Donn Draeger & Robert Smith: Their Intersection Concerning Chinese Martial Arts

Robert W. Smith was one of the most important American writers on Asian martial arts, particularly those of Taiwan (and those mainland teachers who settle in Taiwan after the 2nd World War). He was a powerful man, with a background in judo, wrestling and boxing. After serving with the Marines, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency, serving in Taiwan from 1959 to 1962. While there, he undertook a peripatetic study/entry into a number of Chinese martial arts schools. The result of this three years survey of teachers were outlined in a number of his books. Most notably, Smith became a student of Zheng Manqing, an artist and innovative Yang Taijiquan instructor. Zheng, a master of a number of traditional Chinese arts, was an instructor to the family of Chiang Kai Shek.

Smith was an important figure due to his genuine achievements in Chinese martial arts and more so, due to his writings: he brought some wonderful teachers to the attention of Western practitioners. In addition,  his writing, itself, was old-school, with a sense of humor and wit. To be sure, there were times that he was both pompous and verbose, but he was one of the first writers on martial arts, after E.J. Harrison, who actually brought these people to life.

Smith’s most important collaborator was Donn F. Draeger. Donn was a remarkable physical specimen. He started in some form of Yoshin-ryu jujutsu as a child, and later become a brilliant judo practitioner–the formidable Jon Bluming idolized Donn, and stated that he could not beat him in newaza (ground fighting). Donn made martial arts study the center of his life, achieving expertise in more arts than I believe anyone knows, including judo, karate, several forms of Indonesian pentjak silat, Shinto Muso-ryu jo, Katori Shinto-ryu and a number of forms of Chinese martial arts. He had a 5th dan in Tomiki Aikido, something that none of his closest friends were even aware that he studied. In his fifties, he could use 400+ pounds in full squats as a workout weight, and in fact, he was one of the pioneers using weightlifting to augment combat sports (coaching, among others Inokuma Isao, Anton Geesink, and Doug Rogers, all Olympians in judo). He revived the old academic discipline of hoplology, the study of the evolution and development of human combative behavior.

When I was on my way to Japan, Terry Dobson, my mentor in aikido recommended that I look up Draeger. The only thing I knew about him were his books. Donn was a witty, even bawdy guy in person – he was an ex-Marine, after all – but he very much desired to have his writing accepted in academic circles. He leaned on John ‘Jack’ Hanson-Lowe, an elderly man from a previous generation, who practiced ‘gentleman’s judo’ (He started in his 50’s. There was a place for cultured men such as he in the Kodokan, and he rose to 6th dan. John was legit—not a fighter, but knowledgeable, and well respected by the older Japanese teachers of the Kodokan, who still appreciated the idea of judo as a form of ethical culture). Unfortunately, Jack edited in a very stiff English style, and truly leached the humanity out of much of Donn’s writing. Therefore, I had a certain impression; I actually imagined Donn to be a tweedy academic who wrote about things that he didn’t do. I mentioned this to Terry, and said, “I’ll look him up if I have a spare moment from training.” Terry just smiled.

I first met Donn at the Renbukan, the dojo of Shimizu Takaji, of Shindo Muso-ryu. Contrary my imagination, the man was built like a Greek god, well muscled and as flexible as a gymnast (despite some serious chronic injuries). I only saw him in action a few times—practicing jo and once doing an embu of Katori Shinto-ryu. He was a terrifying man. His weapon would sound a CRACK when contacting his training partner’s weapon. He was not brutal or untrustworthy, but he was also so intense that the only way you wouldn’t get hurt would be if you matched his intensity. Imagine wrestling with a dog—you are used to a golden retriever, but today it is a mastiff, friendly to be sure, but built to kill. Illustration Donn Draeger & Shimizu Takji – Isshin-ryu kusarigamajutsu

He was training one day at the Korakuen gym, and came out of the shower to find himself facing Muhammad Ali and his entourage, there to fight Antonio Inoki in what turned out to be their absurd ‘boxing vs. wrestling’ match (absurd not because of the idea, but because of the way the bout transpired). Anyway, Ali pointed at Donn, commented on his muscles, and said that he could drop him with a single punch. Donn asked him to punch him in the stomach. Ali gave him a hook, and Donn didn’t even blink. So Ali hit him several more times, with escalating power, but Donn, again, did not blink. He just smiled. Ali was starting to get quite disconcerted when a member of his entourage wisely pulled him away, saying, “C’mon champ, we have no time to play around. We got to get ready”Illustration Donn Draeger on Set of You Only Live Twice

Donn was very kind to me, as he was to all young practitioners of martial arts who moved to Japan (Jim Bregman, Jon Bluming, Terry Dobson, Don Buck, C.W. Nicol, Meik Skoss, Ken Cottier, Quentin Chambers Phil Relnick, Larry Bieri, Hunter Armstrong, Liam Keeley, Dave Hall, to name a few). Some became his students; others he mentored: Donn believed that the classical Japanese martial traditions were dying, devolving into hobbies, and he thought that if each art could be leavened by one or two dedicated non-Japanese, their commitment would shame some teachers, and enliven others—in either case, the teacher would find himself ‘compelled’ to teach such a sincere student. He was right—some of these young men and women saved ryūha that would have largely died out, had it not been for their presence.

There was a famous xingyiquan and baguazhang teacher in Japan in those days, named Wang Shujin. He had a son-in-law living in Japan, running a Chinese restaurant. He was associated with the son of the infamous Toyama Mitsuru (founder of the Genyosha), Toyama Ryusuke, and stayed in his home. Toyama, father and son, had always been Shimizu Takaji’s sponsors, and through this connection, I believe, Donn met Wang. On the other hand, Robert Smith was already connected to Wang in Taiwan, and Robert and Donn were good friends, so the initial meeting could have come through Smith’s auspices. Illustration – WangShujin Bagua

Donn (and a number of other of his associates) began training with Wang on the grounds of the Meiji Shrine, in any and all weather. During winter, Phil Relnick told me, they would get so cold they would uncontrollably tremble, and Wang would offer a huge hand and they would grasp it with their two hands, and find that it was not just warm but hot, warming them at the touch. Wang was massively powerful – about five feet six inches and I’m guessing about 260 or more pounds. He was so round that his students nicknamed him “The Chubby Chucker.” When I later travelled in Taiwan, every prominent teacher I visited claimed to have defeated Wang Shujin one way or another—and from what I knew of the Chinese martial arts culture, this revealed that Wang probably was the dragon that they all believed they had to beat, but couldn’t.

