Taijiquan aka Tai Chi Chuan (informally referred to as Tai Chi and commonly translated as Grand ultimate fist, or Grand ultimate boxing) is known to most as a slow, gentle, and graceful form of exercise practiced for health and wellness. To many people, the mention of this practice summons up images of elderly East Asians doing slow motion kung fu like exercises in a park on a morning, and the mere suggestion that such a form of exercise could have anything to do with combat and self defense would seem laughable and absurd.
To some observers, even the exercise value of Taijiquan is questionable. I remember speaking to a gentleman who had heard about my Taijiquan and Qigong classes, and during our conversation I invited him to join. His reply was that he did not think that such slow and relaxed movements would benefit him in any way, and that he preferred calisthenics. He was convinced that high impact exercises were overall more beneficial than what to him seemed to be “a strange Chinese slow motion dance-like exercise”.
GLOBAL POPULARITY AS AN EXCERCISE FOR HEALTH AND WELLNESS
Despite the existing disbelief and skepticism of the effectiveness of Taijiquan as a martial art and exercise for maintaining health and well-being, there are many people who stand by the fact that they benefit from regular Taijiquan practice/play. According to an article written by reporter Susan Scutti for Medical Daily, “Based on data obtained from National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 2.5 million individuals practice Tai Chi in the U.S. alone.”
Therefore, even those who doubt the effectiveness of Taijiquan as a health art should give thought to the fact that the estimated 2.5 million practitioners in the U.S.A. combined with the apparent millions of practitioners in China and the rest of the world, practice some form of Taijiquan because they find that they receive some sort of benefit from it.
Whether skeptics believe that the benefits gained from regular Taijiquan practice are little more than the power of the placebo effect, or open-minded persons believe that these health benefits may be the genuine result of internal cultivation methods, neither side can deny that the element of exploring the mind-body connection and using this connection as a potential to self heal is present within Taijiquan practice.
TAIJIQUAN IN TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE
In Traditional Chinese medicine, there is a multi-layered and comprehensive view of the human body. Organs such as the heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys, along with viscera such as the intestines, stomach, urinary bladder, gall bladder, and triple burner (an internal structure unique to Traditional Chinese medicine which among other things is regarded as the vessel through which food and water are transported from the mouth to the rest of the body), are seen to be connected by meridians or channels through which vital energy flows. The practice takes a different view of the body, the treatment of illness, and the general maintenance of good health from that of Allopathy (aka conventional western medicine).
The view is that a person is healthy if every structure in the body is operative and working in unison, and that an unobstructed flow of vital energy is necessary in order to maintain this process. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, common methods of therapy used to keep a healthy flow of vital energy within the channels in the body are acupuncture, cupping therapy, moxibustion, massage, herbal and dietary therapy, along with meditative practices such as Zuo-Chan-Yi (seated meditation), Zhan zhuang ( standing meditation),Qi gong (various coordinated systems of stationary and moving meditative breathing exercises) and Taijiquan practice.
As a self cultivation practice, Taijiquan promotes the warming and circulation of the blood and other body fluids through the practice of abdominal breathing, as well as the gradual strengthening of the musculoskeletal system through relaxed yet dynamic movements which are natural to the body. The integration of mind and body while performing these exercises gradually brings a state of physical and mental calm, while at the same time giving an increased sense of vigor.
TAIJIQUAN IN CONVENTIONAL WESTERN MEDICINE
It is important to note that despite being rooted in Tradational Chinese medicine, Taijiquan practice for health and wellness has been advocated by doctors, health researchers and other specialists in the healthcare industry due to its proven effectiveness for health restoration and rehabilitation.
According to an article by PubMed central, research carried out by a number of physicians has shown that despite low-quality evidence (which is due to the lack of high quality formal examinations with long term follow-ups), examinations which have been carried out show that Taijiquan practice has had an overall beneficial effect on balance, limb motor function, and walking ability among stroke survivors. Other research findings suggest that people who suffer with conditions such as anxiety disorder, depression, insomnia, hypertension, chronic arthritis, and fibromyalgia have all experienced a degree of relief due to regular practice.
Taking all the above into consideration, we can see that despite having its share of skeptics, critics, and detractors, Taijiquan for health maintenance is still regarded by many people around the world as an important part of their journey of self- healing, and is also considered to be a “meditation in motion” which many find to be a valuable practice in their everyday lives. But what about Taijiquan as a martial art? Can these seemingly slow motion exercises in fact be used for fighting, or is the martial aspect of the art simply a tall tale based on fantastic Chinese folklore?
