The first time I read of Rose Li was in Robert Smith’s ,“Pa-kua; for Fitness and Self Defense”. That was around 1974. Later on in a trip to England around 1976 I visited her at her class in Manchester. Manchester at that time was pretty bleak. It was in many ways what was left of England’s Great Industrial Age. I found it grey, depressed and depressing. It was winter and windy and cold I recall as I made it into the warm room for training. I had no idea what I was going to train in. Rose Li taught all three “Internal Arts” and she had been highly lauded by Robert Smith.
Before class began she talked a bit with each student, I don’t recall shaking hands with her. I only recall her eyes looking at me appraisingly up and down and saying, “So-you are Robert Smith’s student? He is my good friend”. And then after a pause she leaned back on the wall and folded her arms and said almost accusingly, “What do you want out of me? “ I was a little shocked by her rather abrupt manner and said, “Whatever you will teach me.” She tilted her head to one side and said musingly, “Well for Hsing-I (her specialty) I require three years preliminary Tai Chi (training)-So-you cannot do that. Tai Chi takes too long-how long will you be here?” I said a few weeks. “Ba-gua anybody can do. You come to Ba-gua. That is o.k. for you.” That actually was more than o.k. as I was primarily interested in Ba-gua at that time. That began an intermittent relationship of more than twenty years. My mother being English- and having been raised not far from Manchester- facilitated my trips to see Rose Li in Manchester by having her parents home nearby. I stayed with them. I managed to see and study with Rose Li about every two or three years which became a kind of standard family punctuation for visiting England.
In 1980 I attended medical school in London and attended Rose Li’s classes near Kings Cross Station for about six months. At that time she expressed her disgust with the Communist Government of China who had taken away from her family their property and her rights to a building for a Wu-shu school. The Government had also restored Tung Hai-chuan’s tomb. As he was the popularizer (some say “founder”) of Ba-gua and Rose Li was in a Ba-gua lineage she was invited to the “Grand Opening”. Her comments were along the lines that the Communist Government only wanted her support “for face” and they were tyrants and only interested in money and power and she would not support them . “They do not know the true meaning of martial art or Wu-shu” she would say over and over again. “Sometimes they (modern Wu-shu practitioners) move very pretty even really good-but-they cannot have real Gung-fu because they don’t understand it is about what kind of person you are and this shows in your form.” This was an axis of her teaching. Real Gung-fu, real self-discipline and the forging of good character was the ultimate objective of what she called “Real” or “Authentic” martial arts. In this way- for her- martial arts were much closer to a religious path,or vocation or even what some would describe as a “Calling”.
When the Communists Revolution came through China Miss Li left the country and passing through Ann Arbor, Michigan – taught for some years, finally moving to England. She taught calligraphy as well as martial arts and she told me explicitly the reason she taught calligraphy was because it taught students how to breathe! So to her quiet free breathing was essential as was the thinking that goes with it. “I like people with a brain” she told me. She seemed also to appreciate an independent spirit capable of matching hers.
Her first love was Hsing-I and she had studied with Tung Yun-feng student of the carriage drive Che I-chai. She began study at the age of eight and I think continued til she was about twenty. Teng was an exacting task master and demanded perfect form as meticulous as a Dance Master. It does not appear he worked with her on application as she never taught it. This may have been as much due to her being a woman as much as anything else. Also I think there were many teachers in this era who taught forms as physical culture without emphasizing application. It seems to me application got phased out repeatedly every time martial arts were outlawed or a revolution mowed down the teachers. From the Taiping Rebellion, through the Boxer Rebellion and into the Communist Revolution there were many great and proficient martial arts teachers and practitioners killed. This would then be anteceded by laws forbidding martial arts practice. Eventually I think forms became exercise-and that was excusable to the ruling powers as long as one simply did not engage in anything that looked potentially revolutionary or “militia-like” ala two person drills of dangerous tactics. Of course there were some few who practiced these things in secrecy.
