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Interview

A Look at the Dedication and Commitment of Louis Swaim
interviewed by Instructor Lis 

I finally met Louis Swaim in person early in June this year, at a restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown.  We had corresponded sporadically by e-mail for several years, with taiji (often transliterated as Tai Chi) as the common interest.  Louis obviously had a deep knowledge of the Chinese language.  He was also fascinated by the philosophy and ideas behind the development of taiji, as well as by the art itself.  lswaim.jpg (22254 bytes)

Louis had mentioned to me that he was at work on the translation of a book in Chinese, "Yang Style Taijiquan" written by Fu Zhongwen.  He was working on this project, mainly for his own knowledge, but friends had suggested that he try for publication.  It was accepted by a small, independent publisher and is now widely available, on the internet and in Canberra, at Smiths Alternative Bookshop.  Louis said the publisher wanted to give the title a bit of snap so they agreed on "Fu Zhongwen : Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan" for the translation.  Louis wanted the title to reflect Master Fu's achievement in the art as well as his authorship. 

I was glad to be able to assist in a small way by putting Louis in touch with Brett and Fontane.  Through them, he was able to contact Master Fu Sheng Yuan, who was pleased that his father's work was going to be made available in English.

We only had a brief time together, just long enough to eat lunch and then walk to Washington Square park and pose while my son took photos.  As Louis said later, “it's amazing how a common interest in something like taiji can bring people together from such far quarters.” 

I gave Louis a few questions to ponder and he sent these replies.

How long have you been doing taiji?   What made you start?
LS: I began formal study of taijiq
uan in 1974.  I had developed an interest in Chinese philosophy as a teenager and had read about the art of taijiquan.  I was immediately fascinated, but was initially unable to find a teacher in my home town of Sacramento, California.  I studied other martial arts - jujitsu and karate - in the interim.  I finally met my first Tai Chi Chuan sifu, Master Kwang Gate Chan, when he opened a Sacramento studio, The Chinese Kung Fu Association, in 1974.  I studied with him for a number of years before he returned to Hong Kong, learning his traditional Yang taijiquan form.  Master Chan was very particular that his students understand the martial applications of taijiquan.  He also shared his considerable knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine, philosophy, meditation, as well as other martial arts such as Ba Gua, Xingyi and Wing Qun.

Did your knowledge of the Chinese language come before or after your interest in Tai Chi?
LS: My Chinese language training began in college and intensified in graduate school while I was earning a degree in Chinese history.  During this time I spent a year studying language in Taiwan.  I would say that my experience with Master Chan directly influenced my decision to learn Chinese and my desire to learn more about Chinese culture.

Describe your Tai Chi experience.   Does it relate to other aspects of your life?
LS: I can't imagine what my life would be like without taijiquan.  The core of my training is my individual daily form practice.  I participate in workshops and seminars and like to practise Push Hands with friends.  I find that the classical principles of taijiquan apply in every imaginable way in my daily life: in sitting, standing, walking and interacting.  I consider taijiquan to be a methodology in integration - integration of mind and body, emotion and reason, strength and yielding, self and other.  As such, it is a process and I think it is helpful to focus on the process rather than on result or achievement.   One can train to become strong but there will always be someone stronger. One can train to become skilled but there will always be someone more skilled.  The process of studying taijiquan does not have an end or a fixed objective but continuously unfolds and evolves.  Perhaps that's why, for so many practitioners, it becomes a lifetime pursuit.

Why did you start work on Fu Zhongwen's book in particular, rather than another book?
LS: Master Fu's book was not the first book I began translating.  I had been experimenting with translating passages from some other manuals, including Yang Chengfu's and ChenYanlin's.  My purpose was to hone my language skills and gain insight into the language conventions of the art.  With Fu Zhongwen's book, however, something clicked.  I found the precise body-mechanical descriptions to be much clearer and more useful than those in other taijiquan books.   I recognised many of the nuances of the traditional Yang form I had learned but discovered new areas to concentrate on as well.

Even before I set out to translate the book, I would often read passages during my morning commute while standing in the aisle of the train as it sped beneath San Francisco Bay.  (In a later e-mail Louis added, “I actually consider it part of my training.  Folks around me are hanging on getting jostled around.  I just root - it adds a dynamic dimension to standing meditation!”)  I would read over a description for a particular sequence in the form and upon returning home from work that evening, I would explore the movement potential for that sequence during my evening practice.

Once I decided to begin translating the book systematically, I couldn't stop.  It occurred to me that most western practitioners have not had access to this kind of book and that there may be a real need for a translation of an authentic taiji manual such as this.

As for the five taiji classics appearing in the back of Fu Zhongwen's book, I had been studying the original Chinese texts for some time before I set out to translate the Fu book.  I had noticed problems in some of the existing classics translations and wanted to go at them fresh and really try to get a clean and clear rendering.  I hope that I was successful but as I say in my "Notes to the Taijiquan Classics", there cannot really be a definitive translation of the classics.  I attempted to give some textual analysis that I hope will be useful to other practitioners who will themselves delve further into the meaning of these profound documents.

What problems did you encounter, if any and what did you learn while doing it?
LS: Many of the problems I encountered were early on, when I was struggling with vocabulary and usages unique to the book.  As I progressed and my command of the language improved, I found I was spending less time looking up characters.  I learned a great deal in the process - not just about translating, but about taijiquan.  For many of the form instruction sequences, I repeatedly had to get up from my desk and perform the given form sequence to make sure I was getting the wording right.  As a result, I was constantly gaining new insights into details of the form that hadn't occurred to me before.

From Louis's responses to my questions, it is obvious that it was an all consuming and heartfelt task which he undertook, much like the practice of taijiquan itself.  Little is known of Grandmaster Fu Zhongwen outside China.  However, with the publication of this translation, perhaps his reputation will become more widely known.  He will then begin to have the world wide recognition he deserves.  After all, on his death in 1994 in China, he was hailed as a national treasure.

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