The foundations for the creation of tai chi are believed by some to be found in the ancient philosophies, exercises, and martial arts dating as far back as 3 to 5 millennia. The first real documents hinting at exercises similar to tai chi are 2000 years old. However, nothing prior to the late 17th century C.E. is widely considered by academics to be more reliable than myth, or as some Chinese scholars call it, “wild history.”
One such myth tells of a daoist hermit named Zhang Sanfeng learning tai chi from the Yellow Emperor in a dream, and mastering the art literally overnight. Another version tells of him devising tai chi by himself after watching a fight between a snake and a crane.
The popular opinion of martial historians is that a Ming Dynasty general named Chen Wangting (?-1719 C.E.) created the first version of what we know today as tai chi. He is appears to have done this by combining his own military training with his knowledge of the Daoist treatise called “The Yelllow Emperor’s Inner Canon” (Huángdì Nèijīng 黃帝內經.)
The physical foundation of tai chi routines can be found in the chapter “Martial Classics in Thirty-Two Postures” in the book Jìxiào Xīnshū 紀效新書, compiled by Marshal Qi Jiguang (1528 – 1588 C.E.)
The style no longer exists exactly as it was taught by Chen Wangting. But the revised and consolidated routines created by his 18th century decedents do. There are several variation of what is now known as Chen style tai chi. There are also several famous and equally respected derivative styles.
History of Tai Chi Chuan
There are two prevailing and somewhat controversial versions of tai chi chuan history. But it is possible that the two versions are not entirely incompatible with each other.
One version, which I will refer to here as the Wudang version, attributes the origin of tai chi chuan to a mythical or (semi-mythical) Daoist named Zhang Sanfeng ( 張三峰 or 張三丰), who is said to have been born sometime between 960 and 1300 C.E.
Zhang Sanfeng is the central character in several folk tales, books, comic books, and movies. While there is no conclusive historical evidence of his existence, he is still revered by many, and his birthday is celebrated by many people around the world. However, there is no reliable historical document that mentions his involvement with martial arts.1
The other version of tai chi chuan history is the “Chen version”, which asserts that Chen Wangting (陈王廷 1600-1680 C.E.), a military officer who retired to his home town after the end of Ming Dynasty, created tai chi chuan and passed it on to descendants who further developed the art over generations.
Both versions converge with somewhere between Chen Wanging (1600-1680 C.E.) and Chen Qingping (陳清苹 1795 – 1868)
The history of Tai Chi is controversial. Some schools seem to have a vested interest in one version or the other. Whether it is a matter of tradition, propaganda, or pride in a lineage, some will strongly promote one version of history over another. However, as with most controversies, there is probably a great deal of truth in both versions. The facts are obscured by rigid traditions, familial and nationalist dogma, the questionable authorship of historical text, different people with similar names, and the simple fact that some teachers of martial arts find a good story to be more useful than historical accuracy.
Most students of tai chi chuan are not particularly concerned with the debates about lineage. Good students are usually less concerned with following in the footsteps of the dead than they are in manifesting the life nourishing benefits of the art itself.
Perhaps the art itself provides all the evidence necessary for determining the source of tai chi chuan. The elements of traditional tai chi chuan practice include qigong, taolu, tuishou, and sanshou. (“Energy and breath cultivation, martial routines, pushing hands, and martial applications.”) Comparing the characteristics of these elements to the arts which predate tai chi chuan may yield some insight into which arts influenced the development of tai chi chuan.
Tai chi chuan appears to come from two sources. While the choreography and movements of tai chi chuan routines appear to be derived from changquan (northern martial arts) similar to those found at the Shaolin Temple, the quality of movement and training methods clearly seem influenced by Daoist qigong, martial arts, and philosophy.
This is ultimately supposition, however, since one cannot rule out the creative element or the possibility of profound inspiration, whether subtle or mysterious. It may be that someone drew aspects of the art “from the ether” without any antecedent influence.
There have been martial arts similar to tai chi chuan dating back at least to the Tang and Liang Dynasties. Examples are sanshiqi (三世七), xiantianquan (先天拳), and Xiaojiutian (小九天), and houtianfa (後天法).
Houtianfa (後天法), created by Hujingzi during the Liang Dynasty, has many similarities to tai chi chuan, including the “eight directions” methods that are the core elements of tai chi chuan.
There have also been exercises that use similar principles dating back as far as the 2nd century C.E.
Zhang Sanfeng Version
Zhang Sanfeng (張三峰 or 張三丰) is widely seen as a mythical or semi-mythical personality. According to various theories, he either never existed or was a combination of several people. The fantastic stories about him certainly describe him more as a mythological or psychological archetype than flesh and blood human.
Some accounts say he was born Zhang Junbao 張君寶 (Zhang “sovereign treasure”) sometime between 960 C.E. and 1300 C.E. He may have been a monk or student at the Shaolin Temple before going to the daoist Mount Wudang and taking the Daoist name Zhang Sanfeng (Zhang “Three Treasures”) . It was at Wudang that he is said to have created tai chi chuan.
