An Interview with Wang Peisheng--王培生采访|
An Interview with Wang Peisheng
By Andrew Nugent-Head
I interviewed Wang Peisheng three times between 1995-7. This article was a result of the second interview when ATS was focused on recording the traditional practitioners’ lives and history as a glimpse into how they developed into their art over the actual art itself. Wang Peisheng passed away a few years ago. I have left the interview in the present tense.
Andrew Nugent-Head, Beijing, June 2006
Wang Peisheng is one of the most respected Taijiquan practitioners of today, a spokesman for Wu style Taijiquan, having studied from Yang Yuting and his teacher, Wang Maozhai. But like those left of his generation, Wang learned many different arts from the great teachers of that time, making him a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. Today, I hoped to gain an understanding of his childhood and how he came to learn the arts he did and attain the high level he has. Underneath the reserved but kind visage you first encounter when meeting Wang Peisheng is a healthy, lively man who tells stories not just with words, but with his body and spirit, as he switches back and forth between sitting in his chair and jumping up to act out a particular situation for emphasis. As it wasn't the first time we had met, and as I was accompanied by one of his students named Zhu Xilin, Wang dispensed with the tea and formalities usually given to an interviewer and shared with us stories and laughter as he returned to his childhood.
I was born in Wuqing county, Hebei, in 1918. In the 14th year of the Republic of China (1925), generals and their armies were fighting among themselves, and we were forced to move to Beijing. It was a move that brought betterment and good fortune.
When we first arrived in Beijing, I lived near Yan Yue alley. At that time in the eastern part of the city, the martial arts of Taijiquan and Bagua were the most popular. When we moved there, I was eight or nine. Not far from us was a run down temple, in which there was a little monk my age. His family all were acrobats of a famous troupe (wu qiao) back then. We would play together, and I learned tumbling, cartwheeling, and somersaulting with him from his older brothers. He had one older brother who could run towards a building, then flip forward so his legs came up behind and over him, propelling him up in the air and swinging him around so that he landed on the roof of the building (back then, buildings were almost all one story high, as no buildings were allowed to be built taller than the buildings in the Forbidden city, which was the emperor's palace). He taught us to flip and cartwheel, and I learned to perform thirty flips in a row on a square tabletop above the ground. In that time, I developed a very supple, flexible body. Later on, when I began to push hands with people, it was impossible for them to uproot me, as I was one with the ground and able to bend and twist much deeper than others.
It was about the time I was able to do thirty flips in a row that we moved to a different alley away from the little monk and his family. I was very drawn to the physical and martial arts, so I found a staff made from a peach tree, dyed a piece of rope red, and tied it to one end so it looked like a spear (traditionally, the spear has an iron point at one end with a red cloth tied to the base of the tip). I couldn't afford to buy a red piece of cloth, let alone a spear tip, but I practiced thrusting with my "spear" every day, anyway. We didn't have as much room in our courtyard, so I would stand with my back to the house and thrust towards the doorway. Every day I would thrust 1,000 times, counting them off, "one, two, three..." Now when you do this, you should look at where you are thrusting, but I was staring at my feet, too busy thrusting and counting to pay attention to what was happening outside the door. Just at that time, Ma Gui (a famous Bagua practitioner), was coming to our house. He was already old and walked with a cane. He also was a very short man, the same height I was at that age, so my spear was thrusting right at the height of his chest and throat. There I was thrusting, counting, and looking at my feet when Ma Gui, with his cane, turned the corner into our house. My spear went right at him, and he quickly spun to one side, grasped the spear, and continuing its motion, pulled it out of my hands and threw it past him, sticking deeply into the neighbor's wall like a pole to hang clothes on. This was just a stick with a piece of red string tied to it, it didn't even have a spear head, and yet he tossed it deep into that wall. Think about what kind of force and power that takes. So there was a shocked me, my spear embedded in the neighbor's wall and still 'dong-dong-dong' vibrating from the force, and a very angry Ma Gui. I would have killed him if the spear had landed. I didn't know then that he was a relative of a relative who lived in our courtyard and came every day to eat breakfast with them before going off to teach martial arts at Hade Men, which today is called Chongwen Men. He started screaming about me, my mother came out and tried to placate him, the neighbors came out, and the whole situation turned into quite a scene. My mother kept apologizing and telling him that I loved to practice martial arts but was too young to know better, Ma Gui was worked up, and the neighbors were all putting their two cents in. Just then my father came back, and upon learning the situation, explained that I loved the martial arts, but was too young to know better. The relative of ours who was a relative of his then said, "Take him as a disciple", and right there amid the commotion, incense was brought out, and I formally kowtowed (knelt with my forehead to the floor) to him and was accepted as a disciple. This is how I met Ma Gui and began to formally study Bagua. I was twelve at the time.
