Books about tai chi and tai chi practice did not become available to the general public until the beginning of the twentieth century. Until that time, students always received personal instruction in a master's home or temple.
There was no need for written materials because the instructions were delivered orally. The laborious process of wood block printing also discouraged creating written documents about tai chi, and so very few were written.
There are, however, eight classic tai chi texts dating from the early tai chi masters that are known as "The Classics." Of these, three are collectively referred to as The Tai Chi Bible. In their entirety, all eight volumes comprise only a few thousand words. Nevertheless, it is on the basis of these master works, and the subsequent commentaries, that tai chi is practiced today.
The first classic tai chi text, The Book of Tai Chi Chuan, is attributed by convention to Chang San-feng himself. It emphasizes the form and discusses in some detail how a practitioner should move when practicing.
The second tai chi book, Treatise of Tai Chi Chuan, is attributed to another legendary character, Wang Chen-yeuh. This work focuses on the underlying philosophical principles of tai chi. It also discusses the martial applications of the art.
The third classic tai chi text is the Elucidation of the Thirteen Postures. Some believe this text also was written by Wang Chen-yeuh, but others think it was written by an academically inclined tai chi master named Wu Yu-hsiang. This tai chi book centers on the inner processes of tai chi and focuses on the idea of chi and its functions as they apply to the art.
The other tai chi books include Song of the Thirteen Postures, by Wu Yu-hsiang, Song of Push Hands, by an unknown author, Five Character Secret, by Li I-yu, Essentials of the Practice of the Form and Push Hands, by Li I-yu, and Yang's Ten Important Points, by Yang Cheng-fu.
The classic tai chi text The Five Character Secret, written by Li I-yu, describes the nature of tai chi and, in a sense, lays bare its heart and soul. The Chinese language differs from English in this important respect: Each word is represented by a distinct character. Rather than using separate letters to form a particular word, it has its own unique symbol.
So the five characters in the title of the classic refer to five words: calm, agility, breath, internal force, and spirit. These five terms are intended to represent the essence of tai chi practice.
Continue reading for an interpretation of the salient ideas of The Five Character Secret on the next page.