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                                                             THE HISTORY OF TAI CHI
                     Pictures of Tai Chi Chuan Movements illustrated by the Queen of Tai Chi Chuan - Gao Jiamin (Right

       Grand master Nguyen Lam performing Tai chi Chuan form in Tai chi Chuan class at CSUN University in Northridge CA, USA.   

[I am deeply grateful to Peter Lim both for his excellent papers on the history of Tai Chi Chuan, and for his personal communications to me, in providing a background for this historical overview. Any errors are, however, entirely my responsibility.]

           Early Genealogy of Tai Chi

There exists a very ancient history in China of movement systems that are associated with health and philosophy. In some sense one can see all of these as contributing to the climate in which Tai Chi was born.

From the very origins of Taoism in the sixth century BC, sages like Lao Tsu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:

Yield and Overcome;
Bend and be straight.
He who stands of tiptoe is not steady.
He who strides cannot maintain the pace.
In this and in the entire tenor of his writings Lao Tsu reflects the central philosophical underpinnings of Tai Chi Chuan.

Later, in the period of the Three Kingdoms (220 to 265 AD) there was a physician Hua-tu'o who relied not only on medicine but also taught the 'movements of the five creatures' -- tiger, deer, bear, ape and birds -- a system he called Wu-chi chih hsi. He believed that the body needed to be regularly exercised to help with digestion and circulation and only by doing so could a long and healthy live be achieved. He advocated a system of imitating the movements of these animals to help exercise every joint in the body. His teaching, and its connection with the movements of animals, is probably the earliest pre-cursor of Tai Chi.

Painting of Bodihdharma by Feng Tien: Ch'ing Dynasty.

Painting of Bodihdharma.

In the sixth century A.D. Bodihdharma (called Ta Mo in China) came to the Shao-Lin Monastery and seeing that the monks there were in poor physical condition from too much meditation and not enough movement, his Eighteen Form Lohan Exercise. Over time these grew to be the precursors of the Wei Chia (outer-extrinsic) school of exercise, by which is meant all the schools of kung-fu and other martial art forms which take an 'external' approach. This is in contrast to the Nei Chia (internal-intrinsic) school of which Tai Chi is a member, that take a fundamentally 'internal' approach. In the eighth century AD (the Tang dynasty) philosophers like Hsu Hsuan- p'ing developed a 'Long Kung-fu' of 37 forms. Of these certain ones such as:

  • Play the Pi'pa
  • Single Whip
  • Step up to Seven Stars
  • Jade Lady Works the Shuttles,
  • High Pat on Horse; and
  • White Crane (originally Phoenix) Cools Wing
Still survive in the contemporary Tai Chi form. There were several other such forms being practiced in the eighth century (Heavenly-Inborn Style, Nine Small Heavens Style and Acquired Kung-fu) from which grew the origins of Tai Chi.

Chang San-feng.

Drawing of Chang San-feng.

The apocryphal founder of Tai Chi was a monk of the Wu Tang Monastery, Chang San-feng to whom have been ascribed various dates and longevity's. Some scholars doubt his historical existance, viewing him as a literary construct on the lines of Lao Tzu. Other research and records from the Ming-shih (the official chronicles of the Ming dynasty) seem to indicate that he lived in the period from 1391 to 1459 (he may have been born earlier and lived later: these are simply some dates associated with him).

Linking some of the older forms with the notion of yin-yang from Taoism and stressing the 'internal' aspects of his exercises, he is credited with creating the fundamental 'Thirteen Postures' of Tai Chi corresponding to the eight basic trigrams of the I Ching and the five elements. The eight 'postures' are:

  1. ward-off
  2. rollback
  3. press
  4. push
  5. pull
  6. split
  7. elbow strike; and
  8. shoulder strike
The five 'attitudes' are:
  1. advance
  2. retreat
  3. look left
  4. gaze right; and
  5. central equilibrium.
His exercises stressed suppleness and elasticity and were opposed to hardness and force. They incorporated philosophy, physiology, psychology, geometry and the laws of dynamics.

His theories, writings and practices were elaborated sometime later by Wang Chung-yueh and his student Chiang Fa. Wang apparently took the thirteen postures of Chang San-feng and linked them together into continuous sequences, thus creating something which resembles the contemporary Tai Chi Chuan form. His student Chiang Fa taught Tai Chi to the villagers of a town on Honan (almost all of whom were called Chen) and thus began the first family school of Tai Chi Chuan.

