At the sources of the Yang styleOriginal interview in English released by Liang Dehua, then translated into French by Emmanuel Agletiner, for the magazine Taichimag No.19.
Hello Mr. Liang, can you please introduce yourself to the readers? You are Thai with Chinese origins, aren’t you? And you are practicing and teaching the Yang family Taijiquan? How and when did you start this kind of practice?
Hello, my Chinese name is Liang Dehua. I was born in Hong Kong, my father came from Foshan in Canton (mainland China), and my mother was Thai. After we incurred some economic problems in Hong Kong when I was eight years old, my family moved to Thailand; this is where I grew up. My father was from Foshan, so he had learned some Hung Gar kung fu and Wu style Taiji Quan from Hong Kong. So I learned these styles when I was young. But after I had a brawl during my high-school days, my father decided to stop teaching me.
After I left my home to begin studying at university, when I was 23 (in 2000), I met my Taijiquan teacher, and I started my Taiji career at the university. Later, I also traveled to China to studied more Taijiquan and several other martial arts from various masters. I later became an indoor disciple of Yang-style Taiji in Gu Lisheng lineage (also known as Gu Luping). Gu Lisheng was a student of Yang Shaohou and Yang Chengfu. Now I am teaching Yang-style Taijiquan in Thailand and Asia, and I recently started to conduct workshops around the world.
What did the first seduce you in the practice of Taijiquan?
At first, when I was young, my father taught me martial arts because I had poor health. At that time I could not even run. After I practiced martial arts, my health started to improve.
When I was in my first year at university, I started having some problems with my family. My family was Chinese, and they were very strict with Chinese culture, which means I could not say no to whatever they asked of me. So I ran away from them and quit my university studies. I started to live a bad life, stealing mobile phone data and cloning phones, offering them to people who wanted to call at a low price (because at that time phone calls in Thailand were costly). I also started to learn lockpicking, pocket-picking, and many illegal things.
One day I saw a movie about Zhang Sanfeng – It was a kung fu movie that talked about Taijiquan and also how Zhang Sanfeng changed himself and created Taijiquan. That movie made me look at myself and helped me to realize that I needed to make some significant changes and try to improve my life. So I started looking for Taijiquan again. At that time, I had some money from my illegal business, and I also sold all my mobile phones to collect some money to travel to Bangkok.
In Bangkok, there were many Taiji groups in the parks. So, I started by learning Dong Ying Jie style Taijiquan, which was very popular in Thailand. At the same time, I was looking for someone who could teach me privately. Several months later, through some recommendation, I met my first teacher. I lived with my teacher in his store as a worker and learned Taijiquan from him. After several months he told me that his older cousin would visit from China, and he recommended me to begin studying with his cousin (my first teacher in Yang Shaohou lineage.) I learned many variations of the old Yang-family basic frame, small frame, small-fast frame, etc from my teacher. He also taught me philosophy and some basic knowledge of I-Ching. He didn’t just teach me martial arts but also a new way of life.
After three years, I started my life again, and I went back to university to the Chemical Engineering college. Later, my family stopped sending me money because of financial problems, So I started to teach Taiji at the university, and it changed my life again. Since then, I have been teaching and studying Taiji, I go to China every year for continuous learning, and after I became an indoor disciple of Yang style Taiji in Gu Lisheng lineage and I started to teach in public and worldwide.
So, I would like to say that I started to learn Taijiquan because I was looking for something that made my life worthwhile and could change me in the direction of a better life.
I have seen that you insist a lot on the Song / 松 quality in your teaching. Can you explain why it is so important to you?
In Taijiquan, the most crucial point is not using force. If you use force, it is not Taiji. To train to not to use force, you have to Song. So, Song is the primary key to the training. Taijiquan is an internal art, and we need to do less on our external body and focus more on using our internal, such as Yi and Qi. We need to Song to release our tension from the body and let it follow the guidance of the Yi and Qi. If we can Song, we can move the body without tension, so our Yi and Qi will move freely through the body. And it will create the quality of Jin without using the force in our body. So I can say, we cannot have Taiji Jin or Taiji power without Song.
Do you think that the qualities required to perform a powerful Taijiquan lies in naturalness or, on the contrary, on some « unnatural behavior » that people can only get through dedicated training?
