Professor Cheng Man-Ching (1902-1975) is considered one of the greatest Tai Chi masters of modern times. He was a pioneer, instrumental in bringing Tai Chi and Chinese philosophy to the West.
Cheng was unique – not only a remarkable martial artist but also an accomplished painter, poet, scholar and doctor of Chinese medicine. All his talents were deeply rooted in the philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism, finding harmony in the way humans relate to each other and to nature.
Professor Cheng saw Tai Chi as an embodiment of natural laws and as a path of human growth – a way to live, a way of finding meaning, balance and peace.
Traditional but open minded, Cheng came from a conservative world. In China he was a successful painter, doctor and professor. In the 1920’s he studied in Shanghai with the great Tai Chi grandmaster Yang Cheng-Fu continuing a lineage hundreds of years old.
After years of study Prof. Cheng revolutionized the form. Shortening it from 108 to 37 postures, he distilled tai chi to its essence, making it more accessible to the modern world.
In 1949 after the revolution he moved to Taiwan where his paintings were acquired by the National Museum. He became a member of the National Assembly. He was a well respected member of the intellectual and political elite.
But in 1962, at age 60, Cheng decided to leave his privileged position and move with his family to New York. His mission – to teach westerners the profound ideas of classic Chinese culture. Living simply in Manhattan he spent the last dozen years of his life teaching here.
Cheng Man-Ching arrived in the U.S. amidst the political and social upheaval of the 1960’s. He founded a Tai Chi school in the heart of New York’s Chinatown where many of his students were an unusual group of young, eager Americans – artists, scientists, hippies, workers, radicals – who were searching for meaning in a competitive, materialistic, violent world.
His eclectic group of students included: Ed Young, award-winning illustrator; Maggie Newman, leading modern dancer; Stanley Israel, prison guard and union president; Ken Van Sickle photographer and filmmaker; Robert Chuckrow, physicist.
Cheng’s lessons and personality touched a chord in his American students who were open to both new ideas and old traditions. They called him “The Professor.” The students in turn influenced Cheng, who became more relaxed, flexible even playful.
Cheng had to overcome old world prejudices to bring ancient wisdom to the modern world. There were many in the Chinese community who were opposed to Prof. Cheng teaching westerners Chinese “secrets.” He was ostracized and even locked out of his school, but Cheng wasn’t stopped by intolerance. He established a new school and gladly taught all races and nationalities, men and women.
Cheng inspired and changed the lives of his students who in turn spread Tai Chi and Chinese philosophy in the West where it has taken root.
THE PROFESSOR is not meant to be an uncritical deification, but the story of a man who sought to live as a “true human being” and who overcame cultural divides to bring ancient traditions to the modern world, teaching Westerners how to seek an ethical, open-minded, joyful way of life.