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Gabriel Chin: 1920-2005

Today would be the Centennial birthday of Gabriel Chin, my teacher and mentor in Yang Taiji and Qigong. It has been 15 years since his passing. I have been historically very private with my thoughts during times when he is memorialized. I have never been good at this sort of thing. But for the occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to devote a few words to a friend, mentor, and guiding influence on my life. There is often lots of talk of amazing feats of qi power associated with pieces on Gabriel. This is not one of them. This is simply my personal experiences with the man, who was flawed and proud of it, and what impact he has had so far on my life. 

In about 1998, after having taken up Taiji in Chicago, I met Gabriel Chin for the first time. I had remembered that one of my classmates in High school had a father that did Taiji at U of M. I was still in my early developmental years in Taiji and was hungry for every bit I could get from all over. This was before the time of vast internet troves of martial arts demonstrations and tutorials on YouTube. You either found a teacher in real life, or you had to buy their video tape. In my first two years with Gabriel, I had both. I would travel back home from Chicago every month to train with him, and I had a VHS tape of the “long form” Yang Taiji. Those first couple of years are a blur. And they seem so far away from where I have ended up. Much of it due to Gabriel. 

As a teacher, Gabriel was not perfect. He was not always clear with his instructions, he often had a hard time with conventional ideas always wanting to upset the apple cart, and he shunned being seen as a “master”. He was hard to please, but never demanding. If you were doing something wrong, he would say, “You can do it like that…” and that was it. The highest praise was “Not bad.” These things are not particularly unique to Gabriel. Most people out there will have had teachers like this in a variety of settings.

Gabriel did welcome everyone. And had a considerable following. Not all of these people were long time students, most just came and went. But all found something in Gabriel that kept us around or coming back. Gabriel’s welcoming and friendly demeanor toward people attracted all types. And he was not one to shoo them away. As such, everyone felt a connection to him, and some very deeply, despite knowing him for only a short time. Some of the more regular of us had some novel ideas about the subject matter of Qi and such. And yes, there were no shortage of “fruit loops” (as someone once called them) hanging around. In a free public class taking place outdoors, one should expect no less.

I am sure I’m also considered one of those fruit loops.

When he died, I wrote a piece about something he called the “good-bye punch”. This was the idea that when the student has learned all they can from the teacher, they give the “good-bye” punch. If the teacher succumbs, they go on and teach themselves. If they fail, they stay with  the teacher. At the time it seemed poignant ( and I imagine very “Sithy” for the lightsaber readers out there). I had never had the need to do this. His absence has forced this on me. I have had to venture out from under his wing and experience things for myself. I have since, taken the good bye punch to mean just that. Time to go on to the next thing. 

But, over these years, something else he had said takes on a new meaning that was lost on me at the time. It had to do with what Gabriel called “pickling”. I was, back then, very into becoming a”lineage disciple”. For those not in the Chinese martial arts, students can go through a ceremony called the “Bai Shi” making them an official member of the martial arts family. The makes one an “indoor student” or one that returns into the house hold after class is done. My relationship with Gabriel at the time was close. It was only me and one other studying with him at the time. So I asked if he would do such a thing for me. 

He flatly refused. 

He explained to me, quite adamantly but kindly, that it was a process that he did not approve of and that it would stop my progress. Which is why he called it pickling. He never shared with the reasons that brought him to that place, but he said that I was better staying “fresh” as it were. It was a bit disappointing to me. And I didn’t quite understand him at the time. Especially so, when he seemed to extended the gesture to others, (at least as had been said, I attended no ceremonies). And that he had himself done such a thing.

Gabriel was an odd duck, to say the least. Full of contradiction he was at times very Chinese in his “non-Chineseness” , to paraphrase him. He taught Yang Shi Taijiquan as taught to him by Liu Guangzi a student of Yan BanHou. He was also a big supporter and proponent of Qigong, both the exercise and the practice of “Qi healing”. The martial arts and Qi gong are often associated, for better or worse, and many of Gabriel’s followers were firmly in the “believer” camp. They listened to him and his descriptions of Qigong and saw magic. He would perform feats of healing and Qi that defied explanation. He was very convinced of Qigong’s efficacy as were they. He was also a poet, singer, and a fantastic cook. He was an interpreter in Taiwan and was elated when he heard that I had passed my exams for interpretation. We bonded quite a bit over interpreting and language.

He taught Taiji mostly as an exercise like Qigong. To many who came to the the cube in Regents Plaza when I started, it was a mystical martial art full of secrets and ethereal concepts and phenomena. Abel to grant almost super human abilities to those that would follow its ways. But to me and my class mate, the martial art side of Taiji was entirely practical. When asked about the magical wuxia type of powers like throwing people with just a tiny movement Gabriel would seem confirm them as having seen them performed and then move on to another topic. But for us, the lessons were far more mundane. Consisting of conditioning, drilling, and all the things that an athletic activity demands. When I asked about the Taiji books saying not to lift weights because it will ruin your Taiji, he replied, “Ridiculous! Stronger is always better!”. When he found out that I had family connections to sports medicine and human movement science he all but commanded me to learn it and put Taiji and Qigong under the microscope. When I asked what if it shows the Qigong doesn’t work, he simply said, “Fine! But then find out what is happening.”

