By: Waysun Liao
Tai Chi Classics
by Waysun Liao
(Golden Oak Productions, 1977, 300 pages)
(Shambhala Classics, 2001, 224 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
I began practicing Tai Chi early in 1980, and as soon as I did, I began acquiring books on the subject. Most at the time were what I call Category I books: relatively basic glosses on the history, philosophy, and principles of the art accompanied by a series of photos or drawings depicting the author’s Tai Chi form. Some of these are better than others. Waysun Liao’s Tai Chi Classics isn’t one of those better ones. It’s much better. In fact, at the time of its initial publication, it was one of the best five books on Tai Chi available in English, all of which form, along with the several versions of the Tai Chi Classics, the founding core of Category III books on Tai Chi in English. These are the books that showed the rest of us writers the kinds of thoroughness and informational quality we should aspire to.
I recently reread it to see if I still thought that way, only to discover that it’s even better. That might be because I understand Tai Chi more now and can appreciate some of Liao’s statements that passed over my head in the early 1980s. But that’s not to say that the book was abstruse when I first read it. It isn’t, and in fact, it provided me several keys to advancement and imparted to me some of my earliest understandings of how Tai Chi functions on its more subtle levels. I probably ought to say here that the title is a bit misleading in that, while the Tai Chi Classics (the old ones, I mean) are included here, most of the book consits of Liao's thoughts.
Liao opens the book with a chapter on Tai Chi’s background. It is a fairly thorough discussion of the historical, philosophical, and cultural milieu out of which Tai Chi arose, but he deemphasizes the role of famous Tai Chi families (Chen, Yang, Wu, etc.) in furthering and disseminating Tai Chi in favor of a historical view that places the development of the art in the Wu Tang Mountains—this despite the fact that the form depicted in the second half of the book appears to be a fairly traditional Yang style.
Next is a chapter on chi, beginning with a definition that includes the concepts of li and jin. He then discusses breathing, which is critical to Tai Chi, and the idea of the mind leading the chi. Included are several exercises to improve breathing and to condense the chi within the body. He then goes into a section on the internal workings of Tai Chi, and winds up the chapter with methods to increase chi awareness that include an excellent and detailed exposition of how breathing functions to amplify and drive chi through the body.
He then discusses jin and internal power at length. This was almost unheard of in other Tai Chi books at the time of original publication, and this chapter is still highly informative. There may be a few more recent books that go into greater depth or detail on jin than this, but this is still a decent rendition that fairly successfully attempts to apply the principles of physics to Tai Chi—again, a relatively new concept to Tai Chi books of the day.
This chapter is followed by a long and solid translation of key Tai Chi Classics (the old ones, I mean) accompanied by commentary from the author on the meanings and concepts of these old documents. Again, this level of interpretation was generally not available in other Tai Chi books of the time, which has kept the book relevant despite its age. After all, Tai Chi is timeless, so a good book on it is timeless, too.
Finally, the book ends with the requisite series of illustrations of the form—in this case, crude line drawings rather than photos—and descriptive text. Despite the simplicity of the illustrations, they are done well enough and include arrows to indicate the direction of movement. The descriptive text is good, and the whole series is fairly detailed should you care to notice. But even if you completely ignore this section, which I pretty much did since I don’t practice Yang style, the rest of the book is so good that skipping this chapter doesn’t make the book seem slighter.
This review is based on the first edition of Tai Chi Classics, which was, essentially, a self-published effort. This was in those prehistoric days before personal computers, much less the Internet and on-demand publishing, and the book exhibits primitive production values in contrast to the excellence of the material. The type was set on a typewriter, with typographical errors simply struck over rather than erased and replaced, and the illustrations are all crude line drawings by the author. But as simple as they are, the drawings manage to convey Liao’s points. The book was printed in two volumes via photocopier, each volume bound with plastic strips. I’m not sure why Liao didn’t find a real publisher for this book at the time because it was a lot better than 95 percent of the other books out there. And still is.
Apparently, though, he finally did find a publisher: none other than Shambhala Books, which republished it in 2001. (The cover of that edition is shown above alongside the images of the older edition.) The fact that a publisher of this caliber has reissued the work speaks to its excellence. I do not currently have a copy of the reissue so I can’t do a real comparison between the two editions, but I did glance through the few pages I could see on the Amazon site. It seems that it’s pretty much the same book but with a few improvements, which can’t be bad when you start out with something this good. I didn’t see any of the drawings in the pages I could look at, but I assume they’re the same as in the original edition, but they have been updated, too.