Everyone likes a good mystery. They engage, they motivate and (whether we want to admit it or not) they make the hours vanish. That certainly explains at least part of the popularity of historical studies of the Chinese martial arts. Decades of nationalist myth-making and inspired entrepreneurial marketing have helped to create the impression that it is the veneer of history that determines the value of these practices. That has never actually been true. Still, once you move past the illusions of history and begin to dig into the sources, it is disturbingly easy to lose a weekend.
Let’s begin today’s investigation by asking two simple questions. What was the first English language book on the Chinese martial arts, and when was it published. Of course, such questions are never really that simple. If we were to count as a “book” rough translations of Chinese language martial arts manuals republished in an English language magazine, the answer would be sometime in the 1870s. If we insisted on two hard covers, but relaxed the requirement of commercial sales, then we have the case of a little-known English language xingyi quan manual (produced by a famous Chinese track and field coach) in the 1920s.
Still, neither of these answers feel quite right. While both are important in their own right, these weren’t the sort of “books” that one might find sitting on a shelf in a shop. Perhaps we should begin by narrowing things down a bit. What was the first commercially printed English language book on Taijiquan to be widely distributed to a mass audience? If asked that way, it would seem that the answer must be Sophia Delza’s 1961 Tai Chi Chuan: Body and Mind in Harmony, a book that I have previously discussed here and here.
At least that is what I would have thought up until recently. I will readily admit to being neither a student of taijiquan, or an expert on its history, my own interests being more focused on the Southern arts. Still, I have tried to keep up with everything published on the martial arts in the Republic period (1911-1949). As such I was vaguely aware of Chen Yanling’s controversial 1943 book, Taiji Compiled: Boxing, Saber, Sword, Pole and Sparring. What I had missed was that this book was translated into English and distributed by at least three different Shanghai publishers in 1947. By the 1960s additional English language translations would be produced in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and a number of these volumes would find their way into American and British martial arts schools.
Whether Delza’s volume, or a pirated edition of Chen’s, showed up in your neighborhood book store first remains an open question. After a week trying to piece together this volume’s publication history I can safely declare that there is still quite a bit that we don’t know. I would go so far as to suggest that we have a minor mystery on our hands. Still, its early date of publication and wide circulation suggests that this book may be worth considering in greater detail. If nothing else, its existence signals a growing curiosity about the Chinese martial arts long before the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s came to fruition.
A Yang Family Controversy
Before delving into the publication history of the English language edition, it may be helpful to know a little more about Chen Yanling’s original volume. Anyone interested in checking out this work can find a copy at the Brennan Translations blog. Even a quick glance at the table of contents is enough to signal that this was a substantial work, and quite different from many of the simple technical manuals that dominated the era’s martial arts markets. Chen’s work was appreciated as he sought to develop new philosophical concepts within the study of Taijiquan. Rather than simply rehashing the ancient myths he also looked at the art’s more recent history, particularly as it pertained to the experiences of the Yang family. His work provided discussions of not just the solo unarmed set, but also push-hands and no fewer than three weapons. Readers could even find material from the Taiji Classics and Yang family teaching traditions in his publication. Needless to say, his book made quite a splash when it was released in 1943.
Not all of this attention was positive. Chen’s work proved to be quite controversial within some corners of the Yang style. This was not so much a concern about the reliability of what he said, but the more complex question of whether he had the right to say it at all. Rumors started to spread that somehow Chen had swindled Yang Cheng-fu out of his family patrimony.
The story went that Chen, a diligent student, had approached Yang Cheng-fu and asked to borrow the family’s private manual for a single evening of study. Knowing that anyone’s ability to work through such complex material in a single night was limited, Yang Cheng-fu relented. However, he was unaware that Chen had hired seven copyists who would fully transcribe the book that night. This material would then become the basis of this own 1943 publication, much to the displeasure of the Yang family. This would force them to eventually release their own version of these texts.
As martial arts legends go, I quite like this story. It reveals much about the values and anxieties of the individuals who passed it around. But that is the actual intelligence value of any rumor. They always reveal more about the motivations and fears of those who tell them, rather than their purported subjects.
While the controversy that Chen instigated was real, its actual causes were more prosaic. When discussing this book in a recent exchange with Douglas Wile, he noted that Chen Yanlin was in fact a student of Tian Zhaolin, who was a student of Yang Jianhou, the son of Yang Luchan. Chen’s manuscript was actually based on the study and transcriptions of Tian Zhaolin’s teachings. In point of fact, the drive to systematically record this material (a common project during the Republic era) had been a collective undertaking led by several of Tian’s students. They were enraged when Chen put his name on what had been, in their view, a collective project. Wile related that the group was actually preparing to take Chen to court over his “theft” when Tian intervened to restore the peace between his students.
This bit of the manuscript’s history makes for a compelling story. But the real mysteries emerge four years later, in 1947. In many ways this was not a great era for the Chinese martial arts. The country’s long running civil war was heating up, the Guoshu Institute was in tatters and, after the initial enthusiasm for the dadao troops had subsided, the Chinese martial arts had taken a beating in the country’s newspapers over the course of the second world war. Given all of this, it might come as a surprise to learn that there was actually a small (but notable) spike in interest in the Chinese martial arts in the West during the late 1940s.
