By: Wu Zhiqing
Authentic Tai Chi
By Wu Zhiqing
(Originally published by Great East Bookstore, 1936. Brennan Translations, 2016, 264 pages.)
Review by Christopher Dow
Wu Zhiqing, the author of Authentic Tai Chi, is a mystery to me. I was unable to find anything on him aside from this book and the few brief autobiographical statements it contains. Wu was from Guxi, in Anhui, and he met Yang Chengfu in 1918 and began studying with him. “I practiced day and night, making a thorough study of it.” This lasted “for several years,” and the author also talks about reading and learning from Sun Lutang’s A Study of Taiji Boxing, Chu Minyi’s Taiji Boxing Photographed, and Chen Weiming’s The Art of Taiji Boxing. “I pondered their contents until I deeply understood.” Certainly these were learned Tai Chi practitioners who produced excellent and informative books that any Tai Chi student should one day read and think about.
The structure of most Tai Chi manuals—and martial arts manuals in general—goes like this:
1) Preface and/or Introduction
2) Introductory material, such as history, philosophy, and methodology
3) Form instruction—photographs with text, and occasionally, foot-stepping charts
4) Push hands, sparring, and application instruction
5) A sampling—sometimes extensive—of quotes from the Tai Chi Classics
6) Ancillary material, such as appendices, index, bibliography, and even self-promotional material
Sometimes elements are missing or the order is mixed up, but this is the basic structure. Wu mixes it up in a couple of unexpected ways. First, his sketchy introductory sections on history, philosophy, and methodology are dispensed with in a total of only four pages. About half a page of this is repetition, and a full page is a discussion of the numbering and naming conventions of Tai Chi movements.
As far as numbering goes, Wu points out that the number of movements that any give Tai Chi form contains is a deceptive way to define a form. A single movement in one form might be enumerated as more than one in another, even while the dynamics and purpose(s) are the same. For example, in some styles, Grasping Bird’s Tail and Single Whip are considered to be one entire movement, while in others, Single Whip is a movement distinct from, though attached to, Grasping Bird’s Tail.
And as any Tai Chi practitioner knows, the names of similar movements in different forms sometimes vary: Grasping Bird’s Tai, Grasping Sparrow’s Tail, Catch the Sparrow by the Tail, etc., for example. And there are names that are completely different though the movement are the same. Sun Lutang calls the first movement Grand Polarity rather than the more common Preparation.
Wu takes all this a valuable step farther by providing a seven-page comparative list of four Yang Tai Chi forms—those practiced by Chen Weiming, Sun Lutang, Chu Minyi, and the author. Chen is widely considered one of Yang Chengfu’s premier students and was the founder of a number of important Tai Chi schools and academies. Sun Lutang is most famous for being, perhaps, the first internal style syncretist. And Chu Minyi, a Wu stylist, also was a leading figure in the Chinese Republican movement and early Nationalist government.
While Wu is light on discussions of precepts and methodology, what advice he does give tends to be good and adequately stated—even containing occasional kernels of wisdom:
“For any who practice boxing arts, an understanding of how to use hand, eye, body, technique, and stepping is the the basic course of training…. For your hands to attack, your body to evade, or your steps to suit your advancing, always use stepping as the standard. That is why every boxing set pays attention to how the feet are positioned and how directions are faced.”
In other words, heavy on bottom, light on top, yet agile throughout, or, if there is error, seek first to correct the feet and legs.
I also like it that the author frequently distinguishes Tai Chi not by its practice speed, but by its characteristic of smooth continuity. But consider his oddly reasoned argument concerning the then-prevailing question of which style is “authentic”: Chen or Yang. This might seem to be a somewhat ridiculous disagreement to those of us today who have clear historical references to resolve the matter, but Wu enters into it anyway. Perhaps being that close to Tai Chi’s early days rendered its origins somewhat more opaque—a problem that has since been resolved by documentation. (Though fanatics continue to introduce alternative histories. Do disinformation, misinformation, and malformation comprise the real plague of our time?)
In any event, Wu comes down on the side of the Chens, but not for the historical reason you might assume. Being, as a direct student of Yang Chengfu, relatively close to the origins of Yang Style Tai Chi, surely he’d heard Yang family lore, which would have included the fact that Yang Luchan—only two generations removed—learned Tai Chi from the Chen family.
Yet instead of resorting to that simple historical fact, Wu utilizes an elaborate argument based on the evolution over time of Tai Chi’s naming conventions. When I first read this argument, I was puzzled at why Wu bothered. But as I better understood his book, I realized that what I had seen as pointless argument had really been part of the fabric of Wu’s efforts to fashion a new sort of Tai Chi book. That will become more clear as we go on to look at Wu’s form instruction section, which follows the brief introductory material.
