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). His most recent sinological book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017. His newest book of poems in Dutch, Intocht (Introit) has been available as a POD from the American Book Center since June 2018.

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 newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog. His newest book of poetry in Dutch is Intocht (Introit), issued by the American Book Center in June 2018.

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 June 2019 he was named a Distinguished Alumnus of National Taiwan Normal University. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. For many years he sang in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Myth of Tai Chi 太極拳的神話

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 3)

Occidentals are not the only people in this world naive enough to believe in the myth that traditional Chinese ‘life-nurturing practices’ like tai chi are panaceas (萬靈藥), and that if you ‘practice’ regularly, you will certainly live to a ripe old age and never again get the flu. I think a great majority of all Chinese believe in it as well. More than once, here in Taiwan, I have been told in all seriousness that my (more or less) daily practice of tai chi means that I will ‘surely live to be a hundred.’ Aside from whether or not I believe anybody in their right mind would want to live to be that old, I already know the word ‘surely’ does not apply here. I have studied the literature on tai chi enough to know that some of the All-Time Greats in this field never even lived to be as old as I am now – Yang Chengfu 楊澄甫 and Dong Yingjie 董英傑, to name but two.
        But, it may be objected...tai chi isn’t just about body and longevity; it’s also about mind and wisdom...isn’t it? Well, I’m just not sure if it is. (For the difficulty of using terms like ‘mind’ and ‘wisdom’ in this context, see the discussion of ‘incommensurability’ in Fragment 2 of this Scrapbook. Two of the most crucial technical terms applied to tai chi in Chinese are yi and shen . I defy anyone to propose even a serviceable, let alone an ‘adequate,’ translation of either of these in English.) It is true that supposed parallels between Taoist philosophy and tai chi have often been listed by prestigious writers on the subject, including Zheng Manqing 鄭曼青, just to mention another Teacher who lived to be ‘only’ seventy-two. But I suspect most of the philosophizing on this subject represents merely another aspect of what Douglas Wile in his wonderful book Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty calls ‘the overlay of qigong on the body mechanics of a martial art.’ In other words, latter-day enthusiasts, many of whom had more book-learning than the original Teachers, have reinterpreted tai chi in terms of ideals and concepts that were not originally part of it.
        Realizing this dispels another part of the Myth: that the original Teachers were sages and philosophers, meditative men, whose gongfu was an inevitable expression of the ‘gentle’ () quality of their wisdom. Actually, it was the other way around. The original Teachers were formidably skilled street-fighters who were admired, studied and eventually canonized (加入聖徒之列) by more mentally-oriented scholars.
        This being so, it is pointless to try to substantiate another part of the Myth – that there is such a thing as a crucially unique transmission (傳承). In the introduction to Wile’s book there is an intriguing suggestion: that an ‘unbroken master-disciple transmission might not in fact be necessary if we consider that soft-style [ – L.H.] theory is permanently embedded in the culture and perennially available...’ In other words, what is usually paraded as the ‘essence’ of tai chi is actually an ‘essence’ of Chinese culture in general. It will be reconstituted in every generation by new Teachers, whether or not those Teachers ‘got their thing’ from other officially recognized Teachers.
        Nevertheless, the idea that there is a single ‘correct’ tradition is part of the Myth – and is used to legitimize and perpetuate incorrect teachings. As any student or serious hobbyist will soon discover, the existing literature on tai chi is like that of astrology in at least one respect: its repetitive, stereotyped character. Most of the writers are obviously just mechanically repeating what others have written before them. This shows up in some of the standardized mistranslations that have become a part of ‘the tradition’ in English. Now, I would not want to deny that the names of the traditional tai chi postures are often very problematic even in the original Chinese, but after some thought on all this, at this point I am willing to venture out into the open with a few suggestions for correction.
