A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
by Scott Meredith
illustrated by Jeremy Ray
(Scott Meredith, 2014, 134 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The proliferation of Tai Chi literature since the 1950s has produced a wide variety of books on various aspects of the art, some overarching, some focused. Most Tai Chi books are straightforward explications of form, principles, and other aspects of Tai Chi, while a few are fairly idiosyncratic. That doesn’t mean bad, just different in one way or another. Scott Meredith’s Tai Chi Peng: Root Power Rising is one of the latter.
Meredith is the author of several books on the martial arts: JUICE: Radical Taiji Energetics, Radical Xingyi Energetics, and Tai Chi SURGE, among them. The reason that some of the words are all-capped in the titles is that they are acronyms for specific principles that Meredith highlights. I haven’t yet read his other books, so I’ll let those acronyms go for the moment to focus on the one he introduces in this book: RIDE, as in “ride the energy.” RIDE stands for Recognize, Initiate, Direct, and Extend. To seasoned Tai Chi Chuanists, this is clearly another way of encouraging the exponent to sense incoming force, meet it without resistance, alter its path, and move it away (into emptiness, for example).
Meredith states that all the theoretical and conceptual background on chi is contained in his previous JUICE, while the purpose of this book is to give the reader tools to sense, open to, empower, and direct chi energy in the body, the result of which is the expression of Peng energy.
After the introduction, Meredith opens with a chapter titled “Tai Chi and PENG Energy.” The description of Tai Chi is not meant to be all-encompassing but rather a springboard into the concept of peng. Here, he describes peng energy mostly through anecdotal evidence of its effects and other aspects rather than more specifically as a compressed and directed wave of chi.
The next chapter discusses Peng energy more deeply, again through anecdote interspersed with conceptual ideas that don’t directly define what the energy is or how it arises. There is some good material here, but the actual definition of Peng remains a little hazy.
With a title like “Energetic Architecture,” the next chapter promises a little more directness, but Meredith starts by quoting a Tai Chi Classic that he states is not generally found in published versions (of which there a great many, at this point). The problem is, he gives no provenance for the quote—either specific source or author—except to say that “it’s all over the Chinese internet.” “All over on the Chinese internet” isn’t much of a footnote in terms of information retrieval. Really, if you’re going to cite a source as a little known Tai Chi Classic, that source ought to be both substantial and accessible. Provide a footnote so that I, too, can find this little-known Classic.
Mostly, this chapter is an exegesis of the unsourced Tai Chi Classic. While it does have its fair share of good information, that good information is buried in an equal amount of hazier material. As I read along, I had the feeling of wandering through a fog, coming upon an object that I could closely examine with interest, then wandering off through the fog again, seeking another object.
The fog here isn’t indeterminate information but a degree of obviousness mixed with repetition and slightly off-kilter writing. For example: “I talked about dropping energy from the dantian to the feet. Subsequently, the dantian refills from below. That’s an amazing sensation that tells you you’re really getting somewhere. You’ll feel the energy come from the soles of the feet, up through your legs, and then it surges up into, not only the dantian, but the entire area of the lower hips and abdomen. That’s the beginning of the upward process. So the dantian is again important, when the energy comes back around.”
Let’s rewrite the last part of that passage to eliminate the grammatical and sequential errors: “You’ll feel the energy drop from the dantian, located in the lower abdomen, then rebound up through your legs. From there, it surges into the hips and back into the dantian. That’s the beginning of the upward process. [Actually, aren't we now at the half-way mark?] So the dantian is again important, when the energy comes back around.” He doesn't really say why it's important. Is it important in the same way that it was important before, which Meredith says is because the dantian is “where energy accumulates from all sources…?” I can't tell. And further, I think that this concept of the tantien as an accumulator of chi is erroneous. Instead, I believe—with some scientific backing—that the tantien is the generator of chi. The sensation of "storage" comes from development of the tantien to such a degree that the chi it generates is highly refined, powerful, well-directed through open channels (meridians), and instantaneously available. (See my book The Wellspring: An Inquiry into the Nature of Chi for a more thorough discussion of this matter.)
The next chapter covers energy hotspots, which are significant acupuncture points through which chi flows or where it has major branches. The information here is good, and Meredith carries the energy all the way through the circuits of the Microcosmic Orbit and the Macrocosmic Orbit to the fingertips, which he says “will feel like bubble wrap when you do this stuff right.” By this I take it to mean that the fingers will feel somewhat puffy or pneumatic, not that they’ll feel like they’re covered in huge blisters.
