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Booklets and Pamphlets
Reviews by Christopher Dow
The Inner Circle of Secrecy
by Michael A. DeMarco
(Michael A. DeMarco, 1986, 24 pages)
The next publication we’ll consider is Chen Taijiquan: The Inner Circle of Secrecy, by Michael A. DeMarco. This booklet was published in 1986, and in production values it is almost identical to Her Yue Wong’s book, discussed in Part 1: a 5.5"x8.5", saddle-stitched booklet that uses typewriter typesetting. Unlike Wong’s booklet, however, which was a basic instruction manual for Wong’s students, DeMarco’s booklet is, in fact, an early academic-style publication on Tai Chi. But unlike Tai Chi Sabre by Tom Marks, this one doesn’t piggy-back off the work of others—at least not in such a plagiaristic way.
Instead, this is a monograph on Tai Chi history, focusing on Chen Style. It’s worth noting at the outset that this monograph was written at a time when American understanding of Tai Chi history was sketchy and when awareness of Chen Style was in its infancy.
In the introduction, DeMarco lays out his purpose: 1) to firmly establish Chen Village as the place of origin of Tai Chi Chuan; 2) to show the evolution of Tai Chi in terms of the personal manners and martial attributes of the masters of Chen and other styles; 3) to examine the social aspects of Tai Chi and how and why the art was, for many centuries, protected by clan members; 4) and finally, to show that Chen Style’s intrinsic qualities make it the Supreme Ultimate of the Supreme Ultimate.
Each of these is covered in its own section. DeMarco begins with a short overview of the Chinese cultural view of history and the confusions of authorship that arise from false attribution, deliberate or otherwise, that occur frequently in the Tai Chi Classics and other older literature on the martial arts. Despite the often confusing complexity of martial arts history, DeMarco says, a somewhat clear picture of Tai Chi development can emerge.
He begins his search for clarity with several older theories about the origins of Tai Chi that say the art could have originated as long ago as 500 AD in Nanking, in Kiangsu Province. A competing theory, DeMarco says, places the origin a couple of hundred years later in the city now known as X’ian in Shensi Province—the same place where the famous Terra Cotta Warrior Army was unearthed. DeMarco likens these theories of pre-Chen development to the attribution of the Tai Chi Classics to the ancients: a move done to add prestige in a culture that venerates its ancestors.
Likewise, he dismisses the Chang San-feng legend, though at considerably greater length since he takes some time to relate several particulars of Chang’s story. But Chang is, in the end, a fiction on which to hang the identity of Tai Chi, much as Bodhidharma did for Shaolin kung fu.
From here, DeMarco moves on to Chen Village, where the haziness of the myths and legends of Tai Chi history vanishes beneath the scrutiny of recorded historical fact. These begin with a description of Chen Village not just as the place of origin for Tai Chi, but as a village in a very real sense, where people lived in a society that often experienced oppression. Thus the clan and the group identity and protection it afforded, attained a high level of importance in the well-being of the self and family.
Wang Tsung-yueh gets his own critique as, if not founder of Tai Chi, at least as transmitter of a form of the art to Chen Village. DeMarco credits Wang with possibly linking the separate Thirteen Postures into Chang Chuan—Long Boxing—and of having an influence on Chen Village boxing. But he makes a distinction between Tai Chi’s progenitors, like Chang Chuan, and the development of Tai Chi Chuan, which begins now, at Chen Village—specifically with Chen Wang-ting (aka Tsou T’ing, 1597–1664). Chen's original style was cobbled together, DeMarco says, from his village style, from training during his military career as he rose to the position of garrison commander, and from material he picked up in his travels. This is very much the Chen-centered Tai Chi origin story.
From here, DeMarco segues into the subject of clan secrecy regarding martial arts in general and Chen Family Style in particular. This moves on to an analysis of Chen Style, which, remember, was little known in the West at the time. The analysis focuses on Chen’s claim of originality and implies that the other styles—though not without merit—are really just watered down versions of Chen. He also breaks down the similarities and differences between Chen and other styles.
DeMarco then tours the Chen Family lineage, with thumbnail descriptions of major masters along the way. This continues up to the time of the writing, and it is easily the most detailed account of the Chen Family I’ve seen. Individuals who learned tai Chi from the Chens and later founded their own styles are treated in the next section. This, too, begins with a list of Chen masters but quickly moves on to the Wu brothers, founders of Wu/Hao Style, and their students down through Li I-yu and others to Sun Lu-t’ang, developer of his own style. The Yang Family Style and its branches, such as Wu Family Style, are covered next. This stuff is pretty much the standard history, but it enjoys a higher level of detail than almost any other similar account that I’ve seen in other sources.
