by Marnix Wells (2020.12)

If China’s four thousand years can be taken as one hour of a clock, the documented history of taìjíquán under that name may be timed under two minutes. How then did it evolve and why suddenly appear at sunset of the Forbidden City, in the last gasp of the Qing empire?

Foreign encroachments, military defeats and massive rebellion undermined the complacency of the Manchu elite and the ascendency of conservative Confucian with their ingrained disdain for the physical and martial arts. On one level this time of cultural crisis spawned the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. This marked the first occasion in which martial arts actually led a rebellion and challenged modern firepower with the supposed invulnerability of qìgong. The outcome was predictable but all was not lost.

Western ideas of physical culture and sport were taking root. This presented an opening for traditional martial arts and qigong for health on a national front. No longer the ‘sick man of Asia’, the time was ripe for taìijíquán to take its place as part of the ‘self-strengthening’ movement. Offering benefits of enhanced self-defense, longevity and resistance to disease this ‘soft’ martial art was amenable for young and old, male and female in China, and eventually the whole world.

With the founding of the Republic in 1910, two giant stars emerged to found the most popular taìjí schools, called by family names, which in Chinese come first. These were Yáng Chéngfû, grandson of progenitor Yáng Lùchán, and Wú Jiànquán, retired from the Manchu imperial guard, whose rivalry culminated in a well-publicised ‘pushing-hands’ (tuishôu) duel that ended in a draw. A third strand came from Sun Lùtáng who combined three – taìjíquán, circle-walking baguàzhâng and straight-line xíngyìquán – into a theory of ‘internal martial arts’ which he taught from 1914 to 1924 at Beijing military academy, where he received the rank of captain. Sun was a prolific writer and chief philosopher, promoting the unity of Daoist spiritual training with practice of martial applications.

Each of the above mentioned grand masters claimed semi-divine origins for their arts in legends of the elusive Zhang Sanfeng, a Daoist ‘saint’ believed to have lived around 1400, from the late Yuán to early Míng period. His sect is centred on Wûdang mountain in Húbeî province, sacred to Xuánwû, the ‘Dark Warrior’. This narrative was challenged by scientific historiographers, notably researcher Táng Háo whose field-work led him to the Chén family home, north of the Yellow River at Chénjiagou and the nearby town of Zhàobâo in Hénán province. At the former location, in the second half of the nineteenth century during the closing years of the Manchu Qing dynasty, an employee of the Chén pharmacy named Yáng Lùchán, staying in the household of Chén Chángxing, one night overheard strange noises (of heng and ha). Peeping through the paper windows, in use before the advent of glass panes, possibly by wetting his finger to make a small hole, he was able to spy into the central courtyard.

There we can imagine he was able to make out the source of the grunts and bumps. Two murky figures in close contact were pulling and pushing each other in the darkness, uprooting, throwing and catching bodies in the air with continuous motion so that no one ever hit the ground or sustained serious injury.
I once had an experience, about the year two-thousand, slightly reminiscent of that told of Yáng Lùchán.

It was at the elegant princely palace of Gongwángfû in Beîjing, where a Chén-style teacher was instructing his teenage son. I was doing standing meditation under a tree, not wearing my short-sight glasses, while the master was teaching pushing-hands to his son who was almost continuously exclaiming with pain. Though I could not turn to see exactly the cause, it must have been due to grappling techniques (qínná) for which Chén-style is known.

At any rate, if we are to take tradition at its words, the Chén family jealously guarded their family art, which they refused to transmit to outsiders. It was only by this clandestine method, that Yáng Lùchán was able without detection not only to observe, but somehow memorise and master, their entire system, including weaponry, which he then taught after his travel to Beîjing. In support of this version of the art’s first release to the Chinese world, there is ample evidence in Chinese history for intra-family exclusivity. It can be likened to trade-mark protection in the pre-modern age. On the other hand it seem certain that Chén Chángxing must have somehow made an exception in teaching Yáng Lùchán and so lost his family monopoly. Chén-style taìjí only regained its leading role after the communist revolution.

About the author
Marnix studied taìjíquán and internal martial arts in the Far East from 1968, with Master Wángshùjin and his disciple Zhang Yizhong; Gan Xiàozhou; Hóng Yìmián; and others. More recently, in this country, he has been learning Zhàobâo tàijí with Liú Yâz’ ‘Master Yaz’. Marnix is a graduate in classical Chinese from Oxford and Phd SOAS. He has published interpretative translations from Chinese of Scholar Boxer, Pheasant Cap Master and Heguanzi: the Dao of Unity.

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