Interview with Master Gao, Jiamin

An interview with Gao Jiamin as published in Kungfu Magazine, July 2000

She’s young; she’s attractive; and she’s got all of the right moves — 24 of them, or 42, depending on the style of Taijiquan that she is performing. It is her form posters that dot countless martial arts school walls both in Asia and America. Gao Jiamin has competed and won a total of 32 gold medals, a record that has never been achieved by any other competitor. Her gold medals include gold medals at the Asian Games, Eastern Asia Games, the International Wushu Championship plus many national and international meets. But don’t let the ready smile and the quiet joke fool you, she is a determined competitor who has won more medals and an international following because of her ability to focus once she steps into competition. It is Gao’s calm but flawless fluidity of style and perfection of taijiquan forms that won her the 1998 ASEAN Games Gold Medal in Taijiquan and a near cult status in Asia. She can’t walk through an airport in Tokyo, Hong Kong or any city in China without droves of fans asking her for autographs and dropping by to pay their respects.

Gao Jiamin, who now is studying English in the U.S. and helping teach at the U.S. Wushu Center in Portland, Oregon, was born in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, China, in the Year of the Horse, June 26, 1966. She is the daughter of a Chinese Naval Officer and her mother still works for the local government. Jiamin’s father was very loving but also because of his military training was quite strict with her in her early years. She reluctantly began her studies of the martial arts at age eight. During this period, she was expected to practice Wushu at least three hours a day at home before going to school and in addition to her work with an instructor. “I was not a great student nor did I enjoy school as a child. I suffered from an extreme case of hyperactivity, and found it hard to sit in school and focus on my studies,” she explains. “What I was good at was imitating people, and people would laugh at me when I would imitate certain types of people. However, when I imitated people doing wushu, people were amazed at my ability to do so with such perfection.”

“My first teacher, Sun Chong Xiong, came to my grade school to teach wushu. With Sun I studied Shaolin long fist. This was my first taste of wushu, and it was the demand for perfection physically and the demand for serious concentration that spurred me on in the study of wushu. Otherwise, I may have lost interest in whatever it was because of my hyper condition”, says Gao.

SERIOUS TRAINING BEGINS

Gao Jiamin insists she never thought of being a champion at the time. But as she found that the training gave her some physical relief to her hyperactivity and a measure of calm that greatly improved her general health and poise, she began to appreciate the benefits that the training regimen had worked. At age 14, Gao began serious training with a team with her second and most current teacher, Zeng Nai Liang. According to Gao, Zeng was a post-graduate research assistant with the Beijing Institute of Physical Education. Zeng’s goal was to return to Fuzhou City and coach a local team to national prominence. He saw in Gao Jiamin a perfect instrument to achieve his goals, and Jiamin learned much from her dedicated teacher.

Under the guidance of her determined mentor, Gao began rigorous training. However, the team’s space was small at the time and there was no carpet. In fact, conditions were very Spartan and a long way from the space and amenities that she finds today in her present training space at the Portland U.S. Wushu Center. Gao jokes today about the conditions she experienced but according to Gao, “Some injuries did occur but we were all determined to succeed. Once the coach wanted me to focus on traditional southern style more, but I followed the advice of Zeng.” “He thought taichi would be the best for me,” she adds. “It was funny, because all those who knew me knew of my problems of hyperactivity. Still, I knew that teacher Zeng knew what he was talking about. I also thought that Taichi was suitable for all spaces and I thought as a woman it was something that I could excel in my whole life.”

“However, it was hard for me in the beginning, because I was still very hyperactive. People would look at me funny, and say, “You can’t practice very good. You won’t improve either, because you cannot relax.” Yet I was determined to succeed. First, I refused to believe all the people that said I couldn’t. To begin believing that you can’t do anything, is to accept failure. You must visualize yourself succeeding and then success will inevitably follow if you have talent and determination.”

To try to help her relax and gain more patience, she studied Chinese calligraphy, thinking it would help her relax. “It did calm me, but it was quite a challenge for me to do calligraphy over a long period of time,” she insists. “Personally, I have since discovered that the principles behind good calligraphy and good taijiquan are very similar. One in the same.”

For beginners, Gao believes that besides relaxation the most important aspect is the student’s basic stances and physical structure. You just don’t start doing Taichi, according to Gao. Proper coaching and monitored training is extremely important. “Proper conditioning is essential to beginners, no matter what their aspirations,” she maintains. “I stood in the ma bu (horse stance) for many hours in the beginning, and still do to this day. Leg strength is crucial in building a strong foundation and protecting yourself against injuries.”

