By Charles Russo
(Originally published on VICE’s Fightland Blog – March 2016)
Gerda Geddes first encountered tai chi at dawn.
Walking the misty morning streets of Shanghai in 1949, she observed an old Chinese man performing slow, meditative movements in an open field. As a formally trained modern dancer from Norway, Geddes quickly fell spellbound to the spectacle: “As I watched I had a sensation of hot and cold streaming up and down my spine…and I remember thinking, ‘This is what I have been looking for all my life.’”
Oddly enough, Geddes wasn’t alone in her interest. Sophia Delza—an American with her own established career in dance and choreography—was also compelled to learn the Chinese martial art of tai chi while in Shanghai during that very same year. Like most westerners at the time, neither women had any exposure to tai chi, but both quickly found value in what they were witnessing. In a pair of trailblazing scenarios that defied the era’s well-established boundaries of race and gender, Geddes and Delza trained separately under renowned tai chi masters before then bringing the Chinese martial art back to their home countries. In a curious mirror image of one another, the two women played pioneering though widely forgotten roles within the early martial arts culture of the West, spreading tai chi far beyond China, and launching it towards its current incarnation of a thriving global culture.
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Tai chi is easily one of the most popular martial arts in the world today, with daily practitioners around the globe numbering in the millions. Yet, if the centuries-old Chinese art is widely embraced across cultures and age groups, it has been more for health and recreation than for its martial applications. In this regard, it can be easily forgotten that tai chi originated as a fighting art, and that it falls under the wide umbrella of Chinese kung fu.
Although it’s origins are often shrouded in folklore, tai chi chuan—which translates as “supreme ultimate fist”—most likely emerged several centuries ago from Taoist monks in China, at a time when martial systems had great relevance amid the violent social realities of the era. Over time tai chi would evolve to be increasingly characterized as a “soft” fighting style, which seeks to redirect an opponent’s energy and motion to work against them.
The art’s emphasis on slow movement, breathing and other notions of Qigong (or, energy cultivation) have made it increasingly appealing over time as a healthy exercise apart from any martial context. While numerous systems of kung fu fighting styles have battled for relevance in recent years, tai chi’s popularity is surging in the 21st century, especially as contemporary research increasingly qualifies the health benefits that have long been touted by its practitioners.
As martial arts historian Ben Judkins writes, “…the medical benefits of practices like Taijiquan have been discussed from time to time in the West for more than a century. Yet only recently have medical professionals dedicated the attention and resources necessary to systematically test and describe the benefits of Taiji for a wide number of (most chronic) conditions.”
“It boils down to relevance,” explains Jess O’Brien, author of the book Nei Ji Quan: Internal Martial Arts, “Northern Praying Mantis [fighting style] is not for everyone, but tai chi is well-suited to the public need. For most people, the appeal is in its mind/body training.”
This modern appeal is especially fascinating to consider in the historical context of Delza and Geddes, who both envisioned tai chi's relevance and potential health benefits more than a half century ago, but were eventually forgotten amid more masculine martial art storylines.
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By the time they traveled to China in the late 1940s, Delza and Geddes had already lived colorful lives.
Delza had been born to a bohemian family in Brooklyn, surrounded by art and liberal politics. She trained in modern dance, studying in Paris for a time, before returning to New York for a career that spanned stage and film. In 1928 she danced opposite James Cagney in the Grand Street Follies on Broadway, and later performed solo recitals at notable theaters around the city. In following her husband to Shanghai in 1948, Delza quickly broke ground as the first American dancer to perform and lecture in Chinese theaters and dance schools.
“These Chinese men had very great trouble with me because women didn’t do tai chi in those days,” Geddes would later explain. “Most women still had bound feet.”
