Today, Ren Guang-Yi is famous as one of the top Chen taiji masters in the world. He travels nearly every continent giving seminars, has a series of best-selling videos, performs at the top Master’s Demos, and most of all, has a devoted following. When he’s not busy jetsetting from one engagement to another, he can be found in his upstate New York home, teaching, enjoying sushi, or hanging out with longtime friend Shaolin monk Shi Guolin in Flushing. But this success did not come easily. It took amny years of poverty, relentless practice, and fierce determination. Here now is the story behind a modern taiji master, a man who has subtly become the martial hero he always wanted to be.
Shaolin or Taiji?
Ren Guang-Yi was born in Tongbei province, in the town of Hei Long Jiang (Black Dragon). When he was fourteen, he started learning Shaolin martial arts from a Shaolin disciple named Liu Yu Jun. His study over the next several years would instill a passion in Ren that would bring him to Henan at seventeen, looking to study at Shaolin Temple.
“I wasn’t born into a martial arts family,” recalls Ren, “But I read about a lot of martial heroes, in Outlaws of the Marsh, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and most of all in legends about Yue Fei. He was the most special to me, and I dreamed of someday finding that kind of master.”
Still, at that young age, fantasies of Yue Fei seemed much like the fiction that inspired him, romantic, far away, and more like a dream. But at seventeen he set out to see some of the world. “My father supported me,” he says, “but my mother was sorry to see me leave.” Ren went to Henan with his teacher.
His teacher had recommended that Ren learn taiji, and thought that too many people learned Shaolin. For a young man who dreamed of heroic deeds, taiji seemed too slow. “My teacher knew a lot of different martial arts, and he knew taiji people,” says Ren. “He knew there was a deep knowledge there. When we got to Henan he said to me, ‘If we can find Chen Xio Wang, then you will learn from him. If not, it will be your fate, and we’ll continue on.'”
“I thought taiji was for old, sick people,” recalls Ren. “I didn’t want to learn it. However, I had to listen to my teacher. He himself had a lot of deep knowledge about taiji, but didn’t have time to teach me. Chen Xiao Wang was very famous, and my teacher knew him.”
Ren admits he wasn’t happy on the way to meet Chen Xiao Wang. He was hoping the taiji master just wouldn’t be there, and that they could continue on to Shaolin Temple. But, as it turned out, Chen had just returned from Tianjin. And that was Ren’s fate.
According to Ren, it got worse. “My first impression of him was that he looked like an office manager. I asked, is this Chen Xiao Wang? He doesn’t look like he knows anything! He didn’t look like what I dreamed a martial artist should be.”
But Ren’s teacher, who he refers to as uncle, was sly. And adamant. He arranged on the second day for Ren to have the disciple ceremony. There were four disciples altogether. They wrote out the red envelopes, and everything was very serious. Ren recalls, “My uncle could tell that I wasn’t really 100% willing to learn taiji, and so he asked Chen Xiao Wang to show us what taiji truly was. He wanted him to open the vision, so we would see the real taiji.”
Chen Xiao Wang complied. He started to demonstrate taiji, and suddenly showed the explosive fa-jing of Chen style. “I was very surprised to see this,” says Ren, smiling. “He showed us from the right hand, and the left hand too. I didn’t know shoulders, elbows could hurt people like that. Any place somebody wants to hit you, you can deflect. You can start from standing up, then you can do it sitting down. Fa-jing all over the place!
“Then, my uncle asked him to show us some chin-na. Chen Xiao Wang used his chin-na on one of my gungfu brothers – he put him into a chair, not hurting him, and the chair didn’t move. That is a hard technique. A lot of control.
“Then, he asked me and my gungfu brothers to all catch him, two on each arm. He didn’t look like he used any strength, but he shook us all off. Dissolved us. Then we switched sides, and he said, I’m going to give you some fa-jing. The four of us flew back and landed in a heap. Then one of us says, let’s hold his legs. We can’t move him, and he pushes us down. I was trying to beat him up so I could go to Shaolin, but I couldn’t! So then, I wanted to learn that taiji!”
