Booklets and Pamphlets
Authors represented in this review:
(In order of appearance)
Her Yue Wong
William C. C. Chen
D. H. Elder
Michael A. DeMarco
Li Li Ta
Reviews by Christopher Dow
In this multi-part review, I’m going to tackle something you don’t see much of these days: booklets and pamphlets. Publications such as these, along with newsletters and some other sorts of printed matter, have largely fallen by the wayside, supplanted by webpages on the Internet, print-on-demand publishing, and digital books. But back in the days before personal computers, people who had something to say that wasn’t long enough for a book or that couldn’t otherwise find a mainstream publication venue would put together a small publication, sometimes with typesetting done on a typewriter, basic graphics, and quick-copy or photocopy reproduction.
Occasionally, these sorts of booklets and pamphlets were produced and distributed by publication companies, and a few of them might even have ended up in bookstores. But just as often, they were amateur to semi-professional products intended for small circulation among members of a group, school, organization, or club. These sorts of publications tend to be of varying quality not only in production values but in the information they contain. Sometimes, they hold something of some degree of complexity or substance, and at others, they’re little more than curiosity pieces.
Most of these booklets were not available to the general public at the time of their publication, and a great many of them probably enjoyed only a limited number of copies. Such publications are part of what used to be known as the small press movement, which died upon the advent of the Internet. Small press publishers were anything from amateur one-timers to long-term hobbyists to serious advocational practitioners, and their publications occupied the void between a writer’s own filing cabinets and regional, professional, and mainstream publications. They were the training ground—and the dumping ground—for a wide variety of efforts, usually centered around specific topics. Popular types were poetry and literary magazines and sci-fi fanzines. You could rightly call the material I’ll look at in this series as martial arts small press, even if some of it brushed the edges of “legitimate” publication.
To be clear, I’m distinguishing booklet- and pamphlet-style publications from periodical-style publications, such as magazines, journals, newsletters, and digests. Booklets and pamphlets are usually one-off efforts, while periodicals are on-going for a shorter or longer span of time in the form of serial issues. Also, I’m not talking about brochures, flyers, and hand-out types of literature, all of which, though one-offs, are of a lesser scope. I hope to cover periodicals in a future series.
Undoubtedly, there are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of these martial arts small press publications floating around out there. I have a few in my collection of martial arts literature, so I’ll go over those first, and I’ll add to the list as I learn about others. Be aware, however, that many of these are no longer available except by accident or good fortune—which, according to the Taoist sage, are the same thing. Hey, maybe there’s a secret yet ultimate Tai Chi manual out there in some salt shop or bookstall, just waiting to be chanced upon!
First, a note on typesetting. These days, anyone can produce professional quality typesetting at home, but in the days before personal computers, professional typesetting had to be done on specialized typesetting equipment, and that cost bucks. Some of the publishers of small press publications opted for that, but others went the home-production route by setting body type on a typewriter and headlines with an obsolete graphics technology called rub-on type. An average typewriter with a cloth ribbon produces inferior-quality type for the purposes of reproduction. The letters will be both blobby and broken. Higher quality typewriters, such as the IBM Selectric, which use carbon ribbons and have interchangeable fonts, produced sharper, higher-quality results, though still not quite those of professional typesetting.
The second note is that I’ll also refer to the different ways that these publications are bound, such as saddle-stitching and perfect binding. For those who need a quick tutorial on binding types, Click Here.
Tai Chi Chuan
by Her Yue Wong
(Her Yue Wong, 1973, 60 pages)
In this first installment, we’ll look at Tai Chi Chuan by Her Yue Wong. Published in 1973 by the author, this booklet is a perfect example of the most basic of these sorts of publications. A note on the back cover indicates that Wong was in Oklahoma City at the time, but as far as I can recollect, he moved to Houston, Texas, and taught Tai Chi there in a park. I met him very briefly at the Southwest United States Kung Fu / Wushu Exposition, held in Houston in 1986. I heard this story about how he started teaching: His first students were his kids, who wanted to learn Tai Chi from him, He said fine, he’d do that as long as they kept up their grades and went to college. They did, and he taught them. I don’t know if the story is apocryphal or not, but it’s a good one.
His publication is a saddle-stitched, 5.5x8.5 booklet with poor-quality type set on a typewriter. Usually, a booklet of this type was reproduced and trimmed in a small printing operation rather than by photocopy—especially at the time that this booklet was published, since photocopy operations at the time were in their infancy and still pretty crude.
