A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Taiji Boxing Explained
By Yao Fuchun and Jiang Rongqiao
(Originally published by Shanghai Martial Studies Press, 1930. Brennan Translations, May 2016. 318 pages.)
There are a lot of mediocre Tai Chi manuals out there, but this isn’t one of them. In Taiji Boxing Explained, Yao Fuchun and Jiang Rongqiao do their best to live up to the title of their book, and they do a pretty good job.
The book follows the general pattern of most Tai Chi manuals, both old and new: prefatory material, historical material, and principles and methodology, followed by a form instruction section, information on push hands, and a chapter on the Tai Chi Classics. What sets this book apart is the quality and quantity of information contained in each of these sections.
For example, Taiji Boxing Explained has an astounding seven prefaces—one each by the authors, two by a pair of Jiang’s teachers, one by swordsman Li Li, and two by a couple of Yao’s students. Some of the prefatory material is simply introductory, but some of it has some meat. To give you an idea of the scope of this book, all this prefatory material plus the table of contents takes up about thirty pages.
The origins of Tai Chi are shrouded in a non-literate past. By this I mean that the history of its invention and development was not formally recorded, not that the Chinese of the time were illiterate. So, barring the discovery of definitive historical texts that either no longer exist or never did, we have to take the legendary histories of Chang San-feng and his successors as apocryphal at best. But in the Americas and Europe, we are at a disadvantage because mostly we hear the same old stories of Chang’s art eventually reaching the Chen family via Wang Tsung-yueh or Chiang Fa, or both, among others. After reading a number of older Chinese Tai Chi manuals recently translated by Paul Brennan, it has become clear to me that this basic origins story has many permutations and details that have not yet been absorbed by Western practitioners.
The authors of Taiji Boxing Explained begin their historical essay on the origins of Tai Chi with a bio of Chang. The difference between this bio and the fare usually presented in Tai Chi manuals is that Chang’s acquisition of the art is not only mystical but practical, naming Lu Chunyang and Zheng Liulong as masters from whom Chang obtained the Natural Way and the Uppermost Way, respectively. Of course it is impossible to separate the mystical from the art and practice of Tai Chi, so the authors then declare that Chang died, was buried, and was resurrected, after which he retired to the Wudang Mountains to develop Tai Chi. There he instructed several individuals in both Tai Chi and spiritual alchemy. The story then skips all the intermediate steps and jumps directly to the Chen Family, from whom the art was disseminated into modern times.
From the basic Chang origin story, Yao and Jiang move on to discuss five different origin stories for Tai Chi, and it is interesting to compare their list of five with an identical list of five origin stories in Li Xianwu’s 1933 book, Taiji Boxing. Though the verbiage differs, the order is the same. One conjecture is that this was a list commonly accepted at the time both these books were written, though it also is possible that Li cribbed from Yao and Jiang’s earlier book. Perhaps I’ll run across similar lists as I continue to go through Brennan’s copious catalog of translations of early Chinese Tai Chi texts.
However that may turn out, this list of five origin stories discusses Xu Xuanping of the Tang Dynasty teaching something called the Thirty-seven Postures, the Yu family’s Innate Nature Boxing, Cheng Lingxi’s fourteen-posture Small Highest Heaven Boxing, Yin Liheng’s seventeen-posture Acquired Nature Method, and Chang San-feng’s Thirteen Postures. Of course, no one now knows just what these internal styles looked like.
Next, the authors offer short chapters on the natural internal skill of Tai Chi boxing, the secrets of Tai Chi, the soul of Tai Chi, an explanation of Tai Chi long boxing, and how Tai Chi, Xingyi, and Bagua are intertwined systems. In this last section, he refers to explanations on this topic by his “colleague Sun Lutang,” which is certainly a recommendation.
The following chapter delves into Tai Chi’s “Four Prohibitions” and “Eight Requirements,” each of which is treated to a pithy paragraph. The prohibitions should be are familiar to all Tai Chi players: 1) Using effort and holding your breath, 2) Sticking out your chest and kicking out your waist, 3) Lifting your shoulders and pulling down your neck, and 4) Stiffening of the movements. The requirements also should be familiar: 1) Sinking your shoulders and dropping your elbows, 2) Drawing up your head top and aligning your crotch, 3) Closing your mouth and touching your tongue to your upper palate, 4) Containing your chest and loosening your waist, 5) Having a pure naturalness, 6) Inside and outside joining together, 7) Passive and active exchanging roles, and 8) Seeking stillness within movement.
The authors then compare Tai Chi with hard-style boxing arts, obviously coming down on the side of Tai Chi. A list of Yang Style postures comes next, and after that are “maps” of the eight directions (cardinal and ordinal) and the five steps, here called Five Positions. These aren’t really maps, but more on the order of simple charts that don’t seem to me to be particularly helpful.
The next topic is Tai Chi diagrams, including the Zhou Lianxi’s earlier and more elaborate diagram as well as the more familiar double-fish diagram. (See here for my own take on these diagrams.)
Movement charts follow. I assume that this is an attempt to depict the stepping pattern of the Yang form, and I’ve seen similar charts in other martial arts books, some fairly useful and others arcane and pretty pointless. The charts in this book seem to me to be of the latter sort, even though the authors provide an explanation of them.
Finally the authors come to the form instruction section, presenting a long Yang Style. Unlike the movement charts, the form instruction is much better than most similar efforts in other Tai Chi books. Occupying more than 200 pages, the instructions are relatively detailed and the photos decent, with the authors trading off duties as models. I’m always skeptical that one can properly learn a martial art from a book, but Yao and Jiang give the instruction section their best shot.
Push Hands, here called Playing Hands is the subject of the next chapter, which is led off by a number of Tai Chi Classics by Wang Tsung-yueh and others. After that, the two authors square off in photos of Tui Shou and freeform push hands for several pages of instruction.
The book then ends with about twenty-five pages of additional Tai Chi Classics, sometimes attributed, sometimes not. Each statement from the Classics is accompanied by an explanatory text that often adds depth to the original work. A critical element in this presentation of the Classics is one that I have only rarely seen but that is interesting and important. It’s called “The Twenty-Word Formula,” and these twenty words describe different specific types of application: scattering, flashing, carrying, rubbing, reserving, sticking, following, arresting, grabbing, reversing, softening, warding, dragging, breaking, covering, pinching, falling, continuing, pressing, and spreading. Some of these can be linked to the Thirteen Postures, while others are not generally discussed in Tai Chi books.
All-in-all, Taiji Boxing Explained is a very worthwhile read for the Tai Chi enthusiast, and I highly recommend it for those at the beginner and intermediate stages. More advanced students will appreciate the authors’ take on the Tai Chi Classics.