Interview: Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, White Crane / Taijiquan / Shaolin Long Fist (Part 1)
I'm very pleased to present this interview with Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming. Dr. Yang is an important figure in the world of Chinese martial arts and a key transmission point of Chinese arts into Western society.
Dr. Yang began his training at a young age in Taiwan during a time of turbulent relations with China. Learning under a handful of extremely talented instructors throughout his youth and into adulthood, Dr. Yang left for the United States to pursue his doctorate in Mechanical Engineering. Over time he became a premiere teacher of White Crane, Taijiquan, and Shaolin Long Fist, receiving significant recognition for his work including Black Belt Magazine's Kung Fu Artist of the Year and Kung Fu Magazine's Man of the Year. Dr. Yang is most well known for creating the YMAA training association and publication center.
Dr. Yang was kind enough to provide some insightful answers regarding his personal training history and his efforts to spread Chinese arts.
MA: For individuals who may not be acquainted with your work, could you summarize the styles of martial arts you practice, whom you practiced under, and how long you have been training?
Dr. Yang: I trained Southern White Crane Gongfu under Master Cheng, Gin-Gsao from when I was 15 until 27 years old (1961-1974).
When I was in high school (16 years old), I began learning Yang Style Taijiquan under Master Kao, Tao, who was teaching at a neighboring high school. I trained every weekday with him for two and a half years until I moved to Taipei for college. Master Kao eventually also moved, so I continued my Taijiquan practice with my friend Mr. Wilson Chen.
When I was studying Physics in Tamkang University, I began my practice of Shaolin Long Fist under Master Li, Mao-Ching. I trained under Master Li until I was 27 years old, which was when I came to the United States for my Ph.D. study at Purdue University.
MA: You grew up in a fairly turbulent time in Taiwan. Did the political climate affect your desire to train? Were you worried you might be drafted to fight?
Dr. Yang: Yes, there were a few factors that influenced my decision to train:
1. When I was 15, Taiwan was still in a “high alert” period, due to the war between Taiwan and Mainland China. At that time, the age for the military draft was 16 years old. Everybody was worried about the draft, including me. Martial arts was popular partly because the training significantly improved our confidence and ability to face life-or-death challenges.
2. I was born in Yang’s village, where about 800 people sharing the last name “Yang” all lived together. According to what my grandmother said, nearly 70% of men and 10% of women trained martial arts there. In traditional Chinese societies, living together as a large family and training martial arts were both very common because of the need to defend against bandits. This is why so many styles of Chinese martial arts carry a family name. Because of the popularity and widespread acceptance of martial arts, my family never discouraged me from getting involved with training.
3. I also had a strong personal interest and passion for Chinese martial arts in general, mostly influenced by Chinese operas, movies, martial arts novels, stories, and my own family's martial arts background.
MA: What was your day-to-day training like with Mr. Cheng, Gin-gsao? How do you feel the white crane techniques helped you develop as an artist?
Dr. Yang: Usually, when I got out of classes in high school, it was about 3:30pm. I would rush home to finish my homework by 6pm. I would then run from my home to Gu Qi Feng mountain, which is in my hometown, Xinzhu. Because there were no buses or cars, the only way to reach my master's home was to walk or run. It was impossible to ride a bicycle because the path was not level and too rocky. Riding a bike would have been especially dangerous at night. It took me about 45 minutes one way to reach my master’s home.
Master Cheng, Gin-gsao
I trained together with 18 classmates. Around 9pm, we would always go down the mountain to the town together. When I got home, it was usually about 10pm. I would practice for another hour and review any new things that I had learned. Before going to bed, I would start a wood fire to boil some water for bathing. It was around 12 midnight when I went to bed. When I started learning Taijiquan from Master Kao, my time got even tighter. I would get up around 6 a.m. and bike over to Xinzhu Provisional High School for Master Kao's class. Taijiquan class was from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 a.m.. After that, I biked over to my high school (Xinzhu County High School) for my regular school classes. It was very common for me to fall asleep in classes at school.
Master Cheng was a very patient teacher. Unlike my other masters, he would rarely hit or spank. He taught me by patiently repeating corrections over and over until I got it. We never learned a lot of techniques in any training session, in any week, or even any month. Instead, we learned just a few techniques or concepts at a time and practiced them for several months before learning anything new. Master Cheng would teach us new material only if we were ready for it. Naturally, each student progressed at a different rate, but Master Cheng was monitoring each of us closely and guiding us through the training. I believe this is how the quality of the training could be maintained at such a consistently high level. Injuries were common, especially when sparring was involved, partly because we never wore any sparring gear or other protection. This was because we could not afford such equipment. Luckily, Master Cheng was an herbalist and was knowledgeable in treating injuries and illnesses. Because I was the youngest of the group, I was actually picked on by a lot of my senior classmates. But I always maintained respect for them. Respecting our elders was an expected and natural behavior in traditional Chinese societies. I loved going to my master's home and training there. It felt like my home. As inconvenient as it was to get there and as strenuous as the training could get, I never regretted once making that trip up the mountain.
