Tai Chi Chuan – styles and history
By Marnix Wells
In response to a request for information on the different styles of Tai Chi, I was awarded the unenviable task of answering. Where to begin? New styles are being created by individuals everyday all over the world. There are of course the five classic family styles, springing from the art’s first dissemination in the second half of the nineteenth century: Chén, Yáng, Wú, Wû-Hào and Sun. Yet this is already an over-simplification. The important thing is to identify their key principles.
In China civil and martial (wén and wû) have been seen as complements as yin and yáng, minus and plus, female and male, dark and light. The earliest recorded ‘boxing form’, from which the Chén family form can be traced, is that illustrated by late Míng General Qi Jìguang when training recruits to combat Japanese and local pirates by, he tells us, improving their health.
Nowadays, we hear a lot about Tai Chi and Qigong for ‘health’, as if this was not always their chief goal. In China this aim would have been called ‘longevity’ (chángshòu), implying an active and happy retirement. In traditional China, medicine shops (yàofáng) sold an array of dried herbs and animal parts designed to restore virility and supplement qì energy (bûqì). They might also double as bone-setters (diédâ) and, to demonstrate the efficacy of their wares, featured street displays of martial prowess, involving acrobatic feats and imperviousness to assault by fist or weapon.
I witnessed an example of this, fifty years ago, in the person of a famous ‘Monkey Boxer’ in the Wànhuá (Bangka) district by Dragon Mount Temple of old Taipei. Amongst his other amazing accomplishments, he could, when not dispensing prescriptions, fold himself up flat in a rice-basket.
The process by which Tai Chi (tàijíquán) became in the 1920s a national, and from the 1970s an international, art started from the fortress city of Guângfû (in Yôngnián, southern Hébêi). There, the Chén family of Chénjiagou, Hénán, now famous as ‘Tai Chi ancestors’, in 1820 recruited Yáng Lùchán into their pharmacy, the ‘Grand Harmony Hall’ (Tàihé Táng). (cf. Barbara Davis 2004: The Taijiquan Classics, North Atlantic Books: 9-14) Thus this art, while martial, has a history of linkage to medicine and health.
Tàijí and the Cosmos
The art of Chén, modified by Yáng, was first taught as ‘soft boxing’ at Yôngnián where it was identified with an earlier ‘internal school’ of boxing, attributed to syncrenistic Daoist recluse Zhang Sanfeng (ca. 1400?) of Mt. Wûdang (Húbêi). It was reputed to have overcome the crude force of the Buddhist Shàolín ‘external school’. Then ‘Tai Chi classics’, by an unknown Wáng Zongyuè, were allegedly discovered ca. 1854 at Wûyáng (southern Hénán) and grafted by scholar Wû Yûxiang and Lî Yìyú onto Yáng’s art and repackaged as ‘tàjí boxing’.
The term tàijí has been translated as ‘Supreme Ultimate’. It represents the union of opposites, yin and yang from the philosophy of the ancient Book of Change. It is literally the polar axis at the centre of the Earth’s rotation. Chen Xin (Tàijíquán Illustrated and Explained, prefaced 1919) says, when practising, it is not necessary to physically face north, but to do so mentally to connect to its ‘true controller’ zhenzâi. (Figures 1-2) In the sky, it equates to the Pole Star; in the body, it is the dantián point, about an inch below the navel, about which the waist turns and where we focus abdominal breathing.
Thus, it is an apt description of this art which, though martial by nature, is a tried means of improving health, mental and physical, and strengthening the immune system. It offers a full range of practices for this purpose, all of which are integral to a deeper understanding of the self and body. Abbreviated versions need to be evaluated in terms of a complete ‘work-out’ within the restraints of time and individual capacities. Supplementary qìgong ‘warm-up’ exercises are generally combined with form practice.
For example, we may compare different versions of the same move as illustrated in the manuals of different schools. As it happens, none are found in Qi Jìguang’s manual but are great resources for qìgong. A signal move, used to open and conclude its set is unique to Chén Jiagou (and its off-shoot at nearby Zhàobâo), except possibly for Sun’s ‘Crotch Pounding’ (Dângchuí, no. 85). Its title ‘Buddha Warrior Presents Club’ (Jin’gang Xiànchû) has distinctively Buddhist aspects which may point to a Shàolín origin. It is also known as ‘Vajrapâni Pounds Mortar’.
