By: Dan Docherty
Tai Chi Chuan
Decoding the Classics for the Modern Martial Artist
By Dan Docherty
(The Crowood Press, 2009, 142 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Tai Chi Chuan: Decoding the Classics for the Modern Martial Artist, by Dan Docherty, is not a book to be taken lightly. And I do not intend to despite the fact that it stirred up such negative impressions while I read it that I found myself wanting to punt on reviewing it. But here it is, here I am, and reviewing the the bad and the ugly as well as the good is part of the job. As for this book, it’s schizophrenic in the sense that it is both very good and very bad at the same time. And it’s certainly ugly, too.
The author is a Wudang Tai Chi stylist. Here’s a tidbit on him from the Wikipedia article on Wudang Tai Chi:
Dan Docherty was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1954. He graduated with an LLB in 1974 and soon after moved to Hong Kong where he served as an inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force until 1984. Soon after he arrived in Hong Kong in 1975 he started training t’ai chi ch’uan under Cheng Tinhung and within a few years was elected to represent Hong Kong in full-contact fighting competitions. In 1980 he won the Open Weight Division at the 5th South East Asian Chinese Pugilistic Championships in Malaysia. In 1985 he was awarded a Postgraduate Diploma in Chinese from Ealing College, London. He is now based in London and travels extensively teaching and writing about t’ai chi ch’uan. (1)
I think it’s safe to say that Docherty really has the chops to write in-depth on Tai Chi, and as long as he sticks to technical matters, his information is good and often excellent. But geeze, his attitude is the pits. Tai Chi Chuan: Decoding the Classics for the Modern Martial Artist is a relatively slender book that is packed with good material, but it’s also liberally salted with a bunch of opinionated and offensive BS. This seems to agree with this further information from the Wikipedia article:
Mr. Docherty is known for his strong views on the history of t’ai chi ch’uan and is seen as a polarizing figure within the world of t’ai chi. In articles and interviews he has spoken of confrontations with other t’ai chi teachers, including an infamous meeting with one Shen Hong-xun, a master who claimed to have and to teach “empty force”, or the ability to move a person without physical contact. The meeting ended up with Mr. Docherty pouring water over the head of Shen Hong-Xun, not to prove that empty force does not exist but to suggest that Master Shen was unable to summon and use it at that time.
Well, after reading this book, it’s obvious that Docherty is as polarizing on the printed page as he must be in person. But let’s complete our survey of the book before we go into specifics.
The general purpose of the book is to provide an in-depth exegesis of the Tai Chi Classics, those venerable writings on Tai Chi that serve as the art’s founding documents. I’m not going to go into the basic history of the revelation of the Classics. That can be found, in one version or another, in a great number of Tai Chi books and manuals. But as with all Chinese martial arts manuals of the pre-Republican period, their true genesis and authorship are frequently called into question. Be that as it may, they remain vitally important to Tai Chi in laying out many of the principles and methodologies of the art. So, I generally welcome any addition that can be made in explicating these works for modern readers.
The forward by Dr. Alexandra E. Ryan states: “To my knowledge this is the first book in English to bring these materials together and with fresh translations as well as practical commentaries.” The author himself makes the same claim in his “Acknowledgements”: “This book presents the first fully illustrated translation and commentary on the Tai Chi Chuan Classics…. There are translations on the market already, but they are largely unsatisfactory, being written mainly by people who have little or no practical experience, and limited technical knowledge.”
I don’t know who Dr. Ryan is, but she and Docherty should have done a little research before they made these claims. This book was published in 2009, so let’s see what earlier translations-plus-commentary were out there at the time. I can’t do an absolutely thorough survey since I do not own all Tai Chi books in English printed prior to 2009, but I did quickly go through my library and easily found excellent earlier translations of the Classics, most with explanations, in the following books, and all by acknowledged masters, not, as Docherty states, "by people who have little or no practical experience, and limited technical knowledge."