One version of the story describes his learning tai chi chuan, in a dream, from the Yellow Emperor. The next day he apparently went down the mountain where he defeated a hundred bandits in combat. Another version describes Zhang Sanfeng observing a fight between a snake and either a crane or a magpie. Zhang saw the attacking and yielding strategies of the adversaries as an embodiment of the principles of yin and yang, and developed his martial art based on the same principles. Yet another version has Zhang developing tai chi chuan over a period of many years based on his understanding of the other martial arts practised by the monks in Shaolin or on Wudang.
Zhang Sanfeng is, at best, a historical uncertainty. If there was a real Zhang Sanfeng, the truth has been so obscured by myth that many historians prefer to treat him as a fiction. He is said to have had purple skin and a bad smell , to have the back of a tortoise and the neck of a crane, to have spear-shaped wiskers and be over seven feet tall, to go for weeks without food and then to eat a bushel of grain at once. It is also said that he could run for thousands of kilometres in a day.
There are historical documents which record imperial quests for Zhang Sanfeng. But there is no record of anyone ever finding him.The second Ming Emperor, Yong-Le, sent assassins throughout the empire to hunt for his rival Jian-Wen. To disguise the true purpose of the search parties, the Emperor invented a quest for the “Immortal Zhang Sanfeng” and even built a temple in Zhang Sanfeng’s honour in the Wudang Mountains. The search for Jian-Wen failed. But the legend of the immortal Zhang Sanfeng spread throughout the empire. This is considered by many to be the likely source of many legends about Zhang Sanfeng.
Sanfeng is a likely name for a Daoist, referring as it does to the “three treasures” (Jing, Qi, and Shen) of daoist alchemy. It is certainly conceivable that more than one Daoist might adopt the name, just as a Catholic nun might adopt the name “Mary” or “Teresa”
The Wudang version contends that tai chi chuan passed from Zhang Sanfeng, through generations of students to Wang Zongyue and Jiang Fa, who brought the art to the villages of Zhaobao and Chenjiagou, where parallel lineages developed during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The two lines rejoined when Chen Qingping (陳清苹 1795 – 1868) married and moved from Chenjiagou to Zhaobao and learned the Zhaobao style.
Wudang Version Lineage
Zhang Sanfeng(張三峰 or 張三丰) (Founder)
- Various Daoists
- Wang Zongyue (王宗岳) (taught Chen Wangting)
- Jiang Fa (蔣發) (taught Chen Wangting)
- Xing Xihaui
- Zhang Chuchen
- Chen Jingbo
- Zhang Zhangyu
- Zhang Yan
- Chen Qingping
Chen Wangting Version
Chen Version Lineage
Chen Wangting (Founder) (taught Jiang Fa and Wang Zhongyue.
- Jiang Fa, Suoyue, Ruxin (Second gen.)
- (Three generations)
- Chen Gongzhao, Chen Bingwang (Fifth generation of Chenshi Taijiquan)
- Chen Youben, Chen Changxing (Sixth generation of Chenshi Taijiquan)
- Chen Qingping (Seventh generation of Chenshi Taijiquan) and founder of Zhaobao style.
The version most widely accepted by modern scholars avers that Chen Wangting (1600-1680) organised a martial system including seven routines. While there is mention of a Chen family style existing prior to Chen Wangting, any references to it are apocryphal. The official PRC history of Wen County mentions that Chen Wangting practised some sort of family martial art when he was young. But the details of the style he practised are not known. It is known that Wangting’s maternal lineage (the Li Family) exerted a daoist influence and that the Li family hired a school teacher named Wang Zhongyue. The Li family practise a martial art called Wujiquan named for the primordial state of non-duality or “emptiness.”2
2 Arthur Rosenfeld http://www.wisdomandpower.com/article-ARChenStyleTaijiquan.html
Chen Wangting became a military officer during the Ming Dynasty, and after retiring to a private life of a farmer (essentially hiding from the Qing) developed a new martial art which he taught to his relatives. This new style incorporated elements from the “Martial Classic Thirty-two Forms” (拳經三二式) created by General Qi Jiguang (戚继光), and the “Daoist Yellow Court Classic” (黃庭經). The Yellow Court Classic is a guide to advanced qigong and meditation and should not be confused with “Huang Di Nei Jing” 黄帝内经 《黃帝內經》 (Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Chinese Medicine).
A close friend and training partner of Wangting was Jiang Fa (蔣發), a fugitive rebel who is believed to have contributed to the early development of Chen Taijiquan.
Chen Wangting’s art included seven routines. It also included other training methods such as weapon skills and tuishou.
The Long Routines
This new martial art was passed down mostly to family members and local villagers. Five generations later the seven routines were consolidated into two routines known as yilu changquan (first routine long form) and erlu paotui (second routine cannon fist). This amalgamation of routines was attributed to Chen Changxing, whose variation later became known as Laojia (“old frame”) (a.k.a. “Large Frame”). Chen Changxing taught this style to Yang Luchan, who went on to create Yang style tai chi chuan, which is now the most popular style of tai chi chuan in the world.
