This interview was originally published by the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Volume 12, Number 2, 2003
The name Dr. Yang Jwingming became known to many because of his early publications dealing with Taijiquan. Despite some editorial faults expected in early works by a native-Chinese speaker who was a novice to publishing, his pioneering volumes offered insights and experience into the art that captivated thousands. His works shared information not available else where in English, giving details of Taijiquan history, theory, and practice that guaranteed the books would become classic references for this art.
How did Dr. Yang come across the information he provided in his books? Who were his teachers and what were their styles? Such questioning grew deeper when Dr. Yang began publishing more books, not just on Taijiquan, but on Shaolin Long Fist, White Crane, internal energy work (qigong), and joint locking (qinna). His work continued to expand, embracing other aspects of the Chinese martial arts, including Taiji sword, push-hands, and in-depth analysis of the Taijiquan classics expounding its theory. More works were produced with co-authors on the topics of Xingyiquan and Baguazhang, and followed with an expanding book list of other authors on Chinese martial traditions and non-Chinese traditions as well.
Since putting out his first self-published book in 1984, Dr. Yang has become a leading figurehead responsible for influencing a large portion of martial art research in the world. His academic work is paralleled with an exhausting schedule of seminars in the U.S. and many foreign countries. Many of his long-time students have become topnotch instructors in their own right.
The following interview, the first half of a two-part series, was recently conducted with a desire to go beyond the regular details provided for a noted martial arts instructor. Hopefully the following pages will shed some light on the historic atmosphere of martial art teaching and study in Taiwan during the 1950s and l960s. Part One of the interview will draw out Dr. Yang's personal history during this era. Part Two focuses more on his involvement in martial arts practice and related publishing work.
We try to standardize Chinese names in our journal by following the pinyin system of romanization. In common usage, Dr. Yang's name is spelled "Yang Jwing-Ming." In pinyin, it is rendered as "Yang [Junmin]." We have compromised the spelling to read "Yang Jwingming" since the pinyin system does not use hyphens and the name is still easily recognizable.
INTERVIEW — PERSONAL HISTORY
Dr. Yang, I have been familiar with your work since your first published book on Taijiquan. Many others know your general background: growing up in Taiwan , attending university in the USA , writing about martial arts, and eventually becoming a publisher. The background you provide in your books is very interesting, but I would like to discuss this in greater detail, since every aspect somehow emerges in your teachings and publications and influences many martial art practitioners. For this reason, I would like to start this interview by asking about your early days growing up in Xinzhu county. Can you please tell us exactly where you were born? What city or village? What are some of the stronger impressions you still carry into your work today that originated from these early days?
I was born on August 11, 1946, at Yang Village located near Nanliao City in Xinzhu County on Taiwan 's northwest coast. There were approximately 600-800 people surnamed Yang living in the village near Hushan (Hu Mountain) and so they were commonly referred to as “Hushan Yang.” This village was located next to the Nanliao military airport built by the Japanese at that time. Taiwan had been controlled by Japanese government from 1895 to 1945.
During World War II, the war between China and Japan lasted for eight years (1937-1945). In the second half of the war, America joined the war and started to bomb Japanese military bases in Taiwan . Because Hushan was next to the airport, the entire village was nearly destroyed and nearly 1/3 of those surnamed Yang were killed by the bombing.
I was born a year after the war. Due to the sadness caused by the war, many of my relatives decided to move to Xinzhu City and start a new life. When I was around two years old, my family moved into the city as well.
I don't have too many memories about Hushan Yang Village. The only memories I still have involve returning there to visit my remaining relatives or participate in weddings. However, I still remember my grandma telling me where twelve buildings stood which my grandfather built for his children with all of his life savings, where people got wellwater with a bucket, where the original building stood that they used to live in, etc. All these were destroyed from bombing which caused my grandfather's lethal heart attack. I never met my grandfather. All I know about him was from my grandma and a couple of remaining photos. Since it was so sad to return to the village, my family wanted to move.