In an apparent attempt to capitalize on this interest, an English language edition of Chen’s book was released in Shanghai in 1947 by the well-known Willow Pattern Press. The edition was titled Tai-Chi Chuan: Its Effects and Practical Applications, and the author was listed as Yearning K. Chen. This latest iteration of the manuscript must have been a time consuming undertaking. Library catalogs list Kuo Shui-chang as the translator (I must rely on them as I do not own a personal copy of the Willow Patterns Press edition). C. C. Chiu offered a new preface, specifically intended for Western audiences. It provided a health and wellness focused overview of the art, and a brief introduction to its author.
Sadly, I have not been able locate any substantive information on Kuo or Chiu. That is an issue as even a cursory examination of the text reveals that what they provided is not a typical “translation” of Chen’s text. Large parts of Chen’s text (including many of this more detailed discussions, and everything on Taijiquan’s history) have been left out of this volume. In their place Western readers would find short introductions designed to get them up to speed on topics such as “Yin” and “Yang”, as well as the definition of Chinese boxing and taijiquan’s relationship to both philosophy and the martial arts.
The differences did not stop there. These introductory notes were followed by multiple full chapters that attempted to rationalize the discussion of taijiquan and to present it to Western audiences within a scientific framework. Topics covered included the art’s relationship with physiology, psychology and physics. This last chapter, which featured a “proof” of the application of Newton’s laws to the martial arts, can only be described as a triumph of “scientism.” It would have made even the most diehard guoshu modernizer proud. Its pages featured rows of orderly equations and geometric diagrams. To ask who “translated” this volume is really to inquire as to who wrote what was in many respects an independent book on taijiquan designed to cater to the (perceived) tastes of educated Western readers.
That said, this was not an entirely original undertaking. The substantive discussions of both the solo form and push hands were taken directly from Chen, as were his pen and ink illustrations. Yet even here, some subtle changes can be noted. The Chinese language inserts that had labeled these illustrations in Chen’s original volume were deleted but not replaced in the English books. Further, whoever wrote the new English text was familiar with, and had an appreciation for, Chen’s arguments. While many of the discussions were new, care was taken to paraphrase quotes from the Chinese version. These were distributed creatively throughout the English language text as its chapters and introductory discussions did not align with the underlying Chinese “original.”
In short, Kuo Shui-chang did not provide readers with a faithful translation of Chen’s work. The entire first half of this book might be better thought of as a translation of a work that Chen did not actually write, but might have if he wished to appeal to a room full of western engineers and educators. In that sense the real value of this work is what it suggests about the growing demand for English language information in the late 1940s, and how elite Chinese martial artists perceived that cross-cultural desire.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the size of this demand would be the massive piracy campaign that this book experienced. The original Willow Pattern Press edition was released in 1947. Yet because of lax intellectual property rights, the book was quickly picked up by other distributors. 1947 dated editions were also produced in Shanghai by P. D. Boss and Millington. While I assume that Willow printed the original book, it is actually hard to confirm the order in which they appeared.
Booksellers in Hong Kong also expressed enthusiasm for the volume. Numerous, almost identical, printings were released that listed no publishing house or date. Many of these volumes listed their price as either “$10” or “H.K. $10.” It is probably impossible to date these books with precision, but it seems that they were produced sometime in the 1960s. I have a Hong Kong copy with a red cover, as opposed to the original Shanghai release that was blue. Other colors can be found as well. The version produced by the Sun Wah Printing Company may have been more legitimate than the others as they at least printed their name and the address of their offices on the title page.
By the 1960s these volumes began to find their way into circulation (and libraries) in the West, though I have not been able to determine if they had an official American distributor. I ran across one account of a student whose taiji class used this text as part of their study material during the 1960s. But that was not the end of the volume’s complex publishing history. Pan American Books in Taipei (Taiwan) released their own undated edition of the volume (probably in the 1970s). And by the late 1970s multiple American publishing houses took advantage of the volume’s confused ownership to release their own editions. The 1979 New Castle printing seems to be the most commonly encountered, though there are several others.
I have not had an opportunity to track down copies of all of these printings and subject them to a detailed comparison. That would no doubt be interesting, and it might reveal more about this book’s circuitous travels through the post-war global environment. A detailed study of the similarities between Chen’s original 1943 volume and its strangely independent 1947 Shanghai translation could also be quite interesting for what it might reveal about the different intended audiences of both books.
While some details of this mystery are likely to remain unsolved, what we know about Chen’s book is quite interesting. During the course of my historical research I had basically concluded that Zhang, Chu and the other guoshu reformers had basically failed to create an image of the Chinese martial arts that would be appealing to Western readers or martial artists. In many ways Chen’s translated volume is a natural intellectual successor to their efforts, and its tortured publishing history suggests that there may have been a lot more demand than I was able to previously estimate from personal reminisces and newspaper accounts alone. After all, no one bothers to pirate a book that doesn’t sell, and this book managed to stay in print for a very long time.
Cheng’s effort was the first English language book commercially printed on taijiquan, though Delza’s volume almost certainly arrived on the shelves of most American martial artists first. Still, Cheng has much to teach us, not only about the practice of taijiquan, but its post-war migration throughout the global system.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks go to two individuals who made this essay possible. First, I would like to thank Qin Qin (秦琴) from Henan Polytechnic University for sharing with me the discovery of a 1947 P. B. Boss edition of Tai-Chi-Chuan: Its Effects and Practical Applications. That was really what got me interested in looking more deeply at Chen’s contributions to the global spread of the art. Thanks also go to Douglas Wile for providing invaluable context regarding the true origin of the controversy that surrounded the book’s 1943 publication.
If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Prof. Maofu Gong Discusses the State of Folk Wushu and Martial Arts Studies in China Today