When I attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1968, I found a group of friends whose interests in the arts, politics, and learning intersected. One of those friends was Michael Dorgan, who, as I remember him, practiced martial arts, rode motorcycles, and marched in demonstrations with the rest of us. At that time our lives were before us, all possibility, dread, and excitement. Now, some fifty years later, our lives at 74 are mostly behind us, and Michael Dorgan has published his memoir of those intervening years: No Fight No Blame: A Journalist’s Life in Martial Arts. His story of his search for teachers, meaning, and peace, resounds with humor, wisdom, and self-perception.
The heart of his memoir is a study of his personal experience with violence. From childhood dealing with bullies, to studying martial arts for self-defense, to the union picket line in Madison, to traveling the world as journalist, he witnessed extreme violence, whether among family members, political factions, or from natural catastrophes. As he practiced the martial arts, he searched for teachers, including accepting the invitation from Knight Ridder Newspapers to be bureau chief in Beijing, which allowed him more time in China so he could study with some of the greatest martial arts masters.
Reading about his determined pursuit of the best teachers made me examine my own vague and accidental search, which, it turns out, might not have been the best methodology. Though his memoir gives only brief glimpses of his personal life, childhood, family, and loves, it gives enough to make readers reconsider their own. Some of his difficult family dynamics reminded me that our parents are our primary teachers, even if it means they are models of how not to deal with others—after all there is only one letter reversal between marital and martial.
In the excerpts from Chapter Five that follows, his journey shifted to the more “internal” Taiji version, moving Dorgan’s memoir from the study of violence to the study of peace. Later in his memoir he describes it this way:
“Gradually, I began to understand a paradox I’d observed in martial arts: As their fighting skills increase, students tend to become less violent. It’s almost an organic byproduct of training. A serious study of martial arts requires you to disentangle fighting skills from the warped ideas and dysfunctional emotions that often lead to violence. Then you must let go of those unhelpful ideas and emotions to quiet the mind. Once the noise dies down, a feeling of tranquility and peace begins to emerge. Vague and fleeting at first, that feeling grew stronger as my training shifted inward.
Regrettably, no such personal transformation resulted from the violence I covered as a journalist.”
Just before the events he describes in Chapter Five, Dorgan, at age twenty-six, in 1974, went on a year-long journey to see the world, though as a journalist, his tour included rough places of high tension such as Belfast, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. Hilariously, he also carried a portable typewriter, which caused an investigator in Algeria to question him. “He was convinced I was an undercover CIA agent, and that the typewriter was somehow a tool for espionage. How could I explain that the typewriter was for me what the big boulder was for Sisyphus – a weighty reminder of my failings?”
The following excerpts from “Chapter Five Brute Force vs. Internal Power” occur after Dorgan’s return to Madison, having studied martial arts for ten years, to work at the Capitol Times.
Excerpts from Chapter Five:
Brute Force vs. Internal Power
Labor tensions at Madison Newspapers, which published both The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal, the city’s morning paper, erupted in a strike in the autumn of 1977. As a member of the Newspaper Guild, which represented reporters and non-management editors of The Capital Times, I took my place on the picket line and was the first striker arrested.
My offense was kicking a Volkswagen Beetle filled with strikebreakers as it plowed through the picket line, endangering strikers. Under a photo of me being led away by police that ran on the front page of the weekly newspaper Isthmus, the caption said I was arrested for “kicking a car with the intent to total.” That wasn’t precisely true because I had no clear intent at that moment – I simply reacted when the car whizzed past me. That said, I did put a big dent in the driver’s door.
My union and several others representing different sectors of the newspaper workforce had not called the strike but refused to cross the picket line of the striking local chapter of the International Typographical Union. We all got fired.
As the strike dragged on through one of the coldest Wisconsin winters on record, tempers flared on the picket line, especially late at night. That’s when trucks brought in supplies needed for the papers to continue publishing, and when determined strikers tried to block their access. Maybe because of my triumph over the VW Bug, I was made captain of the 2 a.m.-to-6 a.m. picket shift, which was staffed mostly by members of a local motorcycle club who had worked in the mailroom.
The bikers kept warm with whiskey and weren’t shy about expressing – in words and deeds – their thoughts and feelings about the strike breakers who crossed the picket line. They slashed truck tires and smashed car windows, prompting the newspapers to hire the infamous Wackenhut security corporation. That resulted in several brawls on the picket line between my crew and the paid muscle.