He titles this section, Part One, and quite a section it is, occupying two hundred pages. It depicts, the author says, a Yang Style that he learned to from Yang Chengfu, seasoned with material from Chen Weiming and Sun Lutang. The form consists of eighty-one named movements, which, thanks to the form comparison chart, can be compared to the forms of Chen Weiming, Sun Lutang, and Chu Minyi. All-in-all, the form instruction section is adequate, with decent descriptions and photos that, while a little dull to the eye, have enough contrast to recognize what Wu is doing and to see the directional arrows embedded in the photos. A scattering of helpful footwork charts completes the form instruction section.
The next major section of the book, Part Two, contains several essays that discuss various aspects of Tai Chi. They are not authored by Wu, however, but by various Tai Chi experts, most notably the aforementioned Chen Weiming. Some of these essays tackle practical aspects, such as precepts and principles, others are more politically oriented—for example, the first chapter is Hu Pu’an’s, “The Value of Taiji Boxing in Physical Education” (from Eastern Variety Magazine, Vol. 30, #20, October 1933). Hu begins with an explanation—one among many out there in the world—of how Tai Chi acquired its name. His discussion takes into account Tai Chi’s energy dynamics, which are centered in the tantien.
“The universe is a grand polarity, and the human body is also a grand polarity. The belly represents the grand polarity, the two sides of the waist represent the dual aspects, the two arms and two legs represent the four manifestations, and the upper and lower sections of each limb represent the eight trigrams. The motive power of the universe lies in the Grand Polarity, and the motive power of the human body also lies in a grand polarity. Therefore the movements in Taiji Boxing are not the movements of the hands and feet, but the movement of the waist, and not really even the waist, but the abdomen.”
Next, under the heading, “Taiji Boxing’s Movements,” Hu goes into several foundational Tai Chi precepts: “Your body should be loose,” “Your energy should be firm,” and “Your spirit should be concentrated.” Each aspect is treated with an explanation. Then comes a slightly longer subsection on the subject of the title of this chapter.
The next chapter encompasses material from Jiang Rongqiao’s “Annotations to Wang Zongyue’s [Wang Tseung-yueh] Taiji Boxing Treatise,” which was originally included in Taiji Boxing Explained (1930), by Jiang Rongqiao and Yao Fuchun. At twenty-three pages, this is easily the longest chapter in Part Two, but I’m not going to discuss the content here except to say that it is all worthwhile material from two excellent writers. The reason I’m not going into this section is that I reviewed that book HERE. If you have not read the original—or even if you have—this material is excellent and wide-ranging.
Next is “Yang Chengfu’s Ten Essentials of Taiji Boxing, from Chen Weiming’s Art of Taiji Boxing (1925). If there are ten essentials to Tai Chi, these are them, handed down by one of the premier names of the art. Each is accompanied by explanatory text.
This segues into Chen Zhijin’s essay, “Taiji Boxing’s Moral Qualities and Functions,” the original version of which appeared in Chen Weiming’s Taiji Sword (1928). This essay begins with a somewhat lengthy and apocryphal telling of the Zhang (Chang) Sanfeng legend, then states that there are three strict moral rules to practicing the martial arts:
1) “I cannot become a bodyguard, protecting caravans and courtyards.”
2) “I cannot become a street performer, making money off its exhibition.”
3) “I cannot become an outlaw hiding in the forest.”
Translator Paul Brennan humorously clarifies these in this way: “In other words, the purpose of this stuff is not to enable you to become a cop, a movie star, or a criminal.” The first, at least, however, is curious since it’s no secret that some of the patriarchs of both the Yang and Wu families (Yang Banhao, Wu Luchan, and Wu Chienchuan, for example) were high-ranking bodyguards for Manchurian royalty. And certainly, the third prohibition would be moot to anyone engaged in criminal activity, entailing the necessary violation of the first by those seeking to stop the criminals—and the subsequent idolizing of the first by the second. Martial arts street performance/theater/film/TV has been a staple of the martial arts from time immemorial. We’re still little more than cavemen reenacting visions of victories before the flickering and unsure light of the campfire. For people to stop telling martial arts tales is about as likely as it is for criminals to stop criming and for cops to stop pursuing them.
Another set of prohibitions in Chen’s essay also are amusing. Do not gnash your teeth or stare hard with your eyes. (Okay, but it’s kind of hard to do either if you’re relaxed enough to be doing Tai Chi, though I once witnessed a man doing Tai Chi whose eyes literally blazed with madness.) Do not shout aggressively or make strange cries. (Hear that, Bruce Lee?) And most amusingly, “when practicing the solo set, you cannot be naked.” (I guess nobody told that to Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, William Sadler in Die Hard 2, or Patrick Swayze in Road House. But then, the first two were basically bad guys, and Patrick was the good guy, so he was wearing pants.) (I also have to wonder at the true function of this since all of us are, at all times, naked beneath our clothing.) (And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t note the book, Tai Chi Nude by F. L. Yu.)
