A Historical and Personal Perspective on Tai Chi Chuan
To understand the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, and all Oriental martial arts, we must go back nearly 5,000 years in Chinese history. In the twenty-seventh century BC, two courses of events began that pioneered what the world now thinks of as kung fu. First, primitive stylized forms of personal combat began to arise. A weapons form was devised by the legendary Yellow Emperor of China, Huang Ti, who won an important military victory using this early martial art. About a hundred years later, the cruel warlord Chi-Yu invented go-ti, a bloody sport in which the combatants donned helmets armed with horns and attempted to gore each other. At about the same time, the second course took an entirely different approach to physical culture. Scholar-monks began to develop series of medical gymnastics coupled with respiratory techniques, called chi kung (chi gong).
Martial techniques continued to evolve, as did the depth and breadth of chi kung. Confucius, in the fifth century BC, mentioned the need for military arts among the six arts he taught his disciples. And the Taoist writings of Lao Tzu, an older contemporary of Confucius, had a profound influence on the development of kung fu in general and on chi kung in particular by emphasizing nonresistance to the natural order as well as self-development. The Taoists further developed respiratory techniques and the psycho-physiological emphasis so important to chi kung.
The parallel courses of kung fu and chi kung continued until the sixth century, when, so it said, a visitor from India took up residence at the Shaolin temple in Honan province. He was Ta-Mo, the son of a Brahman king, also called Bodhidharma, or Master. (Figure 1) His teachings radically altered not only the practices of the monks of the Shaolin temple but ultimately the entire course of religious and philosophical thought in China, Korea, and Japan.
The Shaolin temple had been built three centuries earlier, and there monks prayed and led ascetic lives. When he first arrived, Ta-Mo noticed that the monks, though devout, were weak, unhealthy, and prone to fall asleep during prayers and meditations due to their acetic lifestyle. He taught them dhyana, or yogic concentration, from his own Buddhist background to aid them in focusing their attention. The Chinese transliterated dhyana to Ch’an. As the practice spread further east to Japan, it came to be called Zen. Ta-Mo also introduced three series of exercises designed to strengthen the monks’ bodies. These exercises, called the Change of Tendons, the Marrow Washing, and Eighteen Buddha Hands, formed the roots of Shaolin kung fu.
During the next few centuries, Ta-Mo’s exercises combined with two other exercise forms already practiced in China. One of these was a sequence of animal movements devised by the brilliant third-century physician Hua T’o that consisted of jumping, twisting, swaying, crawling, rotation, and contraction. (Figure 2) The second was chi kung, the Taoist meditative-respiratory techniques initially practiced for health. The Shaolin temple priests evolved these static exercises and combined them with already existing martial arts to create five mobile forms useful for self-defense.
These five forms were named after animals whose traits they embodied: tiger for strengthening bones and jumping; dragon for attention, spirit, and stillness; leopard for application of force and fighting; snake for inner breathing, sensitivity, and action; and crane for concentration, stability, and accuracy. All were of an external nature, emphasizing physical strength, hardness, and speed. Over the centuries, these five Shaolin forms proliferated into more than four hundred individual styles of kung fu in China, and the techniques spread to other countries to make up the basis of Korean Taekwondo, Japanese karate, and scores of other styles of personal combat in Vietnam, Thailand, and elsewhere.
Figure 1 Bodhidharma sails across the sea on a palm leaf.
Figure 2 Hua T'o's Five Animal Styles that consisted of jumping, twisting, swaying, crawling, rotation, and contraction.
Intermixed in the chronicles of kung fu is the often apocryphal but always entertaining history of Tai Chi Chuan. It all began in the thirteenth century with a Taoist monk named Chang San-feng. (Figure 3) Chang had studied Shaolin boxing at the temple and mastered the techniques after ten years, but he became disenchanted with the brute strength and strenuous exertions of the Shaolin forms. He left the temple and wandered until he came to the Wudang Mountains in Hupeh Province. One morning he was awakened by the sounds of a struggle. Hastening to the location, he witnessed a fight between a stork and a snake.
The stork was much larger, stronger, and faster than the snake and struck repeatedly with quick, hard jabs of its beak, but the snake sinuously and softly avoided the blows. The stork often overbalanced as it missed its target, giving the snake opportunity to counterstrike when the stork was most vulnerable. At last the stork fell down, defeated. Chang saw that supple, yielding force could vanquish overpowering and hard superior strength.
