Wang Yen Nien by Serge Dreyer

(my introduction about Serge has to be included request of Serge)

Wang Yen Nien passed away on May 4th. The STN chairman Epi van de Pol asked his former teacher Serge Dreyer to write an article about Wang Yen Nien from a personal point of view. Serge is a student of WYN in Taiwan and the initiator of the Rencontres Jasnieres. Serge is also known for his workshops in France, Belgium and Holland

Wang Yen Nien

The last move of a great teacher of tai ji quan

by Serge Dreyer,Taichung, Taiwan.

When I met Wang Yen nien in 1976 in Taipei, I had just 3 months of experience of martial arts, in fact 3 months of basic exercise and 13 postures of Yangjia Michuan Tai ji quan with one of his very first student, Li Jin chuan. I was coming from a semi-professional background of playing football. So, when he asked me to push him (he was 62 year old and I was 24), it seemed to me quite pretentious from his part to challenge my strength this way, especially when one remembers that at the age of 30 you are already an old guy in competitive football…I didn’t move him at all and of course I was quite astonished; I probably looked stupid at that very moment. But that was simply the beginning of a long complicity between an old native from Shanxi in China and the “French footballer”[1] from Le Mans. We had our high and down in our relationship but mutual respect, against all odds, cemented our destinies in the promotion of our style of tai ji quan. In the 2 years preceding his death (May 5, 2008), I had the opportunity to pay him regular visits in his house or at the hospital. What could we discuss since he already knew he was on the departure? Tai ji quan of course! That was amazing how he could regain his energy and memory when we discussed technical points and concepts in spite of his poor health (he had dyalisis every week); he would even get mad at me when we disagreed but would readily accept my point when he would recognized it as valid. These moments have been very moving for me because we are both strong minded personalities with our own pride. Since his background was in the military, and knowing how saving face is important in Chinese culture, I thought for a long time that he would never accept any contradiction from one of his student, especially a Westerner. I was wrong and I am happy to have been so. Indeed, I noticed all along the years we have known each other that he was someone who hated to be stuck in a corner, a push hands principle I guess, so maybe it was his own way to escape my logic “yield, deflect”…

Life has not been easy for him. As a military commander in the nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jie shi in mandarin), he was forced to retreat to Taiwan in 1949 when the communist army of Mao Zi dong took control of China. He left there his first wife that he never saw again. As a military he was notably a specialist of the bayonet which probably explains his skill in the sword of tai ji quan (tai ji jian). After having learned Shaolin quan, Xing yi quan, Chang quan and tai ji quan with another teacher, he started to learn Yang jia tai ji quan with Zhang Qin lin who was himself a student of Yang Cheng fu (he also taught Zheng man qing push hands). According to Wang yen nien, Zhang Qin lin is supposed to have transmitted him from 1945 to 1949[2] a very long form, with the particularity of the weight of the body mostly on the back leg, that he received secretly from Yang Jian hou which Wang Yen nien labeled the “Yang family hidden tradition of tai ji quan” when he arrived in Taiwan, to differentiate it from other Yang styles available in Taiwan and in Mainland China. Of course, other schools claim also to be the inheritors of a secret style from the Yang family. Having conducted research in Mainland China about our style, I just can prove that Wang Yen nien received his teaching from Zhang Qin lin. As for the transmission between the latter and Yang Jian hou, it is history which remains to be tested. However, what remains as a fact beyond all possible controversies is the talent of Wang Yen nien which has been tested many times in Taiwan and which gave him a strong reputation to the point of being recognized as a National Treasure. He first became famous in the West during the 70’s thanks to the book of Robert Smith about the masters of martial arts in Taiwan. In 1981, I invited him for 1 month and half to give a one week workshop in Le Mans and Paris and then a week end in Strasbourg (at the invitation of Roland Habersetzer, a famous French karateka). The French audience discovered then the art of push hands at its highest level (at that time the vast majority of tai ji quan teachers taught (or knew) only forms. Starting in 1982, a new generation of European students flocked to Taipei to study with him. Some of them (and their own students) invited him to come back regularly in France and he was also invited to the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland (if I remember well). He was also invited several times to the United States where he has a strong following.

I remember in 1981 how he was amazed by the dedication of the European students, a surprise reinforced by the fact that most of the participants to the workshops were young, when most of his Taiwanese students were at least in their 50’s. His new acquired fame in Europe changed considerably his life. He has been always quite a low profile person in socializing but suddenly people from all walks of life wanted to become his students and receive the essence of his teaching. From simply being a teacher, everybody calls him so in Taiwan, he became in Europe a “master”. That was a lot of stress for him, especially since he was subject to problems of blood pressure. Then a car accident injured him seriously after which he had to walk with a walking stick. He faced this reality with his traditional appetite of life. His most cherished wish was to reach the age of 100 since he was practicing and teaching Taoist neigong.

Apart tai ji jian, his forte was definitely push hands that he started to teach in the house of one of his students in the 50’s; later on, he was teaching it 3 times a week in his own wuguan. The quality of his touch is something I have experienced with very few people. He was an expert in deflecting and then he would spring like a cat to push. Moreover, something I particularly appreciate now since I have more experience, is the fact that he was always pushing with all his students and all visitors from outside: I have seen too many of these called “masters” who just push with their inner circle of students…When one knows how important saving face is extremely important for a Chinese, this attitude dignifies the man. Another quality that I recognize in him was his ability to connect the form with fighting application but also with push hands.

He is survived by his adopted children and grand children but also by many students in all the continents. They are the one in charge now of maintaining his heritage alive and infuse in it new ideas and progress because learning (and teaching) tai ji quan is a never ending process.

[1] This was my first nickname which was always accompanied by smiles of disbelief from his Chinese students…
[2] oral communication September 1992

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