A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
is published by
All material © 2016
by Cheng Man-Ch'ing
(North Atlantic Books, 1981, 138 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The American publication date of T'ai Chi Ch'uan: A Simplified Method of Calisthenic for Health & Self-Defense is 1981, but Cheng Man-ch'ing’s foreword is dated 1956, and George K. C. Yeh’s second foreword is dated 1961. I haven’t thoroughly researched this book’s background, but it seems that it most likely is the English-language release of Cheng’s first book on tai chi. In addition to the two forewords previously mentioned, there are two more—by K. Schu, H. P. Tseng—and a translator’s note by Beauson Tseng.
That's essentially five forewords for an expository text that occupies six relative short chapters. In these, Cheng outlines the background, principles, and tenets of tai chi in a succinct way, but the information does not rise above the introductory level in terms of detail, and a great deal of it is what Cheng terms a “personal view.” Many of the statements he makes are quite valid, but there is one notion he states that I take exception with, particularly since it is often reiterated by others. In chapter four, he writes, “T’ai-chi Ch’uan is without question a sport that suits everybody. In practicing, the weak, the sick, the aged as well as children and women, will not find the draw-backs inseparable from exercises aiming at weight, force, or speed.”
My experience in teaching tai chi over the past thirty years is that most people who are curious about tai chi quickly become discouraged when they realize that it something you have to do every day over a relatively long period of time to reap its benefits. No matter how patient you are, they don’t practice, soon fall behind, and then drop out. Further, if you've been doing tai chi for a while, then you can still do when you get older or when you're out of sorts. But weak, sick, and older people who have no prior experience with tai chi or other movement or martial arts find it very difficult to learn even a short form. For the older ones, especially, there are decades of incorrect movements and body alignments to overcome in addition to strength and flexibility issues, and the weak and sick often do not have the strength or stamina. And children generally do not have the dedication and concentration necessary to learn tai chi. The truth is, tai chi is not easy or simple to learn or do, it just appears that way from the outside to those who know little about it.
In my view, hyperbole about how easy it is to learn and perform tai chi does a disservice to both the art and to potential students. If you tell students that something is easy and then teach them something that is actually somewhat difficult, they not only become discouraged, they also might equate their failure to learn the form with a personal failing: "If it's so easy, why can't I get it?" Of course, as teachers, it’s not our job to coddle students, but saying tai chi is easy when it’s not is being less than forthright with those who wish to learn.
But to be fair, I’ve pulled one statement out of many in this book to complain about an issue that I take exception with. What Cheng actually is doing here is trying to encourage people to learn tai chi, which is a good thing and, ultimately, the reason he created his compact, 37-posture Yang style. That style is the subject of the next section of the book, which contains the instructional material, including text and photos. I have to say that this material is not nearly as detailed as that in the similar section in Cheng's next book, T’ai Chi: The 'Supreme Ultimate' Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense. Nor is the following chapter on push hands, whose material is both repeated and substantially expanded in the book just mentioned.
Cheng winds up this book with a chapter containing a handful of anecdotes about the Yang family. These are fairly humorous—martial arts humor, that is—but don’t really give much insight into the art or its history.
All-in-all, this is a relatively weak book whose only claim to fame is that it is Cheng’s first book after writing his justly famous Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan. Cheng was an important figure in the tai chi sphere, but readers would be better off ignoring this book and reading both his Thirteen Chapters and T’ai Chi: The 'Supreme Ultimate' Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense instead.