A move common to all Tai Chi styles, is ‘Gold Cock on One Leg’ (Jinji Dúlì), also illustrated in an old Shàolín boxing and acupuncture manual. It is valuable for training balance and in defence a platform for knee strikes, kicks and throws.
One of the most iconic Tai Chi moves is ‘Waving Hands in Clouds’ (Yúnshôu). It is performed with multiple repeats by all styles, in parallel-feet stance by Chén and with side-stepping by others. It is a vital qìgong exercise for directing the arms from the dantián. It can help induce peristalsis bowel movement. “Ankles and knees provide the spring to keep the Hips and Head level, The Waist provides the ability to turn to the left and right.” Carl Bateman 2021: Sun Style Tai Chi Chuan i. 133-136) At a recent London workshop, visiting master Chén Xiâowáng taught a full gymnasium to train ‘reeling silk’ technique in it for a whole hour. (Figure 5, cf. Kinthissa 2009: Turning Silk, Lunival, Oxford, ch. 8)
The Whole Art
Let us examine the common nature of tàijí, both as a mental and physical concept from which its exercise as a system for health and defence originated. It may be practised ideally outdoors but if necessary indoors and even in a very confined space, to be like Hamlet as if ‘bounded in a nutshell’ yet ‘king of infinite space.’
In the human body, the most obvious manifestation of yin and yang’s opposing yet complementary forces is in breathing, exhalation and inhalation, the interchange of carbon-dioxide and oxygen. Air, qì, as oxygen is carried by the blood through arteries and hair-like capillaries to nourish every cell in the body. This process is enhanced in qìgong, the cultivation of deep, slow and relaxed breathing in meditative stillness and mindful movement to boost the immune system, which is at the heart of Tai Chi practice.
The earliest five schools of Tai Chi share the same basic movements. Yet each reveal considerable divergences of interpretation within the same named movement. Every teacher, even of the same lineage, will project their own character in response to their deepening level of understanding and that of their students. Furthermore, each named movement contains a multitude of potential macro- and micro-dynamics which can scarcely be captured on film.
To sum up: Chén Chángxing (1771-1853)’s system is characterised by a greater number of forms, low postures, twining-silk energy (chánsijìng), leaps and explosive releases of power (fajìng). Yáng Lùchán (1799-1872) has most emphasis on softness and relaxation with effortless ‘uprooting’ techniques. Wú Jiànquán (1870-1942) is characterised by a forward leaning, wrestler-like posture. Wû Yûxiang (ca.1812-1880)/Hào Wèizhen (1849-1920) and Sun Lùchán (1861-1933) have a concentrated narrow stance with small movements. Sun related it to Buddhist cultivation in a threesome with the ‘internal arts’ of straight-line zig-zag advancing xíngyìquán and circle-walking baguàzhâng.
The Yáng solo form has forty-two sections, excluding repetitions, of which some comprise two or more parts. Sun has a 97-posture form that includes repetitions. Post-1949 China promoted a 24-move short form. At an advanced level partner forms are taught, both static and stepping (dàlyû). Yáng has an 88-step ‘sparring form’ (sànshôu). ‘Weapons’ forms include straight-sword, broadsword, pole, and fan among others.
Fundamental is whole-body engagement, flow and roundness of limbs, knees and hips (kuà) kept slightly flexed to protect joints as suspension shock-absorbers and protection against arthritis and falling. Its essential components may be summarised under ten heads:
- Straight back in erect posture by ‘sitting the hips’ with vertical pelvis.
- Meditative focus.
- Relaxed flexibility.
- Abdominal breathing.
- Smooth centre movement.
- Set forms practised daily.
- Internal power (nèijìng).
- Partner work, ‘pushing hands’, sticking and following.
- Applications, for defence, integrated action, and joints protection;
- Weaponry and props, sticks, fans etc.
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