Aims


Most of Miss Li’s teaching was in the form of spontaneous comments to specific individuals and groups on particular days, so you had to be there to appreciate the full impact of each expression in its context. However, she did sometimes prepare more systematic statements in the form of notices to be read and re-read, and here is one of them:


Tai Chi is not a religion: religion is active, to help others. But the Tai Chi student says — “not to seek, but stay still and silent and whatever comes let it be. Relax, let it go … I don’t resist, so I conquer. I don’t make a move, so I can get there. I’m weak, then I can overcome and be powerful.” Tai Chi is not a philosophy either: we talk and discuss about philosophy, but we do Tai Chi. Tai Chi is our being, Tai Chi is in us. Is Tai Chi meditation? dance? self defence? health building? Tai Chi and (good taste) Tai Chi’s technique closely associate with the person — personality. Tai Chi transforms one’s body and mind. What is Tai Chi? It was not designed for self-defence nor for temple-dancing. It conditions body and mind, and helps to bring equilibrium and harmony to a person. The precision of movements harmonises with breathing, the pleasant movements are not for entertaining the sight. If one really wants to master this art, only technical knowledge of it is not enough. “One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing out of the Unconscious” … where the real kung-fu lies.


Perhaps feeling that her mastery of spoken English was not quite accurate enough to convey between cultures her exact meaning about subtle internal matters, Miss Li also put up notices containing extensive quotations from the books available in English at the time about the Zen and Taoist traditions. One of her favourites was Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery which she seemed to feel captured very accurately the spirit of the arts and the nature of the teacher-student relationship:


… there is one scarcely avoidable danger that lies ahead of the pupil on his road to mastery. Not the danger of wasting himself in idle self-gratification — for the East has no aptitude for this cult of the ego — but rather the danger of getting stuck in his achievement, which is confirmed by his success and magnified by his renown … Thus the teacher lets his pupil voyage onward through himself. But the pupil, with growing receptiveness, lets the teacher bring to view something of which he has often heard but whose reality is only now beginning to become tangible on the basis of his own experiences. It is immaterial what name the teacher gives it, whether indeed he names it at all. The pupil understands him even when he keeps silent … “Just as one uses a burning candle to light others with”, so the teacher transfers the spirit of the right art from heart to heart, that it may be illumined. If such should be granted to the pupil, he remembers that more important than all outward works, however attractive, is the inward work which he has to accomplish if he is to fulfil his vocation as an artist.


Another favourite was Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen which seemed to be especially useful for contrasting Eastern and Western assumptions about the purpose of practice:


A world which increasingly consists of destinations without journeys between them, a world which values only “getting somewhere” as fast as possible, becomes a world without substance. One can get anywhere and everywhere, and yet the more this is possible, the less is anywhere and everywhere worth getting to. For points of arrival are too abstract, too Euclidean to be enjoyed, and it is all very much like eating the precise ends of a banana without getting what lies in between. The point, therefore, of these arts is the doing of them rather than the accomplishments. But, more than this, the real joy of them lies in what turns up unintentionally in the course of practice, just as the joy of travel is not nearly so much in getting where one wants to go as in the unsought surprises which occur on the journey.


As for the Taoist classics in English, it was characteristic of Miss Li that she preferred to quote to her students from literary versions which drew on their authors’ own experiences rather than strictly accurate scholarly translations, and that she should have been delighted when she came across Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh. Thus she would recommend Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu, especially the stories about the ‘The Man with One Foot and the Marsh Pheasant’, ‘The Need to Win’, ‘The Fighting Cock’, and ‘Cutting up an Ox’ in which Prince Wen Hui’s cook explains his method:


But now, I see nothing
With the eye. My whole being
Apprehends.
My senses are idle. The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line.


Meanwhile, her preferred source for the Dao De Jing was Witter Bynner’s The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, which she would quote to illustrate the different appearances and attitudes among Tai Ji practitioners:


A man of sure fitness, without making a point of his fitness,
Stays fit;
A man of unsure fitness, assuming an appearance of fitness,
Becomes unfit.
The man of sure fitness never makes an act of it
Nor considers what it may profit him;
The man of unsure fitness makes an act of it
And considers what it may profit him.