Advanced Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, Vol. One, by Yang Jwing-ming, 1986
Advanced Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, Vol. Two by Yang Jwing-ming, 1986
Tai Chi Secrets of the Wu Style, by Yang Jwing-ming, 2002
Tai Chi Classics, Vol. 2, by Waysun Liao, 1977
Fundamentals of Tai Chi Ch’uan, by Wen-Shan Huang, 1979
The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan, by Jou Tsung-hwa, 1980
Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions, by Douglas Wile, 1983
Lost Tai-chi Classics from the late Ch’ing Dynasty, by Douglas Wile, 1996
I hardly think that their authors, at least the first four named, are Tai Chi slackers. Nor are these the only versions of the Classics in my library, and I’m sure others existed on the market prior to 2009 that I don’t know about. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have one more. Each rendition has the potential to add value to the reader’s practice, and Docherty is up to delivering, at least on a professional level, being expert in both Tai Chi and Chinese language. He begins with a section on the background of the Chinese martial arts, and it’s easy to see why his take on kung fu history—and particularly Tai Chi history—is often considered controversial. As often occurs with practitioners of kung fu styles, he favors the importance of his own style in the genesis of his martial arts lineage—in this case, Wudang Tai Chi. However, his history is fairly thorough even if it does, like all such histories, rely too much on legend and supposition that skews in favor of his particular style. However, while he favors his own take on Tai Chi history, he does give a fair accounting of several alternative historical scenarios, some of which he derides, but some of which he credits with potential veracity.
Being versed in Chinese allows him to describe the various and often multifold meanings attached to certain Chinese words and terms. He goes into the difficulties of exactly translating Chinese to English—and even says the reverse also is true. This sort of disclaimer is enunciated by just about every translator of any language into any other language, and is such a truism that it really does not need mentioning. Docherty not only present the various alternate meanings, he describes how they work together in the term to give it both poetic meaning and psychological depth. And he also explains why he chooses alternative translations of words and terms that often are at odds with choices commonly used by other translators.
Unfortunately, his reasoning doesn’t always seems inevitably valid, and often, his personal choices seem to be pedantic, pointless, or even counterproductive. More on that later. For now, let’s return to the survey.
As with many other translators, Docherty delivers a rendition in full of each of the five main Classics. Each rendition is followed by his explanations and clarifications. He begins with a couple of pieces of advice:
Nowadays, many TCC students follow and attempt to copy the teacher’s movements, and there is usually little explanation. Such students get something out of a study of the Classics, but the more limited their exposure to the varied elements in TCC, the more limited will be their ability to comprehend the Classics and to understand what they are doing. (p. 42)
This is weak criticism because this isn’t really a “modern” issue. Students of traditional martial arts in China followed and attempted to copy the teacher’s movements, often without explanation. So says the literature from the time and most historical accounts, virtually across styles from the hard to the soft. It was reputed, for example, that when Yang Pan-hao took on Wu Quanyou as a student, he made Wu hold the single posture Stork Stands on One Leg every day for hours over a lengthy period of time, completely without explanation, before he taught him anything else.
The TCC Classics are aimed at those who are at a level beyond that of the beginner or dilettante. The vast majority of practitioners don’t have the knowledge to interpret and follow the fascinating and insightful material in the TCC Classics, which can, like philosophical classics, be of use to anyone who has the resolve to apply them. Incorrect understanding leads to incorrect practice. (p. 43)
This might be true in some sort of absolutist sense, but are we to eschew the Classics when we are beginners, because, according to Docherty, only the experienced (such as him) are able to get anything out of these writings? This seems patently arrogant and ignores the methodology of learning, in which curiosity feeds examination, which in turn feeds development that then leads to more curiosity. Docherty even gives lie to his own disbelief that beginners and dilettantes can get anything out of the Tai Chi Classics in the latter part of the sentence: “the TCC Classics, which can, like philosophical classics, be of use to anyone who has the resolve to apply them.” Can’t beginners or dilettantes apply them as well, if not as deeply, as more seasoned practitioners? I believe they can.
