A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
The Power of the Internal Martial Arts
Combat and Energy Secrets of Ba Gun,
Tai Chi, and Hsing-I
by Bruce Frantzis
(Blue Snake Books, 1998, 2007, 396 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Martial arts are like containers. The practitioner spends time learning to create a container—the martial art form—and then proceeds to fill the container with content—chi and martial and physiological knowledge. Sometimes the containers (forms) are faulty or misshapen, sometimes they are well formed but remain empty or are only partially filled. Shallow martial knowledge will be evident in these types of forms, which might mimic the true art they purport to represent but generally fall short of insight and validity, much less mastery. Martial arts books are no different. Each is a container filled with some relative martial knowledge, whether excellent, mediocre, or somewhere between.
At the excellent end of the spectrum lies Bruce Frantzis’ The Power of the Internal Martial Arts. The reason the book is so good is that Frantzis was an early traveler to Japan, China, India, and elsewhere during his decades-long research into the martial arts. The book is filled with his recollections of the many masters he studied with, but it is perhaps useful to give a succinct bio up front to give the reader an idea of his background. To make sure I’m unbiased here, the following bio is pulled directly from the Wikipedia page on him:
Bruce Kumar Frantzis (born April 1949) is a Taoist educator who studied Taoism in China. Beginning as a young karate champion, he engaged in a multi-decade journey leading him throughout Asia and the Eastern energetic traditions. Choosing to forgo an ivy league education in favor of pursuing Japanese martial arts at their original source, he moved to Japan to attend Sophia University at the age of eighteen. There, he obtained multiple black belts and trained with Aikido’s founder Morihei Ueshiba. He soon branched out to Taiwan and China and studied in increasing depth under internal martial arts masters.
In 1973, attempting to locate the original source of meditation, Bruce traveled to India where he underwent rigorous daily training in Pranayama, Hatha yoga, Raja yoga, and Tantra with many gurus, experiencing what in the East is known as “Kundalini Shakti”.
Returning to China in the mid 1970s, he became the first Westerner to be given insider access to the closely guarded Taoist Fire tradition (unverified tradition) and its priesthood. After completing seven years of training he became priest in the Fire tradition. Then by a fortunate set of events Bruce was accepted as the direct disciple of one of the few remaining stewards of the Water tradition (unverified tradition), the Taoist Immortal (Fully Realized Person) Liu Hung-Chieh. Through Liu Hung-Chieh, he was introduced to Jiang Jia Hua the vice president of the All-China Scientific Qigong Association. This connection gave Bruce access to Chinese cancer clinics where he completed his training as a medical qigong doctor.
Bruce inherited the Taoist Water Tradition lineages shortly before Liu Hung-Chieh’s passing in 1986. On his teacher’s wishes, he has spent the last 25 years imparting the healing, meditative and martial aspects of Taoism to the West. He primarily teaches the Energy Art Qigong System, Wu style tai chi, ba gua, Taoist Yoga and Taoist Meditation. He has authored numerous works (including The Power of the Internal Martial Arts and Chi, Tao of Letting Go, Dragon and Tiger Medical Qigong, and Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body) on Taoist energetic practices and taught over 20,000 students many of whom have gone on to become active certified instructors. (1)
Suffice it to say that Frantzis knows whereof he speaks, and in this book, he speaks volumes about the internal martial arts of Ba Gua, Tai Chi, and Hsing-I. I’m reviewing here the revised edition (2007), which adds a lengthy section on the spiritual aspects of the internal martial arts to the original edition (1998). I first became aware of Bruce Frantzis in the 1980s through a spate of articles he wrote for Tai Chi Magazine. I’ve also reviewed two of his other books, The Big Book of Tai Chi: Build Health Fast in Slow Motion (here) and The Chi Revolution: Harness the Power of Your Life Force (here).
The Power of the Internal Martial Arts is impressive from the outset. While not being encyclopedic, it manages to cover the three arts in question in significant detail and depth, from their historical origins to their functionality to their strengths and weaknesses. Telegraphing the book’s weight, the “Contents” alone occupy eleven pages. In fact, this book is so packed with information that I’m going to have to gloss through the contents.
The book opens with more prefatory material than you can shake a stick at, including an author’s acknowledgements, a forward by Jess O’Brien, a preface by Lee Burkins, sections on the individuals and internal martial arts schools mentioned in the book, a prologue, sections on spiritual malaise, the characteristics of chi masters as teachers, and fa jin, and an author’s introduction.
Then it’s on to chapter one, titled “Animal, Human, and Spiritual: Three Approaches to Martial Arts.” Here, Frantzis discusses these three approaches, defines the “art” of internal martial arts, and advises the practitioner to train sensibly.