The earliest memory I still have of Xinzhu city is when starvation was spreading there. When I was three , General Jiang Kaishek (Chiang Kai-shek) was defeated by the Chinese Communists and he retreated to Taiwan. Taiwan was in chaos from 1945 to 1949. However, when Jiang Kaishek's military arrived in Taiwan the situation became even worse. The worst problem was thousands of civilians also followed General Jiang to Taiwan (becoming 1/3 of Taiwan 's population at that time). Suddenly, there were so many people on the island without food and without laws. Jiang's intention at that time was to counterattack Mainland China. When the Korean war started in 1950, it gave Jiang a possible opportunity to counterattack mainland China.
All of the effort in Jiang's government was for both defensive and offensive preparation. This chaotic situation gradually slowed down a couple years after the Korean war when Jiang realized that it was nearly impossible for him to counterattack mainland China at that time.
Like so many other kids, all I remember was searching for any metal, bottles, and cans to sell in order to exchange a little money for food. When I was around nine years old, my father was put in military prison because he owned a gun purchased from a Japanese friend before he returned to Japan when the war was over. Remember it was a chaotic situation. Many people were looking for a way of protecting themselves and their families. My father was suspected as a Communist spy. After nearly a year of investigation, he was released from military prison. I still remember I had to carry some rice soup (that was all we had) to my father in a military police station near my home. He was only allowed to sit in his underwear in a cage not big enough to stand up or lie down. Whenever I saw him, he swallowed his rice soup with tears.
The most enjoyable thing for children's entertainment was to go to the market place or some busy streets where often you can find some martial artists' performance, especially those from Mainland China with Jiang Kai Shek. They performed and sold herbs and earned a little money from the crowds. I was always amazed by their martial capability and the stories they told. I believe that this was the first influence toward my martial career today.
Dr. Yang practicing with his uncle, 1965
In the late 1950's, black-and-white movies became available. However, they cost too much to go see, especially for my family with nine children. I often stood right in front of the ticket box and begged some gentlemen or ladies who were willing to take me in as their child. The movies I liked most were martial movies. The stories were exciting and the skills were beyond my belief. Naturally, as we know, like all of the movies today, most of these skills were exaggerated. However, they filled my imagination.
How did your family come to live there? What did they do for a living? Do you have relatives in Mainland China?
My family retreated with General Zheng Chenggong from Jinjiang County in Fujian province to Taiwan at the end of the Ming Dynasty [cir. 1644]. After that, China was taken over by the Manchus and they ruled China until 1911. Even if I still have relatives in China, I would not be able to recognize them since we left there more than 300 years ago.
How have your ancestors, particularly your grandparents, influenced your study of the martial arts?
I was born two years after my grandfather died. I only know he was a scholar and not a martial artist. My grandma, like all Chinese women at that time, simply took care of the family. There were only a few women in the Yang Village learning martial arts at that time. When I was 15, I told my grandma about my wish to learn martial arts. She told me that some martial arts training existed in the Yang Village before the war. One of my aunts trained Iron Sand Palm. One day, a matchmaker came to talk to her to arrange a marriage. My aunt slapped her left hand on the corner of a table in front of her and the corner disappeared. She told the matchmaker that if she could find anyone who could do the same as her, she would marry him. My grandma said she never found anyone who could.
Please tell us a little about the family members who were around during your childhood. Any others involved in martial arts?
When I was a child, my family included my grandmother, father, mother, and five children. In addition, there was my father's second wife with four more children. The only person who also practiced from the same White Crane master for two years was my younger brother next to me (he is a dentist now). Another one who was not my direct family was my uncle who lived in Japan. When he came back to visit my grandma, he knew that I was learning White Crane from grandmaster Cheng Gingsao. Through my introduction, he and grandmaster Cheng became good friends. My uncle learned some techniques from my master and also some from me.
However, my father learned some Japanese kendo [swordmanship] and judo when he was studying in a Japanese high school in Taiwan. These two martial arts were popular in the Japanese educational system. Occasionally, he would explain to me the theory and the training methods of kendo and judo. Therefore, more or less, I had some idea of Japanese martial training, especially the mentality and the disciplines of training. However, I still loved Chinese martial arts. One reason for this was that more than 50% of Japanese culture was imported from China. If I want to learn, I would like to learn from its original source where the arts were created.
You started martial arts training at age fifteen, but what were some of your hobbies before this time?
For most of the kids at that time, one of the most enjoyable things was swimming in the streams. It was so clean. Kids could catch fish, crabs, clams, in the streams, rivers, and rice fields. This could also offer us some food. Later, swimming became more popular. We started going to a swimming pool because you could get a poison snakebite if you swim in the wild.
