Various Styles of Taijiquan: Which One is For Me
[Editor´s note: The following article contains a combination of romanization systems. This is common when referring to proper names and family styles. To prevent error, we have left the romanization in its original format.]
Taijiquan has become the most popular exercise in China at the turn of the century. However, during the Culture Revolution in the 1960s, Taijiquan along with many other traditionally valued activities was considered bourgeois. It therefore underwent a hiatus during that period of time in China. Fortunately, like good art and wine, Taijiquan has lasting value permeating through time. Taijiquan, together with other martial arts, not only is enjoying resurgence but also has flourished beyond the borders of China.
Taijiquan has recently gained immense popularity in America, especially in the west and east coastal states. It has in fact found itself within the fields of alternative medicine, health care and exercise physiology. The prime reason has been the extensive clinical research on the therapeutic effects of Taijiquan. The positive therapeutic values include the enhancement of physical balance, postural stability, reduction of frailty and falls in older persons.
These studies involving the Yang style only were carried out in prestigious institutions such as the Emory University School of Medicine, the University of Connecticut Health Center, Harvard University, John Hopkins University School of Medicine, etc., with grants from the National Institute of Aging and the US Public Health and Human Services. These studies compared Taijiquan to other forms of exercises like walking, computerized balancing exercises, dancing, etc. in the same cohort or group of persons. The results were analyzed statistically for their validity.
There have been at least forty scientific and medical publications written in English on the health effects of Taijiquan since 1989. It is a small number when compared to publications on other exercise programs, but a comparatively large number for such an out of the ordinary exercise art of the East in the Western world. Although beneficial effects have been reported, studies should be carried out with other styles and should explore beyond the therapeutic values mentioned above.
My purpose in this brief article is to introduce the various forms, styles, or schools of Taijiquan currently taught and practiced by many in America to those who wish to take up this time-proven integration of physical and mental exercise art. Like all physical exercises, no single one is good for everyone. A person must choose the right one objectively. To the newcomer, Taijiquan is meditation in motion, an "exercise art" or "art in motion" as articulated with compassion by the late Sophia Delza who taught the Wu style as well as modern dance in New York City.
Knowing the differences among styles will allow the newcomer to make the right choice of instructors. For the enthusiasts, knowing the difference will not only enhance the enjoyment but also extract the best of doing Taijiquan. Although there are common denominators and fundamentals shared by all styles of Taijiquan, subtle differences among styles present therapeutic elements affecting variation in health values as well as for enjoyment for individuals differing in age, physiological, and physical conditions.
Author demonstrates single whip posture for each style. Left photo: Chen style. Full Gongbo (Bow stance) as in Yang style; or Mabo (horse stance) as in Wu style but the arms remain outstretched. One hand forms a hook with five fingers together. Eyes looking toward front or side. Right photo: Lee style. Half Gongbo (Bow stance) with feet apart a little wider than the shoulder width. Arms outstretched and palms facing downward.
To set the stage for this discussion, I shall present a brief historical perspective of Taijiquan. A Taoist (Daoist) Monk named Zhang San Feng (Chang San Feng), ca.1300s, was purported to be the father of Taijiquan. The first major written work was the "Treatise of Taijiquan" attributed to Wang Jong Yue of the Qing Dynasty (1736-1759). This work of only 315 characters has been the basis for many subsequent written works.
Prior to Wang´s work, another written record was the "Origin of Soong´s Taijiquan" which was in the possession of a Soong Shui Ming, a high official in late Qing Dynasty. This work was written in Soong Dynasty, some 400 or more years before Wang´s treatise and pre-dated records of the existence of Zhang San Feng. There is ample evidence pointing to the contribution of Zhang San Feng to martial arts, but there has been no record that he had ever written anything on Wushu (martial arts) including Taijiquan. The legendary Zhang San Feng remains a legend. What then transpired the writings of Soong or Wang?
Although the early history of Taijiquan is far from lucid, it can nevertheless be summarized as follows. Zhang San Feng organized the various moves into a system of exercise and self-defense skills. Wang Jong Yu then wrote his classic treaties. Wushu masters in Chen Village then formulated this form of martial arts into a formidable self-defense technique. Afterward, Yang Lu Quan (1799-1872) made it possible for the general populace to learn the art by eliminating the powerful and fast moves, thus slowing down the tempo. He had woven the movements into a fabric of exercise art on which other schools of Taijiquan were subsequently based. From this time on, family members of the Yang and Wu have popularized Taijiquan because they have been professional martial artists. Taijiquan has undergone changes, improvements, and refinements in recent time. The forms that are now practiced can be traced accurately back to mid-Qing Dynasty. Taijiquan as we know today is in reality no more than 150 years old. In fact, the postures and the sequence of movements of the most popular Yang style was standardized by Yang Qing Fu in 1930.
