By: Cheng Man-ch'ing
The Supreme Ultimate Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-defense
by Cheng Man-ch'ing and Robert W. Smith
(Charles E. Tuttle, Co., 1967, 114 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Cheng Man-ch'ing is justly revered not just as a master of Tai Chi, but as an early and generous disseminator of the art in America. Several of the books I’ve reviewed in these pages are authored by students of his who are currently passing down his style and/or teachings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of students of his lineage far exceed those of any other in America, his influence is that pervasive. But as with all students of arts passed down by a master—and their books—few approach the high standards set by the master's art.
Such is the case with this book, the third published under Cheng's own name, though it is, I believe, the first to appear in English. It is co-authored by the historically significant Robert W. Smith, himself a strong proponent of the martial arts in general and author of a number of other early and definitive books in English on the subject.
This is definitely a Category I book, designed principally for beginners and/or students of Cheng’s Tai Chi. The first three chapters sturdily present the philosophy, history, and principles of the art, and about half the book is filled with a highly-detailed instruction on how to perform Cheng’s famous 37-posture Yang style. The textual descriptions of the movements are accompanied by photos, each with a foot-weighting diagram beneath, whose key is oddly presented in a fold-out at the end of the book instead of at the beginning of the descriptions. No matter—the weighting pattern is pretty obvious, even without the key.
I don’t do Yang style, though I used to a bit, so I never looked closely at the photos before I undertook this review. But I have now, drawn partly by the foot weighting diagrams, and I've noticed a peculiarity that I hadn’t before. All the photos of Cheng performing the form are reversed, though the foot-weighting diagrams are not. As the authors state in the paragraphs introducing the solo exercise, “All the photographs in this chapter are printed in reverse image to facilitate imitation of the movements illustrated.” So, when you look at the photos, pretend that you’re looking in a mirror. The authors or publishers probably thought this would facilitate learning from the book. That might work fine for movements that face the front, but not so well for movements facing other directions. It’s a tactic not used again by Cheng in his other books, or, to my knowledge, by other Tai Chi authors. But some folks do the form on the left side as well as on the right, so for them, the photos are in mirror image only half the time.
The instructional section is followed by a substantial fold-out depicting all the photos in sequence, with the weighting diagrams but without the text descriptions. Tai Chi for sport and self-defense occupy the next three chapters, with lots of photos of Cheng playing push hands and demonstrating applications, mostly with T. T. Liang. The push hands sections are relatively weak, as is the case with such sections in most Tai Chi books. Tai Chi is a dynamic art ill served by static photos, especially in this day of easy-to-access videos of push hands and applications. But back in the day, there was no YouTube or home video. There were just photos in books. Of course, nothing beats learning from a live person.
The book winds up with two nice chapters on the Tai Chi Classics, and finishes with another fold-out that contains the key to the foot-weighting diagrams and a complex and near-abstract diagram of the directions taken by the stepping patterns of the form. This is, to my mind, a completely useless addition since the textual descriptions and foot-weighting diagrams better convey this same information—though the diagram does suggest the the way the form moves through the spatial area of the practice space.
One final and amusing note: A statement on the inside of the back cover reads: "Note that the models are practicing a variant form of T'ai-chi as taught in Japan, with postures differing somewhat from the Yang style taught in this book." The book was printed in Japan, but even so, I have to wonder why the publisher didn't use something more appropriate considering the loads of photos of Cheng inside the book and probably a large number of other that were available.
Although this a Category I book, it is a very good one. Beginners of every style can benefit from what it says. And it is historically significant, too, considering its age and paternity. I particularly like the authors' admonition regarding the solo form: “Study it, work with it, and knowledge will come.” Yes.
The reader also would do well to take in Cheng's first book on tai chi: Thirteen Chapters on Tai Chi Chuan. (See below.)