I also liked fishing, which allows one to sit and think. It gave me a great peaceful feeling, especially during the time of the war between Jiang Kaishek and the Chinese Communists. During my high school years, everyone prepared to be drafted and joined the army. Almost everyone knew that, if there was a big scale war, you would probably die in it. Everyone was scared but everyone pretended that he was brave and could accept any challenge. However, everyone knew we were all scared. I also liked baseball. It was a new fashion in school. I liked to watch the game and also liked to play it with friends. Other than these, I don't know. Everyone was looking for a way to survive at that time.
During your teen years, where did you go to school? Did you also work part-time?
I went to Xinzhu First High School for junior and senior high. The school was at the bottom of Eighteen Peaks Mountain (Shibajianshan). There were eighteen mountains connected with each other. It would take me about 30-40 minutes bicycle ride to get there from my home.
There were not too many part-time jobs available. If there was any, there were thousands of people applying and waiting for it. It was the most unfortunate time for my family. In order to survive, my father began a noodle company. All the children had to work after school until midnight without pay. It was a family business so everyone had to get involved so we could survive. I did not have any time during those few years to play with friends or get involved in any of my favorite activities. The grades of all my brothers and sisters were very poor because we simply did not have any extra time for homework or study. Fortunately, the business lasted only a couple years and went bankrupt. For me and my mom, it was great since we could get our lives back.
If possible, can you explain how your life developed after high school age? Why did you major in physics at Tamkang college and then at the national Taiwan university ? Since you started studying martial arts prior to college, how did you split your time between formal education and your interest in martial arts?
Grandmaster Cheng Gin Gsao (曾金灶)
I spent a lot of time practicing martial arts. I did not prepare to enter college. It would be a dream that was hard for me to fulfill. In order to enter college, you had to pass the national entrance examination. There were about 35,000 high school graduates and only 3,000 had a chance to enter college. I did not study hard during high school because the opportunity to attend college was pretty slim. However, I did try hard in the last year of high school. I was shocked that I was one of the three in my class of 72 students who passed the examination and were accepted as physics students at Tamkang College. I did not choose physics. I simply filled out the form with all possibilities. In fact, I hated physics at that time! It was my worst course and I was always at the margin of passing. Well, it was my destiny. I was accepted as a college student and I had to learn physics.
After I entered college, I thought it was my destiny. I may try my best and see if I would like physics. Amazingly, after a couple of college years, I began to like it. I liked its logic and scientific foundation. There is no lying in science. Everything I learned was so truthful. I started to understand what I was studying was the truth of nature, the Dao. The more I studied, the more I liked it.
Before I finished my fourth year, I was very happy and was one of the leading students in the class of about 70 students. I was also one of the nine students who passed the entrance examination and entered graduate school. I was accepted by two universities: Taiwan University and Central University. I choose Taiwan University was because it was more famous and located in Taipei city, the “city of dreams” for many Taiwanese. Furthermore, I could continue my Long Fist training with Master Li Maoching.
When I was in high school, I could find more time to practice martial arts. This was because I did not care about school. However, when I entered Tamkang College and Taiwan University, it became harder. I was more serious about my school work. We practiced three nights a week in the Gongfu Club during the school year. However, during summer time and winter time, I either went back to Xinzhu to learn White Crane, or stayed in Taipei to learn Long Fist with Master Li Maoching. We practiced about six hours a day. There was no summer work available. Sometimes, I could find some physics tutoring job for high school kids. Most of the time for tutoring was in the evening.
Comparing the past with the present, I believe the main difference in training is attitude. We trained hard because that was all we wanted. Today, most people just train for fun. They don't have a deep commitment like most of us at that time.
Could you continue to practice regularly, even when you served in the Chinese air force? What were your duties in the air force and where were you stationed?
I served one year and six months in the air force [1971-1972]. Six months were basic training as a radar maintenance engineer. After I obtained my Masters Degree in physics, I was re-assigned as a physics teacher in the Chinese Air Force Junior Academy located at Dapengwan, Pingdong County in southern Taiwan. The campus was very beautiful and used to be a Japanese navy base.
