A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Fundamentals of Tai Chi Ch'uan
by Wen-shan Huang
(South Sky Book Company, 1979, 634 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Just as there are giants of Tai Chi—masters with extraordinarily superb skills—there are giants within Tai Chi literature. Wen-shan Huang’s Fundamental of Tai Chi Ch’uan is one of those, standing head and shoulders above most of the others. Even today, almost forty years after Fundamentals’ first publication, there are few Tai Chi books that cover the art so thoroughly as Huang’s treatise. Or perhaps I ought to call it a tome since, in addition to looming large in importance, it clocks in at a hefty 634 pages.
In addition to being a Tai Chi exponent, Huang was a sociologist, a cultural theorist, a philosopher, and a legal expert. Before coming to the United States in 1959, he served as dean of the law school at National Sun Yat-sen University and president of Chien Shek University and of the Provincial College of Law and Commerce of Kwangtung. In the U.S., he served on the faculties of the New School in New York and the University of Southern California. He also was the founder and president of the American Academy of Chinese Culture and served as president of the National Tai Chi Ch’uan Association in Los Angeles. The above list of citations only covers about one-third list of the high-level positions he held in academia.
Upon joining the faculty of the University of Southern California in 1959 and in addition to his academic duties, Huang began teaching Tai Chi. This marks him as one of the first Tai Chi instructors in the country. Huang’s principal Tai Chi teacher was Tung Ying Chieh, who was a pupil of Yang Cheng-fu. However, Huang’s introduction lists no fewer than seventeen masters by name “for having imparted their knowledge to me with great generosity.” Among the better-known of these in America are Cheng Man-ching, Da Liu, and T. T. Liang. Clearly, Huang’s understanding of Tai Chi is deep, and his academic background is apparent in his erudite writing style.
The book opens with eight (!) essays variously labeled as introductions, prefaces, notes, acknowledgements, and author biography. The first is by Laura Huxley (Mrs. Aldous Huxley), several are by academic associates of Huang, and two are by Huang himself. The author bio is uncredited. Most of this prefatory material is simply laudatory of Huang, but in his own introduction, the author lays out the basic principles of Tai Chi and his purposes in writing the book.
The book is broken into four parts followed by a hefty page count of appendices. "Part I: Historical and Philosophical,” begins with a chapter that defines Tai Chi as an art of life and then goes on to discuss in elementary terms the idea of form or structure, the techniques of bodily movement, breathing, self-defense, and the therapeutic value of Tai Chi. The material here is somewhat cursory, but it is intended to introduce the reader to basic concepts rather than to fully discuss them. He leaves the more intense examinations of the art for subsequent chapters.
Those begin with one of the most thorough historical surveys of Tai Chi that exists outside of books completely devoted to the subject. In it, Huang delineates the origins of the Chinese martial arts in general before discussing the differences between the “exoteric" and “esoteric" schools of martial arts. After that, he gets down to brass tacks on the development of Tai Chi itself. This stuff is clearly written by someone with access to old Chinese documents on the development of Tai Chi, and Huang’s presentation of the material is thorough.
The next chapter discusses Tai Chi’s relationship to the I Ching. After several pages of introductory remarks to set the stage, Huang delves into the history of the I Ching and the combination of cosmic law and ethical considerations inherent in that ancient text. From there, he moves on to Tai Chi’s relationship to the tai chi symbol. Huang favors the more elaborate tai chi diagram created by Chou Tun-yi rather than the more familiar taijitu depicting two fish shapes rotating within a circle. The latter, he states, “has no practical value, except that it represents Yin and Yang.” Chou’s diagram, on the other hand, “embraces all the abstruse principles” of Tai Chi. I tend to disagree, but this isn’t the place to digress on that subject. For those who are interested in a discourse on the two-fish taijitu, check out my essay, “Symbolic Movement” HERE.
Huang then goes into the basic principles of Tai Chi in relation to Confucianism, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism. This is fascinating material that is too complex to easily or succinctly paraphrase, so I won’t attempt to do so, but it includes in-depth discussions of the principles of breath control, serenity and emptiness, softness, and non-striving and non-aggression, among others. Tai Chi’s effects on health follow, and here Huang looks at the art’s impact on the central nervous system, the circulatory and respiratory systems, digestion, and metabolism. The next chapter examines Tai Chi in light of modern philosophy and science, including the physical, biological, psychological, and ethical aspects of Tai Chi.
