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T'ai Chi Chuan 

Yang T'ai Chi Chuan – The Soft Art

T'ai chi (Taiji), short for T'ai chi chuan (Taijiquan), or T'ai chi ch'üan (pinyin: tàijíquán; 太极拳), is an internal Chinese martial art practiced for its defense training, its health benefits, and meditation. T'ai chi chuan has spread worldwide. Most present day styles of t'ai chi chuan trace their development to at least one of the five traditional schools: Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu, and Sun. All of the schools trace their historical origins to Chen Village. Yang family-style (Traditional Chinese: 楊氏; pinyin: Yángshì) T'ai Chi Chuan is the most popular style in the world today and second in seniority among the main five family styles of T'ai Chi Chuan.


Yin and Yang

The term t'ai chi/taiji refers to a philosophy of the forces of yin and yang, related to the moves. Though originally developed as a martial art, it is also practiced for competitive wrestling in the form of tui shou pushing hands (推手tuīshǒu), forms competitions, and achieving better health and longer life. As a result, a profusion of traditional and modern training forms exist, which match up with those aims with differing emphasis. Some training forms of tai chi chuan are especially known for being exercised with slow movements.

The concept of the taiji ("grand ultimate" or "supreme ultimate"), in contrast with wuji (無極; literal: "without ultimate"), appears in both Taoist and Confucian Chinese philosophy, where it symbolizes the fusion of yin and yang into a single ultimate, represented by the taijitu (太極圖) symbol. T'ai chi chuan theory and practice developed in sync with many Chinese philosophical principles, including the Three Teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

T'ai chi chuan practice involves five elements: taolu (套路; solo hand and weapons forms and applications); neigong (內功; literal: "internal skill") and qigong (氣功; literal: "life-energy cultivation") breathing, movement and awareness exercises, and meditation; tuishou (two-person push hands response drills); and sanshou (散手; self defence techniques). While t'ai chi chuan practice is typically known for its slow movements, many styles (including the three most popular: Yang, Wu, and Chen) have secondary forms with a faster pace.

In China, t'ai chi chuan is classified under the Wudang grouping of Chinese martial arts—the styles applied with internal power. Though the term Wudang implies such arts originated in the Wudang Mountains, it is used to differentiate the skills, theories, and applications of neijia (內家; internal arts) from those of the Shaolin (少林功夫) classification, or waijia (外家; hard or external) styles.

Since the earliest widespread promotion of the health benefits of t'ai chi in the early 20th century, it has developed a following of people, with little or no interest in martial training, for its personal health benefits. Focusing the mind on the movements of the t'ai chi form helps to foster a condition of mental calm and clarity. Medical studies of t'ai chi substantiate its effectiveness as an alternative exercise and a form of martial arts therapy.

The physical techniques of t'ai chi chuan are described in the "T‘ai-chi classics" (Taijiquan Pu 太极拳谱 or Taijiquan Jing 太極拳經), a set of writings by traditional masters over the centuries. They are characterized with the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination and relaxation, rather than muscular tension, in order to neutralize, yield, or launch attacks. The slow, repetitive work involved in the process of learning how that leverage is generated gently and noticeably increases the internal circulation of breath, body heat, blood, lymph fluid, and peristalsis.

The study of t'ai chi chuan primarily involves three aspects:

Health: t'ai chi chuan's health training focuses on relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind. Good physical fitness is an important step towards effective application of tai chi chuan techniques as well.

Meditation: The focus and calmness fostered by the meditative aspect of tai chi chuan is essential for maintaining good health and using t'ai chi chuan as a soft style martial art.

Martial art: The ability to use t'ai chi chuan as a form of self-defense tests a student's understanding of the art. T'ai chi chuan calls for the study of appropriate reaction to outside forces and yielding and sticking to an incoming attack rather than meeting it with opposing force.

A blending of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian traditions, including the principles of Mencius (372–289 BC or 385–303 or 302 BC) the "second Sage" after Confucius gave birth to tai chi chuan. Legendary tales circulating among Buddhist and Taoist monasteries credit Chang San-Feng (張三丰, 1247–?) with creating t'ai chi chuan. Chang San-Feng was both a Shaolin monk and a Taoist sage, who was reputed to have lived for over 200–300 years during the Southern Song (Traditional Chinese: 南宋; pinyin: Nánsòng; 1127–1279) and Yuan dynasties (Traditional Chinese: 元朝; pinyin: Yuán Cháo; 1271–1368) up to the middle of the Ming dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 大明; pinyin: Dàmíng; 1368–1644).