Wang was famous for his ability to take any blow below the neck—using soft power, not rigid muscular strength (like Donn with Muhammad Ali). He could allow you to punch him in the belly, and if he didn’t like you, ‘punch’ you back with his belly, sending the arm rocketing out of his flesh behind your ear, at such speed that it nearly dislocated.  I personally saw him hug a Kyokushinkai karate champion, dropping him wheezing to the ground, ‘punched’ by Wang’s massive paunch, and this, only several months before his death from cancer. He could barely walk, but he could still make any part of his body a ‘fist,’ and drive through the man with a connected body augmented with an impeccable usage of ground and gravity. Illustration Robert Smith and Wang Shujin

Wang took to Donn—as did, I believe, any truly martial human being. Donn gave people respect, when they merited it, but he never displayed a trace of arrogance. When in Japan, Wang mostly taught his adaptation of Chen Pan Ling’s synthetic t’ai chi form, but if you found favor with him, he would select either xingyiquan or baguazhang as your personal art. For Donn, he chose baguazhang, and thought well enough of him that he actually had him do the traditional tree circling for two years – no form – he simply had to circle round the tree for several hours every morning, until he’d dug a trench with his feet (or, in the most traditional mythos, this was done until the roots weakened and the tree would begin to topple). Donn said Wang would walk up, look at the track scuffed in the soil around the tree, and say “not deep enough” and then pursue Donn around the tree in a game of tag, panther pursued by Leviathan, the former always caught.

Wang visited Donn at his small home, and in the conversation, said to him, “Your trouble is you have insufficient control of your body,” reached over and picked up a meteorite, the size of a shot-put that Donn used for a paperweight. He took a pose on one leg, extended his arm straight out and held the meteorite, palm DOWN, for ten minutes, immobile, then shifted to his mirror image and did it again for another ten.

Perhaps the greatest mark of Wang’s reported power was this. Some of you may know the immense torii at Meiji shrine. Donn stated that Wang went up to it, and shook it so it swayed. (I wish I could have seen that myself—it seems an impossible feat—but so was the gymnasium building that I personally saw Chen Xiao Wang shake with a foot stomp, creating the same vibration as an earthquake…I didn’t believe it when I saw it, assuming this was either due to a sprung floor, or something similar, so I waited until everyone left, got up on the six foot stage, and jumped down straight legged. The floor, much less the building, was unaffected. Chen, on the other hand, catapulted his leg downwards, using his connective tissue, this augmenting the utterly relaxed stomp downwards, as if firing his leg like an arrow, his body being the bow). Given what I’ve seen, I can believe that Donn was possibly reporting things accurately.

In sum, then, Donn had some experience and expertise in Chinese martial arts. Nonetheless, when Draeger and Smith decided to collaborate on their seminal book, Asian Fighting Arts, they had a ‘geographic agreement.’ I don’t remember all of it, but important to this piece is that they agreed that Robert would be responsible for the writing on China. This very successful book was published, and Donn subsequently continued researching martial arts in Indonesia and Malaysia. As the reader may know, there are innumerable Chinese martial arts in the Indonesian Archipelago and in what used to be called Indochina. They are a mixed bag: on the one hand, these overseas Chinese were linked to a pre-communist form of martial arts study, in some ways more traditional than what remained in China itself, except what you might find far out in rural areas; on the other hand, they amalgamated, making heterodox systems, blending together elements of varying degrees of compatibility.

Donn found some wonderful teachers in southeast Asia. He wrote books on Indonesian fighting arts, joined several systems of silat, and actually contributed to their development by teaching them judo throws, altered to fit their particular systems. And he found Chinese arts as well, eventually writing books on Phoenix Eye boxing, Shantung Black Tiger boxing, and Shaolin Lohan fist. This offended Smith, who believed that he had, in a sense, a franchise on Chinese martial arts. As Chas Clements put it, “A herd of martial artists gets together and a fight breaks out; quelle surprise.”

I was never part of Donn’s inner circle—I felt that although the merits of close association with the man were immeasurable, I wanted to make my own way. Any introduction received from Donn made me, in Japanese eyes, one of Donn’s boys. Furthermore, I didn’t need another father, and that’s what he would have been to me. But he was very kind to me, and unfailingly helpful. In my correspondence with him, I would describe a form I had seen or was working on and would get back the equivalent of a Britannica entry – concise, pithy and erudite.

(And we got drunk one time and started planning the kidnapping a famous pseudo-neo-ninja, hanging him upside down in his underwear and sending the pictures to Black Belt Magazine—one of my great regrets was that we stuck to beer instead of hard liquor, because drunk enough, we might have done it. I might have ended up thrown out of the country [or with seven throwing stars sticking in my forehead], but that would have been one of the best nights of my life!) .

This leads me to Robert Smith’s last book, Martial Musings, where he writes more wondrous anecdotes, and sums up his truly remarkable life. But in between very intelligent and lyric writing, he also expresses some unfounded, frankly incorrect opinions. For example, he is as off-base as Meryl Streep in his discussion of Brazilian jiujitsu and MMA. He also settled scores in the book, most notably with Donn, writing an ostensibly respectful chapter, but with passive-aggressive digs that ill becomes him.  In Martial Musings, Smith claims that Draeger realized the ‘superiority’ of Chinese internal methods at one point in his career, but later renounced that insight to concentrate on Japanese martial arts.  Specifically: “Either consciously or deep down, their egos would not permit them to ever know that their years in the more or less”hard” arts availed nothing against a soft, old man. Ego, that monkey on all our backs, prevented them from ever knowing that Laozi was right in saying the soft overcomes the hard…but where other than in Zheng Manqing did these friends of mine ever have a chance to see it physically demonstrated? It remains a pity.” (Martial Musiings pg. 101)

What this really came down to was his belief that his teacher, Zheng Manqing, was the greatest martial artist to walk the face of the earth. Donn disagreed, and also pointed out that he could find no independent documentary evidence of Zheng ever in a real match/fight. On the other hand, he did find newspaper accounts of his being easily defeated by the Gao bagua/Taiji master Wu Mengxia

Smith claimed that he tried to set up a ‘match’ with Zheng, and Donn demurred. Smith then psychologizes that Donn here met his limit – that he couldn’t conceive of, much less approach the power of the ‘soft.’ But interestingly, Donn and I had a conversation about just this subject at this same time period. We were sitting in an underground restaurant, a dingy place under Shibuya station, and Donn told me, “Robert is after me to cross hands with Zheng Manqing. What am I supposed to do? Go easy on a fragile old man and enhance his reputation or beat up a fragile old man and damage mine? So Robert said I should check out Huang Sheng Shyan. That he was the man I should go through if I wanted Zheng. So I did” [Huang had a lifelong background in martial arts, particularly ‘white crane boxing.’ He became a leading student of Zheng Manqing in Malaysia.]

Amdur – “How did you do?” – By the way, do remember that this was not a conversation between equals – I was a young kid, comparatively, and he was kindly hanging out with me and showing me a few of the ropes, so to speak.

Draeger – “The man could push, I’ll give him that. I must have gone twenty feet back . . . but I had a hold of his jacket as I went and I rolled over in a tomoenage and choked him out.”

Donn continued, saying that he had upmost respect for baguazhang and xingyiquan as wonderful ‘civilian fighting arts.’ He said that xingyi fighters were the only internal martial arts who were generally successful in the full-contact, limited rules fights in East Asia (Incidentally, he confined the word ‘martial’ for fighting arts that were created and functioned for the battlefield. He used to make Western martial artists froth at the mouth when he’d say, “aikido-karate-judo-wu shu . . . is not a martial art, it’s a civilian fighting art.”) He continued that he always thought taiji was no more than a pseudo fighting art/exercise, because that is all he ever saw in Hong Kong/Taiwan, etc.

