By: Chungliang "Al" Huang
Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain
The Essence of T’ai Chi
By Al Chung-liang Huang
(Real People Press, 1973, 190 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Al Chung-liang Huang, the author of Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: The Essence of T’ai Chi, enjoys a stellar reputation in many circles, not just Tai Chi. This from the Wikipedia entry on him:
Chungliang “Al” Huang is a notable philosopher, dancer, performing artist, and internationally acclaimed taijiquan master and educator, having received the Republic of China’s most prestigious award in the field of education, the Gold Medal Award, from its Ministry of Education. As the keynote speaker at the Major World Gatherings in India, Switzerland, Germany, and Bali, Chungliang “Al” Huang appeared with many notable world leaders of religion and spiritual philosophy including the Dalai Lama. Huang is the founder-president of the Living Tao Foundation based on the Oregon coast of the United States, and the International Lan Ting Institute, located in the sacred mountains of China. Huang was featured in the inaugural segment of Bill Boyer’s renowned PBS series A World of Ideas.
Throughout his career, Huang established many close alliances with highly regarded philosophers and scholars of our time, notably, his colleague and collaborator, the late philosopher scholar Alan Watts, mythologist Jospeh Campbell, and his mentor John Blofeld.
He has taught at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, since the late 1960s.
In addition to associating closely with the above mentioned people, Huang also has been a colleague and collaborator with Laura Huxley, Gregory Batson, Huston Smith, and a host of other well-known philosophers, artists, entertainers, and other notables.
This is a pretty heady crowd, and one would expect a great deal from one so highly placed and regarded. Here’s a quote from Alan Watts’ foreword to the book: “With his skill in t’ai chi, as well as dancing and flute playing, Huang Chung-liang woos and beguiles his students instead of forcing them. This is the mark of a truly superior and gifted teacher who works upon others as the sun and rain upon plants.”
Indeed, Huang seems like a knowledgable, generous, and pleasant man with a large spirit, and I wanted to like his book. Yes, I want to like this book, but I utterly hated it.
Born in Shanghai in the 1930s, Huang moved with his family to Taiwan after the end of China’s civil war. Throughout his childhood, he studied Tai Chi with various people, some masters, some just the farmer down the road. In addition to studying the martial arts, he also studied the Classics, fine arts, and Beijing Opera techniques. He moved to the United States in the 1960s to study architecture, cultural anthropology, and choreography. Since then, he has made his living as a Tai Chi master, a teacher of dance, and a lecturer and teacher of philosophy.
This is not a usual sort of Tai Chi book, even for one that does not discuss “form” but focuses instead on principles, philosophy, history, and so forth. This book is basically a faux week-long Tai Chi workshop cobbled together from several such events—primarily from one Huang led at the Esalen Institute in July 1971 that was later edited and embellished with material from other workshops. The book very much reflects its genesis as a workshop rather than as a created text. In other words, the entire book consists of Huang talking to you as if you were participating in the workshop. In principle, this might sound interesting, but in practice is is not.
The problem is two-fold. First, Huang obviously demonstrates much of what he talks about while he’s talking, and the reader gets none of that. All we get are words without accompanying photos to visually demonstrate the movements and exercises he’s showing the students at the workshop. While it might be possible to follow along with some of his instructions to, in an ersatz way, “participate” in the workshop, most are not that well described or seem kind of pointless—or even impossible—to do on one’s own.
Second—and far more egregious from my perspective—is that the Tai Chi Huang offers is very much a New Age version, with all the namby-pamby baggage involved in that mindset. For Huang, everyone desires to open to experiences and to each other, but that is patently not the case with humankind. The world is filled with unrepentantly evil and egregiously cruel and willfully ignorant people, and to expect them to yearn for goodness and truth is foolishness of the worst sort.
