The Grandmaster: A banner depicting Jou Tsung Hwa's title most certainly earned.
Grandmaster Jou Tsung Hwa during taiji demonstration at age 74

The year was 1917. In China history was being made. Five years prior, the nationalist revolution had resulted in the abdication of a 6-year-old emperor that brought to an end the 267-year reign of the Manchu dynasty and, with it, a 2,000-year-old imperial system. Three years later, Japan presented its “twenty-one demands” for special privileges in a move to subjugate the nation. Finally, in August of 1917, the Beijing government joined the Allies and declared war on Germany. It was thus with little fanfare that Jou, Tsung Hwa was ushered into the world July 13th, 1917, the youngest of several siblings and a mild surprise to his mother who was well into her 40’s when she gave birth. Born in the small town of Zhuji, in the province of Zhejiang, the infant Jou began life weak and frail yet survived to grow into a slight lad with a keen intellect.

With his father an official of the local government, Jou received an education as befitted a member of the upper class. He was educated in the finest schools where he capitalized on his talent for mathematics. After graduation he married and began a family. With the approach of World War II, however,  life in China rapidly deteriorated and the ensuing danger and strife forced Jou to flee with his immediate family to Taiwan.

In Taiwan, Jou prospered. As a professor of mathematics he wrote more than thirty textbooks and his notoriety among the academic community spread. With his good fortune Jou’s social circles grew as well. His talent with numbers led to a fondness for occasional gambling. He began to maintain late hours, working and playing equally hard. His sleep habits became irregular and unhealthy. His eating habits became poor and he smoked heavily. For years Jou pursued this abusive lifestyle until the odds caught up with him. At the age of 47, he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and prolapsed stomach.

Jou visited several of the finest doctors available. The prognosis was always the same. Medication could stop further heart damage with no hope of repair. Surgery could provide minor support for his stomach but provide no cure. Over time he grew despondent. His illness began to overtake him. Then, a friend intervened.

Louzifeng had been a long time practitioner of taijiquan. He managed to convince Jou to try taiji and soon introduced him to his teacher, Master Yuandao. With their first meeting, Jou was highly impressed with Yuandao who, well into his sixties, displayed a health and vitality well beyond Jou’s at age forty-seven. It was a turning point in his life. He quit smoking and worked to improve his eating and sleeping habits even as he began a regime of daily taiji practice.

Within two weeks, Jou began to feel changes occur as his body began to signal improvement. Within three years tests revealed that his stomach had healed, returning to a normal position. Within five years his heart had shrunk to normal, the damage apparently gone. With taiji providing cures that medical science could not, Jou became enamored with the art and continued his practice. With practice, his health and vitality continued to grow as he gained more energy with every passing day. Interest turned to passion and passion to devotion as Jou worked to master this seemingly limitless art.

Life continued. In 1971 Jou’s academic pursuits led him to Rutgers University where he began studying for an American graduate degree in mathematics. While there he openly practiced taiji, which prompted inquiries from his fellow students. Inquires led to informal classes, which led to an offer by Rutgers to teach taiji as an accredited course. Jou continued to teach taiji at Rutgers until 1975 when the school canceled the program. Rutgers' stated position was that they had concluded, “Taiji was not a subject worthy of college credit as it was ‘merely an exercise’.” Afterwards, Jou continued to teach his students informally until Rutgers rescinded the use of practice space on campus.

The cancellation of his classes and the reasoning behind it disturbed Jou. The decision had been based on a review of the books on taijiquan available at that time. These books focused primarily on the superficial aspects of the art, lacking any in-depth examination of its long history, complex philosophy and classic principles. Jou the scholar understood their assessment. Jou the taiji teacher mourned their decision. Jou the author decided to do something about it. The dream had just begun.

This was a time of convergence in Jou’s life. His experience at Rutgers had opened his eyes and he began to recognize a vacuum in the taiji world. Beyond the poor choice of books on the subject, he suffered a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of instruction that he had been receiving over recent years by the scattering of masters and teachers he had studied with during his frequent trips to Taiwan and China. A pattern began to emerge. The books and the people began to sound the same. It was then that he realized that few, if any, truly understood, let alone embodied, the classic principles of taijiquan. It was then that he walked away from all formal instruction. It was then that he adopted the voice of the classics as his one true teacher. It was then that he began to learn taiji for the first time. It was then he took his first step on the road to true mastery.