White Crane is a soft-hard style, which means that it has elements of both internal and external martial arts training. Because Taijiquan is an internal soft style, I was able to apply my knowledge of the soft side of Crane to better understanding and analyzing Taijiquan theory and Taijiquan keys of practice. I spent 13 years training White Crane under Master Cheng and only 2 and a half years in Taijiquan under Master Kao. Despite training Taijiquan for a significantly shorter time, I was still able to continue developing my Taijiquan practice because of my White Crane background. After I came to the United States, I continued to ponder and practice Taijiquan through self-teaching, self-practice, and research. The soft side of Crane helped me form the foundation for the softness in my Taijiquan practice. Without my White Crane background, I believe I would have never reached the same level and understanding of Taijiquan as I have today.
Because White Crane is a Southern style and emphasizes a lot of short range fighting, the training also established my foundation and expertise for Qin Na and Shuai-Jiao. I believe the first Qin Na books I authored helped very much in spreading the art of Qin Na to the West, and many teachers still use my books and DVDs as reference material for their schools today. I was able to apply a lot of concepts, theories, and similar techniques from White Crane martial applications into Taijiquan martial applications as well.
More on Dr. Yang's Experience and Form Demonstration:
I believe the most important merits that I gained from training White Crane were self-discipline, patience, and perseverance, as well as a stronger, healthier body. I learned White Crane between the ages of 15 to 27, a stage of my life when everything that I learned significantly influenced and shaped who I am today. While I did learn and practice similar values in Long Fist and Taijiquan during this time, I credit White Crane with having the strongest influence on my development as a martial artist. It was the first style I learned, and I spent the most years in it. All of my martial arts training carries this White Crane influence. Through White Crane, I was also able to build up a higher level of awareness, alertness, and preparedness, and these are valuable traits that have affected my entire life. I do not believe I could have achieved all that I did with my Ph.D., my family, my jobs, my writing and publications, my classes and seminars, and all of YMAA International without my White Crane background. I miss Master Cheng very much and wish I could thank him today.
MA: You sought out Taijiquan in order to overcome internal ulcer problems, eventually meeting Mr. Kao Tao. Could you describe your training under him and if it eventually helped your health situation?
Dr. Yang: Due to the lack of food in Taiwan during the war with the Chinese Communists, I developed an ulcer when I was only 9 years old. It did not heal until I began regularly practicing Taijiquan at 16 years old. Actually, it was under my White Crane master’s advice that I began to practice Taijiquan to heal my ulcer. After spending some time searching for a Taijiquan teacher, I found Master Kao.
Master Kao Tao
When I began training Taijiquan, actually all I learned was basic Qigong, which consisted of calm, deep breathing and simple spine movements for relaxation. Through just this breathing and those spine exercises, my ulcer gradually disappeared after 6 months of practice.
To be honest, I did not like Taijiquan at that time. I was young, and I liked fast, powerful movements instead of slow ones, which I thought were for old people. However, I kept practicing Taijiquan simply because I wanted to cure my ulcer. I did not become more interested in Taijiquan until 1979, when I was invited to teach a credited Taijiquan course at Purdue University in the Theater Department. Only then did I begin to dig deeper into Taijiquan theory and try to understand more advanced aspects of Tajiiquan practice. Since then, Taijiquan gradually became one of my favorite pastimes. It is especially one of my favorite things to practice today, as I continue to get older.
MA: During your stay at Tamkang college you began to study long fist under Mr. Li Maoching. What was training like with him, and do you feel that it added something vital to your overall abilities?
Dr. Yang: During the first year I attended Tamkang College (now Tamkang University), I met a classmate, Mr. Nelson Tsou, who had already been training Long Fist for 5 years. We became good friends. Eventually, we founded a martial arts club at Tamkang College and invited his master, Master Li, Mao-Ching, to be the teacher. Since it was a club, we only had the chance to practice with Master Li once a week. Naturally, we met and practiced by ourselves with other club members on the other days.
