A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Wu Style Taichichuan Tuishou
by Ma Yueh-liang and Zee Wen, MD
(Shanghai Book Co., Ltd., 1986, 86 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The International Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan Federation is one good place to find information on Wu Family Tai Chi, but until recently, Wu style practitioners have had far fewer resources for information about the genesis, development, and unique characteristics of their style than Yang stylists have enjoyed. Any further elucidation, however slight, is welcome, and Ma Yueh-liang’s several books provide valuable information from a master close to Wu style’s origins.
Ma Yueh-liang might not have been a blood member of the Wu family, but he not only married into it, he so excelled at the art that he became famous in his own right for the skills he honed. He also is notable for being the teacher of Sophia Delza, whom he taught in the years shortly after WWII. Delza was the first person to demonstrate Tai Chi to the American public, to openly teach the art in the United States, and to publish a book in English on Tai Chi: T’ai-Chi Ch’uan: Body and Mind in Harmony.
Ma was well-known for his tuishou (push hands) skill, which apparently did not fully develop until later in life, and he directed the Shanghai Chien Chuan Tai Chi Chuan Association. He left fewer than a handful of books, but a large legacy.
The book opens with a preface by Delza, and there is a certain irony in this, though I know why it was done. Delza was one of the most prominent Tai Chi figures in the U.S. for many years, and practically the sole promoter of Wu Style practitioner in a Tai Chi sphere dominated by Yang Style. This makes her the obvious choice to write the preface. But Delza was known for promoting the exercise, artistic, and self-development aspects of Tai Chi rather than its martial side, so the irony rests in her prefacing a book on tuishou.
Delza’s preface is followed by a forward and introduction by co-author Zee Wen. In them, he relates a pinch of history and a dash of philosophy and touches on a few of Tai Chi’s more obvious principles. A short chapter, also by Dr. Zee, discusses tuishou and its relationship to practice of the Tai Chi form in broad strokes. Next is a chapter on Wu Chian-chuan (Wu Chien-chuan) and the Chian-chuan Taichichuan Association, which was the name of the Wu family organization prior to World War II, during which time the Japanese occupiers of China suppressed the martial arts. The text includes biographical information on Wu Chian-chuan and an outline of the formation and development of the association. The text glosses over the years of WWII but picks up after the war, and states that several decades passed before the association fully rebounded. Today, Wu style’s many branches are subsumed under the International Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan Federation.
Then it’s on to the body text of the book, which comprises three parts, the third being an appendix. Part one consists of five chapters, each on some aspect of Tai Chi or tuishou. Chapter one—“Longevity and Eternal Spring”—lays out the philosophical background of Tai Chi as an intimate melding of health and martial practices that trains the practitioner to utilize skill rather than brute strength. Dedicated practice produces a relaxation and stillness reaction rather than an alarm reaction, preserves physiological and mental health, and strengthens the bones. Each of these three aspects are discussed over several paragraphs.
Chapter two introduces what the author call the “Thirteen Kinetic Movements” of Tai Chi. These are more commonly referred to as the “Thirteen Postures,” and they form the foundation of all Tai Chi movements. An overview divides the Thirteen Postures into the eight directions, or Eight Gates, and the Five Steps, which are further linked to the theory of the five Chinese elements. Then the authors provide a more in-depth analysis of each of the Eight Gates and Five Steps. The descriptions here are clearly stated and are generally superior to similar definitions found in other Tai Chi texts. Throughout, the authors stress that the force of the practitioner’s application of any of the Thirteen Postures against an opponent is completely dependent on the force applied by the opponent. In other words, the practitioner meets light force with light response and heavy force with heavier response and utilizes the energy of the opponent to impel one's own movement.
Chapter three is titled “The Characteristics and Mechanical Fundamentals of Tuishou.” It opens with a recitation of Ma’s five-character motto for learning Tai Chi: calmness, lightness, slowness, exactness, and perseverance. Tai Chi is the art of using the mind rather than force, and the authors state that this does not mean that no exertion is need in combat, but that mind-concentrated force is much more powerful than physical force. Each of the five elements is then elucidated with similar depth as the authors gave to their discussion of the Thirteen Postures.
The next chapter defines five characteristics of Tai Chi: overcome hardness with softness, meet offense with calmness, win with lesser strength but superior skill, retreat in order to advance, and use circular movements. Following that they discuss four points that illustrate the mechanical fundamentals of tuishou: the rule of the center of gravity; the role of “coupling,” which is the use of two forces moving in opposite directions to create circular movement (such as two fingers gripping a key and pushing in opposite directions to turn it in a lock); and impulse and momentum, the prolongation of which produces greater internal force.
Chapter four delves into the way that practiced skill accrues over time to produce what Ma calls “strength perception,” but which Tai Chi exponents more commonly know as “sensing jin”: the ability to sense the direction and quality of an attacking force even as it is being initiated, allowing the practitioner to deal with it in the most effective way possible. This skill, the authors state, is the root of tuishou excellence and is the result of self-cultivation rather than rote muscle memory.
Chapter five is devoted to a question-and-answer session in which Ma (and occasionally Sophia Delza) answer questions on a variety of Tai Chi topics, ranging from the need for correct posture to health to the characteristics of fast Tai Chi forms.
Part two moves away from the philosophical and into the practical, and it contains a great many photos to illustrate the points in the text. It begins with basic stances and various hand postures, then goes into specific instructions for several tuishou forms, starting with single-hand push hands with fixed steps. Double-hand with fixed steps is next, followed by thirteen variations on double-hand, fixed-step operations. Tuishou with moving steps is illustrated next, and there are six variations shown, including da lu, sometimes called the “big pulldown,” though the form shown here is somewhat different than the da lu I learned. This ends the major text, leaving the book to close with an appendix containing translations of five of the Tai Chi Classics.
I’m not generally a fan of form-instruction material in Tai Chi books. Tai Chi and its ancillary forms such as tuishou are difficult enough to learn from a live teacher and are, I believe, practically impossible to learn from a book, even given willing participants. So, while the instructional section on tuishou is highly detailed and well illustrated, it can be easily skimmed over by the novice, who might gain little from it. But this section could be of value to folks who already are versed in tuishou and who are looking to expand their repertoire. Part one, however, contains a great deal of important information that can apply to any Tai Chi style, not just Wu style.
In addition, the text relates several anecdotes that highlight Ma’s extraordinary skills in repelling force with movements that seem almost invisible. This section alone is worth the price of admission—if one can now afford it. I bought this book for $5 in 1986, but Amazon’s website shows new copies being sold for as much as $53, though copies can also be had for under $20. The former seem to be offerings by resellers, who always jack up the price to make their profit.