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Taijiquan (T'ai Chi) Basics
The Origins of Taijiquan
The origin of Taijiquan is one mixed with legends, theories, and folklore. The most commonly held belief places its historical origin around a small village in China's Henan Province (Chenjiagou), in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties.
(Historical Time Line).
This village is where the oldest known "forms" were developed and taught by Wang TsungYhueh, and where Taijiquan seems to have become organized and structured into an "official" martial art. Wang is credited with writing a text entitled "Taijiquan Lun", which is part of a collection (or canon) of classical writings that form the guidelines for all styles of Taijiquan.
It must be noted that there are several other reputable opinions concerning the origin of the famous art, including the popular story about a Daoist Immortal named Chang SanFeng who created Taijiquan after watching a battle between a snake and a crane.
One thing is obvious... Taijiquan did not just "pop" into someone's head, and Taijiquan has, and still is, evolving and being refined by those who study and practice it daily.
Current styles have evolved through major changes in religious, philosophical, and economic changes within China as well as foreign invasions, domestic peasant uprisings, and major shifts in governmental policies.
Taijiquan has evolved into many "styles" or schools with just five of these schools currently dominating the practice throughout the world. Each of these schools have further fragmented into sub-groups led by entrepreneurial teachers who were separated by the main school by small variations in their practice and, most commonly, by geographical divisions. China is a large country and only within the last 10 years, has travel become commonplace.
Today in the West, there can be significant differences in the postures from one geographic region to another and from one teacher to another, although they follow the same family style. Many Taiji enthusiasts never venture from their own small study-group and do not realize there are other forms and styles of Taijiquan practiced. Although it is quite common to see Taiji being performed in a movie or TV commercial, they usually show only a second or two of the movements. An explosion in the number of books and videos has not reduced the number of variations and styles... only made the community more aware of them.
Five Major Schools
These five schools mentioned in previous pages are "Chen", "Yang", "Wu", "Wu", and "Sun". Each of these schools took on the family-name of their main teacher or leader. For instance, the "Yang" style was developed and taught by the "Yang" family, and although the principles of all Taijiquan styles contain the philosophy of "yin" and "yang", the style's name had nothing to do with this philosophy.
The CHEN family style had the oldest formally recorded records of the practice of Taijiquan. Most scholars theorize that Wang TsungYueh was the first to transmit the knowledge of Taijiquan to the Chen family in the 18th century. It is commonly believed that Wang, when traveling through the Chen village, happened to see villagers practicing boxing. He made a few disparaging remarks in public about their skill...or lack of it. This angered some of the villagers and they challenged him to test their skill. Wang quickly and easily defeated them. Realizing that Wang's skill was far superior, the villagers begged him to stay and teach them his art. According to the stories, Wang taught them something he called Taijiquan.
As was common practice in ancient China, the family of Chen kept the fighting art that Wang had taught them a family secret and it was never taught to anyone outside of the family until the arrival of Yang LuShan (1799-1872), who became the founder of Yang style Taijiquan.
The Chen style is referred to as "lao" or "old" frame taijiquan. The Chen style has evolved into several routines, with some of the movements retaining much of the "martial" emphasis of the original boxing forms.
The YANG family style is by far the most popular and widely practiced style in the Western world. It is also the most fragmented style, with major differences in the choreography and postures of the routines between various groups within the style. The Yang style is commonly referred to as the "big" frame style because of its original wide stance and open movements.
It is commonly believed and documented that the Yang style originated with Yang LuShan, one of only two students taught by the Chen family who were not within their own blood-line.
After learning the Chen style forms in Henan Province, Yang traveled to his birthplace in Hobei Province and began teaching the forms. There, the thoughtful and skilled instructor developed a style with significant variations, thus the Yang family style was created (and continued to evolve). He then traveled to Beijing, the capital of China, to teach his Yang family style of taijiquan to the royal families and "Mandarin".
Yang LuShan like to fight and traveled throughout northern China in search of fighters with good reputations to challenge. His skill was highly respected and it earned him the nickname of Yang WuTi, which translates roughly to "Yang with no enemy and no rival". His small, thin build was in contrast to the typical "fighter" of the day, and legends about him abound.
Yang LuShan became the first instructor to openly teach Taijiquan to the public. His Yang style stressed the health, physical fitness, as well as the self-defense and fighting aspects of the art.
