The way of a master: Hsiung Wei

Hsiung Wei

Many Taiwanese who lead fast-paced contemporary lifestyles are now turning to a form of exercise called taichi dao yin. This form has its roots in ancient Taoist philosophy but is unmistakably modern in its accessibility and convenience.
(source Taiwan Info by Pat Gao, 2002)
For almost a decade, Hou Pi-ling has spent two hours every Thursday evening in an exercise class with several other people, following the simple instructions of a wiry and youthful-looking seventy-two-year-old taichichuan master. With quiet concentration, the class performs twelve slow-motion exercises. “This offers a happy escape from my busy life,” says Hou, who works as an advertising executive. “It gives me inner peace and empties my mind.”

The kind of exercise the group practices is not a traditional form of taichichuan, the style of martial arts that was developed in fifteenth-century China and is associated with Taoism. Instead, Hou and her group practice a style of taichi that their teacher, Hsiung Wei, developed himself in the 1970s called taichi dao yin. Six of the twelve exercises relate to dao, which channels the breath, and the other six relate to yin and guide the body.

Taichichuan typically is an internally focused form of martial arts that stresses relaxation, perception, posture, and body alignment instead of muscular or external development. In its most popular form, it is practiced as a meditative style of exercise much like yoga. Though some movements of the two types of taichi are similar, taichichuan emphasizes the precise movements of its practitioners while taichi dao yin instructions are simpler and not necessarily performed in sequential order. Those who follow taichi dao yin are free to produce variations of the prescribed movements according to their level of physical fitness and strength.

Hsiung, winner of the prestigious martial-arts title in the 2001 Global Chinese Culture and Art Heritage Award granted by the Taiwan Junior Chamber, created taichi dao yin to stretch the joints, “massage” the internal organs, and promote circulation of the body’s vital energy, or qi. As with traditional taichichuan, taichi dao yin’s guiding principles are based on relaxation and twisting. Hsiung’s exercises concentrate further on nine major axles of movement–namely the ankle, knee, hip, waist, spine, neck, shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Twisting is the most important aspect of Hsiung’s ideas of body cultivation. “The sky will collapse, the earth will break down, and the human body will waste away if they don’t revolve,” Hsiung says, paraphrasing from Yin Fu Ching (“Secret Correspondence with the Way of Nature”), a classic piece of Taoist literature that establishes a connection between man and the natural world.

Hsiung’s interest in taichichuan grew from a need to improve his health. Born in 1930 in Hunan Province in central China, Hsiung suffered from general ill health during childhood. Later, he joined the army and arrived in Taiwan with the Nationalist troops in 1949. Shortly after his arrival, he fell seriously ill. He sought treatment from doctors of both Western and Chinese medicine, but to no avail. He then came across a book on taichichuan written by Li Shou-chien and began to practice the martial art.

In 1960, Hsiung began to practice taichi with Li, who followed Yang, one of the major schools of taichichuan. Hsiung initially experienced fatigue and boredom with the exercises, but as his health gradually improved, he became an enthusiastic practitioner. In what he later saw as a test of his newfound health, Hsiung was hit by a speeding ambulance four years later. He fell into a coma, but soon regained his consciousness and recovered in two weeks, much to the surprise of doctors who had planned to operate on him. “I know it was the taichichuan’s relaxation exercises that saved my life,” Hsiung says. “At the critical moment of impact, I didn’t resist the crashing force as most people instinctively would. It was because of this that I wasn’t fatally injured.”

Hsiung’s interest in taichichuan increased, and he continued to learn two other major forms of the martial art–Hao and Chen–through classes with teachers and extensive reading. During this learning process, he continued to explore the merits of taichichuan as a discipline, and he also came to question whether true distinctions existed among the different types of study. “I concluded that there is a common spirit running through all the systems,” he notes. “The only differences lay in the different levels of physical requirement and understanding.”

As an avid reader of ancient Taoist texts such as I Ching (“The Book of Changes”) and Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching (“The Way and Its Power”), Hsiung values the notion of universal correspondence or “complementarity” among all things in the world and the illusional nature of forms and boundaries. “I felt a need to break away from the conventional,” he explains. “Water from a tub can flow freely into the surrounding ocean and surge like tidal waves only after the container is removed. Likewise, a form of physical exercise can’t fully realize the body’s potential until it’s free of excessive concern with regulations and details regarding motions.” As a result, the taichichuan master draws attention to the body itself instead of the required movements.

