I ordered this book because the author commented on a post earlier this week. Although he had some inaccurate opinions of Chen taiji -- not uncommon among people who teach Yang style -- I respect anyone who devotes such a large part of life to tai chi and I'm always looking for another addition to my martial arts library.
I studied Yang style for more than a decade before discovering Chen tai chi. I won a national title in advanced tai chi competition at the AAU Kung-Fu Nationals in 1990. I had a loyal group of students -- many of them elderly -- when I discovered Chen style in 1998. I had read several internal concepts online in a listserve by people like Mike Sigman but I had never been taught what the terms meant, so I sought out a Chen instructor. I was lucky to meet a great couple an hour or so out of Chicago in Rockford, Illinois, who had studied Yang style before discovering Chen. The concepts I had read about were physically demonstrated, along with the Teacher Test. Within one hour, I knew that much of what I had learned was empty, and I had to start over.
I still collect books from all styles of taiji because I can generally learn something from everyone. I might need to dismiss a lot of the abstract mumbo-jumbo that so many instructors use as they try so hard to sound holy and mystical and scientifically grounded. Despite this flaw in so many books and magazine articles, I sift the writing for nuggets that I can use.
There is also a saying that I first heard when I began studying Chen -- "It Has To Be Shown."
In other words, all the writing in the world can't prepare you for the body mechanics of good tai chi. It's so difficult to describe the body mechanics in ways that don't mislead people that it simply has to be shown. In person. Hands-on.
And this is why "What is Tai Chi?" turned into a disappointment.
For one thing, It is a tedious read. Concepts that can be explained more simply and clearly are shrouded in phrases such as this one about Daoyin: "Deliberately tracing out the guides, both mentally and physically, helps to 'dredge the channels,' thereby increasing Qi circulation by improving the signal to noise ratio and channel capacity."
This doesn't mean it doesn't have some good points, but overall, despite claims of being an "insightful book" that covers "all aspects of tai chi," it misses some very important concepts. I was reading closely and could find a faint glimmer of some of these concepts but the average tai chi reader wouldn't catch it.
There is virtually no mention in the book of the ground path, which is one of the most important skills you need for quality tai chi. Silk-reeling is virtually ignored, although spiraling is discussed (but not in a satisfying way). Fajing is virtually ignored, as is the expression of power.
About peng jin, Peter writes, "Fundamentally, 'Peng' is a type of energy flow in a human body." A couple of paragraphs later, he writes "In the Taijiquan Classics we are told that 'Peng' is the 'father' of all Taijquan movements and that the whole body has 'Peng.'"
Well, he got that right, but then he demonstrates a lack of understanding of the concept. He writes "Substituting 'Ward Off' or "Ward Off Slanting Upwards' into these two quotations produces confusion, even gibberish. To make matters even worse, a skilled Taijiquan player is supposed to be able to perform the energy exchanges of 'Peng' and other fundamental movements such as 'Lu,' 'Ji' and 'An' without visible movement of the body. If there is not appreciable external movement, we can only be talking about internal energy flows."
Whew. He finally dismisses the topic by saying "So it seems we cannot translate 'Peng' at all...."
That came as news to me, since Peng is translated very well in Chen taiji. Peng jin is part of every movement in tai chi, including lu, ji, an, cai, etc.
Peng is interpreted as peng "energy" but it is a physical skill that can be developed over time. It is, in fact, NOT an actual, scientifically verifiable "energy" in the body. It is a concept for translating movement -- a concept for translating a particular skill.
Peng is a buoyancy in the body that is very similar to the feeling you get when you push downward on a beach ball into a pool of water (I demonstrate this in my Internal Strength DVD and on my website). When you press a beach ball into a swimming pool, the water "gives" a little but there is pressure that does not collapse. In fact, if you jumped on a large beach ball in a swimming pool, the ball will sink into the water, come back up and then spin, dumping you into the water. This is a very clear explanation of peng, whole-body movement and silk-reeling. All of these things, combined with the ground path, opening and closing of the kua, and dan t'ien rotation, provide the essential framework of quality tai chi.
This is missing from the book, although he dances around it when he discusses the "Three Circle Theory." I was hoping very much that he would translate this into Peng, but it didn't happen.
So -- since It Has To Be Shown -- I went to the author's website to see if he had some videos that show more than the book did. There are videos, but it was the same empty tai chi that I see in so many people who have studied Yang for so long, especially forms such as the "Simplified" 24 form, which I studied and taught for many years.
No one is going to mistake my form for Chen Xiaowang's, but I know what I'm trying to achieve, and I know how, as a student, I would get corrected if I moved primarily my arms instead of using whole-body movement, and when I kept my chi in my chest. I've told the story often of how Jim was standing 50 feet from me in a park when I performed the beginning movement of "Six Sealings Four Closings" and he shouted, "Ken, you lost it." I asked what I lost. "You lost your Peng," he said, and he demonstrated. He was right, and I wondered how he could possibly see that from so far away. Now I can see when Peng is lost -- from 50 feet away.
When telling some Yang folks this sort of thing (and reminding them of silk-reeling and maintaining peng and opening/closing the kua and the other skills), a common reply is a sticking of the nose into the air and a condescending, "You simply don't understand tai chi. We do all this, but you can't see it." They don't often add "you silly child" to that statement, but it's obvious that's what they mean. So, I came close to not writing this book review because believe it or not, I don't like to be critical of the skills of other teachers (only those who claim supernatural abilities). But since the book was promoted on my blog, I was genuinely interested.
Early in the book, Peter basically dismisses Chen Wangting as the creator of tai chi. He speaks of legend and also says that historically, tai chi appears first with Chen Changxing. Ironically, this was the teacher of Yang luchan, who was a servant of the Chens and later went to Beijing and developed Yang style taiji. He says that the theory of Chen Wangting emerged in the 1930s and promoted by the Communist government. Although this is a highly political statement with no citation of evidence, it is not surprising coming from a Yang teacher. The honesty to embrace a common heritage is not common, even in the world of tai chi, because after all, tai chi teachers are only human, and they are as petty and jealous as anyone else in any field of endeavor.
Perhaps when Yang luchan taught the royal family, they weren't willing to work hard, so tai chi was watered down for them. Perhaps this style, as practiced by so many around the world, is empty because the tai chi that was taught to the royal family is what spread so quickly. And as it developed as a "health" art practiced slowly by the elderly, the body mechanics and power of tai chi was lost.
"What is Tai Chi?" is not a complete waste of money, but it won't be one of the books in my library that I refer back to.
If you're into Yang style, and focus on forms such as the Simplified 24, the book might make perfect sense to you. But I'd love for you to drop into one of my practices sometime, where I can do for you what my Chen teachers did for me.