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with a focus on the internal style of
Tai Chi Chuan
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All material © 2016
by Cheng Man-ch'ing
Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan
translated by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo & Martin Inn
(North Atlantic Books, 1985, 224 pages)
Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’üan
translated by Douglas Wile
(Sweet Ch’i Press, 1982, 72 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Cheng Man-ch'ing is justly revered as a primary disseminator of tai chi chuan in America. His expertise attracted a number of students who went on to become members of America’s first wave of homegrown masters and who continue to broadcast Cheng’s 37-posture Yang style across the United States and the world. His writings on the art—some written for the English-speaking audience, some translated from earlier works in Chinese—are among the earlier books on tai chi in English, though they are by no means the earliest thanks to belatedly late translations.
Cheng studied tai chi with Yang Cheng-fu for the last six years of Yang’s life and reportedly ghostwrote Yang’s second book on tai chi: Essence and Applications of Taijiquan (alternately titled, The Substance and Application of T’ai Chi Ch’uan), which was published in 1934. In the thirteenth chapter of the Thirteen Chapters, he expresses his trepidation about publishing a book that reveals tai chi’s secrets, and that Yang Cheng-fu was equally reluctant to write about tai chi for fear of exposing the art to those who might misuse it. However, in 1925, one of Yang’s students, Chen Wei-ming, published The Art of T’ai-chi Ch’üan, and not long after, another student, Chen Kung, published his own book based on materials purloined from Yang (Review Here), so Yang finally relented, enlisting Cheng to assist him in writing his own book.
Subsequent to Yang’s death in 1936, Cheng penned Thirteen Chapters, which was completed in 1947 but not published until 1950, making this the first book published under his own name. In essence, Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters—along with the books of his near contemporaries, Chen Wei-ming and Chen Kung—can collectively be considered as sturdy primary struts of a bridge between the older works on tai chi, known as the Tai Chi Classics, and modern tai chi literature.
To my knowledge, Thirteen Chapters has been translated into English twice, and I’m going to review both books here because, essentially, it’s the Thirteen Chapters that is important. And this also will give me a chance to go over the primary material—Cheng’s information—separately from the secondary material—the differences between the two books.
Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters seems to me to be a prototypical Category III book, many of which combine history, philosophy, and precepts with in-depth examinations of dynamics, energy movement, and purpose. Some Category III books also contain form instruction material, in greater or lesser detail, and personal insights or anecdotes.
Thirteen Chapters can be difficult to read, but not because the language is deliberately abstruse or because the subject matter can’t be comprehended. Cheng imparts his information clearly and in great enough detail to make it useful, for the most part. The book's difficulty lies in the fair share of serious weaknesses that mar its many strengths. There is, for example, passage where Cheng diverges into lengthy discussions on cultivating and amassing chi that are not as well explicated as some of the other material and that often can seem like magical thinking. If chi is a tangible force, then we should have a more tangible theory about its creation, storage, movement, and so forth. But I do have to agree with his overall assessment that tai chi is a form of personal alchemy.
And some of Cheng’s other arguments are marred by statements or notions that seem to be nonsense by today’s standards, such as his claim that swimming can cause gonorrhea. Or this: “Our solar system may be considered so great that nothing can contain it….If its form were not circular, then in spite of the power of accumulated ch’i, it could not be supported and could not float the countless stars in space, all in revolution.” Okay, maybe I’m nit-picking here, but his cosmology needs a little work. The idea does make better sense, though, if you substitute “The universe” for “Our solar system.” But it is true—unfortunately for his argument—that while some galaxies revolve, others, such as the Greater Magellanic Cloud, do not. And there are many large star clusters that seem to hold together fine despite their lack of rotation. And on the incredibly macro scale, there are huge gaps and voids around which galactic clusters swarm like soap bubbles around emptiness, none of which is necessarily revolving. My complaints here have a purpose. If you are going to use science to help explain something, make sure the science is at least reasonably accurate, otherwise, errors stand out disproportionally. Just like in push hands.
