Steven Phillips
This interview has been translated into Spanish by
Luis Soldevila and published on Spanish Taiji
magazine "Tai Chi Chuan: Artes y Estilos Internos".
The magazine website is
May we talk about your education, about how you apprenticeship?

I grew up in China during the years of the Cultural Revolution. That involved an authentic war against all
that was traditional, and nobody taught martial arts openly. It was very interesting to me, but I did not
encounter any master until the beginning of the 70’s.  In that time I was a temporary worker in the
countryside. There I knew a young peasant who practiced Chinese wrestling (Shuaijiao).  We were very
good friends and he showed me what he knew and presented me to his other companions.

At that time I was about sixteen years old and they hovered around twenty. A bit later they presented me to
Luo Shuhuan, one of the first disciples of Wang Peisheng. He showed me the Wu style long traditional
form. I learned it in six sessions, that I did, made Luo to notice me.  Seeing that I was attentive and that I
learned quickly, at the end of one year he decided to introduce me directly to his master, Wang Peisheng,
and he told me that it would be best to study individually with him. For me it was a total honor, since in the
Chinese tradition it is not very common that your teacher takes you to study with another of the older

From 1975 I began to study with Wang. At the beginning there were many things that I didn’t comprehend.
The instruction in those times was very different from now. The traditional teachers didn’t teach much. They
explained one movement but they didn’t give many details. When you observed something and you asked,
then they would respond. If you didn’t ask this meant to say that you didn’t yet need this information. But I
always did many repetitions of the things, reflecting about it a lot and constantly asking questions.
With Luo Shuahuan I learned that what was difficult was ‘to sense’ the Taijiquan. With him I
worked on the long form for seven years, which was as long as it took me, I think, to capture the
essence of Taiji. During that time you will understand things, acquiring different skills. If you can
do things, win fights, but in reality you are not sure about what you are doing, you don’t know if
you are following the principles. But with time comes a moment in which certain pieces fit and
then you understand. It’s what is called dong jin, {understand the force}. This is a great advance,
because there are people who practice for many years and they never come to understand Taiji.
One can understand many things, but it is difficult to capture the essence. I needed seven years.
That’s a long time.

The years that I spent learning with Wang Peisheng were very intense. Every Tuesday I went to
his house at nine in the morning, and I stayed until six or seven in the evening, this way he had
the entire day for me, we were alone he and I, and nobody bothered us. I could ask him any
question although at times he wouldn’t answer, as if he hadn’t heard me. But on other occasions
you would ask him something and he would give all type of details.  At times when there had
been many people before he simply didn’t want to talk. That’s why it took so much fortitude to
practice with him alone.
When Luo Shuhuan died prematurely, I asked Wang to continue teaching our group, and I succeeded in convincing him to set aside Saturday
afternoons at the house of one of my brothers. From then on, he gave an outdoor class in the city, so that every week I went to this class, to
my private class on Tuesdays, and our little group on Saturday nights. That’s the way I was studying until I went to America. After we continued
to maintain contact, at times I called or wrote letters and continued to ask questions, but it’s not the same as face to face. Direct contact is

When a good teacher pushes you, he does it the way you can feel because he can transmit the way he feels. He can use language to describe
the sensation clearly. At times he can only explain a thing like this, doing what it feels. When you have experienced this many times, then you
try to push in the way that feels the same. This is how you go about acquiring the technique. But if your teacher has not taught you, or if you
conform superficially, you can’t understand.

If you study with a great master you are not guaranteed to be good. If he doesn’t show you what you need to learn, or if you don’t have the
capacity to capture it, then it’s no use. Taiji is a very personal thing. You can’t learn from books or tapes. I have always felt that it is an art that
has been perfected along with many generations, little by little, accumulating experience. And for this reason I don’t believe that anyone can
acquire it alone. Taiji of a high level must be transmitted to you.

In this sense I consider myself very fortunate, because I think that the instruction that I received permitted me to capture the essentials, but
there are many concrete skills that I don’t know. These {small skills}, if one understands the fundamentals, you can make your level improve a
lot, and you can only acquire it by passing a lot of time with your teacher, observing and asking without quitting.

My problem, if I compare myself with my class brothers, is that I don’t work hard, I don’t practice sufficiently. Because of this my gongfu basically
is not very high. There was a classmate in my group who practiced a lot, without rest, but he was not very smart. Wang told me “Some practice
a lot but are slow, others, like you, think a lot and understand rapidly, but don’t practice, this way neither of you will become very good”.  At
times he said things that made you feel very bad. (laugh)

And it’s true. Today compared with his times, we don’t practice it sufficiently. For Wang we didn’t practice seriously, we only played. But to
become good in Taiji you can’t only practice a lot, but also have to think a lot. And you need a teacher to show the truth.

