By: Ma Yueh-liang / Wu Ying-hua
Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan
Forms, Concepts and Applications of the Original Style
by Wu Ying-hua & Ma Yueh-liang
(Shanghai Book Co., 1988, 216 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The two authors of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan: Forms, Concepts and Applications of the Original Style are historically important figures in the development of Tai Chi. They are members of a generation that formed the bridge between the old masters and modern Tai Chi. Wu Ying-hua was the daughter of Wu Chien-chuan, the codifier of Wu Family style, and Ma Yueh-liang was her husband. Both not only were highly acclaimed masters, but also were, for decades, the core of Wu Family style. Their offspring have helped carry Wu Family style into many areas of Europe and North America, and with this book, which can be justly considered an authoritative definition of Wu Family style, they further disseminated their art worldwide. This is definitely a Category I book, and while it is a very good one, it is not without flaws.
The book opens with a brief biographical sketch of Wu Chien-chuan and moves from there into a chapter on the history of Wu Family Tai Chi. This history begins with Chuan You (Quan-yu), a Manchurian who learned Tai Chi from the Yang Family—first Yang Lu-chan and then Yang’s son, Yang Ban-Hao. The latter, in particular, was materially responsible for Wu Family style’s smaller frame. The text then succinctly moves on through Wu Chien-chuan to the authors, and includes descriptions of some of the characteristics that distinguish Wu Family style from other Tai Chi styles.
A chapter on Tai Chi as a health exercise comes next, in which the authors discuss the effects of Tai Chi’s slow speed, relaxed nature, and mental aspects. Tai Chi, they point out, has positive effects on endurance, the nervous system, and coronary health, among others. The chapter also touches on the importance of mind and the nervous system, and although it does this a little more thoroughly than do most Category I books, it does not go deeply into the subject. The paragraph on abdominal breathing is too cursory, and does not spend time comparing and contrasting the various types of abdominal breathing. This is, in my opinion, a fault, since abdominal breathing is highly critical to the proper functioning of Tai Chi, and descriptions of methods of abdominal breathing do not typically occupy a lot of space.
The following chapter lays out Tai Chi’s characteristics and precepts: overcoming hardness with softness, meeting offense with calmness, winning through lesser strength but greater skill, and retreating in order to advance. Each of these elements is described at some length and take in other aspects, such as circularity, the idea of “hearing” an opponent’s force, following, and adapting yourself “in compliance with your opponent.”
Special features of Tai Chi come next. These include the meaning of the name, “Tai Chi Chuan,” the distinction between soft and hard martial arts, and using the mind rather than force. A chapter detailing mental and bodily preparations follows. Under the heading of mental preparation, it discusses the ideas of stillness of mind, apparent lightness of movement, double-weighting, stepping, slowness, continuity of movement, and exactness of movement. Under the heading of bodily preparation, it discusses correct alignments, suspending the crown of the head, dropping the shoulders and elbows, hollowing the chest, and sinking the chi into the tantien.
“Managing the Internal Chi,” is the title of the next chapter, which the authors lead off by stating that Tai Chi “is the three-in-one exercise of the mind, the chi and the body.” They go on to talk about how the mind controls the chi, which then motivates the body. They also distinguish types of chi and how chi relates to breathing and to the tantien. This is a short chapter, but it’s well packed with information.
Chapter seven goes over various stances, palm forms, and methods of turning the body. This is followed by the book’s longest chapter: the form instruction section. This section is fairly well done, and utilizes quite a large number of well-done line drawings of Wu Ying-hua accompanied by sufficiently detailed text. The drawings have arrows, where appropriate, to indicate direction of movement. I suppose you could learn to do Wu Family style from this, but really, how many people actually learn how to do a Tai Chi form from a book?
The next chapter, on tui shou, is almost pointless since it merely lists the different types of push hands but does not go into any explanation or detail. A virtually useless foot-stepping diagram appears next. This ends the main text, but there remain about seventy pages of appendices.