In Chinese, when we talk about Taijiquan, we often refer to the term “Zi ran” which means “natural.” We must perform every movement of the Taijiquan as naturally as possible. You must be relaxed, open your joints and your whole body, be in line with your mind, breathe naturally, let the Qi sink down. But the problem is that we live in bad habits. We use too much muscle strength. We are weak from too much computer work, we get stressed, which raises the Qi instead of letting it sink down. Our breathing becomes short and jerky. We also do muscle exercises focusing on visible muscles that are over-useful in everyday life.
So, when you start practicing Taijiquan, how do you know what is natural and what is not? Transforming our unnatural habits it will feel unnatural. Until we familiar with our natural structure, habit, and feeling, we will not know what is natural and cannot do Taiji in natural ways.
Do you practice standing post exercises and, if yes, how important are they to you? How long do you recommend to perform these standing exercises during training sessions?
Yes, I practice them, and this is one of the essential aspects of Taijiquan training. In the school of my lineage, there are many Zhang Zhuang (or standing post postures). Every posture can be trained for a different purpose, but mainly they can give similar benefits. They can help us to release tension from our body, to correct our body alignment, stretch our body in all six directions, increase our ability to understand and use the internal components, such as Shen, Yi, Qi, and also help us to sink the Qi to the Dantian.
Zhan Zhang can help us to align our mind with the body and also can fulfill our body with Qi. So they are good for both: martial arts and health. During the training, I recommend to do it for 20 – 40 minutes, otherwise, if we do it for a short time, will not get enough benefits, but, at the same time, if we do them for too long our body will start to be fatigued, and our mind cannot align with our body anymore. Moreover, we can hurt our bodies too.
It is said that the two Yang brothers, Yang Shaohou and Yang Chengfu have learned with the same masters, so how do you explain the differences, which seems to be huge, in their two styles?
I can say they learned the same family stuff. But as I know, in the past, there were many variations of the Yang-family form. So it can be adapted to fit any personality and skill of the practitioners. That is why if we look to the Yang form in the past from any old masters, most of them were different. We have started to had the standard form since Yang Chengfu made his form public in his book and later also by the government when they created the standard simplified forms.
In the past, every Yang-family master did the same form but differently. So I can say, Yang-family masters they had the same basic form, that is the basic long-form or slow-form, but they did it differently. Both Yang Luchan sons, Yang Banhou and Yang Jianhou, did it with different variations. Later, Yang Shaohou learned from his uncle Yang Banhou, and Yang Chengfu learned from his father Yang Jianhou, that is why they achived different skills. Since I have learned both Yang Shaohou and Yang Chengfu style, I found that in the basic form, both Yang Chengfu and Yang Shaohou start by the same big frame. The Yang Chengfu form would concentrate more on the slow movements to open the body with a low stance, focus a lot on sinking the Qi, and the energy is very direct and simple.
The Yang Shaohou form looks smaller outside; however, it still full of stretching inside. The movements have more circles and hand technique, focus more on the Yi-Qi (Mind and Qi), there are many “8” shape circles both inside and outside and create the Luo Xuan or the spiral movements. Yang Shaohou’s style would concentrate more on the small frame with fast movements, more focus on Fa Jin, hand techniques, stepping, and fighting techniques. On pushing hands, Yang Shaohou style has more pushing hands forms more than Yang Chengfu style, concentrate more on the stepping pushing hands forms and even more on the free hands and free stepping or Lan Cai Hua. But Yang Chengfu style seems to concentrate more on the fixing step pushing hands and also rooting skill.
It seems that the push hand exercises taught in the Yang family have been simplified in many ways, especially when compared to the Wu Jian Quan lineage. What do you think about it, and how do you, personally, consider this exercise?
Formerly the push hands exercise was for training. When we talk about push hands (Tui Shou), it means push hands forms or push hands sets, not tui shou competition or even free pushing hands. But nowadays, many practitioners do not really train the push hands sets. They simplify it to a basic set or even do it without the push hands sets and turn it to a competition. They try to be good on push hands but not on fighting skills. But actually, this is not the purpose of Taijiquan. As some Yang style masters said: “Taiji is the training for health and martial arts, not for tui shou.”
Since pushing hands is a training method, we need many push hands sets to train for different purposes. Wu family Taiji came from Yang family, so actually Yang family also has many push hands exercise sets, and some of them are also the same as Wu family. For example, in my lineage, we start with many sets of single push hands exercise, followed by many sets of double hands exercise. Then Four-squares push-hands and also with stepping such as three steps back and forth, Five steps (or Plum Blossom) steps, Nine palace steps, Circle steps, then followed by many sets of Da Lu or Large Rollback. All these push hands sets are the training sets to help the practitioners to be familiar with the Taiji circle and all necessary skill such as the sticking energy and the eight basic energies of Taiji: Peng (ward off), Lu (Rollback), Ji (squeeze), An (Press), Cai (Pluck), Lie (Split) and Kao (Bumps), and also train these all skills with the proper stepping.
