An Article about Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong
by Jose Fraguas
Martial Art - March 2003 - Special Edition
Doc-Fai Wong a National Treasure
Tai Chi's Doc-Fai Wong discusses how the art is changing, tradition, mixing styles and more


Wong Doc Fai is one of the highest-ranking kung-fu instructors in the world. In the following Interview, Wong discussed a variety of topics, including traditional tai chi training, mixing styles and the evolution of the art in the United States.

Q: What made you decide to get into tai chi?

A: I first studied Wu style tai chi. My teacher was a private student of Wu Gong Yi, the oldest son of the founder of Wu tai chi Wu ]ian Qien. Two years later in 1962 I switched to Yang style, learning from a teacher in San Francisco's Chinatown, named Lau Yee Sing. Since I was so young, I also wanted a more active style of kung-fu, so I started taking choy li fut from Lau Bun in Chinatown.

Q: How is tai chi practiced today compared to the old times?

A: Today, everyone first learns the tai chi form before moving to Push hands or meditation practice. That's not the way the Yang family intended it to be taught. In ancient times, Yang family tai chi didn't start with the form. Students practiced special standing meditation postures and breathing exercises before learning anything else. Each training session began with an hour of standing meditation to build up chi.

Only when their chi was sufficiently developed did they start learning the tai chi martial art stances. As they progressed, they eventually combined their training sessions to include meditation, breathing and martial art stances. This lasted for two to three years before commencing tai chi form position work, Every three months they changed to a different martial arts stance until all 13 positions had been practiced. Some exchanged their tai chi knowledge with hsing-i and pa kua teachers, adding to the original list of 13. Each posture developed jung (energy) in different parts of the body, while externally strengthening their arms and legs.

After several years, they were taught the form. However, this was not the connected moving form we know today. First they had to stand and hold each technique in the form for 20 breaths. Then they changed to another form posture, repeating the same 20-breath position for each posture throughout the set.

By practicing the form this way, students learned only one movement at a time. Naturally, it took a long time to finish the entire form. Students didn't learn to connect form movements until after they had finished memorizing all the postures and their applications. Subsequently, it took several years just to learn the complete form. It might have been taken longer, except the Yang long form contains a number of repeat movements.

Q: Any other differences?

A: Students of Yang family teachers, such as Yang Chen Fu, also spent time practicing tui shou or push hands. Their push-hand practice included single-hand, double-hand and something called ba zhen tui shou (eight front push hands) that positioned practitioners in stances similar to today's Chen-style push hands. Ba Zhen eventually became today's Yang style da lu, sometimes called si zhen si yi (four front and four comers).

After training for four to five years, Yang stylists put their tai chi form into continuous movement. Today, most people practice their form at a low speed. That wasn't the case in tai chi's early days. Back then, there were two ways to practice the tai chi form. The easiest and most popular was called zhuo jia, or "walking the form." The method, practiced by serious students, was known as xing gong, or "developing the form." Zhuo jia is done faster than xing gong. It's more like a warm-up form, compared to the chi-developing xing gong method that puts concentration, focus, and intention into a slow, precise forms practice. Xing gong is practiced much slower than zhuo jia. Although it takes longer and requires more work, xing gong practice brings greater internal development to tai chi students than the faster and easier zhuo jia method. At this stage, Yang style tai chi students also practiced actual freestyle sparring with students who attacked with conventional kicks and punches.

The Problems of Mixing Styles

There is a problem with these mixed-up styles of martial arts. Many of the instructors learned a little here and a little there but not enough for a full understanding of what they are trying to teach. They may teach fancy movements without knowing the applications, leaving their students seriously compromised in real fighting situations. They may also cause their students external and internal injuries through incorrect training practices, such as improper breathing methods or dangerous techniques. - Doc-Fai Wong

Q: How do you see the art today?

A: Today's kung-fu is not like 10 or 20 years ago. Now more people understand Chinese culture and martial arts. Although there are plenty of unqualified teachers around, Westerners try their best to learn real kung-fu and promote their systems. If Chinese martial arts have a failing in the Western world, it's because they need more qualified instructors, teaching full-time as professionals. Pure kung-fu schools are few and far between. When you open the Yellow Pages, you don't find too many kung-fu schools. There are plenty of schools that advertise kung-fu, along with karate, ninjutsu and anything else you want to learn. Those are what we call chop-suey martial arts, taught by people who have mixed everything together, trying to sell whatever they think the public wants. They aren't pure kung-fu systems.

Q: What advice would you give to these people?

A: If you want to be a good martial artist, stay in one system and learn it well. Thoroughly understand it through hard work and constant practice. By Additional training, you can broaden your knowledge by reading good books and quality martial arts magazines. Participate in and observe martial arts exhibitions and tournaments. This will help you to gain knowledge of other styles to compare their good and bad points with your own chosen style. You should also study the culture and history of the Orient for more in-depth martial understanding.

Q: What is your advice on a physical and technical level?

A: Always work on the forms. Besides this, try to find a partner to practice two-person training such as sparring and combinations. If you only know forms without knowing how to fight, you are not a real martial artist. But if you just know how to fight and cannot do forms, you won't have the foundation of balance and coordination and will lack the basic techniques of your style.

Q: What's your opinion of how the art has evolved in the United States?