Those who have read my previous blogs would know by now that in order to have a better understanding of a subject, I sometimes examine its history. Below is my attempt to unravel the roots of the martial art known as Taijiquan and to paint a picture of how a classical Chinese combat art came to be known as the slow and graceful exercise suitable for the sick and elderly.
THE LEGEND OF ZHANG SANFENG
There are different opinions on the origin of Taijiquan. While some credit the Chen family of Chenjiagou (Chen Village) in China’s Henan Province as the founders of the martial art, others trace the origin even further back to the legendary 12th century B.C. Song dynasty Daoist immortal Zhang Sanfeng.
Like many other fantastic characters of the ancient world, Zhang Sanfeng is regarded by some as a mere myth or a symbol, and a common story told of his connection to Taijiquan is that while traveling through the mountains, he witnessed a battle between a snake and a crane, and based on the movements of the two creatures he formed “thirteen postures” or rather eight jin (internal martial power) patterns, and five stepping patterns.
In daoist tradition, legends are sometimes held in higher regard than actual events, as to a daoist, the moral behind a story can be more significant than the actual occurrence. Therefore, to many practitioners, it does not matter whether Zhang San Feng truly existed or whether he created Taijiquan, what matters is understanding concepts which are connected to his story such as the symbolism behind the graceful and agile crane locked in eternal battle with the flexible coiling snake, how the concept of these two creatures relates to daoist esoteric belief, and more importantly their relation to Yin and Yang theory which is central to Taijiquan practice.
There are records such as the Dayue taihe shanzhi (the Great Taihe Mountain History) from the Ming dynasty era (1368-1644), that do speak of a historical Zhang Sanfeng. According to such sources Zhang Sanfeng was a wandering daoist who, like others before him and during his time practiced internal daoist alchemy. Zhang Sanfeng was also said to have been skilled with the sword as well as the bow and arrow.
Despite existing literature giving us a glimpse of the wandering sage’s philosophy on martial arts, we will never truly know exactly what Zhang San Feng’s martial art was, however we do know that the principles of Emptiness (Wuji) listening (Ting) , following (Sui) and adhering (Nian) have existed in Chinese empty hand and melee weapon combat for centuries, and that these principles coincide with foundational daoist ideology such as that expressed in Lao Tzu’s Dao de Jing or Tao Te Ching (composed either in the 4th or 5th Century BC) “Yield and you will become whole, Bend and you will become straight, Be hollow and you will become full… Thus, the soft overcomes the hard.”
Whether Zhang Sanfeng’s method of combat was primarily striking, grappling, an art of seizing the joints and tendons, or perhaps a combination of all the aforementioned, we can be sure that his martial art most certainly revolved around his philosophy of life, and knowing this we can theorize that Zhang Sanfeng may not have necessarily created something completely new, but rather built upon principles and fighting techniques which had already existed.
THE CHEN FAMILY MARTIAL ART
According to most sources, the Chen family martial arts tradition began with Chen Bu, who in the 1300s, immigrated from Shanxi province to a small potential farming area in Henan province and became one of the founders of a farming settlement which would eventually become the Chen Village. It is said that the Chen clan were met with numerous challenges such as flooding and unsuitable soil for producing harvest during their early attempts to settle. The most dispiriting challenge eventually came in the from constant terrorization from bandits who lurked the nearby hills.
It was during this time that Chen Bu used his knowledge of hand-to-hand and melee weapon combat to train the other villagers and to gradually create a community capable of fighting back against external menaces. While Chen Bu may have laid the foundation of Chen Family martial arts, most credit his descendant, a Ming dynasty Royal Guard named Chen Wangting (1580 – 1660) as the creator of the Chen family boxing art that would later become known as Chen style Taijiquan.
In developing his martial art, Chen Wangting is said to have been influenced by treatises which were written by famed Ming dynasty General Qi Jiguang (1528 – 1588) who himself was a highly regarded martial artist and military strategist. Among these treatises, one of the most influential to the formation of Chen Wangting’s system seems to have been the QUANJING JIEYAO PIAN (Chapter on the fist cannon and essentials of nimbleness) which contained the 32 Forms (or techniques) for unarmed fighting.