Wong starts out with a short preface that leads into the standard Chang San-feng legend, with the caveat that no one is really certain about the origins of Tai Chi. He mentions the three major styles of Tai Chi and the names of a few masters, all without context. The next section outlines the principles of kung fu in general and Tai Chi specifically, the idea of chi, and how Tai Chi integrates the yin and yang. It’s all very cursory but completely straightforward and genuine. Next is a form list for a long Yang style form, and the rest of the booklet—fifty-two pages—is form instruction, with adequate text and well-done line drawings that include arrows to indicate the direction of limb and body movement.
Obviously, Wong’s students were the intended audience for this booklet, and it probably suited it’s intended purpose well. If Wong had expanded the expository material, the book could have found wider publication since these sorts of books were burgeoning at the time. My copy was autographed on the cover by Wong in 1979, but he did that for someone else, not me, and I don’t remember how or where I acquired this copy.
William Chen's Tai Chi Chuan
by William C. C. Chen
(The William C. C. Chen School of T’ai-chi Ch’uan, 1973, 62 pages)
Next on our list of small-press martial arts publications is William C. C. Chen’s Tai Chi Chuan. This publication falls in the middle of the spectrum of our subject. This is actually more of a little book than a booklet, being 4.25x7 and perfect-bound. It’s sixty-two pages long with a mixture of typesetting. The introductory material appears to be professionally typeset, while the captions for the photos in the instruction section appear to be set on a good quality typewriter. The instruction section features excellently reproduced, if small, photos of Chen performing the form. This, after all, is a small book.
The brief introductory material begins with a one-page foreword. Even if it doesn’t really say much, it is by none other than Robert W. Smith. This is followed by an introduction that’s obviously not written by Chen since it refers to “Master Chen” in the third person. But no matter, it’s only four pages—small pages, remember—but not bad, considering the shortness. After a thumbnail tale of Chang San-feng being inspired to create Tai Chi while watching the fight between the snake and bird, the writer gives thumbnail definitions of several principles that underlie Tai Chi, all of which are valid and excellent, such as relaxation, slowness, diaphragmatic breathing, single-weightedness, circularity, and unity of movement. There’s not a lot of discussion here, but these are very important points to keep in mind and body when performing Tai Chi, and here they’re succinctly and clearly stated.
The next page gives some context to the time frame during which most of the booklets and pamphlets I’m discussing in this series were published. This context is a small notice stating: “For those interested in seeing the complete flow of T’ai Chi Ch’uan movements, there is a ‘super 8’ film available for sale.” The contact information follows. This page is interesting for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, of course, is that the homeviewing medium is super-8 film. Since then, Chen has been seen on a succession of different visual formats: videotape, DVD, and YouTube. And that points to the other interesting aspect: It shows that Chen is not only a master of Tai Chi but a masterful innovator in the dissemination of the art via a medium that can graphically display the entire flow of the movements. (See "Mass Marketing the Martial Arts" for more on Chen and this topic.)
Returning to his little book: Almost the entire remainder is filled with photos of Chen performing a sixty-movement Tai Chi sequence. Each major movement is depicted in two to six photos, with arrows. The names of the movements are at the tops of the pages, but there is no explanatory text. Chen is fairly young here, and his posture is a little more erect than I’ve seen in some later film footage of him doing his form, in which he was extremely sung. Two pages of similar photos of two young women pushing hands, with arrows, close out the book.
Although the production values are a little better than those of Wong’s booklet, Chen’s little book has the same intended audience—his students—and wasn’t produced for sale in a bookshop. I don’t remember how or where I got this one, either.
Quick and Easy T'ai-chi Ch'uan
Eight Simple Chinese Exercises for Health
by Yang Ming-shih
(Shufunotomo Co, Ltd., 1974, 61 pages)
The next booklet represents the most professional of these types of publications, and was published by a company that apparently produced other entries on Chinese and Japanese subjects, such as cooking, flower arrangement, and bonsai, in what the company called the “Quick & Easy Series.” These are 6"x4.25" booklets with comb binding. Quick & Easy T’ai-chi Ch’uan is by Yang Ming-shih—yes, of those Yangs.
Q&ETC is sixty-two pages long, and very thick pages they are: every page is heavy card stock that is coated on one side. Coated means that the paper stock has a glossy or semi-glossy coating applied to one or both sides. The reason for the coating is that photographs reproduce more crisply on coated stock than on uncoated stock, which will soak up a little of the ink, blurring the image slightly. Ink can’t soak into coated stock, so there’s no blurring. With all those thick pages and comb binding, it reminded me of some of the children’s books I bought my daughters when they were young—the kinds of books that are hard for toddlers to destroy and whose pages are easy for their little, inexperienced fingers to turn.
I guess the idea of the books in the Q&E series is that you can use them to learn to do something relatively simple, and that the comb binding allows the books to lie flat on a table so you can refer to them while your hands are otherwise occupied with the activity depicted in the book. (See the sample open page, left.) The secret to the fact that the activity in this Tai Chi booklet is not Tai Chi, however, lies in the booklet’s subtitle: Eight Simple Chinese Exercises for Health.
