Was Stanley Henning wrong about Taijiquan?

Zhan Sangfeng

I’d just like to draw your attention to this excellent article by SSD about Stanley Henning’s often-quoted article Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan’ on the origins of the term Taijiquan. Henning’s article is often used to discredit the idea of Taoist origins of Taijiquan. However, it’s not without its problems, as Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) writes:

The tone and design of this work is generally dismissive and denigrating toward the subject of Chinese traditional culture, and represents, in my opinion, a continuation of the imperialist Eurocentric attitude that is essentially ‘materialistic’ in nature, and implicitly ‘intolerant’ to any other world-view. Astonishingly, this attitude that misrepresents Chinese culture is prevalent (even dominant) amongst Western martial arts media, and is found within martial arts online discussion forums, etc. One or two Taijiquan magazines in the West even partake in this attitude that demeans the Chinese cultural basis of the martial art they practice and support. Working from Chinese language source texts – which I do – I can say without a doubt that Henning’s viewpoints are not acknowledged as legitimate, and are ignored in China. The idea that certain lineal descendants of the Wu family of Taijiquan claim to have written the Yang family Taijiquan Classic texts appears to be only a Western trend – as this idea is not accepted within China. Indeed, such a claim is viewed as the Wu family trying to raise their lineage of Taijiquan above that of the Yang, but again, such a phenomenon could only happen in the West, outside of the cultural controls of Chinese culture. What is important is that the traditional Chinese cultural heritage is acknowledged and treated with respect. SDD)

By Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) from https://thesanghakommune.org/2012/07/13/how-old-is-the-term-taijiquan/

8 thoughts on “Was Stanley Henning wrong about Taijiquan?

  1. “Working from Chinese language source texts – which I do – I can say without a doubt that Henning’s viewpoints are not acknowledged as legitimate, and are ignored in China. ”
    If he commie was as thorough as he states he should have known that Henning has published articles, being invited to martial studies conferences and universities including the Shaolin Monastery.

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  2. Adrian Chan-Wyles appears to be a raving Maoist and therefore I’m inclined to take his ‘critiques’ was a large pinch of salt.

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  3. The discussion of who named what and when has always seemed inane to me. But, I guess, these are questions related to branding and intellectual property rights, and people get touchy about that, just ask Monsanto.

    If the Smiths had a cake recipe they taught to Mr. Jones, and Jones using the same sponge recipe changed the frosting from dark chocolate to chocolate and added a cherry on top and called it chocolate cake. Could the Smiths also call their cake, which they had always just called “cake”, chocolate cake?

    If Jones had changed the sponge from chocolate to pistachio, it would be hard for the Smiths to justify calling their chocolate cake pistachio.

    This is the crux of the matter, to me. Did the Wu brothers or Yang family or anyone else change the nature of the martial art the learned so substantially that it became something new? Or were the changes simply superficial?

    If we add Zhang Sanfeng into the origin story, this substantially weakens claims that anyone added anything substantial to the art. The stories of Zhang Sanfeng are replete with allusions to taiji and the power of the balance of yin and yang used in boxing and the strength of yielding. Not only is this the method of literary Zhang Sanfeng in fighting the Imperial guards, the goal of the Buddha is to recapture the Black Seven-star (Big Dipper) Flag, a powerful magical totem. And of course, the Big and little Dipper revolving around the Polestar are an example of the balance of taiji in nature, which is the source of the Black Seven-star Flag’s power.

    Among the traditional styles, it appears to me that the recipe is the same as that of the Chen family. Philosophically and the underlying structure of the forms is virtually identical with only superficial changes. However, ultimately, there were substantial changes. Today, we tend to call those modified versions, Tai Chi, or even Tai Chee, rather than the traditional Taijiquan or T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

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  4. Henning is wrong in another way, Historical researchers tend to ignore fictional literature as a source. An earlier well-known account of Zhang Sanfeng is found in San Bao Taijian Xia Xiyang-ji, Zheng He’s Journey to the West in a Boat, a popular play novelized in 1597 by Luo Maodeng.

    Zhang Sanfeng is sent on a quest by the Buddha requiring him to visit the Ming Emperor. Zhang sleeps while waiting, but 24 Imperial guards try to eject him from the city. He feigns sleeping off a drunken stupor as the guards attempt to awaken and remove him. He defeats the guards “effortlessly” by stumbling over them, tripping them, “accidentally” causing them to strike each other, and so on.

    Relatively few Chinese read the novel, but millions witnessed this popular play as it was performed repeatedly on the ritual stage in virtually every village in China. When performed, this comedic scene was no doubt an opportunity for the performers, forerunners of today’s Beijing Opera, to showcase their talents.

    While this sounds most like drunken boxing, there are philosophical elements in common with Taijiquan. We cannot know the exact movements and counters each troupe displayed, Luo’s novelization lists 32 movements of the guards as they attempt to strike Zhang but each narrowly misses and strikes another guard. Of those 32 movements, at least 18 are related to the movements in Qi Jiquang’s chapter on boxing published in 1560. Tang Hao and later Gu Liuxin also identify at least 29 movement names used by Qi related to names in Chen Style Taijiquan. So, there is a connection between literary Zhang Sanfeng and Chen Taijiquan.

    This is correlation, however, not cause and effect, or lineage. There are claims of other connections. Even though the Chen family forms read like an ode to Qi Jiguang, and Scott Park Phillips and others claim that the Chen forms pantomime the Zhang Sanfeng play, we probably cannot tell if Luo or the Chens lifted the names or ideas from Qi Jiguang’s book, or if there is a more direction connection, or if there is simply a common source. Qi, while listing Taizu Chang Quan and 19 other martial arts of his day, says that the differences between them was small. Chen annals also mention Taizu Chang Quan, a common “village” martial art, as a part of their training. During this time, martial arts were taught privately but could be shared without government or societal restriction. As the saying goes, “All northern Chinese martial arts are sons of the same mother.” That mother is not a single martial art, but the hardships of the Chinese people.

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  5. Of course, Henning is wrong about Taijiquan. Most research is “wrong” as soon as it is published, even in hard sciences, but especially social sciences and history, in that the evidence upon which it is based is incomplete. The job of the researcher is to provide evidence, a data point or two so that an overall picture can develop over time. Although Adrian Chan-Wyles attacks Henning and his arguments, he does not attack his evidence nor does he offer substantial evidence nor re-interpretations. Furthermore, re-reading Henning’s original article, I do not believe that he is making any aspersions on Chinese culture, rather it is critique of Westerners and perhaps westernized Chinese who who have lost context and ignorantly disregard the traditional role of myths and legends in Chinese culture and interpret it as history.

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