That night when he lay down to sleep, Chang was visited in his dreams by Emperor Hsuan Wu the Great. The emperor taught him the rudiments of an internal boxing style that made the body supple and yielding and that dramatically increased its potential for intrinsic energy. Chang practiced his new internal boxing style, and not too long afterwards, he left the mountains. While traveling, he was attacked by a band of brigands, and he soundly defeated them all using his new style, which eventually evolved into Tai Chi Chuan.
It’s a wonderful story and, like much folklore, might have a grain of truth to it. Though the records are few and sketchy, there is historical evidence that Chang actually lived. We even have a date for his birth—April 9, maybe in the year 1247. (See the next chapter for a more apocryphal take on Chang and his exploits.)
If indeed he was an actual person who played a role in the development of Tai Chi, he probably practiced external Shaolin forms and either developed an internal style or integrated various internal elements into one style that was akin to what we now call Tai Chi. However, there is no mention of martial arts, much less Tai Chi, in the records of Chang’s life, and the Chen family, from whom we have direct historical lineage of Tai Chi, do not mention Chang in their histories. Not only that, but the earliest historical record to mention Chang’s connection to any martial art is in “Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan,” written by Huang Zong-xi in 1669.
Figure 3 A statue of Chang San-feng in the Wudang Mountains commemorates his creation of Tai Chi.
Like many creators of martial styles, Chang might be apocryphal or even mythical. But mythic or not, we credit him with distinguishing the internal from the external. The external consists of regulation of breath, training of bone and muscle, the ability to advance and retreat, and the unity of hard and soft. The internal consists of training of sinew and muscle, exercise of chi kung, subduing offense by stillness, and defeating an enemy the instant he attacks. On a more basic level, the external is the linkage between eye, fist, and foot, while the internal is the integration of will, vital energy, and internal power. So, while it's unlikely that Chang—mythic or not—invented Tai Chi as we now know it, he is celebrated as the founder of the art.
But if Chang San-feng didn’t create Tai Chi, who did? Again the answer is buried in antiquity, but from the dimness come two major possibilities, both of which involve the Chen family of Henan Province. The first is that Tai Chi was developed by one of two Chen patriarchs. The earlier of these was Chen Pu of the sixteenth century, but his tombstone, inscribed by his tenth-generation lineal descendant, makes no mention of Tai Chi, which it almost certainly would have if he had originated it. The latter was Chen Wang-ting of the seventeenth century, a famous fighter who wrote a treatise on boxing. His book does not specifically mention Tai Chi.
The absence of references to Tai Chi for these two men—and for Chang San-feng, for that matter, might not be unusual because the art was initially known simply as Chen family boxing or the Thirteen Postures. The name Tai Chi Chuan was given to the art by Ong Tong-he in the mid 1880s, when he witnessed a demonstration by the great and undefeated Yang Lu-chan. After watching Yang defeat everyone who challenged him, Ong wrote, “Hands holding tai chi shakes the whole world, a chest containing ultimate skills defeats a gathering of heroes.”(2) In saying this, he was referring to how the art translated the philosophy of the tai chi symbol into physical movement. (See Symbolic Movement and Natural Patterns.) But the naming convention notwithstanding, it remains unclear how the Chens initially created Tai Chi.
The second possibility again smacks of the apocryphal, but it does make sense in light of the Chens' sudden acquisition of Tai Chi. In this version, the true founder of the art is unknown, though it may have been Chang San-feng. In the 19th century, a skilled exponent of internal boxing, one Wang Tsung-yueh, or perhaps Wang’s disciple, Chiang Fa, passed through the Chen village. While there he witnessed the local style and later made disparaging remarks about it. He was promptly challenged by the Chens, whom he soundly and easily defeated. The Chens requested that Wang (or Chiang) stay and teach them, and Wang helped them modify their native boxing, Cannon Fist, to create Chen style Tai Chi. Chen Style, from which all other modern Tai Chi styles are derived, is a vigorous routine, with fast punches and jumps into the air.