Chen Wangting combined these methods with Neigong (internal disciplines for energy cultivation), he also incorporated concepts from the I-Ching (The Book of Changes) and general Traditional Chinese medicine theory and principles. After the fall of the Ming dynasty, he retired to a quiet life in the Chen Village and lived out the rest of his days refining his martial art as well as teaching the younger generation.
When most people discuss Chen Wanting’s martial art, they refer to the forms or routines that he practiced and taught during his lifetime. While I do recognize that forms may most likely have been an integral part of Chen Wangting’s system, I am not currently concerned with the details of the sequences that he created, but instead I would like to attempt to analyze the practical aspects of his martial art, and how they might have been applied in a fight.
Over the centuries, Chen style Taijiquan has become the heart of the Chen village, and from generation to generation, the system has been transmitted in an unbroken line from teacher to student. As with everything else, the martial art created by Chen Wanting has changed with the passage of time, however due to the fact that Chen style Taijiquan has thrived within a close-knit community over a long period, there is no doubt that much of the original essence of the martial art remains.
In combat, Chen style Taijiquan specializes in attacks and counter attacks within a close range. Attaching and sticking to one’s opponent through touch, feeling his/her movement through sensitivity, then neutralizing and manipulating that movement by being conscious of the areas of the opponent’s body that are vulnerable due to either excessive resistance or a poorly rooted structure.
To a wrestler, Judoka, or any sort of grappler, this method of combat may sound familiar, and rightly so, Chen Taijiquan can aptly be described as a grappling art, which from inception emphasizes the development of tactile responsiveness by relaxing and feeling while under the pressure of grappling. Chen Taijiquan is rich in elements of Shuai Jiao (competitive Chinese folk wrestling) as well as San Shou Kuai Jiao (fast and practical take downs).
Apart from the grappling element of Chen style, striking and joint lock manipulation also play an important part in the complete system, and the ability to transition from grappling to striking and/or seizing the joints through touching the opponent while responding to his/her movement is considered a demonstration of highly refined skill.
Striking in Chen style taijiquan is similar to that of many other traditional Chinese striking arts in that it focuses on damaging sensitive and vital areas such as the eyes, jawbone, carotid archery, solar plexus, liver, spleen, and groin. Strikes can be delivered from almost any part of the body, and those commonly practiced within the system are executed with the fingers, fists, elbow, forearms, shoulders, chest, back, waists, buttocks, knees, shins and feet.
Chen style Taijiquan is well-known for making use of fa jin (explosive power), and this is done by combining relaxation, tension, breathing, speed, co-ordination, and proper timing in order to deliver quick, powerful and precise strikes. In executing these strikes, the striker more often than not manifests a vibration in the body, and the practical reason behind this is that the energy emitted from the strike is likened to that of a ball and chain or a canon, where the maximum power of a strike is achieved by first loosening the body, followed by destructively launching the attack through the opponent.
The power emanated from striking is controlled by the waist, which remains loose during momentum so that the attack may be discharged with a spring like effect. In solo forms, fa jin strikes are often practiced with broad and expansive movements, however when exploring the combat side of the system, explosive strikes become smaller, more compact and at times even subtle.
In the 1920s Chen Style Taijiquan was brought to Beijing by a 9th Generation teacher of the family martial art named Chen Fa-k’e (1887-1957). By this time, schools which taught various offshoots of Chen style Taijiquan were well established in the capital, and the general public knew little to nothing of the parent martial art. Being a formidable martial artist, Chen Fa-k’e participated in open challenges and for a long time remained undefeated. Apart from his refined fighting skills, Chen Fa-k’e was also said to have been an honest and upright character, and as a result he was able to build a reputation as a respected martial artist and martial arts teacher.
THE YANG FAMILY MARTIAL ART
The Chen family succeeded in developing an effective martial art based on Taiji philosophy, however this art was initially kept among the Chen clan and not readily shared with outsiders. As the story goes, Chen style Taijiquan ceased to be an exclusive practice of the Chen family when a young indentured servant who secretly spied on their private training sessions was one day asked by the instructor to spar with the students. To everyone’s surprise, the servant boy dominated the students and this prompted the instructor to take the young servant as his pupil.
The talented servant was Yang Luchan ( 1799-1872), Who later became the patriarch of the famed Yang family, and founder of the Yang family style of Taijiquan, and his teacher was Chen Changxing (1771–1853) 14th generation Chen patriarch, and descendant of Chen Wangting. Some suggest that Chen Changxing may have taught Yang Luchan a different style from that of his predecessors, however the Chen family dispute this and maintain that Changxing’s martial art was no different from the family style that had been developed in the village over the years.
