Students always ask me to recommend good books on Tai Chi, especially “How to" books. However, there are many different styles and teaching methods in Tai Chi, so many How to books do not help students studying varied patterns and Forms.
So there are two options left to anyone who wants to learn about Tai Chi from a book. The first, is to ignore How To books altogether and instead look for books that transmit a flavour rather than a specific set of techniques or instructions. The second option is to get a book that offers a generic approach to the common exercises or postures that you can adapt to your specific class. I have therefore tried to give you some examples from each of these categories. Here is the teapotmOnk’s list of the Best 10 Books (in the known Universe) that savour this flavour. As this list has become so popular, I have added a few extras (look for the Bonus books below) and I have added the best three versions of the Tao Te Ching and two essential books on digging deeper into Taoism.
A tip on Buying Books:
If you can, always buy a paperback direct from the publisher or an ebook from the author’s own site. This not only means the writer gets a fairer cut, but they also get to see sales figures (something that the bigger book platforms hide from authors). Where I can, I’ve added links to publishers, otherwise there are the inevitable associate links to Amazon. It is also worth remembering to scout around second hand bookshops, as some of the books below are now out of print).
5 Books on Tai Chi that 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 gain from doing so. Irreverent in way that a Taoist Art ought to be. Find out more about the Manual of Bean Curd Boxing here.
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.
BONUS BOOK: The Beginners Guide to the Tai Chi Form: Paul Read
I mentioned before that there are a few books that try to teach the basics of the Tai Chi Form, without falling into the trap of promoting a single school or style.
Ok, yes it's another one of mine, but it does what it says on the box: A dozen of the most popular postures broken down, taught step-by-step and and - if desired - linked to an online home study course. More on the Beginners Guide to the Tai Chi Form Course and Book here.
3 Versions of Tao Te Ching that 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.
2 Books that Defy All Categories
One Last Thing: A Time-Travellers Guide to Taoism, Martial Arts and 21st Century Thinking: Paul Read
A book that has defied all categories: If a mix of martial arts philosophy, productivity, Taoism, comedy and time-travel attract you - then you may just want to step out of your comfort zone to taste the most eccentric history of Tai Chi ever written. One Last Thing is available here.
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.
Finally, if you are looking for an altogether guru-free list: check out my Gumroad site for the best teapot top 10 books on all things Taoist
The Teapotmonk teaches Tai Chi through his Online Classes and his books . You can reach the home of the teapot at teapotmonk.com
It's 23rd June 2016: Britain votes to stay or leave the European Union and on Sunday, my adopted country of Spain tries - for the 2nd time in 6 months - to vote in a new government. What marks both these events (other than sharing the same week for elections) is the sharp divisions and entrenchment that has characterised the respective campaigns. How then, does a Tai Chi warrior of the 21st century respond to a world in disarray?
listen - and then listen again
The phrase "Listening energy" is tossed around rather liberally in the world of Chinese internal arts, with endless debates about what it is and how it should be applied. These debates are often a clue in themselves to how well the exponents have internalised the lessons. Defensive posturing is often a sign that the words have been memorised, but not taken to heart.
Which is a shame, as Tai Chi offers real training in learning to understand the posture and energy of another - not so as to exploit that knowledge - but to assist in comprehension and mutual understanding. This is seen in the exercise of push-hands in which the aim for both people is to "listen" and learn from the moves of each, and to share in that experience. Alas, it too often is allowed to degenerate into a wrestling match - in which little is learnt in other than the glory of winning.
So where does a Taoist toast-crunching urban dweller stand in the great political movements of the week? On the fence? No, not exactly, but s/he does stand on moving ground, for in order to break down division one has to be able to move with fluidity. Yielding, adapting, staying low and then stepping up and stepping forward when the moment is right. When is the moment right? When change can take place, either by setting an example or by instigating a movement.
Today and Saturday are two of those moments. Obviously, you will vote as you will, but I do ask that you do so without blaming, that you do so without anger and that you do so without fear, for if not, these things will not only burn inside you, they will ignite all that you touch.
For more on 21st Century Tai Chi see this list of unmissible posts
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