In the year of 1917, China was going through a tumultuous transition. With the last emperor of the Manchu Dynasty ousted 6 years prior, China saw the end of its 2000 year old imperial system. In the following years, Japan would make demands for special privileges in a long term plan to gain influence in, and eventually take control of China. It was during this volatile time that Jou, Tsung Hwa was born. A weak, malnourished child, Jou was born in the rural town of Zhuji, in Zhejiang Province, China. His mother was in her 40’s when she gave birth, which was considered rare in that era. In spite of this, Jou, as he grew older, demonstrated a superior intellect. Because his father was a government official, Jou had access to the best institutions of learning, usually reserved for the “upper class” in China. Jou was able to nurture his natural talent in mathematics through his early childhood, leveraging his superior education. Soon after Jou graduated, he married and had children. With WWII on the horizon and China becoming more and more unstable, Jou was forced to uproot and move his family to Taiwan.
Jou escaped China with his family, moving to Kaoshiung, Taiwan. There he began work as a professor of mathematics. He wrote over 30 math textbooks and was revered for his forward thinking and teaching abilities. His mathematical talents also became his recreational escape. He became addicted to gambling. While he worked very hard as a professor, he also stayed out late nights with his new friends, smoking and gambling the night away. His lifestyle caught up with him at the age of 47, when he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and prolapsed stomach. He visited the best doctors in the country, all to no avail. He’d require surgery; but even with surgery he could only hope to prevent a little further damage. He could not undo the damage that he’d done over 20 years. The prognosis was gloomy.
Enter Louzifeng. A friend of Jou, Louzifeng would convince Jou to try to heal himself through what could be considered Chinese holistic therapy – the art of taijiquan (tai chi chuan). Louzifeng had studied taiji for several years and convinced Jou to be introduced to his teacher, Master Yuandao. At his first lesson, Jou was stunned that Yuandao, in his 60s, was in far better shape than him, and displayed a greater level of energy. Being only in his 40’s and in a worsening condition, Jou decided to follow Yuandao’s teachings. Jou quit smoking, regulated his eating habits, and began to live a healthier lifestyle while practicing taijiquan under Master Yuandao. Jou soon began to see results, as early as 2 weeks after starting practice. Jou continued on with his practice. Though he could only do a little at a time, he kept persistent and his energy increased, thereby allowing him to increase the duration and intensity of his regular practice. WIthin 3 years, the medical doctors reported that not only was Jou’s stomach condition no longer worsening, but it appeared to have completely reversed! After 5 years of regular taiji (tai chi) practice, his heart also “shrank” back to normal. Jou received a clean bill of health. The doctors, having given Jou a very poor prognosis, did not understand what had happened. Jou attributed his recovery to taijiquan and developed an intense passion to continue researching taijiquan.
1971 found Jou pursuing an American degree in mathematics at Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ). While at school, Jou maintained his regimen of taiji practice, drawing the attention of other college students. In 1977, he organized the first “Zhang San Feng Festival” in New York City to commemorate the legendary founder of taijiquan – Zhang San Feng. Soon he began teaching taijiquan outside of Rutgers University. And soon thereafter he was teaching taiji as an accredited course at the university. But the university changed its mind in 1975, claiming that taiji was “nothing but exercise” and therefore did not deserve to be an accredited course. The school based their decision on a review of the currently available books on the topic of taiji. Jou reluctantly agreed to their viewpoint: the books did not offer a decent education in the history and traditional principles of taijiquan. In an attempt to change this situation, Jou took action. He began to write his own taiji book, with help from his students.
No mainstream publisher accepted Jou’s well-written taiji book despite his past success as an author of over 30 textbooks. Nonetheless, Jou did not give up. He self-published — which was quite a difficult task at that time — and managed to get a distributor. With absolutely no marketing efforts, his book became a bestseller in the tai chi niche. Using funds from the sale of his book, Jou decided to sever ties from the bureaucracy of the university and open up his own center of taiji studies. In 1984 he purchased a former farmland property in Orange County, New York and opened his taiji school and retreat center there, the famous, but now defunct, “Tai Chi Farm.” He moved the Zhang San Feng Festival to Tai Chi Farm. People learned of Jou and his center only by word of mouth. Students and teachers visited from far and wide.
The reason Jou became such a famous grandmaster of taiijquan is because he questioned everything he learned, and refused to conform to the status quo of taijiquan education during this era. After visiting and studying with a wide variety of teachers in China and Taiwan, Jou drew the conclusion that the art of taijiquan was becoming lost. Too much focus was put on the physical forms and too little focus on the founding principles of taijiquan, as elucidated in the Taiji Classics. This disconnect seemed to be the missing piece of the puzzle as to why so few modern day masters lacked the skills, stamina, health and martial abilities of the masters of old. At that moment of inspiration, he abandoned all teachers and took the Taiji Classics as his only teacher. He restructured everything that he had previously learned and practiced in taiji. He started all over again, focusing on what he believed to be the missing foundation of taijiquan. This was a lonely path with no support an little encouragement. Many scoffed at his decision. But Jou’s dedication led him to personal success and global fame for taking this step; for being the voice of taiji education that led people back to the deepest and most original of its principles. And as such, his growing abilities and deep thoughts garnered the attention of taiji masters and enthusiasts, who too, wanted “something more” than what was currently available to them in the tai chi community.
Sadly, after many years of remarkable success, a changing culture desirous of instant gratification was growing tired of Jou’s teachings of “back to the basics.” Many students could not maintain patience or persistence. They left, having never realized their full potential, not understanding the value of the initial hard work that was required to attain serious progress in tai chi. Many of his former longtime students did not want to make the changes for the improvements that he suggested, and they continued on in their familiar and comfortable way.
In 1990, Loretta Wollering joined Jou’s class. A young college woman – ironically from Rutgers University just 3 years after Jou left – heard of Jou after beginning taiji under another teacher in an attempt to heal a painful martial arts injury of her left knee. Wollering possessed an unparalleled dedication and demonstrated a natural inclination to the art of taiji, along with the required skills and experience of teaching. Jou had found his successor. Wollering became Jou’s only formal apprentice, having undergone a small ceremony of baishi, in which she vowed to continue his work in agreement to study taijiquan and the Taoist philosophy with him. Jou gave his last ounce of inherited 24K gold to her in the shape of a taiji diagram pendant in commemoration of this covenant.
Continuously changing his practice to better fit the Taiji Classics and Taoist practices, Jou actually became stronger everyday, hoping to live to 100 or beyond. He planned to open a taiji university with branches in America, China and Taiwan. Unfortunately, his plans were cut short. He died in a fatal car accident in New York in 1998, just after having taught the first day of his annual Taoist meditation workshop.
Jou, having been something of a living legend, was now a true legend. He was touted as one of the masters of authentic, classic taiji. Others appreciated him for his intense persistence and nonconformity in pursuit of reviving classical taijiquan, which was fast becoming lost. He became an icon. Stories of his dedication, mastery, and the problems he surmounted spread far and wide. Jou was a man fully deserving of the title “Grandmaster”. The greatest lesson Jou ever taught was that of persistence and unwavering belief in yourself against all odds. With the whole world watching, he demonstrated that truly anything is possible. May his joyful persistence positively influence you.