But then he met some groups in Malaysia, really old school – describing one that did a fast push hands coupled with round house and ax kicks at full speed, the practitioners young ethnic Chinese, some well over 240 pounds, and also a teacher known as the “Butcher” (that’s how he made his living). Other guys who were there described a friendly sparring match between these two where they totally trashed the Butcher’s room, including the two of them crashing into a sink and tearing it off the wall, then becoming friends.  That’s the kind of stories that SHOULD be told about Donn—not Smith’s very subtle, self-aggrandizing patronization of his deceased good friend. To be fair, Robert tells some wonderful stories about Donn, and in many ways, pays him homage. But that chapter of his book would have been a gem had he not played out his own agenda in the process.

Here’s a last funny story about Donn (My God, what a life. I hope that his biographers get all their interviews done with his close friends, because it is too late). Donn and some associates, all practitioners of koryu (mostly jo), visited one tough Malaysian-Chinese school, and asked the translator to say, “We are honored to be here. If it pleases all of you, we will demonstrate some of our weapon-based training and then, if you’d be so kind, would you demonstrate some of your empty handed art which I’ve heard such wonderful things.”

The translator ‘repeated’ this, and all of a sudden the mood changed, like a Run Run Shaw flick – everyone drew themselves up, and you could almost hear the bad Hong Kong dubbing, with the mouth movements three seconds behind – “So, sport, you think your blue goose kung fu is a match for my white plum blossom. We’ll see about that, chappie. Let’s have a go” Donn whispered, “what did you say?” and the translator whispered back, “What you told me. We’d like to test our weapons against your empty handed art.”

Donn was able to get everyone to pause, got it slowly retranslated, and all was smiles.

I think the best way to describe Donn was that any school he joined–any martial art group–immediately became better. His presence and the demands he made on himself had such power that everyone there pulled out the best from himself. Otherwise you’d be ashamed to be training next to him. It was not what he said – he drew you up just because of who he was.




  1. Great article. I had the privilege of attending an Aikido seminar given by Larry Bieri sensei a couple years ago in Milwaukee. During the break we drove him out to Woods Veterans cemetery so he could pay his respects at Donn Draeger’s grave. This article helped put that in perspective for me.


  2. splendid and well put Ellis. Clarification and well framed respect and the the correction of Robert Smith’s self serving digs — all well done!

    muchas gracias,

    Allen Pittman


  3. Mr. Amdur,

    I started your article with great anticipation to read about your experiences with and insights on Donn Draeger, but finished with consternation regarding some of your comments regarding Robert Smith.

    Unfortunately, it seems you’ve allowed other “voices” to color your understanding and description of the friendship between these two martial arts giants.

    And some of what you say is somewhat inaccurate, and in a few places, downright wrong!

    So for the readers who may have never had the chance to meet Mr. Smith, or who have read only internet bilge regarding Prof. Cheng, please allow me to hopefully fill in the the record, and correct the errors I found in your article regarding these gentlemen (and others you mentioned) from what I know.

    To begin, you state that, ” Zheng was the official instructor of the family of Chiang Kai Shek, and because of this, coupled with Smith’s known connection with the American government, he was able to gain entry into schools that he might otherwise never have found, much less be welcomed.”

    In what disciplines did he instruct the “family of Chiang Kai Shek”? Was it T’ai Chi? Literature? Ballroom dancing? Was it to all the members of the family?

    Actually, Prof. Cheng was just one of two painting teachers for Madam Chiang. He taught her Flower painting while another artist taught her Landscapes. Prof. Cheng was never called or known as the “official instructor of the ‘family’ of Chiang Kai-shek.” Now he may also have provided un-official services at times as a doctor, and may have given some rudimentary T’ai Chi instruction to President and Madame Chiang, but he was only an “Official” instructor to Madame Chiang, and only as her painting teacher.

    As for your assertion that it was Mr. Smith connections to Prof. Cheng as being instrumental as a gateway to other boxers on Taiwan, that couldn’t be wronger! Mr. Smith was introduced to his other teachers and boxers on the island not by the auspices of Prof. Cheng, but by his friendship with Peter Ch’en (a non-boxer!), T.T. Liang (who had 15 teachers on Taiwan and knew many more!), Liao Wu-ch’ang (who had connections and high standing with the Taiwanese boxers), and others.

    And as to whether or not Mr. Smith’s connection to the USA Government had any bearing on his reception by the boxers he met, the name card he presented to them
    (a must in any formal introduction in Chinese society!) said simply:

    “”Robert W. Smith” “NACC 349 YangMinShan” “Phone 24931 Ext.4” “Scholar Doing Research on all Traditional Forms of Chinese Boxing (Tai Chi, Shaolin, Hsing-i, etc.) and Wrestling. “Material, Especially Old manuscripts, Purchased.””

    So, whether or not his contact with boxing teachers on the island, and subsequent instruction from some of them, was due solely to his employer is debatable, although, to be sure, I’m sure that many knew of his government connections. (NACC was the “Naval Auxillary Communication Center” that housed the offices for the CIA)

    Further you state, “Smith, thus, had contact with schools in official favor: although he tended to present himself as having secured tutelage with the finest instructors on Taiwan, there were many whom he never got access to. There were many other great instructors of whom he was not even aware.”

    Now as for the designation of “schools in official favor”, just where did you “officially” hear of this? Mr. Smith met and studied with both Mainlanders and Taiwanese, some of whom had a “shady” (and even criminal!) past. I don’t know where you got your information that he was accepted by only “schools in official favor”. The only school that I can think of that might fit this description at the time was the school run by Hung Yi-hsiang, Mr. Smith’s first teacher in Taiwan, that openly catered to the US military personnel, and other foreigners living in Taipei. Any other “official” schools would have been associated with the other American military bases in Taichung and Tainan.

    As for the second part of your above statement,”…although he tended to present himself as having secured tutelage with the finest instructors on Taiwan, there were many whom he never got access to. There were many other great instructors of whom he was not even aware” I think needs some clarification.

    Mr. Smith freely admitted the fact that there were some intriguing boxers on Taiwan that he heard about, but didn’t get a chance to meet (indeed some didn’t want to meet him!). But as for the ones he did meet, they were indeed among the best on the island. He also lamented the fact that since the boxing arts and the boxers on the mainland were being systematically eroded and “erased” by the government there, he feared for the survival of the skills that, no doubt, were at one time prevalent on the mainland, but now were only echoed by the boxers on Taiwan. (Prof. Cheng said on more than one occasion that his senior classmates Li Ya-hsuan and Chang Ch’ing-ling had T’ai -chi skills much higher than his own! He lost touch with Li (who had relocated to Szechwan) after he moved to Taiwan, but tried to stay in contact with Chang until the doors of communication between Taiwan and the mainland were sealed shut in the early 1950’s.)

