While I always focused on the long empty-hand forms and the more martial training of the Yang style as I learned it from Allan Weiss and Erle Montaigue, I kept the William C.C. Chen solo forms for my occasional private practise. In more recent times, I applied the body mechanics I had learned from C.C. Chen to the older Cheng sequence that I relearned from videos so that I could practise it as well. I have the suspicion that Cheng might mutter if he saw me doing my versions of his forms "Who taught those to him incorrectly?" but , I don't think he would like much better some of the other variations of his approach currently available.
In fact, there is a tendency, at least on martial/taiji discussion boards, to single out the 2nd and 3rd generation teachers of Cheng Man-Ch'ing style in North America as being examples of a now-redundant Hippy-era taiji that over emphasizes softness. This isn't always fair as instructors like Ben Lo, William C.C. Chen and the late Stan Israel, among others, who studied with Cheng personally have been and continue to be great teachers and martial artists and have each produced competent students who went on to become teachers in their own right.
It is rarely fair to judge a great teacher by even his senior students, much less the rank and file who come down the road. On the other hand, even the best of curriculum may well end up, after a few generations of teachers within that style, producing a fossilized art more suitable to a martial museum; or, successive generations may turn a style that was once good [or relevant to its time and place] into a mash of half-understood theories and tactics. Conversely, an inspired teacher may shake up a system that has gone downhill over time and bring new insights into old ways of doing things. Still, innovation only works if others can replicate the same work and if the material is tested and not found wanting in the bigger world of working with those who do the same thing differently.
It’s very difficult to continue to grow as a practitioner, much less as a teacher, and the “big fish, small pond” syndrome is often to blame as many teachers train and teach in isolation of their colleagues and discourage their students from studying elsewhere. It is easier for frauds to sell their goods to the public but it is also almost as easy for more ethical teachers to get a false sense of security about the value of what they are teaching. Similarly, you may have more skill than your students but much less than anyone with comparable years of practise in another city. It is also true that if you are teaching/training on a recreational level that your physical abilities will be probably be less than those of the few professional taijiquan teachers that you may meet at workshops, etc.
In the end, being different from your teacher has both good and bad implications and, it always seems to get back to judging each prospective teacher on his or her merits while considering what you are looking for from an instructor of taiji. If you want health, find someone who smiles, has a family and a life outside taiji and who isn't broken down, hunched over and who moves well; if you want martial skill find someone who at least occasionally hits or throws you with some skill and conviction and who is willing to have the same done to him or her in class. Knowing what you want and what you are capable of achieving is essential as is understanding that the road is more important than the destination when studying taijiquan with any commitment.
Finally, and getting back to the the two teachers I mentioned at the beginning; it may sound silly to say that one of the reasons that I always found periodic inspiration from Cheng Man-ching -- though I never seen him except in photographs -- as well as from William C.C. Chen was the quality of their smiles. There isn't a sense of guile or arrogance in those faces only a smile that says 'come and play'.
Maybe I'm just getting maudlin in my old age as a martial artist but it seems to me that when I compare their examples as long-term teachers and practitioners with the youtube video I watched recently of two of the big names of American mixed martial arts having a drunken brawl on a street with each other and subsequently lashing out and hitting the two women who try to break it up... I know which approach suits me -- and society -- best.
Copyright Michael A. Babin © 2012