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Yang Luchan

Yang Luchan – Founder of Yang Style T'ai Chi Chuan

Yang Luchan (楊露禪) or Yang Lu-ch'an (楊祿纏), also known as Yang Fu-k'ui or Yang Fukui (楊福魁) (1799–1872), was an influential teacher of the internal style martial art tai chi chuan, or t'ai chi ch'üan (pinyin: tàijíquán; 太极拳) in China during the second half of the 19th century. He is known as the founder of Yang family-style T'ai Chi Chuan (Traditional Chinese: 楊氏太极拳; pinyin: Yángshì tàijíquán), the world's most popular and practiced style today.

Yang Luchan was born to a poor farmer/worker class family near present day Handan City (邯鄲市) in Yong Nian County (Xian), Guangping (Kuang-p'ing) Prefecture, Hebei Province (永年縣, 廣平府, 河北) in Northern China. Yang was not formally educated. As a boy, Yang would accompany his father in planting crop fields. As a teenager, he worked temporary jobs like hauling water. He spent a period of time doing odd work at the Tai He Tang (太和堂) Apothecary/Pharmacy located in the western end of Yongnian City (永年市), opened by Chen De Hu (陳德虎) of the Chen Village or Chen Jia Gou (陳家溝 Chén jiā gōu). During his childhood, he developed a passion for martial arts and studied Erlang Quan (Traditional Chinese: 二郎拳; pinyin: Èrláng quán; literal: Erlang Fist), a school of martial arts in North China. The name is connected to the semi-mythical folk hero Erlang Shen, who helped regulate China's torrential floods. Erlang Quan dates back to the end of the Ming Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 明朝; pinyin: Míng Cháo; 1368–1644) and emphasizes Duilian (对练, work in pairs) partner exercises. Erlang Quan is a style of Changquan (Traditional Chinese: 長拳; pinyin: Chángquán; literal: "Long Fist") in which Yang attained a fair level of skill.

One day Yang reportedly witnessed a group of bandits attempting to rob the apothecary by strong-arming the attendants. Chen De Hu confronted the bandits, using Chen T'ai Chi Chuan (Traditional Chinese: 陳式 太極拳; pinyin: Chénshì tàijíquán), a style of martial art that Yang had not seen before, to easily beat off the group of would-be thieves. Chen sent them to the ground and out the door of the store reportedly with the use of the force of one finger.

An alternate account has Yang working in a local grain store one day when a rude man came to the Tai He Apothecary next door. The man wanted to purchase some costly herbs, but only at a fraction of their price. The man shouted and waved his fists at Chen De Hu. The next thing Yang saw was the man being thrown into the street without any apparent effort by Chen. Yang was fascinated by the feat.

After a few days, Yang summoned up his courage and requested to study with Chen De Hu, but the apothecary manager was modest and, seeing that Yang was upright and honest, he encouraged Yang to go to the Chen Village and seek out his own teacher Chen Changxing (陈长兴; 1771–1853), a 14th generation descendent of Chen Bu and 6th generation master of Chen T'ai Chi Chuan founded by Chen Wangting (陈王庭; 1580–1660). Chen De Hu warned Yang that Chen Changxing would test him and might not be willing to teach him, though. Additionally, even if Yang was accepted as a student, learning the Chen art would take years.

Chinese martial arts encompass a range of styles: internal style (soft fist) (Ruan Quan 软拳), internal-external style (soft-hard fist) (Ruan Ying Quan 软硬拳), and external style (hard fist) (Ying Quan 硬拳). The idea of patience was likely not easy for Yang to understand at first since the early stages of many external Shaolinquan (少林拳; literal: Shaolin fist) styles like Changquan can offer students a sense of power that helps carry them through their practice. Waijia Quan, External martial arts (Chinese: 外家; pinyin: wàijiā; literal: "external family"), are characterized by fast and explosive movements and a focus on physical strength and agility. The Neijia Quan, Internal martial arts (內家; nèi jiā; literal: "internal family"), focused on spiritual, mental, and chi-related (氣; "life force") aspects taught in Chen T'ai Chi Chuan required persistent practice without the same initial gratification.