In his later years, Yang LuShan explained that while teaching in Beijing, he witnessed the improvement of his student's health and realized that Taijiquan could play an important role in saving his nation by strengthening the weak.
Despite his teachings and stress on health, when listening to the many stories which abound about the skill of Yang LuShan, one is immediately impressed with the personal emphasis on his martial skills. He lived in a time when martial artists were like the gun-slingers of the American West. He faced many challengers, and easily defeated them all.
The stories tell of the high skill, intelligence, and sensitivity that he used, not the toughness, strength, size, or stamina common in other martial arts of that era.
Even in such a short history of the Yang style, we would be remiss if we didn't include Yang Cheng-Fu, (1883-1936). A huge man by Chinese standards, well educated, and mostly self-taught from notes, memories, and early childhood instruction from his grandfather (Yang Lu-Shan), he was able to grasp the principles of Taijiquan and reach a high skill level in the art. He is responsible for the well defined, soft, and stable Yang style forms so popular today.
Wu Du Nan, a famous modern Yang style master from Beijing practiced and taught regular classes in the parks until the age of 102. His excellent memory and recollections of practicing taijiquan since his youth was often used by scholars to verify historical research. He remained active in Chinese martial arts associations until his death in the late 1990s.
The WU YuXiang family style (sometimes referred to as "Hao" family style) was founded by Wu YuXiang (1812-1880). YuXiang was skilled in Shaolin Martial Arts, but began studying Taijiquan with Yang LuChan (of the Yang family style) after seeing a demonstration of his martial skills. Later he studied with Chen QingPing. This Wu style is characterized by compact, rounded movements with relatively high postures, making it easier for those who are sick or elderly to practice. It was based on the Yang sequence of movements, with some quick movements breaking the normal slower rhythms. The Wu YuXiang style was not popular until several of his students (members of the Hao family) made it popular in later years by teaching it to many students. Today's Wu YuXiang form is primarily one that was originally taught by Hao YueRu, a famous martial arts teacher who promoted and taught it openly. It is still relatively unknown outside of mainland China.
The WU JianQuan family style is the 2nd most popular style of Taijiquan in the modern world. Wu JiangQuan's Manchurian father, QuanYu, was one of Yang LuShan's (of the Yang family style) top students and worked as a bodyguard in the Imperial Court. QuanYu taught several disciples, and his art was handled down through three lineages, Yang YuTing (1887-1982), Chang YunTing (1860-1918), and his own son Wu JianQuan (1870-1942) who popularized this style of Taijiquan.
Wu JianQuan reached a very high level of skill in Taijiquan. He remained a close friend of the Yang family and often taught the Yang small frame form as taught by his father QuanYu. In later years, he continued to refine his form, removing some of the quick movements and made it more even in speed. He moved to Shanghai where his family still lives. Current masters of the Wu style include Wang PeiSheng, Wu YingHwa, and the recently deceased Mah YuehLiang.
The SUN family style is often called the "active step" form because of its quick and mobile stance and footwork. It was developed by Sun LuTang, (1861-1932) an amazing martial artist who was also famous for his skill at the other internal martial arts of Baguazhang and Xingyiquan (Neijia) as well as external Shaolin forms. The Sun style is the most recent of the five major schools of Taijiquan.
Sun LuTang learned Taijiquan from Hao WeiChen (Wu YuXiang style), then continued to study and refine it using his knowledge of the other internal styles. Is is said that Taijiquan was his preferred art and he taught his style to many students. The Sun family style retains most of the original Wu YuXiang style postures, with more emphasis on quick footwork and waist methods from his other martial styles.
The art of Taijiquan has its roots in
Daoist (Taoist) philosophy and Martial Arts with some influence from Buddhist Shaolin practices. The movement names and postures often refer to philosophical terms and events, and the "Qi" or essence of the art can be applied to medical, martial, or spiritual studies. Taijiquan is the physical representation of the Daoist Yin-Yang symbol, and the study of Taijiquan is perhaps the best method of learning about this symbol and other concepts of Chinese philosophy... superior than trying to understand it from a book or teacher.
Serious students of Taijiquan understand many of the terms and concepts used in traditional Chinese medicine such as the "Five Element" theory, Meridians, and Pressure Points, a well as the circulation of Qi as taught in the theories of Qigong. They also recognize its historic martial arts roots and learn many of the martial applications for the postures.
