Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).



He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.



Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.



After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.



Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Letter on Tai Chi (太極拳書簡)


(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 18)

[The following piece, originally titled ‘An Open Letter to Slauerhoff at the Beginning of the Year of the Rat,’ was originally written in Dutch and published in De Gids 171:4 (April 2008), pp. 308-311. It is in the form of an open letter to the famous Dutch poet and fiction writer J. Slauerhoff (斯勞爾霍夫, 1898-1936). As a ship’s physician, Slauerhoff traveled extensively in the Far East, and many of his stories have Chinese settings. His poetry includes memorable adaptations from classical Chinese verse. Several of his works have appeared in Chinese translation.]

J.,

For the past two weeks, since returning to Taiwan for the so-manieth time, I’ve been reading all sorts of things about your work. Normally I try to avoid that most pretentious and hyper-intellectual of all genres, ‘the literature on literature.’ But now I’m wading through some of it; a Dutch magazine has asked me to write something about you ‘from an East Asian point of view,’ and first I need to know what other points of view there already are.
Your work has not escaped the oversimplification and pigeonholing that make so much ‘literature on literature’ misleading. Later writers on you tend to repeat what the earlier writers had already stated. Again and again it is said that you had a ‘sloppy’ style; you paid too little attention to rhyme and meter; you published poems that still needed additional polishing.
Many or most critics agree that you wrote ‘sloppily,’ but they do not agree as to why. Some say the imperfection of your style was deliberate. You consciously left grammatical or metrical errors in to keep your work from seeming fuddy-duddy, stiff, lifeless. I call this the Believer’s Argument: the poet knew perfectly well what he was doing and where he was going wrong in the eyes of the squares and the wise and prudent. Opposed to this, there is another view that I will call the Skeptic’s Argument: the poet couldn’t help it; his mind was already slipping; his illness caused inadequate oxygen supply to the brain and he was a sick man.
        This debate reminds me of a recent experience of my own in ‘East Asia.’
For several years now, almost every day I have been practicing tai chi 太極拳, a Chinese system of bodily movement (I prefer not to call it a sport, though many Dutch bookstores stock tai chi books under ‘sports’ – to many of us in the West, the very word ‘sport’ has associations with grimly endured effort, with strenuousness and ‘grit.’). In the Chinese world, tai chi is typically practiced by ‘older’ or even very old people, because the movements are non-strenous. Slowly, attentively, the body weight is transferred from one leg to the other; the arms are moved through the air as if through the imaginary resistance of surrounding ‘water’; the hands are placed on imaginary ‘surfaces’ or ‘railings.’
To those who have never experienced it, it seems impossible that such seemingly easeful movements could lead to increased energy and improved circulation. But practitioners agree that the legendary old Teachers were right when they said the most advanced practice was like ‘doing nothing’: the more relaxed, the more effective and more beneficial.
In the Yang school of tai chi (for the world of tai chi, like so many other traditions of expertise, is long since divided into quibbling factions, typically named after a family in which the given style was first taught and handed down), a common saying is that you should ‘move your arms as if you had no arms.’
Nowadays on the internet you can find all manner of video clips of tai chi teachers in action. There are plenty of clips of modern ‘masters,’ whatever their degree of real knowledge or legitimacy, showing fragments of longer instructional films which it turns out you can order for a price...but also, for the patient browser, fascinating old black-and-white takes of the fabled teachers of a bygone age.
        This past winter in Taipei, I found a long black-and-white film of Xiong Yanghe (熊養和, published dates differ: 1886-1984 or 1889-1981), one of the first teachers from the Mainland who brought the Yang-style tradition (that is, his own version of it) to Taiwan. Xiong originally hailed from Jiangsu Province on the Mainland; later he became renowned as a tai chi teacher and author in and around Yilan 宜蘭, Taiwan. Whoever posted the film provided no information as to how old Teacher Xiong was at the time of filming. What would it have been, ninety? (In this area, anything is possible; there is an excellent clip of Wu Tunan 吳圖南 practicing at the age of 101.)
        The quality of the video was, by present-day standards, miserable: black-and-white but faded and yellowed, flickering, occasionally dropping out for a couple of seconds. But what I was seeing was a revelation to me. Xiong seemed to be ignoring what all the textbooks say. And the ‘deviations’ were mostly in the same direction: simplification. Parts of movements, or transitional movements between the traditional ‘postures,’ were shortened, simplified, or simply skipped.
        According to the books, in performing the posture called Whip to One Side 單鞭, the right hand changes from an open palm to a so-called Hook Hand 勾手, with the thumb and one or more curled fingers lightly touching each other. But in Teacher Xiong’s version of the posture, the right hand remained open, suspended in the air, seemingly just an extension of the open posture of the rest of the body.
        I saw this as an example of the coveted Yielding and Gentleness that the Yang-style teachers call hallmarks of high mastery. To grasp or grab as little as possible – such is the mental attitude, and the physical style, of one who supposedly ‘embodies the Tao’ 體道. Watching, I thought: he’s past the stage of listening to Prescriptions. This is the way Lao Tzu 老子must have lived...
