By: Ch'en Wei-ming
T'ai Chi Ch'uan Ta Wen
Questions and Answers on T'ai Chi Ch'uan
by Ch’en Wei-ming
translated by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and Robert W. Smith
(North Atlantic Books, 1985, 62 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Ch’en Wei-Ming’s T’ai Chi Ch’uan Ta Wen, originally published in 1929, is what might be termed a neo-classic. Such books fall between the established Tai Chi Classics, which were written prior to about 1920, and modern Tai Chi literature, which began in the 1950s with the initial worldwide diaspora of the art. Ch’en was Yang Cheng-fu's top student and later established his own school in Shanghai.
The book principally consists of more than eighty questions asked by Ch’en during his tutelage, with the answers given by Yang. It’s clear, however, that some of the answers are not verbatim responses from Yang but were filtered through Ch’en since at least once he refers to himself in the first person in an answer. That’s not a big deal, per se, since we can assume that Ch’en didn’t have a tape recorder running during his lessons or that he was busily transcribing instead of practicing or listening.
The Q&A comes after a brief preface by translator Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and an introduction by the author and is broken into a number of category-based chapters:
Taichi: Commentary on the History and the Correction of the Legend
Taichi: Push Hands
Taichi Fighting Techniques (San Shou)
Chin (Internal Force) of Taichi
Relation of Taichi to Tao-yin and Meditation
Taichi: Physique and Achievement
Following the Q&A is an appendix containing the Tai Chi Classic, Five Character Secret, by Li I-yu. This material, repeated verbatim from Lo’s The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan: The Literary Tradition, published six years earlier, seems like so much padding to flesh out a very slender book. If the book were any narrower, there wouldn’t be enough room on the spine for the title and author. A five-page glossary closes out the book. There is some good stuff in the glossary, but it is, after all, a glossary, and it’s no better than similar glossaries in dozens of Tai Chi books.
Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo acquired a Chinese language copy of the book and later mentioned it to noted martial arts writer Robert W. Smith, and eventually the two of them undertook the translation that appears in this version. It’s difficult to imagine that either of these two important contributors to Tai Chi and martial arts literature would make a misstep, but this book is not nearly as informative as it could have been considering its sources.
Not that there isn’t some good material in these pages. The chapter on Tai Chi history should not be taken without a grain of salt, but it provides a nice snapshot of Yang Cheng-fu’s beliefs on the subject. And other of the Q&A exchanges are especially good, such as this one, quoted in full:
Q: Taichi seeks the supple but of what use is suppleness?
A: Seeking suppleness enables you to separate your body into pieces. If an opponent pushes against your forearm, your elbow doesn’t move; if against your shoulder, it moves but not your body; if against your body, it moves but not your waist; if against your waist, it moves but not your leg. This process leaves you as stable as a mountain. When you discharge your opponent, then it is from the feet through the legs to the waist, body, shoulders, elbows, and hands—all connected as one unit, discharging energy like an arrow toward its target. If you cannot relax, your whole body becomes one piece and, even though it is strong, a stronger person will be able to push your one piece and cause you to be unstable. Thus the use of suppleness is crucial. With it you can be one unit attacking and fragmented parts defending—able to be relaxed and hard, agile stepping forward or back, and substantial and insubstantial as needed. With these abilities you will then have all of the Taichi function.
Unfortunately, the answers to the questions all too often simply refer to the Tai Chi Classics rather than provide a direct response, and frequently, the responses are as cryptic as anything in the Classics. For example:
Q: When sticking to an opponent what technique can you use to push him while making only a small movement yourself?
A: The Classics contain words which answer this: “If there is up, there is down; if there is forward, there is backward; and if there is left, then there is right.” This means to tempt him then attack.
This answer doesn’t really address the subject of the question. And some of the questions are the kinds that most people preface with: “I hate to ask a dumb question, but….” For example, Ch’en asks, “In Taichi postures like Brush Knee, you circle your hand back to the front slowly and then push forward. This is so slow: how could it be functional in a fight?” Yang’s answer, though more wordy than this, is that, in a fight, you use appropriate fighting speed. “Otherwise you are being stupid,” he concludes, so maybe even he thought it was a dumb question.
