Cheng Man Ch'ing was renowned in his own country as a Master of the "Five Excellencies": painting, poetry, calligraphy, medicine and the martial arts. One story tells of his uncanny skill as a physician, where he was asked by Yang Cheng Fu to see his wife who was extremely ill. Cheng restored Madame Yang to health and in gratitude she persuaded her husband to accept him as a Tai Chi student.
In "Cheng Tzu's Thirteen Treatises on Tai Chi Ch'uan" Madam Cheng recounts that as a young man, Man Ch'ing was extremely weak. He studied hard and at the early age of 20 he accepted the position of professor of literature at the University in Peiping and Shanghai, and he was also head of the Fine Arts Academy in Shanghai. During these years, because of the stresses of teaching responsibilities and many other social commitments he contracted a lung disease. His condition steadily worsened and the medical doctors were unable to help him. Man Ch'ing's friends introduced him to the great Tai Chi Ch'uan master Yang Cheng-fu and he became the last disciple of Master Yang. For six years he studied with Master Yang every day and his body became healthy and strong. He felt that Tai Chi could benefit everyone and he was anxious to spread the art to all. He followed the provert, "The good doctor cures people before they become ill".
As a young man, learning Tai Chi it is told that Man Ch'ing was constantly challenging and constantly being beaten by boxers of renown. No matter how badly beaten, he always went back for more after carefully analyzing what had caused his loss. One story relates that Cheng only pushed hands with Yang Cheng Fu a few times. One time as soon as their arms touched, eyewitnesses recount that, Cheng flew out of the room and into the street where he landed unconscious. As Cheng studied and trained on the Internal aspects, he developed into a fine fighter and later many great boxers went to train with him in his later years in Taiwan.
The most obvious difference in Cheng's style is his shortened form consisting of only 37 postures. He originally learned the 108-posture form from Yang Cheng Fu. One of the reasons Cheng had for shortening the form was that he wanted to strengthen the Chinese people, so they might be able to rise up and resist foreign aggression. The 108-posture form took far too long to learn and practice was therefore inaccessible to all but the most dedicated students. Also, for his own daily practice, he wanted to be able to practice quickly without reducing the efficiency of the exercise, so he eliminated many of the repetitions without losing the most basic and important postures. Cheng did not regard his form, although shortened, as being any simpler than the long form; indeed, he made many changes of such a nature that they ensure the form should be regarded as a separate style from that of the Yang family. The major change made by Master Cheng consisted on his emphasis of the concept of "song" (relaxation). A practitioner of Chengs form is required to relax as completely as possible, sinking all the weight into the legs, to the feet and into the ground. The upper body should feel empty and relaxed although the legs might feel some discomfort from intense practice. This helps the practitioner to relax and gain health benefits.
Although Cheng became a great Tai Chi fighter, in keeping with his background as a doctor, he also wished to emphasize the positive aspects of the art which could be enjoyed by all, as not everyone has the inclination or temperament to be a fighter. It seems that the emphasis in Cheng's training system was to simplify and cut down the art to its bare essentials. Many martial artists who have learned a vast repertoire of skills have been content to leave them all behind solely to practice the 37-posture form of "Cheng Style Tai Chi Ch'uan".
Cheng Man Ch'ing eventually immigrated to the United States to spread Tai Chi to the western world. He ran a large Tai Chi school in New York's Chinatown section. Grand Master Cheng departed this life on March 26, 1975, but his legacy lives on through his poetry, his painting, those he healed and those he taught.