Miss Li also studied Ba-gua and Tai-chi ch’uan though I am unsure of who her teachers were. Her Ba-gua changed significantly after she made a trip to China in the early 1980s. I was not able to find students who knew why she had changed it nor remembered the old way which I was taught. Miss Li seems to have simplified it. She called it “modified Sun Lu-tang Ba-gua” but that was certainly different from what I had learned from her previously. She knew Sun Lu-tang’s daughter but said, “You know…funny I never see her at class- or training-but her father die and then she becomes famous”. There may have been some envy in what she said but I think there was also some truth. The Chinese are not averse to exploiting their blood -line for the sake of notoriety and fame. And there is no way to evaluate skill in martial arts without application practice. And as applications are often kept to closer students they can be nearly impossible to evaluate. So the student is left to judge martial arts by lineage, watching the forms and by the geometry of alignment, beauty of their aesthetics and possible usefulness. It’s not a very objective approach.
Her Ba-gua was done in an abrupt stop and start style-the first time I had ever seen circular Ba-gua done like this- and in class she would slowly pick up speed til everyone was huffing and puffing and sweating. Then class would end. There was always this building to a crescendo and then stopping. At the time I thought it was rather strained and artificial. It was definitely aerobic. I have never been taught to do Ba-gua in this fashion, nor to pace a class in this way –by anyone else. She said many interesting things about the Internal Martial Arts which gave me a sense of how she perceived them and also how they were probably perceived by the generation she learned from. She mentioned her Uncle was skilled at acrobatic Shaolin and she loved watching him as a child and told her parents she wanted to study with him. But her parents –from what she said-viewed the Uncle as a kind of low class type and they refused. She continued asking and eventually her parents found Teng Yun-feng who was- apparently- not “low-class”.
Shaolin has of course always had associations with Triads and other types of Chinese Mafia societies as the founding members of the first historical Triad Society were Shaolin monks. This has created an ongoing dilemma in Chinese Martial Arts as concerns Buddhist Morality verses Societal Revolution. Sometimes students getting heavily involved with a traditional Chinese teacher find their loyalty comes into question if they disagree with the teacher or choose not to “be of service” nor to display the kind of teacher-student relationship espoused by Chinese society. Unfortunately the Teacher-Student relationship-if not kept conscious-can fall into simple political games. And in Chinese tradition this can be blended with a very honest heart felt appreciation too. It is like a sort of “Stockholm Syndrome” where the person falls in love with their captor. This impulse has been planted in America with mixed results and creates lots of confusion about integrity, honesty and truth in martial art teachings. It is particularly damaging to the young who often find their “Teacher” does not hold the idealism that they espouse. Once damaged it is difficult for any young student to have faith in any teacher after such an experience. It tears down faith in society and humanity.
On Ba-gua Rose Li said, “Ba-gua in the old days had palm changes and body turns and they were taught separate. Now we put them together. In the old days we just mix in different ways for skill. Ba-gua you can change and do different ways and it is still Ba-gua. Hsing-I is not like that. For Hsing-I there is only one way”. So for her Ba-gua was a finite number of movements mixed together as you wished-eventually. In my experience this resembled Robert Smith’s teaching of Ba-gua which used primarily the Single and Double Palm Chang with various static arm positions. These approaches however seem primarily concerned with learning condensed and simplified systems of Ba-gua-not the older more lengthy traditional systems which sometimes consist of hundreds of movements. At the time I found her approach slightly disorienting. It was difficult to figure out what was important or primary in her series of movements. My own confusion was further extended in that the movements were not given an application context. So movement prioritization was not clear as far as combat either. She did teach eight changes on the circle and as usual – the first three or four changes were a graduated combination of techniques. Then at the fifth and sixth change things seemed more relative and the eighth change was very complex, comparatively. Certainly in that way her Ba-gua resembled other simplified methods.
She would often begin class with slow finger jabbing forward to stretch the arm- with one breath for each movement. Hands were combined in tearing actions, one hand going to the chest or hip, the other going forward. Then she would go to a deep squat while stretching the arms outward –again with the breath synchronized and fairly high reps. Maybe twenty repetitions or more done slowly. By the time the squats were done the legs were already fatigued. Then she would begin the circle walking of Ba-gua.
Also she talked about the hand changing in Ba-gua as a result of time, “Eventually-, after some months- your hands have shape and then your art is improving.” She had other comments on the Internal Arts as well.”
“Ba-gua is about HOW you put your foot down, Tai chi is about WHERE you put your foot down.”
“If you are squatting so low you have to move your head to lift up your leg then you are too low.”