We need to be sure that we train all these necessary skills before proceeding to free pushing hands with free stepping called Lan Cai Hua or “randomly stepping on flowers on the ground” and San Shou or free sparring. In this way, we can be sure we can maintain what Taiji looks like in the free sparring or fighting.
Do you practice Fajin within the push hand exercise?
Yes, in push hands exercises, there are four steps to apply your skills; these are Ting (Listening), Hua (Neutralizing), Na (Controlling), and Fa (Issuing). So, Fa Jin is the Jin we use at the last state after we can control our opponents and no need to keep sticking anymore. The Fa Jin used in push hands is the long Jin that we use it to send opponents away without hurting them. When we apply Fa Jin in pushing hands, it’s not because we try to Fa and defeat our partners. On the other hand, we need to help each other. We use Fa Jin because we can control our partners from his mistakes. When his circles or his energies make an error in pushing hands, he will be controlled by Na. This is his mistake, not because we try to push or pull him for Fa Jin. So, this means we train push hands to improve our correctness on our energies, so we can Ting (Listening) and Hua (Neutralizing) so that our partner does not control us.
What about the use of the intention (Yi) in your teaching? How do you train it?
There is saying in the Taiji classics, “Yi and Qi are the kings, bone and flesh are the officers,” also “Use Yi, not Li (force).” These means that we need to use Yi to guide and command our body. When the Yi moves our body also moves.
In my teaching and training, I will use Yi to set the five directions, there are; forward, backward, left, right, and center. When we step with the Yi’s direction, this is stepping forward. When we step in the opposite direction with the Yi, this is stepping backward. When we look to the left with the Yi this is looked left, and when we looked right with the Yi, this is gaze right. We need to always aware of our center; this is Zhong Ding. This is what we know as “Wu Bu” or “five steps” in Taijiquan. So the Yi will guide where we are in the space.
When I do the form, my Yi moves first, to guide where I have to go, then my Yi leads my feeling and also my Qi. The Qi will lead my hands and then my whole body. This will create an internal feeling, like the Yi pulls me in the direction and moves my whole body. My body needs to be Song and sink, allowing the Yi to lead my body. My Yi is active (Yang), and my body is passive (Yin.) By this training, my Yi will become strong until it can command my body, and my body will work follow my Yi until Yi and body can work together, this is what we know as using the Yi (intention) not Li (force.)
Do you think that there is a difference in the way people were used to train in the past and nowadays?
Yes, I think there are some differences. Yang Chengfu once said, “Taiji is only one,” so, even Taiji separated to many families such as Yang, Wu, Wu/Hao, and Sun, but actually, they do the same long-form differently. But nowadays, there are many different new simplified forms, and most of them are only the form without any other training from the Taiji system.
In the past, they train Taiji both for health and martial arts, so they did many Nei Gong exercises and internal training. But nowadays, most train for health and lack the martial arts knowledge. Even in China now, most people just train Taiji for health and the performance of the forms competition.
How important is the breath in your practice and teaching?
It is very important, but we train our breath in a passive way. In some Neigong and Zhan Zhuang exercises, there is breath training. For example, when we do the Golden Turtle posture, we need to concentrate on breathing through the spine to Ming Men point, and our breathing will become reverse breathing. We don’t need to try to do the reverse breathing, but it will happen after we do breathing correctly in the correct posture.
But when we do the Taiji forms, we will not focus on breathing. If we focus on breathing, our Qi or energy will not flow because of our Yi (intention) on breathing and not assist in leading the Qi to flow. Grandmaster Wu Jianquan the founder of Wu style Taiji also said, “when we eat or drink, nobody thinks about controlling the breath, and I have never heard anyone will be injured from this. But if I suggest you when you eat or drink you focus and control your breath, and also try to move your Qi, I am sure you will get injuries, this is the easiest way to explain why we don’t need to control our breath in the forms”. So, we do not focus on breathing in the forms. However, even we do not concentrate on breathing, but after a long period of all, the training will enable our breath to become deep, long, and refined. It will begin to harmonize with our movements in the forms. At this stage, you will start to feel comfortable with breathing, and your Qi will flow freely.