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.
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
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 taijiquan 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
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