Review:
T'ai Chi's Ancestors
The Making of an Internal Martial Art




Douglas Wile
224 pages, Softbound $19.95

Available through Plum Publications: yes

 

Professor Douglas Wile has produced a number of important books on the study of T'ai Chi. His Lost Classics we consider a neatly written and stimulating piece of work. Now he has come out with a text that is essentially a translation of important - indeed fundamental - documents on martial arts.

The sources he has presented have long been considered crucial to the amazingly small canon of classical Chinese writing on martial arts. This is sometimes a surprise to people considering how long Wushu has occupied so much of Chinese consciousness. But think of this: the English language has a long tradition of fine theater. Yet texts on acting were almost non-existent for centuries. Now we have more books on bowling than centuries of English history produced on acting. How many other subjects - even in this age of books-as-products- have still been unexplored? Point is that there are few texts and fewer translators.

Now comes the rub. Wile is a T'ai Chi practitioner. And, true to the title, these texts do presage the natural development of T'ai Chi. Sort of. But the question raised is more interesting than that. It boils down to what, exactly, is T'ai Chi. Let us consider an example. I used to suggest to my T'ai Chi students they memorize the T'ai Chi Classics. Then after some thought I would suggest to ALL my Kung Fu students that they read the classics because they were, after all, written rules that might be applied to any Kung Fu style. In fact Adam Hsu once, after returning from Taiwan, handed me a nicely hand bound copy of the T'ai Chi Classics. His comment to me, "Memorize it."

There is nothing in the Classics, beyond certain technical points, that is not true to all Kung Fu worthy of the name. These is nothing in these translations that is not universal rather than specific in the martial world. T'ai Chi is not separate from Kung Fu, to our eye;, it is simply a methodology of gaining classical, true Kung Fu skills. These translations are "T'ai Chi's Ancestors" because they point to true Kung Fu. Even the apocryphal story of Chang San Feng repudiating Shaolin and turning to internal arts because the former "... had strayed from the path." shows us the truth: there is a real Kung Fu and it is easily lost. T'ai Chi, an obscure style hidden away in central China, AND 100 other styles that have survived the Cultural Revolution because of their obscurity and the poverty of their surroundings are the real classics and the real ancestors. Important classics written in skills and human bodies instead of rare books but equally valuable as texts of centuries past. We need to preserve these "texts" wherever we find them. After all, Alexandria is burning.

SOME CONTENTS:
Chi Chi-kuang's "Essentials of the Classics of Pugilism"
"Epitaph for Wang Cheng-nan"
Ch'ang Nai Chou's Writings on Marital Arts

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