March 1, 2023

Review: The Yijing: A Guide

 Cover for 

The Yijing: A Guide

The Yijing: A Guide
Joseph Adler
Oxford University Press, 2021
paper, 206 pp.

A certain talent is required to render complex ideas understandable for novices. Joseph Adler, who has written extensively about the Yijing, has accomplished this in a masterful guide to the Chinese Book of Changes. The Yijing: A Guide is an excellent introduction for anyone interested in the worlds of Chinese philosophy, history, and literature. It clearly and succinctly summarizes China’s vast intellectual traditions in a very understandable manner.

In seven chapters, Adler describes the Yijing and its layers. He places the book in the context of divination from around the world, and then turns to the specifics of China’s historical and cultural context, covering early, early modern, and modern China, and Western uses of the Yijing, ending with a chapter that asks “Why the Yijing?”

Adler explains specialized Yijing terminology while keeping jargon to a minimum. He succinctly describes the parts of the Yijing, from its hexagram components to the Ten Wings. In his coverage of the Great Treatise, for example, he shows the development of important philosophical ideas and terms. Adler surveys the Yijing’s major schools (Image and Number, Meaning and Principle) and thinkers such as Shao Yong and Cheng Yi. Chapters include:

1. What is the Yijing?
2. Layers of Change
3. Yijing Divination
4. The Early History of Yijing Interpretation
5. Early Modern Views of the Yi
6. The Yijing in Modern China and the West
7. Why the Yijing?

Adler’s prior works include studies and translations of the great Song dynasty philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200), including his philosophy and his Yijing commentaries. Zhu was a pivotal figure in the Song era’s revamping of classical education.

The Yijing: A Guide is part of an affordable series that Oxford University Press produces of “Guides to Sacred Texts.” Another book in the series of interest of particular interest to Yijing readers is Livia Kohn’s The Daode Jing.

This book overlaps some in content with Richard Smith’s I Ching: A Biography and with Tze-ki Hon and Geoffrey Redmond’s Teaching the I Ching, however, Adler’s work is squarely aimed at those who are not necessarily familiar with the complexities of the Yijing or with Chinese culture. This makes it an invaluable book for college classes related to Chinese studies, as well as comparative religion, anthropology, philosophy, and literature. Students of allied arts such as Chinese medicine and martial arts will appreciate Adler’s treating theory and practice as being equally important; the Yijingis not just an academic pursuit.


February 4, 2023

Yang Luchan, Taijiquan Patriarch

Image result for yang luchan picture

 ‘The Many Lives of Yang Luchan: Mythopoesis, Media, and the Martial Imagination.’

In Martial Arts Studies

By Douglas Wile, 2022

The life of Yang Luchan, patriarch of the Yang lineage and founder
of taijiquan’s most popular style, is a biographical blank slate upon
which conservative, progressive, orientalist, and just plain rice bowl
interests have inscribed wildly divergent narratives. Conservative
scholar-disciples sought to link him with the invented Wudang-Daoist
lineage, while progressives emphasized his humble origins and health
benefits of the practice. His life (c.1799-1872) straddled the height of
the Manchu empire and decline into semi-colonial spheres of foreign
influence, while successive generations of Yang descendants propagated
his ‘intangible cultural heritage’ through Republican, Communist,
‘open’, and global eras. Practiced world-wide by hundreds of millions,
taijiquan’s name recognition made it ripe for media appropriation, and
Yang Luchan has been remythologized in countless novels, cartoons,
television series, and full-length feature films. The case of Yang Luchan
offers an unusual opportunity to witness an ongoing process of mytho-
poesis and to compare these narratives with traditional Chinese warrior
heroes and Western models of mythology and heroology. If the lack of
facts has not constrained the proliferation of invented biographies, nei-
ther should it discourage the quest for historical context as we sift and
winnow truth from trope in the many reconstructions of Yang’s life.