When it comes to Cheng’s discussions on tai chi dynamics, however, his analogies are more apt and illustrative and are very welcome. He begins with the concept of “roundness,” including the ideas of central stability and centrifugal and centripetal forces, and the complementary concepts of squareness and triangulation. From there, he delves into the absorption and release of energy, leverage, and uprooting. There are lots of diagrams in this chapter to help illustrate the concepts.
Cheng was noted for his medical knowledge, but reading through the chapter on the health benefits of tai chi make me glad it’s seventy years later and that he’s not my doctor. I don’t want to disparage traditional Chinese medicine, but I am always leery when someone claims that tai chi can cure cancer, tuberculosis, or other severe and frequently fatal diseases. In relation to the lungs, Cheng writes, “They…cannot be directly reached by Western medicine’s needles or drugs. Apart from surgery or inner cultivation, I have never heard of any effective cures for lung disorders.” (Wile translation, p. 42)
Perhaps there were fewer such treatments when Cheng wrote this book, but I think that, even at the time, a little research on the topic would have showed him that this statement is incorrect. This is especially true since he contradicts himself just a few pages later when he tells of curing many cases of tuberculosis, or seeing patients cured, by various means, including eating ducks force-fed on human placenta, boar’s lungs into which the juice of twelve uncooked chickens have been poured, and large doses of cinnamon, ginseng, and other herbs. Pardon me, but I think I’ll stick to antibiotics. Also untrue is the statement: “Lung disease can only be resisted through spirit and courage, otherwise there will be rapid deterioration.” (Wile translation, p. 42) Good spirits, courage, and effort certainly are necessary in combatting any illness or injury, but good medical treatment—whether Eastern or Western—is pretty vital, too.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disparaging either Western or traditional Chinese medicine. From what I can tell, they both work pretty well within their spheres and probably would work best if they worked together. Nor is it to say that I don’t believe that chi-building exercises help affect a positive outcome. I do. Tai chi and chi kung can aid almost any condition by daily bathing all the tissues in the body with extra-strong doses of chi’s healing vitality. And chi kung can further direct and focus that healing energy into tissue where it’s needed. But it is in the maintenance of daily health that tai chi and chi kung excel, and when it comes to illness or injury, other measures usually are necessary as well.
In discussing the escalating stages of development within the tai chi exponent, Cheng offers more solid advice than he does in the chapter on medicine. This chapter discusses how the chuanist learns to sense and then control the various bodily connections that, when added together, impart whole-body movement and power. It’s a good prescription—and good advice—and elucidated well enough to follow and benefit from.
He then goes into a section on the yin and yang of energy embodied in the tai chi form. In this, he relies almost exclusively on the idea of the sequence of creation and destruction of force expounded in the theory of the Five Elements. This is all well and good, but I’d rather see something with a little more basis in mechanics than on abstract theory. Metal defeats wood…okay, let’s see, now, which moves are metal and which are wood? Maybe I’ll get it eventually, if I ever have the time….
The book winds up with a chapter containing twelve statements from Yang Cheng-fu, complete with paragraphs by Cheng interpreting the meanings of those statements. Most of us have read Yang’s words before and seen them interpreted, but who better to repeat and interpret them than Cheng? And I think the words of both these masters carry import even on multiple readings.
I know I’ve been hard on this book at times, but that is only because it is a landmark work, and landmark works invite scrutiny. Nor should a reviewer overlook inconsistencies, weaknesses, or outright nonsense if they are noticed, no matter how knowledgeable or impressive the author might be. Over all, I have to say that this book is poised in a 70/30 stance: 70 percent solid and 30 percent empty.