My own experience with the Classics began soon after I began learning Tai Chi, and, yes, I didn’t understand much of anything in them at the time. But I absorbed some of the hints and clues, and a year later, I read them again and understood a couple of things that my practice had taught me. These were elements I didn’t know I knew until the Classics revealed something about them. At the same time, I noticed statements that sparked my curiosity and subsequently led me to explore them, leading to later revelations in my practice. And the more I read the Classics over the following decades, the more of them I comprehended and the more clues appeared to further my practice. This back-and-forth began with my initial state of total ignorance and continues to this day with my perpetual state of ignorance.
But for Docherty, I now comprehend some measure of the Classics only because I now have experience that I didn't have before. Yet I’ve always gotten something from reading them and letting them lead me to observe and experiment, guiding me even in my ignorance. So, some understanding the Classics does come with experience over time, as Docherty says, but one does not have to fully understand them to benefit and gain clues from reading them.
Docherty states that the five Classics he translates in this book are the most significant—and perhaps only “real”—Classics, though in point of fact, more than one hundred Classics exist in the complete canon, most from the pre-Republican period, a number of which have been translated by others, notably Douglas Wile.(2) But it is true, as Docherty states, that these five are the most significant. The Classics Docherty translates and explicates are (using his titles):
The Tai Chi Chuan Discourse (Tai Chi Chuan Lun)
Also titled: Tai Chi Chuan Treatise
Attributed to Chang San-feng
The Canon of Tai Chi Chuan (Tai Chi Chuan Ching)
Also titled: Theory of Tai Chi Chuan and Tai Chi Chuan Classic
Attributed to Wang Zong-yue (Wang Tsung-yueh)
Interpretation of the Practice of the Thirteen Tactics (Shi San Shi Xing Gong Xin Jie)
(Also titled Treatise on the Practice of the Thirteen Movements/Postures/Methods, Thirteen Postures: Comprehending External and Internal Training, and Mental Elucidation of the Practice of Tai Chi Chuan)
Usually attributed to Yang Lu-chan’s student, Wu Yu-xiang (Wu Yu-hsiang)
Song of the Thirteen Tactics (Shi San Shi Ge)
(Also titled Song of the Thirteen Movements/Postures/Methods)
The Fighter’s Song (Da Shou Ge)
(Also titled: Song of Pushing Hands and Song of Sparring)
At the outset, the author spends some energy discussing the differences between literal and “artistic” translation, coming down strongly on the side of the literalists, though at the same time complaining about the impossibility of accurate literal translation. That disclaimer notwithstanding, by and large, his translations are readable and informative in their own right, and his explications generally focus the reader on the several important points of each passage with convincing arguments and examples. But not always.
Unfortunately, Docherty’s expertise is seriously marred by his blatant desire to be the No. 1 authority on Tai Chi—and, it seems, everything else. According to Docherty, there is one major problem with all other translations of the Classics: They weren’t translated by that paragon of Tai Chi understanding and Chinese-to-English translation: Dan Docherty. The simple truth for Docherty is that no one knows much of anything worth knowing about Tai Chi except Dan Docherty. It’s his way or the highway. So, since Docherty lauds his own translation above others, let’s look at it. I’m not going to attempt a side-by-side comparison of his work with the work of other translators of the Classics. That would take a whole book, and who the heck would actually read it? But we can look at the author’s modus and method.
While Docherty usually does the reader a service by giving alternative meanings to common Tai Chi terms and concepts, he often is harshly adamant about his personal choices. And he often lapses into the pedantic through his resolute use of Chinese terms where translated English terms would better serve the English-reading audience. For example, he always employs the terms peng, lu, ji, and an instead of the English versions: wardoff rollback, press, and push. Okay, maybe those are the “correct” terms—at least in Chinese—but the readers of this book live mostly in the English-speaking world. I don’t need to dress in Chinese clothing to practice Tai Chi.
