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A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan

The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan

by Jou Tsung-hwa

(Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1980, 260m pages)

 

 

Review by Christopher Dow

 

 

 

I began practicing Tai Chi in 1979. The next year, Jou Tsung-hwa published The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan. Thank goodness! Although some aspects of the book confused me back then, I thought it was easily the best book in my nascent Tai Chi library. Since then, my opinion of it has changed slightly, and I now consider it to be one of the three first true classics of Tai Chi literature in English. The other two are Waysun Liao’s Taichi Classics, published in 1977, and Wen-Shan Huang’s Fundamentals of Tai Chi Ch’uan, published in 1979. If you never bought another book on Tai Chi beyond these three, you’d be doing all right.

 

The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan opens with Jou’s personal journey along the Tai Chi path. As so many martial arts authors have stated, he began to practice to alleviate symptoms of ill health. He subsequently learned Yang Style, then Wu-Hao Style, then the first routine of Chen Style, though he states that he did not practice the latter style to the same extent as Yang and Wu-Hao, which he refers to simply as Wu.

 

Jou came to the United States in 1972 and began teaching Tai Chi at Rutgers University, which lasted until 1975. The program ended because the university’s curriculum committee, upon reviewing the Tai Chi literature then available in English concluded that Tai Chi was simply a physical exercise and not an area of study worth academic credit. Given the physical focus of the then-current literature, Jou had to concur, but rather than lying down and rolling over, he decided to do something about it. The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan is the result. In the book, Jou aptly demonstrates that Tai Chi is both exercise and philosophy, and a great deal more.

 

Chapter one, titled, “Roots,” delivers well on its premise of exploring the founding figures of Tai Chi, beginning, of course, with Chang San-feng. Unlike many writers on Tai Chi, Jou seems to give more credence to Chang’s historicity, but he also acknowledges that much of what has been handed down about Chang is as much legendary as it is factual. Even so, his rendition of Chang’s life and contributions to internal martial arts is thorough, well-presented, and entertaining.

 

After discussing Chang, Jou dips farther into the past to explore the roots of internal martial arts prior to Chang. He begins this with Hsa Suan-ming, a hermit who lived in the Tang Dynasty (618–905 ad) and who developed a thirty-seven movement style called San Hsi Chi that was reportedly similar to Chen Style in its movements. Apparently this was a single posture practice in which each posture was eventually put together into a sequence.

 

Other luminaries of proto-internal martial arts who Jou covers are Li Tao Tze, also of the Tang Dynasty, who created a long chuan called Hsien-Tien Chuan, or, the Stage Before the Universe Was Created Boxing. Not to be outdone, a later internal style exponent, Hu Chin-tze, developed Hu-Tien Fa, which means “the Stage After the Universe Was Created Boxing.”

 

After this, Jou jumps to the Chen family, beginning with Chen Wang-ting, born in the late sixteenth century. His Tai Chi consisted, Jou says, of five routines. Jou then traces the Chen family through the generations as they further developed and refined their style of internal boxing and narrowed the number of routines to two. He then discusses some of the characteristics of the first routine, from which the others were derived. This is followed by several pages containing small drawings of the first Chen sequence, and this is followed in turn by drawings of the second and much shorter sequence. The drawings are small but well done and have arrows showing the direction of movement of the limbs.

 

A discussion of the history and characteristics of Yang Style comes next. This begins, of course, with Yang Lu-chan, and his story will be familiar to anyone who has read much at all on Tai Chi. But Jou’s rendition is fairly detailed and contains several anecdotal stories about Yang’s martial encounters, all of which are entertaining. But the harshness of Yang’s training of his two surviving sons, Yang Yu and Yang Chian also is highlighted, as are the achievements of his grandsons, particularly Yang Chen-fu. If I have a criticism of any of this material, it’s that Tai Chi luminaries of the time sometimes were known by more than one name, and Jou often uses a more obscure version. For example, today Yang Yu is better knows as Yang Pan-hao, and Yang Chian as Yang Jian-hao. The difference in naming conventions can be confusing to those already familiar with the usage that is more common today. The section ends with small but clear drawings of Yang Chen-fu performing the long Yang form, also with arrows to indicate the direction the limbs move.

