By: Chen Kung
Chen Kung Series
From the Private Family Records of Master Yang Luchan, Vol. 1-7
by Chen Kung (Yearning K. Chen)
compiled and translated by Stuart Alve Olson
(Valley Spirit Arts)
Review by Christopher Dow
I find myself in the awkward position of reviewing a series of seven books by Chen Kung (aka, Yearning K. Chen), only two of which I have at hand. Two others are available, but I don’t own them, and the remaining three have not been published as of this writing. In addition, the two that I do have are from earlier iterations of the series, then projected to encompass five books rather than seven. But I’m going to forge ahead for a couple of reasons. One is that I do have the two books: Volume 1 and Volume 6 (then called Volume 5), and I have to review them sometime. And that sometime can’t wait for the release of the full series, as explained below in my second reason for precipitously reviewing an incomplete series.
I’ll begin with an overview. The series—titled the Chen Kung Series: From the Private Family Records of Master Yang Luchan—is a translation of Chen’s T’ai Chi Ch’uan Tao Chien Kan San-Shou Ho-lun (T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Saber, Sword, Staff and Sparring Combined), which appeared in China in 1936. According to compiler and translator Stuart Alve Olson, Chen’s original book was, for decades, the best-selling Tai Chi title in China. Olson was the principal student of the late T. T. Liang, and he is a reliable translator as well as knowledgeable about Tai Chi, chi kung, and related matters.
The updated series includes:
Volume 1—Tai Ji Qi: Fundamentals of Qigong, Meditation, and Internal Alchemy (formerly Cultivating the Ch’i, by Yearning K. Chen) (Available)
Volume 2—Tai Ji Jin: Discourses on Intrinsic Energies for Mastery of Self-Defense Skills (Available)
Volume 3—Tai Ji Quan: Practice and Applications of the 105-Posture Solo Form (Not available)
Volume 4—Tai Ji Tui Shou: Mastering the Eight Styles and Four Skills of Sensing Hands (Available)
Volume 5—Tai Ji San Shou and Da Lu: Mastering the Two-Person Application Skills (Not available)
Volume 6—Tai Ji Bing Shu: Discourses on the Taijiquan Weapon Arts of Sword, Saber, and Staff (formerly T’ai Chi Sword, Sabre and Staff, by Yearning K. Chen) (Available)
Volume 7—Tai Ji Wen: The Principles and Theories for Mastering Taijiquan (Not available)
Its Effects and Practical Applications
by Yearning K. Chen
(Unicorn Press, 1971, 184 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Yearning K. Chen’s Tai-Chi: Its Effects and Practical Application is one of the older books in English on Tai Chi. It is, as were most books of its day, what I call a Category I book—one most useful for beginners. It presents a few fairly brief chapters on Tai Chi history, philosophy, and principles that are followed by a somewhat lengthy series of pictures, accompanied by text, that describes the full-length Yang style form.
The expository material is fairly basic, but opens up with a little more complexity in the chapter titled, “T’ai-Chi Ch’üan as Related to Dynamics,” which utilizes principles from physics to describe the way Tai Chi works. You don’t often see this level of detail on the workings of Tai Chi in Category I books, particularly of this one's age. The following chapter, “T’ai-Chi Ch’üan as Related to Psychology,” though short, is a nice description of the way Tai Chi uses the mind to motivate the chi. It’s not going to give you any “secrets,” but it will introduce this concept to beginners and give them some direction in striving to achieve the mental aspect of Tai Chi.
The next chapter, “T’ai-Chi Ch’üan as Related to Moral Life,” is even briefer and doesn’t really address the stated subject, instead delving into the idea of balance with regard to action and life in general. Nice, but I’ve never observed Tai Chi to make one better or more moral. In fact, I’ve met a couple of pretty bad people who were pretty good at Tai Chi.