And in the inverse, he persistently uses alternative translations of common Tai Chi terms and concepts to no real effect or apparent point other than to prove his erudition. He’s probably just as correct in most instances as are other translations, and usually his translations add to the reader’s understanding, such as his version of the title to Classic five. Usually translated as “Song of Pushing Hands,” it is rendered by Docherty as “The Fighter’s Song.” His rationale is that, while this Classic makes no mention of push hands, it does discuss aspects of fighting.
Okay, I can go along with that, but then he turns around and says:
Xin Jie is “interpretation”/“explanation,” something many Chinese concepts require before they can be understood. I’ve translated “Shi San Shi” as Thirteen Tactics rather than Thirteen Movements/Postures, because every technique in the form is supposed to be derived from a combination of one of the Five Steps and the Eight Forces, so their possible permutations are much more varied that would appear from the latter translation. (p. 81)
Pardon me, but the first word in the term resolutely remains “thirteen.” Thirteen this, thirteen that. It doesn’t matter, it’s still thirteen, and thirteen does not literally mean “all permutations” no matter what anyone says. It means thirteen. And the idea of the Thirteen Whatevers combining into and spawning “all permutations” holds true no matter what you choose for the second word, whether you prefer “tactics,” “postures,” or “movements.” You could call them Thirteen Pollywogs" as long as you adhere to Tai Chi's correct thirteen parameters. Anyway, tactics aren’t techniques. Tactics are abstract concepts, not physical manifestations, and these Thirteen Whatevers are all physical and physiological manifestations. More properly, they really are “movements,” and only appear to be “postures” in static photos of the form, though they often are defined by these terminal postures.
Another example is Docherty’s gripe with the use of the term jin.
Many Chinese characters have been wrongly or poorly translated. “Jin” is usually translated as “energy,” when it means “trained force.” (p. 133)
Well, no. Most translations of jin that I’ve come across make a definite effort to refer to jin as a “trained force” that imparts “energy,” not as the sort of vague, namby-pamby concept as implied by Docherty. And most writers on Tai Chi almost always go to extra lengths to distinguish jin from li (strength) or from force that has neither focus nor intent.
I do have to laud the author, however, for providing a translation of General Qi Ji-Guang’s Classic of Boxing, which appears following the explanations of the five major Classics. At the outset of it, he admits that he’s not going into as much detail as he has with the five major Classics. True. He does go into every point, but his explication of this work is not the thorough exegesis that the author largely delivered elsewhere. Despite the lite commentary, this chapter probably is the most valuable one in the book, primarily because this particular Classic is rare in English-language Tai Chi literature. So kudos to Docherty for presenting it.
However, his translation of it can be pretty darn obscure or confusing as well as cursory, calling into question the wisdom of literal translation over the more artistic sort, especially when Docherty embeds fragments of commentary within the passage. Take this, for example:
Though Lu Hong’s Eight Movements are hard, and do not attain the level of Cotton Zhang’s (cotton (mian) – here, as in the TCC Classics, it means soft) Short Striking (close quarter fighting), the legs of Li bantian from Shandong (bantian is probably a nickname: half heaven – half of Shandong province had heard of him); Eagle Claw Wang’s holds (a reference to Qinna – seizing and holding), the throws of Thousand Falls Zhang, Zhang Bo-jing’s striking, the staff method of the Shaolin Temple, and the Qingtian staff method simultaneously (Qingtian is a famous place for boxing); the Yang family spear method and Bazi Boxing and staff, all are now famous. (p. 116)
Tell the truth, now. Did you have to read that more than once to get the meaning? I mean, jeeze, that's ONE sentence! If you ignore all the subordinate clauses of this convoluted piece of work, you can understand what Docherty’s saying. But you, dear reader, shouldn’t have to do that. As the writer, Docherty’s job was to provide not just an accurate translation, but a readable one. But his insistence on literality, even when literality is the enemy, causes him to drop the ball not just here, but elsewhere. Such as this gem:
All breathing is done through the nose, so the air is filtered by the mucous membranes and warmed before it goes into the lungs. By developing relaxation through slow practice of form and Tai Chi Nei Kung, the lungs are able to expand further down than normal. This process can be seen and felt a the area of the Dan Tian. Ironically, this is bad new for smokers, because they are able to inhale more effectively.