        One of the general body attitudes we are advised to maintain while practicing is described as xuling dingjin 虛領頂勁. This is usually translated something like ‘relax the neck and let the energy through to the top of the head.’ I suspect it actually means ‘keep the neck relaxed, with a sensation as if you were lightly pressing against something with the top of your head.’
        One of the standard postures is called gao tan ma 高探馬. This is almost always translated ‘high pat on horse.’ It means nothing of the kind. It means ‘scout stands high in the stirrups.’
        In defiance of practically every writer I have ever seen – exceptions are the co-authors Jiang Rongqiao 姜容樵 and Yao Fuchun 姚馥春 – I claim the traditional English name of dao nian hou 倒撵猴, ‘stepping backward, fend off monkey,’ is wrong. I say it should be ‘monkey which, while stepping backward, fights back.’ (If you don’t believe this, try standing directly in front of a practitioner and watching while he or she performs dao nian hou. As Jiang and Yao say in their 1930 book, it ‘resembles a monkey.’)
        But these are minor points. As every Occidental who has spent time in the Far East learns, in the long run The Tradition is always right and you are always wrong. The very fact that the ideas have been handed down lends them an authority which cannot be contradicted by any amount of rational argument or evidence. Often, in fact, the very irrationality of the ‘traditional’ element acts to strengthen the awe in which it is held. It cannot be contradicted because it makes no sense to begin with! It is not on the plane of things which appeal to argument. That being so, it survives all things which sooner or later can be shown to be invalid.
        To take an example from a different area of tradition: in discussions of the history and nature of the Chinese writing system, there are traditionally said to be liu shu 六書 or ‘six types of written signs.’ In practice, it is admitted that one of the supposed ‘types’ is actually indistinguishable as a distinct entity. But who is going to come out and say, ‘Very well then, from now on officially there are not Six Types but Five’? And why does the name stay Six if the reality is Five? Well, in the words of the old song: just because just because just because!
        But I’m sure not many people in the Chinese world would agree with me that there is no point in focusing unduly on supposedly ‘orthodox’ technique. We all must know Taiwanese who have first had expert instruction in Zheng Manqing’s or some other modernized version of tai chi right in their own neighborhood, perhaps practiced it for years with obvious beneficial results in their physical health and other areas of life...yet suddenly decide what they really need to do is to run off to Mainland China and sit at the feet of some self-styled Master who claims he has ‘come down from the mountains’ to make public at long last, presumably for the greater benefit of humankind and not just to earn a lot of fees and sell a lot of DVD’s...the supposed michuan 密傳or Esoteric Tradition style of tai chi which represents the true, the pure, the one-and-only.
        Why do they do this? Because they are in search of Peace. They were brought up in a tradition which sets supreme value on peace, relaxation, calm, contentment – call it what you will. (I believe the reason why that quality is so idealized in the Chinese world is that it is the one thing most totally absent from the actual Chinese way of life, which seems to me unbelievably frenetic, hyperactive and unrestful.) In tai chi that great ideal, that Grail of Grails, is designated by the Chinese word song . It can refer to ‘relaxation’ as a feature of physical movement, attitude or posture, or lifestyle.
       You can achieve song in various ways. (Right now I am assuming, of course, that there actually are people in this world, at least a few of them somewhere, who do manage to achieve it at least momentarily. Or is the very existence of complete ‘relaxation’ another part of the Myth of Tai Chi?) You can achieve it (we are told) through the right kind of physical movement, proper breathing, maintenance of benevolent and conflict-free thoughts...but speaking as one who is afraid that all these nice-and-correct things that I ‘should’ do, and especially the very idea that I ‘should’ do them, may actually make me feel under more pressure instead of less...I would like to short-cut the rest of this whole goody-goody laundry list and declare that there is One Thing Needful that can include and supersede all others It is simply this: that it is very, very relaxing and beneficial to do something which you believe is a good thing to do. In other words, I believe the benefits of tai chi (or meditation, calligraphy, Energy Practice or whatever) are not just due to the actual ‘body mechanics’ of the practice – or whether or not they are ‘correct’ according to What The Teacher Said – but also, perhaps most of all, just to the fact that one feels good about what one is doing. If the surrounding culture or discourse, in which you believe, tells you that tai chi (or calligraphy, or qigong etcetera) is relaxing...then it is!