Master Li was a very strict teacher, coming from a 23-year long military background. He enforced strict discipline and righteous behavior in his martial arts teachings. When we made mistakes, he did not hesitate to hit us. But he never hit without reason, and he never hit to injure. In the martial arts club, we started with over 100 interested students. We were unable to take so many students, so in the first class, Master Li made everybody hold Horse Stance for 30 minutes. Those that endured and survived then went on to experience Master Li's hitting the next day. In almost every class, we would have to stand straight and listen to Master Li's lecture about martial morality, and this was after finishing all of the hard training. It was always the same lecture, and each time we stood there listening to him without moving for about 30 minutes. Having served in the Chinese Air Force for one year, I value and appreciate these teachings from Master Li very much. After several months passed, there were no more than about 10-15 students left in my generation.
Master Li instructing a young Dr. Yang
Shaolin Long Fist is a long range fighting style that emphasizes a lot of leg techniques, while White Crane is a short range fighting style that focuses on hand techniques. From learning Long Fist, I was able to remedy the weak areas that White Crane was lacking in. Through my sparring practice, it was easy to see that White Crane always had the advantage in short range while Long Fist had the advantage in middle to long range. After training Long Fist, I felt that I expanded not only my range, but my fighting options, strategies, and skills.
MA: Could you relate a story about your time with these teachers that readers may have never heard before?
One day I asked my White Crane master why two of my classmates each used a different martial application for the same movement in one of the White Crane sequences. Without answering my question, he asked me, “Hey, Little Yang! How much is one plus one?” I answered, “Two.” He said, “No, it is not two.” I was confused and argued, “It is two, Master. One plus one is two.” Then he said, “Your father is one. Your mother is one. After they get married and have five children, one plus one is seven, not two.” He continued, “You see, if the art is dead, one plus one is two. But if the art is alive, then it can be many. It is the same here. I have 19 students learning the same one style. After 20 years, there should be 19 styles instead of one. The arts are meant to be developed.”
One time, I went to my White Crane Master to proudly tell him that I thought one of my skills may be better than another classmate of mine who joined the training a year before me. I was hoping my master would praise me. Instead, he said, “Look, Little Yang. See the bamboos? The taller they are, the lower they bow.” That sentence struck me very hard, and I immediately realized how foolish I was. Since then, I have always kept my head down and bowed.
Bonus: The Following is another story told by Dr. Yang's White Crane Master:
After graduating with a Master's degree in Physics at Tamkang College, I began teaching as a young professor there at 24 years old. For the first time in my life, I was able to afford my own sword. Back then, the local jail had the inmates forge swords as part of their imprisonment sentence, so swords were not too expensive, either. When I finally got one, I was excited. The following week when we practiced next to the soccer field at Taiwan University, I went to the field where the grass was long and began testing how sharp the blade was by swinging it around. From nowhere, Master Li's hand struck me hard on my face, and Master Li trained Iron Sand Palm back in his day. My ears rang for several minutes. Master Li did not say a word. He only drew a line on the ground with his foot. I knew that this meant to kneel. Other people noticed what happened and began watching. Many of them knew I was a professor. I knew to have no dignity in front of Master Li. I respected his decisions and actions, regardless of me being a professor and regardless of what others thought. I knelt down and kept my head bowed. Master Li left me there kneeling. After about 20 minutes, Master Li returned and asked me, “Why did I punish you?” I answered, “Because I was cutting the grass with the sword.” He said, “If you cannot respect your weapon, you cannot expect to truly learn how to use it.” He was right. The sword should not be treated like a toy. Today, I see too often weapons being treated with disrespect. Any weapon is the same. If you mistreat it, one day, when you need it the most, you will be unable to use it, or it will malfunction. In the military, we were required to care for and properly clean our rifles, otherwise the rifle could jam or misfire. That could lead to unintentionally injuring ourselves or others. A sword is no different. If the blade is bent, rusted, or otherwise damaged, in a battle, it becomes useless or flawed.
One time, Master Li observed me teaching sparring at the martial arts club at Tamkang College. Back then, most of my sparring experience still came from my White Crane background. Master Li did not comment. The following class, Master Li stepped in. He told me, “If you can touch me, you win.” No matter how I moved, Master Li was always out of reach. He moved all around me, with amazing speed. I could never reach him, and additionally, he was always in a position to reach me with a punch or kick. It was very clear to me then how valuable Long Fist footwork and leg training was. When Master Li was invited to one of the YMAA camps in 2004, one of the students had asked him how to achieve such speed and skill. He demonstrated all of the same drills and stances that we already train and teach. Essentially, there is no secret. All it takes is true, dedicated practice, and then results will follow. I find that many students often want results these days without the time, effort, and practice. But there are simply no shortcuts.