T'ai Chi Ch'uan
A Simplified Method of Calisthenics for Health and Self Defense
by Cheng Man-Ch'ing
(North Atlantic Books, 1981, 138 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The American publication date of T'ai Chi Ch'uan: A Simplified Method of Calisthenic for Health & Self-Defense is 1981, but Cheng Man-ch'ing’s foreword is dated 1956, and the second foreword, by George K. C. Yeh, is dated 1961. I haven’t thoroughly researched this book’s background, but it seems that it most likely is the English-language release of Cheng’s first book on tai chi. In addition to the two forewords previously mentioned, there are two more—by K. Schu, H. P. Tseng—and a translator’s note by Beauson Tseng.
That's essentially five forewords for an expository text that occupies six relative short chapters. In these, Cheng outlines the background, principles, and tenets of Tai Chi in a succinct way, but the information does not rise above the introductory level in terms of detail, and a great deal of it is what Cheng terms a “personal view.” Many of the statements he makes are quite valid, but there is one notion he states that I take exception with, particularly since it is often reiterated by others. In chapter four, he writes, “T’ai-chi Ch’uan is without question a sport that suits everybody. In practicing, the weak, the sick, the aged as well as children and women, will not find the draw-backs inseparable from exercises aiming at weight, force, or speed.”
My experience in teaching Tai Chi over the past forty years is that most people who are curious about the art quickly become discouraged when they realize it is something you have to do every day over a relatively long period of time to reap its benefits. No matter how patient you are as a teacher, they don’t practice, soon fall behind, and then drop out. Further, if you've been doing Tai Chi for a while, then you can still do it when you get older or when you're out of sorts. But weak, sick, and older people who have no prior experience with Tai Chi or other exercises or movement or martial arts find it very difficult to learn even a short form. For the older ones, especially, there are decades of incorrect movements and body alignments to overcome in addition to strength and flexibility issues, and the weak and sick often do not have the strength or stamina. And children generally do not have the dedication and concentration necessary to learn Tai Chi. The truth is, Tai Chi is not easy or simple to learn or do, it just appears that way from the outside to those who know little about it.
In my view, hyperbole about how easy it is to learn and perform Tai Chi does a disservice to both the art and to potential students. If you tell students that something is easy and then teach them something that is actually difficult, they not only become discouraged, they also might equate their failure to learn the form with a personal failing: "If it's so easy, why can't I get it?" Of course, as teachers, it’s not our job to coddle students, but saying Tai Chi is easy when it’s not is being less than forthright with those who wish to learn.
But to be fair, I’ve pulled one statement out of many in this book to complain about an issue that I take exception with. What Cheng actually is doing here is trying to encourage people to learn Tai Chi, which is a good thing and, ultimately, the reason he created his compact, 37-posture version of Yang Style. That style is the subject of the next section of the book, which contains the instructional material, including text and photos. I have to say that this material is not nearly as detailed as that in the similar section in Cheng's next book, T’ai Chi: The 'Supreme Ultimate' Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense. (Review above.) Nor is the following chapter on push hands, whose material is both repeated and substantially expanded in the book just mentioned.
Cheng winds up this book with a chapter containing a handful of anecdotes about the Yang family. These are fairly humorous—martial arts humor, that is—but don’t really give much insight into the art or its history.
All-in-all, this is a relatively weak book whose only claim to fame is that it is Cheng’s first book after writing his justly famous Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan. (See below.) Cheng was an important figure in the Tai Chi sphere, but readers would be better off ignoring this book and reading both his Thirteen Chapters and T’ai Chi: The 'Supreme Ultimate' Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense instead.
Thirteen Chapters on T'ai-Chi Ch'uan
by Cheng Man-ch'ing
Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan
Translated by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo & Martin Inn
(North Atlantic Books, 1985, 224 pages)
Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’üan
translated by Douglas Wile
(Sweet Ch’i Press, 1982, 72 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Cheng Man-ch'ing is justly revered as a primary disseminator of Tai Chi Chuan in America. His expertise attracted a number of students who went on to become members of America’s first wave of homegrown masters and who continue to broadcast Cheng’s 37-posture Yang style across the United States and the world. His writings on the art—some written for the English-speaking audience, some translated from earlier works in Chinese—are among the earlier books on Tai Chi in English, though they are by no means the earliest thanks to belatedly late translations.
Cheng studied Tai Chi with Yang Cheng-fu for the last six years of Yang’s life and reportedly ghostwrote Yang’s second book on Tai Chi: Essence and Applications of Taijiquan (alternately titled, The Substance and Application of T’ai Chi Ch’uan), which was published in 1934. In the thirteenth chapter of the Thirteen Chapters, Cheng expresses trepidation about publishing a book that reveals Tai Chi’s secrets, and that Yang Cheng-fu was equally reluctant to write about Tai Chi for fear of exposing the art to those who might misuse it. However, in 1925, one of Yang’s students, Chen Wei-ming, published The Art of T’ai-chi Ch’üan, and not long after, another student, Chen Kung, published his own book based on materials purloined from Yang, so Yang finally relented, enlisting Cheng to assist him in writing his own book.
Subsequent to Yang’s death in 1936, Cheng penned Thirteen Chapters, which was completed in 1947 but not published until 1950, making this the first book published under his own name. In essence, Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters—along with the books of his near contemporaries, Chen Wei-ming and Chen Kung—can collectively be considered as sturdy primary struts of a bridge between the older works on Tai Chi, known as the Tai Chi Classics, and modern Tai Chi literature.
To my knowledge, Thirteen Chapters has been translated into English twice, and I’m going to review both books here because, essentially, it’s the Thirteen Chapters that is important. And this also will give me a chance to go over the primary material—Cheng’s information—separately from the secondary material—the differences between the two books.
Thirteen Chapters seems to me to be a prototypical Category III book, many of which combine history, philosophy, and precepts with in-depth examinations of dynamics, energy movement, and purpose. Some Category III books also contain form instruction material, in greater or lesser detail, and personal insights or anecdotes.
Thirteen Chapters can be difficult to read, but not because the language is deliberately abstruse or because the subject matter can’t be comprehended. For the most part, Cheng imparts his information clearly and in great enough detail to make it useful. The book's difficulty lies in the fair share of serious weaknesses that mar its many strengths. There is, for example, a passage where Cheng diverges into lengthy discussions on cultivating and amassing chi that are not as well explicated as some of the other material and that often can seem like magical thinking. If chi is a tangible force, then we should have a more tangible theory about its creation, storage, movement, and so forth. But I do have to agree with his overall assessment that Tai Chi is a form of personal alchemy.
And some of Cheng’s other arguments are marred by statements or notions that seem to be nonsense by today’s standards, such as his claim that swimming can cause gonorrhea. Or this: “Our solar system may be considered so great that nothing can contain it….If its form were not circular, then in spite of the power of accumulated ch’i, it could not be supported and could not float the countless stars in space, all in revolution.” Okay, maybe I’m nit-picking here, but his cosmology needs a little work. The idea does make better sense, though, if you substitute “The universe” for “Our solar system.” But it is true—unfortunately for his argument—that while some galaxies revolve, others, such as the Greater Magellanic Cloud, do not. And there are many large star clusters that seem to hold together fine despite their lack of rotation. And on the incredibly macro scale, there are huge gaps and voids around which galactic clusters swarm like soap bubbles around emptiness, none of which is necessarily revolving. My complaints here have a purpose. If you are going to use science to help explain something, make sure the science is at least reasonably accurate, otherwise, errors stand out disproportionally. Just like in push hands.
When it comes to Cheng’s discussions of Tai Chi dynamics, however, his analogies are more apt and illustrative and are very welcome. He begins with the concept of “roundness,” including the ideas of central stability and centrifugal and centripetal forces, and the complementary concepts of squareness and triangulation. From there, he delves into the absorption and release of energy, leverage, and uprooting. There are lots of diagrams in this chapter to help illustrate the concepts.
