A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
by Bruce L. Johnson
(William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1977, 220 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Sometimes, the story behind a book is as interesting as the book itself, and in the case of Bruce L. Johnson’s Chinese Wand Exercises, both hold considerable interest. I’m going to treat the book itself first, leaving the back story for last.
Chinese Wand Exercises discusses the background, philosophy, principles, and methodology of a series of bending and twisting exercises performed with a bamboo stick—or, wand—that is about four feet long. At present, at least in English, there are only two books on these exercises: the one under consideration and a more recent volume by a British tai chi teacher named Michael Davies. I haven’t yet seen Davies’ book, but in online material, he states that he learned the exercises from Johnson’s book. Davies is now one of the premier disseminators of these exercises, which are sometimes call by other names, such as tai chi wand or stick exercises.
I can see how Davies could learn wand work from Johnson’s book. The text and graphics for the instructional section are clear and well-defined, and the exercises themselves are relatively simple and straightforward. In his introduction, Johnson lays out the basics: “With this Wand one goes through a series of movements specially designed to get the blood circulating and recirculating more efficiently throughout the body.” The purpose of using a wand, he says, is that “it is your tangible and your security, giving you just the right amount of resistance needed to complete the movements. The Wand maintains your balance and provides you with perfect form and posture.”
Wand exercises, Johnson informs us, go back thousands of years. Originally, they were developed as an exercise routine for Chinese royalty, and the methodology was, for centuries, a carefully guarded secret. From his brief history of wand exercises, Johnson segues into a discussion contrasting internal and external exercise arts that would not be out of place in any tai chi book. In this discussion, he draws on the concepts of yin and yang and chi energy, distinguishes limitations people might have in practicing, and points out the ways that modern society sabotages health.
The first chapter relates how Johnson learned wand exercises, but I’m going to save that for later. Instead, we’ll move on to chapter two, which the author uses to give a short background for the wand art, focusing mostly on a sort of philosophical history that mentions tai chi and acupuncture. Chapter three, also short, goes into yin and yang theory and chi energy in succinct detail.
Chapter four describes what Johnson calls the “Element Stage System.” In short, the exercises advance through a specific progression of intensity, each stage represented by one of the five elements of Chinese philosophy: wood, water, fire, air, and metal. The idea is somewhat complex and not fully expanded on until a couple of chapters later. Correct breathing is the subject of chapter five, and after a general discussion of breathing, Johnson explains the concept of deep breathing, for which he gives a specific formula for advancement. He then moves on to meditation breathing, again with a specific formula to follow. The way to breathe during the wand exercises is next, and after that, he talks about what he calls “combination breathing,” which is breathing through the nose and mouth at the same time. None of this is abdominal breathing, per se, but the techniques are pretty good nonetheless.
The wand itself is the subject of the next chapter, which covers the ideas behind the wand, including a sort of “triangulation effect” that the exercises promote, which causes the body, when holding the wand, to arrange itself in a three-point structure. This triangulation produces what the author refers to as “pyramid energy,” and I notice that the tantien is almost always one of the points of the pyramid, and when it’s not, the tantien is usually situated at the center of the pyramid’s base, as in the photo below. The chapter also talks in general about the makeup of the wand.
Chapter seven relays information on advanced meditation techniques to assist the practitioner in working through the five element stages. A thirteen-page Q&A chapter comes after, and it covers just about any question you might normally ask about wand exercises, from whether it can affect weight loss to details on the techniques involved.
The next chapter contains the fundamentals of wand exercises, such as grip, positions of the wand, and stances. Up until now, there have been no illustrations, but from here on out, almost every aspect of what the author talks about is illustrated with large, clear photos, and some intriguing drawings.
The wand exercises themselves occupy the last two-thirds of the book. There are seventeen of them, though Johnson claimed that he knew 190 more, some that produce esoteric effects. The exercises progress from the simplest to the more difficult, but none of them are what might be termed strenuous or complex.
Each exercise is explained in very clearly detailed text that leads off by pointing out which muscles are involved and then talks about the process of passing through each of the five elemental stages while going through the movements. And because of Johnson’s five-stage system, they can be performed in a large range of intensities.
