Reading Tai Chi novels on icy cold days

Due to a severe ice storm last weekend, most events in town were cancelled and the highways were almost empty. I had seven Tai Chi (Taiji) classes, two lunch appointments, and one book club meeting, but due to the weather they were all called off. With the extra free time, I was able to read two novels, The Old Man From the Hill (Lessons in Qigong and Tai Chi) by Steve Zimcosky and TaiChi: The Story of a Chinese Master in America by Marc Meyer. Time was well spent.

First of all, both Steve and Marc are long-time Tai Chi/Qigong practitioners and instructors themselves. There are a few similarities between their novels. Both are fictional about the teaching and learning of Tai Chi/Qigong, and interestingly written from a child’s experience. Both novels got more than 4 stars out of 5 in their reviews on Amazon.com and are available in paperback and electronic versions. The Tai Chi teacher in the each book was born in China around 1900. Both protagonists were in their 60’s when the stories began in the 1960’s – almost identical timelines to that of legendary Grandmaster Cheng Man Ch’ing. Steve wrote about a health challenged boy, who was ten and encountered a Tai Chi/Qigong teacher by accident. With the lesson and practice of the healing art in a few summer months, his health improved and he was no longer shy and reserved as before. Marc’s narrator Paulie was a little bit older and nephew of the master and not only grew into a well-built young man, but also confident in his own skin due to the study of Tai Chi principles and practice of Tai Chi Chuan. However, the commonalities of both books stop here.

Book Cover of "Taichi: The Story of a Chinese Master in America"

Book Cover of “Taichi: The Story of a Chinese Master in America”

As an accomplished Jazz pianist, Marc’s novel is complex and multi-layered just like his music. In his 60K-plus-word TaiChi: The Story of a Chinese Master in America, he presents issues of the challenges of learning the art, a growing pain of a juvenile boy, racism, immigration, relationship, culture diversity, drug addiction, family secrecy, politics, and egos in the heart of the hustling and bustling New York City. He threads various plots seamlessly, which makes the book a pager-turner. The richness of his novel is also demonstrated by diving deep of various Tai Chi forms and weapons through vivid story telling. Readers can hence grasp the profundity and enormity of the art.

Steve has been teaching at a community college. He cleverly employs the story line to hide the true nature of this 10k-word book, which in essence is a beginner’s manual of Tai Chi and Qigong. The Old Man From the Hill (Lessons in Qigong and Tai Chi) contains the relatively detailed instructions of how to do standing meditation, Small Cosmic (小周天) Breathing, and Eight Sections of Brocade (八段錦or Ba Duan Jin) supplemented by sketches. Steve also explains the Five Elements 五行and provides a list of characteristics of foods. Even though the subtitle of the book is Lessons in Qigong and Tai Chi, Steve fell short in providing instruction on a simplified form called Tai Chi 24 save name and drawing of each movement.

The book cover of "The Old Man from the Hill"

The book cover of “The Old Man from the Hill”

Marc and Steve did a good job to interpret what Tai Chi/Qigong is. Through their words, people can gain a better appreciation and understand the substance of it. I applaud their effort to research the history and principle of Tai Chi and presenting them in a palatable way even though some tales may not be exact. They also attempt to tell stories about the recent history of China through the lives of the story characters. Unfortunately, some of the events might be probable but unlikely. For example, the old man John in Steve’s novel had been living in the countryside in the U.S. for over 40 years when the story commenced and practiced Tai Chi 24 in 1965. Tai Chi 24 was created in 1956 in China. Under Chairman Mao Zedong’s control, China had its door close almost to the West from early 1950’s until 1972. It is questionable that John had access and learned Tai Chi 24 then. China did not establish a diplomatic relationship with Japan until 1972, and the U.S. until 1979. It is hard to imagine how Marc’s characters Master Kuo, Ling Ling, and Xiao Feng could travel in and out of China to the U.S. and Japan in the 1960’s. Of course, readers should not be hung up on these details. After all, they are not history books.

As a Tai Chi/Qigong enthusiast, I am overjoyed to see more books are produced to bring up the awareness of the art especially through leisure reading. With a cup of hot tea, it felt warm to read Tai Chi novels on icy cold days.

(Edited by Doc Luecke.)

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