My Memories of Teaching President Ho Chi Minh Taijiquan in Vietnam Original Chinese Language Text By: Gu Liuxin (顾留馨) (Translated by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD)
Translator’s Note: This is an English language translation of the original Chinese language text entitled ‘越南教授胡志明主席太极拳记---- 顾留馨’. Master Gu Liuxin (1908-1990) was a very well-known and respected martial artist from Shanghai. He graduated from university in his youth, and during the war years in China, he carried-out important undercover work for the Communist Party of China against the Nationalist Regime. He studied with many great outstanding masters and was renowned for his advanced skills in Yang and Chen Taijiquan training, and in Push-Hands practice. He wrote a number of authoritative books on various martial subjects, including such titles as ‘Simplified Taijiquan’, ‘Taijiquan Technique’, ‘Taijiquan Research’, ‘Chen Style Taijiquan’, and ‘How to Simplify Taijiquan’, etc. In 1957 he was selected by the Chinese Government to travel to Vietnam for one month to instruct President Ho Chi Minh in Yang Style Taijiquan. Ho Chi Minh in fact already had a background in Chinese martial arts and had first encountered Taijiquan in 1945. Although this text states that Ho Chi Minh studied the Simplified Taijiquan Form – a rare clip of black and white video footage shows him practising what might be a version of Yang Chengfu’s Long Taijiquan Form or perhaps a variant of Wu Taijiquan. Ho Chi Minh is shown performing masterful techniques and teaching Vietnamese school children how to defend themselves from attack by using evasion and rounded movement. It is logical to assume that this footage must stem from just after the time Ho Chi Minh had trained with Gu Liuxin – and yet Gu Liuxin makes no mention in his official report of teaching Ho Chi Minh a Yang Chengfu Long Taijiquan Form – although Gu Liuxin was more than qualified to do so. It may have been that Ho Chi Minh learned the Yang Chengfu Long Form secretly from Gu Liuxin away from prying eyes. An alternative suggestion is that Ho Chi Minh already knew Taijiquan prior to the arrival of Gu Liuxin, and this would explain his ability to grasp the Simplified Form far quicker than considered normal. ACW 18.3.2016
Between January and April 1957, I taught Taijiquan to President Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam. The causes behind my visit to Vietnam came about in October, 1956, when Premiere Zhou Enlai (周恩来) and Vice Premiere He Long (贺龙) visited Vietnam, and He Long explained to President Ho Chi Minh (胡志明) about the many medical and healthcare benefits the regular practice of Chinese Taijiquan (太极拳) has for people in general, and how it is particularly helpful for those of advanced age. Ho Chi Minh listened with a great attention, and then expressed a strong interest in studying Taijiquan. He then requested if the Chinese Government could send a Taijiquan instructor to Vietnam to assist him with this objective. President Ho Chi Minh’s request for a Taijiquan teacher was relayed to the National Sports Commission, who eventually tasked me with this mission.
In early January, 1957, I travelled to Beijing to visit the Martial Arts Section of the National Sports Commission, where I met with Mao Bohao (毛伯浩) and Zhang Yunjie (张云骥), both Deputy Section Managers. Mao Bohao was very happy from the start of our meeting, and stated that this was the first time since the founding of the State that a teacher was being sent abroad to teach Chinese martial arts. He also added that it was particularly good that I was going to teach in a friendly neighbouring country and that my student was going to be President Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam. In the afternoon, my old friend Tang Hao (唐豪) also arrived at the Martial Arts Section, and quickly wrote a text to assist me on my journey entitled ‘Taijiquan Origin & Transmission’ (太极拳源流 – Tai Ji Quan Yuan Liu) which I could use as a reference. He wrote swiftly hardly pausing for breath, and completed a text full of good and relevant information about Taijiquan for me to take abroad. At that time, the National Sports Commission was given one month to produce a ‘simplified’ version of Taijiquan. I had prepared for my mission in Shanghai by studying Yang (杨) Style Taijiquan. I also sought out important background information by discussing the subject with some friends, whilst I studied with a professor on the subject. I felt that as President Ho Chi Minh was advanced in years, the physiological burden of training should not be too great. I made good use of the time I had left before my visit to Vietnam by training in the new Simplified (简化 – Jian Hua) Taijiquan under its chief designer Master Li Lianji (李天骥), who also taught me Yang Style Taiji (single-edged) Sword (刀 – Dao). I was in Beijing for over ten days where, on the one-hand, I prepared myself to teach (Taijiquan) to the best of my abilities, whilst on the other, I spent time officially preparing for my trip to Vietnam. The latter involved a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I met with Xue Shuangqiu (谢爽秋) the Deputy Director of the Department of Asian Nation Affairs. He advised me in the following manner: “A visit to Vietnam is a meeting of two parties, which involves bilateral relations. Be very careful to pay attention to the aspect of etiquette, as this (meeting) will serve (at a later date), as the basis for further diplomatic missions.”
