Interview Tony Ward Sydney, 15th December 2011 by Anneke van der Loos
On my way to New Zealand, where I have been training regularly with Wee Kee Jin, I made a stopover in Sydney to be able to get a better understanding of Tony’s approach to Tai Chi. I did push hands with him early 2011 and this experience of not being able to feel him but straight away being brought out of balance myself made me curious about his methods.
What was your first experience with Tai Chi?
I’d been doing Karate classes for many years and my brother took me to his tai chi class. I came across the concept of hard and soft in Karate, but Tai Chi was softer and a different concept altogether. I saw it as a process, as life. During that time, I was also studying Chinese Medicine and Aikido.
And what was your first experience with Push Hands?
I practiced push hands for a number of years and learned how to be connected within the body. I thought that was it. However, an encounter with a student (James) of Master Huang opened my eyes. We did some free pushing. I tried everything I could to catch his centre and push him out yet he remained very calm and relaxed, nothing I did seemed to effect or land on his body to allow an issue. Then he smiled and politely asked if he could push me. A bit shocked he then proceeded to knock me all over the place. But like never before, he took away my balance and seemed to completely control me. I thought I had a pretty good base but seemed to remove it and gently throw me everywhere. I say gently because it actually felt good as he bounced my whole body around. From that point on I became very interested in this system of Tai Chi and of course, his Teacher, who turned out to be Master Huang.
When did you start training with Master Huang?
You could not just join, after about 4 years training with James and Joseph (another student of Master Huang), armed with a formal letter of introduction, I first met Master Huang in Taiwan in 1986. The following year I travelled to Malaysia. And from that time I tried to see him at least once a year. He was already in his seventies so time was precious. Therefore I let go of everything I was involved with at the time, including Aikido. I’ve never really looked back, meeting him totally changed my life. When I first met I shook his hand, he gave me an empty hand which sent me flying one meter in the air. And he laughed!
What made the biggest impression on you?
I had read many books about softness over hardness, be like water, how to live, etc. Everyone said the same things, however, I felt hardness in their push. Not with Master Huang. For me, the big experience was that he gave me something solid to feel and potentially push, like a hand or an arm, but then made that solidness disappear into a hole, without losing the connection. He remained “sticking”. This feeling of connection became for me a thread I wanted to keep following.
How did he teach?
At the beginning, I was able to film him a lot, apparently not so common in those days. He created an atmosphere where you felt at home, you cared for each other, learned from him and shared your experiences. He made you feel everything, was very open and did not hold back information. Time and time again, he would repeat the same information. And the things he did were so good. I always felt that and I was so fortunate to have met and then to have been pushed many, many times by someone with the incredible ability of Master Huang he truly showed the ability of softness overcoming hardness. For me a sign of authentic Tai Chi.
You began teaching according to his system and transmitted the knowledge. Are you still teaching like he would?
In the beginning, you maintain the same teaching structure, but I soon starting doing things a little differently. Not so much changing the exercises but finding the principles of the movement and accurately identifying these principles in all our movement. Although I am really fond of the traditional methods, I found I could not so easily apply this way of teaching in these modern times. Take the slow form as an example this, for me is a huge body of work and it takes most beginners a couple of years just to learn the bare bones of the external form and then another half dozen to get any understanding of the internals and this is the stuff that really matters with Tai Chi, this is the stuff that really sets it aside from other exercises. Now it’s a big ask in these speedy times to say just give me ten good years of your time to get to basically the first door. I think it’s up to today’s teachers if we want these arts to really survive and thrive we have to constantly question and refine our methods of teaching and practice.