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smlogo The History Of Tai Chi Chuan
To understand the development of tai chi we must first understand human development, since humans created tai chi chuan. Chinese culture began some five to seven thousand years ago. Since that time people have accumulated experiences defending and healing themselves. Many methods of self-defense (what are now referred to as kungfu, wushu, or the martial arts) arose out of real-life encounters with wild animals, warring tribes, and natural obstacles. People also faced injury, illness, and death, and they created countermeasures we know as medicine, acupuncture, breathing exercises, chi kung, and song and dance to maintain their health.

Even though China has a long history, many parts of traditional culture have been lost to us today because there are no written records. Due to the uncertain atmosphere of feudalism, people seldom kept records, and even when they did, the writings would be hidden away due to fear of reprisal.

For example, between the Han and Wei dynasties (220-206 B.C.) the famous physician Wah Tor recognized that sitting meditation creates health problems if done improperly or too often. He created five animal movements to promote harmony with the spirit of nature. He attempted to capture the spirit of the tiger, deer, monkey, bear, and crane in exercises to improve his patients' health. One of the early Chinese surgeons, Wah Tor was skilled in acupuncture and herbal medicine. He once suggested operating on the king for a brain tumor. The king, however, suspecting assassination, saw to it that the physician lost his life first.

The Chinese have an old saying that nine out of ten people who learn martial arts get injured. This saying indicates that if you train improperly or overtrain you risk injury. Some wise person in the past recognized this problem and added health maintenance practices, such as chi kung and meditation, to martial training programs to create a new kind of art.

Tai Chi Chuan is today a well-known martial art for health and self-defense. The name that we know today first appeared sometime between the Sung and Ming dynasties (960-1500 A.D.), but the basic theory and fundamentals of the art germinated in China over 2,000 years ago; every generation since has been improving the art.

Many styles of tai chi are recorded in the Tang dynasty, with varied and colorful names such as soft fist boxing, pre-heaven style, post-heaven style, 37 generations style, small ninth heaven, and others. The names have a religious flavor because most teachers were Taoist. Why were most of the teachers Taoist?

Taoism (Daoism) is a philosophy attributed to Lou Ji (Laozi) around 570 B.C. Taoists influenced the particular character of tai chi and improved the primitive art through their attitude towards life. They brought to the martial arts the ideas of simplicity, softness, peace of mind, and harmony with nature.

During the fourteenth century Taoists were the first to use the name "tai chi." During the Sung dynasty Taoism spread over all of China and held its widest influence. Chang San Feng, the highly respected Taoist philosopher, is often credited with inventing tai chi himself. Some indicate he lived during the Sung dynasty; however, history books from the Ming dynasty also mention a Taoist philosopher of the same name. He was a real person, but when he lived is still unclear. It is certain that he knew tai chi well and influenced all the styles we call part of the WuDong system.

Modern Styles of Tai Chi

The Chen style developed in Chenjiakao (the Chen village). It is well-known that the family knew martial arts well even before they were introduced to tai chi theory. Using the principles of tai chi, they created what we know as Chen style. Some famous practitioners are Chen Hom and Chen Fa Fo. A person named Juerng Fat was a servant of the headman, Chen Wang Ting, in the Chen village and was treated as a guest in his home. It is said that he could catch a hare in only eight steps. He was the carrier of the soft fist style [yao kun]. In old China, servants were never treated as guests. It is said that he shared his skills with the master, and this association may have laid the foundations for Chen style.

The founder of Yang style is Yang Low Sim (1799-1872). He studied over ten years in the Chen village. Before he settled in Beijing, he travelled around the country to other places famous for kungfu. No one ever heard of him losing a fight.

The Yang style he created is a dramatic departure from what he studied in the Chen village. The differences between Chen and Yang style suggest the incorporation of new information.

Yang Ching Po of the third generation taught tai chi widely, bringing its health benefits to many people. He added notes to his family's book about tai chi theory in which he states that tai chi chuan was developed by Chang San Feng. The fact that Yang does not attribute the development of tai chi to the Chen village is significant and reinforces the view that tai chi was known long before Chen style was established.

Mr. Wong demonstrating a Sung tai chi movement Sung style has never been taught widely. The first most people had heard of it was at the end of the last kingdom, the Ching dynasty, and during the past century people have speculated that it may have come from the Yang style because the movements are similar in a certain way. No one from the Yang family ever accused Sung of developing his style from their style.

Sung Sü Ming is the most famous practitioner of this style, and his students were quite famous even before they came to study with him. Student Wu Jen Chen first learned tai chi from his father and the Yang family; Ke Ji Sao knew Ying Jao Fan Ji Mun (Eagle Claw); and Hsu Yü Sang knew Yang style before he studied with Sung Sü Ming.

If Sung was so good that he taught the Yang family's top students, it is certain that they knew of him. Sung was close in age to the Yang style founder; however, no one has ever indicated that Sung learned directly from the Yang family.

Wu Jen Chen first learned tai chi from his father, Wu Chuan Yu. Wu, whose father studied under Yang Low Sim and his son Yang Ban How, went on to create the Wu style after he studied with Sung.

[We use the Cantonese pronunciation to distinguish this Wu style from the other Wu style, because they have the same pronunciation in Mandarin (the written form is different).]
Mo Yu Hseng originally learned tai chi from Yang Low Sim, the founder of Yang style. Afterwards he went to Jiu Bow Jan where a type of Chen style was practiced and learnt the basic fundamentals from Chan Ching Ping. After he returned to his hometown he read a booklet on tai chi theory by Wong Jung Ngo, whose theory is universally accepted as the most powerful expression of tai chi's fundamental elements.

Mo followed Wong's theory point by point to create the Mo style, which has a strong self-defense quality. Mo has also written down some famous words on tai chi theory. One of his famous principles is "hie sing hoi hao", the standard for correcting moving actions.

Lee and Hao
The Lee and Hao styles developed from the Mo style. Lee was the nephew of Mo and he collaborated on the early development of Mo style. Hao Why Jun was a student of Lee.

Sun Lo Tong learned tai chi from Hao Why Jun and mixed in footwork from hsing i to create the Sun style. He was also famous for pa kua and hsing i.

The WuDong mountain is associated with all types of Taoist practices. The Taoists were able to keep the art of tai chi alive, even during times of political turmoil. Eventually, tai chi spread to the wider society. The WuDong style has a strong flavor of the original tradition. The fundamentals are the same even though the forms look different.

According to Harvard University's Arthur M. Sackler Museum, abundant archaeological evidence shows clearly Chinese characteristics as early as the fifth millenium B.C.

ChineseClick here for a glossary of proper names (in B5 encoding).

Click here for the glossary showing the Chinese characters for the names mentioned in this article as images:
Glossary Page

Copyright 2000 Y.K. Wong. All rights reserved. This information may be copied for noncommercial use only.