The first appendix consists of the Tai Chi Classics attributed to Chang San-feng. These are rendered in prose. The next appendix is titled “Key to the Thirteen Kinetic Postures,” but instead of talking about the Thirteen Postures, it lays out more of Tai Chi’s basic principles. It’s all good information, but nothing here is out of the ordinary or particularly deep. More Tai Chi Classics occupy the next three appendices, and after these comes a series of photos of Wu Chien-chuan doing the form. This is not a complete form, but it’s interesting to observe this important Tai Chi master’s postures.
The final appendix is a series of photos of Wu Ying-hua performing the complete form. I have to wonder why the authors bothered to include this. A quick comparison of the photos with the line drawings in the instructional section shows that the line drawings were traced directly from the photos. This means that the book wastes 44 pages with repetitive material. The line drawings serve quite well, but if it was important to show photos of Wu doing the form, then those should have been used in the instructional section instead of the drawings.
For Wu Family stylists, this is a valuable book. While flawed, it is nonetheless historically important for depicting Wu Family style at an important stage of its development. For beginners of other styles, it contains a great deal of useful, non-style-specific information on Tai Chi, but the information, while no worse, also is no better than similar material in scores of Category I Tai Chi books.
Wu Style Taichichuan Tuishou
by Ma Yueh-liang and Zee Wen, MD
(Shanghai Book Co., Ltd., 1986, 86 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The International Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan Federation is one good place to find information on Wu Family Tai Chi, but until recently, Wu style practitioners have had far fewer resources for information about the genesis, development, and unique characteristics of their style than Yang stylists have enjoyed. Any further elucidation, however slight, is welcome, and Ma Yueh-liang’s several books provide valuable information from a master close to Wu style’s origins.
Ma Yueh-liang might not have been a blood member of the Wu family, but he not only married into it, he so excelled at the art that he became famous in his own right for the skills he honed. He also is notable for being the teacher of Sophia Delza, whom he taught in the years shortly after WWII. Delza was the first person to demonstrate Tai Chi to the American public, to openly teach the art in the United States, and to publish a book in English on Tai Chi: T’ai-Chi Ch’uan: Body and Mind in Harmony.
Ma was well-known for his tuishou (push hands), a skill that he apparently did not fully develop until later in life, and he directed the Shanghai Chien Chuan Tai Chi Chuan Association. He left fewer than a handful of books, but a large legacy.
The book opens with a preface by Delza, and there is a certain irony in this, though I know why it was done. Delza was one of the most prominent Tai Chi figures in the U.S. for many years, and practically the sole promoter of Wu Style practitioner in a Tai Chi sphere dominated by Yang Style. This makes her the obvious choice to write the preface. But Delza was known for promoting the exercise, artistic, and self-development aspects of Tai Chi rather than its martial side, so the irony rests in her prefacing a book on tuishou.
Delza’s preface is followed by a forward and introduction by co-author Zee Wen. In them, he relates a pinch of history and a dash of philosophy and touches on a few of Tai Chi’s more obvious principles. A short chapter, also by Dr. Zee, discusses tuishou and its relationship to practice of the Tai Chi form in broad strokes. Next is a chapter on Wu Chian-chuan (Wu Chien-chuan) and the Chian-chuan Taichichuan Association, which was the name of the Wu family organization prior to World War II, during which time the Japanese occupiers of China suppressed the martial arts. The text includes biographical information on Wu Chian-chuan and an outline of the formation and development of the association. The text glosses over the years of WWII but picks up after the war and states that several decades passed before the association fully rebounded. Today, Wu style’s many branches are subsumed under the International Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan Federation.
Then it’s on to the body text of the book, which comprises three parts, the third being an appendix. Part one consists of five chapters, each on some aspect of Tai Chi or tuishou. Chapter one—“Longevity and Eternal Spring”—lays out the philosophical background of Tai Chi as an intimate melding of health and martial practices that trains the practitioner to utilize skill rather than brute strength. Dedicated practice produces a relaxation and stillness reaction rather than an alarm reaction, preserves physiological and mental health, and strengthens the bones. Each of these three aspects are discussed over several paragraphs.