After that, he would come to our house every morning to eat breakfast before going off to Hade Men to teach. He was already quite old then, and I would accompany him. Ma Gui practiced Yin Style Bagua, and I learned the 64 palms as well as his saber form. Traditionally, Yin stylists would first practice the Buddhist "iron body" method, and then begin Bagua training. Ma Gui passed away in 1940.
I also learned Tan Tui, and then Taijiquan from Yang Yuting and his teacher, Wang Baozhai. Wang Baozhai was my "grand-teacher", grand as in grandfather, as he was two generations above me. I was fourteen when I began studying with Yang. He would take me to Tai Miao, which had a "Beijing (then called Beiping) Taijiquan Association". How I became involved with Taijiquan is an interesting story.
At the time I was also studying the Four classics of Confucius. My teacher was a man named Ma Zhiqian, who was a doctor of Chinese medicine, treating people with acupuncture. He would always carry his box of needles under his arm. He would teach us two lines from the classics, tell us to memorize them, and then go out to treat patients. We would recite the lines a few times until we knew them, and then start wondering where the teacher had gone to. When the teacher came back, he would put down his box, and then have us recite the lines. Now reciting the lines for the teacher was very intimidating. You would have to put down your book, and then turn so your back was to him, stand in a formal position, and then recite the lines. Often, even though you had just memorized the lines and knew them, you would become flustered and the mind would go blank. Ma would yell, "Out with you, and memorize those lines!" On the way to these classes, there was a martial arts center where Yang Yuting and his students practiced Taijiquan. I loved martial arts and was very curious as a child, and when I saw these people moving slowly and softly, yet were very powerful, I began to study with them, as well. Curiosity propelled me to meet and work with many martial artists. I studied Tan Tui, Ru Yi Tongbei, Shuaijiao... Back then there were many good teachers, and they all lived not too far from each other.
Wang Baozhai would teach at Tai Miao on Mondays-Wednesdays-Fridays. Yang began to take me there. There were more than 300 members there learning and teaching all kinds of martial arts. There were all kinds of people there, from all parts of society. When Yang began to teach me, he asked me if I had already practiced this before. I hadn't, but I had a very good memory for picking up movements. I would watch once and then have the motions down. I don't know why, but I have this ability. If I watch a performance, I can do the movements immediately afterwards. There I learned Taijiquan, and it was only later that I learned there were other types of Taijiquan, and that I practiced Wu style, and that the lineage was such and such.
One day, there was a man named Yang who came to Tai Miao. He had practiced Yang style Taijiquan (not related to the family), and had beaten all the people at push hands at Tai Miao. By beaten, I mean he had won as no one could push him over. That day he found the Taijiquan Association and pushed hands with Yang Yuting. Yang Yuting was a very good man who didn't injure his opponents when he pushed hands. He would simply lift them off of their roots, and then instead of propelling them away, he would set them back down again. For any person who really understands, it's the uprooting that is hard, and once you have been uprooted, you have lost. This other Yang didn't understand that. He believed that if you didn't toss him to the ground, he hadn't lost. So when Yang Yuting uprooted him and then put him back down without hurting him, he suddenly pushed Yang Yuting and "won". I was watching and became very angry when I saw that. There were only three of us there that day, so I went to push with him next. I immediately sent him flying into the wall behind him, and then when he rebounded back to come at me, I sent him back into the wall again. I did this several times in a row, like tossing a ball against a wall over and over. He was covered with the color of the wall and asked me why I wouldn't let him come back to where we had started. I answered him, "There is lots of space between you, me, and the wall. You tell me why you can't come over?" Yang Yuting then came over and separated us. This other Yang, who had been nicknamed Crazy Yang by the other people at Tai Miao, was a man without "face" (concept of having/loosing face) and left without saying anything, not coming back. I was fourteen at the time.
