J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Professor: How Cheng Man-ching Brought Tai Chi to New York

Tai Chi is not just a way to get the circulation flowing in the morning. It is also a martial arts discipline and a framework for living an examined spiritual life. Prof. Cheng Man-ching was in touch with all aspects of Tai Chi broadly defined (including calligraphy and Chinese medicine) and he had a knack for imparting what his students needed most. Barry Strugatz (a student of Cheng’s senior students) chronicles the master’s years teaching in America and his lasting impact on his apprentices in The Professor: Tai Chi’s Journey West (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Cheng really was a professor in Taiwan. He was also a member of the National Assembly with close links to Chiang Kai-shek. However, he always thought his holistic and streamlined approach to Tai Chi would be his legacy. He came to New York in 1964 and immediately declared his independence from the expatriate establishment. Not only did he live outside of Chinatown, he readily agreed to teach goofy white American hippies and hardnosed prison guards. Perhaps most scandalously, he even accepted a Japanese-American student.

Frankly, it is rather cool to hear how Cheng related to his diverse classes and how unperturbed he was by the disapproving old guard. You could almost say he was Zen-like except Cheng’s teachings incorporated Confucian and Taoist concepts rather than Buddhism. Regardless, he had the look and the supremely cool demeanor of a master.

It is also rather refreshing how down-to-earth Prof. Cheng’s students sound when they talk about him in their contemporary interviews segments, even though many of them were counter-culturally inclined in the 1960s and 1970s. It seems like his teachings helped give them clarity of thought. At least they avoid most of the shopworn New Age clichés.

If you are seeking some kind of something, you will do far better with Cheng’s books and recorded lessons than any self-help charlatan currently peddling seminars on daytime television. Strugatz and co-producer-cinematographer Ken Van Sickle (a former student of Cheng himself) are quite level-headed in their treatment, avoiding hagiographic hyperbole. It is a nice film on a worthy subject that should sit well with a broad-based mainstream audience. Recommended for students of Taoism and martial arts fans receptive to something a little more meditative, The Professor opens this Friday (5/6) in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall.

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