Chapter two introduces what the author call the “Thirteen Kinetic Movements” of Tai Chi. These are more commonly referred to as the “Thirteen Postures,” and they form the foundation of all Tai Chi movements. An overview divides the Thirteen Postures into the eight directions, or Eight Gates, and the Five Steps, which are further linked to the theory of the five Chinese elements. Then the authors provide a more in-depth analysis of each of the Eight Gates and Five Steps. The descriptions here are clearly stated and are generally superior to similar definitions found in other Tai Chi texts. Throughout, the authors stress that the force of the practitioner’s application of any of the Thirteen Postures against an opponent is completely dependent on the force applied by the opponent. In other words, the practitioner meets light force with light response and heavy force with heavier response and utilizes the energy of the opponent to impel one's own movement.
Chapter three is titled “The Characteristics and Mechanical Fundamentals of Tuishou.” It opens with a recitation of Ma’s five-character motto for learning Tai Chi: calmness, lightness, slowness, exactness, and perseverance. Tai Chi is the art of using the mind rather than force, and the authors state that this does not mean that no exertion is need in combat, but that mind-concentrated force is much more powerful than physical force. Each of the five elements is then elucidated with similar depth as the authors gave to their discussion of the Thirteen Postures.
The next chapter defines five characteristics of Tai Chi: overcome hardness with softness, meet offense with calmness, win with lesser strength but superior skill, retreat in order to advance, and use circular movements. Following that they discuss four points that illustrate the mechanical fundamentals of tuishou: the rule of the center of gravity; the role of “coupling,” which is the use of two forces moving in opposite directions to create circular movement (such as two fingers gripping a key and pushing in opposite directions to turn it in a lock); and impulse and momentum, the prolongation of which produces greater internal force.
Chapter four delves into the way that practiced skill accrues over time to produce what Ma calls “strength perception,” but which Tai Chi exponents more commonly know as “sensing jin”: the ability to sense the direction and quality of an attacking force even as it is being initiated, allowing the practitioner to deal with it in the most effective way possible. This skill, the authors state, is the root of tuishou excellence and is the result of self-cultivation rather than rote muscle memory.
Chapter five is devoted to a question-and-answer session in which Ma (and occasionally Sophia Delza) answer questions on a variety of Tai Chi topics, ranging from the need for correct posture to health to the characteristics of fast Tai Chi forms.
Part two moves away from the philosophical and into the practical, and it contains a great many photos to illustrate the points in the text. It begins with basic stances and various hand postures, then goes into specific instructions for several tuishou forms, starting with single-hand push hands with fixed steps. Double-hand with fixed steps is next, followed by thirteen variations on double-hand, fixed-step operations. Tuishou with moving steps is illustrated next, and there are six variations shown, including da lu, sometimes called the “big pulldown,” though the form shown here is somewhat different than the da lu I learned. This ends the major text, leaving the book to close with an appendix containing translations of five of the Tai Chi Classics.
I’m not generally a fan of form-instruction material in Tai Chi books. Tai Chi and its ancillary forms such as tuishou are difficult enough to learn from a live teacher and are, I believe, practically impossible to learn from a book, even given willing participants. So, while the instructional section on tuishou is highly detailed and well illustrated, it can be easily skimmed over by the novice, who might gain little from it. But this section could be of value to folks who already are versed in tuishou and who are looking to expand their repertoire. Part one, however, contains a great deal of important information that can apply to any Tai Chi style, not just Wu.
In addition, the text relates several anecdotes that highlight Ma’s extraordinary skills in repelling force with movements that seem almost invisible. This section alone is worth the price of admission—if one can now afford it. I bought this book for $5 in 1986, but Amazon’s website shows new copies being sold for as much as $53, though copies can also be had for under $20. The former seem to be offerings by resellers, who always jack up the price to make their profit.