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A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan

The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan
A Comprehensive Guide to the Principles and Practice

Wong Kiew Kit

(2002, Tuttlle Publishing, 318 pages)

 

 

Review by Christopher Dow

 

 

 

As I’ve said elsewhere in these reviews, my comments on or criticisms of Tai Chi literature should not extend to my impression of the author’s personal expertise in Tai Chi. I’ve seen better books by lesser practitioners and lesser books by acknowledged and high-level experts. According to the blurb on the back cover of Wong Kiew Kit’s The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan, the author has practiced and taught Shaolin arts for more than thirty years and has more than 2,000 students. He has an excellent lineage and has written several other books on the martial arts. His posture in the photo looks great, and I have no reason to doubt his abilities or knowledge in the least. In fact, I was looking forward to reading this book, though as soon as I began, I found myself annoyed with the author. The book begins thus: “Tai Chi Chuan, or Taijiquan in Romanized Chinese, is a wonderful art, but more than 90 per cent of these who practice it gain less than 10 per cent of its potential benefits! This book will not only justify this claim, but will also provide the information you need to gain the remaining 90 per cent of the benefits.”

 

A writer who commits to sweeping claims right at the outset should make every effort to deliver the goods. In the end, Wong does not do this, though this book does contain a few gems hidden in the tangle. Let’s take his opening lines, quoted above. The gem, though not unfamiliar, is the claim that Tai Chi “is a wonderful art.” But all that business about the percentage of people who “don’t get it” is unsubstantiated despite the exactness of his figures. And the ideas that this chapter will justify that claim and cure all your Tai Chi ills are not born out in the least.

 

At bottom, The Complete Book of Tai Chi is a marginally adequate, if sometimes misleading, Category III book geared for beginners. Wong opens with a preface in which he makes several statements, such as:

 

If a student who has patiently practiced Tai Chi Chuan for many years still remains sickly, weak, emotionally unstable or mentally dull, then he or she has not been judicious or wise. Such a person should either turn to something else, or seek more information from masters or books to improve his or her practice. Generally, people who have correctly practiced an established method for a year should reap the benefits that method is reputed to bring.

 

This statement plays on the old Tai Chi saw that says: If you don’t practice correctly, then you will miss your mark, and all your practice will have been in vain. In general, I take exception with this idea. Perhaps it is true that if you don’t practice correctly or fully—with intent, internal energy, etc.—then you will not become a proficient martial artist or manipulator of chi. I do agree in principle with this idea, but the truth is, most people who practice Tai Chi don’t want to become masters. They just want a healthy exercise that has many practical and beneficial results, and Tai Chi can deliver those even if you don’t practice it martially. But according to the old saw, they should abandon even that if they are not dedicated to reaching the top of the Tai Chi mountain.

 

Wong, however, takes the idea of deficiency to a new level that borders on the absurd. I’ve watched a lot of people come to Tai Chi, and while a few stayed, many of them left. These numbers were mostly made up of relatively healthy and stable people—normal people—with a few “sickly, emotionally unstable, weak or mentally dull” in the mix. The truth is, people with these unfortunate characteristics are, for the most part, constitutionally incapable of going beyond a few lessons.

 

The notion that such people might actually practice for years—putting out great effort and occupying substantial time yet achieving no results—is absurd. It is true that I’ve seen people who’ve practiced for years without martial content whose Tai Chi is not at all suited for fighting, but even so, it has helped keep them flexible and focused. It’s all in what you want to get out of Tai Chi and what you’re willing to put into it. There is a whole range from absolute beginner to accomplished master, and while one might be able to objectively judge the relative quality of a practitioner’s Tai Chi, one might more profitably consider how nice it is that the amateur practices at all. A Sunday painter’s landscape might not be a Gainsborough, but it was a worthy effort for the painter.

 

And the last statement in Wong’s paragraph above is equally off the mark. One year of practice will allow you to reap all of Tai Chi’s benefits? What happened to the “kung fu” of Tai Chi, meaning “excellence gained over time through effort and experience?” I don’t know about you, but after only one year, I could perform the form, but I didn’t know much of anything about Tai Chi—how deep it is, how expansive, and how refined it can become.

