There are many types of martial arts and one of the most popular has to be Tai Chi, or more properly, Tai Chi Chuan. This style is popular even among those who have no real interest in martial arts but simply want to gain the health benefits Tai Chi exercises provide.
For me, however, two of the greatest draws are Tai Chi history and philosophy. On this occasion, I will examine the Tai Chi history.
The origins of Tai Chi history are often debated but one of the most popular theories tells us that the discipline began with a Taoist monk by the name of Zhang Sanfeng in the 12th century. Recent research however questions this as the first reference to Zhang Sanfeng and martial arts date from 1669 and the connection between him and Tai Chi history is only made in the 19th century.
The legend has it that Zhang Sanfeng learned his art in the Shaolin temple. One day he was sitting by a window reflecting on the inconsistency of martial arts, with their use of strength and heavy breathing, as compared with Taoist philosophy, which believes in a complete relationship between all things in nature so everything happens without effort. Zhang watched a bird and a snake in a death struggle in the garden in front of him. He was struck by the relaxed attitude of both creatures, using a combination of soft and gentle and hard actions but always quick and fluid. The story tells how this observation lead to the development of Tai Chi.
No matter how true this fable, most students of Tai Chi history agree that the discipline was practised by the Chen family in Chen village in the Honan province of northern China around the end of the Sung dynasty and the beginning of the Yuan dynasty (at the end of the 13th century). Some scholars can draw a direct line from Zhang Sanfeng to the Chen family. The Chen version of Tai Chi was kept a close secret for many years until in the early 1800’s when an individual named Yang Lu-chan trained with the family.
Yang practised the art for eighteen years before leaving and teaching what he knew in Beijing. This version became known as the Yang style as, with many martial arts, the form changed according to the teacher. Yang became an instructor to the Emperor’s Imperial Guards and this may have started Tai Chi as a popular martial art.
Different Styles in Tai Chi History
The styles of Tai Chi now fall into five distinct versions. As Tai Chi history progressed once again each new practitioner adopted the art in his or own way and the styles are defined according to the main teachers and their adaptations. The first style is Chen style, as practiced by the Chen family, and the second is that taught by Yang Lu-chan. Chen movements include some difficult kicks and hard external actions: Yang adapted these into a far softer and more easily accessible discipline.
Wu Yu-hsiang developed Wu style tai chi in the mid 19th century. He learned from Yang Lu-chan’s son, Yang Ban Ho, having originally learned Chinese wrestling (shuai-jao). Not surprisingly, Wu Tai Chi includes some throwing and locking techniques.
Similarly, when a master of hsing-i and pa kwa kung fu, Sun Lu-t’ang, learnt tai chi around 100 years ago, he created the Sun style, which includes moves from those disciplines. Of the five main styles from Tai Chi history, it is the Sun version that is seen less in modern classes.
One of the most popular styles however is the second Wu style, originated by Wu Ch’uan-yu. He was a member of the Imperial Guards taught Tai Chi by Yang Lu-chan and became, in 1850, a student and disciple of Yang’s son, Yang Ban Ho. Wu Ch’uan-yu’s family taught this second Wu style and his descendants still teach the discipline today.
Intriguingly, some of the movements used in this martial art today reflect the long Tai Chi history. Wonderfully described actions such as the Single Whip, White Crane Spreads Wings and Fair (or Jade) Lady Works with Shuttles have their echoes way back to the sixth-century Shaolin Monks.
Whenever we practise the Tai Chi movements we can reflect that, not only are we connecting with our bodies and can feel the functions thereof, but we are continuing a thread of Tai Chi history that leads back centuries.