The legendary origins of Tai Chi
Statue of Zhang Sanfeng in the Purple Cloud Temple on Wudang Mountain. The emblematic white cranes can be seen in the painting just behind him
The Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zhou
According to one legend, Tai Chi (also written T’ai Chi Ch’üan, or taiji quan in the more modern pinyin transliteration) was invented during the Song dynasty (12th-13th century), by a Taoist monk from the Wudang Mountains, Zhang Sanfeng. Zhang Sanfeng was already adept in the practice of the Shaolin “external school” (waijia). According to legend, one night in a dream he received the revelation of the “internal school” (neijia) techniques from the Taoist warrior god Zhenwu. Waking up, he put these new techniques to good use by killing 100 bandits single-handed!
Another charming story describes how the sage one day saw a white crane attacking a snake. Observing the fluid circular defensive motions of the snake, and the rapid, stabbing offensive motions of the bird, Zhang Sangfeng was inspired to create the fluid and explosive forms of Tai Chi.
Zhang Sangfeng must have been an expert practitioner of the forms, since he is said to have lived for hundreds of years and to have ended his life by merging with the Dao and becoming an immortal.
These are all legends of course, not history, and it is not even certain that Zhang Sanfeng was a real historical person. But like most legends, the stories of the Zhang Sanfeng’s life contain elements of truth, and have something to tell us about the historical origins of Tai Chi, by associating it closely with Taoist philosophy.
The first references to a physical practice that begins to look like Tai Chi can be found in the founding works of the Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zhou:
“Inhaling and exhaling in different ways, spitting out the old breath and introducing the new breath, imitating the bear, or the bird stretching its neck, all this tends towards gaining eternal life. This is what those who practice daoyin gymnastics enjoy, those who nourish the body and desire to live as long as Pengzu.”
Tai Chi and Chinese philosophy
Ancient Tai Chi forms
Taiji quan is often translated into English as “Supreme ultimate fist”, which is pretty obscure. In fact, the term is made up of two expressions. The second, quan, is straightforward enough and means “fist”; from this we can infer that although today’s Tai Chi includes weapons techniques, it is originally based on bare-fisted boxing. The meaning of the first term, taiji, is far more complex and indeed impossible to convey fully in a few words. Literally, it can mean “the ultimate pinnacle”, and might be described as the active principle of the Dao. To put this in more modern terms, if we think of the Dao as constituting the entire natural universe, then the taiji might be seen as the underlying laws or principles which govern the action of the Dao. In Chinese philosophy, although the Dao is the whole universe, it remains an undifferentiated unique, and goes through a series of transformations, or differentiations, which progressively give rise to lower levels of laws or principles, and in the end to all observable natural phenomena, including living things, and of course ourselves.
The first of these differentiations gives rise to the two models, Yin and Yang, which are constantly in transformation from one into the other, so that in Taoist philosophy nothing is fixed and constant, everything is in a process of change from itself into its opposite and back again. Taiji quan might then be best (if rather long-windedly) expressed as “boxing based on the ultimate principles of the natural world”. It is the ultimate principle of the universe which finds expression in the fluid movements of Tai Chi, constantly shifting from Yin to Yang, from defence to attack, from soft to hard, from weak to strong.
This is why, unlike other Chinese martial arts, Tai Chi places so much emphasis on the development of the body’s internal strength. This is why it has adopted one of the favorite images of Taoist philosophy: that of water, which appears weak and insubstantial and yet which is able to wear down mountains as it flows, always seeking its natural path.
This brings us to a profound difference between Chinese philosophy, and especially Taoism, and Western philosophy as it is expressed in and emerges from the Christian tradition. In Christian thinking, Heaven exists outside the natural world, the natural body is therefore seen as an impediment to the development of heavenly spirituality. Indeed, mind (or spirit) and the physical body may be seen as fundamentally opposed: the body being the seat of sexuality and physical desire of all kinds, is seen as subject to the devil; the soul is something ethereal, not belonging to the natural world but to the world of God. To attain God therefore means denying or even rejecting the body.
For Taoism such a separation does not exist. If the ultimate goal of the sage is to attain immortality, he does this not by rejecting the body or the physical world but on the contrary by refining it, strengthening and refining the body’s own qi. The ultimate goal of immortality is simply the final point on a continuum: by preserving and developing the body’s harmony and natural energy one can attain good health, longevity, and – perhaps! – immortality.
This introduces us to the notion of qi, absolutely fundamental to Chinese philosophy and medecine, and in Tai Chi. The notion of qi incorporates both the physical energy of the universe, and so of the body, and what we might call spiritual energy. Here again, we see the non-separation of body and spirit: achieving spiritual understanding is inseparable from the body’s physical development.
The practice of Tai Chi is therefore inseparable from Qi gong, literally “the practice (or development) of qi”, which aims at improving the body’s energy and well-being through breathing, stretching, and meditation.