In the modern world, Taijiquan is highly respected and widely practiced within China. It is controlled and organized by the Chinese National Sports Association, and falls under the auspices of the "Wushu" or martial arts area of the association. There are national "instructor" exams and coaching seminars as well as organized competitions within individual family styles. Taijiquan is also one of the official competition events in the larger national and international martial arts competitions and has been proposed as a competition event to the international Olympic committee.
But while taijiquan is highly organized and promoted within the official Chinese system, the vast majority of Taijiquan in China is practiced on the streets, away from the nationally sponsored classes. Some believe this is where one can find the "real" or "true" essence of the art, where philosophy and theory is practiced as well as the physical movements. While "sport" Taijiquan is dominated by the young athletes with extreme strength and flexibility, the "street" Taijiquan is dominated by seniors. Some of these seniors have developed amazing skills over many years of quiet daily practice.
A quick trip to almost any park in China in a metropolitan city at daybreak will uncover acres of Taijiquan practitioners (referred to as "players" in China). Some of these players are highly skilled, but most are beginners struggling to complete the complex set of movements under the watchful eye of their teachers. It is a social and cultural gathering for the elderly, a mild exercise to awaken the young, and a way of promoting and extending life for the "baby boomer" generation.
In the last 20 years, Taijiquan has spread throughout the world, propagated by immigrant populations and the opening of China in the mid 1970s. Despite the lack of respect modern Asian countries such as Taiwan and Japan developed for other traditional disciplines such as Qigong and herbal remedies, Taijiquan and Acupuncture have kept the respect of the general public. Of course, now all of these traditional disciplines are regaining their respect and public interest as they gradually become supported by modern scientific studies.
Although practiced by men and women of all ages and economic status, Taijiquan has always attracted students of philosophy, art, and those concerned with personal development. Unfortunately, like other exercise programs, many people begin to study Taijiquan, but few study long enough or hard enough to really understand or to even benefit from the practice of the miraculous system of exercise and healthcare.
In the United States, both the West coast and the East coast communities have strong followings of Taijiquan players. While many Americans learn from non-Asian teachers, the strongholds of the art still reside in large metropolitan areas where the Chinese immigrants are plentiful. Up until the 1970s, the major style in the United States was a modified Yang style taught by Professor Chen ManCheng, who immigrated to New York City from Taiwan.
In the past 30 years, the "opening" of China has brought the five major styles of mainland China to Americans, and has moved Taijiquan from the Kung Fu studios to health gyms, community colleges, retirement homes, and even hospitals.
One can even find brief performances of Taijiquan in many American movies and TV commercials. A majority of Americans have heard the term "Tai Chi", and know that it is an exercise that "old" people in China do each morning. It is unfortunate that many will never know its many benefits and its long and colorful history.
Although Taijiquan is not an official part of the traditional medical system of China as taught in modern Chinese universities, it is often recommended and sometimes prescribed for certain ailments. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) consists of techniques that promote homeostatis or "balance" of the body's energies. Taijiquan definitely fits this description and is used as a method of maintaining homeostatis and/or helping the body return to homeostatis after a specific disease or illness. Although Chinese surveys and studies show significant benefits from the practice of Taijiquan, most Western physicians dismiss the results as placebo effect. In recent years however, Western scientists have began to look closer because of overwhelming anecdotal evidence and positive results from other studies on the benefit of low-impact and low-intensity exercise.
Large-scale scientific studies in the West have proven the benefits of Taijiquan as it relates to the prevention of falls in the elderly population, and many other studies have been proposed.
Experience In Class
Taking a Taijiquan class is unlike taking any Western exercise class. Loose, casual clothing and flat, soft bottomed shoes are typically worn. Most classes begin with a basic warmup routine that consists of mild stretches and deep breathing. Working up a heavy "sweat" is discouraged, as the emphasis is turned towards "body awareness" and visualizations of energy crisscrossing the meridians and pathways of the body.
The main part of the class is learning a "routine", which is a carefully choreographed set of fluid movements. In most classes, every part of the body is carefully scrutinized and each muscle and joint must follow a set pattern as prescribed by the instructor, who was guided by their instructor, who was guided by their instructor, etc., etc.
Depending on the style being taught and the instructor's methods, these movements (and the slowness in which they are performed) can be quite physically demanding despite their simple appearance. Each student can control the level of difficulty by varying the depth of their stance if the style allows such variation. Students not familiar with learning choreography may find that remembering the sequence of movements quite challenging, and should be prepared to practice between classes (also known as "homework").
