Cheng Man Ch’ing

Cheng Man-Ch’ing was physician to the last war-lord ruler of China and calligraphy teacher to his wife. Cheng was, in the traditional Chinese way, a philosopher, martial arts master, poet calligrapher and physician. He was born in a period that began with the fall of the Ching Dynasty and was followed by battles between contesting war-lords, the Japanese invasion, the Communist takeover.

Living through China’s precipitous decline, Cheng could be said to have been overcome by nostalgia for the wisdom of the ancient sages, which is to say, nostalgia for the sanity, humaneness and simplicity of a daily life that had become a swamp of corruption garishness and brutality. In his search, he was successful not just in finding what his ancestors had understood but in embodying in himself their teachings. His life took him all over the world. He taught in places he would never had imagined and had students whose beliefs and ways of life he could have scarcely imagined.

Once when he was living in New York, he was asked why he had ended up having western rather than Chinese students. He nodded gravely. “Confucius also went to teach the barbarians.”

In New York, he had this dream. He dreamed that he was standing on a promontory overlooking a broad valley which rose in the distance to a green mountain. The landscape was serene yet vibrant, and although he had never seen this place before, he felt he had at last returned to his true home.

Beside the path, he noticed something tied to a forsythia bush, just beginning to bud. It was a poem written in black ink on a length of cotton. He untied it and looked. He felt a certain excitement that perhaps this had been written by a previous traveler similarly moved. He read the poem, but when he woke, he could only remember the first line:

“Though you think you have been here before…”

Cheng Man Ch’ing told his students: “If you are being pushed to the edge of a high precipice and you think you have an enemy, you have made your last mistake.”

About the author

Douglas Penick was a research associate at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, wrote the Canadian NFB’s series The Tibetan Book of the Dead…

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Issue 21 · October 2014

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