Interview with Grandmaster IP TAI TAK
Interview With Grandmaster Ip
A walk through the Western District of Hong Kong is a step back in time.
Narrow streets lined with vegetable stands, herb shops and open-air fish and meat markets wind their way down to Victoria Harbour with hardly a hotel or professional building in sight. The sing-song sounds of the street vendors and the clitter-clatter of steel-wheeled push carts mix with the sweet and sour scents of cooked food, incense and diesel exhaust. Save for the steady stream of bright red taxis, this could be the Hong Kong of half a century ago, when Yang Sau Chung, fourth generation head of the Yang Family, moved to Hong Kong from Canton, China in 1949.
How fitting that his First Disciple, Master Ip Tai Tak, lived quietly in this old neighborhood, intensely practicing the Snake Style – the oldest and most martial form of Yang Family Tai Chi. Beginning with his Discipleship in 1958 and ending with his death in April of 2004. Grandmaster Ip dedicated almost fifty years of daily practice to the perfection of the Snake Style System.
The Snake Style emphasizes the martial skills of tai chi chuan and is taught in the spirit of the Chinese phrase “But Da But Gau” -- not to hit is not to teach. In my thirty-five years as a martial artist, nothing compares to the experience of being completely devastated by this remarkable man. During the years of my training as his Disciple I was endlessly pinched, punched, slapped, pushed, grabbed, twisted and knocked to his parquet floor. I was never injured (except for the occasional mark on my body), but I came to understand by feel the incredible power and skill of this soft martial art when expressed by a man like Master Ip.
In today’s world, this method of tai chi may find only a small following, but all Yang Style tai chi practitioners should be thankful that Master Ip Tai Tak preserved, polished and passed on this old Yang family martial method for generations to come.
During my last visit to Hong Kong prior to his death, Master Ip granted me this interview, in which he talked about his early training in Hong Kong, how he met Grandmaster Yang Sau Chung, and what makes up the Yang tai chi system known as the Snake Style.
BTF – What motivated you to study tai chi chuan?
GMI – I studied kung fu in elementary school before World War II, it was required of young men. However, my first interest in physical culture was weight training. Then after becoming injured from weight lifting, my doctor recommended swimming, table tennis or tai chi.
BTF – And you chose tai chi?
GMI – No I thought it was too slow and boring. So I took up swimming. Once, when I was at the pool, I noticed some people doing tai chi on a hillside not far away. I went over and watched them doing push hands. After talking to the instructor, I decided to join.
BTF – Who was the teacher?
GMI – It was Great Grandmaster Tung Yin Kit, a Disciple of Yang Chen Fu. The year was 1950, and I was twenty-one years old. I studied with him for four years, eventually becoming an assistant instructor. Then I met Great Grandmaster Yang Sau Chung.
BTF – How did you meet him?
GMI – I went to a kung fu demonstration in Wanchai, Hong Kong. Great Grandmaster Yang demonstrated the Broadsword. I was so impressed by his performance, that I knew I wanted to become his student.
BTF – How did you go about doing that?
GMI – I heard he lived in Yuen Long in the New Territories so I traveled there and searched the area for him. After much frustration, I found Great Grandmaster Yang teaching a handful of students in an open area. His students were very impressive, although some of them had only been studying for three months. I asked if he would accept me, and he did. It was a long trip to Yeun Long, so I found a warehouse in Kennedy Town in Hong Kong and invited Great Grandmaster Yang to teach there. He accepted and soon he had his maximum of 13 students studying with him two or three days after work weekly. Later, he moved his family to Hong Kong.
BTF – Tell us about your early training.
GMI – I’ll tell you a story. Once after class in Yuen Long, we went to a student’s house. Grandmaster Yang set up mattresses at one end of a room. He pushed us and we would fly and tumble through the air and onto the mattresses ten feet away. I had never seen anything like that before. Later we went out to dinner with Great Grandmaster Yang, but none of us were able to eat, we were too jumbled up inside.
BFT – When did you become his First Disciple?
GMI – In November of 1958. It is a very old and traditional custom called Bai Shi. I put on a banquet and invited all of the students and family of Great Grandmaster Yang. I gave him a red pocket, bolts of silk for making clothes and an offering of tea – all customary for becoming a Disciple.
BTF – How did your training differ after becoming a Disciple?
GMI – I was taught the Snake Style of the Yang Family which included the Long Form, chi kung, and a very tough style of push hands. I pushed hands with my Master this way for twenty-four years.
BTF – Did Great Grandmaster Yang talk about his training with his famous father, Great Great Grandmaster Yang Chen Fu?
