A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
By Sophia Delza
(State University of New York Press, 1985, 244 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Sophia Delza was an American modern dancer and choreographer who helped introduce tai chi to the West. In 1948, she moved to Shanghai with her husband, and while she was there, she became the first American to teach modern American dance in China. She also studied Wu Family tai chi under Ma Yueh-liang. When she returned to the U.S., she gave the first documented public demonstration of tai chi in America, wrote the first book in English on the art, and opened the first tai chi school in America.
In her classes, Delza reportedly focused on the exercise and self-development aspects of tai chi rather than its martial aspects, and that focus is clear from her books. I wish I could review her first book, T’ai Chi Ch’uan: Body and Mind in Harmony, but I no longer own it since I mistakenly loaned it to someone who did not return it. My recollection is that I loaned the book because the one under consideration here seemed like a revised and much expanded reissue, and indeed, that turns out to be the case.
The forward by the eminent philosopher and theologian, Robert C. Neville, is, in itself, one of the most thorough discussions of the yin/yang dichotomy/synthesis in any tai chi book. He takes the concept from its historical roots, through its meanings, and then into its embodiment in the art of tai chi.
Delza begins the book with an overview of the art that includes statements such as: “The experience of the form in process of change makes it an art for the self,” and, “I do not approach t’ai-chi ch’üan as a mystery or as something mystical. My basic approach is practical in the sense that as a concretely demonstrable exercise, it can be learned and profitably used by anyone.”
She then goes into tai chi history, beginning with Chang San-feng and the usual general background of kung fu dating to ancient times. She carries the history to the present day with only a brief outline of the modern, post-Chen Family, dissemination of tai chi.
From here, Delza moves on into a definition of what tai chi is, at least from an exercise and self-development point of view since she does not deal with the art’s martial aspects. She pretty thoroughly covers her bases, though there are a few statements that beg argument. For example, she says, “To omit any of the repeated Forms, in addition to weakening the mental concept of t’ai-chi ch’üan, will ruin its structure, which has philosophical and artistic meaning. The composition of the structure is explicit as to floor pattern, space, and design.”
I’m not sure that Cheng Man-Ch’ing or others who developed and practice abbreviated, combined, standardized, or hybrid forms would agree, though perhaps it’s true that Cheng’s form could not stand further shortening without losing at least one of Yang style’s movements. As to the floor pattern (which I take to mean the stepping pattern), space, and design, well, does she mean that only Wu style conforms to these identical elements, while the many other styles that have different stepping patterns and so forth are either inferior or not really tai chi? Maybe she just means that practitioners should adhere faithfully to whatever form they practice, but if that were a valid statement, she wouldn’t have Wu style to practice, nor would there be a Yang style or any others besides Chen Family tai chi. Or maybe even what came before that. The truth is, the martial arts, like just about everything else in the world, either evolves or dies, and evolution is about change and development. We begin by imitating what our elders teach us, but then it is up to us to us to walk that fine line between imitation and growth.
But this is a quibble, and Delza continues with a number of tai chi fundamentals and principles, including softness, harmony of mind and body, consistency, and others, all of which are sound. Then she moves on, into the form instruction section.
The form instruction text is fairly detailed and is accompanied principally by line drawings, with photographs intermingled. The line drawings, done by the author, are replicated from the original edition, while the interspersed photographs of the author are new to this edition. The line drawings work well enough, but the photographs are more impressive. Delza had to be in her early to mid eighties when these shots were taken, and her form, while obviously that of an elderly person (her Snake Creeps Down doesn’t creep down quite as far as it probably once did, for example) is still pretty good, denoting decades of practice. She might not have practiced tai chi for its martial aspects, but her form is solid, nonetheless.
The form instruction is followed by and all-too-short chapter on the Tai Chi Classics before Delza moves on into a multi-chapter section titled, “Interpretation.” In these chapters, she delves into various dimensions of tai chi, from the art’s meaning as a psycho-physical method of development, through its unique method of body work, to its all-too-often neglected mental aspect, upon which she expends a fair amount of effort. She then goes into the more artistic aspects of tai chi, covering the frame and space of the form, tempo, the art’s relation to the taijitu (the tai chi symbol), the shading of transitions, balance, and breathing, among others.
The final chapters discuss the embodiment of tai chi within the practitioner, the journey of the tai chi chuanist. It ends with several pages of quotes from the I Ching and diverse other sources that help define the parameters of the art and finishes with a long poem on tai chi of Delza’s own construction. The book ends with a foot-stepping diagram that, unlike many similar diagrams in other books, actually manages to convey the stepping patterns and their relation to the space through which they move.
Despite the presence of the form instruction material, T’ai-Chi Ch’üan is most definitely a Category II book. Philosophical in tone, it eschews practical instruction (except for the explicitly instructional form section), exchanging that for examinations of deeper levels of understanding about what tai chi can mean within its larger context of self-development. But this doesn’t mean that Delza fails to convey all the important points about tai chi and its practice. She does that, if one ignores the absence of discussions of the martial aspect.
If I have a problem with this book, it’s that, ultimately, it is written in the tai chi literary equivalent of acadamese: that brand of writing that aims to be as high-falutin’ as possible. (Definition Here) Sometimes, the density of the prose seems like it exists to mask vagueness, despite Delza’s obvious familiarity with tai chi and her deep thoughts on the subject. At other times, I wished she’d just get on with it. But still, T’ai-Chi Ch’üan is a worthwhile read for its philosophical content and insights into aspects of tai chi not usually covered by other books on the subject.
Wikipedia entry: Sophia Delza
Sophia Delza obituary
Inventory of the Sophia Delza Papers, 1908-1996