And also to suggest the transcending atmosphere of deeper Tai Ji:


What we look for beyond seeing
And call the unseen,
Listen for beyond hearing
And call the unheard,
Grasp for beyond reaching
And call the withheld,
Merge beyond understanding
In a oneness.


Forms


Miss Li had perhaps less to say about martial-arts forms than might be expected, for the point was to show and, above all, to do. Indeed, she would often emphasise that external forms were not the main point: without long years of practice what one could see from the outside would only be one third of the art. She once wrote:


What we understand by observation is only outward form and colour, name and noise (or images in our memory), and we think that we have got it (Dao or anything else). Form, colour, name and sound, or mental images don’t reach to reality. That is why “he who knows, does not say; he who says, does not know”. So, by reading and copying the photo-image or video-moving-image to learn nei jia wu shu (near Dao) is a farce … yet a person as I am, not able to write in any language, is qualified to convey this truth!


She therefore tended to be rather scornful of the obsession with detailing the differences between the various ‘styles’ of Tai Ji and other internal martial arts, and would even say, ‘most so-called styles are just a collection of mannerisms that someone has acquired’. It was alright to talk about the differences between the recognised schools, but it was important not to concentrate too much on external forms and miss the internal reality, ‘what you can see isn’t real; what’s real you cannot see’. She was often asked what ‘style’ of Tai Ji she was teaching and would usually try to avoid giving it a fixed label; at most she would say, ‘you can call it Beijing Tai Ji because that's where it comes from’. And she might add that, if one’s Tai Ji developed far enough, one would automatically have one’s own ‘style’, for that would be a reflection of how one’s body and mind were being transformed by regular practice.


Her emphasis in introducing the arts was that they should be done without any exaggerated or extreme movements and without any unnecessary decorative flourishes. Everything should be simple and natural: she would say, ‘it’s like boiled rice, not very interesting but it will sustain you for your life.’ Thus in Xing Yi she focussed on the Wu Xing (Five Elements) and downplayed the importance of the more elaborate Shi-er Xing (Twelve Animals). Indeed she would often say that many of the old Xing Yi masters had focused their practice on whichever one of the Wu Xing they felt was giving them the most benefit … just repeating the same simple movements again and again to penetrate to their more subtle internal meaning. Similarly in Tai Ji she focussed on the solo form and downplayed the importance of paired practice or ‘pushing hands’ and, whereas with Xing Yi she emphasised accuracy right from the start, when introducing Tai Ji she allowed her students leeway to move at their own rhythm and to explore the effects of the movements in their own bodies. Indeed, she would not demonstrate her own Tai Ji, as she did not want her students slavishly copying her way of moving. Rather, she would show a new movement a few times and quickly get the students to do it themselves, correcting where necessary but letting their own way of moving develop naturally, if they would let it. Her aim was for students to ‘get the interior part’. She liked to tell a story of some people coming to visit one of her Tai Ji classes and observing: ‘all your students started off doing the same thing, but very quickly they all looked different’; then to their bemusement she would reply: ‘Yes, isn’t that great?’


The internal quality that arises from experience, or gong-fu, would only come with regular daily practice, done with sincerity and concentration, with faith in oneself and one’s instructor, and without any motivation to be superior to others or to acquire an applied technique. Miss Li once wrote:


Chinese Internal Martial Arts (I was taught) are not a vocation, nor a profession, even more so not striving to be a “master”. But they are a Blessing to me, maybe to all who have the inclination to Enjoy them. Learning Chinese Martial Arts, one does not have to use them as an instrument, but Love them, Treasure them, respect them, even if you think you don’t gain anything from doing them! I think any bargaining spirit spreads unhealthy Qi. It destroys the precious Gift provided by Great Nature for us to Develop … the Qi … its Scent is Health.