And it’s not the only one. “Should a novice use force in push-hands?” Ch’en asks. Anybody with even a smattering of Tai Chi training should know the answer to this even if they cannot accomplish it on a physical level. “No,” Yang responds, but his answer, which extends into the next question and answer, does provide insight into the proper functioning of the art: “Be conscientious in Wardoff, Rollback, Press, and Push….These four movements contain limitless change….If he finds your center, change direction quickly but don’t disconnect. If your opponent disconnects, quickly push him out.”
Some of the exchanges just leave you hanging, wanting more information, such as this one:
Q: In the fictional work Chiang Hu Ch’i Hsia Chuan by Po Hsiao-shen, he criticized the Yang Family and also included a story of Yang Pan-hao. Is this a true account?
A: This is mere fiction on the level of bickering in the street and cannot be used as evidence. Since scholars are given to jealousy and disputation, how can martial artists who are less educated be free of this fault? There are even gossip and rumors about those with high reputations.
Maybe the author and his contemporaries were in the know about this gossip about Yang Pan-hao, but the vast majority of readers of this book are not. It seems like a pointless titillation to give a question and answer like this without context. If text fails to give answers or masks information behind reticence, it’s best to leave it out.
And maybe that’s the problem with this book. If this was the only such example, I might let it slide. But numerous other examples are scattered throughout the pages, giving the impression of a lot of dross. I guess, though, that if the translators removed all the material that was obvious, foolish, overly cryptic, or repetitive, there wouldn’t be a book, only a pamphlet.
While this book might hold some historical interest, it is, at the same time, relatively weak on information, which makes it somewhat disappointing considering its genesis. It has some interesting and useful material but also an equal amount of padding. It probably was more useful in the decades of the neo-classics, but there is nothing in here that isn’t covered as well or better by the Tai Chi Classics themselves or more explicitly and thoroughly by modern Tai Chi literature.
I'll close with an interesting sidelight. My martial arts library contains one book that I can't read at all since, except for the name of the publisher on the back cover: Hoi Fung Publisher Co., no date. All the rest, cover and text, is in Chinese. But a look inside is intriguing. After several pages of introductory ideograms, there are photos on separate pages of Yang Chien-hou, Yang Cheng-fu, and Chen Wei-ming. This is the same portrait of Chen that appears in T'ai Chi Ch'uan Ta Wen, and I'm assuming that Chen is the author of this book, too, so that's why I'm including it here.
In his introduction to T'ai Chi Ch'uan Ta Wen, Benjamin Lo says that the Chinese edition of the book contained a number of photos of the form that were eliminated in the Lo/Smith translation. The Chinese book under consideration contains a great number of old photos. Following the three portraits just mentioned are seven group photos, presumably of Yang masters and students from various years, and several possibly are of Chen's own school. From about twenty to about a hundred people are depicted in each photo, and Yang Cheng-fu and other Yang style notables—including Chen, who is in almost every shot—can be recognized. (See Here for an article on this book and its photos.)
However, I don't think that this is the same book because this one appears to then go into a form instruction section instead of a Q&A. The form instruction primarily uses a large number of photos of a young Yang Cheng-fu, with occasional shots of Chen and a couple of others. After this comes a chapter on push hands with photos depicting a young Yang Cheng-fu pushing with Chen and another fellow and shots depicting Chen pushing with a man with a beard who looks suspiciously like a young Cheng Man-ching. If so, these photos should put to rest the erroneous assumption that Cheng was not Yang's student. (For more on this controversy, see my review of Robert W. Smith's Martial Musings: A Portrayal of Martial Arts in the 20th Century.) The book winds up with a sequence of photos of the Yang form featuring Chen, though the sequence is not complete, truncating before the last few movements.
Chen wrote several books on Tai Chi and related subjects, and I don't have a comprehensive list of his titles (that I can read), so I might never know which one this is. But even so, I value this book for its many historic photos.