He pushed me to go into the human movement sciences. He was confident that that would prove the existence of Qi and the efficacy of Qigong. And while I can report the science does support the practice of qigong, the mechanisms for the benefit are much more abstract and physical than is presented in traditional Qigong. Would he have been satisfied with these answers? I don’t know. But, the fact that he pushed me in the direction that set me on my path today is important to me. I don’t know if he saw the skeptic in me, if he was just generally keen to have some scientific backing, or some other convoluted plan to teach me a lesson Mr. Miyagi style. It was hard to discern this at any time with him in my experience. 

Learning from him was done in several scenarios. 1. At the public class held in Regents Plaza at the University of Michigan. The class consisted of the Soaring Crane Qigong and the Long Form TaijiQuan set. Afterward, my training brother and I would stay after for several hours and practice what we learned. After that we would generally go to Gabriel’s house for … 2. Learning with talks in his living room. We would visit Gabriel’s house and listen to his stories, ask questions and get new material. Sometimes we would gather for sessions in the parking lot of the near-by credit union. This is where we learned the Tui Shou and combat applications. 3. Private chats with just me and him. These were often far more personal and focused. And they took on an entirely different tone when we were away from prying eyes. He was more candid, less measured with his words and the topics we discussed. If a patient of his would walk through the door, he would be his old self, welcome them in and begin his treatment, (which involved Gabriel ‘giving qi’ to the person while having a nice chat), and we would pick up our conversation later. Provided we remembered. 

As I mentioned before, at times his teaching style was hard to understand. As I look back now, I don’t see the techniques he taught me or the movements of the form. I don’t see the steps or Bagua or  Jian Fa or Tui Shou or any of the material that he imparted to me as being the formative lessons. Rather, it is the times he held me back, or reigned me in that I see as the most formative lessons. His refusal to teach me Jan Fa until I had developed physically enough allowed me to understand the connection between the body and weapon. His insistence on me training strength and less “Chinesey” stuff allowed me to build physical strength and prowess to back up the mental and strategic material of Taiji. His forbidding me to fight for years allowed me to prepare for when the one who became my sparring partner and compatriot for years to come showed up. He told me not to try to fight with people who did Chinese martial art, but rather find some folks from other more physical arts. That has allowed me to learn from and spar with an incredible number of people from a wide variety of disciplines and gave a broad view of what the Chinese arts were capable of when you strip away the nonsense. His refusal to let me call him Shifu or Laoshi taught me that titles are what others call you, not something that you are. His mercurial spirit and tricker attitude has taught me to never take myself too seriously, and never take anyone else that seriously either.

His refusal to take me on as an official disciple with ceremony allowed me to grow unfettered, until today, wheni became a lineage disciple in an art that speaks deeply to me in Ma shi Tong Bei, and I have a teacher whom I feel a deep connection as my Shifu in Ma Yue. Ma Shi TongBei is a deep and complicated well and without the tricks and discipline I learned under Gabriel, I would never have been able to survive as a martial artist.

Have been pickled, but it is in my own brine. 

Just like in Taiji, the Yin and Yang are inseparable. We tend to ascribe our progress by the times we hear “yes”. I now see the times when Gabriel said “no” were the most formative, and are the direct reason for the eventual “yes” that always came. In this way, he was a great teacher. Gently nudging me to my goals. And now I think to another thing he would say to me in our private chats. He would say this over and over again when I would ask about styles and who came from where etc. He would say that when he was learning, there were no styles. You just did Taiji or Shaolin or whatever. 

“Martial arts was something that you shared with friends.”

And maybe it’s as simple as that. My relationship with Gabriel was unlike with any other teacher. The common trope is to compare this with a father (Shifu literally means “teaching father”), but for me, that doesn’t really do it. I am closer with friends than family most of the time. Relationships between fathers and sons are brought with things that never enter the teacher student dynamic. It is a metaphor taken too far. But that you share this with friends, hits a chord. The practice is special, communicative, and can provide a means of support. Not only from a group but also through practice when you are alone. It takes a deep sense of trust to impart some these things to another person. He knew me. He knew when I was struggling. He knew when I needed to hear ‘stop’ and when to hear ‘go’. He even knew when the rift formed between me and my training brother without me saying a word. 

So, no, I am not an inheritor of Gabriel’s system. Not a lineage holder or a master. I was lucky to have learned what I did from Gabriel when I did. I owe so much my current endeavors to his guidance, both overt and subtle. Most of all, I’m honored to have counted him a friend. In a very real and deep sense. And it was a friendship that was based not on frivolous gestures and platitudes, but genuine concern and attention. The void is less difficult to explain now. It is simple. And like Gabriel was fond of saying; sometimes simple is very difficult.

I miss my friend. Hope I do him proud. 

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