Interview With Grandmaster Ip

A walk through the Western District of Hong Kong is a step back in time.

Narrow streets lined with vegetable stands, herb shops and open-air fish and meat markets wind their way down to Victoria Harbour with hardly a hotel or professional building in sight. The sing-song sounds of the street vendors and the clitter-clatter of steel-wheeled push carts mix with the sweet and sour scents of cooked food, incense and diesel exhaust. Save for the steady stream of bright red taxis, this could be the Hong Kong of half a century ago, when Yang Sau Chung, fourth generation head of the Yang Family, moved to Hong Kong from Canton, China in 1949.

How fitting that his First Disciple, Master Ip Tai Tak, lived quietly in this old neighborhood, intensely practicing the Snake Style – the oldest and most martial form of Yang Family Tai Chi. Beginning with his Discipleship in 1958 and ending with his death in April of 2004. Grandmaster Ip dedicated almost fifty years of daily practice to the perfection of the Snake Style System.

The Snake Style emphasizes the martial skills of tai chi chuan and is taught in the spirit of the Chinese phrase “But Da But Gau” — not to hit is not to teach. In my thirty-five years as a martial artist, nothing compares to the experience of being completely devastated by this remarkable man. During the years of my training as his Disciple I was endlessly pinched, punched, slapped, pushed, grabbed, twisted and knocked to his parquet floor. I was never injured (except for the occasional mark on my body), but I came to understand by feel the incredible power and skill of this soft martial art when expressed by a man like Master Ip.

In today’s world, this method of tai chi may find only a small following, but all Yang Style tai chi practitioners should be thankful that Master Ip Tai Tak preserved, polished and passed on this old Yang family martial method for generations to come.

During my last visit to Hong Kong prior to his death, Master Ip granted me this interview, in which he talked about his early training in Hong Kong, how he met Grandmaster Yang Sau Chung, and what makes up the Yang tai chi system known as the Snake Style.

BTF – What motivated you to study tai chi chuan?
GMI – I studied kung fu in elementary school before World War II, it was required of young men. However, my first interest in physical culture was weight training. Then after becoming injured from weight lifting, my doctor recommended swimming, table tennis or tai chi.
BTF – And you chose tai chi?
GMI – No I thought it was too slow and boring. So I took up swimming. Once, when I was at the pool, I noticed some people doing tai chi on a hillside not far away. I went over and watched them doing push hands. After talking to the instructor, I decided to join.
BTF – Who was the teacher?
GMI – It was Great Grandmaster Tung Yin Kit, a Disciple of Yang Chen Fu. The year was 1950, and I was twenty-one years old. I studied with him for four years, eventually becoming an assistant instructor. Then I met Great Grandmaster Yang Sau Chung.
BTF – How did you meet him?
GMI – I went to a kung fu demonstration in Wanchai, Hong Kong. Great Grandmaster Yang demonstrated the Broadsword. I was so impressed by his performance, that I knew I wanted to become his student.
BTF – How did you go about doing that?
GMI – I heard he lived in Yuen Long in the New Territories so I traveled there and searched the area for him. After much frustration, I found Great Grandmaster Yang teaching a handful of students in an open area. His students were very impressive, although some of them had only been studying for three months. I asked if he would accept me, and he did. It was a long trip to Yeun Long, so I found a warehouse in Kennedy Town in Hong Kong and invited Great Grandmaster Yang to teach there. He accepted and soon he had his maximum of 13 students studying with him two or three days after work weekly. Later, he moved his family to Hong Kong.
BTF – Tell us about your early training.
GMI – I’ll tell you a story. Once after class in Yuen Long, we went to a student’s house. Grandmaster Yang set up mattresses at one end of a room. He pushed us and we would fly and tumble through the air and onto the mattresses ten feet away. I had never seen anything like that before. Later we went out to dinner with Great Grandmaster Yang, but none of us were able to eat, we were too jumbled up inside.
BFT – When did you become his First Disciple?
GMI – In November of 1958. It is a very old and traditional custom called Bai Shi. I put on a banquet and invited all of the students and family of Great Grandmaster Yang. I gave him a red pocket, bolts of silk for making clothes and an offering of tea – all customary for becoming a Disciple.
BTF – How did your training differ after becoming a Disciple?
GMI – I was taught the Snake Style of the Yang Family which included the Long Form, chi kung, and a very tough style of push hands. I pushed hands with my Master this way for twenty-four years.
BTF – Did Great Grandmaster Yang talk about his training with his famous father, Great Great Grandmaster Yang Chen Fu?
GMI – Sometimes. I know he began his training at age eight and was considered a Master by age nineteen. He said his father pushed them all out of the house (his son and his students) at six in the morning. It was very cold in the north, and he and his father’s students would have to train outside continuously just to keep warm – doing as many as twelve forms in two hours at a faster pace to keep their inner heat up. Then his father would open the door at 8 am and invite them in for breakfast. They also trained at mid-day and in the evening. He said his father had so much chi in his hands that they weighed ten times that of an ordinary man.
BTF – I have heard you studied and researched many forms of martial arts.
GMI – As I said, I studied some kung fu and judo as a schoolboy. There were also many great masters in Hong Kong during that time. I became familiar with their styles. Great Grandmaster Yang taught at his home in Wanchai on Saturdays and Sundays. I would bring in a technique from another system on Saturday, and on Sunday he would show me how to counter it with his family’s tai chi.
BTF – How would you describe Great Grandmaster Yang’s push hands?
GMI – In twenty-four years I never won a match. His hands were very powerful and magic. When he caught you the pain was unbearable. In the early days, before we became stronger, every time he grabbed us we would be bruised, as if our arms and bodies were made of tofu.
BTF – Great Grandmaster Yang passed away in 1985 if I’m not mistaken.
GMI – Yes, he left three daughters, Amy, Mary(1) and Agnes. He also took two Disciples after me, Chu Gin Soon(2) in 1977 and Chu King Hung(3) in 1983. He also has three half brothers(4) still living in China.