I remained on the picket line for a full year, long after it had become clear the strike was lost. Our efforts to force the company to negotiate were undermined by new technologies that allowed it to circumvent our picket line and keep publishing.
We strikers had launched an alternative daily, The Madison Press Connection, to compete against the struck newspapers. Despite its lack of capital, the Press Connection was a success because the unpaid reporters and editors consistently outperformed the mostly out-of-town mercenaries who replaced them at the struck papers. Although a small city, Madison had a deep pool of journalistic talent.
When we proposed turning the Press Connection into a worker-owned collective, the Newspaper Guild threatened to cut off our $45-per-week strike benefits. Union officials had abandoned hope of winning the strike but feared creating a precedent. They wanted their members to remain dues-paying employees, not to become owners.
With the strike doomed and another grim winter approaching, I felt the need for a fresh start and decided San Francisco was the best place for that. The main reason I chose that city is because it was America’s foremost center for Chinese martial arts, thanks to a large ethnic-Chinese population dating back to the California Gold Rush.
I bought a used Chevy cargo van and lined it with insulation and carpet Then I loaded it up with everything I thought I’d need: a few tools, a camp stove, a sleeping bag, clothes, books and the big Buck knife I’d carried half-way around the world. Except for a couple of thousand dollars left in the bank to draw on for food and gas, the van and its contents represented my total worldly possessions – all bundled together and mounted on wheels. I felt like a rich nomad, ready to roll. I pointed my headlights toward San Francisco but was in no rush to get there. I wanted to savor the journey.
Most days I spent alone on the highway and camping in nature, awaking each morning with the exhilarating feeling that anything might happen. With each passing day I could feel myself unwind. Tensions I hadn’t even been aware of began to ease, opening me up to magical moments.
When I camped for a few days on the western shore of Wyoming’s Yellowstone Lake, I awoke early one morning as a long red slit appeared across the mountaintops to the east. It looked like the peaks had torn a wound in the night to release a new day. At that moment, the sun, sky and mountains had created a fleeting spectacle that maybe I alone had witnessed.
In Lewiston, Idaho, a friend of a friend offered to let me hole up and do some writing in a small cabin he owned in north-central Washington. The cabin was 10 miles up a rutted dirt road off Highway 97 just below the Canadian border. Built of logs, it was about 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep and sat on the south slope of a small mountain. It had one large room and a sleeping loft with two windows facing south. A sink, cabinets, built-in benches and a wood stove were the only furnishings. Everything else I needed was in my van. The cabin seemed the perfect place to write and practice Taekwondo for a few weeks before heavy snows would force me to move on.
I wanted to write a long account of the strike but the words came slowly. It was a familiar pattern – I felt both a strong desire to write and a stubborn resistance. What blocked me wasn’t simple laziness but something more active, more determined. I suspected it was some kind of fear. Did I fear I had nothing to say? Did I fear judgement and failure? I wasn’t sure but took comfort in screenwriter Gene Fowler’s observation that “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
At least I wasn’t alone in my misery. And I gave myself plenty of excuses.
It didn’t help, I told myself, that the secluded cabin, while tranquil, lacked physical comforts. Because the pot-belly stove was the only source of heat, I had to write in awkward positions to keep some parts of my body from freezing while not roasting other parts. Some days I was groggy because various critters had disrupted my sleep. I went to bed early but was often awakened by the scampering and nibbling of white-bellied, black-eyed mice that were bigger and bolder than their urban relatives. Several times I caught one in the beam of my flashlight munching crumbs from my dinner plate or licking a fork I’d used. More disturbing were the larger creatures – rats? possums? raccoons? – nesting above the ceiling directly over my bed. Every night I’d hear them scraping and scratching as I waited with dread for one to fall onto my pillow.
While writing was often a cause of frustration, my training invigorated me. For several hours each day, I stretched, ran, lifted makeshift weights and blasted through several repetitions of the nine Taekwondo forms I’d learned, each containing multiple techniques for defending or attacking. I practiced kicks and hand strikes on a spare tire, and body-conditioning against a young pine tree.
The mountain air and clean living were bracing. Within a few weeks I felt physically stronger and mentally more relaxed than I’d been in many moons – maybe ever. But the north winds grew colder, signaling that winter would soon roar into the mountains, burying the rutted road in snow drifts too deep for my van. It was time to move on.