Instead of discussing each style separately, I shall group them into four categories.
Category 1 encompasses the most strenuous styles. They are Chen, Zhoubao, and Wudong Taijiquan. Each of these styles includes leaps and jumps. The extensions of the legs are high with powerful kicks. Some fist, palm and elbow strikes are also powerful and fast. Fast moves are intermingled with slow ones; powerful moves are intermixed with soft ones. They lack the gentle flow and lightness of other groups. These styles are more suitable for younger individuals with good health and agility. I have in fact known that some teachers of the Chen styles advised those with cardiac discomfort or in general bad health not do the Chen styles. Zhoubao and Wudong styles have not yet made their inroads in America. Chen styles has recently made great strides but still not as popular as Yang or Wu styles here in the West.
Author demonstrates single whip posture for each style. Left photo: Shyun style. Legs form full Gongbo as shown with unequal distribution of body weight. Eyes looking toward left. One arm extends more than the other. Eyes looking toward the direction of the more extended army and leg, backward. Right photo: Woo (or Wu/Hao) and Lee styles. Half Gongbo as in Lee style. Little extensions of the arms. Eyes looking toward left.
Category 2 includes Yang, Wu and Wu Too Nan´s rendition of both Yang and Wu styles, Taoist Taijiquan, Taiji Sisansee and the 64-form Yang style with left and right movements at equal frequency. The movements of these forms share five qualities--slowness, lightness, clarity, balance, and calmness--that are the essentials and the foundation of Taijiquan with respect to health and mental well being of doing this exercise art. The Yang and Wu styles are the most practiced in China as well as in America. One will also find many people teaching these styles or their condensed versions. Although the Wu Too Nan´s rendition combines the virtue of Yang and Wu, very few people other than the author are teaching this style. The Taoist Taijiquan is a variation of the standard Yang´s 108-form sequence and is under the banner of Taoist Taijiquan Association of North America. Taiji Sisansee and the 64-form Yang have not yet gained a foothold in America.
The movements of Category 2 are carried out at an even tempo--the speed of which will depend on individual. Beginners usually start with a higher stance and gradually lower it with time. Because the practitioners are usually encouraged to execute the movements in large circles and extended arms, the practitioners are allowed a wide range of freedom of execution in accordance with individual´s physique and mentality. The movements are gentle enough even for older persons, including those who have been physically inactive. Doing the Taijiquan in this category consistently as a daily routine will enhance flexibility, endurance, stamina, and reduction of frailty due to aging1. Because of the popularity of Yang and Wu styles since the late Qing Dynasty, most of the general public considers this group to be the "real" Taijiquan and deviations from it are not.
Author demonstrates single whip posture for each style. Left photo: Wu and Wu Too Nan´s styles. Body mass equally distributed with Mabo stance. Arms outstretched. The hook is having the thumb, the second and middle fingers together and the other 2 bending inward. Eyes looking to left. Right photo: Yang style. Legs form full Gongbo. Arms extended and the hook as in Chen style. Eyes looking toward left.
Category 3 includes Woo (or Wu/Hao), Shyun, and Lee styles. The postures of these styles are tight and close, where the angle of the forearm and the upper arm is usually less than 90 degrees. The movements are in small circles or spirals and the stances are more upright than those in other categories. The motion appears buoyant and light with a poetic touch which might be due to the fact that Woo and Shyun were men of literature, not professional martial artists like members of the Chen, Wu and Yang families. Doing Taijiquan was just a hobby to them. Therefore, not many knew of these two forms until recently, when the Chinese government encouraged their representations in the Wushu arena.
The origin of the Lee style with its home base in England is not as clear as others since there are little or no other records other than the book by Chee Soo. Since the stances of these styles are high, it may take longer to strengthen the knee and thighs to gain postural stability. The intricate movements have to be precise because of the small circles, small steps, and little or no extension of the extremities. The movements appear buoyant and light. Practitioners will not have as much freedom of movement as the other categories. To do these styles correctly, one needs more mental discipline than doing other styles. Because of this, these might be the best styles for stress management.
Summarizing the above, I consider that category 1 is like 4-foot waves with occasionally white caps for the beginning surfers. Category 2 is for majority of us who belly surf in gentle rolling waves giving just enough challenge to stay afloat on the board. Category 3 represents ripples in a pond where poetic movement dominates.
