The 3rd January 1988 marks the beginning of a life changing event for me. Christmas of 1987 had been and gone as was the end of the festive break. Trawling through the various martial arts magazines available to me at that time, I happen to come across an article in Terry O’Neills ‘Fighting Arts International’ magazine entitled, Tai Chi Gladiator. The protagonist was a gentleman named Dan Docherty. I had long been fascinated by the martial art of tai chi chuan but had never found a style, or more importantly, a teacher who I would wish to devote myself to. I decided to read about this Tai chi gladiator not expecting to get anything out of it but an interesting read on the health benefits of said art. Wow, this was an article like none other that I had read before. The more I read the more intrigued I became. Whilst reading the article I must admit that my thought was that this tai chi gladiator was either a person who suffers with a sense of illusory superiority or on the other hand was actually a genius who knew his stuff. I became gripped by this article, so much so, that I decided to call Mr Docherty up there and then as his number was included in the article. For some reason I felt strangely nervous whilst dialling his number and almost hung up while the phone was ringing. This is how the phone conversation went.
Me: Hello, is that Mr. Docherty?
Mr Docherty: YEEESS.
Me: I’ve just been reading your article ‘Tai Chi Gladiator
Mr Docherty: Yeeess.
Me: Can I have some more information about your classes?
Mr Docherty: I teach in the Jubilee Hall sports centre in Covent Garden on Monday lunchtime and evening, Wednesday and Friday evenings and Saturdays. Me: I am interested in private lessons.
Mr Docherty: I don’t do private lessons but I do have some students who could be willing to help you there.
Me: Is it ok if I come in and watch the Monday class?
Mr Docherty told me that the class starts at 12.30 p.m. and he hung up without another word.
Me: Hello, it’s me again. I forgot to say that I do Karate do you mind?
Mr Docherty: NO.
And the line goes dead again.
That folks, was my very first encounter with the man who was to have a quite significant impact on my life and that of many others.
Monday 4th January 1988, I made my way to the sports centre and arrived at approximately 12.15p.m. I enquired at the reception for the location of the tai chi class and was directed to the cafeteria where I was told the class members gather before the session begins. Walking down what seemed to be a very long walkway I could see a gentleman sat at a table drinking some tea, don’t ask me why but I just knew it was Mr Docherty.
I approached him and asked if he was Mr Docherty?
YEEESS, was the reply.
Me: I spoke to you on the phone yesterday and have decided to take part in the class if that’s alright with you?
Mr Docherty: We’ll be in the bottom half of the badminton court in fifteen minutes.
My initial impression was that this was a man of very few words. And so began my journey with a true tai chi master.
FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS I SHALL REFER TO MR DOCHERTY AS DAN.
It was about three months now since I’d been training with Dan and I could barely believe my ears when, during a lunchtime class he came up to me and asked, Godfrey, where have you gotten up to in learning the form? Wow, I was almost knocked of my feet, the man actually knew my name. It took three months of me attending Dan’s class before he addressed me by my name. Had I been put through some bizarre Dan Docherty vetting procedure and come out successfully? Perhaps that was the moment when I actually was accepted as his student.
In the summer of 1988 at a period when I had barely been training with Dan for seven months, he asked if I would like to learn the nei gung exercises of his tai chi school. Nei gung being a particular speciality of the system and thus is taught after having reached a certain level of proficiency in the various aspects of the style. I had heard a lot of talk regarding this much sort-after and not easy to acquire method of martial development from some of the senior students, and so replied in the affirmative. Dan happened to be preparing himself physically for a week of tai chi teaching, accompanying his teacher, Master Cheng Tin-Hung, to a branch of the Wudang tai chi school in Australia at the end of the year.
I was to remind him of my desire to learn the nei gung on his return from Australia. As mentioned before, I stated that Dan was in training for his Australian trip so some of his training was done during the teaching of his classes. I recall there being several rows of mats with each row consisting of three mats. We, the students, would follow Dan as he led the line tumbling from one mat to the next until each row had been completed and the entire process would begin once more. This was repeated up to at least ten times.
It was a little amusing watching some students getting so dizzy, that as a result, they would at times break into a somewhat drunken-like involuntary run resulting in them crashing into the wall. Some even vomited as a result. We would also be paired off with one partner holding up a hand mitt, either standing still or running in a circular manner, while the other punches the pad for a series of three two-minute rounds. I remember asking Dan why we were doing all this intense training and his reply to me was that if he had to do the training then you bastards have to do it as well. In mid-1989, a fellow student and myself began our nei gung practice. After undergoing the bai shi initiation ceremony with Dan he proceeded to run us through the various postures. Once completed we began the session proper. My fellow nei gung debutant and I not knowing what was in store, just followed as instructed.