The next primary step for the beginner is to practice zhangzhuan (standing meditation),” she notes. “It is important for the beginner to sense their qi. In zhangzhuan, I’ve always felt and sensed qi, and because I practice standing it has sped up my ability to sense and utilize my qi in taichi practice.

FORMS – EXPECTATIONS AND DEDICATION

Gao’s main practice is taijiquan and taichi sword. However, to win the grand championship in a national tournament, competitors must compete in six events. This includes competition in external as well as internal forms. The competitor who scores the highest combined score in six events is recognized as the grand champion.

China has developed specific routines for competition. In taichi, there is the taichi 42 hand form, and the traditional routines including: Chen 56, Yang 40, Wu (Jianquan) 45, and Sun 73. Currently, the taichi 42 sword form is the only one that can be performed in competition. However, at most tournaments in China, there are exhibition events (often medals are awarded) where traditional forms and weapons are performed. According to Gao, “I began my studies in Yang style taichi, and then since 1989 I have focused largely on the taichi 42 combined forms for competition.” When asked if the standardization of forms becomes boring or predictable, Gao replies, “Taijiquan study is deep knowledge. It is not easy to grasp.”

“From the first step that you take,” she adds, “there is a lot to learn. For me I have a great respect for taijiquan, because is takes so much time to learn the smallest of details. Therefore, I never become bored. If taichi practice becomes predictable for the student, then that student has lost sight or never understood to begin with the principles of taijiquan.”

“For me, the 42 form drill is filled with many details,” she suggests, “The fact that it is based on four major styles of taichi (Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun) presents a great challenge to the student. Some study of these four traditional styles will give the student deeper knowledge about taichi and about the 42 forms. Because it is performed in five-to-six minutes the time that may normally be taken up in a longer set and because there are set routines, this makes judging more fair. This requires competitors to be judged on predetermined standards.”

Gao graduated from the Shanghai Sports College in Physical Education. She has trained and practiced for 26 years under many well-known masters. She is currently Vice Chairman of the Fujian Wushu Association and an Advisor to the Macau Wushu Association. Gao Jiamin has done a lot of research on the subject of traditional taichi and its origins and development. She believes it is in the best interest of all that taichi research and development continue. According to Gao, “The creators and grand masters of the traditional systems were gifted, and suffered many personal hardships to create, develop, or maintain tradition.” “Traditions and development must both be encouraged to continue,” Gao adds. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it weren’t for all those who went before me in the history of taichi.”

THE FUTURE

Gao Jiamin says that although she has been ranked since 1995 as one of the “top ten Wushu athletic superstars” in China, her primary interest now is in teaching more than competing. “It is time for me to help others in the same way that my coaches and countless other more senior Taichi competitors helped me to develop my own style”, says Gao. She already has considerable experience as a teacher having taught and coached for the Fujian Wushu team for 10 years. Additionally she has taught overseas 20 times in Japan and Southeast Asia, plus helped improve technique and understanding for numerous European, American and other students who traveled to China to improve their taichi and wushu skills.

Taijiquan, according to Gao Jiamin, offers unmatched benefits as a means of exercise, general health improvement, confidence and poise building and as a means of establishing a balance between body and mind. It is more than a means of exercise, but also includes a philosophy for life that includes heavy influence from taoism. It is this philosophical influence that provides much of the benefits according to Gao. It is this side of Taichi that she hopes to help Americans understand. “Right now I have three immediate goals”, according to Gao, “first I want to learn English as a means of reaching out to more students who are interested in learning Taichi. Second, I want to, during my time here in the United States, further refine my techniques for helping foreigners to better understand the cultural aspects of Chinese Martial Arts. Third, I want to train the next generation of Taichi and Wushu superstars.”

Gao Jiamin already successfully trained the most recent national gold medal recipient for China in the National Taichi Sword Competition. After meeting this active and bright “Taichi Queen”, as she was called by the Singapore Straits Times, and newspapers in Japan, it is a certainty that she will be training the future Champions for the 2008 Olympics. This will be the first Olympics to include Wushu and Taichi as a gold medal event. Although the study of martial arts in America still needs much development, Gao Jiamin says that it is quite possible that America soon may have top flight international competitors, perhaps even possibly some of the students that she is working with now. Women’s power in Taichi is rising and Gao Jiamin is leading the way.

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