    I’m also a bit curious Mr. Amdur, do you know the names of the “many other great instructors of whom he was not even aware”? I sure would like to be able to identify these guys!

    As for your statement, “there were times that he (Smith) was both pompous and verbose”, again, was a bit off the mark. In all of my 36 years of knowing him, Mr. Smith was never “pompous” to anyone, in person or in print. “Opinionated”? Yes! But “pompous”, never!

    As for being “verbose”, well, I kinda wish he would have written more!

    Speaking of writing styles, you seem to lay the onus of the dryness of Mr. Draeger’s writings upon Mr. John Hanson-Lowe stating, “Jack (i.e. John Hanson-Lowe) edited in a very stiff English style, and truly leached the humanity out of much of Donn’s writing.”

    Actually, Dr. Ben Fusaro, another editor of at least one of Mr. Draeger’s publications (Weapons and Fighting Arts of the Indonesian Archipelago), told me that Draeger’s own writing read like a Army training manual! (Maybe he had tried to conform to Mr. Hanson-Lowe’s expectations in the manuscript he gave to Ben!)

    You continue by extolling the virtues (and there were many!) of Mr. Donn Draeger, and mention Mr. Draeger’s connection with Wang Shu-chin in Tokyo.

    Apparently Mr. Draeger thought highly of Wang and his skill, yet he couldn’t accept Mr. Smith’s assertion that Cheng was perhaps a greater exponent of the Nei-chia…

    Well, Mr. Smith knew them both, and could (and did) compare the skills each had. He even told me once that, if he hadn’t met Prof. Cheng, he would have studied more with Wang Shu-chin! (He also said to me once, “If I had met anybody better than Cheng, I would have written about THAT guy!)

    So it seems that for Mr. Smith, Cheng and Wang were the top guys on Taiwan, with Cheng standing a bit higher! Mr. Draeger should have taken Mr. Smith’s opinion, based on experience, to heart and tried out Cheng for himself! Maybe he would have manhandled him, but keep in mind that Mr. Smith was also no slouch in martial endeavors, and had tried his best against the Professor on numerous occasions, and always came away with a more profound respect for the art and the man!

    As for Mr. Draeger’s writings on the Chinese systems of Southeast Asia “offending” Mr. Smith, “who believed that he had, in a sense, a franchise on Chinese martial arts”, I’m afraid, isn’t at all the case…

    Mr Smith actually states the contrary in Martial Musings (pg 98), “In the past (i.e. when they were compiling “Asian Fighting Arts”), we had cut the pie so that he took Japan and I, China. That specialization was not sacrosanct. I didn’t believe he was encroaching on my preserve.”

    Mr. Smith goes on to say that he only thought that Mr. Draeger was chasing the wrong rabbits down the Chinese boxing trails! He once mentioned to me (and says as much in Martial Musings) that he thought that if Draeger wanted to pursue research on Chinese boxing, he should concentrate on the boxing and boxers on Taiwan. He thought that the Chinese boxing found in Malaysia and Indonesia wasn’t on par with the orthodox systems preserved and practiced on Taiwan. Keep in mind Mr. Smith did travel a bit in Southeast Asia during his time in Taiwan and got a chance to see and meet several boxers there. (One notable exception was a Mr. Chee from Malaysia who taught Five Ancestor boxing and got Mr. Smith’s attention!)

    I’m sure that, if Mr. Smith was jealous at all of Mr. Draeger, it was the fact that Mr. Draeger was doing research “in the field”, while Mr. Smith was desk-bound in Washington D.C.!

    As for the encounter of Mr. Draeger with Prof. Cheng’s student, Huang Sheng-shyan in Malaysia, an important fact is always left out of accounts of this “meeting”…

    Huang was only about 5’4″ or 5’5” and maybe weighed 150 lbs., while Mr. Draeger towered over him being almost 6 foot, and certainly outweighed him by 50 or more pounds. Yet Mr. Draeger gives him praise for his powerful push! But what bothers me about this story is the “cheap shot” by Mr. Draeger when he held on to Huang’s clothes and threw him. If Mr. Draeger had asked Huang for a “test” in push-hands, I think that that was what should have been expected by Huang, not a grab ’em and go! That story kinda tarnishes my view of Mr. Draeger’s character a bit for me.

    This encounter between Mr. Draeger and Huang somewhat illustrates Mr. Smith’s observation that he stated in Martial Musings. Speaking of Mr. Draeger and another martial artist of note, about their refusal to actually “test” Prof. Cheng as Mr. Smith had, “Either consciously or deep down, their egos would not permit them to ever know that their years in the more or less”hard” arts availed nothing against a soft, old man. Ego, that monkey on all our backs, prevented them from ever knowing that Laozi was right in saying the soft overcomes the hard…but where other than in Zheng Manqing did these friends of mine ever have a chance to see it physically demonstrated? It remains a pity.” (Martial Musiings pg. 101) So it seems that in Mr. Draeger’s encounter with Huang, it was his “Ego” that held on to his jacket, and refused to conform to the accepted parameters for push-hands.

    So without ever even meeting Prof. Cheng to either corroborate or dispel Mr. Smith’s high opinion of his skills, “Donn disagreed, and also pointed out that he could find no independent documentary evidence of Zheng ever in a real match/fight. On the other hand, he did find newspaper accounts of his being easily defeated by the Gao bagua/Taiji master Wu Mengxia.”

    So Mr. Amdur, just what newspaper accounts (plural!) and in what newspapers did this encounter between Wu and Cheng appear? Did Mr. Draeger read Chinese too? How did he find these articles? Who provided them? Inquiring minds wanna know!

    I don’t know if any of my findings below would satisfy the definition of “documentary evidence” but this is what I have unearthed regarding Prof. Cheng’s skills:

    In the 1940’s in Chungking five brothers set up the “Five Tigers Free-Fighting Contest” in which Prof. Cheng participated. He fought the third brother and broke the guy’s nose! (from Zheng Manqing’s Uncollected Writing’s…trans. by Douglas Wile)

    Mr. Kuo Ch’ing-fang (amateur western boxing champion of Shanghai in the 1930’s and 40’s) told me of a time in Chungking when he and Prof. Cheng paid a visit to a martial artist who daily advertised in the newspaper that he would “take on all comers!” Mr. Kuo said Prof. Cheng pushed him all around! (and there was no more ad in the paper the next day!)

    Wellington Koo (aka K’u Wei-chun), a distinguished Chinese politician (and ROC ambassador to the U.S. in the 1950’s) writes about seeing Prof. Cheng taking on 2 or 3 British soldiers at a reception at the British Embassy in Chungking!

    Ch’en Wei-ming, a senior student of Yang Ch’eng-fu, writes how Prof. Cheng took on 15 American soldiers in Chungking, but “after defeating six of them, the rest were too frightened to continue. This became a celebrated incident at the time.”

    Prof. Cheng and Wan Lai-sheng were suppose to have had a match, but the war kept them from doing so. (Wan had a grudge against Yang T’ai Chi I guess…He had been defeated earlier by Chang Ch’ing-ling, one of Prof. Cheng’s push hands teachers!)

