Northern Wu Style Taiji Quan

If Wishes Were Fishes, I’d Swim In The Sea

When living in youthful, rose-tinted days where so much began, 'I wish..' did the big people in your world say, with a knowing nod of the head, 'Careful of what you wish for because it might just come true'? Did you think they were just being know-it-all adults or did they really know the magic of wishes? Did they believe in magic? Do you believe in magic? Do you believe in the simple every-day magic where wishes come true? I do.

My fascination with Tai Chi began in those wishing days. An article beguilingly entitled, 'Wu Wei – The Art of Nothingness', unwittingly changed the direction of my life. Memory of it calls to mind Al Huang, author of 'Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain'. Though 'Tiger' is a somewhat dancing, hippy of a book rather than a serious Tai Chi tome, it, like the long-ago article, was pure inspiration.

An auspicious place to start because, as we all know, the journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. That article was my first step on a long and twisted path which culminated in the true Art of Tai Chi Chuan: Northern Wu Style and Sifu Jiang Yan Long.

A number of years were to pass between those youthful days and attendance of regular Tai Chi classes. Because those intervening years had been somewhat shamanically hippy, the Taoist philosophy of Tai Chi was familiar. The style I chose then was one of the very few which taught martial applications. Sadly, those classes were terminated after only three years. It took a while to realise that, though the King Fu hadn't been well-taught, this student was pretty useless at it. Even so, the desire to learn the martial side of Tai Chi remained. So it was that, over a fair number of years, many styles and teachers were tried but the martial side was always missing. Without this vital element, the Martial Art of Tai Chi had little value.

What to do? It was then that the Art of Wishing dreamt itself back into my life.

The first hint of the Wish began with visits to Hong Kong. Though only a tourist I was able to join classes, to practice each morning with people for whom this was normal life. Imagine that! At 6am Kowloon Park is heaving with people training with their teachers. Everywhere you look is Tai Chi, Sword play and Fan dancers liberally interspersed with aerobic exercise. It's one thing to know this happens in Hong Kong and China but quite another to experience it. Between trips across the globe a dream formed: a dream of training virtually every day. A dream of finding a teacher with whom to train with every morning here in Birmingham just as in Hong Kong. The Dream became a Wish, an almost silly wish that would not let go of me. Somewhere deep inside I knew it could be true. My head wasn't sure it would ever happen but my heart believed even though my body kept saying, 'you HAVE to be joking!' It was so easy whilst in Hong Kong to get up every morning, go to Kowloon Park and train under Kong Sifu. But those were holiday times. How easy would that really be if living and working there? And what about in England? If there was a teacher, would I be able to do that daily? In the cold rain and snow of winter? Fat chance, I thought! Even so, the idea, the dream, the wish never quite went away.. the thoughts and vision of what it would be like kept creeping up on me until I could almost see and taste it as a reality. And then the Dream teacher became Chinese born and bred: no-one else would do.

In case you're wondering why a Chinese born and trained teacher was preferable to a Westerner – all I can say is, 'been there, done that, got several t-shirts', and couldn't find the Tai Chi I now needed. It's like reading a gardening book and, from the printed words, trying to understand the feel and smell of the earth. Of trying to experience a tree without ever touching one. Or of how to smell the changing of the seasons within a city. Now imagine meeting a gardener or wood-folk. Imagine being shown the earth, of touching it, tasting it. Of walking the woods with wood-folk, learning the trees, talking to them, learning their ways. Of the difference in sensing these changes between a garden in a big city and farm in the wilds of say, Scotland. Imagine learning all that, being able to stand eyes closed and knowing it was good day to plant. Feeling the chill of the air against your skin or the kiss of summer. Now, imagine being transported to the heart of China and doing the same thing. It wouldn't be the same, it couldn't be the same. The soil differs, the weather differs. That's what has happened with Tai Chi. Uprooted and transported to England, its wood-folk and the gardeners were left behind and our versions became writing on a page. The Tai Chi we have in the west isn't the home-grown variety. And my Wish demanded home-grown.

The dream stayed with me, humming its magic at the back of mind. Lit up the ethers with my wish. Obviously the psychic feelers were doing a darned good job because a few years later, as they say, 'when the students ready, the master will come', a teacher came.

And, not having been too careful of what I wished for, I got my wish for, after 20 years of Western Tai Chi, Northern Wu Style walked in on me. Or rather, Sifu Jiang Yan Long walked in on me. He wasn't quite as I'd envisioned for he was somewhat younger, but then, I wasn't quite the student he'd envisaged either. Of course all the 'Wish' didn't happen at once. It took time for daily practice to happen, for mornings on the park to appear and for the Sifu's present Tai Chi family to be built.

In the cold of winter and the darkness of evening my training began. Learning a form when you can't see the teacher was interesting, to put it mildly. Push hands consisted of my flying across the park every few moments and discovering that standing up was impossible. From the very first moment contact was formed via push hands, I knew this was the teacher I'd wished for. The teacher with that special ability that was lacking in western Tai Chi. Not that this path was – or is – easy. It's not. As I said, I was hardly the student this teacher had envisioned.

So, what makes this class, teacher and style so different to the other Tai Chi classes attended over the years? The simple answer is combat. Fighting. Tai Chi as what it always was – a Martial Art. Western Tai Chi tends to focus on the Health aspects: Form, Push-Hands and Chi Qong. Though some styles do also include what they term, 'applications', many do not. Those that do, practice the applications in a gentle, slow motion. Sifu is fast and as full-on as safety allows. Quite a shock to a Western Tai Chi practitioner for Northern Wu style is far more akin to what we term Kung Fu. However, this simple answer of 'combat' is only part of the truth.

Always in Tai Chi terms like 'soft', 'silk in an iron glove', 'relax', 'be like water' or 'don't meet force with force' are used, but, believe me, these terms mean nothing until you see Sifu in motion. Until you feel the power of softness. The result of relaxation. The meaning of 'being like water' and the sheer force of it. It's like riding a spiralling wave, of being drawn into a vortex. The first lap, the first circle leaves the student thinking they understand but words convey so little against the reality of Tai Chi. Then, meeting someone like Sifu and feeling his capabilities, you rise, begin a new circle and spiral towards a new understanding. Though words remain the same, the new level of knowledge is vastly different.

On a practical level, Sifu is the first teacher I've come across who works with every student, at every lesson on every aspect of the class be it sword, forms, Chi Kung or Calligraphy. This Art is complete. Every aspect is there.

Those who did only see the everyday world have their eyes opened to greater possibilities through Chi Qong, meditation, calligraphy and the use of Tai Chi ball. For me, I found a bridge between shamanism and Tai Chi: a long shining bridge between cultures, between ways of life as far apart as are English and Chinese. This bridge links us and goes beyond our differences: the bridge that is Northern Wu Style Tai Ji and Jiang Sifu. Oh yes, I got my Wish. And I still believe in magic.

Written by Kate Westwood