Volume 1 Number 2
By Erik Vogle
In three short decades, Taijiquan and its sister art
of Chinese medicine have become ubiquitous in the mainstream of North
American culture. One can get acupuncture or herbs at the doctor's office,
and then go off to the gym to take a Taijiquan class. However, the two
fields have evolved in slightly different manners. While they originated
in the same place, and have been practiced and promoted by some of the
same people, their growth here has been influenced by distinct groups
of Chinese immigrants.
Chinese medicine came to North America with Chinese workers
in the 1800's. It remained localized in Chinese communities for the next
one hundred years. When the Communists took over Mainland China in 1949,
many refugees, including Taijiquan and medical practitioners, escaped and
made their way to overseas Chinese communities. By the mid-1960's, the growth
of the counter-culture movement in North America had generated much interest
in Eastern disciplines, and both of these arts grew in popularity among
non-Chinese. Teachers were steeped in Chinese culture and customs, including
the use of family lineage and apprenticeship to transmit teachings, and
they quite naturally continued to use those models with their Western students.
Many of their students, sometimes in collaboration with them, went on to
set up schools and clinics.
It wasn't until after American president Richard Nixon
visited the PRC in 1972 and relations between the two countries became normalized
that Taijiquan and Chinese medicine began to enter mainstream Western society.
Not long after this, a wave of students and scholars came from the PRC for
graduate educations; among them were numbers of Chinese medical doctors
and researchers. This group had been trained in a Marxist-Maoist, state-regulated,
homogenized method of Chinese medicine. This system intentionally cast aside
family traditions, eclecticism, and the more spiritual and mystical aspects
that had previously characterized Chinese medicine. These people arrived
in the US and Canada and were quickly hired by the still-new schools of
Chinese medicine which were experiencing rapid growth and were looking for
teachers. It is quite natural, then, that the PRC approach, with only a
few exceptions, came to dominate Western schools of Chinese medicine, and
then, in turn, became the foundation for the content of regulatory exams.
Taijiquan in the PRC similarly fell under government
regulation. A state-sponsored amalgamated and "simplified" form
was developed, and family lineages were repressed. In the US and Canada,
however, Taijiquan, in contrast to Chinese medicine, remained solidly eclectic,
and, as a basically innocuous activity, never needed regulation. Family
lineages and their offshoots have remained at the forefront of Taijiquan
teaching here, largely because teaching was solidly dominated by the earlier
refugees and immigrants. Building a reputation and gaining a following takes
time, so these early traditionally minded teachers were firmly established
by the time PRC immigrants came and began teaching the simplified Taijiquan
form. Taijiquan, often of the traditional type for the same reasons outlined
here, is required at most North American schools of Chinese medicine. Ironically,
for many of their students, this provides some of the little contact that
they will have with any type of traditional Chinese lineage.
While we can be happy that these two arts have become
so well accepted in North America, it is unfortunate that so much of the
variety of Chinese medicine has been lost. Perhaps the eclecticism of Taijiquan
can serve as a model for Chinese medicine's future, one that will allow
for digging back into its roots and recovering lost traditions.
Erik Vogle has studied Taijiquan, Chinese massage, and qigong.
He lives in Chicago, Illinois.
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