 

Chapter one begins: “Tai Chi Chuan…is one of the most wonderful martial arts in the world. This chapter explains why; so if you are not getting the best from your Tai Chi practice you will at least know what you are lacking.”

 

So he opens the same gem with which he opened his preface, dimming its luster. In dealing with the part of the statement that reads, “This chapter explains why,” the author relies on a general explanation of the differences between hard and soft—or rather, external and internal—martial arts. It’s an okay explanation, and to the author’s credit, he pens some words of wisdom about the differing psychologies of each approach.

 

As for the second part, consider that this chapter is only six pages long. That should tell you something about it can inform you about “what you are lacking.” By the time I reached the chapter’s end, the only thing I’d found I was lacking was a statement or explanation of what it was that I was lacking.

 

You know how in a bad movie—maybe not a really bad movie, but a sort-of-bad one, someone will say something or something will happen that makes you laugh aloud at its unwitting absurdity? Well consider this: “You can, for example, have a morning walk in the park wearing your business suit, practice your Tai Chi Chuan without attracting the embarrassing attention from uninvited spectators, which is often accorded to other martial arts, and then go straight to your office.”

 

Can you really practice Tai Chi in a public place while wearing a business suit and not attract attention? When I do Tai Chi in the park, I attract attention while wearing sweats. And I’d certainly stare with a bemused smile at some guy doing Tai Chi in a business suit, though I'd probably be more interested in what style he was performing.

 

Later, Wong writes, “Just 15 minutes a day in the comfort of your home can provide you with all the exercise you need but can find neither the time nor the energy for.”

 

First of all, 15 minutes a day is not nearly enough, even for Tai Chi. It it often said that to become proficient at Tai Chi, you have to practice at least an hour a day, and if you want to attain mastery, you have to practice all day, as if it’s your job. Plus, if you don’t have 15 minutes or enough energy to practice some other form of exercise, then you don’t have 15 minutes to practice Tai Chi.

 

The reader might think I’m nit-picking here, but I see this claim of being able to gain health, well-being, and martial proficiency with minimal time and effort to be a misleading claim often used to interest those who want a quick and easy fix to their problems. They are drawn like moths to the flame of Tai Chi, only to find that the flame is but the glitter of an imaginary place where one can trade a little for a lot. The truth is, energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be transformed. That’s what exercise does. It transforms the exerciser from one energy state to another, and to claim that Tai Chi is some sort of perpetual motion machine that requires no input to reap an output is false advertising. The smoothness and purposefulness of a Tai Chi player’s movements are neither congenital nor magical. Tai Chi, even at the middling levels, takes work, dedication, and thought, and while teachers and writers should not endeavor to frighten away prospective practitioners by emphasizing those aspects, those aspects need to be faced, not glossed over.

 

Chapter two continues with these sorts of extravagant and erroneous statements: “Not one of the more than a dozen English Tai Chi Chuan books I found in a recent survey provides any substantial information on the martial aspects of the system, although most of those written in Chinese describe it as a martial art.”

 

Huh? Well, of course Chinese books on Tai Chi would acknowledge it as a martial art. But what about those in English? Wong surveyed “more than a dozen” and found no information on Tai Chi as a martial art? I’m not sure what books he looked at, but as of the writing of his book in 2002, there were hundreds of books in English on Tai Chi that discussed it as a martial art, complete with illustrations of how it can be used in practical situations and some level of detail on push hands. Don’t believe me? Check out the other reviews on this site. Yang Jwing-ming, for example, was even then a prolific author on Tai Chi’s use as a martial art, and there were many, many dozens of others—some writing original works and some providing translations of the Chinese works Wong alludes to.

 

Not everything in this book is questionable. In relating the history of Tai Chi, Wong does not resort to the evocative yet simplistic story of Chang San-feng. Instead he gives an alternate history of the art’s foundation in Taoism and genesis in the Wu Tang Mountains. Chang comes in later, as do other legendary and almost mythic figures of Tai Chi, leading up to the art’s codification in Chen Village. It’s a different history than most, and who knows? Maybe he’s right. But it really makes me wish that some trained historian would produce a definitive and detailed history of Tai Chi, despite the fact that the art seems to have little in the way of evidence from times prior to its nominal inception in Chen Village. The chapter finishes with an adequate history of the development of the major Tai Chi styles.