As far as Hsing-I she spoke of early training using “Quiet Energy” or what she called “An Ching” or literally “Peaceful Energy”. Later the student was to go to “Ming Ching” or “Obvious Energy” with stamping feet and sharp exhalations. The final stage of training was to mix these two.
And she would re-iterate, “Martial Arts is to save energy.” The follow step in Hsing-I helps you do that.”
Once while sitting in a chair she turned her head and looked at me-this was the last time I saw her-and she said, “Get this” and then slapped her foot on the floor with a loud smack. Then she said, “You know good Hsing-I by the sound. Get that sound.”
And with that sound was the way she held her fist which I would describe as “half –clenched”. As though one were holding a thick fabric or rope. The middle knuckle was extended and the wrist was straight. “The feeling is like stretching on the outside of the fist” she said. This was used to the midsection In Hsing-I’s punch called “Crushing”. I was to find it left small dime sized bruises when used against the obliques.
In both Hsing-I and Ba-gua bending backward was “good for exercise but very bad for fighting” and bending forward had three inclinations, especially for Hsing-I which could squat and bend forward a lot.
“Hsing-I can bend forward a lot!,” she would say.
In Hsing-I there was only short, compact minimalist movement but with a lot of forward extension. She thought Chen Pan-ling’s Hsing-I in the photos presented by Robert Smith looked good but she did not like the swinging or turning waist of the younger son used in the fourth fist called “Crushing/Pao”. In Hsing-I she was taught the waist really does not turn. But the body does fully relax between the short explosive actions and with that the hip joint must be mobile. This was something she really emphasized in both Hsing-I and Ba-gua. That is the ability to practically wilt- like a plant- between positions. Much has to do with how the muscles of the neck and upper back and shoulders are used. She called this “Opening and Closing”. When the technique-like a punch- is executed the neck straightens and the chin goes down while the arm goes out to pierce or strike. And when the arm is at full extension the body is very straight and firm. Then after that, the chin drops and the shoulders soften and the head may even come off line a bit. The whole thing looks like a person becomes very straight and then very tired and listless. She would have us practice this gesture with each technique. It results in an amazing precision of movement. I don’t think I have ever seen any other teacher with the same degree of incremental movement precision as Rose Li. And she moved in such a way that you could see every joint in the skeleton moving. Everything in her forms could be seen to articulate. So it’s a kind of training that gives you this feeling of a movement in every phase of execution. This type of gesture would really shine in her Tai Chi but you could see it in the Ba-gua too -when she slowed it down.
Besides being very quick her flexibility rivaled any modern Wu-shu I had seen. She could touch the floor with her chest in a low rear weighted squat and on one leg extend the other leg-unassisted in a toe kick at the height of her own head-in slow motion. She would do this slow kick with an outwardly rotated leg in slow motion and used this as a cool-off exercise in Ba-gua, at the end of class. Later I was to see the same rotated leg used by Wang Su-chin in his Single Change and also by Chang Chuen-feng in his linear Ba-gua movement number 63.
She once complained to me about spraining her wrist. I was in Osteopathic school and wanted to see which part of the wrist?
As she rolled back her sleeve and turned her fist upward I watched her forearm muscles standout like cables as she said, “So-now pain here from casserole dish- too heavy!!”. That forearm looked about like a small baseball bat.
She was also strong. Sometimes in class I would see here go into a low toes-out horse stance. And she would literally just sit there. And she would gesture and talk for five or maybe even ten minutes. It was noticeable in Ba-gua class for the simple fact the rest of the class was moving in a circle. There she would sit/stand like a Fire Hydrant. Short, strong and unmoving with her whimsical voice talking as though thinking out loud and then throwing advice or correction out like rings of smoke for students to catch.
I found her quick to recognize students who worked hard and she would voice it in class. Once she said to me across the circle, “Mister Pitterman very good as he goes low and makes (it) very difficult to do. So he has good Ba-gua leg. People with long leg have to do this.” And at other times she would watch the class and say to no one in particular, “Sometimes people not bend their knees and so their head goes side to side. So it’s better to bend.” After this sonorous statement drifted about the room-again- like smoke -everybody would then REALLY bend their knees. And then she would sort of hum like saying “that’s right” but it just sounded like “hmm.hmm.”