This theory is lent further credence by the fact that the people of the nearby village of Zhaobao have their own Tai Chi style that is very similar to Chen Style. And it seems to be just as old and just as mysteriously acquired, though Wang Tsung-yueh does figure in the Zhaobao backstory. So, it is possible that an itinerant martial artist—Wang or Chiang—spent time in both villages during his travels and left his knowledge with the people at both locations, though the Chens deny this, insisting that Zhaobao learned from the Chens. That would make the Zhaobao villagers the first to have acquired Tai Chi from the Chens, which seems unlikely considering the great difficulties encountered by Yang Lu-chan when he approached the Chens for instruction.
The official dissemination of Tai Chi outside of the Chen clan began in the early nineteenth century, and that story, too, contains its share of mystery. It begins with Yang Lu-chan, born in 1799. Yang had heard of the Chens’ great skill and sought instruction from family expert, Chen Chang-shin. Here the story takes on several versions; in the most commonly told one, Yang was refused instruction because he wasn’t a family member. Undaunted, he became a servant and secretly observed training sessions, practiced on his own, and learned. After being discovered practicing, he was personally taught by Chen Chang-shin, who realized Yang’s potential. Whatever the truth of the origin of Yang’s instruction, he was the first person outside of the Chen clan to be taught the art, though at about the same time Wu Yu-hsiang also learned Chen Style and went on to found his own style, originally called Wu Style, then Old Wu, but now generally referred to as Wu/Hao, or simply as Hao Style because Wu did not have offspring and passed his style to noted expert and Tai Chi Classics author Li I-yu, who then taught the Hao family.
After leaving Chen village, Yang moved to Beijing, where he popularized the art. He loved to match skills with other martial artists, and not only was he undefeated, he never seriously injured an opponent. His grandson, Yang Chen-fu, who died in 1936, slowed and expanded the movements and shortened the length of the set to codify the Yang form and is credited with defining and regulating the principles of Yang Tai Chi. One of his disciples, Cheng Man-ching, who died in 1975, reached the highest levels of the art and was one of the earliest practitioners to spread it to the United States.
A major variation of Yang Style is Wu Style (not to be confused with Wu/Hao Style), which traces its origins to Yang Ban-hou, son of Yang founder Yang Lu-chan and uncle of Yang Chen-fu. At the time, Yang Style had three variations of the form: low, middle, and high stances. The movements were basically the same, but the martial expression of each was slightly different. Yang Ban-hou was a fierce fighter who utilized the middle and high stances rather than the low stance, and his movements were more compact and utilized smaller circles. He reputedly was so mean, unpleasant, and brutal that only three students could stand his training regimen. One of them was Quan Yu, a guard for the royal Manchurian household, who changed his surname to Wu. He practiced, essentially, what he learned from Yang Ban-hou, but his son, Wu Chien-chuan, who learned from both his father and Yang Ban-hou, modified the art to create a distinct small-frame form.
This small-frame form was further developed by Chien-Chuan's son, Wu Kung-i. Now, several generations later, Wu is a recognizably different style. Its movements are much more compact than those of Yang Style, and it has a higher stance. Yang and Wu are by far the most popular Tai Chi styles, both in China and the United States, but Chen Style’s popularity has been on the rise. There is one other officially recognized major Tai Chi style, Sun Style, created by Sun Lu-tang, which combines Tai Chi with elements of Bagua and Hsing-I, two other internal martial arts. Today, there are many other hybrid styles, but all derive from one of the five major styles: Chen, Wu/Hao, Yang, Wu, and Sun. Each style has its special emphasis and flavor, but all adhere to the basic principles of Tai Chi.
With so many styles, one might ask, “What is Tai Chi?” Certainly Tai Chi embodies physical technique, but the great diversity between styles eliminates physical technique as the primary definer. The chi kung aspect of Tai Chi is at least as important as is martial technique. Tai Chi is a subtle feeling, an awareness, and a pointed concentration. The true techniques of Tai Chi are internal, and you learn them gradually the more you practice. Foremost among them are relaxation, centered awareness, concentrated attention, soft and continuous motion, calmed thought, and a vibrant, energetic inner strength. Herein rests the true beauty of Tai Chi, for although it has roots in a long tradition of martial arts and is proven to be effective in that realm, it has equally deep roots in the healthful practice of chi kung. This is what makes Tai Chi such a well-rounded exercise as well as an excellent martial art. And in our modern, hectic times, the healthful aspects are perhaps more important than the martial applications. After all, few of us will have occasion to fight, but we all could use a formula for enhancing our daily health and well-being and easing the effects of aging.
