tai chi, the history

It is impossible to determine precisely the historical facts surrounding the origins of the art of Tai chi. In itself this should not be surprising. Systems of exercise, physical disciplines dances and martial arts through out the world did not just spring up overnight, out of nowhere. They emerged from something that came before.


Sometimes the threads that link the modern to the past are clear and obvious. But often, especially in the older arts, like in the case of Tai chi the evidence is obscure and scanty.

This also isn’t strange. Firstly, movement is something to practice and participate in and not to write about. Besides, in the case of martial arts the teaching was handed on fro teacher to student, from father to son so there was no need for written records.

One last element that makes the beginning of the art tai chi obscure is the fact the latter belongs to the so called ritualistic type of movement. It is a common phenomenon, in this type of movement the interweaving of facts and legend. This in turn is not unusual from the point that ritual movement goes back to an evocation, celebration and communion with primal forces of life. Where words, logic, rationalization and organized thinking and the wordless, magical unknowable– the mythic quality begins.

If we want to be honest as far as the historical roots of Tai chi we have to  take into account the historical background where this art was primarily formed.

The 18th and 19th century was a time of uncertainty and apprehension in China.

The interaction with the West had brought new customs in the country, many of which like opium that was firstly imported by the English and later cultivated by the Chinese themselves, were particularly detrimental for the economical, political and social well being and cultural identity of the country.

Under the circumstances there was a need for schools and secret or half-secret systems to emerge, in the effort to maintain the values trough authentic and effective practices, like the martial arts that existed from long ago. These practices could even have more credit and validity if they where linked with legends of people with supernatural powers so that they could act as an ideal that could help the people training in them.

So I don’t believe that the art was invented at a given point in time. And if we were sincerely interested in its origins we have to go back much further and study as best as can the history of all martial arts and physical training throughout Chinese culture, for the vocabulary and principles of the T’ai Chi are part of wide, rich tradition that can be traced at least back to the early Taoist exercises depicted on wall paintings 200 years before the birth of Christ.

The legend of Chang San Feng contains, in poetic form, the truths that provide the basic ground in which the T’ai Chi has always been practiced, both as meditation and as a martial art. It also teaches us that it is person’s insights that create something new out of what has gone before without having to reject or distort.

In a sense the T’ai Chi had no beginning. It evolved and, fortunately, it is still evolving. So long as people who teach and practice it do not try to hold on to some image of purity and tradition, but risk incorporating their experiences and understanding  into the art, then the tradition will be enriched and kept alive, and continue to benefit people all over the world.

the Legend

Hundreds of years ago there lived a Taoist sage called Chang San Feng. Some say that he was alive during the Sung dynasty (960 – 1278) other says it was later. At any rate he is supposed to have lived for over two hundred years.

He was a civil servant who later retired to live as hermit. Previously he had studied many forms of martial arts, notably Shao Lin Ch’uan which was the physical discipline taught to the Buddhist monks by Ta Mo (Bodhidharma) who had brought Buddhism to China in the 6th century.

He also knew Ch’ang Ch’uan or long boxing a system associated with a wood cutter of the 8th century called Hsu Hsuang Ping.

It is said that while living as a hermit in the woods, practicing meditation and the martial arts, Chang Sa Feng chanced, one afternoon, to witness a fight between a bird and a snake. When the bird attached with the beak the snake spiraled out of harm’s way. And when the snake struck at the bird’s neck or legs, the latter would use its wings to protect itself. Neither was able to gain the upper hand and after their first encounter each went his own way and returned the following day.

Chang San Feng watched the exchanges carefully and out of it, as well as from his meditations and observations of natural phenomena and the movements of animals he conceived a system of martial training that was composed of all that he had learned.

In later life he was known as Chang Sa Feng of Wu Tang mountain in Hopei which was where he set up a school to teach T’ ai Chi Ch’uan, Taoist meditation and breathing techniques to his students. Even as an old man he could walk a thousand miles without tiring and catch oncoming arrows in his hands.

the Schools - Historical Facts

The documented history of T’ai Chi dates back to the 18th century family records of the Ch’en clan of Honan Province, one of whose members, Ch’en Wang Ting, adapting and borrowing movements from harder styles as well breathing exercises from Yogic disciplines, created a system that latter became known as Tai Chi Chuan. To this day the Ch’en style of T’ai Chi exists.

It is now openly taught and practiced. But originally the art was kept as a guarded secret by the family and outsiders were excluded. It might have remained within the Ch’en family had not a man called Yang Lu Chan (1799 – 1872) persuaded Ch’en Ch’ang Hsien to teach him. Yang was a professional boxer and after learning the T’ai Chi went to Peking and was so successful that he became known as “Yang the Unbeatable”. He opened up a school of martial arts where he taught a modified version of what had been passed on to him. This was the origin of the Yang style which is popular today.

A temporary of Yang Lu Chan was Wu Yu Hsiang (1812-1880). He studied with another teacher from the Ch’en clan, Ch’en Ching Ping and also from Yang himself. In the middle of the 19th century he created the Wu style which was a combination and adaptation of what he had learnt.