Part II is titled “Methodological and Theoretical,” and here the author looks closely at several issues: “The Method of the Torso,” “The Method of the Fist,” “The Method of the Palms,” “The Method of the Legs,” “The Method of the Feet,” and “The Method of the Steps.” Each part succinctly dissects its subject and contains very valuable information. Tai Chi’s operational methodology follows. Again, I’ll simply list his subject matter in this section:
1. In posture, the trunk is upright, erect, comfortable. Body and mind are relaxed and calm.
2. All actions should be light, nimble, and alert, emphasizing continuity, flexibility, circling, and unity.
3. Actions are adjusted to breathing and the unity of the internal and the external.
4. The breath is deep and natural—the chi is directed by the mind to sink downward to the tantien.
5. Cultivating the chi, harmonizing the breath, and the controlling of the mind and spirit inwardly are crucial.
6. The chi is excited in its circulation in the body.
7. In practicing the exercise, the spirit should be absolutely integrated and the hands and eyes should be coordinated.
8. The waist–spine structure is the chief controller of bodily movements.
9. The method of stepping mainly emphasizes lightness, nimbleness, circling, and stability.
10. The art facilitates interaction of the conjugate powers of yin and yang, the harmonizing of the dynamic and static with the direction of the mind, and the complimentary nature of yielding (pliability) and unyielding (hardness).
11. The Thirteen Postures.
12. The operations of Wardoff, Rollback, Press, and Push.
13. The operations of the Pull, Split, Elbow Stroke, and Shoulder Stroke.
14. The circular movements of “Reeling of Silk" exercises.
15. In the joint hands operations (push hands), attention has to be paid to the techniques known as “to adhere and lift,” “to join,” “to adhere horizontally,” “to attach from the rear,” and “neither let go nor resist.”
16. The stages of comprehension and application of the intrinsic energies.
The list itself is informative enough on the surface, but each of these subjects is treated in depth over the course of one to several pages, opening their topics like a flowers unfolding to reveal their essences. Breathing is the topic of the next two chapters, and as with the previous chapter, the text reveals the greater depths of the subject.
The form instruction section occupies the next chapter, and it depicts a long Yang form and includes detailed text accompanied by excellent photographs. Right in the middle of this section is a fold-out sheet that shows the foot-stepping pattern for the entire form. These sorts of charts often seem to me to be superfluous at best, and practically worthless at worst, and this one is no different.
A longish chapter displaying possible applications for many of the movements comes next, and it is rather more complete than is usual for this kind of material. The applications are followed by a chapter on push hands that shows two-handed push hands, four corners (Tui Shao), Ta Lu, and free-style. As with the applications section, this is fairly detailed, and inexperienced practitioners without an instructor to teach these aspect of Tai Chi might actually be able to study this material and learn how to push hands. Self-defense is the subject of the final chapter. This chapter is a “tell” rather than a “show,” and it discusses the main characteristics of Tai Chi pugilism, strategy, non-opposition, non-separation, circular movement, Central Equilibrium, speed, intrinsic energy, and what Huang terms the “Three Stages of Applying Energy,” which are feinting, neutralizing, and borrowing energies.
So far, we’ve worked our way up to page 425, and the more than 200 pages that remain are taken up by various appendices. The first three are the first three of the Tai Chi Classics in very thorough translations. Huang then delivers an essay on the Classics, discussing their history, enumerating them, and finally translating one more for the reader.
The chapter that follows is, essentially, it’s own little book titled “The Art of Glowing Health.” In it, Huang presents a modern system of balanced exercise, self-massage, and breathing rhythms drawn from the wisdom of Taoism, Zen, and acupuncture. Comprising forty-four pages of text with numerous illustrations, it discusses internal exercise in general and then gives instruction in the Ten Fundamental Treasures, a chi kung series, several exercises of which also are found in the well-known Eight Pieces of Brocade chi kung form. The chapter ends with self-massage techniques.
“Cultural Breathing” is the title of the next chapter, and it discusses at length the subjects of abdominal breathing, chi circulation through both the Microcosmic and Macrocosmic Orbits, and the effects and benefits of abdominal breathing on the body’s various internal systems. The concept of longevity takes up the following chapter, and here Huang lays out a great deal of scientific research done up to that time on the subject of gerontology.
The development of condensed or abbreviated Tai Chi forms finds a few pages here before Huang gives space to his final subject, which is written by other authors: the effects of isometric exercise on hypertension, circulation, and claudication, which refers to the impairment in walking, or pain, discomfort, numbness or tiredness in the legs caused by poor circulation. This material is rather technical but is worth perusing.
Fundamentals of Tai Chi Ch’uan is a wonderful book and an important book, but it isn’t a perfect book. Its exegesis of the art of Tai Chi is thorough and deep, but there are technical issues with the production. It was produced in the days before computerized typesetting, and there are a great number of typographical errors, inconsistencies, and oddities strewn throughout its pages. Further, there are numerous inconsistencies in spelling that should have been caught by better editing. For example, Huang acknowledges his friend Yung-cheng Kwang for posing for the push hands photos, but later in the same paragraph, he refers to him as Mr. Kwong. Which one is it? The book also contains material that seems to be dross for a volume aimed at an English-speaking audience, such as the inclusion of twenty pages of Chinese text followed by a several-page bibliography also in Chinese, that replicates material already presented in English.
But these are relatively minor matters when compared to the significance of the information Huang imparts. Unfortunately, the book seems to be out of print at this time, which is a crying shame. Used copies of the various editions that appeared between 1979 and the mid to late 1980s run from about $60 to $80. That’s a lot to spend on a book, but you might want to spend it anyway since Tai Chi books don’t get much more thorough than this one.