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Master of the Five Excellences: Cheng Man Ching

Cheng Man Ching, or Zheng Man Qing (鄭曼青), was born in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province (浙江溫州) in China in 1901. He later became known as "The Master of Five Excellences" (五絕老人) due to his mastery of Chinese Medicine, Poetry, Painting, Calligraphy and, of course, Tai Chi Chuan. Aged 19, he was already teaching painting at Yuwen University. As a young boy he was fragile and prone to ill-health. As a consequence he was sent to learn Shaolin Boxing to strengthen his body. When he was 27 in Shanghai, he began to study Tai Chi Chuan with Yang Cheng Fu. During this time, Yang's wife fell ill and was treated successfully by Cheng Man Ching. As a form of gratitude, Yang Cheng Fu taught Cheng some of the special techniques of Tai Chi, their application and also the Tai Chi sword forms. He studied with Yang for seven years (1928-35).

Later, Cheng also learnt the skills of Jin (勁), or internal energy, of Zuo style Tai Chi from his elder Tai Chi brother, Zhang Qin Lin. After mastering Tai Chi, he developed what has become known as the 37 Forms by simplifying the long set of the Yang style, making Tai Chi easier to study.

When he was 32 years old, he became the chief Tai Chi Chuan instructor of the Central Military Academy. At 37 he was advisor to the Hunan Province Government as well as director of the Provincial Martial Arts School. At 38 he changed to teaching at the Chongqing Military Training Group.

As his reputation for Tai Chi became known, he was invited to the British Embassy where he was challenged by a top martial artist on a visit with the British Army. He had been undefeated around China. Cheng, However, had only agreed to go on the understanding that someone was ill and needed medical attention, not to fight. Instead, he was greeted by the opponent displaying his prowess by breaking a tall column of bricks. Unimpressed, Cheng extended his arm and asked him to try and break his arm. After seventeen attempts the opponent gave up, his hand throbbing with pain while Cheng was unmoved. Subsequently, Cheng threw his opponent over several times with ease. A similar experience occured during a banquet at the US Embassy.

In 1949, he travelled to Taiwan with the retreating Nationalist forces, where he established the Shi Zhong School of Tai Chi Chuan(時中拳社). In 1964, he went to New York where he formed the Tai Chi Chuan Institute and accepted foreign students. After this time he began to divide his time between the USA and Taiwan, gradually spending more time in Taiwan. Although he wrote several books on Tai Chi and other aspects of Chinese culture, he never directly explained the Zuo style of Tai Chi. However, his forms were a synthesis of both styles and he was always making improvements. Just before his death, he was preparing to film his newest version of his Tai Chi, only to be delayed by the weather. Unfortunately, he passed away on March 26th, 1975, at midnight, before filming could be rescheduled.

His legacy was to leave a system of Tai Chi that has gained enormous popularity around the world which has become known as Cheng Style Tai Chi or the 37 Forms. Cheng himself never referred to his Tai Chi other than Yang style, just a shortened version and never really explained why only 37 Forms. It has been postulated that his interest in the I Ching and Taoist philosophy may have provided a source for the number "37". However, according to his student, Wu Kuo Chung, he would often talk of the importance in returning Tai Chi to its Taoist roots and the contribution of Li Dao Zi (李道子) and his 37 Forms of Tai Chi.