Susan from Brooklyn , NY asks:
“At my last Tai Chi class we were talking about the elusiveness of traditional Chinese teaching. The less is more idea. I just don’t believe this is the best way. I have benefited so much from the explanations. At the same time I realize this is ultimately not an intellectual endeavor which was maybe their concern, but some is intellectual, especially at the beginning. What do you think of that?”
While I have heard this complaint made, and hypothesized reasons for it below, let me say here, that it has not been my experience with any of my Chinese teachers colleagues or friends. I have always had good explanations given, my questions answered, and enriching discussions with all, and most especially with Professor Cheng Man Ch’ing, Zhang Lu-Ping, and Master Jou Tsung Hwa.
That said, the Chinese Masters of yesterday may have had reasons for not giving good explanations. Some teachers may have wanted to test their students commitment to learning by taking a posture of not making the knowledge so available and making the student reach for his knowledge. Teachers may have hoped that by creating obstacles rather than paths, riddles rather than explanations, that unworthy students would fall away and find a lesser teaching, relatively easy to learn, some place else. Worthy students would persevere, and make their own paths to the learning, finding the riddles worth solving. In Chinese Kung Fu movies this kind of thing often plays out in one or two plots or subplots: That of the search for a teacher, or through practice, of learning what the teacher meant to teach, and therefore greatly improving.
I have heard a story of a famous teacher, who, trained in Taiwan, came to this country and saw his teacher, who had preceded him, explaining things to his American students. He was said to have been jealous. He never got those explanations, he had to learn by watching. If he understood it, fine. If he did not, his only options were to remember what was taught, or if he was lucky and had an opportunity, to watch the technique again, and figure it out himself.
This kind of thing can become a tradition, once it gets started, and the Chinese are known for their traditions. I was told by a friend that once, in a Tai Chi class that she took a while back, “there was a guest instructor coming and the class was warned ahead of time not to ask him questions because in China it’s considered insulting to the instructor to ask questions.” And so I have to wonder about where that came from as well.
Professor Cheng was a scholar. He had rare T’ai Chi and martial abilities and was literate and quite verbal as well. He was able to explain difficult concepts, even across the language barrier and through a translator. He wanted to spread his knowledge so he gave us, the not so swift Westerners, the benefit of every explanation, and the answer to every question. That is the reason why there are many who understand here in the US , especially the curious and inquiring students (like myself) who asked a lot of questions.
And that is how we got to know as much as we did, as quickly as we did. So students: ask for explanations and ask questions, so that your Tai Chi might grow. Teachers, think of how best to explain, using metaphors, as well as detailed explanations to get the ideas across. Both students and teachers, be patient. Remember, for those who sincerely want to know, there are no stupid questions.
In T’ai Chi,