At that time, I was still continuing my studies under Master Chen Fake (陈发科) who was teaching me Chen (陈) Style Taijiquan and Push-Hands (推手 – Tui Shou). I had arranged earlier for Tang Hao and Master Chen to meet outside the National Sports Commission, at Chongwenmen (崇文门), but as Master Chen lived in Loumashi (骡马市) Street, he had to change vehicles three times to complete the journey. As we promoted the practice of writing authoritative articles concerning martial arts, Master Chen was very happy to meet with us and share his knowledge about Closed Fist (拳 – Quan) Arts. As Master Chen knew that I was about to go abroad, he paid very close attention to my performance of a set from the Chen Style Fist (陈式拳 – Chen Shi Quan). He said that I had made much progress in my practice, but added: “You use too much effort in your movements, and this will tire you out. As a consequence, your breathing is not fully regulated with the movement.’ As I practice Yang Style Taijiquan, I use natural breathing. However, within the Chen Style Fist, the breathing and actions are co-ordinated. As my time in Beijing was short, I visited Master Chen at least once a day, but occasionally I made two or three visits per day. Although I was not going to Vietnam to teach Chen Style Fist, nevertheless I put a great deal of effort into learning this style properly as a matter of gaining an all-round mastery of the subject. The more experience of good instruction and correct practice that I could acquire before leaving for Vietnam, would make me a better teacher. During Push-Hands practice I would usually end-up covered in sweat and get tired from the exertion. I was then 49 years old, and sometimes when I practised, I would develop cramp in my hands and feet. Master Chen, however, was a man of few words. During practice he spoke very rarely. He took great care of me, and during Push Hands only used light power to move me. During my time with him I was never made to ‘eat bitter’ (吃过苦头 – Chi Guo Ku Tou). During my preparations in Beijing, I received much encouragement from the National Sports Commission Assistant Director Huang Zhong (黄中) and Zhu Debao (朱德宝) the Director of the Sports Section, but as I had some concerns, I said to them: “Taijiquan is a martial art of both defence and attack (as well as a means to propagate health). President Ho Chi Minh is an elderly person, and I am not sure whether his training should involve this heavy aspect or not. If I keep the training light, he might think that I am a bad teacher, but if I make the training heavy, he might think that the practice is not suitable.” The two officials advised me in the following manner: “We are of the opinion that at this initial stage in his teaching, it would be better to focus upon the health and sporting aspects of Taijiquan, and not upon the self-defence application.”
On January 12th, 1957, I travelled from Beijing to Hanoi on the International Train Link. President Ho Chi Minh sent his Chief of Staff to welcome our delegation at the train station. We were also met by Zhang Ying (张英) the Director of the Chinese Embassy Office, who arranged my accommodation at the Embassy Mission. President Ho Chi Minh was busy that day officiating over the opening of the National Assembly, but he did find time to meet me on the second day. Ambassador Luo Guibo (罗贵波) said: “Teaching Taijiquan is an act of diplomatic relations.” He then accompanied me on the journey to meet President Ho Chi Minh. President Ho Chi Minh lived in a French-style house with two storeys and three bays. In the main room the only piece of furniture was a single wicker-chair and no sofa. President Ho Chi Minh wore a plain yellow khaki suit and spoke to me in very fluent Cantonese. He said that Vice President He Long was very interested in martial arts, and could speak for two or three hours upon the subject with relish. Then he added that in 1930 he had studied Chinese Fist Arts (拳术 – Quan Shu) whilst in Shanghai. This training brought his body back to a healthy state and then one day he saw an old man with a long white beard, practicing Taijiquan in the Hongkou District. I then presented him with three copies of the text published by the National Sports Commission concerning the Simplified Taijiquan Form, together with a complete set of photographs featuring Yang Chengfu (杨澄甫) practising his version of Taijiquan. Ambassador Luo then said to President Ho Chi Minh: “In this day and age, Taijiquan can also be practised for health and sport, and is an excellent activity for the elderly.” President Ho Chi Minh then said: The National Assembly is not yet concluded, and soon it will be Spring Festival so I cannot train at the moment. I think February the 5th will be a good time for me to start exercising.”
