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Yang Chengfu

Yang Chengfu – Creator of Modern Yang Style T'ai Chi Chuan

Yang Chengfu (杨澄甫; 1883–1936) or Yang Ch'eng-fu (楊成富) was born into the third generation of the famous Yang T'ai Chi Chuan family. Chengfu systematized the features of the modern Yang school and spread it throughout China.

Chengfu was the youngest son of Yang Jianhou (1839–1917) who was the youngest son of Yang Luchan (1799–1872), the founder of Yang T'ai Chi Chuan. Chengfu's birth name was Zhao-qing (兆清), while he privately went by Chengfu. His older brothers were Yang Zhao-xiong (1862–1930) (兆熊), or Yang Shaohou (楊少侯; private name), and Zhao-yuan (兆元). Zhao-yuan passed away at a young age. Shaohou studied with both his father and his uncle, Yang Banhou (1837–1890). He also studied with his grandfather Luchan until the age of ten when his grandfather passed away. Like Banhou, Shaohou was known for his bellicose and forceful temperament. He was a demanding teacher who tended to hit his students with full force. Called "Mr. Big," Shaohou was adept at sparring. He was noted for his fast movements and rooted posture. He taught the small (小架 xiǎo jià) and medium frames (中架 zhōng jià) of Yang T'ai Chi Chuan, then developed his signature "small circle" (小圓圈 xiao yuanquan) style. It was distinguished by high and low postures with small movements executed in a method that was sometimes slow and sometimes sudden. Likely influenced by techniques learned from Banhou and Luchan, it emphasized fighting application and is little known today. Another member of the third generation of the Yang family was Banhou's son, Yang Shao-p'eng (楊少鵬; 1872–1930). He studied with Chen Xiu Feng, a disciple of Banhou's, before founding a school in Guangxi (广西) in South China, which bordered Vietnam. There he spent his last years.

Chengfu took after his father in character and was noted for his warm-heartedness and intelligence. He was called "Third Son" (三子). When he was a boy, he was not interested in martial arts. He didn't start learning t'ai chi chuan until his teen years. Unlike his older brother Shaohou, he learned primarily from Jianhou, which set their t'ai chi chuan styles apart.

Chengfu studied continuously under Jianhou in Beijing. His t'ai chi chuan skills were characterized as being akin to an "iron needle hidden in cotton." Along with his brother Shaohou and associates like Wu Jianquan (1870–1942) (吳鑑泉) (founder of Wu T'ai Chi Chuan) and Sun Lutang (1860–1933) (孫錄堂) (founder of Sun T'ai Chi Chuan), Chengfu taught to the public at the Beijing Physical Culture Research Institute from 1914 to 1928.

When his father Jianhou passed away in 1917, Chengfu traveled throughout southern and eastern China. He taught in cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Hankou, Nanjing, and Hangzhou. His travels began the third, modern phase of the spread of t'ai chi chuan and they coincided with the aftermath of the May Fourth Movement, which was a Chinese anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement which emerged from student protests in Beijing on 4 May 1919. Young Chinese intellectuals reevaluated aspects of Chinese tradition, discussed "self-strengthening," and embraced martial arts. Chengfu wrote as well about the necessity of strengthening the Chinese people against Japanese imperialism and Western methods of modernization.

In 1925, Cheng Fu published the book "The Art of T'ai Chi Chuan," using actual photos of himself. In 1931, he published "The Applications of T'ai Chi Chuan," using updated pictures. In 1928, he was invited to serve as the head of the Wudang section of the Nanjing Central Guo Shu Academy and later the Zhejiang Provincial Guo Shu Academy in Hangzhou. In 1930, Cheng Fu moved to Shanghai where he published the book "The Complete Principle and Theory of Tai Chi Chuan." In 1932, he was invited by Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) generals Chen Jitang (1890–1954) (陳濟棠) and Li Zongren (1890–1969) (李宗仁) to teach in Guangzhou. He taught for two years then returned to Shanghai. After Yang Cheng Fu travels through southern China, he gradually shifted away from the martial aspect of t'ai chi chuan to its health aspects. When Chengfu first arrived in Shanghai, he was invited to demonstrate at the "Soft Fist" Society. When he executed the "Separate Heel Kick," he emitted much power that generated a loud sound. Later, he changed the kick to a slow and even movement. "Fist to Groin" originally manifested great power at the last moment of delivery, but this was modified to a slow and even motion. Chengfu's method of style gradually evolved into slow and continuous movements without breaks.

