Zheng Manqing (Cheng Man-Ch’ing or 郑曼青) was a renowned & controversial taijiquan master. His multifaceted skills were widely acclaimed both in China and the West. Few disputed his abilities & character; Cheng Man Ching was master of the “Five Excellences”: Chinese medicine, tai chi chuan, calligraphy, painting, and poetry (not to mention flower arranging and a host of other impressive feats).
However, as stated, Cheng’s legacy is also quite controversial. From being one of the primary exponents of openly teaching taijiquan to Westerners (a feat which gained him plenty of ill will in certain traditionalist Chinese tai chi circles), to drastically modifying the tai chi movements of his teacher’s “traditional” Yang style … Zheng Manqing was a taijiquan revolutionary – a tai chi rebel.
Cheng – also known to his students simply as “The Professor” or “Professor Cheng” – was one of the preeminent forebears of taijiquan in the United States. Many of his students have gone on to impressive tai chi contributions in their own right, and if you are a tai chi practitioner located in the USA, Australia, or New Zealand … chances are you’ve at least learned a bit of The Professor’s “simplified” 37 movement tai chi form, and almost definitely run into students of Professor’s modified Yang Style tai chi chuan.
Cheng Man-Ch’ing Tai Chi Form
Professor Cheng’s form was derived from Yang Chengfu’s Yang family style “long form” or 108 movement set. As it is known today, Yang Chengfu’s form was a modified version of what was taught to him by some combination of his father, Yang Jianhou, and uncle, Yang Banhou. While it is debatable as to exactly where the “Yang Chengfu” style originated, it is generally accepted that Chengfu’s form emphasized the “da jia” (大架) or large frame set … and that it somewhat simplified & “smoothed out” some of the more square / angular movements most characteristic of his father Yang Jianhou’s form.
Regardless of the exact origins of the Yang Chengfu style of Yang family taijiquan … it is impossible not to notice that Cheng Man-ch’ing’s own modified or “simplified” style of “Yang” taiji certainly made some very major changes. Professor Cheng was by many considered the last disciple of Yang Chengfu, thereby making him the chronological junior of contemporaries such as Fu Zhongwen, Tung Ying-chieh (Dong Yinjie – 董英杰), and Chen Weiming.
To compare Professor’s style with that of his teacher, consider this video of Grandmaster Fu Zhongwen’s taijiquan form … as Fu was considered by many to have the form (and body type) closest to that of their teacher Chengfu:
“Traditional” Yang Chengfu Taijiquan Form (of Fu Zhongwen)
There are a few key differences that can be most immediately ascertained when comparing Professor Cheng’s form with that of his teacher (as represented above by senior Yang Chengfu disciple Fu Zhongwen).
1. Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s form is much more compact.
Whereas the “traditional” Yang 108 form of Chengfu emphasizes the “da jia” or large frame style … Professor’s form could be considered a medium or even small frame form (perhaps more similar to Wu style taijiquan than Yang?).
2. Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s form is much shorter!
Going from 108 movements to the abbreviated 37 movements of Cheng-style is perhaps the most notable difference. According to some sources, the reason Professor removed so many of the moves was to help bring taijiquan to an even wider audience than that which Yang Chengfu’s broadening of the art’s appeal had achieved.
3. Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s applications are significantly more concealed in the movements.
Viewing the movements of the Yang Chengfu form … or especially those of Chengfu’s father Yang Jianhou … it is quite easy and apparent to see the potential martial efficacy of the movements. Whereas, when watching Professor Cheng perform his modified set, it may be impossible for all but the initiated observer to even recognize that this set of movements conceals an abundance of powerful combat applications.
While these 3 main differences are of course my own opinions, and therefore not by any means comprehensive or definitive, they set the tone for that which I truly will like to emphasize in this – my first article on the Great Grandmaster of my most practiced taijiquan form.
Of course, all styles of taijiquan “emanate from one source” … and perhaps historically can be traced to one man. It was even said by Professor Cheng himself, when questioned by his student Ben Lo: “How do I know what I’m doing is right?” … that:
When you practice the form, once you move, you should follow the T’ai Chi Classics. If the movement follows the Classics, it is correct.
This can be said of all styles of movement, and indeed all styles of martial art. To me, any martial art can be taiji if it follows the Classics … and any “tai chi ch’uan” can ONLY truly be taijiquan if it indeed follows the same. Thus, to nit-pick between one “style” of taijiquan and another, to emphasize “this style is this, that style is that,” is truly a worthless endeavor.
That stated, allow me to nit-pick in such a fashion … embarking for the rest of this article on just this type of worthless endeavor (please take it for what it is worth).
As I alluded to in the beginning of this article: Cheng Man-Ch’ing even to this day still holds a somewhat controversial place in the history of taijiquan.
In spite of the fact that his lineage has produced excellent masters, who have proven their skills in international push hands competitions as well as open fighting tournaments … Professor Cheng’s reputation is often marred by “traditionalists” who consider Cheng an “outcast” among the “inner circle” of “authentic” taijiquan grand masters. Perhaps this is true, but from my perspective, Professor Cheng was a true artist who reached the pinnacles of this beautiful & majestic art we call taijiquan.
However, I think that one of the most “sore” spots of the CMC 37 form, and Cheng’s reputation in today’s tai chi world, is the insistence that Professor Cheng was teaching “Yang style taijiquan.”
Just as the lineage of Yang Lu-chan’s student Wu Ch’uan-yu (Wu Quanyou) and his son Wu Chien-Ch’uan (Wu Jianquan) has become known as “Wu style taijiquan,” I am confident to say that the innovations and changes made to the “traditional” Yang family style of taijiquan by Professor Cheng also warrant the same distinction. As such, I will like to propose, to all of those who still will compare the “Yang” style of Professor Cheng with the “Yang” style of Chengfu or his brother Shaohou:
/begin self-indulgent rant/
Allow us to relax from these fruitless banters once and for all!
Allow us to accept that what Zheng Manqing contributed to the world of taijiquan is its own unique form, with its own unique substance.
Allow me to propose there is today such a thing as “Cheng Man-Ch’ing style” taijiquan … or, to simplify, CMC style (or perhaps ZMQ style for Pinyin devotees).
/end self-indulgent rant/
Surely, this is indeed a fruitless topic of banter … and one which I will not again revisit. I am planning a sequence of articles on CMC style, as I have been researching the works of Professor Cheng & his students of late. However, for now, I just wanted to get this out of the way … to state publicly my opinion that indeed those who follow the “lineage” of Professor Cheng are practicing a distinct, unique CMC style of taiji.
(Note: I will avoid calling it “Cheng” style taijiquan to steer clear of the confusion for Westerners between Chen & Cheng … a common mistake by those unfamiliar with Mandarin).
Conclusion: CMC Style Taijiquan …
And, By the Way, There Are No Styles
In the end, as I said, all true taiji is one taiji. There are no different “schools” of authentic taijiquan … as the authenticity is in its transcendence of individual “schools” or “styles.” Of course, there are differences in the approaches of each “lineage” or “family” of tai chi forms & styles, but in the end, the Classics are the litmus test for measuring whether one is truly practicing taijiquan (or some imitation or “knock-off”).
While I am far from an expert, I will like to submit my opinion that Professor Cheng Man-Ch’ing created his own lineage & school of taijiquan … which was indeed an “authentic” form in its own right.
In my next article, I will discuss some of the more pertinent theories of Master Cheng, as he outlined in his outstanding book “Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan.”
Thanks for reading.