By: Li Xianwu
By Li Xianwu
(Originally published in 1933, Brennan Translations, October 2015. 179 pages.)
Review by Christopher Dow
These days, Tai Chi manuals such as this are all over the place in terms of both quantity and quality. Li Xianwu’s Taiji Boxing trends on the more interesting and informative side for several reasons. Following a brief introduction in which the author lays out his martial arts background, he launches into a history of Tai Chi that begins: “The genesis to Chinese martial arts cannot be examined.” By this he apparently means that records do not exist, are unclear, or rely too much on legend and hearsay.
Even so, he does begin with a fairly standard account that includes the Yellow Emperor, Hua To’s Five Animal Frolics, and Damo’s (Bodhidharma) contribution of the two classics, Sinew Changing and Marrow Washing, and the eighteen original postures of Shaolin kung fu. Then the account becomes more interesting. Jumping ahead several centuries, Li mentions a head Shaolin monk, Jueyuan, who, he says, further developed Damo’s eighteen postures into seventy-two techniques. Finding these insufficient, Jueyuan invited an apparently famous martial artist named Bai Yufeng to come to the temple to combine his martial art with that of Shaolin. With the Five Animal Frolics mixed in, Bai produced more than a hundred and seventy-two techniques, which were divided into five major styles: dragon, tiger, leopard, snake, and crane.
But this is a Tai Chi manual, and here Li moves quickly to Chang San-feng and his creation of Long Boxing, also called Wudang Boxing after the mountains where Chang lived. Most Tai Chi folks know the general outline that follows, which lineage includes Wang Tsung-yueh and ending at Chen Zhoutong. But Li isn’t content to follow this easy path in such a straightforward way. Instead, he offers five alternate versions. (See the review of Taiji Boxing Explained by Yao Fuchun and Jiang Rongqiao for a similar but earlier take on these same five alternate origin stories.)
The first considers Xu Xuanping. No date of his life is given, but his description sounds a lot like Chang San-feng except that he lived at Mt. Chengyang. Xu developed a thirty-seven posture Tai Chi style that did not rely on a set pattern to be followed but that did rely on the now classic Thirteen Postures of Ward Off, Rollback, Press, Push, Pluck, Split, Elbow Strike, and Shoulder Strike. Five pieces of writing that Li seems to ascribe to Xu follow the brief bio of Xu’s life. These are clearly versions of the standard Tai Chi Classics.
The second alternate version regards a Mr. Yu of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), who learned his Tai Chi from one Li Daozi, who called it Innate Nature Boxing. The author says that Li Daozi lived in the Wu Dang Mountains, preserving that connection to the development of Tai Chi. His art also consisted of thirty-seven postures. Mr. Yu taught a couple of other men also surnamed Yu, who passed the art on to more Yus, so perhaps this is an early example of a family Tai Chi art disseminated through several generations. A single verse by Mr. Yu follows the scanty bio.
In the third version, Tai Chi was transmitted by Cheng Linxi, who, Li says, single-handedly protected Xi County during the Houjing Rebellion (548—552). He learned his boxing art from Han Gongyue and passed it on to Cheng Bi. He is noted for reducing the postures from thirty-seven to fourteen, so he might be considered the father of the short form. The author presents two classics by Cheng, which are not terribly similar to the standard Tai Chi Classics.
The fourth alternate version regards what was called the Acquired Nature Method, transmitted by Yin Liheng to Hu Jingzi, who taught it to Zhong Shu. Although this was a seventeen-posture system, its usage was similar to other Tai Chi and Tai Chi-like styles.
Number five is the venerable story of Chang San-feng and his well-known unknown lineage. What is notable about this section, which is easily the longest of the five, is the sheer number of names the author mentions, which occupy two branches: Northern styles and Southern styles. Prominent are Wang Tsung-yue, a famous early author of Tai Chi Classics and possible disseminator of Tai Chi to the Chen family, the Chen family, the Yang family, and the Wu Quan-yu family.
Up next is what is termed a “lineage chart,” though it is not a chart but a simple listing of names of prominent practitioners and their major students. This “chart” might be very helpful to some in determining their own lineage, if that is important to you. For me, it places the author within the Northern Wu style, which I very much appreciate since that’s that style I practice and for which there are only a few books available.
But this isn’t to say that this book is geared to Northern Wu stylists alone, except for the form instruction section, which I’ll get to in a moment. Before that, Li discusses a great many general Tai Chi topics and concepts. These discussions are not new or revolutionary, but they do contain solid advice. Topics covered are the meaning of the art’s name, advantages to practicing Tai Chi, fundamentals, postural principles, and essential principles. Much of this material can be found in the Tai Chi Classics, but here the author lays everything out clearly with his commentary.
Following this is a description of the thirty-seven postures. Each posture is named, with and explanation for the name, its effects, and an application or two, though without photos or illustrations. I know a number of applications for each movement that he does not describe, but I take his descriptions to be catalysts rather than encyclopedic.
All of the above material takes up forty-six pages, and most of the rest of the book is devoted to form instruction in Northern Wu style. The photos aren’t the best, but they’re clear enough, and the verbal descriptions are, at worst, adequate. As I said earlier, it’s nice to see the style I practice illustrated in a book, particularly one from the early years of the 20th century. And Li’s form looks pretty good.
The next chapter covers push hands. The verbal descriptions include applications, and the photos are adequate, at least for single-hand pushing. When it comes to Four Corners,though, performing that is hard enough with hands-on instruction, and I’m not really sure that any beginner can learn it from a few words and photos.
The book winds up with a chapter relating several Tai Chi Classics, though without attribution. A lot of this material has already been stated in the pages before the form instruction section, but to my mind, restating and rereading the principles of Tai Chi are always valuable.
I will say that I like this book very much, and that’s not solely due to it’s depiction of Northern Wu style. It is informative, offers a unique view of Tai Chi history, and is written with clarity. I’d recommend this book to Tai Chi Chuanists of any style.