Opening Up with Al Huang

The Tai Ji Master Shares His Thoughts

Bluebirds, thrush and hummingbirds chirp as Tai Ji master Al Huang gazes over “unmanicured” flower gardens at the Pacific Ocean through his glass-walled office. It’s a stunning panoramic view, one that helps him stay connected to nature. “The sun is shining and the surf is surfing,” he tells me. Huang has lived in Gold Beach, Oregon for the last ten years, pretty much right at the mouth of the Rogue River. The house he shares with his American wife, Suzanne, built on a rock, is architecturally “an open space” that Huang says feels like a boat, since the sea surrounds it. Seems particularly fitting for someone who spent the first twelve days of his life on the water. The Japanese were bombing Shanghai when Chungliang Al Huang was born. As soon as his mother, a Chinese princess, had delivered him in a local hospital, they fled the Nanjing massacre, joining an extended family of about 30 on a refugee boat, moving from village to village for eight years, always just ahead of the invasion.

Huang considers his itinerant beginnings a blessing “if we hadn’t been at war, I would have grown up in a city environment instead of experiencing the beauty and traditions of the rural countryside.” Discovering that “our body-nature is as inexhaustible as the sun and as renewable as the four seasons,” Huang would go into the fields each day and follow the peasants practicing Tai Ji, China’s oldest martial art. The slow, flowing movements always return to center, completing a circle of energy—something that would occur quite literally in his life. He would return to the city, travel to Taiwan and the U.S., become an architect and a professional dancer before his path returned to those simple roots, which would grow into world renown.

Huang, featured in the inaugural segment of Bill Moyers’ PBS World of Ideas series, loved his childhood and has retained childlike qualities of spontaneity, energy and enthusiasm. “As a child, we felt tremendous security and grounding,” he says, explaining that although the adults in his family had extraordinary pressures to navigate, he, his siblings and cousins felt extraordinary joy and stability together. “We had each other and we had adventures… I had lessons to learn about beauty.”

After the Japanese surrendered, Huang’s father, a military general, moved his family to the capital where his now famous son (along with three brothers and two sisters) was educated in the classics, including Chinese history, art, philosophy, fine and martial arts, and Beijing Opera techniques. “The minute I could hold a brush I began Chinese calligraphy. I learned to memorize and chant poetry from the Tang Dynasty and studied the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching,” says Huang, noting the difference between Chinese and American educational philosophies. “In China, one of the first lessons a child learns is to have total respect toward the wisdom of one’s body, which is the union of our fathers and mothers. With other subjects, you absorb what you can. As you grow you open to the depths, but at the beginning you’re just open.” Open is a word he likes, and one he uses frequently, both in conversation and in teaching.

With the advent of the Cultural Revolution and communist takeover of China, Huang followed his family to Taiwan, where he finished high school and began college. Sensing a larger calling, he won a full scholarship to the University of Oregon, where he studied architecture, earning the first of many distinguishing titles. (He later received a BA from UCLA and an MA from Bennington College in Cultural Anthropology and Choreography.) He was working as an architect in Beverly Hills in the early sixties when his life took a creative turn. “Just by chance, I met Sammy Davis, Jr. He was planning to tour with his one-man show and said ‘I need an Asian man; can you dance?’ I told him I could do Tai Ji and Kung Fu and toured with him for seven weeks.”

Later, Huang did voice-overs for martial arts film star Bruce Lee and was a featured dancer in the film, Flower Drum Song. He performed as soloist with his own theater/dance company at New York City and American Dance Festivals and was artist-in-residence at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Illinois. He loved performing, but noticed the careers of many dancers were cut short by injuries suffered during intense training.

Seeking a way to train without the strain, he returned to Taiwan to re-immerse himself in the discipline of Tai Ji. He would emerge as its pre-eminent proponent and become enormously popular as a teacher and a performer, combining the martial art with his dance expertise. “The original creation of the Tai Ji form was an ideal human choreography,” says Huang, who differentiates Tai ji from Tai Ji Chu-an. “Tai Ji Chu’an is the form…Tai Ji is its essence,” he says, explaining that anyone in any profession can exhibit the spirit of Tai Ji. He also notes the difference between ji, chi and ch’i: Ji is the new spelling for chi (usually mispronounced “ch”), whereas ch’i (the comma indicates a “ch” sound) connotes ,breath or life force.