Tai Chi in the history of martial arts
Golden cock stands on one leg (from Douglas Wile, Tai Chi’s
Statue of Chen Wangting
The term quan, or “fist”, appears in the 12th century to designate any form of bare-fisted boxing using the hands and/or the feet. The external (waijia) boxing techniques developed in the Shaolin temples are of course famous, and would appear to have originated in the increasing wealth and power of Shaolin buddhism: Shaolin boxing was intended to be put to military use in the defence of the wealthy monasteries.
During the 16th century, China was confronted with a series of attacks along its coasts by Japanese pirates, and the Shaolin monks contributed their military and fighting prowess to the Middle Empire’s anti-piracy campaigns.
One of the heroes of the anti-piracy campaign, general Qi Jiguang, wrote a New treatise on military efficacy (jixiao xinshu) which became almost as much a classic as Sun Zi’s “Art of war”. The Treatise’s chapter titled “Classical foundation of boxing” (quan jing jieyao) is the first known written text devoted to boxing. Boxing practice was not considered to be directly applicable on the battle-field, but was rather a basis of physical fitness and a preliminary to the use of weapons. What is particularly significant for us, is that the general reduced his exercises to a basic series of 32 postures, of which 29 are to be found in the Chen style of Tai Chi.
Imperial China depended in part on conscription to man its army. Military service concerned the entire population and could last from one to three years. However, the central government could not necessarily guarantee protection against roving bandits or cross-border raiding, so that villagers were often thrown back on their own resources to defend themselves. On their return from military service, the farmers would therefore continue to practice and develop the techniques that they had learned in the army. Chinese martial arts in general are therefore deeply rooted in a popular tradition of self-defence.
There is a general agreement that the origins of the taiji quan that we know today are to be found in the village of Chenjiagou in Henan province, home to the Chen family. Chen style is thus considered to be the oldest and original form of Tai Chi.
According to tradition, the Chen style was created by Chen Wangting in the early 17th century. The declining Ming dynasty was overthrown in 1638 by Manchu invaders from north of the Great Wall, who adopted the dynastic name Qing. The Qing were destined to be China’s last imperial dynasty, lasting until the Republican revolution in the beginning of the 20th century. However, many Han Chinese remained faithful to the fallen Ming. Chen Wangting was one such: a Ming general who refused to serve under the Qing, and so returned to private life in his home village of Chenjiagou.
Here he combined his military experience and his study of Qi Jiguang’s work, with his knowledge of daoyin and Chinese medicine, to develop the first sets of Tai Chi forms. In doing so, he aimed not only to develop a new form of martial art, but also to create a form of mental and physical exercise which emphasized internal strength and could be used by people of all ages and physical conditions to improve their health and well-being and prolong life.
According to another tradition, the Chen family learnt the art from Wang Zhongyue (1733-1810), the author of the earliest known written Treatise of Taiji quan.
Be that as it may, Wang Zhongyue’s Treatise clearly distinguishes Tai Chi from other Chinese martial arts:
“Many fighting techniques, whatever their formal technical differences, produce an identical result where the strong and robust beat the weak, the fast beat the slow, and all this is the result of muscular strength rather than diligent exercise to train breathing and develop internal energy. ‘A force of four ounces can deflect an attack of one thousand pounds’, this proverb shows that victory does not come from muscular strength. When we see an old man resisting several assailants, then what use is rapidity?”.
Until the 19th century, taiji quan remained a Chen family secret, passed on from master to disciples within the extended Chen family in Chenjiagou and the surrounding villages. This changed when Yang Luchan (already a martial arts practitioner himself) came to Chenjiagou (the stories differ as to eactly how and why he came to the village). Fascinated by the Chen family’s boxing techniques, he begged the master, Chen Changxing, to teach him: the latter refused to teach an outsider. Disappointed, but not discouraged, Yang Luchan hung around the village and watched from hiding as the master taught, practicing the moves in secret. He was finally able to demonstrate his new skills, and so impressed Changxing that the master finally relented and agreed to teach him.
Yang Luchan’s skill was such that he became known as “Yang Wudi” (“Yang the Invincible”). Chen Changxing agreed that he should move to Beijing and establish his own school. He becamequitefamous , to the point where in 1850 he was hired by the Qing imperial family to teach his techniques to members of the elite Imperial Guard.
In this way, taiji quan spread outside the Chen family for the first time, and the Yang lineage of Tai Chi was established. Yang Luchan transmitted his own style to his sons, but also to other martial artists, and he seems to have had a generally more open attitude to spreading his skills outside his own family.
Following the chaos of the civil war in China after the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, and the disruption of China’s own “Cultural Revolution”, many martial arts masters took refuge in Hong Kong or Taiwan, or abroad, and in this way interest in Chinese martial arts in general began to spread to the West.
It is perhaps due to Yang Luchan’s greater openness that it was the Yang style of Tai Chi which spread the fastest and became by far the best known outside China itself.
It is impossible in such a short space to give more than a very brief and superficial overview of the history and philosophy of Tai Chi, so intertwined as it is with the history and philosophy of a Chinese culture going back 2000 years or more. If we have encouraged our readers to find out more about this ancient art, and better still to practice it, then we will have achieved our goal!