Tai Chi Lineage

History of T’ai Chi Ch’uan

T’ai-chi ch’uan (also spelled taijiquan and taiji chuan) is an ancient Chinese martial art that comes in so many variations that it’s often confusing to the layman. Some styles can trace their lineage back to the founding of the art, while others date back to the early part of the 20th century. Some stress competition, while others emphasize health or self-defense. Obviously, without the proper information, choosing the one that is best for you can be a daunting task. This article will present an overview of the major styles of tai chi, and after reading it you’ll be able to understand how one style begot another. And you’ll be able to more easily choose one that is right for you.

Before examining the many styles and sub-styles of the art, however, it’s wise to heed the advice of t’ai chi ch’uan Grandmaster Tchoung Ta-tchen. He insists that all are valid and beneficial to the student as long as the basic t’ai chi concepts are adhered to – even though many teachers proclaim that theirs is the only correct method.

First, the Art

T’ai-chi ch’uan is usually literally translated as “grand ultimate boxing”. I see this as meaning, instead of being an immodest title, the “grand ultimate” portion of the name refers to the Chinese concept of the origin of the universe. That is the principle of yin and yang. In fact, the common yin-yang symbol is properly called the t’ai chi diagram. I see t’ai-chi ch’uan being the art of the harmony of yin and yang, in tangible form.

The history of t’ai chi is foggy at best. There are many conflicting stories from the past, and the confusion continues right up to the present. To make matters worse, there are many revisionist versions of t’ai chi’s history which are expounded by those out to promote their own style as the best, or the most authentic. So it is difficult to get the full story.

The foundation concepts of t’ai chi ch’uan, which come from Taoism and Confucianism, go back to the beginning of written history in China. They come from Lao Tzu’s monumental text, Tao Te Ching, from the I Ching and from various other health-promoting and breathing exercise treatises. The actual art can be traced back only 300 to 700 years, however. The founder is said to be Chang San-feng (Zhang Sanfeng), who is thought to have lived from 1279 to 1368, but no one knows if he actually existed. Some experts claim him as just being a myth, while others argue he did exist and there are monuments to him in China.

Many believed Chang San-feng was a Shaolin monk who decided to leave the monastery to become a Taoist hermit. On Wu Tang (Wudang) mountain, he gave up the hard fighting style he had learned and formulated a new art based on softness and yielding. One story tells how he had a vision between a snake and a crane (although some say it was a magpie, an eagle or a hawk). In theory, the crane should have had an easy time killing the snake, but in Chang’s vision, the crane would try to attack the snake’s head, and the snake would evade and hit the crane with it’s tail. When the crane would try for the snake’s tail, the snake would bite the crane. This resulted in the discovery of the basic t’ai chi concepts of evading, yielding and attacking.

Chang assembled a martial art that used softness and internal power to overcome brute force. He is believed to have written: “In every movement, every part of the body must be light and agile and strung together. The postures should be without breaks. Motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, directed by the waist and expressed by the fingers. Substantial and insubstantial movements must be clearly differentiated.”

This marked the beginning of t’ai-chi ch’uan, but at that time it was called chang chuan, or long boxing after the endless flow of the Changjiang (Yangtse) River. Later, Chang formulated the 13 postures of t’ai chi. While no one knows what his art looked like then, it is thought that the movements were practiced as individual techniques and/or concepts.

The next major historical figure was Wang Tsung-yueh (Wang Zongyue), who wrote the second t’ai chi classic and first referred to the art as t’ai-chi chuan. He also coined the statement, “a force of 4 ounces deflects 1,000 pounds.” He is thought to have expanded the original 13 postures into a linked choreographed form. Some historians believe Wang actually founded the art, while others dispute his existence as well.