The next section delves into the topic of secrecy surrounding the martial arts in general and tai chi in particular. This practice is shown to have its roots in paternal succession through sons—sometimes familial, sometimes chosen—who receive deeper, more specialized, and proprietary training. With regard to the martial arts, of course, there also is the issue of withholding the secrets of one’s martial art so as not to give away an advantage.
DeMarco’s analysis of secrecy within the Chen clan extends not just to outsiders but to clan members themselves. While most of the clan probably knew some Chen Tai Chi, only a select few knew the art truly and deeply. Tied up in all of this is the core family and the attempt to improve one’s status within the family as well as within society at large. The section ends with a page or so on the special aspects of Chen Style. This material makes a few valid points, but these are embedded in some philosophical verbiage that, while not uninteresting, really isn’t to the point. Anyway, we all really know that it’s the master not the method that really counts. Five pages of charts depicting various Tai Chi lineages close out the monograph.
Considering the historical information available at the time of its writing, DeMarco’s monograph was a groundbreaking work: a sincere attempt to add clarity to Tai Chi history. In addition to providing one of the best histories of Tai Chi available at the time, it’s also deep and interesting reading for those of us who like this sort of thing. I don’t always agree with him, and while that’s not the point, I think I’ll go over a few of my disagreements anyway.
Foremost among them is that the monograph’s premise is marred by its Chen-origin-centeredness. There was a tendency at the time of Chen Style’s introduction to the West to somewhat overblow Chen Style’s gravitas. And I think that some of DeMarco’s arguments are undermined by information we now know but that was not readily available at the time he wrote this. For example, DeMarco credits Wang Tsung-yueh with transmitting a sort of incomplete, Tai Chi-ish martial art to the Chen Family, but the more popular story of Wang traveling through the region and teaching the Chen’s Tai Chi is lent some credence by the remarkable similarity between the tai chi of Chen Village and that of nearby Zhaobao Village. While it is possible that Zhaobao’s Tai Chi was learned from the Chens, Zhaobao history denies this. So it’s equally possible that Wang spent time in both villages as he moved through the province earning his living as an itinerant martial artist and spreading his Grand Ultimate martial art. There is no hard evidence either way, but the roots of Zhao Bao Tai Chi are as shrouded in mystery as those of Chen Family Style.
It is very possible—likely, even—that Wang’s Tai Chi was more fully developed than DeMarco understood. Wang must have been pretty proficient to have made his living as a martial artist and to have left such legacy, no matter what his actual role. DeMarco also says that Wang named the art Tai Chi Chuan. But more recently, some historians attribute the establishment of the name Tai Chi Chuan—in lieu of Long Boxing, Chen Boxing, or the several other names by which the art was called—to one Ong Tong following a demonstration of Chen Boxing by Yang Lu-chuan. (1)
As for the other styles of Tai Chi being simply watered-down versions of Chen, well, that’s simply not true. They are simply different, though similar or related methods to manifest the same energies. Folks at the time didn’t call Yang Lu-chan “Yang the Invincible” for nothing. And the early Wu Family masters were trainers of the imperial guard for a reason. The flavor might be different among different Tai Chi styles, but all of them rely on and embody the same principles. At the time that DeMarco wrote this paper, however, Chen’s mystique was strong, and as the “original style,” shouldn’t it be the best? Even if Chen is truly excellent, not only is that attitude an example of the ancestor worship that DeMarco disparages earlier in the monograph for its tendency to obscure, it completely ignores the effects that centuries of subsequent development have had on Tai Chi. There is no golden age of Tai Chi somewhere in the past; the golden age if Tai Chi is right now.
But while I might argue with some of DeMarco’s points, I will say this about him: In 1992, six years after he published this groundbreaking monograph, he established and edited the groundbreaking Journal of Asian Martial Arts, which ran until 2012. The journal, which was peer reviewed, was published in English, Spanish, and Greek. During its run, it garnered many awards, including one of the 10-Best Magazines of 1992 by Library Journal. DeMarco also published books, beginning with a memoir by Robert W. Smith. I think all that speaks volumes for his credibility. Although the journal is no longer being published, at the time of this writing, there is an active website where you can purchase individual articles for a modest fee. Also, collections of the journal are available from Amazon.
1 Wikipedia entry: “Tai Chi”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tai_chi