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 and Robert W. Smith
(Charles E. Tuttle, Co., 1967, 114 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Cheng Man-ch'ing is justly revered not just as a master of tai chi, but as an early and generous disseminator of the art in America. Several of the books I’ve reviewed in these pages are authored by students of his who are currently passing down his style and/or his teachings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of students of his lineage far exceed those of any other in America. But as with all students of arts passed down by a master—and their books—few approach the high standards set by the master.
Such is the case with this book, the third published under Cheng's own name, though it is, I believe, the first to appear in English. It is co-authored by the historically significant Robert W. Smith, himself a strong proponent of the martial arts in general and author of a number of other early and definitive books in English on the subject.
This is definitely a Category I book, designed principally for beginners and/or students of Cheng’s tai chi. The first three chapters sturdily present the philosophy, history, and principles of the art, and about half the book is filled with a highly-detailed instruction on how to perform Cheng’s famous 37-posture Yang style. The textual descriptions of the movements are accompanied by photos, each with a foot-weighting diagram beneath whose key is oddly presented in a fold-out at the end of the book instead of at the beginning of the descriptions. No matter—the weighting patter is pretty obvious, even without the key.
I don’t do Yang style, though I used to a bit, so I never looked closely at the photos before I undertook this review. But I have now, drawn partly by the foot weighting diagrams, and noticed a peculiarity that I hadn’t before. All the photos of Cheng performing the form are reversed, though the foot-weighting diagrams are not. As the authors state in the paragraphs introducing the solo exercise, “All the photographs in this chapter are printed in reverse image to facilitate imitation of the movements illustrated.” So, when you look at the photos, pretend that you’re looking in a mirror. The authors probably thought this would facilitate learning from the book, and it might work fine for movements that face the front. But it really is somewhat confusing for movements facing other directions. It’s a tactic not used again by Cheng in his other books, or, to my knowledge, by other tai chi authors. But you know, some folks do the form on the left side as well as on the right, so the photos are in mirror image only half the time.
The instructional section is followed by a substantial fold-out depicting all the photos in sequence, with the weighting diagrams but without the text descriptions. Tai chi for sport and self-defense occupy the next three chapters, with lots of photos of Cheng playing push hands and demonstrating applications, mostly with T. T. Liang. The push hands sections are relatively weak, as is the case with such sections in most tai chi books. Tai chi is a dynamic art ill served by static photos, especially in this day of easy-to-access videos of push hands and applications. Of course, nothing beats learning from a live person.
The book winds up with two nice chapters on the Tai Chi Classics, and finishes with another fold-out that contains the key to the foot-weighting diagrams and a complex and near-abstract diagram of the directions taken by the stepping patterns of the form. This is, to my mind, a completely useless addition since the textual descriptions and foot-weighting diagrams better convey this same information, though the diagram does suggest the the way the form moves through the spatial area of the practice space.
One final and amusing note: A statement on the inside of the back cover reads: "Note that the models are practicing a variant form of T'ai-chi as taught in Japan, with postures differing somewhat from the Yang style taught in this book." The book was printed in Japan, but even so, I have to wonder why the publisher didn't use something more appropriate considering the loads of photos of Cheng inside the book and probably any number more available.
Although this a Category I book, it is a very good one. Beginners of every style can benefit from what it says. And it is historically significant, too, considering its age and paternity. I particularly like the authors' admonition regarding the solo form: “Study it, work with it, and knowledge will come.” Yes.
The reader also would do well to take in Cheng's first book on tai chi: Thirteen Chapters on Tai Chi Chuan.