Chapter two—"A Continuum: The External and Internal Martial Arts of China”—defines the parameters of the internal martial arts. Subjects covered are the various types of martial arts and their traditions, the relative quality of the various martial arts, a definition of fighting applications, living and dead forms, and the focus of external martial arts, such as power and strength, speed, endurance, and reflexes. Then it turns to the focus of the internal martial arts—chi—and the reasons that Frantzis emphasizes Ba Gua in the book. Also touched on are Iron Shirt Chi Gung and weapons training.
The next chapter looks at the similarities and differences between Tai Chi, Hsing-I, and Ba Gua, which begins with a brief discussion of the five characteristics of internal martial arts. Developing martial power with chi is next on the agenda, focusing mainly on Frantzis’ 16-Part Nei Gung Internal Power System. Included is a useful section on what Frantzis calls the “dissolving process,” which is a method of releasing blockages of chi. This leads into a section on the stages of feeling the “I” (intention), “Hsin” (heart–mind), and chi and the way the three move. The principal differences and similarities of Tai Chi, Ba Gua, and Hsing-I are presented next, including footwork and the utilization of the waist and hands, studying the three arts for fighting, basic power training, and the importance of standing practice for the long-term development of internal power.
The chapter then covers to Ba Gua’s eight stages of practice for developing fighting skills. After delineating the parameters of each stage, Frantzis turns to internal fighting techniques, encompassing a large number of strikes, chin na, throws, kicking, fighting angles, sparring, and fa jin. The next section discusses the martial qualities of small-, medium-, and large-frame methods of movement of Tai Chi, Hsing-I, and Ba Gua.
Each of the next three chapters focuses in a similar fashion on one of the arts, beginning with Tai Chi. Matters discussed are Tai Chi as a martial art, the eight basic martial principles of Tai Chi, including their overt and covert manifestations. Frantzis then suggests four progressive stages for learning Tai Chi as a martial art and discusses long and short forms, left- and right-hand forms, push hands, sparring, and fighting. Chapter five does similar justice to Hsing-I, and includes a history of the art as well as training practices and the martial techniques and tools of the art. And chapter six does the same for Ba Gua.
The nature of speed in all styles of martial arts is the subject of chapter seven. Here, Frantzis breaks speed into four types, which he discusses at some length: speed from point A to point B, speed at touch, speed under differing conditions, and speed in relation to power. Included are what the author calls the “fast/slow paradox of the internal martial arts, qualities in common, and specialized strategies.
The health aspects of the martial arts comes next, beginning with the internal martial arts as energy-healing systems. Some of the subjects discussed are the difference between health and fitness, self-defense vs. health benefits, chi gung, repairing agitated chi, healing, aging, and mental health.
“The Tao of Spiritual Martial Arts: A Bridge to Taoist Meditation” is the title of the final chapter, and here Frantzis delves into what a spiritual martial art is and how daunting such a journey can be, for it requires the practitioner to suffer physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual trials in order to heal the individual as well as advance him or her along the road to spiritual enlightenment. As Frantzis points out, this journey is not for the faint-hearted.
Seven appendices and an index finish the book, and most of these are interesting in their own right. Subjects are the history of Tai Chi and characteristics of the various styles, the history of Ba Gua and its styles, charts of the energy anatomy of the human body, Frantzis’s formal lineages and training, Chinese terminology used in the book, and an excellent glossary. The final appendix is composed of vignettes of the subjects that Frantzis teaches, and frankly, this one seems a tad bit self-promotional, like several pages of non-obvious advertisements.
Scattered throughout the pages are about a dozen profiles of various internal arts masters Frantzis studied with or otherwise encountered, including T. T. Liang, Wang Shu Jin, Cheng Man-ching, Morihei Ueshiba, Yang Shao Jung, and Frantzis’ principal teacher, Liu Hung Chieh.
Is this a perfect book on the internal martial arts? No, but can there be such a thing? Some of the information in this book can be found elsewhere, though rarely has this much been compiled under one cover. And despite the voluminous information in this book, there is very little practical instruction. It is an overview of these arts, not the nuts-and-bolts, though there is enough of the practical to lend depth to the discussions.
On the plus side, the overviews are valuable not just to the practitioners of each of these three arts, but to those who want to know more about those they do not practice. And given Frantzis’ background, the information is solid and reliable. In addition, he is a good writer, keeping the flow of the text going and illuminating it with illustrative metaphors and nice turns of phrasing.
On the negative side—at least from my personal point of view—Frantzis frequently addresses the raw beginner, but frankly, most of this book will not penetrate a beginner’s awareness. In fact, for the beginner, the book might make these arts seem too daunting to attempt. This is a criticism I’ve had of the two other books by Frantzis that I’ve read and reviewed. In addition, Frantzis’ self-promotion can wear a little thin at times.
But over all, The Power of the Internal Martial Arts and Chi is one of the best books on the internal martial arts out there. It’s a bit pricey, but you could buy any three cheaper Tai Chi books for the same amount and not get an equivalent value.
1 “Bruce Frantzis.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Frantzis