The text for each exercise is accompanied by three types of illustrations. The first are straightforward photographs showing Johnson in the beginning and end postures. The second show the same photos with straight lines drawn from point to point of the triangular structure. When the movement is more complex, additional photos, also with the triangle defined by lines, describe the basic movements between the beginning and end postures. The third type of illustration is one that is, to my knowledge, unique to this book.
These are line drawings by Joel Rogers, one of Johnson’s students, that vividly portray the exercises' movements. Many of us are familiar with photos in which the subject is lit by a strobe light, resulting in a photo that depicts several stages of a movement within a single frame. That’s what these drawing do, handily portraying the entire range of each exercise’s movement defined by Johnson's five-stage system. Some include overhead views in addition to a front or side view to fully expose, if necessary, the movement’s dimensionality. Really, if you can’t learn to do these exercises from these instructions, don’t blame the book.
Chinese Wand Exercises
Above left: Photo showing triangulation.
Above right: Illustration of movement along one dimension.
Left: Illustration of movement in multiple dimensions.
I’ve long believed that one of the great benefits of tai chi as a physical exercise lies in the way it exercises muscles by twisting and extension rather than by clenching or compression. And that’s just what the wand exercises in this book do. Heck, I feel better just looking at the photos! I have to admit that I never undertook these exercises, but having revisited the book, I find myself inclined to try them out.
All-in-all, this is a very worthwhile book: well written, informative, and containing something useful that is well explained. But if you’re interested in learning these exercises from a book, you might have to pass on this one. Chinese Wand Exercises only enjoyed one hardbound and one paperback edition, both published in 1977, and not only is it out of print, used copies are quite expensive. I did find one copy of the hardbound on sale for $40, but after that, the prices ranged from a low of about $150 to a high of nearly $2,500! The cheapest paperbound I saw was $50. I picked up my hardbound copy in a used bookstore in about 1980 for less than $10, and, wow, I now see that it’s actually autographed by the author! (Do I hear $3,000…?)
So, for those who are interested in learning these exercises, you’ll probably have to go with Michael Davies’ book, Jiangan: The Chinese Health Wand, which goes for about $20. As I said above, I haven’t seen Davies’ book, but my understanding from the book blurb is that it contains all seventeen of Johnson’s exercises. I’ll try to acquire Davies’ book and review it in these pages.
But right now, let’s get to the interesting story behind the author and his book.
Bruce L. Johnson was quite a guy, though his end was less than desirable, from a kung fu standpoint. Ironically, his background, though American, could be the story of any number of kung fu greats: sickly child who overcame his weak beginnings through exercise and body-building. (1) While serving during WWII, Johnson won the Navy heavyweight wrestling championship. He also was one of the first to land on Iwo Jima. After the war, he earned three black belts in judo in Japan.
Subsequently, in Shanghai, he and a couple of buddies who also were Navy wrestlers were being ridden around town by an 80-year-old rickshaw driver. The three Americans were amazed that the old man could easily haul their beefy frames up and down hills with ease, and Johnson asked his secret. In response, the old rickshaw driver took him to meet a tall, slender, and regal 93-year-old Chinese man referred to only as Dr. Ch’eng. Johnson says that Ch’eng looked to be about 50. And, luckily for Johnson, he spoke perfect English.
One of the first things Johnson noticed about Ch’eng’s well-furnished home was the great number of 4-foot-long bamboo rods, or wands. Some were polished and carved with elaborate designs and others were embossed with metal. The wands, Ch’eng told Johnson, were used for an esoteric exercise system of which Ch’eng was the grand master. Each of the wands in his home represented one of his pupils, who possessed an identical wand.
Ch’eng looked pretty fit to Johnson, who was not then aware of the old man's true age, but the American couldn’t understand how waving a stick around in the air could provide a thorough exercise. Eventually, after a number of meetings during which they discussed kung fu and Ch’eng ascertained the quality of Johnson’s character, he asked Johnson “to come at him with my strength, and all that I knew.” The burly American was reluctant to attack the slender old man, but Ch’eng insisted, so Johnson complied.