I packed up and headed west to Oregon, then meandered down the coast to San Francisco. There, I met up with Dean Snider, a buddy from Madison who was an experimental film maker. He lived in the city’s North Beach neighborhood in the San Remo Hotel, a rundown boarding house full of low-income pensioners, hipsters and misfits. The amenities were meager – it had one shower for 60 rooms – but the location was prime. And the price was right – $85 per month for a “deluxe” room, which meant it had a window and a refrigerator. I’d found a new home.
North Beach still had the Bohemian flavor of the Beatnik era, as well as cozy coffee shops, cool bars and inexpensive Italian restaurants. More important to me, it bordered Chinatown, where I began to prowl the side streets and alleyways in search of a kung fu teacher.
Most Chinese martial arts schools were small, tucked into basements or hidden away in tenements. Some still refused to teach anyone who wasn’t ethnic Chinese. I was growing discouraged when one day I noticed a poster taped to a streetlight advertising a class in Northern Shaolin. I wasn’t sure how Northern Shaolin differed from Wing Chun, White Crane or the half dozen other kung fu styles I’d seen but was impressed by a photo of the teacher.
He looked a few years older than me and had a calm but focused expression. He was slender and stood on one leg with the knee of his other leg raised high. His arms were extended at his sides to create a single long diagonal line. The pose conveyed both poise and power. Every part of him looked relaxed and balanced, yet charged with energy. I had to check this guy out.
His name was Wong Jack Man. He was a master not only of Northern Shaolin but also of Taijiquan and Xingyiquan, which are often referred to simply as Taiji and Xingyi. He held classes at the Fort Mason Center on the edge of San Francisco Bay.
After just a few minutes of watching him instruct a student, I could tell his movement had a special quality. That impression was confirmed soon after he accepted me as a student. We were roughly the same height but I weighed 165 and he was a good 30 pounds lighter. His movements looked relaxed and effortless. Yet when our arms banged together, his felt like iron bars.
Wong’s classes were different from those I had taken in Karate and Taekwondo. At first glance they seemed to have no structure at all, though later I would learn that his was a traditional way of teaching Chinese martial arts. Typically, 30 or so students would be spread around the large training hall, most of them practicing different things. Some worked on empty-hand forms while others wielded traditional weapons, including straight swords, sabers, spears and staffs. Still others paired off and sparred, some lightly and some with a heavy thumping of punches and kicks.
Roughly half the students were ethnic Chinese, while the other half were mostly Caucasian with a smattering of Blacks and Latinos. Most were male but women were welcome. Ages ranged from the early teens to the late 70s, though most students were in their 20s and 30s. They represented a broad swath of society, from troubled teens to retired engineers.
Wong spent much of each class standing with has arms folded, watching. When the impulse struck, he’d approach a student and show one or two new moves in the form he or she was learning, or explain to a pair of sparring students how to launch or counter a particular attack. His teaching style was minimalist, though the material he taught was voluminous. Wong knew dozens of forms from three different martial arts styles, and always seemed to remember precisely where each student was in the form he or she was learning.
He typically would repeat new movements three or four times and then walk away, whether or not the student could correctly mimic them. That, too, I would later learn, was old-school Chinese martial arts. The burden fell on the students. They had to pay close attention because there was no hand holding of the lazy or incompetent.
Over the first few months, Wong taught me a couple of Northern Shaolin forms filled with physically challenging leaps and high kicks. I also sparred with his senior students, which often left my arms and legs bruised and swollen. Wong rarely intervened in the sometimes heated sparring sessions, though he did provide an earthy-smelling herbal liniment he made from a secret recipe to speed healing.
I was training several hours per day and steadily improving. So I was surprised when he pulled me aside one day and said he thought I should shift my focus from Northern Shaolin to Taiji.
“Taiji is best,” he said. “There is nothing so good as Taiji.”
“If you think Taiji is best, why do you teach so many students Shaolin?” I asked.
He nodded toward a cluster of high-school-age ethnic Chinese students at the far end of the room practicing a fast-paced Shaolin set. “Because that’s what they want to learn.”
* * *
Chinese martial arts include dozens of different styles that often are divided into two broad groupings “external” and “internal,” also known as “hard” and “soft.” The difference between the two is meaningful but largely one of emphasis. External, or hard, styles such Northern Shaolin focus primarily on physical conditioning and technique, while internal, or soft, styles like Taiji and Xingyi focus on mind and energy. Many styles don’t fit neatly into one camp or the other. And it could be argued that all great masters, regardless of their path, eventually reach the same mountain top.