The form instruction material, which occupies about half the book, is composed of gray-scale drawings based on the famous series of photos of Yang Cheng-fu performing the long Yang form. The verbal instructions that go along with the drawings are fairly decent, but as with most such instructions, they are completely useless if you already know how to do the form. Unlike most such form descriptions, this one includes a gridded chart showing the stepping patterns executed during performance of the form. All-in-all, the instruction material is a pretty good for a book of this caliber, even if it is, in the end, kind of useless.
Next is a longish chapter on applications that, except in a few instances, are not accompanied by illustrations. Two chapters on push hands wind up the book, neither of which would provide much help in actually learning how to do four corners or da lu.
For a book of this style and age, it is pretty decent—especially the chapter on tai chi dynamics. But these days, if you’ve read more than five books on Tai Chi, you’ve heard most of it before, and sometimes a lot better. But as one of the earliest books in English on the art, it has earned a place in the Tai Chi bibliography above its obvious station.
Olson’s introduction in Volume 1 not only lays out the genesis of Chen’s book, it also highlights the in-fighting and squabbling involved in the early—and even contemporary—dissemination of information on Tai Chi. According to Olson, Chen was a student of the Yangs, who possessed a number of written works on Tai Chi that were secret documents closely held within the Yangs’ immediate circle. They most likely would have included sections of what we now know as the Tai Chi Classics as well as other material. Chen obtained permission from Yang Chen-fu to take the various notes and transcripts home for one night only to read them. Unknown to Yang, Chen had hired seven transcribers, who copied the manuscripts overnight. Chen returned the materials, but then published the transcripts as his own book.
For obvious reasons, this did not sit well with the Yang family, but by then, the cat was out of the bag. In an attempt to reclaim what was theirs, the Yang family subsequently published the material under their own aegis. Apparently Chen disappeared from view after his book was published, at least for a time. Maybe he was on the run from Yang acolytes seeking revenge. Whatever the case, he—or someone else purporting to be him—later resurfaced using the name Yearning K. Chen, author of T’ai Chi Ch’uan: It’s Effects and Practical Applications (review here). This later book, Olson emphasizes, is a newer work, not a translation of the 1936 book, and does not contain the scope of the earlier work.
Olson does not excuse Chen’s duplicity. “There is little doubt,” he writes in his introduction to the first edition of Volume 1, “that the contents of Chen’s book came from any source other than the Yang family transcripts. No other book contained either written or oral explanations concerning the twenty-seven energies (ching) and numerous accounts of principles and practice of T’ai Chi.” But while Olson does not excuse Chen, he takes a pragmatic approach. “Despite the politics or ethics that might be involved here,” he continues, “the T’ai Chi world owes a great deal to Mr. Chen. If he had not published this work, Yang family teachings might well have remained hidden or become lost; likewise, the Yang family might not have published their own work.”
Chen’s original book wound up being important to Olson’s own training. “It became very apparent to me over the years that I lived with him [T. T. Liang] how much he referred to this book in the course of his teachings.” Olson says that Liang called Chen’s book the Bible of Tai Chi Chuan. So, in the mid-1980s, Olson began translating the work. As you’ll see below, that effort continues.
So, here are the reviews for the individual volumes. I’ll fill in the gaps as time goes on and I acquire the remainder of the series. (Remember, I’m initially reviewing earlier editions, and no doubt Olson has either edited, enlarged, or otherwise improved the books since they first appeared.)
Tai Ji Qi
Fundamentals of Qigong, Meditation, and Internal Alchemy
(formerly Cultivating the Ch’i, by Yearning K. Chen) (Available)
I actually have the first edition of this book (1986) and a revised and expanded edition (1992). If the improvements between the first and revised edition are any indication of the current quality of the overall series, we should be glad. The text is deeper and more replete with information, expanding the book from its original ninety-eight pages to one hundred and sixty. Olson also substitutes contemporary photos for the original drawings. The original drawings, he informs us, were faulty in several ways, particularly in that the feet of the figure are always together, which would block off the chi flow in the area of the sacrum and perineum. In addition, Olson’s photos use an open-lens technique, which lends a sense of movement to otherwise static photos.