GMI – Sometimes. I know he began his training at age eight and was considered a Master by age nineteen. He said his father pushed them all out of the house (his son and his students) at six in the morning. It was very cold in the north, and he and his father’s students would have to train outside continuously just to keep warm – doing as many as twelve forms in two hours at a faster pace to keep their inner heat up. Then his father would open the door at 8 am and invite them in for breakfast. They also trained at mid-day and in the evening. He said his father had so much chi in his hands that they weighed ten times that of an ordinary man.
BTF – I have heard you studied and researched many forms of martial arts.
GMI – As I said, I studied some kung fu and judo as a schoolboy. There were also many great masters in Hong Kong during that time. I became familiar with their styles. Great Grandmaster Yang taught at his home in Wanchai on Saturdays and Sundays. I would bring in a technique from another system on Saturday, and on Sunday he would show me how to counter it with his family’s tai chi.
BTF – How would you describe Great Grandmaster Yang’s push hands?
GMI – In twenty-four years I never won a match. His hands were very powerful and magic. When he caught you the pain was unbearable. In the early days, before we became stronger, every time he grabbed us we would be bruised, as if our arms and bodies were made of tofu.
BTF – Great Grandmaster Yang passed away in 1985 if I’m not mistaken.
GMI – Yes, he left three daughters, Amy, Mary(1) and Agnes. He also took two Disciples after me, Chu Gin Soon(2) in 1977 and Chu King Hung(3) in 1983. He also has three half brothers(4) still living in China.
Interview with Grandmaster Ip (Part Two)
BTF – Back to the subject of your martial training in the Yang Family System. How was it different from ordinary Yang tai chi?
GMI – There are three Yang Family forms -- the crane, the tiger and the snake. Mostly the elderly or those with physical limitations practice the crane style. It uses a high posture. The tiger style is the most common. It uses a medium posture and has martial implications. The snake style has a low posture, normally four feet* from the ground and it is designed for combat use.
(*Master Ip said that four feet was based on a five foot person and that I should practice no lower than five feet because I am six feet tall. As a general rule, you should practice snake style no lower than one foot below your height.)
BTF – But there are differences other than posture height?
GMI – Yes. The tiger style’s defensive system using a more straightforward method, like the tiger itself. The snake style moves from side to side, just like the snake, and attacks the opponent from an angle. The angular hand positions are more powerful and are supported by the waist and legs more effectively. Also, the weight is one hundred percent on the standing leg. But neither form is useful as a martial art without chi Kung and push hands.
BTF – How so?
GMI – Tai chi is like a tree. If you nurture it, it will grow. But it is only a potted tree without chi kung. It can be knocked over. If you plant the tree in the ground, it will take root and cannot be pushed over. That is what chi kung training does for your tai chi. Chi kung training brings your chi down to your feet. Tai chi brings the chi up and circulates it around. Push hands teaches you how to release it through your hands.
BTF -- And that is the combination that brings tai chi from health exercise to martial art?
GMI – It will allow the tiger style practitioner to apply some of the moves. But it is not the true tai chi combat way unless you practice the Long Form.
BTF – The Long Form you speak about is different from the tai chi form. (Westerners often refer to the long form as the complete Yang tai chi form).
GMI – Yes, the Yang Family Long Form is a martial form different from tai chi. It can be done at different speeds and can be modified to meet a Master’s individual martial standards. My form differs somewhat from Great Grandmaster Yang’s form. You can be creative with the Long Form, but not with the classical form.
BTF - So the three components of martial Yang style tai chi are…?
GMI – Chi kung, the Long Form and push hands. Without this combination you cannot use tai chi for self-defense.
BTF – What about fa jing?
GMI – Fa jing is often misunderstood for hard force. It is purely chi expressed in the hands from the back by hollowing the chest and using intention. My fa jing style is a very old concept that predates the Yang family. You discharge by moving the hip in one direction and the hands in the other – like drawing a bow. But you must have a strong root from chi kung practice.
BTF – You talk of the separation of tai chi for health and tai chi for fighting. Isn’t martial tai chi even better for your health?
GMI – Yes, it will make you stronger and more powerful, but you must be careful to practice correctly. Otherwise, one should not practice this method.
BTF – Thank you Grandmaster Ip.
(1) Master Mary Yang teaches privately in Hong Kong
(2) Master Chu Gin Soon teaches in Boston, Massachusetts
(3) Master Chu King Hung teaches throughout Europe
(4) Grandmaster Yang Zhendao (second half-brother) teaches in China and throughout the world
Interview with Grandmaster Ip Tai Tak
Interview conducted by Master Ding, and originally published in Tai Chi & Health magazine Volume 1, Issue 4, Spring 1995
Taken from the book *»Tai Chi Chuan Relevations:Principles and Concepts«*
MasterDing(MD): Were there dlifferences in the Yang Style Tai Chi form when you began to train under Master Yang?
Grandmaster Ip (GMI): Previous to learning under Master Yang it was very obvious that there were differences in my Yang style Tai chi form. As a result of this I had to relearn the whole form. Master Yang’s movements were simpler to the eye, yet had focused precision to match. Even though the movements seemed simplistic, the traditional form was more difficult to master as it involved many intricate subtleties needing only very small movements, which are hardly noticeable to the eye. When he was cortecting me, Master Yang often told me that he was screwing my structure down, In other words he was reinforcing the structure so that it could enable the Chi-power to be more concentrated and thus more projected. Practising the corrected form brings quicker results.
Master Yang also said that if the form’s postures and movements were not correct, whatever time and energy is put into the practice, the effort is wasted. It can be likened to pouring water into a bucket full of holes. Water cannot be retained in the bucket, so therefore time and energy put into filling the bucket can never yield the desired results. Practising the correct form ensures that the time and effort put into the practice is not wasted. Each practice session helps to concentrate and harness the power a little more i’e’ the bucket without holes can retain water without loss each time it is filled a little.
MD: What other differences are there?
GMI: The traditional Yang Form has more meaning and enables me to cultivate more power quicker. The Chi energy is more focused and direct, hence more effective for self-defence application. The form uses numerous circular movements within various postures through the use of hip movements. The previous form that I had learnt had no depth or meaning. Correct weighting is also very important. Practitioners should ensure that the weighting within the forward postures should always be 70/30 (70% of the weighting on the front leg and30% on the rear leg) and should never be double-weighted i.e. 50/50. I have also observed that a number of Yang Style forms are often too relaxed and flowery. Traditional Yang style postures are simple and yet contain various subtleties incorporated within them. Practitioners should always seek out a Master who can demonstrate and show such levels of teachings. Without it, people often get stuck at their levels and are unable to progress any further in Tai chi chuan training. It is common to find these people giving up Tai Chi or using an external martial arts approach to explain the principles and applications of Tai Chi Chuan. The latter approach usually leads the practitioner further and further away from gaining insight and understanding of the true meaning of Internal Martial Arts.
MD: What was the training like under Master Yang?
GMI: Master Yang was a traditionalist. He taught on an individual basis and expected high standards from all his students. The training was very tough indeed! I often remember having to change T-shirts during my training sessions for they were always drenched with sweat. Master Yang would sometimes tell me that people nowadays generally do not train very hard when compared with his own or previous generations training.
For instance, Master Yang’s father, Yang Cheng Fu, often woke him early in the mornings, even in the very cold winter, insistent that he should train in the courtyard. Without training, Master Yang was not allowed back into the house. During bitter cold winters in China, to survive, young Master Yang had to train in the courtyard in fear of freezing to death. He would practice his form over and over again just to keep himself warm. Only after diligent practice was he allowed back into the house to have breakfast. Master Yang often said that his father would practise intensively in a cycle until he was completely exhausted. After an intensive session his father slept only by lying on a thin board rested at an angle on the wall. By doing this, should he sleep too comfortably, and roll over, he would fall offthe board (thereby waking himself), wash his face with cold water and resume training again. This cycle was continuous so that he trained intensivelv 24 hours a day.
MD: What are the essential points when practising Tai Chi Chuan?
GMI: There are three important aspects of training that one has to take into consideration to improve one’s Tai Chi Chuan:
a. Correct practice of the form this will enable one to circulate Chi energy and also gain better understanding of its applicability.
b. Zhan Zhong Chi Kung training This form of training not only helps practitioners to focus and harness Chi but also strengthens one’s stability and balance.
c. Push Hands This enables one to develop one’s sensitivity and Ting Jin (or listening energy) for self-defence applications. If the individual carries out these three important approaches in training, his Tai Chi Chuan will progress much more quickly to a higher level.
MD: What advice would you give to individuals who want to improve their Tai Chi Chuan?
GMI: The individual should seek out a reputable, skilled and knowledgeable Master. The attitude and approach of the student is also very important. In ancient times, before an individual was accepted to undertake training, his character was assessed. This assessment would continue throughout his training from the initial to advanced stages. Failing such testing meant that the student would no longer be allowed to study the art further.
Constant and regular practice is vital. Results in one’s training are measured in ten-year periods. To be good in Tai Chi Chuan, you have to be committed and able to endure hard training. Correct postures are important. These are the building blocks for strong foundation. Bad postures give rise to poor foundation and further training will yield little gain.
MD: Often I hear people say that if they are intelligent they could learn the form quicker and are able to achieve high levels in Tai chi chuan more eosily. what is your view about this?
GMI: The training in Tai Chi Chuan is quite different from ordinary academic studies. The individual will still need to practise to gain better understanding of the form.
