Grandmaster Feng

by Michael Dorgan

Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang

1928 - 2012

Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, the founder of Hunyuan Tai Chipassed away at 11:56 Beijing time, Saturday, May 5, 2012, at the age of 85. A memorial was held at the east hall of Ba Bao Shan funeral home in Beijing at 9:00 am on Friday, May 11th, and was attended by Tai Chi masters from around China, in addition to Feng's family, friends, and disciples.

Remembering Grandmaster Feng 
by Michael Dorgan

Friends: Because it was impossible for me to get a visa in time to attend Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang’s funeral in Beijing, I remain in San Jose and grieve his passing. My mind has been flooded by thoughts and memories of him the past few days, so I thought I would share a few with my Hunyuan Taiji friends.


Some of my fondest recollections are of the mornings I spent with Master Feng in Beijing’s historic Ditan Park. Often I would hear him arrive before I saw him. I’d be waiting at our training spot near a grove of cypress trees in southeast corner of the park when a booming voice would pierce the early morning air with a riff from a Chinese Opera song. By the time he turned the corner and came into view, Master Feng might also be miming the moves of a character from the opera or doing a little dance.


Every morning hundreds of local residents would stream into the park to stroll, stretch, walk backward, dance the Cha Cha, write calligraphy on the pavement in water with big brushes or practice one of dozens of martial arts styles that could be glimpsed among the ancient obelisks and Ming era architectural gems. The park was chock full of colorful characters but had only one prince, and that was the man they all called Feng Laoshi, which translates as Teacher Feng.


"He seemed to know everyone, and his progress into the park was often slowed by the warm greetings he encountered. Some would seek him out with a pain or ailment, and he would pause to massage a shoulder or recommend an exercise. Others would stop him to share a joke, and his barrel-chested laughter would echo through the trees..."

He was one of the China’s greatest living martial artists, a man with a punch that could rupture internal organs and a kick that could fracture large bones. Yet he exuded not ferocity but joy and compassion. Especially with the elderly and infirm, he was remarkably tender and gentle, lifting their spirits with a smile and a few kind words. He showed consideration for little creatures as well. One day when we were taking a shortcut along a dirt path to the East Gate of Ditan, he abruptly held up an arm and stopped me in my tracks. Then he bent over and lifted a small, wiggling worm from harm’s way.


Master Feng’s eyes conveyed deep wisdom and peace. But just as nature doesn’t maintain a constant state of tranquility, neither did he. His eyes could flash like lasers when a potential threat arose, and that was not uncommon.


Martial artists from throughout China and across the world would show up at the park in search of the famous master who had woven together two distinct strands of traditional martial arts, Chen Style Taiji and Xinyi, and combined them with special “gong” exercises for gathering energy and training the mind. Those encounters were generally polite, but many came to test his power, which was still formidable enough in his 70s that he could dominate an opponent completely without hurting him.


Some martial artists had encouraged him to call his creation Feng Style Taiji, in keeping with the tradition of naming new styles after their founders. But Master Feng declined. “Taiji has no surname,” he told me more than once. “It belongs to all of humanity.”  Instead of Feng Style Taiji, he called his style Hunyuan, a term difficult to translate that refers to the mixing of original qi, the energy from which all things arise.


Hunyuan Taiji was forged and refined through hardship and sacrifice. It’s often said in China that to master martial arts, one must be able to chi ku, or "eat the bitter," and Master Feng ate a lot of it. 

He had been a top student of Chen “Without Peer” Fa Ke, the standard bearer of Chen Style Taiji, and one of the few brave enough to “push hands” with the master, whose method was to teach students by slamming them to the ground. He was also a top student of Hu “One Finger Conquers the World” Yaozhen, a Xinyi and Qigong master who, as his nickname suggests, could express incredible power through just a single finger.


Master Feng several times told me about their first encounter. He was in his early 20s and already an accomplished martial artist, having trained hard in several styles since childhood. He could smash stones with his fists and was, by his own account, a bit full of himself because he had proven his martial skills in numerous challenges.


He had heard of Master Hu and eagerly accepted an invitation to meet him when an acquaintance offered to introduce him. But when he saw Hu, he was taken aback because he looked so slight, almost delicate. When Hu asked him to show him something, the young Feng blasted through a set of powerful movements that he assumed would impress the master. But Hu said simply, “You’re destroying your body.”


Hu then told Feng to hit him. Master Feng said he hesitated, fearful of injuring him. But Hu insisted, so he threw a ferocious punch at has chest. When it landed, it was young Feng who flew backward, not Hu.


Barely had he got back on his feet and dusted himself off before Master Hu stepped forward, saying “Now it’s my turn.” He poked Feng in the chest with a single finger and sent him flying about 10 feet through the air before he slammed into a wall. Already on his knees, he immediately bowed to Master Hu and begged to become his student.


Master Feng, through long years of political turmoil and economic privation, not only kept alive the arts he had learned from Masters Chen and Hu but also advanced them by creating a style that seamlessly builds health while developing martial ability. He was a Picasso of the fist, a towering figure in the marital arts world whose determination and innovation were undaunted even by the Cultural Revolution, a 10-year period when martial arts were harshly suppressed and many masters were jailed. Undernourished and assigned to work long hours in a factory, Master Feng practiced standing meditation on packed buses on the hour-long trips back and forth to work and trained in secret in the small apartment he shared with his wife and four daughters.


While already widely known for his martial skills, Master Feng received national recognition in martial arts circles in the early 1980s, not long after Leader Deng Xiaoping declared “Taiji is good,” thereby ending the repression of traditional martial arts and returning taiji to parks all across China. A gathering of top taiji masters was held in Shanghai, and hand-to-hand encounters there confirmed Master Feng’s standing as one of China’s greatest martial artists.


"At that point, he could easily have cashed in on his accomplishments and taken a permanent seat that the banquet table reserved for China’s “living treasures.” Instead, Master Feng did something extraordinary. He took his hard-earned knowledge, which traditionally had been closely held and taught to only a limited few, and shared it with the world..."


When I began training with Master Feng after being posted to Beijing as a foreign correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers in 1999, I had already trained diligently in Asian martial arts for more than 30 years. It was if I had been slowly climbing a steep mountain, but still found myself far from the summit and felt I was running out of time. I had had some good teachers, and remain grateful for what they taught me. But Master Feng had a unique depth of knowledge and ability to communicate it, even across a great gap in language.


He spoke only a few words of English, and my Mandarin was far from capable of grasping the nuances and paradoxes of advanced taiji theory. Some of his students were able to help me translate some of the more arcane concepts, but the most important teaching was transmitted without words - one on one, mind to mind, heart to heart.


Becoming Master Feng’s formal disciple in 2002 was one of the most important events of my life. And those many days I spent with him in Ditan Park over my five-and-a-half years in Beijing are among my most precious memories.

As a journalist, I’ve covered news stories in more than 20 countries and met world-champion athletes, technology tycoons, leading intellectuals and heads of state. But I’ve never met anyone who impressed me more, or who touched me more deeply, than Master Feng. He was a man with a keen intelligence, a big heart and a soaring spirit.


I will miss him. He was my hero. I loved him like a father and feel a huge loss. But I’m comforted by knowing that Master Feng would have regarded his own passing as part of the great cycle of life that Hunyuan Taiji can enrich and illuminate.


It was his gift to humanity.


Michael Dorgan is a writer and reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. He is also the founder of the Hunyuan Martial Arts Academy of San Jose