Chen Xiao Wang, Chen Jia Gou
Ren Guang-Yi says that even to this day, he still has a deep impression of what happened that afternoon. And it was the moment that changed the entire direction of his life. After the demonstrations, Ren and the other three young men had the traditional disciple ceremony, and he officially became Chen Xiao Wang’s disciple. Ren was the only one who would stay the course.
“I paid $3.20 for a hotel every day. Chen Xiao Wang didn’t take any tuition money. In the beginning he only made me practice the taiji stance, can zhuang. He’d put a matchbox on my head, and say do it for fifteen minutes. I couldn’t do it. It took a long time, but finally I made the fifteen minutes. I did that for about six months, only can zhuang. Finally, I could do it for 47 minutes, and I had very good posture.”
Then, for another three months he learned silk reeling. One problem Chen Xiao Wang had was that he was very busy, traveling frequently to Beijing, and abroad, especially Japan. He felt he didn’t have enough time to devote to his student, and so he sent Ren to his home village, Chen Jia Gou. It was in fact the birthplace of taijiquan.
“I thought that was great,” says Ren, “because I figured, if Chen Xiao Wang is this good, his father must be even better, and able to fly on roofs! I didn’t know he had already passed away. So I stayed with my teacher’s mother, who fed me, and the other relations in the house.”
The conditions in Chen Jia Gou were very poor, with no electricity, only oil lamps at night. “Here was a place worse than Zhengzhou,” Ren remembers thinking. “At first I was very uncomfortable, with the voices in the dark, the dim lights. It felt strange, not even real. I went outside crying, and couldn’t stop.”
Things gradually got better. His father and brother supported him, sending money. Ren began studying with Chen Xiao Wang’s younger brother, Chen Xiao Xing, from who he learned the Xin Jin. “I stayed in Chen Jia Gou for 7-8 months. The way I studied taiji in that place, I was probably the only one who got to learn there like that. Chen Xiao Wang thought I’d leave after two months, and he was even surprised I stayed so long.”
Ren’s dedication was only just beginning to show. For the next ten years he would practice taiji full time, every day. He ate, slept and practiced martial arts. And that was all. Except during the harvest season, where he helped the Chen Jia Gou villagers harvest crops from the fields.
Still, he was dissatisfied in the tiny village of Chen Jia Gou. “The more I stayed,” he says, “the more I want to go. I wanted to go back to Zhengzhou. I had a bad temper, and fought with the other Chen village kids. In the village, everybody was complaining about me,” he says, grinning. “Finally, “Chen Xiao Xing tells his brother that I’m a troublemaker, a fighter. And so Chen Xiao Wang takes me back to Zhengzhou. I appreciate him for his big heart. He didn’t say anything, he just took me back.”
Back in a town that at least had electricity, conditions were still not much better for a full-time taiji man. Ren stayed with two of his martial brothers, three of them in one tiny room, with folding beds. And that was only in winter. In the summertime they slept outside, while mosquitoes covered their legs with bites. Chen Xiao Wang himself only had one room, and when he left town the three brothers would go stay there. Sometimes other people would take them in too, but Ren recalls that it was like a gypsy life.
He also had the reputation of his teacher to think about, and didn’t want anyone to know that he slept outside. “We’d find a place by the Chinese Chess club,” he remembers. “Sometimes they’d play chess until 11 p.m. After they left, the doorway was a private place, and we’d go sleep there. But we could only sleep until 4 a.m., because we’d have to get up early and leave so people wouldn’t see us.”
For seven or eight months out of the year they slept outside. It got harder when the fall nights got colder. One day he forgot his blanket, and could only find a cardboard box to keep himself warm. “It was so cold,” he says, “We had to hold onto each other to keep warm, just to make it through the night. We used public water to wash. In the coldest of wintertime we stayed with friends a few days at a time. It was like that for about nine years.”
