Book Review: Laoshi’s Legacy: Emergence from Shadow

This sequel to Jan Kauskas’ 2014 Laoshi: Tai Chi, Teachers, and Pursuit of Principle continues the hero’s journey in a fictionalized coming of age autobiography, that chronicles his discipleship in Zheng Manqing style taijiquan and his evolution from student to teacher.

As third generation student in the Zheng lineage, Kauskas drives the narrative with master-disciple dialogues and anecdotes about the founder and first two generations of lineage holders, spanning Mainland China, Taiwan, New York, and Glasgow.

This martial arts memoir, like martial arts mythology in an earlier age, functions to instruct and inspire through a compelling story: life lessons wrapped in a martial art, and a martial art wrapped in a novel.

Pity the poor library cataloger or bookstore owner who must try to shelve this book by genre. It is certainly no pedestrian how-to book, nor gongfu fantasy novel, but neither is it pure autobiography. Rather, it is a hybrid of the artist’s memoir and fictionalized autobiography, and as such, it begs to be judged, at least in part, as a work of literature.

Autobiographies of visual artists, musicians, and even dancers abound, and the canon of autobiographical novels includes such luminaries as Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Wolff, Proust, Stein, Kerouac, Angelou, and Malcolm X.

What is critical, however, is whether the non-dancer can be entranced by ballerina Suzanne Ferrell’s Holding Onto the Air, or the non-artist be entertained by surrealist Salvador Dali’s The Secret Life of Salvador Dali? Kauskas impresses the reader with how seriously he takes martial arts as an art and how seriously he takes himself as an aspiring artist.

The real question then becomes: can non-students of taijiquan read Laoshi’s Legacy with pleasure and profit? This reviewer’s answer is a resounding yes. Kauskas keeps his focus exclusively on his development as a martial artist, but we the readers cannot help but see him emerging as an artist of the written word.

At its most fundamental level, Laoshi’s Legacy is a book about the master-disciple relationship. Pioneering sociologist Max Weber, in applying his theory of “ideal types” to the problem of authority, posited three relationships: legal, customary, and charismatic.

The police officer is of the legal type, the teacher customary, and the martial arts master charismatic. The teacher merely transmits a skill, but the master embodies an entire mode of being, and as Kauskas reveals, there is no more intimate moment in the master-disciple relationship than when the master pushes the fledgling disciple out of the nest.

For the established practitioner, Laoshi’s Legacy offers flashes of recognition, new insights, and a lifetime of technique and principles to work on; for the general reader, its colorful cast of characters and high drama make it read like an historical novel in the “life and works” tradition; for the spiritual seeker, there are genuine Daoist and Buddhist teachings; and for the would-be teacher, there is sound counsel on dealing with training hall dynamics and running a successful martial arts business with uncompromising integrity.

The nutrient-dense insights in each chapter of Laoshi’s Legacy will make you want to linger and digest, and the unfolding human drama will make you want to turn the page for the next exciting episode. Readers may come for the taijiquan lessons and lineage lore, but will stay for the life lessons and wisdom.

Literary flair and Scottish wit combine to make this book an instructive, inspirational, and irresistible read. Those who read this book without tears, laughter, and lots of a-ha moments are probably not ready for it.

Douglas Wile is professor emeritus of Chinese Language and Literature from Brooklyn College-City University of New York. He holds a PhD in East Asian Languages from the University of Wisconsin, with additional training at Stanford University.