    Li Yaxuan (aka Li Chunnian) who was also an “Indoor Student” of Yang Ch’eng-fu from 1914, recorded his reminiscences in 1975 about the “Fa Chin” ability of the Yang Family and of some of his classmates in “Yang Shih T’ai Chi T’ui Shou Ch’uan Chen” on pages 51 and 52 of that text…

    The classmates Li names in his list are, Wu Hui-ch’uan, Cui Yishi, Tung Yin-chieh, T’ien Chao-lin (Tian Zhaolin) and Cheng Man-ch’ing! If Prof. Cheng was not also considered somewhat skilled in T’ui Shou among his classmates on the mainland, then why would Li have included him in this list?

    I don’t know the last time that Li and Prof. Cheng saw each other on the mainland, but I know that they hadn’t seen each other since 1949. Yet, Li remembered Prof. Cheng as being highly skilled in the 1940’s, even after 25 years of separation!

    He wrote, “Cheng Man-ch’ing had a skill such that after he knew the situation of the opponent, he could come out to attack successfully. So even though he was small of stature, he had skill and courage. Even if an opponent had made preparation, it was to no avail.”

    A student of Li Yaxuan, Yan Changkong, was an eyewitness to a match Cheng had with a staff member of the British Embassy named Karl in Chungking in the 1940’s. He writes,

    ”(Karl) spoke fluent Chinese (and) had studied many schools of Chinese martial arts…Because of his contact in the martial arts community, Karl participated in many matches and had always emerged victorious….a group of Chinese felt that this was an embarrassment to the reputation of Chinese martial arts, and to help restore face, decided to seek out Cheng (!) to carry the banner for China… Karl was a large man, fully a head taller than Cheng, and he launched the first attack…Cheng offered no resistance was driven into the corner of the lawn hard by the wall where he had no room left to evade Karl’s onslaught. He stretched out his two huge arms towards Cheng…all you could see was Cheng withdrawing just enough to deflect Karl’s force, borrow it, and using intercepting power, throw him a great distance, where he (Karl) fell flat on his face.” (from Zheng Manqing’s Uncollected Writing’s…trans. by Douglas Wile)

    In Taiwan, Mr. Smith writes in Masters and Methods about the challenge to Prof. Cheng from Liang Tzu-p’eng, a Hong Kong Praying Mantis Boxer. In the book, Mr. Smith does NOT mention by name who the “leading Pa Kua/ Hsing-I teacher” was that Liang defeated first, but it was Chang Chun-feng! Mr. Smith does say that,
    “Those watching did not see what happened, only the result. Liang first was on top of Cheng striking, next he was propelled backward by an unseen force and bounced off the wall unconscious.”

    T.T. Liang corroborates this incident in Ray Haywards book, “Lessons with Master T.T. Liang”

    Prof. Cheng also manhandled Wang Yen-nien in push hands…(Mr. Smith had films of this)

    Huang Sheng-hsien, a White Crane boxer (and fighter of some note) came to see what Prof. Cheng had to offer in 1952…he left as a student!

    Hsu Yi-chung, a Shuai Chiao practitioner, also visited Prof. Cheng to test him in 1950…and left as a student! (He is now the Chairman of Prof. Cheng’s organization in Taiwan!)

    Mr. Hsu told me that once he attacked Prof. Cheng from behind (!)…and he was thrown so hard against the wall he thought he was going to faint! Mr. Hsu went on to say that Prof. Cheng didn’t berate him for attacking him, but only for attacking him from behind because he couldn’t control his response!

    Wung Yu-ch’uan (aka Ong Zi Chuan), called “The Iron Man of Shantung” in his youth, went up against Prof. Cheng on several occasions in Taiwan… he was always defeated by Prof. Cheng, until finally he saw the light and became a student of note!

    Wu Kuo-chung, a Captain in the R.O.C.’s counterpart to our Special Forces in the 1960’s, and also a martial arts instructor for the R.O.C. Army, and decorated for slipping into the mainland and carrying out “missions” (read assassinations!), approached Prof. Cheng 3 times to test him in the 1960’s when Prof. Cheng was visiting Taiwan from NYC…Wu was defeated each time and became a disciple! (Actually, he became the last disciple of Prof. Cheng in 1970!)

    Ben Lo has also told of witnessing friendly push hand matches between Prof. Cheng and Wang Shu-chin AND Ch’en P’an-ling (!). In both encounters, Prof. Cheng could, and did, push them (and in Mr. Ch’en’s case, Prof. Cheng saved him from hitting his head against an iron pipe in the room!)

    T.T. Liang writes in several places that, “I have had 15 teachers of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and from the point of view of his art, Prof. Cheng is THE BEST!”

    (What is significant about this statement of Liang’s is that he wrote this many years AFTER he and Prof. Cheng had a parting of the ways!)

    Then, there is Mr. Smith, who writes that he had no trouble with the Shuai Chiao teacher Shang Tung-sheng’s students, who were probably some of the toughest fighters on Taiwan at that time!…yet, Mr. Smith could NOT handle Prof. Cheng!!!

    Finally, there is a story that my teacher, Mr. Liu Hsi-heng, tells about Prof. Cheng that is most revealing about his attitude toward challenges and such…

    Once Mr. Liu was with a few classmates at Prof. Cheng’s house waiting for him to return from some errand…there was a knock at the door and Mr. Liu opened it. A man stood there and said that he had come to challenge Prof. Cheng! Mr. Liu said that the Professor wasn’t home at the moment but he would return soon…the man said he didn’t have time to wait, but for Mr. Liu to to tell Prof. Cheng that, if he defeated him in push hands, he would use his Iron Palm on him!

    Prof. Cheng returned a little while later, and Mr Liu told him about the Iron Palm guy…Prof. Cheng asked Mr. Liu, “Well, what did you tell him?” Mr. Liu said, “Nothing…I didn’t know what to say!” Prof. Cheng then said, “What you should have said was that, if he used his Iron Palm on me, then I would use my Fair Lady’s Hand on him!!!”

    Mr. Amdur, I apologize for being so verbose in my response to your article (and I sincerely hope I didn’t come off as”Pompous!”), but there was a lot in your presentation that needed to be addressed. I hope that I have clarified some aspects of your article.

    I write this with deep respect and in friendship!