When I first arrived in Hanoi, I discussed with the Chinese Embassy the possibility of myself living with President Ho Chi Minh, but it was felt at the time that there might an issue with communication and that this arrangement might not be the most efficient to convey Taijiquan theory and technique. This was when it was decided that I should stay in the Embassy. This gave me time for my own practice, and to thoroughly prepare my lectures regarding the history, practice and beneficial health aspects of Taijiquan. For a time I was concerned that my Vietnamese comrades would not understand the concept or practice of Taijiquan because its movements are slow and not fast and fierce, as found in many other sports. I therefore wrote a text defining the concept and practice of Taijiquan, and had it translated into Vietnamese. The Embassy then made a number of copies which were then distributed. On the designated date, President Ho Chi Minh sent a car to pick me up, and I said: “I prefer to exercise whilst travelling and so do not need a car to pick me up. Instead I will ride a (borrowed) bicycle.” From then on, I rode my bicycle to the training appointments. This gave me the added advantage of being able to freely explore Hanoi.
Before the training began, President Ho Chi Minh sent Secretary Xie Guangjian (谢光健) to the embassy to discuss the daily schedule. I discovered President Ho Chi Minh’s daily work-schedule and enquired about his health so that I could plan how light or heavy to make the exercise sessions. Secretary Xie explained that President Ho Chi Minh liked sports and was very active. He controlled his diet very well, often goes horse-riding and can control a horse very well. When he walks he walks very quickly. When he was younger, he would love to go boating and hiking, and in 1945, the captain of his personal guard taught him Shaolin Temple Fist (少林拳 – Shao Lin Quan). More than 20 years ago – President Ho Chi Minh suffered an injury whilst imprisoned – and today, because his workload is so heavy, he does not sleep very well. On a typical day, he retires at 11pm and rises at 4am. After hearing this, I proposed that the President’s Taijiquan training programme should be light and comfortable as a means to facilitate better sleep. The next day I received a letter from the President, personally enquiring about the teaching programmed I planned to follow with him. He agreed to study the Simplified Taijiquan Form over 40 days of lessons. I suggested that he and his two secretaries should train away from the other cadres, but he insisted that practising together in a big group would ensure a more energised training session. He also said that he would train twice a day with the morning season being from 6-630am, and the evening session from 6-7pm. I was concerned about the other cadres training with the President because they were all young and strong, and mostly from military backgrounds. I thought that they would not understood the true spirit of Taijiquan practice and spoil the training atmosphere. When I dined with the President to celebrate Spring Festival (New Year), I informed the President of my concerns, and suggested that I should give lectures to the cadres about Taijiquan theory and practice before teaching the Taijiquan form. In this way they would be ideologically prepared for the training. After listening to me, President Ho Chi Minh agreed with me and endorsed my plan. After this, I lectured twice for two hours, to an audience of around 30 people, upon the subjects of Chinese sports medicine, the defining characteristics of Taijiquan, Taijiquan and psychology, physiology and upon how all this relates to mechanics. When I encountered difficulties in translating Chinese history and philosophical terminology into the Vietnamese language, the President personally intervened to assist. After this, the President had three parts of my lectures on Taijiquan translated into the Vietnamese language, printed and the distributed for educational purposes.
