Cheng Man-ching was born in 1901 in the town of Yung Chia, near Shanghai in the province of Zhe-Jiang. During his life he acquired many names. While living in New York, he became known as ‘Hermit’ or ‘Jewell Hidden in a Well’. In his later years, because he had a beard people entitled him ‘Whiskers’. His ability to work both day and night resulted in him being dubbed ‘The Old Man who studies hard but never feels tired’.
Considering how sick and weakly he was as a child, it is quite amazing what he accomplished in adulthood. At the age of three, a head injury resulted in an impairment of his mental faculties when he fell off a wall. In addition, when he was in his late 20s, he contracted TB. Through his practice of Tai Chi his body became stronger and these conditions were overcome.
Having been born into an academic family, Cheng’s study of the Chinese classics began with his father and aunt when he was only four years old. This love of learning continued throughout his life. He became a master in the ‘Five Excellences’ – Tai Chi, poetry, calligraphy, Chinese art and Chinese medicine. In Taiwan, a government minister said of him: ‘In modern China he is a special man, a strong man. Others find things difficult, but for him it is all easy.’
By the time he was merely 18, Cheng began teaching art, history and philosophy in the Yu Wen University. And the College of Beaux Arts in Peking. In the summer of 1925, he returned to Shanghai and accepted teaching posts at the Shanghai College of Arts and Chi-Nan University. Later he founded the Chinese Arts College there.
He contracted tuberculosis and in a few years it became so serious that he almost died. Relatives and friends were unable to find a way to help him. Shortly after this Cheng was introduced to his first Tai Chi teacher, Professor Yang Cheng-fu. Within a few months the internal haemorrhaging ceased, his temperature returned to normal, and in less than a year his coughing was gone. After six or seven years, all other symptoms had all disappeared. This recovery was so amazing that at age 55 his abilities were the same as most other people. Even his eyesight had improved, to such a degree that it was better than when he was in his 20s.
What Cheng had learnt from his recovery from TB enabled him to look after Yang Cheng-fu’s wife, who had also contracted the disease. Neither Western nor Eastern doctors had been able to cure her.
Before he died, Yang Cheng-fu taught Cheng Man-ching the principles of Tai Chi. Asked him to continue his research with one of his other students, Chung Ching-Lin, who had followed Yang Cheng-fu for 30 years.
During World War II, at the age of 37, Cheng Man-ching was in charge of the Hunan Province’s Martial Arts Schools. Here he developed his style of form, after having learnt Tai Chi. In 1949, Cheng Man-ching followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan, where he organised the ‘Shu Chung’ (Just Right Time School).
In 1964, it was arranged that Cheng Man-ching start teaching Tai Chi in New York. From then on, he spent a few months of every year in New York and the remainder in Taiwan. The result that Tai Chi became better known in both these countries.
We are very fortunate that Cheng Man-Ching wanted to educate westerners on the health benefits of Tai Chi. He achieved his dream and became famous as one of the first Chinese masters to teach in America. Between 1964 and 1975 he spent some months each year in New York and the rest of the time with his family in Taiwan. Cheng Man-Ching had wanted Dr Lin to move to America. However, his father would not allow it – how fortunate for Cape Town.
Books by Cheng Man-Ching