Okay, I get the part about deep breathing being not only healthful but essential to Tai Chi. Sure. But I'm not sure about the addition of the part about learning deep breathing being bad for smokers, I suppose he says that because if smokers learn to breathe more deeply, they'll inhale cigarette smoke more deeply, causing deeper damage. But really, are smokers likely to be practicing deep-breathing chi kung? Those who do, probably quit smoking soon after.
The long and short of it is that when a translator insists that all other translations are either incorrect, lacking, or faulty except for his own, and his own are often contrary to the majority and pretty faulty themselves, then that translator’s work is equally suspect by the translator’s own rules. And often Docherty slides into territory that is suspect or faulty. The truth is, people do what they want to do (what their spirit instructs, if they’re lucky), and it is ethically disingenuous to deny them their methods unless you want them to deny you yours. Nobody in this world is right all the time, though some seem to be perpetually in the wrong.
In addition to Docherty’s translation faux pas, I also found other elements of this book annoying or downright distasteful. For example, Docherty often mentions some fact or facet only to ignore any explanation. When discussing Bend the Bow, Shoot the Tiger, for instance, he says this:
The body is bent in order to straighten; when the bow is bent, there is tension, and when released, power goes to upper and lower extremities and arms and legs. Tiger is the opponent. Draw/bend the bow to shoot the Tiger is a classical TCC technique based on a Zen story. (p. 121)
Okay, but where’s the story? If you’re going to mention a story, then relate it. Otherwise, this sentence is meaningless except to give the author the opportunity to show his erudition and the reader’s ignorance.
And sometimes he descends into reliance on “ancestors” to prove his point, such as his take on this statement from Classic Four: “Freely contract and extend, open and close and listen.” Of this sentence, Docherty says, "The second sentence paraphrases Lao Tzu’s 'To shrink something, you must first stretch it. To weaken something, you must first strengthen it. To take from something, you must first give to it.'" (p. 96–97)
The truth is, grandpa isn’t always right. Lao Tzu’s statement might be a universal truism, but it’s not universally true. I can expand H20 either by heating or freezing it. No shrinkage necessary—or even possible since water cannot be compressed by normal means. I can weaken iron by melting it. No prior strengthening needed. I can stretch a rubber band, but I can’t really shrink it. All I can do is allow it to unstretch, which is not the same as shrinking. And greedy people regularly take from others but never give back. Docherty might be quoting Lao Tzu, but this statement is bull, even if I understand his basic meaning in terms of Tai Chi to be that one must initiate movement in one direction or particular way in order to execute a movement in a different direction or way. Tai Chi operates in a state in which yin and yang are distinguished, but reality, though replete with these two forces, is such a mixture that all sorts of non-yin/yang things happen within the parameters of local circumstance. The wind blows and ruffles my hair, but it never un-blows and brushes my hair down.
Docherty promises many photos and illustrations to aid in his explanations, and okay, he did include many photos and illustrations, but almost all of the photos are standard shots of applications. They might be intended to illustrate points in the text, but too often the explanations are lacking or are incomplete or vague, and the photos offer little inspiration. The only illustrations that are really germane are those included with General Qi Ji-Guang’s Classic of Boxing, and these only because they are original to the text, not because they further understanding.
But all this isn’t to say that there aren’t smooth facets to this book as well as rough spots. I’ve already mentioned a few, and as I’ve said, the author is obviously expert and knowledgable. Most of the information he delivers is sound, interesting, and applicable to one’s personal practice, no matter what the style. And when the author slams the wholesale commercialization of modern Tai Chi, I have to agree fully.
