Monday, March 21, 2011

Saving Face and the Scientific Method in Classical Tai Chi

"Tao of Martial Applications" DISCUSSION:

Mark Thomasson DDS recently sent a very insightful article on the concept of "Face" to me.  Mark is a student of Master Stephen Hwa and has studied Classical Tai Chi for several years now.  In his article Mark writes: "I think this consumer driven "show me", "how many lessons will it take?" is consistent with popular consumer culture.  This attitude of proof before pay weakens the classical teacher/student changes it...creating distance and a barrier of skepticism to receiving instruction" He quotes Herbert Spencer: "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation."

I find Mark's article to be spot on in light of the power that material culture holds over us all.  In my opinion, "consumer driven" or "material culture" weakens teacher/student relationships  by creating a barrier of skepticism  because by its very nature it  allows very little in the way of expression.  You see, the relationship between teacher and student in Tai Chi is a two way street ,  it has to increase the scope of expression for coherent learning but it also has to allow both parties to show mutual respect or "save face" ( mianzi )in the process.

I have found some students who went far beyond mere skepticism even when they received free lessons.  Their attitudes were nothing less than arrogant, completely insulting and their whole aim seemed to be a humiliation of the teacher.  On the other hand I have experienced teachers myself, who felt that even the most politely worded questions were humiliating.  This I'm pretty sure has quite a basis in the concept of "saving face". What a paradoxical situation where Tai Chi is so fluid, seemingly "laid back" and yet we find both teachers and students being as unyielding as steel.

Students may haphazardly come to rudimentary understanding over years in spite of this.  However,   I do not think they will come to understand the greatest principle of "internal discipline"  I  say internal discipline is the greatest principle  because Tai Chi is based on an internal physical discipline. This physical internal discipline is so little known and misunderstood that most Tai Chi nowdays exists because it is based on having a certain internal mental demeanor.  Fortunately, there are teachers whose whole purpose is to teach Classical Tai Chi as an art based on solid footing of principles.  More fortunate is the teaching of Classical Tai Chi with  the primary principle of Internal Discipline being in the forefront.  This is an emphasis on internal discipline with scientific understanding, rather than keeping a student strung along on a diet of "technique and application" using external movement.

Classical Tai Chi is fortunate to have Master Stephen Hwa as an enlightened teacher who holds no "bars against information".   His students have learned as well not to hold "contempt prior to investigation".  As a student of his, I feel quite fortunate to have a teacher that bases his teaching on a comprehensive scientific approach to learning. The learning of internal discipline gives the student ample opportunity to follow the scientific method. Students are encouraged to research things themselves, make observations, test/experiment and analyze their results.  In the case of Internal Discipline students have "feedback" and tactile sensations of the body to confirm their study.  Above all, students are encouraged to ask questions but also learn enough scientific discipline to ask questions based on their prior research and study.

 It is quite obvious in the attached video that there are no barriers of skepticism.  Yet, there is an obvious level of respect between Master Hwa and his students. Students in this discussion are being encouraged to ask questions but also guided by Master Hwa in how to do so intelligently and succinctly. In addition, we have ample representation here of  allowing all parties to "save face" in an atmosphere of mutual learning.  It would appear that traditional concerns over respecting one's teacher are not violated in an atmosphere where scientific discipline is maintained.  Based on our experience and research however, it will be predicated on having a teacher that is well versed in both Classical Tai Chi and the Scientific Method. 


Hua Kang said...

Enjoyable post. Thank you!

Russell said...

I think it's necessary to question everything that we learn. Evaluate and experiment to ensure that it is valid. A teacher should be able to back up anything they profess. However, just as vital is that this questioning be genuinely motivated by a desire to understand. All too often it is simply a desire to catch the teacher out and gain some ego points. That video was an excellent of a genuinely inquisitive atmosphere.

Tom said...

Master Hwa's understanding of the principles of Tai Chi and his ability to instill those principles in his students is what makes learning from him such a pleasure.

Matt said...

Thank you for your wonderful blog. I have found many insightful posts and the poster is clearly passionate about his or her studies into taiji.

I think where this post veers away from this is in the understanding of face. While "face" plays a large part in chinese culture (there are plenty of insightful articles found online written by Chinese themselves for english speaking westerners) and to some extent chinese martial tradition, it is also a deep found respect for elders. That being said, another factor that is also diminishing to some of this is the hidden factor- I do not think many great Chinese masters ever forced someone to pay before being able to witness the practice.

In this case- your belief on "proof before pay" seems to exhibit the opposing extremity of which opposite you are talking about (free skepticism is the opposite). If the point of TaiJi is to give health benefit- how should it be hidden from fellow humans. That is to say, it will be often in the west you will find people witnessing the class who will not understand it, but you will miss any who wish to see/experience/deliberate before paying.

This is to moderate- instead of titling it "proof before pay" we should moderate. With the words "see" or "experience" or "deliberate" we can see the more moderate implication that the student wishes to go through the same skeptic process you are praising in this article in his/her assessment of a teacher.

Now reverse it to understand the potential student view- "pay before proof" goes against any skeptic reasoning. Or even moderate it "Pay before deliberate/see/experience" would sound not well reasoned out by anyone with a budget looking for a legitimate internal health art practice. It also goes against any high level students who may be wishing to further studies with a great teacher and experience/see/deliberate about more than their words.

In this respect- anyone who has foundation in internal discipline from eastern arts, will unlikely be convinced by a high tuition rate and a couple videos that your art is of a high level. In much of China, some of the highest masters have no "face" or name, but to the people they teach. Just as many of these Yang style masters from your Sifu's Sifu's Sifu's time (Yang Cheng Fu era) taught for free at public parks. This free teaching is to say that any sort of "deliberate/see/experience before you pay" does Not diminish a proper teacher-student relationship. (although as a side note even his disciples/family have commercialized for money since his time).