Cutting the Watermelon Into Half
by Timothy Song
In June 1984, in NUS a young lad age 19 took up the study of Taiji. He went not knowing what to expect. His previous teachers told him if he wants to improve his martial arts skills he should look into Taijiquan. At that time he was rather aghast of such thoughts. To improve his martial arts he has to learn Taijiquan? An old man arts of "cutting watermelon into half..."? You got to be joking .... Bearing in mind this lad already had knowledge in two Chinese Martial arts and is a second dan black belt holder in a Korean martial arts. In his mind what can this old man style of cutting watermelon be a martial art? Reluctantly on that fateful day he went to the area besides the sports hall in NUS to see what it is all about.
So on that evening he met Master Rennie Chong. I would he he was a rather arrogant chap. He didn't even addressed Master Chong as Master Chong but Mister Chong! Terrible chap if I must say so myself. Anyway Master Chong did not take offense to that at that time. So begin the training .... And suffering. In the first year he was taught the form, CMC 37. There was much emphasis on strengthening the legs, rooting and the use of kua (at that time the lad was wondering what was kua). His legs suffered pain and more pain. Each time the Master said pain is good. Means you are working your muscles to strengthen your legs. So the chap thought well since I have pain I can stop. Master said .... No, continue to do until no more pain. Crazy thought the chap. But he continue as instructed to do. Guess what... The pain disappear! Miracles do happen.
In the second year, the Master was occasionally late for class. This is due to his work commitment. Sometimes up to half hour late. As usual like all students, everyone just hang around talking and laughing. So one evening, as the Master was late, the chap suggested they start the warm up and basic exercises while waiting for the Master to come. When the Master came, half hour later, he was surprised and happy someone begin the class. i just wonder if he expected it would be the arrogant chap. Thus begins his journey, the real journey into Taijiquan.
The long introduction is the beginning of my story into Taijiquan. The real journey begins when I suggested we do the warm up exercises and if necessary to do the form up to where was taught. That's when I know what I do not know. Thus my research into Taijiquan (bear in mind Internet was not readily accessible at that time) with great difficulty. Books in English was not many. Thus making the theoretical learning valuable. I started reading about theories and philosophies of Taijiquan. Juniors will always ask questions which sometimes, actually most times, I do not have the answer to. So I take the easy way out sometimes. I read it up. Don't dare ask the Master. Later he thinks I am being silly. After all I am only in the second year.
And also that is when I get to know what I know is correct or wrong. May times we read, (now includes watching YouTube and DVDs) we interpret it based on our limited knowledge. So we think what we know is the absolute truth. No one can challenge us. Humility to accept what we know may not be right is an essential part of our journey. There will be people who can correct us. As long as we do not take lead in teaching or leading the class, we would have a narrow scope of understanding. Our knowledge may be correct but there can be many ways of application. What better way to know and grow other than being asked. Students tend not to ask one another but to the person leading the class.
Enough about knowledge. What about the execution of the form? When we are up front leading, we tend to be more conscientious of our form. We tend to correct ourselves automatically by either asking our better seniors or Master. The Master tend to be more critical in this aspect to the person leading. That is what I experienced. Master Chong corrected my form to such precision that legs start to be painful again and also starts to vibrate like a tuning fork. He used to say the one leading is in a way representing him. So have to be perfect but in my case.... Almost perfect. The legs are in pain so how to be perfect.
Another advantage of leading is I get to see the mistakes the juniors do. The same mistakes that I used to make, and maybe was still making. So I get to see the Master correcting them. In this doing so I auto correct myself. The Master was now free to go around correcting the students since I was leading. Also by seeing Shifu correcting others I get to learn the mistakes of others and how it is being corrected. Thus I now learn to teach as well as learning how to correct myself.
When Shifu was not around the juniors will ask me if their form is correct. The same tendencies as asking about knowledge. To be honest most juniors feel intimidated asking Shifu. They are more comfortable asking seniors. This is also a learning point for me. Here I apply the knowledge i obtained from seeing Shifu correcting others. In Medical School we have a saying..... see one, do one, teach all. I get to know how to do the form correctly in a practical manner not through reading or watching DVDs or YouTube.
That was how I really begin my journey into Taijiquan. It is when I take lead and start to teach under the guidance of my Shifu, MasterRennie Chong. So do I still think it is an old may style of cutting the watermelon? Yes I do but with a difference. To cut the watermelon into half with your hands require great skills. This is done without smashing the watermelon. I am still in my journey into Taijiquan. Make note that I used the term Taijiquan not Taiji. Quan means fist. And I used the term martial arts. Taijiquan to me is to only to maintain our health but is also a form of martial arts, the Fist of Taiji.
Like I said I learn by teaching and I am still teaching Taiji as well as Taijiquan. I learn more each day when I teach and I teach taiji both as a preservation of health as well as a form of martial arts. I have a school teaching combat taiji or Taijiquan. How I get to combat taiji is another long winded story. In my humble opinion to fully understand Taiji forms we have to understand how the forms are applied. I shared this with my Shifu during my second year with him. That is why my training after many years was different from others.
The places he sent me to was also different. Taught the essence of Taijiquan by Shifu's martial arts brothers, I get to see the other aspects of Taijiquan. How one form has many uses, how four ounces overcome a thousand pounds etc. My journey has not ended but is in a continuing process. The more I teach the more I learn. Just when you think you have the answers to all questions, more questions will come out. Questions you never expect. Some consider me a Master but I consider myself only a seeker of Taijiquan. After all, I still cannot cut the watermelon into half with my bare hands without smashing it.