The first four chapters—“T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Nourishing-Life,” “Discourse on Mind-Intent and Ch’i,” “Internal Breathing Methods for Mobilizing the Ch’i,” and “T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Meditation”—cover the stated material in some detail, and the text is accompanied by illustrations that help delineate the principles. Chapter five, “T’ai Chi Ch’i-Kung,” demonstrates a chi kung form that is very well explicated and illustrated. One definitely could learn this chi kung from these instructions. Chapter six, “Training Exercises,” provides additional chi kung postures as well as photos of Olson demonstrating the basic Thirteen Postures of Tai Chi. The material in this volume is well worth the time that a beginner or intermediate student might devote to it.
Tai Ji Jin: Discourses on Intrinsic Energies for Mastery of Self-Defense Skills
Tai Ji Quan: Practice and Applications of the 105-Posture Solo Form
Tai Ji Tui Shou: Mastering the Eight Styles and Four Skills of Sensing Hands
Tai Ji San Shou and Da Lu: Mastering the Two-Person Application Skills
Tai Ji Bing Shu
Discourses on the Taijiquan Weapon Arts of Sword, Saber, and Staff
(formerly Vol. 5, T’ai Chi Sword, Sabre and Staff, by Yearning K. Chen) (Available)
I have only the first edition of this volume (1986, originally #5, now #6). There is no expository text, the pages being occupied solely with depictions of and instructions for three weapons forms: straight sword, saber, and staff. Could you learn to do these forms from this book? Who knows, but probably not. It would be better to learn them from a live teacher or a video. I’m interested to see, however, if the most recent version of this volume adds some expository material and improves the instructional material.
Tai Ji Wen: The Principles and Theories for Mastering Taijiquan
It is clear from the intensive changes between the first and revised editions of Volume 1 that Olson is improving the books, so it probably behooves the reader to buy the latest edition of any given volume. So, now that I’ve covered the books that I can for the moment, I’ll give you the second reason that I’m reviewing this incomplete series: It is incomplete, and Olson needs your help to finish it.
In its entirety, the series could be considered a single work—remember, it was originally published as such—and as a single work, it has substance, historicity, and an analytical acumen not normally seen in most works on Tai Chi. As Olson writes in his introduction to the revised edition: “The information presented shows a greater depth and insight into both the philosophy and practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan than any other available work (at the time).” Indeed, if this had come out as a single volume in English back in the 1970s or 1980s, I probably would consider it to be one of the handful of foundational Category III texts on Tai Chi. But even now, it is more than a curiosity and contains valuable information, particularly for beginner and intermediate students.
But as I said, Olson has yet to finish it. He writes on a GoFundMe page set up to help defray the costs of his efforts: “It takes about $4000 to complete each book, which includes the time I need to devote to the translation and adding my commentaries, reviews by learned Chinese, typesetting, editing, cover design, and all the many other issues need in producing a book. The work and costs to do this on my own have been too overwhelming, so I’m reaching out to the GoFundMe community to help me realize this goal.”
A quick glance at the funding page shows he’s a long way from collecting the necessary capital to complete all the volumes in the series. I’m hoping this review will spur readers to contribute to his effort, whether through direct funding or by buying the available volumes. And lest the reader suspect some sort of collusion between me and Mr. Olson, I’ll state here that, while I participated in a seminar he taught here in Houston back in the mid 1980s, and I videotaped a performance by him and Master Liang during the masters’ demonstrations at the 1990 U.S. National Chinese Martial Arts Competition, I otherwise do not currently know him. But I wish him the best in his efforts to bring this important and valuable work, in its entirety, to the English-speaking Tai Chi audience. Below is a link to his GoFundMe page.
The Chen Kung Series at GoFundMe: