Embrace Tiger, Return to Mediocrity

by Chung Liang Al Huang,


It’s hard not to like Vanilla ice cream. What’s offensive about it really? On the other hand how do you feel about vanilla ice soycream? Or even Faux-Vanilla ice soycream?

Originally published in 1973 this “classic” book on T’ai Chi has recently been reissued by Celestial Arts, Berkeley. In his new introduction to the book Al Huang (Huang Chung-Liang) finds that his book “remains fresh and significant”. We find it difficult to agree since— no longer fresh—it now shows how really little significance it ever had. Al Huang has a special place in Western understanding of T’ai Chi. He was one of the first to start misrepresenting the entire issue. In the superficial 70’s he was a darling of the Esalen crowd, a pre-New Age harbinger of the quick fix revelation.

In the martial world Al Huang has almost graduated to a symbol for the superficial. He makes much of his tai ji being not Yang, or Wu, but “Huang” style. He makes much of “dancing T’ai Chi” because he is, at bottom,a dancer. As a “Taoist” he sees the entire act as “spontaneous” and “creative”. Yet he loves to pose in traditional robes. In truth his martial knowledge is as slight as everything else about him. Consider these tidbits of partial accuracy:

“Aikido is an outgrowth of tai ji…”

“Kendo and KENPO (!) are Japanese sword practices which also developed out of the same basic principles.”

“It (Kung Fu) is commonly used to mean various series of exercises that show how strong you can be, that you know how to fight. Kung-fu is a very masculine, aggressive, yang way of extending your tai ji energy.”

Ahh, it’s nice to have things explained by an expert. Really, Huang’s book is significant in one aspect. It transferred an unfortunate situation that had existed in China to the West. After the arrival of the gun in the 19th century, Kung Fu experts throughout China divided into two essential groups, with some overlap. One group stuck to the “now useless” art as a traditional practice, a practice that required time, patience and great sacrifice. They generally had to get other jobs because, somewhat understandably, people no longer wanted to expend the energy to master an art that could be destroyed by a bullet. The other group “re-designed” the art: it was really for health; it was really for enlightenment; it was really to fill their rice bowls. How much easier to fool a bunch of well-to-do westerners in beautiful, hedonistic California! Convince them tai ji is pretty much whatever, what flows, what goes: who knows ?

You see the problem is a little thing called integrity. Such a trifle and such a “downer”. We’ve seen Huang video for the “5 elements” practice and laughable would be a kind adjective. We especially enjoyed the final scene of him running through the forest like a paisley bunny rabbit. Isn’t Taoism fun?! We’d like those New Agers to go to a Taoism surgeon and say, “Sure, just cut. Flow with it.” We doubt if their “open attitude” would extend this far but we’d be thrilled to test it.

But there’s something even more essential here. An old Chinese expression of “Hanging up a cow’s head but selling dog’s meat. You see if you advertise beef you should sell beef. After all Huang became famous with this book because it’s supposed to be about T’ai Chi (which it isn’t). Had he called it was it is: Al Huang’s Creative Movement and Mixed Metaphors, it would have sold nary a copy. Call something what it is, an old Yankee trait, might have helped. It’s people like Huang who keep authentically “alternative and unusual” aspects of human experience from being acceptable as important. It’s like Chinese medicine. Even if you don’t believe in its efficacy it is still a planned, at least experientially verified, specific approach to healing. A Chinese doctor is a trained professional. And guess what? T’ai Chi is infused with the principles of Chinese medicine. So it, too, has a technical side which, under Huang’s pink lights, seems to kind of, like, disappear, man.

Let’s review. His martial knowledge is non-existent. And his medical insights are trivial. “But he’s so accessible!” some people say. Well, of course, tofu is always soft and malleable, easy to eat even without teeth. But you’d better cook the stuff. It can turn on you.


Leave a Reply

What do you have to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.