By: Li Po and Ananda
Wave Hands Like Clouds
by Li Po & Ananda
(Harper’s Magazine Press, 1975, 116 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The forward to Wave Hands Like Clouds clearly states that this is a training manual produced to satisfy the request of the authors’ students, and it lives up to that Category I status. The first chapter, “A Brief History of Tai Chi,” is, indeed, brief and starts with Chang San-feng then skips straight to the Yang family.
A chapter of warm-up exercises is next, all of which are primarily stretching. The next chapter, also brief, shows a couple of meditational chi kung postures that are pretty basic: standing post and horse stance. Another brief chapter on meditation is somewhat philosophical in tone but reveals little actual information.
Form instruction occupies most of the remainder of the book, and here, this book intrigued me somewhat because of the form it depicts, which is Kuang Ping. This style began with Wong. Kuo, who was a servant of Yang Ban Hou. Wong taught Kuo Lien Ying, who developed a solid pedigree in Tai Chi and began teaching in San Francisco in 1964, which is where the authors began studying with him.
Kuang Ping is a version of Yang style named after the province where Yang style founder Yang Lu-chan was born, and it is reputed to be the version of Yang style closest to Lu-chan’s original. As the authors write in the foreword, “The body positions encourage development of supple, flexible physique with deep, open leg positions and full extension of arms and legs. Kuang Ping Tai Chi is performed with broad steps and well-bent knees. It is a difficult Tai Chi to perform effortlessly, until the legs and lower back become strong and developed.”
Indeed, the stances occasionally seem awkwardly wide, and the extension of the arms is such that, on Single Whip, both arms are almost rigidly straight, which would seem to crimp chi flow through the shoulders. This style certainly isn’t for the old, and just looking at the photos makes my knees ache. The depth of stance is probably why the authors show all those stretching exercises early on.
I find this style interesting from an historical perspective because it shows not just an earlier form of Tai Chi but because the transmission comes through Yang Ban Hou, who also was the primary root in the development of Wu family and Northern Wu styles, both of which I’ve practiced. In character, it is something of a cross between traditional Yang style and Northern Wu, which is how the Wu family practiced until they left Beijing and, over the next few generations, developed a more compact small-frame style.
When you look closely, you can see that some of the postures are fairly unusual. The movement named Wild Horse Flinging Its Mane is done, for example, as sideways chopping blows, first with the right then with the left fist, instead of the simultaneous sweeping of the arms forward and backward typically seen in most tai chi forms.
The book then excerpts some phrases from the I Ching that are, perhaps, philosophically pertinent but are still pretty general regarding Tai Chi. And finally, there is a question-and-answer section that takes students’ questions and—I’m sorry—delivers relatively facile answers. “How can I use Tai Chi to defend myself?” asks one student, to which the authors respond, “The essential secret is never to use more than four ounces of your own strength against an opponent.” There’s more to this answer, but it doesn’t deviate from the statement of this first line. But the idea of using “four ounces to defeat a thousand pounds,” is really metaphoric, not an exact measurement. What is four ounces of strength, anyway? In reality, the Tai Chi exponent uses strength appropriately and in a way that does not directly oppose the force of the opponent. Ideally, this strength is not excessive but is precisely controlled, timed, and targeted.
Another question asks, “How is Tai Chi a ‘spiritual’ subject?” The authors answer: “It is spiritual in the sense that by continued practice, you become acquainted with aspects of yourself that have been hidden. Your practice is devotional. By sustaining interest, by performing this personal ritual, you are performing religious acts. You are using Tai Chi as a method for integrating the material and spiritual levels of being.” It’s not that this answer is wrong, but it’s pretty shallow. And it points out the conceptual weakness exhibited by many “New Age” Tai Chi teachers who consider the art to be some kind of magical practice (which it might be) but don’t really comprehend that some of the more profound levels of understanding—physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—merge only from practicing the art’s martial aspects.
I’m sorry to pick at these aspects of the book, but really, if you’re going to publish a Q&A session, better make sure the answers have real substance.
So, while the form depicted in this book interests me from an historical aspect, I really can’t find much else of interest or value in the book. For historians of Tai Chi forms and Kuang Ping exponents only.