April 1, 2022

Review: Livia Kohn's The Daode jing: A Guide


The Daode jing: A Guide

Livia Kohn
Oxford University Press, 2019
US$26.95 paper, also available in hardcover, ebook 

Livia Kohn, a leading researcher and translator of Daoist works, has produced a comprehensive, useful book about Laozi’s venerable Daode jing. Published by Oxford University Press, long known for its authoritative works, her book is part of their “Guides to Sacred Texts” series that covers ancient works from around the world. She is a retired professor of religion formerly at Boston University, and heads Three Pines Press, which publishes important works on Daoist traditions. She also edits the Journal of Daoist Studies.

Kohn’s volume is organized into twelve chapters that examine the Daodejing over time. In Part One, Kohn looks in detail at the Daodejing’s origins, development, concepts, and use. Part Two follows the Daodejing as it evolves into being an integral part of various sectors of Chinese society, used by religious groups, philosophers, scholars, and others. Part Three looks at the Daodejing in contemporary times, from academics to pop culture, and its translation into other languages.

Kohn helpfully explains terminology in her introduction, delineating the basic concepts of Daoism for health, philosophy, and religion, and how those delineations actually came into being. She describes the three branches as literati, organized (e.g., religious sects), and self-cultivation techniques (e.g., breathing, diet, exercise). She continues with discussion of the role of writing and how the once-new technology affected people’s thinking.

Each chapter has a short bibliography, which makes the book particularly useful for college students. A few reference items would have enhanced this volume such as a timeline of dynasties, rulers, and thinkers mentioned; a glossary and romanization conversion chart, since so many Chinese philosophy books for general readers use Wade-Giles as opposed to pinyin.

Kohn’s Daode jing has a minimum of specialist jargon, and is written in an approachable style that will make it perfect for anyone interested in Chinese philosophy, religion, medicine, arts, or martial arts. Readers of the Yijing, the Book of Changes, will find this volume helpful for better understanding the breadth of the Yi’s cultural roots. (A volume in the series on the Yijing will be out shortly.) Oxford also has published Gary DeAngelis and Warren Frisina’s Guide to Teaching the Daodejing (2008), for professors including China-related readings in courses.

Being an overview, Kohn’s Daode jing succinctly covers a wide range of materials, and, being written by one person, keeps nicely focused on its subject and audience. The book’s slick cover texture can be remedied by covering it with paper.

Highly recommended.

September 27, 2021

Review: Eight Ways Chi Gong

Eight Ways Chi Gong
by Sara and Michael Stenson

Abiquiu Press
$18 US
72 pages, paperback

This slender book is a great supplement to individual or group instruction in a set of eight chi gong exercises from the Cheng Man-Ching taiji lineage. The introductory section outlines the origins of chi gong and these particular exercises, as well as the principles of taiji movement, without an over emphasis on Chinese words or jargon more familiar to intermediate or advanced taiji practitioners. 

True to its stated intent, the soft-spoken language and presentation are well suited to older students interested in gentle movements to improve their mobility and balance.  Each exercise is nicely presented with a movement visualization, exercise description with accompanying drawings and the specific value or benefit of that exercise.  The description notes potential movement errors for beginners to avoid while encouraging exploration of what may be unfamiliar movements. 

Can individuals with no prior chi gong or taiji experience pick up this book and do the exercises without a teacher's guidance? Naturally, personal instruction improves the likelihood of both incorporating them into daily life as well as averting poor execution of the movements.  However, it is possible, I think, to gain some benefit from learning the exercises without hands-on instruction if a qualified teacher isn't available. While aimed at beginners with no taiji training, more experienced taiji players may find a quick read stimulates physical and/or mental explorations of a daily practice that has become routine and habitual.

