By: Edward Maisel
Tai Chi for Health
by Edward Maisel
(Delta Books, 1963, 212 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
How ironic that the first two books on Tai Chi Chuan in English were not translations of existing Chinese books on the subject or new books written in English by Chinese masters. Instead, they were written by Americans: Sophia Delza’s Body and Mind in Harmony (1961) being the first in 1961, with Edward Maisel’s Tai Chi for Health appearing two years later.
Maisel served as director of the American Physical Fitness Research Institute and was a consultant to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. His wife, Betty Cage, an administrator at the New York City Ballet, taught Tai Chi at the School of American Ballet until her death in 1999. Maisel learned Tai Chi in Hawaii, and he subsequently studied with teachers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. This makes him and Cage, along with Robert W. Smith and a handful of others, early American adopters of a movement art and exercise form that must have seemed pretty odd to Westerners at the time. It still does!
In the preface, Maisel notes his debt to Dr. William C. Hu, librarian at the Asia Center of the University of Michigan, for making available the scholarly material Hu was collecting for a monograph on the history of Tai Chi. I did a cursory search on Hu and found several titles by him on aspects of Chinese culture, but I didn’t see one on Tai Chi. I’ll keep looking and will revise this review if I find something on such a monograph. But the important point to note is that Maisel’s book is fairly well researched.
The book opens with language that readers of books on Tai Chi will find very familiar: about relaxation, non-strenuous movement, health benefits, and so forth. It’s like watching an old movie that was ground-breaking at the time of its release and saying, “I’ve seen that sort of thing a thousand times,” and knowing that the original you're watching was a progenitor of those thousand. And with Tai Chi, real information isn’t transitory but is ageless. That’s why the Tai Chi Classics remain valid and fertile although most are between one and two centuries old, with some possibly older.
And so it is with Maisel’s book. While it is a Category I book, it is quite a good one. He opens, in fact, with a statement that I think is absolutely necessary to make: “The basic, if slightly embarrassing, truth about exercise is plain enough: nobody wants to do the awful stuff. Yet for most of us, calisthenics, that unwanted addition to the unpleasantries of daily existence, has remained the only practical way of keeping fit.”
This goes right to the heart of Tai Chi practice: Practice. If you don’t do something, you won’t get it, and you won’t reap the benefits. And the statement also highlights one simple fact: The hardest move to do in Tai Chi is to step into your practice space. Right up front, Maisel lays out the foundation necessary for building the determination to practice daily over a long period of time.
The opening chapter covers Tai Chi basics, from the number of movements in the form to breathing. Nice is the paragraph labeled, “Not a Dance or a Performance,” although it emphasizes the exercise aspect of Tai Chi rather than the martial. I have to wonder if this isn’t a reference to Delza’s book. Delza, who is credited for opening the first Tai Chi school in the U.S. as well as for publishing the first book in English on the art, was a dancer and reportedly did not teach or practice Tai Chi as a martial art. The text here is informational rather than specifically instructional.
The next chapter delves into Tai Chi and health. The information here also focuses mostly on Tai Chi as exercise and the benefits that accrue from that, such as continuing flexibility, flowing movement, and stability. All good advice while still not mentioning Tai Chi’s martial nature.
Chapter four goes into the mental aspect of Tai Chi, which is only rarely talked about at any length in Tai Chi literature despite its critical importance. Tai Chi, Maisel points out, can act simultaneously as tranquilizer and motivator, and that it remains interesting unlike rote exercises. Awakened mental powers, a greater sense of the wholeness of the fabric of life, and psycho-somatic benefits are just some of the ways that Tai Chi can engender or facilitate personal development, which is a major goal of practice.
Tai Chi’s positive effects on the heart occupy the next chapter, and the one after looks at how Tai Chi’s training in correct body alignment, its proper use of muscles and tendons, and its rotational qualities assist in aiding relaxation and relief from chronic body aches caused by improper alignments that create undue muscle strain. Both of these chapters draw on Maisel’s professional experience in physical fitness.
Then comes the form instruction, showing a long Yang style and led off by a list of ten basic rules of Tai Chi, all important and succinctly stated. The instructional text is sufficient, and there are plenty of photos to follow. The photos show four different people doing the form: a slightly older man and woman and a somewhat younger man and woman, all Anglo. Judging by the clothing, the photos are contemporaneous with the book’s initial publication. I assume that the older two people are Maisel and Cage. Perhaps the younger two are their grown children? In any case, all their postures are pretty good as might be expected from people versed in physical fitness, and the clothing is tight-fitting enough to clearly see the postures.
The form instruction is followed by a chapter on the history of Tai Chi. Maisel presents a history that is full but painted in broad brushstrokes, linking the art with both Taoism and early forms of Chinese pugilism. Included is a brief bio of Chang San-feng that Maisel accomplishes without ever mentioning Chang’s name. I guess that’s Maisel leaving a cliffhanger ending since the next chapter is titled, “The Search for the Mysterious Old Man.”
This chapter quickly names Chang San-feng and goes into his story, and it also is where Maisel finally discusses the martial aspect of Tai Chi. He credits Chang as being a historical figure but wisely says, “There are, indeed, many scholars who have been content simply to credit him as the originator without considering any of the figures who may have come before or after.” He goes on to tell a pretty complete rendering of the Chang San-feng legend, which he then uses to good effect to highlight the importance of effortlessness in Tai Chi.
Chapter ten continues Tai Chi history with the transmission of the art—in a pretty glossed-over rendition—from Chang to the Chen Family, with…, well, with some folks in between. I guess you can’t do much else but gloss over this gaping hole in Tai Chi history, though plenty of Tai Chi authors have done their best to fill it, sometimes with questionable material. In going from the Chens to Yang Lu-chan, though, Maisel's story is more complete, even if it is the standard story of Yang sneaking peeks at the Chens during practice and picking up the form better than they. But the author enlivens the tale with anecdotal touches, such as colloquially referring to Ch’en Chang-hsing, the 14th generation Chen style master who taught Yang Lu-chan, as Straight-jacket Chen. Simple details can add a lot to the ambience and characters of a story. The history continues through the Yang Family and into modern times, noting that Tai Chi was then poised to spread across the globe. Prescient words for 1963.
These historical sections are a lot more detailed than are most similar tellings in other books, though as with most such tellings, parts of them have to be consumed with care to prevent choking. But they’re well told here, as good stories should be, and are fairly rounded. The final chapter introduces the Tai Chi Classics and translates three fairly substantial ones.
When I first read this book very early in my Tai Chi journey, I was less impressed with it than I am now. I’ve called it a Category I book, but it stretches the scope of that into Category II. If it’s lacking anything, it’s more specific information on dynamics, but really, that’s the subject of a whole book—or more—of its own.
It’s clear that Maisel’s purposes in writing this book were to introduce Tai Chi to the West and to impart real information about the art and its many aspects. He actually had something to say, and I can see that he absorbed and made the most of the historical material loaned to him by Dr. Hu. So it’s important to note that Maisel’s book isn’t just an extended essay on Tai Chi but a fairly well-researched and detailed work, at least for an introductory text. Maybe that’s because it was a pioneer, and pioneers have to more carefully chart their course. In any case, with this book, Maisel set a pace that was substantial and steady.
Wikipedia entry: “Edward Maisel”
Wikipedia entry: “Sophia Delza”
Wikipedia entry: “Tai Chi”
Inventory of the Sophia Delza Papers, 1908–1996