By: Jan Kauskas
Tai Chi, Teachers, and Pursuit of Principle
Emergence from Shadow
by Jan Kauskas
(Via Media Publishing, 2014, 184 pages, 2018, 220 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Most books on Tai Chi and other martial and movement arts are didactic in method—they are, to a greater or lesser degree, textbooks that define the parameters of the art they describe. They generally discuss the fundamentals and principles of the art in question, and many attempt to define their art in terms of history, social norms, scientific and engineering principles, or philosophy, including ethics as well as meaning and spirituality. A great number also include an instruction section that features illustrations and written descriptions of how to perform the movements of the art and how to apply the movements in combat. Sometimes these are well done, sometimes less so. I delineate martial arts books into three categories:
1) Those that contain basic background and philosophy, working methodology, and form instruction;
2) Those that usually eliminate form instruction in favor of greater emphasis on dynamics and specific methodology
3) And those that emphasize fundamentals and principles or that are more purely historical or philosophical in scope.
The first sort of book is geared to the beginner and intermediate student, while the other two types are more for the intermediate and advanced student, though beginners often can benefit from them. Laoshi: Tai Chi, Teachers, and Pursuit of Principle and Laoshi’s Legacy: Emergence from Shadow, by Jan Kauskas, are examples of the third sort. The two books form a sort of yin/yang Tai Chi dynamic, the first book emphasizing the student/teacher relationship and the second the teacher/student relationship. In the first, the student learns Tai Chi from a teacher, and in the second, he learns how to be a teacher of Tai Chi. As becomes evident over the course of the two books, these two aspects are at the core of Tai Chi’s continual generation and development.
The Laoshi books, however, are not didactic exercises that discuss Tai Chi in terms of movement, martial applications, history, or philosophy. Instead, they employ a method not usually seen in martial arts literature, though parallels can be found in the basic question-and-answer sessions that one sometimes sees in Tai Chi books. One excellent example is T'ai Chi Ch'uan Ta Wen: Questions and Answers on T'ai Chi Ch'uan, by Chen Wei-ming. (Review here) In these Q&A sessions, students ask questions of the master, whose answers are sometimes straightforward, sometimes cryptic. If you haven’t read such a book, you probably should, though surely you’ve seen many kung fu movies in which the young acolyte asks questions of his or her teacher during training, who, as often as not, responds with fortune-cookie philosophy.
But the Laoshi books are more than a Q&A. Instead, they comprise what is essentially an extended Socratic dialog between a student and his teacher that unfolds over more than two decades and that strives to find the heart of Tai Chi rather than to parse its details. Such a dialog goes beyond mere Q&A, into the realm of conversation, in which instruction and talk are followed by rumination and practical examples that are followed in turn by more conversation and more rumination. Consequently, the books dip into a structural and stylistic territory that is fresh for Tai Chi books and offers an organic method of delivering in-depth information.
This is not to say that the Laoshi books are novelistic in approach. Although martial arts novels abound in the East, to my knowledge, there is only one Tai Chi novel in English: Secrets of the Tai Chi Circle: Journey to Enlightenment, by Luke Chan. (Review here) While that book bears some of the same hallmarks of Socratic dialog as the Laoshi books, it remains novelistic in that it follows a narrative to tell a story that has a plot in addition to the explicit and implicit Tai Chi instruction. The Laoshi books, though they do utilize a methodology that is more novelistic than the typical instructional Tai Chi text, are plotless and too picaresque to be novels in the strict sense. Kauskas simply calls them a semi-fictional memoir.
Laoshi tells the story of an unnamed Tai Chi player, loosely based on Kauskas himself, who I’ll call Student because, after all, he’s not actually Kauskas. After studying several martial arts other than Tai Chi with various teachers and masters, he becomes a student of Laoshi. The name Laoshi has often been attributed to Cheng Man-ching, but the character of Laoshi is not a real person or based on one. Instead, he is an amalgamation of various teachers and masters that Kauskas studied under. The word means “teacher” in Mandarin, and as Kauskas puts it, Laoshi represents “the best aspects of the many martial artists, whose skills dedication, and wisdom inspired me in my attempts to match their example.” And often, other teachers Kauskas mentions also are amalgams, perhaps including the character of one of Laoshi’s instructors: Wang Lang. Wang’s genesis in these books is unclear to me, but if he is fictional, he is appropriately named since there actually was a Wang Lang who lived during the Northern Song Dynasty (969–1126). This historical Wang is considered to be one of the most important martial arts masters of antiquity for his creation of Praying Mantis kung fu. Some teachers named in the Laoshi books, however, are—or were—real people, notably Billy Coyle, an Aikido expert who pioneered that art in his home country of Scotland and who died in 2011, and the aforementioned Cheng Man-ching (Zheng Manqing), who was one of Laoshi’s principal teachers and whose Tai Chi style and philosophy permeate the book.