But it’s curious, Wang said that when one really understood Taiji, it turns you into a lazy person. (laugh)  And it’s true, I have experienced it.
When you are young you build muscles, you fight, you need to make yourself very strong. But when you “understand”, what occurs is that you
stop needing other resources, now you don’t need them. And of course, each time you train less, because you know that now you aren’t going
to need these things.
What relation do you see between Taiji and other internal arts?

As I said, before learning Taiji I had done fighting, and I had also learned Tongebeiquan, the Baiyuan Tongbei style.  After centering myself in
Taji, I kept on doing Tongbei, but I dropped the fighting, because compared with Taiji, it was too hard.  Afterwards I became interested in
Bagua, Wang himself offered to teach me. With him, I learned Liu style and afterward Cheng and Ying and also Xingyi(quan) and Tantui.

I believe that Bagua is very difficult to understand if it is the only art you practice.  When I began to learn it, I knew the basics of Taiji, and it
was therefore much easier for me. Of course, it is different, but it has a faster progression through different phases, because you know what
you are looking for.  You just have to follow the steps.
Essentially, Taiji, Bagua, and Xingyi have very similar objectives.  They seek the maximum effect with
the minimum of force.  They say, “You cannot use force against force.”  And they use different
methods and techniques to reach the same goal.  Taiji is based on the void, Bagua on change.  In
Taiji, basically I am here, you attack, I neutralize and counterattack, but I continue in the same
place.  Nonetheless, Bagua is based on total change. When you attack, at the same time that I
neutralize, I am changing and attacking you from another point, and I am no longer where I was.

On the other hand, Bagua does not have explicit principles like Taiji.  Across the length of its history,
Taiji has counted on great personages, cultured people who have written the principles in great
detail.  Instead, Bagua was not given this phenomenon.  The great masters of Bagua were working
people who trained constantly, but they were not educated.  The transmission of Bagua has been
exclusively oral, and therefore subject to change. There are always changes and losses of
information from what a person receives and
comprehends to what they transmit. If you
compare the classic texts of Bagua and Taiji,
you will see an enormous difference in quality
from one to the other.
As a result, when you learn Taiji you have to seek some clear principles. Xingyi has
these to a certain degree, but there are virtually none in Bagua.  The principles are
not explained with any clarity.  The Taiji classics are different, using ideas from physics
and philosophy to explain their principles. It is on a different level.
What are the differences that exist today between teaching in the West and China?

I don’t see great differences now, because the Chinese are becoming more and more like the
westerners.  (laugh)  In China, some of my generation still live the tradition.  Following tradition, the
student studies and does not ask too many questions.  You have to work hard and demonstrate to
your teacher that you have the potential so that he will teach you more.

Now in the West, and also in China, teaching has become largely a business. You go to class and
you pay or they pay you, but what is taught or learned is not important.  Traditional ideas, society,
customs; all of that puts pressure on the student.  With traditional teaching, if you try, you learn; but if
you are lazy no one wants to teach you.  Moreover, earlier it was more likely that you would use
martial arts throughout your life, but now everyone learns them as a hobby, with no pressures. If you
pay for the class, it doesn’t matter if you don’t work.  In the past, if they threw you out of a school, you
would find it difficult to enter another one, because people thought you had no potential.  Now this is
no longer important.  I get an urge to study Karate, and I begin.  After a month, I switch to Aikido, or I
start doing Shaolin, or Taiji.  You can do what you want and no one cares.  This is a big difference.

Why to most people go to classes?  “Oh, I have to relax, or do some exercise, or maybe I am
curious.”  There is not this drive to be accepted, to acquire what you have been taught, to reach a
higher level.  Before, from the beginning, you have to please the teacher, go to his house, do his
housework, in order to get him to be happy with you.  If he was in a good mood, perhaps one day he
would teach you a technique.  Then you had to go home and practice a great deal.  Then the next
time he would see that you had mastered what he had taught you and perhaps would teach you
something more.  You had to get him to trust you, not just as a person, but that you could become
good.  If you don’t work hard, you can’t be good.  Why should we teach you?  If a teacher doesn’t
teach a lazy student, they can criticize him for not teaching.  However, if he tries to teach him and the
student does not reach a high level, this damages the reputation of the teacher.  Earlier the teachers
thought, “If I teach you and you are no good, when I die people will see you and judge me by your
level.”  They will say, “Yun was no good.  I beat his disciple without disheveling myself.” (laugh)  So
that was important too.  But the society changes, and so does the instruction.
Then do you believe that since people don’t have time or the inclination to practice, Taiji will decline in quality?

