The history of human conflict is dotted with the names of famous martial artists. Although each is known for his high level of skill, some became famous because of their extreme brutality and cruelty, while others became famous for their compassion, and virtuous character. One martial artist who is well known for his acts of compassion and virtuous character is the legendary Taijiquan master Chen Fake. Chen Fake was born in 1887 in his family’s agricultural village (Chenjiagou). He was the great grandson of Chen Changxing, the man who taught Taijiquan to Yang Lu Chan. As a sickly child, Chen Fake was not a particularly serious student of Taijiquan until it became obvious that the hereditary title of “standard bearer” for his family’s art would pass from his father to a more deserving practitioner. From that point onwards, he began to practice so diligently that at the age of 17 he was recognized as a master. Although Chen died in 1957, many episodes in his life have been colorfully preserved in the writings one of his first disciples Hong Junsheng, who studied with him from 1930 to 1944. Both the martial skill and the virtuous character which made Chen legendary are illustrated in each of the following stories, which have been taken and translated from Hong’s writings.
Master Chen was honest and loyal; to his mother he was filial and pious. When I first met him, his eyes were blood-shot. Upon inquiry, I was told that his mother was paralyzed and that he had been waiting on her day and night for three years. Once, at his mother’s request, he promised to quit drinking, a promise he kept for over ten years. He said that prior to his promise, he used to drink five pounds of white lightening without getting drunk. One day, he and his jiu [mother’s brother] shared an entire keg of white lightening. He slept for three days but his jiu never woke up. That is what prompted his mother to request that he give up drinking. From that point onwards, he would only drink a small glass of wine on the occasion of a banquet or when entertaining friends and relatives.
Master Chen would say “The pillar of socialization is loyalty and the method of dealing with people should be based on modesty and cooperation. Loyalty fosters trust; modesty encourages progress; and cooperation befriends people. Modesty and cooperation should be based on loyalty not on hypocrisy.” He was so modest that he never considered himself a master of internal martial arts: “Everything has substance and appearance. Suppose Taijiquan is an internal marital art, can you call yourself an internal martial artist if you have only studied Taijiquan for three days?” Whenever talking about other people, my master praised their contributions instead of being critical of their shortcomings. When we saw people practicing Taijiquan in the park, we would ask him whether their Taijiquan was any good. My master would always answer in one of three ways: for some he would say their Taijiquan was good; for others he would say that their Taijiquan had Kungfu; and to the last type he would say that he could not understand their style. Later on, I figured out the meaning of his answers. When he said their Taijiquan was good he meant that both their skills and Kungfu were good. When he said that there was Kungfu he meant that there were no skills to speak of, but there was effort. When he said he did not understand their style, he meant that neither their skills or their efforts were commendable, but he did not want to humiliate them.
My master always put other people’s reputations and interests before his own. For example, the Beijing gazette Facts once promoted a hundred-year-old man claiming to be a disciple of Yang Lu-chan’s. At that time, this man, named Wang Jiao-yu, was teaching in a temple in Beijing and had many followers. One day, my classmate, Li Ho, who was too young to know better, went to the temple to see just how good Wang was. Rumor had it that Wang was sufficiently well-off to occupy three rooms in the temple. He would sit on the bed, imitating the posture of another well-known master, while his nephew taught classes for him. When Li Ho came back from his visit to the temple, he told everyone, with a big smile on his face, that Wang was spineless and elderly. Consequently, Li Ho did not bother to challenge him to a fight. My master said, “Why did you visit him?” I recalled one day, three years ago, when my master and I were in Master Xu Ru-sheng’s house for a visit when someone sent in a card introducing himself. At the top of the card was written in brush “Wang Jiao-yu.” Wang claimed to visit as a traveling martial artist and as such was immediately invited in. Wang introduced himself as a student of the Yang family.
