Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art and health system that is mostly practised today for its health benefits and stress relieving qualities. Conservative estimates suggest that over thirty million people a day practise Tai Chi in China alone and it’s popularity throughout the rest of the world is growing very quickly.
Most peoples’ perception of Tai Chi today is what is known as The Tai Chi Hand Form. The Tai Chi Hand Form is actually a sequence of martial techniques that are performed slowly in a graceful manner.
How did Tai Chi originate?
From early times in China martial arts were used for both fighting and entertainment.
- Martial artists employed their skills in the army and used them to protect communities, villages and clans.
- Skilled fighters were used as escorts to protect convoys travelling in the open country. Martial arts bouts and demonstrations were shown as amusement in fairs and market places.
- Intricate fight scenes were a popular part of local village plays and the grander operas performed in cities.
Before the widespread use of firearms, a very serious attitude was taken to martial arts, as people’s lives and the protection of their property depended on their fighting ability.
- Villages and clans developed their own particular fighting styles and these were kept secret from outsiders.
- When men left their villages to go and work in the army or elsewhere, they would often return to the village with new techniques they had learned and integrate them into the village fighting style.
In China martial arts were never regarded as being purely physical and they drew on concepts, language and imagery from China’s rich philosophical and religious traditions to illustrate martial principles.
Concepts such as Yin and Yang and the five elements were adopted into fighting systems and became an important part of their theoretical framework. The Chinese have been interested in self-cultivation for thousands of years, using body movement methods such as Chi Gung (energy work), acupuncture and herbal medicine to enhance their health and longevity. Internal energy work was adopted into some martial arts styles and this greatly enhanced them.
Martial arts developed in this way and by the 17th century two distinct classifications were made as martial arts being either of the internal school or the external school.
A well known scholar Wang Li-Zhou (1610-95) stated in one of his essays, “there is now the so-called internal martial arts which is to overcome the offensive with stillness. The enemy often was thrown to the ground with the first touch of hands. This is different from Shaolin-ling, the hard external school.”
This was the first time the terms internal and external were mentioned in literature. It is against this background that Tai Chi evolved from being an amalgamation of long-boxing with Shaolin type strikes, kicks and throws to become an internal martial art.
- It became more sophisticated when the internal energy work was integrated into the movements.
- It was further refined when the movements became more circular and the strikes and kicks were made with bent limbs as opposed to straight limbs as they had been previously.
It is generally agreed by most Tai Chi historians that the precursor of Tai Chi as as we know it today came from the Chen village in central China.
Knowing that the Chen village was famous for its fighting style, a very talented martial artist named Yang Lu-Chan went to work there. He pretended that he could neither hear nor speak so the the villages would not feel he was a threat to spreading secrets of their highly regarded system.
Yang secretly watched the villagers in training and he was eventually found out. The head teacher Chen Hsing recognised that Yang was a highly disciplined and skilled student and he offered to teach him.
After many years of training with Chen Hsing, Yang left the chen village. His fame spread far and wide and he became known as “Yang the Invincible”.
Yang taught many students, including Wu Yu-Hsiang and Wu’s brothers who were officials in the Ching Dynasty bureaucracy.
In 1850 Yang was invited to teach the Imperial Family and members of the elite Manchu Guards Brigades Units in the Forbidden City. Yang’s most skilled non-family student Chuan-Yu was a low ranking officer in this unit.
With the fall of the Manchu-Ching Dynasty, Chuan-Yu changed his Manchu name to Wu – to be in more keeping with the political times. He passed his art to his son Wu Jian-Chuan who is known as the founder of the Wu style as we know it today.
There are five major branches of Tai Chi;- Chen Style, Yang Style, Wu Style, Wu/Sun style and Combination Styles.
- Chen style is Tai Chi that comes directly from the original Chen village. It is becoming more popular today as members of the Chen family are teaching it outside China.
- Yang Style is Tai Chi that comes directly from the Yang Lu Chan, his family members and disciples. Yang altered the Tai Chi that he learned in the Chen Village.
- Wu Style is Tai Chi that comes from Wu Jian-Chuan, the son of Chuan Yu who was Yang’s best non-family student. Wu Jian-Chuan learned from his father Chuan Yu and from Yang’s best son Yang Pan-Hou.
- There is another Wu style that comes from Wu Yu-Hsiang, who as one of Yang Lu Chan’s major students. Wu Yu-Hsiang also learned from another Chen family member and wrote highly regarded material on Tai Chi. His Tai Chi style was taught to members of the Hao family and to a famous Bagua master called Sun Lu Tang and later became known as the Sun style.
- There are also Combination styles which bring together elements from the different major styles.
The vast majority of the Tai Chi that is taught in the world today is Yang or Wu and these two styles are essentially very similar.