Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Professor: T'ai Chi's Journey to the West

Cheng Man-ch'ing teaching in New York City (photo by Ken Van Sickle).
"The Professor:  T'ai Chi's Journey to the West" chronicles Professor Cheng Man-ch'ing's decade in the United States. Told in the words of Cheng's direct students and family, this feature documentary film casts a spell that brings the 1960s to life again. At a time of great upheaval in American society, Cheng brought his eclectic arts to a diverse group of people: Chinatown businessmen, top-ranked martial artists, hippies, government workers, and dancers, among others. Archival videos and still pictures are used to great effect.

What comes across clearly from the movie is not just the tremendous impact that Cheng had on this set of people, or his prowess in so many fields, but how deeply interconnected every aspect of Cheng's work was. The film is organized around topics such as push hands, painting, and medicine. But the true secret of Cheng's work is in the commonality of all disciplines, not their separateness. They are united by ch'i, by breathing, by the focus of the mind, and by upright character.

Cheng seemed to revel in the newness of New York City, and the cultural exchange that could take place. The "Americans" (actually a disparate bunch), soaked up his teachings of t'ai chi, Chinese calligraphy, Confucius, Lao-tzu, and benefited from his practice of medicine. He took on the mantle of master in a manner that was grounded in Chinese tradition.

Cheng was one of the first people to teach t'ai chi openly in the United States, which at the time was also a political and cultural statement in terms of teaching to non-Chinese. The movie doesn't omit controversies that evolved between Cheng's original Chinatown sponsors and the Americans, or views about Cheng's martial teachings. We hear enough points of view (including Maggie Newman, Ed Young, Bill Phillips, Carol Yamasaki, Peter Kwok Ming, Cheng's children, and others) to allow us to understand how dynamic the context was and to draw our own conclusions.

"The Professor" is highly recommended for anyone interested in t'ai chi, Asian martial arts and spiritual disciplines, Chinese-American history, later twentieth-century America, and in understanding the nuances of global cultural exchange on a very personal level. Beyond this, "The Professor" is an intimate look at how big an impact one person can have on so many lives.