        Let me immediately add two notes here. One: I really do believe in the benefits. I cannot very well disbelieve in them, they have been so obvious in my life, although I must admit that even at this moment, while I write these words, I have a bit of the flu...And Two: though I personally am far too Occidental (and frankly too experienced, after a professional lifetime spent in 'education')  to swallow the standard Oriental idea that The Teacher Is Always Right, I realize that for many people – here we go again – the very idea that they are Doing What The Teacher Said, is reassuring and relaxing. So be it.
        What I am implying here – that the attitudinal factor is the really important and beneficial thing – is not at all original. In fact, it is one of the core ideas of one of the great Teachers of ancient Chinese philosophy: Mencius 孟子. In the first part of his Gongsun Chou公孫丑 chapter (in Western terms, ‘Mencius II.A.2’) Mencius emphasizes what he calls the haoran zhi qi 浩然之氣, which the eminent writer and lexicographer Lin Yutang 林語堂translated as ‘the idealistic impulse in man’ or ‘great moral force.’ According to Mencius, this force transcends the body – it is not a physical but a moral (精神上的) quality, having to do with whether you feel good about yourself and your life.
        But be this as it may, what everybody agrees on (myself included) is that the important thing about tai chi is not to interpret it, not to have ‘attitudinal’ insights into it, not to be the most knowledgeable critic of flaws in its traditional presentation...but to practice it. Every day...or, well, almost. As a Westerner, I found it refreshing (and very un-Chinese!) when I read in Shen Shou’s 沈壽 Taijiquan wenji (太極拳文集, Collected Writings on Tai Chi) that nothing terrible was going to happen if you occasionally skipped a day, that it could even be good to skip one or two days a week. This contrasts sharply with traditional sayings like ‘If you skip one day, you might as well skip the next ten days as well’ or ‘The benefits of practice do not extend into the following day.’
Why, in general, are the Chinese so attached to the never-skip-a-day mentality? I think there are two reasons. To begin with, in their culture, assiduity as such is always considered a high virtue. Persistence in a course once chosen, however unpromising it later appears, is thought to indicate laudable moral character (and not, for example, childish rigidity or lamentable lack of reflection and flexibility). This attitude is supported by obviously untrue, misleading and deplorable sayings like qin neng bu zhuo 勤能補拙, ‘diligent application can make up for lack of talent.’ (How many times has a university professor been forced to go on acting as the dissertation advisor 導師 of a student who has absolutely no mental gifts, simply because somebody in the background kept urging that student ‘not to give up’?)
The other thing is that unwavering persistence in a day-to-day routine adds to one’s clarity, identifiability, and recognizability in the eyes of friends and neighbors. If I am guaranteed to get up early and do tai chi every morning, rain or shine, sleet or hail, in sickness and in health...people feel better about me; they feel more reassured and problem-free in their conception of me, more certain of how to behave toward me and talk to me – than if I turn out to be just another off-again on-again Westerner whose motives in life are not immediately discernible. The recognizability adds to the desired sensation of Peace (or if you prefer, Fixity). (Actually, if they had really spent time talking to tai chi teachers, they might feel less good about it. In my experience, it is certainly not the case that all teachers advise you to insist on practicing normally during an illness.)
This persistence-is-always-good attitude shows up in another aspect of the Myth of Tai Chi, not as teachers actually teach it but as ‘people’ often regard it. I mean the idea that if tai chi is a good thing, then you can never get enough of it. If it’s beneficial to practice for thirty minutes a day, then surely it must be ten times as beneficial to practice for 300 minutes a day, and so on. In the West, many of us would think anybody who practiced tai chi for 300 minutes a day was a bit of a maniac, whose ideas about health were not to be taken quite seriously. In ‘the East,’ I do not doubt many or most would praise such a person as a model of Diligence and Persistence.
Not long ago, I read a story in a Taipei newspaper about a man who made his living shining shoes at one of our local train stations. It said, obviously with approval, that he was so diligent that even on his wedding day, as soon as the ceremonies were over, he rushed back to the station to get back to work and ‘not disappoint his customers.’ I thought: Lucky for him he didn’t have a Western bride!

March 10, 2011