Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Five Levels of Taijiquan

Well, here we go again. The most recent rendition of The Five Levels of Taijiquan by Chen Xiaowang with commentary by Jan Silberstorff (2012) is not the first and most likely will not be the last. Let's take a look at all the ways this has appeared in the popular press...

Generations of Chen Style Taijiquan book cover
I believe the original writing appeared as Chapter 4 (pg 26-33) of the book "Generations of Chen Style Taijiquan" ( 世传陈氏太极拳 ) by Chen Xiaowang (陈小旺). Publication date: 1984. The title of Chapter 4 is, "Chen Style Taijiquan Five Levels of Gongfu" (陈 式太极拳的五层功夫).

(When this article was published, a scanned copy of this book could be downloaded from Subsequently, this site has become inaccessible.)

You can also find the Chinese text of this chapter on various Chinese websites by doing an internet search for:
For those of you who are learning Chinese, here's a word-by-word translation of the text provided above:
太极拳 (tài jí quán) a kind of traditional Chinese shadowboxing (tai chi chuan)
的 (de) of - possessive, modifying, or descriptive particle
五 (wǔ) five; 5
层 (céng) a measure word for layers; laminated; repeated; floor; story (of a building)
功夫 (gōng fu) skill; art; kung fu; labor; effort
The popular magazine, "Inside Kung Fu" ran an article titled, "Five Levels Of Tai Chi" in their May 1992 issue. As of this writing, I don't have a copy of this edition. However, at Nick Gudge's site you can find a copy of the material that appeared in this issue: Master Chen Xiaowang's Five Levels of Skill in Tai Chi Training By Howard Choy and Ahtee Chia. I have not been able to verify that this is the first appearance of this text in English.

In the book, Chen Style Taijiquan: The Source of Taiji Boxing by Davidine Sim and David Gaffney (2002), Chapter Three includes a section titled, "Chen Xiaowang's Five Levels of Skill" (pg 83-93) which provides their translation but no commentary.

Here is a video of a lecture given by Chen Xiaowang on the "Five Levels". This looks like it was filmed in China. I could not find a lecture date but the upload date is February 27, 2009. I found the subtitles difficult to read. (Video was subsequently removed from the site.)

Another apparent direct Chinese to English translation was done by Tan Lee-Peng Ph.D. and can be found at the following sites. (There may be other sites posting this as well.) Note that only the first provides a posting date of December 29, 2011. The remaining posting dates are unknown.

I wish the translation by Tan Lee-Peng was accompanied by a brief introduction of the translator and the date it was translated. And, who is Mr. or Mrs. Tan Lee-Peng? If anyone finds this, let me know and I'll include a reference here.

The Five Levels of Training in Taijiquan by Christopher Pei at the US Wushu Academy site has what looks like an adaptation of Chen Xiaowang's Five Levels without attributing this adaptation to Chen Xiaowang. Adaptations are bound to occur.

Which brings us to the most recent version of The Five Levels of Taijiquan, with commentary by Jan Silberstorff. But this one has a twist...

As you may know, Jan Silberstorff became the first Western indoor student and family disciple of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang in 1993. In March 2010, he published a German translation of the Five Levels with his commentary. And then two years later, in March 2012, an English translation of the German translation appeared.

Here are Jan's books in German and English. (I have not purchased the German version.)

Translated from Chinese into German Translated from German into English
Die 5 Level des Taijiquan
nach Großmeister Chen Xiaowang
kommentiert von Meister Jan Silberstorff
Jan Silberstorff (Autor), Xiaowang Chen (Vorwort)
Publication Date: March 2010
The Five Levels of Taijiquan
Chen Xiaowang (Author),
Commentary by Master Jan Silberstorff (Author),
Translated by Christina Schulz (Author)
Publication Date: March 2012

In Nick Gudge's review of the Five Levels, he says he knows of five translations including three on the web - I only know of the three I mention here: Sim and Gaffney (2002), Tan Lee-Peng (date unknown), Christina Schulz (2012).  Nick assumes the Chinese translator for Jan's German book is Michael Vorwerk and that Jan only provides the commentary. Nick also says a translation of the Five Levels in Chen: Living Taijiquan in the Classical Style by Jan Silberstorff (2009) looks to be the same translation as in this current book.

After reading this most recent English language version of the Five Levels a couple times, here are my thoughts....

First, with translations it can be difficult to translate the intended meaning of colloquial phrases and technical jargon directly from one language to another. In this case, translating from Chinese to German and then to English, I believe the opportunity for missing subtleties and introducing errors are compounded through this indirect translation.

Second, there is no preface to this English edition. Nothing is mentioned in the English version about Christina Shultz's qualifications to understand and translate such a work or other notes. According to the Taoist Sanctuary in San Diego, California, "The translation from German to English was done by Christina Schultz a student at the Taoist Sanctuary." (The site to which this quote was originally linked, was subsequently removed.)

Christina may be perfectly capable but I would like to have read about both her translating and Taijiquan experience. In a world where the reader's understanding hinges on the translator's selection of words, these experiences can be important considerations.

What I liked about Jan's book is that he seems to be speaking from his heart in the Introduction. The Introduction spans the first 20 pages and in it he talks about some of his own experiences in the first four levels. I think this material could be valuable to many readers. As for me, a lot of what he said in the Introduction resonated with what I have written in this blog about my own Wujifa training.

After the Introduction, which I assumed was a teaser of things to come, I was hoping to find many, many more details about how he trained at each level, how his training changed at each level, what were the kinesthetic shifts or changes that he noticed in his body, what challenged him at each level, and specifically, how all this relates to Chen Xiaowang's descriptions. I did not find what I was hoping to find.

His comments in the Level 1-5 sections seem rather cerebral. In some places it seems like he simply re-iterates the translation and in others, it seems like he says what anyone who has spent many years reading similar material could say. For a guy who's been an indoor student of Chen Xiaowang for nearly 20 years, I wished he would have written more about this unique experience which would have made this book a real treasure!

I hope my research has provided some perspective on how this work continues getting recycled. It's kind of like how a popular tune gets covered by many different bands across the generations and each audience thinks they are hearing it for the first time... In the case of "Chen Style Taijiquan Five Levels of Gongfu", this one is an oldie but a goodie...

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