I believe that, over time, little by little, the highest levels will be lost and the lower levels will become more and more popular.  Now everyone is
teaching and often the teachers’ level is low, so they can only teach at a low level.  They do some slow form, relaxation, talk about yin and yang,
a bit of tuishou, a pair of tricks .. This is fine for starting, but it is too basic.  The problem is that many teachers only know the basics, and fail to
explain to their students that there is much more.  And the students do not try to reach a high level, because they do not know that it exists.  If I
told you some of the things that Wang could do, you would not believe me.  Because people only believe what they have seen.  In this way, true
Taiji is being lost.  I don’t know how long it will take, but it is going in this direction.  What we can do is to help the people who really want to learn
and try to slow this process, since this is the direction in which things are going.

Frequently, people tell me, “I know Taiji.”  And when you ask them what they know, perhaps they know a form, and have only a basic idea of the
movements.  Much is missing, all the details that there has been no time or patience to teach, to polish, all the stuff that is ignored.  But this
person thinks that they “know” Taiji and that is the idea that they communicate.

This occurs on many levels of today’s society, because these things are not necessary.  There are few people willing to invest all the time and
effort needed to reach a decent level in Taiji.  But think about basketball, the NBA.  These players earn millions of dollars and excite millions of
fans.  And why?  Because this society likes to watch.  They do some incredible movements, some fabulous jumps, and this makes people vibrate.  
The reason is that in this society, people need these things.  After working all day, people come home exhausted and want to watch sports.  It
makes you feel good to watch these things, and you don’t have to exert yourself, so you will pay money for it.

Many others don’t follow this route and try to succeed, because this offers the possibility of being a famous millionaire, an idol of youth …  Then,
if you have some skills, you try, although it is very difficult.  And a few succeed.  Nonetheless, nowadays Taiji is something for personal
satisfaction and growth.  No one besides yourself will appreciate it, and no one will pay to see it, which means it has no market or social worth.
Nonetheless, in traditional China, you could be poor and uncultured, but if you were really good at martial arts you could reach the highest level
to live near the emperor and be rich and admired.  Yang Luchan or Dong Haichuan lived in the palace and did nothing but martial arts.  If you
show that you can do it well enough, you receive your reward.  Then they said, “Practice martial arts, be the best, and you will sell your art to the
imperial family.”  Thus, between the 17th and 19th centuries, there was a large group of great martial art figures in Beijing. The competition was
fierce, but the compensation for the best was great. This is why there were so many challenges.  If someone wanted to teach, he had to be ready
to fight, because otherwise no one would pay attention to him.  If someone would open a school, they had to train fundamentally, because they
would have to demonstrate continually that they were good.  And if someone decided to “create” a new style, or a variant, many people would
claim the right to be able to test it.  Nowadays, new styles appear every day.

Even inside schools, challenges were common.  I remember having lived through this.  From the moment you begin to have disciples, you had to
demonstrate your level.  It was common after a match with a brother of the school of your teacher that some buddy would say, “Uncle, please
teach me something.”  This is a compliment, but it is also actually a challenge.  It means, “Teach me something I don’t know; show you are better
than me.” In the old days they said, “If you want to be famous, beat your uncle.”  (laugh) But in today’s society you can come to be famous without
showing you are good and this adds nothing to the preservation of the art.
Zhang Yun is the president of the American branch of the Yin Cheng Gong Fa Association, founded by Wang Peisheng to transmit his knowledge.

Steven Phillips lives in Los Angeles, California and practices Shaolin Kung Fu, Chen style Taiji and Jiang Jung Qiao Bagua.  
Photos:  Steven Phillips
Sparring: Strider Clark
Translation: Luis Soldevila
Yin Cheng Gong Fa Association North American Headquarters

Copyright © 2000 YCGF_NAH. All rights reserved.
During a seminar of Wu style Taiji that took place in Los
Angeles a little after the passing of Wang Peisheng, Zhang
Yun, one of his closest students, engaged us with an
animated chat about his experiences in the study of Taiji,
the traditional teachings, and the future towards which, in
his opinion, appears to be agreeable.

Zhang Yun is a man of gentle and tranquil gestures who
doesn’t reveal the irrefutable level he has reached in the
internal arts. In my years of practicing the martial arts I
have never experienced such capacity for neutralization.
He absorbs attacks of whatever intensity and velocity with
an amazing softness and he projects without any effort and
without the least violence. At the end of a training session
we sat down to talk tranquilly and little by little we were
enveloped by his low and gentle voice and the laugh that
frequently intersperses his memories.