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Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain

The Essence of Tai Ji

By Chungliang Al Huang

When I first read an earlier edition of this book, it wasn’t a good time for me to read it; what I needed at that period of my life was exact instruction on the mechanics of taiji. Although I had worked with Chungliang, I didn’t understand what he was offering and put the book back on the shelf. His books are now regarded by many as classics and almost every paragraph contains a memorable quote. Every page contains at least one phrase, story or idea that made me stop and think as I read it. The whole book can almost be read as a free-form poem. It is not for those who want explicit instruction.

Although ostensibly a book about taiji, it contains so much more about the understanding of the arts and culture of China. Now living in America, Chungliang was born in China and comes from a family educated in Chinese culture. In his foreword to this edition, Chungliang Al Huang, the founder and director of Living Tao foundation, is seventy and Living Tao foundation is in its thirtieth year. A taiji party was held at Gold Beach to celebrate (in his words) ‘ageing and sageing’ – a lovely phrase which encapsulates the attitude of great respect for wisdom of their elders.

In his foreword, Alan Watts talks about their long friendship and about Chungliang’s unusual style of ‘dancing’ taiji or taiji as moving meditation.

This book is somewhat difficult to review as Chungliang’s take on taiji is like no other. Perhaps it stems from his dance training, perhaps from his deep cross-cultural understanding of Chinese arts. Because of this extraordinary view, he provides a means of understanding taiji which is hard to convey to anyone who hasn’t trained with such an accomplished teacher. ‘What I do is the doing’, he says and is reluctant to write and commit his ideas to paper.

He is insistent on his students making taiji their own and encourages different ways to understand the same process using playful dissection and re-assembling of movements and stressing observation and integration of body and breath. ‘Learn how to be responsive to your surroundings, to time, to yourself’, he says: it is not about intellectual understanding. I can hear Chungliang’s voice in his writing.

What he says can apply to any form of body movement and his work has influenced many dancers, musicians and artists.

I think we reach a common ground when we get to the point of realising that we don’t know anything. Then we can begin all over again together. Taiji does this for us – suddenly, we don’t know anything.

This is my favourite quote. Chungliang stresses the philosophy of taiji and where it sits in Chinese culture, bringing it into the present while exploring taiji in a wider sense, exploring within, rather than reaching out for more experiences and answers.

Chungliang talks briefly about about Daoism and Confucianism – I wish that he had said more but it does appear in his other books.

The chapter on calligraphy is exquisite in its comparison with the human body and Chinese characters so is also useful to taiji practitioners. There is a good description of the metamorphosis of characters into cursive calligraphy too. The description of free-form calligraphy he produced with Allan Watts based on the Daodejing gave me goosebumps while the interpretation of translation of Chinese characters are poems in themselves. It is easy to see why Chungliang is as well known for his calligraphy as his taiji teaching.

There are two sets of Zen Ox pictures in this book so we are confronted with different interpretations of what is usually described as showing a way of moving towards enlightenment.

Chungliang talks about the Daodejing and asks the reader not to limit the interpretation as there are many ways of understanding this classic so doesn’t give a direct translation and asks us to consider the various possibilities it offers.

The whole book is written as if it is a commentary on one week’s teaching although the material came from several seminars and works well in that respect. The photographs by Si Chi Ko and others are superb; I would like to have some information and detail about these but, saying that, they do stand alone. The ‘about the author’ section gives plenty of information about the Living Tao foundation and the author’s other works so I didn’t miss the book not having an index.

Marks out of 10:

  • Content 8
  • Writing style 9
  • Diagrams/ illustrations 9
  • Further information available (index, footnotes etc.) 8
  • Overall appearance (legibility, layout, ease of use) 8