Cheng was noted for his medical knowledge, but reading through the chapter on the health benefits of Tai Chi make me glad it’s seventy years later and that he’s not my doctor. I don’t want to disparage traditional Chinese medicine, but I am always leery when someone claims that Tai Chi can cure cancer, tuberculosis, or other severe and frequently fatal diseases. In relation to the lungs, Cheng writes, “They…cannot be directly reached by Western medicine’s needles or drugs. Apart from surgery or inner cultivation, I have never heard of any effective cures for lung disorders.” (Wile translation, p. 42)
Perhaps there were fewer such treatments when Cheng wrote this book, but I think that, even at the time, a little research on the topic would have showed him that this statement is incorrect. This is especially true since he contradicts himself just a few pages later when he tells of curing many cases of tuberculosis, or seeing patients cured, by various means, including eating ducks force-fed on human placenta, boar’s lungs into which the juice of twelve uncooked chickens have been poured, and large doses of cinnamon, ginseng, and other herbs. Pardon me, but I think I’ll stick to antibiotics. Also untrue is the statement: “Lung disease can only be resisted through spirit and courage, otherwise there will be rapid deterioration.” (Wile translation, p. 42) Good spirits, courage, and effort certainly are necessary in combatting any illness or injury, but good medical treatment—whether Eastern or Western—is pretty vital, too. And heck, now we can remove diseased lung tissue or even transplant whole lungs.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disparaging either Western or traditional Chinese medicine. From what I can tell, they both work pretty well within their spheres and probably would work best if they worked together. Nor is it to say that I don’t believe that chi-building exercises help affect a positive outcome. I do. Tai Chi and chi kung can aid almost any condition by daily bathing all the tissues in the body with extra-strong doses of chi’s healing vitality. And chi kung can further direct and focus that healing energy into specific tissue where it’s needed. But it is in the maintenance of daily health that Tai Chi and chi kung excel, and when it comes to illness or injury, other measures usually are necessary as well.
In discussing the escalating stages of development within the Tai Chi exponent, Cheng offers more solid advice than he does in the chapter on medicine. This chapter discusses how the chuanist learns to sense and then control the various bodily connections that, when added together, impart coordinated whole-body movement and power. It’s a good prescription—and good advice—and elucidated well enough to follow and benefit from.
Cheng then goes into a section on the yin and yang of energy embodied in the Tai Chi form. In this, he relies almost exclusively on the idea of the sequence of creation and destruction of force expounded in the theory of the Five Elements. This is all well and good, but I’d rather see something with a little more basis in mechanics than on abstract theory. Metal defeats wood…okay, let’s see, now, which moves are metal and which are wood? Maybe I’ll get it eventually, if I ever have the time….
The book winds up with a chapter containing twelve statements from Yang Cheng-fu, complete with paragraphs by Cheng interpreting the meanings of those statements. Most of us have read Yang’s words before and seen them interpreted, but who better to repeat and interpret them than Cheng? And I think the words of both these masters carry import even on multiple readings.
I know I’ve been hard on this book at times, but that is only because it is a landmark work, and landmark works invite scrutiny. Nor should a reviewer overlook inconsistencies, weaknesses, or outright nonsense if they are noticed, no matter how knowledgeable or impressive the author might be. Over all, I have to say that this book is poised in a 70/30 stance: 70 percent solid and 30 percent empty.
