are certain qualities that he continued to emphasize throughout my studies with him that I strive to involve in every move I practice, whether it’s Guangping, Xingyi or Qigong.

Be Humble

An important thing to expect, accept and forgive is that teachers in China, just like everywhere else, do NOT know everything, but may tend to behave as if they think they do.  One thing this means is that they will not be planning on learning things from you.  The last thing they are likely to be interested in is what you know.  What they want to see in you is a person who is very ready to receive, both in terms of learning their art and learning about Chinese culture.

Be prepared for people to assume that you are there to learn from them.  Even if you have done 3 hours of good zhanzhuang a day for 5 years, a middle aged shopkeeper who has learned nothing beyond the first few moves of the 24 form may want to teach you about Chinese martial arts, and it will be good manners for you to listen.

Be Confident in YOUR Practice

There are various ways of looking at the world and more than one is correct.

There are various ways of approaching internal martial arts and more than one can be correct.  If you show a teacher in China what you have learned from a Western teacher, you may be told that it’s “wrong.”  If the person who says this is not someone you want to learn from, then it doesn’t matter: ignore it.

On the other hand, you may find yourself in situations where someone whose instruction you DO value is telling you that what you have already learned is “wrong.”  I have experienced this, and it doesn’t feel good.  I have felt like I needed to get everyone to agree with everything, or to have my new teacher validate what I had already learned.

The solution in this situation is to do two things:

  1. be inwardly confident in the value of what you have already practiced.
  2. have an open mind, open enough that two “contradictory” things can be true.

This is only a challenge if you are consciously trying to “understand.”  Instead of trying to understand, simply receive, and practice what you know feels good to practice.

Be Thick-Skinned

Manners are an important and interesting thing in China.  Some behaviors that Westerners consider harmless may be considered rude in China, and some things that Chinese people consider normal might come as shocks to Westerners. You may find yourself in situations where you’re asking yourself, “Did he really just say that?”

My first experience with a teacher in China was an elderly blind man who came really close to me as if to “examine” me while I was practicing and announced to the entire park that I had real qi. It felt good coming from him, as he was the guy in the park that everyone else seemed to bow-down to. He showed me some push-hands and drills to practice, and told other people in the park to let me practice wherever I wanted to.

My second experience was with a guy who told me I had no root.  None whatsoever, he insisted, and to illustrate, he pushed me over again and again to his heart’s content.

Later on, a teacher that I ended up really liking told me that I simply wasn’t serious enough to ever succeed.  This was his response to me missing class both Tuesday AND Wednesday one week. On another occasion, he asserted that everything I had heard or read was of no use at all.  What surprised me most was that this was coming from a mild-mannered, soft-spoken person.  You would expect such absolutist talk from a loudmouth, but when it came from such a gentle person, it carried a real punch. Incidentally, he also announced to his students one day that they all practiced like chickens, while I practiced like an eagle… so he may not have thought I was completely without hope.

Love Chinese Culture

You visit China because you love Chinese culture and you want to learn about it from Chinese people. It doesn’t matter if you have learned about Daoism, Confucianism or Taiji from a lineage that left China before the Cultural Revolution and might know something about Chinese culture that a Beijinger might not know.  It doesn’t matter if you have practiced taiji for ten years and you are speaking with a Chinese fellow student who has practiced for a month: you are in China to learn about Chinese culture from Chinese people.

American culture is free reign for anyone, and the more progressive among us know that it’s silly when someone assumes they automatically know more about American culture because they were born here.  American culture can mean football, baseball, two-stepping, MacDonald’s, jazz, military history, Sarah Palin or John Stewart, all of the above or none of the above.

It’s different in China.  Some Chinese people acknowledge religious beliefs, others don’t.  Many never talk politics.  Chinese people love and revere their parents and love and revere Chinese culture.

The biggest mistake I made in China was to object when people would say that I didn’t understand Chinese culture.  I was told that it would be harder for me to excel at taichi because I didn’t understand Chinese culture, and I found that objectionable.  If I had it to do over again, I would have humored whoever was saying it while responding, “But I LOVE Chinese culture, so I’ll do my best.”

Work Hard

Regardless of whether your previous experience or your understanding of Chinese culture are ever validated, you will get lots of attention and personal instruction from a Chinese teacher as long as you work hard at what you’re shown, and keep coming back after having your ego bruised.

Finding yourself under the wing of a Chinese teacher is a big deal: you may find yourself being cared about by a knowledgeable person who will take responsibility not only for your having a positive training experience. He or she may go so far as to make sure that you are eating enough, that you know WHERE to go to find tasty, healthful and representative meals, that you are making good friends and otherwise having a positive experience experiencing China.

For thoughts on avoiding the mistakes that many taijiquan students make, click here.

To exchange experiences or ideas or for instruction in Guangping Taiji in Austin, click here or call me at 512.791.3296.

Click here to return to the Austin Classical Taichi homepage.

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