    Danny Emerick
    Tallahassee, Florida


  4. The reader will have found above, a response to my essay from Danny Emerick. I am not going to argue or disagree with any of what he has written. Rather, I’m really grateful to have his perspective here, the truth from another angle. I do want to make a couple of clarifications and one small point.
    Clarifications first: As best as I understand it, Donn did not have a ‘push-hands’ match with Huang–it was sparring, although I do not recall the rules – or whether they were explicitly agreed on. Secondly, nowhere in my article (nor in my mind) is there an assertion that Zheng was not a great martial artist or a remarkable man–simply that he was not, in Donn’s view, among the greatest in internal martial arts that he’d known. There is a distinction between excellence and superlative, and there is also a distinction between those who are great at an art, circumscribed by certain parameters, and one who is great irregardless of rules or circumstances. (What Donn told me thrilled him about the Malaysian taiji exponents he met is that they were not just excellent at taijiquan, they were excellent fighters WITH taiji – and this was something he’d never seen before).
    A lot of our history in martial arts is oral history. And a lot of it is colored by the teller. As I wrote, Donn saw himself in a no-win situation (not ego, per se – rather he had absolutely no doubt that he either would win and possible hurt an old gentleman, or have to lose to save his face). But Mr. Smith’s perspective was . . . “Speaking of Mr. Draeger and another martial artist of note, about their refusal to actually ‘test’ Prof. Cheng as Mr. Smith had, ‘Either consciously or deep down, their egos would not permit them to ever know that their years in the more or less ‘hard’ arts availed nothing against a soft, old man. Ego, that monkey on all our backs, prevented them from ever knowing that Laozi was right in saying the soft overcomes the hard…but where other than in Zheng Manqing did these friends of mine ever have a chance to see it physically demonstrated? It remains a pity.'” (Martial Musiings pg. 101) When I read MARTIAL MUSINGS, I saw (and still see) this as a slanting of history, at Donn’s expense, which was contrary to the man I knew.
    Because of Mr. Smith’s stature, this becomes history – and Donn, long deceased, had no say in the matter, one way or the other. Barring someone such as myself speaking for him, that ‘history’ becomes immutable. So I wish to speak for my friend and speak for the truth, as I see it.

    But this is only fair if Robert Smith’s friends can similarly speak for him. So rather than argue this point or that, it is with gratitude that I am happy to have Mr. Emerick’s account stand alongside mine.


  5. Synchronicity strikes again. I originally wrote my essay on e-budo some years ago, and was just browsing through my old posts and was moved to do some editing and publish it here. I’ve just read a new book entitled: NOW WITH KUNG-FU GRIP! How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America by Jared Miracle. This is an intriguing book, essentially a pop anthropological look at the role of physical culture, martial arts and masculinity over the last hundred years in the West. He has an entire chapter on Draeger, Smith and Bluming (the latter being the id to their ego/superegos). Miracle brings into the discussion some really intriguing points, including Donn’s openly voiced bias against Chinese, based on his experiences at war in Korea. His account – particularly the letters – adds a lot more nuance to the story.


  6. Hear, hear, Danny! Well said and thank you; you have done our homework for us! Please permit me to offer this small point to round out your thoughts.

    In playing Tai Chi the push is the end of the engagement, it is like hitting the mat in Judo—fini. So, Mr. Huang pushed Mr. Draeger 20 feet (an average push). Mr. Draeger choked Mr. Huang. Great! one ‘point’ each— a tie. But, if Mr. Draeger couldn’t beat Mr. Huang, Cheng’s student, hands-down beat him, every time, then there is no way Mr. Draeger could have touched Professor Cheng. (Such was Cheng’s ability above Mr. Huang’s.)

    On my trip last year down to Mr. Smith’s library at Texas A&M, I had a chance to read the correspondence between Mr. Smith and Mr. Draeger that discusses Mr. Draeger’s reluctance to meet and ‘test’ Professor Cheng. Mr. Smith practically begs, Mr. Draeger refuses. It is a shame, I would have loved to have heard the stories that that encounter would have produced!

    I am afraid that Ellis Amdur is presenting a view of Professor Cheng through the eyes of Mr. Dreager, who never met him.


  7. Mr. Amdur, you write:

    “Secondly, nowhere in my article (nor in my mind) is there an assertion that Zheng was not a great martial artist or a remarkable man–simply that he was not, in Donn’s view, among the greatest in internal martial arts that he’d known.”

    It’s my understanding that Draeger Sensei never met Professor Cheng. If that is true, on what did he base his opinion? You’ve already addressed the “he never fought anyone but a famous guy beat him” issue. Brilliant!

    As a kid I learned Phoenix Eye Fist and Shantung Black Tiger from Mr. Draeger’s books because I knew his name and thought I should go through the exercise. And it was great for a kid, but really no value added. It was simply what one did in those days.

    I don’t see the ‘digs’ in Mr. Smith’s writing about Mr. Draeger but I can’t control what other people see. I can’t see Mr. Smith’s mind but my take is that Mr. Draeger was very likely one of his best friends. And best friends argue. But still, I don’t see any ‘digs’.

    And one more point, being pushed 20 feet while holding on to the person pushing you is simply not possible.

    That said, thank you for the article.

    Best regards,

    Chris Achstetter


  8. A small point – Danny Emmerick, in his comment to my blog (which, I want to be clear, I value – we are doing oral history, and his information, including his corrections of my errors of fact in my account are welcome), writes a response to my account of Donn’s encounter with Huang Sheng-shyan, where Donn said, “The man could push, I’ll give him that. I must have gone twenty feet back . . . but I had a hold of his jacket as I went and I rolled over in a tomoenage and choked him out.” Danny writes: “Huang was only about 5’4″ or 5’5” and maybe weighed 150 lbs., while Mr. Draeger towered over him being almost 6 foot, and certainly outweighed him by 50 or more pounds. response: “what bothers me about this story is the ‘cheap shot’ by Mr. Draeger when he held on to Huang’s clothes and threw him. If Mr. Draeger had asked Huang for a “test” in push-hands, I think that that was what should have been expected by Huang, not a grab ’em and go!”

    First of all, I think there was more to Huang that that. Consider this film, where Huang has a match with a professional wrestler. Huang is a powerhouse, and I don’t mean just in his domination of the wrestler – he was a thick, muscular man – he looks to be far heavier than 150 pounds. Also, he’s clear that he had a lot more in his repertoire than push hands. You can see raw power, standing grappling, some truly excellent leg sweeps, and some classic pushes.
    But it doesn’t look anything like this, where Huang is doing push hands with his own student –

    My point, drawn out as it is, is this – Donn visits Huang, who is a ‘gatekeeper,’ so to speak, at Smith’s behest, to find out how strong this taiji is. So what were the rules? There is something very different in the pro-wrestling video, isn’t there? Huang was also a Fujian white crane expert. Beyond what we see in the ‘wrestling’ video, white crane practitioners have some scary ways of fighting, using the fingers much like ‘beaks.’ (When I was traveling around Taipei and informally meeting groups in the park, I was repeatedly warned to be careful of some of the ‘white crane’ groups, partly because I was told they hurt people in ostensibly friendly sparring matches, and also because people claimed that their particular way of moving chi in the body could and did cause some of them to be mentally disturbed. . . . no, I’m not imputing the latter to Huang in the least. Only that he had a formidable repertoire of skills).

    My point is that yes, Huang was a little older than Donn, but had been around the block and could obviously play rough. All accounts of those who traveled with Donn in SE Asia, where there were, at times, various tests and challenges, describe Donn as both fair and respectable. So the odds are that Huang and Donn came to some sort of agreement, tacit or explicit, that set up a sparring session closer to the former video than the latter. Rather than a cheap shot, it is far more likely that this was within the rules they set.