The exercises are chi kung that concentrate on movement rather than breathing, all done in a moderate horse stance of slightly varying height. They are, in fact, a venerable chi kung sequence known as the Eight Brocades, although the book does not name them as such. The Eight Brocades is a chi kung sequence that's been around for centuries, and while it does have an energy component, that is only moderate, with many of the movements focusing more on developing the tendon system and opening the body rather than on directly strengthening the meridian system and chi flow.
Each exercise occupies several flip pages, and the photos are accompanied by basic instructions. The exercises are all pretty good, and while they aren’t Tai Chi, they are strung together into a sequential form that is a simple-to-learn but effective daily practice of light intensity and moderate duration.
Personally, I’ll stick with the several chi kung I already do, which also open the body but that are more energy-oriented than the Eight Brocades, and I'll let my Tai Chi deal with tendon development. But the Eight Brocades might work for you, particularly if you don't want to practice Tai Chi. It’s possible that this book could be found via the Internet. It had a cover price then of $2.50 and was distributed by Japan Publications, which published other titles of interest to martial artists, such as Acupuncture Medicine by Yoshiaki Omura. But even if you can't find it, instructions for the Eight Brocades can be found in many places, such as the Internet and martial arts/chi kung books and magazines.
The Gentle Art of Health
by John Painter
(Paper Lantern Publishing Company, 1986, 18 pages)
The intro inside this slight booklet reads, “This complimentary copy of the Pa Kua Chang Healing Arts by Dr. John P. Painter, based upon the Spring Rain Ch’i Kung exercises of Professor Li Ch’ing Yuen’s Nine Dragon Pa Kua Chang art, is distributed by Internal Arts Magazaine to Charter subscribers only. The material in this manual is excerpted from Dr. Painter’s book Pa Kua Chang Taoist Boxing for Health & Self-defense. [Paper Lantern Publishing Company].”
The booklet is, then, essentially a marketing tool for Painter’s book, but even so, it contains some interesting information on Bagua. It starts off with a brief introduction to the history and art of Bagua, but it quickly moves on to its main subject: Bagua’s effects on health and well-being. It seems to cite data gathered on Bagua by an organization called the Life Sciences Institute. There is a collaborative, independent research institution called the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but it was founded in 1999, so it probably isn’t the same organization as the one named by Painter. (1) There also is an International Life Sciences Institute in Washington, D.C., founded in 1978, but as this organization’s members are primarily food and beverage, agricultural, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies, this probably isn’t the one Painter was talking about, either. (2) And then there’s the California Life Sciences Institute…. Well, you see where this is going. Painter’s pamphlet was produced thirty years ago. Who knows which Life Sciences Institute he’s referring to, or even if it’s still in operation.
Nonetheless, Painter presents data from this institute in a chapter titled, “A Report on the Effects of Pa Kua Chang and Its Effects on Physical Conditioning and Health,” which data, he confesses, was still being acquired at the time of the writing. A cursory Internet search did not turn up a copy of this report. According to Painter, the researchers gathered data on aerobic capacity, strength development, flexibility, production of relaxation response, and overall health improvement fostered by Bagua. He doesn’t give complete data on all of these aspects, but he gives samples of studies of heart rate, which show a reduction in cardiovascular rates following a round of Bagua. In addition, the data showed a marked decrease in intercellular body fat as well as an increase in flexibility. Studies of stress management also showed greater relaxation following the set.
“Beneficial Effects of Pa Kua Chang” is the title of the next section, and it contains mostly anecdotal references to the Bagua master Li Ch’ing Yuen, followed by a list of benefits to the body, mind, and spirit. I won’t enumerate those here, but they’re pretty much what you’d expect—both with respect to Master Li's skills and Bagua's benefits—and this material could just as easily be a bio of a Tai Chi master and a list of Tai Chi benefits.
Next, the text discusses how “the methods of Pa Kua Chang and her two sister arts—Tai Chi Chuan and Hsing I Chuan—offer an unrealized source of rehabilitative energy to those in need of healing and rejuvenation.” After this, Painter goes into Bagua’s effects on the lymphatic system, which increases the art’s positive impact on the practitioner’s health and well-being.
Painter then presents the introductory material for the Spring Rain Cleansing Exercises, a series of eight chi kung exercises performed while walking around the Bagua circle. But before he actually demonstrates the eight exercises, he pauses to discuss diaphragmatic breathing, the basic methods of walking the Bagua circle, how to step and turn properly to avoid injuring the knees, and the eight roundings of Bagua—namely holding major joints in rounded rather than angular postures. The eight exercises themselves are run through in two pages. The book’s final page seems to be a continuation of the general instructions on walking the circle, with a discussion of stance height added.