 

Wu Style gets the next chapter, and back when I first read this book, I was very confused by it since Tai Chi history was then a fresh subject unknown to me. I was then learning what I was told was Wu Style, but it was utterly different from the drawings in Jou’s book. Also, although the names in the form list had a familiar ring, they were not in the same sequence as what I was learning, nor did they look the same.

 

Over the years, as I studied more about Tai Chi history, I understood that the Wu Style discussed in Jou’s book is what is more commonly known as Wu-Hao or, simply, Hao Style, as opposed to Wu Family Style, which was what I was practicing. Although Wu-Hao Style now is more obscure than Yang Style—and even than Wu Family Style—it has a significant place in Tai Chi history: Both it and Yang Style are the only direct offshoots of Chen Style. Of the other two major Tai Chi Styles, Wu Family Style was developed out of Yang Style, while Sun Style has a complex history that blends Wu-Hao with Bagua and Hsing-I—and perhaps with Zhaobao Village Tai Chi, a style whose existence confounds the Tai Chi family tree. Jou, however, relegates Wu Family and Sun Styles to being mere offshoots rather than individual Tai Chi styles with unique characteristics that set them apart from their progenitors. As with the Chen and Yang Style sections, this one concludes with a set of small, clear drawings delineating the form.

 

Jou’s intent with the sets of drawings of the various forms is not to instruct in performing a form, but to distinguish visually between the styles. But he does devote the final section of the chapter to the methodology of learning how to perform a Tai Chi sequence, no matter what style is being practiced. This is worthwhile for anyone taking up Tai Chi because, as Tai Chi practitioners know, the form looks easy to do, but it is not. Nor is it easy to learn. It requires devoted and interested practice to learn and become ingrained, and Jou’s tips can assist the student in understanding both the short-term and long-term requirements.

 

Chapter two discusses Tai Chi philosophy, beginning with the taijitu—the tai chi symbol—and its components: yin and yang. Jou does not stint here, just as he does not stint anywhere in this book. I admit that I’m partial to the beauty and depth of expression that can be discovered in the taijitu, and Jou’s examination does not disappoint in either depth or breadth. Included are a number of clear parallels between the tai chi symbol and the art named after it.

 

The Five Element Theory occupies the next section, and again Jou clearly defines the linkages between the elements themselves and between the elements and a wide variety of philosophical aspects, such as color, season, anatomy, position, and so forth. Next comes a look at the Eight Trigrams, from their history and connection to the I Ching to the ways they can be used separately and in combination to help define tangible reality. Jou then goes into the I Ching, presenting a basic history, how the text is accessed via the Eight Trigrams, and how the art of Tai Chi embodies the philosophy expounded by this ancient and revelatory book.

 

The next section, “The Philosophy of Tai-Chi Chuan,” expends the remainder of the chapter on philosophical matters that relate more directly to Tai Chi. Jou begins the discussion, appropriately enough, by explaining Wu-Chi, the state of relaxed non-movement in which all movement is possible. From here, he shows how movement from this quiescent state produces two types of force—yin, or negative force, and Yang, or positive force—and how the two forces can interact in different combinations, configurations, and manners to create momentum. Jou then moves on to the Tai Chi idea of circling the square, or, of “finding the straight in the curved and the curved in the straight.” This segues into a look at structural stability and how it can transcends dimensional awareness.

 

Chapter three is titled, “Foundation.” In it, Jou covers a great deal of information critical to the proper practice and functioning of Tai Chi, beginning with descriptions of eight different types of breathing, each with its own characteristics and effects. They are: Natural Breathing, Cleansing Breathing, Tonic Breathing, Alternate Breathing, Natural Deep Breathing, Long Breathing, Pre-birth or Pre-Natal Breathing, and Tortoise Breathing. All are variations of abdominal breathing, but they activate, propel, and process the breath and chi in different ways.

 

The next section enumerates a number of other Tai Chi basics, such as naturalness, relaxation, combining the will and chi, establishing solidity in the lower body, slow movement, diligent and regular practice, and moderation in movement. Each is treated to an explanation. This is followed by a thirteen-posture chi kung that utilizes the breathing exercise known as “Heng and Hah.” Tai Chi meditation is covered next, and Jou touches on the elements of the Microcosmic Orbit before moving on to the very useful Chan-ssu Chin, or Reeling Silk Exercise, which he dissects in detail.