Chengfu was a large framed person and he possessed exceptional push hand skills that didn't rely on li (力; strength or force). His sensitivity was extremely keen and agile. When he manifested power, he was exactly on target. He was noted for lightning fast speed and using a short striking distance that let him throw a person several meters away without harm. Some of Chengfu's students were said to describe the feeling of being pushed by him as being invigorating and comfortable. Though his t'ai chi chuan appeared soft and gentle outwardly, it was hard as steel inwardly.

A story of how a piece of cotton demonstrated the martial skills of Chengfu continues to be told in martial arts circles near the city of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province in southern China. It is a sprawling port city that lies on the Pearl River northwest of Hong Kong.

Yang Chengfu & Fu Zhongwen

Yang Chengfu and Fu Zhongwen

In 1932, Chengfu and his disciple, Fu Zhongwen (1903–1994) (傅鈡文), traveled south to Guangzhou. Zhongwen would go on to become a respected t'ai chi chuan master in his own right. Since the age of 9, he had been a disciple of Chengfu's. As Zhongwen grew, he joined Chengfu on his travels around China. While Chengfu taught, Zhongwen demonstrated. Zhongwen often accepted challenges from other martial artists and never failed to uphold the honor of Chengfu.

One day, a martial arts teacher called Liu and his students went to the residence of Chengfu. Observing the way in which Liu was dressed and the manner in which he carried himself, Chengfu discerned that Liu had formidable fighting talent. Upon meeting Chengfu, Liu pressed his right fist into the palm of his left hand in salute and said: "It is well known that your skills in t'ai chi chuan are superior and for three generations your family has been without equals. I have especially come here to see your skills."

Chengfu realized Liu was challenging him to a duel and that it was unavoidable. He suddenly thought of an idea, though, to prevent a fight but to maintain the code of Wulin (武林), the martial world. He instructed Zhongwen to get a piece of cotton thread one foot long. Zhongwen was shocked as the cotton thread was then used as a training tool only among the indoor disciples of the Yang style. It was never shown to outsiders before.

Chengfu warmed up by performing "Grasp Sparrow's Tail" and "Cloud Hands." He then he took the cotton thread between his thumb and index finger and asked: "Who has the strength of a thousand pounds to tear this piece of thread in half?" Upon hearing this, Liu sneered at Chengfu and sent one of his own students to take the challenge.

Liu's student grabbed the other end of the cotton thread and asked: "When shall we begin?"

Chengfu answered: "It is completely up to you."

Liu's student fiercely pulled on the cotton thread. Chengfu adhered to his every move. Suddenly Liu's student reversed the direction of motion, however, Chengfu, without hesitation, moved likewise.

This carried on for several rounds without Liu's student being able to tear the thread in half. While the thread was being pulled it remained straight no matter which direction the force was being applied. Liu saw what was happening and told his student to step back.

After Liu performed several warm up exercises, he jumped into the air and executed several tornado kicks. Immediately after this, he jumped toward Chengfu and grabbed the other end of the thread. Chengfu moved as agilely.

Without hesitation, Liu jumped back in retreat while trying to break the thread. Chengfu followed Liu, keeping the thread from being broken. Liu then shot forward like an arrow, then darted left and right, moving in every direction. Within this flurry of motion, both Liu and Chengfu never contacted one another. The way in which they moved was akin to a dragon lantern moving at night.

Onlookers were amazed by Chengfu's skill. The thread remained unbroken and unbent the entire time. After a long time of attempting to break the thread, Liu was completely breathless and drenched with sweat. Chengfu was calm and relaxed without any sign of fatigue.