Pa-Kua: The Gentle Art of Health has a simple saddle-stitched construction, and the type was set with a typewriter, but the cover is printed on coated stock. It is a unique pamphlet of its type since it does not go into form—except for the Spring Rain Chi Kung form—but mostly discusses other aspects of Bagua in a more expository fashion.
A Bora-Yong (Purple Dragon) Self-defense Course
by D. H. Elder, Jr.
(Bora-Yong Martial Arts Club, 1975, 24 pages)
Dragonbolt, Priest’s Lightning Bolt (PLB), Yarawa, and Kubotan are all names for a short stick held in the hand that can be used in fighting, and that instrument is the subject of this booklet. Elder opens the text with a several-page tale of a young priest using a PLB to subdue a gang of bandits who accosted him during a journey to another temple. It’s a fun if familiar story, and it demonstrates the cloaked nature as well as the effectiveness of this weapon when wielded in the right hands.
The next chapter looks at different configurations of the PLB, both in materials and profiles. What it leaves out is the idea that a great number of items can substitute for a store-bought PLB, such as pens, lipstick tubes, short bones, or nearly anything that’s about 6” long and of sufficient diameter that you can grip it without it slipping out of your hand and that isn't so flimsy that it will bend or shatter when you strike a target with its end. Heck, you can even use the stiff corner of a wallet or other object that can be held in the hand.
The next section on grip and stances emphasize the user’s ability to conceal the PLB in the palm, gripping it only when using it to strike at vulnerable targets, such as pressure points and cavities. These are illustrated, front and back, and ways to strike them singly or in combination are also given. This is pretty solid if sketchy material, marred by the author’s obvious anti-liberal stance. Sorry, Mr. Elder, but most liberals I know would kick an assailant’s ass, too. The only difference between them and you is that they’d probably feel bad about it afterwards, while you, apparently, would gloat.
Then, after warning would-be martial artists to study only with qualified instructors, the booket presents an ad for the the Bora-Yong Martial Arts Club, which you could join for only $5. Your membership included a discount on items purchased from the club. Items advertised on the next few pages include Dragonbolts in various configurations, nunchuka, and three-section staffs. Closing out the book is a page advertising Bora-Yong Martial Arts Club’s six other booklets—with “more to come” printed at the bottom of the page. Whether or not further booklets did appear is unknown to me, as are the contents of the other six booklets the club did publish.
Dragonbolt has typewriter type that is double-spaced, so the information it contains is about half of what the pages could have held. The handful of illustrations are crisp. The cover is printed on a light-weight coated stock, but oddly, there is no real binding—the pages are simply stapled together.
Tai Chi Sabre for Self-defense
edited by Tom Marks
translated by Dominic Liu
(McLisa Enterprises, 1975, 52 pages)
Next we’ll look at Tai Chi Sabre for Self-defense, edited by Tom Marks and translated by Dominic Liu. This is a curious little piece, published in 1975, that raises a couple of questions. Like William C. C. Chen’s publication covered above, Tai Chi Sabre is a little book. It is 5"x7.5", uses professional typesetting throughout, and is perfect-bound in a faux reptile-skin cover stock that has brittled and discolored with age. And there might be something else that’s a little brittle and discolored: the content.
Tom Marks is listed as “Captain Tom Marks” on the title page, and his bio says he was born in 1950 and graduated from West Point in 1972. That was followed by a three-year tour in Hawaii, where he earned an MA in Asian history at the University of Hawaii. He also “travelled extensively in Asia, having spent some five months in the Republic of China.” This takes him up to to 1975—the same year in which this book was published. When Marks was 25 years old.
There is no mention in the bio of his martial arts training, though he did compete and coach in track and field, and he published articles on Asia in academic and professional journals. However, he could have learned Tai Chi in Hawaii. Early Western tai chi adopter Edward Maisel, author of Tai Chi for Health (Review Here), learned tai chi in Hawaii a decade or more before Marks went there to study Asian history at the University of Hawaii. It’s possible that Marks could have gained an interest in Tai Chi given his college major, but when we consider that he was young and had spent most of his life in America, it’s reasonable to assume that if he had any training at all, it was only of three or so years’ duration. That is, if he actually had any real training and that this book isn’t simply an exercise in academic publication.
The first clues that there is something fishy about this book come after Marks’s one-page preface, in a chapter titled “The Tai Chi Sabre Method.” This chapter lays out ten important points or principles to follow while practicing with the sabre. The ten points are sound and valid, but a problem arises because they are, point for point, the same as the ten principles detailed in a chapter in Tai Chi Tao by Cai Long titled “The Knacks in the Exercise of Tai Chi Tao.” (Review Here) The language in each is slightly different, but the content of the statements and the order in which the information appears show that both are translations from a single original source. Comparing the two, Long’s is more explicit and thorough, making the Marks version seem like a paraphrase.