Whilst positioned in the first posture of golden tortoise the front door bell rang. Dan’s wife Maria came and informed Dan that one of his senior student’s was at the door and needed to see him. ‘Tell him I’m busy and can’t see him’, Dan retorted. Maria returned saying that the student needed to see Dan urgently. Dan left the room with an air of annoyance. During all of this going on, we, the two debutants, maintained our posture.
I recall it being a sunny late morning and the sunlight coming through the window, beating down on me, resulting in what seemed like buckets of sweat pouring down off my head. I was extremely worried that Dan would have been annoyed at the sweat stain which was now making its presence made. By the time that Dan had returned to join us, we had been holding the posture for at least three minutes. I would hazard a guess that we remained in the posture for at least another three minutes or more. When the signal was given to change I found it almost impossible, and barely made it up into the following posture.
Bizarrely, Dan appeared totally oblivious to our plight. Sometimes his young daughter, Ellen, would wander in only to be told that her staying was conditional on her taking part in the session proper. She was barely a year old. Her dad was a hard taskmaster even then. The end of the session was an absolute benediction. As is the tradition after nei gung, the fruit offering is consumed by the participants. I found myself faced with a dilemma.
The fruit on offer was the much loved fruit originating from the far east, the durian. The smell was so repugnant that it consumed the entire room. My dilemma was, do I refuse to share in the offering and in so doing disappoint my teacher, or do I hold my breath and take the plunge? I chose the latter. I am pleased to say that the taste was far more pleasant than the smell. I must add here that I have since had no desire to indulge in the consumption of what the Chinese call the king of fruit.
I can recall once sitting with a few classmates and Dan in the canteen area of the Jubilee hall sports centre waiting for the allotted time to get access to the training hall. I said, “Dan, I think the most important aspect of the tai chi training is the hand form”. As though roused from a profound and distant reverie, he turned to me sharply and replied, “no, Nei gung “.
“But according to you Dan, if you don’t like someone or don’t think they are deserving, you won’t teach them the Nei gung”.
Dan thought for all of half a second and replied, “It doesn’t matter, Nei gung”. In life, as in martial arts, one must choose their battles. If you do not believe you can win a battle, then do not engage. This was an argument which I knew I would not win, so I said no more on the subject.
From 1989 onwards, Dan started organising and hosting tai chi competitions. Pushing hands, weapon and empty hands forms and full contact competitions. His Wudang Practical Tai Chi Chuan School gained a lot of success in those events and in so doing attracted a greater number of new recruits to his school. In June of 1991, Dan led a British team consisting of members from a variety of tai chi styles to Hong Kong in order to participate in an international push hands competition which was being organised by his teacher, Grand master Cheng Tin- Hung. I fondly remember whilst sat next to Dan on the flight to Hong Kong telling him how excited and grateful I was to him for giving me the opportunity to have the experience of visiting such a distant place.
He simply replied that a teacher’s duty to his students lay beyond just the teaching of the art, but in an understanding of all things in general which were within the scope of the teacher’s ability to impart. On arrival at Hong Kong airport, we were greeted by Master Cheng and a number of his students waving flags and banners.
After having settled at our accommodation in the hotel, we were all treated to a quite sumptuous meal at the expense of the Hong Kong Tai Chi Association. After two days of training and acclimatising in the tropical heat Dan instructed my tai chi elder Steve Wooster and me to attend a photo shoot promoting the tournament at Master Cheng’s. After the shoot, Master Cheng gave Steve and I a box each to take back to Dan, the contents of which were unknown to us. Upon receiving the boxes, Dan proceeded to open them revealing the contents.
The boxes contained books on the three weapons of our style of tai chi chuan. The weapons being Sword, Broadsword and Spear. Steve and I were both given a book by Dan. The books contained photographs of each weapon form from start to finish, some with accompanying defensive application. The book was bilingual, Chinese and English. Browsing through the section of the book with English explanations, I came across a quote which read like this: ‘The tai chi chuan expert practises the hand form in order to cultivate his mind; he practises the sword to nourish the chi, he practises the sabre to strengthen his resolve, he practises the spear to increase wisdom; he practises internal strength to increase jing (focused power). The hand form is the foundation for the effective usage of weapons. If the hand form is skilful then nothing will go wrong’.
Yes, I thought, vindication of my previous assertion that the hand form is the most important aspect. But hold on, was I right? You see, I may go a day or two without practising hand form but will not miss a day of nei gung practice.
Who ultimately was right? The tournament lasted two days and a healthy number of the British team gained first place in their respective weight category. Dan appeared most pleased by the fact that among his own students, George Burgess and I, on the way to achieving first place, we defeated mainland Chinese opponents. After the tournament Dan took us to visit the island of Lantau. The island was home to the biggest statue of the Buddah I had ever seen and at least several million cicadas. From Hong Kong we went to Master Cheng’s home in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province via Macau. In Macau we visited the ruins of St. Paul’s church which was built during the early to mid-seventeenth century.