“Suddenly,” Johnson writes, “before I had made contact with him, I felt something like a wind, a gentle but firm pressure on me from a ‘breeze’…but I was experiencing this strange sensation while seated on the floor!” Ch’eng was just standing there, smiling and looking as if he’d never moved. Ch’eng asked him to repeat the test two more times, each time with the same result. Ch’eng had, he explained to Johnson, learned the “art of spinning” from his father. “One must,” Johnson writes, “have perfect balance, agility, and coordination to turn around in a tight circle so fast that the human eyes watching do not detect any movement at all and even a trained observer sees only a blur of movement.” Johnson says that Ch’eng could spin once to repel a single attacker or several times in the case of multiple attackers. Ch’eng then taught Johnson his secrets. His own sons had been lost in the Sino-Japanese War, and he entrusted Johnson to carry the art, with integrity, into the future and into the world.
It’s a very neat story. Do I believe it? Shrug. I wasn’t there, so I don’t really know. But Dr. Ch’eng’s “spinning art” seems suspiciously like tai chi, though Johnson doesn’t call it that. However, Chinese wand exercises have often been referred to as tai chi stick or wand exercises, so that strengthens the potential link between the two arts.
Johnson promptly tried to introduce wand exercises in the U.S. but failed due to the fear of anything Asian fomented by McCarthyism. Gradually, though, as that era passed, Americans became more receptive. In the mid 1960s, Johnson taught wand exercises to a number of famous people, including Mae West and Jimmy Durante, and became friends with Bruce Lee and James Coburn, who was pictured on the cover of People magazine doing wand exercise. Johnson said that he and Lee would give demonstrations of strength and speed, and he claimed that, aside from Dr. Ch'eng, Lee was the only person he knew who could best him.
While on a trip to the Bahamas in 1965, Johnson was at the beach when a group of four children swimming in the water were attacked by a shark. Johnson rushed into the water, pausing only to grab the only weapong he could find, which was a large seashell. The shark killed one of the children, but Johnson fought it off while the others escaped. The shark grabbed Johnson by the leg, and he fought it off by gouging out one of its eyes with the shell before staggering back to the beach, bleeding profusely. According to the Wikipedia article on Johnson, there are fifty other documented cases of Johnson risking his life to save others from dangers that included fires, mangled cars, and even abusive husbands.
Apparently, the esoteric kung fu Johnson learned from Dr Ch’eng lent Johnson a sort of mystical power. “Students would sometimes notice supernatural transformations in his appearance [that made him appear to be an old Chinese man] as he taught the class. He was inclined to believe that Dr. Ch’eng was teaching through him. One famous psychic of his day, Peter Hurkos, upon meeting Johnson said, ‘Who is that beautiful Chinese man coming out of you?’” (1)
By 1976, Johnson was working as a professional diver, when an accident left him with a near-fatal brain stem infarct causing stroke-like symptoms. The doctors told him he’d never walk again, but he was moving around again in a few months. The next year, he published Chinese Wand Exercises. To tell the truth, he looks pretty damn fit in the photos, not like a man who nearly died the year before. And he doesn’t look 51, either. But maybe that’s because of the big smile that spreads across his face in almost every photo—a smile, by the way, that really looks like the man is happy, confident, robust, and enjoying what he's doing.
But as I promised above, Johnson’s end was not so benign. I can’t pretend to understand the forces at play. Maybe the spirit of Dr. Ch’eng finally abandoned Johnson, leaving him to the wiles of a popular culture in which the born-again Christian movement was beginning to rise. Johnson found Christianity, and a Christianity of the variety that considers chi power to be the energy of Satan. “These things are not from God, as God is not in the business of mystical energies or the occult” Johnson said. “I no longer practice the martial arts.… As a Christian, I cannot in good conscience, teach or recommend the martial arts to others.” (1)
I might argue otherwise, both about what we think we know about God and about what these energies actually are—certainly not Satanic—but Johnson will never hear me. He died in 2014, leaving his book containing 17 wand exercises but taking 190 more exercises to the grave. “I am the last of the grand masters [of the Chinese wand]," he said. "When I go, the secret goes with me.” (1)
Others, as I mentioned above, however, are resuming Johnson’s work—notably Michael Davies. We don’t have those missing 190 exercises—at least not in the public forum—but maybe one day they will be rediscovered. Until then, Johnson’s book, being the sole definitive text on Chinese wand exercises, will have to stand as the Tai Chi Classic of the art. It deserves to be reprinted.
(1) “Chinese Wand Exercise.” Wikipedia entry, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Wand_Exercise