In Chinese, we often use the millstone to explain the concept of correct form practice. For example, wheat grains are put in the mill to be turned into flour, which can then be used for numerous purposes. Form practising is similar in that over a period of time of continued practice you will gain better understanding and insight into different aspects and applications of Chi within the form. Some intelligent people often ask the Master to teach more postures at each session so they can memorise and remember more moves. However, each correct posture needs to be practised regularly before learning new moves otherwise the ful| essence of the postures is not grasped. Time spent learning a few postures coffectly at each session is more valuable and important than learning many postures incorrectly.
MD: Some practitioners often try to learn from different Masters who are condacting various workshops or seminars. Will they be able to learn much Tai chi to improve their levels?
GMI: People attending such workshops or seminars do gain some understanding of the different approaches of Tai Chi Chuan as demonstrated by these Masters. People generally learn numerous forms, pushing hands, weapons, etc. These are merely movements and often taught only at basic levels. To achieve high levels in Tai Chi Chuan, you should seek out the best and continue to study with that Master. Higher levels or skills are nonnally only taught to people who have stayed with the Master for long periods of time.
The time factor is not the only determinant. Your character and personality are also taken into account because the Master needs to feel that the individual is worthy of the true transmission’ Hence, you can see why a Master teaching thousands of students may only have a handful of disciples. The late Master Yang Sau Chung only accepted three disciples – myself, Chu Gin Soon and Chu King Hung.
MD: Practitioners often get asked what family style of Tai Chi Chuan they practised and whether they are big or small circle? Could you explain what they mean?
GMI: Big or small circle often means that the form is practised with larger or smaller circular movements (for example Wu Style is said to be small circle). However, other than this framework, the less known versions of the Yang Style form are classified into three types – stork, tiger and snake.
Stork – the postures in the form tend to be much higher. This form is ideal for weaker or older people to practise.
Tiger – the postures are of medium height and should be aimed at by all practitioners.
Snake – the postures are very low. This is the most difficult form to master. Only the inner disciples are taught this higher level. This form is not suitable for everybody to practise. We hear stories of different generations of Yang Masters who develop such flexibility and dexterity that they are able to practise the form under table tops and even pick up coins from the ground with their mouth while in »snake creeps down« posture. Practitioners should not attempt to practice this snake form without the supervision and instruction of a knowledgeable and experienced Tai Chi Master.
MD: We often hear stories of the Yang Masters’ power and applications for self-defence. What was training under Master Yang Sau Chung like in this respect?
GMI: My Master often stated that to understand Chi energy and its self-defence application, one needs to experience being attacked or hit by the Master. He often stressed that if he did not hit or attack the student, they would not understand nor learn the true internal concept of self-defence. In Chinese (Cantonese), this process is called: »BUT DA BUT GAU’« or »Not to hit, is not to teach«
For instance, to cook a dish, you first need to know the right ingredients. To taste such a dish, one needs to use the senses of touch, smell, sight and taste, to really appreciate the true flavour of the dish. Therefore, the only way to understand is to experience. In the past, when these Yang Masters taught their students, they had to endure very harsh and tough training. Some of these students often got injured or gave up studying Tai Chi altogether, as they could not endure such rigorous training.
I have personally undergone 34 years of this type of training. Initially, when I practised advanced pushing hands with my Master, as soon as I had contact with him, I was immediately thrown to the wall. Often when pushed, I would bounce off the wall like a ball. During the earlier stages of my training, I often saw »stars« and got very breathless. Over a period of time, through such regular practice, I became stronger. Depending on the intensity of Chi energy applied by my Master, I was able to cope with the force to some degree by feeling and reacting to it, something that can only be learnt through such conditioning and experience.
Master Yang could use any part of his body to apply his Chi energy, for example in Fa Jin (or issuing energy). In my training session, I was usually exhausted and drenched in sweat after practising advanced pushing hands with Master Yang. However, he still appeared as fresh as when he first started the session. Not even a drop of sweat! He was always able to control the Chi with such precision and focus at all times, using minimal or no movement at all. His power was indescribable and had to be felt to be appreciated.
MD: What other aspects of training would you give to Tai Chi Chuan practitioners to help them improve their standards?
GMI: People need to be aware of three other principles:
a. Yuen (or circular) Tai Chi Chuan movements are usually circular. However, within this circular nature,the shape could change, for instance, smaller and large circles, oblong and so on.
b. Wan (or smooth flow) Movements practised need to be smooth and in flowing momentum. There should not be a break from the beginning to the end i.e. like the Yin -Yang symbol, one flowing into the other.
c. Tuen (or united) The movement practised should be co-ordinated and balanced.
MD: I would tike to thank you for this rare interview. I am sure that I have guined a more expansive view of Tai Chi Chuan and that readers will undoubtedly gain a valuable insight into Tai Chi Chuan. Thank you
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