We visited monasteries and many other places which I can no longer remember. Throughout our time walking through Macau it never stopped raining once. I can remember Dan leading us through the various places of importance, his white shirt clinging to his back completely soaked, carrying his attaché case. We eventually made our way to the Macau-China border and once on the Chinese side boarded a bus which had been hired to escort us to Master Cheng’s.
Tai chi Heights, Master Cheng’s home in Zhongshan was situated in an area surrounded by greenery, hills and mountain peaks, the ones you can see on holiday postcards. The following morning, after having had breakfast, quite a few of us decided to venture beyond the nearest hill to explore the surrounding area. On arriving at the top of the hill most of the party decided that they would remain there and admire the view.
Brian Badham and I decided that we would walk on further, as we could see what appeared to be a village in the distance, we thought it a good idea to venture there.
It was a very sunny and hot morning and we both had our shirts tied around our waist. Brian was about six feet in height, a ginger-haired Caucasian weighing in excess of ninety kilogrammes. Me, dark skinned, approximately five foot ten inches tall weighing approaching eighty kilogrammes. As we were descending a rather steep hill we noticed a local man making his way up the hill towards us. I had, prior to coming to Hong Kong, been trying to learn some Cantonese.
Let’s put some of what I’ve learnt into practice I thought. So, as the man approached at about ten metres away from us, totally oblivious to our presence I said, “Nei hoi ma”? ( hello, how are you?). The man looked up startled as he saw us and uttered, ‘Huh..Huh’ and just ran off without even having the decency to respond. How rude I thought.
Eventually, Brian and I decided to give up on our quest as the more we walked the further away the village seemed. When we got back to where we had left the others, we were surprised to find them still there chatting away happily.
I asked if a man had come by an hour or so ago. They replied that a gentleman had indeed gone running by in a hurry to get somewhere fast.
We decided to make our way back to the house. Back at the house, Dan and Master Cheng were sat outside drinking Chinese tea chatting and laughing. Dan asked where we had been so I told him of our encounter with the local.
Dan in turn proceeded to enlighten his teacher with what I had just said as Master Cheng did not understand English. Well, Master Cheng laughed so heartily that he almost fell off his seat. ‘I didn’t think it was that funny’, I said to Dan. ‘Godfrey’, Dan said, ‘let me explain to you. You’re in rural China, the man that you two came across has probably never seen a white person not to mention a black person in his life and today he sees you two. To make matters worse you spoke Chinese to him.
The poor man must have thought he’d seen the black and white demons often talked about in Chinese folklore. That’s why he ran away. The man was terrified beyond belief. He will now either be feted as the one who saw the black and white demons or incarcerated in a mental asylum somewhere’. When explained like this it was, in fact, quite amusing.
As a consequence of being Dan’s student, I have been gifted the opportunity to travel to countries where I most probably would never have travelled to. I have gained lifelong friends and made acquaintances with so many people from around the world simply because of him.
The tai chi community in Britain and in Europe owes Dan Docherty an enormous debt of gratitude for his willingness to share his knowledge to all who wanted to learn without exception or prejudice. The global tai chi community also owes Dan Docherty an enormous debt of gratitude for the many books he published making tai chi more readily accessible to lay people, with his historical and jargon free writings on matters tai chi related. Dan Docherty, along with a few others, through the formation of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain, totally changed the landscape of tai chi in Britain and latterly in Europe also.
I would go as far as saying that Dan Docherty singlehandedly put the Chuan back in British and European tai chi practice.
My teacher, Dan, has had many labels attached to him over the years. He’s been called a tai chi gladiator, a tai chi master, a tai chi historian. These titles are all correct, but I also believe that he should be regarded as a tai chi Messiah.
Before some folk start saying that I have lost the plot and have gone completely mad, I urge you to look up the definition of a messiah, not in the biblical sense. Many years ago, while attending the annual summer gathering at Rencontres Jasnieres, I was asked by a British tai chi teacher called Chris Thomas, why it was that Dan commanded such loyalty from his students. I honestly cannot remember what my answer was to his question, but if Chris were to ask me the same question now, my answer to him would be merely this. If you were ever a student of Dan’s, you would never have a need to ask this question of me because the answer would have been obvious to you.
To me, Dan has been a mentor, a father figure, sometimes a friend, but always a teacher.
It is my sincerest wish that those among us who are able to carry on what Dan started, do so with respect, humility and an appreciation that we all have a responsibility to safeguard his legacy.
30th December 2021.