By: William Ting
Essential Concepts of Tai Chi
It is - It is Not - IT IS
by William Ting
(Xlibris/William Ting, 2015, 138 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Normally when purchasing an unknown book, one should follow the old adage: Buyer beware. In the case of William Ting’s Essential Concepts of Tai Chi, the phrase should be: Buyer be aware. Be aware while you’re reading, because this book is stuffed with excellent material.
Essential Concepts of Tai Chi opens with eight pages of accolades for Ting’s first book, Answers to Common Tai Chi and Qigong Questions. I haven’t had a chance to read that book, but apparently is consists of sixty-five general questions and answers about Tai Chi and chi kung. This foreword is followed by a twelve page introduction by one of Ting’s students. The latter has some substance, but like the preceding pages, it is mostly praise for Ting. After a while, all this seems a bit much, but these sections are easily skipped in favor of Ting’s own words and ideas.
And excellent words and ideas they are. Chapter one states Ting’s purpose for the book and includes why and how he came to learn Tai Chi. And why he teaches. By the end of this short chapter, I had a good sense of how generous and sincere a teacher he might be, and even this early, it’s obvious that he is out to tell you something worth hearing.
Chapter two discusses chi and its relation to life as well as to Tai Chi. This discussion goes into greater depth on the subject than is the norm among Tai Chi books, and Ting’s inventive metaphors and examples help clarify what is often a difficult subject, particularly for beginning students. Elements touched on are the difference between the “chi” in “Tai Chi” and “chi” energy, different qualities that chi energy can take (both positive and negative), silk reeling, and awareness, health, and emotions as they affect and are affected by chi.
The next chapter details fundamentals of Tai Chi practice as they relate to balance, mind, and body. These three aspects are followed by what Ting calls Tai Chi’s “24 Musts,” which are important points to adhere to in order to establish correct physical structures and alignments within the Tai Chi form. In essence, these points are simply concepts from the Tai Chi Classics that have been recast in plain language and enumerated in ways that highlight their meaning and significance. Each aspect is given ample play, and while experienced Tai Chi players will easily recognize the importance of these points, beginners can benefit greatly from the clearness of Ting’s presentation.
The chapter continues with an explanation of five vital connections within a Tai Chi Chuanist’s body: shoulders/hips, elbows/knees, fingers/toes, nose/navel, and tailbone/feet. Tai Chi’s three structural bows are considered next, followed by Ting’s views on unity and central equilibrium and how these aspects are affected by chi. Several photos aid the explanations.
Chapter four goes into some detail on the use of the mind in Tai Chi and how the practice of Tai Chi affects the mind in return. Chapter five portrays the idea of mutual and simultaneous giving and receiving, both mental and physical. Several diagrams show how these ideas can be refined and refined again to create a oneness of action and reaction: a true and subtle interaction.
The dichotomy of flowing and firmness occupies the next chapter. The concept of sung is important here in developing an elastic mental and physical nature in which flow and firmess each have their play, leading to mastery of jin. Emptiness and fullness receive a similar treatment in the following chapter. I especially like the way Ting expands the concept of emptiness/fullness into a living and dynamic three-dimensional structure, where, too often, other Tai Chi writers talk just about stance and the fault of double-weighting.
Relaxing and expanding in relation to sung is the subject of chapter eight. Ting relates sung not only to sinking, relaxation, and balance, but to feelings of extension and expansion. In this aspect, I was reminded of a similar concept in Robert Chuckrow’s Tai Chi Dynamics, in which Chuckrow discusses the concept of muscular extension as a more profound practice than simple stretching. To this, Ting adds the idea of feeling as if the body is expanding in all directions—not just along the length of the limbs, but as if the body is constantly radiating outward. It is. This material is excellent and would benefit anyone working to improved their quality of sung.
Chapter nine is titled, “Sink–Turn–Expand.” These three elements are not, Ting insists, performed as separate entities but are embodied synergically in any given Tai Chi movement. If they are not, the form will be disordered and the flow of body and energy will be disrupted, making one’s Tai Chi less effective for health and self-development as well as for self-defense. “When performed as one,” Ting writes, “the action of ‘Sink, Turn, Expand' creates the essence of Sung and Jing.”
“It is….It is Not….It is….” is the title of the next chapter, and in it, Ting engages in a somewhat philosophical discussion about how things first appear to be what they are, only later to seem as if they are something more, and finally to reappear as an expanded version of what they alway were. Bruce Lee once said something like, “Before I studied the martial arts, a punch was just a punch. When my studies began, I realized a punch wasn’t just a punch. Now that I have mastered the martial arts, I realize, a punch is just a punch.” The difference is that the punch of experience embodies a great deal more understanding of force, dynamics, angle, etc. than did the punch of inexperience, but it's still a punch.
The real thrust of this chapter is to point out that Tai Chi is so much more than meets the eye, but that much of modern Tai Chi does not go beyond the external stage and does not embody the genuine internal substance or power that the art is capable of developing. As he attempts to impart some of that substance, Ting discusses the need for accuracy of form, adequate information about the purpose of the movements, and the way that separation and connection work together. Two related concepts that he goes over are “straight within bend, and bend within straight,” and “stillness within motion, motion within stillness.” Above all, he says, should be awareness—awareness of oneself, others, and one’s situation.
Push hands occupies the next chapter. Ting doesn’t go in for explanations and photos of people pushing hands, instead discussing the many benefits of correct push hands practice. The text is philosophical in tone and includes a list of important points separated out for emphasis.
The last chapter talks about “walking Tai Chi,” the practice of walking in bagua-like circle while performing Tai Chi movements. Originally developed by Chen Ji-Sheng (1905–1988), walking Tai Chi, Ting says, can be adapted to any Tai Chi style. Rather than delineating a specific form in text and photos, the author opts to give pointers for readers to apply the concept to their own Tai Chi forms. The practice of walking Tai Chi, he says, is very strenuous, but the rewards of stability, flow, strength, and elasticity are well worth the effort.
The book ends here, and if I have a quibble with it, it’s maybe a minor one. I would doubt that Ting would perform a set of Tai Chi but fail to complete the closing movement. “Close” in Tai Chi is the movement that brings all your swirling energy back to center and helps sink and coalesce it within the body. In an important way, it consolidates all that has come before. But Essential Concepts of Tai Chi just ends after the final chapter, leaving me with the feeling that it needed to return to center before I closed the back cover. But maybe that’s just because I didn’t want the book to end.
A number of reviewers of Ting’s first book note the high quality of his prose, and the language in this book is no different. Ting is an excellent writer with a conversational style that makes the book a pleasure to read as well as facilitates the delivery of the information he’s trying to impart. As mentioned above, the text is filled with inventive ways to explain the concepts he’s trying to get across, all of which aid in understanding even the most abstruse concepts.
All-in-all, Ting has produced a gem of a work that imparts valuable information and ideas in clear prose. Essential Concepts of Tai Chi is the kind of book that invites re-reading as well as serving as an excellent reference for the subject stated in the title. It hovers in the space between Category II and Category III, and to my mind, it is definitely one of the better explanations of the art on the market. It probably is of more use to the intermediate and beginner student than to more experienced practitioners.