A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan
by Wu Kung Cho
translated by Doug Woolidge
(Jonathan Krehm on behalf of the
International Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan
Federation, 2006, 146 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
A fair—and welcomed—proportion of books on Tai Chi published in English are translations of either the Tai Chi Classics or what might be termed the Neo-Classics. The Tai Chi Classics is the corpus of writings on Tai Chi that were produced in the years up to and including Yang Cheng-fu.* Yang died in 1936, so I’ll assume 1935 as the end of the Classics period, especially since his last writing is dated 1934. What I would call the Neo-Classics are those writings that were authored between 1935 and 1955, which roughly coincides with the advent of the martial arts, including Tai Chi, in the United States. After that, we enter into the era of modern Tai Chi literature.
I mark the advent of Tai Chi in the U.S. as a major shift in the literature not because that literature was now appearing in the U.S. or in English but because that time also marks the beginning of Tai Chi’s international explosion. Certainly, Tai Chi had made some inroads into China’s neighbors, such as Japan and Korea, but that was a natural expansion into areas already steeped in the martial arts. Prior to the 1950s, however, the martial arts of the East were, by and large, exotic practices rarely heard of, and seen even less, by Europeans, Africans, and North and South Americans.
Since the 1950s, there have been quite a number of English-language translations of the Tai Chi Classics. At this writing, I know of approximately fifteen book-length translations that contain most of, if not all, the Classics. And portions of the Classics find a home in a great number of other books on Tai Chi. These instances might contain just two or three of the Classics or many, which are often contained in an appendix. Finally, there are a fair number of translations online, again either mostly complete or in brief.
Translations of the Neo-Classics also has proceeded rapidly. These books were most often authored by experts who learned directly from the founders of the various family styles other than Chen, such as Yang Lu-chan, Yang Pan-hao, Yang Cheng-fu, Wu Quan-yu, and Wu Chien-chuan. Some of the authors were top students, some were family members of later generations. Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan by Wu Kung Cho is one of the latter.
Many of the Neo-Classics tend to be longer than the original Classics but shorter than most modern Tai Chi literature. Often they are short enough that they more properly ought to be termed booklets or pamphlets. And like most booklets and pamphlets, they generally had a somewhat limited original publication run, usually being disseminated only within a particular family or school.
In addition to including a translation of the text and frequently a copy of the original in Chinese, many modern versions also add additional material such as history, biography, philosophy, and commentary. All this helps pad out the brevity of the original text into adequate book length for the modern Western consumer. And very often, the added material is worth the adding. Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan is directly within this camp.
It should be noted that the translator of the Chinese text is Doug Woolidge. A facsimile of Wu’s original booklet is included in this volume, but as I do not read Chinese, I can’t verify the accuracy of Woolidge’s translation. But I trust that it is excellent because the book is published under the auspices of the Wu family’s official organization: the International Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan Federation. I doubt they would have published an inaccurate or incomplete translation.
The author, Wu Kung Cho (1903–1983), was the son of Wu Chien Chuan and the younger brother of Wu Kung Yi. Being in the direct family line and so close in time to Wu Style’s foundations, Wu was in an excellent position to understand and help develop the art. His life, however, was as beset by misfortune as it was by success. He served in the Nationalist Revolutionary Army, taught at the Ching Wu Association and the Hunan Martial Arts Training Center, and set up a Wu Style school in Hong Kong in 1937. But from the mid 1950s to 1979, he was imprisoned by the Chinese government. Following his release, he returned to Hong Kong to live with his family, where he died in 1983.
Wu’s Tai Chi literary legacy is significant since he was the first to write a book on Wu Style Tai Chi. Initially published in 1935—the first year of the Neo-Classic period—the book could be considered a bridge between the Classics and the Neo-Classics. It was reprinted in 1980, helping disseminate the art worldwide. The version under consideration here is what might be called the third edition. Wu’s original material consists of two texts. The first is what might be properly titled “Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan”: a fifteen-chapter introduction to Tai Chi’s concepts, principles, and applications. The second—and the older of the two—is “Explanation of Tai Chi Methodology,” which is noted for being quite elliptical in character. In fact, the publisher’s preface notes that the two principal texts are like yin and yang, with the newer text being more accessible than the older.
The book as a whole can be broken roughly into several sections. The first consists of prefatory material by various authors. These begin with an epigraph by current Wu Family Grandmaster Eddie Wu Kwong Yu, Wu Kung Cho’s grand nephew. Following that are prefaces and/or introductions by the publisher, the translator, and someone named Ching Fu—the latter from the 1980 edition. Wu Kung Cho’s own preface finishes out this section and leads into his first text.
