A cool breeze moves lightly over my skin as I walk down the road after dinner to buy water and milk. It feels comforting after a hard day of training and I’m grateful the rains over the past few days have brought the temperature down. The air is clean too; the setting sun brushes pink and lavender across a canvas of white clouds and blue sky. The moon rises. An old woman sits on a stool in front of her home and slowly fans herself. A man meanders with his shirt rolled half way up his chest unabashedly showing his tan belly. This is a common site in the more rural parts of China, I learned this phenomenon has a nickname, “Beijing Bikini.” A scooters beeps, politely signaling for me to step aside. The driver is carrying a baby cradled in one arm while he steers with the other. Beep! Another scooter passes, it’s rider is looking down at his cell phone. 晚安, Wan An, I say to familiar faces along the path. “Good night!” It’s not quite the right phrase for exchanging pleasantries on an evening stroll, but they understand my efforts. “Hello!” They reply in turn. It’s dark by the time I turn right onto the main street towards the shop. The moon shines bright. Bats fly overhead.
“Move naturally!” Chen Xiao Xing said today in class, his eyes gleaming. Along with all the other corrections: sink, shift, relax, close, open, etc., it all comes down to this. We were working on a sequence I have always found particularly difficult, Qian Zhao, Hou Zhao, Yie Ma Fen Zhong, Front and Back Dodging and Parting Horse’s Mane. I remember the first time Chen Xiao Wang taught it to me; I could not come close to comprehending it. After many attempts he simply sat down and waited quietly while I struggled through it. I was completely undone and utterly intimidated to be so naked in my ignorance in front of the most famous Chen. My energy scattered. He said, “Calm Down.” I burst into tears. That was 16 years ago. It’s still hard but I don’t cry any more - well on the outside at least!
“I have studied this form over 15 years,” I said to my teacher. “Is it natural for me to now feel I don’t know it at all?” I was not joking. During this particular training, I truly feel I may not know the Laojia, the fundamental frame, at all. Without pause, Chen Xiao Xing looked at the blackboard at the back of his room and pointed at the Chinese characters written upon it. He began reading; Shiuwen translated. 漸悟 Gradual Realization. “Keep learning, keep repeating, keep practicing and you will learn new things.” Chen Xiao Xing stated. 溫故知新 “Review what you learned before, reflect, and you will learn new things.” 熟能生巧 “Practice and practice so much, and eventually everything fits together perfectly.” 順其自然 Fundamentally, let it be natural.
As both teacher and student I know if we stick with something long enough we are bound to feel the bottom drop out from time to time. We wonder if we have really made progress, really understood. This experience is unnerving, it is a dangerous time in one’s study cycle - if the ego bites into it too hard, one may loose hope. And yet, it is natural part of the cycle too. Learning always folds into itself. It can never be that we haven’t learned, it is that we are always learning new things. One simply keeps going. To have a teacher one can be utterly transparent in front of, to have as witness when making the same mistakes over and over again, to listen to the same questions as yet again, to continue to guide you through the potholes of ego and ignorance, to point you further down the road, is the greatest gift. I feel very fortunate.
There is a palpable kindness here in the teaching methodology. During day three a small group of people from Zheng Zhou joined us - a father, son, and uncle. The group was clearly new to Taijiquan - the fidgeting level was high, especially with the son! It was a bit annoying but whenever I felt myself start to become agitated I checked it. It’s not my floor, everyone is a beginner, I reminded myself. And I am here for my work. This is my grinding stone. Over the course of the next few days Chen Xiao Xing corrected each person in accordance with the methodology. Gradually the group began to get it and even the son began to calm down.
During one of our breaks I noticed he was in the corner with headphones on listening to music or watching a show. I decided to practice my Chinese and approached him. “Where are you from?” I asked in slow deliberate words, trying to make my tones correct. To my delight he answered in English, “My home is in Zheng Zhou.” I had noticed his father was gone today so I continued in Chinese, “Where is your father?” “On a business trip,” he said in perfect English. We were both utterly delighted at this playful banter. We volleyed back and forth. “How old are you?” “Thirteen!” “Do you like Taijiquan?” “Yes!” “What is your name?” I asked. “Fun” he replied. This time I had to have Shiuwen help me. She couldn’t quite make the character out when he finger wrote it in her palm but indeed his first name is “Fun.” “Very nice to meet you!” I continued in Chinese. “You too!” He said. I make it a point to encourage him now In Standing and to share laughter at our thigh pain during our breaks.
Cui Bing, Chen Zi Qiang’s wife brought her oldest daughter over last night to have John Howe work with her on her English. They like John a great deal; it was a beautiful site to see him helping her with her reading and speaking. Here in the Gou, hard work, generosity, patience, kindness across generations and culture are on full display. From the pigtailed toddler to the blue silk clad elder to the gangly thirteen year old to the confused American asking the same questions once again, humanity is open here. It is natural. There is no reason to treat each other poorly, to become irritated by someone else’s beginning level of anything, to loose hope in our own progress as learners. What type of world might we have if we were as hard working as the students here are? As patient as the teachers? As kind? As generous?
The roosters and bustling of the cook tells me Day Nine ensues.