Classic Ideas in Modern Formats
Dale Napier, Writer
Welcome to Tai Chi Chuan
(C) 2003-2009 Dale Napier
Tai chi chuan (taijiquan) is an ancient Chinese martial art. Most people believe martial arts are ancient, but few are. Tae kwon do was invented after the Korean War. Karate came to Japan in 1922, and the name was not used until 1926. Judo was developed in the late 19th century; Aikido some time after that. We can go on down the list, but you get the idea.
The exact age and creation of taiji is uncertain. The estimates range from 400 to 1,400 years. Many believe the founder to have been a man named Chang San Feng, of the Wudang (Taoist) Monastery, but this is also one of the uncertainties. One 20th century master claimed that Chang San Feng was predated by hundreds of years of taiji practice before the first style was given a name.
Some say the oldest existing system of taijiquan is the Chen style – named for the Chen village, or Chenjiagou.
It is possible other systems preceded Chen style, but they have long since vanished in the mists of antiquity.
We are more certain about the Yang family (Yangjia) systems. More than 150 years ago, a man named Yang Lu-Chan learned taiji from the Chen family, then went on to create his own system – the Yang family style. Yang Lu-chan, who was also known as Yang the Invincible because he was never beaten, created many different forms of the Yang system. We will be studying and practicing the system known as Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan (YMT), the Yang Family Hidden Tradition Taijiquan.
Our taiji system used to be one of those big family secrets for which Chinese martial artists have long been famous. One teacher would pass it to a single special student, who in turn was allowed to pass it to a single special student – one per generation. This training often took place in the dead of night to make sure that no one saw it by accident.
In 1949, all that changed. The head of the system today, Wang Yen-nien of Taiwan, was given permission to teach it to the world. His teacher (Zhang Qin Lin) realized that YMT would probably die out if not passed on to more people. He had discovered this the hard way: his first student of YMT was killed in a bombing raid during the Sino-Japanese war.
In the 1960s, Master Wang taught my teacher, Hu Ling. Master Hu lives here in Houston and teaches advanced techniques to instructors such as myself. I started practicing taiji in 1977, and with Master Hu in 1998.
Essence of Taijiquan
By the early 20th century the Yang taiji masters were realizing that taiji offered important health benefits as well as martial arts excellence. Taijiquan, which literally means “Grand Ultimate Fist”, may be the only martial art today that one can practice for a lifetime and become stronger and healthier, rather than beaten up and broken down. Today it is practiced by more people for health reasons than for martial arts practice, but properly taught, it remains a martial art. The best health gains come from practicing it as a martial art, even if you have no martial intentions.
One Yang taiji master was Yang Chengfu. Chengfu did not learn YMT, but his father knew it and passed it on to one of Chengfu’s deserving students, Zhang Qin Lin. Although Chengfu was passed over for the Hidden Tradition, he was nonetheless a great master whose forms may be the most widely practiced taiji in the world today.
Taijiquan, Chengfu said, was the art of concealing hardness within softness, “like an iron bar within cotton”. Even though we will not be learning his form, his ten precepts for the practice of taiji are essential for anyone learning today.
Click Here to read Yang Chengfu's Ten Essentials of Taijiquan.