By: Douglas Wile
Yang Family Secret Transmissions
Compiled and translated by Douglas Wile
(Sweet Ch’i Press, 1983, 160 pages)
Reviewed by Christopher Dow
The foundational writings on Tai Chi, collectively called the Tai Chi Classics, are a group of eight or nine texts (depending on how one counts), each containing various numbers of “chapters.” These texts were accumulated from several locations in China during the 19th and early 20th centuries—primarily from a salt shop in Wu-yang County, Henan; a manuscript discovered in a Beijing bookstall; and holdings by the Yang family. They are, so far, the earliest known writings on Tai Chi.
Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions, compiled and edited by Douglas Wile, is one of the more extensive and well-translated versions of the original group of the Classics available in English. Sweet Ch’i Press must be very glad that they published it, since not only is it a perennial seller, it is one of the more important books available in English on Tai Chi.
Wile is no slouch when it comes to Tai Chi history. For many years, he served as professor of Chinese language and literature at Brooklyn College. He is an expert translator as well as a scholar of Chinese history, in general, and is the author of several books on Tai Chi and other Chinese yogic practices. (See the review of his Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty, below.) In this volume, he limits his personal commentary to a seven-page “Translator’s Note,” which lays out the difficulties in tracing Tai Chi’s history—not just prior to the Chen family’s acquisition of the art, but even into the 20th century. This brief chapter also delves into the history of the Classics and a few of the problems of dating and authorship attached to them.
The rest of this solid volume is devoted entirely to Wile’s translation of the Classics. I’ve read a lot of versions of the Classics over the past forty years, and many are excellent, but none are better or more complete than Wile’s. His translation is very straightforward and does not attempt to further “poeticize” the texts, as some translations try to do. And each of the texts is attributed to its purported author, while many other translations or compilations of the Classics simply mush the texts together without attribution.
In addition, although a great many writers who include the Classics in their books also accompany them with commentaries that explain (with varying success) the sometimes obscure meaning contained in their often poetic and cryptic language, Wile eschews this, allowing the Classics to stand alone. I like many of the versions with commentaries a great deal. When it comes to learning more about Tai Chi, I’ll take all the help I can get. But I also appreciate the fact that Wile lets the Classics speak for themselves. Jewels such as this need no setting.
As I said, I’ve read a great many versions of the Classics, but I never tire of them. When I first read them, they frequently came across as obscure, and I usually didn’t know that they were talking about. The second time I read them, after I’d practiced Tai Chi for a little longer, I realized that I understood one or two elements. The third time, I understood more. And so it’s gone. As my understanding of the art has grown, so has my comprehension of the Classics, which are, as Wile’s title implies, not simply instructional notes but touchstones for advancement.
Thanks to Wile, it is possible to own a comprehensive and well-translated version of the original Tai Chi Classics under one cover. This is one of the few Tai Chi books that I’ve given as gifts, it’s one I keep going back to, and it’s one that should be in every Tai Chi library.
Lost T'ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch'ing Dynasty
by Douglas Wile
(State University of New York Press, 1996, 234 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Douglas Wile follows his T'ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions with yet another exegesis of the Tai Chi Classics titled Lost T’ai Chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty. In the former volume (reviewed above), Wile, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Brooklyn College, limited his commentary on the texts of the Classics to an introductory note, leaving to the Classics the lion’s share of the book to speak for themselves. In this book, he presents a newly released group of old writings on Tai Chi with his usual excellence of translation, but he also includes accompanying commentary that delves extensively into the history and purported authorship of these texts.
These are no small matters, and they have aroused the interest—and occasionally ire—of many Tai Chi factions. Just where did these texts come from? Was Chang San-feng really the author of three of them? And what about the historicity of Wang Tsung-yeuh, who is the attributed author of several of the texts and who purportedly taught Tai Chi to the Chen family? These are just a few of the issues Wile deals with as he presents these newly found texts for the first time in English.
Only about half the book is occupied by the texts and Wile’s commentaries. The second half contains numerous appendices. The first presents the texts in their original Chinese, and those that follow are primarily analyses of specific textual elements in an effort to determine the identity of the actual author and source material. As such, they will appeal primarily to historians of Tai Chi rather than to the general reader seeking information. But then, this is a scholarly work as much as it is a presentation of new material.
The new texts are, by and large, important additions to the Classics, and the book is valuable for that reason alone. More, Wile’s commentaries not only delineate the content of the texts, but greatly expand our understanding of the milieu from with they rose. In particular, they affirm the critical importance of Wu Yu-hsiang in the collection and dissemination of the Classics. (Note that this is the Wu who learned from the Chens and Yangs, whose style eventually became known as Wu/Hao style. He is not related to the Wu family descended from Wu Quan-yu, who founded the Wu Family Style.)
Reading this book made me appreciate Wile’s efforts all the more. I am an avid fan of the Classics, and, as with other important material on Tai Chi, the more the merrier. At the same time, the historical material made me hunger for a comprehensive and scholarly work on the development of Tai Chi. It would be a daunting task, but one I’d like to see Wile undertake.
As for this book: buy it, read it, and put it on the shelf next to T'ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions. Later, read both again. You won't be sorry.