Worse, this mindset leads Huang to make statements about Tai Chi that either stretch credulity or are factually and dynamically incorrect. For Huang, Tai Chi is complete freedom. His objective is to let go of all tension and to relax into a oneness with the reality all around. Okay, I can get behind that. He starts by giving a version of that old transcendental tale of the man of knowledge who approaches the spiritually wise master, who then complains that the knowledgable man’s cup is already full, so how can he give him anything? It’s a wise story, but not when it leads to such open-endedness that it becomes pointless. Will the knowledgeable man, once his cup has been emptied and refilled by the master, have to once again empty his cup? Why, sure.
Huang believes—or seems to—that everything is Tai Chi and Tai Chi is everything. Perhaps everything is a mixture of yin and yang and therefore partakes of tai chi (the supreme ultimate), but not everything is the art of Tai Chi. He even makes a point of saying that he’s teaching Tai Chi, not Tai Chi Chuan, because adding the “chuan” part automatically limits the “Tai Chi” part to its fighting aspect. That is simply not true, and if it were, would the reverse be true, as well? The problem is that he constantly conflates the art of Tai Chi with the reality behind the philosophy represented by the taijitu, and thus he’s not really talking about the art but the philosophy. Except when he insists that he’s talking about the art, anyway.
Huang is so into the so-called freedom he espouses that he fails to realize that when everything is everything, there are no definers. The Tao might be like that, but this reality certainly isn’t. That doesn’t stop him, though, from saying that doing the Tai Chi form is to lock oneself up in a constricting and stultifying pattern of movement that will strip your being of initiative and flexibility.
There is no use to follow the whole sequence of t’ai chi ch’uan and imitate all the motions. If I saw everybody go out on the deck and do it in unison, I wouldn’t say “Bravo!” I would say “How sad.” So many people just go through the motions mechanically and thats the end of true creativity. I would be unhappy to see that happening to t’ai chi movement. T’ai chi may look from the outside like a pattern or structure, but what is happening inside the body must be very different. T’ai chi is neither a set structure nor chaos. Not this. Not that. It is a different kind of organization which cannot be known by learning a set of patterned movement…. This kind of teaching seems to me like putting on another straight-jacket. Always you are worrying about what to do next, always thinking.
I have to call bullshit on this. Sure, you have to be open inside when you’re doing Tai Chi, but can a beginner be open to anything about Tai Chi without practicing it for a while, without doing the patterned movements mechanically until the movements become ingrained, natural, and flowing? Or has Huang forgotten that he wasn't always a Tai Chi master? Plus, doing Tai Chi in a group can bring a whole new energy to each of the participants as they meld into a gestalt of energy. And isn't Huang teaching his workshop to a group, and aren't they doing movements together?
Besides, who is Huang to say that everybody doing Tai Chi in a group are just mechanically going through the motions? Does he personally have access to the internal states of all Tai Chi players in the world who sometimes practice in groups? He might be correct in saying that Tai Chi is not a specific set structure—after all, there are many styles of Tai Chi, which couldn’t be the case if it was a set structure instead of a set of principles and rules. However, no matter which style you practice—or even sometimes embellish or deviate from—Tai Chi is patterned movement based on those principles and rules, all of which must be adhered to for the movement to fit the definition of Tai Chi. Principles and rules are not hallmarks of total freedom, though they can be launching pads.
In this vein, let me quote Tem Horwitz and Susan Kimmelman from their book, Tai Chi Ch’uan: The Technique of Power (p. 22):
Although there are people who teach week-end workshops in Tai Chi, claiming to communicate the quality of the movement without the burden of the form, this is in contradiction of the best of the Tai Chi experience. The discipline is indispensable. Tai Chi’s unique strength lies in this integration of form and freedom.
