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taijiquan: origins and key figures

Taijiquan is an ancient Chinese art form that marries the best martial skills of the battlefield with the greatest healing and restorative knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The authentic history of taijiquan’s creation is somewhat contentious, with followers falling into one of two main camps: that legendary Zhang San Feng created taijiquan or that the Chen Village was the birthplace of taijiquan in the mid to late 1600s.

Legendary taijiquan creator, Zhan San Feng

Legendary taijiquan creator, Zhan San Feng

According to legend, a famous Daoist hermit named Zhang San Feng created Taijiquan after witnessing a battle between a snake and a crane. Seeing how the snake deftly avoided the crane’s attack by subtly moving its rounded body slightly out of the way, Zhang San Feng was inspired to apply the Daoist principle of the soft overcoming the hard to martial arts. There is evidence that Zhang San Feng existed (probably living sometime in the 12th century), but there is no confirmation that he created Taijiquan.

Chen Taijiquan Founder, Chen Wangting

Chen Taijiquan Founder, Chen Wangting

For some it is Chen Wangting (1600-1680), of Chenjiagou (Chen Village), Henan province who deserves the credit for creating taijiquan. Chen Wangting was a general and proficient martial artist in the Ming army. When the Ming Empire was overthrown and replaced with the Qing, Chen Wangting retired to his family village. It is assumed that it was during this time that taijiquan was created and first taught. Allegedly, Chen Wangting created seven sets for his martial art. Sadly, only two of those sets survived to this day.

Regardless of which version is preferred, both stories reinforce the underlying reality that taijiquan is an assimilation of devastating martial arts, powerful rejuvenating exercises, refined contemplative techniques, and insightful daoist principles.

 
Yang Taijiquan Founder, Yang Luchan

Yang Taijiquan Founder, Yang Luchan

For generations, the Chen system was only taught to family members until the early 1800’s when the clan accepted Yang Luchan (1799-1872) as a student. After having mastered the art and given permission to teach, Yang Luchan moved to Beijing where he taught members of the royal family and the Imperial Guard.

Yang Chengfu performing Single Whip

Yang Chengfu performing Single Whip

Yang Luchan’s son, Yang Chengfu (1883-1936) is possibly the most famous Taijiquan teacher, as he modified the more rigorous form taught by his father to be more accessible to beginners and the public at large. In addition, Yang Chengfu, along with Sun Lutang (1861-1932), was among the first to advertise the health benefits of Taijiquan.

 

taijiquan Today: Many Expressions, same art

Today there are five main styles of Taijiquan. By age, eldest first, they are: Chen, Yang, Wu (from Wu Jianquan), Wu/Hao (from Wu Yuxiang), and Sun. Of the five, the Yang style of Taijiquan is the most popular. However, there are numerous smaller family styles created by individuals to address unique proclivities, environments, and needs. Some of these are: Hun Yuan, Zheng Manqing, Wuji, Fu, Zhaobao, Li, and Ting to name a few.

Which style one chooses is a personal preference and is often determined one’s own natural inclinations.

But how is it possible that there are so many styles that are listed under the Taijiquan banner? Certainly, it must take more than moving slowly for a style to be Taijiquan, right? Of course, it does. All styles of Taijiquan are based on certain principles. The adherence of particular principles is a main reason for the technical uniformity between styles. However, much variation can be made by emphasizing certain principles of “energy”, often called Jin (sometimes erroneously spelled jing). Often, it is the variance of one or more of these jins that generate the visual difference between styles of Taijiquan.

Yin and Yang represented in symbol on walkway

Yin and Yang represented in symbol on walkway

Similarly, all styles of taijiquan have differing primary combat training end goals, such as to repel, yield, listen, or explode. However, the fundamental principle of yin and yang must be integrated into each facet of the style or it is not taijiquan. Yin and yang describes every part of one’s taiji practice from how one’s weight is distributed to how to push, from how to walk to how to stand.

A detailed discussion of yin and yang could fill a large book, but essentially yin and yang could be thought of as complementary opposites. Sun/Moon, Bright/Dark, Heavy/Light, Male/Female, Push/Pull, Inhale/Exhale are all examples of yin and yang. Care must be taken when speaking of yin and yang. This is because yin and yang do not refer to opposites as the western world would think of it. Instead yin and yang describe a relation between things or ideas. One understands what light is because he or she knows darkness. Similarly, one cannot exhale if there was no inhale. And one can understand what is light as a feather because one knows what is heavy. On and on these matched pairs could be discovered in the universe, observed in the world around us.

It is this unique use of the dual nature of yin and yang applied to martial arts that made taijiquan so revolutionary centuries ago and makes it relevant today. It is this singular concept that permeates all of taijiquan and generates its distinctive training methods.

Regardless, if the teacher has a deep understanding of the principles underlying taijiquan, then he or she will receive tremendous health benefits and martial prowess.