A: Americans have a great appetite for kung-fu. A large number of non-Chinese instructors make frequent trips to Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China to learn directly from Chinese martial arts experts. They do it because they know we have a need for qualified teachers here. They can recognize the differences between true traditional Chinese martial arts and chop-suey systems. I don't believe today's kung-fu has reached maturity. The few good teachers are located mostly on the West and East Coasts of the United States, leaving the nation's Midwest kung-fu students starved.

Career Highlights

Q: Is there any kind of formal exchange with top instructors from China?

A: Not really, but there are more and more Chinese teachers traveling to the United States for temporary visits, teaching and spreading their martial arts. Many of them are wushu coaches from mainland China who teach only wushu gymnastic exercises. Occasionally, traditional kung-fu experts from China visit the United States for short periods of time, teaching pure tai chi or kung-fu. The only problem with visiting instructors or with people who make one there's not enough time to learn. It's long enough to learn a wushu form, but not enough to understand higher training levels like fighting applications or internal strengths.

Q: What about the art in the United States?

A: It's the same. However, Americans have the potential to be better than Chinese at kung-fu and tai chi. They have more leisure time, more expense money and better nutrition. Americans consider martial arts a treasure, so they put more effort into learning and understanding kung-fu than do many people in the Orient. Americans have more time for diligent practice. They have more money and freedom to travel to whatever teacher they choose.

Q: You said once that the foot steps out in tai chi before the hands move forward. However some Wu style practitioners say that the hand and feet should move forward together. Which is correct?

A: I do have some personal observations of three famous Wu style experts, Wu Tu Nan in Beijing, Ma Yeuh Uang in Shanghai and Wu Gong yi's videoclips from Hong Kong. None steps out with the hands and feet together. If they did, they would fall forward abruptly. Let's take a look at a common movement - "brush knee" in Yang, Wu or any other style. One foot must stay balanced, while the other foot steps forward. When you step out, one hand circles to a position behind the ear and waits there until the forward foot is on the ground. By the time that the hand pushes all the way forward, the forward knee will have shifted its weight forward with all movement stopping at the same time. There will be no empty and full weight distribution, meaning the knee has no chance to shift forward. This is a principle I learned from my teacher, Hu Yuen Chou, a direct disciple of Yang Cheng Fu.

Q: What makes tai chi so beneficial for chi development?

A: The answer lies in tai chi's most important principles - relaxation and calmness. These are the keys to chi development. Since tai chi is done slowly, smoothly and evenly, the result is relaxation. Calmness comes from concentrating on timing, sequence and correct form.

Q: How important is relaxation in the progress of a martial artist?

A: No matter what your martial art is, if you are not relaxed while doing it, you won't reach your ultimate potential. When I talk about relaxation, I do not mean that you should try to make yourself as limp as cooked spaghetti. That isn't relaxation. true relaxation contains energy - like a garden hose with water flowing through it. It is a condition where your mind and muscles work together, without tenseness or stiffness, in a fluid organized manner. When you are relaxed, your mind is calm and alert for any required change of direction or movement, your body 1s more flexible and mobile, making it easier to escape from any kind of attack. You have more power when you throw a punch or kick.

Kung Fu in 10

In another 10 years, things will have changed. More Westerners will have learned good Chinese martial arts from authentic instructors. Their knowledge will be at a higher level. At this moment, the quality of kung-fu in the Western world depends on Western-based instructors, both Chinese and non-Chinese. We have to develop future experts from our own students. Our responsibility is to give them our best knowledge and help them become teachers. If our best students don't become teachers, we won't have enough people to promote our traditional systems. The future starts now. - Doc-Fai Wong

Q: Respect is something very important in the Chinese kung-fu tradition, but sometimes Western culture steps in the way. Is there any kind of conflict between those two different cultural approaches?

A: Not really, but you need to know and understand what would be an offense to your teacher. For instance, if your teacher is a professional instructor, don't bargain with him for his fee. If you do, you'll only create a bad impression and he won't teach you all you hoped to learn. He may only correct your movements on a shallow level. The other type of instructor is well known and very knowledgeable in martial arts, but he does not have his own school. You must find a way to be outstanding in his mind. Do that by taking good care of him. treat him special as you want him to treat you with sincere, honest respect and money or a nice gift. But be careful because not everything evolves about money. Be the one who pours tea for him at restaurants. Serve him first, then pour tea for the others at your table. This shows respect for him and his other students. And don't ask too many questions. Most masters don't like people who ask too many questions.

Q: What philosophical advice on kung-fu ethics would you give to modern martial arts practitioners?

A: Good martial artists listen and practice more than they talk; this is a rule of thumb. By doing this, not only will you reach your goal but also you'll keep them tangible. Don't take lessons with the intention of inventing up your own style. If you have enough experience and knowledge, your system will develop automatically. Eventually, you may develop new ways to do things, or you may find everything you desire in your original style. That's a different approach than simply making up a name for your own style.

Be loyal to your instructor from the beginning. For example if you are learning from one master while taking lessons from another - without anyone's permission - you are not loyal. When they find out, neither teacher will trust you. The best way is like building a pyramid. Start with a strong foundation and big base of knowledge and hard work. Then you will reach high and stay strong forever.