The Shaolin Temple greatly influenced chi (氣, vital energy stream) cultivation in Chinese martial arts society and substantial t'ai chi chuan theory originated there, though. Similarities emerge when comparing contemporary Chen Style T'ai chi chuan and certain external Shaolin styles. For example, both the first and second routines—Chángquán and Sān huáng pào chuí, alternately Pào Chuí (三皇炮捶; literal "Three Emperor Cannon Fist" or "Cannon Fist")—originated at the Shaolin Temple, but they also exist in Chen Style T'ai chi chuan. Even the form and posture names were kept the same as those in the temple. The same held true for many of the T'ai chi chuan weapons routines.

Yang journeyed nearly 600 li (300 kilometers/200 miles) to the Chen village to study the Chen masters' renowned art. At first Yang was rebuffed because it was customary for outsiders to the Chen family to be excluded from learning the art. Outsiders received instruction in special circumstances, but were not typically taught the system in depth. Many people in the area of the Chen Village imitated the Chen family style, but the Chen family kept its practice methods secret. Yang did menial labor for some time after his arrival in Chen Village. He may have become an indentured servant for the Chen family and obtained work in the house of Chen Changxing.

In many accounts, Yang was an industrious and cheerful worker. Over time he gained free reign of Chen's house, including the keys to the doors of the t'ai chi chuan training hall. In some accounts, Chen liked practicing outdoors in a garden area. In this setting, Yang secretly watched from behind bushes and practiced late at night, following Chen's teachings as best he could.

Chen Changxing Teaching Yang Luchan

Chen Changxing Teaching Yang Luchan

Yang began his studies in secret with Chen Changxing in 1820.

One night, he [Yang] was awakened by the sounds of "Hen" (哼) and "Ha" (哈) in the distance. He got up and traced the sound to an old building. Peeking through the broken wall, he saw his master Chen, Chang-xing teaching the techniques of grasp, control, and emitting jin in coordination with the sounds "Hen" and "Ha." He was amazed by the techniques and from that time on, unknown to master Chen, he continued to watch this secret practice session every night. He would then return to his room to ponder and study. Because of this, his martial ability advanced rapidly. One day, Chen ordered him to spar with the other disciples. To his surprise, none of the other students could defeat him. Chen realized that Yang had great potential and after that taught him the secrets sincerely.

In alternate accounts, when Yang was caught watching Chen's class after a few months, he was dragged before Chen. The students who caught Yang demanded that he be executed. Yang apologized for his intrusion and begged that he be formally accepted as a student. He then challenged his would-be executioners and defeated them one by one with their own t'ai chi chuan techniques.

Many martial arts styles were being lost during this time and the current generation of Chen martial artists were resting on family laurels and not practicing with sufficient dedication. Chen, who truly sought a good student to pour his knowledge into, accepted Yang for what became an 18-year t'ai chi chuan apprenticeship.

Yang studied Chen t'ai chi quan Old Frame First Routine (老架一路 Lǎo jià Yīlù) and Second Routine (老架二路 Lǎo jià Èrlù), also known as Pao Chui or Cannon Fist (炮捶拳). Chen apparently practiced Chen t'ai chi quan, more slowly than present day Chen Village practitioners do, as evidenced by Yang t'ai chi quan, which emphasizes a slow pace, correct body structure, relaxation, and circular movement. Chen's movements were reportedly less snappy than those of his contemporaries. Chen's practice was very internally focused. It sought stillness within movement and softness within force. This emphasis was a major point of departure between Neijia and Waijia martial arts as well as traditional Chen and early Yang T'ai Chi Chuan and Chen T'ai Chi Chuan as it is now practiced in China and around the world.

Though Yang could not see Chen's internal practice from the bushes, Chen felt that Yang had learned more about the internal practice than family members who studied in Chen's presence. Chen's internal approach emphasized finding stillness within movement and softness within stillness. This leads to martial application that begin with neutralization. The virtually effortless power that Yang observed in the Apothecary shop in Yong Nian by Chen De Hu was a manifestation of years of study committed to utilizing a soft and flexible response instead of meeting an opponent's force head on.

While under the tutelage of Chen, Yang trained continuously regardless if the season was winter or summer. After an initial six years of practice, Yang returned to his hometown in Yong Nian County. During the time Yang was gone, many people in his home village practiced martial arts and wanted to test Lu Chan's his newly obtained skills. Yang was challenged to a duel in which he was defeated. Even though he lost the duel, he did not lose hope. He returned to the Chen Village to learn for another six years. The second time he returned home was during the Chinese New Year. The people of his hometown were excited by Yang's return and thought he would be unbeatable. In the same area there was a martial artist who had connections with the Chen Village and who had studied many styles of martial arts. When he heard that Yang had returned home, he wanted to test Yang's skills. The result of their match was a draw. Yang felt his skill level was not sufficiently proficient even though he held his own against such a highly skilled martial artist; so he returned to Chan Changxing a third time. Yang's third trip to the Chen Village moved Chen so much that taught Yang everything he knew. After two years of study, Chen said that when Yang returned home this time, there would be no one who could defeat him. Subsequently, Yang returned home and was never defeated again.