The Marks book then presents a translated poem titled “Formulas of the Tai Chi Sabre,” which could just as easily been titled, “Song of the Tai Chi Sabre.” This poem does not appear in the Long book, but after that, almost all dissimilarities vanish. Both books go on to present illustrations that, though different in style, depict exactly the same sabre form using exactly the same postures, at exactly the same angles, with exactly the same arrows to show direction of movement, in exactly the same number of movements, with extremely similar text to describe each movement. This text is somewhat more thorough in the Long book. The only real difference is that the Marks book has line-drawings while the Long book has photos of a man named Sin Man Ho, who is not credited in the book. But I know it’s him because he served a similar duty in posing for the photos in Li Zhen's book, Illustrations of Thirteen Tai-chi Sword, where he was identified. (Review Here)
Because of these many similarities, it’s important to note the almost minuscule differences. The line drawings in the Marks book are not tracings of the photos of Sin Man Ho, and while the drawings and photos bear a striking similarity throughout in angle and sameness of posture, there are a couple of minor differences: for example, in one posture, in the exact angle of a lower leg dangling from an upraised knee. But in each case, Sin’s posture is more capable looking than the one in the line drawing, just as Long’s text is more thorough than Marks’s.
Both books end after the instruction section, leaving us with two possible scenarios regarding authorship, which we know is not by Marks:
1.) Long is the original author, the translator of this English version is unknown (just as the performer is uncredited), and the Marks version is an unauthorized and unattributed translation that appeared at an earlier date.
2.) Long is not the original author but was, like Marks, only a translator of another original source that also was translated by Marks. Either or both versions might be unauthorized and unattributed.
I don’t know anything about Cai Long or this book aside from the information on and in it, which is scanty indeed, so I don’t have any other direct evidence to definitively point to his authorship. The photos aren’t even of him. The only words in English on the cover are the title and a notice printed on the back: “Published and Printed in Hong Kong.” No author on the cover. The title page holds only the title, the author’s name, and the notice: “Chinese-English,” which refers to the fact that the text contains Chinese characters as well as the English translation. The copyright page has the publisher and distributor information, but nowhere is there any information about the book itself, such as the original source. Nor is there a bio of Long or any other background on the book or the form it depicts.
It might be said that any two books that depict and describe exactly the same form might look equally similar and read much the same. Yes, they might, but not so exactly the same in terms of illustration and so nearly the same in text. I’ve seen plenty of such descriptions of various forms in books on Tai Chi and other martial arts, and none are as alike as these two, even if the Marks version is slightly inferior. Because that inferiority might indicate a lack of true familiarity with the sabre, I find it to be suspicious.
Further—and aside from Marks’s youth and lack of documented experience as a martial artist—his source is unattributed, though one Dominic Liu is named as translator. So, perhaps as “editor,” Marks just pulled the book together from a translation of an unsourced Chinese book and illustrations of an equally unknown origin, to which he added a brief foreword and his name as author`.
Defenders of Marks might point out that his book came out first, but the fact that Long’s book was not published until 1980 is meaningless in terms of which book is more original. If Long’s is the original, it might not have found a translator other than Marks until a few years later. And because the Marks version is fairly obscure as well as unattributed, Long and his publishers might not even have known about it.
Tom Marks’s Tai Chi Sabre, apparently, did not enjoy a reprint, but used copies can be found online for $30 and up. It might be worth it as a collector’s item, but I also must say that I taught myself Cai Long’s sabre form from his book, and this one’s almost exactly the same, so it would be possible to learn the form from this one, too. Just remember that its cover is as brittle as its provenance.
The Inner Circle of Secrecy
by Michael A. DeMarco
(Michael A. DeMarco, 1986, 24 pages)
The next publication we’ll consider is Chen Taijiquan: The Inner Circle of Secrecy, by Michael A. DeMarco. This booklet was published in 1986, and in production values it is almost identical to Her Yue Wong’s book, discussed above: a 5.5"x8.5", saddle-stitched booklet that uses typewriter typesetting. Unlike Wong’s booklet, however, which was a basic instruction manual for Wong’s students, DeMarco’s booklet is, in fact, an early academic-style publication on Tai Chi. But unlike Tai Chi Sabre by Tom Marks, this one doesn’t piggy-back off the work of others—at least not in such a plagiaristic way.
Instead, this is a monograph on Tai Chi history, focusing on Chen Style. It’s worth noting at the outset that this monograph was written at a time when American understanding of Tai Chi history was sketchy and when awareness of Chen Style was in its infancy.