  9. Mr. Amdur,

    I appreciate your perspective on the Huang / Draeger encounter, and if was indeed anything like you said, then my “cheap shot” comment about Mr. Draeger is unwarranted and dead wrong, and I completely withdraw it. And anyway, it sure seemed out of character for Mr. Draeger, who is also an idol of mine, from the way Mr. Smith talked about him, so I’m actually kinda glad that you corrected my impression about the meeting and the skirmish!

    However, you mention above that Huang seems to be much bigger in films that you have seen of him than my description of his size and estimated weight.

    Well, I happened to be in Taipei in August 1987 when Huang gave a demo to the Shih Chung T’ai Chi Association (Prof. Cheng’s school) and saw him “up close and personal”, and he was maybe an inch shorter than my teacher Mr. Liu Hsi-heng (who was all of 5′ 5″ and maybe 130 lbs. soaking wet!), and could not have weighed much more than 150 lbs. at the time. Actually, seeing him in person (I had seen a few 8mm films of him in earlier demos in Taiwan) I was surprised at how “small” he was! He was indeed somewhat stocky with a “barrel chest” which perhaps gives an illusion of a grander size on film.

    And he was more that just “a little older” than Mr. Draeger. Huang was born in 1910 which makes him about 12 years older.

    I sincerely hope this adds a bit to the discussion.

    In Friendship,

    Danny Emerick


  10. Ellis, we’ve come a long way from the days of Draeger and Robert Smith, when they were on the forefront of writing about Japanese and Chinese martial-arts. If you re-read the old books, there are, as you note, a large number of ideas from the time that were simply ill-informed or wrong. So while we all acknowledge their contributions at the time and are/were glad to have them, a lot of the factual material of that day has been replaced as we move forward.

    I don’t get much into the CMC anecdotes because there is a lot of politics always involved and not much reconciliation with the how-to’s of traditional body-mechanics, Six Harmonies movement, and so on. I agree with some of Mr. Emerick’s comments, but some of them seem to be more of the “our side” stuff, which is quite meaningless when compared to the body-movement topics. I will note that if a reader looks at Mr. Smith’s books, one of them contain a very brief mention of Cheng having a fight with Du Xin Wu with something being attributed to Cheng noting that he could not escape Du’s foot. As I heard it from a native Taiwanese, Cheng was a painting teacher and was not really known as a martial-artist … but he did challenge a few people and got beaten. In his fight with Du Xin Wu, Cheng was reportedly put in the hospital for 3 months. Regardless, all of these anecdotes of teachers and style way out of date and do little improve most peoples’ understanding of what Taijiquan is. That would be a better topic, IMO.


  11. The story regarding the meeting of Tu Hsin-wu and Prof. Cheng related above has made the rumor rounds over the internet for many years, and has never been confirmed by anyone.

    As related by Prof. Cheng to my teacher in Taiwan, the meeting was not at all a “challenge”. Rather Prof. Cheng wanted to STUDY with Tu! So Tu asked him to show him some of the T’ai Chi he had learned from Yang Ch’eng-fu. Prof. Cheng did some of the form and Tu said there was no need to study with him, that he had gotten enough from Yang.

    Prof. Cheng then asked if they could do some t’ui shou and Tu agreed. They proceeded to go a few rounds and Prof. Cheng said he couldn’t find a place to push Tu, yet Tu would occasionally lift his foot and touch Prof. Cheng’s chest. Prof Cheng said he could just barely feel some pressure on his chest, and when he looked down he saw Tu putting his foot back on the ground. This happened several times as they were pushing.

    They parted as friends.

    Prof. Cheng was really impressed by Tu’s skill, so later, when he met a student of Tu’s in Hunan, a Mr. Yang Yen-feng, he studied with him for a while.

    As for not being known as a martial artist in Taiwan, this just isn’t the case.

    There are several photos of Cheng with other martial artists on Taiwan. Because of his status among the other boxers he is usually seated on the front row in the middle, unless a more senior boxer is present, such as Li Shou-chien. There is even a photo of Cheng having lunch with Wang Shu-chin!

    His obituaries in Taiwan mention both his renown as an artist, and his promotion of T’ai Chi throughout his life.

    No doubt to his painting friends and the arts community, he was known as an artist. But to the boxing community, he was one of the respected seniors.


  12. The Du Xin Wu story was an example of an encounter (whichever version you want; I’m not vested) in which CMC via Robert Smith indicated an encounter where he was bested. At the very least. My point was that it’s difficult to say Cheng was never beat when the outlines of the story, from Cheng, are in Robert Smith’s own book.

    My immediate thought about this is that it doesn’t really matter about Cheng, Yang Cheng Fu, etc., in the grander scheme of things, when the actual topic should be Taijiquan, not heroic stories of yore. One of the big points to consider is that since those long-ago days on Taiwan, the Yang Family proper has made official comments to the effect that the pulling-silk they historically used rather than the reeling-silk of the Chen-style … well, now it turns out that the Yang family is saying that pulling silk is the same thing as reeling silk, rather than something different, as they represented for decades.

    Taijiquan cannot be taijiquan unless it uses silk-reeling movement and since the Yang family has now recognized that, all subsets of the Yang-style have to consider what adding reeling silk does to their movement principles. In other words, a discussion about the essence of Taijiquan and the other Chinese martial-arts is probably more important than anecdotes from a time when Donn Draeger and Robert Smith, like the rest of us westerners, didn’t understand enough of the core principles of Chinese martial-arts (and thus the JMA’s, too) to really be considered experts. 😉


  13. I definitely agree that, as practitioners, the most important thing is information on technique and skill. (And there are a number of places that such discussions take place, for better and worse). Nonetheless, I find discussions of history and personalities are enjoyable and sometimes illuminating (as long as people stay civil, as has happened here). For example, Danny Emmerick’s account of Du Xin Wu and Zheng Manqing’s crossing-hands is of interest because (putting aside whether legend or fact), I immediately begin to think about what one must do with one’s body to softly touch the other’s chest WHILE doing push-hands (and if that’s possible).

    Anyway, I’m both a history and a fiction writer, so I enjoy stories, I enjoy trying to figure out motivation of characters, and I enjoy gleaning information that is embedded in same (Wang Shujin, with his palm ‘adhering’ to the meteor, immobile on one leg, ten minutes on a side).

    Of course, point taken – the larger issue is to be able to shake the torii at Meiji Shrine oneself.


  14. Dear Mr. Amdur,

    Thanks for your interesting article on Mr. Draeger and Mr. Smith, who were lifelong friends as well as collaborators in research and writing. Their minor disagreements on a few points should be seen in the perspective of their deep and enduring regard for one another. The ability to respectfully discuss a topic and to agree to disagree is a skill that is much needed in today’s society. I especially appreciate your willingness to hear differing viewpoints and to allow Mr. Danny Emerick’s carefully-investigated and politely-worded perspective to stand alongside your own.

    You wrote: “… nowhere in my article (nor in my mind) is there an assertion that Zheng was not a great martial artist or a remarkable man–simply that he was not, in Donn’s view, among the greatest in internal martial arts that he’d known. There is a distinction between excellence and superlative, and there is also a distinction between those who are great at an art, circumscribed by certain parameters, and one who is great irregardless of rules or circumstances.” Fair enough. It would have been interesting to have heard Mr. Draeger’s thoughts if he had ever actually met Professor Cheng.

