We’re taking a little detour from our Dharma Bums journey to explore taiji competition – how the ancient Chinese martial arts have been organized as modern sport in the United States. No, this isn’t “push hands,” the play form of taiji fighting we’ve explored on this blog previously. I’m talking about the mastery and presentation of martial arts forms, on stage with other competitors, going for the gold.
Internal martial arts are now mixing it up alongside external forms like karate and Tae Kwon Do, with help from competitors like Dr. Melody Lee and her son Mickey, whom I met at Sifu Adam Mizner’s Heaven Man Earth workshop in July. They have created a unique teaching program, Sun & Moon Taiji One, that reflects their global experiences, including organizing the China Open Internal Martial Arts Championships. They have mastered Chen-style taiji routines that continue to win in competition.
While these competitions may not be everyone’s cup of tea (“I don’t like competitions,” Mizner says bluntly), they do serve to popularize the martial arts, particularly among students looking for alternative sports activity. It was a natural for Mickey but a complete makeover for Melody, who is a physician and research scientist by training. How they got to this stage is a remarkable tale of trial and error, like the scientific method, with ultimate discovery.
A brilliant student in Korea, Melody’s immunology research in the late 1970s led her to laboratory jobs at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the National Institutes of Health in suburban DC, as well as a PhD in molecular biology from Cornell. But while she was working long hours in the lab studying retroviruses in the fight against HIV, “so focused on one little thing at a time,” she was missing the big picture, she said.
“Over the years I came to realize I was going about it all wrong. I was wasting time,” Melody remembers. Her epiphany came on vacation at the beach, when she finally took time to relax. “It was an enlightening moment, when I realized my entire hypothesis was wrong. When I returned to work, I knew I needed to make changes. I was starting over.” Chief among those changes was transforming a bookish, non-athletic academic into a champion martial artist. Melody threw herself into Tae Kwon Do as a way to relieve stress and reconnect with her Korean heritage.
In the meantime, Melody had married and given birth to Mickey, who was uprooted a few times in his early years, moving from Manhattan to Virginia and Maryland. He had turned to martial arts to defend himself against bullying – as an 11-year-old new kid in a Virginia middle school picked on because he was chubby and shy. Over the next few years, working through the rigors of Tae Kwon Do and regular swimming routines, Mickey lost weight and became a skilled martial artist. “It was the perfect sport for me,” he said. “I liked the idea of using my whole body, rather than just hitting something and throwing something.”
As a student at Georgetown University, where he founded the Tae Kwon Do Club, Mickey began studying other martial arts forms, including kungfu (wushu) and Yang-style taijiquan. Eventually, he settled on the style he adapted for winning forms titles in the years ahead – Chen-style taiji. Mickey and Melody both trained with Dr. CP Ong, who accompanied them on a trip to Beijing and Chen Village, considered by many to be the birthplace of taijiquan. They met the elder grandmasters at the village, the “guardians” of the Chen form, and Mickey competed in a regional tournament, winning silver medals in taiji form and straight sword (taijiquan) divisions.
Mickey and Melody both stepped up the competitions and performances as they learned, traveling across the country for tournaments. They performed together with a synchronized taiji program at the U.S. Capitol Classic in 2004, impressing the judges, and each has won national championships in forms competition, with and without weapons, listed here and here. Mickey’s Chen taiji routines have won world titles from the North American Sports Karate Association. In this video, Mickey and Melody perform the Chen form together at an event hosted by Dr. Ong:
For their performances, Mickey and Melody create routines using the basic Chen form, with and without weapons. The scoring is like gymnastics, rating performances based on three components – basic/technical, overall and degree of difficulty, sometimes with room for “charisma.” It’s a highly subjective system that’s open to bias, but Mickey and Melody consistently score high marks for their steady performances, and for their steady hands in organizing events. They decided not to add push-hands competitions in the China Open partially because of the difficulty in scoring, with its different rules and how they’re enforced, Mickey said. Plus, there are headaches with falls and possible injuries. “We’re not so interested in play fighting,” he said.
Besides taiji performance competition, Mickey and Melody are keenly interested in food – nutritious and flavorful eating – so much so that they have adopted “Martial Foodie” as a social media identity, adding healthful eating to their martial arts training program. For Mickey, who not only battled childhood obesity but also a bout of food poisoning and ongoing allergies, balance in eating goes hand in hand with balance in taiji. “I learned to listen to my body,” he said. “Sometimes you get the wrong signals from the brain, feeding impulses instead of a healthy body. If you make the right choices, your body will be happy.”
The Martial Foodie advice boils down to this: Eat lightly, balanced and nutritious. That means fruits and vegetables, plus milk and butter, and natural and clean, organic meat. Eat food that satisfies and don’t count calories. Eat small amounts and enjoy every bite. Easy, right? Melody and Mickey eat one meal in the middle of the day and otherwise may eat fruit or grain snacks, but very little. “You should have discipline and a sense of self-defense with eating,” Mickey said. “Like in meditation, be in the present moment.”
That’s sound advice for any foodie, martial or not.