Now we have Tai Chi (the Chuan or boxing has disappeared!) for golf, for skiing, for tennis. There is Aqua Tai Chi, Nudist Tai Chi, Tai Chi for diabetes and many more. Normal TCC practice can do all the things that people running these programmes claim to do, as well as a lot more that, because of their “fast food” approach, they fail to deliver. All this is really led by marketing, and those running the programmes are often better at commerce than at actual practice.
(For more on this subject, see "Mass Marketing of the Martial Arts".)
Likewise interesting is the story of Yang Cheng-fu’s death (p. 99). We often read about the lives of martial arts masters, but rarely about how they died. For anyone who wants to know why such a renowned master of an art that is supposed to confer longevity died at the relatively young age of fifty-three, Docherty has the goods. But it's his story, so I'll let him tell it.
Unfortunately, rare positive notes like these don’t let Docherty off the hook when he too often extends pointless ad hominem attacks in the manner of online trolls and aims them at everyone not Docherty. His sweeping and overblown criticisms of not just other translators but of most Tai Chi practitioners border on the slanderous—or even the crank—with little foundation in anything but the author’s own harsh attitudes that seem rooted in something other than Tai Chi expertise. So my real criticism of this book, beyond its pedantic nature and several weaknesses in translation, is of the author’s distasteful melange of arrogance and unnecessary cruelty. Take this gem:
There is now a plethora of oral instruction available on the internet either from pimple-faced teenage scribblers who can’t find a girlfriend or burnt-out old soaks entering the second half of a wasted life. (p. 98)
His point is to find a qualified instructor to personally teach you, but this statement is entirely laughable as well as egregiously offensive. And patently incorrect. There might be a fair share of pimple-faced teenage scribblers and burnt-out old soaks (that must be me!) online, but there also are a very large number of acknowledged experts and masters, and it’s pretty easy to tell the difference. Besides, that burnt-out old soak might not have lived a wasted life and might just have something valuable to offer. But of course, none of them count against Docherty’s knowledge and skill.
It is polarity rather than duality that we are more likely to encounter when dealing the the cultural and the martial. This is immediately obvious when we read the books of academic writers on TCC They obviously have limited knowledge of the martial, but feel compelled to write about it; like eunuchs writing on the pleasures of love-making.
So, according to Docherty, everybody not-Doherty who is writing about Tai Chi is either a pimple-faced teenager without a girlfriend, a burnt-out old soak, or an impotent academic who is totally ignorant of Tai Chi but writes about it anyway. And none of them have any skill to speak of. Jeeze. Like I said, it’s all about Docherty.
I’m of the opinion that instructional texts should actually instruct, not obfuscate and confuse, and I’m afraid that this book does a bit of both. I can’t fault Docherty for the real information in this book. It’s all pretty solid as long as you remember that this is his take on matters, which is not necessarily better or worse than the interpretations of other expert authors on the subjects of Tai Chi, the Classics, and the art of translation—no matter what Docherty might think. Regarding the history of Tai Chi, he, like many others, favors his own style’s place in the systematic development of the art, whether it deserves that position or not. Who’s to say, really? Tai Chi’s history is so rooted in legend, surmise, wishful thinking, and even deliberate obfuscation that any somewhat learned discussion of the matter is bound to mix fiction and guesswork with the facts.
Unfortunately, Docherty often seems more intent on displaying his expertise in Tai Chi and his erudition regarding Chinese texts while neglecting the stated purpose of this book, which is to present a faithful rendition and expert explication of the Tai Chi Chuan Classics. The space he wastes with his opinionated slurs of others could have been used more productively to actually say something worth saying.
1 "Wudang T'ai Chi Ch'uan." Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wudang_t'ai_chi_ch'uan
2 "Tai chi classics." Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%27ai_chi_classics