Willow Moon Tai Chi History

Willow Moon Internal Arts

History of Taijiquan

Last update:  04/12/23

Being a compilation of many scholarly articles and interviews with members of the taiji families.  

It can be difficult to plow through the fascinating history of taijiquan.  Scholars have studied its history and continue to sort out objective fact from legend. In China, the origin of taijiquan has been the subject of scholarly research (historiography) for many decades.  In fact, this study has taken on a life of its own.

There are several well-known styles of taijiquan.  Within each style of taijiquan (e.g., Yang) in China today you can find “modern” and “traditional”, and each can look a bit different.  The important thing to remember is that it is wonderful that there are multiple rich styles of taijiquan. If basic principles are adhered to, it is taiji. The key principles are balance and relaxation with intent leading and controlling body motion.  That body motion uses the waist as the turning axis and is interconnected; when one part of the body changes, all the body changes.  For serious practitioners, taiji involves attending to energy flow through body channels known as meridians.

There are competing theories and even controversy about the origin of taijiquan. This article will not focus on the controversy.  What we present here is not presented as THE truth, but simply one plausible version.  This version has taijiquan originating in the Wenxian County of Henan Province in China.  It was probably not originally called taijiquan.  It may have initially been called “Thirteen Postures.”  Postures is probably not the most accurate translation, because it is not a set of static postures like yoga poses.  “Thirteen skills” might be a better translation.

First though, why do different styles even exist?  Different styles, named for the surname of the creator of that style (founder) exist because expert taijiquan players changed and adjusted certain aspects of the martial art.

Some of these changes “caught on” and survived the test of time.  Some adjustments could have been due to the player’s body type.  That is, movements are different if you are tall and slim rather than short.  People move differently later in life than when they are in their twenties.  

Other changes were likely due to the emphasis on health vs. martial combat or even the personality of the practitioner. Some changes happened when a master encountered different needs on the part of the students.  Some differences in routines came from a martial application being visualized or where the opponent is coming from during the “shadow boxing”.   Whatever the reason, multiple changes were made by each practitioner during their lives.  True masters were constantly exploring and improving all the time, and such exploration brought about variation.

Social status of the player could have played a role in what the form looked like.  In the hierarchical social system of old China, the educated elite could not be jumping around like common foot soldiers, so routines may have been modified accordingly.

Taijiquan is seen today as a major division of the traditional Chinese martial arts, or wushu.  It derived its name from the term taiji which first appeared in the Yijing, The Book of Changes (compiled during the Zhou Dynasty, 1122-249 B.C.).  “In all things exists taiji the two opposites in all things.  The two opposites cause the four seasons, and the four seasons cause the eight natural phenomena.”  An understanding of basic Chinese philosophy, medicine, and cosmology (e.g., Taoism, yinyang, Five Elements, Eight Trigrams, energy meridians) can deepen one’s appreciation of the art.  

One history of taijiquan centers around a small town in Wenxian County, Henan Province:  Chenjiagou “Chen family drainage ditch”, or Chen Village. Much of the history of taijiquan is a history of people flowing into or growing up in Chen Village, learning and teaching, and flowing out again circulating the art.

A popular starting point is when Chen Wangting (1597-1664), garrison commander for Henan province, evolved a form of boxing about 300 years ago.  This martial art, rather than being practiced at a constant fast and hard pace, was practiced dramatically slowed down, with occasional fast release of stored energy.

Chen Wangting would have learned the family martial arts that had been handed down from his ancestors, and very likely studied at the Thousand Year Monastery.  This monastery included Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism.

At the Qianzai (Thousand Year) monastery in Tang village, about 30 miles from Chen Village, Li Daozi (b. 614) is credited with establishing “Wuji Method of Nourishing Life” and “Thirteen Posture Exercise (Shi San Shi)”.  Li Chunmao (1508-1666), wrote an essay entitled “Discussion on Wuji and Fist Wushu” and another called “The Verse for the Practice of the Thirteen Postures.”  These routines were wujiquan, the likely precursors to taijiquan.

There is a reference to an essay that includes Chen Wanting as one of the writers.  It is found in the “Li Family History” (Genealogy).  The essay is called “Essay on the Taiji Method of Nourishing Life.”  The actual essay has been lost.

Two other authors of the essay are brothers Li Xin (birth and death dates unknown) and Li Zhong (1598-1689).  Together with their cousin Chen Wangting they created “Taiji Health Cultivation Thirteen Postures.”  This may very well be the art we now know as taijiquan.  

