Open Source T’ai Chi :)

Posted by Stuart Herbert on September 21st, 2009 in Books, News, Teaching.

Over the past two years, I’ve been working on a set of notes for my Beginners’ class. With the help of feedback from my students, the notes have been polished, tried and tested, and I’m now happy enough with them to share them online for anyone else who is interested in reading them.

To make my notes easy to find, I’ve added a new Class Notes page to the website which lists all of the notes I’ve uploaded. I still need to finish off and publish my T’ai Chi for Improvers notes, plus the notes I’m scribbling away about my own practice!

And, to make my notes as free as possible, I’m licensing them under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 (UK) license. This license allows you to re-use my notes, and to make your own version of these notes, provided you give the original author (me) credit and that you also distribute your own version of the notes under the same license.

This makes our T’ai Chi notes a Free Cultural Work.

Why am I doing this?

  • Our art has a tradition going back at least to Yang Cheng’fu in the 1930’s of sharing everything we know. This means you don’t have to take any modern teacher’s word on T’ai Chi; you can go and track down a translation of Yang Cheng’fu’s book and see for yourself.
  • When my teacher died, his surviving family chose to withdraw the two instructional aids he had made during his lifetime (videos of both himself and his teacher playing the form). This sadly means that my students (and, in time, their students) cannot compare their own understanding and practice to that of the teachers who went before me. My own work, such as it is, is now a Free Cultural Work and can never be withdrawn from my students when I die.

I hope you find these notes helpful, and I’m always keen to receive feedback to help me improve them still further.

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Good news again this week … we’ve had another new starter join the class. I think that brings us up to twelve regular students in the class now. If you’re in the Barry or Cardiff area, and you’re looking to join a friendly and relaxed Tai Chi group, you’re most welcome. I’d better put together a page with details of the class!

I had a lucky find at the weekend. Whilst sorting through a (rather large!) pile of unopened mail, my wife found a Tai Chi book that I’d bought some time ago and completely forgotten about.

The Complete Book of Tai Chi, by Wong Kiew Kit, claims to be a complete guide to the principles and practice of Tai Chi Chuan. Although I think it falls a little short of this, it’s still one of my favourite books, and there’s plenty in there that I hope will help me gain more benefit from my personal practice over the coming years.

The book essentially covers the following areas:

  • Tai Chi history
  • Chi and Chi Kung
  • Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art
  • Explanations of the forms of the five main Tai Chi styles (Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu, and Sun)

It’s this breadth of content that gives rise to the “complete” claim, and it certainly packs a lot of detail and illustrations into its 317 pages, but I think the combination of both a lack of depth in some areas and commentaries that repeat more than they explain (an honourable tradition in these type of books 🙂 ) means that this book complements rather than replaces other essential Tai Chi books. To be fair, I can’t imagine a “complete” book of Tai Chi even being possible. My teacher Robert Earl Taylor can easily spend many hours looking at and lecturing on just one move in the form; it would take many volumes just to capture that level of information on paper.

Although it has come up in other reviews, I’m not going to criticise the book for being difficult for beginners to benefit from. I keep recalling my own experience when starting out with Tai Chi. My teacher told me what I needed to know, and when I checked my library of books I could always see that the books agreed with him. (I was always impressed by that, as I knew that Robert had had to work out many of these things for himself from first principles). But I didn’t have the experience to really “get” what he was telling me in those early years, and it definitely wasn’t because of the language he used. We “get” things through experiences over time, which encourage our brains to remodel their neural connections to help us in our pursuits. It’s an extremely difficult challenge to create a book on any subject that has substantial meaning for both the beginner and the adept as a result.

So what do I like about it? First and foremost, I like the practical advice in the stances, chi kung and application chapters of the book. As a student of the art, I have many many gaps in my own knowledge, and this book is going to point me in the right direction for plugging one or two of those. Although I’m not sure of the practical value of it, I’m also taken in by the documentation of all five major Tai Chi styles. I’m a sucker for scraps of information about Tai Chi’s history and evolution, and this book feeds that appetite amply!

I have to say that this is also one of the most beautifully presented books I’ve ever read – martial arts or otherwise. It’s a small point perhaps, but it does make reading the book that little bit more effortless!

I’ve setup a little Tai Chi book shop on Amazon, where you can order any of the Tai Chi books that I personally own and would recommend. Over the coming weeks, I’ll blog about each of the books in the shop, and what it is about each book that does it for me.

If you’d like to recommend any Tai Chi books that I haven’t listed in the shop, please mention them in the comments below, and I’ll take a look. Although there’s no substitute for practice and experience, I get a lot of pleasure out of reading Tai Chi books, and I’m always interested in hearing about books that I’ve not come across before.

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