The Shaolin Five Animals style was part of Chang San-Feng's training as a Shaolin monk. It gave rise to many offshoots like Northern Shaolin Yuejiaquan, alternately Yue Chia Quan or Yue Ch'uan, "Yue Family Fist" (Traditional Chinese: 岳家拳; Yuèjiā quán), but Chang San-Feng was said to have seen a snake and crane in deadly combat one day. The calm movements of the snake and crane as they shifted from slow, calculating maneuvers to rapid, explosive attacks especially captured his attention.

Snake vs Crane

Chang San-Feng studying Snake versus Crane

Chang San-Feng learned from the battle between the two animals the following principles:

1. One must overcome the strong in a gentle way
2. One wins by striking only when the enemy has made its move.

After the incident, Chang San-Feng created an internal style he called Mien Chuen, "Cotton Fist," (Traditional Chinese: 棉拳; Mián quán) that would develop into present day Tai chi chuan. It comprised a set of 72 movements that mimicked the movements of the crane and snake, stressing flexibility and flexibility over strength.

Chang San-Feng practiced his new style in seclusion in the woods surrounding his mountain retreat, where he was credited with creating the "Thirteen Postures" (shisan shi 十三式) of Tai chi chuan. His style was also described by outsiders as zhan quan (沾拳, "touch boxing"). He taught his style to Taoist monks at a nearby Wudang Temple, giving them lessons on slow and fast forms every day at dawn and dusk. His teaching supposedly continued with following generations of monks, who claimed that he appeared while they were practicing to study the development of his style. Several legends say that he lived for over two centuries due to breathing exercises, his use of internal healing, and his knowledge of alchemy.

Wang Zongyue

Suggested appearance of Wang Zongyue

Chang San-Feng's most famous student was Wang Zongyue (王宗岳) who lived during about the 15th century. Wang Zongyue is credited with writing the treatise T'ai Chi Ch'uan Theories, which is the cornerstone for every school of t'ai chi chuan. He is also said to have taught members of the Chen family. The Chen family developed Chen T'ai Chi Chuan, the oldest of the family styles at the Chen Village.


Chen (Cheng Jia Gou/Chen Family) Village Entrance Gate Past and Present

Chen Village in Wen County (溫县), Huaiqing Prefecture (懷慶府), Henan Province (河南) in Central China is the origin of modern t'ai chi chuan boxing. According to Chen Village family annals, Chen Bu (陳仆; 陈卜) was a skilled martial artist who founded the martial arts tradition of Chen Village as well as the village itself during the reign of Emperor Taizu (r. 1368–1398) of the Ming Dynasty. The Chen clan originally hailed from Hong Dong, (洪洞), Shanxi Province (山西) in Northern China. Chen Bu moved his family to the village site in 1374, which lay 137 kilometers (274 li/85 miles) from the Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng County (登封), Zhengzhou Prefecture (郑州市), Henan Province (河南). Three major rivers merged there: the Yangtze River, the Yellow River or Huang He, and the Pearl River or Xi. The confluence of these three rivers served as a strategic military center. Chen Bu trained the local farmers to protect the area. The site was originally called Changyang Village (常陽村Chángyáng Cūn) and the Chen clan grew in numbers there. Because of three deep ravines (溝壑gōuhè) located near the village, it came to be called Chen Jia Gou (陳家溝 Chén jiā gōu) or Chen Family Creek/Brook. For generations afterwards, the Chen Village was renowned for its martial arts tradition.

T'ai Chi Chuan in Chen Village

T'ai Chi Chuan in Chen Village

T'ai chi chuan teachers from the Chen Village journeyed to the Shaolin Temple to teach the monks and nuns there. Some of these teachers became imperial bodyguards as well. The Shaolin Temple greatly influenced Qi cultivation in Chinese martial arts society and substantial t'ai chi chuan theory originated there. 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 (長拳; literal "Long Fist") 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.

Cheng Wanting (陈王庭; 1580–1660), a Ming Dynasty general, retired to Chen Village following the fall of the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 大清; pinyin: Dà qīng; 1636-1912). He refined and codified Chen T'ai Chi Chuan so that it also included qigong, the healing quality of t'ai chi.

Cheng Wanting

Statue of Cheng Wangting before Chen Bing Taiji Academy, Chen Village

Martial arts historian Xu Zhen (1898–1967) believed that the T'ai chi chuan of Chen Village had been influenced by the Taizu changquan (太祖長泉) style practiced at the nearby Shaolin Temple. Chinese martial arts master and historian Tang Hao (1887–1959) considered it to be developed from a paper by the Ming dynasty general Qi Jiguang, Jixiao Xinshu (焦新書 "New Treatise on Military Efficiency"), which covered several martial arts styles including Taizu changquan.

