By: Robert C. Sohn
Tao and T’ai Chi Kung
by Robert C. Sohn
(Institute for Self Development, 1978, 91 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Originally, I was going to include Tao and T’ai Chi Kung in the “Booklets and Pamphlets” series due to its obvious small-press origins. But author Robert C. Sohn reissued the book later in a trade paper edition. So, while I’m going to review the original publication in my possession, I’m treating it as a regular book publication.
The original edition had ninety-one pages: sixteen pages numbered with Roman numerals, fifty-six pages with Arabic numerals, and nineteen fold-out pages that are not numbered. In the total page count, I’m counting each fold-out as a single page since the fold-outs are printed only on one side. The fold-outs hold photos of Sohn demonstrating the form. The eighty-two numbered pages are a thick, stiff paper stock in an ugly dark cream color that makes the type hard to read.
The more recent edition has 152 pages—hopefully on white paper. I haven’t seen the distribution of pages, but I would suspect that the publisher of this edition melded the Roman numerals into Arabic numerals and eliminated the fold-out page idea in lieu of distributing the photos of the form on regular pages. Each fold-out sheet is the size of three regular pages, which means that, in normal page format, the form photos, printed at the same size they are in the first edition, would occupy fifty-seven pages. This makes a total of 127—something shy of the revised edition’s 152 pages—so it looks like Sohn might have added some material for the later edition.
That’s fine. More information is better. But thanks to its philosophical depth, even this early edition is a pretty good book of its type: a Category I book primarily for beginners. In it, Sohn draws on a widely erudite variety of materials, such as Hinduism and yoga in addition to the more-expected Buddhism, Taoism, and other martial arts, in discussing the more spiritual aspects of Tai Chi. This is the work of someone who has obviously thought long and hard on the subjects of Tai Chi and spirituality—and practiced psycho-physical arts the same way.
In his introduction, Sohn says he has an extensive background in yoga and Tang Soo Do Moo Dak Kwan, which he calls “an advanced Korean martial arts system.” I never heard of it, but that doesn’t mean anything. After some time, he found that his approach to the martial arts was shifting, and he realized that Tai Chi lay in the direction he was moving, so he took up the art. I guess he might have something going on since a photo in the book shows him standing, apparently comfortably, in a Golden Rooster posture while five guys lean against him at a forty-five-degree angle.
The philosophy starts out immediately in chapter one as Sohn presents passages on Taoism along with some of its history and characteristics. This moves into a discussion of the Wu Chi (the unmanifest state of non-being of the primordial universe), how it differentiates into yin and yang, and how that creates manifest reality. Within this manifest reality are the five forces—or elements—and their mutual reactions and interactions.
The author next gives a line-by-line interpretation of the first chapter of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching before going on to further elucidate the transformation of Wu Chi, through mechanisms of consciousness and mind-intent, into the reality in which we exist. Along the way, he tries to illustrate mankind’s relatively lowly place in the nature of things, and then he suggests that internal work—spirit and mind guiding the natural internal energies inherent in humans—can lead practitioners to higher states of reality. Self-development, he maintains, is the primary goal of chi-enhancing practices.
The next chapter goes into Tai Chi principles. Sohn starts this by extensively quoting one of the Tai Chi Classics attributed to Wang Tsung-yueh, who he calls Wang Shung Yueh, and explaining the meanings of Wang’s important points. This launches Sohn into a more in-depth exposition of Tai Chi principles. He doesn’t enumerate these but covers a lot of important ground in an expository manner.
Following this is a chapter that goes into some detail on technical aspects of practicing Tai Chi, such as overall posture, correct alignments, the tantien, stepping, and hand postures. He doesn’t skimp, and it’s all really good stuff for beginners—and maybe even for some lower-level intermediate students—and is basic for just about any Tai Chi style.
The chapter after this is a textual description of a version of Yang Style. The form is an extremely abbreviated one, consisting of just nineteen movements competently performed. The descriptions are okay, but the photos aren’t alongside them. Instead, they are, as mentioned earlier, displayed on nineteen fold-out sheets bound into the back of the book. I might guess that the idea was that you could lay the book flat and be able to both read the description and see most of the photos of the movement at the same time. But there’s a more likely scenario since even this doesn’t allow you to see all the pertinent photos without using your hands to shift pages.
This is, recall, basically a small-press publication, and at the time of its publication, the types of book binding available without having to spend an arm and a leg were limited. This book is bound with comb binding (See Binding Types), which not only was relatively inexpensive but was acceptable for manual-type books, such as car manuals, cookbooks, and how-to books that needed to be able to lie flat so the user could consult the contents hands-free.
In the case of this book, I think that the comb binding is more indicative of the cost-factor and general production provenance. While the pages of text have professional typesetting and are printed rather than photocopied, the fold-out pages with the photos are photocopies. This means, of course, that the photo reproduction is sub-par and grainy, but even so, Sohn’s figure is clear enough. But the point is that photocopying a layout of photos was far cheaper than professionally printing them, so this book is a combination production, using print and photocopy. The author did, however, have an ISBN, so the book could be sold in stores as well as by mail-order—no Internet back then. I would assume that in the more recent edition, the photos are properly reproduced.
As I’ve said, this is a worthwhile book of its type that goes into greater philosophical depth than do most books on Tai Chi. And the principles and basic structural tools of Tai Chi are clearly elucidated at some length. If you need this sort of book, this is as good as or better than most.
Finally, I don’t usually comment much on grammatical faux pas, but this one’s too good to pass up: This book seems to have been intended as the first installment of a series called the Awakening the Mind Series. The first text in the book is an intro by the two series editors: Steven J. Finando and Steven E. Handwerker. In speaking of Sohn, they write: “He is one of the few instructors in the United States of Chi Kung.” They obviously meant that “He is one of the few instructors of Chi Kung in the United States,” but I kind of like the way they wrote it. Wow, if only we were that enlightened!