 

In chapter four, Wong translates and provides commentary to a few of the more venerable of the Tai Chi Classics. This material is generally well presented and some of the best in the book, though it is brief at eight pages. Chapter five covers basic Tai Chi principles and mechanics—including a few self-defense maneuvers—and again, the information is adequate and well-explained and accompanied by a few well-done line drawings. Some of these drawings—the figure drawings, especially—are useful, but the foot-stepping diagrams are less so.

 

One useful addition is a several-page discussion of knee injuries and how to prevent them, but even here, Wong has to make a statement that is not accurate. “Throughout the long history of Taijiquan and other forms of martial arts in China, knee injury has never been a problem at all.” I’m not so sure. I remember watching an interview with a veteran Chinese kung fu actress, then in middle age, who loudly bemoaned the damage that martial arts had done to her knees. Knee injury is always a possibility in the martial arts, sports, gymnastics, or any other motion-based activity. But it's nice to see the issue addressed here, as it is usually ignored in most martial arts books.

 

Chapter six covers the basic concepts of chi kung, internal force, and abdominal breathing without going into a great deal of detail on any of them. Then the author moves on form. Although he’s often negated the importance of form—namely in the persons of those who only practice form and the impossibility of learning form from any source other than a competent teacher—he now expends chapter seven on the “official” 24-Pattern Simplified Tai Chi Set and the 40-Pattern Simplified Set. The scanty written instructions are accompanied by adequate if small line drawings.

 

Push hands and combat techniques occupy chapters eight through eleven, and the text is accompanied by well-done line drawings. The techniques are basic, but they do demonstrate push hands mechanics and show how some Tai Chi movements can be used. “Enriching Daily Life with Tai Chi Chuan” is the title of chapter twelve, and the information here—on the basics of traditional Chinese medicine, internal energy, relaxation—is all okay but rudimentary.

 

Then, for several chapters, Wong moves more deeply into form. Having already depicted the 24-Pattern and 48-Pattern Simplified Sets, he now presents line drawing charts of six more Tai Chi forms: Wudang, Chen, Yang, Wu (Wu Yueh-hsiang), Wu (Wu Quan-yu), and Sun Styles. These do not have explanatory texts other than form name lists, and they are done very much in a style pioneered in 1980 by Jou Tsung-hwa in his The Tao of Tai Chi Chuan (review here), which depicts two Chen forms, Wu Yueh-hsiang’s form, and Yang Style in the same manner. The characteristics of these various forms are recognizable to more experienced practitioners, but they probably would go right over the heads of most beginners if these drawings were all they had to go by. However, when Wong’s book came out, these charts were probably useful—more useful, that is, than they are now since static depictions of form have been eclipsed by YouTube videos of everybody from great masters to average players displaying martial arts forms of nearly every sort. So I have to give Wong credit here for recording things worth recording at the time.

 

Chapter nineteen covers weapons, and again, the information is okay but rudimentary. The final two chapters discuss Tai Chi philosophy and Taoism, often playing off the Tai Chi Classic and the Tao Te Ching. As before, the information is adequate but basic.

 

I’ve been hard on this author, but his language—and even ideas—frequently grated on me. All too often, his interpretation of received Tai Chi wisdom is packaged—embedded—in an absolutist attitude, such as: If you practice Tai Chi for years and still can’t use it, then your time, your practice, has been wasted. Benefits don’t always entail use. I do believe that adding martial intent to the movements adds greater dimension to Tai Chi, but I’ve also seen that just doing the form improves muscle tone, encourages joint flexibility, and stretches tendons, even for those who are not martially inclined and never plan to use the movements to fight. After all, the effects of ageing are the enemies we all must battle as long as we live. They are the real enemy that Tai Chi combats.

 

At the same time, I did read a few nuggets of knowledge and wisdom in these pages, though they could not, in the end, outweigh my annoyance. Ironically, the most pertinent and lasting part of this book is not all the verbiage by Wong, who several times early in the text casts aspersions on the possibility of learning Tai Chi from a book, but its depiction of the various forms. Even if this sort of material has been superseded by YouTube, it wasn’t at the time, and it’s worthy of being recorded. In the end, though, I have to say that this book is not "the complete book," it professes to be and is, in fact, less informative than a great number of other Tai Chi books for beginners.