Some historians say Chen Wanting wanted to separate himself from his cousins for political reasons (Li Xin was considered an enemy of the government, being involved in rebellions to overturn the existing powers.)  So, Chen Wanting, living in Chen Village, created his own version of thirteen postures as part of this separation.  He may have been the one to come up with the innovation translated as “push hands”, the sensitivity training activity that allows for close combat practice. Whatever the ultimate truth, while in his 80’s he began to combine his martial arts with qigong, medicine, and Taoist philosophy to make his martial art unique.

The writings mentioned above from the Li Family documents later became attributed to one Wang Zongyue.  These writings are philosophical in nature and do not include any routines.  They systematically sum up the application of taiji philosophy to wushu or fighting arts.  The book is called The Taiji Classics.  The philosophy states that all things in nature contain both yin and yang:  masculine and feminine, hard and soft, bright and dark. It may be that in this treatise a form of boxing was first given the formal name of taijiquan.  The word taiji refers to yin and yang. quan literally means fist; the concept is that it represents an unarmed system of boxing.  Wang wrote, “What is Taiji?  It is generated from Wuji.  It is the mother of Yin and Yang.  When it moves, it divides.  At rest, it reunites.”

Although a Wang Family Genealogy has emerged, nothing for certain is known about Wang Zongyue’s teachers, personal history, or martial art.  When he lived is inferred from his writing style and people and things he references and is a controversy in and of itself.  

Up until about 150 years ago, Chen Family wushu (Thirteen Postures)was mainly practiced in the countryside of Henan Province, in relative obscurity. Yang Luchan (1799-1872), a native of Hebei Province, was employed by the Chen family.  Chen Changxing (1771-1853), 14th generation, was teachingto his family and village members, and eventually allowed Yang Luchan to become one of his disciples.  Finding credible biographical information on Luchan outside the Yang family is difficult.  Stories vary about how he became a student of Changxing, but it is safe to assume Luchan showed impressive proficiency and communication skill to be allowed into practice as an outsider.  Yang Luchan spent several years studying with Chen Changxing and is said to have become one of his best students.

In 1852, Yang Luchan left Chen village and began teaching wushu, first in Yongnianxian and later Beijing.  This was the beginning of the spread of what we now call taijiquan.  Yang Luchan was asked to teach the Palace Battalion of the Imperial Guards.  Some believe that it is at this phase that the term taijiquan became attached to the movements, because Yang Luchan was impressed with the principles and philosophy found in Wang Zongyue’s tretise.   It was probably only after Yang’s wushu became famous in Beijing that the name taijiquan became attached to this martial art.  Yang was likely teaching what is now known as old frame one (13 postures) and old frame two (Cannon fist).  Some historians have said that Luchan’s style was locally called “soft boxing” or “transformation boxing”.

Yang Luchan must have been an amazing martial artist, because he earned the name “Invincible Yang”.  Stories of Yang Luchan say he was never defeated, yet never allowed an opponent to come to harm.

Outside of Chen Village, once someone mastered the taiji routines and the internal aspects, these masters would make variations. The first two generations of Yang’s likely kept most of the qualities of Chen style.  It is hard to say what the routines were then because there is little record of them.

Luchan’s sons Banhou (1837-1890) and Jianhou (1839-1917) made modifications to the “frame” in which routines were practiced.  They created routines with higher stances and shorter movements.

By later in the third generation after Luchan, we know from photographs that the more explosive moves, stomping and jumping had disappeared from Yang’s routines, but not necessarily from Yang family personal practice. The official story from the Yang family is that these more difficult moves began to disappear when Yang Luchan was teaching in the emperors’ court.  It was likely a gradual process over a few generations, but we don’t know for sure.

Over the next decades, other “styles” were developed.  Yang style was and remains the most popular.  Yang Luchan had three sons, two of whom carried on his art with great skill: Yang Banhou (sometimes spelled Pan-hou) with a very aggressive personality, and Yang Jianhou with a gentle personality.  Contributing greatly to its popularity was a son of Yang Jianhou and grandson of Yang Luchan, Yang Chengfu (1883-1936).