In the introduction, DeMarco lays out his purpose: 1) to firmly establish Chen Village as the place of origin of Tai Chi Chuan; 2) to show the evolution of Tai Chi in terms of the personal manners and martial attributes of the masters of Chen and other styles; 3) to examine the social aspects of Tai Chi and how and why the art was, for many centuries, protected by clan members; 4) and finally, to show that Chen Style’s intrinsic qualities make it the Supreme Ultimate of the Supreme Ultimate.
Each of these is covered in its own section. DeMarco begins with a short overview of the Chinese cultural view of history and the confusions of authorship that arise from false attribution, deliberate or otherwise, that occur frequently in the Tai Chi Classics and other older literature on the martial arts. Despite the often confusing complexity of martial arts history, DeMarco says, a somewhat clear picture of Tai Chi development can emerge.
He begins his search for clarity with several older theories about the origins of Tai Chi that say the art could have originated as long ago as 500 AD in Nanking, in Kiangsu Province. A competing theory, DeMarco says, places the origin a couple of hundred years later in the city now known as X’ian in Shensi Province—the same place where the famous Terra Cotta Warrior Army was unearthed. DeMarco likens these theories of pre-Chen development to the attribution of the Tai Chi Classics to the ancients: a move done to add prestige in a culture that venerates its ancestors.
Likewise, he dismisses the Chang San-feng legend, though at considerably greater length since he takes some time to relate several particulars of Chang’s story. But Chang is, in the end, a fiction on which to hang the identity of Tai Chi, much as Bodhidharma did for Shaolin kung fu.
From here, DeMarco moves on to Chen Village, where the haziness of the myths and legends of Tai Chi history vanishes beneath the scrutiny of recorded historical fact. These begin with a description of Chen Village not just as the place of origin for Tai Chi, but as a village in a very real sense, where people lived in a society that often experienced oppression. Thus the clan, and the group identity and protection it afforded, attained a high level of importance in the well-being of the self and family.
Wang Tsung-yueh gets his own critique as, if not founder of Tai Chi, at least as transmitter of a form of the art to Chen Village. DeMarco credits Wang with possibly linking the separate Thirteen Postures into Chang Chuan—Long Boxing—and of having an influence on Chen Village boxing. But he makes a distinction between Tai Chi’s progenitors, like Chang Chuan, and the development of Tai Chi Chuan, which begins now, at Chen Village—specifically with Chen Wang-ting (aka Tsou T’ing, 1597–1664). Chen's original style was cobbled together, DeMarco says, from his village style, from training during his military career as he rose to the position of garrison commander, and from material he picked up in his travels. This is very much the Chen-centered Tai Chi origin story.
From here, DeMarco segues into the subject of clan secrecy regarding martial arts in general and Chen Family Tai Chi in particular. This moves on to an analysis of Chen style, which, remember, was little known in the West at the time. The analysis focuses on Chen’s claim of originality and implies that the other styles—though not without merit—are really just watered down versions of Chen. He also breaks down the similarities and differences between Chen and other styles.
DeMarco then tours the Chen Family lineage, with thumbnail descriptions of major masters along the way. This continues up to the time of the writing, and it is easily the most detailed account of the Chen family I’ve seen. Individuals who learned tai Chi from the Chens and later founded their own styles are treated in the next section. This, too, begins with a list of Chen masters but quickly moves on to the Wu brothers, founders of Wu/Hao Style, and their students down through Li I-yu and others to Sun Lu-t’ang, developer of his own style. The Yang Family Style and its branches, such as Wu Family Style, are covered next. This stuff is pretty much the standard history, but it enjoys a higher level of detail than almost any other similar account that I’ve seen in other sources, as befitting its academic bent.
The next section delves into the topic of secrecy surrounding the martial arts in general and Tai Chi in particular. This practice is shown to have its roots in paternal succession through sons—sometimes familial, sometimes chosen—who receive deeper, more specialized, and proprietary training. With regard to the martial arts, of course, there also is the issue of withholding the secrets of one’s martial art so as not to give away an advantage.
DeMarco’s analysis of secrecy within the Chen clan extends not just to outsiders but to clan members themselves. While most of the clan probably knew some Chen Tai Chi, only a select few knew the art truly and deeply. Tied up in all of this is the core family and the attempt by its members to improve one’s status within the family as well as within society at large. The section ends with a page or so on the special aspects of Chen Style. This material makes a few valid points, but these are embedded in some philosophical verbiage that, while not uninteresting, really isn’t to the point. Anyway, we all really know that it’s the master not the method that really counts. Five pages of charts depicting various Tai Chi lineages close out the monograph.