Plus, does Huang not practice the form? Early on, he makes a big deal about learning Tai Chi from many different people. Did none of them practice and teach him a form? The truth is that practicing the form is what teaches you about Tai Chi and keeps you strong and supple. You can’t just wave your arms around and take random steps and call it Tai Chi unless you're a master, and in that case, there wouldn't be any randomness involved. Tai Chi movements have meanings, purposes, and results on many levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, but none of that happens without practicing a legitimate form. You might, for a time, be mechanical in your practice and worry about what to do next, but isn’t that the case with every new endeavor? Learn a new card game, and you’re going to have to think about how the game functions and how to best take advantage of the situation, but with experience over time (kung fu), the plays become automatic. Learning to ride a bike is fraught with incompetence and failure until the rider learns about dynamic balance. Tai Chi is no different. I think I can safely say that no tyro ever approached any endeavor any time or anywhere, much less Tai Chi, and instantly was perfect at it. Even Albert Einstein had to learn math, with all of its constraints, to open humanity to momentous conditions of the larger reality surrounding us.
Other of his facts are equally suspect. For example, he says in referring to Karate, Aikido, Judo, etc.: “All those Japanese forms of movement and centering are very highly developed forms of t’ai chi.” This statement makes me think that he needs a refresher course on martial arts history. Certainly Tai Chi has been an influence on some of the Japanese martial arts, but most of them did not develop directly from Tai Chi but rather from Shaolin Kung Fu and indigenous Japanese fighting styles already present on the islands.
Or take Huang’s take on music:
[You] may think that if you just keep working and working to fit into that form that someday you will find the freedom—like practicing piano scales. But think how many people practice scales, and how many Horowitzes or Rubinsteins do we have? Do you really believe that you can become a great artist simply by practice, practice, practice?
Maybe not, but I certainly won’t become one if I don’t practice, practice, practice. It is impossible for a musician to play set pieces or to improvise until he or she knows and understands the scales to be played, and scales are nothing but form practice, plain and simple. There’s a famous quote from concert violinist Jascha Heifetz: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”
“And how many Horowitzes or Rebinsteins do we have?” Huang asks, as if the answer to Tai Chi mastery consists of inborn talent and nothing else but "flow.". Well, there are a huge number of master pianists. That Huang can only name two is more telling about Huang than it is about master pianists or masters of Tai Chi. Besides, who says I am interested in becoming the Horowitz of Tai Chi? Apparently, Huang, himself, occupies that position. I have other aspirations. For me, Tai Chi is a tool for self development, not an end-all and be-all. I don’t expect—or even want—to become a great Tai Chi master. I don’t even want more enlightenment than I now have, which is enough for the time being. I just want a reasonably fulfilling life. But Huang seems to think that I should be as invested in Tai Chi as he is. This attitude, unfortunately, is too often expressed by masters writing on the martial arts who don’t recognize that not all of us are driven toward martial mastery. For us, reasonable expertise is the goal.
Huang has a great reputation for the quality of his Tai Chi, so let’s look at that for a moment. Of course, I haven’t seen him perform in person, but this is his book, so I feel safe in relying on his statements in it. For example, Huang says this: “There are a few movements in t’ai chi that require you to stand on one leg, but basically your weight stays centered between your legs, ready to move in any direction.” Really? The Tai Chi Classics, the expert authors of thousands of Tai Chi books, and every single Tai Chi expert and master I’ve ever personally met say that one of the major principles of Tai Chi is not to have your weight centered but have it anywhere from 70%/30% to100%/0%. Having the weight evenly distributed is double-weighting and is a no-no because it not only inhibits rapid stepping, but also will not allow for the direct transference of energy up the active leg, through the hips and waist, and up the torso into the arms, giving Tai Chi its whipping quality.
Huang exacerbates the error a couple of pages later, saying, “When you have your base a little wider, you can shift your weight more easily.” This is simply not true. A wide base require more movement to shift the weight or step out of than a narrow base. Don’t believe me? Get in a deep horse stance and move out of it, then try a narrower base. One indisputable fact of the physical world is that small things move more rapidly than large things. A spider can almost instantly leap tens of times farther than the width of its stance, while an elephant can’t leap at all. A tiger can move extremely rapidly, but it can’t catch the flea hopping and crawling around in its fur.