After serving only a month as a physics teacher, I was invited to perform Chinese martial arts for a birthday celebration for Jiang Kaishek. Strangely enough, of forty teachers serving in the academy, two of them were my martial arts classmates who also learned from Master Li Maoching. After a demonstration given with a couple of my martial arts classmates, nearly two hundred students requested of the General that I teach them Chinese martial arts.
The following week, the General invited me to join him at breakfast and asked me if I would teach the students Chinese martial arts. It would be extra work for me. Without hesitation, I agreed. Thus, the gongfu club was founded.
I had 186 students in the first class. It was impossible for me alone to teach so many students. Unfortunately, due to personal reasons my two martial arts classmates could not help very often. I remember the first lesson was a Horse Stance drill. I explained how important this stance is to build up strong legs and a good root for martial arts. Then, I gave the order to squat down. Then, I retreated to my room and rested. About thirty minutes later, I came out and saw nearly half of the students kneeling down and the other half were standing with trembling legs. I gave the order to stand up and told them if they liked the training, to come back tomorrow. The next day only 76 students showed up. However, 72 of these students practiced hard two hours every day with me until I left the Air Force. So far, they remain the best students I ever had in my martial arts teaching career.
Their training spirit was very high and they progressed very fast. They had learned so much in such a short time that it greatly surprised the General and the entire school at the final demonstration. When I left, the General awarded me one of the highest honors the school had ever given. I also learned much through teaching in that year. I was happy the entire year. The only sad thing that happened during that year was my father dying of a heart attack at the age of only 47. I am the second child in the family. My older brother was studying in the military medical school. I was the only one who could support the family financially. I knew my future path would be very hard.
In 1974, you came to the USA to pursue a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University. What were your professional goals at that time?
I was excited to come to the United States. My dream was to complete my Ph.D. and return to Taiwan so that I could continue my White Crane and Long Fist training with my masters. Before I left Taiwan in 1974, I was a physics professor in Tamkang College for nearly three years. I planned to return to Tamkang College for my teaching career after I obtained my doctorate. I like teaching and seeing it benefit people.
I changed my major from Physics to Mechanical Engineering because it would take seven years on the average to complete a Ph.D. in Physics but only four years for Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University.
Dr. Yang graduation, Purdue University, 1978
How long did you work in this field? Doing what?
In 1978, I obtained my Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University. My first son was also born that year. When my mother came to see my first born, she told me my White Crane master had passed away due to a stroke in 1976. My master had never been educated and he was living in the mountains. There was no direct communication between him and me. The only source of information was my family. Telephones were not popular at that time, especially in the mountains. When I asked my mother why she didn't tell me the sad news earlier, she asked me what I would have done if she had told me. I could not give her a good answer. She knew that, if I knew my of master's death at that time, I would have quit school and returned to Taiwan for the funeral service. From her point of view, my schooling at Purdue was more important than my master's funeral.
My original motivation for returning to Taiwan was to continue learning White Crane boxing. With my master's death, this reason disappeared. I was completely lost. In this situation, if I had to decide either to return to Taiwan or stay in the USA . I preferred to stay in the USA because of its environment of freedom. Thus, I applied for permanent residence. During the waiting period, I had to stay at Purdue. Therefore, I stayed as a Post-doctoral Research Associate from 1978 to 1980. Soon I received permanent residence status and started to apply for engineering jobs. The first job I had was working as a semiconductor engineer for Texas Instrument in Houston. Therefore, I moved to Houston in 1980.
When the economy took a downturn in 1982, I was laid off. That forced me to find another job. Soon I found a job working with Analog Analysis Company located in Massachusetts. I moved to Tewksbury Massachusetts in 1982 and began a new engineering career. However, after nearly two years of work, I was very unhappy. I realized that in order to be a good engineer, you must sell your life. The best part of my life was going to the company. I was so unhappy that an ulcer returned and, in addition, I got a kidney stone. I became very depressed.
On January 1st of 1984, I resigned. I believed that if I could make money for the company, I could make money for myself and survive. I decided to place all my effort into my new dream: to introduce Chinese culture to western society, especially in the field of martial arts and qigong. The reasons for choosing this field were: 1) because I had been interested in martial arts and qigong since I was a child; 2)I had studied and practiced them since I was fifteen and therefore, I already had a strong foundation to begin with; and 3) these two fields had just been introduced into western society and were growing rapidly. If I would choose any field which I could survive with in this new and different country, I believed qigong and martial arts was the correct one.