He began authoring a new textbook, the definitive book on the art of taijiquan. At the same time he cast aside the superficial trappings of the taiji world, refusing to continue practicing or teaching weapons forms or applications. He returned to the roots of the art, focusing on the Chen Form as the foundation of understanding and urged others to do the same. He became a maverick, a Master without a teacher whose theories and teachings raised more than a few eyebrows. In 1977 he hosted the first annual Zhang San Feng Festival in Chinatown, New York City, a gathering designed to commemorate the legendary founder of taiji. It drew nearly 200 people that year. It was small but it was a start. More time passed.

The year was 1984. By now Grandmaster Jou had founded a nonprofit foundation, the “Tai Chi Foundation.” Through it, partly financed by the proceeds from his completed textbook, The Dao of Taijiquan he purchased a 103 acre farm nestled in the picturesque town of Warwick NY along Rt. 94 in Orange County. Taking up residence in a small cottage on the property, he converted an old carriage house near the road to his school. Thus the “Tai Chi Farm” was born.

Grandmaster Jou taught taiji in weekly classes, $5.00 a class or for barter. Over time, he made the Farm available to other teachers for workshops and classes. It was through this practice, and his own affable nature, that Grandmaster Jou gained a reputation as a facilitator of sharing and openness, welcoming all schools, all thoughts and ideas, all practices equally. This philosophy was extended to the Zhang San Feng Festival which, with the purchase of the Farm, had found a permanent home. The first week of every June, visitors to the festival were treated to a wide array of disciplines and practices as masters and teachers from all over the country came to give lectures and demonstrations.

Many changes came to Grandmaster Jou in the last decade of his life. Weekly attendance to his classes dwindled as many of his students became disenchanted with Grandmaster Jou’s “back to basics” teachings. Others were simply not willing to put in the hard work required to make progress. Sadly, these students left never realizing the opportunity they missed to be a part of Grandmaster Jou’s most fruitful and progressive years, a period when breakthroughs came on nearly a daily basis.

In the spring of 1990 a young woman came to his class, a college student with something more than a passing interest in the art. In the months that followed, Jou watched her progress carefully, even as he judged her character and dedication. Within six months time a conclusion had been reached. Grandmaster Jou had found someone to carry on his legacy and made an offer that she gratefully accepted.

This marked a new period in Grandmaster Jou’s life as Loretta Donnelly, then Wollering, became Grandmaster Jou’s first and only apprentice. Though poor class attendance had eventually caused him to withdraw from teaching weekly classes, Loretta convinced him to return. She helped him form new classes even as she began managing his many other affairs, establishing order in the running of his school, the Farm and the Festival. With his time freed up, he now focused on taiji nearly every waking second.

Grandmaster Jou’s development began to reach levels unseen in modern times. Many young athletes and martial artists from other disciplines came to him for training only to complain that they couldn’t keep up with him. Moreover, word spread of his martial abilities. Using only pure taiji principles he became a force to be reckoned with on the sparring floor. He was in his seventies and none could beat him. With these accomplishments, his fame spread. Eventually martial artists from Taiwan and China came to the states to study under him. Masters and teachers from many disciplines came to him for private training and advice. From a number of these encounters close personal friendships developed and all came to love and respect Grandmaster Jou who was always willing to share his wisdom.

By June of 1998 the Zhang San Feng Festival had reached a peak attendance of over 700 people. Having become a town event, for three days each year it filled the local hotels, motels, restaurants and diners to capacity. People from across the country were now attending, most to see the remarkable Grandmaster who they’d heard so much about. Some were disappointed to discover that he was neither 10 feet tall nor able to spit qi from his eyes. But for those that saw him spar, it was not hard to believe that he was approaching a level of skill not seen since the masters of old -- those men in whose hands taiji truly was the “grand ultimate.”

His stated goal was to was live to 100 or more, making progress every step of the way. At some point, too, he wanted to travel to Chen Village where he would inspire its inhabitants by demonstrating what taiji once was and could be again. He also had plans to build Taiji University, a school where the old teachings would flourish once more. All these things he planned to do, to ignite a new renaissance in taiji study. As life and luck would have it, however, he never had a chance. On August 3rd, 1998, while returning from the local supermarket, Grandmaster Jou Tsung Hwa’s vehicle was struck by an oncoming van as he pulled out into an intersection. His injuries were fatal. His passing was quick. His leaving was a loss to the entire world.

Grandmaster Jou stood for many things throughout his life. First and foremost, he was a living testament to the power of classical taiji. While not everyone agreed with his theories and teachings, none could argue with the results. More than that, he was an example of what one person can achieve when willing to work ceaselessly towards a goal. We who knew him can only speculate how far his dreams would have taken him even as many of us gladly followed. Lastly, and most importantly, Grandmaster Jou showed us all that neither ego nor hubris is necessary to excel in the martial arts. His heart and his mind were open. He will be sorely missed.

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