Yang Luchan Teaching Yang T'ai Chi Chuan

During the period Yang Luchan taught in his hometown, people called his style Yang Fist (Yang Quan, 楊拳), Soft Fist (Mian Quan, 綿拳, literal "Cotton Fist"), or Neutralizing Fist, (Hua Quan, 化拳) because his motions were soft and able to neutralize an opponent's power. Yang's first group of students included Wu Yuxian (武禹襄, 1812–1880), who was a scholar from a wealthy and influential family that owned the building that housed Chen De Hu's Tai He Tang Apothecary shop. Wu Yuxian was a friend of Yang Luchan and financially supported him in his enterprise to study t'ai chi chuan with Chen Changxing. Upon each of Yang's returns from the Chen Village, Yang taught the knowledge he'd learned to Wu, who became Yang's most famous student from this period, as well as Wu's brothers, Wu Cheng Qing (武澄清) and Wu Ru Qing (武汝清), who were bureaucratic officials of the Qing Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 大清; pinyin: Dà qīng; Manchu: Daiqing gurun; founded 1636, ruled China 1644–1912). Wu Yuxian and his brothers financed the space and organized Yang Luchan's early classes. Little is known about any students Yang Luchan had during this time. It is also fairly certain that Yang Luchuan's style developed during this period. Wu Yuxian went on to found Wu (Hao)-style (Traditional Chinese: 武氏 or 武/郝氏; pinyin: Wǔshì or wǔ/hǎoshì) t'ai chi ch'uan.

The family of Wu Yuxian valued writing and literature. Many family members secured government jobs after passing the challenging written test. Wu Yuxian himself had the rank of at least Xucai (徐才) and he may have advanced further. Yang Luchan, though, had no formal education and was possibly illiterate.

After Yang Luchan's return from his third trip to Chen Village, Wu Yuxian went to Chen Village himself to learn from Chen Changxing in 1852. Chen Changxing was too old to continue teaching, though, so he referred Wu Yuxian to Chen Qingping (1795–1868), a 15th generation descendant and 7th generation master of the Chen family, in the neighboring Zhaobao Village (招寶村). Wu studied under Chen Qingping (陈清平) for a few months, then returned to his hometown. In the fall of that year, Wu's older brother Wu Chen Qing discovered by chance the book T'ai Chi Ch'uan Theories by Wang Zongyue (王宗岳; circa middle 15th Century) in the back room of a salt store in Wu Yan County, Henan Province (武岩縣, 河南省). Some accounts say the book was found in a salt store in Beijing.

Wu Yuxian studied the book and likely shared its findings with Yang Luchan. The book became part of the T'ai Chi Classics that taught everything from the underlying T'ai Chi philosophical principles to methods of practice and application. They likely helped inspire Yang Luchan to study ideas and styles other than what Chen Changxing taught him, helping to account for the differences of the present day Yang and Chen styles. The legacies of Yang Luchan and Wu Yuxian diverged as well.

Following his third trip to Chen Village, Yang Lu Chan was invited by Wu Lu Ching, a distant relative, to teach martial arts in the capital of Beijing. Wu Lu Ching was a government official in the administration of Emperor Daoguang (r. 1820–1850) of the Qing dynasty. Upon arriving in the capital, Lu Chan was a guest at the home of a wealthy businessman named Mr. Chang. Mr. Chang's business was small at first, but later grew to be very large and prosperous. Mr. Chang's business also included offering instruction in different types of martial arts training.

Yang's first opportunity to meet the Chang family and demonstrate his martial art was during a banquet that hosted multiple martial arts teachers. Chang thought little of Yang's ability due to his small build and decided that Yang did not "look" like a boxer. Yang was served a very simple dinner and, as an insult, placed behind an ordinary martial artist preparing to demonstrate. After Yang demonstrated his "Cotton Fist" style, Mr. Chang asked if it could actually defeat an opponent. The question was a veiled insult since he had invited Yang on the basis of his reputation as a great fighter. Yang answered that except for men of bronze, men of iron, and men of rock his Fist style could defeat men of flesh and blood.