As a calligrapher (he loved Toshiro Mifune’s recent release, Hero, which depicts both sword and brush arts), he can appreciate the Chinese government’s choice to simplify the language, but says, “There are certain things you can’t eliminate.” Case in point: the word ‘love.’ The classic character contains within it the character for ‘heart,’ involving five extra strokes. “The shortened spelling literally takes the heart out of love,” says Huang, who considers every language a total gestalt. “Imagine learning to write the word ‘love’ without the heart! In the worst of the Cultural Revolution, this was the problem—the heart was missing. When I demonstrated that to a group of people, the Chinese among them gasped. They realized exactly what had happened and understood its implications.”

Huang has raised money for Chinese schools to implement calligraphy classes, but laments that unless the tradition is followed, it’s lost, and the rapidly modernizing nation uses ballpoint pens rather than brushes, giving short shrift to the classic art.

Shortly after Nixon “opened” China, only coastal areas were accessible to Westerners, so that was where Huang traveled as a business consultant. He also taught interested friends and students Chinese culture, history, poetry, painting and philosophy. In 1985, he took a group of Western educators to the southern province of Fujuan, at Wu Yi Mountain Scenic Reserve District. Meeting with the Chinese government, the group established the Lan Ting Institute, named after a place known as the “Orchid Pavillion,” where poets, calligraphers, artists, musicians and scholars convened during the Yung-Ho (Eternal Harmony) reign of the Jin Dynasty (353 C.E.). “When you want to learn about another culture, you go to their country and absorb it. I did that for ten years,” says Huang, who plans to begin “Cultural Tourism” programs again in the near future. “This time we’ll really study, and the bonus will be the beautiful surroundings and meeting the people.”

He has also established a Western Lan Ting Institute, located in his beloved southern Oregon (“we have the ocean, rivers, ancient forests… everything”). “When we do Tai Ji facing the ocean we can connect with China.” Huang regrets he didn’t retain Chinese citizenship when he became an American, but takes comfort in the fact that he is received in China as “one of their pride and joy—they know my job in the world is to promote Chinese culture.” He was a doctoral research scholar at the Academia Sinica there, and cherishes the prestigious gold medal awarded him by China’s Ministry of Culture and Education.

Huang offers five-week intensives at the “River House,” near Gold Beach. It’s part of his Living Tao foundation, a global network of professional people interested in cultivating a body/mind/spirit synthesis, compassion and supportive human relationships. Begun in 1976, it includes an archive, a “moving space” for Tai Ji practice and a meditation center. Foundation headquarters are located in Urbana, Illinois, where Huang is still a Professor at the University of Illinois. Education has always been important to him, and he’s an enthusiastic fan of Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences” theory. “I.Q. means the basics,” he says, explaining that we’ve lost appreciation for musical, kinesthetic and interpersonal intelligence. “We’ve become a limited, partial human being.” He speaks of learning to find and live in many dimensions, rather than leading a “flat existence.”

While his two daughters were growing up, he and his wife volunteered on Friday afternoons to teach dance and cultural arts at their schools. “We were model PTA members,” he jokes. Obvious pride comes into his voice as he describes his eight-year-old grandson—a ‘little genius.’ ”He’s writing a book about mythology,” Huang tells me. “It’s already 300 pages—and he’s a wonderful illustrator. He knows all the lines of Hero and is ready to explain their meaning to anyone who asks!”

Humble in light of his own accomplishments, Huang considers himself “one of those lucky persons, always at the right place at the right time to receive the teachers.” He has studied with many martial arts masters, collaborated with the late Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell and Lama Govinda, and is currently working with the eminent authority on world religions, Huston Smith, to perpetuate the legacy of East-West cultural synthesis. “No matter how much expertise you have, how many degrees you have attained, you’re always a student of life. Just open your eyes and you’ll see another teacher right there for you,” he counsels. “The journey always comes back to the most important part of your life, the sense of the experience of aliveness and the meaning of why we have this brief journey.” That’s the philosopher in him speaking.