Yang Chengfu had the gentle personality of his father and showed little interest in the martial art until his teens. Once he began to teach, his gentle personality attracted many followers.  He is credited with being the first taiji master to openly share the art with the general public.   Yang Chengfu changed his way of doing the form during his life and we know because there are photo sets of his form from different periods.  By the time Yang Chengfu systematized the Yang family taijiquan, the movements of his form were big and softly flowing at an even pace, without stomping, jumping, or energy-releasing.  It is sometimes referred to as “big frame”, with frame referring to the boundary within which the movements are performed.  It is important to remember, though, that the way a form is practiced is a training approach; in martial application, a technique is done at the speed and “frame” required to be effective.  Yang Chengfu produced many great and influential students, including Dong Yingjie (a teaching assistant for Chengfu and editor of his first book, who later brought his own variations to Yang style.), Chen Weiming, Fu Zhongwen ( Chengfu’s nephew, reported to be the practitioner who practiced the longest with Chengfu, with great push hands skill), Li Yaxuan, And Chen Manqing, ghost writer for Chengfu, who did much to further the popularity of taiji in the United States in the 1970’s. 

In 1912, several prominent taijiquan instructors, including Yang Chengfu, were invited to teach their art at the Beijing Physical Education Research Society (or Institute).  This institute was founded by Xu Yusheng, who was a student of Yang Jianhou and Yang Chengfu and probably of other masters as well.  This institute still exists today, and Xu Yusheng helped increase the notoriety of these masters through his books.    

In 1926, Yang Chengfu was invited to teach at the newly formed Central Goushu (national arts) Institute as the taijiquan teacher.  Yang Zhenduo (1924-2020), third son of Yang Chengfu, traveled the world teaching his great grandfather’s art.  His grandson, Yang Jun, makes his home in Seattle and carries on the family art.

The taijiquan family with the longest history is Chen.  Chen Wangting’s taijiquan has been handed down from generation to generation.  Chen Wangting is usually counted as the ninth generation from the founding of Chenjiagou.  Chen Changxing (1771-1853, 14th generation) is generally credited with synthesizing the martial routines created by his ancestors into what is known today as Chen’s “old frame” sets, which are believed to be practiced basically unchanged to this day.  Old frame is characterized by smooth flowing movements interspersed with explosive strikes and kicks. 

Another 14th generation Chen, Chen Youben, is credited with a variation called “small frame”. It is likely that both the large (old) and small frames developed at the same time.  Small frame is sometimes associated with nearby Zhaobao Village, which intermingled with Chen Village. Some speculate that small frame emerged as older, advanced masters practiced their routines as one single flowing movement, without energy releasing but returning that energy back to the center (dantien).  Current practitioners of small frame, however, have a lot of power releasing in their routines, so it is difficult to say.

Chen Fake (17th generation) is the most famous Chen master of the 20th century.  Much of his fame came from his ability to defeat all challengers without hurting anyone.  He also developed many students who gained fame, including Tien Xuichen and Feng Zhigiang,   

Chen Fake is credited with a version of the old frame, now called “new frame”, which makes the characteristic “silk reeling energy” even more overt.  It features a visible manifestation of the internal spiraling that is more hidden in other versions of taijiquan, including old frame.  Chen Fake developed this version in his later years.  It is speculated that this version was a teaching method to help the student understand the internal energy.

In 1928 Chen Fake and Chen Zhaopei (18th generation) were invited from Chen Village to Beijing and Nanjing to teach.  Apparently, the practitioners of other established styles did not even believe they were seeing taijiquan with its stomping and jumping and power releasing movements.  They were quite confused that the form had the same number of moves and underlying structure pattern and the same or similar names of the moves.  This underlying structure pattern is quite strong within all taijiquan.  The Chen’s skill eventually won everyone over, and Chen became recognized as the precursor to all other styles.  Chen style has spread far and wide, especially through the tireless efforts of 19th generation grandmasters such as Chen Xiaowang and Chen Zhenglei.  Another famous student of Chen Fake was Feng Zhiquiang, who merged Chen with Six Harmonies Xinyiquan to create Chen Shi Xinyi Huanyuan Taiji

Chen Zhaopei  (Zhaopi) is credited with bringing Chen style back to Chen village in 1958.   By then both the village and the practice of taijiquan had fallen into a sorry state.  What he taught is now referred to as Laojia (Old Frame).  Chen Zhaokui, Chen Fake’s son, is the main person responsible for promoting Xinjia (New Frame) practice in Chen village, after Chen Zhaopei’s death in 1972.  The top students from Chenjiagou, competing in tournaments throughout China in the seventies, were said to have come up with the names old frame and new frame, as they were competing using both types of routines.