In one version of the story, Chang invited his best bodyguard, Liu to put Yang's skill to the test in a garden court outdoors. Liu aggressively attacked Yang, who threw him across the yard with a simple yielding technique. Chang was impressed and ordered a banquet to be served for Yang.

In another version of the story, a rival martial arts teacher challenged Yang, who accepted and declared that he would take on other challengers as well at the banquet. Yang went out to the garden court, where the guests could all watch the challenge. Yang's first challenger charged him fierce as a tiger. Yang raised his arms and the man flew back several meters through the air. Immediately, another martial arts master challenged Yang. Without completing one technique, the second challenger was hurled back several meters to the ground. After witnessing this, the other martial arts masters did not dare to further challenge Yang.

After returning to the banquet hall, Yang was seated at the head table and toasted by the guests. From that day, Yang began teaching T'ai Chi Chuan at the Chang residence.

In 1850, Yang was hired by the Imperial family of the Qing dynasty to teach T'ai Chi Chuan to them and several élite Manchu Imperial Guards Brigade units in the Forbidden City palace complex in Bejing. Yang's most well known student among the Imperial Guards was Wu Quanyou (1834–1902), who co-founded the Wu style of T'ai Chi Chuan with his son Wu Chien-ch'uan (1870–1942).

Yang Luchan came to be known as Yang Wudi (楊無敵), which means "Yang the Invincible," "Unbeatable Yang," or "Yang Unmatched." A fundamental concept of Neijia Quan was "investing in loss," which led to the attitude of "having nothing to prove, and nothing to lose." When challenged, Yang turned the matches into what some observers called "joyous" affairs. Many challengers were deceived were deceived by frail and weak appearance of Yang, who used his internal force, or energy, to redirect an opponent's aggression and lead them into emptiness. This held true even against challengers who outweighed Yang by more than twice as much.

In addition to teaching, Yang also traveled around China. He carried a spear and a small bag, challenging well-known martial artists. Though he had numerous matches, he never hurt his opponents. In time, several legends of Yang's martial arts prowess emerged. These legends informed numerous biographical books and movies.

Some noteworthy stories of Yang Luchan that illustrate his skill and character include:

  1. The House of Prince Duan, one of the royal families in Beijing, employed many boxing masters and wrestlers—some of whom were desirous of having a trial of strength with Yang Luchan. Yang often declined their challenges. One day, a famous boxing master insisted on competing with Yang to determine who was the stronger. The boxer suggested that they sit on two chairs and pit their right fists against each other. Yang Luchan saw no alternative but to agree. Soon after the contest began, Duan's boxing master began to sweat all over and his chair creaked as if it were going to fall apart; Yang however looked as composed and serene as ever. Finally rising, Yang gently commented to the onlookers: "The Master's skill is indeed superb, only his chair is not as firmly made as mine." The other master was so moved by Yang's modesty that he constantly praise Yang's exemplary conduct and unmatched martial skill.
  2. One day, Yang was fishing at a lake when two other martial artists passed by. They had heard of his reputation and were disinclined to challenge him, so they decided to push Yang in the water and make him lose face instead. Yang, sensing their intention, arched his chest, rounded his back, and performed the High Pat on Horse technique. As his back arched and head bowed, the two martial artists were bounced into the lake simultaneously upon touching his back. He told the two martial artists that he had been easy on them, but if they had been on the ground, he would have punished them more severely. The two martial artists quickly swam away.
  3. One time, when Yang was at the town of Guang Ping (广平), he was fighting a match with a martial artist on the city wall. The opponent was unable to defeat him and kept retreating to the edge of the wall. Suddenly he lost his balance and was about to fall. Yang, who was several yards away, rapidly closed the distance and grabbed hold of his foot, saving his life.
  4. Yang was good at using a spear. He could pick up light objects by having his spear adhere to the object, the toss it up into his hand. He could also throw arrows with his hand and hit a target while on horseback without a bow.
  5. One rainy day, while Yang sat in his living room, his daughter entered from outside holding a basin of water. When she opened a screen door, she slipped on a wet step. Yang jumped up, held the screen with one hand, and caught his daughter’s arm with the other. Not a drop of water splashed from the basin, showing how quick his reactions were.
  6. One time when Yang was in Beijing, a famous martial artist who was jealous of his reputation challenged him. Yang politely refused. Nevertheless the man was insistent. Yang said, "If you want to fight me, you can hit me three times first." The man was delighted and hit Yang in the stomach. Yang uttered that "Ha" sound with a laugh. Before the laugh finished, the challenger was already on the ground, bounced many yards away.