Tai Chi players come to the art in many ways. We’ve all heard many things about it: it’s a gentle martial art, it’s healthful, it’s relaxing, it’s a nonstrenuous but effective exercise, it’s so beautiful to watch, it’s mystical. Each person is drawn by his or her own reasons. My personal journey along the Tai Chi path began in 1980. I enjoyed keeping fit and had an exercise routine consisting mostly of calisthenics and stretching that I had been happy with for several years. But something was lacking. True, I was strong and flexible because of my workouts, but I felt I wanted more direction, more purpose. I began to look toward the martial arts.
At the time, the worldwide proliferation of martial arts was in its infancy, and like many people at the time, I was aware of the martial arts from a few films and TV shows and a scattering of public demonstrations, but I didn’t know much about them. A little research was enough to boggle me. There were literally hundreds of types. Where should I begin? I examined my own needs and compared those with what little I’d learned of the various martial styles. I was turned off by the regimentation, violence, and sport aspects of karate and Taekwondo. That left me with some form of kung fu, or wushu, as some of the more modern Chinese forms are called. The name Tai Chi kept cropping up, and the more I learned about it the better it seemed for me. The only person I knew who actually practiced a martial art was a man who had earned a black belt in karate while stationed in Okinawa in the early 1960s. I asked him what martial art he would recommend, and his immediate reply was, "Tai Chi."
I guess the main factor that really drew me to the art was its longevity. It’s an art that improves with age. External styles depend on muscle and bone, which is all well and good for the younger practitioner, but Tai Chi depends on sinew and breath, which can remain powerful even in advanced age. I was nearly thirty, and though I would probably have gotten competent at an external style, it would have been a constant struggle just to maintain my own status quo. If I was going to put that much effort into something, I wanted to be able to get the most out of it. That Tai Chi players reportedly not only maintain proficiency but improve into old age was a definite plus.
The purported healthful influence of Tai Chi was the second factor that led me to the art. My readings promised that Tai Chi would promote muscle tone, relieved tensions due to stress, and aid in balance and good posture. These promises have not been false, and in fact, the first signs of improvement came within only a few months of beginning to learn the form. But it was the more esoteric promise of unimpeded chi flow enhancing my total well-being that really made me look closely at Tai Chi. What was this chi stuff? The books all said that every human, indeed all living things, are imbued with chi, but that, in the average person, it is undeveloped and undirected. Daily practice of Tai Chi and chi kung was said to enhance awareness of chi and give it conscious motivation. Though I had never heard of chi, it certainly sounded interesting.
And that brings me to the third factor that led me to take up Tai Chi. It’s interesting. In the beginning you learn a somewhat complex series of movements that are a challenge to integrate into your present movement patterns. As you learn them, you begin to observe how they help you move better in daily life. At last you know how to perform the entire set of movements solo. You can feel the healthful benefits, you become more grounded in your movements, and you start to think, “Hey, I’m really getting this stuff.” Then all of a sudden, you realize just how little you do know. To use a venerable Tai Chi simile, you’re like a sculptor who has taken an unformed block of stone and roughed out the form within. But you’ve just taken the first step. From that point onward, you will constantly modify and improve the postures and stances, further hewing the stone into a recognizable and polished work of art.
And the beauty is that you work on yourself. You are the work of art. As you struggle with a particular posture or transition, you frequently struggle as much with psychological and emotional blockages as with physical ones. Release of those blockages and physical health go hand-in-hand in ways that are often as surprising as they are obvious once you’ve released them. For me, Tai Chi has only gotten more interesting, has only showed greater depth. If I’ve sometimes found daily practice tedious, it’s usually because something greater is just around the corner. If I just walk a little farther though the postures, I’ll round that corner.
The longer I do Tai Chi, the more I understand the term “Tai Chi player,” for it does become joyous play. There are so many secrets embodied in the art that even after more than four decades of practicing and studying Tai Chi, I feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface. Today, I find it more fascinating than ever.