A reply to Mark Chen

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

I recently reviewed Mark Chen’s book “Chen Syle Taijiquan Collected Masterworks” which is a really good translation of Chen Zhaopi’s 1935 book on Taijiquan with additional translation notes from the author and appendices on Tai Chi matters. It’s a good book and he did a great job. That should be the end of it, but I’ve somehow got dragged into a side issue.

As part of my review I did notice that some included documents, called “Chen Chanxing’s Discussion of Taijiquan’s 10 main points”, that Chen Zhaopi attributes to his ancestor Chen Chanxing, were in fact the 10 Thesis of Yue Fei, but with the name “Taijiquan” unscrupulously inserted into them and Chen Chanxing attributed as author.

These documents are widely known as the “Xing Yi Classics” or “The 10 Thesis of Yue Fei” – and while nobody really thinks, or can prove, that Yue himself wrote them, they’ve always been associated with the martial art of Xing Yi/Xin Yi – there is simply no debate about this. I raised this issue in my review.

Mark has posted a response to this issue in my comments section, which I’ll address in full here:

“Thanks to Taichi Notebook for the review and thanks to Mike for his thoughtful comments. As a point of clarification, please note that I do not make the assertion that the “Ten Main Points” was written by Chen Changxing (though the version in the book was obviously written or adapted by a taijiquan partisan). My introductory remarks for chapter 3 say that it “may” have been written by Changxing, and in the preface I indicate that this attribution is used throughout the book for convenience. I further allege that the document “plausibly dates to Changxing’s lifetime,” and the argument for this is given in appendix C.

OK, he’s factually correct about this, (except for calling Mr Sigman’s comments “thoughtful” 😉 ) but he’s taken a position worthy of a modern politician, I feel. He’s simultaneously leaving enough room to wiggle out of saying Chen Chanxing wrote the 10 Main Points (dropping just one single “may” in the book, before making the assertion several times) while at the same time doubling down on the inference that it is true because the time period fits.

Mark continues:

“Regarding Li Jianqiu’s claim (in his 1919 book) that it was written by Yue Fei: while it is certainly possible that the document was written by someone other than Changxing, it was written by Yue Fei only in the same sense that the “taiji classics” were written by Zhang Sanfeng; that is, it was not written by Yue Fei. First, its idiom clearly belongs to the nineteenth century (a fact that is easily discernible in the original Chinese). Second, it quotes from Ming dynasty sources. For example, the passage beginning, “can go, can accomplish, . . .” on page 31 of my book is lifted directly from Zhuge Liang’s delightful letter to Cao Zhen in chapter 100 of _Romance of the Three Kingdoms_ (as far as I know, the only instance of epistolary homicide in recorded history). Other similar references are noted in the book, and while they could theoretically have been taken from pre-Song historical texts (specifically, the _San Guo zhi_), this is not likely the case. General readers were unaware of the cited events until the publication of _Romance_ during the Ming dynasty, so the references would have been meaningless before that time. As another example, the expression _shen fa_ (“body technique”) is a term of art originating in Qi Jiguang’s “Quan jing”–again from the Ming dynasty and further evidence of a taijiquan connection.

First let’s deal with Mark’s strawman argument of Yue’s authorship. Nobody sensible these days is claiming that this is true, so let’s not get distracted. The way Mark draws a parallel between Chang San Feng and Yue Fei is interesting though.

I’ve heard this comparison between Chang San Feng and Yue Fei before. For sure, Yue Fei didn’t write the Xing Yi classics, but they certainly do embody his philosophy – which we know in detail because he was real. The Tai Chi classics have got nothing to do with Chang San Feng’s philosophy, especially because he never existed, whereas there is incontrovertible evidence that Yue Fei was a real, flesh and blood person. 

The point about citations from Ming Dynasty works being supportive of a Tai Chi origin of the Xing Yi classics is very strange – maybe I read it wrong, but the postures mentioned in General Qi’s Ming Dynasty manual are in virtually everything – there are more variations on single whip in Baji than there are in Tai Chi, for example. 

Richard Dawkins made the criticism that comparisons between imaginary details of imaginary things seem to be more important in religion than is the actual existence or otherwise of those things. It’s a really good observation, and I think 100% true when people start to defend the religion of Taijiquan.

But the real elephant in the room is the content of the 10 Main Points/10 Thesis. Theses are replete with Xing Yi terminology, but there is very little Tai Chi terminology. Mark himself notices this and remarks upon it in his book! I would offer a simpler explanation: Perhaps the reason why these writings are so untypical of Taijiquan is that… they’re not about Taijiquan?

And then there’s the long history of these writings being associated with Xing Yi both in a literary and oral tradition, which Mark completely ignores.