The old Yang T'ai Chi Chuan focused on punching and kicking. It also utilized weapons striking, stabbing and slashing. Today Yang T'ai Chi Chuan is often practiced as a health promoting activity.

To understand why Yang's t'ai chi chuan was so aggressive and violent, his life needs to be taken into account. Yang lived during a time of discord and anarchy when China was ruled by the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty and the country was being encroached upon by foreign powers from Europe, the United States, and Japan. China was also beset by a number of natural disasters and famines. Many people carried knives and other weapons because they feared for their lives daily. The Qing Dynasty fought the First Opium War (1839–1842) against Great Britain and the Second Opium War (1856–1860) against Great Britain and France. In 1860, troops from both European countries attacked the capital, Beijing (Peking), and the Xianfeng Emperor (咸豐) (r. 1850–1861) fled the city. The Nian Rebellion (1851–1868) in northern China against the Qing Dynasty caused great economic devastation and loss of life that contributed to the collapse of the Qing Empire in the early 20th century. After Yang's passing, his descendants were affected by the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901) against foreign encroachment on China.

The most tumultuous event of Yang's life, as well as the deadliest civil war in world history, the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), erupted in southern China when Yang was fifty years old. It was led by Hakka, Han Chinese who spoke Hakka. A Hakka revolutionary named Hong Xiuquan (洪秀全) (1814–1864) had assembled a massive "Taiping Heavenly Army of God." Xiuquan declared himself the brother of Jesus and sought to create a Christian state in China called the Taiping Heavenly Dynasty or "The New Jerusalem." The movement was based on Hong's unique interpretation of Christianity and combined with Chinese folk religion, and other religious traditions.

Hong and his followers seized control of Nanjing City on the banks of the Yangtze River and used this as his base to fight the Qing Imperial army. For fifteen years China was wracked by this civil war with approximately 20–30 million people civilians and soldiers killed. The Taiping Rebellion was put down, but it further weakened the Qing Dynasty and contributed to its eventual fall in 1912.

So when Yang was sixty-five years old he would have witnessed much bloodshed and violence. In such a time of such anarchy and suffering and turmoil, it is understandable that he would have developed a t'ai chi chuan system with many lethal techniques that would let him survive.

Yang Luchan had three sons, Yang Qi (楊琦), Yang Yu (楊鈺, 1837–1890) also called Ban-hou (班侯), and Yang Jian (楊鑒, 1839–1917) also called Jian-hou (健侯). Yang Qi, the oldest son, was a farmer and never studied martial arts. Yang Qi passed away when he was young, so only the last two sons succeeded their father in practicing Yang T'ai Chi Chuan.

Though Yang T'ai Chi Chuan was developed from Chen T'ai Chi Chuan, it has become distinct from the latter style. In Yang style, the speed is steady and movements flow continuously unlike Chen style in which there are sudden slow and quick jerky movements with vigorous force. Yang style manifests Jing (精, internal power) with smooth circular motions akin to drawing silk from a cocoon in contrast to Chen style's twisting and spiraling motions. Yang style's breathing is more natural and the chi is sunk to the lower dantien (丹田, "elixir field" or "energy center"), the point about one and a half inches below the navel. In contrast, Chen style requires both twisting and sinking the chi to the lower dantien.

The structure of Yang style is simple yet elaborate in some ways. Its body posture is centrally balanced, not leaning towards any side. Its movements are soft, stately, full and round, smooth, with combined soft and hard movements, agile, light and steady. Its practice includes transitions from loose to soft, and soft gradually becoming hard, then soft and hard together. Its frame has high, middle, and low stances. The stance Yang style practitioners use depends on the age, gender, weaknesses, or strength of the individual practitioner. Yang style can also be used for physical therapy, rehabilitation, and faster recovery from illness. Continued practice adds strength and improvement to the practitioner's technique. Correct Yang style practice displays a lordly, majestic, and graceful appearance.

Men and women students can learn the martial applications as well as enjoy the health benefits of Yang T'ai Chi Chuan in martial arts classes held by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.

 

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