The History of Tai Chi Chuan


Tai Chi or as it is more completely transliterated Taijiquan (太極拳 ) has debatable roots.  I will briefly cover a number of theories or stories of how Tai Chi originated. They each bring something to an understanding of the art.

There is a mythic origin story with Daoist saint/immortal Zhang Sanfeng (
). The story goes that as a hermit on Mount Wudang he saw a snake neutralise the sharp attacks of a crane using soft movements and used this as the basis for martial art. This was supposed to have happened sometime in the 12th century.

These days there are numerous teachers of Wudang Tai Chi in the area of Wudang mountain. However, many of the forms they teach are modern inventions dating back to the end of the 20th century. 

Other forms found there can be traced to 19th/early20th century Beijing and other areas far from Wundang. There are not records of their practice in the Wudang area before the modern era. This doesn’t mean that such forms do not have value, just that you should be careful to take stated history as factual.

Myths have power, they endure and it has been a staple of Chinese culture to associate innovation with valued ancestors.

A more historically verifiable account traces Tai Chi to the Chen family village (陳家溝) in Henan province sometime in the 16th century. There are written documents and artifacts that seem to corroborate this story. In this case, Chen Wangting (陈王庭; 1580–1660 ) a retired military officer,  combined contemporary Shaolin martial arts, and a preexisting family style with his studies of Daoist theory to create an art that was shared in the clan.

The Chen family style of Tai Chi was brought to Beijing by Yang Luchan (楊露禪 1799-1872) who gained a reputation as a very skilled fighter.

Tai Chi became widespread and popular in China in the early 20th Century. Yang Chengfu (楊澄甫, 1883–1936), the grandson of Yang Luchan openly taught a style as a way to promote the health of people. At that time China was overrun by colonial powers and in the throes of a great modernisation. Yang Chengfu’s Tai Chi was an attempt to throw off China’s reputation as the sick man of Asia.

Since those days Tai Chi has been increasingly associated with health rather than martial arts, though there are many strands and styles and schools that place different emphases on different aspects.

Many historical figures in Chinese martial arts were written into heroic pulp fiction stories, similar to US stories of pioneers and cowboys. Over time the fiction has blurred into the popular narrative. This trend continued when Chinese martial arts reached the cinema.

For some people Tai Chi is inextricably linked with Daoism. Others argue that anything arising from Chinese culture will be run through with Daoist thought, imagery and cosmology, but Tai Chis has no special relation with Daoism.

What I will say is that something as old as Tai Chi and practiced by thousands then millions of people over centuries will inevitably become richly woven with family stories, anecdotes, philosophical musings, and literary references. It is far beyond the scope of this course to do more than acknowledge this. There are lifetimes of study there.

In China named martial arts styles come and go, typically lasting a century or three. Teachers combine styles, they create and name their own styles. Each style is just a curve in a river, the water running through having a source far in the past. For all the changes in names, for all the disputes between styles the water running through is the same. If you look you can find great similarities between different Chinese styles.

I will also say that the process of Tai Chi practice is compatible and not contradictory with the practice of Daoist alchemy as I understand it. What I present in this course is an attempt to stay true to this understanding, without delving into details.

The majority of practitioners are looking for a way to remain healthy, to feel good and achieve a sense of harmony. This course is focused on those goals.

The Tai Chi that I teach in this course is based on the style of Chen Panling (陳泮嶺) and is a syncretic form with elements of Chen, Yang and Wu style Taiji along with a small flavor of Bagua and Xingyi. I learned this form from my Teacher Luo Dexiu, it has a circularity that I find very enjoyable.

Bagua Master Gao Yi Sheng

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