A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
is published by
All material © 2016
Booklets and Pamphlets
Reviews by Christopher Dow
Tai Chi Sabre for Self-defense
edited by Tom Marks
translated by Dominic Liu
(McLisa Enterprises, 1975, 52 pages)
Next we’ll look at Tai Chi Sabre for Self-defense, edited by Tom Marks and translated by Dominic Liu. This is a curious little piece, published in 1975, that raises a couple of questions. Like William C. C. Chen’s publication covered above, Tai Chi Sabre is a little book. It is 5"x7.5", uses professional typesetting throughout, and is perfect-bound in a faux reptile-skin cover stock that has brittled and discolored with age. And there might be something else that’s a little brittle and discolored: the content.
Tom Marks is listed as “Captain Tom Marks” on the title page, and his bio says he was born in 1950 and graduated from West Point in 1972. That was followed by a three-year tour in Hawaii, where he earned an MA in Asian history at the University of Hawaii. He also “travelled extensively in Asia, having spent some five months in the Republic of China.” This takes him up to to 1975—the same year in which this book was published. When Marks was 25 years old.
There is no mention in the bio of his martial arts training, though he did compete and coach in track and field, and he published articles on Asia in academic and professional journals. However, he could have learned Tai Chi in Hawaii. Early Western tai chi adopter Edward Maisel, author of Tai Chi for Health (Review Here), learned tai chi in Hawaii a decade or more before Marks went there to study Asian history at the University of Hawaii. It’s possible that Marks could have gained an interest in Tai Chi given his college major, but when we consider that he was young and had spent most of his life in America, it’s reasonable to assume that if he had any training at all, it was only of three or so years’ duration. That is, if he actually had any real training and that this book isn’t simply an exercise in academic publication.
The first clues that there is something fishy about this book come after Marks’s one-page preface, in a chapter titled “The Tai Chi Sabre Method.” This chapter lays out ten important points or principles to follow while practicing with the sabre. The ten points are sound and valid, but a problem arises because they are, point for point, the same as the ten principles detailed in a chapter in Tai Chi Tao by Cai Long titled “The Knacks in the Exercise of Tai Chi Tao.” (Review Here) The language in each is slightly different, but the content of the statements and the order in which the information appears show that both are translations from a single original source. Comparing the two, Long’s is more explicit and thorough, making the Marks version seem like a paraphrase.
The Marks book then presents a translated poem titled “Formulas of the Tai Chi Sabre,” which could just as easily been titled, “Song of the Tai Chi Sabre.” This poem does not appear in the Long book, but after that, almost all dissimilarities vanish. Both books go on to present illustrations that, though different in style, depict exactly the same sabre form using exactly the same postures, at exactly the same angles, with exactly the same arrows to show direction of movement, in exactly the same number of movements, with extremely similar text to describe each movement. This text is somewhat more thorough in the Long book. The only real difference is that the Marks book has line-drawings while the Long book has photos of a man named Sin Man Ho, who is not credited in the book. But I know it’s him because he served a similar duty in posing for the photos in Li Zhen's book, Illustrations of Thirteen Tai-chi Sword, where he was identified. (Review Here)
Because of these many similarities, it’s important to note the almost minuscule differences. The line drawings in the Marks book are not tracings of the photos of Sin Man Ho, and while the drawings and photos bear a striking similarity throughout in angle and sameness of posture, there are a couple of minor differences: for example, in one posture, in the exact angle of a lower leg dangling from an upraised knee. But in each case, Sin’s posture is more capable looking than the one in the line drawing, just as Long’s text is more thorough than Marks’s.
Both books end after the instruction section, leaving us with two possible scenarios regarding authorship, which we know is not by Marks:
1.) Long is the original author, the translator of this English version is unknown (just as the performer is uncredited), and the Marks version is an unauthorized and unattributed translation that appeared at an earlier date.
2.) Long is not the original author but was, like Marks, only a translator of another original source that also was translated by Marks. Either or both versions might be unauthorized and unattributed.
I don’t know anything about Cai Long or this book aside from the information on and in it, which is scanty indeed, so I don’t have any other direct evidence to definitively point to his authorship. The photos aren’t even of him. The only words in English on the cover are the title and a notice printed on the back: “Published and Printed in Hong Kong.” No author on the cover. The title page holds only the title, the author’s name, and the notice: “Chinese-English,” which refers to the fact that the text contains Chinese characters as well as the English translation. The copyright page has the publisher and distributor information, but nowhere is there any information about the book itself, such as the original source. Nor is there a bio of Long or any other background on the book or the form it depicts.
It might be said that any two books that depict and describe exactly the same form might look equally similar and read much the same. Yes, they might, but not so exactly the same in terms of illustration and so nearly the same in text. I’ve seen plenty of such descriptions of various forms in books on Tai Chi and other martial arts, and none are as alike as these two, even if the Marks version is slightly inferior. Because that inferiority might indicate a lack of true familiarity with the sabre, I find it to be suspicious.
Further—and aside from Marks’s youth and lack of documented experience as a martial artist—his source is unattributed though one Dominic Liu is named as translator. So, perhaps as “editor,” Marks just pulled the book together from a translation of an unsourced Chinese book and illustrations of an equally unknown origin, to which he added a brief foreword and his name.
Defenders of Marks might point out that his book came out first, but the fact that Long’s book was not published until 1980 is meaningless in terms of which book is more original. If Long’s is the original, it might not have found a translator other than Marks until a few years later. And because the Marks version is fairly obscure as well as unattributed, Long and his publishers might not even have known about it.
Tom Marks’s Tai Chi Sabre, apparently, did not enjoy a reprint, but used copies can be found online for $30 and up. It might be worth it as a collector’s item, but I also must say that I taught myself Cai Long’s sabre form from his book, and this one’s almost exactly the same, so it would be possible to learn the form from this one, too. Just remember that its cover is as brittle as its provenance.