Preserving documents for learning movement methodologies: The Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan ‘Gold Book’ by Wu Kung Cho
Mark Langweiler, London South Bank University
English language edition of the Gold Book
Image courtesy of Mark Langweiler
Within the martial arts community and, more specifically, the tai chi family arts, written documentation is rare. Over the years, there had been rumours of such writings within the Wu family yet little evidence was forthcoming especially in the West. While portions of Wu Kung Cho’s text were known in China in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the end of the last century that the full text became available in Chinese and not until 2006 that an English language version approved by the Wu family became available. The publication of the ‘Gold Book’ was a significant event given the lack of accurate martial arts publications at the time. This blog offers an exploration of this important methodological text and the issues surrounding the transmission of Wu family tai chi knowledge to the wider world.
Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan - The Origins
Within the study of the martial arts, there are two strands: the external or hard styles, which includes martials arts such as kung fu or karate, and the internal or soft styles, of which tai chi chuan is the best known. The basic premise of tai chi chuan is that softness used appropriately can overcome force. The practice develops this sense of soft power, relaxation and the development of qi or internal energy.
The origins of tai chi chuan remain uncertain with no direct documentation of its beginnings, there is, however, some historical evidence from the Ming Dynasty concerning a Taoist monk, Chang San Feng, being invited to teach at the Imperial court. If so, tai chi chuan dates back 600 years.
Wu style tai chi chuan traces its lineage to the Qing Dynasty during the reign of the Emperor Tongzhi (1862-1874). Wu Chuan Yau (1834-1902), a captain in the Imperial court, studied tai chi chuan with masters Yang Lu Chan (1799-1872), founder of Yang style, and his son, Yang Ban Hou (1837-1890). For political reasons, it was thought best that Wu Chuan Yau be made a disciple of Yang Ban Hou rather than his father. Wu Chuan Yau taught his son, Wu Chien Chuan, who altered the tai chi form making the movements smaller and developed many new martial applications.
Wu Chien Chuan, along with several other martial artists, including Yang Cheng Fu (grandson of Yang style founder Yang Lu Chan) opened the Beijing School of Physical Education. Among the first graduates where Wu Kung Yi (1900-1970) and Wu Kung Cho (1903-1983). Wu Kung Cho was considered to be a master of all aspects of the Wu style with special emphasis on qigong or the practice of internal energy.
Five generations of the Wu family have handed down a training manual for Wu style tai chi chuan. The ‘Gold Book’, (so named due to the colour of the 1980 Chinese edition) was first compiled in 1935 by Wu King Cho, the grandson of Wu style founder Wu Chuan Yau.
Wu Kung Cho had originally planned on writing a two-part thesis but due to family obligations and personal problems, this was limited to the first. Tragically, he was imprisoned by the Chinese communists from 1950 until 1979 and was only released following the fall of the ‘Gang of Four’. He spent his final years in Hong Kong with his family.
The Gold Book original Chinese edition
Image courtesy of Mark Langweiler
The 1935 edition of the text is composed of 15 short chapters detailing the complete aspects of the Wu family tai chi chuan style. While teaching at the Hunan Martial Arts Training Centre, Wu Kung Cho came to the realisation that relying solely on word of mouth would lead to misunderstandings and the eventual watering down of the style. To prevent this, he wrote the text detailing the Wu style. There are several appendices of tai chi verse written by unknown practitioners and a prologue by Xiang Kairen, a well-known Chinese novelist of the time. The text includes a discourse on the philosophy underlying tai chi practice, sections on the tai chi form, push hands, the eight methods, and winding silk and neutralisation, an action for which Wu style is particularly known.
Wu Kung Cho had intended to complete the text with a second part based on the teachings of Yang Ban Hou, ‘The Methodology of Tai Chi Chuan’. This had to wait until the 1980 edition. Following his release from the concentration camp, Wu Kung Cho dedicated himself to completing the ‘Gold Book’. This time, he was able to include all of the material he had planned for the earlier edition. The Yang Ban Hou manuscript is composed of 40 brief paragraphs outlining the practices passed on to the Wu family, its relationship to Taoist philosophy and applications for self-defence. Additionally, a postscript written by Jin Yong, author of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ has been added.
The current English language translation was self-published by the Wu Style Federation in 2006. It includes all of the contents of the 1980 Chinese edition as well as series of photos of Wu Chien Chuan and Wu Kung Yi doing the Wu family form. Neither set is a complete version but both present the essence of the form. There is also a copy of the original 1935 publication. The book ends with brief biographies of the Wu family.
In discussions with Doug Woolidge, the translator, he commented that each sentence, often each word had to be reviewed and discussed with the advisory board since Chinese characters can have multiple, sometimes diverging meanings. This can lead to a great deal of confusion as had been seen in other translations.
Unfortunately, the 2006 English language edition is now out of print, though the occasional volume may still be found. The 1980 Chinese Version can be found on the Wu style tai chi chuan web page. A search is currently on for a new publisher who can take this treasure of the Wu family into the public sphere.
Maintaining the availability of texts such as the ‘Gold Book’ is important for several reasons. Certainly the historical context. In the case of the ‘Gold Book’, the Wu family were fortunate that there existed several copies outside of mainland China that Wu Kung Cho could use to rebuild his work. But there are also issues of pedagogy, how the arts were taught and why. Wu Style was lucky, but the political atmosphere during the early communist period led to the disappearance of entire martial arts lineages. Having written documentation could have prevented that from occurring.
The Gold Book
Editors - Rosalind Gill and Peter Harries-Jones
Translator - Doug Woolidge
Publisher - Jonathen Krehm on behalf of the Wu Style Tai Chi Federation, 2006
Includes the classic text- Explanations of Tai Chi Methodology
Written by Yang Ban Hou