When the match ended, Liu realized that the skill level of Chengfu was extraordinary and he held a banquet to honor Chengfu. From that day, Liu became good friends with Chengfu. In the same way as Chengfu's grandfather and father did before him, Chengfu had developed his skills of Dōngjìn (東進; understanding energy) and Tǐngjìn (挺進; listening to energy) to an outstanding degree. Chengfu was able to adhere and yield to every move his opponent executed without expending energy. The match further solidified Chengfu's reputation for being humane and a grandmaster.

Chengfu described t'ai chi chuan as "an art with great strength concealed in gentle movements, like an iron hand in a velvet glove or a needle concealed in cotton." He stressed to his students that they maintain "relaxation" and "roundness" in their motions, which should be soft, flexible, even, and coordinated with their minds.

Chengfu "smoothed" out the more vigorous medium frame (中架 zhōng jià) of Yang T'ai Chi Chuan he learned from his father Jianhou and developed large frame (大架 dà jià) Yang T'ai Chi Chuan in his later years. The large frame postures developed by Chengfu are open and enlarged, simple and straightforward. They include wide stepping movements and use large circular arm motions. The structure of the postures is both concise and exact, with emphasis on the maintenance of body alignment during movement. The movements are gentle and flowing, and executed at a uniform pace. The features of hardness and softness, lightness and heaviness are integrated. All of these traits make the large frame the representative standard form for modern Yang T'ai Chi Chuan. The large frame can be practiced in a high, medium, or low stance. The degree of difficulty is thus adjusted according to a person's needs and physical condition. The form retains the martial arts aspects of attack and defense, and is suitable as well for building up the body, boosting health, and healing sickness. This health-promoting feature has consequently made Yang T'ai Chi Chuan the most widely practiced style in the world today.

Chengfu passed away early in 1936 at the age of 53. T'ai chi practitioner and medical doctor Mei Ying Sheng (梅应生), who was a direct student of Fu Zhongwen, recorded the following account by Zhongwen in his book "Taijiquan and Longevity": "After my teacher (Yang Chengfu) arrived in southern China, he was afflicted with diarrhea and vomiting due to the sanitation of the water and environment. He was hooked up to an I.V. for not very long before he passed away."

The capabilities and technology of Western style medicine was very low in the 1930's throughout China, therefore the treatment of even a minor illness was a tremendous difficulty in many areas in China.


Yang Cheng Fu Ward Off and Push Postures


Yang Cheng Fu Single Whip Posture Side and Front Views


Yang Cheng Fu Turn and Chop with Fist and Carry the Tiger to the Mountain Postures

Chengfu's numerous students, and their students went on to disseminate Yang T'ai Chi Chuan throughout the world. Chengfu's students included famed masters like Tung Ying-chieh (董英杰) (1898–1961), Chen Weiming (陈微明) (1881–1958), Fu Zhongwen, Li Yaxuan (李雅轩) (1894–1976) and Cheng Man-ch'ing (郑曼青) (1902–1975). Each formed groups that continue to teach t'ai chi to the present. Ying-chieh was famous in his life for beating foreign boxers in public challenge matches and he served as Chengfu's chief assistant instructor. Weiming was a teacher and scholar who wrote books that have remained influential and serve as important references about t'ai chi chuan in the early 1900s. Zhongwen has been discussed above. Yaxuan was responsible for teaching Yang style T'ai Chi Chuan to thousands of people in China. Man-ch'ing is the most famous outside of China. After Chengfu's passing, he shortened and simplified the forms he learned to make them more accessible to more disciples. Though his modifications are considered controversial by most schools and not accepted by the Yang family, he is one of the first Chinese masters to teach t'ai chi chuan in the West.

Chengfu's sons continued their father's teachings. His first son, Yang Zhenming (杨振铭) (1910–1985), introduced Yang T'ai Chi Chuan to Hong Kong. His second son, Yang Zhenji (楊振基) (born 1921), is the current head of Chengfu's family branch. His third son, Yang Zhenduo (楊振鐸) (born 1926), lives in Shanxi Province and is regarded as the preeminent Yang T'ai Chi Chuan family teacher living today. His fourth son, Yang Zhenduo (楊振國) (born 1928), lives in Handan City, Hebei Province.

Men and women students can learn the martial applications as well as enjoy the health benefits of Yang T'ai Chi Chuan in martial arts classes held by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.


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