How Understanding the History of Tai Chi Can Help You Learn and Practice Your Tai Chi Chuan Style Better

The only way for you to truly understand Tai Chi Chuan is to understand its history and its development through the generations. Each style, and each variation of that style, was developed in a particular way for a particular reason. A teacher of one generation may emphasize a certain aspect of the curriculum, and if you don't understand why that emphasis was made you may not practice your Tai Chi form correctly.

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For example, I remember a story from a Karate school where in one of the katas there was a peculiar kick. Noone really understood what it was for. But then one Sensei did some research and found out that in the period in which the kata was created they wore wooden sandals and the "kick" was actually not a kick at all, but was in fact the martial artist flicking his sandal into the face of the opponent!!

With a style like Tai Chi Chuan, with a history so long, it is inevitable that there will be similar historical oddities whose original meaning has been long forgotten but yet people still routinely include in their practice. So...

Where does your style come from?

Why did it develop in the way that it has?

What unique benefits has this given to the practice of your style?

Understanding where your school of Tai Chi "fits" in the passage of history can help you better appreciate your particular style and can actually help improve your practice.

The history of tai chi is as rich as it is old. Tai Chi has evolved through the passage of Chinese cultural development where it has now become a popular national treasure, and is also becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise in the Western World.

The origins of Tai Chi are quite appropriately steeped in mystery and legend, making it difficult to pin down a precise point of "where Tai Chi started."


For instance, some would say that we can attribute origins to Bodhidharma (called Ta Mo in China), a Buddhist monk from India who traveled to China in the 5th or 6th century.

The story goes that Bodhidharma observed the Shaolin monks neglecting their bodies due to too much meditation and not enough exercise, and so he taught them a series of external exercises called the Eighteen Arhat Hands (Shi-ba Lohan Shou). There is also conjecture that he taught them the Yi Jin Jing, or "Muscle/Tendon Change Classic", an early classical form of Qigong. Several of the classical poses of Tai Chi (e.g. Single whip, Play the Pi'pa, White Crane Spreads it's Wings, etc.) can apparently be attributed to these forms.

Five Animal Frolics
Five Animal Frolics

Other researchers will quickly point to Hua-tu'o, a physician of the Three Kingdoms period (220 to 265 AD), who is attributed to the creation of Wu-chi chih hsi, "Movements of the Five Creatures," aka "Five Animal Games," aka "Five Animal Frolics." Hua-tu'o advocated that exercise was essential to good health and longevity prescribing movements that imitated animals -- tiger, deer, bear, ape and birds. The Five Animal Frolics emphasis on natural movement can be seen as a precursor to the movements of Tai Chi Chuan.

Lao Tzu
Lao Tzu

Then there are proponents, like myself, who will add in the reminder about the deep roots Tai Chi has in Taoism. One only has to look at some of the passages in the Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu to see examples of this:

"Yield and Overcome;
Bend and be straight."


"He who stands of tiptoe is not steady.
He who strides cannot maintain the pace."

It could be easily said that the philosophy of Lao Tzu is the philosophy of Tai Chi Chuan. You will hear me say a few times in amongst the pages of that one could regard Tai Chi Chuan as a physical guide-book to come to an experiential understanding of Tao. Especially when you look deeper into Yin Yang theory, the Five Elements, and the Bagua of the I Ching you see very profound related connections between Tai Chi Chuan and Taoism.

So with this slightly obscure and twisting path we arrive finally at the first "emergence" of Tai Chi in the equally obscure personage of Zhang Sanfeng.

Zhang Sanfeng (c. 1400)

Zhang Sanfeng
Zhang Sanfeng

I mentioned above that Zhang Sanfeng is an obscure semi-mythical figure because there is conjecture as to whether or not Zhang Sanfeng was an actual person or whether he was merely a literary creation to personify the history of Tai Chi up to that point.