 

From here, Jou segues into the several ways that the practice of Tai Chi facilitates mental powers and, ultimately, spiritual energy. Linked to this is physical stability, whether one is at rest or is moving. This stability includes stances and how one treats the body in motion as if it is a ball rolling along, constantly maintaining a one-pointed contact with the gravitational pull of the Earth, the tantien serving as the ball’s central point. Developing a sense that one is suspended from above allows a more free rotation around one’s central equilibrium, and it also allows one to move more rapidly from side to side.

 

Jou closes out the chapter with a section titled, “The Thirteen Torso Methods,” which are additional basic Tai Chi rules: hollowing the chest, lifting the back, being aware of the crotch region, sheltering the stomach, lifting up the head, skipping, blitzkrieg, relaxing the shoulders, sinking the elbows, positioning the coccyx, and sinking the chi to the tantien. Each is explained in its own paragraph.

 

A chapter on the Tai Chi Classics follows. In this, Jou is selective rather than comprehensive, beginning with a classic attributed to Chang San-feng. One by Wang Tsung-yueh, one by Wu Yu-hsing, two by Li Yi-hu, and one by an unknown author follow. Except for the last, Jou provides excellent and often lengthy explanations for the many points presented in these Classics.

 

“Experiences” is the next chapter, and it contains two sections, each devoted to in-depth Tai Chi ideas of two significant masters. First is Cheng Man-ch’ing, who conceptualized the development of a Tai Chi Chuanist in three stages, each with subsets of advancement. Jou goes into a great deal of detail regarding these, but here I’ll simply enumerate them:

 

I. Human Stage

1. Lightness

2. Slowness

3. Circularity

4. Constant speed

II. Earth Stage

1. Agility

2. Relaxation

3. The Three Powers

a. Sinking the weight

b. Sending the spirit to the crown of the head

c. Placing the concentration in the tantien

4. Changes

III. Sky Stage

1. Sensing emptiness and solidity

2. Breathing

3. Consciousness

4. Void and stillness

 

The second master that Jou references is Chen Yen-lin, and this section is an excerpt from Chen’s book, Tai-Chi Chuan. This section is ten pages long and covers much of the same basics that Jou and Cheng have already covered, but from a different and illuminating perspective.

 

Push hands is the subject of the final chapter, but the chapter begins with more important basic information regarding the Eight Gates, which Jou has touched on previously but here delineates more fully. This was probably the most complete explanation on the Eight Gates in English-language Tai Chi literature at the time, and it’s still more complete than can be found in almost any Tai Chi book in English. If I have a problem with any of this material, it’s that it describes the Eight Gates in terms of function, which is the standard way of viewing these ways that Tai Chi manifests energy. I prefer to think of the Eight Gates, on the other hand, in terms of dynamics: Where does the energy originate, and where does it end up? But you’ll have to read my Circling the Square: Observations on the Dynamics of Tai Chi Chuan to learn more about what I mean here.

 

After the explanations of the Eight Gates, Jou winds up the book somewhat anticlimactically with push hands itself and how it is done. His explanation here is only adequate, but he seems to be simply presenting basic information about push hands rather than trying to give point-by-point instructions.

 

Throughout the book, Jou peppers his explanations with anecdotes and extended metaphors to help get his points across. Some of the anecdotes tell of his interactions with acknowledged masters, such as Cheng Man-ch’ing, while others are word-of-mouth Tai Chi tales of the great masters. For the most part, the metaphors work well, though a few are, to my taste, somewhat weaker than the others. But weaker or stronger, all illuminate well enough and advance what Jou is talking about. There also are a large number of drawings throughout the book. The form illustrations previously mentioned are well done, but most of the rest of the illustrations tend to be on the crude side. Even so, they are quite adequate in demonstrating Jou’s points. One in particular, showing how energy spirals down through the torso and leg than back up again, was seminal to my understanding of this concept.

 

In 1983, Jou established the Tai Chi Farm in Warwick, New York , where classes and workshops engaged Tai Chi Chuanists from all over the world in many of the deeper aspect of the art. Jou also is the author of The Tao of Meditation and The Tao of I Ching. Jou died in 1998, and two years later, the Tai Chi Farm was sold. But in 2001, his family, students, and friends established the Master Jou Tsung Hwa Memorial Tai Chi Park in Wantage, New Jersey, just twelve miles from the site of the original Tai Chi Farm.