The first book opens with Student just beginning his study under Laoshi, who he calls “the real deal, or at least as real as it gets these days.” (An ironic statement since Laoshi is a fictional character!) The first paragraph begins: “I’m not sure I like Laoshi, my teacher. I’m not sure he likes me. I’m not even sure you are supposed to like your teacher.”
Like each other or not, these two form a long-lasting and ever-deepening student/teacher bond whose history progresses through the course of the two books. Along the way, Student’s learning experiences, whether gained in a martial arts studio or on the streets of daily life, lead him to ponder the nature of the martial arts, Tai Chi, life, and the nature of reality and to pose questions on those and other subjects to his teacher. Laoshi almost always answers—usually warmly—in the manner of the archetypal martial arts master you’ve probably seen in hundreds of martial arts films.
Relentlessly wise and experienced, Laoshi is the teacher we all wish we’d had. Although some of his answers are as boilerplate as those of kung fu film masters, that isn’t necessarily a detraction. Any practitioner of the martial arts or reader of martial arts literature is going to be familiar with most of the principles, fundamentals, and philosophy contained in these books because they are built into this arena of human endeavor. It is the personal nature of the narrative that makes those principles, fundamentals, and philosophy live and breathe and speak deeply to us. But most of Laoshi’s responses to Student’s questions are too acute and involved to serve as chop-socky metaphors, and in the end, their occasional familiarity doesn’t detract from their basic profundity, which often is enhanced here by specific dilemmas or circumstances surrounding a given question posed by Student. A diamond, in other words, can look no better than cut glass unless it’s surrounded by a setting that helps focus attention on refractions of the gem's heart.
Another minor detraction is that the Socratic dialog occasionally seems forced. For example, well into Student’s apprenticeship—and after he’s taken over Laoshi’s teaching duties—he has an exchange with Laoshi during which Laoshi explains the paradoxes of the maxims from the Tai Chi Classics: “My opponent moves, but I move first,” and “Attack and defense are simultaneous.” I don’t quibble with Student’s finally “getting” these paradoxes internally. That’s what this book is about: discovering something, parsing it, and finally internalizing it. But until he finally starts wondering about these specific matters, he seems to have been completely ignorant of them, which is inconceivable in any advanced practitioner. These are among the basic self-defense concepts of Tai Chi and are spoken of frequently in the literature. Did Student never read the Classics?
But such is the nature of the Socratic dialog, in which students ask questions of the master that range from the profound to the profoundly obvious. The point is not literary realism but to relay knowledge and understanding. Still, Student’s ignorance in this area at such a late date in his training should have required a set-up that doesn’t exist in the exchange. But perhaps I quibble, and to be fair, the discussion of the topic proceeds to unfold over the course of many pages into a flower of significant depth and breadth, finally revealing the essence at its core.
Unlike most Tai Chi literature, the Laoshi books do not deal with Tai Chi dynamics, per se, or even form. The two principal Tai Chi-specific topics the author explores are push hands and swordplay, and the books would be especially valuable to readers with those same interests—and to students of Cheng Man-ching's Tai Chi, for there are many references to Cheng and his main students, most of whom are or were real people. But for Tai Chi players of other styles, there is plenty of practical information, ranging from discussions of the angle of the torso to thoughtful words on the potential legal complications that can arise from using martial arts in a real-life situation. And Student’s quest to become more learned as well as more expert in Tai Chi opens up meanings that apply beyond both dynamics and form and extend to life itself.
The narrative, such as it is, is not a straightforward rendition of Laoshi’s teachings and Student’s progress. It follows the general progression of Student’s apprenticeship, but throughout are asides, flashbacks, and reminisces in which both Laoshi and Student relate martial arts experiences—some gained from the time before their teacher/student relationship, some gained together. For Student, this brings in Billy Coyle, and for Laoshi, Cheng Man-ching and Wang Lang, among many others. Late in Laoshi’s Legacy, Laoshi tells Student, “If a successful taijiquan teacher is one with many students, then that success is not built on skill or teaching ability alone. It often comes down to who can tell the best stories.” This might be so. Instruction can elucidate principles, but stories bring principles to life. Instruction is the form, describing and delineating, while stories are push hands, illuminating the interplay of life’s shifting energies. In fact, the pages of both books are replete with concepts, stories, and quotations that the canny Tai Chi instructor might profitably borrow to more greatly inform his or her own students' practice.
So there are lots of asides, segues, and anecdotes to keep the texts of the two books moving in a literary rather than a didactic manner. This is important to the books' success, both in delivering information about Tai Chi and in developing an approach to the art that helps further one’s practice on multiple levels—not just the physical, but the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. In other words, these books are not just a dry reads—which isn’t necessarily bad—but are immersive and refreshing swims in the great Tai Chi river.
In the final analysis, Jan Kauskas has produced a pair of very fine books on Tai Chi that remind us that learning and teaching Tai Chi are not just about taking in or imparting the movements of a form, experiencing the interplay of push hands, or dealing with the mechanics of weapon play. It is as much about our connections to life and to the Tao. More than anything, the Laoshi books reveal both the ever-evolving nature of the art of Tai Chi and the evolution of the martial artist.