Here are just 3 examples of quotes from the 10 Thesis from the literary tradition on Xing Yi to establish my case:

1.  Sun Lu Tang’s “Xing Yi Manual” (1915)

https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/the-xingyi-manual-of-sun-lutang/

 Sun Lu Tang writes: 

 “While once at Bai Xiyuan’s home in Beijing, I got to see one of the Yue Fei manuals, not an original copy of course, but a handwritten copy made by someone in a later generation.

While we don’t see his copy of the manual in his book, it establishes the tradition of this hand copied manual attributed to Yue Fei coming down the generations.

2. Li Jianqiu’s “Xing Yi Manual” (1919)

As mentioned before, this 1919 Xing Yi manual contains all 10 chapters of the 10 Thesis in its entirety. They are at the end of the book:

https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/the-xingyi-manual-of-li-jianqiu/

And inside, in a preference written by Zheng Lianpu it states:

“In the summer of 1915, I returned south, and as I passed my hometown, people praised me as a prominent expert for making a study of the contents of Yue Fei’s boxing manual. Within it are nine chapters of essential principles and one chapter on fighting. Although the content of the writing is not without its flaws, the style of the writing is marvelous, powerful, and smooth, and as suits the work of Yue Fei, the theory is refined and thorough. It is certainly not the case that Yue Fei was unable to communicate. I say that equipped with this old Xingyi manual, you too will obtain such a level of clarity.”

3. Liu Dianchen’s Selected subtleties of Xingyi Boxing Art (1920)

Selected Subtleties of the Xingyi Boxing Art by Liu Dianchen

This book from 1920 quotes freely from “The manual”, which is, of course, Yue Fei’s 10 Thesis.

E.g. “The Manual says: “The hand lifts like an arrow and drops like the wind, chasing the wind and pursuing the moon without letting up.” It also says this on the quickness of the hand techniques: “Attack where he is unprepared and appear where he does not expect. Do not fear his vigor and fierceness, for with but a move he is defeated.” “

This is from Thesis 9, the Thesis of Stepping.

Mark continues:

In view of these and related observations, it is nearly certain that “Ten Main Points” was written in the nineteenth century. If it did not originate in Chen Village, then the arguments in my book’s appendix C indicate that it was adopted there around or before the middle of that century. So we can further assert that if any borrowing occurred, it happened roughly during Changxing’s lifetime.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Mike’s comments are generally correct. As I explain at length in appendix B, many martial-arts things (particularly from the Central Plain) lack a tidy provenance, and “Ten Main Points” may well be an example of a document that was exchanged and adapted by many hands over time.”

Yes, I think that’s exactly what it is!

A version of it has possibly ended up in the Chen village at some point and been adapted. However, I think I’ve shown that the oral and literary provenance unequivocally connects it to the martial art of Xing Yi/Xin Yi explicitly, not Taijiquan. Mike’s argument (as I understand it) is that the 3 internal arts are all the same “stuff”, so what applies to one applies equally to all 3. I’d disagree. I’ve already posted about how this mashing together of history is just intellectually lazy. In reality, most Tai Chi people know very little about Xing Yi but they feel like they are authorities on it because they know the “main thing” in the internal arts, (according to them).

Like I said, Mark’s book is great – you should get it. He’s said his piece about my review, which is fair enough, but personally, I disagree. C’est la vie. I’ve little enthusiasm for getting into a long protracted debate over it with either Mark or Mr Sigman because I don’t know what else there is to say, so hopefully they’ll just let it be.

We can but hope!

3 thoughts on “A reply to Mark Chen

  1. Richard –

    I’m not buying the kool aid you’re selling 🙂 Chen Chanxing is clearly being presented as the author of these documents around the 1930s probably to add some historical, scholarly depth to the Chen family claims (1930s is not the ancient past, it’s not very long ago – they understood the idea of authorship) – but importantly, that is also exactly what Mark Chen presents in his modern translation which I reviewed. (He does have a ‘get out of jail free’ card at the start, burried deep, where he says that it’s unproveable, but he’s just going to assume Chen is the author or the rest of the work because the work is historically verifiable). Why is this conclusion shocking?

    If you listen to Ken Gullette’s podcast interview with Mark Chen, they discuss the part of the book in question as “said to have been originated by Chen Chanxing” – (around 66.54 minutes). He notes how different it is to ‘normal’ Tai Chi writing – and that is what they are remarking on, how these “tai Chi” writings are very different to the norm. I don’t understand why no mention is made that these writings are already very well known as part of the XY tradition, and therefore we know they were not originated by Chen Chanxing.

    https://www.stitcher.com/show/internal-fighting-arts/episode/internalfightingarts45markchenbook-64948105

    The second point – like I said, nobody knows who wrote the 10 Thesis – I have no argument there, but the theory of yin and yang and 5 elements, etc, is common Chinese world view philosophy. I don’t think you can attribute it to CZN either. Like I say, nobody knows who wrote the 10 Thesis, but their attribution to Yue Fei via oral tradition with marital lineages marks them as part of the tradition from which XingYi sprang, as expressed in the very earliest books about XY from around 1919.