Considering the historical information available at the time of its writing, DeMarco’s monograph was a groundbreaking work: a sincere attempt to add clarity to Tai Chi history. In addition to providing one of the best histories of Tai Chi available at the time, it’s also deep and interesting reading for those of us who like this sort of thing. I don’t always agree with him, and while that’s not the point, I think I’ll go over a few of my disagreements anyway.
Foremost among them is that the monograph’s premise is marred by its Chen-origin-centeredness. There was a tendency at the time of Chen style’s introduction to the West to somewhat overblow Chen style’s gravitas—not that it doesn't have that. But I think that some of DeMarco’s arguments are undermined by information we now know but that was not readily available at the time he wrote this. For example, DeMarco credits Wang Tsung-yueh with transmitting a sort of incomplete, Tai Chi-ish martial art to the Chen Family, but the more popular story of Wang traveling through the region and teaching the Chen’s Tai Chi is lent some credence by the remarkable similarity between the Tai Chi of Chen Village and that of nearby Zhaobao Village. While it is possible that Zhaobao’s Tai Chi was learned from the Chens—and some advocate for this point of view—Zhaobao history denies this. So it’s equally possible that Wang spent time in both villages as he moved through the province earning his living as an itinerant martial artist and spreading his Grand Ultimate martial art. There is no hard evidence either way, but the roots of Zhao Bao Tai Chi are as shrouded in mystery as those of Chen Family style.
It is very possible—likely, even—that Wang’s Tai Chi was more fully developed than DeMarco credits. Wang must have been pretty proficient to have made his living as a martial artist and to have left such legacy, no matter what his actual role in the creation of Tai Chi. DeMarco also says that Wang named the art Tai Chi Chuan. But more recently, some historians attribute the establishment of the name Tai Chi Chuan—in lieu of Long Boxing, Chen Boxing, or the several other names by which the art was called—to one Ong Tong following a demonstration of Chen Boxing by Yang Lu-chuan. (4)
As for the other styles of Tai Chi being simply watered-down versions of Chen, well, that’s simply not true. They are simply different, though similar or related methods to manifest the same energies. Folks at the time didn’t call Yang Lu-chan “Yang the Invincible” for nothing. And the early Wu family masters were trainers of the imperial guard for a reason. The flavor might be different among different Tai Chi styles, but all of them rely on and embody the same principles. At the time that DeMarco wrote this paper, however, Chen’s mystique was strong, and as the “original style,” shouldn’t it be the best? Even if Chen is truly excellent, not only is that attitude an example of the ancestor worship that DeMarco disparages earlier in the monograph for its tendency to obscure, it completely ignores the effects that centuries of subsequent development have had on Tai Chi. There is no golden age of Tai Chi somewhere in the past; the golden age if Tai Chi is right now.
But while I might argue with some of DeMarco’s points, I think this is a valuable read. And I'll also say this about him: In 1992, six years after he published this groundbreaking monograph, he established and edited the groundbreaking Journal of Asian Martial Arts, which ran until 2012. The journal, which was peer reviewed, was published in English, Spanish, and Greek. During its run, it garnered many awards, including one of the 10-Best Magazines of 1992 by Library Journal. DeMarco also published books, beginning with a memoir by Robert W. Smith. I think all that speaks volumes for his credibility. Although the journal is no longer being published, at the time of this writing, there is an active website where you can purchase individual articles for a modest fee. Also, collections of the journal are available from Amazon.
1 “Life Sciences Institute,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_Sciences_Institute
2 “International Life Sciences Institute,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Life_Sciences_Institute
3 California Life Sciences Institute website: http://califesciencesinstitute.org/
4 Wikipedia entry: “Tai Chi”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tai_chi
Li Li Ta Scrapbook
By Li Li Ta
(Students of Li Li Ta, 1982, 210 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
This homemade book with no real cover and no real title might be most properly described as a commemorative scrapbook. The “title page” reads, “This Compilation of Thoughts, Translations, Art from Lida Is a Living Tribute to Our Teacher and Friend.” Li Li Ta, known to his students as Lida, was a San Francisco Bay Area artist, professional dancer, and tai chi teacher. Lida, sad to say, took his own life in 1982. Many people for many reasons choose that avenue of escape from this world. I’ve known well more than a handful. I’m not them, so I can’t say if they were right or not. All I can say is that we all die somehow, sometime. However and whenever we go is not really the point. It’s how we lived and what we did until that time.
For full disclosure, my tai chi practice began in early 1980 with students of Lida. I took a few workshops with him when he visited my hometown of Houston, but that was too early in my tai chi career to benefit from my few interactions with him as much as I might have if they’d occurred later. I practiced his form, which he’d learned from Wu Kung-yi, exclusively for five years before his student and my teacher, Frieda Armstrong Fox, decided to take a break from teaching. I practiced for a couple of years longer on my own, then found a teacher of Northern Wu Style and learned that. I practiced the two concurrently for a couple of years, but then time constraints forced me to choose one or the other, and I chose Northern Wu for reasons not germane here.