Emphasis is placed at first on the balance and correctness of each movement. More advanced classes place more emphasis on the visualization and actual movement of "Qi" or "energy" within the body during the routines. This "Qi" manifests itself in various ways...sometimes with a tingling sensation, a wave-like sensation, warming of various body parts, an electric shock sensation, light pressure on the skin, spontaneous shaking, etc. An experienced instructor will help the student recognize and control such manifestations. Martial applications are sometimes introduced and practiced to help the students visualize the "purpose" and direction of the energy that is being directed.
Taijiquan routines, sets, or "forms" range from a couple of postures to more than 150 postures, depending on the style. Even dedicated life-long Chinese players have difficulty performing the longer sets, which is the reason for the enormous popularity of the "simplified" routines introduced in the mid 1950s. Some traditional teachers think these simplified forms are blasphemy to the "true" art however and that they fail to develop the skills necessary to learn "real" Taijiquan. Other instructors believe that one single posture done correctly is more valuable than 150 movements performed without understanding.
Push-hands, a controlled contest between two players, is often introduced into the training to help the student understand the application and redirection of energy that accompanies the higher levels of the art.
Most Western teachers introduce basic Chinese philosophy such as "yin-yang theory" and sometimes "Qigong breathing" into their Taijiquan class to help Western students understand the movements. In China, are typically not taught in beginning classes because the students already understand much of this basic theory.
How to Find a Class
Most metropolitan areas with immigrant populations have a Taijiquan teacher somewhere...the problem is finding him or her. Until recently, few instructors had classes large enough to make a living by teaching, so they often taught in their basements or in a local park in their spare time while working as a cook or nuclear scientist during the day. With the recent popularity of the sport, although still a challenge, it is much easier to locate a good school or teacher.
Although most true "Masters" are of Chinese descent, there are many Westerners who are proficient at Taijiquan. Consider that some Western instructors have better teaching credentials and are able to communicate complex ideas better in English, plus they understand Western cultural barriers that stand between you and the practice of this wonderful exercise system. Famous master-instructors do not always have the patience to teach beginners and expect more dedication to the art than the average player can give, on the other hand they have the "understanding" that comes from years of experience. Most importantly, the teacher should make you feel good about practicing, and you should feel anxious to attend the next class and receive the next "tidbit" of knowledge.
Remember, there is no "magic", and knowledge must be earned by the student through dedicated practice and hard work. The Chinese say that anything easily attained is not worth much.
Start Your Search
The internet is a great place to begin your search. You can go to any of the major search engines and type "Taiji" or "Tai + Chi" and you will be presented with hundreds of individual sites, many having class listings and schedules. You can also check our professional listings to locate schools that have websites you can visit, where you will find additional links. You will be surprised how much information is available on the web, although most sites are not updated regularly (check the "year" before you plan to attend that weekend seminar you find).
The phone book is another place to look. In the yellow pages, look under "martial arts" or "karate-kung fu" schools. Many of these martial arts schools also teach Taijiquan. If you contact them, ask if they have a separate teacher for Taijiquan, or they use the same teacher that instructs in Karate or Kung Fu. It is rare, although possible, that you will find a high-level Taijiquan teacher that continues to practice other martial arts. We generally prefer the "taiji-only" instructors, but the best way to determine is to go to the class and speak with the teacher and watch one of the classes. If the teacher does not allow you to watch a class, yet wants you to pay up front for the instruction... beware. Also, because many classes are taught by Asian immigrants, make certain you are comfortable with the class location (in a safe area of town) and can understand the instructor's accent sufficiently to benefit from the class.
Community colleges or large universities often have classes for the public, and some have organized clubs that give you support and comfort when trying to learn such a culturally-different system.
Another good place to look is community recreational programs. If your city sponsors children's basketball, etc., you might want to inquire about a class on Taijiquan (they will know it as "Tai Chi"). These classes are inexpensive and taught by volunteers or instructors who are interested in sharing their knowledge within the community. Classes are often held in the local parks, or in local schools after normal class hours.
Some retirement communities offer classes to their members, and are willing to take outsiders for a small fee.
We have also noticed that a number of Gyms and Health Clubs are offering classes in Kickboxing, Yoga, or Taijiquan for their members. While these are relatively expensive because you need to be a member of the organization, the atmosphere and organization is often preferred by Western patrons. They often attract well qualified instructors, especially those trying to make a living by teaching what they love.
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