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Review by Christopher Dow
The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan: The Literary Tradition, is a translation of the Tai Chi Classics, the seminal writings on the art dating from the early decades of the 20th century all the way back to the legendary founder of tai chi, Chang San-feng. As such, it, like most translations of the Classics, is incomplete. But I’m not sure I could name one single book that contains all the known classics under one cover, so that isn’t really a criticism. The Classics in their entirety can have a fair amount of verbiage that isn’t necessarily specifically to the point of tai chi, so pulling the more meaningful statements from those that are less significant or that are overly cryptic is a perfectly valid editorial tool.
The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan presents a number of important Classics. Most are in poetic form, but that’s not unusual for the Classics, many of which are poems, often called “songs.” In this case, some of the statements in the Classics are broken out as individual poems presented on individual pages, rather than in their original extended forms. You could almost call them “short form” Classics. But just as a short tai chi form still retains the essence of the art, so do these. And not all the Classics in these pages are short poems. There are a lot of more-extended prose pieces here, too.
I’m a huge fan of the Tai Chi Classics and read them often in one version or another. Some people note that they tend to affirm principles already learned rather than present specific instructional material. You read the statement but don’t understand it until later, after you learn what it means. Then you say, “A-ha!” There may be some truth to that, but affirmation can be instructive, too. Many times, for example, I read in the Classics about the sensation of “suspending the crown of the head as if by a string,” or alternately, feeling a “light and sensitive energy at the top of the head,” but in the beginning, those statements were just words. Later, though, when I felt the sensation for myself, the recognition that it was an actual principle was important and helped lead me to loosening my waist and gaining a more flexible connection between my legs and torso. So, it could be said that the Classics don’t teach but give the basic principles and tenets of tai chi, which are just as important in recognizing correct practice.
When it comes to translations, this is a pretty good one and justly well known. If it’s missing anything, it’s expert commentary from the authors—or at least from Benjamin Lo, who was, at the time of first publication, the expert among the authors. There are several other excellent translations of the Classics in which the translator/author endeavors to further explain, from his or her own experiences and perspective, what the sometimes cryptic statements of the Classics actually mean, and that’s a helpful tool that’s missing here. But sometimes, you just want to read the Classics without interference, interruption, or demands for specific ways of thinking, and the text of this version will deliver the goods.
Translated and edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo
with Martin Inn, Robert Amacker, and Susan Foe
(North Atlantic Books, 1985, 100 pages)