“In contrast with the traditional system of taichichuan and the more mystical qigong , taichi dao yin is easier to follow,” explains Lee Fong-mao, a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy. Lee, a practitioner of taichi dao yin, helped Hsiung name his form of taichichuan and set up the Chinese Culture Society of Taichi Dao Yin in 1992.

Lee points out that while taichi dao yin is an advanced system of theory and practice, it also opens a door for beginners to cultivate their bodies. “It’s not like jogging where you just sweat,” he notes. “Instead, it uses every part of your body. And for people who work at a desk all day, it offers the perfect balance between physical exercise and meditation.” The Chinese Culture Society now has fourteen locations across the island where thousands are able to practice taichi dao yin.

Many practitioners, such as Hou Pi-ling, find Hsiung’s brand of taichi a superior alternative to “more superficial” types of physical activity. “It’s one of the best forms of exercise we’ve found,” says Kao Tuan-hsun, a business consultant. Both Kao and Chien Yu-hsin, his wife, had suffered from back problems in the past, but now their pain has subsided and their once frequent visits to doctors have ceased. Kao also says his philosophical approach to life has changed. “I’m much more energetic in dealing with problems,” he notes. “I have more patience and perseverance.”

In addition to its health benefits, taichi dao yin has won devout adherents from among artists and dancers who regard it as a highly stylized method of exercising. Dance groups such as the renowned Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and U Theater have included taichi dao yin in their training courses. The National Taipei University of the Arts has also invited Hsiung Wei to teach its dance and drama students his style of taichi.

In 1998, Cloud Gate staged Moon Water, a dance piece featuring taichi dao yin as an artistic expression. The performance was hailed as one of the troupe’s best productions. In his preface to Hsiung Wei’s book Tai Chi Essence published last year, Lin Hwai-min, founder and artistic director of Cloud Gate, says that taichi dao yin is capable of boundless variety through the bodily application of just a handful of motions. “That’s why it’s so popular among performance artists,” Lin has written.

The internationally celebrated choreographer considers Hsiung a true artist who has contributed revolutionary views about the human body and its movements. “I know practically nothing about music or dance, but I think there’s something in common between my understanding of the body and the art of making sound or movement,” Hsiung says. “Sometimes when I’m only making a few simple gestures, people say it’s dance.” He is proud to see taichi dao yin conceived and presented in an artistic way, as he believes it will make it “more acceptable among the general public.”

Hsiung, however, has no ambition to popularize his form of taichi internationally. In the past, he taught his skills and philosophy to people in the United States and South Africa, but he is no longer inclined to engage in similar missions in the future. Because taichi dao yin is firmly rooted in traditional Chinese wisdom, he has come to the conclusion that it is too difficult to impart to people with a different cultural background. “I used to teach an American student who studied Chinese literature in Taiwan,” he recalls. “In spite of my repeated explanations, his body just couldn’t relax, and there was nothing I could do to help him.”

Ultimately, what the taichi master envisions is a dialogue with one’s self. “They say that nothing is so strong that taichichuan can’t destroy,” Hsiung says, referring to the internal obstacles that prevent one from attaining harmony within the body. One of Hsiung’s students, Chang Liang-wei, director of the Taipei City Culture Society of Taichi Dowing, embraces the same belief. “Taichi practitioners have no enemy outside themselves,” he notes. “It’s one’s own weakness and desire that one has to fight.”

Chang points out that dao yin has a history of more than two thousand years, citing a recently excavated Han-dynasty picture showing forty-four human figures, each making different exercise poses. To help keep the tradition alive, the Chinese Culture Society of Taichi Dao Yin is engaged in promoting Hsiung’s brand of taichi with a joint promotional campaign with Linking Publishing Co.–the publisher of Hsiung’s book–that involves the selling of exercise videos and public demonstrations. Twenty-four students, including Kao Tuan-hsun, were recently authorized to teach taichi dao yin, and a certification program for additional teachers is in the planning stages. Additional classes, such as those for women, will be offered with special emphasis on different aspects of taichi dao yin. These efforts will ensure that as the popularity of this special form of exercise grows, more and more people like Hou Pi-ling will be able to enjoy the rewards of their busy lifestyles as well as the peaceful escape that taichi dao yin offers.