Another style, Wu, was popularized by Wu Jianquan.  His father, Wu Quanyou (1834-1902) was a student of Yang Luchan and learned a Yang small frame variation from Yang Luchan’s son, Yang Banhou (1837-1892).  Wu Jianquan learned from his father, then developed his own form based on the small frame variation.  Its stances are higher and smaller, with a forward lean of the torso, never losing the elongation of the spine.  This is sometimes called “slanted but straight”. The body and rear leg form a straight line, giving the body a slanted posture while forming a straight line along the back from the head to the rear heel.  Both feet point straight ahead.

There is another W’u school.  In the tonal language of Chinese, the two are pronounced differently.  What is helpful in English is that this W’u school is also referred to as the Hao style, after Hao Yeizhen (1849-1920) who popularized this style.  The school was established by W’u Yuxiang (1812-1880), a scholar and government official.  W’u Yuxiang studied taijiquan from Yang Luchan.  In 1852 he went to Zhaobao in Wen County where he studied small frame with Chen Qingping (1795-1868), and developed a new style based on the two styles.

Yang Luchan and W’u Yuxiang were good friends, and they shared all their knowledge with each other, and worked together to apply Wang Zongyue’s Taiji Classics to their art.  According to relatives of W’u grandmasters, it is through this collaboration that the jumping and stamping techniques and hard and fast movements gradually began to be changed.

W’u Yuxiang eventually abandoned his career to devote his life to Taiji.  He combined Confucianism, war strategy, martial arts and Traditional Chinese Medicine to create a new taijiquan style, characterized by higher stances and compact movements.  He taught this style to his nephew, Li Yiyu.  Li Yiyu’s writings helped explain the theoretical underpinnings of martial arts based on taiji principles.  He wrote (1867) “Essays on Taijiquan”.  These essays include a list of wushu movements learned by W’u Yuxiang from Yang and Chen Quingping called “Thirteen Postures”.  Li Yiyu taught Hao Yeizhen, who taught publicly and did so much to spread this style that his name is associated with it.

Hao Yeizhen taught Sun Lutang.  Apparently, Sun Lutang helped Hao through a serious illness around 1914.  Sun Lutang (1860-1930) was already a master of baguazhang and xinyiquan Some records suggest that Sun Lutang may have been the first martial artist to be a master of all three.  His writings are the first to speak of taijiquan baguazhang, and xingyiquan as sister arts.  Sun’s philosophical mastery combined with his martial skill allowed him to fuse these arts and philosophies into his new style, which he is said to consider the crowning achievement of his life.  The style includes the evasive body movements of baguazhang and the obvious martial tactics of xinyiquan.

Since 1949 the Chinese Government has developed Modern Competitive Wushu as a competition sport.  In the 1950’s wushu was introduced into the physical education curricula, and the Chinese Wushu Association was established in Beijing.  Compulsory forms were created for competition, with required movements and required difficulty, much as today’s Olympic ice skating.

It is fascinating the way the politics of China has played a role in the spread of taijiquan. When China closed its doors to the outside world with the Cultural Revolution, many skilled taiji players chose to flee to Hong Kong or Taiwan, and from there began to spread taiji to the world, slowly but surely.  Chen Manjing was especially influential in Taiwan and later the United States.  Some of his key students include Benjamin Lo, T.T. Liang, and William C. C. Chen.

Prior to Chen Manjing, karate and judo were the primary Asian martial arts known to the world.  But even then, no one outside China was aware of Chen Taijiquan until the Era of Reconstruction when China began opening its doors again.  Then, with the introduction to the world of Modern Competitive Wushu from people like Shouyu Liang, Bow Sim Mark and Roger Tung, people were exposed to Chen Style.

The Japanese were especially inquisitive about Chen Style.  Taijiquan is popular in Japan.  In 1981 a Japanese taijiquan association, researching the origin of taijiquan, made a pilgrimage to Chen Village.  This turned out to be a landmark event, as people from other villages flocked to Chen Village to see the Japanese!  Plus, the event received extensive news coverage, and Chen village suddenly was known.  Thus, people around China knew about traditional Chen taijiquan where before it was not as well-known as Yang Style. This opened the floodgates for people around the world to begin to visit and train in the birthplace of all taijiquan, and that pilgrimage continues to this day, with thousands of annual visitors.

Blake Emery

Willow Moon Internal Arts