Now, let’s compare the two versions. The titles of the two delineate the primary difference between the two books. Douglas Wile titles his, Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’üan, while Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and Martin Inn title theirs, Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan. You say “potAto,” I say, “poTAHto.” Obviously differences in the tenor of the language of the translations exist between the two. How could that not be? But without personally undertaking translation from Chinese to English or going to the trouble to parse the two versions side-by-side to determine which verbiage one likes best, it would be difficult to tell which one to buy. Translation is an art of its own. Note, for example, the following two passages, which illustrate how the language of a translation can punch up the meaning. Cheng is talking about soft vs hard:
“We may compare this with the teeth, which are firm and hard, and the tongue, which is soft. Occasionally, the teeth and tongue have disagreements and the tongue must temporarily invest in loss….” (Wile, p.1)
For example, the teeth are hard and the tongue is soft. When the teeth and tongue do not properly meet, the tongue will be temporarily useless….” (Lo/Inn, p. 22)
In this sentence, Wile is clearly more on the ball, employing double entendre gleaned from Tai Chi precepts—keep your teeth lightly closed to prevent biting your tongue—in addition to using good comic timing. Lo/Inn’s, on the other hand, seems a bit awkward, and its meaning is unclear—exactly how is the tongue useless unless if it and the teeth don't meet properly? My tongue and teeth meet all sorts of ways, but my tongue only becomes useless when I bite it. Presumably Lo means that the teeth should meet lightly, with the tip of the tongue touching the hard palate, but that's not what he says.
I don’t intend to imply here that the Wile translation is superior to the Lo/Inn. I’m simply using this example to show how the particular wording of a translation can heighten meaning or lend some appropriate humor or drama. In fact, there are many instances where the Lo/Inn translation is more subtle or to the point than the Wile. Also to be fair, the Lo/Inn version came out a couple of years after Wile’s, so they had to take the trouble not only to translate, but to ensure they didn’t translate it exactly as Wile had.
So, really, in choosing between the books—if you must—the quality of the translations isn’t the issue. Some might prefer the Lo/Inn version simply because it contains more material than the Wile. Here is a breakdown of the material in each:
Introduction by Madam Cheng
Introduction by Benjamin Pang-jeng Lo
Bio of Cheng Man-ching by Min Hsiao-chi
The Thirteen Chapters
Explanation of the Essential Points
Professor Yang’s Essential Points of T’ai Chi Ch’uan
The Respected Transmission
“Song of Substance and Function”
Bio of Cheng Man-ching by Min Hsia-chi
Author’s Preface (Cheng)
The Thirteen Chapters
Wile’s is the no-frills model—Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters with original introduction—while Lo and Inn’s contains enough additional material to triple Wile’s page count. In both versions, the Thirteen Chapters itself occupies roughly the same number of pages: 72 in Wile, 77 in Lo/Inn (which utilizes a larger font and looser leading). But for those who own Cheng’s T’ai-Chi: The ‘Supreme Ultimate’ Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense (See above), the form instruction and push hands sections, which take up the lion’s share of the additional pages in the Lo/Inn version, are superfluous and actually inferior to the material contained the other book.
What remains is a smattering of useful information in the three very brief chapters coming immediately after the Thirteen Chapters, in the Q&A, in the one Tai Chi Classic (“Song of Substance and Function”), and in the “Glossary.” The latter contains many good and clearly stated concepts that are valuable, even for those with some experience at Tai Chi. But of course, we have Lo and Inn to thank for that, rather than Cheng. Finally, of course, there is the introduction by Madam Cheng, which lends heart to the book. And finally, the cover art is a painting by Cheng himself. Most Tai Chi Chuanists don't realize it, but Cheng's art is what initially brought him to America, not Tai Chi.
Clearly, I own both books, so I never made the choice between the two. I guess I believe that slightly different perspectives on the same material can’t be a bad thing. After all, two people can learn Tai Chi from the same teacher and exhibit differences in their forms—differences that aren’t right or wrong but are just different. Furthermore, different expressions of the same source material can be instructive.
To me, the Thirteen Chapters is what’s important. Cheng was a powerful presence in the Tai Chi community: a bridge-builder not just between between classic and modern Tai Chi but between mastery of Tai Chi in China and mastery of it in the United States. He was personally responsible for training a core of American Tai Chi players, many who have become well known for their expertise and who have further developed the art and passed it on to new generations of students. Moreover, the Thirteen Chapters—in either translation—is the first of Cheng’s two most substantially stated works on Tai Chi and is a significant addition to Tai Chi literature. If the work contains some stuff that’s less than optimal, so be it. Deflect the bad and receive the good.