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From time to time I meet a fellow student of the esteemed art of Tai Chi. "Oh, I used to do Tai Chi," they often say, but when prompted deeper as to which style, there is almost inevitably a look of blankness followed by "Was it Tai Chi Chuan?"
When they are then informed that Tai Chi Chuan is the full name of the art we practice and Tai Chi is only an abbreviation, there is a look of confusion. Hoping to be helpful, I ask, "Who was your teacher, I might know them?" There is a further pause and a look of concentration followed by the equivalent of, "I think his name was Dave or was it Jim. Oh I can't remember. I only went for a few weeks."
It is hardly surprising that there is some confusion as amid the newness of starting classes, the beginner has to contend with various names for the art they are trying to learn. First of all there are a couple ways Tai Chi Chuan is normally written. (the other being Taijiquan.) Then there are the variety of styles e.g. Yang, Chen, Wu etc. Then there are variants like Cheng Man-ching (also written Zheng Manqing) form or 24 step form and other variants like long forms, short forms, large frame, small frame etc.
It is little wonder, therefore, when meeting someone who reveals that they once practiced Tai Chi, there is a blankness when they are questioned as to the style. Add to this the practice of giving individual names to particular Schools within a style, in the way we use our Christian names, and the potential for confusion increases.
As a case in point, although we all practice much the same form, Autumn River is distinct from Shr Jung, Long River, Rising Dragon, Great River, Rocky Mountain etc. The differences here are to do with distinguishing a teacher, or group of teachers usually allied by some consensus about what Tai Chi is all about, from their colleagues. When someone begins to teach independently of their teacher, they frequently create their own name for their School. Usually, though, the new student has no idea about any of this and is only interested in doing Tai Chi.
Occasionally, a student will ask why my particular School is called Autumn River Tai Chi. I usually give a brief answer as class time is always limited but then feel a more in depth answer should be available somewhere. The following is an attempt to provide a little more depth and greater inform those who want to know.
When I first started teaching Tai Chi, I was part of the Rising Dragon Tai Chi School but later left to further my understand by studying with Wolfe Lowenthal's Long River Tai Chi Circle. After some time, and with Wolfe's blessing, I began using the Long River name myself and acted as a contact for his teaching in Europe. The name sat well with me as it was a phrase used by Cheng Man-ching to signify how the form should be performed, without stopping, just like a Long River. It was also pretty unpretentious involving no mythical beasts or underlying implications of superiority.
When, some years later I was teaching independently of Wolfe, I kept using the name as most of what I taught had come from the Long River Tai Chi approach, i.e. Cheng Man-ching Form, Push Hands, Sword Form and Fencing. It was true that I had benefited from studying Push Hands for a short time with Liu Hsi-Hung in Taiwan, and subsequently, spent some time with Ken Van Sickle in New York, improving my understanding of Tai Chi Sword. Nevertheless, the basis of the School syllabus was as before and I acknowledged the debt I owed to my former teacher even though I was practicing in a slightly different way.
The fact that I was no longer the official Long River contact in Europe was problematic for the organisation but I initially resisted changing the name I used for classes until October 2006.
During a short holiday in the North of Scotland, I had some time to reflect on what I was doing with Tai Chi to see why I was studying and what I valued in the teachings of my various teachers. It was the beginning of having a clearer view of Tai Chi and its true worth in our modern age.
I then started thinking of an appropriate name and found it to be a most frustrating exercise. I liked the four word pattern used by many Schools and also wanted to include the imagery of water, a very Taoist and Tai Chi symbol, but was unable to come up with anything which felt right.
On the return journey my partner and I spend quite a long time in a state of 'creative tension,' suggesting names to each other and dismissing them immediately as more fitting to a cheap Kung Fu film or a Sci-fi novel.
Toward early evening, we stopped for respite on the way at a little retail outlet-cum- cafeteria. Our late arrival found the cafe closing and most of the shops already closed. Choosing to dawdle around for a few minutes after the necessary comfort stop we gravitated to the only remaining shop. Aimed, principally at the bored tourist on route to somewhere else, it offered little promise of anything interesting and I only half-heartedly browsed its shelves. My partner then drew my attention to the page of the book she has just picked up. It was a book of paintings by the Russian artist Kandinsky. The book opened at random to reveal a painting called 'River in Autumn.'
'River in Autumn' or 'Autumn River' seemed perfect.
We were both of one mind. It would fit in with the four character pattern, Autumn River Tai Chi, had the connection with water, and included symbolically, in the word Autumn, a concept which eloquently hinted at a deep level of understanding in Tai Chi.
On returning to Glasgow I conferred with a Chinese acupuncturist over the Chinese characters which could be used as a logo and whether there was an idiomatic meaning in Chinese which would make the name unusable. Gratified to learn it did not mean "eat at Joe's" or anything worse, I proceeded to make the name change a reality.
The metaphor of a river is very apt, in numerous ways, to the study of Tai Chi. The continuous flow keeps water clean as alluded to by Cheng Man-ching in his long river reference. Stagnating water becomes unclean and poisonous much like the chi in the body. Continuous flow washes away the impurities leaving the water crystal clear, another image use by the Professor.
On a more Spiritual level, the river is on its own journey toward the sea where it will merge with the greatness of the ocean in much the same way as we learn to harmonise with the our Chi and the Tao.
It prefers to course round obstacles instead of contending with them, yet when thwarted and unable to flow; it quietly builds power and breaks through or over a barrier. It can have the delicacy of trickle or the power of torrent, has patience and makes it own discipline by cutting its own path from hills to sea. Sometimes it is gentle and meandering, other times its energy is turbulent and intense. It remains true to its nature responding naturally to its environment and in relation to its journey.
The river is egoless always seeking the lowest position and can accommodate to all by taking the shape of whatever contains it.
Autumn is also symbolic representing both a time and happening. The autumn of our life is sometimes depicted as the time, when through knowledge earned and challenges met, we are at our most complete. It is the time of ripening wisdom and fulfilment following from the innocence of spring and the hustle of summer. It is the time when the harvest moon bathes us in its glory offering 'the mellow fruit of long experience and slow maturity.' Implicit is the sentiment of waiting for the heavy fruit to fall or the leaf biding its time till its moment arrives. Insight comes when it is ready and no force can make it arrive sooner.
So, Autumn River combines the power and naturalness of flowing water with the wisdom that comes from our practice and patience, the willingness to allow this wisdom to mature and reveal itself just at the perfect moment. It implies a trust in both ourselves and the benevolent Spirit of life. It is the paradox of great power with no force, in harmony with the natural workings of the Universe around us. Its fruit is joy, peace and love.