The final essay is “Chen Weiming’s Experience of Teaching Taiji Boxing.” There is no attribution for this essay, so I assume it was original to this book. It is only a single page and does not really address the subject of its title in any significant way. Chen mostly lays out several Tai Chi principles, some with thumbnail descriptions, some not. He finishes the essay with a couple of two-line and un-resourced anecdotes about miraculous cures of temperament and irritability effected by Tai Chi. Okay, but that’s it.
This book is worthwhile in a couple of aspects, and less so in others. Let’s take a look at the deficits first, because the assets are so much more valuable and significant. The dearth of text by the author is both a deficit and a benefit. On the deficit side, one could argue that this book isn’t really by Wu, which is true since he wrote only the form instruction section and almost nothing on all those important aspects of Tai Chi besides form instruction that are normally covered. While it’s not unusual for a Tai Chi book to contain chapters by other authors—or from the Tai Chi Classics—usually those are added to embellish the author’s own text, not to entirely substitute for it.
But maybe it’s a good thing that Wu let others speak for him. His Tai Chi skills might be significant, but his writing skills are, shall we say, not up to the task of authoring an entire, in-depth book about Tai Chi. “I am not very bright,” he admits. “but I did learn Taiji Boxing from Yang Chengfu for several years.”
Well, he’s bright enough to have taken the expert instruction in Tai Chi that he received and become relatively expert. So the one place his writing does excel is in the lengthy form instruction section, where the descriptions are generally neat and clear. But the mercifully short opening sections where he introduces and discusses Tai Chi are pedantic and crudely and repetitively written and reveal a generally weak writing skill. So it is well that he let those others say what he could not, especially since they were experts influential to his own development as well as better writers.
Another good thing about the inclusion of these other authors is that the reader gets a wider variety of perspectives on the art than usually exists in books by single authors. However, except for a couple of the chapters of Part Two, most of the material is available in original and more thorough publications. You can find several of them at Brennan Translations, so if you discovered this book there, you can find them, as well, at this valuable resource.
One reason I like writing these reviews is that doing so forces me to take a closer look at texts than I otherwise might. Often that produces no greater insight than what is apparent at first glance because nothing else is there to be had. But sometimesbroader or deeper aspects that require some thought to discern are revealed by closer examination. Such was the case with this book.
With that in mind, anyone who has read many of my reviews knows that I’m generally not a fan of form instruction material. Really, how many people ever learned Tai Chi from a book? Heck, most people can’t seem to learn it from a live teacher. But there is something to be said for depictions of the forms of historical practitioners. They can help give a sense of both the development of the art and its inevitable “drift” as it transmutes over time. In other words, in addition to being valuable historical artifacts in their own right, they can help anchor the art’s roots in its historical precepts—in this case, a Yang Style learned from Yang Chengfu and closely resembling the one practiced by Chen Weiming, another historically significant figure in the development and dissemination of Tai Chi.
And this brings us back to the lengthy lists of form movements in the introductory material, as well to Wu’s writing on the numbering and naming conventions for the movements—and his seemingly unnecessary argument using those conventions to validate a blatantly obvious historical fact. Perhaps, in true yin/yang sense, he was actually validating the usefulness of the naming conventions in solving historical and relational issues among the various Tai Chi styles. In addition, the comparative form list is interesting in its own right, especially to those interested in the development of Yang Style.
So, along with the range of content in Part Two, the gestalt of the book becomes more apparent. This is not an average Tai Chi manual, though it resembles one and can be seen as and used in that way. Instead, this is one of the earliest examples I know of comparative martial arts scholarship.
Comparative scholarship of this sort was not prevalent in martial arts literature at the time Wu compiled this book. Only in the last half-century has this sort of research into various aspects of the martial arts begun to be explored in significant depth—thanks, in part, to the expansion of the martial arts into the West, where culture exhibits a more analytical mindset. So we have to consider Wu a forerunner of the trend toward research into and analysis of the martial arts—above and beyond form work, sparring, fighting, and so forth. This is especially true given the contents of Part Two, which displays a range of topics, some not usually discussed in martial arts literature.
For the average reader, this book would be of most value to those who have not read the chapters by the other authors in their original publications. The more discursive will find interest in the clues this book contains regarding the development of Yang Style, particularly, as well as of Wu, considering the Chu Minyi connection. And scholars of martial arts literature should take note of this volume’s place on the shelf labeled, “Research.”