        I grabbed the phone and called Teacher Mou , who lives in my neighborhood. Mou has been practicing the Yang style for decades and is a recognized authority who is often invited as a jury member and evaluator of tai chi events in Taiwan. He was not yet aware of this Xiong Yanghe video, and came to my house the same afternoon to watch it with me.
        We sat down at the computer and I clicked on Teacher Xiong. There it was again, the great Yielding, not out of fear but out of confidence. Xiong was not even afraid – and this is a truly great level of achievement, possible only after long years – of his own self-critical eye.
        Teacher Mou watched for a minute or two and said: ‘Too bad. He’s too old for it. He can’t really do it any more.’
        Whip to One Side is one of the first postures in the standard series, and within two minutes there it came again, that old-and-thin but graciously open right hand.
        ‘See?’ said Mou. ‘His fingers are too old; he can’t form the Hook.’
I said nothing, but I was not immediately convinced by Mou’s application of the Skeptic’s Argument to Xiong’s simplification of the Hand. Perhaps I was, and am, still too awed by the Believer’s Argument, which has very deep roots in Chinese traditions as to what to do about aging.
Western students often see, and want to see, a great panacea and elixir in tai chi, qigong, and related disciplines. To them, all this is an unassailable tradition of non-Western (hence not yet subject to their own mature critical judgment) wisdom, for which they are willing to undergo radical changes in their diet, daily routines, and way of life. But there is one area of the traditional Prescriptions that Western students have trouble accepting. I am referring to the attitude of the Old Teachers toward sex.
Our Western folk wisdom on such matters, whether or not it is substantiated in actual practice, advises ‘doing it’ as often as possible, viewing sex as both an indispensable source of energy and a badge of continuing vitality. But there is a persistent vein of Chinese tradition which takes the opposite position. Many of the most famous Teachers, even today, regard the male orgasm, with its loss of semen or ‘vital essence,’ as a strength-diminishing burden to the organism. 
Students of the famous Zheng Manqing 鄭曼青 (1902-1975), who some decades ago was a sensationally famous tai chi teacher in America, and was also regarded in certain circles as a great healer and expert on Chinese medicine, were shocked to hear him say that men past the age of fifty should actually have no more need for sex.[1] To us post-Puritan post-Freudians, this is truly ‘an hard saying; who can hear it?’[2] But Zheng was merely reaffirming his native tradition, which says that ‘doing it,’ at least doing it through to the end, as little as possible is the best thing, and that someday when you are truly Advanced, you will no longer be bothered even by the thought of such things.
I do not doubt that for aging men it is more pleasant, more reassuring to believe their slackening sexual performance has to do with consciously following wise Prescriptions – than just helplessly to undergo it as a fated biological predicament. Similarly, I suppose an elderly practitioner of tai chi would rather believe he no longer ‘forms the Hook’ because his ripened insights into Gentleness give him the right to skip over it.
        Such, in any case, would be the Skeptic’s Argument. But the Believer can still fall back on an ever-vital tradition that says ‘I deliberately choose not to.’ In 1996, when he was 72 years old, Wei Shuren 魏樹人, a Beijing-born present-day teacher of the Yang style, published two richly illustrated volumes under the title An Exposition of the Real Yang Style Tai Chi 楊式太極拳述真.
        The first volume was a detailed treatment of the more than eighty postures of the traditional sequence of movements as explained by Wei Shuren. It began with a series of photos of Wei’s own teacher, Wang Yongquan 汪永泉 (1903-1987). On the illustration of Whip to One Side, Wang’s right hand is clearly open, not closed.
        In the second volume, Wei Shuren presented his own simplified set of movements, comprising only 22 postures. Among the many deleted traditional postures were all the occurrences of Deflect, Parry and Punch While Stepping Forward 進步搬攔捶. In Wei’s new simplified set, apparently they were satisfactorily summed up in a single posture called Deflect, Parry and Punch While Stepping Backward 卸步搬攔捶.
J., it’s been two weeks since I wrote the above. Since then I’ve been becalmed, not knowing how I should continue and conclude this letter. It seemed to be full of concrete details, but still to lack the overall aura of a unifying vision that would give it a message, a reason for being. What, in this case, would be my concluding vision? Are Teachers Xiong, Wang and Wei communicating helpful wisdom by consciously revealing their unorthodox ‘incomplete’ movements, or are they just slipping-but-congenial codgers taking the easy way out?
        I didn’t know the answer two weeks ago, and I don’t know now. Maybe the only thing I could do would be to inform the editors of the magazine that I could not submit the piece on time.
But then I thought: hey, wait a minute. Wouldn’t it be appropriate if a piece about ‘incomplete’ forms...itself remained incomplete? (Don’t be afraid here, J.: though I’ve been reading ‘the literature about literature,’ it still hasn’t affected me to the point where I might start adopting ‘iconicity’ as a literary technique. At least, if I can still control myself.)
        So, let’s postpone the ‘East Asian perspective’ till another occasion. Meanwhile, may the Year of the Rat bring more contributions to the deserved preservation of your name and fame!
        All best, L.

--Lloyd Haft


[1] See Wolfe Lowenthal, There Are No Secrets: Professor Cheng Man-ch’ing and his Tai Chi Chuan, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1991, pp. 101-105.
[2] Traditional (“King James”) version of John 6:60.