The general consensus (with a few variations) is that Zhang Sanfeng lived from 1391 to 1459(+). He apparently first trained as a Shaolin monk but then left to study and train with Taoist sages, until he finally settled at the famous Wudang Mountain.

One of the central myths surrounding Zhang Sanfeng is the story of the snake and the crane. He apparently witnessed a scene, or had a vision, wherein a snake was fighting with a crane. In one version of the story the prime focus was on the snake as it was able to evade and counter the crane. In another, equal credit was given to both snake and crane as they enacted their lethal dance. In both cases, however, the imagery is said to have been Zhang Sanfeng's inspiration for what would become "The Thirteen Movements".

Tai Chi Crane and Snake
Sanfeng's Crane & Snake

Linking directly to the Taoist principles of the eight trigrams of the I Ching and the five elements, The Thirteen Movements include:

Eight postures:

  1. Ward-off
  2. Rollback
  3. Press
  4. Push
  5. Pull
  6. Split
  7. Elbow strike; and
  8. Shoulder strike
And five "attitudes":
  1. Advance
  2. Retreat
  3. Look left
  4. Gaze right; and
  5. Central equilibrium

Once again, however, there is serious conjecture as to the actual existence of Zhang Sanfeng. There is valid debate that the character of Zhang Sanfeng was created to legitimize certain branches of Tai Chi Chuan; meaning that the founders tried to connect themselves to an ancient historical figure as a means to give their style its own credibility. Seeing that no one can either prove nor disprove this, I am quite certain this controversial debate will continue to rage on for quite a long time.

It should also be noted here that, at this stage, the art that was to become known as Tai Chi Chuan was called Chang Chuan 长 拳, or Long Boxing.

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Wang Zongyue

Wang Zongyue shares the same notoriety as Zhang Sanfeng in that there is no verifiable historical proof of his existence as well as some claiming him to be the "true founder" of Tai Chi Chuan.

Said to be the student of Zhang Sanfeng, Wang Zongyue further elaborated his teachers theories and practices. Instead of just the isolated movements of the Thirteen Postures, Wang Zongyue was the first to string the Thirteen Movements together into a continuous sequence -- a predecessor of the Tai Chi Chuan form we know today. It is unsure however what this form may have looked like.

Wang Zongyue is the attributed author to one of the tai chi classics, called the Salt Shop Manuals, and was first to refer to the art as "tai chi chuan", and apparently also coined the statement, "a force of 4 ounces deflects 1,000 pounds."

It was Wang Zongyue's student, Chiang Fa, who is reported to have delivered the art to the Chen village in Honan. Though a note here is that some styles seem to have appropriated Chiang Fa as their own, meaning that there are claims that he came instead to "other" villages to teach them the "true art".

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Chen Wangting
Chen Wangting

Chen Wangting (1580–1660)

The importance of Chen Wangting is that he is the first historically verifiable originator of tai chi chuan. Those that claim Chen Wangting was the original founder say that he developed the art from his experience as a military general and from his study of Chinese martial arts including shaolin.

His complete work contained five smaller sets of forms, a 108-move Long Fist routine, and a Cannon Fist routine. Chen is also credited with the invention of the first push hands exercises.

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Chen Changxing
Chen Changxing

Chen Changxing (1771–1853)

Chen Changxing, 14th generation Chen family, is most famous because he taught the first outsider to the Chen family, Yang Lu-ch'an.

He has been historically regarded as a bit of a maverick with some conjecture that he both learnt other styles of Kung Fu and also recompiled the traditional Chen forms which he then taught to Yang Luchan.

Chen Changxing is said to have been of an irreverent character and was given the nickname "Mr Ancestral Tablet" due to the directness of his posture.

It is important to note that, even though the Chen style gave rise to the Yang Family style (as you are about to read), the Chen family Tai Chi Chuan continued to be practiced, taught and passed down through successive generations. Though even within the Chen style branches began to occur at this time.