Every year in June Ren would go back to Chen Jia Gou to harvest crops of wheat, corn and sweet potatoes. “I learned all the farming skills,” he says, “Planting, growing, harvesting – all about farming.” After studying with Chen Xiao Wang for about five years, Ren went out to other areas to teach for him. He earned a little income then, and sometimes could get a place with his martial brothers in wintertime. But nothing got in the way of his learning taiji. “The maximum I spent was 14 hours each day practicing taiji,” he recalls. “The least in one day would be six hours, but often double that. It was a very simple life. Eat, sleep, practice taiji.”
Ren notes that he had to practice at least six times on every form, but usually at least fifteen times. “Fifteen times, then you go to twenty times,” he says. “That’s how you get better. Even though here in America people have other things in life, you at least need to do it six times.”
Ren had other tricks to make himself practice. He and his martial brothers had a rule, whenever they met on the street, or at someone’s house, they had to do push hands for at least 30 minutes. That was the deal. Ren also had a habit that any time during the night when he woke up, to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom, he had to go out and do 10 forms before he could go back to sleep. No matter if it was raining, or snowing, or whatever the weather. Whenever he woke up.
One day his old uncle saw him doing this at 2 a.m. Then he saw him again the next night, and the next. ” ‘Are you crazy?’ he asked me. I said no, I gave myself this kind of challenge. My uncle said, ‘If you continue to do this, you will be successful.”
After this midnight practice Ren would return to bed. “The others would train together, and get up around 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. They would see me sleeping, and think I was lazy. They say, ‘How can you be good if you sleep?’ I didn’t say anything, I knew I had already practiced.”
As time wore on, Ren looked at his opportunities. In competition he couldn’t represent Chen Jia Gou, or Henan. He went back home to Tongbei, but they already had their own team. “I couldn’t compete on any team,” he remembers, “I had to practice alone.” Most of his martial brothers went their separate ways, and he was left the only one still in the martial arts. But he refused to go back to his province, because he didn’t feel he was successful. No money, no name.
With lack of opportunity and no welcome in the North, Ren decided to stay in the South. He met his wife in Zhengzhou, and they married. He planned to go to Hong Kong and Japan to give seminars, but his wife, a Ph.D. chemist, had already applied to New York for a scholarship, and got it. After a few months, she sent for him to apply to come to America.
When he got here, in 1991, he worked in a restaurant for one and a half months. He talked to Ma Long in New York, who encouraged him to compete here in the U.S. At Doc Fai Wong’s tournament in San Francisco Ren won the Grand Championship for taiji and weapons, but got disqualified for push hands on a technical fault, because he couldn’t understand English. The same thing happened again when he went to Virginia. “Every time I pushed someone to the ground I lost points,” he says. “I couldn’t understand why.” Finally, he learned the difference between “ready” and “go.” “They were the first two English words I learned!” he says, smiling. He also started to win the push hands competitions.
Soon Ren started to feel at home in the kungfu community of America, and quickly made friends with other masters and students. He was featured on the cover of this magazine with his teacher (Dec/Jan ’97), and also on Qi and the Asian Journal of Martial Arts. Chinese newspapers started reporting on him. Finally, he was getting the recognition that had so long eluded him in China.
Yet, Ren Guang-Yi still had one wish, and that was to win a Chinese championship. Since 1991 he had not been back to China, so in 1998 he decided to make the trip home. There, he would compete in the 5th Haigong Cup China Wenxian International Taijiquan event, against the best taiji players in China. This was really the test he had been waiting for. “People said to me, you already have your reputation here, why go back? I told them, because it’s my dream.” He knew, going back, he was really representing Chen Jia Gou, not the U.S. There was not a small amount of pressure involved, but in the end his will prevailed. And he won.
Today, Ren Guang-Yi lives with his wife and daughter in the sylvan town of Palisades, New York, just outside New York City, teaches full time, and travels all over the world giving seminars. Having just been to Hawaii this year (see this issue), Ren now tells us his new goal is to do enough taiji seminars to retire there. It’s easy to imagine Ren Guang-Yi as an old taiji master, along the rugged lava coast that nature’s great fa-jing exploded out of the earth, practicing his art in the sea swept air and dappled sun of the banyan trees. But until then, America’s premier Chen stylist will likely be travelling to a city near you. If you want the real thing, come and get it.