Interview with Grandmaster Ip (Part Two)

BTF – Back to the subject of your martial training in the Yang Family System. How was it different from ordinary Yang tai chi?
GMI – There are three Yang Family forms — the crane, the tiger and the snake. Mostly the elderly or those with physical limitations practice the crane style. It uses a high posture. The tiger style is the most common. It uses a medium posture and has martial implications. The snake style has a low posture, normally four feet* from the ground and it is designed for combat use.
(*Master Ip said that four feet was based on a five foot person and that I should practice no lower than five feet because I am six feet tall. As a general rule, you should practice snake style no lower than one foot below your height.)
BTF – But there are differences other than posture height?
GMI – Yes. The tiger style’s defensive system using a more straightforward method, like the tiger itself. The snake style moves from side to side, just like the snake, and attacks the opponent from an angle. The angular hand positions are more powerful and are supported by the waist and legs more effectively. Also, the weight is one hundred percent on the standing leg. But neither form is useful as a martial art without chi Kung and push hands.
BTF – How so?
GMI – Tai chi is like a tree. If you nurture it, it will grow. But it is only a potted tree without chi kung. It can be knocked over. If you plant the tree in the ground, it will take root and cannot be pushed over. That is what chi kung training does for your tai chi. Chi kung training brings your chi down to your feet. Tai chi brings the chi up and circulates it around. Push hands teaches you how to release it through your hands.
BTF — And that is the combination that brings tai chi from health exercise to martial art?
GMI – It will allow the tiger style practitioner to apply some of the moves. But it is not the true tai chi combat way unless you practice the Long Form.
BTF – The Long Form you speak about is different from the tai chi form. (Westerners often refer to the long form as the complete Yang tai chi form).
GMI – Yes, the Yang Family Long Form is a martial form different from tai chi. It can be done at different speeds and can be modified to meet a Master’s individual martial standards. My form differs somewhat from Great Grandmaster Yang’s form. You can be creative with the Long Form, but not with the classical form.
BTF – So the three components of martial Yang style tai chi are…?
GMI – Chi kung, the Long Form and push hands. Without this combination you cannot use tai chi for self-defense.
BTF – What about fa jing?
GMI – Fa jing is often misunderstood for hard force. It is purely chi expressed in the hands from the back by hollowing the chest and using intention. My fa jing style is a very old concept that predates the Yang family. You discharge by moving the hip in one direction and the hands in the other – like drawing a bow. But you must have a strong root from chi kung practice.
BTF – You talk of the separation of tai chi for health and tai chi for fighting. Isn’t martial tai chi even better for your health?
GMI – Yes, it will make you stronger and more powerful, but you must be careful to practice correctly. Otherwise, one should not practice this method.
BTF – Thank you Grandmaster Ip.

(1) Master Mary Yang teaches privately in Hong Kong
(2) Master Chu Gin Soon teaches in Boston, Massachusetts
(3) Master Chu King Hung teaches throughout Europe
(4) Grandmaster Yang Zhendao (second half-brother) teaches in China and throughout the world