  2. Graham, I am really shocked. My introduction to your Notebook was blogs referring to a series of podcasts where you questioned the veracity of stories that Yang Luchan ever went to the Chen Village, and you portrayed Taijiquan in Beijing prior to 1911 as a Confucian construct for political expedience.

    Yet, you stumble over something like this. You rancorously stated that someone “unscrupulously inserted” “Taijiquan” for “martial art” and attributed the works to Chen Changxing. You have applied 21st Century values to a society then still dominated by Confucian scholars where this kind of practice was common if not considered scholarly.

    But, this is not exactly what Chen Zhaopi did either. He actually said, “陳長興太極拳十大要論” Chen Changxing Taijiquan Ten Important Points. There is no indication of authorship just that CCX applied these principles to Taijiquan. As you point out, the text is further modified to substitute “Taijiquan” for “martial art.” It would be an interesting piece of research to figure out who made these modifications and when. We may assume Chen Zhaopi, but that is just conjecture.

    The second shocking thing to me was your total acceptance of the Xingyi narrative. You show evidence that “the Manual” attributed to Yue Fei has been associated with Xingyi since 1912 and for some time before is implied. However, you state the Manual has “always” been associated with Xingyi. That obviously cannot be supported with your evidence.

    Further, by your standards, the Xingyi origin story cannot be true. The martial teachings of Damo made their way to folk hero, Yue Fei, who taught his soldiers Xingyi, and somehow the teachings made it through three dynasties to an unnamed teacher in the Zhongnan Mountains, where Laozi famously had lived. There, Ji Jike (Longfeng) obtained the Manual attributed to Yue Fei. Then, he taught some people and in the mid-1800s Ma Xueli taught the Dai brothers and the rest is history.

    So, where did the manual come from? It never mentions Xingyi, only martial art. Li Jianqiu in his Preliminary Remarks regarding the Manual says, “Contained within are many important sayings as well as many inexplicable phrases. Over time it [Xingyiquan] has gradually drifted away from the original text. Students must personally examine it with meticulous attention.”

    “Inexplicable phrases” and “drifting away from the original text” as early as 1919 sounds like this manual may well be written for an entirely different martial art and adopted by and applied to Xingyi. Eagle Claw practitioners claim this manual was written about their art before its melding with Fanzi. But, Manual does not really have a verifiable history until the early-1900s.

    Perhaps the Manual comes from earlier teachings, It certainly reads like a summary of Chang Naizhou’s 1781writings on Internal Martial Arts. In the YF Manual, the author used the Neo-Confucian theme from One came Two, then Three and so on. Unity, is called central qi by CNZ. Duality summarizes CNZ’s teachings on yin and yang. The three sections summarizes CNZ’s divisions or head, hands/torso, and feet/legs and the Five Organs summarizes CNZ’s extensive teachings of relationships to the organs to martial arts and medicine, and so on. The similarities are striking, but it is a very good summary, not just a copy.

    The influence of Chang Naizhou’s writing on the development of the neighboring Chen Family martial arts are well known and accepted. Chang’s writings had some distribution in martial art circles and appear also to have influenced the Manual attributed to Yue Fei. Somehow it made its way into the hands of Xingyi practitioners and the rest is history.

  3. Graham writes: “Mike’s argument (as I understand it) is that the 3 internal arts are all the same “stuff”, so what applies to one applies equally to all 3. I’d disagree. I’ve already posted about how this mashing together of history is just intellectually lazy.”

    My argument is about the same basic body-movement principles in Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua (and other arts), not about “history”. Taijiquan, Xingyquan, Baguazhang and other so-called “internal” arts are arts that use the Six Harmonies as a basic principle of movement. From the Six Harmonies basics extends all the properties of qi, jin, dantian control of the body, and so on.

    The basic principles of Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua, etc., are as alike as the idea that automobiles have engines,wheels, doors, and steering wheels. The history of automobiles is a side issue to the basic principles of automobiles. I’m looking at the basic principles of at least three of the so-called “neijia” arts, all of which originated in Shanxi Province with ancient martial roots … and you’re emphasizing the peccadilloes of history as being important. I’d suggest that you learn more about the basic principles of movement in Chinese martial arts: it’s an interesting study.

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