My company was generous enough to set up a tai chi lesson for all of us teachers, taught by a well-known tai chi master in Shenzhen, Master Li. We made the arduous journey by subway to a place near the Hong Kong border to meet our fellow teachers and hopefully learn some stress relieving exercises to soothe the pains of teaching chatty, rambunctious preteens.
Before the lesson began, the tai chi apprentices and our company worker David introduced us to an array of classic Chinese weapons. They were naturally all huge and deadly looking. Some variations of tai chi utilize the weapons in performances or competition. I often forget that tai chi originated as a martial art, and thus is way more badass than yoga. Tai chi actually translates to “supreme ultimate fist”, so if you thought of it as a gentle way to pass the time you’re sorely mistaken.
After about 10 minutes of posing with weapons and pretending to kill each other, the apprentices invited us to sit and have tea. The man prepared the tea and cups on top of a special tea serving platform, with a drain in the middle to pour away used water.
After thoroughly soaking the cups in hot water, the tea was steeped and ready to be poured. He gave us tiny wooden coasters and handed us tiny cups which resembled dipping sauce plates and carefully poured tea into each one. The entire process was delicate and contemplative, as if he was translating his tai chi philosophy into the art of tea pouring.
For a simple green tea, it was endlessly refreshing. I was tempted to down the cups of tea like you would a shot of liquor but for the sake of maintaining face amongst my well-mannered colleagues I restrained myself as best I could.
During tea time, Master Li’s apprentice was explaining (almost entirely in Chinese) about the different styles of tai chi. Our company worker David acted as our translator and we learned that there are five major styles of tai chi (Chen, Yang, Wu, a different Wu, and Sun, all named after the inventors of the style) and that we were going to learn some moves in the Sun style, the most recently invented one (by recent, I mean like a hundred years ago). The Sun style involves smooth, flowing movements and no leaping or crouching found in other styles.
After drinking all that tea, it was time for some tai chi. Several more of our colleagues arrived and Master Li’s apprentice lined us all up to demonstrate an extremely basic tai chi pattern. Even though the pattern was slow, the movements were so precise that the apprentice would frequently run around the room correcting our arm position or making sure our feet were lined up perfectly. He would also make us keep our position until he was done sculpting our limbs in the manner of Michelangelo, which made our arms tremble and our legs shake as we desperately tried not to waver an inch and ruin his life’s work. In the end, I think most of us got it and were glad to finally rest our throbbing muscles. Tai chi really is a supreme ultimate fist… that punches you in the legs!
Master Li finally made his long awaited appearance and we gathered round to bask in his wisdom. He explained to us how Sun style tai chi is based on the mutual relationship of opposites: how one thing cannot exist without the other. The foot movements are based on this philosophy, with each foot either following or retreating from the other, in a kind of intricate dance. It really put into perspective how classic fighting styles weren’t just designed to whoop your opponent’s ass, but how they evolved from patterns found in nature, like the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon, pulling tides closer and further from the shore.
Master Li, without hesitation, lined us up and put us to work. If his apprentice was a perfectionist, Master Li probably beat it into him. He made us pretend like we were sitting straight in a chair, knees bent, arms straight out but relaxed, our weight on both legs. He then walked around the room correcting people’s postures for what felt like 15 minutes (which felt like forever) all the while expecting the rest of us to remain ridiculously statuesque. I could see a few of my colleagues’ legs trembling so I didn’t feel too bad about my lackluster muscle endurance.
For my second time trying tai chi (the first time was in a park in Chengdu on a cold winter day) I thoroughly enjoyed it and realized how physically demanding it is. Props to all those elderly people who get up really early in the morning to go to the park and exert the hell out of themselves.