A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
is published by
All material © 2016
by Douglas Wile
(State University of New York Press, 1996, 234 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
Douglas Wile follows his T'ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions with yet another exegesis of the Tai Chi Classics titled Lost T’ai Chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty. In the former volume (reviewed elsewhere on this site), Wile, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Brooklyn College, limited his commentary on the texts of the Classics to an introductory note, leaving to the Classics the lion’s share of the book to speak for themselves. In this book, he presents a newly released group of old writings on tai chi with his usual excellence of translation, but he also includes accompanying commentary that delves extensively into the history and purported authorship of these texts.
These are no small matters, and they have aroused the interest—and occasionally ire—of many tai chi factions. Just where did these texts come from? Was Chang San-feng really the author of three of them? And what about the historicity of Wang Tsung-yeuh, who is the attributed author of several of the texts and who purportedly taught tai chi to the Chen family? These are just a few of the issues Wile deals with as he presents these newly found texts for the first time in English.
Only about half the book is occupied by the texts and Wile’s commentaries. The second half contains numerous appendices. The first presents the texts in their original Chinese, and those that follow are primarily analyses of specific textual elements in an effort to determine the identity of the actual author and source material. As such, they will appeal primarily to historians of tai chi rather than to the general reader seeking information. But then, this is a scholarly work as much as it is a presentation of new material.
The new texts are, by and large, important additions to the Classics, and the book is valuable for that reason alone. But Wile’s commentaries not only delineate the content of the texts, but greatly expand our understanding of the milieu from with they rose. In particular, they affirm the critical importance of Wu Yu-hsiang in the collection and dissemination of the Classics. (Note that this is the Wu who learned from the Chens and Yangs, whose style eventually became known as Hao style. He is not related to the Wu family descended from Wu Quan-yu, who founded the Wu family style.)
Reading this book made me appreciate Wile’s efforts all the more. I am an avid fan of the Classics, and, as with other important material on tai chi, the more the merrier. At the same time, the historical material made me hunger for a comprehensive and scholarly work on the development of tai chi. It would be a daunting task, but one I’d like to see Wile undertake.
As for this book: buy it, read it, and put it on the shelf next to T'ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions. Later, read both again. You won't be sorry.