Category 4 includes the unique fast form of Yang Xia Hao (1862-1930) and the fast Yang form consists of 73 moves which is finished in just three minutes, a fast pace when compared to 20-30 minutes for performing other styles. The sequence is similar to that of Yang and Wu but without the postures of "striking the temples" and "retreat to beat the tiger". Executions of several postures differ from the standard Yang style. For example, "brush knee and push" and "grasping the bird´s tail" involve light and fast skipping steps. The movements are small and tight... with leaps, jumps, and deep knee bends at times. The pace is fast but one does not visualize the use of force. It is very difficult to learn this fast form and one is fortunate to find a qualified instructor.
One may also encounter a kind of Taijiquan called "Fong quan", literally translated as "square fist". It is called square because it is an antonym to circularity in Chinese. Each move is broken down into steps. The movements are discontinuous and seemingly robotic, therefore ´square" instead of circular or spiral movements as Taijiquan should be. It is actually a method of teaching and it is especially effective for a large class. It is not a style and this teaching method can be used for any style of Taijiquan.
How can those who are inexperienced in Taijiquan distinguish which style is which? The telltale signs are usually the postures of "single whip" as shown by the author in the accompanying photos. However, the "single whip" pose is not the only indicative character for different styles.
This article merely provides an introduction to beginners who are looking for an instructor. When one seeks for a Taijiquan instructor, one should ask what style is being taught first and then give it a try. If one style, or an instructor, is not compatible with your expectations... do not give up. Try another style and/or another instructor. One should not hesitate to ask how long the instructor(s) has been doing Taijiquan. Your instructor should have at least 5 years experience. And avoid those who tell you that his or her style is the best or the original (how can anything be original when Taijiquan began hundreds years ago when there were no video?). Avoid also those who tell you "I know all there is to know". A Chinese instructor is not necessarily better than a non-Chinese person.
Wolf, SL, X Huiman, NG Barnhart, E McNeely, C Coogler, T. Xu & the Atlanta FICSIT group. "Reducing frailty and falls in older persons: an investigation of Tai Chi & computerized balance training". Journal of American Geriatric Society, 44: 489-497, 1996.
Wolf, SL, C. Coogler, and T. Xu. "Exploring the basis for Tai Chi Chuan as a therapeutic exercise approach". Archive of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 78:885-892, 1997. (There are also many related articles and websites)
Tai Chi Ch´uan, Sophia Delza, State University of New York Press, 1985.
Treatise on Taijiquan, Wang Jungyu (of Qing Dynasty), annotated by Sheun Su, Dajan Publisher, Taipei, Taiwan, 1996 (in Chinese).
Tao of Taijiquan, Jou Jung Hwa, Tai Chi Foundation, Piscataway, NJ, 1980.
Initiation to Chen Taijiquan, Sung Tin Lung Ji, Yehquan Publishers, Taipei, Taiwan, 1983. (in Chinese).
Chinese Zhaubao Taijiquan, Show Jung Fu, National Sinwah Book Co., People´s Republic of China, 1997 (in Chinese).
The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan, Wong Kiew Kit, Element books Limited, Boston, 1996.
In Depth Study of Taijiquan, Wu Too Nan, annotated by Ma Yao Qing, Juxianquan Ltd., Hong Kong, 1994 (in Chinese).
A Genuine Taijiquan Master-Wu Too Nan, Yue Ji Juan, Juxianquan Ltd., Hong Kong, 1994 (in Chinese).
Lee, Harold H. "A meeting with the famous Wu Too Nan", T´ai Ch´i, 23:#5, (October), 1999.
The Art of Taoist Tai Chi Chuan, Moy Lin Shin, Taoist Society of Canada, 1990.
Taiji Sisansee, Ligia Chavirria, Costa Rica, ca 1995 (video VHS, in Spanish and personal observation).
Tai Chi Chuan for Health, Taipei Video Production (video VHS, in Chinese), no date given.
Woo Taijiquan, Hao Xao Yu, Taipan Publisher, Hong Kong, 1977 (in Chinese).
Shyun Taijiquan, Shyun Jan Yun, People´s Physical Education Publisher, People´s Republic of China, 1957 (in Chinese).
he Chinese Art of Tai Chi Chuan, Che Soo, The Aquarian Press, Great Britain, 1984.
The author was a professor of biology at the University of Toledo where he also taught Taijiquan on and off campus. He now resides in CA and teaches Taijiquan at the Tzu-Chi Foundation in Irvine, CA.
©2000 Qi Journal
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