Her advice on self-care went like this, “Doctors misdiagnose so you must know yourself and your own body. When you bend forward in a low bow to stretch your hamstrings you can feel the blood pressure in your head. If it’s too much/high then go eat some raw garlic. Then check again. It will have less pressure and feel better. “
Other statements I noted that she made-
“The quantification of herbal medicine must be learned from a Master Herbalist.”
“People learn Tai chi to be Superman or to get well.”
“Who is behind a certificate?”
“I have no friends-many Angels.”
“You can’t say anything is rubbish…you never know the experience of others.”
I always looked forward to her classes and she seemed to always be glad I was there. She saw to it that each student knew they had her attention. She knew how to correct students directly and by simply addressing the class in general. I would have loved to have heard more about her personal philosophy and questions about life and the Universe. She did on occasion at a lunch or tea breach these subjects but carried with her a kind of restraint which caused restraint in one self too. It was a kind of atmosphere. She was critical, proud and appraising. But she was also extremely perceptive. I believe she was looking from a very ancient Chinese window. And she did not suffer fools. I knew of one fool who came to class from America-the same fool Robert Smith, in his “Martial Musings” calls “Mr. X”-who after watching him Rose Li announced to him, “X your Gung-fu is much too high for me to train. I have nothing to teach you.” Well he either believed her or was sufficiently humiliated to leave. I know of another student, a well- known karate-ka who was studying with her who was “let go” because he was participating in tournaments-which she felt were exactly opposite to the true intent of Internal Arts. When she spoke of here teachers and the by- gone era of China you could feel it. It was as though you could smell the incense and tobacco, the “Stinking Tofu” and the road dust. The cry of the street peddler had just fallen and yesterday was just a moment ago. When I read John Blofeld’s “City of Lingering Splendor” on old Peking I understood it right away from being with Miss Li.
I saw this little Chinese woman as a sort of Wrathful Guardian of the Threshold into Chinese Tradition. For her Martial Arts were Culture. They were about being a refined human being who was strong but not exhibitionist-a person who could contain their power and direct it with grace and timing. This was what she stated was destroyed by Communism. Mao Tse-tung had said part of the role of Communism was to destroy the myths about old men and superstition. For Rose Li the old men were her teachers and there was nothing superstitious about a well -trained human knowing how to behave and when to move.
I understand she had been a Nun at one time. That in itself indicates a willingness to dedicate oneself to transcendent ideas. She had a sense of Providence, perhaps mixed with a fatalism I have noted often among Chinese people. I see her, short, petite, dark – sort of square but upright, walking through Kings Cross train station pulling her cart-on her way- determinedly forward. She struck me as alone, steadfast and full of human Will. She was like a Salmon defying the current. Bright, dedicated and moving with beauty. One man said, “You know she is not pretty but I want to say she is a handsome woman. There is something beautiful and noble about her.” I felt that way too.
My last visit to Rose Li was with my friend Ian, who at that time was a member of Parliament. Ian had kept up with her goings on for me and we finally made time to go see her. She let us into her home and I noted she was feeling kind of “down”. She must have been in her eighties by that time. I asked her if she had eaten and she said she was not hungry. I felt she was depressed. I was hungry. So I suggested Ian go fetch some Chinese food and bring it back. He did so and when he returned the smell of fresh Chinese food wafted around the house and she decided to have “just a little”. Well she went through that stuff like a rip saw through card board! Once she wiped her mouth she looked at me and with eyes open wide and almost with tears, said, “YOU!” and then I realized she had not recognized me til that moment. “Robert Smith’s student! I remember! And then she said something that brought some tears to my eyes, “You are my hero!” I must have been speechless. I don’t recall saying anything in response. It was as though we pulled her out of a dark chasm. I could have hugged her. I’ll never forget it. My appreciation of her and who she was had never allowed me to see how vulnerable she was- as a simple human being. But Masters are people too…I understand that now. Especially as nearly all my Masters are now dead. She died that year.
I have sometimes helpful dreams where she is with me. I recall one was a small red carpet-like a welcome mat- on the floor and she was standing across from me-the carpet separated us. “Stand on this and don’t let your feet move”, she said, “Now we will begin looking at Push
-hands.” So NOW-even after her death- a part of me is really studying with her…