For example, Chen Youben developed and passed down to Chen Qingping what was to become known as the "New Frame" Chen style. Under Chen Qingping this would eventually become known as the Zhaobao school. Chen Youheng was also said to have passed down a "New Frame" Chen style.

Meanwhile Chen Chang-hsing continued with the "Old Frame" Chen style that passed down through Chen Gen-yur.

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Yang Lu Chan
Yang Lu-Ch'an

Yang Lu-ch'an (1799–1872)

Yang Lu-ch'an represents a pivotal turning point in the history of Tai Chi Chuan. Up to this point Tai Chi was a closely gaurded secret of the Chen family, taught only to family members. The story of how Yang Lu-ch'an managed to learn is of much conjecture with some colorful variations.

One story is that Yang, already an accomplished martial artist, challenged one of the Chen family to a fight and was summarily thrashed. Mortified Yang trained hard for a year and challenged the Chen family member again, and was again given a hiding. Determined to learn this superior fighting style Yang tried to gain entrance to the Chen family school but was repeatedly turned away. In one of the more colorful variants Yang then deliberately swallowed some hot coals to make himself mute and disguised himself as a servant and infiltrated the village where Chen Tai Chi was taught.

Under the cover of his guise Yang spent a couple of years secretly observing and studying the training sessions of the Chen family and then practicing out of sight. However he was discovered by Chen Changxing and Yang felt sure he would be killed by the deception. However, so the story goes, Chen Changxing saw an opportunity in Yang to revitalize what he thought was some stagnation in the Chen family. It is rumored that Chen Changxing had made some major adaptations to the traditional Chen Tai Chi Chuan form and it was this that he secretly taught Yang Lu-ch'an. The story progresses that Chen Changxing controversially entered Yang into the annual Chen family tournament where Yang was the ultimate victor.

Yang Lu-ch'an was then permitted to go out and teach this new version of Tai Chi Chuan which became formally known as the Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan.

There are many stories of amazing feats performed by Yang Lu-ch'an which led to him becoming known as Yang Wu Di (楊無敵, Yang the Invincible). Eventually his notoriety and his ability to back it up in contests of skill led to his employment in 1850 by the Imperial family to teach Taijiquan to them and several of their élite Manchu Imperial Guards Brigade units in Beijing's Forbidden City.

The Yang family Tai Chi Chuan was continued through Yang Lu-ch'an's son, Yang Chien-Hou, and then through his son, Yang Chengfu.

Yang Lu-ch'an's notable students, apart from his own sons, includes Wu Yu-hsiang (Wu (Hao) style Tai Chi Chuan), and Wu Ch'uan-yu (Wu style Tai Chi Chuan).

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Yang Chengfu
Yang Chengfu

Yang Chengfu (1883–1936)

The importance of Yang Chengfu is that he represents yet another turning point in the history of Tai Chi in that he has given rise to what may be called Modern Tai Chi. Through the Beijing Physical Education Research Institute, Yang Chengfu was one of the first Tai Chi masters to publicly emphasize the health benefits of Tai Chi Chuan, and there is some conjecture of why he did this

One explanation, which I admit does have some merit, is that Yang Chengfu adapted to the growing pressures of the Chinese Communist Party by deliberately downplaying the martial arts aspects in favor of the health benefits. It is said that this is what helped save Tai Chi from the cultural purges, especially seeing that it had previously been so closely connected with the elite ruling class.

Yang Chengfu wrote two texts, "Application methods of Taijiquan", published in 1931, and "Essence and Applications of Taijiquan".

Notable amongst Yang Chengfu's students were Yang Shouhou (Chengfu's son), Tung Ying-chieh, Ch'en Wei-ming, Fu Zhongwen, Li Yaxuan, and Cheng Man-ching.

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Simplified History Tree of Tai Chi Chuan

Arrows leading off the chart (-->) indicate a continuation of lineage.

History of Tai Chi

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