    —Cheryl Powers

    Cheryl Powers is the associate director of Great River T'ai Chi Ch'uan in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

May 14, 2020

Book Review: In the Presence of Cheng Man-Ch'ing


In the Presence of Cheng Man-Ch'ing: 
My Life and Lessons with the Master of Five Excellences
by William C. Phillips
Hardcover, 236 pages
Floating World Press, 2020, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0648283126

 Professor Cheng Man-ch'ing (Zheng Manqing, 1902–1975) was a noted painter, writer, herbal doctor, and taijiquan teacher. His last decade was spent in New York City. This brought him into contact with numerous young American martial artists, such as Bill Phillips, the author of this delightful memoir. Phillips, now the head of Patience T'ai Chi, describes the setting of the mid-to-late 1960s, during which numbers of skilled karate, judo, aikido, and taekwondo practitioners, after hearing about Cheng, came to study with him. Even skeptics left impressed.

In this book, we sit at Philips' side listening to Cheng's spontaneous insights about taiji. We hear the formal lectures on Laozi, Confucianism, health, morals, and art. We witness the public and the private encounters, the snapshots of Chinatown of fifty years ago. While much of the book is about Cheng Man-ch'ing and the ideas he imparted, it is told through Phillips' own life course: growing as a martial artist, seeking out a master teacher, maturing and attaining insight with age, and, following Cheng's model of sharing knowledge, becoming a teacher.

Phillips' book joins the ranks of memoirs written by direct students of Professor Cheng Man-ch'ing; in particular Wolfe Lowenthal and Robert W. Smith. All of these paint a picture of a skillful practitioner, revered by many, yet very human.

Bill Phillips does not spare himself in this look back. One year, he willingly took on the task of driving Cheng and his assistants to class, even though it was far out of his way. On one trip to the studio, Cheng and assistant conversed in Chinese, and Phillips heard his name and the word "kung fu" (gongfu) mentioned.

Naturally, I got excited. Was he preparing to tell me a secret of kungfu? Was that to be my reward for driving him? Did I know something about kung fu that he was praising? So I quickly and impolitely interrupted and asked. I was told that [Professor Cheng] had said that I should use more discipline in my driving. What about the words kung fu that I had heard, I eagerly wondered out loud. The answer was: it means discipline, as when American martial artists say, "He studies the art," and we know they are referring to a martial art, when Chinese refer to "discipline," they are referring sometimes to a specific discipline—martial art. However, in this case Professor was not. He was referring to the lack of self-discipline in my driving. I was hitting far too many potholes as I drove. My chest feell, my ego deflated.... It was the first time, but not the last time that I embarrassed myself in front of the Professor.
Those who studied with Cheng often point out that Cheng did not keep secrets. Phillips explains,
I think that many of those people [who doubted Cheng] were too stiff and strong to get a lot of what he was trying to explain. Of course, those who could not seem to get it with their first effort, rahter than redouble their efforst, chose to think there must be a secret he was not sharing.
Taiji people from all styles will enjoy this view of one of the leading taiji figures of the late twentieth century. Those of Cheng's direct lineage will gain more insight into his teachings and the great impact he had on a wide variety of students.

April 25, 2020

World Tai Chi Day 2020

Join in the annual international Taiji and Qigong event, April 25th, 2020, celebrating these wonderful health-giving practices. This year, many events are online due to coronavirus. Taiji and qigong can play an important role in promoting health by boosting the immune system strength.

Visit World Tai Chi Day for further information.

December 26, 2019

Book: Sunzi's Art of War

 A new, landmark translation is now available of the ancient Chinese Art of War by Sunzi, translated by Michael Nylan:

The most venerable of these, alongside “On War” (1832), by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, is Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” written some 2,500 years ago. There have been many translations of “The Art of War,” and a new one, by Michael Nylan, will not be the last. It’s a book that seems perpetually useful because it’s a work of philosophy as much as tactics. Doves and hawks (even vultures) can approach it for meaning. The book suggests that the real art of war is not to have to go to war.

Read the entire New York Times review here.