A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
by Wu Ying-hua & Ma Yueh-liang
(Shanghai Book Co., 1988, 216 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The two authors of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan: Forms, Concepts and Applications of the Original Style are historically important figures in the development of tai chi. They are members of a generation that formed the bridge between the old masters and modern tai chi. Wu Ying-hua was the daughter of Wu Chien-chuan, the codifier of Wu Family style, and Ma Yueh-liang was her husband. Both not only were highly acclaimed masters, but also were, for decades, the core of Wu Family style. Their offspring have helped carry Wu Family style into many areas of Europe and North America, and with this book, which can be justly considered an authoritative definition of Wu Family style, they further disseminated their art worldwide. This is definitely a Category I book, and while it is a very good one, it is not without flaws.
The book opens with a brief biographical sketch of Wu Chien-chuan and moves from there into a chapter on the history of Wu Family tai chi. This history begins with Chuan You (Quan-yu), a Manchurian who learned tai chi from the Yang Family—first Yang Lu-chan and then Yang’s son, Yang Ban-Hao. The latter, in particular, was materially responsible for Wu Family style’s smaller frame. The text then succinctly moves on through Wu Chien-chuan to the authors, and includes descriptions of some of the characters that distinguish Wu Family style from other tai chi styles.
A chapter on tai chi as a health exercise comes next, in which the authors discuss the effects of tai chi’s slow speed, relaxed nature, and mental aspects. Tai chi, they point out, has positive effects on endurance, the nervous system, and coronary health, among others. The chapter also touches on the importance of mind and the nervous system. Although it does this a little more thoroughly than do most Category I books, it does not go deeply into this subject. The paragraph on abdominal breathing is too cursory, and does not spend time comparing and contrasting the various types of abdominal breathing. This is, in my opinion, a fault, since abdominal breathing is highly critical to the proper functioning of tai chi, and descriptions of methods of abdominal breathing do not typically occupy a lot of space.
The following chapter lays out tai chi’s characteristics and precepts: overcoming hardness with softness, meeting offense with calmness, winning through lesser strength but greater skill, and retreating in order to advance. Each of these elements is described at some length and take in other aspects, such as circularity, the idea of “hearing” an opponent’s force, following, and adapting yourself “in compliance with your opponent.”
Special features of tai chi come next. These include the meaning of the name, “tai chi chuan,” the distinction between soft and hard martial arts, and using the mind rather than force. A chapter detailing mental and bodily preparations follows. Under the heading of mental preparation, it discusses the ideas of stillness of mind, apparent lightness of movement, double-weighting, stepping, slowness, continuity of movement, and exactness of movement. Under the heading of bodily preparation, it discusses correct alignments, suspending the crown of the head, dropping the shoulders and elbows, hollowing the chest, and sinking the chi into the tantien.
“Managing the Internal Chi,” is the title of the next chapter, which the authors lead off by stating that tai chi “is the three-in-one exercise of the mind, the chi and the body.” They go on to talk about how the mind controls the chi, which then motivates the body. They also distinguish types of chi and how chi relates to breathing and to the tantien. This is a short chapter, but it’s well packed with information.
Chapter seven goes over various stances, palm forms, and methods of turning the body. This is followed by the book’s longest chapter: the form instruction section. This section is fairly well done, and utilizes quite a large number of well-done line drawings of Wu Ying-hua accompanied by sufficiently detailed text. The drawings have arrows, where appropriate, to indicate direction of movement. I suppose you could learn to do Wu Family style from this, but really, how many people actually learn how to do the tai chi form from a book?
The next chapter, on tui shou, is almost pointless since it merely lists the different types of push hands but does not go into any explanation or detail. A virtually useless foot-stepping diagram appears next. This ends the main text, but there remain about seventy pages of appendices.
The first appendix consists of the Tai Chi Classics attributed to Chang San-feng. These are rendered in prose. The next appendix is titled “Key to the Thirteen Kinetic Postures,” but instead of talking about the Thirteen Postures, it lays out more of tai chi’s basic principles. It’s all good information, but nothing here is out of the ordinary or particularly deep. More Tai Chi Classics occupy the next three appendices, and after these comes a series of photos of Wu Chien-chuan doing tai chi. This is not a complete form, but it’s interesting to observe this important tai chi master’s postures.
The final appendix is a series of photos of Wu Ying-hua performing the complete form. I have to wonder why the authors bothered to include this. A quick comparison of the photos with the line drawings in the instructional section shows that the line drawings were traced directly from the photos. This means that the book wastes 44 pages with repetitive material. The line drawings serve quite well, but if it was important to show photos of Wu doing the form, then those should have been used in the instructional section instead of the drawings.
For Wu Family stylists, this is a valuable book. While flawed, it is nonetheless historically important for depicting Wu Family style at an important stage of its development. For beginners of other styles, it contains a great deal of useful, non-style-specific information on tai chi, but the information, while no worse, also is no better than similar material in scores of Category I tai chi books.