Tuesday 1 May 2012

Review: The five levels of taijiquan by Master Jan Silberstorff

This is a review, so I'm going to get straight to the point. Should you buy The Five Levels of Taijiquan? Yes - but only if you are a really serious or "advanced" tai chi practitioner.

So to rewind little, I have the greatest respect for Master Jan Silberstorff (and Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang), and have a lot of time for what he has to say. Indeed, I was quite excited about reading this book before it arrived, and being only a thin volume, devoured it in a couple of sittings. Master Silberstorff has a clear and simple style, writing as someone who evidently practises what he preaches and knows his subject matter extremely well. This is a subtle and thought-provoking book, but the problem is, it is almost certainly lost on you (and me).

So why is this? Well, first of all this is a translation and commentary on Grand Master Chen Xiaowang's essay on the five levels of tai chi chaun. This essay itself is freely available online and translated (for example here), and so the cold hard reality of the value for money equation is immediately diminished. But just like practising tai chi, what you see at face value is only a small part of the story - the subtleties of explanation and fine points are neatly identified and teased out in Master Silberstorff's commentary. Master Silberstorff also brings a Western perspective even going so far as to include graphs and dagrams. Where as Chen Xiaowang's essay talks in terms of chi, it is noticeable that master Silberstorff never really does so, preferring instead to use terms such as centre, connectedness and awareness. For me personally, this makes his explanations much more relevant and meaningful.

In a sense, this makes the book worthwhile, and there is much to recommend it, but only if you can appreciate those subtleties. In order to do so I would say you need to be at least a level 2 or a level 3 practitioner as, to quote from the book:
"We shall pay particular attention to level 3 (beginning at the middle of level 2), 4, and 5."
The problem is, that in all probability you are but level 1. To quote again from the book:
"About 99% of tai chi practitioners (students as well as teachers) worldwide are at level 1 and the beginning of level 2" ....[and in a subsequent section]... "Therefore, we can see that 99% is a rather conservative estimate, and a reminder to beware of ranking oneself too highly too soon."
Back of the envelop calculations based on some further explanations in the book, means that for a typical Westerner, fitting in tai chi practise around their 9-to-5 life and family, even if they take it quite seriously, are talking about decades of training before they reach level 2. Oh dear. To extend the analogy Master Silberstorff himself uses - this book is aimed at a post gradutate level audience, but 99% of practitioners are still in junior school. More than likely this book is simply wasted on you. No doubt you will gain a nugget or two of insight, but on the whole I would advise looking around for reading material aimed at a more approriate level.

The power of this book therefore is that it shatters illusions and puts you in your place. It makes you realise that tai chi is a lot of hard work... for the rest of your life... a mountain to climb, with a summit you are unlikely to reach. Perhaps that will cause many people to give up, but for me I actually find it quite inspirational. This book has helped me to focus on training with renewed vigour, to appreciate that I cannot just coast through and hope to one day wake up a Master.

There are two, equally valid, paths in tai chi the first is the "I do it for health" - the gentle dance path, the second is the "serious martial art" path. If you are on the former this book is irrelevant for you. If you are on the latter, it is worthwhile but only if have been practising for decades, most likely you are a tai chi teacher yourself already or a senior student at least. The fact that the target audience for this book is so incredibly small enhances my respect for Master Silberstorff. He writes for the elite as only a true Master can.

1 comment:

  1. I believe this to be true. However, most masters are not really masters by the old yard stick, so many are self appointed but then was not the first one. I have studied for 40 years, the first 20 with authentic hard style masters of international respect and renown. The last 20 with internal teacher, a true master who actually I believe is at a 7th level not described. How could you know what is beyond unless you meet it. If you use the calculation on this teacher he spent 3 decades in a Chinese re-education camp and all he has was tai chi. And it isn't just time spent it is also the innate talent and the quality of the instruction. 3 hours a week with an exceptional master does not equal 6 hours a week on your own with low level instruction. Harvard vs. community college.