External styles, at least in earlier stages of training, develop what’s called “conventional” strength, which relies on the contraction of large muscles to lock bones into a rigid structure, as when you lift a heavy object. Internal power, called jing, results from cultivating energy and moving it through the body in ways that connect all parts. Whereas conventional strength utilizes only part of the body’s potential, internal power can capture it all. But muscles, sinews and joints can be effectively linked only when the body is relaxed, the energy is abundant and the mind is focused.
The mind moves the energy, the energy moves the body and the body performs the technique. The formula is simple but can take decades to master. Before meeting Wong, I’d read about “internal” power but had never felt its penetrating force.
Wong also began to teach me Xingyi, which translates as “Form-Mind” boxing. Like Taiji, Xingyi has branched into several variations. The style Wong taught is often called Five Element Xingyi because its core movements are based on Chinese philosophy’s Five Element Theory in which the interactions of wood, fire, earth, metal and water are used to explain both creative and destructive cycles. The style is also sometimes called Twelve Animal Xingyi because its movements mimic those of various animals, including tiger, bear, monkey and snake.
Taiji and Xingyi share a similar theoretical foundation but favor different training methods and fighting techniques. A Taiji fighter imagines himself to be at the center and practices defending and attacking in all directions. A Xingyi fighter trains primarily to attack straight ahead. Xingyi has forms but practice mostly consists of repeating single techniques while moving forward with an attitude of “Where I touch, you break.”
Having specialized in Northern Shaolin when he was young, Wong transitioned to Taiji and Xingyi as he got older. That’s a common pattern. Young martial artists tend to prefer external styles because they develop fighting skills quickly and because their minds are too restless for the meditative aspects of internal training. They often shift to internal styles when the rapid gains they made in their early years of training begin to diminish and they find themselves working harder for ever-smaller improvement. Eventually, no matter how hard they work, their physical abilities decline.
Hard-style martial artists can continue to improve and avoid self-inflicted injuries as they age only by altering how they train. Some modify their practice within their style. Others change to an internal style to focus on mind and energy, where gains are less limited by age. Even in their advanced years, masters of internal martial arts can often dominate younger and physically stronger opponents.
Many external martial arts in China trace their roots to the 1,600-year-old Buddhist Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, while internal martial arts trace theirs to the ancient Daoist monasteries of Hubei Province’s Wudang Mountain. The term kung fu, which is a Cantonese pronunciation of Mandarin’s gongfu, is sometimes used to refer specifically to Shaolin styles but often refers to all Chinese martial arts. Beyond martial arts, gongfu can describe any high-level skill achieved through sustained effort. A carpenter or a pianist might be said to have gongfu.
Wong played a key role in introducing kung fu to the United States. Few Americans were familiar with those arts before they were popularized by the 1970s television show Kung Fu, and the martial arts in that show flowed through Wong. David Carradine, who starred as a wandering Shaolin monk, was taught Northern Shaolin by Master Kam Yuen, who served as stunt coordinator for the show. Yuen, in turn, had learned Northern Shaolin from Wong.
By the time Wong suggested I try Taiji, I’d begun to bump up against my physical limits in Northern Shaolin. I’d just turned 30 and was in peak condition from years of training. But Northern Shaolin demands an extreme flexibility that may be impossible to achieve as an adult. Wong, like every accomplished Shaolin martial artist I’ve met, began training very young and retained the flexibility of youth. Efforts to regain that flexibility as an adult result not only in disappointment but also a high risk of joint and tissue damage. Already my knees were swollen from practicing sweeps, in which I’d drop low onto one foot while swinging the other leg backward in an arc parallel to the ground to trip an opponent. Transitioning to Taiji and Xingyi felt like a tonic.
Taijiquan is a fighting system, or quan, based on the ancient Chinese concept taiji. Taiji translates as the “great polarity” formed by yin and yang, the primal forces representing the fundamental duality of the natural world. Where there’s up, there’s down. Where there’s long, there’s short. Where there’s fast, there’s slow.
In traditional taiji symbols, yin is black and represents the negative, the dark, the wet, the soft and the cold, while yang is white and represents the positive, the light, the dry, the hard and the hot. The two forces are opposites but complimentary. They permeate all things and together form a constantly changing and balanced whole.