Herein lies one of the most contentious and perplexing areas of Tai Chi history and scholarship. Some scholars feel that rather than bringing Tai Chi to the Chen village Chiang Fa simply discovered the Chen villagers practiciing this art. Others maintain that the Chen family's so-called 'Cannon Pounding' (Pao Chui) was a distinct martial art that undoubtedly influenced Chiang Fa's teaching but that it was not the same as Tai Chi.

Another of Wang's students was Chen Chou-t'ung who quarreled with Chiang Fa. The former then established the so-called Southern School of Tai Chi, an interesting an colourful branch of Tai Chi which subsequently disappeared. Chiang Fa continued with the mainstream 'Northern' school of Tai Chi which survives today.

Whatever their respective contributions, from Chiang-Fa and the Chen villagers in Honan emerge all of the surviving branches of Tai Chi Chuan:

  1. One of his students, Chen You-heng, continued what is called the New Frame Style of Chen Tai Chi.
  2. Chen Chang-hsing (1771-1853) studied under Chiang-Fa and combined the Cannon Pounding (Pao Chui) form of the Chen Family with the Tai Chi taught by Chiang-Fa. Chen Chang-hsing, in turn, was the teacher of Yang Lu-chan, the originator of the Yang Style of Tai Chi.
  3. Another Chen family member and student of Chen Chang-hsing was Chen Gen-yun whose descendants continued the Old Frame Style of Chen Tai Chi.
  4. Wu Quan-yu, a Manchu guard in the Imperial Palace at Beijing, was a student of both Yang Lu-chan and his son Yang Pan-hou. Wu taught it to (amongst others) his son Wu Chien-chuan (Also written as Wu Jian-quan). From this stream emerged the Wu Style of Tai Chi.
  5. Another Chen family member was Chen Yau-pun who veered away from Chiang Fa's tradition to create the 'new' school of Tai Chi. Apparently his student Chen Quin-ping was an originator of the Zhao Bao Style of Tai Chi.
  6. One of Chen Quin-ping's students was Li Jing-Ting who, in turn was the founder of the Hu Lei Style of Tai Chi.
  7. A student of both Yang Lu-chan and Chen Qing-ping was Wu Yu- xiang. He taught his nephew Lee I-yu who in turn taught Hao Wei-chen. This gave rise to the Wu Shi Style (or Hao Style) of Tai Chi Chuan.
  8. One of Hao Wei-chen's students was Sun Lu-tang who also studied Hsing-I Quan under Kuo Yun-shen and Pa Kua Chang under Cheng T'ing-hua (himself a student of Dong Hai-chuan, the founder of Pa Kua Chang). He combined these forms in the new Sun Style of Tai Chi Chuan.
These are the principal styles of Tai Chi that are in existence in the present day.
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Cheng Style Tai Chi Chuan

The Chen-style Tai Chi Quan falls into two categories - the old and new frames. The old frame was created by Chen Wangling himself. It had five routines which were also known as ihe 13 move Chuan. Chen Wangling also developed a long-style Chuan routine of 108 moves and a cannon Chuan rouline. Il was then handed down to Chen Changxing and Chen Youben, boxers in the Chenjia Valley who were all proficient at ihe old frame. The preseni-day Chen-style Cshuan boasts of the old routine, the cannon routine and the new routine.

The Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan is the oldest form, all the other styles of Tai Chi Quan having derived from it either directly or indirectly. With jumps, leaps and explosions of strength, the performance followed a circular path. The Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan was known by the name "Lao Jia" ("old frame").

Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan

The originator of the Yang-style Tai Chi Chuan was Yang Luchan (1800-1873) from Yongnian in Hebei Province. Yang went to learn Tai Chi Chuan from Chen Changxing in the Chenjia Valley as a boy. When grown up, he returned to his native town to teach the art. To suit the need of common people, Yang Luchan made some changes, and dropped some highly difficult moves, such as force irritating, broad jumps and foot thumping. His son shortened the routine which was further simplified by his grandson. The grandson's form of the Yang-style Tai Chi Chuan was later taken as the protocol of the Yang-style Chuan. Because of its comfortable postures, simplicity and practicability, this form has become the most popular routine for exercise and practise .

The Yang-style Tai Chi Chuan features agreeable movements and actions combining hardness, softness and naturalness. When practising, practitioners should relax to form softness which transforms into hardness thus combining the hard and the soft. The Yang-styk Tai Chi Quan is divided into three sub routines, namely high-posture, middle-posture and low-posture routines all with comfortable and agreeable movements and actions. The Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan was known by the name "Da Jia" ("big frame").

Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan

Wu-style Tai Chi Chuan was created by Quan You (1834-1902) who lived at Daxing in Hebei Pro-vince (now under Beijing Municipality). Quan You was of the Manchu nationality of China. He learned Tai Chi Quan from Yang Luchan and later followed Yang's second son Yang Banhou to study the short program. Quan You was known for his ability to soften his movements. Quan's son Jianquan changed his family name to Wu as he was brought up as a Han national. Wu Jianquan (1870-1942) inherited and disseminated a style of Tai Chi which is comfortable and upright. His style is continuous and ingenious and because his routine does not require jumps and leaps, it spread far and wide among common people. Since this style of Tai Chi Quan was disseminated by the Wu family, it became known as the Wu-style Tai Chi Chuan. The Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan was known by the name "Zhong Jia" ("medium frame").

Wu Yuxiang Style Tai Chi Chuan

Wu Yuxiang (1812-1880) was the creator of another Style of Tai Chi Quan. A Yongnian resident in Hebi, Wu Yuxiang learned the ABC's of Tai Chi from fellow provincial Yang Luchan. In 1852, Wu Yuxiang went to work for his brother at Wuyang. On his way to Wuyang, he learned the new routine ,of Tai Chi Quan from Chen Qingping and mastered it. At his brother's home, Wu Yuxiang got hold of a transcript of Wang Zongyue's On Tai Chi Quan. So upon returning home, Wu Yuxiang delved into the book and practised the principles stipulated in it. Wu eventually wrote Ten Essential Points of Martial Artists and Four-Word Poetic Secrets of Tai Chi: Apply, Cover, Combat and Swallow, which have become the classics of Chinese Wushu writing.

The Wu Yuxiang style of Tai Chi features compactness, slow movement, strict footwork and distinguishes between substantialness and insubstantialness. The chest and abdomen are kept upright while the body is moving around. The outside movement of the body is initiated by the circulation of air flows inside the body and by inner adjustments of substantialness and insubstantialness. The two hands are in charge of their respective halves of the body-one does not infringe upon the other. The hand never goes farther than the foot. Li Yishe (1832-1892), son of Wu Yuxiang's sister, inherited the Wu Yuxiang style of Tai Chi. He wrote about his experience of practising Five-Word Essentials, The Secret to Relaxation: Lift, Guide, Loosen and Release and Essentials for Tai Chi Movements and Actions. In the first year of the Republic (1911), Hao Weizhen (1849-1920) from Yongnian County taught the Wu Yuxiang style of Tai Chi in Beijing, and later in Nanjing and Shanghai.
The Wu Yuxiang Style Tai Chi Chuan was known by the name "Xiao Jia" ("small frame").

Sun Style Tai Chi Chuan

The initiator of the Sun-style Tai Chi Chuan was Sun Lutang (1861-1932) from Dingxian County in Hebei Province. Sun was a master of Xingyi Quan (free-mind animal-imitating Chuan) and Bagua Zhang (Eight-diagram Palm). In 1911, he followed Hao Weizhen to learn the Wu Yuxiang style of Tai Chi. He later created the Sun style of Tai Chi Chuan by blending the cream of the Wu Yuxiang style of Tai Chi, Xingyi Quan and Bagua Zhang. The feature of the Sun-style Tai Chi is that practitioners advance or retreat freely with quick and dexterous movements, which are connected with each other either in closing or opening stances when the direction is changed.

Besides the above-mentioned five style of Tai Chi Chuan, there is another style called Five-Star Tai Chi. This style was initiated by Wang Lanting, butler of Prince Duan of Yang Luchan who served as Wushu master to Prince Duan. After mastering the Chuan art, Wang Lanting passed it onto Li Ruidong and Si Xingsan. Li Ruidong then absorbed the cream of other styles of Tai Chi to form the Five-Star Tai Chi.

The Chanmen Tai Chi Quan or Buddhist Tai Chi Quan which is popular in the area of Pingdingshan in Henan Province was developed by monks in the Shaolin Temple according to the Infinitely Merciful Dharani Scripture. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, it had also absorbed the best of the martial arts practised by followers of Taoism and Confucianism. As it was first created by Buddhist monks, it was called Chanmen or Buddhist Tai Chi Quan.

To further popularize Tai Chi Quan among the people after the establishment of the People's Republic of China, a simplified set of the Yang-style Tai Chi Quan was compiled in 1956, by dropping the repeated and difficult movements. The simplified set consists of 24 forms. In 1979, the Chinese State Physical Fxiucation and Sports Commission absorbed the strongest points from the Chen-style, Yang-style and Wu-style Tai Chi, as well as Tai Chi Wushu, to form a popular, 48-form Tai Chi Quan.
The Sun Style Tai Chi Chuan was known by the name "Huobao Jia" ("lively pace frame").

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