Written by Rachel

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What is a master?

Students often have funny ideas about what 'master' means. In our world of video games, special moves and Jet Li films, people have some startling misconceptions.
Master-level is not a matter of new forms and material. It is to be found in the comprehensive nature of the practice.
The thoroughness of the understanding. The simplicity, sensitivity, softness and ease of ability.  Every action should contain the principles.
A master's skill is versatile and complex - demonstrating a broad degree of insight. It is also remarkably understated.

Popular culture

Our ideas concerning 'master' has been heavily influenced by popular culture; in particular movies.
We are accustomed to watching actors such as Jet Li playing masters or Star Wars characters wielding lightsabers. The popularity of such characters reflects a need in the audience.
More than entertainment, we want to see people that are really good at something. People who excel.

Larger than life

In this modern age of cynicism and mediocrity, it is wonderful to think of these fictional characters and the inspiring examples they have set. People need role models.
Masters do not have to be perfect but they need to possess that certain indefinable 'something extraordinary' that captures our hearts and our imaginations.


A good master must be a living example of what he teaches. A tai chi master must have some internal force, be able to defend himself and a qigong master must exhibit radiant health, as these are the basic qualities these arts are meant to develop. A master of tai chi or qigong does not enjoy the luxury of many coaches in modern sports like football and athletics who often cannot dribble a ball or run a race half as well as the students they teach. There are also some tai chi or qigong instructors today who cannot perform half as well as their average students, but they are certainly not masters, although as a form of courtesy they may be addressed as such by their students, or the general public.

Having a good master is definitely a tremendous blessing in tai chi and chi kung training. As mediocre instructors are so common nowadays - some even start to teach after having attended only a few week-end seminars - finding a great master is like finding a gem in a hay stack. It is a joy to learn from a great master even though his training is tough. He makes complicated concepts easy to understand, implicitly provides assurance that should anything goes wrong he is able and ready to rectify it.

(Wong Kiew Kit)


Masters are passionate people: both possessing passion and inspiring passion in others. A passionate person has imagination and drive. They exude a sense of purpose.
Passion does not require a strong, enthusiastic devotion to a cause, ideal, or goal - passion is not localised to one specific thing. It is how you are and how you approach all aspects of life.


To have passion, you must have imagination. The two are indivisible.
Being passionate is not about sentimentality or emotionalism; it is about seeing to the heart of things and being driven to unexpected discovery and insight.


The example set by great masters encourages hopes, ambitions and inspiration... Many people dream of things.  They may simply want a better life, more money, new opportunities.
They may want to be loved. They may want tai chi fighting skills. These are all dreams. The dream is the seed of the eventual action.
If you want to become good at tai chi, the idea of tai chi must form in your head beforehand. Then you must do. You must act.


Masters always possess shen. Shen requires a level of focus and sustained concentration that most people do not possess. Self-consciousness must cease and there is only the moment.
It is necessary to be entirely present.


Maestros and so-called geniuses are people who have given themselves over to their art. They have set aside their arrogance and their ego.
By embracing the teachings of their art, they have transcended mediocrity and truly gained skill. Instead of forcing a result, or willing a conclusion, the person has sublimated their sense of 'self'.
The individual has become one with the art. You cannot gain real skill by trying to control the art.  Instead, you must surrender to it.  You must let go.
In a very real sense, you do not master the art. It masters you.


Taoism teaches us that a singer who sings well should take no credit for their abilities. It is simply what they are able to do. A skilled tai chi person should not be impressed with their own ability.
It is simply within their capacity. Being good at something is one thing. Letting it go to your head is something else entirely.


People pay more money to train with a master. They buy videos, books and attend workshops on the strength of the prefix 'master'. An instructor should not use the idea of 'mastery' to market themselves.


Kung fu is thousands of years old and is a highly developed system of martial art. The student who locates a good kung fu school will find the training thorough and challenging. Kung fu skills, which have been refined over centuries, are not learned easily or quickly. The sincere student, however, through hard work and dedication, will not be disappointed with the results.

(Adam Hsu)

Dave Lowry

Dave Lowry is a renowned author and martial artist. He practices traditional Japanese arts and has written a considerable volume of insightful material.
Often modest and self-effacing, Lowry's thoughts concerning mastery are well worth reading and considering.

A teacher of teachers

A master usually becomes a teacher of teachers, instructing existing instructors.


The in-depth understanding of the tai chi principles, martial theory, Taoism, Zen, Eastern wisdom and decades of experience make it possible to dismantle the curriculum and see how and why things operate.
New insights, possibilities, associations and choices are now available to the student. No longer restricted by rote learning, the individual sees the truths behind the maxims and guidelines.
The underlying principles are laid bare.


Lessons now flow. Radically different aspects of the syllabus can be knitted together in fascinating new ways. The master plays with the material, finding inspiration in everything.
Years of study, research and practice furnish the individual with the ability to intuitively do. They can adapt, change and improvise freely and easily.


Without a powerful imagination, a person cannot reach the master syllabus. A person needs to possess a vision of what is possible.
Simply following another person will never lead to this level of skill. The student must see the art in a fundamentally different manner. Vision is necessary. Awe is essential.
But imagination cannot give rise to stupidity. Everything needs to be real, to be provable. Fantasy has no place in tai chi.


Skill at the master level is not to be found in new forms and drills. Collecting forms is not the path to comprehension. Novelty does not produce insights and understanding. 
Depth is the product of sustained practice, of concentration and awareness. Students must work towards a qualitative grasp of tai chi, not a quantitative one.

Time served?

In some martial arts schools higher dan belts are given out to students for time served; rewarding loyalty, commitment, attitude.
A student may be a referee or judge. They may have published something. Our school does not offer belts for attendance.
Mastery requires the student to demonstrate significant new levels of competence and knowledge.

Train harder

The master syllabus signifies a turning point in your practice, where much more of your time is committed to developing your fighting skills.
You must train harder. Train for longer. Re-examine how you teach. You must incorporate insights gleaned from scholarly inquiry.
This is not a time to rest on your laurels. The art is not yet mastered. And you are not yet mastered by the art.
Dig deeper, work harder... and you will find that the art is more complex and challenging than you might have expected.
Mastery requires tens of thousands of hours practice. Hours of continued improvement, insight and development.


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Page created 2 March 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023