The Professor

We interrupt this journey to present an important milestone recently produced by a Kickstarter campaign, a fine documentary film about the man who helped popularize Tai Chi Ch’uan in the United States. It began in the turbulent ‘60s when martial artists and hippies invaded a studio in New York’s Chinatown in equal parts, all interested in drawing from the power of Tai Chi.

Cheng Man Ch’ing was 63 years old in 1964 when he uprooted his family from Taiwan to inhabit that New York studio and teach Tai Chi, the “soft” Chinese martial art he had mastered during a lifetime of study. Over the next decade, until his death in Taiwan in 1975, Cheng effectively kick-started the American quest for better health, strength and balance through Tai Chi and other Qigong (energy work) exercises.

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Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s students in New York recall his humanity, his “genuine” nature.

Cheng’s legacy is the subject of The Professor: Tai-Chi’s Journey West, a new documentary that provides an intimate and affectionate view of the Tai Chi master, through the eyes of many of his students. The video also uses the opportunity to explain and promote the Taoist martial art.

Cheng was a man of tiny stature but giant accomplishments, a healer practiced in Chinese medicine, a poet, painter and calligrapher. His American students towered over him, but he easily dispatched them in “push-hands” exercises. The film includes many original clips showing the Professor in playful exercises with his students, from teaching brushstrokes to swordplay.

“The Professor” is the Kickstarter brainstorm of filmmaker Barry Strugatz, who quickly collected $35,000 from more than 300 donors to get the film off the ground. Many of the contributors were key to the story, Cheng’s students. Those who participated in the film all had fond memories and stories about lessons learned, even today.

“I think the devotion we felt, and the communication we had came from the fact he was a genuine person,” said former student Myles Angus MacVane. “His genuine reality came through so that communication was not a problem even though he spoke a different language.”

Cheng student Ed Young, who grew up in China interested in martial arts, but not Tai Chi, became a Cheng and Tai Chi devotee in New York, also serving as Cheng’s translator during the daily six-hour lessons that covered the Yang-style form, push hands and sword form, with time out for Chinese medicine and calligraphy. “He came to the United States to teach Americans, and he taught everyone,” Young said.

Another student, Ken Van Sickle, who joined director Strugatz as a producer of the new film, described his odyssey from karate to other martial arts, seeking “something with a philosophy and meaning.” When he walked into Cheng’s studio and saw him gently launching people into the air during push hands exercises, he knew he had found his place.

The former students described how Cheng insisted that they relax their bodies to properly practice Tai Chi, concentrating on balance and structure, and to never use force. “In an interview with the Daily News, he stressed the importance of listening,” recalled Bill Phillips. “I didn’t realize until later that he was talking about listening with your hands, not your ears.”

The Professor had the power to “sense your balance just through touch,” MacVane said, “to unbalance you by yielding.” Because he was so “soft” in his approach to martial arts, some of his contemporaries in China “didn’t think he had the ‘real stuff,’” Van Sickle said.

“When he came to the United States, Cheng was much more interested in the health aspects of Tai Chi, rather than the martial part,” Van Sickle said. “He understood that the ‘real stuff’ was the stuff that helped you live longer, that gave you vitality. He regarded Tai Chi as his most important accomplishment because it let people achieve good health on their own.”

Although the Professor periodically traveled back to Taiwan (the local Chinese men’s organization locked out Cheng’s students during one such visit), his students said they had a sense of foreboding in 1975 when he left the final time – in a hurry to get back and finish his book on the I Ching. Their fears were realized when he died unexpectedly in Taiwan.

His students have worked hard to carry on his work – some taking the martial arts track and others focusing more on internal energy (Qigong) and health. One of Cheng’s students in Taiwan, Robert W. Smith, co-wrote with Cheng a basic text in Tai Chi Ch’uan, and helped to popularize the practice with schools in Washington, DC, where I studied, and in North Carolina.

“The Professor” succeeds as a documentary but also as an introduction to Tai Chi and the Taoist principles that underlie the martial art. You are taken through the 37-posture Cheng Yang form, push hands and the Yang sword form, as well as such principles as qi (life force) and the Tao (Way).

Only one nit I would pick with the filmmakers is the decision to open the piece with an interview with Bruce Lee, the “hard” martial artist movie star who applauds the rise of Tai Chi among the masses, who perform the exercise on rooftops all across China. Although he bows to those people using Tai Chi “to take care of their bodies,” his was not the best introduction to the story, in my opinion.