Next, Meredith takes us through a number of exercises and postures that encourage relaxation and chi flow. In the introductory material to these sections, he states: “These postures have only ever been perfectly demonstrated by one man, the founding creator of this system, Professor Zeng Manqing [Cheng Man-ching].” Really? Out of all of Tai Chi history, only Cheng could stand perfectly in Wardoff or Golden Rooster on Single Leg? And while Cheng did formulate the sequence that Meredith calls ZMQ37, the postures in that sequence are from Yang style, though sometimes with variations. Cheng certainly was important to Tai Chi history and achievement, particularly in the United States, and ZMQ37 deserves recognition as its own distinct style rooted in Yang Style—as is Wu Family Style. But masterful as he was, Cheng was neither the most important nor, probably, the most skillful and powerful fighter in Tai Chi history. In other words, lots of masters can "perfectly demonstrate" numerous tai chi and chi kung postures.
The first drill Meredith shows consists of waving a straight sword back and forth in front of the body at waist height. There are details on how this is done correctly and for what purpose. The next seven postures come straight from Yang style (ZMQ37): Golden Rooster on Single Leg, Separate Leg, Repulse Monkey, Raise Arms, Wardoff, Single Whip, and Weaving Lady. The idea is to hold these poses with sung and correct, non-stressful alignments, so that the body can relax into them and allow one to sense the chi flowing through the body.
The following chapter discusses the idea of single- and double-weightedness, including the differences in adjusting the percentages of how the weight falls: 100/0, 80/20, and 70/30. The chapter after covers what Meredith calls the Relaxation Protocol. This is, simply, holding the poses previously mentioned while a partner supports the weight of any raised limb, such as the leg in Separate Leg or the upraised arm in Golden Rooster. At first, the partner supports most of the weight of the limb but gradually lets off as the poser internally adjusts his or her weight and balance to accommodate for the slackening support.
Finally, two-thirds of the way through the book, the author gets down to the nuts and bolts of peng. The material in this chapter is easily the best in the book, though some of the preceding material was necessary predicate for what’s found here. Before this, he’s really just talked about learning to sung and feel the flow of chi. Now he likens peng to two sorts of surges of energy: the soft wave and the hard wave. Seasoned practitioners will know these well, but Meredith is obviously speaking to those who do not yet, or just barely, feel it. He discusses these two ways to express energy in some detail, stating rightly, for example, that it is generally possible to understand and generate the hard wave more readily that it is to correctly generate the soft version.
An interesting series of drawings illustrates the way one can send a wave of energy rippling up from the feet, through the legs and body, to the hand. I like to observe—and appreciate—the various ways photographers and illustrators try to instill a sense of movement to still images, and this is, for me, a new take that has merit. In these drawings, the final posture is Single Whip, and the energy is shown being generated in the left foot, rippling part way up the left leg before also rippling just a moment later up the right leg. From there, the ripple engages the waist and hips and then the torso before terminating in the arms. I don’t know about you, but for me, the initial impulse for Single Whip comes from the right leg, not the left. While the left also reacts to the impulse, that’s after the pulse has been generated by the right foot and passed through the waist. But maybe that’s just me.
Next Meredith talks about zhanghuang, or the practice of holding energizing postures for long periods of time. This is, essentially, still chi kung. In this case, the postures are the seven poses detailed earlier. Meredith suggests repeatedly “deflating” the postures about 20 percent by controlled slumping, then gradually “inflating” them until they are at full height to help the practitioner make microadjustments to stance, alignment, and so forth to encourage a more powerful manifestation of the posture. This would be something akin to performing the Relaxation Protocol on one’s own body.
Cloud Hands occupies the next chapter, which takes the ideas garnered from the static postures above and sets them into motion. Cloud Hands, Meredith asserts, is one of the most important tai chi movements, and in this, I couldn’t agree more. The reader also might check out The Internal Structure of Cloud Hands by Robert Tangora, which delves deeply into the refinement of Central Equilibrium through the practice of Cloud Hands. Meredith describes in some detail the movement of the ZMQ37-version of Cloud Hands and how the energy flows through it. I don’t do this version of Tai Chi, or even another version of Yang Style, but no matter. The principles, basic movements, and sensations hold true in my form, too.