Upon completing his training in the Chen village, Yang Luchan returned home to Guan Ping, Hebei Province, where he taught his martial art to family members, along with a small circle of outsiders. It is through Yang Luchan that this unique system of fighting initially referred to by observers as Mian quan (soft style) reached public awareness. This recognition came not just because Yang’s martial art appeared to be different from other popular martial arts of the time, but also because Yang Luchan was said to have been almost unbeatable in combat.
When discussing Yang Luchan’s style of Taijiquan, many speculate that he may have further refined his knowledge of the internal arts under another teacher after leaving the Chen village. This is due to the fact that the many incarnations and offshoots of Yang Taijiquans solo and partner forms, along with the applications of various movements within these forms appear to have little resemblance to those of the Chen family style.
Despite the apparent differences between the family styles, in taking a closer look at both, one might ponder on whether such differences are superficial and that at their core, these two styles of Taijiquan are the same yet expressed differently due to the knowledge of the martial art being passed to different students who themselves eventually became teachers with their own teaching preferences. Another theory is that the differences may be due to Yang Luchan’s deep understanding of what he had learned at the Chen village and his ability to create his own unique movements while adhering to the same principles that he learned from Chen Changxing.
There is no existing footage of Yang Luchan, and while there are some sequences attributed to him, very few know exactly how he utilized his movements in combat in order to gain the nickname “Yang Wudi” (Yang the invincible) however, we can understand how competent a fighter Yang was simply by taking a look at events in his life after he became famous for his martial skill and relocated to Beijing. It is said that Yang Luchan eventually moved to the capital, possibly with the intention of teaching martial arts in order to make a living, and because of his reputation as a formidable fighter, it was not very long before he was detained by the Emperor and made to train the Manchurian imperial guard (The Emperors Bodyguards) in the forbidden city.
Manchurian soldiers were not pushovers when it came to martial arts. The Manchurian people were descended from the earlier Jurchen groups who resided in the northeast of China and were highly influenced by Mongolian culture. Like their Mongolian neighbors, Manchurian martial artists were known to be formidable wrestlers, and their soldiers were said to have practiced Buku (a variation of Mongolian Bökh or Folk wrestling ) daily.
If Yang luchan’s martial art consisted solely of soft flowing form, he would have been of no use to the emperor, and a joke to the emperor’s soldiers. Yang Luchan’s skill of neutralizing and redirecting must have allowed him to grapple, or at least negate the grappling techniques of the toughest soldiers within the imperial guard. This would not have been impossible considering the rich competitive grappling tradition in the Chen village which still exists to this day.
Yang Luchan’s eldest son Yang Ban Hou (1837-1892) was said to have learned his fathers martial art from a young age and eventually became a skilled fighter. Like his father he was made to train Manchurian soldiers, and among these soldiers, one of his most notable students was Wu Quanyou (1834–1902) who himself would go on to become a teacher of Taijiquan and contribute to the founding of his own family style, Wu family Taijiquan which is one of the most popular styles practiced today.
Taijiquan from the line of Yang Ban Hou always seems to emphasize compactness, with small, subtle and economical movements being used in order to gain leverage in striking and grappling. Most sources say that Ban Hou was a bellicose character and unlike his father who would effectively neutralize opponents without injuring them, he had no such restraints. There are stories of Ban Hou effectively ending fights using lightning fast, devastating attacks on opponents, in one such story Ban hou struck an opponent at the back of his neck with the knife-edge of his hand, effectively blinding him.
When discussing the history of Yang style Taijiquan, there are those who regard Yang Ban Hou as a mere footnote in the influence and spread of the style, simply because he did not teach as many students as his younger brother Yang Jian Hou (1839-1917), and therefore, his linage did not spread as far. Despite Ban Hou having less influence as an instructor, it is my opinion that he is one of the most important figures when it comes to the preservation of knowledge of the old Yang family martial art, simply because a large volume of the Yang family treatises which exist are attributed to him.
The compilation of writings of Yang Ban Hou contain everything from information on attacking the opponent’s fascia, vessels and tendons in order to mame and/or cause death, to information on Taiji as a philosophical concept and its connection to other esoteric theory such as the Dao, the Eight Trigrams, The Book of Changes, and its overall application to human life. These classics give the reader some insight into the minds of the family of martial artists during that period, and tell us that their martial arts practice was simply one small part of a greater philosophy of life.