I recommend “The Professor” for anyone interested in Tai Chi and Chinese culture, including practitioners seeking other views on the Way. You can order the DVD here. Check out the trailer:

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The Round Trip

Neal Cassady was a magnetic character in Jack Kerouac’s books — a wild West antihero  who was ultra-cool and ultra-hot, a walking contradiction. He was also an object of affection for many Beats and their followers, the model for the charismatic Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road, and known as Cody Pomeray in his later works. Besides the many women he loved and left, Cassady for many years had an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Allen Ginsberg. He went back and forth, from coast to coast.

For all his babbling bop poetry, a muse for Kerouac, Ginsberg and latter-day Beats, Cassady never published anything. He inspired Kerouac to write like the wind, in a stream-of-consciousness style, with his constant patter, and no doubt induced Ginsberg to “Howl” and make other poetic sounds, but Cassady’s own writings were little more than notes left here and there.

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Neal Cassady in the driver’s seat of “Further,” Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus. Pulled over many times, Cassady was able to talk his way out of every situation, distracting officers as he directed video crews filming the officers — as seen in the 2011 movie, Magic Trip.

Still, before his sudden death in Mexico in 1968, Cassady played a major role in the evolution of the Beat culture as it was transformed in the psychedelic brew of California. That’s where he was in 1963, falling in with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they prepared a cross-country trip to the East Coast to meet Kerouac, Timothy Leary and their East Coast countercultural counterparts, whoever they were.

As shown in Alex Gibney’s 2011 film, Magic Trip, which integrated original clips from the trip, Cassady was the self-proclaimed “protector” of the Pranksters, and sole driver of the well-painted bus, “Further.” He was the hyper engine of a bus that seemed to be careening wildly across the countryside, a speed freak leading wacky meditations on LSD and other psychedelic drugs.

The trip and “graduation ceremonies” are chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a New Journalism classic that I am rereading for context for my own trip in search of the new Dharma bums. Here’s how Wolfe described Cassady, when Wolfe first approaches the Pranksters working on the psychedelic bus:

“Off to one side is a guy about 40 with a lot of muscles, as you can see because he has no shirt on – just a pair of khakis and some red leather boots on and his hell of a build – and he seems to be in a kinetic trance, flipping a small sledge hammer up in the air over and over, always managing to catching the handle on the way down with his arms and legs kicking out the whole time and his shoulders rolling and his head bobbing, all in a jerky beat as if somewhere Joe Cuba is playing ‘Bang Bang’ …”:

Then later, when he learns the kinetic superman is THE Dean Moriarty, he is amused that “Cassady never stops talking. … (He) is a monologist, only he doesn’t seem to care whether anyone is listening or not. He just goes off on the monologue, by himself if necessary, although anyone is welcome aboard. He will answer all questions, although not exactly in that order, because we can’t stop here, next rest area 40 miles, you understand, spinning off memories, metaphors, literary, Oriental, hip allusions, all punctuated by the unlikely expression, ‘you understand …’”

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Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters named their psychedelic bus “Further.” Neal Cassady drove it from San Francisco to New York, but didn’t return with the group.

Dabney’s movie, available on YouTube at one hour, 47 minutes, follows the trip in all its creative chaos, with interviews with Kesey and other easy riders while also depicting the denouement of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, who had already begun to slip into an alcoholic stupor when he met Kesey, Cassady and the Pranksters. Everyone was in a bit of a stupor, though:

When Kesey mounted his cross-country journey, he had finished up his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, which would be panned by media along with his psychedelic adventure. But Kesey already had his masterpiece, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, hailed as a great American novel, which had opened  on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the role of the all-American rascal Randle McMurphy, later immortalized by Jack Nicholson in the great American movie.

Kesey also had a suitor in Tom Wolfe, the dapper Journalist (Big “J”) from New York City, seemingly always decked out in a white suit. Wolfe was in the midst of pioneering the New Journalism form, along with Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and a few others. The idea is to tell real-life stories in the form of a novel, injecting yourself into the narrative. Wolfe tracks down Kesey in 1965, as he is getting out of jail, having served three months for marijuana possession. That’s where we’ll pick up the thread in a future blog.