By: Chu Minyi
Taiji Boxing Photographed
By Chu Minyi
(Originally published by The Many Blessings Company of Shanghai, 1929. Brennan Translations, February 2016. 77 pages.)
Review by Christopher Dow
Chu Minyi’s Taiji Boxing Photographed is an interesting book from a couple angles. At first glance, it is just another Tai Chi instruction manual, led off with some prefatory material on the art’s history, theory, and principles, with a fair number of Tai Chi Classics thrown in. Not much new here, though it is all well stated. But that first-glance impression quickly changes with a slightly closer examination.
In the first place, this is one of the earliest books I’ve seen on Wu Family Tai Chi, which makes it special for that alone. But when you look at the form instruction section, you see that it consists only of the names of the postures accompanied by photographs that are poorly reproduced or, as appears to me, are early color photos whose red pigments have long since faded. Red is usually the first color to vanish from photographs and printed material due to the fact that, in the past and even now, most red pigments are plant-based and prone to decay and are thus transient. Permanent red and yellow pigments, such as the cadmiums, are byproducts of various industrial/chemical processes and were not readily available or cost-effective a century ago, which was when this book was originally published.
But faded or not, these photographs depict none other than Wu Chien-chuan, teacher of the author. Wu, who appears to be in his forties or fifties, performs the entire Wu Family set. For that alone, this book is a valuable addition to the Wu stylist’s library, especially as Wu Chien-chuan was of the generation that defined Wu style before it split into its two major branches: Wu Family style and Northern Wu style.
The other interesting facet of the book is the material in the chapters on Tai Chi practice equipment that the author invented. These chapters clarified for me a YouTube video I’d previously seen, now titled “Tai Chi Training Chu Minyi,” though I think it was titled something like "Early Wu Style Tai Chi," or something like that when I first ran across it. This video shows Chu performing a Wu style set at a fairly fast pace then pushing hands with a young and much smaller opponent—all pretty normal stuff, until we see Chu demonstrating his training equipment. One doesn’t usually associate training equipment with Tai Chi, though other kung fu styles utilize equipment like punching bags, wooden dummies of various sorts, and other equipment. One problem is that Tai Chi is a dynamic art that is reactive, and it's hard to convince a wooden dummy or a punching bag to attack first. But Chu worked out a couple of unique solutions.
The basis of Chu’s primary piece of equipment is a framework structure that resembles the frame of a ten by ten foot canopy tent you might set up in your back yard. In one configuration, Chu has a four-foot dowel suspended at waist height by eight bungee cords. Four cords attach the dowel to the frame's four feet and four attach it to the upper corners. This leaves the dowel suspended in the middle in state of flexible stasis. In the video, you can watch Chu push this dowel up and down and back and forth using not just his hands and arms, but also the front, back, and sides of his torso.
In the second configuration, Chu has removed the bar and bungee cords and replaced them with a large ball, also suspended at waist height by a single bungee cord. The substance and weight of this ball are not readily apparent in the video, but in the book Chu explains that the ball is about one and a half feet in diameter, weighs about twenty pounds, and is fashioned of a brass shell with a nickel coating. The elastic cord suspending the ball allows the ball to bounce and otherwise react to pressure from the person using the device.
Chu also demonstrates how to use the same ball, now detached and lying on the ground, to practice kicks and evasions with the legs. And finally, there is another device that consists of a one-foot ball mounted on a spring-loaded pole, that also can be pushed and otherwise manipulated by the user.
Chu invented these devices to act as substitutes when a push-hands partner was not available. All the elements that are "weighted" and reactive, thanks to the bungee cords—the bar and the balls—allow the user to practice pushes and other yang movements, causing the bar or ball to react to the user energy. And that reaction then sends the energy back at the user, allowing the user to practice neutralization and evasions. The two most interesting videos are at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCjORjDZf-w and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yunNm1NJ6Ls. The first of these also shows him practicing archery and bouncing a shuttlecock in a game we’d now call hacky sack, which he also covers at the end of the book. The video narration is in Chinese, which is why I never got the background of Chu's exercise equipment, but in the book, translator Paul Brennan has thoughtfully provided a translation of the video narration.
This book and the video, which were made in tandem, might be the first such multimedia combination of Tai Chi instruction on record. If it's not the first, it's certainly among the earliest. Likewise, the Tai Chi form that Chu demonstrates in the film is an early version of Wu Family style that more closely resembles the broader Northern Wu Style than it does the form currently being taught by the Wu family, which exhibits very compact movements. And finally, I do have to say that it’s kind of amusing to watch Chu practice the Tai Chi form while wearing jodhpurs and knee boots, but he seems to do pretty well despite that.
For me, Taiji Boxing Photographed wound up being a lot more interesting than I thought it would be when I started reading it. There might be clearer photos elsewhere of Wu Chien-chuan performing the form, but this early set of photographs is still well worth taking a look at. And Chu’s unique equipment, once a YouTube mystery, has now been explained and clarified.