Now, let’s compare the two versions. The titles of the two delineate the primary difference between the two books. Wile titles his, Master Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’üan, while Lo/Inn titles theirs, Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan. You say “potAto,” I say, “potahto.” Obviously differences in the tenor of the language of the translations exist between the two. How could that not be? But unless one can personally undertake translation from Chinese to English or goes to the trouble to parse the two versions side-by-side to determine which verbiage one likes best, it would be difficult to tell which one to buy based on that. That’s not to say that translation isn’t an art of its own. Note, for example, the following two passages, which illustrate how the language of a translation can punch up the meaning. Cheng is talking about soft vs hard:
“We may compare this with the teeth, which are firm and hard, and the tongue, which is soft. Occasionally, the teeth and tongue have disagreements and the tongue must temporarily invest in loss….” (Wile, p.1)
For example, the teeth are hard and the tongue is soft. When the teeth and tongue do not properly meet, the tongue will be temporarily useless….” (Lo/Inn, p. 22)
In this sentence, Wile is clearly more on the ball, employing double entendre gleaned from tai chi precepts in addition to using good comic timing. Lo/Inn’s, on the other hand, seems a bit awkward, and the joke falls flat even if the meaning remains solid. But I don’t intend to imply here that the Wile translation is superior to the Lo/Inn. I’m simply using this example to show how the particular wording of a translation can heighten meaning or lend some appropriate humor or drama. In fact, there are many instances where the Lo/Inn translation is more subtle or to the point than the Wile. Also to be fair, the Lo/Inn version came out a couple of years after Wile’s, so they had to take the trouble not only to translate, but to ensure they didn’t translate it exactly as Wile had.
So, really, in choosing between the books—if you must—the quality of the translations isn’t the issue. Some might prefer the Lo/Inn version, however, simply because it contains more material than the Wile. Here is a breakdown of the material in each:
Thirteen Chapters on T'ai-Chi Ch'uan
Introduction by Madam Cheng
Introduction by Benjamin Pang-jeng Lo
Bio of Cheng Man-ching by Min Hsiao-chi
The Thirteen Chapters
Explanation of the Essential Points
Professor Yang’s Essential Points of T’ai Chi Ch’uan
The Respected Transmission
“Song of Substance and Function”
Bio of Cheng Man-ching by Min Hsia-chi
Author’s Preface (Cheng)
The Thirteen Chapters
Wile’s is the no-frills model—Cheng’s Thirteen Chapters with original introduction—while Lo and Inn’s contains enough additional material to triple Wile’s page count. In both versions, the Thirteen Chapters itself occupies roughly the same number of pages: 72 in Wile, 77 in Lo/Inn (which utilizes a larger font and looser leading). But for those who own Cheng’s T’ai-Chi: The ‘Supreme Ultimate’ Exercise for Health, Sport, and Self-Defense (Review Here), the form instruction and push hands sections, which take up the lion’s share of the additional pages in the Lo/Inn version, are superfluous and actually inferior to the material contained the other book.
What remains is a smattering of useful information in the three very brief chapters coming immediately after the Thirteen Chapters, in the Q&A, in the one Tai Chi Classic (“Song of Substance and Function”), and in the “Glossary.” The latter contains many good and clearly stated concepts that are valuable, even for those with some experience at tai chi. But of course, we have Lo and Inn to thank for that, rather than Cheng. Finally, of course, there is the introduction by Madam Cheng, which lends heart to the book. And finally, the cover art is a painting by Cheng. Most tai chi chuanists don't realize it, but Cheng's art is what initially brought him to America, not tai chi.
Clearly, I own both books, so I never made the choice between the two. I guess I believe that slightly different perspectives on the same material can’t be a bad thing. After all, two people can learn tai chi from the same teacher and exhibit differences in their forms—differences that aren’t right or wrong but are just different. Furthermore, different expressions of the same source material can be instructive.
To me, the Thirteen Chapters is what’s important. Cheng was a powerful presence in the tai chi community: a bridge-builder not just between between classic and modern tai chi but between mastery of tai chi in China and mastery of it in the United States. He was personally responsible for training a core of American tai chi players, many who have become well known for their expertise and who have further developed the art and passed it on to new generations of students. Moreover, the Thirteen Chapters—in either translation—is the first of Cheng’s two most substantially stated works on tai chi and is a significant addition to tai chi literature. If the work contains some stuff that’s less than optimal, so be it. Deflect the bad and receive the good.
Sources used in writing this review: