In conversation with Tai Chi Grandmaster Fu Sheng Yuan and his son Fu Qing Quan about the Yang style, its health benefits, and the changes in the martial arts form.

I watch two men move slowly across the hotel lobby and strike poses that look like kung-fu in slow motion. They are not actors in a martial arts movie but Chinese Tai Chi experts from the Yong Nian Yang family, one of the ancient families from whom the Yang style of Tai Chi originated.

Grandmaster Fu Sheng Yuan, 80, and his son Fu Qing Quan (James), 40, are the fifth and sixth generation respectively of the Yang family who were in India recently for a Tai Chi workshop in Chennai organised by Sifu George Thomas, Head of The Authentic Yang Family Tai Chi in India.

Authentic style

The Yong Nian Yang style is one of the first of this martial art form. Both the Grandmaster and his son confess they had no idea of Tai Chi when they started learning it at the age of nine and six respectively. “I did Tai Chi for the sake of the stick that my father brandished,” laughs James. In time, the importance of Tai Chi and their legacy dawned on them. “When my father died in 1991, he wanted me to spread the true Yang family Tai Chi across the world because now the style has changed. So I travel across countries and teach people the authentic style,” reveals Grandmaster who now lives in Perth, Australia.

During the interview, I had to ask the question that had been nagging me for quite sometime: how can an art form that consists of slow, dance-like movements be called a martial art? James explains that what we usually see is just the first two quarters of Tai Chi's entire learning circle. Apart from the general health benefits, the Grandmaster says, “It helps you to be quick. You can react quickly. Plus I feel very good at the end of it. I travel by myself everywhere. People do not believe that I am 80 years old.”

For James, who lives in mainland China, Tai Chi has helped him understand people and himself. “Now everything is modern, simplified and faster. Everybody is in a hurry. I ask my students, ‘Are you in a hurry to die too?' Sometimes you need to slow down. I have also learnt to look at the positive side of people. Through Tai Chi you also learn that nothing is 100 per cent perfect. There is always a good and bad side to everything.”

But the best benefit would be the ability to slow down the ageing process. Octogenarian Fu Sheng Yuan looked anything but old. James was not allowed to enter a casino in Australia 10 years ago because he was thought to be under age!

But how has Tai Chi changed to suit society today? “This is a big argument even in China: Which is good: the traditional version or the modern version?” says James. “I think, in any culture, you have to follow tradition step by step. We have tried to change a little bit to suit society now, but not completely; we have only changed the way we are teaching.”

Normally, in the traditional way, one is taught the long form (85 forms in a sequence) for 25 minutes. But for this impatient generation, the forms are broken up and taught in parts: first eight, then 28 and then 85, while breaking up the details. “The principle of Tai Chi is like its constitution. Any change you make should remain within this.”

Popularity high

Speaking of its popularity, along with Yoga, the masters feel that it is the century where Asian culture is on a popularity-high. “Indian and Chinese culture, especially. And that's why Tai Chi is also popular,” says James, whose dream is to visit the Taj Mahal, an idea he got from a promotional poster in the elevator of his apartment.

Watching father and son pose for photographs helps you understand what George said earlier about learning from the duo. “It is like seeing the Ying and the Yang.” The Grandmaster talks more about the gentleness of the art while the son is all about the power.

For James, carrying forward the legacy of the Yang family is as important as preserving it. “The most important thing is to protect our original culture. Then my mission would be to get youngsters into this art. Many people think it's only for old people. Even in China, they say ‘tai chi is good but too early for me; maybe I'll do it when I retire', to which my only reply is ‘it's too late'.”

Time frames

To learn Tai Chi as a martial art, you need at least 10 years.

The first quarter, the Tai Chi form, requires three to five years; this is what you commonly see. It consists of slow movements to build up internal energy and strengthen the lower body. This is the stage when you gain control over your movements and lays a good foundation for the rest .

In the second quarter we use a weapon along with the movements. This makes the upper body strong and gives you power.

In the third quarter is the energy explosion. It's very fast, like karate. We do a lot of push-hands movements. Here you learn speed.

The final quarter is where you combine power and speed, and complete the learning of the martial art form.

Since, nowadays people fight with fingers (guns) and not arms, Tai Chi is learnt more for health, relaxation and exercise.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012