Huang is fascinated by Taoism, and co-wrote Tao: The Watercourse Way with Watts in 1975. His 2005 lecture/concert at Santa Barbara’s ‘Mind/Supermind’ series will be titled The Tao of War and Peace. “I want to get people to experience their own inner war and learn how to balance war and peace within themselves, then within their families, communities, states, this country and then in the world. The whole world is in a major balancing act…it’s a constant human struggle.” He admits it’s an ambitious undertaking, but feels confident—“I’ve been doing it for years in my seminars—people appreciate learning to deal with conflict.”

The only speaker repeatedly invited back to the Mind/Supermind Series, Huang gets off the podium and into the aisles, involving participants in movement and music. “Tai Ji is a bridge to connecting with our true Self. It can be translated as “man in perfect balance within polarity.” Ji can mean extremes. Open yourself (there’s that word again)—bring all your opposites together. Use two extremes to find the center, balance.” Huang emphasizes that Tai Ji isn’t Chinese, but is Universal.

With Dr. Jerry Lynch, Huang has pioneered Tao Mentoring, a recent two-week program for employees of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, was enthusiastically received and a second session is eagerly anticipated. “I’m working well with these government people,” he says playfully. In earlier years, he worked “hush hush” with senators, influencing the late Claiborne Pell, who began talking about ‘love’ on the Hill. “Let’s not get into this political thing, we can get very depressed,” he decides, immediately adding “actually, I am a hopeful pessimist.” He credits the phrase to his close friend Joan Baez, whom he says is like a sister to him. “Her voice is even more beautiful and she is committed to art, music and the world and is more than ever an icon.”

Huang plays the bamboo flute beautifully, and has fused his Tai Ji/dance with many musicians during residencies at the Yehudi Menuhim School in England, and the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in Finland. In the early ’80s, he and the Paul Winter Consort created “The Tao of Bach: A Tai Ji Musical Offering” concert series, performed at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City and at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. He now performs at the annual Oregon Bach Festival. “When I dance to Bach, I dance with Bach as well…his essence is in me. My body sprouts Bach’s music, moving us both in the watercourse way, through time and space.”

Nearly 70, Huang can’t do the leaps he once did, but nonetheless considers himself to be a better dancer today than he was in the past. “I wouldn’t want to leap that high anymore. I was a Kung Fu kid—as a young man I sparred with Bruce Lee. As an older man, I now do subtle, beautiful Tai Ji. I still perform…but it’s not about showing off anymore, it’s about how to use your instrument properly to inspire others.”

Huang has written some inspiring best-selling books, including the seminal Essential Tai Ji, Quantum Soup: Fortune Cookies in Crisis and the best-selling classic, Embrace Tiger, Return To Mountain (translated into 12 languages) and, with Lynch, Thinking Body, Dancing Mind, Tao Mentoring and Working Out, Working Within. All stress the importance of going with the flow, both physically and mentally. “If you’re not learning with enjoyment, you’re not learning very well,” he states. He also believes in moderation, mentioning that people usually assume he’s a vegetarian. “I enjoy food and eating, and my wife is a wonderful cook. We eat everything, all forms of protein. We eat moderately and wisely. We don’t overdo and we’re not too picky.”

Such an easygoing attitude reflects the priorities of someone who has shared keynote addresses with the Dalai Lama in cities around the globe. Huang likes the saying, “Joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world,” a Buddhist teaching. “Recognize the sorrow,” he says, “but find the joy—it opens doors.” It’s certainly worked for him. He’s walked through many doors and left them wide open for those coming behind him.

His love of life, frequent laugh and natural adaptation to circumstances around him are contagious. He doesn’t get stuck in specific forms and is always moving and growing—he’s the essence of fluidity, and sums up his philosophy with this succinct quote from Watts: “After you get the message, hang up the phone.”

By Cynthia Logan