Chen Xin - book review

'The Illustrated Canon of Chen Family Taijiquan'

By Chen Xin, translated by Alex Golstein

INBI Matrix Pty Ltd, completed 1919, published 1933, trans 2007, ISBN 5-98687-008-5
Original Chinese text - ISBN 7-80569-359-5/G

Chen Xin was the scholar son of Chen Zhongshen the famous warrior and General who fought against the Taiping rebellion in the middle of the nineteenth century. Chen Zhongshen won many famous victories and is reknowned for his use of a 30lbs Da Dao. He had three sons: Chen Yao (1841 – 1926), Chen Yan (1847 - ?) and Chen Xin (1849 – 1929). Chen Yao the elder son followed his father into the military and accompanied him into battle at the age of 12 and passing his military exams by the age of 19. He became the most accomplished martial artist of his generation. Chen Xin was also a highly skilled martial artist but became a scholar and wrote two books on taijiquan, one on the genealogy of the Chen family and one volume of poetry.

'Chen shih taijiquan t'u shou' ‘The Illustrated Canon of Chen Family Taijiquan’ is the most famous of the Chen family books on taijiquan and it has almost biblical status for students of Chen taijiquan.

Chen Xin was writing at an extraordinary time. The taijiquan skills of his family were being used as a military skill at the highest level by his father and older brother. The traditional Chinese scholarly values were still in place and had not yet been overturned by the Communists, cheaper mechanised printing was just starting to become available and there was a national interest in the martial arts. Many of the most famous Taijiquan authors, Sun Lutang, Yang Cheng Fu, Cheng Man-Ching were also writing at this period opening up previously hidden skills to the world.

Chen Xin’s book, is ,however, quite unique. In English it runs to almost 750 pages and the original Chinese volume is over 400 pages. It is in essence a book of two parts. In English, the first 216 pages are given over to taiji theory and the remaining pages are a posture by posture breakdown of the laojia yilu (old frame, first form) – which can be regarded as the main form of the Chen system. The form seems to have some variation to the modern Chen village from, but even so the explanations remain highly relevant and insightful.

For students wanting an understanding of how taijiquan relates to the philosophical traditions of China I have yet to come across a more detailed thesis. Unlike many other ‘classics’ this is actually a scholarly work. Much of the theory and philosophy is drawn from the Yijing (I Ching), as you would expect, but Chen Xin also draws widely on the academic tradition around the Yijing, citing Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200, the major figure and synthesiser in the Neo-Confucian school of philosophy, drawing on Shao Yung’s (1012 – 1077) Taiji Tu (Taiji diagram). As well as the purely philosophical tradition he also covers the Chinese medical theory, outlining acupoints relevant to Chen taijiquan, concepts of the human body and consciousness. The introduction finishes off with applications, strategy and ‘the secret of success in combat’.

What follows in the main body of the book is a posture by posture breakdown of the Laojia yilu. Roughly ten pages of explanation are given per posture (sometimes a bit more, and sometimes a bit less especially if the posture is a repeat).

Each of the postures is broken down into a number of sections which may include:

  • The diagram of the posture – this is taken from the original Chinese woodcut diagrams (there are no photos in the book, but in truth the way aspects of the postures are illustrated is more revealing than many photos and explains the principles of the postures and movements in an entirely unique way) with a point by point explanation of the diagram to enable you to frame each posture in some detail, plus a general description of the posture as a whole.
  • Movement of the arms – again a detailed description of the hand postures and the movements in relation to the different points of the body
  • Movements of the legs – this explains the silk reeling and force generation within each move
  • The symbolic meaning of the posture – this relates the posture to taiji principles of the Yijing
  • Any verses associated with the posture
  • The applications of the posture

In short this is perhaps the greatest book ever written on taijiquan. Reading it is very hard going, but that is because of the depth of the subject. Unless you are already reasonably familiar with Chinese philosophy and taiji terminology, you are probably going to need to read half a dozen other books to fully understand this book.

The translation, on the whole seems good. It reads as well as can be expected given the number of technical terms involved and I like the fact that many of the technical terms are left in Chinese (but usually with a little explanation).

Pretty much anyone reading Chen Xin’s book will have their understanding of taijiquan greatly improved. There are not many teachers out there who have this level of knowledge. It’s not really a book for beginners, but if you bought it as a beginner it is a book that you would have a long and fruitful relationship with.

Given that this is the only English translation of such a monumental work I can only give it ten out of ten.

Glenn Gossling

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