The master-disciple relationship is a key part of traditional Chinese and Tai Ji Men culture. It was distorted and misunderstood in the tax case.

by Charlotte Lee*

*A paper presented at the European Academy of Religion 2024 conference, Palermo, Italy, May 20, 2024.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on May 30th, 2024.

Charlotte Lee presenting her paper in Palermo.
Charlotte Lee presenting her paper in Palermo.

I am a Taiwanese lawyer and a Tai Ji Men dizi. Today I would like to discuss the practice of master-disciple relationship in connection with cultural heritage, freedom of religion or belief, and the governmental persecution that master and disciples have suffered due to Tai Ji Men case. I will also show how the master and disciples of Tai Ji Men have transformed the persecution they have suffered into positive actions for the world.

The Master-Disciple Relationship in Chinese Culture

The master-disciple relationship is extremely important in Tai Ji Men. First of all, I would like to explain the nature of the master-disciple relationship in Chinese culture. In Confucian culture, the so-called “five ethics” are “Heaven, Earth, Emperor, Parent, and Teacher.” These are the most important things to be respected in life as listed by Confucianism. “Teacher” is listed alongside “Heaven, Earth, Emperor, and Parent,” which demonstrates the level of its importance.

Shifu, translated as “Grand Master,” is the Chinese word for “teacher and father.” 師is a teacher, a guide, and 父is a father, so it can be seen that in Chinese culture, once a master-disciple relationship is established, it is a long-term and lifelong one, just like the relationship between parents and children. The ancient book “Taizong’s Family Training” states that “once a teacher, always a father.” Han Yu, a Confucian scholar in the Tang Dynasty more than 1,200 years ago, also clearly defined the term “teacher,” indicating that teachers are those who assume the responsibility of “preaching, teaching, and solving doubts.” In addition to the teaching of knowledge, they also teach their disciples morality and ethics.

Respecting the teacher and revere the teachings are at the heart of the rituals that a disciple should observe. They are also the first and foremost martial arts virtues in a qigong and martial arts menpai. The same goes for Tai Ji Men. The cultural heritage of Tai Ji Men has been passed down for thousands of years through the lineage of master and disciples, from generation to generation. Based on the master-disciple relationship, which is as close as blood, the qigong, martial arts, spiritual beliefs, and wisdom practices have been preserved and transmitted.

Shifu and dizi: Dr. Hong and some disciples during their recent trip to Italy.
Shifu and dizi: Dr. Hong and some disciples during their recent trip to Italy.

In the form of master-disciple succession, the ritual to honor the master is a manifestation of respect for the Shifu and a commitment to the succession. For thousands of years, people who practice martial arts have gone through the traditional rituals of various menpai. Out of respect for their master and gratitude, they prepare a gift to honor their master, which has been a cultural custom from ancient times to the present day and is also a part of the traditional rituals. The establishment of the master-disciple relationship of Tai Ji Men follows the same rigorous spiritual martial arts tradition. Tai Ji Men disciples apply for being dizi with sincerity, follow the ancient rituals, and after acceptance by the master, the master-disciple relationship is established as if it were a father-son relationship.

Freedom of Culture and Freedom of Thought, Belief, and Religion

The ceremony of honoring the master is a traditional rite and custom. It allows to inherit and carry forward the Chinese culture of respecting the master. It is also a way for the dizi of Tai Ji Men to express recognition of the philosophy of the master, and to inherit and carry forward the culture of the national heritages. It is a right for individuals to choose this cultural engagement, and it is also a cultural practice unique to master and disciples in what are also cultural groups. The right to cultural engagement as protected by the United Nations ICESCR (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). Taiwan is not a member state of the United Nations but in 2009 incorporated the two main United Nations human rights covenants, the ICESCR and the ICCPR (International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights), into its domestic legislation.

Tai Ji Men disciples aspire to practice qigong and cultivate their hearts. After the establishment of a master-disciple relationship, the disciples follow the master and dedicate their efforts to promoting the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of the individual, the community, and the world. For Tai Ji Men dizi these are shared beliefs. They are protected by the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion mentioned in the ICCPR. Conscience is an absolute inviolable domain, on which the state may not impose any restriction.

The Tai Ji Men Case

Papers in this session have already discussed the Tai Ji Men case. I would like to mention here that it was based on a distortion and misrepresentation of the master-disciple relationship. The relationship between master and disciple is different from the one between teacher and student in a private school. The prosecutor who started the case, Hou Kuan-Jen, and the National Taxation Bureau claimed that Tai Ji Men was a cram school, i.e., a school where various matters are taught generally in preparation for exams. Gifts from dizi to Shifu in a traditional Qigong and martial arts menpai are not taxable. Tuition fees in a cram school are taxable.

From the very beginning of the Tai Ji Men case, Taiwanese authorities clarified repeatedly that Tai Ji Men is not a cram school. Yet, Prosecutor Hou and the National Taxation Authority continued to insist that Tai Ji Men was a cram school and that the gifts dizi gave to their Shifu in the traditional “red envelopes” were taxable tuition fees.

Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen. From Weibo.
Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen. From Weibo.

Finally, after years of protracted litigation, even the National Taxation Bureau had to acknowledge that the gifts were given within the framework of a traditional master-disciple relationship and were as such not taxable. There had never been and there was no cram school and no tuition fees.

Gifts within Tai Ji Men were given and received in the same way in all fiscal years. However, tax bills for the different years were litigated separately, which explains why the National Taxation Bureau in the end corrected to zero the bills for the years other than 1992 and maintained the one for 1992, claiming that for the latter a decision had become final and was no longer appealable.

Obviously, however, the master-disciple relationship never changed. It was the same before 1992, in 1992, and in the subsequent years. How gifts were given was also the same for all years and to affirm substantial justice should be treated in the same way.

Using a technicality to maintain the tax bill for 1992 and using the tax bill for 1992 to confiscate the sacred land of Tai Ji Men, violates not only taxpayers’ rights but freedom of religion or belief and the right to cultural practice protected by the United Nations Two Covenants and by the Constitution of Taiwan.

Dr. Hong and the other defendants in the original criminal case received national compensation for the unjust detention they suffered. We believe Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men are entitled to the same compensation for the illegal enforcement of the tax bill for 1992.

The Spirit of the Dragon

Tai Ji Men is a qigong, martial arts, and self-cultivation menpai, which has never changed its nature. Over the past few decades, Tai Ji Men has been forced to spend countless energy, financial and material resources to fight with the state authorities and to defend itself in courts of law. However, Tai Ji Men is not trapped in grief and anger. Tai Ji Men has never stopped affirming and spreading its values throughout the world.

2024 marks the Year of the Dragon (Green Dragon) in the East. The dragon, in Chinese culture, symbolizes compassion, courage, and true wisdom, which are precisely the virtues Dr. Hong and Tai Ji Men emphasize. Dr. Hong has taken every opportunity to lead dizi to pass on the culture and spirit of the dragon.

First of all, making the dragons used in Tai Ji Men performances is in itself a spiritual experience. The traditional culture of dragon-making has been preserved and developed in Tai Ji Men. Dr. Hong teaches dizis to make dragons by hand, from searching for suitable bamboos in the Tai Ji Men sacred land in the Miaoli mountains, to making the body of the dragon from bamboo frames, sewing the dragon’s robes, decorated with bright scales, and putting them on the body. Tai Ji Men master and dizi instilled the spirit and heart of the dragon into the step-by-step process of making the dragons used in their performances. Part of these is the Dragon Dance, where Dr. Hong’s kung fu teaching is also manifested in every aspect. Everyone in the Dragon Dance must not be calculating, let go of self-centeredness, and be united as one, embracing in their hearts the compassion of the Dragon in blessing the world and protecting the fortune of nation and world, to bring blessings and spread peace and righteousness.

Dr. Hong and the Dragon in Castellina Marittima, Italy, May 8, 2024.
Dr. Hong and the Dragon in Castellina Marittima, Italy, May 8, 2024.

In carrying out the spirit of the Dragon, Dr. Hong teaches dizi to be free from ego, to be compassionate and selfless, to see the suffering of the world from hunger, wars, and epidemics, and to take courageous actions without fear of hardship. At our own expense and efforts, without any external fundraising, we have traveled with Dr. Hong to all parts of the world, by means of more than 3,000 cultural exchanges, and peace summits. We have also promoted declarations aimed at introducing new United Nations days of observance such as the International Day of Conscience, the World Day of the Power of Hope, and the World Day of Prayer.

Dr. Hong has also guided dizi to transform the persecution we have suffered into concrete positive actions for the world. With its own suffering, Tai Ji Men saw with compassion that people were also suffering from the unfair judicial and tax systems, and stood up for the victims, advocating the concept of just law and taxation through street campaigns, protests, and forums promoting the protection of taxpayers’ rights, as well as working with experts and scholars at home and abroad to push for amendments to the law and reform of the system. This is another manifestation of the spirit of the dragon.

The actions of Tai Ji Men are a manifestation of spiritual beliefs and cultural practices, as well as a contribution to society. In today’s chaotic world, Dr. Hong and his dizi are constantly on the move with their message of love and peace. They have just organized the activity of the Fifth International Day of Conscience in New York and California at the beginning of April and have just completed a cultural exchange trip to Italy at the beginning of this month. Dr. Hong teaches that the world is just like a dragon, and that all nations are part of the dragon. Only when we use the key of the Dragon Dance to unite the world through mutual trust and solidarity, and when we all act according to our conscience, we are able to return to a peaceful world free from sadness, fear, and pain.

Today, May 20, is also the day of Taiwan’s presidential inauguration after the 2024 elections. Although Tai Ji Men’s campaigns for love and peace have not been stopped by the persecution and harassment, this case has consumed a lot of effort of the dizi. Media slander has also been an obstacle to our work and a source of endless suffering. On the day of the presidential inauguration, let’s express the hope that the Tai Ji Men case can be rectified, and that Tai Ji Men and the government of Taiwan may work together for a better and more sustainable world.