Some times, Huang just seems pedantic.
If you understand the principles of the movement, you will not get stuck in worrying about the irrelevant details—how large it should be, or exactly when to begin turning, etc. If you only pay attention to details, you will feel awkward and confined. The minute you feel confined and you stop to think, then the flow get stagnant and polluted. Pretty soon your movement becomes dead and looks as if you are only trying to copy the master’ instructions.
Again, this is a pretty irrelevant statement that banks on New Age nonsense. Everybody’s learning process is different, and besides, details in Tai Chi are just as important as flow. If you don’t worry about how large it is or exactly when to turn, you won’t really be learning Tai Chi, which has specific parameters and is not “everything with total freedom.” Tai Chi is a set of physical practices that have to be performed with proper regard for the principles and rules of the art, no matter what specific form you practice.That is not only the definition of form practice, but also part of the discipline. But of course, Huang seems to think that no discipline is necessary. Just step smoothly and wave your arms around in the air in slow motion, and voila, you’re doing Tai Chi. In my experience, it is impossible to practice Tai Chi unless you are actually practicing Tai Chi, not some empty movements filled with wishful thinking. And finally, it seems to me far better to follow a master's instructions than to try to make something up on my own, completely ignoring the centuries of practical experience bound up in forms.
Or take this statement:
I have a friend who took a film of an old master in Taiwan by the ocean. It’s very beautiful. I may be able to do more fancy things—I have certain skills and a strong body—but that old man had a subtlety, with so many more years of practice, that I can’t possible match. So right away, there’s no comparison. There’s no way of saying, “Your way is better than mine. “There’s no such thing.
Excuse me, but this last doesn’t really make sense. If Tai Chi is about subtlety, and the old master has a subtlety that Huang can’t match, then obviously the old master’s way is better. I’m no master, but after more than forty years of practice, I believe that my way of Tai Chi is superior to the Tai Chi of a complete tyro with only a few lessons under the belt. And further, Huang says he can do more fancy things than the old master, but is he even considering what the old master was capable of before he got old—all those things that he practiced for decades to give him that subtlety?
The book is filled with photos, almost all of which are artsy photos of Huang in artsy Tai Chi poses, sometimes alone, sometimes leading a class. Each of the book’s nine chapters is preceded by a full-page photo of Huang in a Tai Chi pose. I’ve included one example, but all are very similar. In it, Huang looks relaxed and happy, but what’s with the constantly raised chin? It’s lifted high in nearly every one of these photos. And sometimes his back is arched inward. Both of these are postural errors that violate basic Tai Chi principles, which state that the butt and chin should be slightly tucked to open the important acupuncture points in the lower back and back of the neck to allow chi to flow smoothly through the Microcosmic Orbit. Is he so happy because all that chi is flooding into his head with nowhere to go?
Occasionally, though, Huang does manage to make sense. “T’ai chi needs to be practiced daily in your own movements; it’s not something separate that you do only in the morning.” What he’s saying is that Tai Chi isn’t isolated from the rest of your life but should, at all times, infuse your movements and spirit with its various effects. So there is wisdom here, but it is so overlaid by a sea of New Age BS that most of the good stuff vanishes beneath the waves. In an absolutely perfect world, the New Age stuff might make more sense, but this world is nowhere near perfect and probably never will be. If it were, we wouldn’t need Tai Chi.
Perhaps I am coming to this book with a cup already full, but I see little point in emptying out hard-earned experience for dreck I know to be wrong, no matter who says it. And for me, the form of this book—being a workshop with the author leading through movements—did not work at all. Maybe that approach would suffice for live workshop participants, but it does not in text form, and the result is tedious and only occasionally informative beyond Huang’s free-flowing flow of free-flowing freedom.
There are thousands of Tai Chi books on the market, and hundreds of good ones, but this isn’t one of them. I can’t not recommend it enough.