In this text, Wu devotes one to three pages on each of these topics:
1. Introductory material
3. Stillness and movement in yin/yang
4. Basic elements
5. Body positioning
6. Push hands
7. Essential guidelines
8. The four principles of applications
9. Explanation of the Thirteen Forms
10. Fundamentals of the Five Elements
11. Mechanical principles of the Eight Methods (Eight Gates)
12. Riding the opponent’s momentum
13. Winding-silk jin
14. Creating, overcoming, controlling, and neutralizing
15. The relationship between teaching and learning
I’ll let Wu speak for himself on these topics, but truthfully, there’s nothing here than can’t be found elsewhere since the principles and precepts of Tai Chi are invariant. If two people explicate them well, they say pretty much the same thing. Wu does manage here, however, to clearly and succinctly state these ideas without losing their depth.
The second text, “Explanation of Tai Chi Methodology,” is not properly by Wu Kung Cho but by an unstated antecedent. Wu’s very brief introduction to this text reads: “This book was transcribed by founding Master Wu Chuan Yau [Wu Quan-yu] after he became a disciple of Master Yang Ban Hou at Prince Sweh Fang’s Palace. It has been in our family for over one hundred years. I have possessed this book since childhood and have safeguarded it until now.”
Wu’s intro places this text firmly in the Classics period, and indeed, though it is not specifically stated, the text is the Tai Chi Classic long held by the Yang family and known as the Forty Chapters.
The forty “chapters” of “The Explanation of Tai Chi Methodology” are usually one, sometimes long, paragraph each. In true Classics form, the ideas are couched in poetic and somewhat obscure language. Each chapter covers one aspect of Tai Chi, such as body mechanics, energy creation and manipulation, martial applications, levels of achievement, the Thirteen Forms, the meridian system, and so on. Again, none of it is new, being another iteration of the often-translated Forty Chapters. But it’s always edifying to view familiar material from another perspective, especially perspectives provided by as knowledgeable a practitioner as Wu Chuan Yau. Here it’s all well stated, and the information is important to one’s success in Tai Chi.
The next section of the book contains a facsimile of the original edition of “Explanation of Tai Chi Methodology.” After that are two sets of photos depicting major movements of Wu Style Tai Chi. The book notes that the photos are not intended to be complete enough to follow for instructional purposes, but rather are meant to indicate the basics of Wu Style postures.
For the Wu Stylist, the photos might be revelatory when considering the development of Wu Style over the decades, during which the form’s frame has become progressively more compact. The first set of photos—62—are of Wu Chien Chuan, and the second set—108—are of his son, Wu Kung Yi. From the two sets, it is evident that even in this one-generation step, the Wus contracted the form’s frame. The frame of Wu Style’s current grandmaster, Eddie Wu, is even more compact. Between the two sets of photos is a page devoted to the famous fight in Macau between Wu Kung Yi, then age 55, and White Crane exponent Chen Hak Fu, age 35. The disappointingly brief encounter was called a draw after Wu drew blood from Chen.
A section on the Wu family comes next, beginning with a family tree. This is followed by biographies of the Wu family members from Wu Chuan Yau onward. The bios are strictly limited to family members, so while Wu Kung Cho’s younger sister, Wu Ying Hua, appears, her husband, the famous and significant Wu stylist Ma Yueh-liang, doesn’t. The bios conclude with Grandmaster Eddie Wu’s sons. The family history section ends with an eight-page fold-out devoted to the International Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan Federation.
The book closes with several more Tai Chi Classics and a prologue and forward to the 1935 edition. I’m not sure why these last two were relegated to the end of the book instead of appearing at the beginning with all the other prefaces and introductions. The last items in the book are form lists of the 108 standard Wu Style movements and the 108 movements of the Wu Style sword form.
I’ll comment on the book physical aspects first because I feel that they are less than ideal despite the highly artistic approach to the design and production. The book has unusual and slightly over-sized dimensions, and while that’s not a problem in itself, there are a number of difficulties with book that slightly smaller dimensions could have helped eliminate. You might not have noticed from the photo, but the binding is not the usual wrap-around cover but is done in the older Chinese style of punched holes and string ties. It’s a lot like using a post binder with cardboard covers where the back edges of the pages are left exposed, and there isn’t a spine that can hold type. You can see the same in the photos of the original booklet.
Back in the early eras of publishing, before mechanization had come to the fore, string-and-hole binding was one of the few binding options available. A similar binding method is still used in hardbound books, in which the pages are stitched together with heavy thread before being fastened into a hard, wrap-around cover.
The publishers of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan might have thought it a nice and artistic touch to replicate the old binding method, but it has several problems. The first is that it is not very durable. Eventually, the string will either fray from shelf wear or simply rot, loosening the binding. Also, because they are not supported externally by a wrap-around cover, the back edges of the cover stock on my copy have not fared well despite the fact that I’ve only read the book twice and it sat on the shelf between readings. And finally, because the book does not have a proper spine, when it is on the shelf, it’s title is not immediately apparent. So, for me, both durability and usability are somewhat impaired by this older binding style.