While taiji theory dates back more than two-thousand years to China’s oldest classical text, the I Ching or Book of Changes, the origin of Taijiquan is sharply disputed. One popular account says it was created by a 13th-century Daoist monk named Zhang Sanfeng after he watched a fight between a snake and a crane. Other accounts push the date back even earlier, though with little supporting evidence. The verifiable historical record of Taijiquan begins in the mid-1600s in the early Qing Dynasty with Chen Wangting.
Chen was a military officer in the former Ming Dynasty who achieved fame defeating bandit gangs. After retiring to his ancestral village near the Yellow River in Henan Province, he set about creating a new kind of martial art. He borrowed techniques for punching, kicking, blocking, throwing and locking joints from pre-existing martial arts systems. But he based his training methods on yin-yang theory, the jingluo energy channels of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the ancient self-healing techniques of daoyin and tu-na. These involve moving the body’s energy with the mind and synchronizing physical movement with breath to gather and release energy.
Taiji’s training methods were kept secret within the Chen clan for about 200 years. Over much of that time, only males were taught. Stories are told of famous female fighters but teaching women was uncommon for fear they would share the secrets when they married men outside the clan. Secrecy mattered. An enemy could more easily neutralize techniques if he was familiar with a fighting system. Men in the Chen clan relied on their fighting skills for both their livelihoods and their lives because many of them worked as caravan guards.
The first outsider known to learn the Chen fighting system was Yang Luchan. Born in Hebei Province, Yang was a gifted martial artist who spent several years in the mid 1800s living in the Chen clan’s village. He trained with patriarch Chen Changxing, who was so impressed with Yang’s skill and character that he taught him the entire system. Yang later travelled widely throughout China, defeating all challengers. He eventually ended up in Beijing, where he taught in the Imperial Court and was known as “Yang the Invincible.”
Yang and his sons and grandsons modified Chen Style Taiji to create what became known as Yang Style Taiji. That was the style I learned from Wong.
I found Yang Style’s slow, circular movements comfortable but challenging. Early on, the mind must monitor a thousand niggling details to correct postures and link various parts of the body. As movements become more familiar, the mind must relax, shifting from thought to awareness. Eventually, when one part of the body moves, every other part should move as well, though in a different sequence for each posture.
Sloppy movement can’t be disguised by speed or flashy technique. Progress, like the movements themselves, is slow. Wong sometimes described it as building a platform by adding one sheet of paper each day.
I practiced several hours per day and in about a month experienced a surprise side effect. My lower back had hurt since I wrenched it a decade earlier lugging furniture for Mayflower. I’d grown accustomed to waking in the middle of the night with muscle spasms so strong I had to sit up to breathe. Now it began to relax and I slept soundly. What three orthopedic physicians, one chiropractor and countless hours of weight training and stretching had failed to fix, Taiji effortlessly accomplished in a few weeks.
After teaching me the long single-person form, which can take a half-hour to perform, Wong taught me a two-person form that reveals applications of the fighting techniques embedded in the single-person form. I also began practicing “push hands,” a two-person Taiji training that enhances martial skill.
Push hands includes a variety of methods and levels, from fixed patterns to free-form movement. It can be practiced cooperatively, with partners helping each other refine attacking and defending techniques, or competitively, when they try to disrupt each other’s balance. Unlike sparring, push hands requires opponents to remain in physical contact, mostly with their arms but sometimes with their legs or torsos.
I learned the physical movements of push hands with ease but struggled to stay relaxed, a prerequisite for acquiring and expressing internal power. Taiji theory advises “investing in loss” by letting yourself get pushed over and over again until you can relax and yield to the incoming force as a first step toward neutralizing it and counterattacking. That seemed to contradict something at the core of my personality. I began training in martial arts because I didn’t want to be bullied. If push came to shove, I wanted to win.
Even after my intellect accepted the idea of yielding, my body resisted. The conditioning was deep. Consequently, my push hands practice often degenerated into crude wrestling as I and fellow students relied on what Taiji theory describes as “brute force.” I’d try to relax, determined to not meet force with force. But when someone pushed me, I’d reflexively tighten and push back, triggering a shoving match because my opponents also relied on brute force.
I didn’t know it then but if you practice brute force, you get better at brute force while moving farther from mastering Taiji. Wong must have known that but didn’t make it clear to his students. He left them to figure it out for themselves.
No Fight No Blame: A Journalist’s Life in Martial Arts is available at Amazon.com
Episode 67, Internal Fighting Arts podcast, Ken Gullette talks with Michael Dorgan