By: Doc Fai Wong
Tai Chi Chuan's Internal Secrets
by Doc Fai Wong and Jane Hallander
(Unique Publications, 1991, 124 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
At this stage of my reading in Tai Chi, I tend to go for books that are heavy on history, philosophy, and dynamics. The title of Tai Chi Chuan’s Internal Secrets was intriguing, and its authors are both expert and well respected. I’d read a lot of their columns and articles in American martial arts magazines back in the 1980s and 1990s, and I thought they frequently delivered some good information despite the limited scope possible in a magazine article. Certainly, Wong has an impressive background, and Hallander not much less. But I have to say that this book did not meet my expectations for a couple of reasons.
First is the authors’ idiosyncratic take on Tai Chi history, which is the subject of the first chapter. Tai Chi history can be a sticky subject with some practitioners, mostly because the actual history of Tai Chi prior to the mid 17th century is not clearly delineated by actual historical documentation—or at least none that is known. Hence, a great deal of Tai Chi “history” is a farrago of supposition, inference, legend, and wishful thinking.
Here is not the place to go into an exposition on the history of Tai Chi, but it is the place to note that the extensive and far-flung history given in this book matches almost no other history I’ve read. If you think Chang San-feng was a problematic historical figure as the creator of Tai Chi, then you might be predisposed to take with a hefty grain of salt a specifically detailed Tai Chi history that goes as much as 800 years farther into the past. Further, this history cites people and writings that seemed to have escaped the notice of professional historians on the subject of Tai Chi history. Once the history gets to the Chen family, though, it settles into a fairly routine recitation of the development of Tai Chi by the founders of several of the major styles.
Okay. I’m not enough of a scholar of Tai Chi history to debate the specific historical points in this chapter, but I tend to like to see a little corroboration from alternate sources, and I might be hard-pressed to do that in this case. Maybe Wong and Hallander have access to historical documents that others aren’t aware of or privy to. If so, they should share them with the Tai Chi community at large in an effort to clear up some of the obfuscation surrounding the art’s insemination, development, and dissemination.
Chapter two is titled: “Tai Chi’s Internal Secrets,” but I have to say that the “secrets” in this book aren’t really secrets but simply basic principles and rules for correct form practice. Many are tenets from the Tai Chi Classics restated in more straightforward language. In this respect, the book was probably fairly informative at the time of its first publication. But these days, these principles and rules can be found—equally well or better stated—in scores of books on Tai Chi and chi kung, and in the dozens of versions of the Tai Chi Classics available in English. The chapter opens with a recitation of the way students learned Tai Chi in the past and relates that Yang Chen-fu altered this learning process, all of which would be more interesting if it actually led to some Tai Chi “secrets” instead of forming the bulk of the chapter, which then finishes with several paragraphs describing the difference between Tai Chi and chi kung.
The next two chapters, however, save the book. Chapter three details three meditational postures that might be termed “still chi kungs” and four breathing exercises that might be termed “moving chi kungs.” Chapter four shows ten martial stances designed to increase balance, chi flow, leg strength, and stamina. At my age, I pretty much stick with some warmups, the Tai Chi form, and the several chi kungs that I do, but I settled on these after working and experimenting with a lot of others over the years. I've always thought that changing up one's routine is nothing but beneficial. The exercises in this chapter are the kinds that will improve your Tai Chi movements and assist in ramping up your chi flow. When Wong and Hallander present practical material, their expertise shines, and they present this material well enough that one could learn to do these helpful exercises from their descriptions.
Unfortunately, the authors then waste fifty-four pages—about 45 percent of the book—with a photo series of Wong performing a long Yang style. Wong was expert then (and undoubtedly is even more expert now), so the postures are pretty impressive. If one cares to look. It seems that until 2000, such a series of photos was obligatory, since nearly every book on Tai Chi that appeared before then had one. I can understand including a series to aid the author’s students in learning a particular style, but this series isn’t really detailed enough to be a good learning tool.
And even depicting specific postures for other purposes—such as comparison—is problematic. Wong is expert, and so are others, and there can be many discrepancies in the outward appearance of any given movement—even between two Tai Chi players performing the same form. As experienced Tai Chi players know, the postures are just outward expressions of internal energy. Sure, we need to learn how to perform the form accurately, but just what is “accurate?" Wong’s postures don’t look exactly like Yang Chen-fu’s, for example, but does that make them wrong? Very likely, both are right. Style specifics, body type, and intent all come into play in a given posture, making such series of photos moot for anyone not practicing exactly the same style, or one that is very similar.
It could be argued that it is informative to study the postural differences between styles or between different versions of the same style, but I think that photos are not an adequate means of delivering such information. Film and video are much more effective in showing dynamic movement, which is the real key, not the static final or intermediate postures. So I can’t help but fault this book for the inclusion of the series of form photos. There isn’t even the pretense of a secret here, and in the end, this chapter just seems like filler to expand a very slender volume that might otherwise have looked like a few articles from Inside Kung Fu bound together under one cover. Even the cover photo reinforces this impression.
Chapter six, “Correct Form Practice,” however, brings back some real information. Still no secrets, but the information is solid and useful, at least for beginners. It primarily concerns correcting faulty body alignments—especially those that affect the body’s foundation and ability to root—then moves on to how relaxation enhances chi flow and how intent helps direct the chi properly. Again, this information is good, but it’s also pretty basic.
Chapters seven and eight discuss applications and push hands respectively, using both words and photos. As with photos of form postures, photos of applications and push hands are practically worthless as learning aids unless you already have enough experience with Tai Chi that the techniques are already familiar. And in that case, you don’t need the photos. Anybody who has pushed hands very much or done any sparring knows that nothing works quit right, anyway, when you’re in motion with another person. You have to feel the action and reaction. Martial arts movies and various videos of applications and techniques, such as those on YouTube, are far more useful for learning how to make the moves work against an opponent than are static pictures. So, as with chapter five, these two chapters seem like filler. But, of course, there was no YouTube when this book was published.
All-in-all, this book reflects its age. Anybody who has pursued Tai Chi for more than a few years will find little that is new or useful here—except, perhaps, the chi kung exercises in chapters three and four. But for beginner and intermediate students, these two chapters and the chapter on correct form practice can provide some useful and fairly well-explicated tools to further their practice. Just be aware that half this slender volume is not going to give you much at all.