And that’s not my only problem with the book’s production. The string-and-hole binding method disguises the fact that each pair of pages, front and back, is not a single sheet printed front and back, but a single, double-sized, sheet printed on one side then folded to create the two pages. I’m not sure why this was done since the binding method does not require it and it makes the book twice as thick as necessary. But maybe padding was the point, giving a 146-page book the appearance of one with twice the number of pages. I would have preferred that the designer and publisher had reduced the dimensions of the book and used a type font a point larger and printed on regular sheets. Those would have give the book proper heft in a more natural way, even given the string-and-hole binding.
And the folding creates a secondary problem in that it causes the leading edges of the pages, where the sheets are folded, to be thicker than the binding edge. This causes the leading edge of the book to fan open, making the pages more vulnerable to damage and the book more difficult to slide back into its slot on the bookshelf without bending the cover or some of the pages.
Three other unwise printing decisions thwart the book designer’s attempt at an artistic production. The first is the use, in three instances, of a sort of translucent, very thick plastic parchment paper as divider pages. The second two instances where this is used aren’t too bad since the placement of the type on them is not awkward with regard to the type or graphics on the largely visible page underneath. But the first instance, containing the epigraph by Eddie Wu, overlays a second page with type and a graphic, and it is impossible to read the epigraph easily with the other elements showing through the sheet. Since the parchment is inconsistently and only sporadically used, and is an impediment, it seems to be an unnecessary addition.
The next design flaw is the use, for two of the introductory prefaces, of a dark brown background color. The type throughout the book is a dark brown, but the brown background on these pages is dark enough that the words are difficult to read. This is especially true considering the fact that the type font is a point size smaller than is comfortable to read, even on a lighter-colored paper. A later use of the same dark brown for a page has the type reversed out in white, so the text there is easier to read. The buff color of the pages of the rest of the book is light enough that the dark brown type shows up well, but I generally am against the use of colored stock and colored type for the interior pages of a book because both inhibit the reading process. White page stock and black type is almost always best, at least for the body text. The chief rule is to make the reading process as simple and transparent as possible.
The final design flaw is the use of the eight-page fold-out for the section describing the International Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan Federation. I’ve seen a lot of fold-outs in books on Tai Chi and other martial arts, and occasionally they are warranted or work well enough. Not so here. The large dimensions of the book, the constriction of the string-and-hole binding, and the sheer length of the fold-out make the fold-out extremely difficult to manipulate and look at, much less peruse. And really, there’s nothing at all on these pages that warrant a fold-out. The material could have been presented on normal pages, as was the rest of the book, including the form photo sections, which might more logically have been printed on fold-outs.
I might have criticisms of the book’s production, but its contents are worthwhile for any Tai Chi Chuanist. They would be especially valuable for those who practice Wu Family Style, and indeed, this book is very much a family affair. Considering who this family is, that isn’t a bad thing, though truthfully, there’s not much in here about Tai Chi that isn’t available in a great number of other books. But the historicity of the two principal texts is enough to warrant a read. Beginners of any style would find the material valuable, and even experienced practitioners might find something useful here. The book is, perhaps, equally collectible for its history of the Wu family, and certainly it should be on the shelf of any Wu Style practitioner.
* The following is Wikipedia’s list of full-length translations of the Tai Chi Classics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%27ai_chi_classics):
T'ai Chi Ch'uan Classic attributed to the legendary founder of Tai Chi Chuan, Zhang Sanfeng, claimed to be ca. 12th-14th century.
Salt Shop Manual, containing the T'ai Chi Ch'uan Treatise attributed to the legendary Wang Tsung-yueh (Wang Zongyue). The text was said to have been found stored in the back room of a Beijing salt shop by Wu Yu-hsiang’s brother Wu Ch'eng-ch'ing.
Miscellaneous texts: Song of Thirteen Postures, Mental Elucidation of the Practice of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, and the Song of Sparring handed down in the Yang and Wu families.
Texts by Wu Yu-hsiang (Wu Yuxiang), a central figure in Wu/Hao Style Tai Chi Chuan, and his relatives; especially his nephew Li I-yü.
Forty Chapters of writings, the last three chapters directly attributed to Chang San-feng, preserved in the Yang and Wu families.
T'ai Chi Ch'uan Illustrated, published in 1919 by Ch'en Hsin (Chen Xin, an important Chen family scholar.
The Study of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, first published in 1924 by Sun Lu-tang, founder of the fifth and last classical style of Tai Chi Chuan.
Yang Chengfu published his Complete Principles and Applications of T'ai Chi Ch'uan in 1934, a work considered authoritative in schools influenced by his many students and progeny. The book includes the well known "Ten Essential Points of Taijiquan Theory" authored by Ch'eng-fu.
Wu Kung-tsao (Wu Gongzao, Wu Kung Cho) provided original texts and commentary on the previously mentioned Forty Chapters in Wu Family Tai Chi Chuan. Wu's grandfather, Wu Chuan Yau (Wu Quan-yu) had inherited the Forty Chapters from Yang Pan-hou. The book was first published in 1935. In 1980, when the book was published again in Hong Kong, the famous wuxia author, Jin Yong, contributed a postscript to Wu Kung-tsao's text in which Jin described influences from as far back as Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu on contemporary Chinese martial arts.