So, I didn’t know Lida, but I did have some interaction with him, and even more with a couple of his students other than Frieda. These students, who’d moved from Houston to Oakland to study directly with Lida encouraged my wife and me to follow them, and we were on the verge of doing so when news of his suicide arrived. That put an end to our plans, but even more to the progress of his students. We were just planning. They were already invested, then abruptly left adrift. In an effort to come to terms with Lida’s absence and the manner of it, they compiled this scrapbook. In a way, it is similar to Bruce Lee’s The Tao of Jeet Kun Do. I am in no way comparing Bruce Lee and Lida, either as martial artists or as men. But both books bear a similar genesis as the accumulated but not self-organized leavings of fertile and creative minds. Lee’s book is no less a scrapbook than this one is.
Li Li Ta—sometimes Li Lida or just Lida—was born in China (location unknown to me) in 1922. He was educated at Fu Tan University in Shanghai, where he studied art and subsequently had several art exhibitions. He completed a course in tai chi at the Chien Chuan Tai Chi Chuan Institute in Shanghai in 1945. The next year, he was accepted as a disciple in the first group of disciples of Wu Kung-yi, son and grandson respectively of Wu Style founders Wu Chien-chuan and Wu Quan-yu. For two years, he served as an instructor at the Chien Chuan Tai Chi Chuan Institute and assisted Wu Kung-yi in giving lessons to advanced students, both in China and Hong Kong. He then continued as instructor at the institute and privately until 1968, at which time he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area.
While still in Hong Kong, he learned ballroom dancing from two English dancing masters, Stanley James and Jack McGregor (world champion of 1955), and he taught ballroom dancing in Hong Kong for ten years before moving to the United States. No doubt his expertise in tai chi profoundly affected the character of his ballroom dancing. I saw him do a little during one of his trips to Houston, and his movements across the dance floor were smooth as silk. In the Bay Area, Lida made a splash on all three fronts: dancing, art, and tai chi. The scrapbook contains several of his resumes, which include lists of his numerous shows and exhibitions. After the the resumes are testimonials from four of his students and a newspaper article about him, written earlier in the year, before his death.
The next section begins with a handwritten chart of tai chi’s family tree. I have to say that Lida tended to use some obscure spellings for names. The surname “Chen,” as in Chen Style, is spelled, alternately, “Chang” and “Cheng.” Yang Lu-chan comes out Yang Lu Chang. But no matter. A handwritten history is next. In it, Lida lists a number of historical figures, beginning with Chang Wong Ting (his spelling) ca. 1644. Most of the fifteen entries, which end with Wu Kung-yi, have notes regarding the individual’s contribution to tai chi in general and Wu Style specifically. The next thirty-six pages are occupied by single-sided class handouts of the type you might see given out in any tai chi class. Some tell what tai chi is, and some talk about tai chi’s background, purpose, or methodology. And of course, there are form lists in various forms. Most interesting here to tai chi historians is a more detailed history of the genesis of Wu Style. These pages obviously were a work in progress, for they contain numerous handwritten edits. In addition, the story is not told well. But the information is there if you don’t mind the text jumping around a little.
Another chapter of interest to the general tai chi reader is “Ten Rules of Tai Chi,” which is Lida’s translation of material told by Yang Cheng-fu to Chen Wei-ming. (This also can be found in Paul Brennan’s translation of Yang Cheng-fu/Chen Wei-ming’s Methods of Applying Taiji Boxing.)
After another student commemoration, Lida translates several of the Tai Chi Classics and provides extensive commentary on them. A history of tai chi is next, which begins with the standard Chang San-feng story. Fourteen pages on Lida’s art, many of which are photocopied newspaper articles, come next, followed by several pages of short essays by Lida, concluding with the curriculum for gaining a teaching certificate in tai chi from him. These are followed by many pages of flyers for his classes, demonstrations, and so forth. The book concludes with a photocopy of the official articles of incorporation for Lida’s company, Tai Chi America.
This scrapbook is probably of interest primarily to Lida’s students and, perhaps, historians of tai chi who might gain something from its relatively detailed history of the Wu family. The average tai chi reader might be interested in that, too, and in Lida’s translations of Yang Cheng-fu and the Tai Chi Classics. Otherwise, while it contains this worthwhile material, most of it consists of class handouts, and information on Lida as an artist, calligrapher, and dance instructor and would not be of interest to the average martial arts reader. And as I said at the outset, this was published in a limited edition primarily for his students, so it is probably nearly impossible to find. I have one only because I am in the lineage, so to speak.