After training with me for a month, I asked Secretary Xie Guangjian about whether the President’s sleep had improved? He answered: “The President’s sleep has improved, but it is still not as good as it once was a year or two ago, when he used to sleep soundly.” Two days after having learned the complete Taijiquan Form, President Ho Chi Minh said to me: “Taijiquan has had a very good effect on my sleep problem and has been very helpful.” I was very pleased to hear this. Later, Secretary Xie and the Captain of the Guard – Wang Wenzhang (王文章) – both reported that when President Ho Chi Minh arose in the morning at 4am, he would practice Taijiquan indoors under the lamp light. People smiled when they saw the President training so earnestly in Taijiquan, but they also understood that as he progressed, the President gained much happiness from practice. In the morning, the President was joined by his Secretary, Guards, and Cooks (making around ten people in all) in a group practising Taijiquan. They generally repeated the form three or four times, and at night, while I was teaching the group, President Ho Chi Minh would assist me by correcting the postures of others. During martial arts practice, the President’s posture, timing and technique were much better than the average person. This meant that he learned much more quickly and progressed far beyond the abilities of the other students. Generally speaking, the pace he set was quicker than that which I would have usually taught. However, he progressed so much, and enjoyed the training to such a high degree that the original scheduled 40 days of teaching was extended. The teaching had already lasted 62 days – from February 5th to April 16th – because the President had said that he wanted the training to go on longer as he felt that the co-ordination between the movements and the breath could be improved. At around one month of training, the President established a Sports Commission, and requested that the Central Military Commission select ten youths to be sent to train with me. It was intended these youths would later become teachers of Taijiquan in Vietnam and pass on the teaching. I split the group into two classes and taught one class the Simplified Taijiquan Form (which is based primarily upon the Yang Style), and the other class the Chen Taijiquan Short Form. These students took a pivotal role in the Sports Commission in Vietnam and eventually published a book on the practice of Taijiquan. I was made aware that the National Sports Commission had actually set a time limit of around one month to accomplish my tasks, and it was now already well over this time limit. Furthermore, there were things that I had to attend to in China, including the upcoming National Wushu Championships in July. I approached Ambassador Luo Guibo and explained the situation and my intention to return to China. At first the Ambassador said that he would approach President Ho Chi Minh about this matter, but afterwards suggested that as I met him on a daily basis, it might be prudent for me to gently raise the subject with him. Not long after this, whilst training with the President, I broughtup the subject of leaving. A few days later, President Ho Chi Minh said: “As this is the case, it would be embarrassing for us to keep you any longer. I hope I can ask you to teach us again in the future.”
Later I learned from Secretary Xie Guangjian that Prime Minister Pham Van Dong (范文同) was very interested in different types of sport, and had wanted to train with me, but could not find the time because of his high office, but instead sent his Secretary to learn Taijiquan on his behalf. Afterwards, when I met Prime Minister Pham Van Dong at a Reception, he told me that this time he had no time to train, but that he hoped to train with me in the future.
When I was training with the President, he told me that it was 20 years since the beginning of the Revolution, and that the Vietnamese people had suffered terrible oppression under the Colonial French authorities. Due to his revolutionary beliefs he had to flee to China for safety. However, in China at that time Communists were being rounded up, and imprisoned or killed without trial and he was imprisoned as a suspected spy. He told me that due to the privations suffered in his cell, he suffered a terrible physical injury from which he never fully recovered. He met many important people in China from the Communist Party, such as Deputy Prime Minister Li Fuchun (李富春) with whom he was very close – Li Fuchun even gave Ho Chi Minh a watch he was using at the time. President Ho Chi Minh was a very approachable person. When a Chinese Dance Troupe from Harbin came to perform in Hanoi, President Ho Chi Minh introduced me to each member as his Taijiquan teacher – and had me demonstrate the Chen Style of Taijiquan. On another occasion, President Ho Chi Minh held a Reception for the Polish Prime Minister, and although I was not an official diplomat and possessed no title, the President verbally invited me to attend. Then I was invited to a special cinema screening and when I arrived, my interpreter showed me to a seat right at the front. Not long after Prime Minister Pham Van Dong approached and the interpreter asked me to move as the seat I was in was reserved for the Prime Minister. Later I heard that President Ho Chi Minh had criticised the interpreter – saying that the behaviour was impolite. When I was staying in Vietnam, the President tried three times to give me an allowance but I refused on all three occasions, but such behaviour was indicative of his many kindnesses to me. When I was leaving, the President presented me with a Movado Brand wristwatch – which I learned later he had purchased with his own money. I once chatted with him about how expensive Vietnamese cigarettes, saying that in China I smoked the Chinese brands of Large Front Door and Platinum Dragon, etc. Of course, my Embassy gave me a supply of cigarettes, but not long after I received a gift from President Ho Chi Minh of a supply of Platinum Dragon Cigarettes. President Ho Chi Minh was a very careful and considerate man.
During the graduation ceremony for the Sports Commission and Central Military Commission students who had trained with me, many asked to have their photographs taken with me. I was astonished and moved when other students gave me their hard-earned Battle of Dien Bien Phu (奠边府) campaign medals, and their Anti-Japanese Resistance (抗战 – Kang Zhan) medals that they should have kept for their entire lives. The President arranged a farewell party for me, and said: “The practice of Taijiquan is very good and I hope that many people in Vietnam become masters of it.” For two days, Secretary Xie accompanied me on a sight-seeing tour and acted as my interpreter, then on April 17th I prepared to leave the beautiful Hanoi by train. Secretary Xie and my students came to the Embassy to wish me well and say good-bye. There was an atmosphere of true affection and sadness as I boarded the train for my journey back to China. I had learned just enough Vietnamese to wish President Ho Chi Minh good health, and to say ‘good bye’.