Due to his old age and his being unemployed, he asked Xu to grant him a job at Xu’s school, the Institute of Physical Education. We then requested a demonstration of his martial arts, which he only half competed before he ran out of breath. Master Xu said, “I should help you since you are a fellow martial artist, but my school has staffing regulations. Even as the president, I can’t add personnel as I wish. You will have to give me more time to work on it.” Xu then gave him ten dollars for immediate relief of his poor financial circumstances. Both Master Chen and I gave him five dollars. At the time, Wang claimed to be over sixty. God knows that only three years later, the same person suddenly became a hundred! We knew that if he did not claim to be a hundred, he could not claim to be Yang Lu-chan’s disciple. To lend credence to his claim, Wang observed the custom common to a student wishing to pay tribute to his dead master – creating an alter, over which a sacrificial wooden sign hangs bearing the master’s name. The inscription on the sign read “The Position of my Master Lu-chan.” Those days, it was common among martial artists to use trickery to elevate their status. Even today, there are still many eighty-year-olds who claim to be hundred-year-olds without being exposed. This shows the dishonesty on their part and also the open-mindedness and tolerance of others. My master advised me to keep my lips sealed about the incident in Master Xu’s house in an effort to give Wang a chance for employment.
Mr. Shen San was the number one wrestler in China. One day Master Chen met him at a martial arts competition. Upon meeting, the two aged martial artists exchanged greetings of mutual respect while shaking hands. Shen then said, “I have heard that Taijiquan is famous for being soft. In the ring, competition is conducted through drawing lots. What will a Taijiquan practitioner do if he is to face a wrestler?” Master Chen answered, “I think there should be a way for a Taijiquan practitioner to compete against a wrestler. I am not experienced in this, but I know that when two parties fight, it is not customary to first ask in what style the other party is proficient.”
The respectable Shen then proposed that to answer the question he and Master Chen compare fighting techniques. Master Chen said, “I don’t know how to wrestle but I enjoy watching wrestling as an art form. I know that wrestlers always grab the opponent’s sleeve before applying any techniques.” As he was saying this, he extended both forearms, which Master Shen then grabbed. At the time some students and I were watching them and were quite excited at the prospect of having the rare chance to witness two great masters compete. But, unfortunately, someone came to deliver a message to the two masters regarding a business meeting. They left right away, hand in hand, laughing. Two days later, Shen came with a gift when we were practicing in Master Chen’s house. I invited him in. The respectable Shen said to Master Chen, “Thank you for not humiliating me that day.” My master answered, “Not at all! Vice versa.”
When I heard their conversation, I thought that they had engaged in another match and felt unfortunate for losing the chance to see them compete after all. Seeing me absorbed in thoughts, the respectable Shen asked, “Didn’t Master Chen tell you what happened the other day?” I replied that he had not. The respectable Shen was apparently moved. “Your master is the best. Especially his morals. You must learn from him! Experts can tell the level of kungfu by one single touch. When I grabbed your master’s hands, I knew that his skill was far superior to mine because I couldn’t apply any strength to him.” After respectable Shen spoke with my master for a while and left, a student said to my master, “Since that’s the case, why didn’t you throw him out [toss him to the ground during the public encounter two days earlier]?” “Throw him out? Why throw him out?” The student didn’t dare to answer because he saw the master was so upset. “Now you tell me, do you want to be thrown around in front of so many people?” The student answered “Of course not.” “Oh, you don’t like it either? How can you apply something to others if you don’t want it applied to yourself? You shouldn’t even have thought of such a silly idea!” Then he turned to everyone who was present and said, “It is very difficult for a person to become famous like Master Shen. So we should bear other people’s reputation in mind at all times when we do something.” In hindsight, I thought that it was extremely noble of Master Shen, the number one national wrestler, to admit in front of so many young people that he met a formidable opponent. It is little wonder that since then the two of them have been close friends. They were, in all respects, equally great masters. At the time, Master Chen also told us that through that one touch he had sensed that Master Shen was extremely fast and, if they were to fight, it would have been difficult to predict the result. It is obvious that they two respected one another. They are both our models to learn from and to keep in memory.