I would fetch tea and water for Wang Baozhai when he taught at Tai Miao. About six months later Crazy Yang came back. I was just giving water to Wang when Crazy Yang came up to me and said, "Oh, you are still here. Shall we play for a bit?" That meant he wanted a chance to get me back. As soon as he put out his hand, I knocked him to the ground, hard. It took him a while before he could get up. "You are really vicious. This kid is really vicious!" is all he said before leaving. He came quickly and left quickly. It was after this confrontation that Wang Baozhai saw I had potential. He had me go to where he personally worked and practiced. There he told me, "There are still some faster things to learn". The stones upon which they pushed hands there had been worn so smooth by their feet that it was as slippery as ice. Never mind practicing the form, standing there was tricky enough. To understand the force and power they had in their feet, you must realize that those stones had been worn smooth by shoes that were soled with rope. Rope bottom shoes had worn rocks smooth. I would go there every evening.
I began to be the main teacher at Tai Miao when Wang Baozhai was there. There was another teacher I didn't know who was in charge Tuesdays-Thursdays-Saturdays. He was teaching a certain technique, and I wanted to feel it. After almost knocking him to the ground, he said, "This little kid has Gongfu (expertise. A.k.a. kung). I can't beat this little kid." He then went the following day when Wang was teaching to tell him that he had been beaten by a child. Just then I came in, and he pointed at me and said, "That's him!" Wang then said to me, "This is grandfather Guo." I bowed and called him grandfather. Guo was quite relieved to know he had lost to someone within the same school and not to an outsider who would brag. Back then, I did not know the values to winning and loosing, I just sought the power of the martial arts, and sought to feel the power with my own body.
After that, I began teaching at Yang Yuting's other centers, and then eventually Yang also gave me my own center to take care of. I was about eighteen at this time. After that, I was invited to be the principal teacher at many martial arts/cultural centers. There was one in particular of note, which was the one at Ba Da Chu. That had several powerful people in it, whose interest was in the health aspect of Taijiquan. At that time, those officials were smoking opium. When I would arrive to teach, they would all still be sound asleep. Opium smokers are active at night, sleeping during the day. I would first teach their children and relatives, and when that was about over, they would appear and ask a few questions, then want to push hands. It is here that I developed the skill at push hands I have today. These were officials, and they had to be treated gently and well. They were also opium smokers and so were slow. I would have to work with the weight of two people, as they would breathe out and all their weight would sag onto me as they leaned forward. Then I would have to wait until they inhaled and were ready to pull back, and slowly help them back up without pushing them too far. This is why I have the ability to hear so clearly people's energy and breathing. It was through practice with these people. My two legs had to carry two bodies, not one, and I had to be aware of their every move so as not to hurt them. Without this opportunity to practice and think about this and feel the way energy comes and goes in an opponent, how would I be able to bring those abilities into my body? No one else was willing to push hands with them. Not because they were afraid, but because these opium smokers had every kind of awful smell to them. They used snuff and so wreaked of snuff, they applied all sorts of oils and incenses to their bodies and so wreaked of that, as well. You would have to smell all that as well as the odor of their sweat. And you had to move slowly with them so that they didn't have a coughing fit. I was the only one who had the ability to carry them and the patience to endure them, so they would come to me every time and say, "Come! Lets push hands! Just two hundred circles, I don't want to take up your spare time." Whoa, those two hundred times! How much time that would take! They were so slow in moving their hands. But it was because of this I developed the sensitivity and power in my hands.
I kept on teaching, and have throughout my life taught. I teach all of my students virtue. If they are studying martial arts, I teach them Martial Virtue. If they are learning Qigong, I teach them to cultivate Virtue and do good deeds. I believe that you harvest what you plant - plant melons, harvest melons, plant beans, harvest beans. So I insist on teaching Virtue and honesty, as well as teaching honestly. All of the knowledge I have came from among the people, therefore I believe it should be given back to the people. I don't believe in holding back knowledge, so that, even though I am old now, there are still many people who seek me out to learn.