Even as they were confronted by a Chinese martial arts code excluding foreigners and women, a sizable language barrier, and the tumultuous circumstances in China after the Communists came to power, both Geddes and Delza still managed to study with established Chinese masters. Delza studied Wu style tai chi under celebrated practitioner Mah Yueh-ling in Shanghai, and then returned to promote the arts in New York City. Conversely, Geddes learned Yang style tai chi under Choy Hak Peng in Hong Kong before returning to teach in England. In the same time and environment that a teenage Bruce Lee was banned from Ip Man’s Wing Chun school on account of his quarter European ancestry, these were revolutionary relationships that defied the social boundaries of their era.
Sophia Delza in Popular Mechanics, October 1960.
In 1961, Delza also authored what is possibly the first English language book ever written on the Chinese martial arts: T’ai-Chi Ch’uan: Body and Mind in Harmony. As she explained in the opening chapter, her intentions were “to bring to the attention of Western people this ancient masterpiece of health exercise…which…is supremely suitable in these modern times.” But if Delza and Geddes had a health and even spiritually-oriented vision for an “ancient” art in the modern world, it was an entirely different martial arts future that soon commanded the spotlight.
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By the early 1960s, martial arts culture in the west was still in its infancy, though poised to take off towards a substantial popularity. Since the early part of the century, the Japanese art of judo had been crossing borders, and was the first Asian martial art to noticeably take root in the Western world (in fact, President Theodore Roosevelt had trained with a Japanese judo master for a time at the White House. In his more overzealous moments, Roosevelt was known to exhibit judo techniques on young men visiting the Oval Office). During World War II, many servicemen were exposed to the Okinawan striking art of karate, and returned home resolved to continue practicing it and promoting its culture. Ed Parker held his first Long Beach International Karate Tournament in 1964, the same summer that judo was first introduced into competition at the Olympic Games. In 1965, Los Angeles-based kung fu master Ark Wong asserted in print that he would no longer restrict teaching only Chinese students and that enrollment was now wide open to anyone with dedicated interest.
In 1966, Bruce Lee’s role as Kato on the Green Hornet was the spark that finally lit the fuse. Lee’s performances were a game-changing spectacle that captured the public’s imagination and quickly pushed martial arts culture to a booming modern popularity. By the early 70s, the “kung fu craze” was in full swing, and the mind and body health culture envisioned by Geddes and Delza took a quiet back seat to a new male-dominated martial arts culture. Hyperbolic action movies and promises of esoteric fighting techniques emphasized the fighting component of the equation, and sold the Asian martial arts to the west in a big way.
Gerda Geddes leading a class later in her career. Photo courtesy of her daughter, Harriet Devlin.
“Popular culture is made up as much by forgetting things as discovering them,” explains Judkins. “Delza was essentially erased from the popular memory. We could only have Bruce Lee and the ‘kung fu craze’ as a new and exciting phenomenon if we all kind of pretended that Delza hadn’t already shown us many of these things 15 years earlier.”
In fact, when Delza’s name was mentioned within the martial arts community as an early proponent of tai chi, it often surfaced in the form of criticism, contending that her lack of martial emphasis constituted an “incomplete” system.
Jess O’Brien, whose book Nei Jia Quan profiles a diverse group of tai chi masters, defends the legacies of Delza and Geddes by asserting that the definition of the Chinese martial arts isn’t one-dimensional. “People want the Chinese martial arts to have a definition, but there is no one singular goal,” explains O’Brien, “tai chi is multi-faceted and can take you down multiple pathways. And there are people who say that it needs to be about fighting, but if it’s embraced as a meditative or healing art there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
In the long run, despite criticism and obscurity, Delza and Geddes appear to have prevailed in their vision. In the course of sowing the seeds for tai chi in the West, their students (and their student’s students) now teach in countries around the world. Since their passing—Delza in 1996 and Geddes in 2006—tai chi’s popularity has only skyrocketed around the world, while its health benefits are increasingly backed by clinical studies. Conversely, so many of the kung fu fighting styles that once commanded the spotlight have since struggled to attract followers in the 21st century.
There’s a very fitting, “soft-style” logic to this: Delza and Geddes were quietly successful in their vision, even as their louder martial counterparts have fallen on hard times.