Singapore Tai Chi Chuan

The Lessons of Li Shiji

Li Shiji.

Until two nights ago I did not know who this is. Now I do.

Li Shiji is an opera teacher and performer who was featured on a CCTV program on Peking Opera. I happened across the program and it was enlightening. Here is a someone from an old tradition with a non-traditional, enlightened outlook that we should learn from so that we can improve our martial arts practice. Some things I walked away with from the program :-

1. Li described her training as a opera artist. The beginning skill was to walk with a piece of paper held between the knees. The knees were not supposed to separate. She could only walk in half steps. Does this sound familiar to Wing Chun and Tai Chi practitioners? It should because the knees held together reminds me of the requirements of the goat clamping stance of the Wing Chun style.

2. Li also spoke of the training to keep the neck straight by first placing a heavy book on top of the head. This was later replaced with a big bowl. Finally, as the skill increased the bowl was filled with water. Li said that at the stage of training with the bowl of water even a small wobble would cause the water to splash her face. Taken together with the info on walking with a piece of paper between the knees does not both these requirements remind one of the flavor of the Wu / Hao style?

3. Li addressed the problem of dwindling audiences particularly younger audiences. She talked about how she made changes to opera performances to attract younger audiences but her efforts were criticized by critics who labelled her avant-garde and seeming to praise her by calling her opera style New Cheng School.

However, it was hiding a dagger behind a smile because the critics were actually criticizing her and wanted to marginalize her. This reminds me of how Grandmaster Wei was marginalized because the principles that he presented to the world was too advanced to be understood by other more famous masters. To avoid behind questioned and conceal their ignorance they had to marginalize him, push him to one small corner where they hope he will be forgotten. And if this fails, to make baseless accusations. Yes, politics even in a different field of arts are still the same.

4. Li said that Premier Zhou Enlai told her that to be a good opera singer one needs a good teacher. The problem amongst many Tai Chi practitioners is that they equate good to famous but this is not true. A good teacher may not be a famous teacher nor a famous teacher a good one. So until and unless students recognize this they are basically condemning themselves to be mediocre practitioners.

5. Li talked about the song Spring Dream which was a simple but beautiful melody that she was to sing in a competition. To prepare for the competition her teacher Mr Cheng sang it to her again but this time the emotions of the song was very different from how he had taught it previously. Why was this so? Cheng explained that he modified the original tune by adapting ideas from the Xun school of singing.

Li explained that as an artist Cheng was seeking perfection. To do so Cheng did not impose boundaries on his own learning and hence he would learn from all schools. However, he did not blindly copy outside ideas either. Instead, he would carefully make these outside ideas his own so that outsiders could not tell that he had copied from outside and accuse him as a betrayer of his school. As Li said “so you should absorb the best things from others while maintaining your own identity”.

This is a surprising statement from a teacher of a traditional art. It is also strangely reminiscent of what Bruce Lee said. So whilst Bruce owned the soundbite, however, he was not the first with such an outlook. In fact, many traditional styles, or at least, the well known masters, do have this outlook. It is only their shortsighted descendants who want to put them on a pedestal, worship the master and happily lap up the knowledge given out without critically scrutinizing it.

6. To improve one should as Li said take the principle out, bring the principle over and use it. She said that Cheng showed her how to make subtle changes to the way of singing the tune. As an innovator Cheng didn’t believe in drawing lines across the sand. Casting prejudices aside he was opened to different ways of doing things. Tradition is good in so far as the knowledge that is passed down is sound.

However, many times the tradition and lineage is hollow. One can spend a long time learning and still get minimal returns, if at all. To be loyal is commendable. But to be blind to the obvious is plain stupid. One must recognize that which is good and hold on to it. That which is not should be discarded. That which is lacking one should seek to make up for it.

In a traditional art one must be prepared to put in the time. If the training is correct one will get something after a period of time training the art. It is no use rushing the learning because certain things just cannot be rushed. Ten years is a good gauge. If after ten years of training you have little to show for it then I am afraid you have wasted your time.

It is too easy to despair, to give up before even trying hard. It is also easy to fail to see the good points of an art especially if you have not done more than dip your toes in the water. Neither is it fruitful to have doubts straight off the bat. A teacher does not owe the student the information. Many times it has to be either paid for or earned. In today’s world where the internet has conditioned us to think that many things are free it is easy to fall into a trap of thinking that the free info we get is good. It may not be so and more often than not we fail to recognize the difference between good and bad.

In a number of arts if one really wants to learn the commitment must be there. No teacher wants to waste time with a student who just wants to spend little effort, offer no commitment, import the method into his own style before he even understands it much less master it and then call it his own. This is different from two masters exchanging knowledge because then the interaction is on a par level.

It is too easy to share nuggets of info with someone and they mistakenly think that after a short time training they will get it. More often than not this is an illusion. The nuggets of info can only get one so far. To truly learn one has to be taught formally whether it be in the form of organized drills or forms. Then after mastering the basic movements one still needs to be taught how to refine the movements to elevate the understanding and transfer the mastery to the ability to use the techniques. It is certainly not a short journey. With a talented and diligent student the learning process can be quickened somewhat because he is willing to listen and try things out instead of always thinking that he knows it already and insist on doing his own way which if it is correct in the first place would mean that he should already have mastered the art. That it is not, should indicate so to him except that when one is blind to one’s shortcomings or refuse to recognize it then one can only blame oneself for the failure to master the art.

So to successfully learn an art, one must put aside the ego and be prepared to learn, practice, research and open to different ways of doing things. This is what I took away from the documentary on Li Shiji.


Author: ZenMindSword

Mushin is a practitioner, researcher and trainer for Yang style Tai Chi Chuan. He is also author of The Ip Man Koans, The Ip Man Questions and TaijiKinesis series of eBooks, as well as co-author of Complete Wing Chun.

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