In the next chapter, the author forays into personal territory, beginning with the question of what is the difference, if any, between Tai Chi and chi kung. From there he goes into the various reasons a person might choose to dedicate the time and effort required to really “practice” Tai Chi and gain the many benefits that accrue from expending that time and effort. For him, in the end, Tai Chi is art for art’s sake. That doesn’t mean he eschews the martial, exercise, health, and other benefits that Tai Chi imparts. Clearly he doesn’t. It’s just that all of these aspects, because they are so disparate, can find culmination only in the constant if ultimately futile striving for perfection and in blending of the material and the energetic into something that is at once useful, beautiful, and meaningful.
A pretty worthless chapter follows: “The Graphic Tai Chi Classic.” Once you get past the jokey “finding the ancient Tai Chi essay in a hot pepper shop” shtick, you wind up with five full-page illustrations, each of a Tai Chi posture and another element, say a panther or a feather, that supposedly is meaningful with regard to the posture. The drawings are by Jeremy Ray, who provides most of the fairly numerous illustrations throughout the book. Ray uses an anime-style of drawing—a style that I’m not overly fond of. But at least his figures are well proportioned and executed and are adequate through most of the book. But well executed or not, they don’t illuminate anything here that couldn't be shown better by a real human expert. Okay, the drawings aren’t completely devoid of meaning, but all they, along with their explanatory text, really do here is occupy nine pages that I think could have been put to better service.
The book ends with a short epilog that might correctly assess the scenario of despair of our times—times in which Tai Chi might be needed more than ever but in which, Meredith says, post-humans will make the art obsolete.
As I said, this is an idiosyncratic book. The author writes in a breezy style with occasional exuberant—even hyperbolic—outburst. For example: “The full energy cycle…both begins and ends with the energy buzzing and humming in your relaxed dantian; feeling like you have a radioactive beehive down there.” That’s pretty floridly descriptive, though it doesn’t describe what I feel in my tantian, which is a smoothly rolling ball of energy that is synchronized with my abdominal breathing and sends pulses of energy up my spine and onward into my limbs. I would take any sensation of a radioactive apiary to indicate that the energy is repeatedly hanging up or being constricted while it cycles instead of flowing smoothly. An unconstricted throat does not hum.
I could have been annoyed by Meredith’s style, and above I have taken exception with some elements of it. But in the end, I choose to think of it as being his half of a conversation, and I can be prone to exuberant and ungrammatical outburst, myself.
But a more telling criticism is that I don’t think that Meredith adequately explicates the subject indicated by the title. The exercises he gives are more about facilitating and directing chi flow, and peng is so much more than the flow of chi even if surging chi is what underlies peng. Equally important are how to amplify the chi flow so that it can produce a wave, how the wave surges into different body parts, and how certain areas of the body can be used to control and direct the wave in specific ways, much of which is barely covered here. This is what he should have used those nine pages for, rather than occupying them with cute anime drawings.
In fact, the flowing sensations Meredith often defines as peng are what I’d call just basic chi flow. If you hold the posture Standing Post, the force you feel coursing through you isn’t peng but chi. It’s the same when you hold the postures in Meredith’s book. Holding the postures is basic standing chi kung and can encourage chi to flow in certain ways. But chi only becomes peng when it is given a surging impetus—moving into a posture, say. To my mind, Meredith constantly conflates the two, but in truth they are not the same. peng is a dynamic manifestation—manipulation—of chi. Applying that dynamic manifestation in particular ways is to fa jing: to manifest Tai Chi’s power on a physical level in one of a great variety of ways, some yielding, some forceful.
But rather than saying Meredith covered things wrong, I’d say he just didn’t cover them enough. This isn’t a bad book, and it would definitely be useful to those readers who are feeling the first twinges of chi and are deliberately making forays into that territory. Perhaps for them, the several exercises might assist in further developing their sensations and control of chi, just as any chi kung-type of exercise will. But for more experienced practitioners who can generate and, to some extent or other, control the chi flow and its manifestation as peng energy, most of the material in these pages will be familiar, and maybe even weak.
But there are a couple of aspect about this book that help redeem it. First is its exuberance. Meredith clearly loves Tai Chi and is excited to talk about it. That excites me, too. And the exercises and techniques he describes worked for him in discovering his power, so they’d probably work for you, too. Also his assessment of Tai Chi as a total living art form resonates with my own approach. And finally, despite some occasional hyperbole, he manages to convey the sensation of chi flow and ways to make that flow stronger as well as more tangible.
And like he says, once you feel it, well….