MASTER ZHAO GUOHONG
Legendary figures have come to the fore throughout the lengthy history of our arts -- Bruce Lee, Wang Xianzhai, Ng Mui. The more recent ones have been documented in newspapers, film and photos, while the ones from ancient times live on in the imaginations of practitioners seeking the inspiration to train. While the training forms of these individuals differ, they share a common spirit and credo. They were all able to successfully challenge the established martial artists of their respective eras.
Now another one has risen from the ranks. Zhao Guohong, born September 25th in 1959 in Hebei province in Inner Mongolia grew up during the cultural revolution. Zhao was raised by his stay-at-home mother and machinist step-father. Zhao’s real father had questioned Chairman Mao’s policies. Just for speaking out he was relocated from Beijing to Hubei province to a lesser position and died at the age of thirty from heart problems. Zhao's mother remarried when he was four.
Zhao didn't attend school from the age of seven to nine, during the cultural revolution. Zhao and his friends never learned any kung fu at all during that era, as it was formally banned by the government as being part of the old order. Like most little boys, he fought with his peers -- childish skirmishes that occassionally drew blood, but no breaking of bones.
As a young boy, Zhao watched fourteen to eighteen year old Little Red Guards beat up the school teachers. After the cultural revolution subsided school resumed and things settled down. As soon as he graduated from high school Zhao along with his many classmates labored on a farm, throughout the heat of the summer and cold winter, with just noodles and vegetables to eat.
After Mao died in 1976 and 1977 was the first year that entrance exams into college were made available to all high school students. Zhao was the only student in his neighborhood to pass and was warmly congratulated. The government paid all of his expenses at the university while he studied.
The government needed geologists, so his path was chosen. He married a college teacher, fathered two daughters while working for the Chinese Academy of Geological Science in Beijing until 1991. He transferred to the Ministry of Communication and worked for the government, which he found boring.
Zhao had his eyes open for work with better pay. He decided on law. Zhao studied for the bar exam for five months. He passed the test and kept the stiff neck he got from all the studying. Working as a lawyer in Beijing, he had more time and money, with which he helped his whole family. He also had more time for himself, so there is where he found the famed Yang style Tai Chi Master Zhang YuLiang in the park in 2000.
Zhang’s lessons were entirely informal, as he took no payment for teaching. But because of the openness and informality Zhao was able to observe rather than participate. Zhao read many books about t’ai chi ch’uan and with those ideas -- use the mind to direct the qi, relax, turn the waist, stay vertical -- was soon able to beat all the other students and in fact, anyone else who came along.
After five years Zhao quit going to the park and one day a former classmate under Zhang called him to ask Zhao to teach him, recognizing his superior cognition of tai chi. Zhao didn’t show this student forms. He worked one-on-one, hands on (of course!) and explored all the possibilities of combat in relationship to the tenets in tai chi. Zhao's student rode his bike to train with him everyday, summer and winter. Zhao credits this intense work with his student as being the biggest factor in his current level of skill -- which just seems to keep on growing, rather like a cyclone that picks up momentum from atmospheric pressures and throws out everything in its wake.
That was 12 years ago. For the past four years, Zhao has since been living in San Francisco. His twin daughters go to universities in California and due to his investments while practicing law, Zhao has been free to practice tai chi ch'uan to his heart’s content.
I connected with Zhao a few years ago at a push hands session in Ohlone Park. He and my favorite Frenchman, a man who expresses the Tao with the utmost gentility (most of the pushers in the bay area know, love and can even pronounce, but not spell his impossible name) are often seen together. “G” has declined to be interviewed, preferring his anonymity. They both embody the ideals of tai chi, but as expressed by their own profoundly different natures.
Zhao attracts players from all other styles as well as beginners with little or no prior training. At 52, he does no exercise or even forms. He just pushes hands with anyone and everyone who comes by. I have seen men in their prime, twenty years younger than Zhao and twice his weight, with years and years of formal training go rolling off with big grins on their faces.
Students who witnessed it told me about how a big, buffed-out, experienced martial artist pulled up to challenge him. Spontaneous encounters are Zhao’s specialty. He is always ready. There is no perceptible moment when he appears to shift his coonsciousness or change his stature.
This encounter ended with him looking up at Zhao from the ground, having to be convinced of the potential danger and utter futility of coming back up for another attack. None of this is hyperbole. His speed and control is unnerving.
Here is Zhao’s secret, in his own words: I didn’t copy my teacher. I stole his ideas. As a painter, this remark really struck a chord. Picasso said it too. Good artists copy …. great artists steal.
When asked if there was a sudden revelation, a flash of enlightenment or just a bit by bit, gradual improvement, Zhao affirms the latter. But he does say there was a great leap forward for him in 2010. Of course, this was preceded by countless hours of free play in park.
Zhao says that any student can attain skill like him within one year of training under him. Zhao wants to see progress and see it right away. He shows everything - how to connect to the hips and spine and to never, ever, ever use force or strength. The students who have come regularly have made remarkable progress within a year, as promised.
The main quality one notices when pushing with Zhao, aside from his startlingly lightening speed, is how quickly he changes in order to never use force. He never feels fear, is always calm and never sweats or feels tired. He is always “empty.”
This emptiness is actually full of awareness. Zhao’s posture is completely erect. No stance or footwork is perceptible, but internally where it can’t be seen there is tremendous form. Zhao never overextends or gives up his center. He maintains his composure, rolls with everything he is given and uses that roll back to recoil into wherever his partner is most open, stiff and unguarded. The term “relaxed” does not do justice to his extraordinary level of composure and readiness.
Playing with his student Eric non-stop for the good part of an hour as I shivered in the night wind blustering up San Francisco’s avenues, I watched Eric go after Zhao time after time after time. With the control of a wild animal holding its prey gently by the back of the neck till ready for the kill (which in this case never came), Zhao moved Eric in beautiful, scrolling patterns just short of crashing into the cement pillars of the Middle School. The whole group stood and watched, enthralled by the intensity of the concentration.
People are thronging to Zhao’s neighborhood, where he teaches for free morning and night. While we sat in my car doing this interview, someone stopped by looking for a lesson as late as 11 pm. Good news travels fast. Top Bay Area instructors and total newbies all throng together and try to uproot each other and explore the limiltless possibilities shown to them by Zhao.
By the time this article reaches you, Zhao will be playing with other warm bodies back in China. Zhao says the level of tai chi play in the US is much gentler than in China and that he plans to return to teach. One thing for sure -- Zhao loves to play, shares willingly and represents the tenets of tai chi ch’uan and the Tao.