A contemporary of Chen Changxing was Chen Youben, who developed a variation of Yilu Changquan and Erlu Paotui that came to be known as Xiaojia (small frame). and were so named because of the amount of detail in the movement. The Chen Youben variation was once called Xinjia (“new frame”) because it was developed after Chen Changxing’s version. In fact, both Laojia and Xiaojia developed at approximately the same time. In fact, there is still some debate in Chen Jiagou as to which came first. They may have developed concurrently with one being taught publicly before the other.
Chen Youben had a student named Chen Qingping, who learned the Xiaojia Chen Style before getting married and moving to a nearby village called Zhaobao. It was at Zhaobao that he and his students developed what is now referred to as Zhaobao style tai chi chuan.
(Remember that this is where the Wudang version of history and the Chen Wangting version of history collide. According to the Wudang version (nowadays promoted mostly by the Zhaobao stylists), Chen Qiingping learned his style at Zhaobao from a lineage going back to Zhang Sanfeng. ) The controversy mostly stops here. After this point, the history of tai chi chuan is more reliably documented.
Yang Style Tai chi chuan
There is a popular story that tells of Yang going to Chenjiagou to learn without permission. According to this story, Yang got himself hired on as a servant and spied on Chen Changxing during class time. Eventually Yang was discovered and had to defend himself against the other students. He demonstrated such extraordinary talent that Chen Changxing took him on as student. This story has been denied by both the Chen family historians and the Yang Family, both of whom say that Yang was openly accepted with the introduction by Chen Dehu.Yang Lu-ch’an or Yang Luchan (楊露禪 1799-1872) was born Yang Fukui (楊福魁) in Yongnian, Guangping, in Hebei Province. He was from a poor family. He worked at various jobs including one at a pharmacy owned by Chen Dehu of Chen Jiagou. Yang had some skill in changquan, and after observing Chen Dehu use Chen style to defeat a group of ruffians, he asked for permission to learn tai chi chuan. Chen Dehu sent Yang to learn from Chen Changxing.
After many years under the instruction of Chen Changxing, Yang Luchan returned to Yongnian and began teaching. One of his students was Wu Yuxiang (武禹襄), a government official who recommended that Yang go to Beijing. Yang did so, and developed a reputation that led to him teaching to members of the Imperial court, imperial bodyguards, and the military.
Yang has two sons, Yang Jianhou (楊健侯 1839-1917) and Yang Banhou (楊班侯 1837-1890), who were famous for their tai chi chuan. (A third son died young)
Yang Jianhou’s third son, Yang Chengfu (楊澄甫 1883-1936) became the best known teacher of tai chi chuan in the world. He was among the first to teach tai chi chuan publicly, first at the Beijing Physical Culture Institute, and later in Shanghai.
A simplified version of Yang style tai chi chuan, called the 24 form, was created in 1956 and became part of the national fitness program of the People’s Republic of China.
Wu Jianquan Style (吳家) Tai chi chuan
Wu Quanyuo (吳全佑 1834–1902) was a Manchu and a royal military officer in Beijing’s Forbidden City. He learned tai chi chuan there from Yang Luchan and Yang Banhou.
When Wu retired, he established his own school in Beijing, and his son, Wu Jianquan (吳鑑泉 1870–1942) became a famous teacher of what was to be known as Wu style tai chi chuan.
This style is sometimes called Wu Jianquan style in order to distinguish it from Wu style (武氏) tai chi chuan created by Wu Yuxiang (武禹襄). When spoken in Chinese, the two words Wu (武) and Wu(吳) sound different due to their tone. But to non-Chinese speakers, the two names sound the same.
Wu Yuxiang (武禹襄) Style Tai chi chuan
Wu Yuxiang (武禹襄 1812 – 1880) was a government official in Yongnian during the late Qing Dynasty. He came from a wealthy family who hired Yang Luchan to teach Wu Yuxiang and his brothers. Yang also introduced Wu Yuxiang to Chen Changxing and Chen Qingping. Wu is believed to have been greatly influenced by the Xiaojia Chen Style of Chen Qingping (who is also credited with creating Zhaobao style.)
Wu wrote many books on tai chi chuan, which are in some ways more famous than the style of tai chi chuan that he created.
Wu Yuxiang’s nephew, Li I-yü (李亦畬 1832-1892), was his most famous student. Li also wrote several books, and taught Hao Weizhen (郝為真1842-1920). Wu Yuxiang Style is sometimes called Hao style or Wu/Hao style by non-chinese people.
Sun Style (孫氏) Tai chi chuan
Sun Lutang (孫祿堂 1861-1932) was a scholar and student of Neo-Confucianist and Daoist literature. He was already in his fifties and a talented master of xingyiquan and baguazhang before he started learning tai chi chuan from Hao Weizen. The style of tai chi chuan which he created, incorporates elements of xingyiquan and baguazhang, but still holds the clear tai chi characteristics.
Sun was taught at the Beijing physical cultural institute between 1914 and 1928.