The first style to branch away from Chen T'ai Chi Chuan is Yang T'ai Chi, which is named after Yang Luchan or Yang Lu-chan(楊露禪), aka Yang Fu-k'ui (楊福魁, 1799–1872), who was a secret disciple of Chen Changxing, or Ch'en Chang-hsing (陈长兴; 1771–1853), a 14th generation descendant and 6th generation master of the Chen Family.

Chen Changxing

Chen Changxing

Yang Luchan's family was a poor farming/worker class one from Yongnian County (永年), Guanping Prefecture (關萍), Hebei Province (河北) in Northern China. Yang would accompany his father in planting the fields when he was a boy and, as a teenager, had temporary jobs. One period of temporary work was spent doing odd work at the Tai He Tang Chinese pharmacy located in the west part of Yongnian City, opened by Chen De Hu (陳德虎) of the Chen Village. As a boy, Yang liked martial arts and studied Chángquán, gaining a certain level of skill.

Yang Lu-chan

Yang Luchan

One day Yang reportedly witnessed Chen De Hu using Chen t'ai chi chuan, a style of martial art that he had never seen before, to easily rout a group of would-be thieves who attempted to rob the pharmacy. Yang requested to study with Chen De Hu. The latter referred Yang to the Chen Village, though, to seek out his own teacher—Ch'en Chang-hsing.

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. 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.

Yang's studies continued for the next eighteen years. When he had mastered the Chen art, he was granted permission by his teacher to go to Beijing and teach his own students. Yang's students included Wu Yu-hsiang (吳玉祥) and his brothers, who were officials in the Imperial Qing dynasty bureaucracy.

In 1850, Yang was hired by the Imperial family to teach T'ai chi chuan to them and several of their élite Manchu Imperial Guards Brigade units, including the Palace Battalion, in Beijing's Forbidden City. Among this group was Yang's best known non-family student, Wu Quanyou (吳全有). Yang held the position until his death. His time as an instructor led to the spread of Tai chi chuan from the family art of Chen Village in Central China to an international phenomenon.

Due to his influence and the number of teachers he trained, including his own descendants, Yang is credited by four of the five T'ai chi chuan families as having passed the art to them.

Yang Banhou

Yang Banhou

Yang Lu-chan passed on his art to:

  • his second son, the oldest son to live to maturity, Yang Banhou or Yang Pan-hou (楊班侯, 1837–1890), who was also retained as a martial arts instructor by the Chinese Imperial family. Yang Banhou became the formal teacher of Wu Ch'uan-yu or Wu Quanyou (吳傳玉), a Manchu Banner cavalry officer of the Palace Battalion, even though Yang Luchan was Wu Ch'uan-yu's first tai chi chuan teacher. Wu Ch'uan-yu became Yang Banhou's first disciple. Wu Ch'uan-yu's son, Wu Chien-ch'üan or Wu Jianquan (吳建全), also a Banner officer, became known as the co-founder (along with himself) of the Wu-style. Though he had few students, Yang Banhou's skill in T'ai chi chuan is the highest of all the second generation of Yang practitioners. In the Yang Family Secrets (楊家的秘密Yángjiā de mìmì), forty-nine of fifty-one theses were written by Yang Banhou.
  • his third son Yang Jianhou or Chien-hou (堅厚; 1839–1917), who passed it to his sons, Yang Shao-hou (楊少侯, 1862–1930) and Yang Chengfu (楊澄甫, 1883–1936) and Niu Chunming (牛春明; 1881–1961). Yang Chengfu developed the style that is most popular today among health enthusiasts.
  • Wu Yu-hsiang (Wu Yuxiang, 武禹襄, 1813–1880), who also developed his own Wu/Hao-style, which eventually, after three generations, led to the development of Sun-style tai chi chuan.

Yang Jianhou

Yang Jianhou

Yang Jianhou passed on the middle frame long form, also known as the 2nd generation Yang form or the Yang Jianhou form to his disciples, a more martial form that is reminiscent of the Chen style more so than the 3rd generation form of Yang Chengfu.

Yang Shaohou

Yang Shaohou

Yang Shaohou developed a signature small frame style of Yang T'ai chi chuan. It was characterized by high and low postures with small movements executed in a method that was sometimes slow and sometimes sudden. Likely influenced by techniques learned from Yang Luchan and Yang Banhou, it emphasized fighting application and is little known today.

Yang Chenfu

Yang Chengfu

Yang Chengfu eliminated the vigorous fā jìn (發勁 release of power) from the solo Hand Form as well as the energetic jumping, stamping, and other abrupt movements in order to stress the Da jia (大架 large frame) style, but kept them in the sword, saber, staff, and spear weapons forms. The Hand Form of Yang Chengfu has slow, steady, expansive, and soft movements, which is the style mostly used for health purposes today.

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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