Why did you decide to drop the engineering career and found your martial arts school?
When I was laid off by Texas Instruments, I was told in the morning when my boss intercepted me at the office entrance. He then escorted me to my office and I picked up a few personal belongings. Then, he took me to headquarters where there were hundreds of engineers being laid off at the same time. I was so shocked when I saw so many police at headquarters, lined up from the entrance to the conference room. We were all treated like criminals. I had an overwhelming feeling of being treated unfairly. Why should I be treated like this? I had just completed a 33-day mission in Singapore for the company.
I slept little and was always tired when I worked there. When I brought back the products which satisfied IBM quality inspection, the deal was done. I did a good job for the company and was proud of that. Now, I had been treated unfairly for doing nothing wrong. Why? Why should I spend 23 years in education to become an engineer and then encounter such an insult? This was the first motivation to be independent.
Later, I found a job working in a new company, Analog Device in Massachusetts . The situation here was not better. It was a smaller company with a larger work load. The company expected every engineer to work over time without being paid extra for the hours. I was under so much pressure that my ulcer started up again. Earlier, I had solved this problem by practicing Taijiquan when I was sixteen. Now, I had an ulcer again. The case worsened in the second half of 1983 when I got a kidney stone. It was very painful. When I was in the hospital, I started to analyze my life and what I really wanted for my life. Is engineering right for me? Without thinking, the answer was “No!” Then how am I going to survive with three children in the family? There was a great deal of pressure, with a lot of hope for the future. I decided to jump out of the matrix as an engineer. January 1, 1984 I resigned.
When I started teaching martial arts, I had only 15 students at the beginning without enough income to even cover the rent. The family savings account went down every month. The hardest year was 1984. I worried and then caught a cold that turn into pneumonia. My fever's temperature was up and down. I did not have insurance to see doctors and did not know I had pneumonia. A couple of months later, an old martial student came to visit me who had just completed his studies for a medical doctor degree. He brought a stethoscope from home to check my situation. He told me that I had pneumonia and should have be dead a long time ago. I believed that the only thing keeping me going was the spirit of surviving and fulfilling my new dream.
Once I understood the problem, I phoned my dentist brother in Taipei and told him my situation. A week later, I received antibiotics from him. After a week of the medicine, the fever went down. Again I felt good. The sickness did not get me down. My spirit was so high and committed that I could not fail with my new dream.
In the fall of 1984, my first self-published book Qigong for Health and Martial Arts was published. In order to publish this book, I went to learn how to typeset, cut-and-paste, shoot and develop photos, and the hardest aspect- how to open the market. I did everything without any help. Surprisingly, this book gradually opened the market.
Income started to come in. Not only that, but after regaining my health, my teaching spirits were high. Students started to come in more and more. The following year, one of my martial students, Mr. David Ripianzi volunteered to help me open the market. I could not pay him, but he agreed to work on a commission basis. Then the second book was published and then the third, and on to our present list.
Here ends Part One of the interview with Dr. Yang Jwingming concerning his personal history. The information he provides here presents a unique period in Taiwan 's history as seen through the eyes of a youthful martial artist dedicated to his teachers and their arts. Some of his comments hint at some of the reasons he studied so arduously. Where did his inspiration come from? It may be necessary to re-read Part One to better understand that, but Dr. Yang's Taiwan roots clearly energized him for the difficulties and challenges of immigrating to the United States and eventually deciding to dedicate all his efforts to researching, writing, and promoting martial arts through his teaching and publishing endeavors. Perhaps what has inspired him may inspire us as well.
Michael A. DeMarco, M.A., is the founder of the Journal of Asian Martial Arts and received his M.A. degree from Seton Hall University Department of Asian Studies. He has studied and worked in India, the People’s Republic of China, Japan, and Taiwan. In 1964, he began his martial arts study in Indonesian kuntao; and since 1973, he has focused on Taijiquan. Mr. DeMarco studied under Yang Qingyu (d. 2002) in Taiwan, in the Yang style lineage of Xiong Yonghe (d. 1986), yang Jianhou, and his son, Yang Shaohou. DeMarco also studied Chen style in Taiwan under Tu Zongren and Du Yuze (1886-1990), in the lineage of Chen Yanxi.