Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Andreas Vesalius, Tai-chi Chuan and Wujifa

Even though Tai-chi Chuan is a physical art, many practitioners seem to get caught up in a stewpot of pseudo-Chinese Tai-chi Taoist philosophy-culture which in my opinion, has nothing to do with the kinesthetic principles of this art. Immersing oneself in "Tai-chi culture" and expecting to develop internal strength is like Galen dissecting apes to learn human anatomy.

Unfortunately, like Galen, I think many Tai-chi practitioners are not personally guided through a functional "dissection" of the corpus of the principles of internal strength. I think this may be attributed to a kind of un-examined faith in the handed-down "culture", much like the medieval faith in the correctness of Galen's anatomy. As a result, various interpretations of Tai-chi Chuan and internal strength have developed as well as various practices supporting these interpretations.
"And as everything is being thus wrongly taught in the universities and as days pass in silly questions, fewer things are placed before the spectators in all that confusion than a butcher in a market could teach a doctor. I pass over any number of schools where dissecting the structure of the human body is scarcely ever considered; so far has the ancient art of medicine fallen from its early glory many years past."
What does the renowned Renaissance physician Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) have to do with modern day Tai-chi Chuan and Wujifa? This article looks at one way to consider the parallels between the milieu of this historical European figure and the milieu of modern day Tai-chi Chuan and how, like Andreas Vesalius, Wujifa picks up the proverbial scalpel and dissects the corpus of internal strength and simply notices what is there and in so doing, develops a more functional understanding of the internal martial artist body.

If the name Andreas Vesalius is new to you, here's a quick synopsis based on longer articles that may be found at: Brittanica Academic Edition, New Catholic Encyclopedia, and Wikipedia.

First, Claudius Galenus, a.k.a., Galen, was a Greek physician for Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD. Because Roman religion forbade the dissection of human cadavers, Galen's understanding of human anatomy was based primarily on dissections of apes. His books on human anatomy became the authority in medical education for nearly 1500 years. (Galen's work was a huge leap forward in anatomical understanding from earlier Aristotlean models.)

Fast forward to the European Renaissance, Andreas Vesalius himself doing dissections of human cadavers, compared what he saw to the Galenic anatomical drawings and noted many discrepancies. He concluded that Galen's human anatomy was not based on direct, hands-on dissection of human cadavers. Vesalius then published the first anatomically correct drawings of the human body in a seven volume set titled, "On the Fabric of the Human Body" in 1543 AD (in the original Latin, De Humanis Corporis Fabrica).

It is too easy in these times to practice any of the many interpretations of Tai-chi Chuan for years or even decades and in the end, be no closer to achieving what you thought you were working toward. Just like earlier medical practitioners who thought Galen was on the right path discovered 1500 years later that Vesalius, by using hands-on exploration, had a better way of describing things.
"Worse yet, the distribution of professional skills among various practitioners has gone so far that those who have set themselves goals of competency embrace one part of their art to the neglect of others that are closely related and cannot be separated from it, and they never accomplish anything notable; never attaining their proposed goal, they constantly fall short of the true construction of their art"
To summarize, Andreas Vesalius departed from tradition and by employing a different approach, revolutionized the science of anatomy. He overturned the centuries-old faith in the authority of Aristotelean/Galenic understanding of human anatomy which had been considered infallible to the point of being sacred. Andreas Vesalius later became known as the "Father of Modern Anatomy".

The National Library of Medicine summarizes the preface to Fabrica by saying Vesalius argues that true knowledge of the body can only be learned through hands-on dissection of a human body. To me, Wujifa approaches developing internal strength with the same kind of mindset that Vesalius approached anatomy; don't rely on what others say is true but rather, observe for yourself and note your findings.

Amidst this chaos and confusion over what is "real" Tai-chi Chuan and how to train to develop internal strength, a bit of independent analysis and questioning may help to be able to recognize if there is a dis-connect between your current training methods and what the Classics are trying to convey about the kinesthetic quality of internal strength.
"But this project would never have gone forward if when I was studying medicine at Paris I had not personally set my hand to Anatomy at a time when my fellow students and I had to content ourselves with a few internal parts being superficially displayed at one or two public dissections by the most ignorant barbers."
If the student of Tai-chi Chuan were able to cut through the various teachings to discern and arrive at training methods which are functionally based on the principles, even if the resultant practices do not look like Tai-chi, Ba-gua, or Xing-yi, then that student could be rewarded with being on the path to developing that which was written of in the Classics.
"and by rejecting the silly habits of the schools so demonstrate and teach, that by this anatomical method we would be deprived of nothing that comes down to us from the ancients" 
And so, I think the core admonition that Andreas Vesalius has for practitioners of the internal martial arts today is to be willing to look outside of the modern tradition of "Tai-chi culture" to discover the foundational kinesthetic skills of the physical art of Tai-chi Chuan.
"But let even these men <referring to those who denounced and criticized him> gradually soften their position out of a love of truth, and let them trust their not ineffectual eyes and powers of reason more than the writings of Galen; let them carefully write out these unexpected truths which are not cadged from other authors and not verified merely by a collection of authorities, and send them to friends hither and yon, both for their examination and finally for the knowledge of true Anatomy, exhorting them in such an earnest and friendly manner that there will be hope that this kind of Anatomy will soon be cultivated in all the academie"
To me, the common element running through both Vesalius's teaching and Wujifa's teaching is that both authors broke with the prevailing teachings and deferred instead to sharing their personal understanding gained from first-hand experience. Andreas Vesalius dissected human cadavers to acquire a first-hand experience and understanding of the fabric of the human body. Wujifa is based on first-hand experience and understanding of the fabric of internal strength. True knowledge of the body can only be learned through hands-on experience.

As Andreas Vesalius said, "medicine is the addition of things that are lacking and the removal of what is superfluous".  In my opinion, modern day Tai-chi Chuan needs medicine. Tai-chi needs to add simple, functional, physical exercises designed specifically to develop internal connectedness and it needs to remove the superfluous accoutrements which distract practitioners from achieving the true construction of their art.

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