    There are many interesting points for discussion in your article and in the exchange that follows it, but I will limit my comment to one in particular, and that is in regard not to Mr. Draeger but to Mr. Smith. Some individuals have spoken as if Mr. Robert W. Smith was of the opinion that Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing was an undefeated champion or was the “greatest boxer” of all time. Furthermore, these individuals seem to believe that Mr. Smith arrived at his opinions without critical analysis or broad experience.

    Neither of these views are correct. In fact, they are so far from reality as to make one wonder how they might have arisen through honest inquiry. I knew Mr. Smith personally from 1978 until his passing in 2011, and a good friend and early teacher of mine became a close associate of his shortly after his return from Taiwan in 1962. It was clear from Mr. Smith’s actions, his writings, his teaching, and his comments in public and private that these notions have no basis in fact. It took time and a lot of hands-on experience for Mr. Smith to finally conclude that T’ai-chi as a fighting art was superior to the other rough and tumble arts (both martial and civilian) that he knew and loved. And he was not quick to arrive at the opinion that Professor Cheng was highly skilled in its application.

    When I interviewed Mr. Smith for the tenth anniversary issue of the Journal of Asian Martial Arts in 2001 (Vol. 10, No. 1), I asked him about his views on Professor Cheng’s fighting ability. As he had done before many times, both in print and in person, he acknowledged that others both within and outside of Yang Cheng-fu’s circle had skills superior to Professor Cheng’s. The Professor himself had often stated that, aside from Grandmaster Yang himself, seniors like Zhang Qing-ling and Li Yaxuan were superior to him. And the Professor also put himself lower than greats from other arts, such as Du Xinwu. This was asserted in the same matter-of-fact way that the Professor spoke of his numerous successful challenge matches. Danny mentioned some of those well-known and widely documented challenges, and I have heard of still others.

    Mr. Smith said this in answer to my question: “…I’m not saying that Zheng was the best in China, only the best I ever saw anywhere. I must add this for the grapplers present. The Professor did attach one condition to challenge matches. You could hit or kick, but if you grappled, his small frame was endangered and he would then be entitled to attack vital points, for which he couldn’t guarantee his partner’s safety… Zheng was unique because he would permit you to use anything short of a hammer and would defeat you without hurting you.”

    These statements, that Cheng was “the best I ever saw anywhere” and that his skill was such that he could defeat any reasonably constrained attack without injuring the attacker, were made by a man who (in the same interview) listed the following “greats” in his personal experience and opinion: Joe Louis, best Western boxer; S. Kotani, T. Ishikawa, and T. Daigo, and especially M. Kimura, best judoka; Dan Gable, best wrestler; H. Nishiyama, M. Nakayama, S. Nagamine, Mas Oyama, and Jon Bluming, best karateka; Donn F. Draeger, greatest all-round samurai; Gao Fangxian, best at northern Shaolin; Hong Yixiang, best at southern Shaolin; Zhang Junfeng, best at xingyiquan; and Wang Shujin, best at baguazhang. He acknowledged that “earlier stalwarts…(i.e., first generations of the Yang family, etc.)… probably were better than those I met, but I only heard about them and didn’t meet them in the flesh.”

    Mr. Smith was a man who analyzed carefully and who liked to prove things through up-close-and-personal experience. When he wrote to and of detractors of Professor Cheng and his place in history, he stated without rancor: “To cheat his memory is to not understand reality”. This opinion was sincere, carefully considered, and arrived at through half a century of personal experience in the combat arts.

    I hope that the skeptical will consider the possibility that such views might represent hard-fought, honest conviction, that they might be correct, and that the motivation to enter them into the public record might be a high regard for the truth rather than the desire for personal gain or aggrandizement.

    Thanks again for your article and for providing a civil forum for discussion.

    With sincere regards and in friendship,
    Russ Mason


  15. Russ – thanks for you comment – One small quibble, speaking from one of the lineages (although I can only claim ‘family friend’ status – I trained for a few years, off-and-on with Su Dong Chen, and visited Hong Yixiang once, one of the personally most important single visits I ever had with a martial arts senior – people get a somewhat mistaken impression of Hong YIxiang from Robert Smith’s book. I imagined him to be somewhat of a brute from what I read – no doubt, he could be brutal. He was fearsomely skilled – but he was psychologically acute, and a very complex and sophisticated man).
    Anyway, it is true that Hong Yixiang was heir to a family white crane art, one that is still maintained to some degree within the family. Some claim that this is a tincture within any and all arts that Hong taught, and that the neijia that he learned from Zhang Junfeng was, therefore, not “pure.” (I’m only putting this here so it won’t be necessary for those who believe this to be true to feel compelled to post to point it out). I very recently spent a wonderful evening with two of Hong’s sons, who have maintained his bagua, xingyi and taiji … and other family arts for decades. Wonderful men, both of them, and really fine martial artists. I’m only noting that I believe that all three of Hong’s sons, as well as their father himself, would cringe at being ‘identified’ primarily as a southern Shaolin practitioner, even in praise. That is certainly not the prime focus of their many years of training. BTW – the second of Hong’s son has written, by all accounts, an absolutely brilliant biography of their father. It’s a huge book, and one of my friends who has read it in the original Chinese says that it is far beyond a biography – it is a wonderful picture of life in the rough area of Taipei that was the family home, pre- and post world war II. It is a biography of a milieu, as much of as a remarkable man. English translation is a couple of years down the road, but I am very much looking forward to it.


  16. Dear Mr. Amdur,
    Thanks for your reply and for mentioning the news about Mr. Hong Yixiang’s new biography. I’m delighted to hear about that, and I agree completely with your comments about Mr. Hong and his sons. In my own personal encounter with Mr. Hong, I found him to be, as you say, “psychologically acute, and a very complex and sophisticated man.” In spite of his fearsome reputation (my interpreter blanched and deserted me upon learning of my intention to visit the Hong family home in the old part of Taipei City), he received me graciously. His second son, Hong Dzehan (whose skills are top notch) was also very kind to me. I believe Mr. Smith would agree with your assessment (see his further comments on Mr. Hong in his memoir, Martial Musings), and he always had the highest regard for Hong’s outstanding skills in xingyiquan and baguazhang (especially Gao Yisheng’s “post heaven” linear 64 set). As a matter of fact, although I was aware that the Hong curriculum included Shaolin forms and Chen Panling’s taijiquan, under Mr. Smith’s tutelage, I always regarded xingyi and bagua as Hong’s premier arts. I suspect that the only reason Mr. Smith put Mr. Hong Yixiang as “best” in Southern Shaolin rather than in xingyi was that he gave the top spot in xingyi to Hong’s teacher, Zhang Zhunfeng. I look forward with relish to reading Hong Dzehan’s biography of his illustrious father. Many thanks for telling us about the book and for sharing so much other wonderful information.


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