An accident smashed Rose Oliver's dreams of becoming a ballerina. Moving to China and teaching tai chi brought peace of mind
A back injury led Briton Rose Oliver to tai chi, which led her to her husband and then took both of them to China. But three years after moving to Shanghai to pursue their dream, Oliver’s husband died, leaving her alone to follow their shared passion for tai chi.
Twenty years ago, Oliver’s back injury crushed her childhood dream of becoming a ballerina.
But the injury did lead her to tai chi, a martial art typically practiced in slow motion. Her initial hope was to improve her health.
She later married her instructor, Rey Nelson, and founded a school with him, teaching the martial art to more than 10,000 students over eight years.
The 49-year-old recalls the injury that left her bedridden for six months when she was 21 years old and with constant pain for decades.
“I’d always been active and couldn’t stand resting in bed,” she recalls.
“But the soft tissue injuries were hard to heal. I thought I had to find some way to recover my health.”
Oliver saw a poster for a tai chi class and decided to try the “mysterious exotic sport”. She was struck by the beautiful movements and the “nice, patient instructor” – Nelson.
The couple later opened a tai chi school in the United Kingdom that attracted thousands. But they found themselves in a bottleneck.
“It was not enough for us to improve ourselves when we just learned from tai chi masters for two or four weeks a year,” she says.
So the couple moved to Shanghai in 2000. They taught English in universities and happily learned tai chi under various gurus. After years of practice, Oliver found her occasional backaches had disappeared.
But her greatest pain came when her husband died in 2003.
She thought of giving up but instead decided to carry on as a way of honouring her husband.
“It was his dream to come to learn in China,” she says.
“He motivated me to come. Give it up and return and not pursue what we came here for? That sounded easy. But it wasn’t easy at all.”
She says her tai chi “family” – the masters and students – also provided a great support network.
Oliver’s spiritual mentor then was master Dong Bin, who died in 2009 at age 88.
She says of their first meeting: “I had been told that his skill was of a very high level and for some reason I had a mental image of a powerful, big man. But my shixiong (fellow male student) pointed to a small, wizened old gentleman, sitting on the ground.
“I felt amazed as I realised that this was the master himself, and then a sudden feeling of pleasure hit me. Of course this was exactly the kind of person who would be a tai chi master – the last person you could imagine.
“I learned tremendously from him. He did not only teach me physically the tai chi but also the philosophy of how to be a better person, how to keep going when you felt you were tired.”
The master was sent to a labour camp during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) because he wanted to quit his job to practice tai chi full time. He was not allowed to practise in the camp. So, he secretly did the movements under the blanket when lying in bed.
“He was treated unfairly. But he was not angry or bitter or hateful but just became sweeter, nicer and kinder,” Oliver explains.
“His ethos is that one should not pursue riches and fame but endeavour to be happy and share one’s knowledge and wisdom with others.”
Following the master, Oliver has learned to live a simple life - one perhaps more traditional than many Chinese. She does tai chi in the morning and brews kung fu tea for guests. Ink-wash bamboo paintings hang on her apartment walls.
Oliver spends her time outside tai chi teaching English and attending cultural-exchange events.
She founded the Double Dragon Alliance in 2005. The organisation enables Chinese kung fu masters to teach martial arts to Westerners and organises seminars and events for them to experience Chinese massage, acupuncture, traditional medicine, calligraphy and tea ceremonies.
She also teaches tai chi to domestic and foreign disciples.
Rose inspired 55-year-old Briton Virginia Withers to take up the martial art. That led to an eight-year friendship.
“Rose is a lovely person,” Withers says.
“She is kind and supportive - always enthusiastic and generous with her time.”
Shanghai Jiao Tong University associate professor Luo Jifeng has learned tai chi with Oliver since 2009 and often joins her organisation’s events. His home is now a site for foreign visitors Oliver invites to experience ordinary Chinese life.
“I admire her most for her selflessness to share what she knows,” Luo says.
“She’s happier to see our success and achievement than her own.”
Because of her contribution to cultural exchange, last September Oliver was given the Shanghai Magnolia Award. The award, named after Shanghai’s city flower, is given to foreigners who have made significant contributions to the city.
And she was inducted as a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2011 by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II - one of the highest tributes to a citizen.
“She (the Queen) asked me some questions about China (at the ceremony),” she recalls.
“We talked about the cultural exchange in building friendship. And she said: ‘This is very important work. You must keep it up’.”
“I promised I would. So you see,” she laughs, “now I have no other choice.”