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A Short History of Tai Ji Quan

From the 5th century through the 14th century CE, Shaolin boxing was refined and developed to a great extent; many forms and styles evolved during this period. One of the major distinctions to arise late in the 13th century was that of internal and external systems.  External schools were harder, with a more yang-like approach to boxing. Internal systems emphasized the cultivation of internal Qi; they were more static and had softer yin-like movements.  The origins of internal Qi Gong stem from this period.  Ba Gua Chang (circular footwork and open-hand strikes) and Xing Yi Quan (linear footwork and hard punching techniques) also evolved around this time. Together with some movements from the Northern and Southern Shaolin styles, they contributed to the forms which eventuallybecame the art of Tai Ji Quan.

Tai Ji was also known as Mei Quan (soft sequence), Shi San Shi (13 Postures), and Chang Quan (Long Sequence). These varied names were regional, but still referred to what we know as Tai Ji Quan (Great Ultimate Boxing). The individual credited with forming Tai Ji into a coherent system was the 13th century Daoist/Buddhist sage Zhang Shan-feng. As with many persons and events in Chinese history, Zhang’s origins are obscured by poor records and mythic embellishments of factual information. Some of these legends include varying physical descriptions (short, homely, filthy, and rough-mannered, or tall, handsome, aesthetic, and elegantly dressed), and the actual period of time in which he lived (8th to 13th century). He was said to have originated Tai Ji by observing the movements of snakes and cranes, and combining them with Qi Gong, or by intuitions gleaned from lucid dreaming. Other researchers feel that Tai Ji may simply have been a specialty of Shaolin monastery teachings.

Philosophically, of course, the origins of Tai Ji are as old as pre-Daoist thought itself.  The concepts of yin and yang, qi, wu ji, Tai Ji, et al. are woven into the many techniques and principles of this art. Zhou Dunyi, an 11th century Confucian scholar, wrote the treatise “On Tai Ji Tu Shuo,” cited as the philosophical basis for Tai Ji Chuan.

By the mid-17th century, the history of Tai Ji becomes clarified.  It is at this time that the familiar names of the various schools of Tai Ji begin to appear; Chen was the first family with a history of instruction; they were followed in the 18th century by the establishment of the Yang style. One member of the Yang family had been receiving cursory instruction in Chen style, but opportunely discovered the secret martial applications taught to the inner circle of students. Yang style eventually moved away from the exaggerated stances and hard fighting style typified by the Chen style, and evolved into the softer, health-oriented school more familiar to modern practitioners.

Other styles include Wu/Hao, Wu, and Sun, which all derive from Chen and Yang, but differ in unique ways.

From a Chinese medical perspective, Tai Ji courses qi and blood through the physical and energetic bodies; the channels are opened and balance is established. As the health of the channels is maintained, so is that of their corresponding organs. As Tai Ji practice incorporates mind and body coordination, it is only natural that the spirit is also enjoined. This three-fold integration is a powerful aid in calming and easing tension, and in improving organic diseases.

Bibliography and Reading List

Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan, by Fu Zhongwen (trans. L. Swaim); pub. by North Atlantic Books, c. 1999.

Oriental Methods of Mental and Physical Fitness, by Huard and Wong; pub. by Funk and Wagnall’s, c. 1971.

Long Life, Good Health, by Simmone Kuo; pub. by North Atlantic Books, c. 1991.

‘T’ai Chi Magazine,’ pub. by Wayfarer, Los Angeles; Vol. 27, No. 1; Vol. 28, No. 2

‘Journal of Asian Martial Arts,’ pub. by Via Media, Vol. 8, No. 1.

Yang’s Ten Important Points    

 1. The head should be upright, so that the shen can reach the crown.

 2.  Sink the chest and draw up the back.

 3.  Relax the waist.

 4.  Divide the substantial from the insubstantial.

 5.  Sink the shoulders and elbows.

 6.  Use the mind (yi) and not force.

 7.  Upper and lower mutually follow.

 8.  Inside and outside coordinate.

 9.  It (yi) is mutually joined and unbroken.

10. Seek stillness in movement.

source: Cheng Man-ching (1901-75)