YANG CHENGFU STYLE TAIJIQUAN
It is this living philosophy that allowed the Yang Family style of Taijiquan to change over time in order to suit the changing times. This change would come about through Yang Chengfu (1883–1936) who was the son of Yang Jian Hou, and the grandson of Yang Luchan. In China, the late 19th to early 20th century was a turbulent period in history of the country. The low morale due to unequal treaties, civil unrest, civil war, difficulty in the agriculture sector, lack of growth in the market structure, limited development of industry, and rampant poor health were all very real issues which negatively affected the quality of life of the people.
Yang Chengfu understood that in sharing his family art on a wider scale, the inevitable physical and psychological benefits of practice would contribute to building a healthier and stronger nation. It as during this time that he decided to teach his family art to the public at the Beijing Physical Culture Research Institute. In order to administer Taijiquan to people of different ages with different levels of fitness and statuses of health, Yang Chengfu softened the art which was taught by his predecessors, by removing elements such as grappling, tumbling, explosive attacking of pressure points, high kicks and foot sweeps.
The result was the creation of a low impact system of wide and extended postures (also called large frame Taijiquan), along with predominantly smooth, gentle and relaxed movements, and meditative breathing patterns to suit every motion. Due to the martial art becoming popular with people who practiced for health and wellness, emphasis was placed on the practice of solo forms, while the development of sensitivity (or listening) was trained through both co-operative and competitive push hand exercises also known as tuishou. Yang Chengfu kept the basic concepts of correct posture and movement from his family’s martial art while essentially focusing on the more meditative aspects. Despite toning down the martial aspects of the old family style, enough fighting concepts were kept in Yang Chengfu’s Taijiquan to ensure that it did not completely deviate from the family tree of fighting arts.
Yang Chengfu became famous in China for his unique system, and gathered many students. One of his most notable students was Cheng Man Ch’ing (1902-1975) who in 1964 moved to the U.S.A. and became one of the most influential Taijiquan teachers in the western hemisphere. Cheng Man- Ch’ing would go on to further simplify the sequences taught by his teacher, making Taijiquan solo forms more accessible to those willing to learn. It is through this lineage that Taijiquan gained its reputation in the U.S.A. as a “health art” for everyone.
In the modern era, there are those who look down on Taijiquan with disdain regarding it as a “lesser martial art”, and a waste of time. Many who share this belief often measure soft meditative Taijiquan against popular combat arts such as Greco-Roman wrestling, Judo, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and Mixed martial arts, and conclude that these are more practical disciplines to learn for sport and self-defence. The fact that many Taijiquan practitioners/players today have little to no combat experience does not often help to prove otherwise.
Apart from those who have little regard for classical Taijiquan as a martial art, there are others who take a more open-minded and educated approach, in that they recognize that while classical Taijiquan may appear to have it’s limitations (like every other system of martial arts), comprehensive training in the fighting aspect of the art can benefit a fighter of any discipline.
This realization came to me years ago when I took my first Judo class. Prior to this I had been learning Taijiquan mostly for health and wellness, and had some experience in push hands. I was not educated or experienced in the close contact grappling aspect of Taijiquan. While using me to demonstrate a throw, the Judo instructor, who was aware of my background in Taijiquan found that I was too tense, and jokingly said “Tai Chi master, learn to relax!” It was then that I began to realize that the concepts that I had been learning from Taijiquan such as remaining sung (eliminating tension) when under pressure, and keeping the body relaxed in order to feel the opponent’s movements were common in many other martial arts, and that the only difference was that these concepts are emphasized from the very elementary stages of Taijiquan training.
Taiji (or Tai chi) is an ancient Chinese philosophy. It is a concept of the infinite primordial (or grand ultimate) which gives birth to duality, and to all that exists. The two opposing yet interdependent forces which are born from Taiji are referred to as Yin and Yang, and it is believed that these forces are not absolute, but are in continuous motion. The martial art Taijiquan revolves around the concept of infinite possibilities in offence and defense while being adaptable to change, and in the process maintaining physical and mental balance. Devoted practitioners usually come to understand that the balance of Yin and Yang can be applicable to almost any discipline, and on a more profound level applicable to everyday life.