Top critical review
2 people found this helpful
One for the Coffee Table
on 8 October 2015
"The Essence" was published in 1979. Amazon currently state that it is the "first English translation of the classic texts of Tai Chi Chuan". Except that it isn’t. Others say that it is a "classic" in its own right. Even though, for the main classics, it gave us less than the pre-existing literature.
There are five writings generally accepted as the Tai Chi Chuan "classics". These are: the Tai Chi Chuan Ching; the Lun; the Exposition of Insights into the Practice of the 13 Postures; the Song of the 13 Postures; & the Song of Pushing Hands. These all appear in "the Essence". A further four works by Li Yi-Yu, Yang Cheng-Fu and Cheng Man-Ching respectively are also included.
English translations of these big five classics began appearing in the 1960's with Delza's (1961) "Tai Chi Chuan Body & Mind in Harmony" and Maisel's (1963) "Tai Chi for Health". Both of these books included three of the classics as appendices.
The first English language appearance of all five classics was in Cheng Man Ching & Robert Smith's (1967) "Tai Chi, the Supreme Ultimate Exercise etc". Smith's foreword carefully noted his own role in this book. But it makes no mention at all of Cheng's "Number One Chief Disciple" T.T. Liang and his work as the translator of Cheng's material. Liang can also be seen in some of the book's photos practicing with Cheng.
T.T. Liang's own book on the classics first appeared in 1974 i.e. 5 years before "the Essence". Liang's book "Tai Chi Chuan for Health & Self-Defence" featured all five classics and much more. Liang didn’t just translate the classics though. He added his own commentaries to help readers understand the material.
Liang and the authors of "the Essence" all studied in the Cheng Man Ching lineage. Yet “the Essence” came about as lead author Benjamin Lo, per his introduction, had "read some English translations" but felt that their “meaning seemed incomplete”.
I can't say whether Lo had read the prior translations in the books of his own teacher Cheng Man-Ching and Cheng's senior student T.T. Liang. What I can say is that "the Essence" is much less complete and useful than Liang's. Liang added significant commentary to his translations. Lo et al have no commentaries. Not a single one. And this despite co-author Susan Foe, in her preface, noting the key role of commentaries in Chinese classics.
The essence of Lo's translations of the five classics are generally in keeping with the prior works by Cheng and Liang. Lo stated that he had “somewhat altered the order” of the Lun but I see much more of a re-ordering of "the Expositions" compared to other versions.
Foe made much of the difficulties of translating the classics. Other authors including Davis (The Taijiquan Classics) and Swaim (Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan) have explained this in much more detail. Foe also stated that the classic Songs “are poems and not meant to be sung”. This may be so but they weren’t necessarily meant to be spoken either. Davis and Swaim allude to their mnemonic nature and chanting. Docherty (Instant Tao) recounts his own teacher being taught to memorise the Classics by chanting them while doing internal conditioning exercises.
So, no singing, no commentaries and yet “the Essence” isn’t without its attractions……
Pages in "the Essence" feature few words and much white space. It’s a format that invites us to linger and to contemplate the texts with minimal distraction. That said, I particularly enjoyed the occasional pieces of Benjamin Lo’s Chinese calligraphy which were distributed throughout the book and positioned beside relevant text.
Although not without its good points, as mentioned, I wouldn’t buy "the Essence" again.
Reading between the lines I suspect that "the Essence" suffered from being a translation by committee. It gave much less insight than the prior Liang book. More recently Dan Docherty's illustrated "Decoding the Classics for the Modern Martial Artist" has given further insights.
So, if you are after a book to best help you understand the Tai Chi classics then go with Liang or Docherty. Go the whole hog and buy both. It's useful to compare translations.
If your priority is a more meditative, contemplative, experience with a book that also looks good on the coffee table then "the Essence" is the one for you.