Students always ask me to recommend good books on Tai Chi but it is not easy to give concrete suggestions without
knowing what each person is looking for. Many ask for "How to" books, but these are often regretful purchases when they turn out to not reflect the distinct style, school or individual teachers preferences.
So here are my suggestions for books that transmit a flavour rather than a specific set of techniques or instructions. What follows is the teapotmOnk list of the Best 10 Books (In the known Universe) that savour this flavour. I have selected not only the best five books on the art of Tai Chi, but as well the best three versions of the Tao Te Ching and two essential books on digging deeper into Taoism. (Plus a bonus book at the end). I've also added associate links to Amazon - but not all are available (outside second hand bookshops). Looking for an alternative selection of the best teapot top 10 books? Check out this bargain bonanza.
5 books on Tai Chi that actually teach something useful
1: Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions. Douglas Wile
FACTUAL: The book that has inspired much of my writing over the years, Wile begins by explaining that there are no real secrets (something echoed below by Lowenthal) and that much of what we swallow as accepted martial arts history is in fact just the personal accounts of individuals or schools with their own specific agenda. Excellent read and a book you will come back to again and again.
2: There Are No Secrets: Professor Cheng Man Ch'ing and His T'ai Chi Chuan. Wolfe Lowenthal
ANECDOTAL: In a similar vein, this book (by an ex-student of Man Ching) delves into great detail of the man who - perhaps more than any others - introduced Tai Chi to a non Chinese audience. Fascinating anecdotes, from the 60's/70's, insights into practice as well as juicy bites of wisdom, such as the title of the book itself.
3: Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain: Chungliang Al Huang
PERSONAL: Yes, okay this is somewhat of a Hippy 70's interpretation of the art and does has some rather embarrassing photos, but despite the clothes and the 70's speak, it reads like a breath of fresh air in comparison to all those geometric obsessive instruction manuals that deliver little other than angles and weight percentages. Al worked alongside Alan Watts and you'll sense that influence in his words.
4: The Manual of Bean Curd Boxing: Paul Read
PERSONAL: Most books on Tai Chi contain a high percentage of no-sense, thinly disguised as "eastern" wisdom or mystical sage-like secret transmissions. This book makes no claim to any of that nonsense, instead it simply asks why we practice this art in the 21st century and what can we expect to find from doing so. Irreverent in way that a Taoist Art ought to be.
5: Tai Chi Ch'uan: The Technique of Power. Horwitz, Tem and Kimmelman
INTRODUCTION: Dismissed as too general by the dogmatic Taoists, this book features here for it serves as an all-round useful introduction to Tai Chi. It not only includes a little history, philosophy and even photos (too many and rather meaningless for me), but also attempts to try and relate the principles of the art to other disciplines - and in so doing - bring the practice up to date. Few books try, even fewer succeed.
3 versions of Tao Te Ching that actually make sense
Unlike most versions of the Tao Te Ching that three-quarters of the book attempting to justify the interpretation of a single character or accent, these three versions merely interpret a document (of immense dubious origins and authorship) for a contemporary audience, creating something of practical value as a result.
John Lash: The Tai Chi Journey
Lash attempts, and I believe in a great many ways succeeds, to interpret the Tao Te Ching for the benefit of the Tai Chi student. The book is easy to read, you can plunge in at almost any part and still find something thoughtful and well presented. Ideal if you find the average Tao Te Ching just too vague.
Not available in digital form.
Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching - Ursula K. Le Guin
“To believe that our beliefs are permanent truths which encompass reality is a sad arrogance. To let go of that belief is to find safety.”
A very personal and libertarian interpretation for all those that aren't satisfied with the esoteric versions that abound. Le Guin brings a fresh perspective to this classic text (and one well overdue).
2 books on Taoism that don't rely on mysticism
The Way and Its Power: Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought
This is really another version of the Tao Te Ching, but the first half of the book includes an excellent historical context for Taoism. Not a light read before bed, nor a gripping mystery page-turner, it's still a useful addition to a trainee immortal's library.
John Blofeld; Taoism A Quest for Immortality
This is the classic book that sparked the interest of many in the lesser known philosophical roots of Tai Chi (and for me, acts as the key reference text for my online Tai chi course: To Become An Immortal.) Blofeld writes with simplicity, great insight and manages to avoid reducing the whole subject to simple "wishful thinking". His writing is engaging and above all, his messages come across as relevant today as at any time in the long history of this art.
Unfortunately, Out of Print and not available in digital form. 2nd Hand only.
BONUS FINAL BOOK
Well thats my list. It could have gone on and on, and in fact I do have a longer list on goodreads, but these are the core books I come back to over and over again. Have I missed out something essential? Let me know what you think should also be on the list.
Contrary to popular belief, the teapotmOnk (paul read) is neither a mOnk nor a teapOt. He is, however, a writer on Tai Chi, course-creator & teacher with more than 25 years of experience. He can be found wandering between Andalucia (Spain) & Devon (Uk). More here.
Contact him here or keep in touch, subscribe for some great Tai Chi stuff delivered to your inbox.